Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son. A stunning evocation of mysterious North Korea as seen in the life of Pak Jun Do (who becomes Commander Ga) and his love for Sun Moon. Insightful writing and character development.
Anthony Doerr, The Shell Collector--a diverse collection of finely rendered short stories by the author of All the Light We Cannot See (previously recommended): from the African coast with an isolated blind shell collector who discovers a cure for a deadly disease to “The Hunter’s Wife,” who can communicate with spirits, to “The Caretaker” with a Liberian immigrant who buries whale hearts and saves a young woman from suicide.
Donna Leon for better-than-average beach reads. In 22 novels featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, she provides a tour of Venice and unconventional mysteries with no easy solutions. She has a fine ear for dialogue and is a gifted stylist: an abandoned building with “rusted stanchions holding flowerpots out of which trailed the desiccated memory sticks of flowers” and a crooked art dealer who speaks with “oleaginous civility” (from Drawing Conclusions, 2011).
I'm going to recommend Marlon James's sprawling Man Booker Prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is not particularly brief but is fantastic and well worth the read. With the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976 as the center point of the narrative, James weaves together a novel which draws connections between the Kingston gang wars, the CIA's attempt to destabilize Jamaica's left-leaning government, and even the crack epidemic in inner-city America. A powerful piece of writing that shines a spotlight on the U.S. government's complicated and troubled relationship with the Caribbean.
I would like to recommend Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose novels, starting with the first one Never Mind (they do need to be read in order). The central drama that motivates these five autobiographical fictions is without question grim. The first in the series recounts the hero's rape by his father at the age of 5. The later ones deal with his horrifically self-destructive drug habit as a teenager, his complicated relationship with his mother, and his struggles to free himself from the shadow of his abuse and raise children of his own. But summarizing the plot doesn't really do justice to the incredible power of these novels, which are all very funny as well as bitter, angry, and gripping. St. Aubyn has said that when he started them he had decided that he was either going to write a novel or kill himself, and you can kind of sense the immense self-analytical effort and emotional control that has gone into every word. In fact, St. Aubyn is in my view one of the great contemporary stylists, and the elegant rhythms of his prose, the witty dialogue, and the satirical depiction of his decadent upper-class milieu make him the badboy punk heir of the great English country-house realists from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh. Ian McEwan's Atonement wishes it was as good as these novels! Each one is a quick read, but you do have to read them all! My personal favourite is the fourth, Mother's Milk.
Jessica Hagedorn, Dogeaters
If what you look for in summer reading is a narrative that pulls you relentlessly, this romp through Manila during the Marcos dictatorship will do just that. I love it for all the smart ways it tracks how its disparate characters—from the son of a prostitute to a movie star to military henchmen to the richest man in the Philippines—are connected by forces far beyond their control.
Patti Smith, Just Kids
Smith’s memoir of her intense and intimate friendship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe is a hilarious, fast, heartbreaking, and outrageous affirmation of being alive while experiencing and creating art. For me, it’s a rare and precious document of someone who manages to take herself and her work incredibly seriously without ever becoming pompous or losing sight of joy.
Sigrid Undset, The Kristin Lavransdatter Trilogy, translated by Tiina Nunnally
A 1200-page Norwegian novel written in the 1920s about a young woman growing up in 14th-century Norway doesn’t exactly sound like summer reading. But people from very different parts of my life keep pushing it on me and describing their reading experience in ecstatic terms, so the Nobel-prize winning Undset has moved to the top of my summer reading stack. Come fall, if you’ve also read her, please come find me so we can chat.
This summer, I'm going to recommend the book that has been an international sensation in the past year or two: Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend (2011). Unless you're fluent in Italian, you'll be reading this one in an excellent translation. The novel tells the story of two girls' intense friendship in post-War Naples. It is the only novel I can recall reading that features a true female genius, and it is full of fascinating twists and turns. If you like it, there are three sequels, with the series as a whole comprising 1700 pages. If you happen to get through all of that while lazing poolside, I also recommend the 1993 feminist tour de force The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk. She offers a utopian vision that will blow your mind.
