For my 2nd annual (way too early) summer reading list, I plucked seven books that I had the pleasure of reading for the first time during the past year off of my shelves. Each one offered me something different and can be enjoyed at any setting, but I put out one of these per year and am sticking with my childhood favorite season: summer.
Lastly, if you want to check out last year’s list, you can do so here, wherein I mention my disdain for the term “beach book.”
If you have any opinions about the books listed or have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments.
1. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
The first year the Man Book Prize opened itself up to American novels, The Sellout took home the gold. On a personal level, it is a toss-up between Beatty’s masterpiece and Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint for the funniest book I have ever read, but for completely different reasons. Quite frankly, The Sellout is satirical perfection that tackles issues including race, father-son relationships, slavery, gentrification, and I’m sure plenty of others I’m leaving out. Some of my favorite lines include:
“If Jean Valjean had me representing him, then Les Misérables would’ve only bee six pages long — Loaf of Bread Pilfery.”
“True freedom is the right to be a slave.”
“Spanky didn’t do shit but fuck bitches.”
And plenty of others that I won’t do justice quoting out of context — I’m referring to you “been white for 10 minutes” joke on page 188.
*Bonus note for my law school friends: Clarence Thomas (Beatty just calls him “the Black Justice”) absolutely loses his shit in the prologue, which juxtaposed his bench persona as a mute, is well worth checking out.
2. The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist
Going in a completely different direction, The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, is dark, to put it bluntly. To begin, she is a Swedish writer and the novel takes place exclusively in Sweden — I don’t mean to stereotype, but the Swedish tend to write some bleak books. Parts of the book don’t flow as naturally as I’d like, but that is due to the translation and it is still well worth the read.
The Unit takes place in a dystopian Sweden where single women without children are deemed “disposable” at 50 (men at 60), removed from their homes, and taken to a cross between a resort and a prison. Inside, while closely monitored and taken care of by staff, they endure rigorous medical and physical testing, and eventually are required to donate organs until they perish. Unlike Never Let Me Go — the other organ-donating focused novel — where adolescents (well, adolescent clones) are raised to carry out the same function, Holmqvist’s book focuses on those who already have a life behind them, and with it, memories; I’m not sure which is worse.
3. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
The winner of the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award, Flowers for Algernon is the classic story of a mentally disabled man named Charlie, who takes part in medical testing — simultaneously with a lab mouse named Algernon — and eventually surpasses in intelligence the very doctors who treat him. It is a deep novel that explores the themes of intelligence and ignorance, love, happiness, and power.
Most notable about the book, however, is the writing style. The beginning chapters are difficult to read, so much so it may turn readers off from the book. But the misspellings and improper grammar are used to show Charlie’s rise from a man with a IQ of 68 to a genius who stumps university professors and experts in the field.
But as Algernon’s faculties begin to deteriorate, Charlie fears his intelligence may be short-lived as well.
Notable passage: “Now I understand one of the important reasons for going to college and getting an education is to learn that the things you’ve believed in all your life aren’t true, and nothing is as it appears to be.”
4. Native Son, by Richard Wright
Native Son (1940) propelled Richard Wright’s career and established him as one of the best writers in America. His protagonist, Bigger Thomas, is a young black man living Chicago’s South Side in abject poverty. It seems that Bigger has been given a ticket out of the dreadful conditions when a rich white family offers him a job as their personal driver, but Bigger’s destiny supersedes such notions.
Bigger is arrested and put on trial for the rape and murder of his employer’s daughter, and throughout it all does not portray a shred of remorse.
When I first began reading this book, I despised Bigger. He is unlikable and ungrateful and even at his best can be difficult to root for. In the end, that’s the point — Bigger is supposed to be unlikable and act as a lens to view the very machine that created him. I commend Wright in his choice of creating a wholly unpleasant protagonist. It begs the question of whether we should view the system (housing, legal, social, all of them?) through the people who endure it or simply as the system itself.
5. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
Fascism takes hold in America in Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 satirical novel, It Can’t Happen Here. Published before the United States entered WWII, Lewis was warning about an evil that at the time many Americans were generally apathetic to. Unlike stories that portray a world where the fascists came out victorious and imposed their ways on the United States, Lewis’ book imagines an America where we bring it upon ourselves. However, his prescient message is just as alive today as it was over 80 years ago. Here are some examples:
Anyone remember “Freedom Fries”? See, sauerkraut = “Liberty Cabbage”.
When describing Buzz Windrip, America’s dictator: “There was no more overwhelming an actor on the stage, in motion pictures, nor even in the pulpit. He would whirl arms, bang tables, glare from mad eyes, vomit Biblical wrath from a gaping mouth… he would coldly and almost contemptuously jab his crowds with figures and facts — figures and facts that were inescapable even when, as often happened, they were entirely incorrect.”
And lastly, the cry peppered throughout the book, even when every happening points to the contrary, “It can’t happen here!”
It Can’t Happen Here is never in the same conversations as 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, et al., when it absolutely deserves to be.
6. Modern Lovers, by Emma Straub
Friends from college and former bandmates find themselves thirty years down the line in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. As they have started businesses or embarked on fulfilling careers (or neither of the two), the triumvirate of Elizabeth, Andrew, and Zoe (along with Zoe’s wife, Jane) endure the challenges of middle-age. The passions of college — especially the legacy of their fourth bandmate, Lydia, an overnight star who unfortunately joined the “27 Club” — continue to creep into their present relationships. In addition, the pairs’ children, Henry and Ruby, begin dating each other in a passionate summer-before-college romance that complicates the fomenting dysfunction of their lives.
I enjoyed Modern Lovers because, as someone stuck in the middle of both age groups (I’m 27 myself) I can look back and sympathize with the frustration of high school romance and academics (especially that bastard the SAT) and perhaps learn from the struggles of middle age from the four “adults.” The book also offers an intriguing view of contemporary Brooklyn, a borough (albeit a massive, diverse borough that if separated from NYC would be the 4th largest city in the US) that is too often associated with the worst aspects of gentrification.
7. City of Refuge, by Tom Piazza
As this is my final list written from my apartment in New Orleans (that is until my novels become hugely successful, providing me with lucrative book deals and the freedom to spend winters in the Crescent City, scribbling away in my French Quarter apartment — hey, something has to get your ass in the desk-chair every night), I had to include at least one novel that was written by a Big Easy author and takes place in the city I love. That brings us to Tom Piazza’s City of Refuge.
Following two casts of characters — a transplanted, white family in affluent Uptown and a native, working-class black family in the Lower 9th — Piazza offers two starkly different stories of life in New Orleans in the build up to, during, and in the aftermath of, Hurricane Katrina.
Of course, being a white outsider who lives Uptown himself, I most associated with Craig Donaldson, the alternative magazine editor who loves New Orleans to a fault — no, I’m not exaggerating, his love of the city may split his family apart. Moreover, Craig constantly feels as though he has to compensate for being a non-native by indulging in every New Orleanian tradition and celebration that he encounters, and I get that. Perpetuated by shows like HBO’s Treme, where you look like a jackass if you haven’t heard of (“insert obscure jazz musician here”) or haven’t had a Po’boy from (“insert hole-in-the-wall joint located across the city from your neighborhood here”), outsiders can feel like they need to disguise their otherness like a cold sore.
Whether you’ve lived in New Orleans for your entire life or have never stepped foot in this city, Piazza’s novel offers the reader a story about a sense of being, denial, coping with tragedy, and the decisions we make when all hope is lost.
Ben D’Alessio is a writer and law student in New Orleans, LA. He is the author of the novels Binge Until Tragedy and Lunchmeat. Both are available on Amazon and the publisher’s page. 25% of profits are donated to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN).