The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Summer Reading

Washington, DC

"Summer Read" by flickr user LWY

The Big Read is about to wrap up for the summer, but that doesn't mean the reading will stop. We asked NEA staff what they recommend for summer reading, and what books they'll be picking up this season as well.

Liz Stark: I can?t recommend Jennifer Egan?s A Visit from the Goon Squad enough---it?s brilliant and inventive and I love novels that are made of interlocking stories. For myself, I?ve recently been hearing more and more about Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs. It sounds creepy and intriguing and I find it fascinating that the author was inspired by vintage photographs.

Don Ball: Every summer I try and read one book that I really should have read by now but haven't. This year it's A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking. I'm not even sure once I have read it that I will have read it. And since we're in Civil War mania this year, The March by E.L. Doctorow. As for summer reading recommendations, I offer up Li-Young Lee's book Rose, which has one of the great poems about summer (and other things), "From Blossoms."

Eleanor Steele: I?d recommend Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. It?s a fabulously strange story about a family of alligator wrestlers/amusement park owners in the Everglades. I?m also planning on re-reading Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns and Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy---both are Southern classics and both go perfectly with a strong mint julep!

Pepper Smith: This summer I started reading In Search of Lost Time because I had yet to tackle it. I did love the first part of Swann?s Way, and it is so beautifully written, but poor Swann?s troubles just made me sink and I don?t think I?ll be able to suffer along with him throughout the summer. So off to easier reads. I?m loving A History of Scotland by Neil Oliver, which is just a BBC anthropologist?s take on cool anecdotes from Scottish history---why was Robert the Bruce such a big deal, anyway? Yasunari Kawabata?s Palm-of-the-Hand Stories are short and cool, which is what I?m looking for right now as I heal from Proust. And then Ashberry?s new Rimbaud translations are perfect for reading on and off between falling asleep on the train to the Dorsey stop in Maryland.

Paulette Beete: I recommend The Ninth Wife by Amy Stolls because every time I read her prose I laugh out loud, which is a good thing to do in the summer. (Full disclsoure: she's an NEA colleague, and I find myself laughing out lout at many of her e-mails too.) This novel is almost two books in one: a sort of coming-of-age story of how an Irish musician has come to have eight wives, and a road trip story of a woman trying to figure out what it means not just to love but to commit to that love. I also hope to tackle Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf, and Sandra Beasley's Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life.

Takenya LaViscount: If you are feeling overheated this summer, pick up Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. Set in frigid Minneapolis during the dead of winter, Erdrich?s novel chronicles a deteriorating marriage between a successful visual artist and his wife, who is also his muse. Gil compulsively paints Irene as she loses control of her own identity. To regain a sense of control, Irene creates other identities in two different diaries. It's intense, visceral, complex, and beautifully written.

This summer, I have Jennifer Egan's A Visit From the Goon Squad on my reading list, as well as Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans. There is a lot of buzz about these two authors. I have a weakness for books about the arts and identity. In Shadow Tag, Erdrich merges a discussion of marriage and Native American biracial identity with visual arts as a compelling backdrop. Egan has written about the difficulties we face as we age, and rock music is her art of choice. Evans?s short stories are also about growing pains. Her African-American/biracial characters struggle with their own sense of self as they transition to adulthood.

Victoria Hutter: I?ve been on a history kick for a while thanks to my boyfriend Rob, and we?ve listened to a number of great audio books on our trips to NYC where both of our families live. One we thoroughly enjoyed is The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom by Simon Winchester. We loved this in part because the audio version was narrated by Winchester himself, who is as stupendous an audio storyteller as he is on the page. It is essentially the biography of Joseph Needham, an English scholar who through an affair with a Chinese scholar falls in love with her native country as well. A gripping narrative with laugh-out-loud anecdotes and fascinating cultural history---all delivered in marvelously descriptive yet spare language. A real treat.

On the summer reading list are Ireland in Mind, edited by our friend Alice Powers. Since we?re heading to Ireland in August, I thought this collection of poems, essays, and short stories would be perfect. From the cover: ?From Oscar Wilde to James Joyce, from Virginia Woolf to Frank McCourt, three centuries of Irish, English, and American writers in search of the real Ireland.? In keeping with the history theme, once I finish The Ninth Wife by NEA staffer Amy Stolls, I?ll start Erik Larson?s In the Garden of the Beast. I adored his earlier book, The Devil in the White City, so I'm really looking forward to this one. It is ?a vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler?s reign, brought to life through the stories of two people: William E. Dodd, who in 1933 became America?s first ambassador to Hitler?s regime, and his scandalously carefree daughter, Martha.?

Rebecca Gross: For anyone in the mood for a beautiful story, I recommend Just Kids by Patti Smith. I absolutely loved this book. It's a poetic, moving, inspiring memoir of friendship and love. As for what I plan to read this summer, I just started Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen, which I thought would be a perfectly dreamy-eyed summer read (and it is!). I also hope to read Apollo's Angels, which chronicles the history of ballet. I figure if I enjoy it even one gabillionth as much as I enjoy the actual ballet, then it will be a great read.

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