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The Interestings Cover The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls Cover The Flamethrowers: A Novel Cover My Brilliant Friend CoverThe Dud Avocado Cover Swimming Home Cover The Count of Monte Cristo (Oxford World's Classics) Cover    To the Lighthouse CoverThe Death of the Heart Cover  Little Known Facts Cover The Pink Hotel Cover Zelda: A Biography (P.S.) Cover

In a month or so, there are going to be summer reading recommendations everywhere.  They will invariably include books about female friendship and the beach.  Usually both.  I’ll probably enjoy the hell out of some of them.  But I don’t really need to read about the beach when I’m already there.  So here’s what I’m looking forward to reading this summer:

If I had to pick one thing I loved the most about summer when I was young, it would be camp.  Day camp , Girl Scout camp, Band camp (I blog about books, of course I went to band camp) and even French camp.  I don’t think I’m alone on this one.  I think summer makes everyone nostalgic for the adventures of youth.  I wish I could still go to camp (especially French camp which had amazing food and fencing).  Instead, I go to the office, freeze my air-conditioned ass off and try not to stare out the window too much.  This summer, there are two books that appear to be both literary and about camp!  Lucky me.

The first, is Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which just came out, but which I am going to try to wait to read until summer.  This is a novel that follows the lives of a group of friends that meet as teenagers at a summer arts camp.  I read Wolitzer’s The Wife this winter and couldn’t put it down.  It was really witty, tackled some pretty heavy issues, and was a total page-turner all at the same time.  Based on the early buzz, I fully expect the same from The Interestings.

The second, which doesn’t come out until June, is Anton Disclafani’s The Yonahlosse Riding Camp for Girls.  If I had to pick a second favorite thing about summers when I was young, it would be horses.  During my junior high summers I spent almost every day with horses.  I can’t remember another time when I’ve been  both covered in dirt and insanely happy.  So a coming of age story about a riding camp in the 1930s is at the top of my list.  Also, it has been described with adjectives like lush and transportive.  Those are summer adjectives.

After camp, I’d love nothing more than a backpacking trip around Europe.  Wouldn’t everyone?  The next best thing to actually traveling is to plan a summer reading trip.  The ex-pat in Europe makes for a great beach read.  I can’t imagine that The Sun Also Rises would be anywhere near as perfect as it is except when read in the glaring heat.  Ditto for Tender is the Night.

So, where will I go first?  Italy, of course.  I’m pretty excited for Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.  It sounds sort of scandalous (artists, motorcycles and Italian terrorists!) and it combines two summer themes:  the ex-pat in Europe and the coming-of-age novel.  There’s something about a day at the beach that makes me feel totally in love with the world.  That’s the best feeling with which to approach a coming-of-age novel.

I think I’ll stay in Italy a little while longer so I can visit Naples.  Books about southern Italy are best when read outside in the sun.  Preferably somewhere with a lot of noisy traffic for ambiance.    I think it’s because I’m Sicilian that the further south I get, the happier I am in Italy.  Naples is dangerous, dirty and decaying, but it’s also a real, live city (as compared to say the Disneyland that is Florence).  Amid the chaos, there’s a fascinating beauty.  I’ve been hearing so many good things about the Italian author Elena Ferrante’s latest novel, My Brilliant Friend, that it’s been a struggle to save it for summer.  This is a story of female friendship (beach read!), only it’s about growing up tough in the city of Naples, rather than growing up rich in Nantucket.

Where to next?  France!  First, to Paris with Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado.  This is apparently a cult classic, but I’d never heard of it before last year.  I love it when that happens. This 1950s novel of the American girl abroad is supposed to be a great romantic comedy.   Then onto a summer villa in the hills above Nice with Deborah Levy’s Booker short-listed Swimming Home.  This one sounds a little bit dark and suspenseful.  Perfect for a rainy day.

I can’t leave France without having a little adventure.  What better book for whiling away a week at the lake than the classic The Count of Monte Cristo?  With Revenge on hiatus for the summer, a good dose of literary vengeance might just fill the void.  Clocking in at around 1000 pages, this is the perfect book for that week when all you have to do is lie in the sun and read.  We all need at least one week like that or what’s the point of summer?

