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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

Scene Selections: Summer reading

Maria Gorecki

When’s the last time you read for fun? 

Yeah. That’s what we thought.

But when finals are over and the dust settles, $cene hopes you pick up some summer reading. 


“I am the Messenger” by Markus Zusak

Claire Lyons, Interim Scene Editor

Imagine “Taxi Driver,” except it’s wildly optimistic and made in Australia. 

The premise is hilarious: 19-year-old underage cab driver Ed Kennedy accidentally stops a bank robbery and unwittingly becomes his small town’s vigilante hero. But unlike Travis Bickle from “Taxi Driver,” Ed is a benevolent force. He chases domestic abusers out of town, reads to old ladies and learns something about life along the way.

Zusak’s skill as an author is clearly demonstrated in his most-popular release, “The Book Thief,” but “I am the Messenger” brings Zusak’s beautiful descriptions and gut-punch one-liners into a relatable modern era. It’s a fast-paced page-turner that leaves you wanting more. (In fact, I’ve reread it several times just to fill the void it leaves behind.)

If that doesn’t sell you on it, I’ll let you know this book changed my life. When I first read it at 14, I came to the earth-shattering realization that I didn’t have to change the world to make a difference. When I reread it before starting college, I had another eureka moment: Things don’t have to be perfect for me to be happy. 

With each reread, I learn something new about my own life. I hope you check it out and learn something too.


“Middlesex” by Jeffrey Eugenides

Maggie Eastland, Assistant Managing Editor

This is a classic story of a family immigrating to the U.S. from Greece but with a modern twist that brings the story up to speed in the 21st century. My favorite part of the novel is tracing of Detroit's history throughout the three generations of the Stephanides family. Various characters from the story interact with major historical events from the reign of Henry Ford and the drama of Prohibition in a city near the Canadian border, to the rise of Malcolm X and the race riots of the '60s.

Exploring themes of gender, the American Dream, cultural identity, coming-of-age, entrepreneurship and family legacies — or family curses, if you prefer — there’s something for everyone in this book. The prize-winning, suspenseful prose will keep you up late at night, reading with a flashlight under your bedspread. Apologies to my saint of a roommate.


“Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” by Anne Tyler

Anna Falk, Scene Writer

If you identify as a member of a dysfunctional family, then “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” by Anne Tyler is for you!

This novel follows three siblings as they grow, age and begin to live their individual lives. The novel analyzes their relationships with their mother and the resulting aftermath of their father’s unannounced departure. Tyler’s characterization and storytelling is poignant and incisive.

I was required to read this novel for my AP English Literature class in senior year of high school, and while I thought it would be boring, I found myself devouring the novel and flipping pages furiously. Tyler creates fantastic imagery with her prose and makes the characters so utterly relatable that it sometimes hurts. The descriptive nature of her prose, the symbolism and imagery found in the novel and the interaction with historical events bring the story to life, creating something so ordinary yet so extraordinary. 


“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri

Isa Sheikh, Associate News Editor

I sat by the window in an unglamorous South Indian restaurant in Edinburgh, a hot pink paperback with artwork depicting a ring lost among waves. A family came in and sat down in the restaurant, and as I waited for my order of dosa, I became enthralled by the details of their perfectly ordinary conversation — the mother told stories about university, and even though she was Indian, she said “naan” like “nan.”

“We’re Hindus. Hindus eat with their hands; that’s really disgusting,” one of their children said.

“It’s like a real-life Jhumpa Lahiri story,” I texted a family friend.

Those details about this family stuck with me. They wouldn’t have if Lahiri was not playing such a large role in my psyche. I had read her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of nine stories as an ebook after years of intending to on the flight to Scotland, and on my very first day there, I had stepped out of the rain into Waterstone’s to grab two more of Lahiri’s books. The stories were beautifully written yet easy to read, page-turning and moving. After years when I hadn’t read any books not assigned in class (and even then, eh), I was once again a voracious reader. Through the week, I sat by fountains, on trains and in cafés turning one page after another, sometimes crying, often smiling.

The elderly landlady seen through the eyes of a student who’s traversed three continents, a housewife who takes up babysitting as she sits chopping vegetables and missing home, a marriage that’s grown apart pulled to confront itself by a power outage; her stories reveal the beauty and tragedy of ordinary life.

Lahiri’s characters in her first four books come from a specific world — often upper-caste Hindus from Bengal that come into the orbit of New England academia — but her themes are universal. In this collection, the lives of Indians in the homeland and abroad, the immigrant experience and the dynamics within relationships reveal core experiences about alienation, nostalgia, adaptation and the human experience. 


“A Storm Of Swords” by George R.R. Martin

Matheus Herndl, Scene Writer

Is this a basic choice? Yes. Am I a shameless George Martin fanboy? Yes. But it's impossible for me to understate the impact that the “Song of Ice and Fire” series has had on not only my life, but also on the fantasy genre as a whole.

