By Ben D’Alessio
It’s April, and that means it’s time to get my (way too early) summer reading list together. The following picks are books I’ve read since the last list and think deserve notoriety for any number of reasons. Besides #1, they aren’t in any particular order.
Leave a comment for more info on any of the books.
Also, feel free to check out any of my novels, which can be enjoyed any time of year.
- Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862)
You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment after finishing Victor Hugo’s epic tale of class, power, revolution, justice, moral philosophy, and God. Simply put, it’s one of the greatest stories ever told. It meanders, purposefully, and covers topics and time periods that do not move the plot for the central characters. Perhaps a purist would disagree, but it’s ok to skip these sections, if the page length is keeping you from cracking open the book. You’ve probably seen the play, either on stage, T.V. or silver screen, which I love. However, in the original novel form, the characters are so developed, Jean Valjean’s triumph over his tribulations so poignant, that I implore you to read it. It’s cut up into volumes following inter-connected characters over the span of 30+ years. There’s far too much for me to detail in this short review, but Jean Valjean has to be one of the most important literary characters of all time. He faces unfathomable obstacles and injustices. His morality is put through the meat-grinder. He’s a saint amongst men, and he’s only part of the story.
I also think you’ll appreciate Hugo’s writing when you’re not cursing him for taking you on yet another digression, this time concerning the Paris sewers or the Battle of Waterloo.
Leave your phone in your room and start it on a beach, by a lake, on a balcony. Pair with a Burgundy or Bordeaux — it doesn’t matter that it’s white wine weather, this book demands the lasting impact of red.
(I had over 20 for this book, some being entire paragraphs, so I’ll only select a few here.)
“To travel is to be born and to die at every instant.”
“Paris is the ceiling of the human race.” He has a few concerning the City of Light, but this is my favorite.
“The oysters are spoiled, the servants are ugly. I hate the human race.”
“To love, or to have loved — this suffices. Demand nothing more. There is no other pearl to be found in the shadowy folds of life.”
2. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón (2001)
Although the rest of the works on this list are in no particular order after #1, The Shadow of the Wind was a close second to the best book I read in the past year. The son of an antiquarian book dealer in Barcelona is searching for answers concerning the author of a mysterious book who has been missing for over thirty years? You sonofabitch, I’m in. If you keep the timelines in order — we’re dealing with a story within a story situation here — this is a fantastic read. Fascist military police, crumbling mansions, forbidden love, bordello piano players, the gothic quarter, and out-of-print novels, are just a handful of the plot points in this book. The backdrop of a city both before and after the Spanish Civil War — one of the most interesting times in European history, if you ask me — is the perfect canvas for these fleshed-out characters. Daniel is the kind of protagonist that pulls you from start to finish, but Fumero is the character who stuck with me the most. Maybe Fermin isn’t necessarily “rags to riches,” but he’s rags to dignity, nonetheless. The word length is on the longer side, but you’ll breeze through the chapters with the aid of Zafón’s engaging writing. I loved this book. I think you will too.
“Money is like any other virus: once it has rotted the soul of the person who houses it, it sets off in search of new blood.”
3. The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom (2019)
From April 2020 to April 2021, I made the decision to read more Non-Fiction books. The Yellow House will be the first of a few that made it onto this list.
I’ll read pretty much anything that is set in New Orleans. And while Broom’s memoir does contain parts that take place in the famed French Quarter and other recognizable neighborhoods, the eponymous “Yellow House,” where the author spent her formidable years, was located in New Orleans East. It’s a geographically huge section of the city, but a troubled afterthought of a neighborhood that even some maps excise from its borders altogether — this out sidedness is a crucial part of Broom’s identity. Her family takes pride in this house. She shares the history of the neighborhood and how it has come upon its troubles. Broom takes us to Burundi, NYC, and North Texas, but her story is a New Orleans story. The Yellow House is a memoir about the always touching, universally felt concept of “home”.
“[I] wanted only to go, make a life, even if temporary, in distant elsewheres.”
4. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada (1947)
First, what a title! I’m sorry to report that it precisely sets the tone for this anti-Nazi book about civil disobedience. I wanted to use the “courageous” when describing Otto and Anna Quangel, but recently learned what Aristotle actually meant when he described “courage,” and am afraid that their actions fall far more on the “reckless” end of the cowardice-recklessness scale, in which “courage” sits in the middle. Their act of resistance, which is a capital offense in Nazi Germany, is leafletting… leafletting… (Still want to curb Free Speech here?). Beset with the loss of their conscripted son in WWII, first Anna, then Otto, use what little power and resources they have not sit silent as the plague of Nazism ravages Europe and beyond. It is a novel, but (horrifyingly) based on a true story. As good of a story as it is, the story about the author and the translation adds to the book’s mystique. Fallada battled personal addictions, was hospitalized and institutionalized and died weeks before the publication in 1947. The book (somehow) wasn’t translated until 2009, when it immediately became a best seller. For all its darkness, there is something so inspiring about this defiant couple. Every American must read this book.
“Even if they conquer the whole world, we must refuse to become Nazis.”
“Who wants to die? Everyone wants to live, everyone — even the most miserable worm is screaming for life! I want to live, too. But maybe it’s a good thing, Anna, even in the midst of life to think of a wretched death, and to get ready for it. So that you know you’ll be able to die properly, without moaning or whimpering.”
5. Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre (2003)
I can (almost) guarantee that this book will be like nothing you’ve read. Disturbing, absurdist, Kafkaesque, Pierre’s novel set in the heart of Texas hits at the heart of America. Central Texas barbecue, grifters, CNN, pedophilia, a horrific school shooting, courtroom drama, and a game show lottery that determines the fate of Death Row inmates are all part of this haunting — and funny — book. There are a few parts that are difficult to follow, but overall it is a satisfying and quick read. Vernon God Little is dark comedy at its finest. You’re strapped into a rollercoaster and your clip just unclamped.
“Brad Pritchard is on the rug in the living room, pretending you can’t see his finger up his ass. Everybody pretends they can’t see it. See the way folks are? They don’t want to smutten their Wint-O-Green lives by saying, ‘Brad, get your fucken finger out your godamm anus,’ so they just pretend it ain’t there.”
“Tyrie is the kind of Texan who takes his time telling you to fuck off.”
“‘Me ves y sufres’ — See me and suffer.’”
6. The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin (2016)
My growing interest in the topic of reincarnation anchored this book for me. Four-year-old Noah begins to recall events he couldn’t possibly know and ask his single mother, Janie, questions that she couldn’t possibly know the answers to. When Noah describes in detail what sounds like a murder, Janie seeks help from a controversial professor of psychology, Jerome Anderson. Janie needs answers and Jerome needs to validate his research on reincarnation, a topic that has embarrassed him in his field and made him an academic pariah. I wasn’t engrossed the entire time reading the book, but the subject matter is fascinating — and Janie so sympathetic — that I needed answers to Noah’s logic-defying questions: Where is my real mommy? First, listen to the Supernatural podcast episode and then read The Forgetting Time. You won’t be disappointed.
*No bracketed passages for this one.
7. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
An American classic. In Holly Golightly, Capote created a literary icon. Holly is charming, cunning, and also naïve. Through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, we are permitted a short-term view into Holly’s exciting, but also depressing, life as a “café girl” in 1940s Manhattan. At only approximately 25,000 words, the novella flies by, which is a sin. The writing is also exceptional, which isn’t a groundbreaking statement but needed to be said. Word for word, it’s the best-written story I’ve read all year, I just wish there was more of it. I want an 80,000-word novel about Holly and the rest of these characters, but that’s not what we get. Maybe you’ve seen the movie, which is also excellent (I “pocket reviewed” it here), but the ending is much different in the novella — for the better — and Holly is a more comprehensive, “morally gray” character in written form. I’d read In Cold Blood twice already and am annoyed it took me so long to get to Capote’s other truly great work. Don’t make the same mistake. Read Breakfast at Tiffany’s this summer.
(While describing “cat,” the cat) “We just sort of took up by the river one day, we don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent and so am I. I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it’s like.”
8. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (2003)
A non-fiction book written in a novelistic style (similar to In Cold Blood), Larson’s book concerns two parallel stories: the design and creation of the 1893 World’s Fair and H.H. Holmes, one of America’s most heinous — and possibly first — serial killers. Set during the mesmerizing “Gilded Age,” when the heights for what humanity could create appeared endless, The Devil in the White City makes scenes about industrialists in smoke-filled rooms conjuring up plans for the fair just as gripping as a killer luring yet another victim to her doom, a testament to Larson’s writing. From how he tells it, the fact that the Chicago World’s Fair ever happened, let alone was a smashing success, is a miracle in and of itself. True crime junkie? History buff? Appreciator of good storytelling? You’ll breeze through this book.
“It was this big talk, not the persistent southwesterly breeze, that had prompted New York editor Charles Anderson Dana to nickname Chicago ‘the Windy City’.” — You just learned something new today.
9. Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (1978)
Keep track of all the characters — many of whom live at 28 Barbary Lane — and you’ll love this book. Maupin describes a San Francisco that is unfortunately no longer with us. Nevertheless, the characters range from newcomers to established socialites, straight, gay, and bi, and white, Asian, and black (maybe? No spoilers). Each character has their own struggles and, for the most part, you sympathize with them all — or at least have an interest in their storyline. It’s a quick read, at 71,000 words, and if you want more, Maupin has made an entire series concerning the city and the inhabitants at the famed (and fictional) 28 Barbary Lane. I really have to enjoy a book to pursue the series, and this first installment just might’ve done it.
I don’t have any bracketed passages for this one, but looking back, I think the epigraph is spot-on:
“It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco.” — Oscar Wilde
10. Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley (2008)
You may not have the slightest interest in 16th century Mediterranean history, but I’d still recommend that you read this book. Filled with epic battles and sieges, pirates, slaves, crusaders, Sultans, Emperors, and Kings, Empires of the Sea is a book I needed to keep coming back to like a salty snack. From the jump, I was entranced with how Crowley introduces us to these historical figures, sacred orders, and tone of a European continent terrified of the growing Ottoman Empire. I suppose it could be broken into three sections: The Capture of Rhodes, The Siege of Malta, and The Battle of Lepanto. The writing is so enjoyable and substance so spellbinding that I’ve already added Crowley’s 1453 to my reading list. If you’re into figures battling for the soul of Europe, this book is for you. If you’re looking for something different than your usual book choices, but are afraid something historical will be boring, I assure you this will keep your attention until the very last page.
“[There] were brief moments of mutual recognition, like footballs kicked into no-man’s land. On August 31, a janissary emerged from his trench to present his opposite numbers with some pomegranates and cucumber in a handkerchief, and our men gave back in exchange three loaves of cheese. It was a rare moment of common humanity in a conflict devoid of chivalry.”