We have just returned from our annual South Carolina beach pilgrimage, where among other things, we stockpiled our Duke’s mayo, grilled and cooked the usual suspects, and did our best to pretend that summer vacation is not over in two weeks and one day. How can it be that, as of this morning, half the house has staggered off to pre-season? There are still hikes to be hiked and swims to be swimmed (Swum??!); Cocktails to be cocktailed and tomato sandwiches to be inhaled — I regret to inform you all that we have not yet eaten a single one in 2017. One thing I don’t have a whole lot of regrets about though? The family reading list. Collectively, we managed to bang out a bunch of good ones — some new, some old — this summer. For those of you who still have long flights or lazy beach and hammock afternoons ahead of you a) I kinda hate you right now, and b) I thought maybe you’d like to see our Top 10 reads of the season. (The reader is noted in parentheses; also, reminder that Abby is 13 and Phoebe, 15.)
Who is Rich, by Matthew Klam (Jenny) The new novel by Matthew Klam has been the most obvious stand-out for me. Based on the jacket art alone, I would’ve included it here (how beautiful is that?) but it just so happens that it’s the first novel written by the author of one of my all-time favorite story collections (Sam the Cat) and it also just so happens that it’s amazing. It follows 40-something Rich Fischer, a onetime promising graphic novelist struggling with his fading star and a perfunctory marriage, as he attends a summer arts conference looking to continue an affair with an obscenely wealthy woman. If it sounds like another book about a dad’s mid-life crisis, it is, but it isn’t. It’s ridiculously observant and raw — you kind of can’t believe he writes some of the things he writes or that Rich does some of the things he does — and I laughed the whole way through. Except for the times when I was dying a little inside. I feel the need to disclose that my husband is Klam’s editor, but I really hope you’ll trust my flagrantly conflict-of-interest self and pick it up anyway. (If you don’t trust me, here is a completely unbiased review by someone who I do not share a kitchen with.)
The Pearl (Abby) and Of Mice and Men (Jenny), both by John Steinbeck I know, I know, the last time you read John Steinbeck you were probably wearing ribbon barrettes and drinking Tab. Abby had a real love affair with Of Mice and Men when she read it in her eighth grade English class, so much so that she begged me to read it, too. “I already read it,” I told her. “When I was your age.” Yeah, but do you really remember it? Do you remember the ending? I confessed that I sorta remembered the gist of it but not the details. I remembered that it was about two friends named George and Lenny but I did not remember how simply written and perfectly tight the story was. It was hundred pages, a slip of a book, almost like a fable, about characters you cared deeply for after the briefest of introductions. I read it in one sitting on a plane (while Abby sat next to me devouring The Pearl). My favorite part? Being able to have a genuine conversation with Abby about the story – and yes its heartbreaking ending. My goal is to read an assigned book with her again this school year (especially since I’m pretty sure Macbeth is on the syllabus) and I highly recommend the strategy to you as well, no matter what age your kids are.
The Return, Hisham Matar (Andy) Pulitzer Prize-winning story of a man who returns to Libya to search for his father, a prominent resistance leader, twenty years after he was abducted and imprisoned by Qadaffi’s regime. Taut, poetic, not a word out of place – this is one that Andy reached for to remind him what good writing is. (As usual, Andy’s vacation reading tends to overlap with his work reading — the blessing/curse of a book editor — so when he decides to read “for pleasure” he knows it has to count.) No, The Return is not your typical light summer beach read, but, in Andy’s words “you won’t be worse off for having read it.”
Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld (Abby) A 2005 coming-of-age novel about a girl named Lee from South Bend Indiana who applies for admission to a fictional New England prep school based (at least partly) on its brochure showing kids in front of old brick buildings holding lacrosse sticks. According to Phoebe, who read it when she was almost 14 too, “Sittenfeld is like Salinger, but for girls,” incisive, hilarious, and often “cringey” as my kids would say. (Warning: This is not technically a YA novel even though it’s about a teenager in high school; There are a few racy scenes in it and I would advise kids younger than 14 holding off. )
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz (Jenny) We’ve been coming to Andy’s family’s beach house for almost twenty-five years and one of my most favorite things about it is the random assortment of books that have accumulated over the decades. (And yes, the ca. 1995 TV above which we’ve maybe turned on six times in the last ten years.) In the beginning, the selection was exactly what you’d expect out of a beach house library: John LeCarre and Tom Clancy with a little 80’s White Guy Canon mixed in: John Updike, John Irving, George Plimpton, Martin Amis, Pete Hamill. Gradually, as we started leaving behind books we’d brought on vacation, it started resembling the official library of Pulitzer Prize winners: Oscar Hijuelos, Elizabeth Strout, Edward P. Jones, Junot Diaz, etc. It was Diaz’s The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao that Andy pulled out and handed to me when I told him I forgot The Return back in New York. I might be the last person on earth to read the story of an obese Dominican living in Jersey that is as wickedly funny as it is heartbreaking, but boy am I glad I didn’t let that stop me. What a voice. What a storyteller. Every section of this book feels like a full-length feature film.
Mosquitoland, by David Arnold (Abby/Phoebe) Technically this is the story of a runaway named Mim. Where is she headed? Away from her father (and his girlfriend) and in the general direction of her mother who is dying of cancer. At least that’s the initial destination before she ends up wandering and trying to figure it out for herself. As Phoebe just said to me when I asked her why she liked it so much: “What teen can’t get behind the story of feeling lost?” Kids who like John Green (especially Paper Towns) will like this, too.
Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissinger (Abby/Jenny) This summer Abby has been hooked on Friday Night Lights the TV series (which makes her the fourth and final DALS family member to join the FNL superfan club) so I figured she’d love the nonfiction book the series was based on, about high-school-football-obsessed Odessa, Texas. For whatever reason (let’s call it the “No Tim Riggins” reason) she didn’t get into it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Bissinger is, you guessed it, a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter and uses football as a lens to view the hopes and crushed dreams of small-town America. If you loved The Last Shot, by Darcy Frey or In These Girls Hope is a Muscle, by Madeleine Blais, you’ll love this, too.