Standout Summer Reads

There is a temperate zone in the mind, between luxurious indolence and exacting work; and it is to this region, just between laziness and labor, that summer reading belongs.
— Henry Ward Beecher

With all the travel and family events this summer I still managed to fall into bed most nights ready to drift off with the lives of fictional characters front and center in my dreams. Some of the books were sweet and simple, others overhyped. Early this summer I jumped into the trifecta of sadness when I went from Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin to Stephen Elliot’s Happy Baby and then onto Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. It’s a wonder I ever got out from underneath the covers after this run of gut-wrenching darkness. (All beautifully written and worth reading, but I recommend spacing these books out over a year instead of a season.) The standouts, in no particular order, either left me sighing, crying, laughing, or all three.

BODIES IN MOTION AND AT REST: ON METAPHOR AND MORTALITY by Thomas Lynch. I took a workshop with Tom the beginning of June and read everything he wrote after that that I hadn’t read before. I love pretty much everything—the poetry, the essays, the fiction, but Bodies is my favorite. A funeral director in Milford, Michigan—Lynch knows of what he writes about: death, alcoholism, cats, hypochondria, and a litany of observances about life and its inevitable end all without sentimentality. It’s reverent and lyrical, and I loved it, and so did the half a dozen people I recommended the book to.

Favorite line: “Nor can we see clearly now, looking into his daughter Nancy’s eyes, the blue morning at the end of this coming May when she’ll stand, upright as any walking wound, holding her newborn at the graveside of the man, her one and only father, for whom her baby will be named.”

THE DINNER PARTY AND OTHER STORIES by Joshua Ferris. This book will go down as one of my favorite reads in 2017. With the braggadocious idiot in the White House, it’s refreshing to read farciful stories about the insecurities of men. The Dinner Party is Ferris’s first collection of short stories. He wrote Then We Came to The End, The Unnamed, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. He’s a fabulous writer. I

picked up two of his novels to read based on this collection.

Favorite line: Many, but I forgot the book at the lake house up north.

THEFT BY FINDING: DIARIES 1977-2002 by David Sedaris. If you love David Sedaris’s work (Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, in addition to several other volumes of essays), you’ll love Theft By Finding. The book is hefty at 514 pagesand hard to hold up if you’re reading in bed, but the idea, I believe, is to dip in and out of it instead of reading  through in one sitting. Just as you would sneaking into your sister’s room and unexpectedly finding her diary open. You flip through it looking for the good stuff. Sedaris’s good stuff is in his ability to see the absurd in the mundane and tragic. I’m not a diary keeper or journal writer—my twisted imagination or writerly retributions I reserve for my fiction writing, but I loved reading about Sedaris’s

struggles with trying to find his way to a creative life. I can’t wait for the 2002 -2017 volume–you have to know it’s coming.

Favorite line: “August 20, 1982, Athens/Patras” “After our bus arrived in Patras, the driver made me helphim pick up all the garbage people had left behind and throw it out the window. This town is the Greek Baltimore. I got a hotel room with four beds in it. That was fine until three other people showed up and claimed them. Roommates! And a shower is extra. Next door is a bumper-car pavilion. The thuds are fairly constant. I went out tonight after dinner and had a beer at a gas station with a table in front of it. The owner had a live duck in her hands. When I went to pay, I saw her in the back room, wringing its neck and singing along to the radio. This place makes me feel stoned.”

MARLENA by Julie Buntin. I met her after a reading she gave in Petoskey, Michigan where she is from, and Marlena is set. I loved the book and told her so. Her writing is authentic in a way I haven’t read in a while. Gritty but beautiful. What a talent. Marlena tells the coming of age story of two friends trying to find their place in the small world of northern Michigan. When Cat’s yanked out of her safe life and dropped into this new one, she finds the one person who gets her and holds on for dear life.

Favorite passage: “So, very quickly, as you can see, in no more than a matter of weeks, she was my best friend. I was the first person, she told me, whose brain moved as quickly as hers, who got the weird things she said, her jokes. Her vile, made-up swears, and could sharpen them with my own. A best friend is a magic thing, like finding a stump full of water that will make you live forever, or wandering into a field overrun by unicorns, or standing in a wardrobe one minute and a snowy forest the next. I wasn’t about to take it for granted, with its strange coincidences and the passionate promises—spoken and unspoken— required for its upkeep. Day by day I made sacrifices, though they didn’t feel like sacrifices at the time, redefining myself according to who she was, until we became the perfect team—her impulsive and brave; me calculating and watchful; her dangerous, me trustworthy; her pretty, me sweet; her high, me drunk; and so on, et cetera. I asked the cashier for directions while she stole rings, hardcover books, a pair of men’s shoes; and then, after the shift change, I returned it all for cash. I drank lattes because mochas were her favorite. She sang the melody, I provided backup. Her blond and rail-thin, me brunette and almost chubby. Us two, one perfect girl.

THE EASTER PARADE by Richard Yates. Julie Buntin (see Marlena above) recommended this novel. Yates is better known for his novel, Revolutionary Road, also made into a movie starring Kate Winslet. In Parade, Yates explores four decades in the lives of two sisters, Emily and Sarah Grimes. The product of divorced parents, each struggle with love affairs gone sour, an unhappy marriage, stalled career s, alcoholism, constant moving, and thwarted dreams. Yates’s writing is immediate, and he captures the inner lives of women without sentimentality. These women have stayed with me all summer etched as they are in my mind with broad strokes.

Favorite line: “Yes, I’m tired,” she said. “And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost fifty years old, and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.”

“All right,” he said quietly. “All right, Aunt Emmy. Now. Would you like to come on in and meet the family?”

 MY LIFE WITH BOB: FLAWED HEROINE KEEPS BOOK OF BOOKS, PLOT ENSUES by Pamela Paul. Oh my, I’d love to have drinks with Paul and talk all night about Bob, her Book of Books, a journal she’s kept of all the books she’s read or didn’t finish in twenty-eight years, since her junior year in high school.

The only fault I found with the memoir is there’s no photograph of Bob, just one page of the journal from the summer of 1988. I wanted more visuals because Bob is the one thing she’d save (in addition to her children!) from a burning house. By keeping track in Bob of the book’s she’s read over the years, Paul can look back and understand what was going on her life at a particular time based on the books she choose to read. I think this is true for all readers—the catch is most don’t write down what they’ve read and when they read it and why they picked that particular book. The why comes after when Paul can look back and see patterns of needs and desires, mistakes, and hope.

Favorite line: “Most people in the throes of parenting have little time to read. Instead, time is spent strategizing how to meet the barest requirements of adulthood, with reading a vice snuck on the sly like an afternoon cocktail. My lifelong requirement to read before bed, no matter how late the hour and preceded by a vastly underestimating ‘I just need to read one page,’ now actually often ends at exactly that: one page.”

MAKE A SCENE: WRITING A POWERFUL STORY ONE SCENE AT A TIME by Jordan Rosenfeld. Okay, there are books that fall into your lap at the most perfect time. This is one of them. I’m not a fan of “how to write” books, per se, but this one helped me approach my rewrite of my manuscript with a zillion new ideas. I’d read a couple of pages and make notes how I could apply some of the advice to my writing. I’m a self-taught fiction writer, so I need all the help I can get. There isn’t a lot of academic writerly advice here but just practical how to’s on writing stronger characters and advancing plot through scenes.

Favorite line: The Dedication: “This second edition is dedicated to all the writers who toil in near obscurity, wondering if anyone ever reads their words. Your words matter!”

Authors can only hope!

Now on to fall’s crop of books....