Summer Reading

I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember. My childhood wasn’t spent only in Kelowna, British Columbia; I travelled to Afghanistan to see what it was like to live as a girl under the Taliban’s reign, and to Kentucky to catch a glimpse of the world of professional Thoroughbred racing, and, of course, to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I knew the world was a big place—it had to be to hold so many stories.

On hot summer afternoons, my mom would take my older brother and me to the public library. Stefan would carefully choose one book. “Something funny,” he always said when we asked what he wanted to read. I would peruse the shelves, collecting a pile that became unruly and difficult to carry. I was (and still am) a speed-reader, not so much reading books as consuming them. Mom would try to help, searching through the Young Adult section.

“What about this one?” she’d ask

“Read it.”

“This one?”

“Read it.”

Finally, when I had filled my arms with as many books as I could hold, I’d take them to the counter and proudly hand over my library card. And the librarian would raise an eyebrow as she reached for the stack, scanning each of them and printing out a receipt the length of my little arm that listed all the due dates of my newly acquired treasures.

My mother worried about me, I know. She worries. It’s a trait I’ve inherited. One time, I remember her telling me that I had to do more than read. “You can’t walk around with your nose in a book all the time,” she said to me. She was concerned that I’d miss life happening around me, absorbed in make-believe instead of paying attention to what was real. It did happen, from time to time—I distinctly recall family road trips through beautiful scenery and being scolded because I was buried in a book instead of looking at the mountains. My mother had a point, to some extent. I was never a social butterfly, but I always found friends in the books I read. You can never really be lonely in a library.

            For the past five years, I have been a university student, a stage of life when reading becomes a weekly chore. Apart from the occasional novel or essay I would read for an English or writing class, I was stuck with academic articles, twenty-page technical missives about overanalyzed case studies or laborious discussions of new concepts in political philosophy. The pages dripped with jargon and the sentences twisted like mazes. Reading was no longer the joy it once was, and when I had the chance on vacations to sink my teeth into a book that I read for pleasure, it was like switching from broccoli to chocolate cake. This is what reading is supposed to feel like, I reminded myself. As a recent graduate, one of the freedoms I’m most excited about is having the time to read for pleasure again.

My years of using bleary eyes to read through academic articles on my laptop, though, have taught me to be a better reader, as has my own education in writing. Now I can consider the logic of an author’s argument or contemplate the flow of a story; I can pick out unrealistic dialogue or a passage littered with unnecessary adverbs. Now I can better identify good writing and bad writing. To keep my critical eye sharp, I’ve been writing mini-reviews in my trusty notebook of all the books I’ve read this summer. Here are a few of my favourites.

The Maytrees
Annie Dillard 

A story without too much plot (the plot amounts to: a married couple is happy but then is no longer happy–and no longer married), but perhaps one of the best descriptions of “place” I’ve read in a long time. The rural life of a Maine fishing town features prominently, practically a character in its own right. The kind of book that, if it were a movie, would be lovingly filmed with beautiful cinematography but very little dialogue.

This is How You Lose Her
Junot Diazlose her

Incredible—couldn’t put it down. The first thing I read by Diaz was an article in the New Yorker about how MFA programs exclude people of colour. This book – a collection of short stories about Dominicans in America, particularly one young man named Yunior and the loves in his life – is all about putting characters we don’t read about front and centre. It’s raw and sad and moving, especially the stories that touch on what it’s like for dominicanos and dominicanas when they first arrive in America. Yunior’s a well-intentioned guy who treats his women like garbage—but maybe it’s not my place to say, because in Diaz’s world, I’d be just a blanquita who doesn’t know shit.

Friday Night Lights
H.G. Bissinger 

A masterpiece of immersion journalism. It reads like a sports novel (a shockingly well-written one!), but it’s the reportage of Bissinger’s year living in Odessa, Texas. Excellent context of history, politics, racism, and economics that have led to such an insane cult of football in Odessa. People in the story are complex and fleshed out; the town is neither good nor evil (though Bissinger’s portrayal indicates he thinks they’re nuts). Great read for anyone interested in learning about Texas through story (like me).

bell jarThe Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath
An amazing read, but deeply disturbing, especially when considering the mental health treatments given to Esther were likely what Sylvia Plath experienced in her own life. Fascinating picture of what life was like for a young college girl in the 1950s – and in the first half of the book, Esther is a wonderful heroine, someone to cheer for, a girl ahead of her time. It makes her descent into madness all the more tragic.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

David Foster Wallace

100% would recommend. DFW goes on a weeklong luxury cruise and is paid to write about it, which he does in hilarious and painstaking detail. Summing up the bizarre world of dictated fun that is a cruise, he brings you into his world and into his head. Or you think he’s the little voice in your head. Either way, I laughed the whole way through.

All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
Maya Angelou

gods childrenGod, what a book. It’s a beautiful but mostly heart-wrenching account of Maya Angelou’s time spent living in Ghana in the 1960s as a Black American expatriate. The relationships between citizens of newly-independent Ghana and hopeful Black American émigrés wanting to be welcome in Africa are complicated. So are Maya’s and her compatriots’ feelings about their own country that they left behind–“Many of us had only begun to realize in Africa that the Stars and Stripes was our flag and our only flag, and that knowledge was almost too painful to bear…we were born in the United States and it was the United States which had rejected, enslaved, exploited, then denied us.”

Even though I did a lot of reading this summer, my list of books to read is somehow longer than when I started. (It’s a pretty good problem to have.) Have you read something great lately? Let me know!

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