The Best Books We Read This Summer

by The Editors
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halfbrokehorsesWe thought it would be really fun to do a summer reading piece and asked some of our contributors what they’ve read this summer and what they recommend.

The greatest books are the ones you fall into - that create their own world; that live, extant of anything else you’re doing; and beckon you to come back to their pages. That book for me this summer was HALF BROKE HORSES by Jeanette Walls (the semi-fictional prequel to her amazing autobiographical THE GLASS CASTLE). It’s an extraordinary, textured look at an American family, multi-generations of women and how they influenced their children and generations to come. Written in pitch-perfect prose, it’s just great!

I’m also reading VANITY FAIR by Willliam Makepeace Thackery but don’t take this very seriously because I read “Vanity Fair” every summer and never manage to get through it... Except that Becky Sharp is one of the great characters ever written – it always loses me (or I lose the book) somewhere along the way... I know my friends at the Los Angeles Review of Books would disapprove of me for admitting this, but it’s true.

ignoranceI’m also riveted by Stuart Firestein’s new book IGNORANCE: HOW IT DRIVES SCIENCE, the premise of which is the most important thing about science is not what we already know but what we are about to discover. I heard him speak in New York and if he’s anywhere near you, go immediately. Inspirational! Written in prose (and with a kind of humor), anyone can relate to – it’s an amazing piece of work. Wish I could take his class!

Please let us know what you’re reading or if any of the below were your picks or inspired you.

Editors’ Note: “Wild” is definitely trending.

- Amy Ephron


mastersmuseTHE MASTER'S MUSE by Varley O’Connor, offers a feast of sensory detail as it depicts the love story between George Balanchine and his final wife and muse, Tanaquil Le Clercq, incapacitated by polio in her prime. Devotion and art connect them; Balanchine takes a year away from dance to nurse her. An ultimate tale of a smart, beautiful woman linked to a charismatic, artistic icon, the refreshing surprise is that no one is offered up for blame, even as the call of new, young dancers and the ballet draws Balanchine away and Tanny must face divorce and refigure her life. We’re left with a sense of the complications and unshakable bonds that can exist between artists sharing lifelong passion for their work and for each other.

balletcookbookThe rhythm of everyday life enters in: George chops tomatoes at their country house in Weston, and roasted chicken and dessert orange jelly are served to guests. Tanny, in the novel, mentions the kitchen as “the site of continual commotion…it looked forlorn to me tidy.”In The Ballet Cookbook, published in 1966, she collected the recipes of almost every famous dancer or choreographer of the time, including Jerry Robbins, Suzanne Farrell, Margot Fonteyn, and Rudy Nureyev, whose winter borscht is one of the crowd-pleasers. The cookbook has a cult following and, a la Julie and Julia, “Dinner with Mr. B.” events and the like have sprung up, with participants fording the shrimp bisque, blinis, banana sweets, and fish dinners that melted off the frames of the supremely lithe. The Master’s Muse comforts the reader with the assurance that a love of life can fortify a love affair that refuses to perish.

- Katherine Vaz

bernadetteMy favorite book this summer is Maria Semple's WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE.

It's shockingly funny and Maria moves at a breakneck clip as she tells a story that is centered in Seattle, but moves around the world. This is an episolary novel, allowing the reader to follow the action in a very immediate and somewhat sneaky way. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and Maria's book literally made me happy.

Dining suggestions: Read her book and drink (of course) a good cup of coffee. Have a piece of wild salmon served with a green salad. And a slice of wild blackberry pie for dessert. Wear comfortable shoes. And download a TED Talk when you are finished.

- Holly Goldberg Sloan

wildThe book that stole my heart and soul this summer was WILD by Cheryl Strayed. It is a journey within a journey, a book that explores heartache and devastating loss, determination and courage, and, ultimately, rebirth in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

I fell in love with Cheryl and her story. I never tired of her trek hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail alone or her personal journey of self-realization and discovery. This is an uplifting story, and, as Dwight Garner from the NY Times summarized so well, "is as loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song."

- Betsy Sherman

We had an extraordinary response to this. Many of our contributors and readers weighed in:

loosediamonds(Amy's too shy to mention this but the paperback version of her latest book Loose Diamonds comes out this Monday, September 4th. Love, love, love the new cover. It's as delightful, perfect and quirky as her stories. We thought they were dolls, but they are actually vases. We want them. -LD)

JUST KIDS by Patti Smith. Loved. - Christina Wayne

I belatedly read Stephen King's 11/22/63 which is stunning. Now reading, STEVE JOBS, a real eye opener. And finished CUTTING FOR STONE, on which I am ambivalent. - Linda Deutsch

I just finished ALIF THE UNSEEN, a first novel by G. Willow Willows. Really interesting mix of modern Cairo and mystical jinns. I couldn't put it down. - Allison Thomas

GILIAD by Marilynne Robinson. I wept at the end just for extraordinary ordinariness of it all. - Pam Felcher

WE'RE FLYING - short stories by Peter Stamm - an internationally-acclaimed Swiss author - stories of people who are lonely and unhappy in their everyday lives (characters with whom we can identify). - Christina Zawadiwsky

GONE GIRL and both other Gillian Flynn books - DARK PLACES and SHARP OBJECTS. - Kate Guinzburg

I'm loving THE MIDDLE MAN by Coburn Hawk. And yes, Maria Semple's Where'd You Go Bernadette is next on my list. - Roni Keller

openConfession: I didn't care about Andre Agassi. I didn't really care about tennis either. But 2012 is the year I have made a pact with myself to "be open" to things I think I don't like but haven't actually experienced to be making such uninformed and bold declarations. So when I was given a copy of Agassi's memoir OPEN, I jumped in. I fell in love. I wish I'd cared earlier.

