For me, summer is the time to clear the nightstand – and by “nightstand” I mean wherever you collect books you intend to read in the near (if undefined) future. In my house, books tend to accumulate on every available surface (to my wife’s chagrin), the ones on the bottom receding ever farther from grasp. Eventually one must decide to store them on permanent shelves (a death sentence) or sit down and finally give them their chance to grab your attention. June is their lucky month.
For this reason my summer reading tends to have a grab-bag quality. Already this season I have opened two books by British novelists I have long admired (Gerard Woodward’s August and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes) and one by German Daniel Kehlman, simply titled F, that I’ve wanted to get to since 2014. In the last week I’ve fallen asleep with John Irving’s In One Person on top of my chest and with my face pressed against Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros. I may not finish those two volumes, they work so well as soporifics – how glorious all the roles books play in our lives.
I have a number of concrete goals for this summer’s reading, most importantly relating to my ongoing project of tackling intimidating books that have taunted me with their heft and complexity. Each month I summon the courage to read one big book. I see myself as a trophy hunter, not content to remain close to home and cull the lackadaisical deer that happen to stroll nearby, I haul my gear across the savannah to track the legendary saber tooth tiger.
This undertaking leads to the first of my general recommendations for your summer reading:
1. Be ambitious. There is nothing wrong with reading page-turning thrillers at the beach, but give your mind something challenging, as well. Summer is the best time to take on novels that daunt you in months when schedules are packed. If a Dostoevsky or Flaubert has stared at you from shelves for years, dust it off and give it a try. Maybe this year you tackle Middlemarch or a door-stopping Tolstoy. I recently overcame my insecurities about Ford Madox Ford and, after decades of ducking it, finally read the Parade’s End quartet. Turns out, it is fantastic. Just imagine: forever more, you can say that summer 2017 was when you slayed the dragon of Henry James. You might start by picking up novels that appear to be lightweight fare but actually offer literary substance, such as Peter Nichols’s The Rocks and Dean Bakopoulos’s Summerlong.
2. Find a series. In recent years, book clubs and independent book stores championed Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle cycle of novels and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. With Ferrante having finished her tetralogy and Knausgaard’s final volume not coming out till fall 2018, readers need new multi-volume occupations. I can recommend two that, for different reasons, will keep you returning to the same author.
William Gibson, famous for inventing cyberpunk with Neuromancer, decided in the aughts that technology had caught up with his imagination, so he began writing novels set in the present. His Blue Ant Trilogy – Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History – is named for the multifaceted corporation that applies new media to open untapped domains for marketing. Together Gibson’s novels demonstrate that the contemporary worlds of art, finance, espionage, and weapons are every bit as alarming as the futuristic visions of 20th century science-fiction. Though the novels are independent of one another, they warrant reading as a trilogy in order to appreciate the subtle overlaps in theme and conflict.
Moving in the opposite historical direction, check out Amitav Ghosh’s brilliant trio of novels about the Opium Wars of the 1830s, a subject that seems inscrutably remote but, in Ghosh’s hands, becomes intimate and riveting. Beginning with Sea of Poppies, the Ibis Trilogy (named for the trading vessel that becomes embroiled in the emerging military conflict) proves that globalization has been a fact of capitalism from the beginning. Ghosh, a Calcutta native who now lives in New York, has a deft touch for depicting the impact of colonialism on the daily lives of characters from all over the world. Miraculously, given the scope of the narrative and the wealth of research the author brings to bear, Ghosh’s novels remain fast-paced and absorbing.
3. Get fresh. As much as we love the old familiars, summer should be a time for experimentation. Ask friends for recent discoveries, or start a conversation with the booksellers at Parnassus, who are always eager to offer suggestions for new books. As your reading friend, I offer the following authors who, if you are unfamiliar with them, are worth tracking down in a library or a book store (alphabetically): Eleanor Catton, Elizabeth McKenzie, Joseph O’Neill, David Payne, Marisha Pessl, and Tom Rachman.
