I don’t presume to know or have means of figuring out what the “perfect” summer book is. Like any summer’s plot, what you make of a book, how much you let in your head and heart, is a series of choices that are entirely your own. Most of the books below are bestsellers, many have TV shows or movies based on them, and some I just think are really freakin’ good. They are, in any case, the words, characters, and lives, which people are letting into their beach days, their dog days- their summer days and nights.
10. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman, British author of award-winning novels Coraline and American Gods, graphic novel writer, and dabbler in the strange, twisty, and mythopoeic, is up to his usual tricks in this most recent novel. It is the story of a man returning to his childhood home, who finds, upon his arrival, memories stirred and awoken by artifacts of his youth. The book centers on the backyard-portals, the legends, myths, and titanic figures that make up the magical, surreal landscape of childhood remembered.
9. Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth
Shameless plug #1. I don’t actually know if anyone is reading this short story collection, but they should be. The titular tale, a novella, “Goodbye, Columbus,” is a summer-love classic, one of the best, most deeply-felt treatments of the phenomenon out there. In the hands of Roth, a master of the craft, it isn’t gushy or cheesy or cliché, but rather, is expansive, unique, and about far more than adolescence. Oh, and it won a National Book Award – it’s very, very good.
8. Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer
Foer got more attention for Extremely Loud, and Incredibly Close, but this could very well be the better novel of the two. It’s also one of those books almost everybody claims will read, “When they get the chance,” or says, “Oh, I really want to read that one soon.” Laugh-out-loud funny, often moving, and endlessly clever (you’ll never look at English the same after meeting Alex), this book is a nice segue into all that serious, good fiction you’ve been meaning to read.
7. And the Mountains Echoed, Khaled Hosseini
Those familiar with The Kite Runner, and A Thousand Splendid Suns know exactly what a Hosseini book does to you: It rips your heart out. Sure there’s some cheese, some over-sentimentality, but it’s offset by compelling characterization, and of course, setting. Afghanistan, where half of this novel takes place, is still relevant, still a place Americans associate with violence and fanaticism. Hosseini’s injection of life and universal emotion make an otherwise alien place and culture seem tangible and relatable, and that in itself is important and worthy of attention.
6. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson
Shameless Plus #2.It won the Pulitzer Prize, it’s about North Korean totalitarianism, something totally mysterious and fascinating to myself and many others, and somehow, according to its NY Times book review, it manages to “Offer the reader a tremendous amount of fun.” The Pulitzer Prize committee describes it thus: an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.” It could be the best book you read all summer.
5. The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Like many, I’m sure, after seeing the movie, I was left with two impressions. First: Jennifer Lawrence is attractive in the most unique way, which, refreshingly, has as much to do with her clear devotion and talent than anything else. And second: that’s what The Hunger Games is about? Because as it turns out, these books aren’t Twilight for sci-fi nerds, Harry Potter coattail riders, or any one of the reductive things they’ve ignorantly been called. Yes, they’re easy to read, but they have something important to say about commercialism, and exploitation, and yes, we should listen.
4. Under the Dome, Stephen King
If the new TV show moves you in this writer’s direction, and The Shining, Carrie, The Stand, Salem’s Lot … Pet Sematary, The Green Mile, Shawshank Redemption did not already, then good, because he’s a wonderful writer, and entertainment at its best. King’s output is otherworldly, defines the word prolific, and is itself a living genre. Under the Dome – the gist of which is: An impenetrable dome falls on a New England town, watch what happens – is weirdness, creepiness at it’s finest.
3. World War Z, Max Brooks
This book has actually been around since 2006, and is a collection of personal accounts of the Zombie Wars. It’s been heralded as the savior of the zombie genre. Killian Young, a junior at Northwestern University, particularly liked the small details such as Brooks’ description of obsolete electronics cluttering roadsides. Most poignantly to him, as the last humans travel north, they see “A stained Spongebob sleeping bag frozen in the ice.” This struck him as sad, and it’s a testament to the seriousness with which Brooks takes his zombie world and repercussions of infestation. Like all good zombie stories, World War Z does not have chainsaws and brains as its focus, but rather, the human response to crisis. The beauty is, while critics have had their way with the film, the book survives, and remains highly-regarded.
2. Inferno, Dan Brown
Dan Brown and Robert Langdon are back, this time interpreting signs and symbols from Dante’s “Inferno” to stymie international crime/literature mavens. That may suffice for plot description – we all know what Langdon is going to do, how he’s going to do it, and who’s going to win. Does that make these novels less entertaining? Absolutely not, it makes them more entertaining. Are we going to read it with seat-of-the-pants excitement? Of course. Bonus: Rumor is this Brown’s best yet.
1. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Baz Luhrman cannot outshine this brilliant, miraculous novel, and not Jay-Z nor Lana Del Ray can drown out its music. Nearly a century has passed, and yet, Gatsby, Daisy, Nick Carraway, and the green light at the end of the dock remain emblazoned in the mind playing out the lust, the hope and the decadence of the Jazz Age. Nick’s final words remain resonant, “We beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” because indeed, we are borne ceaselessly back to this, the definitive tale of the American Dream.