Note: I wrote this for my author website, but am adding it here because many of the books are YA or great for high school aged teens.
When we think of summer reading, we think ‘beach reads,’ books we can’t put down that provide an escape from reality. But in these longer summer days, we may find ourselves with time to tackle a goal that eluded us during the busy months of the academic year: reading intellectually stimulating books that engage with reality rather than run from it. However, out in the sunshine, a lengthy classic tome is more than we want. Here’s the solution to the dilemma: A ‘Serious Summer Reading’ list.
Like beach reads, the books have narrative momentum, an engaging plot, and brevity. In addition, to deserve the designation of ‘serious,’ titles include at least one classic element—dazzling language, a puzzle to ponder, psychological depth, or thoughtful engagement with social issues. A shorter version of this post is in Southern California News Group’s newspapers. If you happen to have arrived here via that article and want to skip to the additional titles, I am using bold print for the titles of the books that were not included in the article.
You Should have Read it in High School
If you relied on Spark Notes in your youth, four short, engaging classics with thematic connections to our era are The Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and My Antonia. When my writing workshop fellows read the rough version of this article, they added to the above suggestions: The Call of the Wild by Jack London, The Trojan War by Olivia Coolidge, and Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.
A wonderful novella from the same time period as The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises has recently come to my attention. Passing by Nella Larsen is a great selection for high school reading and for adults as well. Protagonist Irene Redfield is a Black woman who passes as white when it is convenient (shopping, restaurants), but who lives in a Harlem townhouse with her physician husband and two sons. (She has a maid and a cook and a wide social circle in the community.) While visiting Chicago, she runs into Clare Kendry, whom she knew in childhood, but finds untrustworthy. Clare is passing for white and is married to a wealthy white businessman who doesn’t know her secret. She misses terribly the sense of belonging and kinship she had in the Black community and wants Irene to include her in social gatherings. Though Irene tries to rebuff Clare’s overtures, she finds herself more and more enmeshed in Clare’s life and deceptions. This is a tightly-paced little book about the color line and a tragic pair of frenemies. I learned about it in this article in Electric Literature, which has links to more in-depth discussions of the book and its author. After I read that Larsen was the first professionally-trained Black librarian, I looked for Passing and found that Audible offers a free audio version to subscribers. So if that’s you and you want to listen, grab it.
Short Historical Fiction
I’m going to stick with the YA here because lots of adults enjoy it. If you want to learn about history, but find historical novels quite long, read books by Ruta Sepetys. She tackles periods you don’t always find. While the protagonists are teens, adults are very much a part of the story. Between Shades of Gray is about Stalin’s reign of terror in the 1940s and includes life in a Siberia labor camp. I wrote a full review here. A new Sepetys novel I just finished reading is I Must Betray You, which takes on Romania in 1989, under the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. It’s about living in a environment where one can’t trust anyone, spies are everywhere, and defying the state is a torture or death sentence. But it’s also about the resiliency of the human spirit and the fight for freedom.
In a New York Times interview, Dan Chaon said, “Personally, I love writers who just don’t care what you think about them, and they don’t necessarily want to be ‘good for you.’ For me, a ‘guilty pleasure’ is a work that’s transgressive enough that you may think twice before recommending it to just anybody.” So, I thought twice, and now I’m recommending Rotters by Daniel Kraus to you. Chaon describes it as “the most out-of-control Y.A. book I’ve ever read.” I reviewed it here if you’d like to see what you’re getting into.
Get with the Program
For the newspaper version of this list, I left off Neil Gaiman because he is so omnipresent in media–children’s, YA, and adult novels, graphic novels, movies and television–that I’m pretty sure every reader has some familiarity with him (and the article had to be short). However, if you’ve just returned from your trip to Mars and need a quick introduction to the beauty of his writing, here’s your summer novel. While it’s marketed as adult fiction, it’s perfect for YA as well. My review of it begins: “The narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is back in Sussex, England to attend a funeral. He is drawn to the farmhouse at end of the lane through his memory of the girl who once lived there, Lettie Hempstock. As he stakes out a spot near the duck pond, he remembers that Lettie once called this an ocean. Through memory, he dives in, and takes the reader through its magical and metaphoric depths. //And while magic is afoot, a great deal of it is pure evil. That is, from the narrator’s point of view. Lettie dismisses monsters as creatures who just do what they were created to do. But what they were created to do is deadly business.” Find the entire review here.
It’s a Mystery
Consider tackling the entire Sherlock Holmes collection. As a friend reminded me, “Each book is short enough for the summer attention span, but the collection can take you from Memorial Day to Labor Day.” And if you’ve never read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, summer is the time to do it.
