As we all know, the summer is one of the best times to catch up on your reading – or to get ahead on it. So whether you will be doing your reading on the subway, in bed, on a road trip, or hopefully on the beach, here are a few BKDG recommended reads for Summer 2013, a list that includes some classics, some overlooked books, and some soon-to-be classics.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This is the most obvious choice on this list. Baz Luhrmann’s film version, a hyper-stylized mish-mash of classic lit and pop-culture, hit theatres several weeks ago; English teachers are already pre-ordering the DVD. But that cultural overload shouldn’t stop you from digging into one of the best books about modern America, a text that is a classic for a reason– it’s really good.
It’s good for two simple reasons. One, the writing. Second, its motifs are ones applicable across generations. One of the most persistent themes in American mythology is that of transformation and self-determination. The hardest lesson of The Great Gatsby, like that of other great American works about reinvention (see The Wire; Citizen Kane) is that wholesale change is never easy or complete, that there are no clean breaks, that where and what you come from matters.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
A graphic novel about author Satrapi’s childhood in Iran before, during, and after the Islamic revolution. Drawn in sometimes playful, sometimes arrestingly serious black and white, it is completely different than many books you might read on the beach. The central narrative thread of the story is Satrapi’s coming of age– The Story of a Childhood concerns her early adolescence in Iran; The Story of a Return is about her teenage years living in exile in Europe and her early twenties back in Iran. That thread runs through a backdrop of political and turmoil and does what some of the best books like this do– The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Diaz for example– make you care about a complicated main character and larger historical events all at the same time.
Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
This bildungsroman (a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character) centers on Benji Cooper, a child of upper middle class black privilege, a student at a posh NYC private school who in the summers heads out to Long Island with his family and has to play catch up on black and popular culture. This is 1985; private school is comfortable and pre-internet, catching up on what is “cool,” when you don’t see it everyday, requires quick and in-depth study.
Benji’s family summers in Sag Harbor, an enclave of upper-middle class blackness, a place of comfort whose houses and community were earned and built with hard work. The book is about Benji’s summer in Sag Harbor and his concentrated effort to pick up pop-culture, girls, and a sense of where he fits into the world. There isn’t really a plot, nothing really “happens,”– there is no explosive climax, sudden plot turn, or tempestuous romance. Like the summers of real adolescents, there is no explosive incident that changes everything, instead there are a lot of small events that are scrutinized and considered in an abundance of wryly-detailed observation.
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro
We’ll admit it, the length of this book makes it a tall order as a summer read, but it’s worth it. Think of it as a nonfiction Infinite Jest.
Robert Moses was the urban planner responsible for most of the New York institutions that we take for granted– the BQE, the LIE, the Verrazano-Narrows bridge, and many more. He was also, as this book points out, a complicated figure who was able to consolidate political power as a non-elected official in a way previously unimagined. To read this book is to understand the creation of 20th and 21st century New York and to understand how the modern American city runs on the back of a network of political and nonpolitical alliances and influences.
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Pynchon’s classics are several decades in the past: V, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, etc., but thankfully he keeps writing, as well as, oddly enough, appearing on episodes of The Simpsons. Pynchon’s earlier novels are steeped in paranoia and postmodern pastiche and are a product of the 1960s academic counterculture’s violent realization that postmodern capitalism and government can be very bad, and very creepy. This book channels Pynchon’s earlier themes – paranoia, confusion, and dislocation – but the book is seemingly more interested in being a fun detective novel. It features Larry “Doc” Sportello, an ex-surfer and private investigator living in Southern California in 1970 who gets involved in a network of weird plots. This text is thoroughly Pynchonian but it’s more of a fun, summer-baked, work of genre fiction.
Actual Air by David Berman
Outside of his poetry, David Berman is best known as the singer for Silver Jews, the now–defunct Drag City act birthed from the same mix of people as Pavement. We first heard about this collection via an endorsement from Billy Collins and from another by McSweeney’s. It rapidly became one of our favorite collections of contemporary poetry. It is accessible and fun in a way that doesn’t insult the reader. It is weird, slyly funny, often bemusedly sad, and frequently beautiful. Berman’s poem “The Charm of 5:30,” one of the better American poems of the last decade, is the perfect summer poem: “It’s too nice a day to read a novel set in England. / We’re within inches of the perfect distance from the sun, / the sky is blueberries and cream, / and the wind is as warm as air from a tire. / Even the headstones in the graveyard seem to stand up and say “Hello! My name is…”
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
This is another perhaps obvious choice, but an entirely appropriate one. If often seems that people are either all in or all out on this book. The jazz-obsessed subculture that Kerouac’s characters move in is of its time but its restless counter-cultural spirit and its wonder-full cross-country traversal transcends its age. This is one of the best books for a road-trip: if you don’t feel like shacking up with your friend’s boyfriend or girlfriend after taking amphetamines, you’re not living summer to its fullest.
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
We would be remiss if we didn’t include a book about Brooklyn on this list. For some reason, some of the best summer books are coming-of-age novels. Perhaps it’s because when you are young, summer holds more promise and mystery than it does when we are adults. School is out, days last forever, and the world is totally different.
This is one of the best books about Brooklyn in recent years. It spans thirty years of Boerum Hill and centers on a white, comics-obsessed adolescent, Dylan Ebdus, and his similarly comics and graffiti obsessed black friend, Mingus Rude. This is Boerum Hill when it was Gowanus, before gentrification and new-money. Artists and working class families live in the brownstones and a local neighborhood figure wages a campaign to rename the neighborhood Boerum Hill. The first half of the book concerns Dylan’s childhood in Brooklyn, hanging out with Mingus, getting picked on by the neighborhood kids, seeing his mother leave, and his father retreat into an isolated silence. It then flashes forward to Dylan’s college years and the Cobble Hill of the 1990s. It manages something tricky: to be a story about growing up, and a story about Brooklyn itself.
Citrus County by John Brandon
This is another coming of age novel, but it’s one of the weirder, more off-putting ones we’ve come across. Toby is a maladjusted adolescent growing up in Citrus County, Florida and who commits a startling crime early in the book. Although the book is about the crime, and the weird creepiness of its aftereffects suffuse the rest of the book, it’s at heart a book about weird teenagers just trying to get by and to grow up.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor’s American south is a season-less landscape where ill ease permeates even the most pedestrian of moments. Day-to-day normality is interrupted by peaks of eerie malevolence and discomfort that belie any sense of calm that the mostly unknowing characters take for granted. O’Connor’s stories in this volume feature, among other things, a bandit called “The Misfit,” a cold paragon of morality obsessed with the idea that Jesus threw off our sense of morality, and a roaming group of children who appear on a woman’s front door one night and whose presence threatens to burn her house and farm down.
We hope you’ll give one of these books at try this summer; please let us know your thoughts below in the comments. This summer we aim to catch up brand new releases and perhaps write up a second reading list at the end of the summer. If you have any recommendations, be sure to pass them along!
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