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Summer Reads

Sometimes it takes a week or two to truly recover from the stress of finals and to shake that nagging sensation of a task left undone. But without fail, by the third week of summer, my appetite for summer reading kicks in. There’s something deliciously indulgent about choosing an assortment of books when one’s reading has been strapped by syllabi for the past nine months. Likely your students have a few assigned works this summer, but I’d encourage them to start with something that strikes their fancy. In case they — or you — need a bit of inspiration, here’s a list of classic and current reads that won’t disappoint.

Mystery

The Hound of the Baskervilles, the third of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels featuring the now legendary Sherlock Holmes, was the most thrilling to date when it was published in 1902. Holmes, who (as your student might remember from the Robert Downey Jr. remake) had fallen from a cliff in the Swiss Alps at the close of “The Final Problem,” was presumed dead by Doyle’s readers. His startling revival in The Hound solidified Holmes as a recurring fixture in British fiction and spurred an investigation no less eerie and satisfying for today’s readers than for Doyle’s early fans.

A few years ago, the supposed first novel of unknown author Robert Gailbraith, received startlingly good reviews in crime literature circles. Four months after the release of The Cuckoo’s Calling (2013), however, the book’s publisher let slip that Gailbraith was in fact J. K. Rowling, couching her first foray after Harry Potter in a fitting bit of mystery. The plot follows an unlikely pair — ex-military PI Cormoran Strike and his orderly, but curious, secretary Robin Ellacott — as they stumble into the investigation of a starlet’s murder. The Cuckoo’s Calling is as enchanting and difficult to put down as the Harry Potter series at its best.

Sci-Fi

In a culture now 30 years beyond Young Frankenstein, not to mention the hokey thirties films it parodies, the name Frankenstein rings a bit cliché to say the least. But it would be a shame to let a century of spin-offs dissuade you from the real thing. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is rife with experiments and imaginative technology that will satisfy devotees of the genre, but its eerie frame story, epistolary romance and vivid travelogue promise something for all manner of readers.

A decade before The Hunger Games ignited the dystopian trend in young adult fiction, Octavia Butler published her award-winning novel The Parable of the Sower (1993). Parable follows the journey of Lauren Olamina, a teen struggling to survive in a barren, dystopian Los Angeles of the future, as she leads her neighbors up the coast in search of a new home. Lauren’s unlikely role as leader is further fraught by hyperempathy syndrome, a condition that causes her to physically empathize with others’ pain, a gunshot wound, for example, or an encounter with a wild animal.

Romance, Comedy, Satire

Jane Austen adaptations are so numerous as to practically merit their own genre. Pride & Prejudice in particular has resurfaced in a myriad of forms, making it an increasingly difficult feat to interpret it afresh. But Curtis Sittenfeld has done just that. Eligible, her P&P variation published in April of this year, finds Darcy and “Liz” in the suburbs of Cincinnati. He’s a snooty west coast transplant, she’s a magazine writer, and the ever-annoying and endearing Mrs. Bennet watches a “Bachelor”-esque reality TV show called “Eligible.” The NY Times writes, “Three cheers for Curtis Sittenfeld and her astute, sharp and ebullient anthropological interest in the human condition.” Students should read: witty supplement to a Brit Lit school list.

For students of the Wes Anderson persuasion, or those who have already stumbled upon Catcher in the Rye in or out of class, J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1961) oozes equal parts wit and heart from its deceptively slim spine. Think Royal Tenenbaums meets Little Miss Sunshine. Franny and Zooey are the youngest two siblings of the Glass family (featured in a slew of Salinger stories). The first third of the book shares Franny’s coming-of-age disillusionment at a Yale football game, and the later portion of this twin-work comprises a novella entitled “Zooey” in which the siblings fall into an eccentric and illuminating phone call.

Non-Fiction

After reading obituaries of Rosa Parks in which writers referred to her with variations of the phrase “quietly courageous,” as though it were an oxymoron, Susan Cain began to question the underpinnings of this assumption. Why do people assume that quiet people, or introverts, are less likely to be brave, to lead or to change people’s minds? Her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was the result of these inquiries. In it Cain traces America’s shift from valuing character to lauding personality and finds that work places, religious groups, schools, you name it, preference extroverted qualities, a move, she told CBS news, that leads to “a colossal waste of talent, energy, and happiness.” Validating for introverts, but a fascinating read for extroverts as well.
Not to get too personal as I wind this list down, but, before the summer of my senior year of high school, I was assigned to read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Novels Like a Professor (2009). It sounded dry, and I saved it for last, but it proved to be one of the liveliest and most useful books I’ve ever read. Years later, as a graduate student in literature, I still kept it close at hand. Anyone who likes to read (and, if you’ve gotten to the end of this list, that is surely you), will appreciate the insight Foster gives into the novel’s signs and codes over the course of such enticing chapters as: “Everywhere is Just One Place,” “When Very Bad People Happen to Good Novels” and “Never Trust the Narrator with a Speaking Part.”


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