Before you start to tire of this scorching summer heat and the apparently bottomless bowls of strawberries and cream, take a moment to remember that the nights begin drawing in from Sunday. Hey, I’m not trying to depress you, honest! I’m simply preparing you for what follows all that summer solstice tomfoolery. But, you may have a point – it is far too early to be turning our thoughts towards autumn, when surely most of us are still looking forward to our summer holidays. And, for literary types, in between figuring out which factor sunscreen we need and whether five pairs of flip flops is four pairs too many, the most important packing-related question remains: what books am I going to take with me?
Summer reading lists are the annual staple of the newspaper culture sections. At this time of year, whether it’s online, at lunch or with our families, our holiday picks are dominating the conversation (football has no chance!). For the avid reader, it is the thought that gnaws at us whenever we are given any expanse of time in which we have nothing to do, when the days stretch languorously before us.
Do you delve into the murky waters of Pynchon and Bellow, or into the familiar dusty mansions of Austen or Eliot? Dickens or Flynn, Greene or Meyer, McEwan or Wodehouse? The list is endless, and every person who spends their days before a vacation frantically scanning the shelves of Smiths with the F.O.M.O (fear of missing out) in their gut knows that they will have to make a choice this summer of which book to purchase, take home, and commit to a relationship with. Let’s hope it’s more than just a holiday fling.
My summer reading list is detailed below, and is ranked from the lightest of reads to the densest of slogs. They may be ones that would never usually kindle an interest, but all have spoken to me in one way or another, and they may have been ones that you did not consider yourself. I guarantee, most importantly, that every single one of these books will make you think. Even the lighter reads examine the human condition in deeper ways than meet the eye, because, after all, isn’t that what good literature is meant to do? So put down the trashy magazines and turn off the TV, because you can be sure there is a book on this list for you this summer.
What better to read during the summer months than a book about the ridiculousness of childhood imagination? Michael Chabon takes a break from writers block in college professors and Jewish comic book artists to create this both epic and silly (epically silly?) novel, underneath which is the not-so-regular going-ons of childhood life. Like most books told through a child’s imagination, there is more going on here than initially seen on first glance. Ethan, the protagonist, has just lost his mother to cancer, but only touches upon it lightly, avoiding the situation and instead focusing on the peculiar world he has created for himself and the reader. Like Through the Looking Glass or Peter Pan, there are tiny glimmers of the outside world coming in, of a boy’s fear of growing up and the responsibility that comes with it. Give this book a chance, and it will be well worth the summer you spend with it.
Further reading: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (Chabon), Sorcery (Pratchett), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Adams)
Dystopian novels seem to be in vogue with the kids these days, with novels about totalitarian regimes not being this popular since Orwell and Huxley both first thought “what exactly is going to lead to the downfall of the human race?” Lowis Lowry wrote The Giver in 1994, the first book of The Giver Quartet. While it is easy to throw off such books as “young adult” and look somewhere else for your intellectual fix, The Giver should not be glanced over and then subsequently forgotten. Lowry masterfully reveals plot twists that turn the plot of the story on its head, while remaining logical and keeping the writing fluent and easy to understand. The Giver, ultimately, acts a reminder of the pain and joy that comes from being human, and Lowry recreates each individual sensation with every word.
Further reading: Divergent (Roth), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury), The Handmaiden’s Tale (Atwood)
The Dog Stars
What would life be like if the only things you had in this world were your dog, your plane, and almost unlimited fuel? Peter Heller poses this slightly odd but very personal question in The Dog Stars, a novel of bleak loneliness that takes a discerning look at the human spirit, and the lengths we will go to survive. With any post-apocalyptic book now, comparisons with The Road are inevitable. The Dog Stars, however, stands alone, and doesn’t need comparisons to other novels to be seen as a stunning work. Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, The Dog Stars takes place in Colorado after a mysterious super-flu wipes out most of humanity, and Heller writes unique prose while delivering some fascinating descriptions of flying and of fishing that will make you want to get in a plane and give it a shot yourself. Heller also shows off his knowledge of the outdoors here in more ways than one, bringing to life the stunted yet beautiful landscape of disaster struck America.
Further reading: Hello America (Ballard),The Light Between Oceans (Stedman), The Orphan Master’s Son (Johnson)
Flowers for Algernon
Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is not only a masterstroke in plot, but also in character creation and development. The novel follows the dramatic arc of Charlie Gordon, after a surgery takes him from being a mentally handicapped thirty-two year old to a genius in a matter of days. Written from the view of Charlie himself, Keyes is able to write in such a way that we can slowly see Charlie become smarter, even when he himself hasn’t noticed yet. This book is absolutely tragic, and a reminder that even our wildest dreams rarely deliver the results we want. Over the course of the book, Charlie goes from being lovable and innocent to crass and misunderstood, often failing to see that even with an extraordinary I.Q, not all problems are an easy fix. Even with his newly achieved genius, Charlie fails to connect with the people around him because he’s never had the chance to learn, leaving him with the emotional understanding of a child. For people that generally scoff at the idea of sci-fi before returning to their Proust, this is the type of book that will open your eyes to the literary merit of the genre.
