Looking for some great summer reads? Here are a few books that inspired me. Maybe they’ll do the same for you. In no particular order…
Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky. Set during WWII as France falls and Parisians flee south, Suite Francaise is about compassion and virtue and seeing the truth in one’s soul. The prose is so tightly written, so carefully chosen that it’s easy to forget Nemirovsky lived it. She penned this novel while on the run and writing so tiny to conserve paper that her daughter needed a magnifying glass to transcribe it. As a writer and a human being, it is awe-inspiring to me how she was able to gain perspective in the midst of one of humanity’s darkest hours and find goodness in the ugliest of situations even though she ultimately perished at the very hands of those she crafted so magnanimously.
In the Shadow of Man, by Jane Goodall. Dr. Goodall tells the story of how she came to study chimpanzees 50 years ago in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Even more poignantly, she details her findings in her very accessible and charming manner. She went where no man had gone before, literally, to study chimps in the wild.When she discovered the chimps using and making tools, a trait long considered to be singular to man, her mentor Louis Leakey said that we would either need to redefine man or accept chimpanzees as human. This book made me reconsider “us” in relationship to “them” and how small the differences are.
A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. How does one write about hiking the Appalachian Trail for months and make it interesting? That is Bill Bryson’s secret weapon. He can make the most mundane experience not only compelling but laugh-out-loud funny. He is infinitely witty and insightful without becoming snarky or tedious. Bryson is one contemporary non-fiction writer whose style I shamelessly try to copy and utterly fail. His plan for a future book is a subject that puts fear into the hearts of his publishers: Canada. If anyone can make that entertaining, I’d put my money on Bryson.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. Ah, the Russians. It’s nearly impossible to get through an MFA program without them. My professor declared that anyone who wants to be a writer must read the Russians. I scoffed. I snickered. And then I realized he was right. Nabokov, Gogol, Tolstoy, take your pick. They write about the world in a different way from their Victorian contemporaries – its corruption, pain, beauty – and the gray area of life that humans create to rationalize their situations. Anna Karenina is my fave because it has the best opening line: All happy families are alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem. Where Jonathan Lethem excels is turning a place into a character. In both novels, the setting is Brooklyn, which of course, is such a larger than life personality that it dares to overshadow the actual characters. But you know the setting rings true when the story couldn’t be anywhere else and work, when you can feel where they are. Motherless Iowa? Maybe, but probably not. (I’ll allow that I’m a little biased.) Lethem knows Brooklyn well and in the hands of a lesser writer it could be a hinderance. Sometimes when you are so entrenched in a place, you take for granted what the reader needs to see. The main character in Motherless Brooklyn has Tourette’s and when asked if he did a lot of research on the syndrome, Lethem shook his head. “Brooklyn is my Tourette’s.” Good man.
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. “He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance” is what Greene writes about the American Alden Pyle. Set in Vietnam in the mid-1950’s, the novel is eerily prophetic of the political turmoil that is to come yet it is really about the people. Greene’s trademark wry tone examines the morality of love. The hero, Fowler is a middle aged English war correspondent, content with his Vietnamese mistress, Phuong. His world is gradually disrupted by the arrival of American covert operative Pyle who is a zealous idealist. (Quiet American is meant to be an oxymoron.) Things get complicated when Pyle steals Phuong away from Fowler, yet attempts to remain friends with him. Greene taught me that suspense isn’t withholding information from readers. It’s not the “what” that creates tension in a novel; it’s the “how.”
Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson. Some books transport you to another place and time, and some make you think about the world in a new way. This book does something few can do. It makes you want to be a better person. Greg Mortenson’s failure to climb K2, the world’s second tallest mountain, set him on an uphill battle of a different kind. When the villagers in Korphe, Pakistan, nurse him back to health after his abandoned trek, he promised to return and repay the generosity by helping to build them their first school. It took years – even selling everything he owned, living in his car and typing dozens of letters on a typewriter to fundraise. His story is captivating and suspenseful with accounts of hostility and friendship. You can’t help but wonder are you doing everything you can?
Hills like White Elephants, by Ernest Hemingway. Okay, this isn’t a book. It’s a short story, but it contains some of the best dialogue ever written (and I don’t say that lightly). It’s only four pages, covering about 45 minutes, as a couple waits for a train in Spain. It’s about the moment when people recognize the distance between them. They’re talking about her having an abortion, but they never speak about it overtly. Like with the Greene novel, the true tension exists in the space between the words.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Don’t read Cormac McCarthy for a warm, fuzzy feeling. There are usually some touching moments in his books, but quite a bit of time is spent shaking one’s head at the nastiness people can inflict on one another. And so it is with The Road. But more than his other books, this one stands above the others for me because at its most basic element, it is a story about a boy and his father. A nuclear war has destroyed most of the U.S. Everything is shades of gray. We are focused on the forward momentum of the story – heading along the road to the coast for safety. The language is simple and direct, and the backstory is almost non existent. We never find out exactly what happened in the past and that’s okay. The relationship between the characters in the moment is so compelling we don’t miss it.
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. Packed into a very simple story is a very weighty subject: how do you follow your destiny? “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation,” Santiago is told. He sets off on a journey to find out what that is and has to overcome many difficult obstacles. He meets a variety of people who reveal a little more of what he is seeking. He has to trust his intuition and realize he is worthy of what he fought so hard to reach. The book is about learning to accept what is and let go of what isn’t. A powerful lesson.
The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell. Dr. McConnell is one of my favorite behaviorists. She’s able to boil the most complex theories to their basic elements in laymen’s terms. She offers a lot of insight and a-ha moments. For example, do you hug your dog a lot? Most don’t really care to be hugged. They don’t have the equivalent in their world. Some get downright uncomfortable and claustrophobic. Admit it – that hug is really for you, isn’t it? Pick up a copy and don’t be surprised if you learn as much about yourself as your dog.
Because I just couldn’t stop at 11…
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
- Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
- Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
- The Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
- Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu
- The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle