Beach books promise escape. Frothy language, plucky heroines, flawed heroes and convoluted -- but ultimately predictable -- plots take us away from mundane woes. How can the kids squabbling, coworkers complaining, and house guests taking over the spare bedroom compare to the thrill of illicit affairs, ancient artifacts and death-defying feats?
That said, I'm not much for iconic summer books. Oh, I'm no literary snob and I can appreciate a good trashy read as well as the next woman, (although I seem to be among a small minority of middle age women who could not get beyond the first book of Fifty Shades of Grey). But as a social worker and elder care expert, I've seen more than my share of predictable drama. A plot line that involves family members feuding and misplaced priorities just doesn't do it for me. I find myself trying to solve their problems. To really escape, I need something that requires concentrated attention, and for a book to keep me mesmerized, it either has to teach me something about myself, or it has to drop me into a lifescape that is at once noble and emotionally compelling.
With those requirements in mind, I've got my stack of summer escape-ready reads on the table by my lounge chair. In no particular order, they are:
• Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen. In her latest memoir, the former New York Times columnist, novelist and essayist captures the real life joys, angst, conflicts, compromises, and inner thoughts of fifty-plus women. Ms. Quindlen has been the voice of a generation of women -- my generation -- and she has aged with us beautifully. She's sharp-witted and honest, but at the same time she approaches life with gratitude and joy.
• Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. The author of Seabiscuit gives us another great, true life story. Louis Zamperini, an American juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic athlete winds up serving as an Army bombardier in World War II. His plane is shot down over the Pacific and his survival in shark-infested waters is just the beginning of a long, painful odyssey. How this member of The Greatest Generation answered the physical and mental challenges of a Japanese POW camp is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. Mr. Zamperini survived against extraordinary odds, and his resilience is something to celebrate.
• Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Yes, this novel involves an illicit love affair and a fractured family, but there's nothing cliché or predictable in the narrative. This grand, remarkable tale follows a family in Addis Ababa, Ethopia against a backdrop of complex political and cultural issues. The circumstances of their native land, and of their lives, become interwoven into a family legacy, both tragic and heartwarming.
• Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. The colonial history of my native Massachusetts takes a star turn in this novel of young lovers -- a Calvinist ministers' daughter and Wampanoag chieftain's son -- circa 1660. The story is based on the history of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. What can I say? I'm a sucker for people who come together in spite of their differences, and who take huge risks in the quest for knowledge.
• Wild Swans by Jung Chang. Three generations of women in a Chinese family -- ending with the author herself -- endure the political turmoil of China in the 20th century. This book is full of horrors, from the grandmother who was sold as a concubine, to the mother who worked in the trenches of the communist revolution and was ultimately "rehabilitated," and finally the daughter who witnessed Communist oppression before finding her way to a life in the West. But the thing that draws me deep into the pages of this text is the strength of the women involved.
I'm sure I'll find other tomes to add to my escapist fare this summer, and if anyone would like to recommend a tale that transcends the everyday, by all means, send me the title!
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