Summer Reading

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The spring before my freshman year in high school, I received a pamphlet from my soon-to-be English teachers telling me the books they had chosen for our summer reading: Watership Down, The Caine Mutiny, and The Clan of the Cave Bear.  Who knows what inspired them to select that odd stew of rabbits, sailors, and Cro-Magnons for our summer sustenance?

When I became a high school teacher, I served on the committee that assigned summer reading to our incoming students.  Among the books we picked over the years were Candide, Confederates in the Attic, and Crossing to Safety – the last of which was a result of heavy lobbying on my part.  (I consider it a lifelong ambition to proselytize the work of Wallace Stegner.)

And here we are at yet another summer, one which finds me with a typically teetering stack of books next to my bed, one very good one keeping me up past my bedtime, and two questions for you, my friends:

What are you reading this summer?  If you could give me a summer reading assignment of three of your favorite books, which ones would you pick?


76 responses to “Summer Reading

  1. I would give you three remarkable books about hot days and desperation: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Prodigal Summer, and Tar Baby. (Maybe Light in August for all of you out there who wait until the last minute to get it done…) A little drama in your reading life makes you appreciate all the calm and peace at home.

    Oh, and how about this existential misery beach reading trio: The Awakening, The Beach, and The Stranger.

    • “There Eyes Were Watching God” was one of my favorites in high school. Zora Neale Hurston is so under-appreciated. Thanks for calling her out here!

    • I’m two for three on your “hot days and desperation” list; I was reading Prodigal Summer when I went into labor with my oldest so it – and the entire Barbara Kingsolver oeuvre – will always be beloved by me. Speaking of Beloved (ha, ha, ha), Tar Baby is one of Toni Morrison’s that I haven’t yet read.

  2. I am reading Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis. They were recommended by a friend months ago, and I haven’t had a chance to read them until now. I’m also reading Bright Young People by DJ Taylor – fascinating!

    As for recommendations for someone else, I don’t have much. My taste is so eclectic, and so heavily YA centered, that it’s hard to find someone else with similar interests! If you’re looking for good, light MG to YA books, you can’t go wrong with Lloyd Alexander, and if you’ve ever read or been at all interested in the Chronicles of Narnia, you have to read Planet Narnia by Michael Ward. It’s fascinating!

    I’ve also always liked the Little House books for summer reading. Especially The Long Winter – I remember shivering on the beach in the bright sun because the writing was so vivid I felt cold!

    • Wow! Lloyd Alexander! That’s a name I haven’t thought of in years. I remember reading and loving The Black Cauldron as a kid. I don’t read a lot of YA these days, but when I do I’m often surprised at how much better YA books have gotten since we were kids.

      I can’t wait to reread the Little House books with my kids. And I know exactly what you mean about The Long Winter – maybe I should reread that right now to try to beat this sultry Midwestern weather!

  3. I just finished Devotion, by Dani Shapiro. It was life changing. It stayed with me for days and I hesitated to start a new book. That said, I just started Anna Quindlen’s Every Last One and quickly became enamored with it. Maybe it’s the summer of the female author for me.

  4. Thanks for the rec (and the reminder that my own summer reading post is overdue!). I did a little whoop in my head that you lobbied for Crossing to Safety. I have a long-term love affair with (for, I guess) Wallace Stegner, and Crossing is one of my favorites. It’s subtle, touching, soft, slow. Perfect for summer.

  5. Ah, I strongly suggest reading Area 51 (she made war planes seem interesting to me, which is no small feat) and Henrietta Lacks, if you have not read that already. Also on my end table: A Discovery of Witches and The Postmistress. I’ll let you know how those turn out!

  6. Just read and adored Courtney Sullivan’s Maine! And am going to blatantly copy you tomorrow with a summer reading post – I hope that is okay.

  7. Great post! And a great reading list just in the few comments I have read. I am finishing “Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miler and starting “Red Hook Road,” by Ayelet Waldman which has been on my nightstand for ages. And, reading the yoga sutras. The translation by Chip Hartranft is beautiful.

  8. All I can say is – I’m envious! I had my own (abbreviated) summer reading list, and at present, I’m 0-for-6. Between searching for work, teen Grand Central, my own writing (even much minimized), there’s nothing left for enjoyment reading, which sucks.

    When I can, I re-read a favorite short story. But I’m hungry to get to my stack… which includes Linda (Bar Mitzvahzilla) Pressman’s recently published memoir of sisters.

  9. And here is where I hang my head in shame. Pregnancy does horrible things to my reading efforts. When I was pregnant/postpartum with IEP I spent a year – a whole year! – trudging through “The Grapes of Wrath.” It got really embarrassing. Right now “A Tale of Two Cities” sits on my nightstand, largely untouched because, no matter how early I get into bed, sleep is always more appealing than a good read. I need to break out of this non-reading funk!

