The term “summer reading” almost always applies to books that require little concentration and even less shelf space. However, that doesn’t have to be the case. Summer can also afford us the time to attack some reading with heft. With that in mind, I have recommended a few books that can be beach reads, but aren’t necessarily light.
By Colm Toibin
$15, Simon and Schuster
There are books that you immediately fall in love with — ones with characters you want to have as friends and that you are sorry to see end. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin was not one of those books; however, it was a book whose main character, Eilis (pronounced EYE-lish) Lacey, I found myself thinking about days after I finished the book and about whose motivations I had many conversations with friends.
Brooklyn is a story set in the early 1950s centering around the life of 20-year-old, biddable Eilis Lacey. When her beautiful older sister, Rose, and her mother suggest that she leave Ireland in order to find a “suitable position” — her older brothers already have departed for England to find work — she agrees.
Father Flood, an Irish priest from Brooklyn, who is visiting Eilis’ hometown of Enniscorthy, offers to make the arrangements for Eilis’ emigration to the United States. Eilis has no desire to leave all that is familiar to her, but “she promised herself that not for one moment would she give them the smallest hint of how she felt.” This is an attitude that seems to take Eilis through all the major decisions of her life — from her shipboard experiences to her life in Mrs. Kehoe’s boarding house in Brooklyn. Eilis, though intelligent and perceptive, appears to be a passive participant in her own life.
Set as a backdrop against Eilis’ life is the fascinating and varied population of Brooklyn in the ’50s. Though much of her life centers around the parish of Father Flood, Eilis’ classes in bookkeeping at Brooklyn College, her relationship with Tony Fiorello and her work at Bartocci’s Department Store introduce her to the culturally diverse life of New York after World War II. Many of the characters’ brief appearances made me wish for more and, much like life, the ending of Brooklyn was far from tidy. I was left wondering if Eilis finds happiness and belonging. I am still hoping that, somehow, she does.
By Bill Bryson
I am constantly looking things up while reading. A book based on a Victorian parsonage would have me thinking about the lives of women in the 19th century, which would probably lead me to read about servants during that time period, which would then have me wondering about marriage customs, and so on … ad infinitum. What was so absolutely delightful about At Home: A Short History of Private Life was that I didn’t look up a single fact while reading it. Bill Bryson’s inquisitive and wandering mind answered every question I could think of and came up with a few that I didn’t know that I even had.
In At Home: A Short History of Private Life Bill Bryson (bestselling author of A Walk in the Woods and A Short History of Nearly Everything) “thought it might be interesting, for the length of a book, to consider the ordinary things in life, to notice them for once and treat them as if they were important too.” Bryson uses the Victorian parsonage in which his family lives in Norfolk, England, to guide the reader from room to room discussing the history of everything from the origin of the useless buttons on suit jackets to the proper geometry of stair construction.
Informative and diverting, At Home will have you regaling friends with all kinds of interesting anecdotes such as the fact that rats, which we most often associate with poverty, actually prefer the homes of the wealthy and have even been found (more than once) alive in covered toilet bowls. But the book also provides sober reminders of how recently human beings have acquired the ability to stay warm, dry, clean and well fed. And reading it makes one realize how very much we take for granted.
By Wilkie Collins
$9, Penguin Books
Never out of print in the 150 years since its original publication, The Woman in White is considered to be one of the first great mystery thrillers in the English language. However, at around 670 pages, Wilkie Collin’s Victorian classic is not exactly a light read. It is filled with memorable characters, including the one of the most creepy, diabolical villains in literature, Count Fosco, and one of my favorite female heroines, the quick-witted, honorable and solid Marion Halcombe. And above all else, as all good thrillers should be, The Woman in White is a suspenseful page-turner.
“This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve,” begins the young painting instructor, Walter Hartwright, as the novel opens. The Woman in White, a story of identity theft and fraud, love and deception, is told through the testimonies of several different characters, allowing the reader to piece together the truth of the crime committed against Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick.
Add delightfully Gothic details such as the appearance of a mysterious woman in white, a stay at a lunatic asylum, a rundown mansion and a deadly secret, together with Wilkie Collins’ insightful and witty observations of human nature, and you have the perfect book in which to lose yourself for a weekend or two this summer.