Welcome summer… what’s made my reading list

Freshly bought and waiting are the books to be tackled next, pictured with my antique parrots (one from Prague, one from Budapest, paired like content old friends at the Connecticut antique shop where I found them).

My summer reading list is dominated by new writers whose work I am excited to read. In a writers’ community, I’d become impressed with the intelligence and perceptions of Ida Hattemer-Higgins over the past years, so was quick to buy her first novel, The History of History, on its spring release. Similarly, after reading her short stories in several journals and Best American Short Stories anthologies, I eagerly looked forward to the June release of Rebecca Makkai’s first novel, The Borrower. Ellen Meeropol’s House Arrest intrigues me with its story (an excerpt is available here), as does The Reservoir, released this week by John Milliken Thompson.  Thompson’s is an historical mystery set in Richmond, Virginia — one of my former homes and sources of inspiration.  Worth noting: each of these writers have been touring with their book, so check their sites to see if they will be coming near you.

A handful of writers have made my reading list as a result of the coincidences that happen when following links online. Matt Bell’s collection How They Were Found, made my Kindle after rediscovering one of his stories at an online litmag. I found Amy Greene online and am excited by praise of her novel, Bloodroot (Vintage Contemporaries)Nathan Englander hit my radar, and his The Ministry of Special Cases made my reading list as the first of his books I found while shopping. Seth Fried’s collection, The Great Frustration: Stories, drew my interest first when my son and I cracked up over his clip of the book’s “placement” at Barnes & Noble (click this link — funniest if you’re also a writer), and then reading one of his stories online.

These newer books were not on the shelves on a search at Barnes & Noble, but I came home with a stack of intriguing books (for which I must give shout-out to B&N’s educator discount).  Before its announcement as winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, I bought Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin in part, at least, in envious love of its title. Likewise perhaps, Sarah Braunstein’s The Sweet Relief of Missing ChildrenIsabel Wolff drew my interest with her A Vintage Affair, perhaps as a throwback to my Richmond college years, combing vintage clothing stores for dresses from the 30s, stoles, my collection of boleros and military jackets, and amazingly sculpted velvet and net hats.

Tobias Wolff’s relatively new novel, Old School, hit my radar as assigned reading for rising 9th graders at a competing prep school.  As it happens, the novel hits well beyond a 9th grade level — more satisfying to adult readers with an appreciation for the writers who feature as characters in the book, including Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Hemingway. It’s a smart, insightful novel. An observation on Wolff’s use of duplicity as character motivation provoked a great new insight into one of my own characters, in a story in progress.

I have really enjoyed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, in the same way I miss the grace and intelligence of my grandparents. Written by a lifelong librarian (finished posthumously by her niece), the novel is written as an extended exchange of letters, which reveal a poignant insight into the era of Nazi occupation and the bombing of London.  It makes my recommended reading list as testament to the lost era of letters, as well as for its historical intelligence, spirit and wit. And yes, as a History and English teacher, I found ways to use it in teaching WWII history.

Scat, by Carl Hiaasen, came to me as assigned summer reading for my oldest son, a rising 5th grader. He is a reluctant reader and, sweet Pete, I’ve hated so many of the books he is assigned. Insipid characters. Vocabulary that frustrates without adding learning or meaning. Don’t even get me started on poor storytelling. Insert miraculous light opening from the clouds as we start this year’s summer book and Hiaasen’s clean, intelligent prose leads my son to understand effective storytelling, character development, precise vocabulary and wit. Ahhh.

Then there’s the queue of unread classics I keep on the Kindle app on my phone. Going under the dryer at the salon, my phone hinted it was time I undertake Leo Tolstoy’s War & Peace. Memory serves, I first fell in love with Tolstoy a decade back, with Anna Karenina keeping me company over the summer months (then, in the fat chunk of a paper book).

On bookstore runs, I always bring home at least one literary magazine (why would they carry them, if we don’t buy them?), so issues of Fiction, Zone 3 and Southern Review  add to the daily short stories that make my reading list.

I’m interested to read Charles Baxter’s Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, but more interested to track down his essays on writing fiction, Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction, as he is one of the workshop leaders whose advice most often comes back to me.

Finally, Leonard Sax’s writings hold an important place on my summer list. As a mother to sons, and now as a teacher, I’ve had powerful observations into the emotions and unique thinking of boys, and how those are not often met in education.  Boys Adrift, therefore, is on my list to read before school starts again in August.

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