I always get really excited this time of year because this is when I start to compile my summer reading list, as well as lists for the kids. I read a varied selection of books, and love to stretch my “reading muscles” by trying topics and authors that I may not usually go for. Further, I also like to balance my reading lists: a book on scientific theory, a book of poems. A political satire with a historical account of something we take for granted every day, such as salt. Classic literature with an anthropological work.
Genres I do not read, however, are horror, romance (unless you consider a book like Jane Eyre romance, which I do not), or anything that could be considered a “throw away” book. For clarification, a “throw away” would be something that you buy for your beach vacation when you want to read, but also turn your brain off.
The books I read need to make me think, books that make me process their information and see how it relates to other aspects in my life. If you are a fan of the show The Big Bang Theory, you may remember the episode where Amy Farrah Fowler won’t leave Sheldon and Leonard’s apartment. At first, she is seen reading, then later, just sitting on the couch. Leonard looks at her and says, “I thought you were reading,” to which she replies, “I was. Now I’m thinking about what I read.” Amy gets me.
Today, I am going to talk about the books that have made it on my summer reading list this year, and why I have chosen them. Because we travel, mostly, in our Airstream, I have plenty of space for books, but will be packing the trusty old Kindle as well. So, without further ado, here they are!
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The Master and Margarita
By Mikhail Bulgakov
This book intrigues me. Written in 1937 in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s regime, it wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until 1966-1967. Even then, it was published in a censored form as a magazine series in Moscow Magazine. It was published in book form, however, and in full, in 1967 in Paris. Later, in 1973, it was published in it’s uncensored form in Moscow in 1973. Why all these dates, you ask? Allow me to explain.
The Master and Margarita is said to be a satirical novel about life in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. Stalin, if you remember from you high school history classes, was a horrifyingly cruel dictator. I am mentioning the dates of publication because while The Master and Margarita was written in 1937, Ayn Rand’s We the Living was published in 1936. If you have never read We the Living, it is a heartbreaking story about life in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. I am hoping that, for my sake at least, the satirical nature of The Master and Margarita will be a lighter read than We the Living. Further, if you have never read We the Living, but you want to, don’t make the same mistake I did and read it in the winter. It’s depressing enough without gray skies and cold wind.
However, to be honest, I don’t know what season would be the best to read anything by Ayn Rand. I read The Fountainhead in high school, and We the Living as an adult. I think of the two, The Fountainhead is much less depressing. Rand is certainly known for her realism, one of the four pillars of objectivism. Because of the depressing nature of her work, I have been a little turned off by Russian authors. I am hoping that The Master and Margarita can help change that. The culture I live in, modern-day American culture, is so vastly different than Stalin-era Soviet Union culture, that I am also hoping to gain some insight into life at that time.
Where their perspectives and writing styles may be different, both Bulgakov and Rand understood the urgency of their subject matter. Those living under the regime of Stalin desperately needed the world to know what conditions were really like at the time.
Another book The Master and Margarita may be similar to in style, would be Animal Farm. I’m saying that simply because both are political satires, but as I have only read Animal Farm, I can’t say this with much certainty.
Some say The Master and Margarita is a love story, so I may be deviating from my usual book criteria with this one. However, I believe it is first and foremost a satirical criticism of the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule. We will see. I am very much looking forward to this one.
The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights Volume 1
A new translation by Malcolm C. Lyons
Let me state a couple of things upfront. First, I fully expect to not finish this book over the summer. At all. In fact, I have no intention of doing so. This volume alone is 960 pages. Second, I actually started this book a while back and had to set it down for some reason I cannot remember right now. I did not set it down because I found it tedious or uninteresting. Quite the opposite! I set it down because I wanted to devote more time to it than I was able to.
Now, having said that, this book is really fascinating. Originally compiled and published in Arabic in 1704, it is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. There is one narrator (at least from what I have read so far) who tells story after story. Like Russian stacking dolls, these stories each fit into one another. You can read each story as a stand alone, or as part of the overall arc of this work of literature, but like Russian stacking dolls, they are more fun when dealt with as a group.
