By some secret law of lists, “summer reads” often settle on books that are light and fluffy and happy. Like a marshmallow, they are usually too sticky and sweet for my taste. What about a list for us wretched assholes who prefer to spend the summer wallowing in a someone’s else’s misery?
On holiday, I cut myself off from my regular writing regime to focus on the people I’m with — I understand this is called “relaxing.” As my real life is relatively drama free, this means I have dangerous spare capacity to obsess over…what? While a happy book might distract me temporarily, it’s far easier to become completely consumed by an epic novel full of anguish.
Over the years, I have a developed specific criteria for the books that I want to read over the summer:
–The novel must have a high page count, a minimum of 500 but preferably cresting at 800. This is crucial, because I want to have something that I can sink into for a good number of days in a row.
–I’ll want to read in 75- to 100-page chunks at a time, because this is precisely how long I need to hide from other human beings on any given day.
–I have to be dying to get back to the story. The urgency must be genuine — this helps make my pleas for reading time feel authentically desperate.
–And most importantly, the plot should involve hardship, anxiety, and a certain level of suffering; these hold my occasional bouts of existential dread at bay.
So, like a marshmallow caught on fire, please enjoy the burnt crust of my epic summer reads:
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
This book is a complete kick in the ass. It’s beautiful, big, and full of empathy. Every single one of your 21 senses will be plunged into the social chaos of India in the mid-1970s. From slums and squalor come friendships, and, in comparison, how could you dare feel intolerant of your own family?
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Jason Diamond recently tweeted the last paragraph from a 1992 profile on Donna Tartt. “Look at these goldfinches…Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They’re the last to settle down…” If you haven’t read The Goldfinch, please understand that in this quote Tartt gives a pitch-perfect plot synopsis of the nearly 800-page novel she would go on to write some 21 years later. This is an author who deserves your undivided attention. If you worry that small birds sound twee, rest assured the section of this book that takes place in Las Vegas will sort you out.
Fall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie McDonald
It was sometime in 1997 that I started to figure out how the world might work. I credit this book with helping me grow up that much faster. It’s devastating and terrible, and funny, a wicked combination.
Adam McKay: If you are listening, before writing the script for the Theranos film could you read this book first? I ask for the dose of empathy that can make an ambitious character feel real:
Everything in New York is a photograph. All the things that are supposed to be dirty or rough or unrefined are the most beautiful things. Garbage cans at the ends of alleyways look like they’ve been up all night talking with each other. Doorways with peeling paint look like the wise lines around an old feller’s eyes. I stop and stare but can’t stay because men always think I’m selling something. Or worse, giving something away. I wish I could be invisible. Or at least I wish I didn’t look like someone they want to look at. They stop being part of the picture, they get up from their chess game and come out of the frame at me, blocking my view.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The only problem with categorizing Yanagihara’s novel as a summer read is that it is hard to read and, on occasion, you might have to take a break. If you do, don’t carry the book around with you! Your cousin will see the cover and feel confused and ask what it is about. And if you tell him, he will then ask, “Why would you read something like that?” Don’t answer. Head back to the hammock and keep reading. You’re on holiday, after all.
The Orenda by Joseph Boyden
Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, recently gave Barack Obama a copy of Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road. It’s set in WWI and in the wilds of Northern Ontario and is a great book, but his more recent The Orenda is the book that earns a place on this list. A decent page count, murders, torture plagues, a cut off pinky, and you are good to go.
A House For Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
Some people say this isn’t Naipaul’s best novel and they are wrong. This is Naipaul’s best novel. It follows the path of a man to middle age as he searches for autonomy — a house to call his own. This resonates, especially when on holiday. If you wrote as beautifully as Naipaul, you could buy your own house. Or cottage? Or rent a hotel room on the other coast…
Barkskins by Annie Proulx
If this list sticks in any way, your summer read is Barkskins. Enjoy the burn.
Image Credit: Flickr/Ray Bodden.