Ah, sweet summertime! The days are longer, the schedule’s more flexible, and the heat makes me want to lounge lazily with a good book. I could get lost for days and days just roaming the shelves of a great bookstore, but that wouldn’t leave time to enjoy my finds. Today, Courtney Conroy from A Cappella Books, Atlanta’s favorite independent bookseller, joins us with her picks for a true summer reading adventure. She’s included a little bit of everything here, from contemporary new releases to a classic due for re-reading. Settle in, find a cozy spot and make sure your pitcher of sweet tea is full. (Click on the title to purchase right from A Cappella’s site at www.acappellabooks.com.)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad; Illustrated by Matt Kish
A literary classic, as well as a frequent entry on summer required reading lists, this beautifully illustrated edition of Joseph Conrad’s 1899 critique of colonialism is like a bubble-gum flavored antibiotic. Kish’s ink and marker drawings are unmistakably contemporary, and each correlates with a particular passage from the novel, helpfully clarified by an index of illustrations. Kids will pick it up because it looks like a cool graphic novel and stick around for its timeless quality.
Let’s Just Say It Wasn’t Pretty by Diane Keaton
“When someone says about a woman, ‘I’m sorry, that’s just wrong,’ I tend to think she must be doing something right.” This and other bits of wisdom populate Diane Keaton’s newest memoir, which considers the uses and misuses of style and beauty throughout a lifetime lived in the public eye. Keaton argues that our relationship to beauty, obviously, changes as we age, but she finds redemption and comedy in these transitions. Her writing style is wry and conspiratorial, and as charming as her Annie Hall.
All Our Names by Dingaw Mengestu
The story of two friends coming of age during an African revolution, this novel, not unlike The Interestings, takes a broad view of how relationships are affected by drastically different life circumstances. Its lean, realistic prose and moral seriousness recall Graham Greene and Chinua Achebe, and it packs the power of a much longer novel into its 272 pages.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Its title is a reference to the “madwoman in the attic” trope, famously typified by Bertha Mason, the discarded first wife of Jane Eyre’s Rochester, and explored throughout the following hundred years of feminist criticism. In The Woman Upstairs, the notion of “madwoman” directly correlates with contemporary single women of middle age, and the novel is a thrilling psychological exploration of that old cliché of a woman on the brink. It’s also a love story to female friendships and an elegy to thwarted artistic ambition, and its emotional core is rich. Of all the titles I read last year, this is the one I would most emphatically press on women, and enlightened men, of any age.
One More Thing by B.J. Novak
The first story collection from B.J. Novak, a writer, actor, and executive producer of The Office, is evidence that he is one of those multi-talented wunderkinds who should scarcely exist; so infuriating is he for the rest of us. I picked this up, expecting it to be a relatively amusing romp mostly riding on the coattails of its author’s notoriety, and instead found a stylistically ambidextrous and hysterically funny collection of vignettes. From a hilarious play on “missed connection” classifieds to the “transcript from the unaired ‘Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela,’ it’s the perfect poolside read. Once you’ve finished it, twice, you’ll pass it along to your husband, your teenagers, and your friends.
Owing to its mouthful of a title, it’s not the easiest book to recommend to friends over dinner, but this third novel from Georgia State professor Josh Russell is one of my favorite single-sitting reads of the last couple of years. Modeled after a 17th-century captivity narrative, the novel offers not a Puritan innocent taken prisoner by Indians, but a young graduate student whose career and life choices are assailed upon by the (often less intelligent) men of Cornell and its environs. This setting offers much by way of fodder for satire, with Russell taking plenty of digs at graduate school and early-90s counterculture without being obtuse or heavy-handed about it. In the end, Guttentag’s deliverance is not physical but spiritual, and Russell paints an intimate portrait of a young woman going through that second coming of age that occurs in our early twenties; it is often unbelievable that Hannah sprang from the mind of a man. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for atypical love story with a big narrative payoff at the end.
Nature’s Nether Regions by Menno Schilthuizen
A few years back, Isabella Rossellini did a bizarre little series for IFC in which she would dress up in animal costumes and talk about species’ mating habits. This is like that, except it is deftly written by an evolutionary biologist rather than presented surreally by Hollywood royalty. Often gruesome, but more often funny, this popular science title reveals how the sex lives of bugs, birds, and beasts can teach us something about the beauty of life and the power of evolution.
Family Life by Akhil Sharma
David Sedaris fervently endorses this second novel from Indian-American writer Sharma, and it does not disappoint. While it shares some of the qualities that distinguish Sedaris’s work (a self-deprecating tone and the ability to find humor in times of tragedy), Family Life handles darker subject matter than a typical Sedaris collection and chooses to dwell in that darkness. The protagonist of the novel is a young Indian immigrant whose talented and doted-on older brother suffers an accident with implications on the family for years to come. Narrated, for the most part, through the eyes of a child, the book is spare and possesses an understated humor, and it is a beautiful distillation of the immigrant experience, the reverberations of trauma, and the ambivalent dependencies of family.
American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney
American Afterlife, the first work of literary nonfiction from WABE’s Kate Sweeney, is an incisive study of American mourning practices, from Victorian trade publications to present-day feline freeze-drying. It is the result of years of interviews and what I can only call “funerary tourism.” While the book offers much in the way of strange facts, it is much more than a cabinet of curiosities. Sweeney treats her subjects, both historical and contemporary, with a lyrically executed reverence, instilling in them the belief that they might teach us something about how to die, and about how to go on living. It’s the perfect pick if you’re looking for a work of nonfiction that will provide you with plenty of cocktail party anecdotes, but still reads like a great novel.
Ava and Pip by Carol Weston
“Observation: When you buy books online, it’s not cozy, there are no homemade decorations, and a cat never comes by to rub your legs,” writes Ava, 10, in her diary, in Carol Weston’s new book for middle-graders. Maybe I’m biased on that front, but I think Weston’s tale about sisterhood is exactly the sort of novel I’d want my daughters to read, if I had daughters. Weston turns the classic sisterly rivalry on its head, refusing to provide us with easy categories—the “smart” sister vs. the “pretty” one, that old Sweet Valley High formulation. The novel is full of Nabokovian wordplay, anagrams and palindromes, and an understated case for reading that permeates every page.
Now that you’ve got your stack, the questions remain… how many will you devour and which one will you start first? Thanks, Courtney, for offering your guidance! This summer, make a visit to see Courtney and all the bookworms at A Cappella Books in Inman Park.