Thursday, May 07, 2009

Thinking about summer reading, part one

I don't know that I read completely different books in the summer, but I always look forward to the annual "summer reading" specials in newspapers and on radio shows and hearing what everyone is recommending. I also just enjoy the idea of people slowing down to focus on books and the pleasure of reading for a change. It's easy to forget that not everyone has abandoned this simple and affordable leisure activity for movies, video games, and the Internet, not to mention, sexting. I hear that's big right now.

I worked in a bookstore for a long time, and one of the best things about it was turning customers on to new authors or forgotten titles. I've been thinking about some of my favorites and deciding which ones I would suggest as great summer reads. Personally, I tend to read more nonfiction and longer novels in the fall and winter -- my "project" reading. But in the warmer months, when I hope to hit the beach at least once, I load up on fiction, especially mid-length and shorter books that are easy to carry and that you can finish in an afternoon or two. So here's my list, in no particular order. I was going to do a sort of top 10 in one post, but I think I'll spread them out over the next couple of weeks. And I hope other readers out there (is there anyone out there?) will drop in and tell me about some of yours. I'm always in the market for recommendations -- non-fiction included.


For some reason, I like a good creepy book when the sun is blazing; ghosts and murders and otherwise murky dealings are nice counterpoints to waves splashing and greasy sunblock prints on the pages. A big staff favorite from my days at Hawley-Cooke was Peter Cameron's Andorra. It's one of those quiet, subtly building stories in which you know there's something really sinister going on but you can't quite put your finger on it. Then, wham! it hits you between the eyes with a two-by-four. A very twisty tale, cleverly written.
  • Something similar: Dennis McFarland's A Face at the Window or Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods; and just about anything by Stewart O'Nan.
  • In a classic vein, Henry James' The Turn of the Screw; Dracula; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Western (sort of)

I'm always trying to get people to read Willa Cather. One of my favorites is A Lost Lady, the story of the beautiful Marian Forrester told by a young admirer, Niel Herbert, who -- as he grows from a boy to a young man -- loses his romantic illusions about her. Niel's disenchantment mirrors the transition of the romantic, pioneering West (embodied by Marian's older husband, Captain Forrester) to the anti-heroic, grasping, and exploitative modern age. (Although, of course, I'm not suggesting that the latter three qualities only came in with the Modern era.) Two of my favorite writers of the West are Cather and Cormac McCarthy. I actually think they have a lot in common. This hit me after reading Death Comes for the Archbishop, which rather bizarrely kept bringing to mind Blood Meridian.
  • Longer and worth it: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson; Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing; Wallace Stegner, The Angle of Repose
Romantic and exotic

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez may be my all-time favorite summer book. Just a few years ago both me and my husband read this one while at the beach. It's magical storytelling about a young girl whose strange upbringing and difference end up getting her into trouble with the local priests who think she is possessed by demons. The young exorcist, of course, falls madly in love with her. This is a short novel bursting with beauty, mystery, and otherworldliness.

  • Not anywhere near as wonderful, but still very good: It's been awhile since I've read any Isabel Allende, but I really enjoyed The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, and Of Love and Shadows.
  • Not Latin-American: The Map of Love by Ahdaf Souief -- a big multi-generational family saga and love story set in turn-of-the-century Cairo. Juicy.
That's it for now. And by the way, I provide Amazon links for easy reference, but I highly recommend your local, independent bookstores for new and used books.