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America StaffJune 14, 2024
A cozy scene featuring a stack of books, an open book, a cup of coffee on a saucer, and a vase with flowers on a sunlit table.(Unsplash)

It’s officially summer! You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t have a certain interest in the written word, whether that be the most serious academic tome or the cotton-candiest of quick reads, and so we at America thought to offer our suggestions for good summer books. While most of our staff preferred fiction, others went for biographies, memoirs, cultural histories and more. Ours is perhaps a bit wonkier than the average summer reading list, but we are confident one or more of these might find its way into your beach bag.

Readers might note that some of these books have been reviewed in our pages; others may join them soon. Enjoy!

The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray

Irish novelist Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting is an unconventional tragicomedy written from the perspective of each of the four members of the Barnes household. The Barnes family is, to put it lightly, down on their luck after the 2008 financial crash. Set in a small Irish town, the novel begins with Cass, the teenage daughter of Dickie and Imelda Barnes, whose newfound drinking habits are narrowing her chances of attending Trinity College Dublin in the fall. The patriarch Dickie is doomsday prepping after learning about the seriousness of climate change. His environmental consciousness is at odds with his job running his father’s car dealership, where he discourages people from buying cars, contributing to the family’s financial woes. His 12-year-old son PJ is acutely aware of his family’s finances; he ruins pairs of socks with his bloodied and blistered feet, refusing to tell his parents that he needs new trainers as a growing middle schooler. Dickie’s wife, Imelda, “the most beautiful girl in the four provinces,” is stuck in the glamor of her youth and decides that the bee that stung her in the eye on her wedding day was indeed an omen for what was to come. Despite its hefty 650-some pages, The Bee Sting breezes by in a beautiful, hilarious and yet harrowing portrayal of family life.

-Christine Lenahan, O’Hare fellow

OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea, by Patrick Freyne

A few years ago, a friend sent me an Irish Times review of Oprah’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The reviewer, Patrick Freyne, opened with one of the funniest cultural take-downs I have ever read.

Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.

I was delighted to learn recently that Freyne had written a book of collected essays, OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea. It did not disappoint. He can find the absurd in any situation, whether he is describing his father (a ranger in the Irish Army who once took Freyne on a father-and-son camping trip to the Wicklow mountains in order to camouflage his real mission of tracking terrorists) or his own misspent youth as a vagabond, pirate radio operator and aspiring musician. Freyne is at his best, though, when he turns to the painful side of human life. He offers an unsparing account of his mother’s beautiful and sad childhood in rural Cork, and his final essay is a fearless description of his response to a friend’s death.

Freyne once said in an interview that he was fascinated by liminal spaces, “marginal, in-betweeny things” that are neither a home nor a destination. As this book reveals, Freyne knows how to show his readers hilarity and grief and all the things in between that constitute the full measure of a human life.

-Michael Simone, S.J., contributing editor

Long Island, by Colm Tóibín

A few years ago I wrote a novel called The Abbey. The plot, I thought, was pretty good (it came to me in a dream), but I had never written a novel before, and so I struggled with how to do it. In general, readers enjoyed the book, but after I set down my pen (or turned off my computer) something made me realize that novel writing was not my gift. And that something was reading Colm Tóibín’s luminous book, Brooklyn, about a young Irish woman emigrating to the United States in the 1950s. I distinctly remember reading the first few pages of Tóibín’s bestselling book and thinking, “Now this is how you write a novel.”

Many people will know the story of Eilis Lacey from both the novel and the beautiful film of the same name, which starred Saoirse Ronan as a quiet, sensitive but determined Irish-Catholic immigrant. In both the novel and the film, she leaves her mother and sister behind for a new life in New York (settling in Brooklyn, thus the title), falls in love with a young Italian man named Tony Fiorello marries him, but then she is called back to her hometown of Enniscorthy (also Tóibín’s real-life hometown) and promptly falls in love with a man named Jim Farrell.

I have to spoil that first novel to set up its sequel. Eilis and Tony have, as telegraphed at the end of Brooklyn, moved to Long Island, along with the rest of his large, boisterous and not always enchanting Italian-American family, and their two children. (As the child of an Irish-American father and Italian-American mother, I found the depictions of the cultural differences between the two ethnic groups fascinating.) Tóibín’s latest novel Long Island opens with a terrible bit of news: A man appears on the doorstep of the couple’s home and announces to Eilis that Tony has gotten the man’s wife pregnant. Moreover, the man (who is Irish, so Eilis trusts him) announces that as soon as the child is born he will bring it to Eilis and Tony. This sets in motion the drama of Long Island, which is centered on a (not surprisingly) furious Eilis’s return home to Enniscorthy, where she promptly meets up with Jim. I will not spoil the rest of this gorgeously written novel except to say that it is not only a sensitive examination of human nature(s) but a near page-turner. My only cavil is that the ending is an open one, most likely to leave room for another sequel. New Jersey? In any event, what I thought while reading Brooklyn I thought while reading Long Island: Boy can this guy write.

