Reading Rainbow: What I Read This Summer

This summer marked a return to reading — specifically a return to reading novels. I spent many hours outside on our deck or perched on a beach chair at Tahoe relishing that disorienting and liberating feeling of falling under a writer’s spell and then getting to live in that writer’s world for a little while.

The novels I read this summer were thoroughly engrossing to read, but I found some more satisfying than others. These were my favorites:

roundhouseThe Round House
Louise Erdrich

Probably my favorite of the seven novels I read this summer was The Round House. I’m not usually a Louise Erdrich fan, but this book was just about everything I look for in a novel: compelling, touching, enlightening, well-paced, and all loose ends creatively and satisfyingly tied up by the end. I also happen to love books that have a younger protagonist so it didn’t hurt that the main character is Joe, a 13-year-old boy whose life is turned upside down when his mother is attacked.

The story takes place in classic Erdrich territory — in a Native American community in North Dakota — and the setting offers an additional twist to the story: who has jurisdiction over Joe’s mother’s case given that no one knows if she was attacked on Indian territory, Federal land or state property? The crime gives the story the urgency of a who-dun-it, while Joe’s relationship with his friends and his extended family give the book more emotional heft than a mere mystery.

alllightAll the Light that We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

I thought there was nothing else to say about World War II, but this book proved me wrong. Rather than delving into the horrors of the war — Hitler, the concentration camps — the book focuses on the experiences of ordinary people on both sides of the war.

Through the lives of a French girl and a German boy, both of whom come of age during the war, we see that in both countries, some people suffered and others prospered. In small French towns, there were those who organized and participated in a German resistance, and there were also people who turned on their own countrymen to curry favor with the Germans. For some German boys, like Werner, the war offered an opportunity– it was an alternative to working in the dangerous coal mines, but the war dashes the opportunities of more scholarly boys who weren’t cut out to be soldiers.

Perhaps the most moving part of the book, to me, was the stories after the war. A German woman travels to France and worries that the French will judge her for her country’s actions during the war, and a French woman who is so shaped by her experiences during war that she’s uneasy about living in a world where people’s lives weren’t shaped by the same kind of loss and survival. The book is written so lightly that it often feels like it’s just skimming the surface, and yet it carries an enormous weight.

lowlandThe Lowland
Jhumpa Lahiri

In many ways, The Lowlands is a classic Lahiri piece: as with her other books, this novel has Indian-born characters who end up working in academia on the East Coast. But even with those somewhat predictable elements, the book is an absorbing tale about how two brothers who are inseparable as children grow apart from each other as they get older, particularly during a period of political upheaval in India, and the unusual ways that the brothers remain connected to each other even as one moves to the U.S.

burgessThe Burgess Boys
Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys also focuses on sibling relationships. In this case, two brothers who come back to their small Maine hometown to help their sister when her son gets into trouble. The son’s trouble is emblematic of the town’s struggle to come to terms with a recent influx of Somalis.

With the siblings, the small town, and the Somalis, Strout cleverly plays with the idea of being an outsider. We soon see that the Somalis aren’t the only people who feel out of place. Other characters also feel like outsiders in their own families, in their hometowns or in the big city.

Runner Up

americanahAmericanah
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah was one of the most thought-provoking novels I’ve read in a long time. Seeing America through the eyes of a Nigerian woman who comes to the U.S. for college really made me think about what I assume about people who live in Africa — Are they educated? Can they vote? But while the book felt like an important read, it wasn’t necessarily the best story. The parts of the book that focus on race in America were powerfully written, but the actual story felt too thin to me.

(All images from Powell.com)

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