The other day an entering ninth-grader confided that he was excited to begin the year at a school that really valued learning; he was looking forward to being a student in a place where he did not have to keep his intellectual curiosity a secret. That warmed the nerdy cockles of my heart – and it wasn’t even my kid! It also reminded me of three books I read this summer. All are short, small-format, classic summer (or early busy fall) reads. Seemingly slight, all are actually paeans to the doors that open when learning and literacy take hold of one’s imagination and life.
Here they are, with my favorite one last; it also works as least to most demanding (and what does that say about me?).
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 2009
Nobody loves the frothy 20th-century English country novel more than me (Barsetshire Chronicles, anyone?), with plucky heroines and a love story or two, set in a time of war or peace. This book has ‘em all, with a plot that begins with a love of literature kindled by deprivation and shared by like minds. If you are looking for a heart-warming, undemanding, really pleasant weekend escape that will keep you enthralled as you sip tea by the fire, you could do far worse than this book, which reads uncannily as if it actually were written in the late 1940s.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
By Dai Sijie, 2001
A rather brutal, fleetingly funny and atmospheric glimpse of the Cultural Revolution, this short novel is told from the point of view of unreformed, unrepentant city kids, friends on the cusp of manhood who are banished to a remote mountain village and given the job of hauling excrement. Their discovery of forbidden books combines with their skills as storytellers to transform their lives, and that of their love interest, the little Chinese seamstress, to whom they read Balzac.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
By Muriel Barbery, 2006
Because of the naïve art on the cover, many people asked me if this was a children’s book —and, in fact, one of the characters is a sophisticated child. Part polemic, part fairy tale, the book has weighty matters on its mind and a redemptive, carpe diem message, briskly told through the alternating points of view of the not-what-she-seems concierge Renee and the misfit, upper-class, junior high student Paloma. These two closet intellectuals live entwined lives in the same swanky Parisian apartment building, penning dense, meditative chapters that distract you from a seemingly over-neat plot. Liberation through erudition is the theme, making this my favorite read of the late summer.
— Melody Malmberg