A few weeks ago, I listened to a fascinating podcast interviewing Katherine Paterson, an author you likely remember from your childhood. She wrote Bridge to Terabithia and Jacob Have I Loved, which — along with Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret — remain among the most formative works of fiction from my preadolescence. I didn’t know about periods until I read Judy Blume, and (spoiler alert) Leslie’s death in Bridge to Terabithia was among the first fictional traumas I encountered outside of the high parent mortality rate in Disney movies. The latter haunted me more than the (in retrospect) more deeply troubling bullying and abuse that play a prominent role in the work.
I was intrigued to hear what Paterson would have to say, as her work has clearly become cornerstone content for the middle school crowd. And she did not disappoint. She was refreshingly unassuming and delightfully anti-authoritarian on the subject of empowering children to read, explaining that she has often told children that if their teachers explain “the meaning” of her works, they would do well to absorb it so they can parrot back the facts for testing purposes — but that, in so many words, the true meaning of a work is up to the individual reader. Can you imagine receiving such a message as a wide-eyed, authority-conscious twelve year old?! I think it might have changed my life. I don’t think I came to such a conclusion until I was in my early 20s — and even then, as a graduate student, I still labored on occasion under the misapprehension that there were “right” and “wrong” ways to read a text. And in a certain, school-bound, sense, there were: earning strong grades was always more about reading the professor and his/her predilections and philosophies than it was about the text itself. Any professor who denies this has developed a severe case of intellectual myopia. But, more broadly, I agree with Paterson: books are living, breathing, movable feasts and they bear individualized meaning and nuance for each new reader.
Paterson shares a number of insights into cultivating good readers as children. One message that has stuck with me on the subject of asking children about the books they are reading and that I hope to trot out as mini ages and our conversations around books deepen: “If you know the answer to the question, it’s not a real question. You have to ask a question that you don’t know the answer to and then you’re engaged in the discussion of the book.” I’ve begun applying this sagacity to other realms as well. On occasion, I find myself prompting mini to detail her day: “What did you do? Did you go to the zoo with your nanny?” I’ve aimed to re-direct my mode of inquiry, asking her questions to which I have no clue of the answer. “How many sea lions were there?” “Was the monkey eating?” Etc. Her answers are fascinating, imaginative, and possibly previcatory in the best possible way. (Yesterday, as she was heading into my bedroom: “Where are you going?” “To buy cookies.” “What kind?” “Two.”)
But then there was this brilliance, which at once resonated deeply with me and stirred me:
“Fiction allows us to do something that nothing else quite does. It allows us to enter fully into the lives of other human beings. But, you may argue, these are not real people; they are fictitious, merely the figments of one writer’s imagination. At this point the other side of the brain takes over. There is nothing mere about Natasha. We know with what Walter de la Mare calls ‘the compelling inward ring’ that Natasha is true. She is more real to us than the people we live with everyday because we have been allowed to eavesdrop on her soul. A great novel is a kind of conversion
experience. We come away from it changed and just as a season with Natasha and Andre and Pierre may make us wiser and more compassionate people, a season with Heathcliff or Jude Folly has the power to shake us at the roots. The fake characters we read about will evaporate like the morning dew, but the real ones, the true ones, will haunt us for the rest of
How true: [good] books grant us permission to “eavesdrop on someone else’s soul.” I felt this way in particular with Sally Rooney, of whose books I wrote: “I have never met such round, complex characters in my life: they feel real, beyond fiction, as if they exist somewhere in the world and Rooney has only happened to eavesdrop upon them and afford us glimpses into their heartbreaks and hopefulnesses. There is something unforced, natural about the way she captures them.”
And with that, a roundup of my top picks for summer reading:
For the best character portraiture and a modern take on love: Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
For juicy pulp fiction on 1970s-era drug, sex, and rock-and-roll: Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six.
For dark, female-centric, twisty-turny suspense: Ruth Ware’s Turn of the Key. (Please, please skip Liv Constantine’s The Last Time I Saw You — a true train-wreck of narrative improbability and absurd authorial convenience, though I thoroughly enjoyed their first book, The Last Mrs. Parrish.)
For thought-provoking familial drama: Sally Hepworth’s The Mother-in-Law. This book startled me — I picked it up thinking it would be a dark suspense, and while there is a death with mystery around it at the core of the narrative, found it elegantly written and provocative in the sense that it left me thinking about the expectations we carry into relationships with the families we inherit and the ones we build. I have a big bone to pick with one element of the plot design but won’t ruin it here…
If you liked Madeline Miller’s Circe (who didn’t? a full review here): Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls. A reimagining of “the timeless legend of The Iliad, as experienced by the captured women living in the Greek camp in the final weeks of the Trojan War.” People are loving this book.
For an exceptional food-centric memoir: Ruth Reichl’s Save Me the Plums. From the description: “This is the story of a former Berkeley hippie entering the corporate world and worrying about losing her soul.” I’ve read a number of Reichl’s books/essays in the past and she’s among the best. Cooking and memoir-writing go hand in hand, in my opinion — all about nostalgia, memory, place, feeling.
Because it just won this year’s Man Booker Prize award: Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi. Description: “Set in the village of al-Awafi in Oman, we encounter three sisters…who witness Oman evolve from a traditional, slave-owning society slowly redefining itself after the colonial era, to the crossroads of its complex present.”
Because it’s bound to be popular and controversial: Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls. Gilbert is polarizing. I just recently learned that she has a rather idiosyncratic theory about creativity that people either love or reject (I’m in the latter camp, I think), and the disparities between Eat Pray Love and The Signature of All Things, two of her most famous works, are countless and jarring. (I actually did not believe that they were written by the same woman and in fact thought there were two Elizabeth Gilberts for a stretch. I strongly preferred the latter, which was dizzyingly impressive in its careful, painstaking detail-orientedness and scope.) The former tends to evoke reactions of anger and eye-rolling among a certain set (“ugh, the unexamined privilege she represents in that book!” seemed to be the rejoinder among many of the women my book club) and admiration and conviction among another (“go! be free! namaste!”) In her latest book (just released today!), Gilbert shares a love story set in the New York City theater world in the 1940s; it is “told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret (but mostly pleasure), City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.”
If you loved The Handmaid’s Tale (I could not stomach the series and so abandoned the entire enterprise wholesale): The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, due out in a few months, positioned as a sequel that promises to “answer the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.”
For something light: Frances Mayes’ Women in Sunlight, recommended to me by several Magpies. Written by the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, this is “the story of four American strangers who bond in Italy and change their lives over the course of an exceptional year.”
+Ordering this 100% mineral stick-sunscreen for mini. I’ve heard it’s a wonderful formula for applying on squirmy little ones (swipe instead of rubbing/making a mess everywhere)!
+Love the print and unusual seafoam green color of this maxi.
+These gorgeous mules finally went on sale!
+This was a big hit for mini at the beach last summer — and it left me reassured that she wouldn’t get too much sun.
+Still swooning over this scallop-trim, bow-shouldered top. Pretty much all my favorite details in one place. (ON SALE!)
+Uber-chic cover-up (on sale for under $100).
+These $22 earrings are FUN.
+Just ordered this bin for micro.
+Another day, another caftan. Love the print.
+Itching to order this Marysia one-piece. I mentioned it last week — so many people rave about its flattering fit! — but now I’ve found it marked way down…and I think I need it…
+A really good children’s sale raging here. I always get a bunch of pieces from here for mini when they run their sales — very well-made, but also a bit spend-y.