How to enhance your summertime downtime
As we sit on the cusp of the official start of summer, the doors are opened to relaxing weekends spent (hopefully) lying by the water and not moving a muscle other than to turn our bodies with the sun.
With the longer days and (again, hopefully) a more simplified version of life on its way, cracking open a book has been my go-to for enhancing this downtime and keeping me from loafing on the couch in front of the TV as the sun shines all day.
Below is a quick reading list I’ve assembled for those of you looking for a decent read for the summer. Pick your category of choice, check my quick synopsis – devoid of spoilers, of course – and then give something a shot that interests you.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2001, Kavalier & Clay showed the pinnacle of talent in one of America’s rising literary giants (Chabon voiced himself on an episode of The Simpsons, along with Jonathan Franzen, Tom Wolfe, and Gore Vidal, which may be why the name sounds familiar). This novel is set between pre- and post World War II, and tells the fictional story of two cousins – Sam Klayman, from Brooklyn, and Joe Kavalier, from Prague – who create their own comic book character called “The Escapist,” based on Joe’s knowledge in Houdini-esque escape tactics. The book follows their relationship through the construction of the Empire State Building, through Joe’s time in the military working in Antarctica, and the woman who both tears apart and re-solidifies their relationship.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer.
Probably one of the first openly “post-9/11” novels, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close gives us the gift of Oscar Schell, a 9-year old boy who loses his father in the collapse of the World Trade Center. Oscar comes across a mysterious key in his father’s bedroom, and from there goes on a journey through New York’s five boroughs to find the lock that the key will open, as he begins to understand humanity and to align that knowledge with the memory of his father.
Nonfiction (that’s guaranteed to not make you snooze):
A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.
As the title suggests, Bryson scours the scientific literature to try to understand how our universe took us from a “Big Bang” up to the emergence of the intelligent human species. In a seamless, easily understood narrative, Bryson discusses the origins of the universe and traces the line throughout the history of Earth to reveal how that first massive hiccup in space went on to give us life.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Into the Wild (which was adapted for the screen by Sean Penn in 2007) is the intriguing and still mysterious true story of Christopher McCandless, a young man from Virginia who, after graduating from Emory University, disappeared from his family and friends in 1990. Two years later, his body turned up in the Alaskan wilderness, discovered by a couple of hunters who happened upon him. Krakauer investigates, through McCandless’s sparse journal and interviews with people who met him under his alias Alexander Supertramp, the exotic life that he lived and his search of Thoreau-esque simplicity and the meaning of true happiness and success.
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
In this collection of footnote-heavy essays, the late Wallace offers his point of view on subjects that range from whether or not lobsters feel pain, to John McCain’s 2000 presidential run, to capturing the hollow mood and confusion that fell over the country in the hours immediately following the attacks on September 11, 2001. Wallace’s genius shines in his investigations as he tries to always infuse an “all-seeing eye” that observes America from both the sidelines and deep within its core.
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
This is basically exactly what it sounds like, but Wolfe proceeds to capture the LSD-era 1960s by way of Ken Kesey’s (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) Merry Pranksters, as they tour the U.S. via technicolor school bus experimenting with psychedelics, getting chummy with The Grateful Dead, and solidifying themselves as one of the predominant forces of the hippie movement. Wolfe’s work is based on the telling of their journey to Wolfe himself, and his interpretation thereafter.
Lit by Mary Karr
Guggenheim Fellowship winner Mary Karr, “mother of the modern memoir,” discusses her life’s history of what influenced her spiral into alcoholism, and what prompted her recovery out of it. She recounts the process of sobriety, between reaching for help through friends and attending Alcoholics Anonymous. Despite the content on the surface, it is a truly funny tale which we finish wishing Karr could be the narrator for our own lives. It’s just heavy enough to still be enjoyed in the summertime.
Let my People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard (founder of Patagonia)
This is a great one to leave on the coffee table for the summer, as not only is Chouinard’s story a fascinating one, filled with dreamy visions of his early days as a simplistic climbing and surfing bum, but it has breathtaking photos of his travels to go along with it. In the book, he discusses environmentalism, Patagonia’s business and product philosophy, and in the end pretty much forces you into thinking more about the products you choose to use, and the charity you sometimes may choose to forego.
Surfing-centric memoir that reads like good fiction:
In Search of Captain Zero by Allan Weisbecker
This is Weisbecker’s recounting of a road trip that he took from Long Island, N.Y., down to Costa Rica in search of his lost friend, Christopher. Weisbecker sold his home and purchased a hefty pickup truck with a camper, and set off with just his dog across the US, down the Baja peninsula, through central America, and finally to his destination of Costa Rica. Throughout the book, Weisbecker recounts his life as a writer for Miami Vice, as well as having been one of America’s predominant drug smugglers – his chief method of finance for far-flung surf trips. It’s a fascinating story written with a broken linearity that prevents you from ever wanting to put it down. Also prominent in the book is Weisbecker’s capturing of the romance of wave-riding and his ability to transform it into written language.
More fiction (that you probably hated in high school, but should re-read now):
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Questioning the “American Dream,” and delving into the lavishness that enveloped American high-society after World War I (and you think you know how to party…), Gatsby is a proverbial American classic that, now that you’re presumably older, will surely bring out some reflection of who you’ve become and how you will change for years to come. You will likely discover that there is a small part of Nick Carraway in all of us, as well as a small part of Jay Gatsby, whether in our past or in our yet-to-be-attained dreams.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Lee’s one and only novel follows a tale of racism in Depression Era small-town Alabama. One of the most frequently taught books since it was published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird is filled with characters you hang on to long after you’ve finished the last page, from the precocious narration of six-year old Scout Finch, to the reclusive neighbor Boo Radley, to the Greatest Fictional Father of All Time, Atticus Finch. The book captures an era that we never wish to return to, yet an era that we will be continually intrigued by, especially by way of the power of Harper Lee’s writing.