In a couple of weeks, we’ll be heading for my favorite reading perch. The wide, covered porch of an old clapboard house in Highlands, overlooking the always teeming and shadow-shifting Lake Sequoia.
I cannot wait.
It was on this porch in 1980 – yes, that long ago – that I interviewed the National Book Award-winning novelist Walker Percy, who was vacationing there with his family. (His good friend, the Civil War historian Shelby Foote of Memphis was a frequent visitor). Percy’s novel, “The Second Coming,” had just come out, and he said he’d spend the rest of the month “fishing, flopping and reading” before he returned home to Covington, La.
“Flopping and reading” is precisely the thing to do in Highlands, and each year, weeks before we leave Charlotte, I begin the delicious process of stockpiling books to take along.
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Trouble is, it’s difficult to restrain myself from gobbling them up before we set off.
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng. Penguin, $16 paper. A 2014 release just out in paperback, this is Ng’s debut novel, which took her six years to write. Here are the first two sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So you could stop? I couldn’t and didn’t. A literary thriller about a mixed-race family in 1970s Ohio, whose favorite daughter’s death unravels the tight ropes of parental expectations and the fierce and universal need to belong.
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. Knopf, $24. A bold premise and an understated style. Author Haruf died last fall at age 71, a proud man, I hope, for having written this irresistible novel about two neighbors, a widow and a widower in their early 70s, who decide to share a bed at night because they’ve been “alone too long.” She makes the first move: “I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.” No. Nine on the New York Times Bestseller List.
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins. Riverhead Books. $26.95 hardcover. Yes, at last I am succumbing to all the hype about this former journalist’s 2014 novel still holding at No. Two on the NYTBL. It’s true, alcoholic Rachel’s been called an “unreliable narrator.” But I look forward to her obsession about a married couple she watches from the window of her train as she commutes daily into London. She imbues them with every good thing missing in her own life – why not? – and one day she’ll be a player in their drama.
Three novels I’d pack if I had not already devoured them:
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr. Scribner. $27.99 hardcover. Set in France and in Germany during World War II. A blind French girl, a gifted Nazi-in-training, a priceless blue diamond and magnetic waves that transcend time and place. A 2015 Pulitzer-winner. Dazzling.
Saint Anything, by Sarah Dessen. Viking. $19.99 hardcover. A new young adult novel by this Chapel Hill writer who lassos readers of any age. Sydney’s older brother Peyton is in prison for driving drunk and crippling an 11-year-old boy. Why is Sydney the only one in her family who feels the guilt?
Life Drawing, by Robin Black. Random House. $25 hardcover. A painter, guilty about an affair, heads with her blocked and often-sulky writer husband to an isolated country house to, well, to repair. A woman moves in next door. You can’t even begin to imagine. A 2014 literary page-turner by a graduate of Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers.
Irrepressible: The Jazz Age Life of Henrietta Bingham. Farrar, Straus. $28 hard cover. Oh, who can resist the Binghams, the grand publishing family of Louisville, Ky. And here we have the tradition-busting woman – an embarrassment to her family, a danger to herself – who drove both men and women “wild with desire.” Great-niece Emily Bingham – PhD from UNC Chapel Hill – is the lucky great-niece who spills the late Henrietta’s secrets.
What Comes Next and How to Like It, by Abigail Thomas. Scribner. $24 hard cover. I loaned this book to a friend who says it’s essential. Now to borrow it back. Thomas gives us a series of reflections – mostly short – on being a mother, being a friend, on aging and on facing death. “The future is a moving target,” she writes, “completely unpredictable. Like the past.”
On the Move: A Life, by Oliver Sacks. Knopf, $27.95 hardcover. The daring neurologist who gave us “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” now regales us with moving and flamboyant tales of his life, his loves, his ventures into the brain and his travails with the human heart (A London native, he was dispatched early to boarding school and bullied there.) He arrived in this country at age 16 and always felt guilty for leaving his family. Absorbing.
Three nonfiction books I’d pack if I hadn’t already indulged:
Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, by Roz Chast. Bloomsbury, $28 hardcover. An unflinching graphic memoir by the New Yorker cartoonist. An only child, Chast is so honest you will roar and weep and maybe gnash your teeth as she struggles to care for her decrepit, paranoid parents holed up for decades in a Brooklyn apartment – quarreling, scrimping, pack-ratting, falling, snoring. A 2014 National Book Award finalist.
Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination, by J.K. Rowling. Little, Brown, $15. A dandy, short book of Rowling’s 2008 Harvard commencement speech. Read aloud and/or give as a belated graduation gift. Rowling is the author of the Harry Potter series.
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book, by Walker Percy. Picador, $9.95 paperback. Percy’s 1983 thoroughly tongue-in-cheek guide for folks who know they are “lost” and “homeless” and “alienated” and “bored” and more or less enjoy the accompanying angst because they’ve lived long enough to know that nothing will ever completely cure it.