Before returning stateside, I’ll hang out with the British modernists for a bit.  Really stunning writing is almost meditative when you’re lying on the beach.  There’s nothing better than drifting in and out of beautiful prose with the distant cacophony of seagulls and surf in the background.  Read, close your eyes to the sun, and then read some more.  It’s dreamy.  This summer, it’s going to be Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.  Chosen not just for their transcendent prose, both books feature classic summer locations: the house on the lake and the sea-side resort.

When I get back to the States, I think I’ll wind up the summer with a road trip out west.  I know most summer reads take you out East for a little cottage on the seashore vacation, but I love the gritty heat of summer in the city too.  Also, it’s almost pointless to read about Los Angeles in the middle of winter when you live in the Midwest. I don’t care how great the book, it’s just not the right experience when I’m staring out the window at three feet of snow.  Winter here is best spent reading the Russians.  This summer, I’m looking forward to Christine Sneed’s Little Known Facts and Anna Stothard’s The Pink Hotel, both set in L.A.  The dual nature of L.A. seems well-represented by these two since one is the Hollywood side and one the seedy side.  This part of the summer reading list is borne out of last summer’s reading of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, which was all sorts of awesome in both Italy and L.A.

Finally, I have not forgotten that this is the summer of Gatsby.  I’ve had Nancy Milford’s 1983 biography, Zelda, on my coffee table for about a year now and this seems like the perfect time for it.  Yes, I know there is a new novel about Zelda that just came out, but I didn’t really like The Paris Wife and this new Z novel is too similar in concept.  It’s hard to read about a fictionalized Hemingway or Fitzgerald in a novel that’s obviously inferior to anything either of them ever wrote.  Well, that was how I felt about The Paris Wife anyways and while I’ll try to keep an open mind about Z: A Novel, I don’t have high hopes.  If I have time, I think I’d rather revisit some of Fitzgerald’s novels because I’ve been wanting to do that ever since I read this awesome installment of Lydia Kiesling’s Modern Library Revue for The Millions.

So these are my top picks for summer.  What are you planning on reading at the beach this year?

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When You Reach Me Cover    Splendors and Glooms Cover

Most avid readers are familiar with the dreaded reading slump.  You have piles of great books, but you can’t seem to read more than a few pages at a time.  So you try another book and abandon it.  And then another.  Nothing seems to hold your interest and the time you usually spend relaxing with a book you spend Facebooking and watching TV (thank God for Hulu, because oh Revenge, let me count the ways that I love you).

What causes my reading slumps? Well, I seem to be experiencing the whole trifecta right now.  Really intense workload, two books in a row that have been less than enjoyable, and spring fever all rolled into one.  I know the signs and the fact that I’ve spent the last two nights binge watching Glee on Hulu can only mean one thing (other than that I’m a total dork who loves musical television).  I’m in a slump.

So what’s my trick for getting out of it?  Children’s literature.  Even though we’re married with books instead of with children (for now at least), I really enjoy kid’s books.  As adults, I think we tend to assume that kid lit is overly simplistic or boring.  It’s not.  I figured this out last year when I started re-reading some of my childhood favorites.  I picked up a copy of  Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, which I read over and over again when I was a kid, and I couldn’t put it down.  It was just as good as I had remembered.  Same thing with E.L. Konigsburg’s From The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Because I was so happy re-reading my childhood favorites, I started to think about all the great books that have probably been written since I was a kid.  It’s not like childhood classics stopped being written because I’d grown up.  It was pretty exciting when I realized there were all these classic stories out there that I’ve yet to discover.  It’s also kind of great that when we do become married with children, I’ll already have an awesome selection of books for them to read someday.

