Suggested Summer Reading…. (Part One)

Summer-Reading-Guide-HEROAs a public service to you (and a rather fun thing for me to do at the same time), I thought I’d gather some of the titles that I’ve read over the years and that seem to have a summer kind of feel…

Just seeing these titles brings up memories of outside fun in the sun and reading inside in the cool, so perhaps you may like some of them for your reading choices this season. (The list is in completely random order, btw…)

I’m not sure that some of these would qualify for the traditional “Beach Read” definition, but they’re enjoyable all the same. (I’d read them on the beach, but perhaps I’m weird!)

And, naturally, I’d love to hear your suggestions (even if your summer isn’t here yet).

Books with a child’s perspective (and sometimes coming-of-age narratives) would also make up quite a few of my recommendations. (Who can forget those days of summer when you’re a kid [if you’re a lucky kid])?

So, to start off, I thought I would begin the list with some more traditional summer-focused (perhaps “summer-feel”) books.

Since I’m in America, I’ll start off with Twain’s two great summer books, Tom Sawyer  (1876) and Huckleberry Finn  (1884). Sure, there are “teachable” moments in each of them, but these just remind me of childhood in some ways. (Admittedly, my childhood was nothing like them as I grew up in Bedford, England, but they’re still good to read. Our town did have a lovely river though… )

Oh, and don’t forget the adorable Anne of Green Gables who will charm your socks off.

A more English-y summer selection could be, let’s say, Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) (which I adore) but which has no blog post (pre-blog). Hmm. May have to reread this little gem again over the next few hot months….  It’s as close to perfect a gentle summer read as anything you’ll find.

For a more caper-ish approach to English summer, try Just William – Richmal Compton (1922), which has some really funny scenes  in it regarding its titular character, William, and some of his adventures… (Plus there is a series of books about him… Lots of summer reading ahead!) Compton also wrote some more adult fiction which others have raved about, so you could check that back-list… Good caper novels are also some of those by John Buchan (who wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps et al.)

If you’re more interested in the gently humorous adventures of a particular young bear, then you can’t go wrong with the the Paddington Bear Series as they are set in mostly sunny summers (despite being in England ). Yes, they’re children’s lit, but they are so sweet, and sometimes when it’s 114 degrees outside (as it was the other day), you just want gentle and sweet…

If you’d rather have an arachnid as the star, don’t forget about E. B. White’s delightful (and rather poignant) Charlotte’s Web  (1952).  Sidenote: E.B. White also has several books of well-mannered and pretty gentle essays that are perfect to read on a lovely summer day in a hammock, for example. Try this one for starters: Essays of E. B. White (1977). Reading it is like having a great cup of tea (or glass of iced tea) with an interesting and funny conversationalist.

Ray Bradbury has a couple of strong contenders in this category,  Dandelion Wine (1957) being my favorite. (He also has a sequel of sorts, Farewell Summer  (2006), and it’s almost as good as that first one, but then it gets all weird in the last chapter without explanation, so perhaps a more muted endorsement there.) If you’d like something more challenging, check out Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 for a good spec fiction type of read. (Haven’t read his other sci fi titles, but I expect that they are pretty good.)

From English soil, I’d suggest Winifred Foley’s trilogy that starts off with A Child in the Forest (1974), an autobiographical book of Foley’s childhood  of living in a loving but poor family in the forest in Gloucestershire. Marvelous commentary on her life, with some really good and very witty pieces in there as well.

Along those same lines (but with a very different British childhood experience), check out this title, From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties by Philip Oakes (1980) which is another very witty childhood recollection, this time of growing up in an English boarding school.

(Other boarding school stories which are not very demanding reading but would still be fun include Mallory Towers series from Enid Blyton…)

Oh, almost forgot this one: The Railway Children – Edith Nesbitt (1906). (Lots of jolly hockey sticks, how dashingold thing, perhaps a midnight feast or two, and lashings of ginger beer…)

For a great summer read, you certainly can’t go wrong with Laurie Lee’s classic, Cider with Rosie (1959) (pre-blog) followed up with its sequel of sorts, As I Walked out one Midsummer Morning (1969).

