Marketers would have us believe that summer is the time for books that are light and frothy, suitable for beach or poolside reading. But since I generally didn’t work for eight to ten weeks every summer I often used that time to tackle some massive classic. Last summer I pushed myself through Doris Lessings’ The Golden Notebook, a novel that I’d been trying to read for decades, that until last year I just couldn’t get into for some reason. I can say now it was well worth the journey. The complicated story follows writer Anna Wulf, who attempts to impose order on her chaotic life by dividing her perspectives on different aspects of it into four notebooks, each a different color. A brilliant book.
Here are a few more suggestions:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald—we were all forced to read it in high school and/or college, and we memorized plot points and themes so we could pass the midterm. Read it again and you’ll notice something you didn’t back then: it was written by a very young man about very young people. We’re told repeatedly that Jay Gatsby had loved Daisy from afar for five whole years, as if that were a long time. Oh, please. Nonetheless, it’s very short, and well worth another look. Read it this time for the lyricism of the prose; it’s actually quite beautiful. Admittedly I read it again because I was planning to go see the new movie, but I haven’t gotten around to that yet. Guess I’ll be catching it on DVD.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—I’m urging all my writer friends to take a look at this recent release that’s still topping the best seller lists. Flynn writes prose so alive it nearly pops off the page, descriptions are detailed and lush, the shifting points of view are fascinating, and she manages to work in thoughtful and fresh cultural observations that lift this novel above your typical mystery/thriller. Here’s what sells it for me: toward the end (don’t worry, no spoilers here) when the mystery’s been solved and most books take on an epilogue feel, Flynn kicks it up a notch and brings surprises up to the last page. Amazing.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot—I must confess that I’m not a big fan of nonfiction, but this was the best book I’d read in a long time. Imagine a book about an amazing scientific breakthrough told as a story. Henrietta Lacks was a poor African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Scientists were able to preserve her cells—still living and growing outside her body—using them for decades to facilitate all kinds of medical research. We find a story of bioethics and race relations as we learn the sad legacy of Mrs. Lacks’ family, still trapped in generational poverty.
My two absolute favorite authors are Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood. If you haven’t read Kingsolver, I’d suggest Prodigal Summer and The Lacuna. Her latest novel, Flight Behavior, has been racking up award nominations. It’s sitting on my night stand, but I’m saving it for August after Camp Nanowrimo when I’ll take a break from my own writing.
Re: Margaret Atwood—she is my idol! I loved Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin, The Robber Bride, and really—everything else she’s written! Last night I noticed on Amazon that you can pre-order MaddAddam, the concluding book in her dystopian trilogy, slated for a September release. So if you want a summer treat, read (or re-read) the first two books, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. They are amazing, amusing and eye-opening. For my environmentalist friends, concerned with big farms and big pharma, these are must-reads!
I could go on and on. Please tell me your favorite books. Are there any that are particularly suited for summer reading?