I began to really think about the meaning of what it means to be open, what it means to be a good friend, what it means to accept and love the very person you are now versus who anyone thinks you should or could be. Open is the most honest book I've ever read and since reading it, I've become far more comfortable with being honest even when it feels unsafe or risky.

Confession: I felt like I was breaking up with a new close friend when the book ended. I wanted to call Andre and request a sequel. I wanted to send him and his wife Steffi Graff flowers on their wedding anniversary for being together. I know I'll be following his work with his educational non-profit organization in Las Vegas. Trust me when I tell you that once you crack open this book, you'll care.

- Sara Mohazzebi

superfudgeFor whatever reason, I decided to reread the books from my youth this summer. I started off with The Great Gatsby and East of Eden but they made me squirm. I kept thinking of my terrifying freshman English teacher Mr. Mueller and how he lectured with his eyes closed.

I opted for something a bit lighter: SUPERFUDGE. As most people know, it is the sequel to Blume’s wildly popular and funny Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing. My friend Lauren recently described Superfudge to me as the Godfather II of middle grade books, which is a perfect way of putting it. I laughed out loud the whole way through, almost as much as the people who saw me, a twenty six year old woman reading an early reader chapter book in public at Trails Cafe.

Remember worm ice cream? And Tamara Roxanne? What a name! Blume is always winking at her adult reader, but she never talks down to her audience. She reminds us that twelve year olds have just as many rational fears about moving to the sleepy suburbs of New Jersey from the vigor of Manhattan as their crazy parents do.

- Hope Stranger


canadaMy must read is CANADA by Richard Ford. This is a captivating tale of a World War II Air Force captain from Alabama and his mismatched wife adrift with their two teenaged children in Great Falls, Montana, in the summer of 1960. You learn in the first sentence that the parents, Bev and Neeva Parsons, commit a bank robbery, but that only heightens the suspense as the narrative unfolds through the words of the son, Dell. "They were regular people,” Ford writes, “tricked by circumstances and bad instincts, along with bad luck, to venture outside of boundaries they knew to be right, and then found themselves unable to go back."

It is a story of displacement and the ominous potential of ordinary life. Ford is a master of dialogue and description, perfectly capturing the melancholy landscape that haunts the story. Don’t be skeptical of the unlikely plot; it’s utterly riveting, and the charming, garrulous schemer Bev is a character you won’t soon forget. In the end, as Ford puts it: "Common sense should've dictated none of this ever take place. But no one had access to common sense."

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS: THE MARRIAGE PLOT by Jeffrey Eugenides: A tale of complicated college lives at Brown University; CAPITAL by John Lanchester: Intertwining plots in recessionary London; and SUMMERLAND by Elin Hilderbrand: a beach read about a high school in Nantucket and the aftermath of a car crash.

- Mary Elson


loversdictionaryWhile slight and technically about love, THE LOVER'S DICTIONARY should be a perfect summer read, however, David Levithan's alphabetical journey of a seemingly perfect relationship gone awry is more intense than it's minimalist verbiage leads you to expect. It's a truly unique approach, using dictionary-style entrees to describe the ups and downs of coupledom. Some are full of joy (libidinous, adj. - I never understood why anyone would have sex on the floor. Until I was with you and I realized: you don't even realize you're on the floor.). Some are funny (narcissism, n. - You couldn't believe I didn't own a full-length mirror.). Some brutally honest (dispel, v. - It was the way you said, "I have something to tell you." I could feel the magic drain from the room.) and many achingly poignant (voluminous, adj. - I have already spent roughly five thousand hours asleep next to you. This has to mean something.).

There's no timeline, it jumps around depending on the word being defined, and no names, but you feel like you know this couple. More than once it felt like the author stole a moment from my own life and gave it a voice, with words both poetic and personal. He brings emotional depth to familiar words (corrode, v. - I spent all this time building a relationship. Then one night I left the window open, and it started to rust.) and gave me a renewed respect for how hard it is to find the right person to share your life with and keep the relationship on solid ground.

I also loved BEAUTIFUL RUINS, which IS the perfect beach/pool read - a charming, funny, poignant tale about the price of fame - and am slowly reading A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, Book 5 of George R.R. Martin's epic "Game of Thrones" saga because once it ends I'll have to wait years to see what happens to the world that has captured my heart and imagination.

