Today we welcome book critic and SB friend Jennifer Puryear, who’s back to dish on all the great reads that need to be poolside, beachside or bedside this summer. Jennifer is our go-to resource for books of all kinds, and we’re so excited to follow her recently-launched blog, Bacon On the Bookshelf, each week — with so many savory suggestions, we need more hours in the day!
Newsflash: I am not a perfect 10 in my swimsuit this summer. At this point, it’s all about the coverup. I won’t be artfully disguising the books I’m reading, though! Summer reading can make us all shine. Below is a carefully curated selection of ten white-hot reads for Summer 2014, beginning with my top two picks, spending some time with beach reads and thrillers, and then traveling on to foreign shores.
Long Man by Amy Greene
My top pick for Summer 2014 is Long Man, a beautiful and riveting novel by Tennessee author Amy Greene. In 1936, the Tennessee Valley Authority dammed the Long Man River, flooding the hardscrabble community of Yuneetah in order to bring electricity and progress to an impoverished region. Greene imagines the few holdouts who refuse to leave. Front and center is Annie Clyde Dodson, a young mother who loves the land that was her birthright and her daughter Gracie with equal ferocity. When Gracie goes missing in a storm, with a dangerous drifter in the vicinity, the suspense becomes nearly unbearable. Long Man finds hope and beauty despite a multitude of sorrows; it knows the fierceness of a mother’s love; it moves as swiftly as a river. It lifts the spirit to read such a book.
The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon
That being said, if the missing child scenario sounds too stressful for your poolside pleasure, you might prefer my other top pick for Summer 2014, The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress, by Franklin’s own Ariel Lawhon. In this chic literary whodunit, Lawhon imagines what might have happened to Judge Joseph Crater, a New York State Supreme Court Justice whose mysterious disappearance and presumed murder on August 6, 1930, made headlines for months and commanded national attention long afterwards. Lawhon stays within the historical record for the basic facts, then crafts an intricate story about three women in Crater’s life who each had reason to want him dead. It is a tale of speakeasies and Broadway theaters; dinner parties and dirty politics; back alleys; lovers; and what a wife — a maid — or a mistress might find it in her heart to do. You won’t regret stirring up a dirty martini and reading local with this terrific debut novel.
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak
One of the great pleasures of summer is the beach read – guilt-free, fat-free, full of flavor. B.J. Novak serves up some of the summer’s lightest, funniest fare in his debut collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. You might not know Novak’s name, but you’d recognize his face: he’s a regular on The Office. One More Thing manages to be very funny without being cruel, rude, or mean-spirited. In “Kindness Among Cakes,” the entire story reads as follows:
CHILD: “Why does carrot cake have the best icing?”
MOTHER: “Because it needs the best icing.”
Most of the stories in this collection are longer, but none of them will try your patience. All of these bonbons simply delight.
One Plus One by JoJo Moyes
Another flavor of beach read is the feel-good story with a satisfying ending. None of us want to be patronized, though! We want to believe in the characters and care about their problems. For my money, this summer’s most promising beach read is the new novel by JoJo Moyes, One Plus One, to be released July 1. Moyes’ bestseller Me Before You had smart Nashville readers like Monica McDougall swooning: the “seemingly stereotypical stale tale of two opposites transitioning from feelings of mutual annoyance into attraction,” Me Before You ended as a compelling meditation on “two lives not being fully lived: one by choice, one by circumstance,” writes Monica in a recent guest post at Bacon On The Bookshelf. One Plus One tells the story of another unlikely romance, in this case between obnoxious tech millionaire “Geeky Ed” and single mom Jess, who cleans his vacation home. Add two teenagers and a road trip and it is possible that love wins in the end.
Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do, A Memoir (Sort-of) by Elaine Lui
I really love it when love wins in the end. For a curious and wonderful variation on that theme, try Elaine Lui’s Listen to the Squawking Chicken: When Mother Knows Best, What’s a Daughter to Do, A Memoir (Sort-of). Elaine’s mother dominates her life through shame (including pre-shame), feng shui blackmail, and principles of filial piety. Perhaps not surprisingly, Elaine and her mother have some difficult and confrontational moments. In one instance, her mother — knife in hand, threatening suicide — blocks Elaine from leaving their home to see a boyfriend:
It was a killer performance. Even at the time, I remember thinking to myself, seriously, that she was throwing down an Oscar-worthy piece of acting. This was the ultimate guilt trip, the guilt trip of all time, the Super Bowl of all guilt trips. How many mothers have the balls to threaten to commit suicide because they hate your boyfriend? I remember grudgingly admiring her move.
