The (Almost) Summer Reading List

I know, friends that it’s not yet summer. Trust me, I know. Boston  
has apparently decided that Mother Nature’s iPod is going to play the  
Make it Rain (remix) over and over, and it is forcing me to stay  
inside, which is making me cranky and nearly translucent. And while  
I’ve been sitting here in my room amongst my boxes of (limited  
edition!) sneakers and Island Spa scented Yankee Candles, I’ve been  
staring at all of the books that I’d been meaning to read whilst  
slaving away on my thesis. And I’ve decided that it is time that I  
got off my (well-toned!) literary duff and started reading again lest  
I forget how to properly use nouns.  So here is a list of some of the  
books that I’m going to tackle over the summer, the reasoning for  
doing so, and the song from 1988 that comes closest to characterizing  
what I think the point of the book is.

All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
The new new Benjamin Kunkel, Gessen is the editor/founder of n+1 lit  
mag and I’m supposed to read this book because it’s by a youngish guy  
who writes about guys, but kind of in a literary way, which is what I  
always thought I was going to be when I grew up. I am also supposed  
to have strong feelings about this book one way or the other and  
express those feelings to people who ask in aggressive and  
exaggerated tones. Obviously, this book is putting a lot of pressure  
on me.
Most fitting song from 1988: Man in the Mirror by MJ

De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage
This book came to me highly recommended by my dad, someone who no  
longer reads American fiction because it is “boring” or “not by  
someone Scottish.” This book isn’t by a Scott either as Hage is  
Lebanese, lives in Montreal and writes about civil war torn Beirut.  
Maybe my dad didn’t know. A review from some Canadian newspaper on  
the back of the book reminds someone Canadian of Hemingway. This  
appeals to me, because I like Hemingway and Canadians. A potential  
Song from 1988: I Don’t Want to Live Without You by Foreigner (more  
for the band than the song)

Only Love Can Break Your Heart by David Samuels
I am a sucker for collections of essays by journalists I dig. And I  
dig David Samuels. He’s the dude who wrote the story about Britney  
Spears and the Papa Razzi for the Atlantic. He also writes for The  
New Yorker and Harpers, which makes him automatically obnoxious to  
talk to at dinner parties. Despite this potential downside, I love  
his work and celebrate collections like this, because they remind me  
that I should be a better journalist if I’d only get over my fear of  
hard work.
Song from 88: Everything Your Heart Desires by Hall and Oates

Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willet
Something you may not know about me: I don’t like funny books. I like  
books that have humor in them, but I need a point to the story. I  
can’t stand humor for humor’s sake. I just get upset about it, in  
some sort of meta-outside-the-Matrix type way. This should explain  
why I have a piece of paper taped above my desk that says “Forced  
Humor= Kill Yourself.” Regardless, this is allegedly a hilarious book  
with a point. I am nervous because of the hilarious title, but more  
than willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Plus I understand  
it has a decent amount of stuff about weather, which is interesting  
to someone who has to stay inside all day thanks to Mother Nature’s  
insufferable inclination to drop April Showers in May. Wow. Sorry you  
had to see that.
Song from 88: Devil Inside by INXS

The Bottom Billion by Paul Collier
This is a serious look at “why the poorest countries are failing and  
what can be done about it.” It takes care of two gifting birds with  
one stone for me. One, it momentarily neutralizes my occasional bouts  
of terrible liberal guilt, which I assuage by giving away things or  
reading intellectually heavy books like this one. And two, it  
fulfills my insecure notion that I need to be educating myself  
through whatever I’m reading as if I might be tested at any moment in  
some sort of impromptu Jeopardy match. Market research tells me  
otherwise but hey! It’s fun to be prepared.
Song from 88: (Not so) Perfect World by Huey Lewis and the News

And that is that. More songs will come as time passes and the weather  
thaws, but please drop your own fantastic pseudo summer booklists in  
the comments portion of the show, and try and avoid  operating heavy  
machinery while ingesting le music de 1988.

Catch Me,
(I’m Falling)

Pretty Poison

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15 thoughts on “The (Almost) Summer Reading List

  1. Mindy

    Stacey- ‘Of Mice and Men’ I haven’t ventured yet, but will one day get to, I hope. And I didn’t figure you had read Grapes of Wrath, but I wasn’t much older than you are when I did, and I really enjoyed it. Just make sure not to read the last part first in that book, lol.

