Our August Staff Picks focus on favorites from this summer.
“Grandmother walked up over the bare granite and thought about birds in general. It seemed to her no other creature had the same dramatic capacity to underline and perfect events—the shifts in the seasons and the weather, the changes that run through people themselves. She thought about migratory birds, and the thrush on a summer evening, and the cuckoo—yes, the cuckoo—and the great, cold birds that sail and watch, and the very small birds that sweep in for hasty visits in large late-summer parties…and about the swallows that only honor houses where the people are happy.”
Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book rules my summer heart forever. A grandmother. Her granddaughter. Two fiercely independent, questing, seeking, questioning souls, plus a salty island, birds and other creatures, mourning, storms, discovery, boats. This frank, funny, wise novel is a blazing affirmation for all who are a bit curious. It was our Book of the Week for the first week of August, kicking off Women in Translation Month.
There’s been a lot of chatter about what constitutes a “beach read” in recent weeks and while this isn’t the place to weigh in on that, I will say that I’ve been treating myself to a “no tomes” summer and it’s been glorious! Every book I’ve read has been under 250 pages and oh-so-easy to transport to the beach, or lake, or campsite, or back and forth to work via bike. My best of summer is shaping up to be Margaret Atwood’s 1972 psychological thriller, Surfacing. Told from the perspective of the female protagonist who, with her lover and another couple, venture from the city to an isolated island in northern Quebec to search for her missing father. It’s certainly an Atwood deep-cut, with the right amount of suspense to keep me entertained on the sand and in a tent, but without giving me nightmares. And at 199 pages, my paperback version has been a breeze to carry around on all sorts of adventures.
The Magician’s Assistant was my first foray into Ann Patchett’s fiction. Sabine, wife and assistant to the enigmatic magician Parsifal, is alone after his sudden death. Tragedy breeds discovery, both for Sabine and Parsifal’s estranged family. Spending time in sunny Los Angeles and snow-strewn Nebraska, The Magician’s Assistant gently explores the complexity of love, sexuality, and friendship. This book left me with deep longing on Sabine’s behalf, and a desire to follow Ann Patchett’s characters into reality. After placing your name on the waitlist for The Dutch House, go borrow this book, and enjoy the goosebumps while reading on the beach.
Lux Prima, by Danger Mouse and Karen O
What sounds in the beginning like the soundtrack to an intergalactic space opera turns into a melodic chill fest. You may remember Danger Mouse from his seminal The Grey Album where he mixed in Jay-Z with the Beatles’ White Album. Karen O’s (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) vocals complete the mid-century modern feel of this groovy album. From start to finish, this album is gold. The more pop–sounding “Turn on the Light” has turned into one of my smoother summer jams that get played on repeat. A fantastic collaboration: give Lux Prima a spin. You definitely won’t regret it!
Our Teen Librarian Kelley’s Pick
My favorite read of the summer so far is A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer. This is a YA fantasy novel told in alternating narration by Rhen and Harper, two characters from literally different worlds:
Eighteen for the three hundred twenty-seventh time, Prince Rhen despairs of breaking the curse that turns him into a beast at the end of each day until feisty Harper enters his life.
Harper has learned how to fight. Not physically (her cerebral palsy makes that hard), but against the fear she feels every day for her mom, who’s dying of cancer, and her brother, who’s keeping their family afloat through any means. When she tries to stop an attempted kidnapping on the frigid streets of D.C. one night, Harper finds herself transported to the cursed world of Emberfell.
Kemmerer does an excellent job at twisting the classic (and oft adapted) tale of beauty and beast. The result is more Sleepless (my favorite graphic novel of 2019) than Disney Princess, with an authentically strong, rounded female protagonist living realistically with a disability in a magical world. Prince Rhen is equally complex as the tortured monarch whose selfishness and ego has cost him everything, including his hope. His interior monologue is full of fear and self-doubt in the saddest possible way. With strong writing, the author avoids the many available pitfalls of fairy tale cliché and instead gives us something fresh, funny, and breathtaking in both adventure and romantic tension.
