A brief history of books read while on vacation
The first time I encountered the phrase “summer reading” was the summer before I started high school. I had just finished eighth grade at a tiny, Catholic K-8 school, my memories of which are limited to a series of uncomfortable moments that include crying when my seventh grade teacher announced to the class he was quitting in the middle of the year, watching anti-abortion propaganda, fending off the aggressive hands of a classmate and that time my literature teacher spent class time justifying the actions of the cops who brutalized Rodney King1. I would come to realize eventually that my high school harbored its own set of small minds, but compared with where I was coming from when I got there, everything felt bigger and better—especially the academic expectations. Months before I would step into its halls as a freshman, for starters, I was expected to read two books in preparation.
There was one book that everyone was required to read and that we would be tested on the first day of school: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The second book, we chose from list and had to write an essay on. Being who I was, I read every book on the list and, after much consideration, chose to write about Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Because these were the prehistoric times of the early 1990s, I typed my essay on an ancient spreadsheet program on my dad’s computer called Lotus because I didn’t want to handwrite it (still an option back then). I remember almost nothing about either book except my feeling that maybe Hemingway was overrated2.
Although these first experiences with summer reading didn’t leave much of a mark, the selections got better as I made it through high school. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (the required book the summer ahead of 11th grade), and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, (the required book the summer ahead of 12th) are treasured favorites.
When I went to college, summer reading went from being homework to being an ice-breaker. My college didn’t test incoming students on the summer reading book ahead of orientation. Instead, we were required to participate in small-group discussions meant to introduce us to the handful of people we were randomly assigned to talk about the book with and to the “life of the mind” into which we were about to step. For the Davidson College class of 2000, the freshman reading book was Life on the Color Line, a memoir by Gregory Howard Williams, who learned in his early teens that his dark-skinned “Italian American” father was actually a Black man who had been “passing” for white. The book relates the impact of that revelation on the rest of Williams’ adolescence and explores how it shaped his identity and his choices. As a Latina who was considered white by some and had been reminded that I very much wasn’t by others, I found the book moving and eye-opening. It was an early signal to me of how profoundly my college experience would alter how I saw myself and how I saw the world.
That was the last summer reading book I was ever required to read. Being who I am, I kept reading the freshman orientation books at Davidson and later at the University of North Carolina, where I was a graduate student, even further removed from the undergraduate experience but still eager to see what titles the powers that be considered important for young people about to step into adulthood. My favorites among those: Snow Falling in Cedars by David Gutterson, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich and Absolutely American by David Lipsky.
No conversation about my reading in the summers of my youth is complete without mention of the books my stepmother would put in my hands once I had exhausted the stack of school-assigned books during the long summer breaks I spent with her and my dad. She had a penchant for melodrama so among the ones I read at her urging, I remember most Arabian Nights and Les Miserables—their translations into Spanish, to be exact. Both were huge bricks of tissue thin paper that she did not think my middle school mind should be intimidated by.
These days, summer reading is now seen by most (and marketed to most) as a light, fun, vacation-driven phenomenon, not quite in line with the heavy, thought-provoking exercise that I remember, so my current preferences for vacation reads land somewhere in the middle. The recommendations at the bottom of this post feature three recent vacation reads if you are looking for something to pick up this summer.
Summer Book Bites
Capsule Book Review
Dr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick - read in 2010 - Not as gripping as some of Dick’s other stuff, but an intriguing take on life after nuclear war.
Currently on my night stand
What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster - I actually just finished this one. Like The Vanishing Half, which I mention in my recommendations below, this story jumps around in time, following characters from youth into adulthood as they deal with the mess that is family and identity in an unforgiving world. Which is to say: my jam.
What the kids are reading these days
The Babysitters Club: Logan Likes Maryanne - The first two books of these series were handed to me at age nine, so now that my daughter has reached that age, I suppose it’s only right that she found her way to them as well. The editions she is reading are graphic novels, adapted from the original stories. She reads them quickly and multiple times.