Further reading: Dune (Herbert), Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Dick); Annihilation (VanderMeer)
In The Lake of the Woods
You’re told the end of In The Lake of the Woods at the very beginning. You’ll never find out what happened to Kathy Wade, and it doesn’t matter. Tim O’Brien creates such a strong novel that, although her disappearance is the focus of the story, the reader becomes more wrapped up into the writing itself than any sort of answer as to where she’s gone. O’Brien, a prolific writer of the Vietnam War, turns to a different subject in this book; love. Over the course of their marriage, the passion has slowly faded away, and after losing the election for senator, John and his wife, Kathy, choose to take a vacation in a cabin in rural Minnesota. At some point, Kathy goes missing, with no trace and no clues to where she could have gone. Through much speculation by local police and flashbacks to the past, we get some feasible guesses of what could have happened to Kathy, but never a full answer. Lake of the Woods is ultimately a book about the fear of loss, and the confused contemplation that comes with such a disaster.
Further reading: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (Carver), In Cold Blood (Capote), The Shipping News (Proulx)
‘Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.’ Just one of the many lines of wisdom that come from Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, a collection of his personal writings over the course of his life. It is so rare to have the frank and honest thoughts of such an important man, and this book has become one of the building blocks of the stoic school of philosophy. While a bit different from the rest of the literary books on the list, this collection of the inner thoughts of such a wise man cannot be ignored, and will not be forgotten. In our modern age where it seems philosophy is not really a necessary component of our day to day lives, this book strikes right at the heart of why exactly philosophy is still not just for the landed gentry of the 16th century, but also for anyone who faces the different challenges of today. Meditations will stick with you because it’s a reminder that, even in the first century, people faced many of the same problems they face today. Just don’t be surprised when your friends get annoyed at you for constantly quoting a two thousand year old philosopher.
Further reading: Letters from a Stoic (Seneca), The Art of Rhetoric (Aristotle), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kunedra)
Although it may seem daunting from first glance, and will more than likely fill up your whole summer, The Luminaries is actually a fairly straight forward read about the consequences of fate on our own lives. However, the genius in The Luminaries becomes clear when you delve deeper into the very fabric that holds the novel together, you realize just how intensely organized and diligent this book is. Set in New Zealand during the gold rush of 1866, the book follows several characters of questionable morals and a struggle to find their fortune in the new world. The book is organized so that each character mirrors a zodiac sign or a heavenly body, and Catton used the golden ratio to decide the length of each of the twelve chapters (Chapter one is 360 pages, two is 158, three is 104 and so on). While this structure may seem unnecessary, it actually ties in to the theme of the novel in more ways than one. For a second novel, Catton created an absolute masterpiece, a book that undoubtedly deserved the Man Booker.
Further reading: Wolf Hall (Mantel), The Goldfinch (Tartt), The Stone Diaries (Shields)
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
The title says it all really. Eggers writes memoirs in an original and refreshing way, shrugging of the concern that this would be a “misery memoir” on the first page with humour when facing the most outrageous of poor fortunes. After both of his parents died of cancer within the space of a month, the twenty-one year old Dave is left to raise his eight year old brother, Toph. While poking fun at American suburbia, Eggers shows how we react differently and hardly ever appropriately, to death. For a period the brothers try to do only fun things, living as children would without the clichéd burdens of parental control for the first few months. However, there fun seeking ways ultimately catch up with them. The portrait this work paints is ultimately one of fraternal love. When his brother has a nightmare, Eggers paints a picture of two superheroes, Wolverine and Cable, to “protect” him while he sleeps. As the book proceeds, too, we get a glimpse of the truth; the Eggers father as an alcoholic old man, their mother as a permanent martyr at the hands of her husband and children. The real beauty of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comes in the acceptance in the inevitability of death, and the freedom that gives to appreciate life for what it is.
Further reading: The Corrections (Franzen), & Sons (Gilbert); Speak, Memory (Nabokov)
The ways in which we hurt one and other are in no ways limited to the physical. For a long time, this has been the rallying cry of modern fiction. Fitzgerald, Madox Ford, Eliot, all writers who tried to show that the worst pain we will often suffer will be emotional. Raymond Carver shows this in a way that very few people can. Published in 1983, Cathedral finally gave Carver the recognition he was looking for as a writer. Well deserved too, as every singly story from this fairly short collection will tug at you, in both its simplicity and profound meaning. Carver can be read on a solely surface level and you would still get so much from it, but delve deeper into the language and the meanings of the relationships and there is so much hidden away that is not noticed at first glance. However, the gem of the collection lies in the final story, also called Cathedral, in which an unnamed protagonist has a sudden revelation when visited by a blind friend of his wife’s. It’s really something.
Further reading: Canada (Ford), Close Range (Proulx), The Brigadier and the Golf Widow (Cheever)
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy is less of a book and more of a nightmare. For people interested in No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, he doesen’t hold a candle to Judge Holden, both in character traits and in lack of morality. Following the account of a boy known only as “The Kid” as he travels around Mexico with the infamous Glanton gang, Blood Meridian isan absurd, frightening, sprawling novel. Countless essays and books have been written about this tour de force, wondering what is really at the core of this story, so you are not alone if you’re confused by the time you reach the end. This is McCarthy at his most bleak, and by far his densest, which is saying a lot considering his other work. Ultimately, McCarthy does what he does best in Blood Meridian. He breaks all the rules, rewrites new ones, and makes it work it ways that only he can. Be warned, after you finish it, you might just spend your whole summer only reading his novels.
Further reading: The Savage Detectives (Bolaño), The Pale King (Wallace), The Art of Fielding (Harbach)
Have fun with them, and enjoy your summer. You’ll be back at your desk before you know it.
Words by the undeniably well-read Jack Williams