When my kids were young enough to come to the beach with me every day, but old enough to get themselves to the pool or spend the day trying to sell friendship bracelets up by the cabanas at our club, I’d squeeze in a lot of reading. I’d sit in a circle on the beach with my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, and after we’d finish talking about funny things the kids did or our latest concerns about what the kids were watching or eating (we were young mothers, of course), we’d pull our books or newspapers out of our beach bags and quietly read alongside each other in the sand.
A few times, we all headed to the family cabin in the Poconos, and I am being very generous with the term “cabin.” It was pretty rustic — think outhouse and no running water — and had been furnished with the hand-me-downs of extremely frugal people. The kitchenware was mismatched and the stacks of bedding kept in a trunk in the living room had been worn thin with use. But despite its lack of creature comforts, the cabin sat a short distance from a lake that we’d ride our bikes around at dusk in search of beavers building dams and once, a mama bear and her cubs crossed the road right in front of the cluster of cousins that had zoomed ahead of the grownups. We’d drive over to the falls and slide down the rushing water into the cold dark pool below and eat a picnic of sandwiches and chips perched on the flat rocks overlooking the water flowing downstream. But in between adventures, we’d make our way out to the porch looking out over fields of foxgloves and teepees the kids had fashioned out of long tree branches, and settle in to read. With no TV to watch and still in that blissful era before iPhones and Instagram, the kids would pull out the latest Harry Potter of Captain Underpants and join us in the shade.
Nowadays when I go to the beach, there’s a lot more talking than reading and I’m as guilty as the next guy of looking at my phone and falling down long and twisty Internet holes. So, it was nice this Labor Day to sit quietly with my older two kids (so far, the biggest of my readers) under the beach umbrella and read for most of the afternoon. It helped that both my daughter and I were finishing books that we were loving and couldn’t put down. That’s how I felt about (almost) all of the books I read this summer: they kept me coming back and I was sorry for (most) of them to end. Which, to me, is all you can ask for of a book.
Less (Andrew Sean Greer): It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year and was what I had been (reluctantly) finishing up on the beach on Labor Day and I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you are turning 50. I think Arthur Less’s story will resonate with anyone of us who has lived a life. Less is a struggling novelist who decides to avoid his former lover’s pending nuptials by accepting a series of invitations (teach a course, be up for an award, celebrate somebody else’s 50th) that set him traveling across the globe. Here’s my favorite exchange.
Less smiles. “My birthday is in one week.”
“Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.”
“Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”
AUDIO: My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh): A lot of times I will listen to the audio version of a book and become convinced that simply reading it would never have been as good (that was my experience with Lincoln in the Bardo, for sure). Such is the case with this story of a 20-something woman living in Manhattan during the summer of 2000 who decides to escape the sorrow in her life by spending a year asleep. Enter the wackiest, prescription writing NYC shrink and whiny best friend, and the narrator does a terrific job giving each character a distinct voice and personality. The final line of the book is everything. Haunted me for weeks.
Pachinko (Min Jin Lee): It took me until about two-thirds of the way through this generational saga set in Japan, which focuses on its Korean refugees beginning in the 1930s, that Pachinko wasn’t the name of a major character in the book. “When are we going to meet her?” I kept wondering as I looked at the illustration of the woman on the paperback’s front cover (it is not a spoiler to tell you that pachinko is a Japanese pinball game). Loved learning about the splitting of Korea and how kind of horrible the Japanese were to them when they fled their country and how displaced the Koreans were in their new home. Good insight into what it must feel like for all those refugees wandering around the globe, forced from their homes and unwanted in other countries. Hard to imagine.
The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn): Fast. Fun. In the “Gone Girl” vein of unreliable narrators. Made me glad that for all the red wine I drink, I steer clear of prescription meds. It makes you see things. Maybe.
Calypso (David Sedaris): What can I say? I’ve loved Sedaris since I heard him on NPR reading his “Santaland Diaries,” when I pulled into my driveway and then sat, laughing as he threatened to have some mouthy kid — waiting on-line to see Santa — killed, until the end. This new collection of essays seems to have more of a thread running through the pieces than his other books, which I really liked. It kept a lot of the stories in context. One of the most alarming is the tale of a lipoma he had removed from his back and what he did with it. Strange and hilarious. The piece about his sister, Tiffany’s, suicide remains heartbreaking, no matter how many times I read it.
Look Alive Out There (Sloane Crosley): More collections of essays and maybe funnier than Sedaris, I am completely obsessed with Crosley and have wasted way too many hours stalking her online and reading everything she’s written. To wit: “Around this time, I began dating a younger and emotionally unavailable man who was completely wrong for me in every way but anatomically. So I fell for him.”
Gilead (Marilynne Robinson): The exact opposite of every book listed above, this slow contemplation of life and religion — written as a letter by a man at the end of his to his son — is no page turner. But it’s a beautifully written exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons and the inner workings of an Iowa preacher nearing death. Heavy.
Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie): Don’t be imposed by its size, this is a compelling, but dense, story of a Nigerian woman’s experience moving to the United States and a lot of comparisons between Black Americans and Black Non Americans (her labels). There’s also love and tons of humor. Plenty of the book is also set in Nigeria, which I loved getting a glimpse into and am fascinated by black hair politics and how long it takes to create those elaborate braids you see some black women wearing. I fell down such a deep Internet hole investigating the author and have watched both her Ted Talks (“We Should All Be Feminists” and “The Danger of the Single Story”) multiple times and find her utterly charming and sassy. I was so obsessed with her, I even Googled how to pronounce her name.
Would love to know what YOU read this summer and what you’re planning to read this fall! If you are like me and have a book-buying problem ( I have SO many piled up next to my bed rn), I highly suggest (if you are local) that you use River Road Books as your official pusher to get your next reading fix (the only compensation I receive from them for that plug is great conversation when I go in to browse).
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