Tove Jansson, The Summer Book
By the author of the wonderful Moomin novels for children--also worth a read--Tove Jansson's The Summer Book is about the day-to-day adventures of an elderly grandmother and a six-year-old girl summering on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland. Jannson captures the vivacity and spunk of both characters as they play, bicker, and day-dream against the rough beauty of sea and forest. Both funny and moving, this episodic set of stories is haunted by a loss that looms over the book but goes almost entirely unmentioned.
Find out why Millennials love the Bern! I’ve just finished The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America by Jonathan Tasini who spoke at Villanova a short time ago. The book is an accessible and quick read for anyone who wants to learn about Bernie’s vision of a forward-looking, sustainable, and more just USA. Drawing heavily on Bernie’s speeches, statements and interviews, Tasini’s book has been called “the most relevant book of 2016” (Barbara Ehrenreich). Don’t miss it!
I would recommend reading Colum McCann’s new collection of short stories, Thirteen Ways of Looking. His lyricism really emerges in the short story, which is where I think he is at his best. The stories are beautiful vignettes from a range of characters, including a retired judge in the title story. He struggled with that story for over a decade, and I’m glad to see it in print. It has some Joycean echoes, but ultimately it is a literary murder mystery that plays on perspectives. Also if you are into reading plays, I would suggest Scorch by the 2017 Heimbold Chair, Stacy Gregg. It just won the Irish Times Best New Play award.
One that I plan to read before leaving Italy is Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Altre Parole, which she also published in English, as In Other Words. She was fascinated by the possibilities of finding new expressions when she moved to Italy with her family, and so at age 47 she gave up writing in English and tried to write and speak only in Italian. Her finding joy in what the NY Times called her "lexical displacement" is what attracts me the most to the book.
I recommend The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd (Viking, 2014). Using as her backdrop the wealthy Grimke family of abolitionist fame, Kidd explores the slave-holding world of Charleston, South Carolina, from the turn of the nineteenth century through its first three decades. The novel is told through the juxtaposed voices of the thoughtful, brilliant but stuttering Sarah Grimke and her slave, Handful, the young girl who has been given to Sarah as her personal property. Kidd beautifully interweaves their lives to reveal the struggles each faces to experience the freedoms they desire just beyond their reach.
Kate O’Brien. I love the quiet beauty of Kate O’Brien’s The Ante-Room and The Land of Spices, and highly recommend her writing. As Eibhear Walshe says, O’Brien’s novels are “deceptively traditional in form but radical in content.” Like many great Irish novels, some of O’Brien’s novels were even banned in Ireland. The Land of Spices, a novel set in an Irish convent, was banned for a single sentence!
David Treuer. There is no better speaker than David Treuer: he’s funny, brutally smart, and incredibly charismatic. I’ve heard him read from Rez Life and Prudence and listened to as many interviews with him as I can. But, I really recommend his writing: from personal essays about fencing and learning from Toni Morrison at Princeton to novels like The Hiawatha and nonfiction like Rez Life, he writes with both clarity and force.
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk
In Ben Fountain's novel, Billy Lynn and the remaining soldiers of Bravo Company are honored for their heroism at a Dallas Cowboys football game. From the national anthem to a halftime performance by Destiny's Child, Billy Lynn struggles in relating his experiences on the battlefield to American spectacle and pageantry. Fountain's work is beautifully written and imaginative in confronting how American culture--not U.S. soldiers--frame the nation's understanding of war.
This summer I’m going back to Dostoevsky’s 19th century novel Crime and Punishment. It’s a great novel, even in the translation by Constance Garnett, which was the version in which I first read it years ago. That old and inaccurate translation has been superseded by newer ones; I’m going with the translation by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr would be a perfect summer book. It's easy to read, has an interesting structure, and is filled with suspense.
Evie Wyld, After the Fire, A Still Small Voice. Not even my kind of book - not just one, but TWO depressed boozy male protagonists - but so vivid and beautiful, in both its people and its Australian flora/fauna, that I loved it all the same.