You’d Like to Learn Something but Need to Laugh (a lot)
Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods also fits in the ‘Vicarious Vacation’ category if you can’t get away this summer. The only nonfiction on this list, it’s a modern-day adventure classic. Bryson and a friend attempt to hike the (entire) Appalachian Trail. While you learn about human nature, hiking, and the trail, you’ll also be in stitches.
A Bit of Magic
If you enjoy fiction with supernatural elements, try Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights. While Salman Rushdie is one of the great writers of our time, the length of his masterworks may have kept you away. Two Years is a short, highly entertaining story in which a storm causes the veil between the world of the jinn and the ordinary to tear. A war between light and dark ensues, lasting a thousand and one nights. I agree with the publisher: it’s “satirical and bawdy, full of cunning and folly, rivalries and betrayals, kismet and karma, rapture and redemption.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner tells the story of a nineteenth-century woman’s desperate efforts to follow her husband through his California scheming. They move through unpopulated areas as he works to develop irrigation systems and other infrastructure the state isn’t quite ready for. Through letters to her friends ‘back East,’ Susan makes apologies for her husband, laments being removed from culture and society, and longs for good books and her family. I reviewed the novel here. Note: there has been some discussion (argument?) about Stegner’s use of the source materials (plagiarism?) mentioned in my review. For a recent discussion of this, see “Wallace Stegner and the Trap of Using Other People’s Writing” in the New Yorker.
Short Novel by Famously Talented but Famously Long-winded Writer
Haruki Murakami has written several novels approaching a thousand pages. For a shorter summer read, try Norwegian Wood. Two college students in Tokyo are haunted by the death of their best friend years before. College life marks their differences with Tori acclimating and Naoko withdrawing into her shell. Tori is drawn to a woman who expresses the independence and sexual liberation of the 1960s. So—romantic coming of age, but there’s also that Beatles thing. 😉
Modernist takes on classical Greek myths are pretty hot right now, and so they’re pretty easy to find. Circe by Madeline Miller is a very popular one I read and think you might like for its feminist take on the goddess Circe from The Odyssey. Those guys deserved being turned into pigs. 😉
A Master Class in Fiction
I think of the slim volume Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid as a collection of linked stories rather than a novel because I first read it as a series in the “New Yorker.” Kincaid has a way of circling back to a theme repeatedly and, in doing so, presenting something entirely fresh. You will learn a bit about island life in 1950s Antigua while relating to the drama of a tightly woven mother-daughter relationship. If you’re a writer as well as a reader, you need this book.
You Want the Challenge of Difficult Topics and You Love Dogs
In The Friend by Sigrid Nunez, a woman who doesn’t care much for dogs inherits a Great Dane when her longtime friend and writing mentor dies by suicide. This is a study of loss and grief and the narrator’s first canine connection. It’s a National Book Award winner. I wrote a review here.
Underrepresented American Stories
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward narrates the trials of an impoverished Black family in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi before and during Hurricane Katrina. Winner of the National Book Award, it is a story of familial love and the struggle for survival.
More Underrepresented American Stories
Louise Erdrich has written many short novels about Ojibwa people. The Round House is a National Book Award winner dealing with the sexual assault of a Native woman. I reviewed it here. Erdrich’s most recent novel is The Sentence, about a haunting and a reckoning in a bookshop. What’s better than that?
In Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, Ada, born in Nigeria, develops separate selves as a result of having an Ogbanje (a godlike Igbo spirit) inside her. With “one foot on the other side,” Ada comes of age and attends college in America. The group of selves within her grows in power and agency, and their protection of her is, paradoxically, a danger. Being enthralled by this novel, I later read Emezi’s Dear Senthuran: A Black Spirit Memoir about being a creative spirit in the human world. It discusses gender and the human body. Emezi also has two othe adult novels, and two YA novels, Pet and (next on my YA TBR list) Bitter.
Highly Recommended as a ‘Can’t Miss’ by Me, Your Book Talking Librarian
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund is one of the best books I’ve read in the last five years. The writing is gorgeous, the story thoroughly compelling. In rural Montana, Linda babysits regularly for her new neighbors. She has been disturbed by events at school involving her favorite teacher. Now she has a sense of belonging. But the choices she makes in the Gardner household will haunt her for the rest of her life. (I know it’s vague, but otherwise, too much of a spoiler alert. Trust me! Read it!)
Tackling Poetry for Those Unfamiliar
If your goal is to read poetry and the reason you haven’t done so yet is that it scares you, try Mary Oliver and Billy Collins. They are two of America’s best loved poets. One reason is that their poetry is wonderful, but another is that their poetry is so accessible. It would also be fun to pick up Americans’ Favorite Poems: The Favorite Poem Project Anthology. The book includes two hundred poems that Americans selected as their favries. There’s an introduction to each poem by someone who selected it telling why it resonated so deeply. This is a great way to see what others see in poems. You just might get hooked.
Happy summer reading!