Purrmaids: The Scaredy Cat - Mermaid cats? Why not? Reading this one with my six-year-old, who is responds to all my suggestions for read-aloud books with deep skepticism. Cute stuff but beware the cat puns.
After Francesco by Brian Malloy - I got this through the “Reading is a Lifestyle” book subscription from Shelves Bookstore in Charlotte, North Carolina—a black woman-owned business. For the last year or so, I’ve been weighing a book subscription, and this one allows you to set genre preferences but still makes the choice topical. In this case, this novel about a gay man takes place during the height of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s. I’d just been thinking, because it’s Pride Month, that I don’t have a ton of books that deal squarely in LGBTQ characters and issues, so the subscription—at least for this first month—successfully provided something I both wanted and needed.
A few choice summer reads . . .
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet - read on vacation in Dillon, Colorado - This beautifully written novel about twins from a forgotten Louisiana town touches on many themes—race, identity, transformation, family—but it's a quiet story. It hinges on one twin's decision to assume a white identity and leave her family behind. Spanning over twenty years, the narrative is my favorite kind, not one driven by specific events, but rather one about lives lived and how relationships and identity shift over time. Bennett offers a thoughtful exploration of race and gender as constructs and how identity-driven choices can be destructive and haunting, but also life-saving and life-affirming. Well-paced, with beautifully rendered characters. Not always joyful, but a joy to read.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld - read on summer staycation - The problem with most modern updates of Austen stories comes from the attempt to modernize the circumstances and the plot. You can't. There is very little equivalency to be found in the lives of women in Regency England and our lives today. What's missed is the essence of Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship—the idea of liking a person in spite of yourself—and Austen's subtle commentary on social norms of the day. Thankfully, though, Curtis Sittenfeld gets it. Eligible is enjoyable because of the cheeky way she has brought beloved characters into the modern world: Elizabeth is a writer and Darcy is a surgeon (obviously); thoughtful, levelheaded Jane is a yogi; Bingley is a charming reality TV star; Kitty and Lydia are into cross-fit; Mrs. Bennet is a country club bigot with a shopping addiction; Lady Catherine is a thinly fictionalized version of Gloria Steinem (I know!); and Wickham is . . . well, that's just too good to be spoiled here. What makes the narrative really excel, though, is that like Austen, Sittenfeld dissects society's enduring obsession with what women do with their lives clinically and comically. Here, finally, is a version of the story that does the original proud.
There There by Tommy Orange - read on vacation in Bethany Beach, Delaware - This book about the interrelated lives of a group of Native Americans in and around the Oakland area is a beautiful, searing read. It takes a while for all the threads to come together, so for at least the first half of the book, it feels more like a disparate collection of character sketches than a novel. Once the plot starts moving toward its inevitable, devastating end, though, it's impossible to put down. There's a lot to challenge the reader about how these characters all see themselves, how Natives see themselves, the power of story, perspective and the collecting of stories for their own sake. It's a good, but not perfect first novel from an author I am excited to read more from.
And in honor of Pride Month, one of my favorite short story collections of all time.
We Came All the Way from Cuba so You Could Dress Like This? by Achy Obejas - In this gripping collection, Obejas draws on her experiences as a Cuban immigrant and a lesbian to crack open all your notions of Latinas, love, connection and home.
Programming note: I am taking a summer hiatus from writing in the blog, but plan to return in August. Big thanks to those of you who have been joining me here in this little space the last few months and who have reached out about doing so. If there are any topics you would like me to write about (book related or otherwise), please share them with me.
Her husband was a police officer in the Southern-with-a-capital-S town we lived in, and although I was too young and naive to have identified her a racist back then, I still understood that what she was telling us was not to be believed.
My senior year in college, one of my professors led a fun exercise in which students in the class, all of us English majors, shared a major work of the Western literary canon we were embarrassed to say we had never read and one we were embarrassed to say we did not like. My answers were King Lear for the first question and “anything by Hemingway” for the second. I was pleased and surprised to find that on that second score, I was not alone.