-James Martin, S.J., editor-at-large

The Women, by Kristin Hannah

After a year’s worth of reading very serious books (I am a part of two very serious book clubs), I wanted to take a break this summer and catch up on some popular books I have heard mentioned. The Women is a very serious book but told in a readable and captivating manner. It is about the horrors of the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of a young woman from California who enlists after graduating from nursing school in the United States. The year is 1963, the beginning of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, at a time when women were encouraged to stay at home and lead rewarding lives of volunteering and raising families. Kristin Hannah describes this main character’s life in a combat zone, the climb to be accepted and useful, the raw horrors of a war no one wants, and the aftermath of returning home to a country divided.

Full disclosure: I have not finished this book, but will guess our nurse faces her demons both in Vietnam and the hard return to her idyllic hometown. Kristin Hannah paints a broad but moving description of the harsh consequences of believing in something with all your heart, enduring personal sacrifices, and coming to a deeper and better understanding of returning to a world that may seem upside down.

-Lindsay Chessare, account manager

Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones

I’m trying to explore new worlds in books, if not in my actual travels, this summer. So far, I’ve read Edward P. Jones’s short story collection from 1992, Lost in the City, about life in the mostly Black neighborhoods of Washington, D.C., in the ’60s and ’70s. They are a mix of hopefulness and frustration at continued injustice. In “The First Day,” for example, a woman recalls her mother’s determination to navigate the bureaucracy of the city’s public school system. (“The higher up on the scale of respectability a person is—and teachers are rather high up in her eyes—the less she is liable to let them push her around.”) “I had read James Joyce’s Dubliners, and I was quite taken with what he had done with Dublin,” Jones said in an interview shortly after the book’s release. “So I set out to do the same thing for Washington, D.C.”

Next is Adelle Waldman’s just-released novel Help Wanted, which takes place in the warehouse of a big-box store in economically battered upstate New York and details the political intrigue among workers jockeying for promotions—or, if they are beaten down enough, just seeking some recognition of their human dignity from their employers. And on deck is Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food , so I can at least imagine dining in the country that invented the restaurant.

-Robert David Sullivan, production editor

The Plague, by Albert Camus

I first encountered Albert Camus’ La Peste (“The Plague” in English) last fall, during a Camus-focused course I took as I completed my French major at Georgetown University. La Peste is no beach read, but if you’re looking for a meaty novel that will hold your attention for the whole summer, it’s the right book for you. Published in 1947, the story follows the inhabitants of Oran, Algeria, as they face a rodent-borne bubonic plague epidemic from the pages of a medieval history textbook, which forces the inhabitants into a military quarantine: For nearly a year, nobody can enter or leave the town. The novel follows several residents through their city’s year of woe, with a particular focus on Dr. Bernard Rieux, the petty criminal Cottard, and—my preferred character, of course—the Jesuit Father Paneloux. We watch an existence defined by sequestration and grief becoming normal, as bodies pile up and Oran’s social fabric wears thin.

My professor told the class that when he taught the text before the Covid-19 pandemic, students sometimes struggled to relate to the denizens of Oran; following the devastation of 2020, it became chillingly relatable. Contemporary readers may find eerie resemblances to their own experience of the coronavirus pandemic in the choices that Camus’s characters face: whether to try to flee the city, actively abet the spread of the plague by ignoring the government’s safety measures or make sacrifices to help beat back the disease.

-Connor Hartigan, intern

Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne

First published in 1863, Jules Verne’s classic Journey to the Center of the Earth today reads like a template for the summer blockbuster. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black or Daniel Craig filling one of the lead roles. And like standard summer film fare, the plot includes countless unbelievable moments and has just enough real science to make it interesting.

There is the dogged professor, Otto Lidenbrock, a noted geologist; Axel, the narrator of the novel and Lidenbrock’s nephew; and Hans Bejelke, the Icelandic hunter who serves as their guide. The heartwarming journey is built around the professor’s steadfast pursuit of scientific discovery and Axel’s struggles to overcome his fears. Neither could have survived the journey without Hans, whose loyalty, physical strength and unblinking courage in the face of impossible obstacles make the expedition possible.

I find the levity and humor of the novel a welcome break from the gravity of our current news cycle. Yet in addition to a childlike wonder at creation and an exhilarating adventure, the novel has moments of profound insight.