If Tolkien created modern fantasy, then Martin reinvented it, as his books work as an almost scientific deconstruction of the tropes and ideas that had been recycled for decades after “Lord of the Rings.” While I could have easily picked any of the books in the series as my favorite, “A Storm of Swords” stands as easily the most action-packed and thrilling novel in this fantastic series. It sees the culmination of many plot threads from the first novel, “A Game of Thrones,” in often in completely subversive ways guaranteed to shock even the most experienced readers.

I could honestly ramble about this book for hours — the characters, prose, world-building and narrative in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series are basically unmatched by any other franchise that I know of. It's easy to see how the HBO TV adaptation came to be the global phenomenon that dominated the 2010’s.


“Wonderful Fool” by Shūsaku Endō

Kate Casper, Scene Writer

I’ve always loved an unlikely friendship, a mismatched couple, an unexpected partnership. I think I always resonated with these relationships in books and TV because I saw myself in them.

In Shūsaku Endō’s short, yet thought-provoking novel, “Wonderful Fool,” this type of relationship takes shape. Readers follow a hero’s journey and the friendship between Gaston, a naive foreigner who represents Christlike piety, and Endo, a murderous kidnapper. The relationship seeks to emphasize not only Gaston’s good nature, but also Endo’s inherent good nature.

Essentially, “Wonderful Fool” is a test in empathy. Readers grow to understand and love the murderer just as much as the more honorable characters. Readers grow to embrace the unlikely friendship, instead of rejecting it. I think what makes this novel so special is its presentation of authentic meaningful human connection. Here at school, it often feels easier to connect with people who are most similar to us, but I would venture to say that some of the most powerful relationships we build are those with people who are most different from us. This book illustrates just this, that our differences only challenge and enhance our identities. 


“Emma” by Jane Austen

Reyna Lim, Scene Writer

There are plenty of less cliché alternatives that I could cite as my favorite book, but I’d just be lying to myself. If pretentious literature were a genre, arguably its leading lady would be Jane Austen — referenced to death in pop culture, the books you peruse at the store when you’re trying to seem pensive.

It started, as it typically does, with an enthusiastic high school English teacher’s syllabus of feminist classics, and I have since been vicariously courted by countless Victorian gentlemen from the likes of Mr. Darcy to Captain Wentworth. “Emma” has remained my Austen of choice over the years.

Vain, frivolous and slightly delusional, the titular Emma is more of an acquired taste than a likable character. I’m nearing her age now, and through my latest revisit to the book, I found myself relating to Emma — including said frivolity and slight delusion — more than I’d like to admit. “Emma” doesn’t feature the wise-beyond-her-years heroine definitive of Austen’s other works. Instead, she is still in the process of finding her way, blundering and persevering, along her self-proclaimed path as “town matchmaker” – all in one witty, charming read. If you’re looking for your next “I read a Penguin Classic on the beach this summer,” this is the one. 


“Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi

Angela Mathew, Scene Writer 

“Persepolis” transcends conventional genres. It is author Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her coming-of-age during the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s, but it is also a graphic novel entirely in black and white. 

My favorite panel from the book is of a young Marjane with glowing sun rays all around her face (think the sun baby from Teletubbies but cuter) with the caption, “At the age of six, I was already convinced I was the last prophet.” This is Marji’s solution for all the injustice in society. I think this perfectly reflects the complex interplay between religion and politics at a time when Iranians were forced to pick sides. 

I read “Persepolis” in high school while writing a research paper about the Iranian Revolution, and I appreciated Satrapi's insights about the events. However, it’s young Marji’s antics that made me love the book. Only Satrapi could make you laugh at Marji rounding her friends up to bully a classmate whose father was found to be in the secret police, or sneaking out to buy “Iron Maiden” tapes on the black market. If coming-of-age stories like “Lady Bird” and “Three Daughters of Eve” are your happy place, you’ll love “Persepolis”. 


“The Horse and His Boy” by C.S. Lewis

Gracie Eppler, Scene Writer

We are all probably familiar with the story of the four Pevensie children that stumble through a wardrobe and into the fanciful and war-torn world of Narnia. But how many of us realize that “The Chronicles of Narnia” tell more than just the story of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy? 

Set during the period when the four humans rule Narnia, “The Horse and His Boy” follows two Narnia natives, Shasta and Aravis, as they escape their troubled pasts on their beloved steeds. “The Horse and His Boy” is everything readers love about Narnia: energetic, sardonic, clever and full of adventure and magic. What makes this fifth book of the Narnia series special is its setting. Set in Carlomane — the country to the northeast of Narnia — Shasta and Aravis navigate through weltering deserts, towered cities, dark and twisting forests and marketplaces glittering with jewels and filled with talking animals. Lewis takes the traditional Narnian magic and fuses it with Arabian culture and landscape.

