Every year during summer holidays, the jackets on the beach are all the same. It was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, then last summer it was The Help, and all this summer’s books are already bedecked in 50 Shades of Gray. The monolithic nature of the summer read certainly comes with its benefits—all these book sales keep booksellers and publishers afloat, and books in common create connections between readers. But as for fostering a vibrant literary culture, the one-book-per-summer approach is having us come up seriously short.
What does a vibrant literary culture look like, is a question you may ask, which is a question best answered by taking a peek at the 49thShelf main-page anytime. This is what a vibrant literary culture looks like, books and books, side by side, mingling forms and genres, illuminating connections, contrasts, big presses and small presses. In literature as in biology, diversity is the way to sustaining life, books of all sorts, some familiar and some obscure, off the wall and, yes, some according to formula because it’s true that a little bit of formulaic fiction is nice to encounter in the summer. We work hard enough the rest of the year that we can be permitted some indulgence lake-side, a beach-read and a glass of wine on a Wednesda …
By age ten, I was traipsing home each New Jersey June with a list of required reading for the summer, pretending to be as vexed about it as the other kids. In truth I was keen for an excuse to hole up in my attic room away from my mother for whom the unabated sight of me on long summer days seemed to be cruel and unusual punishment: You’ve parted your hair like a cow path. Stop twitching your nose. Don’t slouch. You can’t come to the table looking like that.
While attacking the “approved” reading list, however, I was on full alert for signs said mother was outside—the squeak of the clothesline pulley, her exasperated “shoo-shoo” to rabbits in her raspberries. Then I’d steal down the stairs as furtively as Nancy Drew and into the living room where she kept novels on the top shelves of bookcases my father had built (with no help from his carpenter dad, he’d bitterly remind us). The shelves also held the Encyclopædia Britannica from Aak to Zylviec, Webster’s Unabridged with a broken spine, the Merck Manual, the Bible, kids’ books …
Some rules were in order for this list. I decided to exclude any titles that have won big awards (yet) as well as anything by Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro.
Cloud of Bone by Bernice Morgan: Bernice Morgan, author of Random Passage and Waiting for Time, has crafted a startling and beautiful novel that shows the nature of human violence. Using Shawnadithit and WWII, Morgan’s story is entrenched in history, and the relationship she’s created to match is very intimate and perfectly drawn. It’s no surprise that Morgan is a master writer, as we’ve seen her work before, but this book is definitely my favorite of hers. It deserves to be read multiple times.
Mad Hope by Heather Birrell: Mad Hope is a collection of intricate stories with sometimes alarming subject matter. Birrell peels back the layers of a moment, a thing, a person, to reveal the essence of what's beneath. She has the skill of a seasoned writer and the voice of a modern one, the literary love child of Margaret Laurence and Douglas Coupland.