We save books to read out loud to each other during our week every year at a friend's cabin, and my husband, son and I have had marathon serial reading sessions with the Harry Potter books and various Edge Chronicles novels by the inimitable Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell. Think of it as a reading relay - someone has to make up the hobo packs, pass the book; two of us need a chess rematch, pass the book.
However, my most memorable summer reading experience is not a pleasant one, but profound. Two years ago, I made the mistake of taking along Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin as my personal read. This novel, narrated by the mother of a Columbine-style school shooter, is brave, sardonic, infuriating and completely harrowing. There's a scene near the end of the novel set in a floodlit backyard that contains the most horrifying set of images that has ever stayed to haunt me from a novel.
After finishing the book, in the middle of a glorious afternoon sprawled on a bed overlooking the Strait of Georgia, I spent the remaining days almost catatonic, only half present while others exclaimed over the surf and the perfect s'mores. Never have I more wanted to reach out to others who have read the same book with the urge to debrief.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner lives in Vancouver.
RANDY BOYAGODA Long summer days are heavy not just with heat, but also with time and memory. In the years since I decided to pursue literary life seriously, I've felt inspired, not obligated, to fill these days with Eventful Reading, the kind of ambitions I've announced upon arriving at the cottage or starting a road trip or filling the uncertain quiet of a first date: "Oh those boxes? I'm reading the Russians this summer" (1997); "Let me carry that bag, I'm reading Henry James, late period Henry James this summer" (1999, and again in 2006); "Can you fit these Robert Caro biographies under your feet? I'm taking them with me for the summer" (2005); etc.
Hell, I even took Faulkner's Snopes trilogy on our honeymoon (2004). Of course, I've spent more time informing people of my impressive reading plans than actually reading, and as summers pile upon summers, I remember not so much what I've read the year before as what I had planned and mostly failed to read.
This summer was to be no different. My plan was first Updike's Rabbit novels, then it was Marquez, then it was Big Indian Fiction, then it was, again, Robert Caro biographies. Nothing stuck. I was defeated before I could begin by the weight of obligation. Instead, I've decided to dip in and out of books lying about our house: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas on the front porch; Cormac McCarthy's The Crossing in the study; Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum in the bedroom; and also, here and there, Deuteronomy, Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, Roberto Bolaño's 2666, and Ann Douglas's Terrible Honesty, a cultural history of 1920s Manhattan. I read as much as is enjoyable. Summers, I've come to realize, are too short to make like they're endless occasions for endless reading.
That said, the book that has proved most enjoyable this summer is the least expected: James Jones's 1970 novel The Merry Month of May, which describes the turbulent lives of American expatriates caught up in the passions of 1968 Paris. It's nowhere near Jones's best work, but I have a special feeling for it, nonetheless, when I sit down with it in the living room. This feeling comes of finding it crammed in a corner of a little-used bookshop in Perth, Ont., a few weeks ago, while we were staying at a nearby cottage. It comes from the heavy text, the torn cover, the dense typeface, the smell of age and damp you get when you open it. The physical presence of the book itself, and where and how I found it, bring me back to discoveries and reading sessions of long-ago summers, of novels by Hemingway and Harper Lee, Morley Callaghan and Mordecai Richler - enthusiastic, energetic reading, before the burdens of obligation and eventfulness set in.