I wait all year for the weather to turn balmy and the sky a royal blue so I can head to the beach with an Italian sub in the cooler and a fresh summer read to crack open.
Is there anything better than a good book in the summer? Even if your next three months are packed full, take some time to slow down with a juicy book. Reading may be my most sacred ritual as a writer. It opens perspective, checks my biases, and encourages me to stay endlessly curious about our wide, wonderful universe. It brings me joy.
I push myself to read widely as possible, old and new, poetry, romance, literature, personal and professional development. You’ll find bestselling paperbacks and Shakespeare on this list––on purpose. There was a time when I’d turn up my nose at what some call “commercial lit” (or another scoffed at category, “self help” 😱) until I realized cutting myself off from any branch of knowledge was a disservice to my life and craft. My soul is a hungry one, so I’ve since dismounted my high horse for curiosity, wonder, joy, and good storytelling.
Here’s my summer reading list for the joyful writer with 10 titles (in no particular order) to feed your hungry mind and soul.
Circe, by Madeline Miller
From the publisher:“In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child--not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power--the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.”
Renee’s Review: If you’re a mythology maven like me, Circe is a must-read. A sweeping, epic tale told from the point of view of the goddess witch of Aeaea, it’s a nice long read that’ll keep you sucked in for weeks. Perfect for long plane or train rides! I listened to the audio book read by Perdita Weeks, which enhanced the story and created a traditional bard experience for me.
Pair with: The Iliad & The Odyssey by Homer
Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich
From the publisher: “In her seventh volume of poetry, Adrienne Rich searches to reclaim—to discover—what has been forgotten, lost, or unexplored.”
Renee’s Review: I read these poems every summer. My personal copy is hardened and wrinkly from being dropped into too many mountain lakes. It smells like sunscreen. This collection cracks me open every time I revisit it. Reading Rich was the push I needed to become a diver (figuratively and literally) and contains one of my all-time favorite poems, the title piece, “Diving into the Wreck.”
Pair with: The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001, by Adrienne Rich
Chillpreneur: The New Rules for Creating Success, Freedom, and Abundance on Your Terms, by Denise Duffield-Thomas
From the publisher: “Feeling burned out by your business? Sick of the 'hustle and grind' culture of your industry? There's a better way! Get over your perfectionism and embrace the flow of the Chillpreneur.
Denise Duffield-Thomas, money mindset coach and best-selling author, will show you how with her trademark humor and down-to-earth wisdom.
[…] Full of reassuring and practical advice, Chillpreneur challenges the old, boring assumptions of what it takes to create success in business, so you can create financial independence with ease and grace.”
Renee’s Review: Let’s be honest. Writers are entrepreneurs who hate admitting they’re entrepreneurs. As much as we gripe about how writers and creatives are underpaid, we hate asking for what we’re worth. Denise Duffield-Thomas is the queen of helping creative entrepreneurs bust through money blocks and create lives of ease that support creativity. If you’re a freelancer or want to break free from the 9-5 and focus on creative work, this is a must-read.
Pair with: Get Rich, Lucky Bitch, by Denise Duffield-Thomas
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
From the publisher: “The bestselling novel—and one of Barack Obama’s summer reading picks—from the award-winning author of We Should All Be Feminists and Dear Ijeawele. Ifemelu and Obinze are young and in love when they depart military-ruled Nigeria for the West. Beautiful, self-assured Ifemelu heads for America, where despite her academic success, she is forced to grapple with what it means to be black for the first time. Quiet, thoughtful Obinze had hoped to join her, but with post-9/11 America closed to him, he instead plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Fifteen years later, they reunite in a newly democratic Nigeria, and reignite their passion—for each other and for their homeland.”
Renee’s Review: I took my sweet time with this novel because I didn’t want it to end. I fell in love with the main characters, Ifemelu and Obinze, right away, and relished following them on their sweeping journey across decades and continents. Adichie’s prose is smooth and pleasurable to read with a forceful calm that carries the weight of the larger themes of race, identity, and place explored in the novel. The resonance and masterful storytelling will stick with you long after the last chapter.
Pair with: Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine
The Tempest, by William Shakespeare
Signet Classic synopsis: “Prospero, sorcerer and rightful Duke of Milan, along with his daughter Miranda, has lived on an island for many years since his position was usurped by his brother Antonio. Then, as Antonio's ship passes near the island one day, Prospero conjures up a terrible storm...”
Renee’s Review: This is my favorite classic to read in summer. In my freshman year of college, I played one of Ariel’s “qualities” in a production of The Tempest, so it holds a special nostalgia for me. Lit-nerd fact: this is widely believed to be the last play Shakespeare wrote by himself. If you were the type of kid who pretended to be shipwrecked on a desert island among witches, monsters, and magic, let ol’ Willy’s genius sweep you away in this classic play.
Pair with: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott
From the publisher: “If you have ever wondered what it takes to be a writer, what it means to be a writer, what the contents of your school lunches said about what your parents were really like, this book's for you. From faith, love, and grace to pain, jealousy, and fear, Lamott insists that you keep your eyes open, and then shows you how to survive. And always, from the life of the artist she turns to the art of life.”
Renee’s Review: If the summer heat has you feeling blah about your writing practice, Anne Lamott is the go-to girl for a good (and hilarious) kick in the butt. With a gentle nudge to write your shitty first draft, I guarantee you’ll feel more motivated after reading this writerly page-turner.
