Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Summer Reading

One of Lake Forest's great treasures is its wonderful "indie" bookstore. On the southeast corner of Market Square, Lake Forest Book Store ( is within walking distance of my house, and Woki and I are there on a regular basis. (Yes, they allow him in the store, and I'm delighted to report he has been well-behaved. So far.)
Everyone on staff at L.F. Book Store is knowledgeable and friendly, and they have an amazing inventory. What they don't have on hand, they can usually get in a day or two. My family all know my fav gift is an L.F.B.S. gift certificate. I try (usually unsuccessfully) to save my certificates until this time of year, because once school is out, it is officially Summer Reading Time.
Of course, I read all year long, but there's something special about summer reading. It feels more indulgent, more escapist, more magical than any other reading. I have an enduring image of sitting on a white wicker swinging chair on the big, wrap-around veranda of a Victorian house, glass of lemonade within reach, lost in a great book. I don't know where this comes from; I've never lived in a Victorian house, never sat reading in a swinging chair. Perhaps I read that scene. Nevertheless, it is what I picture while I peruse the book reviews, browse the bookstore, and compile my summer reading lists.
I have two lists--middle level and upper level. The middle level is comprised of books I read ostensibly to advise my students about the best titles for 4th through 8th grade. The truth is, I enjoy many these books tremendously and recommend them to anyone who wants a good read. I think a lot of adults would be surprised that many of the stories deal with tough issues: death, divorce, abandonment, and abusive behaviors. Kids have never had it "easy" even in the most priviledged environments, and any adult who thinks childhood is all innocent sunshine should read the stuff our kids are reading. Four of the best that I have read recently include: Loser by Jerry Spinelli; The White Giraffe, by Lauren St. John; Alabama Moon, by Watt Key; and The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.
There is also a genre known as "Young Adult" which puts the above issues in an even harsher light. These books, while often compelling, poignant, and beautifully written, are not for readers younger than high school. Violence, sex, drugs and alcohol, and the gritty realities of life are treated frankly. Foul language is prevalent. It is a sign of our times that many (not all) of these books, which would never have made it past censorship in another era, are indeed, literature depicting modern life. The best that I've read include: Looking for Alaska, by John Green; Every Visible Thing, by Lisa Carey; The Absolutely True Diary of a Pat-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, and Slam, by Nick Hornby.
As for upper level titles, the ones I've read and would recommend are too numerous to mention. Well, okay, here are just a few: Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan; The Hounds of Winter, by James Magnuson; Home Safe, by Elizabeth Berg; Off-Season, by Anne Rivers Siddons; The Condition, by Jennifer Haigh; The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, by Shaffer & Barrows; and The Kindness of Strangers, by Katrina Kittle. These titles run the gamut from gentle (Geurnsey Literary) to vivid renderings of our worst nightmares (Kindness of Strangers), but each has that special quality of transporting the reader effortlessly to another world.
In my continuing quest for good stories well written, I have created my new list for this summer. Admittedly, it is a little ambitious, but there are so many choices. I've managed to narrow it down to 37. For now. I never recommend books that I haven't read, but with that caveat, I will mention a few of the titles that are on the list: Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon; The Gift of Rain, by Tan Eng; Galway Bay, by Mary Pat Kelly; The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak; and City of Thieves, by David Benioff.
I would welcome any comments and any further suggestions for great summer reading. In the meantime, I'm going to fetch a glass of lemonade, head for my deck chair, and get started on the first 37.