Guys, I have good news – my reading bug is back! It wasn’t that having a baby necessarily killed my reading bug – I still very much wanted to read – but more like having a baby made my brain so full and tired that it was impossible to read. My eyes felt sticky and glazed over, I’d fall asleep before even finishing a page, and if I somehow did make it farther than that, I’d have no idea what was going on and no patience to reread. In response, I turned to the more manageable length of short stories, but I really missed reading novels. As author Lorrie Moore says, “A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage.” Sure, love affairs are fun, but I’d been happily married to literature for decades when we were suddenly thrust into an unavoidable and sad period of separation. But then, a year after returning to work as a new mom, something clicked; I picked up a hardback my friend had given me, tore through it, picked up the next one, and kept going.
So now, six months later, with sunny beach days right around the corner, I’m filled with joy and pride to give you my summer reading recs. And please share yours with me – I have two bug-less summers to make up for!
5. The Girls by Emma Cline – C+
This book has all the summer trash – sex, murder, drugs, rock-n-roll – but there are some real trigger warnings surrounding rape, so beware. I picked this one up because of its hype: a debut novel by a female writer in her 20’s that quickly became a New York Times best seller but was also heralded as a beautifully written novel. And yes, there are many gorgeous sentences here. But for me, the language actually got in the way of the story. Definitely an interesting choice to pair gorgeous, flowing descriptions with an honest, ugly look at teenage girls getting sucked into a cult (loosely based on the Mansons), but I was overall glad I read it – the story especially shines when we get inside the main character’s painfully realistic, confused little head. James Wood gives a much more thorough review here in The New Yorker.
4. You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein – B-
This book is brutally hilarious, often self-deprecating in a way that leaves you feeling like Klein is now a strong, confident woman with that rare ability to make fun of herself without getting down about it. As a celebrated female in the male-dominated comedy industry, she offers readers an intriguing, behind-the-scenes look complete with running commentary that doesn’t back down ever; this openness is welcome and brave and definitely drives the novel. Mixed in with the laughs are some deep reflections on our patriarchal society, revelations that most women will appreciate but then will also appreciate the comic relief that follows. However, while Klein’s voice is strong, consistent and easy to access, it’s clear that she writes sketch comedies, not books; the individual sentences are lacking, the flow is choppy, and the overall structure feels forced. There’s even one anecdote repeated in the last few chapters. Still, a fun and thought-provoking ride.
3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote – B+
I reread this novella for a Capote semester I taught last fall and fell in love with it all over again. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, don’t be put off by the Hollywood ending; there are a handful of major differences between the two, and the book is definitely more rooted in reality. Absolutely gorgeous writing (as always from Capote), a smart and breezy plot filled with New York fun and a touch of darkness, plus one of the most delightful, complicated characters in American literature. Also, only 100 pages.
If you haven’t read In Cold Blood yet, it’s not a traditional summer read but is absolutely stunning, and also the progenitor of the true crime genre – a must-read (or reread!) at some point, though perhaps a better fit for the winter.
2. Commonwealth by Ann Patchett – A-
Everything Ann Patchett writes is gold. Just beautiful, easy to read yet highly intelligent, carefully constructed sentences throughout all of her novels. Commonwealth tells the story of a nontraditional family as they grow from rascals in California to adults spread out all over the world. There’s some darkness here, but it never gets too heavy. While not as impressive as Bel Canto or as deep at The Magician’s Assistant, Commonwealth masterfully treats a large family unit as the main character, jumping through time and switching points of view to give us a thoughtful and enjoyable reflection on love, loss and growth.
5. My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante – A
These books are amazing. I’m on the third right now and CANNOT GET ENOUGH. The characters are so real and distinct and easy-to-love despite their many faults. The depth and complexity of female friendship is at the root of these novels, but Ferrante weaves so many other characters (including the towns and cities which, through her vivid descriptions, feel like characters themselves) in and out with such ease that the overall plot never feels stuck on the two leading ladies. In fact, everything always feels like it’s moving somewhere, even when the characters are sitting still, which brings me to the most dazzling aspect of these novels: Ferrante’s musical writing style. I literally get the rhythm of her sentences stuck in my head like a pop song.