“The Horse and His Boy” is more than just an entertaining children’s novel to me: It is late nights speeding down the highway after ballet class, Saturday mornings spent mopping the kitchen floor and sleepovers with my three older sisters. Lewis embraces youth and the fantastical, delivering another classic with his straightforward, cynical writing.  


“The Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien

Cecelia Swartz, Scene Wtiter

If you haven’t read Tolkien’s masterpiece, what are you waiting for? For the lover of fantasy, this work has everything and is, quite frankly, a necessity.

Tolkien delivers incredibly rich world-building rooted in deep, complex, original lore. Epic quests, great battles, questions of fate and free will, musings on life and death and the classic theme of good versus evil work together to create a series of books that sparked a new genre of literature. Tolkien invented the wheel when it comes to fantasy.

Guiding us through the beautiful world of Middle Earth is Tolkien’s sophisticated, lyrical prose that poetically transports the audience to a world of elves, dwarves, orcs, hobbits and magic rings. In all its grandeur, “Lord of the Rings” is also incredibly human. It is a tale of the smallest of things and the humblest of creatures being the knife’s edge on which the fate of the world rests. It is a tale of friendships forged in spite of prejudice, of found family and of finding joy in even the darkest of times. Everyone should read this literary masterpiece at least once in their life.


“The Lightning Thief” (and the rest of the Percy Jackson series) by Rick Riordan

Natalie Allton, Scene Writer

Friends of mine will be shocked and appalled that I’m not writing about “Pride and Prejudice” right now, but recently the “Percy Jackson” series has taken over my whole heart and mind. I first read these books in third grade, but I’ve returned to them countless times since, including a read-out-loud collaborative Zoom with my friends where we divided up parts and used the book as a script (I played Annabeth, fulfilling a pipe dream I’d had since I was eight years old).

So much of “Percy Jackson” is so important to me. Aside from introducing kids to Greek mythology, the books contain explicit and well-handled representation for neurodivergent kids (especially those with ADHD and dyslexia), nontraditional and non-nuclear families and in later series, LGBTQ+ identities and relationships.

The writing strikes exactly the right tone of humor. Percy is impertinent and sarcastic, sometimes juvenile but never cringey, and his quips and one-liners still make me laugh out loud. With the upcoming live-action Disney+ series filming this summer and releasing in 2023, now is the perfect time to rediscover a classic — or maybe even to try something new. Just one word of advice: Don’t watch the movies.


“The Silent Patient” by Alex Michaelides

Nicole Bilyak, Scene Writer

I am not the biggest psychological thriller reader in the world, but after reading “The Silent Patient,” I am now jumping on the craze. This was an instant five-star read on Goodreads for me.

Without spoiling the book too much, the story takes place in England and is about Theo Faber, a psychotherapist who takes on the case of Alicia Berenson, a painter who shoots her husband five times in the face and then goes mute. Theo then must figure out why she did what she did.

One of the things I loved about this book in general is that the author was born in Cyprus. Yeah. Never thought I would read a book from an island in the Mediterranean Sea. But as I read it, I never would have guessed this guy was from a foreign country. The writing style was very good, and it just made me read more and more. I won’t spoil the ending, but I was totally not expecting it.

If you love psychological thrillers, definitely go read “The Silent Patient.” It was so worth the hype.  


“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac 

Justin George, Video Unit Leader

The Beat Generation gets a bad rap. Stuck somewhere between modernity and antiquity, the Beats often get lost in the mix or looked down upon. Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is the manifesto of the Beats. Written in Kerouac’s signature intricate, electric prose, “On the Road” jumps off the page and begs to be read aloud against a backdrop of Post-War Free Jazz. Wild, innovative and wholly spontaneous, there is an energy in Kerouac’s writing that is seldom found. 

A lust for life and a thirst for adventure fuel this trek across the American landscape through the eyes of a rather disaffected twenty-something who wants to believe that there is more to life than the city that he has come to call home. It’s Kerouac’s “The Sun Also Rises,” acting as a semi-autobiographical account of his travels with his friends. It’s a novel that has historically been divisive, but it’s undoubtedly worth reading, especially if you are experiencing the ennui associated with having spent the past four months (or years) in one place. If you can’t travel, let Kerouac take you with him. 

The dream of something greater existing beyond the bounds of one’s home is a timeless theme, notably reflected in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” While Chris McCandless is a far more relatable protagonist than Kerouac's stand-in Sal Paradise, this shouldn’t deter readers. The beauty of “On the Road” is in the prose and in the details of the story. What is “On the Road” actually about? Who knows? It’s an experience, a view of the great American landscape painted vividly for those of us still at home. 

“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”