Your Summer Homework: 5 Must-Reads

Summer. Ahhhhhh + sigh x 10,000. It’s a collectively sacred time of unruly humidex, an inflated drinks-on-the-patio expense account and mass recreational reading under the sensational sun. There’s less guilt in slacking off, and wonderfully, everything smells like coconuts and burgers on the grill.

If you are dangerously “without book” (gasp), here are five titles that are still lingering in the recesses of my mind. They pair best with beach access and flip flops, cottage docks or, if all else fails, sticky TTC rides and midday coffee shop escapes.

Falling Backwards by Jann Arden

The thrill of a memoir is that it’s like tiptoeing into your kid sister’s bedroom and rifling through the greatest bits of her diary except, you’re allowed in on the open conversation! Eavesdropping on Jann Arden’s coming-of-age expose, you’ll find quintessential Jann—just as your heart feels too heavy for your rib cage, she will have you reading passages about bloated wieners in thermoses out loud between snorts to whoever is nearby. Her raw and unfiltered portrayal of the lonely and turbulent (but rewarding) road to rocker fame illuminates all that those in the spotlight sacrifice in pursuit of “making it.” Her Prairie childhood, at times idyllic under the great Albertan skies, is revisited with the sage wisdom of an evolved Jann. At fifty, her pithy insights on life, health and family ties are gently framed in her gratitude, humour and vulnerability.

My total dissection of Falling Backwards can be read here.

This Is How by Augusten Burroughs

If you read (or cheated and watched the movie) Running With Scissors, you will have a solid grasp on the quirky kaleidoscope vision Burroughs has when examining life. This is How is the anti-self-help book that will undoubtedly leave you with highlighter in hand, dog-earing chapters for affected friends. You will find familiarity in every page—either in yourself, a loved one or a friend.  Burroughs reflects on his own addictions and tragic periods of mourning dying partners with a clarity that is encouraging and realistic. He refuses to paint any situation pretty, and takes a cannonball into the deep end of the pool. His survival techniques will find naysayers, but he is quick to point out that he is not a maxima cum laude therapist. Burroughs has become an unfortunate expert due to a series of debilitating circumstances compounded by self-doubt, suicidal tendencies and profound loss. His matter-of-fact bar stool philosopher approach wins. You will find yourself nodding your head in agreement, and blush at recognition of yourself and your actions. This is How is a gritty tell-all: this is how to be thin, fat, say goodbye to a lover, ride an elevator and stop drinking. His simplicity and rare analysis of the human condition is outstanding.

More? Here’s the rave review I did for the sun on his sassy, brassy, no-guff, shut-up and listen solutions for life.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I thought it sounded so schmaltzy. I was standing in the New Releases section of Indigo at Bay & Bloor, scoffing at the Disney-fied idea of reading a book narrated by a dog. I skimmed the back cover and thought I’d read the first few pages. There was a dull roar about this book, and I hate to miss out on the dull roars. By paragraph five, I couldn’t even read the text because the tears in my eyes were at the threshold of doing the cheek-roll in public. I took a few deep breaths in the Travel section and proceeded to buy the book to read in the privacy of my own home. And oh, how I cried. Right from the get-go. Anyone who has loved a dog will feel a resounding connection with Enzo. There is no spoiler here, it’s clear that Enzo is dying. He says so, right at the beginning (cue tears). However, due to his extensive TV-watching, Enzo had learned via a National Geographic documentary that in Mongolia, when a dog dies, their reincarnated soul can return as a human. Enzo has been studiously observing human dialogue for this very moment. As a member of the Swift family, he has been painstakingly diligent in learning as much as he can about human communication and interaction for his next life. He is okay with dying because he can return as a human, which is his dream.  Enzo’s observations showcase the absurd and inexplicable life of humans. It’s a weeper. You’ll move from moments of rage to bottomless sadness for Enzo’s eagerness to be the best dog he can be for his beloved owner. Note: Definitely read at home. If you lost it during Marley & Me, this is the equivalent.

