It happens every year: The best Summer Reading for the first half of life

The summer begins.

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Mine has begun, and there is an extra 8 weeks bonus time when kids are still in school.

Which means I have 4 hours a day without kids or work.  This is amazing.  This has not happened in Years.  Naturally this means chores.  It also means Books!

Before you hiss at me, allow me to tell you:  the author will be working on Labor Day and has no money.

Perusing the “lists” from which most reading is currently gleaned, it seems the listmakers need to be informed that:

#1 a list of books by its very nature excludes much more than it includes and is just poor engineering if one wants to really consider best books.

#2 I It’s ok, I will read them all eventually anyway.

Then I will feel compelled to write my own list.  Some of my favorite writing is about the books I have read, and so it is the right time to indulge.

Are you looking for summer reading?  Be it incomplete, faulty and speaking more to all that hasn’t been read than what has, I submit this as the best books which have most stayed with me.

Tell me your list.  Please.

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud – This book is excellent because first, it deals with Russian life.  It also deals with the Russian penal system.  It also won some big award, maybe a Pulitzer.  Finally, it deals with the painstaking degree to which bad things happen to people, and how people deal with them.  The same subject is in the book “A Fine Balance,” by Rohinton Mistry, and through a different culture, a similar rug is rolled out.

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Everything is Illuminated by Jonathon Safran Foer –  A strong value in our family was humor.  If a child could make mom or dad laugh, all was good.  This book has a serious story and a ridiculous story and one will make the reader laugh and the other might make the reader cry.  Post Holocaust themes, English language abuse, Eastern European meets NY sub-elite and Sammy Davis Jr. Jr. the seeing eye bitch.

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The Autobiography of Malcolm X as transcribed by Alex Haley – I tend towards stories of transformation.  People changing, learning and then living out new knowledge.  There are few more transformative stories than one of Malcolm X.  Impressed by his energy, intensity, and decisive all-in way of living that is still capable of changing when new information is discovered.

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Babbit by Sinclair Lewis – It is possible that the timing of reading this book had something to do with my love for it.  I read it while I was traveling around Costa Rica, and it is about the American middle class life of an insurance salesman at the time of prohibition.  I am not sure why I’d be attracted to despicable characters like the main guy in this book, but it was successful in create a sense of loathing.  I wonder if the author meant to do that?

The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden by John Steinbeck –  Steinbeck writes books to get lost in.  There is so much that is going on between people and historically, great summer reading.

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The Thousand and One Nights – This tome more than almost anything else has shed light on the mythic folklore and storytelling tradition of the middle east.  It is also quite steamy at times, improbable and pretty much anything happens in this book, which makes it hard to put down.  It is many, many stories within a story. it is really just a book that every adult should read, perhaps to just get one facet of historic middle eastern story telling culture in their comprehension of this part of the world.  This is a good and easy book to pick up and put down often because sometimes it has intense weirdness and because the stories tend to be on the shorter side.  So if you aren’t going to have sustained time, but more pick up and put down with quick interest events, this one is really good for that.  Quixote is too, kind of, but get both of these on Kindle as they are huge.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – I use this term as a cultural literacy point in classes for folks looking to learn more about American culture and English language, because the term is just understood.  The book is also worth reading as it is filled with scenarios that illustrate how broken the “war machine” is.  It’s also funny, ironic and just a good summer read.

A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle), is defined as a “false karass”. That is, it is a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.

Kurt Vonnegut – I am not sure I can narrow down to a particular book as it has been a few years since I read him.  His books do not disappoint, they have a razor sharp wit and deal with social and political commentary which I love.  Granfalloon is still one of my most favorite words.

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Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – What I recall from this book is that so seldom are we (in the U.S.)  reading books by African authors in the mainstream, and what a loss that is.  This book is a social commentary on relationships and power structures within Africa, couched in a narrative about a village and the people who live in it.  It, like the Thousand and One Nights, transports the reader to a new place.  For me, this type of reading sets my whole brain on fire because it gives me so much to ponder on, from the unfamiliar environment to the circumstances and the messages that can be drawn from these novels.  It is somewhat like traveling and reading a good book at the very same time, and is there anything better than that?

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Nine Stories/Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger – It is possible that I loved this so much because I read it in my 20’s, but I remember minute details and plotlines from this book and sometimes see them play out in lives around me.  Sometimes not, but am pushed and reminded of this book in other ways, such as the Little Russian Philokalia and the prayer that the young woman sank into during a crisis in her life.  It was just a transformative pair of books from my youth, I think more so than Catcher in the Rye.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy –  Again, themes we see in life but played out beautifully and in another place and time.  I could not put this book down.

