Arts Commentary: Is Art Ever Out of Season? — Anti-seasonal hits and Non-hits

By Jon Garelick

My tastes have always been everywhere and all over, whatever the time of year. But there is a seasonal connection for me — some books, movies, and music are inseparable from the season in which I consumed them.

Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” is not a summer book. How about “The Moon and Sixpence”?

Can we bury once and for all the idea of the seasonal song, book, movie, misc. cultural commodity? Clothes, okay: scarves and gloves, bathing suit and sunglasses. But the “summer song” or the “beach read,” or the “summer movie” are concoctions of their respective industries and, let’s face it, editors in search of “content.”

For me, the only real “song of the summer” of near-recent memory was Cee-Lo’s “Crazy,” on which I hit “repeat” again and again as I sat in a beach chair, wearing headphones, watching the waves roll in on my 2006 summer vacation.

But other than that, no, when I think of a “seasonal” song, book, or movie, it’s irrespective of what was “big” that season — the fast and furious read, song, or movie, built for minimal intellectual demands and maximum entertainment value. Not that I avoided them — I like entertainment as much as the next Game of Thrones fan. But my tastes have always been everywhere and all over, whatever the time of year. But there is a seasonal connection for me — that is, some books, movies, and music are inseparable from the season in which I consumed them.

So here’s my spring, summer, fall, winter reading, watching, listening list, in no particular order. Some I loved, some I liked, some I hated, but the seasonal memories are indelible.

A Catcher in the Rye (spring book). I spent blissful spring days after school reading the Salinger classic on our family’s to-me luxurious screened back porch, with its creaky day bed and wicker chairs. What was this book? Why was it a novel? It was just a guy talking. I knew nothing of prep schools or hunting caps or skinny prostitutes named Sunny – “post-War” might as well have been 100 years ago. But that voice was an earworm that infected my brain and is with me still. It was followed that summer by . . . Of Human Bondage (summer book).

Hearing about my encounter with Salinger, my 11-years-older brother (having been out of the house forever, it seemed) decided from afar that I had embarked on “serious” reading (the Hardy Boys and The Black Stallion were now past), and he eagerly recommended this particular Somerset Maugham brick as a followup. I dutifully checked out a library copy. In its way, it was more confusing than the Salinger — breakfast with the vicar, tinkling teacups and soft-boiled eggs. What had my brother been thinking? I can’t remember what served as my exit ramp from that miserable slog (well before the protagonist’s hook-up with a prostitute – decidedly not Sunny – but, oh, if I’d only hung in there!). A Bond book? A sort-of memoir by comedian Alan King? Kurt Vonnegut books other than Slaughterhouse Five, which had been a school-year treat – maybe even the more sci-fi oriented stuff, like The Sirens of Titan. These were all “summer reads.”

My Life as a Man. (summer book). Philip Roth’s purportedly most autobiographical work — and Exhibit A in the feminist case against his early work — was a “beach read” that appalled my friends. I loved it.

Nabokov’s Quartet (summer book). Following a breakup, a couple of friends took me to the beach (their intended blind date for me was a no-show). Sitting on a towel, sweating, I gamely tried this used paperback I had picked up for $1.50 somewhere (thank you, “Steven Rudnick, Jan. 1981”). It was hopeless. What was my problem? I had read and loved Lolita and Laughter in the Dark. I had even taught the short story “Signs and Symbols” in a writing class. Nonetheless, I conceded defeat to the Master after “The Vane Sisters” and “The Visit to the Museum,” unable to free myself from the parlor game he was playing with my mind.

The Sweet Hereafter (winter book). I remember the season of this Russell Banks beauty only because it was February and we were on a beach in Cancun while I read about the slushy travails of that ill-fated school bus.

Brokeback Mountain (winter movie). Not just a winter movie, but also a Christmas movie. Christmas Day to be precise. The movie was so devastating to my wife and me that, emerging into the 4:30 p.m. gloom, too early for “Jewish Christmas” Chinese food, we immediately turned around and bought tickets for another feature — Syriana. Somehow, after Ang Lee’s overwhelming romantic tragedy, the conventional action-thriller beats of geopolitical disaster were comforting. This actually followed a pattern my wife and I — hardly ever going to see movies in theaters — found ourselves in, searching for something worth leaving the house for. Another memorable Christmas movie was The Wrestler. And of course, for Thanksgiving . . . Lincoln (fall movie). Steven Spielberg at his best. Spoiler alert: the hero lingers with a bullet in his head before expiring. But . . . uplifting! Trump was still a good four years away!

“Summertime Blues” (summer song). No, not the Eddie Cochran original, or the Who’s Live at Leeds cover, or even  a jazz take, but the one by proto-metal psych-rockers Blue Cheer (played on our summer house’s 8-track, no less). That fall, I told my first college “date” about “my Blue Cheer summer.” She fled.

John Coltrane: The Heavyweight Champion (The Atlantic Years) (summer albums). The most blissful bit of summer homework I’ve ever had as a jazz critic. “My Favorite Things,” et al., at the beach.

You get the idea. What other anti-seasonal hits and non-hits have I enjoyed and remembered the seasons by? 12 Years a Slave (Thanksgiving!), Django Unchained (Merry Christmas!), “Respect” (Aretha!) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (yes, the whole album) — those last two were part of a season waiting tables at a summer camp. And yes, they were bona fide summer sensations. And they were good.

So what works of culture, high and low, will mark Summer 2019 for me? Too soon to tell. My most blissful recent read of the year has been My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Oh, the alienated druggy rhapsodies of Otessa Moshfegh’s novel make it a perfect beach read. But, alas, it was a winter read, and I must move on. Labor Day is just around the corner.

Jon Garelick is a member of The Boston Globe editorial board. A former arts editor at the Boston Phoenix, he writes frequently about jazz for the Globe, The Arts Fuse, and other publications.

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