I’ve gotten into a few conversations lately where the topic of summer reading has come up. Do I have any suggestions? Why yes I do.
Those of you who know me know that I’m currently addicted to audiobooks as the antidote to a long commute and the desire to occupy my hands and eyes with sticks and string instead of turning pages. Not that I don’t enjoy reading — I do, really — but the discovery of audiobooks has let me fall back into the enjoyment of fiction after many dry years reading nothing but mediocre screenplays.
I enjoyed these books in their audio versions, but I know the old-fashioned way would be just as satisfying.
With that caveat, here are my suggestions for summer reading.
1. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, audio version read by David LeDoux and John Randolph Jones
I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this book. The narrator, Jacob, joins the circus in the early 1930’s and narrates his story both as it’s happening and from a nursing-home vantage point years later. The worlds, both the circus and the nursing home, are rich with detail and deep emotion as Jacob approaches a pivotal moment in his life in the 1930s and reflects back on the same moment in present time. The story is well-plotted and sweetly romantic. Jacob grows to love many of the people and animals in the circus, but the novel itself is thoughtful enough that you feel good reading it. This is no empty-calorie bodice-ripper. Without giving anything away, I’ll tell you that the ending left me feeling uplifted, with a huge smile on my face. What could be better? An engaging story, a good read, and that warm fuzzy feeling when you’re done.
Gruen’s first novel, RIDING LESSONS, and it’s sequel FLYING CHANGES — a story that begins with a young woman with Olympic equestrian dreams — are going into my interlibrary loan queue even though they are not available as audiobooks.
2. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
Special Topics is a hyper-literate coming-of-age story with absolutely nothing to do with science. Heavily laden with footnotes and literary allusions, the novel presents itself as a memoir written by a college freshman chronicling her senior year of high school. But she’s not just any high school girl — her aloof, ostentatiously academic father brought her up amid an endless series of scholarly articles and moves from town to town. Everything changes her senior year when she and her dad spend the entire school year in the same town, at the same ritzy private school and she gets her first genuine taste of high school. Amidst some really satisfying high school drama (think first kisses, crushes, best-friend drama) a series of mysteries emerge. There are some truly cringe-worthy moments (how could she be so naive?), some fairly shocking turns and a wild ride of an ending, but ultimately I found the novel to be entirely satisfying. The novel’s form is a bit unusual — heavily footnoted — and the audiobook version was a bit cumbersome to listen to because each footnote was read aloud, but once I got used to it I alternately enjoyed/ignored the footnotes and found that they heightened the fun and suspense.
Special Topics was Pessl’s first novel (her third attempt though, according to Wikipedia!) and her follow-up will be coming out in 2010.
3. Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, read by Arte Johnson
Years ago I made the mistake of suggesting The Stone Diaries to a friend. While I loved the book, it was so, sooooo wrong for him and he’s turned up his nose at my suggestions ever since. Here’s my attempt at redemption: in case you’re not interested in a romantic, animal-filled circus ride or a jaunt through high school on the shoulder of a self-conscious but brilliant teenage girl, give Absurdistan a try. The novel follows an obscenely wealthy and obese Russian man in his early 20s. Exiled from Russia and in search of permission to reenter the US, where he spent his college years, he ends up trapped in the fictional eastern-European country Absurdistan. If you’re a fan of David Foster Wallace, if you liked The Crying of Lot 49, if post modernism is your bag, you’ll love this book. It’s not easy — I was glad I listened to it instead of reading since I found myself drifting at times — but all of the bizarre non sequiturs and patently absurd characters and situations add up to a delicious and unusual literary meal.
4. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver with her husband Steven L. Hopp and daughter Camille Kingsolver
Speaking of meals . . . this one will make you hungry for vegetables. It’s rare that I’d suggest a book without actually finishing it first, but the Kingsolver family’s story of spending a year eating locally, largely from their own Appalachian farm garden, is compelling without being preachy or overly evangelical. In fact, I found the book full of encouragement for the urbanites out there to get started even in a small way: start a windowsill garden, check out a local farmer’s market, pay attention to what you purchase at the supermarket. Even better is Kingsolver’s typically lyrical prose, which, when read by the author, seems to roll past like a warm breeze. Another benefit to the audio version: sound effects from the family farm that mark the beginning and end of each disk.
Let me know what you think and pass the love along — share your own suggestions for summer reading!