Algonquin Authors Pick Their Favorite Summer Reads: Part 1

Summer’s winding down, but we still have plenty of time left to cram in more summer reading, right? We recently asked our authors to tell us about their favorite summer reads, whether from recent memory or the distant past. The variety of books they came up with is really kind of amazing. Herewith, Part 1.

My favorite book from this summer is Graham Greene’s novel Travels With My Aunt, narrated by a man in his fifties who, at his mother’s funeral, runs into his aunt, who tells him that his mother was not his mother, and who drags him into a series of illegal adventures across Europe and into Turkey and South America. This is one of Greene’s so-called entertainments, but I often like his entertainments more than his supposedly serious novels, and I love this novel most of all, for the reasons I love Muriel Spark novels: an unlikely, wry, sneakily sad novel about what it means to start a new life.

— Brock Clarke, author of An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England


Maybe because I’ve been caretaking two elderly parents (95 and 85), both stricken with Alzheimer’s, I’ve been attracted to books by older authors who address the experience of being old, of approaching death. Googling “old age memoirs and women,” I hit on a memoir by Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End. A former British editor with a long, renowned career publishing the likes of Jean Rhys and V. S. Naipaul, Athill discovered late in her own life that she herself could write. The memoir is a gem, clear-eyed and unsentimental, remorseless and cranky, and tender and true. Athill focuses her sharp eye on everything from sex in old age (Ninety-one when the book was published, Athill ceased to be a sexual being in her seventies; the plus side: “other things became more interesting”) to her preference for nonfiction in her old age (“I do still want to be fed facts, to be given material which extends the region in which my mind can wander”). I found myself underlining passages and starring every other page, wondering if my markings would some day elucidate what I had dreaded or looked forward to in old age for a loved one.

— Julia Alvarez, author of How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents


Every year, as the summer solstice approaches, I get a hankering to reread The Sun Also Rises. I’ve now given into that hankering so often that it doesn’t really feel like summer to me anymore unless I’ve spent a few days with Hemingway’s masterpiece. And, as much as I love its bittersweet depiction of expatriate life in Paris in the nineteen-twenties and its rendering of the reckless bacchanal of the Pamplona fiesta, nothing is dearer to me than the quiet center of the book: the fishing trip Jake takes to Roncesvalles with his friend Bill. I don’t fish, but those passages, which so evocatively capture the blissful escape from workday life and the satisfactions of leisure, are redolent of every great vacation I’ve ever taken. All the more so, since in the novel–as in life–the happiness is so fragile and fleeting.

— Jon Michaud, author of When Tito Loved Clara


Lord of the Rings. I think I was thirteen that summer. I devoured the whole trilogy in about a week and was utterly bereft when I turned the last page. Oh, to be in Middle Earth!

— Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound





I first read Larry McMurtry’s Moving On, the summer when my first husband was busy leaving me. It was a rough summer but I lost myself in this big huge book peopled with characters so alive, I felt they were at my side. Every summer after that, I dipped back down into this story of desperate rodeo people, Texas grad students and the very unhappy Patsy Carpenter, who are all doing just what the title says–moving on. It’s funny, moving and brilliant–and it saved my life.

— Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You




The Summer Book by Tove Jansson is my new favorite summer book! It’s an illustrated novel centered on 6-year-old Sophia and her aging grandmother and set on a small Finnish island that the two adventurers explore each day. It’s a heart-warming story that holds some important life lessons. Think The Little Prince with a little bite to it. I fall in love with Sophia every time I read this book. I think you will too. How can you resist the little girl who is writing a treatise on angleworms that become split in half and concludes: “Nothing is easy when you might come apart in the middle at any moment.”

— Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky



As a kid, I think these books made their indelible mark in summer: Lad: A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune and of course Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. I remember the exact feel of the days I spent with these books, reading them in the afternoons when the Missouri heat drove me out of the woods and fields and off the melting asphalt street, and indoors. After my father and mother bought an air conditioner, when I was a preteen and teenager, on some of those hot summer afternoons — particularly if my parents were gone — I would make hot tea, crank the air conditioner to the coldest setting, and burrow into the good living room couch I wasn’t supposed to use, and read novels by Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. I did this while other kids tried smoking. No, wait. I did that, too. With the air conditioner cranked up. In college, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion got me through the long, last summer. After that, memory blurs.

— Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle

“Summer read” implies guilty pleasure, the easy beach or airplane read, something we eat for flavor, not nutrition, purely as entertainment. I can’t name a single title but I can name an author, Tony Hillerman, and his series of mysteries featuring Navajo Tribal Police officers Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. The characters are both men I’d like to know. The mysteries work on two levels, giving the reader both a question he can’t answer and a world he doesn’t understand, and it’s the latter I find most inviting, books set on the Navajo reservation of the “four corners” area where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet, with its buttes and mesas, arroyos and dry river beds, lit in what seems like perpetual sunset. Maybe it’s because as a young man, headed away from home for the first time to attend a graduate writing program in Tucson and scared out of my mind, I pulled off the highway to get gas, somewhere west of Tucumcari, and I leaned against the fender of my car to rest, smoke a cigarette, drink a Coke and watch the hills all around me turn from gold to red, and I thought, “Something huge is happening here, something I’ll never know in full.” Hillerman’s books, where the landscape and the mystery fuse, take me back to that moment and give me a second chance, and feel 24 again, the age when everything seems like a mystery. That’s a pleasure, usually one I’ve savored summers, and I don’t feel guilty about it.

— Pete Nelson, author of I Thought You Were Dead


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