fiction

Summer Reading Lists - Ben Cosgrove

Ben Cosgrove is an amazing composer, musician, and writer. As you might know, we’re big fans of all he does. After he performed at our very first event, the Mud Season Salon, we quickly found out that we share similar taste in books. We love these recommendations that Ben shared in his summer reading list and hope you do too.

p.s. We’ll be announcing a special project with Ben soon. Stay tuned!


Horizon, by Barry Lopez

Barry Lopez has long been one of America's finest and most well-respected living nature writers —Of Wolves and Men was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1978 and the peerlessly wonderful Arctic Dreams won it in 1986 -- and Horizon reads like a sort of capstone to a long career spent poking around the corners of the world, thinking hard about what they are like and how they are connected. Its sweeping, dreamlike narrative follows him nonlinearly across time and space, and we catch versions of Lopez in Africa, Australia, Antarctica, South America at a variety of different ages and stations. Its concerns are ultimately not just ecological but philosophical: what is the relationship between time, place, and experience, particularly in a wounded world?

Normal People, by Sally Rooney

Different friends of mine kept recommending this book to me for months, and I finally got my hands on a copy in June. I loved reading it. Rooney's writing isn't soaring or fancy; rather, it articulates with needle-precision the confusing and complicated internal dynamics of the sometimes-romantic-sometimes-not relationship between the novel's two main characters, a boy and a girl from a small village in western Ireland whose friendship grows, shifts, and readjusts as they head off to Dublin for university and then beyond. Her eye for detail is unbelievable, and lends a shattering realness to the novel. I thought it was wrenching and lovely, and frankly, as a fellow millennial, I felt extremely gratified to read about these people and their Byzantine, tortuous romance/nonromance.

Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

Macfarlane writes thoughtfully and beautifully about the natural world, but is especially remarkable for the special attention he pays to how people engage with it. Previous books of his have considered the language we use to talk about the landscape, or described the experience of traveling long distances on foot. His latest project, Underland, is a thrilling and often dark foray into the fictional and actual spaces beneath the ground, and winds up a thoughtful consideration not only of how humans tend to interact with the underground, but of Earth's journey through all-but-unimaginable expanses of time.

The Weather Machine, by Andrew Blum

Andrew Blum's last book, Tubes, was a detailed exploration of the physical structure of the Internet, and similarly, this follow-up is an engaging examination of the machines and methodologies undergirding our surprisingly detailed understanding of how weather works and where and when it will happen. As with Tubes, Blum is able to lend light and humanity to a story about infrastructure, and he elegantly traces the process by which a vast system of models and careful measurements have literally enabled us to predict the future.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

Powers's most recent novel, the winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in Literature, tells a sprawling, powerful story about people and trees. It moves an enormous cast of characters through an staggeringly vast timeline, but its narrative momentum never weakens and it grapples meaningfully with the fundamental alienation precipitating human civilization's coming existential crisis along the way. Few books have reoriented my literal view of the world as thoroughly as this one: I have actually found that I look up more often now.

The Favourite Game, by Leonard Cohen

This is Leonard Cohen's first novel (he wrote two), and it was published in the early 1960s, several years before its author found a career as a folk singer. Its lyrical narrative centers around the adventures of an extremely Cohenlike protagonist named Breavman, who ambles around Montreal wracked with internal torment and all but consumed by a broad set of spiritual, existential, artistic, and sexual concerns. Cohen's original Canadian publisher rejected the manuscript outright after finding it "tedious, egotistical, disgusting, and morbid in its preoccupation with sex," and the English house with which he finally placed it required that he cut it in half, but the result is a beautifully written coming of age story and an introspective, uncomfortably honest rendering of what it's like to be an anxious young man trying his best to figure out just how one ought to be in the world.

Summer Reading Lists - Angela Evancie

Continuing down the path of asking our favorite podcasters for their summer reading lists, we knew we must ask Angela Evancie, the host of Vermont Public Radio’s Brave Little State. If you want to learn more about the great state of Vermont, this podcast is a must-listen. Vermonters across the state ask questions and the Brave Little State team digs in to search for the answers. It’s thoughtful and often fascinating look at topics from old growth forests, to issues of race in Vermont to Vermont’s aging hippies. Don’t miss the episode What Draws So Many Writers and Poets to Vermont? Thank you so much, Angela, for sharing your summer reading list with us!