    As for my favorite summer reads? “Gone with the Wind” always tops my list. Other favorites are “East of Eden,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Bean Trees,” and Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca.”

    • Don’t feel bad at all, Gale! The same thing has happened to me during all of my pregnancies and postpartum periods. Even during weeks of bed rest, I could barely get through a magazine. I’m just starting to come out of the postpartum non-reading haze now and feel ravenous for books. (Now if only I could find some nice big chunks of time to get some reading done…)

  10. I like many of these books, your choices (big “Crossing to Saftey” fan) as well as “East of Eden,” in particular. Still the summer’s a lazy time and I hesitate to pile anything more on the night table… but I did just read “Our Town,” which, even on the page, is stunning and makes it hard to read or write at all for a bit. A book not much in favor, and yet well worth reading a few pages just for the hot summer poetry of it is “Justine,” the first in the Alexandria Quartet by Durrell. Happy reading, happy writing, but even happier napping.

  11. I just finished re-reading George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series and am eagerly waiting for the 5th book to be released next week. It is a mix of drama, politics and fantasy but quite well done/

    I read the Art of War earlier this year and quite enjoyed it. I have Gettysburg sitting on shelf waiting for me.

    • I hadn’t heard of Game of Thrones until the cable TV series came out earlier this year, but you make it sound like a great summer pick. (Some day I’ll have to rent the TV series because it features an actor I love: Sean Bean, known best to me from his portrayal of Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring.)

  12. I am obsessing over my upcoming 50th birthday in September and it is being reflected in my summer reading. Normally, I read all these fluffy novels but this year I am reading Howard Schultz’s Onward (about Starbucks) and Erica Jong’s (love her fiction and wish I could find my copy of Fear of Flying) Fear of Fifty. Will also be re-reading Jimmy Buffett’s A Pirate Looks at Fifty.

  13. Trying so hard to work through Jude the Obscure courtesy of Jana’s Maladjusted Book Club. So far it’s entertaining but I really have to focus on interpretation of the language so it’s slow going.

  14. CTS is a book that still gives me the chills (as you know)! One of the least expected and greatest gifts of this blogging community has been the shared love of Wally. I’ve been reading a ton lately, so glad to be giving in to summer. Just read both of Lisa Genova’s books and am officially a fan (another mom of three!). One of the best books I’ve read in a long time was The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller. I just spent the morning with my kids at the bookstore scanning ISBN numbers of all the books i want to read (love Goodreads app!) and am so grateful to once again have time to read (even if my house is a total disaster and my kids are eating pasta all too frequently because of it). Next up for me is Josh Ritter’s debut novel Bright’s Passage and maybe Bossypants. And Townie by Andre Dubus on audiobook during drive to work. (Oops. More than three!)

    • A fellow Wally fan!

      But what’s this about scanning the ISBN codes? I didn’t realize there was a Goodreads app! (Off to look…)

      Interestingly, I was in your hometown last week, and didn’t realize it! (That is to say, I realized where I was, but not that you were there…) 😉 Loved my visit there!

      • Yes! I’m a fan of the Goodreads app too. I feel very high tech when I scan the code on the backs of the books I’ve read. (When I was little, I used to play “store” with my Fisher Price cash register and thought that there was no greater joy than pretending to be a cashier.)

        And I’m curious which hometown you mean. Do tell! I think you were in NYC (actually Husband’s hometown) and Boston (outside of which I lived for five years). I actually grew up in central Connecticut.

    • Forgot to say, skip directly to Bossypants. I haven’t laughed that hard since…I don’t know when. I love Tina Fey! I listened to that one on audio actually, while training for a half marathon. I’d be cracking up out loud while I ran!

      • That one’s on my wishlist too. And I love the suggestion of the audiobook. I don’t usually do them, but I think that would be a great one to listen to while running (i.e. jogging).

    • It’s official: I need to “give into summer” too and start cracking on that stack next to my bed. Nothing makes me happier than sitting with my feet up and a book in my hands. Hmm, but if I use more time reading, what about writing? And blogging? Oh, and my kids…


  15. As I mentioned on Twitter, am also a huge Stegner fan. I loved both Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety but those are the only two I have read. I think I know the next book in my stack now. Interestingly, I think back on those two books often, especially Crossing to Safety. Stegner does an amazing job of painting such a vivid picture of the lives of the main characters, I almost feel as though I am drawing on the memories of old friends when I think back to the book.

    I have not read nearly enough since I had children. Recently I have enjoyed Pillars of the Earth and am currently in the middle of a very interesting non-fiction book called Culture Code. Another one of my favorites from the past (pre-children) is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

  16. Just reading through some of your other commenters. I have also been a huge fan of the Martin series, A Song of Ice and Fire (first book is Game of Thrones) since college. It was all of the rage amongst my fellow Computer Science classmates back then and I also eagerly await the fifth book. Martin has left us hanging FOREVER!

