I always dreaded that back-to-school essay we had to write about What We Did Over Summer Vacation. Like most kids, I didn’t have a lot of control over my summer activities (I pretty much just went to swim team practice). If it were up to me, I’d have spent the summer before 4th grade training for the Iditarod, and the summer before 7th grade ranching and sauntering around in dusty chaps. A more revealing essay topic would have been: What I Read Over Summer Vacation (in which case the teacher would have learned that I read Dog Song by Gary Paulsen before 4th grade, and Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty before 7th grade). I may never have had full say in where I spend my vacations, but I’ve always enjoyed complete autonomy when it comes to my reading list.
My in-laws live in North Texas. I can just hear what you’re thinking. At least it’s warm, and there’s BBQ! Wrong, my friends. In North Texas, near the Oklahoma border, it’s cold, flat, and windy. The upside of our annual visit (besides getting to play Scrabble on the Official Scrabble table, where the tiles are 24 karat gold-plated–really) is that reading time passes completely uninterrupted. Feel free to recline on your husband’s childhood bed, alternately reading, napping, and eating the gummi bears your mother-in-law brings to you. Because you’re not missing anything! I highly recommend their home as a holiday destination.
And so, here is my answer to the question I always wished my teachers had asked after vacation – What I Read:
Before we even left home, I finished Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. I started this at my mother’s suggestion over the summer, and I swear I didn’t finish it until holiday break because I just didn’t want my relationship with the characters to end.
Next I read The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, a short novel that won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Immediately, the tone of the book reminded me of the anecdotes a dear friend of mine tells me about his youth. He was born in the late 1930s and his stories are alien to me both because they revolve around actual key moments in our cultural history (like stumbling into a Cream concert by accident, or listening to early Miles Davis albums as they are released) and because he’s lived with his memories long enough that the telling of each story is more important than how he feels about what happened. Like the protagonist in Barnes’s novel, my friend has the patience to wait for events to run their course, he accepts who he is, he’s not blinded by pride or vanity, and yet the truth behind his memories still has the capacity to surprise him.
Then I read In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard, and what a delight it was. It’s like Judy Blume for grown-ups, conveying all of the humor and intensity of adolescence with the depth of theme and strong, potent writing of the best literary novels. Beard completely captures what it’s like to be a teenage girl. The novel opens with a scene in which two 14-year-old babysitters hesitate to call the fire department because…it’s embarrassing. It’s funny because it’s true, people.
I re-read and forced my husband (he was more than game!) to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. For my money, this is one of the greatest books of our time. It’s intense, harrowing, funny, provocative, and chock-full of knowledge bombs. My last order of business before leaving for the holidays was to acquire a graphic novel by Isabel Greenberg, who just won The Observer Cape Graphic Short Story award. As Isabel sets off on the mission to turn that short story into a brilliant novel of her own, I wanted to remind myself of the transformative, unique power that a graphic novel can wield.
I was lucky enough to read an upcoming novel about the Iraq War called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Michael Pietsch acquired it late last year, and Little, Brown will publish it later in 2012. Someone at the office compared it to The Hurt Locker but I think it’s far more powerful, and the writing—about the deserts of Iraq and the farmland of Virginia—is beautiful and lyrical. The juxtaposition between the war and home, and the details Powers chooses from each landscape, are small facets of this novel’s brilliance. I know it’s one that is going to generate a huge amount of attention and discussion upon its publication; it’s the sort of novel that’s an honor to read.
I ended the vacation with The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. The book has been recommended to me by everyone from Julie Barer, Wilson’s agent who snagged me an ARC, to Time Magazine, who included it as a pick for the Best Fiction of 2011. Think From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Everything Matters! by Ron Currie, Jr. A wild, fun book about art, family, and chaos, it was a perfect reminder of what a privilege it is to work in publishing. I am lucky enough to have early and ready access to what’s long been my favorite thing: good books.
Cheers to a new year, friends!
P.S. One of my resolutions for 2012 is to read more nonfiction. If you know a book that will catch a novel lover’s full attention, feel free to point me in that direction in the comments section below.