Summer Reading books in sand
It's time to put away the textbooks and indulge in a little seasonal reading. Some new titles by UCI faculty and alumni could be just the thing to bring to the beach. Steve Zylius / UCI

Summer’s here, and the reading’s easy. So stash the dry textbooks, research tomes and heavier literary works that pile up on the nightstand during the academic year. The latest by David Sedaris? Got it right here with the sunscreen. No. 17 in Janet Evanovich’s epic Stephanie Plum series? It’s in the beach bag. (Hey, don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.) Danielle Steel? Uh, can’t go there — even in summer.

“We’ve heard the terms ‘easy reads,’ ‘mindless fiction’ and ‘lighter fare’ all used in reference to off-season reading,” says Matt Astrella, co-director and chief operating officer of the UC Irvine Bookstore. “People want some form of escapist literature to complement the slower pace this time of year. I’m all for it, as long as folks are reading something.”

Still, summer reading doesn’t have to be limited to a whodunit, Harlequin bodice ripper or similar book-lite.

“There’s another group of people who spend summer making up for the books they wanted to read during the year but didn’t get around to,” Astrella says. “I fall into this category. That’s why I’ve read some of my more treasured books during summer.

“I took The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera, with me on one vacation, and it remains one of my favorite philosophical novels. Another time, I took Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. Not only did it succeed in creeping me out at the old B and B we were visiting, but I couldn’t put it down.”

Looking for a good page-turner to pack in your suitcase or toss into a tote? Whether you’re a fan of escapist fiction or literature that plumbs the existential depths, check out these recent titles by UCI faculty and alumni.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender, M.F.A. ’98, creative writing: On her ninth birthday, Rose bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and tastes something not included in the recipe — her mother’s emotions. From then on, everything she eats is infused with the feelings of whoever made it. “Aimee’s story about what can happen when you know too much about people is vintage Bender — magical and illuminating, funny and sad,” Astrella says. More: Review (Los Angeles Times); excerpt (NPR); O, The Oprah Magazine‘s summer reading list 

This River, by James Brown, M.F.A. ’86, creative writing: Brown’s second memoir picks up where Los Angeles Diaries (2006) left off. He describes his attempts to become a better father while dealing with lapses in sobriety. “It’s not depressing; it’s inspirational,” Astrella says. “For all the challenges this fellow has faced, he manages to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Widow: Stories, by Michelle Latiolais, M.F.A. ’87, creative writing; UCI English professor and co-director of the M.F.A. Programs in Writing: “Widow is powerful, searing and elegantly written,” Astrella says. “It moves the reader up and down on an emotional roller coaster. It’s angry and edgy and, at the same time, graceful and tender.” Literary critics have also had high praise for this collection of 17 stories, many of which deal with love and loss. The New York Times named Widow an “Editors’ Choice,” describing it as “bracing, exposed, ruthlessly mercurial and, for all its spiked bales of barbed wire, laden with extreme beauty.” More: Excerpt (KCRW); review (The New York Times‘ Sunday Book Review) 

Philosophy on Tap: Pint-Sized Puzzles for the Pub Philosopher, by Matt Lawrence, Ph.D. ’99, philosophy: As Lawrence knows, a round or three of beers can lead to weighty discussions about life’s deepest questions, so he’s paired 48 philosophical inquiries about existence, time travel, moral truths, etc. with 48 of the world’s best beers. Read this if you too have ever wondered: “If God exists, why are there bad beers?” More: Huffington Post article

The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse, M.F.A. ’97, creative writing: Winner of the 2011 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, Skyhorse’s debut novel follows the intersecting lives of eight residents of Echo Park — a Mexican neighborhood in East Los Angeles — in the wake of a tragic drive-by shooting. The author grew up in Echo Park, “a world hidden in plain sight yet right outside your door … a gritty landscape and a mythical place where the Virgin Mary and Madonna could stand side by side on Sunset Boulevard,” he notes. “I wrote this book to make visible the people you see every day — busboys, day laborers, maids — but might not always notice.” More: Excerpts (NPR); The Madonnas of Echo Park website

Iron River and Border Lords, by T. Jefferson Parker ’76, English: Summer’s the perfect time for a good crime novel. In Parker’s new detective stories, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Charlie Hood makes a comeback, this time patrolling the “iron river” — the flow of illegal guns from U.S. dealers to Mexican drug cartels. The Los Angeles Times says: “Great detective fiction incorporates topicality, character and plot. When all three are present in equal measure, as they surely are in Iron River, it’s a reading experience that adds up to something more than engaging entertainment.” More: Excerptreview (Los Angeles Times)

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 3, Iss. 10