If you’re wondering what to read this summer, here are some suggestions.
Nowegian by Night by Derek Miller
This is my top recommendation. Perhaps one reason I like it is because he deals with several themes that I deal with in Knowing Place: being a foreigner, aging, and how history haunts the present. Knowing Place is a “cozy” compared to Miller’s action-packed tale of an eighty-something Jewish man from New York City relocated to Oslo by his granddaughter who thinks he’s becoming demented. A brutal murder hurls him into a wild chase through the Norwegian countryside, accompanied by a little boy who speaks no Norwegian or English. The author kept me enthralled as he wove in events from the past, cultural commentary, and a good dose of humor.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
With a daughter working for Microsoft and living in Seattle, I was compelled to read this. But even if you don’t have any connection to MS or Seattle, this is a great summer read. The narrator is a teenage girl, her father a big wig at MS, and her mother once an award winning architect, now a recluse. They live in what was once a home for unwed mothers where blackberry bushes grow up through the floor and the Seattle rain pours in through the roof. Most of the text is made up of e-mails, reports and school notices. This might have dissuaded me from reading it had I known, but don’t let it dissuade you. It works. It’s easy to follow the plot, and you see the action from different perspectives. The book is social satire, that is, humorous but (for me) not laugh-out-loud humor, too close to the sad truth.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
This book, on the other hand, had me laughing out loud. I read it in the original language, Swedish, so I hope the translation is as entertaining. Alan Karlsson lives in a nursing home. He’s pissed because he is about turn one hundred but they won’t let him celebrate with vodka. He escapes out the window and is chased around the countryside by police and gangsters (any similarity to Norwegian by Night ends here). He finds a suitcase full of money and an odd assortment of fellow fugitives including an elephant. Picture a Forest Gump who is very intelligent and an explosive expert. Flashbacks describe his meetings with Truman at Los Alamos, Franco during the Spanish revolution and Mao during the People’s Revolution. Of course, he plays a decisive role in every encounter.
Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
If the summer gets hot, you might get relief from this story of a farm in Palmer, Alaska during the 1920s. I love to meet a book that crushes my prejudices about genre. My eyes glaze over as soon as an author delves into myths or dreams. But not here! Mabel and Jack are childless when they come to Alaska to eke out a living on the land. They encounter a child of the wilderness, who wafts in and out of their homestead like a fairy. It’s a beautifully written tale of the physical and emotional struggles of life on the frontier. I won’t reveal more. If you love myths, you’ll love this book. If not, let this book change your mind.
Still Life by Louise Penny
Anyone who has talked books with me has heard me rave about Louise Penny. Her mysteries are set south of Montreal and feature Inspector Gamache, a French Canadian with an Anglo education. Still Life is the first book in the series. Read them in order. Unlike some authors of mystery series, Penny does not lose steam. Each book is better, and deeper, than the last. Her characters are complex and develop from book to book. Plots range from relationships in a small, isolated village, to corruption at the national level in the police force. I would give anything to be able to write like this author.
David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
I read copious amounts of non-fiction in my work as a researcher, so I usually turn to fiction on “my” time. But Gladwell is a storyteller, as well as a researcher and I found this book both informative and inspiring. It’s about power, obstacles, and how disadvantages can be transformed to advantage. He takes case stories and weaves them with research to explain how the Davids of life have turned their “weakness” into power. He starts with the biblical tale of David and Goliath and continues to current day schools, Mississippi and Northern Ireland of the sixties, and a village in France that harbored Jews during WW2.
On my own reading list this summer is Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran. Astonish Me deals with the world of ballet, a foreign country I’m curious to explore. Gran’s first novel about Claire DeWitt was one of those genre-prejudice-crushing books. DeWitt is a hardnosed, hard-drinking, hard-talking private detective who works with some sordid elements of society. I lean toward the cozies (with the exception of Penny!). But Gran writes with humor and a large dose of humanity in a sometimes inhumane situation.