By Geoff Schumacher
I don’t buy the longstanding assumption that “summer reading” must be breezy and escapist. First of all, the image of the woman in bathing suit and floppy hat on chaise lounge under umbrella on beach engrossed in book is something you almost never see. Perhaps a few people read on the beach — I’ve done it — but sadly, most modern-day vacations don’t offer enough time for that sort of leisurely activity.
Plus, even if that image held true, it’s not clear why the beachgoer must necessarily read a murder mystery or international thriller. It feels more like a device to sell airport books than an actual reflection of American life.
And so, I offer a somewhat unorthodox list of summer reading recommendations. These are not “difficult” books by any means, but I would contend that they are more challenging and satisfying than the typical summer fare, while still bringing the pleasure commonly associated with a summer vacation.
The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. This 2010 novel is a combination of so-called literary fiction and suspenseful crime/adventure story. Although Percy’s literary efforts are evident in the nuanced characters and vivid settings, the novel actually works best as a fast-paced narrative. Three generations of men go hunting in the mountains of central Oregon and encounter a range of threats to their very survival. A separate menace threatens the wife/mother who stays behind. Along the way, Percy does a brilliant job of portraying the flora and fauna of central Oregon, where he is from, and exhibiting his knowledge of the practices of fishing, hunting and camping. The novel falls down in its unconvincing portrayals of a troubled marriage and a near-miss act of infidelity, but the gripping narrative is ample compensation.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild. This 2011 history of anti-war protesters and soldiers sent to slaughter during World War I is as eye-opening as history books get. By almost all accounts, World War I was an unmitigated disaster, from its absurdly unjustified causes to its horribly bungled execution on both sides to its wholly unsatisfactory conclusion — a conclusion that ultimately and inevitably led to the even more destructive World War II and still reverberates in the Balkans and the Middle East to this day. Hochschild does a brilliant job of telling the stories of those relative few who opposed the war and paid a price for it, and the millions of soldiers who walked into the buzzsaw of warfare in which they were doomed to death before they ever stepped on the field of battle. If you don’t know much about World War I, start with this brilliant book.
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer. I’ve written about Dyer elsewhere on this site, so I would refer you farther down the page for more information on why I think this is such a great book. But suffice to say here that Dyer’s reviews, essays, and articles all possess his distinctive, fascinating, and at time annoying voice. This Londoner is the ultimate slacker. He has managed — no doubt through a combination of writing talent and persistence — to carve out a freelance life in which he writes about whatever he wants whenever the fancy strikes him. Fortunately for us, Dyer can make just about any subject interesting.
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. Bryson is a fun and endlessly informative writer on many nonfiction topics. In this 2010 book, he strolls through the history of domestic life, using the rooms of the very old house in which he lives in England as the foundation. This is far from an academic or comprehensive treatment of domestic history, and that’s what makes it so engrossing. Bryson covers the interesting stuff — the advent of glass windows, the Victorian reluctance to bathe — and leaves the rest of it for somebody else. This is a history of how daily life developed into everything we take for granted today. Hard to imagine a more entertaining beach read.
Here are a few other books I heartily recommend:
Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin. Beautifully wrought 2010 novel of a boy and a horse, by the author of Motel Life, soon to be a major motion picture.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Easily one of the best — and funniest — novels of 2010. Shteyngart’s visions of a near-future dystopian world is equal parts hilarious and terrifying.
How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Engrossing exploration of the life and practical philosophy of the great French essayist, perhaps the first “modern man.”
The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories by Debra Marquart. Short stories about life on the road for rock ’n’ roll bands that are a long way from the big time. These stories have the flavor of authenticity, as Marquart writes from firsthand experience. First published in 2001.
Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps by Ted Kooser. Touching and beautiful prose sketches and essays about the grit and glories of country life in the Midwest by the nation’s former poet laureate.