Summer is here. This means that every weekend I consider grabbing my book, getting on the Q train, riding it to the edge of the continent, and staring at the less than blue water while embracing the sun that burns, then browns, my skin. My first summer in New York I read Joan Didion on the beach. Last summer I made it a couple times, and I was reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (see below!).
I think of summer as the time for reading whatever you want. While the school year trends have so ingrained this notion in me, I fully realize I can and do read whatever I want all year round. However, something about summer just screams, “read that book you’ve been putting off!”
If you aren't sure what that is, I have a few ideas, whether you are at the beach or not.
Oranges by John McPhee
I discovered this writer last year through his book Draft No 4, which I also highly recommend for you writers. One of my good friends is a McPhee superfan and told me about his book, Oranges. He has a way of making the most mundane object or subject a complete joy to spend your reading hours on, and I love how engrossed he, and as a result, we become in the subject at hand. Oranges is nothing other than a book about oranges: the history, the colors, the great orange freezes, and the people that devote their lives to this fruit. The book was first conceived as a magazine article, but the more the author researched and learned about oranges, the more he realized he actually had a book on his hands. The cover has all the warm, Florida feels and if you don’t know what an Orange Baron is, well, I can only tell you to read a book so many times.
South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion
Maybe it’s because I first picked up a Joan Didion book on a hot June day, but something about Joan makes me think of summer. And no summer (or season) would be complete without one of her books. While you can’t really go wrong with any, she wrote the substance of South and West on a road trip with her husband through Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana in the summer of 1970. It is her observations, overheard conversations, interviews, and thoughts, of which she always has the most interesting, ironic, and perfect. The southern section is then juxtaposed with the West, landscape and lineage. An excellent followup would be Where I was From, basically an expanded edition of the “west” portion of this book, and every bit as "Didion."
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
I have always loved this book, ever since I read it in high school. Based on Knowles’s short story previously published in Cosmopolitan in 1956 by the name of “Phineas,” it is about the adolescence, innocence, and friendship of two young boys at prep school. Gene, the main character, revisits his past, literally and mentally, so the aroma of nostalgia is strong here, which I love. The story takes place during the years of World War II, a time just beyond our grasp, but quite real to my grandparents and even parents. I have my dad’s copy of the book, from when he read it in high school, which also just feels special.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
If you are looking for a deep dive this summer, here it is. I didn’t know of Haruki Murakami until I started reading Patti Smith – I love how reading leads to reading and books point to books. This novel is a RIDE, and when you get off you won't be sure which ride you just went on but you are glad you did. Think Inception meets Gone Girl. I don’t know what else to say, except I have never read anything like this book.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
If you’ve listened to any of Coffee and Creatives, you have likely heard me talk about Just Kids. It is the book I wish I had written. Still pondering whether this means it is also the life I wish I had lived, but that is another blog post. This book is part memoir, part lesson in living a life devoted to art. To extract one or the other is to lose both. It’s a story Patti Smith didn’t entirely intend to tell, but to honor a promise made to her fellow artist and friend, she did so with all the grace and care of someone holding something quite delicate. If you want to know more about her, I wrote this piece for Heroine Collective last month.
Boundaries by Henry Cloud and John Townsend
I find myself recommending this to most people that I like these days. This is one I would save for the end of the summer. Mostly because I still have the previously mentioned school year mentality and think it's the perfect read for going into a new season, job, relationship, or routine. If you are looking to improve upon how you approach all of those things, this book can help with that. If you have trouble saying no to commitments or drawing lines in the sand in relationships, please read it. The fact that I like this book makes me feel very much like an adult, which I have a love-hate relationship with.
Goodbye to All That: Lessons on Loving and Leaving New York edited by Sari Botton
The great thing about a book of essays is they can be read amid disruptions–like when your skin is actually going to melt if you don't get in the water, or perhaps from a two year old begging for a popsicle. They are also great on road trips because maybe you want to read a bit and then call a friend or listen to music. Only a few pages each, they can be both devoured easily and drawn out without losing the narrative arc. Goodbye To All That is a collection of women writing on the subject of leaving New York. Each is different; all are simply about leaving a place you love...or once loved. Coming out of the pandemic in New York and seeing many people leave or stay, this book highlighted some of my own feelings about the city. The title is from Joan Didion’s essay by the same name which, of course, I recommend.
Mrs Kennedy and Me by Clint Hill
A few years ago I met a girl who collected books about Jackie Kennedy. This both fascinated me and convicted me of not having a similar quirky collection. I asked her which one she would recommend to a novice Jackie reader and this is the book she chose. It is simultaneously whimsical and devastating, taking the reader into the Camelot world by way of Mrs. Kennedy’s bodyguard, who wrote the book. It is a fascinating and tragic perspective and reminds me that sometimes those with the point of view of greatest clarity and interest are those we don’t notice at all.
Desiree by Anne Marie Selinko
This book was on a reading list I found one summer, home from college. My high school English teacher gave it to the class as a summer reading list. For no reason that I can remember I decided to pick up this book, and I can honestly say, it is my favorite novel. Technically historical fiction, it is the story of Napoleon's first (only?) love. It is funny, fascinating, informative, and has all the richness of France during the revolution you could expect, only from the doe eyed naivety of a young girl in love with a narcissist, with the diary entries to prove it. Thank you forever, Mrs. Nebbia.
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
If you are planning to listen to season 4 of Coffee and Creatives, you can get a head start by cracking this open over the summer! If you are not planning to listen, still read it. This is one of those little books that is so easy to read and so worth it. I try to read this once a year which has been more like every other year, and this will be my third time. It still surprises and challenges me and kicks me in the butt. It is all about Resistance with a capital R. What it is and what it does and why it matters at all in this art-making process. It will make you love your work more and understand why and how to fight for it. Steven Pressfield has a new book out, a historical novel, which I haven't read but will also plug here–A Man at Arms. I can’t say anything other than I trust this author, so give it a go as well!
I’m headed to the beach next week, and since I've already read these books, this is what I'll be reading:
But He Doesn't Know the Territory by Meredith Wilson
The Headmaster by John McPhee
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
What are you reading??