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I work with sound for a living, and as a result do a lot of listening in my free time. Less so in the summer. Come June weekends, I try to recapture the experience I had as a graduate student at the Bread Loaf School of English, in Ripton: me, an Adirondack chair in the shade of a maple, no cell service, and selection of books just fetched from the library. “[W]hat a morning — fresh as if issued to children on a beach,” Virginia Woolf wrote, and that is exactly what a stack of summer reading feels like.

The Story of a New Name, by Elena Ferrante

Halfway through the first installment of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend, I concluded that the exalting blurbs were hyperbole. By the time I finished the book, I was in a panicked state, so invested in the lives and the piercing friendship of Lenù and Lila that I had my bookstore special order this, the second book in the series, the very next day. It’s even better than the first, and now I’m on to the third.

Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje

My friend Xander needed to talk about this book with someone, so I picked it up and immediately got lost in it. A narrator, Nathaniel, tries to decipher the odd turns in his childhood in post-war England, after his parents leave his sister and him in the care of a cohort of mysterious drifters. An exquisite rendering of the pain of not knowing, and the canals and switchbacks of memory.

Amy Foster, by Joseph Conrad

A migrant bound for America is shipwrecked, and washes up in a provincial English village that has little tolerance for foreigners. First locked in a shed, and then shunned for singing in his native language, the man Yanko is cast away many times over. Joseph Conrad wrote this short story in 1901, but it demands to be read as a modern parable.

The Far Away Brothers, by Lauren Markham

Also on the theme of migration—this time contemporary, as we follow the epic journey of twin brothers who migrate from El Salvador to California—Lauren Markham’s book is a work of nonfiction that comes to life like the most addictive novels. It’s also the most exacting and sensitive reporting I’ve read on this issue.

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

A story that traces the shifting fortunes of four generations of an ethnic Korean family, and one that taught this reader a great deal about Korea and Japan’s intertwined history. Min Jin Lee comes forth with so many deeply feeling, fully formed characters — even minor ones, who appear late in the novel — that you get the sense she can’t help herself.

Outline, by Rachel Cusk

The prose in this book glitters with sunlight off the Mediterranean. A woman travels to Greece to teach a writing class, and falls into a series of very random and strangely engrossing conversations with strangers. “What is it about life?” I was left wondering.

Interview: Miciah Bay Gault

We’re so excited to share our interview with Miciah Bay Gault on the occasion of today’s release of her debut novel, Goodnight Stranger. Goodnight Stranger is a beautifully written novel, a literary thriller that will have you wondering from the start who is telling the truth and who is hiding secrets. Set on an island, it’s the perfect summer escapism novel, perfect to take with you to the beach, but equally satisfying if you’re holidaying on your sofa after a long week of work.

Of Goodnight Stranger, George Saunders says, “Somewhere the ghosts of Shirley Jackson and the Henry James of The Turn of the Screw are smiling, because a wildly talented young writer has joined their lineage. What a taut, keenly intelligent, and provocative debut Goodnight Stranger is.”

Thank you so much, Miciah, for answering our questions so thoughtfully. We’re so happy your book is out in the world!

Miciah teaches in the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and coordinates the Vermont Book Award. She’ll be celebrating her book’s at launch Bear Pond Books this evening (July 30), and will be reading at several Northern New England locations in the coming months, including Gibson’s Bookstore (August 1), Northshire Books (August 10), The Galaxy Bookshop (August 27), Phoenix Bookstore (September 19), and Vermont College of Fine Arts (September 27).


Literary North: We’re always curious how a story begins and how it changes. Did the story in Goodnight Stranger begin with a specific image or idea? How did you find the plot changing as you wrote? Did anything unexpected arise?

Miciah Bay Gault: I read a personal history in The New Yorker years ago—about one couple’s struggle with infertility, which has nothing in the world to do with Goodnight Stranger. In The New Yorker piece the couple kept losing the pregnancies, over and over. They ended up, after years of hope and heartache, with one daughter, and I found myself wondering about the daughter. Did she, as she got older, think about the brothers and sisters she might have had, did she feel a sense of grief, was she haunted by them?

Then I imagined this image: two grown siblings in a doorway, a stranger facing them across the threshold. The air is charged with surprise, with recognition, hope, and danger. One of the siblings says, “It’s him.”

