As someone who reads a lot, and has a pretty widespread taste in books, folks frequently ask me for book recommendations. Some friends I give the full list, knowing that they are also literary adventurers who are equally happy reading Harry Potter, The Corrections, or a book about oysters. If I know what they like, I might give them a tailored list of mysteries or urban fantasy or great literary fiction. However, I have a special, curated list as well – the books I think any right-minded, well-read person would like. These are the stories that transcend genre and individual tastes. They’re practically a litmus test for my friendship – if you don’t like these stories, we’ve just got such radically different worldviews that I don’t see how we could possibly get along. (Okay, that might be going a little far. And yet…) As a bonus, in addtion to being great reads, all three of these books are written by women, and all three have girls or women as protagonists. So for this year’s Summer Reading post, I present the three lady-centric books I think anyone (and everyone) will enjoy.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
“Sometimes you never feel meaner than the moment you stop being mean. It’s like how turning on a light makes you realize how dark the room had gotten. And the way you usually act, the things you would have normally done, are like these ghosts that everyone can see but pretends not to.”
This is a book for middle-grade readers that still happens to be one of the most well-thought out, careful mysteries I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some mysteries in my time. The main character, Miranda, is a sixth grader living in New York City in 1979. Her world starts out pretty simple – she knows her neighborhood and how to avoid its dangers. She loves her single mom, reading a Wrinkle in Time, and her best friend, Sal. But then Sal gets punched by another kid, and suddenly starts giving Miranda the cold shoulder, just as they start middle school, and Miranda’s world turns upside down.
As she navigates the social confusion of new friends and possible enemies, Miranda finds herself thrust into a mystery involving a shoe, a key, and strange notes that appear in her belongings. And hey, there’s been a naked, screaming man spotted by the schoolyard!
This is one of those books that takes a seemingly random assortment of occurrences and by the end, has collected them into a perfect jewelbox of a story, every piece fitting together in neat but surprising ways. It’s a mystery that can be solved, if you know how to look. It’s also an honest exploration of the crazy emotions and changing relationships of early adolescence, all in just 208 pages.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
“In everyone’s life there are people who stay and people who go and people who are taken against their will.”
This book is always hard for me to talk about, because it has a very big, O. Henry-style twist partway through that I’d hate to spoil for anyone. Of course, they’ll be spoiled the moment they read the back cover, which rather recklessly gives the whole game away. Or most reviews of the book, or any other media coverage. So I always tell folks to try not read any of it – the back, reviews, etc, – before jumping in. Granted, I was spoiled and still loved the book, but Fowler delivers the twist so brilliantly that it was a shame not to be surprised by it.
So here’s what I can say – this is a book about family. In one sense, it’s a book about all families, and the ways the people you love the most are the ones who can hurt you the most, and in another sense, it’s a story about one very unique family and their very strange choices.
The narrator, Rosemary, is a 22 year old college student with a fair amount of emotional baggage. She has two siblings – a sister, Fern, and a brother, Lowell, and both are missing. Fern has been gone since they were very young, Lowell’s disappearance is more recent and related to his being wanted by the FBI. How these two absences intersect are the meat of the story, and Fowler deftly navigates the past and present to tell the tale. If you read it and remain unspoiled, let me know what you think of the twist!
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”
What happens after the world as we know it ends? Is human survival about food, shelter, and safety, or is something more needed?
Station Eleven explores the need for art and beauty in a decaying world, whether it’s the one we live in now, or after a terrible disaster. The primary setting is fifteen years after a flu has wiped out most of humanity. With so few people left, there is no electricity, no engines, no civilization – it’s essentially the Middle Ages, redux. Through this landscape roams the Traveling Symphony, a troupe of musicians and actors who perform Shakespeare for the tiny remaining settlements. Their wagon is painted with “Because survival is insufficient,” a line from a Star Trek: Voyager episode and the philosophy of the group. One of the actors, a young woman named Kirsten, also has this tattooed on her arm. Her prized posession is a comic book called Station Eleven, given to her before the collapse of civilization by Arthur Leander, an aging Hollywood star with whom she once performed in King Lear when she was a child. Arthur Leander also happens to be patient zero for the flu epidemic.
The book moves between past and present, presenting the viewpoints of various, initially unconnected people – Kirsten and Arthur, but also Arthur’s first ex-wife, who wrote and drew Station Eleven, Jeevan, an EMT who saw Arthur’s final performance – showing their lives before and after the flu. From their individual, seemingly incredibly personal choices, there are immense consequences for the entire world.
This is a post-apocalyptic novel with no zombies, no mutants, no real fantasy elements – just people trying to cope with what they’ve lost and what they’re still able to hold on to, in spite of it all.
So what are the books that you think everyone should read? Tell me in the comments and I’ll put them on my list!