Non-fiction to take you away (even if you want to stay put)

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With heat pulling my tender strands into frizzy curls already, it’s high time we talk about summer reading.

As a kid, I was the book geek already tearing through her assigned books before the current school year was over. I have fond memories of Dad taking my sister and me to Crown Books, the bookstore that sat where a Panera now resides, to thumb through their children’s and young adult section for the classics. We spent hours wandering the aisles — the first place I remember my parents giving us a tiny bit of independence. (Don’t worry: they were just around the corner, Dad in sports and Mom usually in magazines.)

I miss summer reading. That might be why I love reading review copies: it feels like I’m back in my English program in college, perhaps? With a stack of books I must read? At heart, I can be fairly indecisive about novels — and it often helps if I’m on a schedule. Who doesn’t benefit from a good deadline now and then?

I’ll admit that, you know, going rogue with my reading was definitely exciting post-college; I loved choosing books at random, especially when I worked at Borders, because it felt almost . . . illicit. After being handed a syllabus for so many years, doing what I wanted was exhilarating.

Now I’m tired and often cranky and don’t know what I want. I want someone to tell me what I want. Isn’t it funny how that works?

Anyway. Summer reading. Traveling! Adventure! With no one telling you what you must read, here I go giving you a list of sorts. But it’s a short one. Whether you’re readying for a plane ride or staying perched in your air-conditioned living room through September, don’t we all love a little escape through reading?

Flip-flops and sunscreen optional.


Awesome Non-Fiction
That Takes You Away
(Even If You Want to Stay Put)


Paris LettersParis Letters by Janice MacLeod — Bored by a humdrum advertising gig, Janice scrimps and saves enough to leave her desk job and book a flight for Europe. Falling hopelessly in love with Paris wasn’t part of her plan — and this artist’s journey was just beginning. Enchanting, romantic and fun, I’ve thought of this story often since finishing in the winter. It’s the perfect book in which to lose yourself — and live vicariously through another. (And then you can check out her blog to continue the fun.)


Walk in the WoodsA Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson — Though I’m late to the Bryson fan club, he certainly has a new member. I inhaled most of this book coming back from California and wanted to don hiking boots by the time we touched down. The story of Bryson’s epic journey hiking the Appalachian Trail, A Walk in the Woods manages to weave history, environmental issues and self-discovery into one moving, humorous package. Bryson’s language is evocative; you can almost feel the mosquitoes. (Better him than us.) Full review of this one to come once I’ve collected my thoughts!


The Lost GirlsThe Lost Girls by Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett and Amanda Pressner — All at a crossroads, three friends climb off the corporate ladder to go and explore the world. Their year-long journey takes them to Brazil, Kenya, Australia and more, and their story of friendship and living for today was inspirational. A heavy dose of armchair travel with this one: you’re all over the place!


Bank of BobThe International Bank of Bob by Bob Harris — Featured in my reading honors for 2013, Harris’ account of traveling to meet those he has assisted with microfinance loans bears mentioning again. A travel writer, Harris has an open mind when he begins making $25 loans through Kiva.org — and his story is heartwarming without drifting into condescension. Funds are paid back by small business owners: hardworking men and women whose lives are changed forever by the money Harris once spent on coffee. We journey with him to Nepal and Morocco, Cambodia and India. The lessons reach far beyond the page.


Any favorite travel reads to recommend?
Just summer books you love?


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Summer reading that didn’t suck

Unlike my groaning and eye-rolling classmates, the last few weeks of school were always a very exciting time for me — and not just because months of uninterrupted leisure time awaited me on summer break.

No, friends, in classic book-nerd fashion, I was all about obtaining one thing and one thing only: the summer reading list. Finding out the books I’d be required to read before the start of school in August was like getting an early peek at your Christmas presents. I loved the challenge of being presented with a novel and having to read. Like, not because it’s fun . . . but because it’s a requirement.

It didn’t take me long to tear through my books, of course. Since I was such an overzealous literature geek, I’d typically have everything conquered by the time July rolled around. That was just fine, though; it gave me ample opportunity to then tackle books of my own choosing.

And I’ve always been very choosy about books.

To that end, I never understood why other kids would whine and curse the day they were, you know, ordered to read. Reading is everywhere. While I mean no offense to the math and science minds of the world, it’s not like I’ve spent much time doing algebraic equations or chemistry in the years since graduation. But English? Reading? Well, that’s something with which I am quite familiar.

Though not all summer reading books were huge hits with yours truly, there were quite a few that I adored — and still remember years later. Though I don’t often re-read novels, these are titles I could see myself revisiting in the future. And for illustrative purposes (and the mental exercise), I’ve scoured the Internet for the covers I believe were on my own copies.


Summer Reading That Didn’t Suck


The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
Tan’s famous novel was one of my earliest experiences with Asian culture in literature, and what a world it opened for me! I remember getting so wrapped up in this book when I was 17 that I was actually dreaming about the characters. Some of the scenes — emotional; disturbing — still flutter back to me at random moments.



To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Who doesn’t have a story about reading Lee’s classic — and only — novel? I devoured this one before entering my freshman year and was thrilled when we got to see the film adaptation later that school year. Scout was a hero and Lee’s language and story so poetic . . . it’s not a book you ever forget.



The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe
Space! Astronauts! American history! Though this book was gigantic, I read it entering my senior year of high school and became unduly fascinated by the NASA space program. Even now, almost a decade later, I overhear word of Alan Shepard and think, “Oh — he was in The Right Stuff.” Though I recall being mentally exhausted from the sheer length of the book, it was popular and enjoyed by my classmates and was my first introduction to the style of New Journalism.


Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
O Romeo . . . O Juliet. Shakespeare’s famous pair of star-crossed teen lovers was my first experience with the Bard and quite the epic tale for a 14-year-old. As hormones raged and every little squabble became a Serious Drama in our school hallways, Shakespeare’s portrayal of these crazy kids who just want to be together no matter what was another popular read in ninth grade. Though most of it went over our heads, I had a great and patient English teacher — Mrs. Chalmers — who, after we returned from break, had us read the whole play aloud. (I was Juliet, natch.) Though I read Romeo and Juliet again in college — twice, actually — and still enjoy it, that first time was the best.


Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
When I think back on a trip to the California coast with my family, I think less of the glittering lights of Los Angeles, the plush Beverly Wilshire Hotel and the whales of Monterey than I do of Jane Eyre, a sweeping and haunting narrative that had me lodged in Thornfield Hall. Though Mr. Rochester can’t hold a candle to my beloved Mr. Darcy, he still cut a fine “hero” in Brontë’s classic novel.