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  • Writer's pictureLissa Cowan

Summer Books to Crack You Open

In Roger Ebert's 1990s movie review of "Mad Dog Time," he writes, "Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you're not sure they have a bus line...." I know exactly what he's talking about, and feel the same way about bad books. There’s this idea floating around that when you start a book you should finish it no matter what. My belief is that if the book’s not floating your boat, then you should put it down lickety split and not pick it up again, unless it’s to toss it on the fire or in the recycling. Don’t forget that at least Roger Ebert got paid to see films (the good ones, along with the bad and the ugly), so unless you're getting money from it, why do it? After all, you’ve “one precious life,” to quote poet Mary Oliver, so best not to spend it reading shitty books.

This summer when you’re sunning yourself (with adequate sunscreen and a stylish floppy hat like the one worn by Rita Hayworth below) on a sandy vista near an undisclosed body of water—and the light hits at just the right angle as to induce daydreaming—take a deep breath, dear reader, and settle into a good book.

The books I’m recommending here span the genres of magic realism, historical, literary fiction mixed with philosophy and comedy, some poetry, YA fiction and non-fiction. I love reading novels yet non-fiction is also a walk in the park, so you’ll see a bit of both on this list.

Just in case you weren’t convinced about the merits of fiction, on The New York Review of Books podcast, President Obama confides to author Marilynnne Robinson that all the important stuff he's learned has been from novels. Pretty cool, eh? It's a great interview and worth a listen.

If you’ve let reading slip off your to-do list, why not make this summer the summer you get back to it. Also, the easiest way to get out of a rut is to get lost in a good book. Just saying!


Sum: 40 Tales From the Afterlives By David Eagleman. This book is a dazzling mix of funny, surreal, and disturbing as the author explores unorthodox ways of envisioning the afterlife or afterlives. Presented as a series of 40 vignettes, Eagleman, an acclaimed neuroscientist, writes of a God the size of a microbe, or God as a married couple. Another story shows the universe going in the opposite direction or an afterlife where you’re living annoying versions of what you could have been. And for staunch readers, God is your ideal librarian. Goes without saying, really...

Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Once again the author of Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News offers up a masterful work that's enthralling and vividly told. This saga spans 300 years and begins with the story of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two poor, illiterate young Frenchmen who come to French Canada as servants, bound to a feudal lord, with the promise of having their own land within three years. The novel tracks the stories of them and their families whose lives are tied up in the forests that were thought to go on forever. Proulx shines a light on how lust, greed, and shortsightedness passed down through the ages have been instrumental in destroying the world's forests, and have also led to the near-eradication of Indigenous cultures and ways of life.

Norwood by Charles Portis. Written in 1966, this dead-pan comedy is about Norwood Pratt, an ex marine who takes a road trip from Ralph, Texas to New York and back. On his travels he encounters an assortment of smalltown characters such as a young woman and a fortune-telling chicken who he rescues from a sideshow. The actual point of the trip is to hunt down the $70 that Joe William, another army guy, owes him. It's a hilarious, vacation-worthy read that will teach you new expressions like: "Don't let your mouth write a check that you're ass can't cash."

The Absolutely True Diary of the Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This book follows the life of Junior who leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to attend an all-white high school. Although labelled YA fiction, like all good children's and tween fiction, anybody can read it. The story follows the character's search for meaning, personal identity, and his struggles with poverty. When this book first came out it was banned in Idaho for its anti-Christian stance. If that doesn’t make you want to read it, I’m not sure what will. In 1987, J.D. Salinger’s book was banned in various States due to sexual references so Alexie’s in good company.

Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino. This is possibly my fave novel as I've read it more times than any other since I was in my 20s, and often find myself dreaming about it. The story is about Cosimo, a young baron in the late 18th century in Italy who rebels against his family by deciding to live out his life in the trees, never to touch the Earth's surface again. This act of defiance brings him much attention from the philosophers of the day such as Voltaire and Diderot. Although he lives in the trees he manages to travel, fall in love, and share his opinions about intellectual and political movements. Stylistically Calvino draws from Italian folktales and his own ideas of literature and its intersection with science, to interweave a story filled with magic, ingenuity, and possibility.

Wild by Ben Okri. I haven't read much from this Booker-Prize winning novelist and essayist, yet this book of poems published in 2012 convinced me I must read more. In this collection, the Nigerian writer employs his brilliance, imagination, and mastery of language to transport readers on a journey of freedom and aliveness. The poems express that to be wild is to be free; to tap into the energy of the stars and illuminate. This is the author's third book of poetry.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. I was hooked from the very start of this book until page 530 when it ends. The book is set during WWII and recounts the story of Marie-Laure who goes blind at the age of six and lives with her father who works at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. He builds his daughter a miniature of their neighbourhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and the two flee to Saint-Malo to live with Marie-Laure’s great uncle, bringing with them a valuable jewel from the museum. The author interweaves the stories of Marie-Laure and Werner who grows up with his younger sister in Germany. Werner develops expertise in radio instruments, which affords him a place for Hitler Youth where he tracks the resistance. The two stories converge in Saint-Malo, illuminating the ways that--in spite of exceptionally brutal circumstances--humans are able to maintain and express their humanness.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. Author of the acclaimed Eat, Pray, Love, gets honest about her creative process, what she believes creativity is comprised of at its essence, and why all creators should confront their fears and get on with the business of creating. Basically, according to Gilbert if you feel that creating of some sort is your calling--whether through music, macrame, pottery, dance, writing or painting--you should embrace your "gift from the universe," stop whining (to paraphrase the gist of a letter Gilbert refers to by filmmaker Werner Herzog to a young filmmaker) and devote yourself with all your heart and soul to your craft whatever it may be.

The Radiance Sutras by Lorin Roche, PhD. Tara Brach, meditation teacher, psychoanalyst, and writer first put me onto this book, which gives a unique perspective of 112 Sanskrit teachings as revealed by Shiva and Shakti. This bilingual edition captures the wisdom and energy of the teachings, allowing readers to dip in wherever they wish and take away morsels of knowing that can transform and shed light on the life they're living.

The Course of Love by Alain De Botton. Philosopher and author Alain De Botton follows the relationship between Rabih and Kirsten who meet early in life. With this book De Botton attempts to fill the chasm between what happens after we fall in love, as our society has left out that crucial part. Quintessential seeker of answers and idea-lover, De Botton intersperses Rabih and Kirsten's fictional story with his own insights and commentary on their relationship. Instead of romantic love De Botton proposes an "enlightened romantic pessimism, as (in his view) Romanticism sets men and women (mostly) up for failure and disappointment. De Botton believes that we choose "different options for unhappiness," although we foolishly think we're choosing happiness. This book may just blow to pieces any ideas you have of romantic love and make you feel depressed by the reality of longterm coupling. Yet, for me, as a recovering insufferable romantic, I wish I'd read this book two relationships ago!

Expect to be cracked open when you crack open one of these, as only a good book can do!

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