A Summer 2014 Reading List - J Fran, Sustainability, and Feminism

Every summer - oh let's be honest every season/month of every year or every time anything miniscule changes, out there pours a plethora of reading lists to accompany it.  I'm always excited to read these lists, but the excitement is usually followed by disappointment.  Instead of focused reading lists that one might actually want to accomplish in a season accompanied by themes and good reasoning, I end up reading a random list of books the creator likes or has read recently with reasons like 'because it was good.'  Summer is actually the worst in this scenario because the list is oftentimes a rehashing of chick lit beach reads that have probably already been compiled onto 30 similar lists in the past year or two.  (Nothing against beach reads or chick lit - reading anything is good, but I just don't need another list of it.)

* I will say the major exception is any reading list on Flavorwire.  They come up with great lists for most months and many intermittently that focus on specific topics.  That's where I get a huge amount of my new reading nowadays. 

Anyway people ask me for book recommendations a lot, and although I always have a suggestion or two up my sleeve I wanted to create a list while I was next to my goodreads account that focuses on a few select topics and a manageable number of books for the summer, assuming as usual that everyone's taste is different and nobody will want to read the exact same books as me.  I've found that this is what I love in a good reading list - focus on a few topics that intersect with a good sprinkling of new and classics. 

The topics I've chosen for this list are as follows - one author spotlight, on my man Jonathan Franzen.  Many hate him, but I don't care.  His books and essays alike are excellent, promote interesting ideas that you can learn about just from reading his books (or do further research if you so choose) and as an added bonus I've read all three on this list in the past year.  My next focus is on nature/sustainability/mindful living, which as you will see ties into the Jonathan Franzen focus.  Last is books that have a notable feminist streamline, followed up with a few summer classics and books to fit the season. 

In an order that is based not on best to worst but rather an interesting way to hop between topics,

1.) Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

This is hands down the greatest book I've read so far in 2014.  ( In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe is giving it a run for it's money, but I'm not done with that one yet so we're holding court.)  Told from the perspective of a Nigerian woman living and working in the United States for over a decade, Americanah focuses on the intersectionality of such complex social issues as race, immigration, gender, and information access in the 21st century.  Told part in narration and part in blog posts, the book is completely engrossing and also serves my favorite function of cultural commentary and an opportunity to learn while reading a great novel with complex and fascinating characters. 

2.) Farther Away by Jonathan Franzen

Anything by Jonathan Franzen is a must for people who love learning and a bit of controversy, which is why I chose him for my author spotlight and put all three of his books that I've read on this list.  I honestly can't pick between Farther Away and Freedom, because I love them in such different ways.  Luckily I don't feel pressure to do that because they are very different books - Farther Away is a collection of essays and speeches from the past few years while Freedom is a novel.  Franzen is the perfect author to venture into in the summer because his work is thought provoking, inspires you to learn more, and - it's long.  Farther Away is definitely the easiest to tackle because you can do the essays slowly without losing your sense of place.  The two greatest gems in the book are Pain Won't Kill You, his commencement address from Kenyon College, which focuses on my topics of sustainability and mindful living as well as creating a life that is more emotionally healthy - and a myriad of other amazing topics.  Farther Away, the title essay in the collection, is a tragic meditation mostly focusing on the author's late friend David Foster Wallace.  A tearjerker for sure but I read it again and again.  To further it's summer appropriateness, the essay tracks Franzen's journey to the island that Robinson Crusoe was purportedly based on - quite the summer adventure. 

3.) The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

The first thing I noticed about this book and that continued to strike me throughout was its unique structure.  It is built as a collection of case notes on the life of a fictional artist as being compiled by an academic.  The artist, Harriet Burden, was the wife of a famous art collector and an artist in her own time who challenged the male dominated art world.  After her husbands death she takes on a social experiment project - she creates the artwork for three individual shows, but then has three male artists pose as the creators.  All shows are received positively and gain more acclaim than her original work, but when she comes out as the real creator, there's controversy as to whether she is telling the truth.  The unique format of the novel keeps you thinking and also makes it a good choice for the long days of summer.  It's arguments on feminism and the male dominated art world make it a great intellectual read and it certainly inspires further research. 