For an American perspective of growing up, perhaps you’d like the play, Brighton Beach Memoirs  (Neil Simon (1984), which details the childhood of a funny young man as he navigates those teenaged years on the East Coast during the 40’s…  🙂

(That reminds me: if your community has any local plays, serious or otherwise, they can be really fun to attend and it’s great to see (probably) local volunteers acting their hearts out. Just go with a generous spirit… 🙂 )

Moving into a slightly older age group with the characters’ lives, I’d suggest Seventeen – Booth Tarkington (1914) which covers a gently humorous approach to the tragedies and fragile joys of having your first love. (This is a U.S. book, but the feelings are universal.)

For a complete change of pace but still linking with the topic of coming-of-age/young people, I rather think that Lucy Knisley’s graphic novels have a summer-y feel to them: Displacement and French Milk seem warm-weather to me… Or what about An Age of License: A Travelogue or even her first book Relish?

This leads me to funny (or what I think are funny) books. Have a try at some of these if you’d like to have a good laugh (assuming you have a similar sense of humor as I do):

  • A Walk in the Woods – Bill Bryson (1998) or any of his earlier works. (He gets crabby and grumpy in the more recent books, but the old ones are still rather fun.)
  • P.G. Wodehouse books are mostly light-hearted summer fun
  • Three Men in a Boat– Jerome K. Jerome (1889) (pre-blog but worth searching out)

The Jerome book is in a diary format with short entries, and if you’re in the mood for some good and pretty funny epistolary (journal/letter format) reading, I can suggest the absolutely gorgeous read, Letters from New York – Helene Hanff (1992).

More diary joy resides in The Country Diaries: A Year in the British Countryside (Alan Taylor (ed.) (2009)) which, just as it says on the tin, covers a whole calendar year of real diary entries about rural living in England from people through history up to the present. An excellent read, and great for picking and putting down, should the summer temperatures affect your concentration…

(You could also try The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diaries edited by Irene and Alan Taylor. More of the same except broader in scope —  a much longer read from a wider selection of sources…)

And Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader (2007) had me nodding with agreement as he talks about how the Queen of England discovers the joy of reading… 🙂

Some other authors with lots of titles that don’t particularly need to be read in order (because – summer!) and that are just plain good and perfect for hot days:

And then don’t rule out the older titles for they also can be great. For example, the long novella/short novel, Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton 1911) is a great read packed with lots of things to think about during and post-reading.

Christopher Morley is a US author, but if you’ve not heard of him, never fear. He’s available on Project Gutenberg and elsewhere, and for just a plain good read of a book about the joys of books and reading, look no further than Parnassus on Wheels and The Haunted Bookshop . *Perfect* for bookie people, these may very well bring tears to your eyes as they are so gorgeous…

English author, T. H. White, is more known for writing about King Arthur and his men, but he does have a gorgeous and poignant back list title called Farewell Victoria (1933) which is a novel following the life of an older character who is struggling to keep up with the process of time at the turn of the twentieth century. (He wasn’t the only one, naturally, as there were/are whole generations with the same struggle.)

I’ll make a break here, but watch out for the non-fiction-heavy book list of suggested summer reading coming soon.

In the meantime, what are your recommendations for some hot weather reading?

ETA: I’ve just noticed that this list of recommendations has very few POC authors or topics in this. I’ll get that addressed soon as there’s a ton of good reads in that category as well…

Dreams From my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – Barack Obama (1995)

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Wincing at whatever the latest gaffe that our latest President has talked himself into, I thought it would be pretty interesting to take a look at the man who had just left the U.S. Presidency and learn a bit more about his life. Written in 1995 (and thus written when he was only in his early thirties), this well-written autobiography was an easy and interesting read about the life of the first African-American President in these here States.

I really enjoyed this deeper look at Obama, and seeing from where he came and how he had seen his life as he was growing up. I knew that he was born biracial and that he had had a lot of his childhood in Hawaii, but apart from that (and from his actions from when he was in office), I didn’t know that much about him. After having read this book and looking back at his Presidency, I can understand so much more about how he sees the world, how his world view included everyone (as opposed to a few rich white men), and how he had to piece his own identity together from a scattered family.

Regardless of how you feel about Obama, his life is an interesting read. He’s not perfect, but there is much to admire, IMO, and he has always been honest in his flaws and used them as a framework to develop a more tolerant country in so many ways.

