Our good friend and book guru Jennifer Puryear of Bacon on the Bookshelf joins us today with her list of great reads as summer approaches! Welcome, Jennifer.
Summer is the time to take a deep breath, slow down, maybe neglect a few chores. Enjoy the kids and the dog! Eat a slice of strawberry pie. The six seriously great reads on this list deliver every bit as much summer perfection as a BLT with real mayo and a garden tomato.
My top pick for summer is Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: smart, funny, slightly wacky and, in the end, deeply moving. The novel begins in a world we recognize: main characters Deb and Chip travel to a gorgeous, all-inclusive island resort for their honeymoon. The narrator, Deb, will keep you in stitches, and her husband Chip is a prince: “I liked so many people, when I got to know them, and when I was drinking,” Deb reflects. “When I was drinking I could almost be Chip, I thought, almost that nice. But not quite.” Things take an unusual turn when the honeymooners meet a marine biologist who claims to have spotted mermaids. Deb and Chip become reluctant believers after seeing them with their own eyes, and you will too! What follows is a murder mystery and a tale of corporate and neocolonial greed and exploitation–all of it a bit topsy-turvy and off-kilter. Kidnappings are botched, evil masterminds turn out to be completely ineffective and great white whales get a lot accomplished in a day. You’ll be rooting for Deb, Chip, the marine biologist and the mermaids–and in the end, you’ll find a strange hope and happiness by a cheap motel pool off property.
You won’t get anywhere near a resort in David Arnold’s Mosquitoland, a young adult genre crossover novel at home on any shelf and garnering rave reviews everywhere. Mosquitoland tells the story of a 16-year-old’s journey from Mississippi to Ohio by Greyhound bus. Mim has slipped away from her father and stepmother, who seem to be preventing her from seeing her sick and possibly dying mother. The story is mostly comic, but sometimes has a real edge of danger and suspense. I haven’t spent this much time in gas station bathrooms since those cross-country family road trips growing up! I was reminded of a few important things about growing up and about being a good human. “[E]ven though honesty is hard,” our heroine concludes, “you really have to murder people with it if you expect to be a person of any value at all.” That’s stating it pretty strongly, of course. I’m not sure kind white lies are included. But on the whole, and when it counts, amen, sister.
Amen, also, Marilynne Robinson. Preach it! Robinson’s most recent novel, Lila, takes Christianity seriously without ignoring some of the hardest aspects of faith; in that way it continues the good work that Robinson’s National Book Award winner, Gilead, began. Lila opens with the story of Lila Dahl and John Ames, the young drifter and the aging preacher who find each other with neither hope nor expectation in their hearts. The book then scrolls back in time to Lila’s Dust Bowl childhood, when a woman only known as “Doll” loved Lila enough to steal her from a terrible home and raise her like her own. Woven in and around these two love stories is Robinson’s meditation on what God’s love might look like in the world. Her writing about love and faith is exceptional: Lila recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It’s not so much a poolside read as a thunderstorm read, with a meditative quality just perfect for when you’re safe and cozy inside and the world flashes and pounds outside the window.
In the best case scenario, the power is off long enough for you to need a candle, but not long enough for the food to spoil. For another beautiful and thoughtful thunderstorm read, try The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. Axl and Beatrice are an older couple living in a medieval Britain in which Angles and Saxons live together in uneasy peace (true enough, historically) and must deal with occasional dragons and ogres (less firmly rooted in the historical record). A strange mist over the land seems to rob people of their memories, though they are only dimly aware of this. Axl and Beatrice, with vague memories of a son who has disappeared, summon enough of their wits to set out on a quest to find him. Along the way, they cross paths with a variety of other travelers and find themselves caught up in a larger quest to slay a dragon. As memories begin to return to them and their traveling companions, the deep question of the book emerges: Is memory a curse? Is it possible for people ever to move beyond deep wounds and wrongs?
The Buried Giant has a mythic, epic, deep-past feel. The fantastical elements tend to be weighty and symbolic. Kelly Link’s story collection Get in Trouble is exactly the opposite: the stories are set squarely in the present—usually a slightly skewed version of the present—and the fantastical elements are sometimes humorous. In “I Can See Right Through You,” an aging movie star we know only as “the demon lover” is on the run from a bad marriage and a sex tape. He shows up in Florida where Meggie, his dearest friend and former lover, is producing a reality TV show on ghosts. He parks in a “meadowy space” adjacent to the swampy Florida set. “There is an evil smell. Does it belong to the place or to him? The demon lover sniffs under his arm.” For every time you laugh in this collection, there’s another moment powerful, strange and sad enough to take your breath away. In “Secret Identity,” a 16-year-old falls in love with a 34-year-old, convincing him (online) that she is 32. They agree to meet at a hotel, but she never finds him. Instead, she finds herself caught up in a superhero convention at the hotel. Actual superheroes like Lightswitch and Tyrannosaurus Hex are in attendance, but villains like Conrad Linthor also lurk in the shadows, ready to prey on young girls. Link’s writing has been called “fantastika” or “slipstream” by some critics, a “melding of the ordinary and the bizarre.” Having grown up on Narnia and Oz, with healthy doses of Batman and Catwoman, I can’t get enough of it.
Some perfectly lovely people just don’t enjoy fantastical elements in fiction. It’s simply not their cup of tea. If you prefer historical or realistic fiction, you’ll not find a more civilized and pleasing distraction than Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma, a modern retelling of the Jane Austen classic. There’s no need to read the original to enjoy this tale of a young socialite who learns some of life’s hardest lessons through dinner parties and picnics gone horribly awry. When the novel opens, Emma has just returned to her father’s home near the village of Highbury after graduating from college. Life in the village of Highbury can be so very interesting, especially when one chooses to take a hand in things! Emma is especially interested in arranging a proper marriage for a beautiful but financially insecure young woman who comes under the sway of her strong personality. Emma can be opinionated, entitled and immature, but she can be awfully funny, charming and generous, as well. Most importantly, she learns and grows. Happy endings await, if not the ones she had planned.
And here are three bonus books to look out for this summer:
Sarai Walker, Dietland (selected as one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Month, May 2015): “A bold debut novel that takes on the beauty industry, gender inequality, and our weight loss obsession—from the inside out, and with fists flying.” (from Houghton Mifflin promotional material)
Release date: May 26, 2015
Judy Blume, In the Unlikely Event (her first adult book in 15 years): Read this to revisit one of your favorite authors from childhood or adolescence. I personally owe much of my knowledge of the important facts of life to Judy Blume.
Release date: June 2, 2015
Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman (written prior to To Kill a Mockingbird, about Scout all grown up): The talk of the town since this long-lost manuscript was recently discovered.
Release date: July 14, 2015
Be sure to check out Jennifer Puryear’s delightful literary blog, Bacon on the Bookshelf, for more spotlights on great books each and every week. We’re addicted!
Want to access this list at a moment’s notice? Pin this photo to your Pinterest wall!