    Genevieve – Thanks for sharing that quote. Makes me feel a little less guilty… 😉

  2. Genevieve

    I’ve never read Steinbeck, but I’ve always been curious about his work. Because he’s, you know, popular. I think it’s admirable when a writer (like Christopher Moore) admits that he or she copies their idols. My writing workshop teacher shared a T.S. Eliot quote that I like: "Bad writers imitate, great writers steal." I might have already shared that one with you guys, I have a terrible memory. Anyway, he said that when you write like your heroes eventually your own voice emerges.

    Stacey, I still love most of the books I had to read during the summers of high school. When you get older you’ll probably assign yourself a summer reading list, just like us nerds on the commentary.

  3. Tom

    I just read Grapes of Wrath within the past year. Excellent stuff! I don’t know if it would have held my interest when I was younger, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would also like to read Cannery Row. Got interested in Steinbeck from the author I noted earlier, Christopher Moore, who writes screwball humorous fiction with an occasionally dark twist, and some of the most sympathetic treatment of characters I have ever seen, particularly in his book "Lamb, the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal." (Yes, that’s the actual title.) Impressed by Moore’s treatment of his characters, I was very interested to hear him repeatedly say that he took that from Steinbeck, and Cannery Row is one of his favorites. I’ve not been let down by following up on that lead.

  4. Stacey

    Mindy – I actually haven’t read Grapes of Wrath. I think I will end up reading it next year though. I just tried wikipedia-ing it, and it sounds like it’s interesting. I didn’t really like Of Mice and Men (especially because I read the last sentence before the first sentence, which pretty much ruined the whole resolution) because I thought it moved along slowly – but that’s just me. I think Grapes of Wrath sounds much better from the breif description I just read. I also enjoy a lot of the books they assign in school. 🙂

  5. Mindy

    Stacey – I liked to Kill a Mockingbird, also. Some of my favorite books are the ones they assigned in school. And for the record, I’m not TOO much older than you and defintely wasn’t when I read Grapes of Wrath. 🙂

  6. Tom


    I’ve read about The Giver, which was also a Newbery winner. It forms a sort of loose trilogy with Gathering Blue and Messenger. I like the ideas presented in it, and it sounds like it deals with some pretty strong subject matter, especially considering the age group. Good choice!

  7. Stacey

    To add to Tom’s "dystopian novel" project, The Giver by Lois Lowry is a good book for children around age ten. I read it two years ago and thought it was marvelous. 🙂

  8. Stacey

    My summer reading list is the Newbery Award winners and the Newbery Honor books. The plots are sometimes slow-moving, but the books are written real well and they’re quite enjoyable for people my age and younger. I’d also like to read a good biography. I don’t really like Steinbeck, but that’s probably because I’m not old enough to appreciate his writing. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was pretty good. I had to read it in school this year. I’d like to read a good book over the summer in each genre.

  9. Carla Jenkins

    The majority of my summer’s reading list will be Dummies books since I am studying for the GRE and preparing to reenter my MA in Economics program this fall.

  10. Mindy

    My summer reading list is short: East of Eden by John Steinbeck. It’s taken roughly three years(!) to get through half the book. I devoured Grapes of Wrath in high school, and assumed I would do the same with this one. Alas, it collects dust while I trod through Jane Austen and C.S. Lewis multiple times.

    Tom- Your list makes me want to hit up the library. 🙂

  11. Tom

    I am currently in an uncomfortable position where I’m discovering tons of new books and authors and feel immense frustration that I cannot give up my day job and turn my efforts over solely to absorbing quality literature (or merely enjoyable crap, depending on the book/author). There are three or four William Gibson novels that I think I’d like to read now as well, touching back on the near-future fiction (as well as dipping the toe into cyberpunk, ’cause I’m cool like that).

    Kev has mentioned some authors in the past that had me perusing Amazon and Wikipedia a bit, and I think there might have been a Thomas Pynchon novel that I liked, and maybe that guy who wrote for The Wire as well.

    Genevieve, tough work on those three novels. I’ve read Animal Farm, which is at least blessedly short, if not terribly uplifting. I’ve not read A Clockwork Orange. When I got back from Europe a few years ago I somehow got in the pseudo-habit of saying "shite" and "mate," which got me some strange looks at parties for a while. Your new blog is already a favorite of mine. I’m only bummed that there aren’t more entries!

  12. Genevieve

    Wow. Those are pretty good lists. Kevin, it’s awesome that you listed books I’ve never heard of before before I love discovering new books. Tom, I once read 1984, Animal Farm, and A Clockwork Orange all in one summer and I was a little more bizarre than usual for a few weeks. Plus, I had incorporated outdated British slang into my vocabulary. So if you go loopy on us for a while I’ll understand.