Pair with: Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
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Maine, by J. Courtney Sullivan
From the publisher: “For the Kellehers, Maine is a place where children run in packs, showers are taken outdoors, and old Irish songs are sung around a piano. As three generations of Kelleher women arrive at the family's beach house, each brings her own hopes and fears. Maggie is thirty-two and pregnant, waiting for the perfect moment to tell her imperfect boyfriend the news; Ann Marie, a Kelleher by marriage, is channeling her domestic frustration into a dollhouse obsession and an ill-advised crush; Kathleen, the black sheep, never wanted to set foot in the cottage again; and Alice, the matriarch at the center of it all, would trade every floorboard for a chance to undo the events of one night, long ago.
By turns wickedly funny and achingly sad, Maine unveils the sibling rivalry, alcoholism, social climbing, and Catholic guilt at the center of one family, along with the abiding, often irrational love that keeps them coming back, every summer, to Maine and to each other.”
Renee’s Review: The ideal paperback novel for a day at the beach or sheltering from a summer rainstorm. I love novels that explore families across generations, especially the female line, and Maine certainly delivered. I needed a break from heart-rending, overly gutting novels that, while exceptional works of literature, left me feeling drained and depressed. A good friend recommended Sullivan’s work to me for lighter (but not sentimental) reading. Her novels were exactly the medicine I needed.
Pair with: The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty
Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng
From the publisher: “In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned — from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren — an enigmatic artist and single mother — who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town — and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.”
Renee’s Review: I’m a big fan of Reese’s Book Club. Let’s be honest, the woman knows how to sniff out powerful, female-driven narratives and deliver them to a wider audience. Like many of Reese’s picks, Little Fires Everywhere was a tour-de-force of character development, mystery, and entertainment. I’m officially a Celeste Ng fangirl for life.
Pair with: Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Unforgivable Love: A Retelling of Dangerous Liaisons, by Sophfronia Scott
From the publisher: “In this vivid reimagining of the French classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it’s the summer when Jackie Robinson breaks Major League Baseball’s color barrier and a sweltering stretch has Harlem’s elite fleeing the city for Westchester County’s breezier climes, two predators stalk amidst the manicured gardens and fine old homes.
Heiress Mae Malveaux rules society with an angel’s smile and a heart of stone. She made up her mind long ago that nobody would decide her fate. To have the pleasure she craves, control is paramount, especially control of the men Mae attracts like moths to a flame.
Valiant Jackson always gets what he wants—and he’s wanted Mae for years. The door finally opens for him when Mae strikes a bargain: seduce her virginal young cousin, Cecily, who is engaged to Frank Washington. Frank values her innocence above all else. If successful, Val’s reward will be a night with Mae.
But Val secretly seeks another prize. Elizabeth Townsend is fiercely loyal to her church and her civil rights attorney husband. Certain there is something redeemable in Mr. Jackson. Little does she know that her worst mistake will be Val’s greatest triumph.”
Renee’s Review: If you’re a sucker for re-tellings of classic novels, Unforgivable Love should be next on your list. By far, this is my favorite reboot of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The setting of the story in 1940’s Harlem breathed new life, beauty, and music into the tale. If you know the story, you know it’s not a happy ending, but Sophfronia Scott handles the tragedy with poignant grace.
Pair with: Les Liaisons Dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
The Plover, by Brian Doyle
From the publisher: “Declan O Donnell has sailed out of Oregon and deep into the vast, wild ocean, having had just finally enough of other people and their problems. He will go it alone, he will be his own country, he will be beholden to and beloved of no one. No man is an island, my butt, he thinks. I am that very man. . . .
But the galaxy soon presents him with a string of odd, entertaining, and dangerous passengers, who become companions of every sort and stripe. The Plover is the story of their adventures and misadventures in the immense blue country one of their company calls Pacifica. Hounded by a mysterious enemy, reluctantly acquiring one new resident after another, Declan O Donnell's lonely boat is eventually crammed with humor, argument, tension, and a resident herring gull.
Brian Doyle's The Plover is a sea novel, a maritime adventure, the story of a cold man melting, a compendium of small miracles, an elegy to Edmund Burke, a watery quest, a battle at sea---and a rapturous, heartfelt celebration of life's surprising paths, planned and unplanned.”
Renee’s Review: This novel saved my life. I mean that literally. If you’ve followed my blog for a bit, you know I’ve gone through dark times with depression and anxiety. I credit art and many of the writers on this list with keeping me afloat and alive. Art as medicine, art as life-saver, art as purpose: it’s the reason I write this blog. I want creatives to know their work can save lives.
That’s what Doyle’s work did for me. In The Plover, the main character becomes disillusioned with life on land. He sets out in a small skiff to find true solitude. As he journeys west and west and west through the Pacific (and fails to accomplish his goal of “going it alone”), he keeps a one-word mantra: misneach. In Gaelic, it translates to “courage.” To Irish sailors it meant: Stay afloat, stay with the boat.
As a water-baby myself, raised close to the sea, this resonated deeply with me in a time of darkness. I wrote the words on a chalkboard above my desk where I’d see it daily. Misneach – Stay afloat, Stay with the boat.
After that difficult period, I tattooed a small sailboat to my wrist in honor of Doyle (who passed away in 2017) and his character Declan to remind me that in the darkest of storms, the only thing to do is stay afloat. Stay with the boat.
Pair with: Mink River, by Brian Doyle
Now take your pick, and I’ll meet you at the water. You bring the sunscreen and floaties; I’ll pack the sandwiches and rosé.
Wait! Before you jet…
After you finish an amazing book, do you ever think: “Dang, it’s all been done before! No one’s going to care about my story”?
Friend, let me lovingly tell you: you’re wrong! I want to see YOUR by-line on a summer reading list, so let’s cure that “It’s all been done before” syndrome.