As we find ourselves in last gasps of summer (how is it already August?) it’s time to park it on the back porch and really focus on that list of carefully chosen seasonal reads.
The summer book really is a genre unto itself, a category that’s hard to define, though you certainly know a twenty-plus-degrees-and-sunny book when you see it. Like top forty radio’s official annual anthem of hot days, every year brings us a notable summer book, one that’s defined by how engaging, entertaining, and addictive it is in the context of a lawn chair. 2012 had everyone gobbling up Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, last year saw Paula Hawkins’ The Girl On The Train in everyone’s beach bag, while this year’s summer banter seems to be about Emma Kline’s The Girls.
Yet those last languid, relaxing, do-nothing days of summer don’t always mean readers want to pick up the big buzzed-about blockbuster. For me, summer actually gives me the room to revisit old faves—like a pulpy Thomas Harris novel, VC Andrews’ gothic teen horror series, or my absolute forever favourite sunny day read, Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.
For many, ‘tis the season to throw out all the usual reading rules and stop worrying about the next breakthrough book. Without the pressure of “notable” seasonal lists, you can take on something a little different, experiment with genres, or just get some sexy, scary, trashy entertainment in. The fall literary onslaught will be upon us in no time, so get yourself in a hammock and get reading.
To aid you in these last days of red hot seasonal reading, I asked a few authors what exactly they look for when they’re picking out books to lounge about with in the sun, and what special reads find themselves on top of their all-time favourite summer lists.
Zoe Whittall, poet, novelist, and author of The Best Kind of People
“I think (summer reading) means fun and fast-paced as opposed to slower and challenging, perhaps that entertainment/art divide, though I have had some great moments reading poetry or challenging novels on a lakeside dock. For me, vacations are when I tend to read memoirs or biographies, which tend to be super fast paced.”
Whittall’s favourite summer reads? “I think it's a tie between Motley Crue's The Dirt (truly a classic of the genre, unironically) and Portia de la Rossi's memoir that I can't recall the title of. It's a pretty standard eating disorder memoir, but it was surprisingly moving, and I still remember moments from it years after reading.
Last summer I read Camilla Gibb's recent memoir at a cottage, the one about raising a kid on her own, and it was an absorbing page-turner and so well-written. Oh man, I also read a book called Methland about the history of the meth industry in America, focusing on the experience of one town. It was fascinating.
I also sometimes re-read old favourites in the summer—Ali Smith's The Accidental or Zadie Smith's essay collection.”
Damian Rogers, poet and author of Dear Leader
“I am not conscious of reading differently in the summer than I do in other seasons, but I think since the summer is not linked to the big book launches of spring and fall, I probably feel less pressure to pick up new books by my friends and peers. I'm more likely to pull old books off my shelves, or follow through on less timely recommendations. There's also the fact that I'm spending more time outside when I read, even if it's just in my backyard, and I'm not sure if that affects my reading choices, but it definitely affects my reading experience. This summer I've been reading a lot of books about plant communication, wild food foraging, and eco-poetics; they go down well in the garden.
The summer before I went to university I read JD Salinger's Franny and Zooey and watched the films The Graduate and Manhattan on repeat and, looking back, those three stories swirled together into an unconscious guide to how men might see me in the world once I left home.”
S. Bear Bergman, author ofBlood, Marriage, Wine and Glitter
“In the summers, I re-read. It’s relaxing to let the plot flow past familiarly, like the route to the beach and with the same anticipation even while still being pleased or surprised by some small thing I’ve never noticed before. All-time favorite summer reading is Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, which I started reading the summer I was between 9th and 10th grades and have re-read at least a few of in the summers ever since."
Pasha Malla, novelist and co-author of Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion
“Summer reads are no different from winter or spring reads, for me, or bathtub reads or a wet magazine found on the floor of the bus. They are all shit-hot.”
Iain Reid, memoirist, novelist, and author ofI'm Thinking of Ending Things
“The last few summers I feel like I've read plenty of short-ish books, 300 pages or shorter; books that can be read in a sitting or two, a lazy afternoon that turns into an evening.
One of my favourite summer reads that I often return to in the hot weather is Michel Faber's Under The Skin. It's weird and smart and disturbing and always fun to read."
Erin Wunker, author ofNotes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life
“For me summer reading is non-work-related reading. I teach Canadian literature—which I adore—but it tends to mean that when I read writing by people who live or affiliate themselves with Canada I am thinking about how to teach and write about their work. So summer is when I take time to read for pleasure alone, and that means reading international writers especially.
I’m reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. It’s a baseball novel, and I plan to read it in the hammock on my mother-in-law's porch. I'm also reading My Brilliant Friend by Elene Ferrante. Both of these books are not particularly new, so I guess summer reading for me is also about playing catch up with the never-ending list of books I want to read.”
In terms of Wunker’s favourites? “I think I would have a different answer every time I was asked this. The first two titles that come to mind are When The Saints by Sarah Mian, which is set in rural Nova Scotia, and any of the Flavia de Luce mystery novels by Alan Bradley. I do love a precocious, wry, and brilliant female protagonist and these books certainly have those.
Soraya Roberts, author ofIn My Humble Opinion: My So-Called Life
“A great summer read is usually a great read anytime of year, but I think the fact that it’s summer means I change as a reader. I'm more amenable to long languid books like (Proust’s) In Search of Lost Time, however, I often mix those up with faster thrillers, particularly when I'm on a beach dipping in and out of a book as well as the water.
I'm particularly drawn to narrative non-fiction crime novels like The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher and The People Who Eat Darkness, and anything and everything by Colin Dexter."
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Stacey May Fowles is the author of three novels, and her bylines include The National Post, The Globe and Mail, Elle Canada, Maisonneuve, Toronto Life, The Walrus, Vice Sports, Hazlitt, Quill and Quire, and others. Fowles' third novel, Infidelity (ECW press 2013) was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, was selected as an Amazon Best Book of 2013, and won an Independent Publisher Book Award. Her most recent book, Baseball Life Advice, is an essay collection released by McClelland & Stewart in spring 2017. Editor of Best Canadian Sports Writing (ECW 2017,) Fowles writes about books for The Globe and Mail, baseball for Jays Nation and The Athletic, and is author of the popular weekly Baseball Life Advice e-newsletter.