Summer Reads Don't Have To Be Disposable!

Jun 3, 2014
Originally published on June 3, 2014 2:55 pm

As you start packing books (or your e-reader) for summer vacation, do you go for trashy novels? Here & Now literary critic Steve Almond says you don’t have to. Some of his favorite summer reads have great plots and great writing. He shares some of his favorites with host Robin Young.

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  • Steve Almond, literary critic and author of 10 books of fiction and nonfiction. He also writes the advice column “Heavy Meddle” for WBUR’s ideas and opinions blog, Cognoscenti.
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It's time to fess up. When you think of a book to take on vacation, you know, to the beach, do you think trashy paperback novel? Well, literary critic Steve Almond says it does not have to be that way. A big plot driven novel can also be trashy.

No, it can also be beautifully written and something you can take to the beach. And he joins us in the studio with his picks for books for the summer. Steve, good to see you as always.

STEVE ALMOND: Good to see you.

YOUNG: And it's true, people think it has to be the books with the purple seams.

ALMOND: Yes, I have many purple-seamed books in my library. But in the venn diagram when we think about books, we think they're either plot driven, they're an airport read, they're a beach read or they are character driven, they're interior, they're psychological. And that is a big myth. And it is a big myth because the best writers are doing both of those things.

YOUNG: And wait, you said venn diagram?

ALMOND: So the venn diagram is a diagram that's overlapping, and we think of those two like two circles that have a point of overlap. And for me, my favorite books are the ones that occupy the incredibly propulsive plot driven, but also have beautiful character development, psychological interiority, moving stuff about the human condition.

YOUNG: OK, so let's take a look at some that you have suggested because a couple we know well. One is one our favorites from last year, Elizabeth Gilbert's "The Signature Of All Things." Big book about 19th century science. It's got adventurist seed gatherers, a woman who studies moss, Tahiti, sex and a waterfall.

ALMOND: Yes, there is sex and a waterfall. There's a lot of sex in this book.

YOUNG: It's way in the back of the book.

ALMOND: Believe me the book is underlined. I know exactly where it is. I can give you page numbers. I won't. But the point to make about this book, and we have to say it because it's kind of the elephant in the room, is, yes, she wrote "Eat, Pray, Love." But Elizabeth Gilbert is an astonishingly accomplished writer.

I think this - I loved "Eat, Pray, Love," but this is at a level higher. It is a combination of an amazing plot taking place across continents, an adventure and sex and romance. And it is also a beautifully told story of a woman and a female scientist, which you almost never hear about.

I literally was entranced by the book. I came into it with my horrible, oh, it's the "Eat, Pray, Love" woman, and kind of headphones on. And she just blew them right off. It's such an amazing book.

YOUNG: Well, we have a little of Elizabeth Gilbert reading. Let's listen.


ELIZABETH GILBERT: (Reading) Now the miniature forest below her gaze, spraying into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle.

She rode her eye above the surprising landscape following its paths in every direction. Here were rich abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and miniscule tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here were the miniature ocean and a depression in the center of the boulder where all the water pooled.

YOUNG: OK, so that's a book you can immerse yourself in the summer. We'll have our interview with her at along with one from Jess Walter. His book was “Beautiful Ruins.” In fact, we did this, Steve, because you recommended it to us.

ALMOND: I know. I put you up to it.

YOUNG: It's fabulous.

ALMOND: It's so good.

YOUNG: It's so good - old and new Hollywood. Richard Burton as a character on an island, I think, in Greece. Tell us more.

ALMOND: "Beautiful Ruins," like "The Signature Of All Things," is a book that you can respectably carry on to the beach because it's thick and it's a novel and respectable. But it's so delicious. I just chomped right through it, and it's partly because what Jess Walter is writing about is really the American cultural lodestar of Hollywood - the dream factory of Hollywood and how it has become a kind of national religion.

And he's able to write about a sort of a satire of Hollywood, but also a real sort of tribute to how amazing it is that there is this industry that transmutes our wishes and desires into these beautiful films. So it's both a book that's really smart and subversive. But it's got a big heart and a lot of really awesome romance.

YOUNG: OK, Steve, on to other books and paperbacks that you recommend for summer reading.