This was a fast and fascinating read for me to learn about our former President, one who (for me) is missed every day.

Library Haul – It’s good to have choices…

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So, as tends to happen on the weekend, I visited the library and ended up leaving with quite the stack. I’m not sure if I will actually get to all of these, but it’s fun to have the choices..

Top to bottom in above image:

        • This Side of Paradise – Scott Fitzgerald 1920 (F)
        • The Crofter and the Laird: Life on an Hebridean Island – John McPhee 1969 (NF)
        • The Endless Steppe – Esther Hautzig 1968 (NF)
        • Bedknob and Broomstick – Mary Norton 1943 (F)
        • Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways – Larry McMurtry 2000 (NF travel)
        • Dreams from My Father – Barack Obama 1995 (NF – autobiography)
        • As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda – Gail Collins (2012) (NF – political)
        • Eyewitness Books: Sports – Tim Hammond 1988 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Building – Philip Wilkinson 1995 (NF)
        • Eyewitness Books: Castle – Christopher Gravett 1994 (NF)

I was interested to see that the U.S. title for the kidlit book, Bedknob and Broomstick was singular. In my mind and growing up in England, I had always heard it as plural (i.e. Bedknobs and Broomsticks), but that could easily have been a faulty memory on my part. I’m going to read this as part of my ongoing Century of Books project – it fills out 1947 rather nicely.

I am deep into Obama’s autobiography. I miss that guy…

The Tortilla Curtain – T. C. Boyle (1995)

book377A reread from a few years back, this was actually just as good a read (if not better) the second time around. Boyle is an American writer who takes contemporary news issues (in this case, the issue of immigration) and then writes a narrative around that issue, usually raising a dilemma where there is no clear right and wrong. His plot lines are also unpredictable so I can never really guess the endings and that I love. That, combined with excellent writing skills and a large vocabulary, make Boyle a joy to read most of the time, so if you haven’t picked up one of his many novels or short stories, I highly recommend them. They’re almost a guaranteed good read.

This novel, The Tortilla Curtain, tells the story of two couples whose lives accidentally overlap with each other leading to a long chain of events which completely disrupt their lives. A young liberal California couple live in a mostly white community up in the hills just outside LA. Their lives are mostly smoothly run without any major hiccups until one day, the husband is driving his car and accidentally smashes into a Mexican immigrant who is here (along with his wife) as an undocumented citizen and who has no choice but to live in a rudimentary campsite down in the canyon that butts up against the backyard of the white couple. Such a collision leads to serious ramifications for both families, but Boyle writes the story in such a way that there is no obvious right or wrong. No one really does anything morally wrong, and both the couples just want similar goals: to live in a nice home and go to work.

It’s an intriguing premise that compares the Haves and the Have-Nots in today’s world. Through no fault of their own, the Mexican undocumented couple are striving for the same things that the privileged white couple are looking for, but when you are at rock bottom with few resources, how can you ever get out of your circumstances (especially if you can only live in the shadows)?

I could say more, but to tell you would be to ruin the plot and I don’t want to do that for you. Just know that this contemporary novel is a riveting read wherever you may stand on the touchy issue of immigration. It’s especially poignant when you realize how closely the two couples live, geographically speaking, and yet they are in worlds far away from each other. Boyle’s characters represent both sides of the immigration issue, and they are both written with equal parts compassion and criticism, both complicated with no clear solutions. It’s a fascinating read, especially in the light of the political chatter of building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. (ridiculous).

By showing the reader the rationale behind the actions of the characters, you can see the slippery slope that people may be on with regard to how they feel about things, especially when events are not theoretical but happen in your own backyard. Does that change how you view things?

An excellent read from T. C. Boyle and highly recommended.

American Notes for General Circulation – Charles Dickens (1842)

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This volume does not seem as well-known as Dickens’ other works, but despite its low profile, this was one of the funniest and most enjoyable reads that I’ve had this summer (and certainly from amongst my reads of other Dickens’ titles). (Not that I am a Dickens scholar of any kind…)

Dickens had already become a publishing sensation when he arrived on American shores, having successfully published The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickelby, and then immediately upon his return to England, the release of A Christmas Carol. And so, in terms of the times, Dickens was a publisher’s dream and somewhat of a superstar. His trip was not going to be unnoticed by any means, despite what he writes in the pages of American Notes. (There is extremely little mention of crowds or readings or any of the other trappings of a celebrity visit, although in other sources, he does mention getting tired of the crowds around him at times and not being able to blend in when he travels.)