If you are unfamiliar with Middle Eastern history, culture, values, and literature, definitely read both the Introduction and the Note on the Text. My copy is a new translation by Malcolm C. Lyons, who also wrote the Note on the Text. The Introduction was written by Robert Irwin. The Introduction is extremely helpful and provides insights on the history and the literary value of The Arabian Nights. If you, like me, grew up in a Western culture (or, rather, any culture that wasn’t Middle Eastern), you will find yourself scratching your head at various times during your reading. Reading the Introduction saved me a lot of “huh’s?” and head scratching, and provided new insight to this ancient work of literature. Further, my copy includes a Glossary in the back, bookmarked with a paper clip for quick reference.
The closest book suggestion I can provide for The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights is Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Arabian Nights were written between the 10th and 12th century. The Canterbury Tales were written in 1392. Both tell multiple stories that intertwine, both highlight various aspects of daily life and culture at the time, and both have proved to retain the timeless qualities that are required when considered a classic.
A Brief History of Time
By Stephen Hawking
Ok, so I feel like this one is a bit of a cop-out. I mean, isn’t it on pretty much everyone’s bucket list reading list? Is it a pretentious read? Is it a cliche to read it at all? Second, I feel like this is one I should have already read by now.
Anyway, it is now, officially, on my summer reading list, and I am looking forward to it. My copy is used and filled with underlined passages. I am always interested to see what other people felt compelling about the passages they read.
A Brief History of Time is famous because it makes accessible that which is inaccessible to most of us: scientific theories on cosmology, theoretical physics, and how the universe came to be. Written 31 years ago, my copy is the updated and expanded tenth anniversary edition, which makes it 21 years old. There have been so many new theories and discoveries since then, but A Brief History of Time remains successful for its accessibility. My edition also has a Glossary, which is just icing on the cake for me.
Similar books: Well, without having read it, I should guess perhaps The Science of God and perhaps The Feynman Lectures on Physics. I can already tell what you are thinking, “why suggest a book titled The Science of God along with a book written by Stephen Hawking, an avowed atheist?” Both books take complex theories and ideas and make them more approachable to those of us without a background in physics.
Odes to Common Things
By Pablo Neruda
Oh, Pablo Neruda. Can he be compared to any other poet? Well, to be honest, can any poet be compared to another? Neruda’s poetry is at the same time both beautiful and accessible. I have loved his work for many, many years. So, when my parents were recently at an estate sale and saw Odes to Common Things, my mom bought it for me. Her thought was that I did not have this compilation, and she was correct! She and Dad brought it over to my house and I did a little happy dance!
Odes to Common Things is a collection of poems about, you guessed it, common items that might not normally be the subjects of poetry. Such as a spoon, a bowl, and a dog. It may seem simple, boring even, but the magic of Neruda is his ability to bring fresh perspective to often overlooked items.
If you’ve never read any of his works, make sure you put one of his collections on your summer reading list! Further, make sure you get a copy with both the Spanish and English translations. His poetry is beautiful regardless of the language. For first timers, I would suggest starting with The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, or Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970.
Meanwhile, I am very excited about adding this to my summer reading list. I plan on reading Odes to Common Things whenever I need a short break from the other books on my list. That is, of course, the beauty of reading a book of poems: you can read it in one sitting or space it out over time, and you never lose your place.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat
By Bee Wilson
Speaking of common things, the next book on my list is Consider the Fork: a History of How We Cook and Eat. I picked this book for a couple of reasons. First, because I really enjoyed the book Salt and am hoping that Consider the Fork is similar. Second, I love to cook and books of this nature often fascinate me.
I also really like reading about something we use every day, and even take for granted, such as the fork, and learning the history behind it. Things are, very rarely, what they seem on the surface. Instead, items have history, and evolution, behind them. I seriously doubt that the forks we use today are the same as the ones used hundreds of years ago.
However, after flipping through Consider the Fork this morning, I’ve noticed that this book is not solely dedicated to the history of forks. Instead, it covers a range of food related topics such as fire, ice, various kitchen tools and gadgets, and even the kitchen itself. This make me ever more excited about diving in and seeing what Consider the Fork has to offer!
Learning about how we eat the way we do and why we eat the way we do gives me a deeper understanding and a fresher perspective of the food I eat, and the food I feed to my family. I think it’s important to know where our food comes from, but I also think it’s important to understand the utensils around our eating habits. Why do we use the fork instead of, say, chopsticks? Why not our hands? Americans are, after all, quite used to eating several food items with our hands (much to the chagrin of other cultures, I might add).