  17. I’m reading Linda’s book on my Kindle now! And I read Confederates in the Attic as part of a master’s degree class on sense of place. Loved it (and the class).

    What three books? That is a seriously tough question. I think I have to go with … To Kill a Mockingbird, Cold Sassy Tree, and Lords of Discipline. Hmmmm … Those all have Southern settings. Can you tell where I grew up??

  18. Well, you already know what I read every week, so I’ll throw in some suggestions. Since everyone is mentioning American literature, I’d like to suggest a few French books that are a few of my favorites. I’ll skip The Little Prince since it’s so famous but it definitely is one of my top three.
    1) A bag of marbles by Joseph Joffo. The true story of two young Jewish brothers and how they lived WWII, mainly separated from their family and unaware of what happened to them. I could read this book over and over again – I absolutely love it! A very touching, humble, frightening story that makes you feel wonderful to have had a “normal” childhood.
    2) Jacques the fatalist by Denis Diderot. Beautiful (and funny) story. Diderot’s reflections on fate and free will. Two centuries old, and the story hasn’t aged a bit.
    3) The silence of the sea by Vercors. Another great book taking place during WWII, describing the German occupation of France, using a single German soldier and a single French home as an example. Makes you think a lot about what both countries and their people went through.

    • I love these French suggestions! I just read The Little Prince to my 3yo. I had never read it before and really enjoyed it so I’m keen to increase my knowledge of French literature.

      And, for those of you who don’t know, Milka is working on reading 365 books this year, many of which she reviews on her blog. I love reading her weekly Wednesday updates. Go check them out!

      • I really have to read The Little Prince with my oldest, who’s almost five. I’m sure he’ll enjoy it. I read Bag of Marbles as a teenager, a young adult and later as a parent. I touched me each time in different ways, I highly recommend it.
        As for the 365-book goal for 2011, let’s be fair and mention it’s not only the books I read by myself but also those I read with my kids. I don’t log every book I read with them but mostly the ones I enjoyed. As they get bigger, the stories get longer and more elaborated. My personal goal is between 75 and 100 for this year. That’s one to two books a week, which has been feasible so far (it also means less sleep!).

      • Well, just think how much reading time you’d have with 4 or 5 kids… 😉

  19. Oh, Kristen! Reading Crossing to Safety brings to mind our old book club. That was my first taste of Stegner! I immediately went out and read Angle of Repose! Loved both. As for favorite summer reads, there are just so many that come to mind. I agree with so many mentioned above, especially A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and anything by Barbara Kingsolver. One summer, my English department assigned A Prayer for Owen Meany. And ever since, I have devoured John Irving’s books. And an all time favorite book is Love in the time of Cholera by Marquez! I have One Hundred Years of Solitude on my night table.
    I just read River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler, and I really enjoyed hearing about his experience as a Peace Corps member in China.
    But I also feel that summer is a time for leisure, so I like to enjoy a few “beach reads” too! Right now, I am reading Elin Hilderbrand’s The Island. There is something so nice about reading a Cape Cod book during these summer months!

    • Oh, that’s right! We did read Crossing to Safety together. (Did you know that that was the head of school at our former employer’s favorite book?)

      I still pine away for that book club – and of course for the wonderful friends that were in it!

  20. I am rereading The Great Gatsby this month. Also, on my list is State of Wonder (Ann Patchett) and Incendiary (Chris Cleave). Not necessarily “summer” books, but ones that I want to read. I love reading these kind of posts because they generate great recommendations. Thanks Kristen.

  21. Thank you for your recommendation and link, Kristen! What a lovely surprise to wander over here to read about summer reading and find that you’re reading my book!

    Right now I’m reading Townie by Andre Dubus II. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is up next and The Help is in the pile, but I’ve been opening and closing it for months. I don’t especially care for first person fiction but everyone keeps raving about it, so I’m going to read it on the beach when we go on vacation.

    On my permanent favorites list, and a book that has left a permanent hole in my heart, is Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.

    • You’re welcome! I’m really enjoying your book and can’t wait to do a more proper post on it later this month.

      And you know, everyone raves about The Help, but I didn’t love it. It might be my cynical ex-historian’s perspective: I feel like I’ve read enough non-fiction about that time period that this fictional look didn’t quite hold water for me. Don’t get me wrong: the book was well written and the story was well crafted; I just didn’t seem to like it as much as everyone else did.

      • Kristen, ditto to what you said about The Help. I read it for a book club and most of my friends enjoyed it but it just didn’t appeal to me for all the reasons you mentioned here. There was something too self-congratulatory in the tone of the book for me to appreciate it as an authentic depiction of these characters.

