Every spring, I eagerly anticipate the coming summer, lazy days swinging in a hammock reading book after book. Maybe there’s cute little cat roaming around the backyard while I turn the pages and sip a cool, fizzy beverage. The problem is that I don’t have a hammock, backyard or a cat.
Even without the hammock, I’ve managed to spend some extra time reading this summer, indulging in other lives, characters and experiences. Here are the highlights:
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Wow. Seriously, wow. In her latest novel, Adichie rips open a subject that few writers manage to address with such straightforward honesty and tender humanity: race in America. The novel’s backbone is a blog written by the main character, Ifemelu, about her experience as a Nigerian immigrant in America. “Dear Non-American Black,” she writes, “when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.” Given the subject matter, the book could easily have been heavy and depressing, yet it is ultimately vibrant and lively. Adichie is a master of nuance, of voice, of gathering the small details that turn a story into a powerful experience. Her writing is so crisp and clean that you tumble into the story and forget that you’re even reading a book. Ifemelu is such a wholly realized character, and her extraordinary self-awareness brings the reader along through her pains and triumphs. Writing for the New York Times about the book, Mike Peed observes the one thing that makes this book so incredible: “It never feels false.”
The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø (translated by Don Bartlett)
I’ve been meaning to read something by Jo Nesbø for a while, though in retrospect, I should have started with the first book in the series. The Redbreast is Nesbø’s third book starring Norwegian detective Harry Hole. Just as you’d expect from a good crime thriller, there is an excellent race to prevent a terrible crime at the end of the book, and the criminals are smart enough to give Hole a run for his money. What sets this book apart from other thrillers and (in my opinion) makes it better, is the story’s ties to history. The narrative shifts constantly between the present and the Eastern Front during WWII, giving this book another level of intrigue. I’ll definitely read more Henry Hole books.
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Around the time this book was published, a number of news articles and television shows documented new economic prosperity and increasing waves of crime taking place on Native American reservations, mostly in North Dakota and Montana, because of oil drilling and fracking. Though The Round House has nothing to do with oil drilling, the recent news inspired me to pick up this book (winner of the National Book Award), which is set on a reservation. It’s part coming-of-age story, part crime novel, part family saga. Sara Nelson, writing for Amazon, describes this book as “the Native American To Kill a Mockingbird.” Through Erdrich’s uncluttered writing, this book gives you a glimpse into how American history continues to play out on Native American reservations. I loved this book!
April Morning by Howard Fast
In a recent conversation with my step-father, he told me he read this book over and over again as a kid, that it captured his adolescent imagination. Somehow, I made it through middle school without being assigned to read this book, so I decided to give it a try. This is a coming-of-age story set during the Battle of Lexington at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. I can certainly see why this short book would be perfect for boys (though not so much for girls — they all have to stay at home during the action). I’m glad I read it, but I’m now in search of a book that goes deeper into the time period and the characters. Perhaps 1776 by David McCullough?
The Rising Tide by Jeff Shaara
Speaking of books that really dive into history, anything by Jeff Shaara is a winner if you are at all interested in American military history. Shaara’s books read like novels, but the main characters are real people and the events actually took place. The Rising Tide is the first of a four-book series about America’s involvement in WWII. Here, untested American forces face Erwin Rommel in North Africa and build an Allied force with British troops already fighting there. It’s the way that Shaara fills in the story with dialogue and accurate period details that bring these historical events to life. His books will give you an understanding of history that is hard to glean from textbooks.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
John Irving is one of my favorite authors, and it was high time that I read Owen Meany. Everything that little Owen Meany says in the book is written out in all capital letters, a constant reminder of just how important his high-pitched voice is to the story. You also have a sense of foreboding in these all-cap sentences. But of course, Irving is a master of foreshadowing. Even though he almost always begins his books by telling you how the story ends, you never really know what’s going to happen, only that something big will happen to take the story from where it starts to where you already know it ends.
The book ebbs and flows around religion — Biblical stories and quotes, Christian denominations, nuances in dogma — and some of that must have been lost on me, given my limited religious background. However, there is no denying Irving’s mastery of plot, character, and the written word.
And one book I tried to read:
Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel
I really tried to get through this book. Everyone — including the Man Booker Prize jury — declared Wolf Hall a masterpiece, and as a huge fan of historical fiction, I was disappointed not to like it more. A fantastic story lurks somewhere in the pages, but Mantel’s writing style (or maybe the massive number of typos in my ebook edition) is a real slog. I felt like I was reading through a fog of pronouns. Who, exactly is “he” and who is the “he” that “he” is talking to? Maybe I’ll try again when the heat isn’t making me so lazy.