Even if we are in summer reading mode, there’s no reason we need settle for fluff or pulp. I recently read Carlene Bauer’s Frances and Bernard, a brilliant epistolary novel that traces its way through the intense friendship and difficult romance of two young writers, modeled loosely on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. Bauer writes in the well-tuned voices of her characters so successfully that I kept forgetting that Bernard’s breathtaking turns of phrase were actually hers rather than his. The novel is clever, humorous and one of the most sensitively rendered books I’ve read in ages – so delicately composed and so true in its intimate scope. Some reviewers have complained that its scope is too limited, that the conversation ought to encompass the events of the wider world in the 50’s and 60’s. Perhaps those reviewers have never written a letter themselves. The beauty of Bauer’s book lies in the profound precision with which her characters give voice to their intimate experiences. Bernard’s description of what it feels like for a writer to suffer depression, the way Frances writes about her Catholic faith in the midst of very real despair, the separate efforts of each to articulate the subtle mystery of attraction to the other – these are perfection. Perfection notwithstanding, I finished this book in two days; for those who want to feel a little awe even while reading on the beach, look no further. Or, better still, read on for more respectable summer reading, to be enjoyed with your young people or relished by yourself.
“Perfectly Normal” Columnist Heather Cori recommends Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple: “With a combination of gossipy emails stolen off a computer, ranting letters, financial documents and police reports, teenage daughter Bee pieces together her mom’s disappearance. The majority of the book is frag lit (fragmentary literature), using different documents to tell a story, which works very well here. Each time I thought I figured out what was happening with Bernadette, new information was introduced to shift my thinking. Was she a gifted architect or a crazy woman? Did her husband, Elgie, have her best interests in mind or was he out to get her? The humor is sardonic and biting, taking shots at the Seattle bourgeoisie and their concern with private school admissions, unflattering shoes and adequate ‘parent participation.’ The book is a quick, page-turning summer read.”
Literary Reflections Co-Editor Christina Marie Speed writes, “I am spending this summer sharing the reading experience with my sons who are 8 and 10. We just finished Katherine Patterson’s wonderful Bridge to Terabithia. It is a timeless story of friendship, growing up, and loss told through the lives of 10-year-old Jess and Leslie. The characters and their interactions are rich with emotion and true to life. My sons and I have had many conversations around the themes of the book and, particularly, the loss of Leslie. This aspect of the reading seems particularly valuable, as experiencing real loss in childhood can be disorienting. Sharing these emotions on the page with friendly characters allows for some insight in a safe space where children can explore tough concepts and emotions. Next on our list is Wildwood by Colin Meloy, for exploration of sibling relationships, loss and adventure!”
Editor-in-Chief Caroline Grant shares her own recent reading with her children: “My sons (who are 8 and 11) and I are happily engrossed in The Ravens of Solemano, the second novel in Eden Bowditch’s The Young Inventors Guild series. We loved the first book, The Atomic Weight of Secrets, which is set in 1903; the book introduces us to a group of five curious children who’ve been separated from their parents. As they come to realize what they all have in common, they work to complete an invention that will reunite them with their parents and, for good measure, change the world. In last night’s bedtime chapter of The Ravens of Solemano, my boys — and the kids in the book — were thrilled to meet Nikola Tesla, the real-life inventor who contributed to our understanding and use of alternating current, light bulbs, x-rays and radio. I had to resist the impulse to take the book and read ahead to discover how Tesla managed to emerge from the train explosion that has separated the children — again — from their parents. Bowditch has written that she wanted to write a book for kids who loved the Harry Potter series but longed for less magic and more science; in this series she definitely achieves that goal.”
Irena Smith, Columns Department Editorial Assistant, raves, “I just finished Helene Wecker’s phenomenal debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni, and to say that it left me absolutely entranced is an understatement. The story, an enchanting mix of history, fantasy, and folklore, is set in New York in 1899, where, together with an influx of immigrants from all corners of the world, two creatures also make their way into the teeming city: a golem (a Jewish mystical creature made of clay whose master dies in steerage on the way to America from an Eastern European shtetl) and a genie, inadvertently liberated from his flask by a Syrian tinsmith in lower Manhattan. There are secondary characters, of course, no less vivid than the two in the title: a kind elderly rabbi, who recognizes the golem for who she is and tries to teach her how to adapt and behave as humans do; a Syrian ice cream vendor with a tragic past; an aristocratic young woman who feels suffocated by the gilded cage of her limited possibilities; and the city itself — Central Park, the imposing mansions uptown, the seething tenements of the Lower East Side, the coffee house in Little Syria where newly arrived immigrants gather. This is a book where gorgeous writing combines with soaring fantasy and reflections on the nature of freedom, assimilation and ambition to make something . . . well, truly magical. I can’t remember savoring a book this much for a long time.”
Fiction Co-Editor Suzanne Kamata contributes another sort of international adventure: “Janet Brown, author of Almost Home: The Asian Search of a Geographic Trollop, became a mother in her early 20s, but vowed that when her children were grown, she would have adventures. In her 40s, during a short-term stay, she fell in love with Thailand — and with a much younger man — experiences that served as the basis for her first book, Tone Deaf in Bangkok. At 60, now a self-proclaimed ‘fat woman who likes fashion,’ she goes back, planning to settle in Bangkok for good, but she finds that the city has changed. During a period of political unrest, she tries out other potential Asian homes — Beijing, Penang, and Hong Kong — all the while yearning to be near her sons. A long-time bookseller, Brown has spent her life immersed in the written word and it shows. She has a novelist’s eye for detail — bunches of balloons tied to shanties, yogurt sold in ‘earthenware jugs with paper lids held shut by a rubber band’ — and a talent for meeting interesting people. As a bonus, Almost Home is generously illustrated with color photos from Brown’s travels.”