Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Summer Reading: Installment 1

"Lying on top of the car with my face to the black sky was like lying on a closed trunk on a summer night. For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweated me, but became me. The atmosphere and I became the same."
-On the Road
Jack Kerouac

My friends moms have been asking me for book recommendations since I was roughly 15 years old. It wasn't until I got to be about 18 that my friends themselves started asking me. So, over the past 10 years or so, I've learned a little about people and their reading habits. One of the many things I've learned is that come about mid-June, everyone is looking for a recommendation. And it's not the people with whom I talk about books on a regular basis--it's the people who finally have time to sit down and read on vacation. This is a primo opportunity for me to dig into the archives of my reading past and pull out some great things that made my own summers so vivid and lively.
Last weekend was Memorial Day, meaning that the summer reading fever has begun, and thankfully so! So, in anticipation of the summer reading onslaught, I thought I'd get ahead of the game and make some recommendations for great summer reading.
I want to split this post into several installments because I have quite a few and didn't want to be overwhelming.

I figured I'd give you an instance in which you might desire a new book and then go from there. This was a fun exercise for me--worked my brain a little.

So, here are some books for you if you are...

Sitting at the beach for a week:
The beach is the best. Sun, booze, bathing suits, sand in places that probably shouldn't see sand, sun hats, and water. So when you're at the beach, enjoying yourself and escaping from the reality that is your normal life full of bills and work and other people's needs, you just need a book to take you somewhere else. Recently, I was sent an advance copy of The Cottage at Glass Beach by Heather Barbieri and I finished it in about 2 days. The story is an easy read and well-written. You can tell from the book that the author knows the sea well--it is the most constant and steadfast character in the novel. Barbieri's writing about the sea is lovely and lilting and if you're sitting near the beach while you read it, then I imagine it would come even more to life. The story surrounds a woman whose powerful husband has cheated on her, so she leaves with her two young daughters to visit a long-lost aunt in a very small beach town where she has to learn to find her own way. The novel goes quickly and would be perfect for a sunny, hot day.

Another great beach read is One Day by David Nicholls. Warning--you will cry like a baby behind your sunglasses. Nicholls has a great approach to telling the story of two people who meet in college and become best friends. Each chapter takes place on the same day over the course of twenty years. During those twenty years, Dex and Emma graduate from college, get crappy jobs, get better jobs, fall in love, fall out of love, and find that the other is still there. It's a heartwarming story that goes perfect with a relaxing day at the beach!

Ann Brashares wrote The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants which I un-guiltily love. Right after she finished the last of that series, she wrote a book called The Last Summer of You and Me which I also loved. It's Brashares first book for adults. The story follows two sisters and their childhood friend Paul on a summer that changes all of their lives. It's a well-told and insightful story of the tragedy and beauty of becoming an adult, often sooner than we want to.

Missing school:
Don't lie. You miss it. Just a little bit. Well, if you don't yet, you will if you're anything like me. I loved the freedom of summer as a kid, but in reality, by mid-July, I was ready to go back and have someone to talk to about books! If you're missing school (even if you've been out for a while), here are some books that might take you back to your summer reading days.

The summer before my senior year of high school, I had to read Kate Chopin's The Awakening which was life-altering. Edna is stuck in a life that she is supposed to love but there is something missing for her. While summering in New Orleans, Edna discovers a passion for life that she can't quite fulfill herself because of her duties to her family and to the society that she loves and hates.  I loved this book because it made clear to my 18 year old mind how lucky I was to have been born when I was, post-feminism. The language is lovely and the story may be sad, but if you're looking for a little symbolism and feminism, this is the book for you.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has to be one of the better books ever. For me, this is a perfect summer read--what could make you feel more free than reading about men in a mental institution testing the limits of their humanity against the man?!

Another book I read while I was a senior in high school was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad which remains one of my favorite books to this day. Kurtz, horrors, the Congo, humanity. Boom--English 101. So awesome and quite short, so a good, quick summer read.

Work is killing your soul:
It happens. We all know it. And what better way to alleviate that soul-strangle than with a completely obsessive, engrossing, all-encompassing book that you basically keep on your person at all times hoping to get a minute to yourself during the day or at least during lunch so you can sneak in some more pages? I know of no better way.
I've already talked about The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, but I loved it so much, I had to tell you to read it again. Sorry. But you will not regret picking this book up. I actually considered skipping New Years Eve so I could finish it. Here's what I wrote in my previous post: "The Night Circus is actually a little hard to put into words. There is a magical element to the story, but I wouldn't call it magical realism and I wouldn't call it fantasy either. But that's kind of what I loved about it--it is uncategorizable. The premise of the book is that two older men agree to hold a competition in which they choose a pupil to whom they will train for a big duel although they are not told what form it will take. It ends up becoming the Night Circus which only opens at dusk and closes at dawn and contains magical tents, amazing characters, and the beautifully woven story of the competitors who make it real. My favorite part is that the book turned out not to be what I thought it was about the whole time (at least in my interpretation) and I love when things surprise you like that." Just go get it.
I loved The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It was one of the first books I read after graduating from college, so maybe that's why I associate it with summer. Or because it takes place in the South, I don't know. But either way, if you are one of the 5 people on the planet who hasn't read it, you should grab it. I loved the story--it was heartbreaking and funny at the same time and was something you could sink your teeth into rather than just brush past.
I used to be in a book club and one of their picks was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon which I fully anticipated hating. I ended up loving it and it earned a spot in my Top 10 list for 2010 post. I'm not a big mystery person, but this one grabbed me and held on tight. The story is beautifully translated and follows a boy whose father owns a bookstore where he finds the book The Shadow of the Wind and begins to realize the mystery behind it and its author. It's lovely, particularly if you're a book lover by nature.
Those are the first three instances in which you might need a good book recommendation, but I have more, so stay tuned for future posts next week!
I hope that your summer reading has begun and that you're able to sit down on your front porch or a pool deck or a beach chair and read while just feeling summer.

