A Summer to Read: Ch. 1

Has anyone ever read that book A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry? When I was a kid we’d go to the public library once every couple weeks and I’d load up on paperbacks from the Young Readers section, eager to lose myself in a new book. No doubt the attention-grabbing title is what first lured me to this one, but I was quickly swept up in the story of two sisters who are seriously annoyed when their English professor father, on sabbatical for a year, moves the family to a small house in the country so he can write a book. The younger sister envies the older one’s beauty, popularity, and the general ease with which she skates through life, until… well, it’s called A Summer to Die. I can’t explain why I became so addicted to this book but I think a lot of it has to do with the catharsis I felt reading it. Nothing in my life had ever made me weep like that ragged little library paperback, and it just felt good to let it out. I’ve lost count of how many times I read that book, and it’s apropos of really nothing on this list, just that when I think of summer reading, I will always picture myself at 11, curled up in my bedroom on a gorgeous day, crying my damn eyes out. Did you have any books like this in your young reading life? I’d love to hear about it – just drop a line in the comments. And now, to the recs!

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

I’m a sucker for an epic generational drama and Kintu is the most sweeping and original of this type of story that I’ve read in years. The novel begins in 2004 with the mysterious mob murder of a man mistaken for a thief. It then flashes back to the 18th century story of Kintu, a powerful Buganda governor named for the first man in the Ugandan creation story. Kintu accidentally kills his foster son, unleashing a curse that will haunt his family for generations. The rest of the book is divided into six parts, each following a different descendant as they struggle to make sense of the curse and fight not to let it take them. Throughout the generations, the curse takes different forms but seems to most clearly represent mental illness and the harmful effects of patriarchal masculinity. Along the way, the reader gets fascinating snapshots of Ugandan history and contemporary life. It is also a beautifully woven narrative, with Makumbi’s richly drawn characters coming together in the end in a connection that is not only satisfying but dazzlingly complex. She lays the groundwork for her conclusion in a deft and subtle way that calls for repeated reading.

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

I heard about this book thanks to one of the book podcasts I listen to religiously. The reviewer described it as a wholly original exploration of sex and gender, heavy on 90’s nostalgia, and the premise – a college student who changes his sex at will to pursue a panoply of romantic conquests – sounded highly intriguing. Let me be very clear from the start: there is a lot of sex in this book. Like, A LOT. The back cover blurbs included quotes from reviewers describing the novel as “smut” and “not fit for publication”. But it’s hard to resist the charms of Paul Polydoris, a film studies major at the University of Iowa, as he falls in love (as Polly) with a militant vegan named Diane at a women’s music festival; fits right in with the lesbian townies in Provincetown; and finally moves on (as Paul again) to San Francisco, a place filled with endlessly fascinating people and opportunities for Paul to explore/exploit. The wide-eyed delights of each new setting are matched only by the detailed descriptions of 90’s queer culture. If you spent as much time as I did during that decade perfecting the art of pouring your deepest soul into a mixtape or scouring thrift stores for killer vintage denim, you’ll probably enjoy the world that Lawlor has taken such meticulous pains to evoke.

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Much literary hype has surrounded the career of Irish writer Sally Rooney, and after reading her sophomore effort (following her 2017 debut, Conversations with Friends), I can safely say that the excitement is well-deserved. Normal People follows the on-again/off-again relationship of Marianne and Connell across four years, beginning when they’re in school together in rural County Sligo. Both achieve impressive academic success, but while working-class Connell is popular and has a relatively easy time in school, Marianne, who comes from a wealthy but abusive and dysfunctional family, is an outcast loner. Connell’s insecurity about the social gap between them is flipped on its head when the two move on to Trinity College in Dublin, where privileged Marianne becomes the popular one and Connell the weird hanger-on. The fresh, original structure of the novel allows the reader to see the gaps in Marianne and Connell’s perception of each other’s feelings and motivations. Chapters alternate between the two perspectives and pick up a short time – usually two or three months – after the previous episode. So many times they are derailed by simple misunderstanding and their struggle to truly open up and reveal themselves to one another is heartrending. But the novel is also full of moments of grace and beauty, suggesting that this very human struggle to connect is inevitable but ultimately worth it.

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Listen to me: Stop whatever you’re doing right now and BUY THIS BOOK. Move it immediately to the top of your To Be Read stack. My Twitter friend Susie called this stunning fiction debut from Australian journalist Trent Dalton the highlight of her reading year, and after reading it, I’m happy to add my most enthusiastic endorsement to hers. I have such strong feelings about this book that I’m having a hard time being articulate, so here’s a list of reasons I love it:

  1. 12-year-old protagonist. In addition to an epic multi-generational family saga, another thing I love is a novel written for adults in the voice of a young teen. The narrator of this story, Eli Bell, is fearless, funny, perceptive, and endearing. Growing up in a rough suburb of Brisbane, Eli becomes the hero of his own seedy crime story as he attempts to avenge the disappearance of his step-dad by finishing his unfinished heroin trafficking business. This he manages while simultaneously sneaking himself into the women’s prison where his mother is serving a drug sentence, just to see her and give her the strength to survive until her release date. If you don’t love this kid like your own within the first 100 pages, I’ll refund you the cost of the book.
  2. Good Bad Men. This is how Eli describes the men in his life and on the surface, they seem like the worst people to oversee the development of a young boy. His best friend/babysitter is a career criminal named Slim Halliday (who was a real person and important influence on the life of the author), who teaches him, among other lessons, how to break into and then escape the women’s prison. His step-dad Lyle dearly loves Eli and his brother August and wants to give them a better life, but is stuck in the life of a small-time drug dealer under the thumb of a powerful Brisbane crime boss. Eli’s dad, Robert, with whom Eli and August go to live after their mum is incarcerated, did something profoundly horrible that Eli only begins to understand about 2/3 through book – and yet there is real, tender, forgiving love between them. All of the novel’s “bad” men are wrought with an honest dignity that make them impossible not to like.
  3. Magical realism. Eli’s older brother August doesn’t talk. He communicates in facial expressions or messages written in the air with his finger that only Eli can decode. These messages seem cryptic and nonsensical but end up being prophetic as the novel unfolds. But can August really see into the future? Or is it, as a school psychologist suggests, merely his way of dealing with childhood trauma? This question is never clearly answered and the story is better for it.
  4. The prose is freaking gorgeous. Eli speaks in vivid lyrical impressions that often seem like lines from haikus or Springsteen songs. My friend Sophie, who is French, taught me the term coup de coeur as a way to describe something that just strikes right through your heart, like an arrow. Every page of Boy Swallows Universe is a brilliant night sky of coups de coeur. Here’s a sample:

I liked that story, so I told Slim how seeing that freckle on my right forefinger knuckle for the first time at around the age of four, sitting in a yellow shirt with brown sleeves on a long brown vinyl lounge, is as far back as my memory goes. There’s a television on in that memory. I look down at my forefinger and I see the freckle and then I look up and turn my head right and I see a face I think belongs to Lyle but it might belong to my father, though I don’t really remember my father’s face.

So the freckle is always consciousness. My personal big bang. The lounge. The yellow and brown shirt. And I arrive. I am here.

If all this isn’t enough to convince you to read this book, maybe the upcoming TV series, developed by Dalton and co-producer Joel Edgerton will inspire you to pick it up. Trust me on this one – it’s not to be missed.

And that’s a wrap on June! Stay tuned for next month’s post, which will feature reviews of:

  • Patsy by Nicole Dennis-Benn
  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
  • Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Happy reading everyone!

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