Elaine’s memoir is, finally, a love letter to her damaged, limited, manipulative, and deeply loving mother. As she would say, it’s a killer performance.
Summer House With Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
For some, summer wouldn’t be complete without a thrill ride. The summer’s most eagerly anticipated literary thriller (at least by me) is Summer House With Swimming Pool, by Herman Koch, to be released June 3rd. Koch’s international bestseller The Dinner was smart and disturbing, and Summer House With Swimming Pool promises a similar dark, thought-provoking vibe. A high-profile doctor and his family spend a week at the Mediterranean vacation home of a famous actor who later ends up dead (not a spoiler). “In this disquieting novel from Koch…sex, celebrity and medical ethics become inextricably tangled as a summer idyll goes nightmarishly wrong,” says Kirkus Review. I’ve already asked my kind friend Bill Long-Innes at Parnassus to hold a copy for me when it’s released on June 3!
The Martian by Andy Weir
If you need your summer thriller today, I’d recommend The Martian, by Andy Weir, a brainy page-turner if ever there were one. In the not-so-distant future, astronaut Mark Watney finds himself alone on the surface of Mars, the rest of the crew having left him behind for dead. He has no way to communicate with Earth — at least initially — and knows that the next mission won’t arrive for another four years. How he manages to establish communication and survive is a math and engineering problem and a test of character; in this novel, the enemy is the red planet. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some baddies back on Earth, though. The Martian delivers thrills and chills in addition to equations.
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
Summer wouldn’t be complete without thrillers and beach reads, but it’s also the perfect time for traveling abroad in mind and spirit. First stop – Africa. In Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go, a brilliant and successful surgeon abandons his wife and four children in Boston after an accusation of malpractice. He disappears, eventually surfacing in his native Ghana. The family he leaves behind suffers but survives, each with their own deep wounds; in some ways, the high-achieving children continue to thrive. Upon the father’s death, former wife Fola and their children confront his complicated legacy and their own frayed relationships at his funeral. I have rarely been so transported by a novel, its prose shimmering in both the humid heat of Ghana and the fallen snow in Boston.
Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement
Next stop – Mexico. Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen tells the story of Ladydi Garcia Martinez, a girl growing up in rural Mexico in a tiny community of women and children left behind by husbands earning a living for their families far away. The village daughters are disguised and raised as boys — short hair, blackened teeth, dirty clothes — so they will not be kidnapped and pressed into service as “slave mistresses” of the drug lords who have eyes and ears everywhere. Not every girl’s disguise is enough to protect her. Ladydi finds a different path out of her village, but it doesn’t lead her where she planned. Prayers for the Stolen is a short book and often spare in its language, but it is not short on emotion. It is, as I used to describe my younger daughter, small but mighty.
On Such A Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee
Last stop — The Future. But we’re not at EPCOT this time! The future isn’t looking so bright in Chang-Rae Lee’s strange and powerful novel, On Such a Full Sea. The inhabitants of “B-Mor” — the city formerly known as Baltimore — live in an urban farming collective, and their lives and thoughts are controlled with equal care. After the disappearance of her lover, a young woman named Fan takes the unprecedented step of leaving B-Mor to find him. Her journey takes her from the “Counties,” where life is nasty, brutish, and short, all the way to the gated society of the “Charters,” where the quest for perfection warps and shapes in its own destructive ways. Fan’s journey becomes revolutionary myth for those left behind, and the voice of the novel is their collective, haunting chorus as they tell her tale. Lee’s future is of course a version of our own present, and his observations can be unsettling and provocative.
Please stop in at BaconOnTheBookshelf.com and share your summer reading recommendations! There’s nothing I love more than hearing about a great book!
Thank you, Jennifer! Our shopping cart overfloweth. Now the quandary … which one to read first?
And, for another Nashville bookstore, where we’ve seen many of these books, check out BookmanBookwoman in Hillsboro Village. They sell both used and new books!