    I just finished reading (I give you permission to laugh) The Idiot’s Guide to Yoga. I’ve never read an idiot’s guide to anything before, and I found it helpful as a westerner to have eatern philosphies broken down in bite-sized, chewable peices. Next on my list is the play Fences by August Wilson and The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty.

    Kev, you’re Scottish? No way, I’m part Scottish! Scottish and Cajun, but my sisters and I feel closer to our Scottish roots. Though all three of us have different tastes in music, when we hear the bag pipes all three of us get rowdy, like it gets into our blood. Sorry, this had nothing to do with books. Um, have you read good Scottish literature lately?

  13. Tom

    Book lists. Excellent topic! Particularly notable by me in that lately I seem to have acquired the habit of taking on way too many projects (including reading) at once. (See the recent "I’m going to read over 1200 pages about Bruce Springsteen in seven days" project. That failed, by the way, and I’m finishing up 700 pages three weeks later. Hopefully.) At any rate, I press on with the following gems that have been brought to my literary forefront in recent weeks.

    My "dystopian novel" project, spawned by a friend who is reading 1984 now. In not really any particular order:
    1. 1984 by George Orwell – No, I have not read it yet, despite it being exceedingly popular during my high school days, which coincidentally, took place during part of the title year. If you wanna get all snooty about it, parallels have been drawn about the novel’s "culture of fear" as an oppressive tool and the Bush administration. I’m not of a particularly strong political bent, but thought control is a creepy subject, and this book is supposed to be "rad" as we would have said back in 1984.
    2. The Iron Heel by Jack London – One of the early American dystopian novels, interestingly written as a "found" manuscript with footnotes throughout by the finder illustrating at times both how incorrect the original writer’s thoughts were and how incorrect the finder’s ideas are in the current date.
    3. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – It’s Ray Bradbury, man! I actually read this one years ago, but I’m going to go back through it with the benefit of my many, many years of wisdom tacked on for greater understanding of the text. A "Fireman" in the future starts fires (burning illegal literature) rather than putting them out. Mechanical dogs, the government’s control of art and rewriting of history. Good stuff.
    4. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin – Russian dystopia. In a world made of glass people are required to wear suits so that none can be differentiated from the other. Sleep times and intercourse are metered out according to a system of pink coupons. The protagonist, D-503, is beset by demons of inner conflict between himself and his society. Since it’s Russian, I can claim that I want to be more well-read on an international scope, and not that I’m just curious about the whole pink coupon thing.
    5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – Art, science, and all other forms of human expression have been set aside in favor of creating a "perfect" society. (If you’re a writer, how can this concept not grip you with interest and/or fear?) The government provides conditioning and drugs to keep everyone happy. Sex and drug use are prominent and wide-spread (no coupons, though). Henry Ford is recognized as a diety of sorts. Reproduction is strictly controlled, and death always occurs at age 61 (or maybe age 60 or 62…just often enough to waylay any suspicions, ya know?). However, everyone is happy…or are they?
    6. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut – Machines are created in order to take over all the menial tasks of men, leaving an upper class that cares for the machines, and a lower class that has been made useless, since they once did the work of the machines. Kurt said that he "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World, whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Eugene Zamiatin’s We." Society is now made up mostly of thinkers rather than doers, because, well, there ain’t much left to do now that the machines are at work. A subversive society rises to destroy the mechanically-based regime. (Gotta love the secret society, a key ingredient in most dystopian fiction.)
    7. The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells – A man awakens after a 203-year nap to find that he essentially owns the entire earth, his wealth having been expanded upon many times during his slumber by a trust group. The protagonist is pretty freaked out by the state of affairs, however, and no one will give him a straight answer. Some folks want him dead, because he really wasn’t ever supposed to wake up. The underclass (a little too large to be a secret society here) a threatening to revolt. Mayhem ensues. I won’t spoil the ending for you, which would be hard for me to do, having not read it myself yet.

    In an apparently uncharacteristically non-dsytopian move, I also want to read Christopher Moore’s "Fluke" and "Coyote Blue" because that guy is friggin’ hilarious, writes with a wonderful sense of fun and sympathy for his characters, and because I’ll probably need a massive lit-break from all the oppressiveness in the previous seven novels.

    If, later in the summer, all my responses here start sounding rather fascist, oligarchic, totalitarian and grim, you’ll know why.

    Remember, Big Brother is watching you.