hether you’re stuck at home this summer or road tripping across the country, cooped up in an office most of the week or exploring the great outdoors, it’s my opinion that you should be devoting a chunk of your summer to leisure reading. Here are several recommendations to get your literary adventuring started. There’s something for everyone on this list. Enjoy!
Family Drama: The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson
“Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief.” So begins, Kevin Wilson’s highly compelling first novel. Meet Caleb and Camille Fang, edgy, avant-garde performance artists who employ their children, Annie and Buster, to help them form their chaotic creations. To the Fang parents, art is not static; art is motion. Their art, specifically, is a series shocking spectacles caught on film — two children vomiting all over a table in an expensive French restaurant, a seemingly deranged woman dropping stolen jelly beans all over a mall store, a marriage proposal over an airplane loudspeaker met with rejection. Annie and Buster are reluctant participants, and spend a greater portion of their adult years trying to shed the more detrimental effects of being used as props in their parents’ work. Annie grows up to be a successful actress, and Buster a novelist and journalist. After both encounter low-points in their careers, they move home. When their parents are seemingly brutally murdered at a truck rest-stop, the Annie and Buster set out to determine if Caleb and Camille are, in fact, victims, or if this is simply them crafting art. The novel deftly moves between past and present, and I found myself not only laughing out loud at parts, but also reflecting on far deeper queries and quandaries related to family bonds, art, parenting, and the cost and value of notability. (PS: This review was originally posted at The New Sweet Hottness).
Graphic novel: March (Book One) by John Robert Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
March is the first installment in a trilogy detailing, in comic-book form, the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of Congressman John Lewis. This award-winning book is smart, beautiful, informative, and stirring. It sucked me in the moment I opened to the first page—so much so that I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish it in one sitting. The story jumps around through time a bit, and the effect is surprisingly grounding. Lewis recounts the bloody police crackdown on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965, President Obama’s Inauguration in 2009, his own humble beginnings as an aspiring preacher growing up a sharecropper’s son in rural Alabama, meeting Dr. King as a teenager, training for the lunch counter sit-ins in the late 1950s, among other milestones. While it is technically catalogued as a young adult novel, March is an important read for all ages. The graphic novel format provides a freshly unique medium for readers to engage with these formative events in our nation’s history. The images are beautifully drawn and the story they tell is an inspiring one of courage, resilience, and hope amidst despair. I’m already excitedly anticipating the release of the next two in the series!
Historical fiction: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Set in 19th century Philadelphia, Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel follows the life of Alma Whittaker, daughter of a wealthy self-made businessman who earned a fortune from pharmaceutical plant sales. Alma is physically unattractive, but was gifted with a brilliant mind. Even as a child, she is in constant pursuit of knowledge and shares her father’s interest in botany. The novel is thematically complex and Gilbert writes with an eye for detail. The plot maintains a languid pace, but Gilbert offers enough variety in conflict and characters to conjure interest and command attention. Like the moss she studies, Alma steadily evolves over time. The adventures and misadventures she encounters fuel these gradual changes: a discovery of erotic literature in her father’s library sparks her sexual awakening, her friend’s mental instability brings out a more compassionate side, unexpected conflict within her marriage prompts to her act with swift decisiveness, and nude drawings of a mysterious man lead her on a trek halfway around the world. She is always seeking to learn from the people around her as well, taking lessons from her interactions with her adopted radical abolitionist sister, Amrbose Pike the spiritually enlightened orchid drawer, an unorthodox missionary in rural Tahiti and the native female pastor of the church he founded, to name a few. Gilbert writes a strong heroine with a fascinating life—one you won’t want to miss.
Nonfiction Essays: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
Twenty-nine year-old Leslie Jamison presents a collection of personal essays that are all loosely united under the broader theme of, you guessed it, empathy. These essays are truly captivating, covering a wide array of topics with artistic flourish. The collection’s opening essay describes Jamison’s job as a medical actress paid to act out specific illnesses for med students to sharpen their diagnosing skills. The doctors-in-training are graded not only on accurately identifying the ailment and its causes, but also on whether or not they “voiced empathy.” Empathy, Jamison writes, “isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.” From visiting a friend in prison, to poverty tourism, to getting an abortion, to cheering on ultramarathoners, to undergoing heart surgery, to analyzing the depiction of women and pain in literature, Jamison’s writing itself is empathetic—in it she listens, inquires, and paints that ever-extending horizon of context in bright, bold hues. She writes with honesty, precision, wit, and depth. The result is a book of the best sort: the kind that makes you think deeply without eschewing entertainment value. The Empathy Exams is one of the best books I have read this year. I strongly recommend it.
Romance: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Every summer reading list needs at least one guilty pleasure book. Crazy Rich Asians is mine. Like all good guilty pleasures, it is both fun and slightly addictive. The novel ushers readers into the opulent realm of the world’s financially elite: Asia’s wealthiest families. And when I say wealthy, I mean filthy wealthy. The plotline, vaguely reminiscent of an US Weekly – Jane Austen novel mashup, is fraught with romance, intrigue, family drama, scandals, competition, classism, gossip, money, and some good ole’ fashioned scheming. The story unfolds when Nick, the handsome son of an extraordinarily rich Singapore-based couple, brings home his girlfriend, Rachel. Nick’s mom and subsequent members of Asia’s wealthiest elite, are utterly shocked to learn that Rachel is from a middle class single-parent household (gasp!) and she is an American-born Chinese (“ABC”) (gasp again!). Rachel herself is shocked to learn that her boyfriend grew up in the 1% of the world’s 1%. Hijinks and chaos ensues as conniving family members and friends seek to break them up, deeming Rachel nothing more than a gold-digger. Kwan creates a crazy tangled web of colorful characters and regales his audience with pulsing descriptions of luxurious parties, lavish mansions, and breathtakingly beautiful clothes. You will find yourself partly disgusted, partly intrigued, partly skeptical, and partly in awe of the book’s descriptions of wealth. It is absurd. If you want erudite literature or a social justice manifesto, this one’s not for you. But if you want a funny and delightfully entertaining novel that exposes you to a new culture and lifestyle, then be sure to pick up Crazy Rich Asians.