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Best Summer Books: 2017, Staff Picks

(Courtesy of the book publishers)
(Courtesy of the book publishers)
This article is more than 2 years old.

The On Point staff is throwing all kinds of books in their beach bags this summer. Here, the staff shares their summer reads of 2017, and explains why you should maybe follow their lead and bring one on your next weekend getaway.

"American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst" by Jeffrey Toobin -- Jeffrey Toobin, you had me at the cover photo: Patty Hearst --aka Tania — black beret on her head, automatic weapon in her hands. Trust me — "American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst" — you’ll want to pop this one into the beach bag.

The year was 1974 and the Hearst kidnapping was The Big Story. Everyone — from hardened criminologists to brainwashing experts to my mother — had a theory of the case. I gobbled up every detail with equal parts horror and fascination. I mean, the most rebellious thing I’d ever done was refuse ballroom dancing classes, and here was Debutante Patty, kicking her entire life to the curb. Robbing a bank.

Jeffrey Toobin “gets” Patty Hearst in all her nuance and badassery. His Patty is vulnerable and cunning. Smart and naïve. When her life on the lam was over, Toobin reveals that she simply — smartly? — turned her back on her comrades and swore allegiance to her old life: The debutante returned with all the glory that only a gold-plated defense and a presidential pardon can buy. Patty Hearst came home.

This is a story that just can’t be tied up in a neat little package with a bow. This one has layers of secrets, truths and lies. It’s the ultimate page-turner for summer. -- Karen Shiffman

"You Should Have Left" by Daniel Kehlmann -- An isolated mountain retreat. Up so high, it sits within view of icy blue glaciers and steep granite walls. The nearest houses appear miniscule, far away in the valley below. And a couple has come here with their young daughter for a week’s vacation. But, as Daniel Kehlmann shows in his new novella “You Should Have Left,” it not so easy to get away from it all. The unnamed narrator is scrambling to follow up his successful comedy film “Besties”, but he’s short on new plot twists and snappy dialogue for this characters. His wife keeps her phone within reach, and makes snide comments. Soon weird things start happening, and the narrator begins to question his sanity – and his family’s safety. Kehlmann’s prose is spare and evocative, and the story takes a spooky supernatural twist. Good, quick reading if you like a chill down your spine. -- Tania Ralli

"Homegoing" by Yaa Gyasi -- This book drew me in and captivated me in ways I didn't expect when I peeled back the cover. The novel traces the descendants of two West African half-sisters from the 18th century to the dawn of the new millennium. One married an Englishman and set the stage for two centuries of comfort, with strong cultural ties and filial respect. The other was kidnapped and sold into slavery, increasingly losing any link to the past — and the mother continent — with each subsequent generation. The parallel stories shed light on issues of identity, acceptance, past cultural transgressions, and present-day chance and circumstance. It's powerful, well-written, and incredibly eye-opening to someone who will never fully understand or appreciate the African-American experience. -- Brian Hardzinski

"The Perfect Mix: Everything I Know About Leadership I Learned as a Bartender" by Helen Rothberg — I'll admit a book about business leadership probably isn't the stuff of light, summery reads you'd imagine from a list like this. But I promise Rothberg's tales of bartending in New York City — spilled drinks, bar fights, bloody heads and all — are fun, illuminating paths into typical leadership cliches ("You can't always control things that happen to you, but you can control how you respond.") And just in case all this bar (and leadership) talk has you yearning for a cocktail, Rothberg ends each chapter with an original drink recipe. So shake up your list of beach reads this summer with some advice that might inspire you when you get back to the office. And don't forget the drink cooler. -- Mike DeSocio

"Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A Study of Genius, Mania, and Character" by Kay Redfield Jamison --

Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?

-- from “Mr. Edwards and the Spider”

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was "by common consent of both reader and critic, the most considerable poet since T. S. Eliot," according to the judges who awarded him a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. His achievement was the more remarkable for his suffering. He was hospitalized sixteen times over twenty-six years. "Mania" was the clinical diagnosis. "Madness" better captures it. Yet "he didn’t give up," Kay Redfield Jamison writes in this moving study. "He loved his work." Still, "relief was fleeting:"

Waiting out the rain,
but what are you waiting for?
The storm can only stop
to get breath to begin again.

Did Lowell’s illness power his art? Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at John Hopkins and author of a memoir, "An Unquiet Mind," about her own mania, sifts the evidence. "Bizarre associations sprang into his mind like enchanted crickets," a friend said of Lowell in the storm. Lowell asked himself, "If we purify… do the water lilies die?" Jamison can’t say. She’s clear that Lowell’s art resisted his illness: "Writing could keep black moods at bay; it could allow escape from pain, give purpose. It could heal." -- Jack Beatty

"Drowned World" by J.G Ballard — So, you want a hot summer read? I’ll give you hot summer read: "Drowned World" by J.G Ballard.

Written in 1962, it’s worth a read or re-read. It’s an early take on what our carbon-swamped future could be.

The book isn’t a cautionary tale about global warming, but it is about a world after the polar ice caps have melted away. It’s a really moody psychological portrait of a few individuals in a post-deluge world, and about how we –as individuals-- change and adapt to an altered world.

It takes place in the steaming tropical lagoons of London, England, where the characters live in the upper floors of inundated apartment buildings and canoe from building to building. I’ll leave it at that. I believe you’ll enjoy it. -- Stefano Kotsonis

"Anything Is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout — Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer for cracking open the lives of "ordinary people," and exposing us to the parts that make them human — their thoughts, fears and dreams. She draws on her talents in her latest book, "Anything Is Possible," where we see characters whose worlds are ending, and if not completely dissolving, then crackling, shattering and fizzling as they undergo incredible suffering. Each narrative stands alone, but when read as a whole, the stories illuminate the quiet, yet complicated, lives of people in a small Midwestern town. If the book sounds dark, well, that’s because it is. But, more than anything else, Strout’s book brims with compassion and leaves readers walking away feeling that even when times are dark, there is hope that redemption will prevail. Her characters are proof. In them we see our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our family, and even ourselves. -- Allison Pohle 

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