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Summer reads: The last five years

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We’ve reached that point in the season where everybody is trotting out their annual recommendations for summer reading. This is something of which I wholeheartedly approve – I believe that the more we talk about books, the better.

However, I’ve decided to adopt a slightly different tactic with this year’s story. I’ve decided that rather than try and sell you on new or about-to-arrive works, I’d take you on a trip back through the past few years and reintroduce you to some of the works that I’ve written about and enjoyed over that span.

I’ve gone back about five years and put together a list of works that you may have missed the first time around, but that are well worth your attention. There are 18 in all – 11 fiction, 7 nonfiction. There’s literary fiction and genre fiction, biographies and memoirs and a fair amount of baseball-related stuff.

(Note: As you’ll see, there’s no Stephen King stuff on here. That’s because he could basically BE the list. Besides, you don’t need me to tell you about Mr. King and his summer read-worthiness – although I will say that the past decade, his work has been as consistently good as it has ever been.)

So dig into this list. I can almost guarantee there’s something here to fulfill everyone’s summer reading needs, but even if you don’t see anything on this particular list to your liking, go find something. Discover new words and new worlds. Read.

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2017

“Lincoln in the Bardo” – George Saunders

This book – the first novel from acclaimed short story writer George Saunders – is, to put it bluntly, brilliant.

Combining fiction and real-life correspondence, “Lincoln in the Bardo” tells the story of Abraham Lincoln and the grief he felt at the loss of his son Willie in 1862. And yet … there’s so much more to it.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, “Lincoln in the Bardo” is one of the most unique pieces of fiction that it has ever been my pleasure to read. It is sweeping and intimate simultaneously, marrying historical fact with narrative invention in a manner unlike anything I’ve seen before. Through these seemingly disparate parts, Saunders has constructed a tale that is jaw-dropping in its inventiveness while still concisely conveying the very quiet and internal nature of grief.

“Manhattan Beach” – Jennifer Egan

Well-built historical fiction is a real treat. When you get the right combination of high-quality research and authorial talent, well … that’s the good stuff. The stuff that Jennifer Egan gives you with “Manhattan Beach.”

It’s a story of one of a particularly turbulent time in our country’s history – the stretch leading up to and into World War II.  Through a few individuals, the narrative focuses on the ways that time and place can influence and ultimately shape both the people that we are and the people that we strive to become.

“Manhattan Beach” is captivating. The world that has been built and the people that populate it are magnificent – sharp and clear and utterly enticing. Just exceptional. And hey … it’s got “Beach” right in the name.

Meddling Kids” – Edgar Cantero

This was easily one of the weirdest books I’ve read in recent years. Edgar Cantero has created the kind of pop culture/literary fiction mashup that sits squarely in my wheelhouse; creepy and smart and darkly funny.

The elevator pitch for this one is pretty simple – Scooby-Doo meets the Cthulhu Mythos. Yes, really. When a group of teenage detectives used to Rube Goldberg-ian schemes executed by dudes in Halloween masks inadvertently stumbles into a much more sinister situation, it haunts them for years – until they go back to finish the job.

“Meddling Kids” is delightful stuff, genre fiction treated with literary respect. It’s sharp and scary, with plenty to offer to fans of Hanna-Barbera and H.P. Lovecraft alike that might be looking for a summer read.

“Vacationland” – John Hodgman

John Hodgman’s “Vacationland” is one of the funniest books of the past five years, hands down … and maybe the funniest.

It’s a collection of stories – subtitled “True Stories of Painful Beaches” – in which Hodgman recounts his relationships with two specific vacation homes. There’s the western Massachusetts house of his younger days and his current summer home in a small coastal Maine town.

“Vacationland” is smart and snarky and occasionally raw. Hodgman’s narrative gifts are undeniable, and when combined with this kind of genuine feeling and truth, the end result is flat-out exceptional. It’s a beautiful balance of humor and heart – a book that’ll make you laugh, that’ll make you think … and that’ll ultimately make you glad you spent some time with John Hodgman.

“The Cooperstown Casebook” – Jay Jaffe

As someone who loves the Baseball Hall of Fame, I’ve been a longtime follower of Jay Jaffe’s work. He is the best in the business when it comes to Cooperstown talk – his JAWS system has become a key component of any advanced statistical analysis of Hall of Fame cases.

“The Cooperstown Casebook” brings that information to bear. It’s wonky without being overwhelming, offering thought-provoking analysis and a fair amount of humor. And hey – what’s better for summer reading than baseball?