- Lisa Dinsmore

tenderbarI started out my summer taking a journey with Cheryl Strayed. Reading WILD felt like stepping into her ill-fitting hiking boots and navigating the Pacific Crest Trail. Such beautiful prose as she comes to terms with her mother’s death and her recent divorce. No, I didn’t give the whole story away.

Then I made a quick visit to Mia at Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood. She knows, from all her years at Village Books in the Palisades, my love of memoir - but that it has to have that unique voice. Within two minutes, she handed over THE TENDER BAR by J.R. Moehringer, a dream read with an original, authentic writer’s voice, which I couldn’t put down. When I love a book, I slow down because I’m savoring each minute, each page. I’m looking forward to a change of pace, fiction. My next book of the summer will be Bruce Wagner’s new novel, DEAD STARS.

- Fredde Duke

hologramDave Eggers’ timely and unsettling novel, A HOLOGRAM FOR THE KING, tells in precise understatement all you need to know about America’s place in today’s world economy. Alan Clay, who once worked for Schwinn, an American company that made things you could touch, feel amd pedal, is now peddling information technology for a future mirage-like Saudi Arabian city.

At sea in the desert, his pitch to King Abdullah - who may not even show up to be pitched to - features a hologram. Alan is desperate to make the sale, but waiting days, weeks, months, for the King to appear may be as fruitful as waiting for Godot... or the release of Mitt Romney’s tax returns...

- Michael Barrie


ladyalminaYear after year, I discover essential summer reading material at my favorite bookstore in the world, Sundog Books in Seaside, Florida. Yes, I understand that's a bold statement, to make, but I've truly grown up with Sundogs - literally. Visiting Seaside since I was young, Sundogs has always been a highlight of each and every trip. So, from the Eric Carle books in the children's section, to the Nancy Drew of the young adults, to the Margaret Atwood novels in fiction, and finally (after moving to Dallas) graduating to southern fiction, Sundogs always lets me uncover exactly what I'm looking for - even when I'm not quite sure.

On my most recent trip, I picked up a book I'd never seen before: LADY ALMINA AND THE REAL DOWNTON ABBEY. What? Downton Abbey is based on a real story? I suppose I should have read more about the background of my new favorite Emmy-Award-winning PBS television drama, but I confess I previously had not. Learning the series references a real home and its early 1900s inhabitants instantly ignited my curiosity. I purchased the book without even reading the back cover.

So, yes, this historical novel tells the story behind the real Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle and Lady Almina (the inspiration for the character, Lady Cora Crawley), who was the daughter of wealthy industrialist, Alfred de Rothschild. Much like the background of television drama, Lady Almina, through her marriage dowry, saved the Earl of Carnarvon's ancestral home. The novel abounds with photographs, letters, diaries, and more from the home's archives - all rich with details, stories, and insight. I highly recommend it for any other avid fan sitting on the edge of their computer seat eagerly awaiting the drama's third season. It's the perfect intermission.

- Haley Schultheis


#9 Phyllis Ross 2012-09-02 07:52
I couldn't put down Defending Jacob. It's a story about a 14 yr old boy who is accused of murder in upper class Newton, Massachusetts. The reader will constantly ask "what would you do to protect your child?"
I was disappointed in the end of Gone Girl and thought Blame, which was touted on the today show, to be just mediocre.
#8 Martha Groves 2012-08-27 12:06
"The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach is a remarkable first novel that is, yes, about baseball but mostly about life. And I'm enjoying the literary mystery writing of Tana French (U.S. born but living in Dublin): "Broken Harbor," her latest, and "In the Woods."
#7 Hallie Ephron 2012-08-23 12:05
Me, too, on Gone Girl - so nice to see Gillian Flynn going Big Time. Ditto Bill Landay's "Defending Jacob." And Laura Lippman's "And When She Was Good."
#6 Betsy S. Sherman 2012-08-23 12:05
Aside from WIld (swoon), The Lion is In, Gone Girl, Carry the One, When it Happens to You, The Red Book, Where'd you go Bernadette. And now I want to read Canada...
#5 Amy Spies 2012-08-23 12:03
Totally. And she's always interested in how childhood makes her well not exactly heroines but protagonists who they are.
#4 Kate Guinzburg 2012-08-23 12:03
Amy, you are right - Gone Girl was genius, but interesting to see her progression.
#3 Ellen Bloom Underhil 2012-08-23 12:02
LOVED "Rin Tin Tin" by Susan Orlean. A wild ride with Steve Earle's "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive."
#2 Amy Spies 2012-08-23 12:01
I liked Wild. I really liked Canada. Am starting Three Strong Women. Really liked Gone Girl, also! Of course, The Lion is In!
#1 LADins 2012-08-20 12:48
I love Andre Agassi, so I excited to read his autobiography and was even more in love with him - and Steffi - afterwards. Not many people would be that OPEN about the bad things they did in their lives, especially someone so beloved. His life taught him hard lessons and they're ones we can all learn from. It is an amazing read. Thanks for reminding me of a much-beloved book.

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