4. Go deep. A number of my favorite authors have daunting back catalogs, so many titles it seems impossible to read them all – and that’s a good thing. If you read Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and enjoyed her post-apocalyptic Maddaddam trilogy, go back to her early novels (Life Before Man is my favorite) or her award-winning mid-career works (The Blind Assassin tops my Atwood list). If you have become a fan of Ian McEwan since Atonement, check out his dark, early fiction (The Innocent). Similar gems from decades past await you, from writers such as Thomas McGuane (Nobody’s Angel), Francine Prose (Household Saints), Louis de Bernieres (famous for Corelli’s Mandolin, his recent novels, like the enchanting The Dust That Falls From Dreams, have been under-appreciated), Jim Harrison (any collection of novellas), Richard Russo (The Risk Pool), and A.S. Byatt (The Virgin in the Garden).
5. Top picks. Here are the books that I have read in 2017 that I recommend without hesitation to anyone who wants to kickstart the season.
Jo Baker, A Country Road, A Tree: Samuel Beckett in WWII (the title repeats the entirety of the scene description for Waiting for Godot), strangely moving.
Kevin Barry, Beatlebone: John Lennon trying to escape fame in Ireland; he partially succeeds. You don’t need to be a Lennon fan to dig Barry’s groovy prose.
Glen David Gold, Sunnyside: Here’s your big-canvas novel, set in WWI, following Charlie Chaplin and a cast of dozens, on movies and the emergence of the age of celebrity.
Ian McGuire, North Water: on a whaling ship in the 1830s, a young doctor struggles for personal redemption against an evil foe. Epic scope compressed into crisp narrative. NC-17 language.
Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: The only nonfiction on this list, a captivating account of the collaboration between the Israeli psychologists (Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman) who revolutionized our understanding of decision making.
6. On the Shelf. Most of the short fiction I read comes from periodicals, but I love the experience reading a single author trying out an array of voices. Here are the story collections I already know I’m going to delve into this summer:
Joshua Ferris, The Dinner Party: A writer who combines wit and pathos with subtle grace, Ferris takes as much care with his ingenious stories as he does with the brilliant novels.
Greg Jackson, Prodigals: I’ve been waiting for this book since reading “Wagner in the Desert” in the New Yorker.
Daisy Johnson, Fen: Young women bewitched, transformed, and vengeful, from the once-marsh lands of east England.
Michael Knight, Eveningland: from UT-Knoxville writing prof and short story virtuoso, this collection’s pieces are all set in Mobile Bay, Alabama (top of my list).
One work of non-fiction begs my attention:
Richard Holmes, The Long Pursuit: the biographer of Coleridge and Shelley, and the magisterial The Age of Wonder, reveals the process behind his books. Like seeing how Houdini disappears.
Finally, here are the novels I am most looking forward to reading this summer:
Elif Batumen, The Idiot: Set in 1995, a freshman at Harvard learns about love and email, comedy and pop references ensue. This novel is catnip for readers who miss the ‘90s as intensely as I do.
Rachel Cusk, Transit: A continuation of 2015’s Outline, this time in London, the narrator confronts the painful reality of real estate.
Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Two decades since The God of Small Things, released right now. I’ll be first in line at Parnassus.
I wish you all happy reading this summer and am hoping that you reciprocate with reading suggestions of your own. Leave a comment at Bacon on the Bookshelf and let us know what books have most impressed you. Bon voyage.
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Thank you so much for this remarkable list, Sean! And readers – I echo his encouragement – please let us know what you’d recommend in the comments!!
One other thought: Sean, when you’re choosing your next read, the most important thing is to find a book with a red or blue cover. 🙂
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Top image: https://www.nhl.com/news/key-moment-game-4-pekka-rinne-saves-predators-in-second-period/c-289803094
Saber tooth tiger: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_sfocato’>sfocato / 123RF Stock Photo</a>