The book’s subtitle is “Who’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Who Should Be In, and Who Should Pack Their Plaques.” And there’s no one out there better suited to tell you who’s who. If you’re interested in Cooperstown, sabermetrics and/or where the two intersect, Jay Jaffe is for you.

2016

“The Fireman” – Joe Hill

Joe Hill is one mighty fine storyteller. And he’s at his very best with “The Fireman,” a story of a fiery, world-ending virus and one woman’s efforts to save herself and those most important to her. It’s a sprawling 700-page epic that manages to hold your attention with every single sentence.

This book is a sweeping, haunting tale of civilization’s collapse and the hard-fought individual battles that must be won in order to survive. The world Hill gives us is one that is filled with horrors, but also with moments of humanity.

“The Fireman” burns bright and hot; it’s a work both powerful and thoughtful. And if you’re going to be warm anyway … why not a book fraught with flame?

“Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” – Blair Braverman (2016)

Sometimes, you come across a book that you expect to be good, only to have it turn out to be great. For me, that was “Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube.”

Blair Braverman’s memoir tells the story of the lifelong pull she’s felt from the North, leading her to live on glaciers and move to Norway and become a dogsled musher. It’s also the story of a woman’s determination to carve out her own place in the world.

“Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube” is a chilly breeze blown across a snowy field, a cup of coffee shared around a tiny table on a frigid morning, a full-tilt dogsled ride that is both dangerous and under control. It is simply spectacular.

(Note: Blair Braverman is also a SPECTACULAR Twitter follow.)

“But What If We’re Wrong” – Chuck Klosterman

I’ve always been a fan of Chuck Klosterman’s brand of analysis, bringing a keen intellectual curiosity to an exploration of popular culture.

But I straight-up had my mind blown by “What If We’re Wrong?” Klosterman’s basic conceit – questioning whether we might be wrong about our fundamental understanding of how the world works, only we can’t know because the wrongness won’t be clear until farther into the future – leads to a wide range of head-spinning notions presented in a manner that is both thoughtful and humorous.

Packed with wild ideas explored with the help of outstanding figures in their respective fields, “But What If We’re Wrong?” is a clever, compelling read. And Klosterman’s combination of wonkery and accessibility makes for an ideal sort of summertime reading experience.

2015

“The Incarnations” – Susan Barker

I’ve been a big believer in this book since I first read it three years ago. That hasn’t changed – it’s an excellent work that lovers of literary fiction really should experience for themselves.

A Chinese cab driver has a letter literally drop into his lap. The contents of that letter and the ones that follow tie him to a tale of two souls connected across the centuries; previous lives inescapably intertwined. From slaves of Genghis Khan to teenaged Red Guardsmen during the Cultural Revolution, tales of lives lived and deaths met unfold stars cross and worlds collide.

Susan Barker’s millennia-spanning tour de force is a most exquisite work. Compelling characters and exceptional prose propel the narrative across the ages, creating a beautiful illustration of the power and inevitability of fate.

“Get In Trouble” – Kelly Link

These nine stories beautifully twist and warp the conventions of speculative fiction in such a way as to construct tales both ridiculous and sublime. Kelly Link is an incredible talent, finding myriad ways to elevate and subvert literary convention.

The margins are filled with genre tropes, but every one of these pieces is about people who are flawed and relatable elements of sci-fi and fantasy and horror are used to create a juxtaposition and emphasize characters and situations that are all too real.

Few collections of short fiction shine quite as brightly as this one. These stories are powerful and poetic, beautifully written and masterfully conceived. And really, isn’t there something to be said for reading short stories in the summertime?

Three Moments of an Explosion” – China Mieville

Another author who wields genre as a weapon, China Mieville is a master of weird fiction. In his stories, the mystical and the mundane exist side by side; one never quite knows when one will bleed over into the other.

In this particular collection, icebergs float in the sky and sentient oil rigs rise from the sea. Artifacts of torture gain power and card players discover hidden suits that change the rules of the game. That is the dynamic of the nearly 30 stories told here – Mieville is simply uninterested in being beholden to any particular rules.

These tales are rife with elements of speculative fiction and well-steeped in surrealism and pop cultural absurdities; they are surprising and intense and packed with idiosyncratic beauty.

