Summer Reading for Folks Who Want to Seem Kinda Smart

09/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I admit that thanks to a career choice that required not much more than showing up with clean hair and shaved legs, I have a bit of an inferiority complex in the education department. Or in plain speak: I feel the need to constantly prove I'm not some dumb model. And yes, I know that having to prove it undermines my efforts. But bear with me. I quit school at 15 to live off of my looks. Fortunately, I have been a bookworm ever since I learned how to read. Fiction taught me everything I've learned past grade nine. It's amazing how much information my brain now contains on topics as diverse as the political system of the 1950s, India, the tribal wars in Sudan, Mexican neighborhoods in the States, and the food of Nigeria.

Temperature has always affected my choice and processing of reading material. In the winter, there is nothing better than a longish novel filled with fog and mystery, something like The Mystery of Jonathan Strange or Drood. English, Russian, and French classics are also desirable; the fact that they are "classics" immediately puts them in the cozy category. Think Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Victor Hugo. You know they ain't bad if they're classics. Plus, I truly believe the cold makes your brain quicker. (At the Late Show with David Letterman, the air-conditioning is turned up so high, the first guests--if women--are invariably shivering in their gold lamé minidresses. The operative knowledge is: Heat makes you languid and sexy, cold makes you sharp and funny.)

Probably because of my inferiority complex, I tend to bypass the magazine articles my friends prefer as beach reads and head straight for the books. But at the same time, in the summer, well, it seems my brain can only process content that deals with heat, sex, and water (though not necessarily in that order). My perfect summer book is like a perfect friend: fun but not silly, smart but not preachy, and playful but not fickle.

So my choice? Lengthy sagas set in hot foreign lands. They have everything: sex, politics, love, and heat--and they are long. In many cases, one book can last the entire summer. And the best part is, in the manner of great fiction, you not only exercise your imagination and empathy muscle, but you also come away educated in foreign cultures and politics as a side benefit.

So here I've listed a few recommendations for those who don't want to be hated just because they're beautiful.

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's 1,488 page novel set in India. You'll acquire loads of impressive knowledge about India's customs, politics, and religion during the 1950s and '60s on top of good ol' sex and drama.

The Soldier of the Great War follows the entire life of an Italian man: 880 pages of love, humor, and war. You'll come away with an understanding of the effects of the Second World War on Italy and its people.

Acts of Faith. Besides plane crashes in the African bush, hot interracial sex, and lots of fighting action, you'll also learn all about the situation in Darfur. This book should be required reading.

Rain of Gold is a fabulous, occasionally sentimental, sweeping family saga that does such an amazing job teaching you about Mexico and its culture it'll feel as if you had been born into it.

Half of a Yellow Sun is a juicy family drama that will also provide you with extensive knowledge of 1960s Nigeria.

A Fine Balance. Another Indian saga (those Indians are just so good at the sweeping, hot, evocative novels!), but this one will show you an India of the '70s: Indira Gandhi's politics and its disastrous effects. And the real lives of the orphans and crippled beggars you see in the pages of National Geographic.

None of these books are under 500 pages, so once read they can be used to tone biceps or in step class--so being smart won't be the only reason why you'll be hated.

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