Thursday, June 5, 2014

Vacation Reading: Top Ten Tuesday on Thursday

Vacation season is here and whether you're taking your book bag to the beach, the woods or someplace more exotic, here are some suggestions of how to keep it filled.

The Sixteenth of June by Maya Lang

Over the course of a single day, the centenary of the June day immortalized in James Joyce's Ulysses, three Philadelphia twenty-somethings, Stephen and Leo Portman, and Nora, Leo's fiancé, travel vast emotional distances as they move from a morning funeral to the Portman family's annual Bloomsday fete in the evening. A deeply interior novel, we come to know the emotional cores that define these three young protagonists and feel for them as they each navigate critical moments in the passage from life after college towards the next phase of adulthood. The ties to Joyce's book are both heartfelt and at times appropriately ironic, but never fear, this Lang's novel is accessible, contemporary, moving and tightly constructed.

Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro

In many ways I think this book makes a great pairing with The Sixteenth of June. The members of the playgroup who decamp from Brooklyn to Long Island for a funny, tense and disastrous weekend are half a decade older than the trio in The Sixteenth of June, but in many ways they are still confronting many of the same demons and decisions, only now they have children to consider as well. Julia Fierro's debut is wry and funny, but also sharply observant about relationships, class and the struggle to balance the pulls of parenting with our cultural impetus towards autonomy and material success. A hoot to read, but its serious undercurrents will linger if you let them.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

Tragic and poetic, this YA novel about a young girl suffering from trauma induced memory loss is a scathing indictment of the corrupting influence of privilege and prejudice. Seeped in fairy-tales, Shakespeare, E.B. White, Fitzgerald, this tale of a family and an ethos is harrowing, surprising and one of the few books I've read that deserves every iota of hype it has received.

The Fever by Megan Abbott

Megan Abbott once again proves that she is a master of all that is 'dark and twisty' in the lives of teen girls. This time though she explores how families and even an entire town can be drawn into the maelstrom created by competition and secrets. A modern retelling of the Salem witch hunts that is cautionary and thrilling. Read it if you are entering your second year of Gone Girl withdrawal, it's different but I think just as discomfiting, in a good way. Check back here on June 17 for a full review and then go buy a copy from your favorite independent bookseller since this title is one of so many caught in Amazon's bullying of Hachette.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Read this brief, almost aphoristic look at a modern woman's life in a single afternoon. Then re-read it the next day just for the sheer pleasure of the sentences and the insight into the narrator's struggles to manage art, marriage, childrearing, infidelity and more over the years. Its funny and touching and if you don't find some portion that pertains to your life, well, I'm sorry, I think this is a wonderful book. It's not often I read a book from the library and rush out to purchase it in hardback, but in this case, that's exactly what I did.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

This is THE science fiction novel of the year. It's already won the Nebula for Best Novel, top honors from the British Science Fiction Writer's Association, the Arthur C. Clarke Award and it seems poised (fingers crossed) to garner a Hugo Award award as well. Yes, it is a space saga and the main character is the artificial intelligence of a ship and all her soldiers that as the consequence of political betrayal is now trapped in a single human body. Her search for justice and the truth behind the death
of a human comrade and destruction of her other physical manifestations is engrossing, but more importantly it is a novel that asks the reader think hard about colonialism, gender, and how to define being human. Warning, the complexity of the book's narrative it is a bit confusing until several chapters in, but well worth plowing through. This is science fiction that deserves to be treated with the same consideration as more conventionally literary novels that have much the same themes.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This is a sweeping read filled with elegant musings about the natural world and the magic, and the terror and beauty of technology. A World War II novel (and I'll admit I have a weakness for books that use that horrible era as a backdrop) it is overly reliant on plot cliches, but soars in its non-linear construction and reverence for the natural world. The best immersive 'read-read' I've had this year. Plus, the short chapters are perfect for reading in the sun -- consume a few pages, close your eyes or stare at the horizon to contemplate the images, when you return to the book, minutes or hours later, you will relish the pleasure of the meditations and still be able to reenter the story with ease. Glorious.

The Ghost of the Mary Celeste by Valerie Martin

This novel in multiple narratives thrums with ambiguity -- are the ghosts of the titles the memories that haunt the living, or as some of the characters believe, spectres of the dead that attempt to communicate with those left behind? The sea is a character here, filled with the lives it claims even as it lures new victims with promises of wealth, security and reunion with lost loved ones. Martin's novel, the first I've read by this talented author with a long track record, is haunting not for the ghosts it hints at, but for its sensitive depictions of the living. This quiet book is in its way, a tour de force of narrative control and elegance. Read it and marvel at Martin's ability to subtly change voice between narrators and control what we know and feel. A book to read at the sea shore when you are in the mood to remember how mysterious and powerful oceans were just a century ago.

The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Like her former professor, Valerie Martin, Violet writes of ghosts, but hers are tied to traditional Vietnamese folktales. While this well balanced and unified set of short stories is often genuinely frightening, it is also evocative of the disruptions that colonial rule, civil war, and emigration have left in their wake. Remarkably sensuous and violent, Kupersmith's stories are unexpected and even funny when they need to be. At just twenty-four it is impressive Violet Kupersmith understands that small moments can create large emotional impacts for the reader, that discomfiting ambiguities are better than tidy resolutions. A debut of a storyteller to watch and a heck of a lot of fun to read. Just don't share these around a campfire.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A wonderous, romantic, funny and thought provoking book. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s third novel is a sprawling love story that begins in and ends in Nigeria with stops along the way in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Brooklyn, New Haven, Princeton and London. We meet Ifemelu just as she is preparing to return to Nigeria after many years living in the United States where she has become an influential blogger and Princeton fellow. As we learn her history and a bit of her first love's, Obinze, as well, we feel for them as they confront sexism, racism, class divides and what it means to be in control of your own destiny. Funny and smart, Americanah contains a wealth of rich themes, smart accessible writing and a goodly bit of humor. Don’t be intimidated by it’s length or it’s long list of awards, reading this book is a great experience. If it makes you uncomfortable at times don’t worry, it will also make you laugh.


  1. I had purchased The Dept. of Speculation due to loving an excerpt I read. I'm really looking forward to it based on this glowing recommendation.

    1. I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it. I was amazed at how so few words evoked so much feeling and action.


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