Luckily, there are a lot of sources for finding excellent children’s books.  The Newbery Medal is an obvious and reliable one.  There’s also the School Library Journal’s annual Battle of the Kids Books, which is a lot of fun.  And of course, there are the blogs.  Author, teacher, and Newbery judge Monica Edinger blogs about children’s lit at Educating Alice and writes book reviews for the New York Times.  If she likes a book, you can trust that it’s a good book.  Gretchen Rubin, the former lawyer, author and blogger behind the Happiness Project, has an online book club featuring her favorites.  While I’m not really into the whole self-help happiness thing, I appreciate Gretchen’s love of children’s literature.  She has really good taste in books.

I definitely wouldn’t want to read children’s literature all the time, but it’s great when I’m looking for an easy read that’s still going to be enjoyable and smart.  So it’s perfect for breaking out of a reading slump!  I convinced one of my friends to give it a try when she couldn’t read a book to save her life last year.  That time, Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting and Elizabeth Enright’s Gone Away Lake totally did the trick.

Two newer children’s books that I’ve really enjoyed this year are Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, which won the Newbery Medal in 2010, and Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms, which was a 2012 Newbery Honor book.  When You Reach Me  is a fantastic tribute to another childhood classic, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.  It also stands on its own as a beautifully written story about life in the sixth grade.  There’s a bit of a mystery and a little science fiction that keep the plot moving, but it’s also a wise reflection on friendship.  Miranda is such a likeable, memorable heroine that I think this one’s an instant classic.

Spendors and Glooms is a dark, Dickensian fairy tale set in Victorian England.  There’s a magician, a witch, a puppet show and three kids who get mixed up in all of it.  It’s atmospheric, imaginative and a page-turner.  This is one that will appeal to fans of The Night Circus or Harry Potter.  I finished it in one sitting this past Februrary when I was too sick from the world’s worst cold to do much else.  It was such an escape from the real world I almost forgot how crummy I felt.

So what am I going to read to break out of my current slump?  I just ordered a copy of Rebecca Stead’s newest book, Liar and Spy, which I’m pretty excited about.  A bookseller at our local indie told me it was great and I’m a sucker for stories set in New York.  It went down to Splendors and Glooms in this year’s Battle of the Books, but it seemed like a close call.  So that’s my trick for breaking out of the spring reading slump.  What’s yours?

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The Sense of an Ending Cover

The Booker Prize has taken a lot of heat lately.   The judges gaffes were the literary equivalent of Mitt Romney’s campaign speeches, the short list was guilty of some glaring omissions, and the rival Literature Prize was launched.  This makes me sad (not the Literature Prize, I’m kind of excited about that, but rest of it).  I love the Booker Prize because it’s how I’ve discovered some of my favorite books.

When the short list was announced this year I was disappointed.  There were only two books I wanted to read: The Sense of an Ending and Half Blood Blues.  These were my initial conclusions: The Sense of an Ending should win hands down, Half Blood Blues sounded like a good read, the Menagerie book seemed way too much like The Life of Pi (which I loved, but you can’t short-list its imitators), Snowdrops and Pigeon English seemed kinda like popular fiction thrillers, and the comic western The Sisters Brothers seemed too violent and also I don’t read the Booker books for Americana.

I was both relieved and disappointed when I started reading the critics’ take on the selections.  The judges wanted books that were readable, would be popular, and “zipped along.”  Disappointing criteria.  I won’t belabor the point that books can be insanely good and not exactly easy to read (See, e.g., James Joyce) or compulsively readable and great literatue (See, e.g. Wilkie Collins) because that’s been fairly well covered in the linked articles.  I was both relieved and disappointed because the critics’ reactions to the list seemed to be more an affirmation of my assessment than of my failure to appreciate great literature.

With that in mind, I bought The Sense of an Ending (which won the prize as I predicted) and figured it would be a good book, but probably not a great book.  The competition just wasn’t that tough this year.  I’m happy to report I was dead wrong about both the winner and the competition.  The Sense of and Ending is bloody fantastic literature (British swearing seems more appropriate here), an instant classic, and an infinitely worthy book for the Booker Prize.

This is a book deserving of a permanent place on any bookshelf.  It is the kind of novel we pick up more than once in our lives because it left a lasting impression, because the language is beautiful, because the questions it raises can be revisited, long after we know how the story ends.  The rest of the post doesn’t give much away, but don’t read any further if you like to read a book before you read the reviews.  Just go buy it and be happy you did.