A Curse So Dark and Lonely made PPL Teen’s Disability & Different Ability in YA Fiction book list, which features a selection of our favorite books from recent years that portray characters of disability and different ability in young adult literature.
I’ve been reading the new YA biography Brave Face, A Memoir: How I Survived Growing Up, Coming Out, and Depression by Shaun David Hutchinson, the author of many YA books. Hutchinson came out in the middle of the 1990s. This is his story of how he dealt with his experience and with deep depression as well. Hutchinson has a tremendously compelling voice as a writer sharing a complex story: my reading was intermingled with sadness and the horror of knowing how many people go through similar difficulties in their coming out journeys every day, while other parts of his biography brought me moments of pure joy. I am so glad I picked this book up and would highly recommend it.
This summer I was fortunate to get my paws on a crop of excellent new Teen graphic novels. Most recently, I read Surviving The City, which takes place in Winnipeg, Canada and tells a beautiful tale of friendship between two Indigenous girls who each grapple with familial loss and separation as a symptom of inter-generational colonial violence. In 54 short pages, the novel portrays powerful demonstrations of community support and resistance, and shines a light on the very real issue of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit Individuals.
Other notable reads included Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me, the newest work by Mariko Tamaki, a favorite graphic novelist of mine. Cast in a soft pink color scheme, the book bursts with spunky, queer characters and follows the protagonist as she breaks free from a toxic on-and-off-again relationship, learning how to be a better friend in the process. Visually similar but with a serene sky blue palette, Bloom is a sweet tale of budding, queer love set against a Greek family bakery in an oceanside town.
Lastly, there’s Meal, which also centers around food and a cast of queer characters: this time, the protagonist develops culinary skills and humility while aspiring to cook at a new restaurant where insects are the stars of the menu. This is a fun read that also includes recipes and insight into the history of entomophagy across different cultures.
Nonfiction & Memoir
“Okay, it’s true, I do want you to learn how to tack, tie a bowline, read a chart, steer a compass course, take a back bearing, reef a sail, and all that stuff—but as much as a means to broadening your horizons as for the sake of mastering the ancient skills required to travel from A to B with nothing but the magical assistance of the wind.”
Buoyed by late-in-life fatherhood and a love of boats, yet with no carpentry skills to speak of, journalist Jonathan Gornall set out to do something practical: build his new daughter Phoebe a clinker boat and create for her something that would outlast his physical presence in her life. The result is a questionable venture and the most delightful read of my summer: How to Build a Boat: A Father, His Daughter, and the Unsailed Seas. With a charming mix of earnestness and a self-effacing critique of his bumbling boatbuilding attempts, Gornall jumps between addressing little Phoebe and sharing technical and historical detail about the ancient art of constructing seaworthy vessels. I remember my own father once telling me of a friend whose carpentry work was so beautiful that others said his brain was in his hands. How to Build a Boat is a testament to the beauty, even if a tad fumbling, of thinking with the hands. But, also, of thinking with the heart.
Summer for me means branching out from my usual Children’s books and taking a great memoir to the beach. This summer my beach read was Ani DiFranco‘s much anticipated No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir. “No walls” refers to the house without walls that Ani’s architect mother created for her family (the lack of walls eventually inspired Ani’s move out of the house as a very young teen). A working musician from the age of 13, Ani lived completely on her own by 15. No Walls and the Recurring Dream is the story of Ani’s life from childhood through her early 30’s and chronicles her music, life, loves, trials and tribulations with the music industry, her struggle to stay independent, and her coming of age on the road. With anecdotes of some of the folk music greats, from Pete Seeger to Utah Phillips, this is a memoir for folk music lovers and Ani fans alike. And if you want to find out what the recurring dream is all about…you have to read to the end of the book!
Since I can’t resist a plug for children’s books, here are two that impacted me this summer: the picture book Hands Up! by Breanna J. McDaniel, and the chapter book Beast Rider: A Boy’s Journey Beyond the Border by Toni Johnston.
