Top Ten Picks for Summer Reading

Recently one of my students– one not as committed to my course as I’d hoped when the semester was new and all students looked promising–asked for summer reading recommendations. No doubt she had taken to heart the general advice I give students who wanted to know  how they could expand their impoverished vocabulary beyond those fillers,  hackneyed words and expressions—“that said,” “I personally,” “quintessential,” “incredible,” “dichotomy,” that turn up all too often in nearly every freshman essay.

 Though  the summer solstice is a couple of weeks behind us now and the fourth of July is already a memory, a good six weeks of summer remain. So here’s a summer reading list, not only for that student and her classmates, but for anyone looking for a good book. There’s no theme here—it’s as eclectic a list as you’ll stumble across.

 *A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers. In Eggers’ debut book, a young man from Illinois loses both parents to cancer within a short time, leaves the college life  behind, cares for younger brother, moves to California and experiences many setbacks and adventures along the way. Funny and sad, and worthy of its self-promoting title.

 *The Interpreter,  by Suki Kim.   In this mystery set in Manhattan, first generation Korean-American Suzy Park, the interpreter of the title, solves a weird and sad mystery about her deceased parents. (Park attended my alma mater, Barnard, which is how I first learned about her and her novel.) Gripping read.

 *Love, Loss and What I Wore,  by Ilene  Beckermann.  A quirky and interesting little book, sort of an autobiography in miniature, with drawings of the outfits the author wore during key times in her life–elementary school, high school, college,  dates, weddings, other key events in her life. Her commentary on each ensemble, full of  the memories it conjures up for her, is  wry and sometimes poignant. I love this book.

*The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe. You can’t truly  understand the ‘Sixties if you don’t read this book about LSD and goings on in San Francisco in the era of free love, drugs, and hippies. This is nonfiction but written as a “nonfiction novel,” a form  Truman Capote, Norman Mailer  and Kesey pioneered in the 1960’s.

 *The Summer Before the Dark, by Doris Lessing—or anything else by Lessing.  All books by this 2007 Nobel laureate are worth reading, but this one about a middle-aged woman’s rediscovery of her true self  is the most accessible. If you are a real trouper, then read the very long, very complex but amazing The Golden Notebook, the defining feminist /political novel Lessing is most well known and respected for. If you prefer a heroine closer to your own age or experience, then start with the shorter  Martha Quest, a coming of age story about a young white woman growing up in what was thenRhodesia, nowZimbabwe. I picked this book up by chance up at an English language bookstore in Paris during college and fell in love with Lessing’s work, then read almost all of her early novels, set in Rhodesia when the Brits ruled with an iron hand.

 *Old School, by Tobias Wolff. Endearing tale of a boys’ boarding school from the point of view of a student. The plot revolves around the visits (fictitious, of course)  of three famous writers to the school–including Ayn Rand and  Robert Frost, and  a writing contest the boys engage in for the prize of a short one-on-one meeting with one of these  authors. Sad and funny and very good, this novel is a cut above the usual Dead Poet’s Society type narrative.

 *Cry, The Beloved Country, by Alan Paton.  A classic, set inSouth Africa in the  days of apartheid. This and the early Lessing books give one much context for understanding  what is going on  in many parts of Africa today.

 *The Welsh Girl, by Peter Ho Davies.  Set in the remote part ofWales during World War II, this novel tells the story of a 17 year old Welsh girl and her relationship with one of the German POWs  held in the village, and  also explores the conflict between the Welsh and German cultures. The novel is beautifully written, conveying a strong sense of time and place.

*Eleanor Roosevelt, Volumes I and II, by Blanche Wiesen Cook. Start with the second volume, 1933-1938, The Defining Years, if you really want to learn how this woman influencedAmerica. If you like details of the early lives of biography subjects, begin with Volume I.    Readers under thirty should bear in mind that  in the 1950’s, few women ran for political office, and Mrs. R was the closest we had to Hillary Clinton.

These ten should keep you busy on the beach.