Summer 2014 Reading Recommendations

It’s that time of year again- summer reading’s on the brain, requests for recommendations abound, and I tend to immediately forget everything that I’ve read in the past year. As much as I love to curl up in bed with a book, these last few months I didn’t see very much of my bed, much less books beyond the required, so I cheated a bit and snuck in my two thesis primary texts. But I refuse to be intellectual or grammatically correct when discussing them. Because summer. My mind is taking a break so I can just fangirl about assorted novels for a minute. So let’s get our caps lock on and get enthused/overly caffeinated!

*Disclaimers: This list is a combination of English major certified picks and I-am-so-fucking-done-just-give-me-some-YA-fiction-and-sci-fi-mkay-thanks selections. In other words, just because I enjoyed them doesn’t mean you will, but hopefully there’s at least one that appeals to you. And please, please ,please if you think of any titles that you think I might enjoy, let me know. I’m always lookin’ for ma next book.*

And without further ado…

1) The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri: The fact that the main character is named Gogol, explicitly in tribute to one of my favorite authors, permanently biased me in favor of this novel before I even opened its pages. Any guy who writes a short story about a nose wandering off someone’s face one fine morning and traipsing around the city in fancy government garb just understands the world in an instinctual and fundamental way. Luckily for the reading public, Lahiri proves more than up for the challenge of sharpening reality to reveal a nearly surreal edge. The Namesake has acquired acclaim for various reasons: it’s well-crafted language, it’s detailed portrayal of cross-generational immigrant experiences, it’s numerous literary allusions…and its well worth a read for all of the above. But its universal appeal lies in its intimate depictions of the in-between space, negotiating identity between two cultures, as well as reconciling the past and the present. THE AMBIGUITIES OF SELF GUYS. SO. GOOD.

2) The Fault in Our Stars by John Green: Well, first of all, John Green is probably the most perfect human to ever walk among us. We should all just acknowledge that up front. I’m more than a little bit awed by his mind and his concern with the ethics of writing, as well as his compassion and empathy for human experience. Quite frankly, I would read his grocery lists. But this book in particular is something quite beautiful and astonishing, a (comparatively) unsentimental cancer novel that self-consciously derides the genre of cancer fiction- that recognizes and addresses our society’s strange glorification of pain and the effect it has on those who experience pain as a daily reality, not as a pithy inspirational proverb. At the same time, it’s the quirky, perfect, inevitably devastating love story between two characters so realistically and compassionately drawn that you instantaneously love them too. True, it’s an idealized version of love imbued with a sort of time-urgent honesty which rarely surfaces in real relationships. But it’s a rare breed of first love tale in which the natural response to a spontaneous recitation of snarky poetry is “God, you’re so sexy.”  It  doesn’t shy away from the infinite and the grandiose, but places those questions unassumingly alongside a discussion of America’s Next Top Model. And for those young adult fiction haters who gonna hate, I recently had a long involved discussion about this book is in a coffeeshop with an eighty-year-old Austrian man who thought it was the absolute shit (paraphrasing here). So, no excuses. Go read it right now (preferably by yourself, unless you’re comfortable crying Snape’s-death-level tears in public)- okay? Okay.

3) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: Y’all already know how I feel about Ishiguro. No one can make you feel the utter nihilistically hollow echo of your life passing you by and make you love every minute of that painful experience quite like him. He makes you want to immediately hit the road Thelma and Louise vigilante revenge justice style and then rob a gas station just for the heck of it, because DAMN IT, AT LEAST YOU MADE YOUR OWN MISTAKES. Or maybe that’s just me. Anywho, in a sentence, butler reminiscences on life in pre-World War II England in the household of a Nazi sympathizer, does everything in his power to not have any thoughts, emotions, or opinions, and then regrets his entire existence. I know, I know- but it’s so beautiful and poetic and flawlessly written, and oh my gosh, I can’t breathe.

4) Villette by Charlotte Bronte:  Assumption a: You’ve read Jane Eyre, and you’ve recognized its power, intricacy, and serenaded all its perfect imperfections. Assumption b: You think you know Charlotte Bronte and all her angsty feminist glory. Not so fast. Not until you’ve read this novel, friends. If you enjoy the internalization of Victorian-level repression, psychological breakdowns, random fires, weird twists on the Byronic hero, and the political victory of the successfully evaded conventional ending, you are in for quite the treat here. Prepare yourself for the existential crisis of wearing a pink dress and frequent visits by a ghostly nun. A GHOSTLY NUN, GUYS. You can’t make this shit up, and luckily, you don’t have to. Because it’s already all in this book. #ThanksBronte #godbless

5) Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood: I had to throw in a Margaret Atwood, so you know for sure that I wrote this list. The narrator, Snowman/Jimmy, wanders through a post-bioterrorist epidemic Earth, reflects on the previous dystopic society which led to it, and meets and greets several strange/creepy genetically engineered species. This book is weird as fuck, in absolutely the best way possible. And of course, the usual trigger warnings that accompany Margaret Atwood territory- Hard world, hard truths, and a future that only looks terrifying because its so intensely recognizable. And thus the darkest and twistiest of dystopic trilogies begins… and propels you forward through sheer desire to understand the strangely opaque minds and actions of this inextricable trio of characters. Seriously, I still have no clue what just happened, and for a well-written novel told from a first person perspective, that’s like saying that I sighted a unicorn in a parking lot. I love an unreliable narrator as much as the next person, but that’s become the authorial bread and butter. But an unreliable plot in a work of literary fiction is a whole other animal. Revel in the sheer and utter confusion, my friends! You know nothing. Plus, it’s about to become an HBO series and you know you want to watch it, so get on this immediately.

6) Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert: My roommate wanted to borrow Madame Bovary from my shelves yesterday, and I got so excited that I started babbling “It’s so beautiful, you’re going to love it, so depressing, and it had the most fascinating censorship trial!!” And guess what, it wasn’t on trial for its portrayal of adultery (that’s just how French lit does what it does), but because of its invention of free indirect discourse- and its consequent failure to impose moral judgement (!!!!!!). Gahhh, the fact that people used to care so much about free indirect discourse and its implications for the narrative form just brings me unfathomable joy. Oh yeah, it’s also fascinating story about the nature of love and fiction and reality, if you’re into that sort of thing…

7) The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby: This short memoir will probably take you ten minutes to read, but a guy wrote it by blinking his eye. A rather painstaking procedure which implies that every word counts, and renders this episodic tale more poetry than prose, imbuing the sentences with unrequited mobility. In one snapshot (my favorite), the letters literally dance across the room. For those who read to immerse themselves in an otherwise uninhabitable consciousness, it doesn’t get much better, as I can honestly say this is the only memoir written by someone with locked-in-syndrome.

8) Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey: Its been a while since I’ve included a non-fiction work that relies so heavily on certain specific labels and predispositions, but this combination of the theological and personal essay is perhaps the most exciting read of this past year and I simply couldn’t resist. Jesus and Feminist are not two words one often sees in conjunction, and Sarah Bessey’s ability to effortlessly harmonize them just eases the accumulated tension of those who live and breathe between the two implied identities. When you hold conventionally (although, as Bessey proves, not inherently) contradictory beliefs, it’s easy to feel like you’re constantly fighting against, rather than for, something and like you have no place to just be. Bessey clears that space, reminding us of why Christian feminists matter and what exactly it is we fight for- not only for ourselves, but for others, for the human beings behind the statistics. I finished it in one sitting, and I truly felt like I had been waiting to hear her words my entire life.  It was the emotional equivalent of snuggling in a blanket burrito with a bowl of mac n’ cheese in hand- verbal comfort food.

9) Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys: Rhys is the baddest of all the Modernist bitches, and she really wants to make this unmistakably clear to you. Although a little known novella, a supposedly “lesser work” when compared to her one hit wonder, Wide Sargasso Sea, once you read this winding, temporally winding tapestry of alcoholism, abuse, and depending on how you interpret the ending, inevitable defeat or inevitable survival, you will never forget it. It is bitter and cynical and so sparsely phrased you can almost feel the caustic edge of the words burn your skin. Yet, the linguistic patterns are so palpably cyclical they almost deceptively lull you to sleep. It’s haunting and beautiful and problematic and relevant and I loved it enough to write eighty pages about it.

10) Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao got together and had a beautiful, beautiful apocalypse-themed love child with snarky footnotes, and it is the most fun you’ll ever have reading about the end of the world. Also worthy of note, an endearing  bromance between an angel and a demon and there is a child named after a type of cheese. Also, I just realized that all the previous nine books are unequivocally depressing, and I’m feeling strange about that. So here’s a nice, relatively mindless and comic novelistic dessert for you. Enjoy.

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5 responses to “Summer 2014 Reading Recommendations

  1. Good list. I’ve read a few of these, and some of the ones I haven’t read look interesting. I’ll have to use this as a resource. One addition I’d make is American Gods by Neil Gaiman – just a perfect summer book.

  2. Oryx and Crake made me see the world in a way that I hadn’t before, and it’s probably ground zero for getting me hooked on dystopian fic. So glad to see it on your list!

    • Margaret Atwood has such an incredible capacity to describe things that we take for granted in the world with an insight that shows us how sinister and dangerous our assumptions really are. She’s definitely changed the ways I see the world several times over- so glad to know another fan! I can’t wait to start “The Year of the Flood!

      • I actually didn’t even know Oryx and Crake was the first of a trilogy until shamefully recently. I saw Year of the Flood in bookstores, but didn’t know it was related. And it’s going to be an HBO show? I’m totally fangirling (:

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