Happy Reading,

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Mid-Month Post, Because I Was Too Excited

"The techniques of opening conversation are universal. I knew long ago and rediscovered that the best way to attract attention, help, and conversation is to be lost. A man who seeing his mother starving to death on a path kicks her in the stomach to clear the way, will cheerfully devote several hours of his time giving wrong directions to a total stranger who claims to be

-Travels with Charley
John Steinbeck

As I was writing my weekly letter as demanded by my "25 Things To Do While I'm 25" list, I realized how low on the lovely personalized stationary that Santa brought me I am, and realized that I've now been 25 for 5 months! This is no real relevance to this post at all, I just thought it was an interesting way for me to measure time. Funny how fast and slow time can go at the same time. I just saw the first lightning bug of the season tonight (because the first lightning bug is determined by when I see it and no one else) and almost cried--it's almost summer. I love spring. I think I love it because it's often elusive--just when you think it's spring, it turns back to winter, and you have one beautiful day when you can smell the hyacinths on a pretty (but not too hot) day and then it's sweltering and you're in a bathing suit that you aren't quite ready for.

This may seem random, but it's certainly got me thinking about summer books. There are two times of year that people ask for books the most--summer time and Christmas time, and summer time is the most fun. Next week (hopefully), I'm going to be posting about the perfect summer reads for all your reading needs! So look out for that one.

In the meantime, I wanted to make a mid-month update on what I've been reading because frankly, I've been killing it in the reading arena.

I think I've written about my young love affair with non-fiction before, though not in great detail, but it is a love affair that I do so enjoy. Every once in a while, I need to clear my head with a good non-fiction read. If you are in that mode too, and frankly even if you aren't, please, for your sake, pick up Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein. First of all, if you know me and have ever asked me for a book recommendation, you know that one of the first things I ask is "So, you've read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, right?" I do love my Jonathon Safran Foer, so when I saw that his younger brother had written a book, I was all in. Moonwalking with Einstein is a combination of journalism and memoir that from what I've seen has been rivaled recently only by Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Foer takes on an assignment to talk about the US Memory Championships (yes, it's a real thing) where super-nerds congregate in attempts to out-memorize each other. They memories the orders of decks of cards, random words, poems, etc. and are judged on their abilities. Foer was so interested in this, that he decided to take one of the champions up on his offer to train for the next year's competition. Foer writes about not only his own training and such, but the history of memory and the devolution of memory in our society. This might sound like a boring topic, but Foer weaves the history and case studies in so well with his own memoir portions that it becomes a seamless narrative where you don't realize you're learning anything until the end. My favorite part was his explanations of how to develop and use a Memory Palace where, in order to remember a list of things, you envision a house that you are familiar with and place the things in the list around the house as you traverse it in your mind. His visits with people with memory issues (people who can't forget and people who can't remember) are well done and fascinating.

Sincerely, pick up Moonwalking with Einstein... it's a pretty quick read and will make you think about your own memory and how you use and abuse your brain. Fascinating stuff! Like I said, you'll like this one especially if you liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks!

The other book I picked up since my last post was John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. As you know, I just read Of Mice and Men pretty recently, but I kind of fell in love with Steinbeck's prose, and a friend of mine had read Travels with Charley and recommended it so I thought I'd pick it up. Again, if you know me, you know how I adore On the Road (and almost anything Beat Generation besides Burroughs... too creepy) and I think that part of the reason I love it (besides just loving on Jack) is because I love the idea of travelling by car (even though I was constantly carsick as a girl). I love the notion of freedom that it gives and the possibilities that surround it. So when I figured out that Travels with Charley is about Steinbeck's trip across America with his dog in a camper, I was so in. I loved it. It may be one of my favorite travel books ever. Steinbeck makes no pretensions about trying to "find America" because he knows that it's impossible--you might take the same exact trip and meet the same exact people as he did and you'd still come away with a completely different experience. It's what makes us humans. All he wants to do is tell us what he's seen and share his observations. It's lovely and refreshing. He meets and talks to all kinds of people about all kinds of things, he discusses the loneliness of the road and how it's like nothing else. Frankly, it made me want to pack my bags and just head out there. One of the most profound and interesting parts of the book was when he discussed the race riots and desegregation of schools that were happening in the South when he passed through there on his way home and how it affected him. His prose is clean and beautiful and it really got me at the core, which is what reading is all about.

Travels with Charley is short and a quick read as well and would be perfect before the planning of any trip or when you feel like you need to connect with something.

So those are my past two books and I couldn't wait to share them until the end of the month!

Next week, I hope to have a good summer list to you (I got an advance copy of a book from HarperCollins that I'll be sharing!) so that you can get a jump on all the great things out there for the beach, for when you're stuck at home wishing you were at the beach, or for finally catching up on things you've missed out on over the winter!

It's a pretty summer-ish night here, and as I finish my glass of wine I sign off before I venture outside into the lightning bugs again.

Happy reading,