2014

“The Serpent of Venice” – Christopher Moore

Christopher Moore might well be the funniest popular fiction writer of his generation. “The Serpent of Venice” - a sequel to his brilliant 2009 novel “Fool,” a delightful riff on “King Lear” – certainly does nothing to disabuse us of that notion.

In this one, Moore offers up the continuing adventures of the foul-mouthed fool Pocket, who goes on a hilariously profane journey that revisits Shakespeare, incorporating elements of “The Merchant of Venice” and “Othello” while offering a nod to Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and other literary masterworks as well. It’s a glorious mishmash of inspirations tied together by a sharp narrative and the profane charisma of the protagonist.

If you’ve got passion for the Bard in your heart, you’re going to love Pocket.

“The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy” – Jacopo della Quercia

 

Fans of humor and history will find a lot to like in this hilarious, deftly researched tale from Jacopo della Quercia. The year is 1910. President William Howard Taft operates in a world of secret zeppelins and Edison-designed automatons. He’s also the world’s underground bare-knuckle boxing champion. But when Robert Lincoln son of Abraham shows Taft his father’s pocket watch, adventure ensues.

Basically, della Quercia has weaponized meticulous historical research for comedic purposes. This book is weird and funny and so well-made as to be hilariously plausible.

From Alaska to the Congo to the Titanic, Taft and company stampede through an alternate history that will appeal to anyone who has ever considered the comedic possibilities of “what if?”

 

“As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride” – Cary Elwes

In “As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride,” Elwes - along with co-author Joe Layden - relates the entire tale of his involvement with making one of the most enduring cinematic stories of the last three decades. It’s a wonderful look behind the scenes; the people involved had just as much fun making the movie as generations of people have had watching it.

For any fan of “The Princess Bride” - which frankly should be everyone, but who am I to judge? – “As You Wish” is a delightful exploration of how an all-time film favorite came into being. And if you’re anything like me, all you’ll want to do after putting it down is watch the movie again.

You’ll love this book. The mere thought that you might not is inconceivable.

“The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams” – Ben Bradlee, Jr.

In Ben Bradlee Jr.’s massive biography of the Red Sox slugger, we learn who one of baseball’s icons really was behind the agate type of the 1940s and 1950s. It is an attempt to create a comprehensive look at one of the most fiercely beloved figures in the history of one of baseball’s most fiercely beloved franchises.

Ted Williams was a truly complicated individual, one who defied categorization. Bradlee Jr. has given us a comprehensive exploration of Williams, a glimpse at all facets the man the world saw, the man he wanted to be and the man that he truly was.

“The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams” is a dense, lengthy read – ideal for summer readers looking to learn more about the boys of summer.

2013

“Night Film” – Marissa Peshl

It’s fun reading a book that surprises you. “Night Film” is full of those sorts of surprises.

Not only is the story about a disgraced journalist investigating an underground filmmaker filled with compelling characters and notable twists, but the method of telling is itself surprising. Pessl sprinkles her story with screen captures, news releases and transcripts to enhance the realism of her fictional world. These nontraditional elements add a storytelling flavor that disorients in the best possible way.

Part Kubrick, part Hitchcock, all Pessl – “Night Film” is one of the weirder reading experiences you’re likely to have, but it’s a journey that is absolutely worth taking.

“Bleeding Edge” – Thomas Pynchon

I know, I know – what kind of person reads Thomas Pynchon on the beach? But hear me out – “Bleeding Edge” is worthy of the effort you’ll be putting into it.

With this book – the last that Pynchon had written as of this date – the reader is given a tale of lost souls and mystery set in the Manhattan of the post-tech bubble, pre-9/11 world. It’s a snapshot of a time that while a mere decade in the past feels like an entirely different universe.

With the clearly, quirkily drawn characters and masterful wordplay typical of Pynchon’s best work, “Bleeding Edge” is one more feather in the cap of an author who has been dropping brilliance in his wake for 50 years.

“The Sports Gene” – David Epstein

The debate of “nature versus nurture” is one that has been raging in athletic circles since time immemorial. This book is one of the best, most interesting explorations of the subject we’ve seen in recent years.

What author David Epstein does here is condense and qualify that debate in a way that is both incredibly informative and narratively engaging. Whether he’s talking about high jumpers, sled dogs or Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour” rule, Epstein brings a wealth of research and an engaging writing style to the table.

“The Sports Gene” is one of the smartest sports books of the decade, packed with information while still remaining accessible. It’s a difficult feat to pull off, but Epstein does so with aplomb.

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