4.) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I read this book while traveling between Croatia, Montenegro, Greece, Israel, and finished it while trying to not die in typhoon Haiyan in the Phillippines.  Perhaps that is partially to blame for why it almost made me reevaluate my entire life and the way I view my relationships, but I think most of that credit goes to Franzen and his stunning observations on modern life and the way we interact with the people we love - or don't love.  It's huge, and it makes you think and analyze not just the topics it brings up but also the way you live your life - perfect for the long lazy hours of summer, if you're up to the challenge.  If that weren't enough, Franzen manages to put in a huge information blast on the crazy problems of overpopulation and the hypocrisy of American society in relation to this topic.  It ignited my passion for the cause and serves to not only interest you but also give you real solid information on the topic.  Honestly, if you only pick one book on the list in terms of knowledge, it would definitely be this one. 

5.) Want Not by Jonathan Miles

Jonathan is a really common name.  Although it's not up to the par of Franzen, this book follows in the tradition of a novel that manages to explore current topics while also creating interesting characters.  The interconnected stories in Want Not all focus somehow on consumption and overconsumption, and shed stark light on society today.  It's relatively new, so it gets you up on the current topics while learning and giving great things to think about while outside and consuming in the world.

6.) A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

I recently met a guy who was hiking the PCT and hiked the AT last year and he told me that people who hike the Appalacian Trail tend to scorn Bill Bryson.  What I liked about this book is that Bryson invites that insult and acknowledges that he is not a hiker, that he wasn't prepared to hike the trail, and instead uses it as a passionate argument for environmentalism.  I can't say the same for certain other very famous books about certain other trails on opposite coasts.  If you want to be convinced to not hike the Appalachian Trail until you do about ten years of training and get a great history of environmentalism in America and be inspired to go outside this summer, this is your read. 

7.) A Life in Men by Gina Frangello

I saw this author speak at Warwick's a month or so ago, which was an excellent experience that really inspired me about writing and living.  I did like the book when I read it, but it was seeing the author that really cemented the experience.  There's a lot of spoilers very early on in this book so I'm going to err on the side of caution and say that it's about travel, female friendship, living a life of adventure, and living in the face of tragedy.  And, of course, feminism.  My favorite part of seeing the author speak was her explaining and acknowledging the intentional irony of the title - I love intentional irony!  Perhaps a bit more of a traditional beach read than the others on this list, the book is nonetheless intense and makes you think about everything from how women relate to travel and men to each other to how we want to live our own lives.

8.) Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

Only my favorite lady and my favorite book on mindful living.  This book got me through quitting my summer job last year, got me through Europe, and continues to get me through life.  It could be a summer read just for it being the one year anniversary of me reading it for the first time, but it's a great meditation on how to live a slower and more mindful life, how to handle all the shit that gets thrown at us, and it relaxes whether you're on a stressful train abroad or in bed at home.

9.) The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

This was J Fran's big ole break out book, and it's obvious why.  I personally prefer Freedom, but I blazed through this one nonetheless.  The audience is generally split on which they like better so obviously I suggest reading both during the summer of Franzen. 

10.) Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Nature, the relationship with the self, the relationship to society, all the ways that society is fucked up.  What more could you want?  Of course the risk is always that someone is going to take this one too literally, but what I liked about this book is that it gave me the opportunity to stake my own claim in the debate between consumerist society and complete isolation.  Obviously you probably don't want to go as far as McCandless in terms of isolation, but reading this book provides a variety of ideas for how to be more sustainable and eschew the negative aspects of society while also encouraging you to stick with some of your connections lest you die alone in the woods.

11.) The Best American Essays 2013 by Cheryl Strayed

Full disclaimer, this isn't my favorite edition of Best American Essays.  That award goes to 2012 hands down.  But it's great summer reading because the next years edition always comes out in the fall, so it's great fun to work your way through the amazing essays of one year while eagerly awaiting the next.  I mean I might be overestimating the number of people who get this excited about Best American Essays...but whatever. 

12.) Summer Sisters by Judy Blume

Ah the beloved summer classic of my youth.  What is summer for if not at least one nostalgic read?  I will always love this book for its journey of two friends from youth to teenage to adulthood and the complications of growing up and friendship.  The reason it's best to read it in summer is that moreso than any book I've ever read, the tone Blume writes in makes you feel the true atmosphere of summers away on poor beaches and rickety boats even if you've never lived it, which I obviously have not.  (dirty horses and all girls camp for the win.)  Plus, I saw a random lady reading this at IHop last month and we chatted about it for twenty minutes.  Life is so great.

13.) Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit

My other pick for summer nostalgia. 

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

Enough said? 

The passage of time, how we relate to the world, living life, etc etc.  I'm literally ordering this from the library as I type because I'm so excited to reread it. 


I love books!