“While there is life there is hope,” the professor says to a desperate Axel near the novel’s climax. “… as long as a man’s heart beats, as long as a man’s flesh quivers, I do not allow that a being gifted with thought and will can allow himself to despair.”

Whatever this summer portends, there is nevertheless reason to hope. This classic novel offers contemporary readers a moment to step back and recognize that along with brokenness, there is also beauty in our human condition.

-J.D. Long García, senior editor

The Art Thief, by Michael Finkel

This page-turner of a book sat on my bookshelf for three months before I picked it up—and then I couldn’t put it down. The true story chronicles how Stéphane Breitwieser and his girlfriend Anne-Catherine Kleinklaus stole more than 300 pieces of art (worth $2 billion) over six years. It’s a tangled and tantalizing read filled with love and crime, and it details the lengths to which people will go to surround themselves with beautiful creations.

Most mind-blowing about the book was that the couple’s raids on museums, churches and auction houses throughout Europe took place in 1995 despite so many advances in security technology and that the art was stored in the couple’s bedroom and attic in a home that they shared with Breitwieser’s mother. He was careful not to damage any of the art and poured himself into researching the pieces he stole (or planned to steal). Breitwieser considered himself an “art liberator” rather than a thief. His passion, including his visceral reactions to art, shine throughout this book.

This book was gifted to me by America Board chair Michael Zink, and I passed it along to one of my friends who is an artist. I encourage anyone who reads this book to share this thriller and pass it along to someone else. It is a read not to miss!

-Heather Trotta, vice president of advancement

My Life in Seventeen Books, by Jon M. Sweeney

Jon Sweeney is a longtime contributor to America, and in fact we ran an excerpt from this literary memoir in May. In a lifetime of authoring, editing and selling books, Sweeney still remembers those he carried everywhere at one point. Some of the entries in this volume are by literary legends like Graham Greene and Leo Tolstoy, but Sweeney never really picks the book you’d expect. Every essay is leavened with personal insights and experiences, so you’re also getting a sort of portrait of the author.

Am I required to pretend that the chapters on Thoreau and Martin Buber were my favorites? They weren’t. Those would be “Ghost Stories as Kids Go Off to College” (on The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James) and a thought-provoking little chapter on how a 21-year-old Sweeney brought a biography of Thomas Merton…on his honeymoon. “Merton was my first real love,” Sweeney writes, something he hopefully didn’t say out loud on that honeymoon. One of the reasons he loved Merton, he writes, is that Merton was always a seeker: “Who am I? is the question we all ask, and often fail to answer. I am still asking.”

I’ve already re-gifted this book to a nephew heading off to college.

-James T. Keane, senior editor

The Gospel in Tolstoy, edited by Miriam LeBlanc

The Gospel in Tolstoy is a meditative compilation of excerpts from Leo Tolstoy’s stories, personal writings, novels and novellas, framed in sections and chapters according to the themes of the four evangelists. In the warmth of summer, returning to memories of the cold through the biblical lens LeBlanc sets on Tolstoy’s Eastern wintry landscapes might not sound too appealing. But considering that summer often is a set of months more restful than the others, this clever reorganization of Tolstoy’s heaviest works in the peaceful context of the Gospel offers a refreshing meditation on the labors of the rest of the year. With chapters titled “Finding God” and “Love of Neighbor” for example, The Gospel in Tolstoy fashions the Russian’s work as an acute, hopeful filter for the gripes and profound doubts we carry with us each day.

My copy of the book was loaned to me a long time ago by a true Tolstoy fanatic. Maureen, I am sorry. I know it has been years, and I will not be returning the book to you very soon.

- Julian Navarro, advancement associate

Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

The original “Jurassic Park” film was a favorite of mine as a child, combining themes of adventure and childlike wonder with heavy topics of the ethics of genetic modification and struggles for control. I was unaware the movie was based on a novel until I reached my teens. When I finally got around to reading it, I half expected the story to be a novelized version of the film; however, this could not have been further from the case. Although it still shares some similarities with the plot of the film, the book has its own unique story.

Crichton’s novel goes a step further than the film does. It tackles the dangers of technology in a way that is incredibly relevant to today’s struggles with social media and artificial intelligence while diving deeper into the dark, thrilling themes the movie only briefly touches on with its characterization of the dinosaurs. Crichton also manages to capture the reader’s wonder with his incredible imagery and description throughout its pages.

This is a gripping thriller that works as a novelistic parallel to the “summer blockbusters” of cinema.

