Beach-worthy books to savor in summer: Monitor staff picks

Karen Norris/Staff

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“Summer afternoon,” wrote Henry James, “to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” To that pairing, the Monitor staff might add a third: reading. It’s only natural that people concerned with writing and editing would be passionate about reading, and a glimpse into the preferences of the staff reveals a range of choices for summer book lists. From classics such as “The Great Gatsby” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” to the ever-popular Harry Potter books and essays by humorist David Sedaris, a rich variety of book suggestions awaits. 

Why We Wrote This

What do reporters and editors read over their summers? We asked the staff to share their go-to books for laid-back days. They offered suggestions that span many genres and moods.

Summer afternoons are best spent in a comfy, shaded spot, a glass of lemonade at hand, engrossed in a book. We asked Monitor staff to share their summer favorites. 

I spend a lot of time in upper Maine, and nearby is the Big Chicken Barn, one of those huge junk/antiques/old books barns that dot New England. Two summers ago I picked up a used copy of the first volume of “A Dance to the Music of Time” series by Anthony Powell for some reason. “A Question of Upbringing” is a novel that portrays a sort of social realism for upper-class England starting in the 1920s, going through World War II, and into the ’50s and ’60s. I could not put it down, and over a year and a half I tracked down the rest of the series (it’s a 12-volume set) and read the whole thing as a great antidote to the 2020 election chaos in Washington. 

My wife even bought me a Powell biography that also identifies the real people behind all the characters. 

Why We Wrote This

What do reporters and editors read over their summers? We asked the staff to share their go-to books for laid-back days. They offered suggestions that span many genres and moods.

Powell was probably better known back in the 1970s as a friend of Martin Amis and George Orwell, etc. I picked it up because I’d heard the book referenced in some class I took as an English major, lo, those many years ago.

I know this is a kind of weird summer read, but I found it immensely relaxing. 

– Peter Grier, senior Washington correspondent

Last year, books about race flew off bookstore shelves. “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother,” a memoir by James McBride, fell into my lap, a castoff from a relative who was cleaning house. I was immediately hooked by McBride’s prose and the mysteries of his fierce Jewish mother, who raised 12 Black children without ever discussing race. Entangled in this rich, yet breezy memoir are threads of what it means to be an “other” that echo loudly 25 years after its original publication. 

– Noelle Swan, Weekly editor

I bought Wayétu Moore’s “She Would Be King” in the early fall of 2018 at a book festival in St. Louis. The cover’s hues of serene blues and an illustration of a dark-skinned woman with fiery red hair caught my eye. Moore’s captivating prose weaves in and out of time and place from Virginia to Monrovia, Liberia, telling the story of warriors and heroes with supernatural abilities designed for liberation. And at the end, the tales of survival and rebirth made me, a person of Liberian heritage but estranged from that part of my identity, feel just as full of a resurrected hope as the characters Moore made. 

– Ashley Lisenby, multimedia reporter and writer on race and equity

While renting a house in coastal Rhode Island years ago, I saw a worn copy of Pat Conroy’s “The Prince of Tides.” The fact that it had been made into a major motion picture almost discouraged me from reading it, but when I opened the first page, Conroy’s musical descriptions of the South Carolina coast pulled me in. I’ve been a fan of his ever since.

Something I’ll be reading this summer: I’m a big fan of the short story, and have had T.C. Boyle’s “Stories II: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle” in my bookcase for several years. I’ve been avoiding it because it’s 900 pages long, but I started this week and am enjoying it so much I ordered a used version of the preceding volume, “Stories: The Collected Stories of T. Coraghessan Boyle” from my favorite used book store – another 800 pages.

– Greg Fitzgerald, communication manager

The American coming-of-age story, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” sat on the shelf in my childhood home, but I didn’t get to it until recently, when my book club decided to read a “classic” for a change. No wonder Betty Smith’s novel became an immediate bestseller when it was first published in 1943. Rich in detail and heart, it takes you to the tenements of Brooklyn in 1912, where 11-year-old Francie Nolan collects junk for pennies with her brother, their practical mother scrubs floors to keep a roof over their heads, and their charming, singing-waiter father battles drink. But Francie finds beauty among the ashes, resilience in hardship, and love in flawed people. Just like the tree that grows from cement outside her window, she thrives. 

– Francine Kiefer, West Coast bureau chief

You know that old saying about how everyone wants to write a book? (I mean, I’m one of those wannabes myself.) Lily King’s “Writers & Lovers” cuts right through the cliché. The story follows a woman in her 30s navigating the anxieties and absurdities of life as an aspiring novelist. But despite its all-too-real portrayal of the agony of writing – not to mention trying to get published – the book somehow made me want to risk the attempt even more. Maybe it was the pleasant tinge of ’90s nostalgia throughout (the story is set in 1997), or the aching vulnerability of the main character, Casey. Either way, a great read for those who love to write – or want to understand people who do.