  22. I just answered this very question over at Lindsey’s. Of course I’ll be reading as much as I can! I just finished The Help which was delicious. Next up is Brené Brown’s book “I thought it was just me” and then after that it will depend on my mood, but I have 106 selections in my To Read list on Goodreads.

  23. What a literate group is here!
    Bruce, the Alexandria Quartet, yes! But why stop at Justine? Alexandria, the wine press of love …
    Just finished Cormack McCarthy’s The Road, which left me sobbing. Will be blogging about it.
    Kristen, please read Our Town immediately.

    My summer list: Slaughterhouse Five (Vonnegut) and Herzog (Bellow).
    It’s astonishing what I haven’t read.

    As to favorites, The White Hotel by D. M. Thomas. Has anyone even heard of this masterpiece?

    So many books, so little time, says the sign on my bookshelf.

    • I don’t know The White Hotel, but I think I’ve stayed in one once or twice.

      I read The Road start to finish during one heart-breaking afternoon when I was very pregnant with my second son. A remarkable book, exquisitely written, but painful beyond belief. And I don’t think the pregnancy hormones assuaged the emotional wreckage any. Despite my deep and abiding affection for Viggo Mortensen, I had no wish to see the well-reviewed screen adaptation. The images are so seared in my mind from the book, I wasn’t sure I needed any further visual reminders of the horrors within.

      Did you see the film version?

  24. Forgot to mention. If you commute and haven’t tried, you’re missing out. I love being read to. God bless the iPod.

  25. I’m buried in books, but that’s the way I like it. (There’s actually plenty of air.) I’m reading the Maladjusted Book Club pick, which I’m regretting picking. A crazy, hormonal moment in which I thought Jude the Obscure would be good summer reading? Yes. It was just silly of me. Jude the Obscure should probably only be read in the dark of winter when there’s no one to talk to about it. 🙂 But next up is Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, and I can’t wait. After that, I’m hoping to dive into some Geraldine Brooks. I will read anything by her, but I hear Caleb’s Crossing is great, and I heard an interview with her that just made me fall in love.

  26. I just finished The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, and loved it. Next up: The Reading Promise by Alice Ozma, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind by Ellen F. Brown. (After which I may have to reread Gone with the Wind!) I’ve been hearing about State of Wonder and Caleb’s Crossing – both on my list. I love Geraldine Brooks’ work.

    • Hi Katie,

      Thanks so much for stopping by and joining in the conversation.

      I think that I’ll be reading The Paris Wife with one of my book clubs this fall. I’ve heard great things and am glad to have your recommendation as well.

      And can you believe I’ve never read or seen Gone With the Wind? I feel like that’s a major hole in my book reading history.

  27. Oh this is great, I can’t wait to go back up and read all of the comments and add titles to my newly acquired Nook! Below are three of my favorite books:*

    “The Edible Woman” by Margaret Atwood. “Me Talk Pretty One Day” by David Sedaris and “Love and Houses” by Marti Leimbach.

    *I’m confident of my colon use there!

  28. Just finished Sarah’s Key and am reading A Secret Kept by the same author. I am so excited that the boys are old enough to entertain themselves so that I can squeeze in some reading!!

    Hope you are doing well!

  29. Can I say how much I’ve enjoyed the discussion on this post? I love it when blogging feels like a conversation among friends. I wish you all lived nearby so we could have a real-time book discussion.

  30. I was so happy to stumble upon your blog after reading the book recs post over at A Design So Vast. Looking forward to following your blog! Here are some recommendations that I shared over there:

    I recently read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson, which is a wonderfully simple, yet paradoxically complicated tale of old school values and conflicting cultures in a town outside of London. Also read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, A Double Life: Discovering Motherhood by Lisa Catherine Harper, and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which reads like poetry even though it’s a novel.

    On my to-read list is Midnight’s Children by Rushdie, What is the What by Dave Eggers, State of Wonder by Ann Patchet, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua.

    Glad to have so many new ideas from other commenters – my Goodreads list is filling up!

    • Thanks so much, Sarah, and welcome to Motherese. It’s great to have you here. (Any friend of Lindsey’s is a friend of mine!)

      I also just read Major Pettigrew and really enjoyed it. I like what you say about its blend of the simple and complex. In that regard it was reminiscent to me of the Alexander McCall Smith novels.

      I’m grateful for your recommendations!

  31. After going through the literary greats that most people mentioned here, I’m going to sheepishly add (in a very quiet voice, nonetheless) that I’m reading Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. I occasionally pick up fantasy fiction to mix things up and thought this would be a good summer read, especially on maternity leave since there are so many books in the series that will keep me occupied.

  32. Pingback: What we’re reading: summer 2011 — Never True Tales

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