-William Gualtiere, intern

Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is an old favorite of mine, and I feel like summer is a perfect time for short stories. They are the ideal accompaniment to summertime adventures. Jhumpa Lahiri’s nine short stories in this collection deal with Indians and Indian-Americans who find themselves caught between their lives in India and the United States and the lives they weave from the threads connecting both worlds. The stories often place the reader in the intimate space of romantic relationships, from the Hindu couple who can’t stop finding Christian kitsch around their new home in “This Blessed House” to the devastating tale of a couple reeling from a stillbirth in “A Temporary Matter,” to the discontented tour guide leading an Indian-American family through tourist spots in India in the collection’s title story.

These relationship studies provide a powerful window into the different ways characters negotiate the push and pull between their Indian heritage and the new life being forged in the United States, both with themselves and each other. For a taste of Lahiri’s intimate and sincere examination of immigrant life, read the collection’s final story, “The Third and Final Continent,” published in The New Yorker in 1999.

-Delaney Coyne, O’Hare fellow

Augustine of Hippo, by Peter Brown

Last summer I spent most of my vacation lugging around a copy of Peter Brown’s impressive 900-page memoir, so this summer I recommend one of Brown’s shorter works. Augustine of Hippo was published in 1966 and established Brown as a rare talent. Here was an author doing serious historical scholarship who could write for a general audience. Reading about a fourth-century saint who had some thoughts on sin may not seem like your idea of a summer read, but trust me, it’s worth the workout.

For Brown, Augustine runs in the “bloodstream” of Catholic theology. “Augustine provided the Catholic church with what, in future centuries, it would need so much: an oasis of certainty in a troubled world,” he notes. Read Brown as a way to prepare for the synod in October. Understanding Augustine is key to understanding the church we are all a part of.

But don’t bring the book to the beach. Read a chapter every night, then let the insights settle. Better yet, read it with someone else, because you will want to talk about it. And then find something else to read by this remarkable scholar, who, at age 88, is still turning out prose that makes an editor smile.

-Tim Reidy, deputy editor in chief

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard

If you want to talk about people who can’t stop thinking about the Roman Empire, Mary Beard must be close to the top of the list. Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is a must-read for anyone who has ever had the slightest bit of interest in ancient Rome. For this reader, who has always had an aesthetic but largely surface-level appreciation for Western civilization’s great empire, it has helped broaden my understanding of Rome as a place and a people. Beard wisely chooses a nonlinear narration of the history of Rome, zig-zagging around the empire’s timeline to better address the structures and culture that cemented Rome’s lasting legacy.

Of course, SPQR is no mere hagiography. Beard discusses at length the mythmaking that has caused Rome to blow up in the popular imagination, a mythmaking that began with the Romans themselves. Already during the time of Cicero, Romans viewed their own history through rose-tinted glasses despite its dingy origins. It is a fascinating look at a culture that, in many ways, bought into its own “hype,” for better or worse. Roman politicians quite often used the common understanding of their nation’s foundational stories for their own cynical ends; we see similar things happening today in our modern world. Beard shows us that society is cyclical and that human nature has not changed since the time of the Caesars.

Societies either change or die. A failure to adapt to growing corruption and instability that eventually rang the death knell for Rome. It would be wise of us to take a close look at the history of that great empire and see what lessons we can glean from it.

-Kevin Christopher Robles, studio production associate

Sally Rooney’s three novels: Conversations with Friends; Normal People; Beautiful World, Where Are You

It’s a special kind of excitement when one of your favorite authors has a new book coming out. When Sally Rooney announced that her latest novel, Intermezzo, would be released this September, I decided I wanted to spend the summer rereading the books that made me fall in love with her writing. I rarely get to do a deep dive into one author’s style and narrative preoccupations—and Rooney’s work certainly returns again and again to a handful of themes that seem to give us a window into the author’s mind and life off the page. (It’s also lucky that Rooney’s body of work is not yet too large for this undertaking; three novels is a doable summer project.)

Ciaran Freeman aptly characterized her go-to topics in a 2021 review for America, writing that her characters “type and think and talk about capitalism, climate change, beauty, sex, God and general systems collapse, all without quotation marks.” In her depictions of 21st-century life in Ireland, Rooney is both politically fierce and, in my view, culturally Catholic, if quite critical of the institutional church. There’s drama and romance in her pages, but there’s also intense introspection and searing, fatal character flaws. If you’re ready to shed a tear or two behind your sunglasses as you sit on the beach this year, these books might be for you.

Summer is a good time to luxuriate and take your time—and that can include a slow enjoyment of one thinker’s ideas. Rooney might not be your cup of tea, but maybe this season is still your chance to take on this kind of project and go deep into one writer’s world.

See you at my Intermezzo book club this fall. I’ll have spent the summer doing my homework.

-Molly Cahill, associate editor

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