Spectacular summer reads

Summer is a giant beach-relaxing, no-more-teacher’s-looks, vacationable cliche. But summer heat and freedom lead to the placards at Barnes & Noble offering books for “summer reading,” many of which aren’t worth your time, but here are a few that made it to me this season.

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
Michael Pollan of The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame is continuing his quest toward redefining the way we eat. While the former looked at the way the food industry impacts the environment, In Defense of Food looks to provide ways for each of us to improve our own personal health through better eating. The slogan of the book, placed solidly on the front cover and as the first sentence: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” For details, you will have to pick up the book, but I will tell you the trick in that slogan is the first part, because most of the items you can buy at Giant Eagle are not going to fit Pollan’s definition of food.

Oil!, Upton Sinclair
Sinclair’s Oil! was recently taken as the inspiration (but not namesake) of P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a movie with a heavier focus on oil than the novel by which it is inspired. Oil! is many things: a successor to The Jungle in its probing expositional descriptions of the early California oil industry and labor unions, an often blatant argument for the value of socialism, a brief attempt at romancing the early stars of Hollywood, and generally a quick tour through pre-Depression America. Sinclair is at his best with exposition and his most forced with character relationships.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, Amy Hempel
Amy Hempel is a goddess of short stories. This 2006 volume, now out in paperback, simply straps her four short story collections into one handy 400-page book. I can’t recommend this enough. Hempel is a master of her craft, her stories each hold their own with a dark grace, a straight-forward and overly observant voice. She casts reality in a level and layered light, she brings her own humanity into every story, and you read each bracing for the impact of an abundant dose of humanity.

Once Upon a Time in the North, Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman’s second “little book” to accompany His Dark Materials trilogy provides the backstory for Lee Scoresby and Iorek Byrnison. While the story of how these two fellow adventurers meet will be of interest to those who hold the series in a Harry Potter-esque cult status (where every word out of J.K.’s mouth holds biblical worth), the simplicity will leave those who appreciate Pullman’s carefully constructed novels wanting more.

Elephant Rocks, Kay Ryan
It is possible that no one actually reads poetry. That being said, Kay Ryan, the recently announced 16th Poet Laureate of the United States, produces some clever, very short, minimalist poems. Her 1996 Elephant Rocks (largely available on Google Books) provides a glimpse into her ability to succinctly probe to great depths through her lyrical questions and her intermittent bold statements.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan
McEwan, the oft-called master of macabre’s newest novella, On Chesil Beach, is a return to form, a short and dark novel centered around a young couple’s wedding night. While the action is well-framed and the characters are true to their setting, after a number of longer and intricate novels (like his recently film-adapted Atonement), I was left seeking details that were never imagined for the novella.

Books, Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry, a novelist and screenwriter with a career now spanning five decades, has released Books, a simply titled memoir that chronicles not McMurtry’s own writing, but his lifelong obsession with books. McMurtry has been a bookseller as long as he has been a writer, both scouting for rare books and owning his own shop, Booked Up, started in Georgetown and now solely in Archer City, Texas. This undirected memoir, which is really no more than a collection of over 100 short essays, some just a few paragraphs, recounts his uniquely quirky personal accounts of finding, moving, and re-selling books for the past half century. Perhaps most central are the continual questions of how reading and second-hand booksellers are quickly being vaporized from the American landscape, a question that haunts him (Will today’s readers even care about the disappearance of the book?) and puts him in the position of being the last person left who could even write (let alone publish) such a piece, in the face of a seemingly dwindling culture.

Call Me By Your Name, André Aciman
I believe this book was the highlight of my summer reading. Aciman, in winning me over with this story, has led me to recently acquire his entire catalog of essays and memoirs, which I look forward to attacking as summer is ending. Short and (extra) sweet, it follows an over-educated 17-year-old seducing and being seduced by his father’s visiting scholar at their summer home in Italy. Coming-of-age stories, when done well, must speak directly to the romantic idealist, and this one succeeds by communicating straight to the heart.