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Henderson the Rain King or The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow –  Books once again from earlier years, and what I remember most from earlier years was the degree that I cherished the opportunity to read what I wanted to read rather than what was necessary for a class.  Perhaps that is why these selections leave deep impressions.  Or perhaps it was because I read Augie March while I was traveling around the U.K. and it was my only companion as I lollygagged around the days  with little to no money to be a tourist.  Augie March is a picaresque coming of age story set during the depression.  Very enjoyable writing that Saul Bellow, I could drink him in all day.  Henderson is loosely about a person facing their greatest and most horrifying terror in the process of realizing their highest and most lofty dream.  These were good books in my 20’s.

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Movable Feast, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – The tone of Ernest Hemingway’s writing is somewhat hypnotic when many of his books are put together.  It is as though one were at a table listening to stories from a very interesting person who has had a tremendous amount of life and is recounting very personally.  Hemingway’s narrative sounds distinctly masculine, perhaps because of a sparsity of emotion expressed, though through the actions of the characters it is clear that the emotion is there.  It is as though a certain portion of what he writes is in that which he does not say.  These books are set in early and mid century mainly in Europe and mainly in wartime, though the Old Man and the Sea has somewhat of a Henderson the Rain King theme although in this case it is a hungry Cuban fisherman that Hemingway uses to illustrate his quote

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

100 Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez –  Perhaps because I had to spend so much time with this author I grew to really appreciate the resounding solitude in his writing.  He has left me with images that remind me of how we come in, and how we go out of life and he also writes about all the various intrigues in between those times.  In my mind he is fairly epic.

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What all is represented in this image?  Spain will tell you.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – He is in the same room with Garcia Marquez, or perhaps at the same party.  However, Don Quijote is making everyone laugh, while Marquez has a bit more of a austere, artistic and indirect and from the Americas dimension as opposed to from Europe.  There is so much commentary on so many things in this book, and it is all told in farce so it is really a thread to follow.  It bums me out both that I haven’t made it through the whole book and also how few students these days know anything about this most important of all books.

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What does Dolly the cloned sheep have to do with Kazuo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go?  Read it and find out.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro – This author tells two stories or more masterfully most of all by not telling the stories.  It focuses on a relationship between 3 friends that are entirely steered by technological advance and social/moral decisions that have been made for them.  Although this is never spoken, and the book focuses most specifically on the interpersonal details between these 3 friends whose lives have been determined elsewhere.  Such good writing!

The Gift of Asher Lev by Chaim Potok  – Appreciated the tension between the nature and nurture and how it plays out in our life.  Wanting to keep reading about Asher Lev and his life of navigating between two worlds.

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Night by Elie Weisel – There is a lack of Holocaust literature on the lists.  If there was one event that marked the century for the whole world, doesn’t it seem as though the experiences that came from that would be more esteemed?  This book is so hard, but so worth it, and the reader will not likely ever forget it.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee –  In taking a class on Images of God, I sheepishly admitted that if God Looked like anything at all, he would Look Like Atticus Finch.  I love this book for the intergenerational touches it has, the themes of power in our small town relationships through the eyes of Scout, an innocent.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein – A timeless and otherworldly book.  Have heard it said that one is either a Narnia fan or a Tolkein fan.  I never was able to sink deep into Narnia, though the other writings of Lewis are fundamental.  A great summer read, a real voyage to another place entirely for when one is stuck at home.  Great storytelling.

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Why is a picture of Piscine Molitor used as an image to introduce Life of Pi?  Read and find out!

The Life of Pi – This book tells about our lives, our religions, our losses and gains, survival and stories.  The writer presented the story as one of the greatest of all time; epic in its scope.  Pi Patel is a curiosity with an air of magic to him, and the unthinkable, devastating, improbable, unforgettable and life-changing happens to him.  The story itself is rich, and the ending is among the best I have ever read.

The Great Gatsby –  Not even going to say anything about this book, because there is so much that can be said, but also because it is possible that it is necessary to re-read it once every ten years in order to remember all those things that can be said.  However, the over-arching story reminds me of themes of compensation in our lives and how at times much of who we become is in response to who we don’t want to be.

The Corrections by Jonathon Franzen – Read this before marraige and it made me glad I was not married.  A convoluted tale of the complicated nuanced interfamilial relationships, the interplay of generations… and how icy people can be within their own marriage.  It comes to mind often enough, and it seems many people have put it on their lists!

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver  –  Not sure if I read this book today if it would be on this list, but at the time I read it in my 30’s, it left and indelible impression.  More than anything that I took from the book was a deeply pessimistic view of religion, but in that view the book spelled out very clearly and not illogically how the characters arrived there.  I haven’t liked any of her subsequent materials because her voice is at once informative and self-aggrandizing, which alienates me as a reader.

For myself I will likely try for the 3rd summer to read Les Miserables to the end.

Your turn!

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