Last night, my husband and I and our two kids huddled around a laptop watching old videos. One of my favorites? A front-toothless version of my now-10-year-old daughter singing “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess. Summertime, and the livin’ is easy… School has been out for a week, we’ve had some uncharacteristic 70-degree days, and the 10:30 pm light is making bedtime later and later. Summer: It always shakes things up a bit. So, I will too. (Shake things up, that is. Much like how Debbie Gibson sang “Shake Your Love” in 1987. Oh, to have a video of me singing that.)
My friend Rebekah, who started blogging in response to her travels to Rwanda, recently posted her recommended summer reads. Not only does she carve out time to blog, she is a mother of three and co-owns a lifestyle boutique in New York—all the while running to acting auditions when she can. Judging from her list, I think she reads a lot more non-fiction than I do: Shake it up, Amy!
So here’s something a little different while I work on writing about Anne Enright’s What Are You Like? In the spirit of Rebekah’s post, I’m offering up my own recommended summer reads. Perhaps between the two lists, you’ll be inspired to reach for a title you normally wouldn’t.
Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat
Here is the memoir of the author of several acclaimed novels and short-story collections, including Breath, Eyes, Memory, The Dew Breaker, and 2013’s Claire of the Sea Light. Brother chronicles Danticat’s early life in Haiti, her parents’ departure to America to establish a better life for their family, and her reunion with them when she is twelve. In light of the immigration debate in America, this book, which also illuminates the questionable detainment of Danticat’s uncle (her “second father”), is an appropriate—and important—read, no matter your views.
All Souls, by Michael Patrick MacDonald
I was working in Boston and living in Cambridge when this book came out in 1999; it created quite a buzz. MacDonald’s memoir provides an intense look into Boston’s Southie (at one point an Irish-American stronghold with the highest concentration of white poverty in America) and the passionate loyalties that bind the community together, as well as the organized crime that destroys many of its residents. Not only do readers get to know the author’s mother (the accordion-wielding “Ma”) as well as his ten siblings, they’ll see how politics—including Boston’s infamous busing crisis of the 70s—charged a community. This book provides a tragic look into how the many tentacles of crime and violence can literally diminish a family. (MacDonald also wrote Easter Rising, a memoir of breaking the “Southie mold” and his subsequent travels to the “motherland”: Ireland.)
Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger
I try to read this book once a year. It was recommended to me by my friend Ashley, and once I finally picked it up, I understood that this was a special kind of book. Although the reader may want to hurry and see how it all ends, one should read prudently and slowly in order to savor the language and imagery that Enger carefully serves up. The beauty of Peace Like a River is that the book’s simple line, “Make of it what you will,” is also, once the tone of the story is set, one of its best.
Mona in the Promised Land, by Gish Jen
In all of her books that I’ve read, Jen successfully and humorously dives into that murky area between culture of origin and adopted culture—and where the two intersect. Mona follows teenaged Chinese-American Mona Chang, who moves with her family to suburban New York and subsequently decides to convert to Judaism. In addition to her writing talent, I’m drawn to Jen’s thoughtful and articulate responses to the more broad-brushed concepts of life and art: Check out her website and read/watch a sampling of her interviews to see what I mean. And although I haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend her book, Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, based on lectures she delivered at Harvard. (It’s on my list!)
The Heidi Chronicles, by Wendy Wasserstein
I read through the late Wasserstein’s entire body of work after taking a class called “Household Dramas” in college. (Can you guess what Sophocles drama we started with?) Twenty-five years after Heidi won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the pontifications about what it means to be a woman and mother in the “modern world” still resonate. Her characters all seem to fall in the middle of the traditional-revolutionary spectrum. I don’t mean that they are wishy-washy, and I don’t mean that there aren’t those who fall heavily on one side: the driven career woman or the woman who chooses motherhood over all. Yet they are nuanced women, women whom I think most females can identify with one way or another. Which, if you take a look at drama (especially televised), is an awfully hard feat to accomplish. Wasserstein’s collection of essays, Bachelor Girls, as well her posthumous biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys by Julie Salamon (which, again, I have not read, but was recommended by a commenter on Rebekah’s blog) will round out a Wasserstein collection.
For me, the perfect summer read is a book that challenges me without forcing me to lug around an annotated commentary. Save Ulysses for winter. (But be sure to finish it before Bloomsday: June 16.) However, if you’re looking for something much lighter than the above recommendations, may I suggest the following?