When I was growing up, a summer reading list was big and heavy; heavy in the sense that it included those weighty tomes that you didn’t have time for during the rest of year—War and Peace, Ulysses, the Illiad. Gradually the summer list turned to beach reading, which was the exact opposite—easy books that you could read and enjoy without much thought. They provided an escape and a way to spend hours lying in the sun getting skin cancer without exerting too much effort. That seemed to lead to a burst in escapist literature of many genres: the kind of book you enjoyed but forgot as soon as you put it down.
Now the pendulum seems to be swinging back to more serious summer ambitions, and with that in mind, I’d like to offer my own recommendations. Most are books that I’ve read and appreciated enough to want to read again. None are as heavy as the classics mentioned above, but they all have substance in addition to being great reads. The list obviously reflects my own quirky preferences in literature, but these are books that I think all readers will enjoy on many levels and, more important, will walk away with plenty to think about. So here’s to a fun but also fruitful summer of reading:
A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines: This is one of the oldest books on my list (1983) but it deals insightfully with one of the most serious problems we’re wrestling with today: racism and the legal system. The novel is set on a Louisiana plantation much like the one that Gaines grew up on, starting work as a 9-year-old digging up potatoes for 50 cents a day. The novel opens with the murder of a white plantation boss, but any rush to judgment is stymied when twelve black men, all in their seventies or eighties, band together to thwart the white sheriff. Gaines exposes racial tensions on several levels, with many a twist and turn. A mystery beautifully told, richly evoking the setting and the spirit of the times. Gaines employs close to a dozen narrators to weave together this hypnotic tale.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett: An opera diva’s performance at a birthday party for more than a hundred of the rich and famous is interrupted by terrorists who take the guests and staff hostage. Their ordeal stretches for months, allowing Patchett to show the best and worst in what turns out to be a microcosm of the world. This 2001 novel won the PEN/Faulkner award for fiction and is perhaps the best known book on this list.
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat: In February, I wrote a very positive review in this space of Danticat’s latest novel, Claire of the Sea Light, but if you’re new to her work, a better place to start is this earlier novel. It’s the astonishing story of a young Haitian and her mother, who have emigrated to the United States, bringing with them the culture, heartaches and secrets of their Haitian past.
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver: You probably know the photograph that captured the despair of California’s Depression-era migrant workers: A seated woman looks off into the distance while children rest their heads on her shoulders, and an infant lies bundled in her lap. Now you should read the exceptional novel inspired by that photograph, a novel that captures an essential period of American history and the spirit of its people.
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: My colleague, Gary Garth McCann, wrote recently about Lively’s remarkable book, How It All Began, but this earlier novel, a 1987 Booker Prize winner, is a gem that’s often overlooked. Its protagonist is a 76-year-old English author who on her deathbed mentally composes a history of the world. It’s romantic and profound, with wonderful insights into human nature.
Old Filth by Jane Gardam: Gardam is a household name in Britain, but her popularity here is still relatively low. It’s time to fix that and Old Filth is the place to start. When the novel opens, Sir William Feathers, the title character, is nearing 80, has been retired for years after a brilliant career as barrister and judge in Hong Kong. He now lives in a little village in Dorset and his only close-by neighbor is also his longtime legal and personal nemesis. The two men form a caustic friendship that becomes Gardam’s vehicle for telling Old Filth’s story through flashbacks and present day events.
Stoner by John Williams: This the oldest book on my list (1964) and the only one written by someone who is no longer alive. It’s the deceptively simple tale of a man in a terrible marriage who looks for love elsewhere with tragic consequences. I wrote about this at some length in an earlier post that you can find here.
The Museum Guard by Howard Norman: Norman is best known his award-winning The Bird Artist, but you’re missing a lot if you haven’t also read this 1998 novel. Set mostly in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the early years of World War II, The Museum Guard is narrated by a young man, DeFoe Russet, who was orphaned at age eight and raised by his hard-drinking, womanizing uncle. DeFoe turns out the almost opposite of his uncle; he’s an introvert who does his best thinking over an ironing board. Although The Museum Guard got only mixed reviews from the critics, it’s one of my favorites.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce: Harold Fry is recently retired with nothing to do, unhappy with the state of his 47-year-old marriage and with a son who never calls, when he gets a goodbye note from an old friend who is dying of cancer. He writes a condolence letter and walks to the post office to mail it, but at the last minute decides he’ll deliver in person…by walking 500 miles across the British countryside.
The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass: Glass is best known for Three Junes, her debut novel that won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2002. I much prefer The Widower’s Tale, a book that centers on a 70-year-old man whose quiet retirement in a small Massachusetts village gets disrupted when he agrees to rent out his barn to a popular pre-school. This is ultimately a story of family, in the broadest and best sense of the term.