As the 2020-21 Season of Literary Masters comes to a close, enjoy these superb summer recommendations–until we meet again in the fall!
Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu
Winner of the National Book Award, and deservedly so! Written in the form of a screenplay, this story of Asian immigrants will make you laugh right before you realize, “oh, I’m actually feeling uncomfortable.” Shining a light on which roles Hollywood deems suitable for Asian actors, this unique novel also explores which roles society deems suitable for its Asian citizens. Letting no one off the hook, it also asks Asians in all their various roles: “why are you accepting this role that someone else wrote for you?” A super read!
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
We all know who William Shakepeare is but how well do we know the man? O’Farrell won the National Book Critics Circle award for her novel exploring his life and marriage with particular attention to the death of his young son, Hamnet, at age 11. The book imagines how this event may have shaped or inspired the creation of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays Hamlet four years later, after Hamnet’s death, while painting a vivid picture of life in 16th century Stratford.
Death in Mudlick by Eric Eyre
In the first of our two summer nonfiction reads focusing on the opioid epidemic, Eric Eyre, an investigative reporter for West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, dives into the story of why the state was awash with enough hydrocodone and oxycodone between 2007 and 2012 for every resident to receive 130 pills. Eyre, who won a Pulitzer in 2017 for his reporting on this story, unspools the narrative like a thriller but manages to keep our eyes trained on the very human cost of this “man-made disaster fueled by corporate greed and corruption.” At the same time he gives the reader an appreciation for the difficulties of investigative reporting at a thinly-financed newspaper in an ever-more-challenging economic environment for print journalism.
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe
Keefe, whose previous book, Say Nothing, was long listed for the National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award, turns his attention to the Sackler family and the role it played in the opioid crisis in the second of our nonfiction summer titles on the subject. While we may feel we know the story of the famous family whose name graces the wings of museums and scholarships at prestigious universities, Keefe manages to engage the reader while digging deeper into this extraordinary family. As John Carreyrou (who you will remember as the author of Bad Blood) put it in his New York Times review, “Put simply, this book will make your blood boil.”
We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
Readers will find strands of Loving Day, The Sellout, Underground Railway and The Vanishing Half in this satirical novel set in a United States of the near future that is much more overt in its racism than our current one. The loving father at the center of the story will do anything to protect his family, particularly his son – even if it means erasing who the boy is. It is that love that gives the story its emotional core.
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Set in Finnmark, Norway in 1617, this atmospheric novel will transport you to an entirely new place. A ship carrying 40 men is lost to sea in a storm. Without their men to take care of them, the women of the Arctic island Vardo must take care of themselves. But tragic events must be explained, and the women soon turn on themselves to make sense of their pain. Based on the real events of the Vardo storm and witch trials of 1621.
The Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg
This is one feel-good summer read! A group of women meet weekly for a Confession Club, where they share their innermost secrets, desires, and regrets. What could go wrong? Not to worry, more goes quite right as these friends listen, support, and help each other navigate real-life situations. There’s more than a little romance and love, also! Grab your beach umbrella and this book and enjoy a few hours escape with some lovely ladies!
Middle England by Jonathan Coe
You are guaranteed to laugh as you travel through England via this page-turning novel, but be warned: there’s no having tea with the Queen! Instead, your company will be disaffected and confused Brits who are trying to figure out what’s happening in their own country. How did the hosts of the 2012 Olympics end up Brexiting out of Europe just a few years later? Super thought-provoking and entirely topical!
A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke
You have to admit it takes gumption to write a book about a famous actor who cheats on his even more famous and stunningly beautiful wife when you, as the author, are also a famous actor (Ethan Hawke) who infamously cheated on none other than the stunningly gorgeous Uma Thurman. Is this a roman a clef? A confession? Hawke’s guilt overtaking his pen? Who cares, as the result is a fast-paced romp through a theatrical production of Hamlet, exploring themes of fame, fidelity, life’s purpose, and more!
Monogamy by Sue Miller
Another story of infidelity, but this time the scorned wife (yes, it’s the wife again) finds out without being able to confront her husband. What can she do with this information? How does it now change her perspective on her relationship with her husband? And how does it change how she views herself? The characters in this page-turner are not easily pigeon-holed, which makes the novel that much better!
Abigail by Magda Szabo
This classic coming-of-age story, set in Hungary during WWII, will captivate you and your coming-of-age daughters! When Gina is sent away to a hideous boarding school by her doting father, the young girl is confused and extremely upset. The bullies at school don’t help matters. Only Abigail, the classical statue in the school garden, is available to offer solace and aid. Slowly, Gina learns who she can depend on to survive both her school-based troubles and the ever-encroaching wartime horrors. A perfect summertime Mother/Daughter Book Club read!!!
My Year Abroad by Chang Rai Lee
A somewhat aimless but basically agreeable one-eighth Asian (yes, this is important) college junior retrospectively narrates this improbable tale of his alternate year abroad which takes him from a tour of Asia with his froyo store boss on a quest for investors to his time living with his 30-year old lover and her 8-year old son in the witness protection program. Lee, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award for On Such a Full Sea, is clearly having fun here and the reader will as well.
A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
Un-put-downable! This retelling of the war between the ancient Greeks and the Trojans (you remember that one, right?) is a rollicking read! Giving voice to the women of the war this time, this novel brims with wit, wisdom, humor, and…revenge! You’ll hear from, among others, Penelope, Cassandra, Hecabe, Clytemenestra, and of course the muse Calliope. If you’re worried you can’t remember who is who from your high school mythology class, have no fear. Natalie Haynes manages to weave an educational primer into her propulsive story. This one is a treat!
A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry
A Thousand Moons, a sequel to Literary Masters member-favorite Days Without End, Barry’s Costa-winning 2017 novel, picks up the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole on the same farm where we left them. The perspective is new as this stand-alone story is narrated by Winona, the Lakota girl McNulty and Cole are raising as their own. The idyll of the Tennessee farm where they live with two former slaves and fellow veteran Lige Mason is upset by violent attacks on more than one member of this “family.” Revenge lies at the heart of the plot, even as compassion and love fuel the story’s momentum.
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
On New Year’s Eve, in a small Swedish town, a bank robbery goes wrong and a group of strangers at an apartment viewing find themselves held hostage. As they get to know each other and navigate their desires, secrets, and anxieties, two policemen – a father and son duo struggling to connect – grapple with how to solve a seemingly unsolvable crime. Told from varying perspectives, this novel is a layered, cleverly constructed story full of twists and turns. Even more so, it is a poignant reflection on forgiveness, hope, and the role we can unknowingly play in a stranger’s life.