Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Summer Reading

Summer is here! Pull out your flip-flops and swimsuits, the water sprinklers and popsicles.

Sure, the season officially began a few weeks ago—I recall something about a solstice—but I hardly noticed. Mid June, at high noon, here in Minnesota, we were still wearing jeans and cotton sweaters. Today, however, the thermometer hit 90 degrees F, and with it came the brilliant and intense sunlight only experienced during this time of year.

This kind of summer heat zaps my energy and my appetite. Consequently, I lighten the menu by preparing tossed green salads and keep the kitchen cool by grilling meat and vegetables outside. Wearing lightweight cotton skirts and sundresses helps me keep my cool throughout the day. Do you see where I am going with this?

I like my summer reading lite.

Certainly, summer reading means different things to different people. I have even heard of folks who dig into chunksters—such as Anna Karenina, The Stand, or Cryptonomicon—during the dog days. But not me. I like easily consumed—but high quality—literature. You know—the kind of reading that doesn’t make you break a sweat.

Some of my favorite summer reading memories happened during high school when, by day, I read and read and read. I read books to prepare myself for the upcoming debate season, which, the summer before my junior year found me gorging on criminal justice topics and developing an obsession for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and biographies about the Rosenbergs.

The summer before senior year, I ardently devoured classics in a last-ditch effort to be well-read by the time I started college. My American Studies literature teacher created a reading list for me that included Henry James, Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, among many others. Since none were required reading, it was a pleasure to work my way, methodically, through the list. That is, until the day I impulsively picked up a horror novel at the library and dove headlong into Stephen King’s backlist (as it existed in 1984). Carrie, Cujo, Pet Sematary, The Shining, Christine, Different Seasons were just a few of the titles that kept me company as I worshipped the sun, flipping from back to stomach with the same frequency as I flipped my Duran Duran cassettes from Side 1 to Side 2.

There was that summer after sophomore year of college, when I was sharing a house with friends, working in a bookstore, waiting to leave for my London JYA. That summer, I read biographies of rock musicians—Stardust, a mediocre bio about Davie Bowie—and purely escapist fiction—like Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles—stripped copies of which I would bring home from the bookstore.

In summers since, I have tried to recreate that same spirit of entertaining, carefree, non-taxing reading. And, since I'm not working this summer, I have an opportunity to read more than usual. Dipping into my archives for the past 12 years, I have some recommendations for perfect summer reading:

Biographies and memoirs—live someone else’s life or take inspiration from the subject’s great character and deeds
~ Katherine Lanpher’s Leap Days
~ Jill Ker Conway’s True North
~ Julia Child’s My Life in France
~ Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love
~ Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs
~ Elizabeth Arthur’s Looking for the Klondike Stone (about summer camp)
~ Katherine Graham's Personal History

Escape with a travel narrative
~ Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods (Appalachian Trail)
~ Bill Bryson's In a Sunburned Country (Australia)
~ Polly Evans’s It’s Not about the Tapas (Spain)
~ Linda Greenlaw’s The Lobster Chronicles (Maine)
~ Tim Moore’s French Revolutions (cycling in France during the le Tour)
~ Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognita (Antarctica)
~ MFK Fisher’s Long Ago in France (Burgundy; read while there in '98)
~ Paul Theroux’s Pillars of Hercules (European Mediterranean and Northern Africa)

Food narratives stimulate the appetite when the rising mercury strips away hunger
~ Fuchsia Dunlop's Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper
~ Mark Kurlansky’s Big Oyster (microhistory w/marine biology and geography, too)
~ Steve Almond’s Candyfreak
~ Tony Bourdain’s A Cook’s Tour (also qualifies for travel narrative)
~ Calvin Trillin’s Feeding a Yen
~ Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and More Home Cooking

Slim novels, under 300 pages, can be read quickly for a great sense of accomplishment
~ William Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader
~ Winifred Watson’ Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day
~ Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape
~ Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea
~ Elinor Lipman’s The Inn at Lake Devine
~ Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado

Mysteries and thrillers set in exotic locales transport me
~ Lyn Hamilton’s archaeology series (Thai Amulet)
~ Donna Leon’s Venice-set Commissario Brunetti books
~ Julia Smith’s New Orleans mysteries
~ John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts
~ Nancy Fairbanks’s foodie mysteries (Perils of Paella, French Fried)
~ Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction
~ Katherine Neville’s The Eight

Short story and essay collections are the ultimate when I’m short on reading time—or attention span
~ Steven King’s Skeleton Crew
~ Sleepaway (essays about summer camp)
~ Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree
~ Shirley Jackson’s Just an Ordinary Day
everything by David Sedaris

I hope you find something new, old-but-never-read, or inspiring from this list.

What sort of books are part of your summer reading?

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