A lot of reviewers have focused on this novel as a critique of memory, history, and the insight we may or may not have into our own lives and the lives of others.  All of this is true, but there’s another aspect to this thoughtful, beautifully written novel that stood out for me.  It’s also a meditation on literature.  What do we expect from it?  What is it?  Are our lives anything like it?  Does it reflect the essential truths?

The early pages of The Sense of an Ending brilliantly capture the intellectual excitement and arrogance of youth. This section also provides a sort of framework for considering the rest of the story.  Tony, the everyman narrator, introduces the subject of literature as he reflects on his youth:

This was another of our fears: That Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature.  Look at our parents – were they the stuff of literature?  At best, they might aspire to the social conditions of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. (16)

I found myself returning to this passage as Tony’s adult life is revealed.  His story turns out to be more like his parents’ lives than the wild adventure he’d imagined in his youth.  There is life, death, love and remembering, but it’s all pretty run of the mill.  His role in the novel, despite being the main character, is largely that of a bystander.

As Tony ages, he employs traditional literary devices to illustrate his belief that his life has fallen short of literary greatness.  When he visits his girlfriend’s parents for the weekend Tony explains “[h]ad we been in a novel, there might have been some sneaking between floors for a hot cuddle after the paterfamilias had locked up for the night.  But we weren’t; Veronica didn’t even kiss me good night that first evening…”  (30)  Later, the obvious symbolism he employs in telling a story is emphatically denied.  “Towards the end of my marriage, the solid suburban villa Margaret and I lived in suffered a little subsidence.  Cracks appeared here and there, bits of the porch and front wall began to crumble.  (And no, I didn’t think of it as symbolic.)” (91-92)

Throughout the novel, Tony’s portrait of his own life is contrasted with his belief that Adrian’s life is worthy of great literature.  We’re given a hint of this early in the novel when Tony tells us the only person “whose life so far contained anything remotely novel-worthy was Adrian.” (16)  The duality of the two characters continues throughout the novel as Tony and Adrian’s lives parallel each other with dramatically different outcomes.

In Tony’s opinion, the young Adrian doesn’t act as a fictional hero should.  “In a novel, Adrian wouldn’t just have accepted things as they were put to him.  What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book?  Adrian should have gone snooping, or saved up his pocket money and employed a private detetive; perhaps all four of us should have gone off on a Quest to Discover the Truth.  Or would that have been less like literature and too much like a kids’ story?” (17).

Ultimately, it’s Tony, and not Adrian, who goes on a quest for the truth.  Are we supposed to see this quest as childish or as a great literary journey?  Who is the hero of the novel: Adrian or Tony? If this were a traditional tale of brilliance, crazy love, tragedy and adventure wouldn’t Adrian have been the main character?  Tony seems to think so.

I remember a period in late adolecense when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness.  This is how it will be when I grow up.  I shall go there, do this, discover that love her and then her and her and her.  I shall live as people in novels live and have lived.  Which ones I was not sure, only that passion and danger, ecstasy and despair (but then more ecstasy would be in attendance.  However… who said that thing about ‘the littleness of life that art exaggerates’?

The reader, like Tony, desperately wants to find out what happened to Adrian.  As Tony doggedly attempts to recover the diary, don’t you also want to see what Adrian’s written?

The literary double can illuminate two sides of the same character and in this case it seems to illustrate two opposing views of literature.  Is great literature supposed to be dramatic and otherworldly? Or can great literature be a simple portrait of the ordinary, everday life?  Tony would choose the former, but as Veronica repeatedly reminds Tony, he just doesn’t get it.

As Tony tell us: “Real literature was about psychological , emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.” (16)

I think that is the point.  Tony would be better off trying to understand his own life rather than Adrian’s.  Maybe we can’t fully understand any life, even our own?  The only thing I really understand?  This is the best book I’ve read in years.  I don’t know what literature is supposed to be.  I know I loved this book.

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