I confess that I do not like the majority of “must-read” summer lists.
Usually, it’s because most of them just happen to be whatever is on the best-sellers at the time.
Likewise, I have always had a love-hate affair with summer. One one hand, I welcome the sunny days and balmy nights. On the other, the intense heat and humidity of long Southern summers can be overwhelming at times.
In a nutshell, everything seems more intense in the summer. It’s probably no coincidence that popular culture places a great amount of emphasis on the so-called “summer fling” as well. The fact is, flings can and do happen at every time of the year, but the intensity of summer (for better or for worse) seems to make them more intense if not more memorable.
Depending on where I am at in the season I may be feeling many things or even appear to be many different people all at the same time. The list below is for people who are at different stages in this sunny season. The best thing is, you don’t have to be in any particular stage or state of mind to enjoy these books: there truly isn’t a bad one on the list.
Even if life is calm and chill right now and the most challenging task you face all summer is choosing which beach to relax on, pick up one or all of these—you won’t regret it.
1. Lila Says by Chimo
For those of us desiring a connection.
First published in 1996, this slim tome was a best-seller in its native France. Reportedly written by an anonymous teenage growing up on a poor public-housing complex outside of Paris, Lila Says tells the tale of a highly unusual friendship between the narrator, Chimo, and a bewitching teenage goddess called Lila who has recently moved in the same apartment building to live with her aunt. The outspoken Lila, who is claims to be an expert on sex and who boosts about having had many “sugar daddies”, seems like an unlikely match for the shy, inverted Chimo, but the two nonetheless become close.
While the novel’s shocking ending and Lila’s explicit language may have had the critics buzzing what strikes me most is the theme of universal human connection and the need for love, and how far we will go to impress someone in the hopes that they may love us. Real or not, Lila and Chimo stay with the reader look after the end of the book.
2. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great by Judy Blume
For those us who need a confidence boast or need to know we’re amazing just the way we are.
Long before a younger generation had Katniss Everdeen to look up to, I had my own girl power role model in the form of the “annoying” Sheila Tubman. What struck me the most was that Shelia didn’t have any superpowers. She wasn’t overcoming great odds or saving her family from death and destruction. Rather, the obstacles that Shelia faced was the stuff I was already familiar with: the fear of passing her swimming lessons, boys saying she had cooties, and trying to fit in an a completely alien world. (In the NYC-born and bred Shelia’s case, that would be the suburbs.)
Unlike many heroines, Sheila is far from perfect or even near-perfect. She doesn’t succeed at everything she sets out to do; however, she tries her hardest and that is what ultimately matters the most.
Towards the end of the novel, she starts to realize that she may never completely fit in with her suburban summer friends, but she asks herself how many of them, if left to their own devices, could negotiate their way around NYC the way she can? (Come to think of it, how many adults could either?)
Shelia is right: she is great.
3. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
For those of us who feel the end is near or has happened but are determined to live through it.
It may sound weird to call a dystopian funny and surprisingly optimistic, but leave it to master storyteller Margaret Atwood to accomplish this feat.
The second of three novels in The Oryx and Crake Trilogy (The third being MaddAddam), The Year of the Flood tells the respective tales of two women who have survived a man-made virus which has wiped out most of humankind. While Toby and Ren couldn’t appear to be more different on the surface, they nonetheless show a tremendous amount of moxie and perseverance when it comes to staying alive and more importantly, retaining their humanity even though they may well be the only humans left alive on earth.
While all three novels are interconnected, Year of the Flood is my favorite because one doesn’t have to read the others to make sense out of The Year of the Flood and it is the only one told from the women’s point of view. Plus, the novel is full of Atwood’s dark humor as well as some useful tips for surviving an apocalypse. (FYI: The common weed, purslane is edible and a great source of vitamins while bed sheets, rather than clothing, makes a better choice of attire in steaming hot, global-warming caused summers where there is no such thing as air conditioning.)
4. 100 Love Sonnets by Pablo Neruda, translated by Stephen Tapscott
For those of us who have ever been in love or want to be and cannot find the right words.
This collection of poems considered a classic for good reason: when it comes to expressing the language of love, no one can top Neruda.
Written for his wife, Matilde Urrutia, these lush, sensual poems will have even the most die-hard cynic swooning. Out of all the translations, Tapscott’s is my favorite because he manages to do the almost impossible and keep the original meaning and feeling when translating Neruda’s words from his native Spanish into English.
I also love that the original Spanish is right next to the translated English version in this volume.
If we only own a single book of poetry, then it should be this one.
5. Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
For those of us who want to change the world, and want to know how to start.
Written by husband and wife journalists and the basis of a recent PBS series, Half the Sky is not light reading. While most of us know that women around the world have it rough, many of us know just how rough it is for many. (For example, until I read this, I did not know the equivalent of 5 jumbo jets of women die each day in childbirth and that the vast majority of these deaths can be prevented.)
However, this book is not about presenting glum statistics and having the reader throwing the book across the room in despair. Rather, it highlights the work that real, every day people are doing to improve the lives of women and girls around the world whether it is ensuring they proper medical care, fighting sexual trafficking and slavery, or investing in equal education opportunities for all.
Best of all, there is even a chapter about what the reader can do right now to make a difference, and it doesn’t require a ton of time and/or the bank account of Bill Gates to make a positive change.
In closing, summer is a time to enjoy many things including reading. For those tired of the usual summer thrillers or potboilers, the selections here are sure to cure that.
Therefore, grab one or all of these, curl up by the pool or on the couch and be prepared to get your intellect, mind, and heart stimulated.
Even if the only fireworks we experience are those we see on the 4th of July, at least we can say we spent our summer with some damn good reading.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photo: Anne Adrian at Flickr