Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.
And of course, reading is never a waste of time. The number of good books to read is overwhelming, and sometimes I get frustrated when I realize I’ve spent hours reading something that is just OK, when there are piles of other books waiting for me. It’s maddening to go on a trip with several carefully chosen books, only to find that not one of them is especially engaging. That’s when I have to remind myself that I’m not going to love every book, and that even the time spent reading a mediocre book is time well spent. As Will Schwalbe says in Books for Living, “You can learn something from the very worst books . . . even if it’s just one gleaming insight in a muddy river of words.”
Case in point: on a recent long weekend, I packed a couple of brand-new books I thought I would love: The Bookshop of Yesterdays by Amy Meyerson and That Kind of Mother by Rumaan Alam. They were both disappointing, but I learned a couple of things that I probably should have already known: 1) Just because a book centers on an independent bookstore doesn’t mean it’s a great book; and 2) If I didn’t like the author’s first book (in this case, Alam’s Rich and Pretty) it’s unlikely that I’ll like his second.
The third book I read on that trip, which I didn’t start until the plane ride home, was one that I tossed in my bag at the last minute — The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. A terrific mash-up of true crime and memoir, this is one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in years. When she was a law student, the author spent the summer working on an appeal for a convicted child murderer, Ricky Langley. An avowed opponent of the death penalty, Marzano-Lesnevich found herself wishing for Langley’s execution. As she examined the case, eventually spending years studying every detail, she came to a new understanding of her own painful childhood and a radically different view of the legal system.
Here are eight more books I recommend, whether you’re in the mood for easy summer reading (The High Season, The Book of Essie), serious literary fiction (Asymmetry, The Great Believers, The Dependents), something in between (The Locals, Visible Empire), or bittersweet humor (Less).
The High Season by Judy Blundell
This is the quintessential beach book! The High Season is the most entertaining book I’ve read in a long time. Ruthie Beamish abandoned her art career to direct a small museum on the West Fork of Long Island. Now a board filled with social climbers wants to oust her, and Ruthie faces losing not only her job but her beloved waterfront home. Take this one on your next vacation, whether you’re on the beach or not.
Visible Empire by Hannah Pittard
I love books where several plot threads come together in an unexpected way, and I love books based on little-known events in history — so Visible Empire hit my sweet spot. In 1962, an Atlanta-bound jet crashed in Paris, killing 121 passengers, most of whom were prominent in Atlanta society, who’d just finished a cultural tour of Europe. Pittard imagines the aftermath of this tragedy, focusing on several characters connected to the deceased passengers.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
Last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction is that rarest of all literary prize winners — a comic novel. The readers I’ve discussed this book with seem bewildered about why Greer’s novel won the prize. Recent winners have covered the violence of slavery (The Underground Railroad), the legacy of the Vietnam War and the immigrant experience (The Sympathizer), and the horrors of World War II (All the Light We Cannot See). How does a story about a middle-aged gay man traveling around the world to avoid his ex-lover’s wedding compare to these lofty works? Read it, and prepare to be dazzled. The blurb on the Pulitzer website describes the book better than I ever could: “A generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love.”
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
One of my favorite novels of the year, and the only one that’s moved me to tears, The Great Believers tells the story of Chicago’s AIDS crisis in the 1980s through the eyes of Yale Tishman, the development director at an art gallery. Makkai skillfully weaves the story of Yale and his community with two others that are almost as compelling: that of Fiona, his deceased friend Nico’s younger sister, who loses her daughter to a religious cult and goes to Paris to track her down, and Nora, the elderly owner of a valuable art collection she wants to donate to Yale’s art gallery, against the wishes of her family. Don’t start this book unless you have plenty of time, because you won’t want to stop.
The Book of Essie by Meghan MacLean Weir
Seventeen-year-old Essie Hicks is the youngest daughter of an evangelical preacher. Nearly every move she makes is filmed for the TV reality show featuring her family. When she becomes pregnant, the producers, aided by her conniving mother, spin the story by planning a wedding — to be aired on TV, naturally. It’s all rather unbelievable, until you remember the Duggar family (“19 Kids and Counting”) and their fall from grace — and you’ll keep turning the pages. The Book of Essie, Weir’s debut, is an adult novel, but it reads like YA and is perfect for teenagers.
The Dependents by Katherine Dion
The Dependents is a lovely and quiet novel that will linger in your mind long after you turn the last page. In its beautifully rendered exploration of relationships — between husband and wife, parent and child, and friends — it reminds me of Alice McDermott’s fiction. Another reviewer mentioned that the book reminded her of Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety (I assume because of the focus on the lifelong friendship between two married couples), and that is high praise indeed.
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
When Lisa Halliday was in her twenties, she had an affair with Philip Roth. Her debut novel is about a young editor who has a relationship with a famous author who bears a strong resemblance to Philip Roth. At least, that’s what you think this novel is about — until the second section, when the narrative focuses on a Muslim man detained at Heathrow. Imaginative and thought-provoking, Asymmetry is a “literary phenomenon”, according to the New Yorker. It’s the kind of book you’ll want to discuss the minute you finish it. Less than 300 pages long, Asymmetry raises more questions and covers more territory than most books twice its length.
The Locals by Jonathan Dee
Just after 9/11, a wealthy New Yorker, Philip Hadi, moves his family to their vacation home in the Berkshires, and quickly becomes involved — perhaps over-involved — in local politics. Meanwhile, Mark Firth, a contractor who’s remodeling Hadi’s house, faces his own problems. As the novel progresses and tensions between the locals and the interloper escalate, Dee introduces a cast of characters in fictional Howland, Massachusetts, each with a distinct voice. The Locals is reminiscent of Richard Russo’s upstate New York novels — but with a bit more of an edge. There’s plenty of material for a book group discussion; I’d start out by asking why Dee included the first chapter, narrated by a New York City con artist who never becomes important to the story.
What four-star books have you read recently?