ALMOND: So a lot of people like to have an essay collection when they go to the beach or they're in summer mode because they can dip in and dip out, right? It's a little bit less of a time commitment.

And a lot of people recommend David Sedaris, who's wonderful and a lot of people recommend David Foster Wallace. I love "Consider the Lobster" - his essay collection "Consider the Lobster." I read it every year.

I'm actually going to suggest a book that listeners might not have heard of. It's called "We Learn Nothing" and it's by a writer named Tim Kreider. And you're smiling at me, Robin, like, yes, you would like a book called "We Learn Nothing." Almond, that seems right up your alley.

YOUNG: What does that mean, though?

ALMOND: Kreider really writes these incredibly funny, smart essays that are about experiences that should be teaching you something. And always how they teach you something in an unexpected way. I want to read from the opening essay from the collection called "Reprieve." I think you get a taste of it real quick.

(Reading) Fourteen years ago I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and less interesting than it sounds. A lot of people have told me about their own near-death experiences over the years, often harrowing medical detail, imagining that those details, how many times they rolled the car, how many vertebrae shattered, how many months spent in traction, will somehow convey the subjective psychic force of the experience the way some people will relate the whole narrative of a dream in a futile attempt to evoke its ambient feeling. Except for the 10 or 15 minutes during which it looked like I was about to die, which I would prefer not to relive, getting stabbed wasn't even among the worst experiences of my life. In fact, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

YOUNG: I'm in.

ALMOND: You're in. And what's amazing about this, Robin, is that for the entire essay you're waiting to find out what happened - how did you get stabbed in the throat? How did you almost die? And he never tells you. And you know what? I was completely riveted because he never told you.

He really captures the idea that suspense resides not in what happens but what it's emotional and psychic effects of the events are. All of his essays operate in this way. They're incredibly visceral experiences that he's writing about, but he's really smart about pulling back and reflecting on what it means.

YOUNG: OK. Next, a name we know - a book we know. But you say take it out again in paperback form.

ALMOND: I do. Take out "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood - her 1985 novel. The reason that I was so fascinated by "The Handmaid's Tale," was when you read it now, it feels like the best science fiction. And it is a dystopian novel. It feels really prescient.

This is a story set in the near future. The United States has become Republic of Gilead. And it's basically a theocratic military dictatorship in which women are completely subjugated. They're not allowed to read.

Now, what's amazing about this book, in particular, is that not only does it have all the sort of social science ideas, but it is just a great tale. It's a tale of a woman named Offred. She's our narrator, and she's a handmaid who's used for reproductive purposes, to put it politely.

But there's a romance that's bubbling under the surface of this very dark, dystopian tale. And one thing that I love so much about the book is how beautifully Atwood writes about love itself. I want to just read you a little portion. This is Offred, our narrator talking.

(Reading) Falling in love we said, I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it - this downward motion so lovely like flying. And yet at the same time, so dire, so extreme, so unlikely.

God is love they once said, but we reverse that. And love, like Heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in love, abstract and total. We were waiting always for the incarnation, that word made flesh, and sometimes it happened for a time.

That kind of love comes and goes and it's hard to remember afterwards like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you. And the tense would be past and you would be filled with the sense of wonder because with such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done. And you would know too what your friends had been evasive about it at the time. There is a good deal of comfort now in remembering this.

YOUNG: Purple-edged paperbacks cannot compete with what you just read.

ALMOND: In a beautiful way, a novel like "The Handmaid's Tale" you are getting all of the propulsion of an amazing plot, but you're also getting that - the basic human wisdom that we read books for.

YOUNG: Literary critic Steve Almond. Steve, thanks as always.

ALMOND: My pleasure.

YOUNG: And for a complete list of Steve's picks for summer reads, go to While you're there, let us know what some of your summer reads are at, as well you can weigh in. Jeremy, I just started Lisa See's "China Dolls." And I'm in the middle of John Walters "Carsick." It is sick. It's good.


I just finished this great book "Life Animated" from Ron Suskind. We had him on the show, which is just fantastic. I recommend absolutely.

YOUNG: OK. Let us know your picks. HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.