Dickens at his desk in 1858.

Dickens at his desk in 1858.

So – to the trip. It was Dickens’ first trip to America and he travels across the Atlantic by boat (along with his wife and probably some unmentioned servants). As the sea goes by, Dickens writes some of the most entertaining descriptions of the other passengers and the significant travail it was to remain in good spirits during this slow progress. (Brownie Guide’s honor: His writing is as entertaining as Bill Bryson during this step of the voyage.) (Compare this to his description of the ship journey on the way home at the end of the trip: likes horses heading back to the stables, my friend.)

Once reaching land, Dickens and his entourage embarked at Boston to large crowds and then traveled mostly down the East Coast with an occasional foray into the Great Lakes area of both the U.S. and Canada. (Dickens adored Niagara Falls, btw, calling it (poor paraphrase here) the closest place on Earth to heaven. Along the way, he made a point of visiting public institutions such as prisons, mental hospitals, and hospitals for the disabled (including the Perkins Institute where Helen Keller went later on).

Due to Dickens’ hard childhood, he was passionate about the underclass and was continually on the hunt for any institutions that were effective and kind (such as the Perkins Institute above). However, for the majority of his visits, he found the prisons and mental hospitals to be inhuman, filthy and cruel. Additionally, he was very critical of how absolutely filthy many of the large cities were, and gives an extremely entertaining description of Washington D.C.:

As Washington may be called the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening.

Americannotes-title_pageHis description of the U.S. Congress meeting that he attended (and the numerous other gatherings) where the gentlemen in the building were spitting their tobacco juices (right word?) all over the floor whether there was a lovely carpet down there or a spittoon available two inches away, was both very funny and disgusting (perhaps because people still do this to an extent in Texas and other places and it’s still vile.)

However, it’s not all fun and games as Dickens writes seriously at times about the issues that he cares about – the justice system, slavery, poverty et al. Although some of these more serious chapters may be pretty heavy-handed, that was the Victorian way and Dickens was slap in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. (According to Wiki, the young Queen Victoria apparently stayed up until midnight reading Oliver Twist and then kept some of her staff up as she wanted to discuss it further with someone! Just an FYI for ya.)

The book ends with a passionate call against slavery, and includes heart-rending excerpts from various American newspapers that Dickens had gathered on his travels, all detailing some of the horrible ways that slaves had been (and were treated). This trip to the U.S. was slap in the middle of slavery (especially in the lower states). The slave literature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twelve Years a Slave was published just a few years before whilst The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was released only a few years later, so Dickens was hitting the cause right as it was building up in the U.S.. (U.K. abolished slavery in 1833 whilst America sort of dragged its feet and didn’t do any real anti-slavery legislation until 1863 (with the Emancipation Proclamation) and 1865 with the 13th Amendment ending slavery in the U.S..) So — it would be a several decades until substantial legal change would be made for those who were victims of the slave trade.

What Dickens saw was the real thing with regard to slavery and he hated it. This last chapter is so full of passion to what something that Dickens sees as incredibly wrong that by the time you get to the end, you feel the power of his anger as well.

What was slightly weird was that the chapter before this one was a nice gentle round-up of his boat journey arriving back at Liverpool and how happy he was to see England again. I was all English summer roses and green rolling hills, and then BAM! There is a final chapter detailing quite a few reports of the heinous that individual slaves had suffered. So this anti-slavery chapter rather took me by surprise as I had thought the book was finished. Very powerful chapter though.

So this was a really good read and I found it to be an honest but respectful description of a fairly young nation and the people who lived in it. (It’s not all complimentary, but after having lived here for oodles of years, I would say that some of both the good and the bad still ring true in some cases and places — as they would anywhere, really.)

I enjoyed this travelogue immensely. It was also pretty interesting that I’d only just finished the 1939 book Saddlebags to Suitcases by Mary Bosanquet, also a travelogue by a Brit who travels across Canada on horseback. (More to come in the future on that one.) Both pretty funny looks at this side of the ocean and the Dickens especially is highly recommended. Truly funny.