That premise was the starting point. I knew early on that Lydia and Lucas would by the siblings, twins actually, that they’d be in their late 20s, that their lives would be overshadowed by the death of a third sibling in infancy. I knew a stranger was going to show up, someone handsome and charismatic, and also eerily familiar with their home, their family. From there I had to ask myself all kinds of hard questions to find out what the book was really about.

LN: Let’s talk about your writing process. Do you write a messy first draft or do you tend to go sentence by sentence? How many drafts did you go through while writing this book? Are you the type of writer who works at the same time and place every day, or did you have to grab time whenever and wherever you could?

MBG: I’m laughing as I answer this question. I’m pretty sure I wrote 70 or 80 drafts of this novel over fifteen years. Some drafts were major renovations, removing entire characters, and shuffling chapters from one location to another. Some drafts were more concerned with tightening language. I love sentences and spend an inordinate amount of time working on that level, polishing, carving, chiseling.

I’ve been so lucky to have an agent, Jenni Ferrari-Adler of Union Literary, who’s very hands on and who worked on several drafts with me. And my editor Laura Brown at Park Row Books/ HarperCollins, has an amazing editorial eye. After so many years of working alone on the manuscript, it’s been a dream to have a team working with me on the book.

I prefer to write in the morning, riding that first wave of caffeine. I’m very fond of coffee. Sometimes I still manage to write at this time, if my kids sleep in a little, but mostly I write when I can—when the kids are in school, or napping. When I was working full time at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I wrote during lunch breaks, or first thing in the morning on the picnic tables on the college green.

LN: The character Cole is an outsider. He arrives on the island and then insinuates himself into the lives of Lydia and others who grew up on the island. Can you talk a bit about the role of the outsider in your story?

MBG: Writers love to quote John Gardner (although I’ve never actually found the original quote) that there are only two plot variations in fiction: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Obviously, in Goodnight Stranger, I was interested in the latter. I knew I wanted Lydia and Lucas to have a safe, prescribed life, routines that were interrupted by the arrival of the stranger. I wanted Lydia to see herself through the stranger’s eyes. In many ways Goodnight Stranger is the story of siblings who, so mired in grief and longing for the past, never grew up. They’re frozen in time, in a kind of adolescent limbo. Lydia realizes at one point that they’ve never moved the furniture around in their house, never replaced wine glasses that broke decades ago. Baby B is the sibling who died in infancy almost thirty years ago, and his bedroom is still set up for a baby, with teddy bear knobs on the dresser. Cole, the stranger, challenges all their beliefs, everything they thought was true about their family, and ultimately…unsticks time for Lydia and Lucas.

LN: Have you always been an avid fan of literary suspense? Can you share some of your favorite authors—past or present—in the genre?

MBG: I wouldn’t actually say that I’m a fan of literary suspense, and to be honest I’m more than a little surprised that I ended up writing a literary thriller!

I do like page-turners, but that term can be subjective. I consider Pride and Prejudice a page-turner (and I know how it ends because I’ve read it a dozen times!). That said, I’m a devoted fan of Shirley Jackson, whose sentences are exquisite, and whose horror is rich and intricate. Another favorite author is Wilkie Collins, who I would classify as literary suspense.

I respond to books with beautiful sentences and a strong emotional core, and sometimes those books happen to be literary thrillers. Fiction I’ve loved lately include Donna Tartt’s A Secret History, Crystal Hana Kim’s If You Leave Me, Melanie Finn’s The Underneath, and Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

MBG: I’m riveted by Christina Thompson’s Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, a nonfiction exploration of how people came to inhabit the Polynesian islands. It’s beautifully written, impeccably structured, and fascinating.

 
Photo by Daryl Burtnett

Photo by Daryl Burtnett

 

Summer Reading Lists - Christopher Hermelin and Drew Broussard

So Many Damn Books is the book podcast that we are most excited to see show up in our podcast feed. Drew and Christopher take reading seriously. Each show starts off with a themed cocktail in honor of the show’s guest, book purchases are discussed, there’s an author interview, and book recommendations. It’s a celebration of all things bookish and it’s just darn good fun. We know you need a new book podcast in your life. This is the one! Trust us. We were over the moon when Drew and Christopher agreed to send along their summer reading lists. Thank you so much, guys!

