One long ago summer, when circumstances of home and kids and job allowed me to spend afternoons at the beach, I ordered three books from the brand new Quality Paperback Book Club. The selections were deemed “perfect for summer reading,” and, in fact, they were.
The first book was The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes, edited by Donald Hall. Well over one hundred authors, poets and essayists are illuminated through snippets and stories. Easy reading, when the time available might be interrupted by a need to reapply sunscreen, or cool off in the waves. I came away with greater familiarity with the writers I knew, and a desire to acquaint myself with the others.
Ironweed, by William Kennedy, was the second. The writing was magical; the imagery was complex. The book grabbed me from the very first line:
“Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead.”
I loved each plain-spoken character. My heart broke with their travails, and soared with their small victories. Though I went on to read all of Kennedy’s intertwined books set in Albany, New York, this one is still my favorite.
The last book was Growing Up by Russell Baker. Though I’ve read many good ones over the years, including wonders by Mary Karr and Alexandra Fuller, this stands as the best autobiography I have ever read. Each paragraph introduces a new character, and through them, Baker’s young life unfolds.
I still have these books on my shelves. I have re-read each of them at least twice. No matter what time of year it is, opening the covers of any of them transports me to lazy, hot summer days on Beaver Island beaches, thirty-five years ago.
In other years, accompanied by my sisters, or with grandchildren along, I’ve made different choices for reading material. Magazines are entertaining, and can be picked up and put down easily. Pulp mystery novels hold my interest well enough. They don’t demand much attention; likewise, they offer little beyond the mystery at hand. Short stories, when I find a good collection, are good for fitting in when there is time to read.
Many books will do just fine to go along with summer activities. In the backyard at the picnic table, in the metal lawn chair near the garden, on the sofa with the afternoon sun streaming in, leaning against a tree at Fox Lake while the dogs explore, or on a blanket on a long stretch of sandy beach, almost any book will do.
This year, though, I am determined to have a summer rich in good books. Books that grab and hold my attention, yes, but also stretch my mind. Books that stir genuine emotion. Books that I will remember long after I’ve turned the last page.
I spent weeks reading reviews before placing the order. Waited excitedly for the delivery. I now have a stack of five books that I have deemed perfect for summer reading:
- Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
- Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
- Less by Andrew Sean Greer
- Island of the Mad by Laurie R. King
So far, I have only finished the first one. If that book is any indicator, though, I’m in for a summer of good reading!