I try to use my summers productively and get a lot of personal reading done. I want to model good reading habits for my students, and I genuinely yearn to escape into some good books in the summer when I have more time to myself and don’t have the constant interruptions that come with work at a boarding school. Of course I am parenting a toddler, so I mostly read when he sleeps, but that still permitted me lots of quiet time over the past two months.
It’s become my habit to start the summer with a Google search for “best books 2018” and “best books 2018 so far.” I read some articles with lists of books recommended by critics, and then selected books that appeared on multiple lists, or which just sounded like the kind of thing that appeals to me. By coincidence, I seem to have read a number of books by young(ish) female novelists this summer. Unlike in past summers, I enjoyed almost every book I picked up this time around. There wasn’t a clunker in the bunch.
A word about media: In an ideal world, I would enjoy the slow pace of the summer and read nothing but traditional, paper books purchased at the wonderful independent book store in the little town in Vermont where I spend my summers. And about half of the books I read this summer came to me that way. However, I also read about half of them via download to the Kindle app on my iPad, which is cheaper and gets your next book into your hands immediately. The app synchs across devices magically, so if I am stuck in my son’s room at 2:00am because he isn’t sleeping well, I can read on my phone for a while without it producing too much light. Nothing beats the reading experience of a real book, but don’t be too quick to sneer at the convenience of ebooks.
Here’s a rundown of what I read, in order.
Krakauer, Into the Wild — I picked up an abandoned paperback copy of this contemporary classic that some student left behind at the end of the school year in the building where I work. I had just noticed that the movie was on Netflix, and I had wanted to watch it, so I thought I’d read the book. Needless to say, it is stunning, and very literary non-fiction. After reading the book, the movie didn’t hold my attention at all, and I gave up on it after 30 minutes or so. Into the Wild made me want to go back and reread the Jack London classics that I haven’t read since I was an adolescent. Perhaps that’s a project for my upcoming paternity leave later this year.
Crosley, Look Alive Out There — I love following Sloane Crosley on Twitter (@askanyone), so when her new collection of essays got great reviews, I was quick to pick it up. It’s a fairly light confection, and although Crosley’s observational eye is very astute, I can’t say that this book has stayed with me after the heavyweight literature that I read afterwards. Still, it was a good way to wake up my reading brain early in the summer.
Kushner, The Mars Room — All the critics seem to have adored The Mars Room, so it was the first of the books I read after scanning all the “best of the year so far” lists. The book doesn’t disappoint, but it does seem to be riding on OITNB‘s coattails a little bit. I enjoyed the unsentimental tone of the novel and the ways in which the protagonist feels like a real person and not a stereotype, but the stories of the incarcerated women seemed to echo too many things I’ve seen on OITNB.
Benjamin, The Immortalists — This was one of my two favorite books of the summer, and I recommend it highly. The book ponders interesting questions of fate, destiny, and self-determination that are rather Sophoclean, but the stories of the four siblings who take turns as protagonists are lively and keep you turning the pages. Unlike several of the other things I read this summer, Benjamin builds towards a satisfying final act, and the book feels complete when you finally put it down.
Greer, Less — This was a departure from my “best of 2018” plan. The publishing world — bookstores, Amazon, Goodreads, etc. — seemed determined to force me to read this comic novel, and my resistance was gradually beaten down by the attractive cover and my weakness for comedy. In truth, the book is fantastic until the final twenty pages or so, which felt like an unsatisfying ending.
Li, Number One Chinese Restaurant — This novel has received tons of critical acclaim, but I found myself comparing it to The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang, which I read two years ago for similar reasons. They are completely different novels about contemporary Chinese-American families, and I suppose I just enjoyed the zany fun of The Wangs a bit more. Li’s examination of the lives of the humble, long-tenured waitstaff of her fictional restaurant is something I haven’t read before, and it has resonated with me ever since I put the book down, so read Number One Chinese Restaurant and The Wangs vs. the World. You’ve got time, right?
Moshfegh, My Year of Rest and Relaxation — Along with The Immortalists, this was my favorite read of the summer. The book revels in its misanthropy so unapologetically that you just have to go along for the ride. I think the author has succeeded in creating a book that is therapeutic for the reader in a fashion somewhat akin to the catharsis that we are supposed to experience upon watching a tragedy. Just as Harold Bloom has argued that we are forced to become Macbeth as we watch the play, we become Moshfegh’s privileged, self-centered protagonist as we read her novel, and . . . we like it. We feel guilty about it, but we really, really like it. As with Less, the final twenty pages or so feel like a letdown, but the book is so wickedly fun that I can forgive.
Hummel, Still Lives: A Novel — With my hoity-toity BA in Art History from Columbia, I mostly avoid/roll my eyes at “art history mystery” books, but this one got great reviews, so I said, “What the heck.” I’m glad I took a chance. The novel is both right on the money regarding the art world and a good mystery at the same time. Although most of the action takes place in LA, there is a bit of it that takes place near Burlington, VT, and that was a fun coincidence for me since I was reading it in Vermont.
Powers, The Overstory — Full disclosure: I am only halfway through this one. I started reading it right before I left Vermont and returned home to begin my school year, and the book is very long. I actually posted a request for book recommendations on Facebook, and of the many great ideas, this was the one I chose. Every time I pick up The Overstory I get swept away by the beautiful short stories that come together to form one larger narrative (the full extent of which one would only be able to observe if one was as long-lived as a tree, which is the point). I don’t know where it is all headed, but the writing is beautiful. A lot of it reminds me of Ferber’s So Big, which is a novel I read a few years ago because it is a frequent answer in the NYTimes Crossword Puzzle, and I like reading early 20th century novels that are famous yet which no one from my generation has ever read.
There you have it. I look forward to discovering what my ninth grade English students read for pleasure this summer. Perhaps they will have some recommendations for me. Please feel free to tell me what you enjoyed reading this summer in the comments or via Twitter.