My pick is Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies, by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh with a foreword by Bill Gates. As the publisher’s description notes, “What entrepreneur or founder doesn’t aspire to build the next Amazon, Facebook, or Airbnb? Yet those who actually manage to do so are exceedingly rare. So what separates the startups that get disrupted and disappear from the ones who grow to become global giants? LinkedIn Co-founder, legendary investor, and host of the award-winning Masters of Scale podcast Reid Hoffman reveals the secret to starting and scaling massively valuable companies.”
I have been a fan of Nnedi Okorafor’s since I first picked up a copy of Binti, and have since been entranced by her Akata series audiobooks and her comic book storytelling in the world of the Black Panther for Marvel. When I learned she was writing a memoir, Broken Places and Outer Spaces, I jumped at the chance to read it. While her memoir is short, the impact is powerful, and it gave me a richer understanding of how Okorafor’s experiences have inspired her writing. When she was an athletic 19-year-old, Okorafor went in for spinal surgery to correct her worsening scoliosis. Upon wakening, she discovered she was paralyzed from the waist down. As she slowly regained mobility, she discovered a passion and skill for storytelling with an Africanfuturist lens, and learned that life’s most intense and challenging experiences can be the fuel for great creativity.
My story starts with gardening and ends with gelato.
Part One, in which I imagine a garden in the woods and elicit advice and encouragement from The Shady Lady’s Guide to Northeast Shade Gardening by Amy Ziffer.
When we nested in the woods more than 10 years ago, I had visions of a casual garden. I planted a few things that I thought would survive the acid soil (all 2 inches of it that sat atop the bedrock that held our house up) and my own benign neglect. We intentionally omitted a lawn and had no thoughts of owning a lawn mower, but what is a leach field if not a lawn that needs tending so it doesn’t revert back to the trees that were displaced to make room for it? So, after a few dismal swipes with a scythe (oh! the romantic dreams of first-time home owners!) we bought the cheapest gas-run baby we could find. I will push it over anything that I don’t want growing where I find it. I am ruthless, because ruthlessness is what I am up against. The woods want back every square inch we cleared. The volunteer landscape is relentless, which is earth’s salvation, I comfort myself by saying, not a personal insult. All these years later, Spring still finds me leafing through the inspiring and informative The Shady Lady’s Guide, but I harbor fewer illusions. Know thyself, I say, and live with it, and so I do.
Part Two, in which Wild Flowers of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont by Chapman & Bessette and the legendary Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Wildflowers show me the beauty in a laissez–faire landscape where nature will out every time.
The scents of hard labor in hot weather are a mixed bag: the mower’s gas exhaust, yes; my own funkiness, absolutely… but also the mowed pine saplings, hay-scented ferns, juniper start-ups, wintergreen, wild thyme, sweet fern, the sour resinous peachiness of just split wood in the pile I push past resolutely. The smells of summer come with the place, filling the air as I plow through the overgrowth, determined to keep the driveway wide enough for a Subaru to clear on both sides with room to spare, and the side yard semi-civilized with cushiony moss and ferns and bunchberry, but minus the saplings that elbow their way in. Wild blueberries grow in the gravel of our driveway, sweet ferns sprout with abandon when I turn my head. I mow three times a year. That is the extent of my effect. I mow it down. It comes back. There is nothing broken about this. It doesn’t need to be fixed. I just need a book or two to tell me what all I am mowing. Chapman, Bessette, and Peterson help me call them by name and find neighborly joy in them. That is enough.
Part Three, in which I am educated in the ways and delights of gelato: Gelato Fiasco: recipes and stories from America’s best gelato makers by Joshua Davis, Bruno Tropeano, and Cynthia Finnemore Simonds.
Although it is too hot to think much, thinking about gelato is cool work. Once the sugar syrup is boiled and chilled, so is making it. Recipes abound in Gelato Fiasco, and I have tested out several sorbettos (No dairy products! No eggs! Rich with fabulousness despite their absence!) When the mowing is done, neither claiming victory nor admitting defeat, showered, powdered and settled in with a field guide to identify a new flower I have found in the undergrowth and a familiar fern whose name escapes me, I want to hover over a bowl of something cold, homemade, self-indulgent. With a twirl of a crank and some distracted attention from me, Maine’s own gelato masters help it happen.
Care for some gelato?
As always, thanks for reading.