My husband Jon has frequently commented that my cooking might taste better if I did not regularly read novels while I cook. I tell him that this is a charming detail about me that will elicit loving laughter when he mentions it during his eulogy at my funeral. He finds this annoying, for whatever reason. He then says something like, “A smoke alarm should not be what makes you put down the book,” or that normal people do not have books in the drawers under the stove. Well, I never said I was normal, hon.
Here are some recommendations for those few-and-far-between moments you might snatch for yourself this summer. This list is both newer books and older ones, paperbacks and hardcovers, fiction and non, spanning various levels of intellectual rigor–though you will note that a certain bondage fantasy has conspicuously been left off the list!
Please feel free to add suggestions (along with a little topical blurb) in the comments. A friend of mine mentioned she was going on a no-television-summer…and now that Mad Men and Game of Thrones are over, I may join her. Kveller book club, anyone?
1. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn: This one is why my family’s dinner will be burnt tonight. I just bought it this morning and am riveted. It’s the story of a man whose beautiful wife, Amy, goes missing in a foul play scenario on their fifth anniversary. As the reader, you’re hooked as you go between the husband, Nick’s, retelling of what’s happening in the investigation, and journal entries from Amy. It’s not just a “whodunit,” though you’ll be dying to know, but it’s also an intelligent and piercing look inside the wildly weird and dysfunctional world of a marriage. Terrific.
2. The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal: A friend recommended this to me and it is a wonderful and unusual nonfiction book. Written by a non-Jewish potter living in England, it’s the multigenerational story of his Jewish ancestors, the Ephrussi family, who journeyed from Odessa to Paris to Vienna to Tokyo. The Ephrussis were not only wealthy businessmen, but were also collectors of netsuke–miniature Japanese sculpture. This is a fascinating story of how art survives when people and religion do not, and where the three intersect.
3. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach: If you’d told me I’d love a book about a baseball star in college, I’d tell you that you had the wrong person. But this novel is so well-written that the subject matter, a baseball prodigy recruited by the fictional Westish College and apparently bound for the majors, somehow reeled me in. It’s also a story about growing up, Herman Melville, and unexpected loves and disappointments–a new potential “Great American Novel” (far better than Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, by the way, which made me roll my eyes all through my honeymoon).
4. The World to Come, by Dara Horn and Help Wanted, Desperately by Ariel Horn: Yes, I have two sisters who are also writers…and yes, between them they have five completed published novels whereas I, to date, have none (working on finishing mine before this baby pops out in October, so stay tuned!). But let’s show them some sisterly love. Dara’s novel The World to Come is my favorite of hers. It’s a story about many things, among them what happens when a guy goes to a singles mixer at a museum and leaves not with someone’s number, but rather, with a stolen Chagall. It’s beautifully written and the last chapter is one of my favorite chapters of any book, ever. My other sister Ariel’s book, Help Wanted Desperately, is a lighter and much funnier read about a college grad locked in a desperate job search that has her careening from one potential job to another, from advertising and journalism to phone sex operator and earthworm breeder. It is actually laugh-out-loud funny, and not just because I play a thinly-veiled cameo as the older sister Julie, a nice caring and loving sister who, due to her job as a big firm lawyer, regularly lapses into narcolepsy.
5. The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern: This is a book that will truly make your jaw drop at the splendor of its sheer imaginative scope. Morgenstern conjures up a world of real magicians and real magic, where a mysterious traveling circus entertains adults as well as children. Sure, there’s love, there’s romance, there’s intrigue–but to me, this book was amazing because of the unbelievably splendid landscape of the circus. Morgenstern’s imagination is not only fertile, but feral, and while the plot’s end didn’t hold up to the beginning in my opinion, it was still worth reading for its gorgeously wild creativity.
6. The Expats, Chris Pavone: This book unfurls a complex plot–former CIA spy now turned housewife-mother-of-two moves to Luxembourg with her IT security husband, but it becomes clear that both members of the pair may have more secrets than they’d let on–with a deftness and ease that seems utterly uncanny. An intricate plot like this, involving spying, international financial transactions, guns, and lies, shouldn’t read as easily or amusingly as it does. But it does, which makes it a terrific summer read.
7. City of Thieves, by David Benioff: You already know this guy’s work–he wrote the screenplay for Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (an amazing film), he is one of the creators of one of my favorite shows, Game of Thrones, and is married to Amanda Peet. But this is another one of those books that seems to spool effortlessly off the writer’s pen. He recounts the story (true? Not true? We don’t know) of his grandfather’s survival of the Nazis’ attacks on Russia during World War II. It’s a tense and dramatic story that will definitely have you ignoring your friends and children as you read on to find out how it ends. Or so I’d imagine (ahem).
8. The Lost, Daniel Mendelsohn: This one is a tough nut to crack–long and daunting, it’s a history of one man’s family among the millions murdered in the Holocaust–but is well worth it. It is one of the best books I’ve ever read, without question: beautifully written, hauntingly told. A must-read for anyone interested in the pleasure of brilliant, great writing, let alone a history of the Holocaust.
9. The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff: You’re not sure what this book is when you pick it up. Is it a horror story, about a 50 foot corpse of a monster that rises up from an upstate New York lake? Is it a family saga about multiple generations of a family in a Cooperstown-esque setting? Obviously, it’s both, but the way it walks the fine line between the two–and with exquisite, jewel-like writing–makes it a stunning book.
10. The Year of the Gadfly, by Jennifer Miller: This story, unfolding at a Massachusetts prep school, follows Iris Dupont, a teenage would-be journalist who quickly discovers a secret society at her new school and discovers the town has many untold secrets as well. It’s part Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, part Heathers (don’t make like you don’t know what I’m talking about), and all good.