Summer Reads

Summer days are here, and they’re requiring a few necessities: a fresh pair of sandals, your Audrey Hepburn-est shades, a moisturizer with 30 SPF and (of course!) a book.

Certain booksellers would have you believe that no summer is complete without a sugary novel filled with romance, “salty ocean air” and intimate details of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. While I have certainly read my fair share of what I call  “cheesy-beach-novels” (I own a borderline embarrassing amount of pastel-colored books with seashells on the cover), I think it’s about time we reject the idea that summer is exclusively their season. So, if like me you are ready to abandon the familiar “cheesy-beach-novels” and expand your reading horizons, I highly suggest checking out these titles.

detroit rose

1. The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells

This beautiful novel is a perfect starting place for a transition into more “serious” reading. While it certainly keeps one foot in the familiar lands of female friendships, family relationships and love, it without a doubt proves itself to be so much more. The story centers around the strained relationship between a woman and her mother, and how both parents and children struggle to overcome the pain of the past and to view one another as whole people. Another central element of the novel is the beauty and power of friendship--even when it is less than perfect. This theme is delivered in the form of the “Ya-Ya’s”. The “Ya-Ya’s” are an incredibly entertaining collection of childhood friends who readers follow as they maneuver their way through the trials of life. Though the title may inspire expectations of (yet another) cloying southern romance novel, what we have instead is a very human tale of forgiveness and solidarity. Even if you have seen the film adaptation (starring the ultimate girl-crush Sandra Bullock), I still encourage you to read this book, as there is much more to the plot than is revealed in the movie.

2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

In a moving narrative that spans generations and crosses borders, Dominican-American writer Junot Díaz shares the story of Oscar--a nerd, a loser, a hopeless romantic--and the legacy that created him. If you are well versed in Lord of The Rings and Star Wars, this novel will align perfectly with your inner nerd, but not in a way that is cheesy or alienating to those who don’t know what a Ring Wraith is. The story is told in a type of informal Spanglish that makes readers cease to feel like readers, and more like listeners. What I found most impressive about this novel was how passionate each character was--passionate, flawed and utterly human. For those looking for a book that is modern, moving and unique, this is a perfect selection.

3. The Violent Bear it Away by Flannery O’Connor

The product of the most renowned author of the Southern Gothic genre, The Violent Bear it Away is the deeply emotional story of a young boy who wrestles with the weights of a destiny he struggles helplessly to escape. He was given the title of prophet by the eccentric religious uncle who raised him on an isolated farm in the Georgia countryside. Upon the death of his uncle, the boy returns to society to live with his estranged cousin, who is a man of science and a skeptic. There, the boy agonizes as he struggles to overcome the prophecies of his uncle. The story is cultivated to esthetic perfection, and the finale gives me chills even now upon reflection. If there is one book on this list that I would recommend to fans of poetry, it would be this.  

4. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Set in Nigeria, the U.K. and the United States, Americanah follows two young lovers who become separated in their attempts to create better lives for themselves. In it, we watch one woman experience for the first time the unjust prejudices associated with her skin color in a new country where black is not the majority. This novel exposed me to a part of the world that I had previously never read about and at the same time spun a beautiful, yet realistic love story. (Note: The first time I read this book I was on a stuffed Megabus bound for Chicago. Despite the noise, smell, and general discomfort of the journey, I was fully immersed within the pages. I believe that this proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that this novel is spectacular.)

5. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Due to my upbringing in a historical town near the Kansas-Missouri border, I have been hearing stories about the abolitionist John Brown for decades. Perhaps it is this, or perhaps it is my penchant for history in general, that made me find The Good Lord Bird to be a treasure. The historical fiction (that is not really fiction) follows a young Missouri slave who, upon being freed by John Brown, follows him on his ill-fated personal attack on slavery. Though informative, the novel never reads like a history book. This would be a stellar pick for someone who wants to not only be entertained, but to learn something while at it.

6. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston

This novel is a classic for a damn good reason, and if you haven’t read it, do yourself a kindness and make sure to do so this season. The themes of this novel are so potent in emotion that I find myself at almost a loss for ample description. The protagonist of this masterpiece is a strong black woman who, despite the odds being stacked against her time and time again, creates for herself a path to authenticity and enlightenment. A story that is sometimes joyful, sometimes somber, but always gripping, Their Eyes Were Watching God will leave you a different person than you were before you picked it up.

7. Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

To know me is to know that I capital-L-O-V-E Mark Twain, so there was no option but to include one of his titles from my list of recommended reads. Pudd’nhead Wilson is a novel that is not usually assigned in high school english classes, but is in my eyes is equally as classic as Huckleberry Finn. Set in a slaveholding town on the Mississippi river, we follow the tale of two boys, one being a very slave who is 1/32nd black and the other being the son of a wealthy businessman. The two were switched  shortly after birth by one boys’ slave mother in efforts to give her son a life free from slavery. Readers follow the lives of the boys and their fellow townspeople through the years, and watch as society and prejudice mold their characters. In a style characteristic of many books of Twain, the cruelties of racism and slavery are openly put on trial. With themes still relevant today, the content of this short book is ahead of it’s time in a multitude of ways and is perfect for the particularly “woke” individual.

8. Legends of the Fall by Jim Harrison

This selection would be ideal for those who spend their summers in motion, as it is simultaneously provocative and succinct. The book itself consists of three shorter storylines, each no more than one hundred pages. Here we find powerful tales of redemption, vengeance, love and change. In Revenge, a man has his life ripped out from him by a powerful drug lord and vows to not rest until it is returned to him, or he is killed--whichever finale comes swifter. The Man Who Gave Up His Name follows one man’s retreat from a life of upper-class luxury to find an authentic identity, while along the way inciting violence and calamity. Finally, Legends of the Fall describes one family’s epic legacy, the mountains and valleys of brotherhood and the cyclical nature of all living beings. A note to those who have seen the movie: before you crack the spine of this trio of novellas, please check any illusions of a sun-kissed Brad Pitt on horseback at the door. In doing so, you will be better able to absorb these stories for the gems that they are.

9. Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck

In the early 1960’s, legendary American author John Steinbeck purchased a van, loaded it with an assortment of top-shelf liquors and his pet poodle Charley, and embarked on a months long road trip across the USA. This novel is the product of that adventure. In it, readers get to ride passenger and are guided through the highways and back roads of America, stopping along the way to meet regular people and hear what one of the most famous authors has to discover about our nation. Witty and captivating, this book is for those of us who aim to find wonder in even the most mundane corners of the map.

10. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

The most grisly book on this list, NOS4A2 is a powerhouse supernatural thriller that goes (almost) unparallelled in the genre. I was astonished by the skill with which Hill was able to create a novel that was equal parts horror and fantasy while still being, somehow, grounded in reality. The plot follows an undead serial killer who has been dormant for decades and returns with a vengeance to destroy the life of the girl who forced him into remission. Unfortunately for him, that girl grew up into a badass (yet highly dysfunctional) woman who is going to fight him with everything she’s got. Ye be warned, there is a fair amount of violence in this novel, so if that isn’t your thing, maybe pick a different title from this list. But for all of my Stephen King fans out there, trust me--you’ll love this book.

Emma Lou Rodgers