Summer Reading 2011

Action! Romance! Social Justice!

Published: July 9, 201

SUMMER reading often consists of mindless page-turners, equally riveting and vacuous. So as a public service I’m delighted to offer a list of mindful page-turners — so full of chase scenes, romance and cliffhangers that you don’t mind the redeeming social value.

These are 10 triumphs of fiction, both fun to read and significant for literary or historical reasons. I guarantee pleasure and also bragging rights at your next cocktail party. And if your kids read these, I bet they’ll ace the SAT.

I did lard my list with great novels relating to social justice: at a time when inequality in America has soared to historic levels, it seems useful to exercise the conscience as well as the imagination. So here’s my quirky list: Best Beach Reading Ever.

“Germinal,” Émile Zola’s masterpiece, describes coal miners in France during a strike in the 1860s. Its description of the idealist Étienne and his love interest, Catherine, and of their struggles and dreams of a better life, makes this an enchanting read. You’re transported back into one of the battlegrounds of the Industrial Revolution, and come to understand the labor movement’s origins in a way that no history book could teach.

“Pale Fire” isn’t as well-known as the wickedly funny “Lolita,” also by Vladimir Nabokov, but it should be. “Pale Fire” is a dazzling feat of imagination and literature, unlike any other novel I know of. It’s an epic poem, an adventure about the mysterious land of Zembla, and most of all a puzzle: Is a key figure insane?

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was born 200 years ago this year, is the novel that made slavery impossible for America to tolerate any longer. It’s a profoundly moving read, a tear-jerker, and a shattering window into one of this country’s original sins. Some schools today ban it because of its use of the N-word, but it remains a powerful and illuminating exploration of the human dimensions of slavery in America.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is John Steinbeck’s legendary account of an Oklahoma family’s struggles during the Great Depression. Tom Joad and his family abandon all that they have and make their way to California in hopes of a better life — but find the playing field always tilted against them. With the nation still recovering from the Great Recession, this is the perfect time to read about Tom’s travails.

“Wuthering Heights,” by Emily Brontë, may be literature’s greatest love story. Catherine must choose between her soul mate, Heathcliff, who lacks status and education, and the far more respectable Edgar. The characters are achingly luminous: they are shaped by 19th-century presumptions about class and male dominance, but are subject to irrepressible human emotions.

“Our Man in Havana,” by Graham Greene, is a comedy and spy thriller that might seem a bit low-brow for this list. But two of the lessons we never quite learn in foreign policy are that nothing goes as planned, and that intelligence scoops are always suspect. Greene’s story of a hapless spy in Cuba makes those points in an unforgettable way. The spy has nothing real to report, so he begins to make things up, and then the drama becomes deadly.

“All Quiet on the Western Front,” by Erich Maria Remarque, may be the most renowned war novel ever. It tells the story of a young man and his school friends who join the German Army in World War I, and their discovery that war isn’t glorious, it’s a tedious nightmare.

“Les Misérables,” by Victor Hugo, tells of Jean Valjean, who has just been released from prison for attempting to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. He is relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert in a nail-biting yarn, with better chase scenes than anything in a James Bond movie. This is also a beautifully crafted exploration of social class, justice, redemption and mercy.

“The Mysterious Stranger” isn’t Mark Twain’s most famous work, and it doesn’t make you laugh out loud like “The Prince and the Pauper” or “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” But it is a short story that wrestles with questions of God and evil. It tells of a callous angel who drops in on a village and wreaks havoc. The angel makes tiny clay people come alive and then, for amusement, destroys them with a storm, a fire and an earthquake. Like all Twain, it’s immensely readable — and more than most short stories, it makes you think.

“Scoop,” by Evelyn Waugh, is a hilarious dissection of the tabloid news business, centered on a nature writer who is mistakenly dispatched to cover a war in Africa. I wish I could say that “Scoop” is simply an absurd comic satire. But anyone who has covered Iraq or Afghanistan knows that it is still resonant — and relevant. And if you read it, you’ll get a sense of the uncertain and often unreliable path by which news coverage reaches you.



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