 
 

Christopher’s list

Three Women, by Lisa Taddeo

For those looking for a heady summertime fling, Three Women is fantastic, conscientious gossip (amongst other excellent attributes).

I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith and Costalegre, by Courtney Maum

Two books about growing up in crumbling estates, both told through a teenage girl's diary. You get the feeling that these two could be best friends.

Aug 9 Fog, by Kathrynn Scanlan

Good, poetic beach fare—a perfect hot afternoon of a book.

The Instructions, by Adam Levin

I'm going to be dipping into The Instructions next, a huge maximalist novel about a pre-teen who believes he’s a messiah—it seems like it'll pair well with an air conditioner's hum.

And of course, you can also just zone out in the sun and listen to past episodes of So Many Damn Books instead, and let us do your summer reading for you.


Drew’s list

I love my spooky books in October and my mysteries in the early months of the new year, but there's nothing quite like Summer Reading. The world slows down just enough, whether for a long weekend or a trip somewhere or even just because it's hot where you are, and you can sink into a book like sliding into a pool. Here are some great ones to throw in your bag—but be forewarned, you'll want to be working on that beach bod because several of these are heavy.

The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell

You can start (and even stop) with Justine, a wonderful standalone reading experience, but give yourself a month to read all four books and your life will be changed. Heat, sand, politics, sex, death, writing so ripe it practically falls off the page into your hand—these books are Summer, to me.

The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson

Jeff VanderMeer, a literary idol of mine, has stumped for this book for ages and I finally picked it up just this past week. It's a cool, slim book, essentially a novel in stories about a young girl and her grandmother on an island in Finland. Things happen, but it's really just about life—particularly the beginning and end of it. Good for a palate cleanser while you're reading other things!

Lanny, by Max Porter

For the English fantastists out there, here's one full of textual trickery (read it on the page or at least as a PDF and not on an e-ink reader, seriously: Porter's typesetters pull off some truly incredible things) and the lush spirit of woods dark and deep. Pairs particularly well with a pint, Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, and the faint sounds of people performing A Midsummer Night's Dream nearby.

Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone, by Astra Taylor

Summer is supposed to be break time from all our troubles, but let's face it: nobody's really getting a break these days, because our troubles are all too consistently present to be avoided. So, what to do? Astra Taylor's remarkable (and easy-breezy) read is your best bet. This book changed the way I think about this country, about politics, about the world. It's a must-read for everyone, particularly heading into the inevitable madness of the upcoming election cycle. Read it now, so you are better prepared—and you can have practice convos with your relatives now, instead of awkward ones at the holidays!

Prelude to Bruise, by Saeed Jones

These poems swelter, sweat, sizzle, and shimmer. They are heat (sometimes sexual, sometimes literal, sometimes just fire-emoji) incarnate and not a summer goes by where I don't pluck this off my shelf, usually to read softly to myself with a cool bourbon in my hand. Saeed's got an incredible memoir (How We Fight For Our Lives) coming out this fall and, if you don't know him yet, this is a perfect appetizer for what's to come.

Summer Reading Lists - P. T. Smith

When we were thinking of who we wanted to ask for a summer reading list, our minds went straight to P. T. Smith. We follow him on Twitter and you should, too. He’s constantly making us think and providing us with wonderful, under-the-radar book recommendations. Thank you so much for sharing your list, P. T.

P. T. Smith is a reader and writer living in Vermont. He coordinates the Best Translated Book Award.


The season has been the most I’ve thought about what makes for a summer read in more than a minute. Then Literary North asked me to contribute a post and I thought about it some more. I am no further along than I was before. A summer read is a book you read during the summer. A beach read is a book you read on a beach. The one thing I have figured out: summer is a time for a drifting, languid mind. So maybe the books should have something like that, a book that itself drifts, or lets you.

The Torrent, by Anne Hébert, translated by Gwendolyn Moore

Anne Hébert’s debut, The Torrent, is my current summer read. I finished the title novella by Sterling Pond, and then the first story at Hender’s in Waterbury. Written between 1938 and 1962, this is the book that began the career of a Quebecois master. It was an oppressively hot day, where air wraps around your whole body, pressing against that layer of sweat covering every inch of you. Fitting for reading anything by Hébert. Her characters are oppressed, unable to breath or think, by the forces constraining them: mothers, fathers, the church, a convent, wives, doctors, the basic struggle to exist. In “The Torrent,” a young boy lives far outside a small community in Quebec, lives alone with a brutal mother who wants to order every bit of his life…and the story takes a devastating, brutal turn, and does not look back. Hébert is always intense, and always brilliant. Most of her work is out of print in English, but not all, so start with Kamouraska. For a little more on her, and my love for her, see my post at Three Percent.