Judging from both the book description and topic, I would say books similar to Consider the Fork would include: Salt and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, maybe even Girl Hunter: Revolutionizing the Way We Eat, One Hunt at a Time.
Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters
By Mark Dunn
Did anyone else, at one time in their childhood (perhaps, when they were four years old), think that “ellaminnowpea” was a letter in the alphabet? And if so, did you also wonder, “wait, what does the letter ‘ellaminnowpea’ look like?” Following that line of thought, did you also wonder, “so…. where is the ‘L’ in the alphabet song? And… a few other letters?” And upon reflection in your backyard, you sang the song really slowly until you realized that not only was “L” hidden in the alphabet song, but so was “M,” “N,” “O,” and (*gasp!*) “P.” No? No one else? Just me? That’s cool.
Here we have another satire. Ella Minnow Pea: a Novel in Letters tells the story of a girl named Ella Minnow Pea. Ella finds herself attempting to save her loved ones and fellow citizens from an ever-growing totalitarianism threat when certain letters of the alphabet are banned one at a time. As the letters are banned, they disappear from the book.
Ella Minnow Pea is formatted in a series of letters, about letters, which makes this even more fun. The book follows Ella as she heroically saves (I hope) both the alphabet and the freedom of expression. I already have a feeling that one of the intended take-aways from this book is a deeper appreciation of our written language and our freedom to use it.
This book already has me placing it in the same category as The Phantom Tollbooth. Another title that comes to mind is the Victorian-era social satire Flatland.
The Curve of Time
M. Wylie Blanchet
The Curve of Time came to me by way of recommendation from my post Books for On (and Off) the Road. Kyle’s aunt, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, read this posted and commented that The Curve of Time is one of her favorites. If the words are half as wonderful as the over art, I am in for a treat!
This is the memoir of a mother, M. Wylie Blanchet, a widow, and her five children who, every summer during their upbringing, would set off in their 25-foot boat and explore the waters and coastlines of the British Columbia. Now y’all. The six of us travel around in our 30-foot Airstream. However, we also have a large SUV and every stop we make is dry land for our kids to run around on. This woman, this single mother, put her five children in a 25-foot boat and sailed around all summer. Sure, they got out and roamed the shoreline. Sure, they had plenty of things to do. But, let me assure you, if M. Wylie Blanchet doesn’t become one of my heroes by the end of this book, I will be shocked.
Meanwhile, this book is also already earning major brownie points from me for having actual photographs throughout the book. I love looking at family photos like these! Not only do they help remind me that these were real people in real time, but it also adds a layer of authenticity to the story. Speaking of authenticity, I am also fully expecting the mundane with the amazing: dead batteries and whale sightings, bear encounters with disputes over sleeping arrangements.
Perhaps one of my own favorite books, West with the Night, would be a comparable title to this one. At least that is the hope for me, as I do love West with the Night. Apart from that, any memoir of adventure and exploration may be a good comparison.
My Life with the Eskimo
By Vilhjalmur Stefansson
You weren’t expecting that book title, were you? I dare you to say the authors name three times, fast!
Last, but hopefully not least, is My Life with the Eskimo. Written during an expedition in 1906-1907 by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, this edition isn’t even complete. The editors comment that Stefansson was unavailable to read the final proof of this text, given that he had already departed for another expedition to the far North. Not only that, this account ends after 101 pages… mid-sentence. So, this should be interesting. And if it’s not, it just kind of… ends…
My Life with the Eskimo is, as it seems, an explorers account of his time with the Eskimo people. Thumbing through the book tells me that I’ll read about topics such as hunting and preparing fresh meat (including seal), building snow houses, making camp, funerals, ceremonial dances, and other aspects of living in a frozen tundra. This edition of My Life with the Eskimo was published by the Forgotten Books’ Classic Reprint Series, and as a result, the pages look like mere photocopies of an original, manually typed manuscript. Further, the photos look like they’ve been through a fax machine. Regardless of their original quality, they are a bit difficult to discern now.
However, I am not deterred! I love a good anthropological account of an outsider observing an unknown (to the author) people and their culture. I expect this to read like a journal. I have no idea what kind of book to compare this one to. I want to say something along the lines of Cry of the Kalahari, except those scientists studied animals, not people groups, and I really don’t want to equate humans to animals or belittle humans in any way.
Well, that’s it for me! What’s on your summer list? I love finding new books, so give me your two cents in the comments section!