My high school Literature teacher was fond of reminding us that bestsellers were not necessarily good books. A bestseller, in his definition, was a book that appealed to the masses but was of dubious literary merit. One of my conclusions from his somewhat disparaging comments on bestsellers was that there is no accounting for taste in books.
With that disclaimer, if you are looking for something to read this summer, here are a few suggestions.
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife is Eben Alexander’s account of his own near death experience. In this memoire of his miraculous recovery from a mysterious illness that attacked his brain, Alexander, himself a neurosurgeon, describes his experience of existing in another dimension of reality while he lay comatose for seven days. While Alexander’s attempts to describe the ineffable fall flat, and his proof is unconvincing, the book seems to have a broad appeal; it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for well over a year.
Two standout non-fiction books, also bestsellers, are The Juggler’s Children and In the Garden of Beasts.
In The Juggler’s Children, Carolyn Abrahams, well known for her work as a medical science reporter for the Globe and Mail, describes her search for her ancestral roots through DNA analysis. The book reads like a novel and the scientific explanations are easy to follow. If I were to take one lesson from this book, it would be that we are all members of the same human family. A National Bestseller, and a 2013 finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, this book deserves its accolades.
A New York Times bestseller, In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larsen, takes the reader into the Berlin of the early 1930’s during Hitler’s rise to power. Through the experiences of the United States Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his flirtatious daughter, Martha, Larsen elucidates the slow, quiet march of insidious events that eventually led to the Holocaust and brought the world to war.
The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, is a fun read. A bit of slapstick, a bit of black comedy, this book revolves around an unlikely but likeable hero whose talent with explosives shaped world history before, at the age of 100 years, he meets up with an assortment of criminals and incompetent police.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is about a man who sets off to mail a letter to a former colleague who is dying, and ends up walking from one end of England to the other. As he walks, Harold works through his past. While he cannot save his friend from dying of cancer, he finds healing for himself, his wife and their relationship.
Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese, is the journey of a teenage boy through the mountainous backcountry of British Columbia with his estranged father, who is dying of the drink, and wants to be buried in the “warrior way”. The book deals with the formation of identity, and with the complexities of coming to grips with our personal and collective histories.
Tackling a classic
In a pique of ambition, and in honour of the book’s 100th anniversary, my book club tackled Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis. This book is challenging to read. There is virtually no plot and the rambling sentences require lots of focus on the part of the reader. There are elements in the boy’s memories of childhood, and in his attempts to make sense of the world that are universal, and, these, I suspect, have contributed to the book’s status as a classic.
My old teacher probably thought well of Proust, but may have not liked some of my other choices, leading me to conclude that a good book is one that the reader enjoys. Whatever your taste, I hope you find one book this summer that satisfies your reading palate.