Suggested Summer Reading

 

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive. —James Baldwin

 

This list of suggested reading for the summer and beyond comes from the Putney School English Department. Our aim each May is to share some of our favorite books with students and the wider school community by creating a short and varied list of possibilities. Read these books! They will wake up your mind and expand your world. Whether you prefer print or audio, read, get connected, grow your brain and your heart.

 

Brilliant neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer in his early thirties. In this gorgeously written memoir, published after his death, Kalanithi reflects on his experience coming to terms with his own mortality. Heartbreaking, beautiful, and full of joy.

This is the story of Darling, a young girl in Zimbabwe, as she navigates life in the shantytown she and her mother were forced to move to, before later immigrating to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Though Darling’s childhood in Zimbabwe is fraught with violence and grief, she reflects on her time there with deep love, while her adolescence spent in Michigan is defined by racism, xenophobia, and isolation.

The classic hero’s journey. The first translation ever by a woman. It’s brilliant! Wilson’s clear, simple, and beautiful translation is indicative of how well she understands both this text and the tremendous capacity of modern English. For those who’ve read the Odyssey before, you’ll marvel at how good a translation can be.

“I am an invisible man.” From the first sentence, the reader is drawn into the reflections of a man whom society refuses to see. The unnamed narrator tells his story of growing up in the South, his time in New York as a member of “The Brotherhood,” and his eventual retreat from the hostility, racism, and corruption that he encounters daily. Ellison’s exploration of race, identity, and truth is as relevant today as it was when his debut novel was published in 1952. Gorgeous 1938 novel about a young woman, Portia, who negotiates the confusions and heartbreaks of being a 16-year-old in the period between the wars. Full of incredible observations, such as: “Frantic smiles at parties, overtures that have desperation behind them, miasmic reaches of talk with the lost bore, short cuts to approach through staring, squeezing or kissing all indicate that one cannot live alone.” “A…melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, and post-postmodern pyrotechnics.” (NYT Book review) The star of this show is Oscar, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd.
This novel moves back and forth between working-class London (beginning in the 1970s) and West Africa and mostly follows the lives of two mixed-race girlhood friends who both want to be dancers. The friendship falls apart but is a defining element in both women’s lives. The author’s commentary on fame, global citizenship, and the complexities of race are provocative and compelling. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde is a brilliant social justice writer. In this collection of her most powerful essays, she explores the complexities of intersectional identity, drawing from her personal experiences with oppression, including sexism, heterosexism, racism, homophobia, classism, and ageism. A terrifying but very funny novel set in North Korea and Los Angeles concerning a young man who serves as a body-double for the Dear Leader and comes to regret it. This was written before North Korea became such a topic of current concern, and now seems quite prophetic.
Plenty of wacky deities, as you might expect from Neil Gaiman. But this is a wonderful and accurate guide to the broad topic of the Gods of the North. The novel begins, “”I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.” Middlesex is a great American epic about identity, America, immigration, and love. This memoir tells the story of lawyer Bryan Stevenson who insists, again and again, that the justice system in American live up to our pledge of allegiance “…and justice for all.” He chronicles what is inequitable in our current system and how love, kindness and the human spirit can prevail. The book will upset you. It will call you to act. It will give you hope. Check out Bryan’s nonprofit work and his spectacular memorial to lynching in Alabama at eji.org
Funny, beautiful, heartbreaking essay collection about personal estrangement and profound human connection through a lens of topics ranging from the Iditarod to Sumo Wrestling and beyond. For example: “You might realize…that you had placed your emphasis on the wrong set of expectations. That the real ending lies in the manner of the story’s turning away from itself.” This collection of prose poems/personal narratives begins to form a constellation of personal reflection. Each encounter with celebrity turns into a kind of mirror in which the speaker of the poems looks back at herself. It’s interesting and troubling and exciting to think about the ways our choices around style and behavior linger in us long after individual moments have passed. Rilke speaks in a voice that is both intimate and majestic on the mysteries of human life and our attempt to use our self-consciousness to some advantage: “For beauty is nothing/ but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,/and we are so awed because it serenely disdains/to annihilate us.”