Why be happy when you can be normal? By Jeanette Winterson

I borrowed this book from my friend Keph, and had to do a pressure-read before she went to the UK. But, this was easy enough to accomplish, unlike The Winter Vault and Love in the Time of Cholera which I had to force-feed myself in the Congo. Winterson’s memoir unexpectedly made me drink more wine and seemed to drag me into a grey skies field of clotted thinking. Which, is powerful for a writer to do. What impressed me the most was that she survived! Winterson digs into a childhood that is not all lollipops and sunshine. If you read Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle you will draw a similar comparison in survival. What propelled Winterson to bother go on living at all under such oppression and fatiguing family misery is a mystery. Her writing is smooth and punchy with dialogue that pokes that “just-one-more-page” obsession.  Adopted by over-the-top Pentecostal parents in a non-descript industrial American town, Winterson’s attempt to be happy, and maybe normal, but very gay, is harrowing and nearly defeating under the disapproving gaze of the fiercely damaging Mrs. Winterson. The eventual search for her birth mother is an emotional quagmire. In the end, Jeanette Winterson’s writing is her stronghold, and we are lucky as readers to be privy to that.

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Yes, this is an oldie (2002), but, I resisted reading it for a decade apparently. The initial pages are a nightmare. Growing up in southwestern Ontario when Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy went missing, stories of kidnappings make me uncomfortable to the point of being ill. In grade 12 I remember playing soccer in St. Catharines, Ontario, and the home team gathering in a circle to say a prayer for Kristen before the game. The Lovely Bones begins with 14-year-old Susie Salmon being violently raped and murdered. It’s horrific and disturbing, but Sebold’s writing is powerful enough to engage us in the complex afterlife she has designed for Susie. Choosing Susie as the narrator we are shown the flipside of mourning and her disjointed loss. We are comforted when Susie meets Frannie, her spiritual guide and then moved to extreme rage when George Harvey, her murderer, is overlooked as a suspect, again. Sebold tackles an upsetting plot with a surreal and gentle touch that outlines how precious life is, and how an ordinary day can split the matrix of a family forever.

Up next?

I’m reading Marnie McBean’s The Power of More which I’ll be reviewing pre-Olympic fever for The Vancouver Sun in August. Stay tuned! Sneak preview: It’s like verbal Red Bull. If you’re feeling lacklustre in your job, relationship, sport and/or life, an instant energy infusion can be found here.

Other summer reads on my list:

Cocktail Hour Under The Tree of Forgetfulness by Alexandra Fuller (I’m a sucker for anything Africa, especially a memoir. Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To the Dog’s Tonight was a stand-out).

The Red House by Mark Haddon (loved A Spot of Bother AND The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in equal amounts): A week in the English countryside with an estranged sister, a willful stepdaughter, remarriage and what I can only imagine to be an impressive display of family fireworks!

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson: The hook? The book jacket talks about Lawson’s zany father, a taxidermist, and how she grew up with a freezer full of dead animals. I felt immediately connected. My mother had similar aspirations. How many times did my sister open the plastic tub of what was once rocky road ice cream only to find a very dead cardinal? This one’s going to be good.

And you? What are you reading? What’s on your summer hit list?

Categories: On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Your Summer Homework: 5 Must-Reads

  1. Thanks for the suggestions. I felt riveted and excited just too look and see if any of these books may be in the “drop-off” basket that my husband and I keep by our back door. We have friends exchange good reads when they come for campfires and drinks or to drop off their kids to play with our girls. I’m up for some good bar stool therapy this summer for sure.

  2. Ileana

    I love how you write. You have a great gift . Your reviews ALMOST make me want to pick up a book. I have become lazy and have been listening to audiobooks. My most recent Me talk pretty one day by David Sedaris . and also a whack of work stuff and self help to help me sleep .

  3. Thanks for the summer reader’s advisory, Jules, but my TBR pile’s already about 35 titles high! Current reads are either nurturing my crow infatuation (“Corvus, A Live with Birds” and “Crow Planet”) or helping me, hopefully, to find writing & editing contract work (“Unlock the Hidden Job Market”, “Getting Work with the Federal Government”, and “The Business Side of Creativity”). Happy belated Canada Day!

  4. noelle gallant

    I’ve read Jann’s Falling Backwards… love it…. I have The Lovely Bones (I saw the movie and loved it but heard the book is far more detailed and grapic, like I’m some kind of pychopath) , it’s in my pile and it’s been there for well, a year or more and I can’t wait to get to it. Meanwhile I have about five or six books on the go at the moment and I have to stop at that. Marley and Me… saw that movie too and bawled my eyeballs off. Cheers to good reading.

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