Searoad, by Ursula K. LeGuin

I’ve been reading story collections this summer. They’re suited to lots of starts and stops: read a story, go swim in the lake or the stream; hike to a peak, read a bit before turning around; read a story and throw the toy for the dog; just nap in some sunny grass and attempt to read one. These interlinked stories from LeGuin aren’t SF or fantasy, but a portrait of an imaginary coastal vacation town in Oregon. We meet families, broken and not, we meet lovers, we meet lonely people, we meet people with more hope than regret, and those with more regret than hope. LeGuin does not create perfect people, but complex people, some better than others, with precise attention, care, fierceness, and love. LeGuin is tender towards all of these people, even when plainly laying out their damage, and the damage they do.

These Festive Nights, by Marie-Clair Blais, translated by Sheila Fischman

In 1995, Blais published a novel translated into English as These Festive Nights. It was the first in a ten-volume series, called Soifs, with the last book published in 2018 and not yet translated. It’s a summer read because I’m making my way through the translations at an achingly slow pace, so one of them will probably be a summer read again next year. They’re also summer reads because Blais is from Quebec, but an American citizen who makes her home in the Florida Keys. Much of These Festive Nights is set in the Keys and on beaches. It’s a book where heat exits. These novels are stream of consciousness, and if you ever wanted a modern-day version of Virginia Woolf (with longer sentences), where the scale of characters she’s portraying is absolutely massive, then Blais is for you. She has a vision, and it’s one I’ve seen nowhere else. It’s a mural of contemporary life, with the minds and thoughts of characters separated by distance, time, age, class, race, politics, life and death, coming together, meeting, interlocking, and reacting in the same sentence. Blais takes on the justice system, the KKK, AIDS, art, poverty, police violence, sexuality, marriage, sex, gender roles, love, boredom.

History. A Mess., by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, translated by Lytton Smith

This just came out this month. It’s the first novel by Pálsdóttir. It’s terribly playful, smart, fun, and dead serious in subject. Open Letter has published three books by Pálsdóttir’s husband, Bragi Olfasson. I mention that only because of how much this book has in common: it’s a short, quirky book that takes an unconventional approach to narrative, with a narrator who is obsessively caught up in their own thoughts and anxious paranoia; scenes are often visually hysterical; and something is going terribly wrong, and getting worse. But History. A Mess. is also just better than his last one, and the mind of a woman obsessing over what others think of her might be different than the mind of a man doing the same. Here, a woman makes a ground-breaking historical discovery, puts in years of work on a book about it, and finds out she made a huge, and obvious, mistake. Follow her as she tries to make a decision on how to handle it, interprets every little word and action of all her friends and family without talking with anyone to confirm her interpretation. It’s fun and light until too many things go wrong, and Palsdottir has lots to say about the role of women in history and art, and the narrator is unceasingly aware of the responsibilities, the unfair burdens, that rest on women who undertake or study that work now. It’s also a novel about the relationships between women, friends, mothers.

The Invented Part, by Rodrigo Fresan, translated by Will Vanderhyden

I’m rereading this to prepare for the sequel The Dreamed Part, coming in November. It first read it two summers again, and it saved me. I wrote about that for Three Percent. The first section has parents reading on the beach, enjoying vacation, while their child swims and ponders what exactly a vacation is, what it does. If you’re over the age of say, five, you probably have nostalgia for summer. This is a book of memory and nostalgia, but it is smarter and deeper than those movies and shows that do little more than sell nostalgia. He must reference these things because they are part of what gives his world meaning, and how any understanding is passed on. Fresán loves classic rock, pop culture, literature, toys, anything resembling creativity and storytelling. Time is malleable in the summer; memory, time, narrative, all of it is malleable in The Invented Part. A book where you make slow progress, taking time with each sentence, yet you don’t look up from the page, and time is gone. Nabokov + Pynchon but add in a generous and joyous desire to connect. It brings me out of the heaviness of life to bring me back, lighter, like summer can.