23 August, 2016

Summer Reads: A List

Knowing you have something good to read before bed,” Vladimir Nabokov wrote, “is among the most pleasurable of sensations.

What's one of the fastest, easiest, most delicious ways to be transported?
Read a stunner of a book.

When I was a a child, I always viewed books as a means of pure, unadulterated escapism—not like It’s-a-twister-head-for-the-storm-cellar escape, but more along the lines of flying out my window into the wider world (or hopping on a magic carpet, or a Eastern European freight train, or stowing away on a pirate ship, or ya know: whatever…)

Combine that sensation with that of summer vacation? Paradise itself. Knowing you’ve got a few fine books tucked away for the nook of a tree, the beach or a patch of green lawn is akin to absolute bliss.

One’s life can get bigger inside a good book. If you don’t have the time or money to go on that summer vacation of dreams, books can take you places! When I walk into a bookstore or a library (my absolute happiest of 'Happy Places'), I am flooded with the sensation that I am at a train station, boating dock, airport— a myriad of vessels just beckoning to carry me away… If you want to travel by book, know that the trains are always leaving the station, one just needs to hop on board.

Books take you further into the glorious mysteries of life than even the very deepest conversations or friendships, for they take you inside minds and hearts of strangers who become friends. For a moment, you not only see the world through the senses of another, you experience the profundity of their feelings as well. The art of being your most generous, visionary self is fed by empathy. I believe the closest we can get is in literature: where we experience the internal, psychological lives of others.

That said, I understand that summer is the last season one wants to sign up to puzzle through a pile of dense academic tomes, and to that end, I have done the legwork for you! Assembled here is a list of perfect summer reading with one goal in mind: worthwhile books that also promise wild entertainment.

Now that’s my kind of summer.


1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
Summer is the perfect time to revisit children’s classics for there is always a day or two when you recall the ever-more-remote joys of “summer vacation,” when finishing a book (not on the “summer reading assignments” list), possibly in a tree, was the only major responsibility we had.

Norton Juster's bored and listless boy Milo is the reluctant protagonist of The Phantom Tollbooth— as much an adult as a children's book.  I'm a sucker for a brilliant pun, a detailed fantasy map, and lovable characters with snappy dialogue, and although I loved the narrative as an adolescent, the tale grows more meaningful as I get older thanks to absolutely genius wordsmithery, deep universal messages, and ya know: nostalgia

For Milo, everything's a bore. When a magical tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room (complete with toll money and snazzy car), he drives through only because he's got nothing better to do…

But on the other side, things are different.
Milo visits the island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping)
Learns all about time from his companion “watchdog” named Tock
Makes noise with The Awful Din
Floats around with the Whether Man
Quells a war between Words and Numbers
…and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason.

Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing: life is far from dull.
In fact, it's exciting beyond his wildest dreams...

A gorgeous phantasmagoric adventure story with a very real heart.

2. The Matisse Stories by AS Byatt
Summer is all about lazy days, vacations, and short jaunts to not-the-city. To that end, it is my favo(u)rite time of year for the unsung hero of literature: the short story. There is nothing better than spending a weekend away and finishing a short story on your brief excursion (that is, incidentally, why I always leave collections of short stories in my guest room— I want my guests to have the joy of a completed story during their visit!)

In my opinion (and the opinion of, like, the known literary universe), there is no living short story writer like A.S. Byatt.:
A.S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Byatt) is internationally known for her novels and short stories. Her novels include the Booker Prize-winning Possession, The Biographer’s Tale and the quartet, The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower and A Whistling Woman, and her highly acclaimed collections of short stories include Sugar and Other Stories, The Matisse Stories, The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, Elementals and her most recent book Little Black Book of Stories. A distinguished critic as well as a writer of fiction, A S Byatt was appointed CBE in 1990 and DBE in 1999.

DAME (That’s right!) Byatt writes beautiful novels, but in my mind her short stories are peerless.

The Matisse Stories were brought into my life by the great Lady Chu, my high school British Literature teacher, turned pen-pal, turned life-long friend.  Each of A.S. Byatt's tales is in some way inspired by a painting of Henri Matisse, each is also about the intimate connection between seeing and feeling—about the ways in which a glance we meant to be casual may suddenly call forth the deepest reserves of our being.

If there is one thing to be said about this exquisite trilogy of stories, it is that you can tell that A.S. Byatt herself is a visual artist. Her mastery of color emerges as she describes the slightest details in the most peculiar of scenarios. Byatt also has a glorious insight into the psyche of ageing women, drawing empathetic and deeply human portraits, in this collection, told through the lens of the intensely visual. Powerfully written, fiercely observed, The Matisse Stories is worth every brushstroke.

Byatt is one of my favorite authors, and while I am an avid fan of all her work (but particularly her short stories), this collection is my favorite.

Byatt is an expert at conveying the insecurities of a woman who feels her looks are starting to go (which are really everyone's insecurities) and gets lost in the fantastic tales of her flamboyant hair stylist. Color and texture are important in all the stories and I love how you can see and feel them through her words. Everyone should read at least one Byatt novel or collection; this is a stunning place too start.

3. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli’s
Another short! Ever since a reviewer said Rovelli’s breezy “tone would give Brian Cox a run for his quarks” I’ve been salivating to devour the just-88 page shock bestseller which began, (briiiiilliantly) as columns in Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian newspaper. Better yet, they appeared in the paper’s Culture section, eventually outselling Fifty Shades of Grey in Italy (…You heard me.)

It’s not hard to see why: few writers, let alone physicists, capture the beauty of nature and the excitement of its discovery in such clear, rich prose. And once you join the Italian masses? Hold on to your inertia, kids, you’re going on a helluva ride fueled by world-class carbs, espresso, and SCIENCE.

Aimed at “those who know little or nothing of modern science” Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons, are nothing like suffering through AP Physics junior year. You breeze through mind-bending topics in physics. Time dilation, black holes, particles existing in multiple places at once (and all are covered in the first 20 pages), it then goes on to examine...ya know, the casual stuff. Stuff like the heat of black holes, the big bang, global warming, gravitational waves, and quantum gravity.

The result is beyond breathtaking, it is downright poetic.

4. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg
During the Great Depression, rural Americans witnessed the steady erosion of their farms, towns, and lives. It is shattering to draw the parallels to today’s worldwide financial crisis, and on the home front, observing how it has affected middle class Americans is chilling.

Trying to read about such experiences is never easy. Attempting to write well about them may be even more challenging. Enter Fannie Flagg—a talented radio personality, television comedienne, film actress, and most recently novelist, general Renaissance woman and Southerner extraordinaire—who gives it a glorious whirl.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is the story of the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama, and its residents over the course of three generations. Most of the story centers on Ruth Jamison and Idgie Threadgoode, two best friends (and implied lovers) who impacted the lives of everyone in their community. The story is told both in present tense, from the 1920’s – 1940’s, when the events occurred, and in past tense, when Ninny Threadgoode relives those events by retelling them to her friend, Evelyn Crouch, in the 1980’s.

Flagg exhibits that endemically Southern gift for storytelling—spinning tales at the deceptively easy going pace of the rural American grapevine that only seems to grow south of the Mason Dixon Line.
    "Of course, most of the house is all boarded up and falling down now, but when we came down the street, the headlights hit the windows in such a way that, just for a minute, that house looked to me just like it had... some seventy years ago, all lit up and full of fun and noise... I guess, driving by that house and me being so homesick made me go back in my mind... "
While there is a beautiful (slightly watered-down) film version from the early 1990s with gorgeous performances by some of our greatest actresses, it robs one of the joys of Flagg’s distinctive prose stylings, her quirky, feminist humor, and a total poetic individuality stemming from her unusual and fly-in-the-face-of-life personality (in her teens, Flagg wore a wet suit, mask, and flippers in the Miss Alabama swimsuit competition…I think that pretty much sums it up…)

Perfect summer reading for its description of heat, love, scandal, history, wild hunger, and boundary-crossing social politics, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is an ideal summer companion. It’s exactly the kind of book that will make you feel as though you’ve traveled the world and made dear friends along the way.

5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Listen up, readers.
I have a Top Ten List of Favo(u)rite Books (which, I hope you have ascertained at this point, is a wide-spread, carefully selected and highly cultivated list).  And, on that Top Ten List, if I had the guts to create a slot that was in some way a “Super Slot—” an unparalleled slot that held within it a superpower; one that could blow the other nine books up into tiny little pieces of book shrapnel in a single bound! ...Well anyway, weak metaphors aside, this book would be it.

As it is, I tend to declare this book’s power thus:

"On my Top Ten List of Favo(u)rite Books, East of Eden takes up the first three slots."

(No blowing-things-up required.)

Am I making myself clear?
This is not hyperbole.
This is fact.
East of Eden is not a joke.
It is, in my opinion, the most important book I have ever read.

Bypass these perfectly decent attempts at dramatizing something that cannot possibly be dramatized because you might as well be dramatizing the BIBLE (which, let's face it, never really works out either...) and go for what Steinbeck considered to be his masterpiece.
America's greatest writer.
Felt this was his MAS-TER-PIECE.
Why are you even still reading my blog?
Why aren't you purchasing it right now?

I religiously re-read East of Eden every four years, and every time I find something completely new within it.

Don't hesitate to read what I consider to be the most important book in the world.


  1. I can't tell you how long I've wanted to read both Fried Green Tomatoes and East of Eden. East of Eden is sitting on my Kindle, begging to be read, and I keep looking at Fried Green Tomatoes and wondering whether *this* is the day when I'll finally pick it up. I've seen Fried Green Tomatoes on a few 'feel good' lists which tempts me because I really need some reads that don't make me feel (more) depressed. I'm interested to see whether, when I finally read it, it does uplift me given the subject matter.

  2. I agree with all of these! (Well, I haven't read the book on physics yet). Byatt is one of the most beautiful writers on earth, and I have to re-read East of Eden immediately.


  4. Bryan JohnAugust 24, 2016

    … dreamy summer days should begin & end with books! #exquisite from the lady herself @alsilbs ���� #AlSilbs



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