It’s official, as of today, summer’s here! Thank the Lord. Spring is about glorious awakenings, autumn treats us to some of the most brilliant colors, and winter may get a bum rap but I love it because there’s nothing like waking up to a fresh carpet of snow, unless you’ve got to dig your car out from six feet of it. But there’s just something about summer. It somehow gives us a free pass. It allows us to shed the stress and slog of the daily grind. It’s kind of unspoken but it seems to allow for a universal laziness of sorts. Even retired friends and relatives whoop it up more, which is kind of strange since they don’t work. The Europeans have it right with their extended weeks of summer vacation. It’s probably one of the few areas where the U.S. missed the boat. But hey, you get what you get, so make the most of it, and for those travel ambassadors out there—don’t forget to write about it.
One of the pleasures of planning a summer holiday is figuring out what books to take, especially if you’re flying. The only thing that makes a plane ride bearable if you’re stuck in the middle seat of a coach flight is a good book. You’re partly folded up as it is, so why not go all the way and dive into a classic, or mystery, or someone else’s life? There’s nothing like tucking into a real page-turner. If you’ve already hit the road, chances are you’re toting a few books or a Kindle or some other digital device to get your reading kicks. Whether they’re of the rip and read variety or epic tomes, when you’re in the thick of a good tale, nothing—not even sleep—can get you to put a good book down. Pay no mind to anyone who may think you’re just lying around. Reading is an activity and a good one to have. Plus, it makes you a better writer. Whatever your plans are—vacation or staycation—books fuel that sense of escapism. Here are a few recommendations, fiction and non-fiction, collected from reading junkies, to pack for any summer getaway. They are in no particular order.
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber. Terrifying, unsettling, suspenseful, thoughtful—this is true crime at its finest. Graeber’s investigative journalism into the nine-year killing spree by the nurse, Charles Cullen, is up close and personal but it’s the cover-up by the hospital administrators that’ll really freak you out. I had the good luck to catch Graeber’s appearance at a local bookstore and the hairs went up on the back of my neck just listening to the excerpts.
My friend Mary has a thing for the British spy genre so if you’re up for a bit of espionage, betrayal, suspense—and who isn’t when it’s not your life—then you may want to venture down this road. Restless by William Boyd is a historical novel set during WWII. Its heroine is a 28-year-old Russian émigré living in Paris who ends up in the British Secret Service and learns to become the perfect spy. If you’re in the mood for more passion and deceit, she also recommends Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan. It’s an intriguing tale about an Oxford-educated middle-class girl in 1970s England whose beauty and intelligence leads her into a double life as a drab civil servant and as a secret agent infiltrating the current literary intelligentsia. Ultimately, it’s about the process of writing a novel seen through the eyes of a duped writer who falls prey to what turns out to be a disastrous government scheme to manipulate Cold War sympathies through the literary world.
If you’re into weird and supernatural stories, lose yourself in Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. Eight short stories make up the collection within these magical tales where anything can happen, from captive girls transforming into silkworms (creepy), to a president reincarnated as a horse. Russell’s been noted one of the best writers under 40 and she also wrote the best seller Swamplandia.
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed’s name couldn’t be more perfect. In the wake of loss after her mother’s death, and then her marriage, Strayed goes it alone with no experience, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She’s a train wreck and you’ll journey with her through the solitude, the terrain, and meeting and experiencing the other beings along the way that lead her to knowledge and healing. This book shows us why travel is good for the soul.
Visit the ex-pat life during jazz-age Paris with Ernest Hemingway in this novel told from the perspective of his first wife, Hadley Richardson. It may sound like paradise but the man was no picnic. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain takes you into their world and shows us heaven and hell all wrapped up in one.
Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino. This collection of magical, scary, and wacky tales is good for all ages and it made the New York Times Best Book of the Century List. One note, the Kindle version doesn’t live up to what’s in the paperback.
I wouldn’t want to relive my teenage years but revisiting the adolescent angst-ridden days of Mary Karr’s youth growing up in East Texas in her memoir Cherry is a wild ride. Karr’s writing is riveting, raw and addictive. There’s not a wasted word, and men and women will glimpse themselves in her writing. After her first kiss with a local boy she nails it when she wonders, “How can you know such a thing about a person and not lean into it?” Insecurity never felt so good.
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. The back-story to The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Whether you’re 15 or 50, it’s C.S Lewis and it’s pure magic, and the perfect summer story to take you far, far away.
Transatlantic by Colum McCann. This book is on the reading list of pretty much every one I hit up for recommendations. It’s a multi-layered tribute story in which McCann explores the ties between the U.S. and his Irish homeland. This novel leapfrogs continents, centuries, and introduces a cast of real and fictional characters.
Joyland by Stephen King. All I know is that it’s a paranormal mystery tale and can only be purchased in hard copy or audio download, but it’s summer and it’s Stephen King so why not spend it with a master storyteller.
As much as I love summer, I wilt in the heat. A boiling hot New York day is not my idea of a good time, which makes Endurance: Shackelton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, one of my all time, favorite summer reads. This story is the definitive account of Ernest Shackelton’s fateful trip to cross the Antarctic overland. It didn’t turn out too good when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped “like an almond in a chocolate bar” in the ice and eventually crushed. Shackelton and his crew survived on drifting ice packs in one of the most inhospitable areas on the planet. I’ve read it a few times.
There are loads of best of summer reading lists out there. What’s in your hot little hands these days?