Nina's Summer Reading List
Pre-kindle, I used to carry a separate suitcase full of books for my summer vacations, and I keep an ongoing list of books that meet vacation novel requirements. For a novel to categorize as a great summer read, it needs to grab my attention and keep me on the edge of my seat from when I get to the beach in the morning till it's time for drinks at dusk. Below is my list of all time best summer reads; while they vary vastly in subject matter, these are all books that I literally could not put down, and without the worry of work the next day, found myself reading well past dark.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Post apocalyptic novels aren't necessarily great beach reads, but Mandel's writing is sparse and compelling enough to make this a summer novel. Set in moments before and after the Georgian flu, a rapid acting and fatal illness, has decimated 99.9% of the world's population, the book follows Kristen and her band of traveling Shakespearean actors as they make their way through what used to be the midwest. Though deeply unsettling, the book ends on a hopeful note, and there are enough mysteries to unravel (like the connection between violent cult leader, The Prophet, and the author of the hand-drawn comic book Kristen has carried with her since before the flu) that the book becomes impossible to put down.
The Patrick Melrose Novels: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother's Milk, and At Last by Edward St. Aubyn.
I was unsure whether to put this series on here; while these five short quick reads skewering the wealth, drug use, and general depravity of the British Upperclass are savagely funny, the trauma around which these novels center is so deeply disturbing - and also autobiographical- that it can be hard to stomach. I would not have been able to finish them if it weren't for the fact that Edward St. Aubyn, and therefore his doppleganger, Patrick Melrose, has spent years coming to terms with the abuse he experienced as a child at the hand of his sociopathic father and complicit mother, and their posh aristocratic friends. While in Never Mind, the dysfunction of the very wealthy becomes stomach churning, by At Last, Aubyn's last novel in the series, Patrick has distanced himself enough from it for the irony to shine. Shot through with moments of deep sadness, the novels also give perfectly dry lines like: "As a guest, Emily Price had three main drawbacks: she was incapable of saying please, incapable of saying thank you, and incapable of saying sorry, all the while creating a surge in the demand for these expressions."
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Sarah Water's newest book, The Paying Guests, was labeled a high-brow page turner this year, but to me her earlier novel, Fingersmith, is the better of the two. Set in a vivid, Dickenisan, 1860s London, this book is made up of true characters like Mrs. Sucksby, a baby-farming petty crook who feeds the infants brandy to keep them quite, and a rich gentleman who has devoted his niece Maud Lily's life to keeping his library of secret pornography up to date. When orphan Sue is enlisted by Richard Rivers to become Maud's maid, their scheme is to convince Maud to run away with Mr. Rivers, and then send her to the madhouse and abscond with her money, or so Sue believes. In any other novel, to let slip that Sue and Maud fall in love would be spoiling the plot, but there are so many twists to this story that I'm not sure which plot I'd be spoiling.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi AdICHI
I read this book two summers ago, and whenever I see someone reading this book for the first time I get pangs of envy. From the moment I was introduced to the protagonist Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman living in the States for the past 13 years and now on her way back to Lagos, I was riveted by her perception of life in America. As she says "I came from a country where race was not an issue, I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America." As a well off Nigerian, Ifemelu is floored by her automatic secondary status as a black woman in the U.S., and she uses her blog, Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known As Negroes) by a Non-American Black, to unpack the various puzzlements of this new life. Adichi does this unpacking with nuance and accuracy; Ifemelu is irked when her white liberal employer, Kimberly, insists on calling every "ordinary-looking black woman" she meets "beautiful," and how, when a friend is trying to describe someone: "I was waiting for her to ask 'was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs? Why didn't she just ask "Was it the black girl or the white girl?" But to imply this is a book that focuses only on race would be a huge disservice. Adichi is equally adept at pointing out all the hypocrisies of love, of wealth, of British culture, of African American culture, of Nigerian culture, and all the little lies that we tell ourselves to get through the day. Ifemelu is no angel - she frequently hurts the people who love her and who want the best for her- but she is always compelling.
Without You There Is No Us by Suki Kim
Even though this is non-fiction, Kim's memoir of her time in 2011 teaching the children of the elite in North Korea reads like science fiction. From the minute Kim is accepted as a teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology- which she achieves by double subterfuge, first convincing the secretly Christian Missionary run school that she is a Christian missionary, and then by hiding her secret missionary status from the people of North Korea- I could not tear myself away from her story. She immediately falls in love with her young students, who, unaware of the world outside of North Korea, seem younger than their 20 years, but she struggles with the knowledge that many if not most of their parents are responsible for the atrocities every starving North Korean person outside of the capital city of Pyongyang experiences. Most of the book focuses on the surealness of life inside North Korea; everywhere she goes people are starving, yet the students "emphatically insisted that Juche Tower was the tallest in the world; that their Arch of Triumph was the highest. They were always comparing themselves to the outside world, which none of them had ever seen, declaring themselves the best." As she gets closer to leaving, Kim becomes more daring and begins to hint at the capabilities of the internet, something her students, the top students of North Korea, don't realize even exists. Written by one of the very few outsiders who has spent time inside North Korea, this is already a unique book, but it is also an intensely readable, thrilling story.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot BY DAVID SHAFER
This is one-hundred-percent a dystopian thriller, but the most droll, sardonic, Portland-based one you can find. While in Myanmar working for a joke of an NGO, Iranian-American Leila Majnoun stumbles on some high-level secret internet security stuff, and gets sucked into a fight against the richest and most powerful men in the world who are trying to own and profit from our most private data. When she joins a counter-operation only found through the secret internet behind the internet, she drags self-hating self-help guru, Mark, and his former best friend, Board Game heir Leo Crane, into it with her. While this all sounds sort of techie, the writing makes it something cooler, like the Matrix written by David Foster Wallace. It's the sort of sardonic, funny, perfect writing that Brad Pitt's production label would turn into a comedy for HBO, but I'm guessing the book will be better.