Often times, as I am being pulverized by my arch-nemesis — writer’s block — I stare with gloss covered eyes at my ever expanding bookshelf. Novels, historical fiction, and biographies slowly push my law-school books farther and farther to the bottom levels. I fantasize about being able to download each book into my brain while retaining my favorite nuggets of plot, character development, and quotes — being able to recite them on command like a party trick: “I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects. A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.
But alas! Such powers are not yet afforded to us mere mortals. So I must settle for the next best thing: summer.
Simply put, I love summer. I love summer in the sappiest, most Americana of ways, which for me growing up in New Jersey meant chasing lightning bugs on the front lawn, attending baseball camps, and reading on that beloved sliver of coast known as the Jersey Shore.
So hopefully this (way too early) summer reading list will excite you for those three months I adore and give you a reason to crack open a new book — or one you haven’t “read” since high school.
**This post contains explicit language**
1. The Drifters, by James A. Michener
Okay, so this is actually my favorite book of all time. For years my mother prodded me to read this book any time the topic of “reading” came up at the dinner table. And for years, in typical child rebellion fashion, I ignored her advice. But reading The Drifters (*cliché alert) changed me as a person.
Michener, a master of extensive, impeccable research, weaves in history and contemporary issues with a diverse set of characters representing California, Philadelphia, Norway, Israel, and others. Set in the tumultuous 1960s, to the backdrop of Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Mozambique, the “Drifters” themselves are the group of young travelers you wish you could be a part of.
I suggest starting this book today because you’ll want to book a plane ticket to somewhere “out there” the moment you finish it.
I owe a lot to The Drifters and Mr. Michener, as his work very much influenced my own book now available on Amazon with the first few chapters available for free and on the publisher’s site.
2. The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak
Word of advice, always stop at the little free “libraries” that look like oversized bird houses posted on people’s lawns. I promise you’ll find gems. It was in one of these “libraries” I found The Bastard of Istanbul.
Elif Shafak, born in France to Turkish parents, spending her youth in Madrid and Amman, and living around the world in Boston, Michigan, Arizona, Istanbul, and London, has a unique “cosmopolitan” identity that she openly values. It is no surprise that the characters in her book also have identities that do not fit into cultural narratives. With each chapter named after a spice, food, or flavor — Cinnamon or Vanilla, for example — The Bastard of Istanbul hits all of the senses and weaves the characters’ plots together beautifully.
What I love about the book is how a piece of history — in this case the Armenian Genocide — takes different shapes depending on who is telling the story. The book is 10 years old, but I think the message is more relevant today than it was a decade ago.
*Side note: Ms. Shafak was charged with “insulting Turkishness” in accordance with Article 301 of the Turkish penal code and faced up to three years in prison — the charges were eventually dropped. For some reason I immediately gravitate toward any book that is “banned” or the cause of governmental persecution.
3. Gone For Good, by Harlan Coben
I hate the term “beach book.” I read Gone For Good in the dead of winter, and although it took a little while for me to get into (I had just finished Silence, by Shusaku Endo and needed something less… heavy) I am happy I saw it through till the end.
Besides a lot of the book taking place in my neck of the woods of Essex County, NJ, Coben’s book is a thrill ride with more twists than a 1959 spring mixer.
Here’s my advice: everyone did it. No one did it. She’s alive. No she isn’t.
Ben, who is alive? Did what, exactly?
So fine, if yelling “No fucking way?!” on the beach in Lavallete makes this a “beach book” (as the San Francisco Chronicle says on the back cover) then I guess I can’t argue.
4. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Is there a single book that conjures up more of an image of summer than Harper Lee’s magnum opus? No, there isn’t. You know the plot. You “read” it in high school. Read it again. I still have my copy from high school that looks like it was given to me by a… Sarah Cohen? Doesn’t ring a bell. Anyway, Atticus Finch is southern gothic’s white knight, and I think we could all use a champion right now.
5. Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith
I had never heard of Mr. Smith and only bought this book because it was the only interesting sounding novel written in English I could find in that particular establishment. (Café Ubik, Valencia, Spain). I was not disappointed.
Only Forward is a thriller on steroids. In a dystopian future where the “city” expands the country (UK) from coast to coast, neighborhoods are their own mini-worlds with their own laws. In one neighborhood the only rules are THERE ARE NO RULES, and gratuitous violence is commonplace. In another, everything is at maximum efficiency and even the slightest delineation from perfection could send the entire neighborhood into chaos. One neighborhood is inhabited entirely by cats. Cats! There’s a joke there somewhere. And then there is the dream world.
Stark, the protagonist, is almost so cool he’s a stereotype of a detective. Take my advice and adventure with him, you won’t be disappointed.
6. On The Road, by Jack Kerouac
So I’m continuing my theme of adventure and going with the American adventure novel. Again, we all pretty much know the story (if there really is a story to know?) and I believe in each American there exists a desire to hop in the car, hit the open road, and burn, burn, burn. Unfortunately, we have jobs…. and school…… and other…. obligations… …….…. … So do the next best thing, and throw on some Dizzy Gillespie and crack open a fresh copy of On The Road. You might even need some benzedrine to keep up!
**NOTE: I don’t condone the use of benzedrine.
7. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
Ignatius Riley is all of us and none of us. When I moved to New Orleans it was the first book I bought at the local bookshop down the street.
“Hi, do you have A Confederacy of Dunces? It’s by…”
“Yes. No shit.” Okay, he didn’t say “no shit,” but he was thinking it.
That’s because if you ask anyone in this city Dunces is New Orleans. While many writers visit and/or move to New Orleans to be inspired, to love, to drink, John Kennedy Toole grew up here and his book is considered the absolute best example of capturing the unusual beat and (most importantly) accent of the city that is so commonly misrepresented. This is a book of characters the way New Orleans is a city of characters, and Ignatius is no exception. His ability to talk his way out of even the most miniscule amount of work makes a younger me envious. Love him, hate him, you are him — in one way or another.
I loved Mr. Toole’s book so much I named my cat after him.
*Side note: If you don’t know JKT’s story or how this book got published, I highly recommend checking it out. Spoiler alert*: It’s heart wrenching.
I may add to this list as we inch closer to summer or I may just make a new list altogether. These were all books I’ve read and love. I’d like to hear back from anyone who found a new love from this list or re-united with a past love that’s been collecting dust.
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).