Woof! Woof! It’s the dog days of summer.
Actually, the phrase has something to do with the stars, not with canine friends, but never mind.
It’s so hot or so humid you don’t want to move. Unless you happen to have children who have the misfortune to attend a school that starts insanely early, life is still in a holding pattern. Half the universe is on vacation.
The presidential campaign will go into high gear after Labor Day, and then there will be no escaping politics. But for now, these last few days of peace and quiet may be the last chance you have for a while to get away from it all. And there’s no easier way to get away from it all than opening a book.
“There is no Frigate like a Book / to take us Lands away,” Emily Dickinson wrote.
How about into the land of a remote island in far northern Wisconsin? For a dog-day escape, I suggest The Audacity of Goats, from novelist J. F. Riordan.
Riordan is a former opera singer who actually lives (part of the year!) on Washington Island in far northern Wisconsin. So she knows the terrain about which she writes, i.e., the pros and cons of small town—in this case, very small town—life. Goats is the second novel in what looks to become a series about Fiona Campbell, a cosmopolitan journalist from Chicago who has moved to Washington Island—accessible only by a ferryboat on a good day—on a dare that she couldn’t last the winter there. North of the Tension Line, published in 2014, was the first.
Riordan tells a story simply and with straightforward charm. In these pages the reader encounters people living their lives as Americans do—bumping into each other at the store, tending to their animals, going to church suppers, worrying about invisible rodents in the ceiling and scary noises in the woods, yearning for love in the subtle ways we do. It is life lived as it should be.
Riordan is also a great observer of human nature: Her characters are real people, totally human, totally believable. As I read her first book, I felt as if I knew Roger, the unapproachable coffee shop owner, Stella, the neighbor from hell, and other familiar characters. There is a special pleasure in meeting them again in a second book—like a reunion with old friends. Seeing their stories continue and their characters unfold makes for extraordinarily satisfying reading. Pali, the ferry captain, is developed in astonishing depth in Goats.
Part of what makes Riordan’s work so enjoyable is what it lacks: In her pages you will not find angst-ridden self-examination, emotional fulminations and ventilations, boring and predictable fleshy passions and their consequences. There is no breathtaking drama, life-threatening horror, or clash of ideologies.
Go north of your own tension line and escape. Relax and enjoy—and make the most of the calm before the storm that is going to break after Labor Day.
To make the moment linger, read both of Riordan’s books.