– Jessica Mendoza, multimedia reporter

“Harry Potter” is synonymous with summers in Maine for me. Our three sons were just the right age for the books as they arrived – in a brilliant bit of marketing – one by one every July, Harry’s birthday month. We’d often be visiting the boys’ grandparents then. We’d rush out to buy the latest volume and race home to start reading it aloud in the electronic media-free home. Even better was when the audio version arrived. Then we’d pile into the family van after dinner and go for “‘Harry Potter’ rides,” listening to the cassettes as the sun set and the moon rose through pine trees and across seascapes on the winding rural roads of Downeast Maine.

– Owen Thomas, The Home Forum editor

The feeling of summer starts in the first paragraph of “Beautiful Ruins,” when “shards of sunlight broke on the flickering waves.” But that’s not all that makes this a favorite vacation read. There’s the “dying actress” in her wide-brimmed hat, the scenes of the Italian coast, the love stories across time and place, the laugh-out-loud trials of a young Hollywood script reader – and above all, author Jess Walter’s glistening sense of satire and humanity. 

– Stephanie Hanes, environment writer 

One of my favorite books is set at Walden Pond, my favorite Massachusetts swimming spot. Little-known fact: Henry David Thoreau once accidentally burned 300 acres of the surrounding woods. The inferno also threatened the nearby town of Concord. This 1844 incident inspired John Pipkin’s literary novel “Woodsburner.” The tale follows Thoreau and several fictional characters as the encroaching blaze transforms their lives and their way of thinking. Since its 2009 release, this page-turner has largely been forgotten. But its story is indelible.

– Stephen Humphries, chief culture writer

I never knew comics could attain the power of great literature until I came upon the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. The Japanese artist pioneered a realistic, socially conscious style of manga, called gekiga, in the 1960s and ’70s. His two collections, “Abandon the Old in Tokyo” and “Good-Bye,” often explore the inner crisis of working-class men amid Japan’s postwar economic boom. Taut and cinematic, Tatsumi’s stories are about things people don’t want to admit to themselves, yet you can’t look away.

– Jingnan Peng, multimedia producer

If you are looking for a read that goes down as smoothly as green grapes on a hot beach, pick up Alexander McCall Smith’s series “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.” It follows the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s premier lady detective. Mma Ramotswe wants nothing more than to help people by solving their problems, er, mysteries. You won’t want to stop once you start. It’s a good thing you’ll have the summer to catch up and get ready for the 22nd installment, “The Joy and Light Bus Company,” which will be released this fall.

– Kendra Nordin Beato, staff editor and writer

David Sedaris’ essays impel me to read aloud and laugh communally – at the beach, on a road trip, and sometimes at the dinner table. “The Best of Me” is his umpteenth anthology, but his acid-eyed candor (sparing no one, including himself) and compassionate heart bring a fresh, absurdist lens to the unexpected – from sensible French health care to heady American real estate.

– Clara Germani, enterprise and development editor

As a novel that’s become emblematic of the original Roaring ’20s, “The Great Gatsby” may be suited to a summer that could herald the start of another age of excess, as the pandemic recedes. But F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel isn’t a paean to hedonism. Far from it: Jay Gatsby’s quest ends in failure and death. His gauzy parties are tragicomedies, seen through the eyes of narrator Nick Carraway. I read and reread “The Great Gatsby” for its deft storytelling and probing of the morality of its era, one both remote and recognizable a century on.

– Simon Montlake, senior writer 

When genius architect-turned-recluse Bernadette Fox disappears, her teenage daughter must find out where she’s gone – and where she came from. Humor and warmth pervade Maria Semple’s second novel, which offers a sharp satire of the Seattle elite and a moving tale of a mother-daughter bond. Told in part through police reports, TED Talk transcripts, and private emails between PTA moms, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is tough to put down.

– Lindsey McGinnis, junior editor

The sparkly, paint splotched cover of “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle called out to me when I was stranded in the Wi-Fi dead zone that was my new apartment. In this bestselling memoir, Doyle takes you through a journey of self-discovery and courage. Mundane snippets of everyday life – from airports to soccer practice to phone calls – are woven with the color of Doyle’s innermost thoughts on relationships, work, and family. “Untamed” reveals the hidden superpower in us all: “our Knowing.” The lessons on how to harness this superpower are shared, not in the demanding tone of a coach on the sidelines, but in the tender voice of a sister giving advice. I was left feeling empowered to examine my own social conditioning and with the weird desire to sit in silence with the whirlwind of my own thoughts.

– Tara Adhikari, intern 

I have two history reads from last summer. My husband and I went on a cross-country road trip and one of our stops was Kansas City, Missouri, to see the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum, which are right next door to each other in the city’s historic district. As a result of that visit I picked up two books. The first was “The Best Pitcher in Baseball: The Life of Rube Foster, Negro League Giant” by Robert C. Cottrell. Many baseball fans know about Satchel Paige and the great ball players from the Negro Leagues, but not as much about the founder of the league. The business guy behind it all has a story as well.

The second book was “Wide-Open Town: Kansas City in the Pendergast Era,” a collection of essays about the city in the years between the two world wars.

– Mary Ann Lomascolo, Project Management office manager

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