The Final Great Summer Books of 2011: From 'A Year and Six Seconds' to 'Bed'

Must your summer reads involve beach-house rentals, hot sex, and young love? Absolutely, but read these too, says Carolyn Sun.

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A Year and Six Seconds: A Love StoryBy Isabel Gillies

Isabel Gillies’ A Year and Six Seconds is a memoir about a woman scorned. Her husband left her for another. At 35, she must move from Ohio to New York City with her two young children to live with her parents. And she doesn’t have a job. The author’s innate ability to see the comedy in her awful situation and what-comes-next is undeniable. You’re laughing where you shouldn’t be. And it turns out, so is she. It’s her follow-up memoir to Happens Every Day which chronicled the disintegration of her marriage. Now, she wants her life back in order, but first she has to figure out who she is. Her prose flows in pithy, witty form from front to back as she learns how to let go of her marriage and accept her husband’s next wife, as well as figure out how to date (again) while living with her parents. Her self-examination never reaches navel-gazing annoyance. Gillies is a born-memoirist, both candid and hilarious, and her heartbreak and struggle for love is our gain.

BedBy David Whitehouse

Set in working-class England, David Whitehouse’s Bed stars 45-year-old Malcolm Ede, who weighs more than half a ton and has been in bed for more than 20 years. He's a worldwide freak and celebrity. The British author’s debut novel is told through the pained eyes of Malcolm’s shy and retiring brother—the brother that was forgotten in the wake of his older brother’s all-encompassing decision to never leave his bed again. Thoroughly inventive and guffaw-generating, the story courses with bone-dry verse like, “Dad didn’t work, he toiled. Toiling seemed a bit like work, except far harder and much less enjoyable.” Malcolm’s brother (he doesn’t get a name) tolerates his brother’s attention-grabbing proclivities until he falls in love with a girl, Lou, who is in love with Malcolm. None of them are able to leave Malcolm’s orbit and must sink down the rabbit hole of shame and notoriety with him. The only way out is death. The author pokes fun at working-class life, society’s expectations, and those who shun them. Grim, perhaps, but a hoot all the same. Nothing here is sacred, especially not love. But even this highly unconventional author can’t resist the boy getting the girl at the end.

The CallBy Yannick Murphy

This novel opens with a dead baby calf torn in two during a veterinarian’s visit in a bucolic New England farming town. Disturbing? Profoundly. Keep reading. You don’t want to miss the undeniably fascinating scenes that pulse throughout this novel including castrating thoroughbreds and floating a horse’s teeth. Yannick Murphy’s The Call is a one-of-a-kind story of a farm veterinarian living in a pastoral bubble centered around his endearing family that talks to each other in pidgin German and refer to his PSA levels as if they are another member of the family. That is, until a hunting accident throws his son into a coma and the narrator becomes a man obsessed with finding out who shot his boy. The novel is filled with forthright, understated prose reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s, and by the time you reach the end, there’s a high probability you will have learned what exactly bute paste is.

The Language of Flowers By Vanessa DiffenbaughThe Language of Flowers is written with a clear, deft-hand by first-time novelist Vanessa Diffenbaugh, who illustrates two worlds with a sharply detailed eye and plain-spoken confidence: The world of foster-care-meets-flower-retail. Her 20-year-old cipher, Victoria Jones, unloved, unwanted, and uneducated, is a product of a foster system that has taught her to reject before being rejected. Yet, she finds kindness in strangers who awaken her desire to belong and encourage her interest in flowers, the only roots she’d ever known. Diffenbaugh masterfully wills you to embrace Victoria and her self-destructive ways as the story weaves back and forth between the past and present. You follow her through to her last hope at being adopted by a loving woman plagued by her own demons who teaches her the language of flowers and what each one means. You see the destruction of that relationship by Victoria’s childish hand and the guilt she carries into her adulthood. This is a heart-gripping story about redemption in an authentic and true-to-life way.

Northwest CornerBy John Burnham SchwartzJohn Burnham Schwartz is an American novelist willing to tackle big themes. In Northwest Corner, he crafts a fine novel out of a family's tragedy as he did before in his novel Reservation Road. A follow-up to that 1988 book, this story finds the characters 12 years later: Two families are broken. One lost a son. The other a father. Dwight Arno, now 50 and estranged from his wife and son, has begun his life-after-prison over again in California leading an honest life as a sporting goods retail manager. One day, his son, Sam, shows up after nearly killing another college student in a bar. His arrival sets off a chain of events that brings Dwight’s broken family back together and leads to a chance encounter with the family whose son he killed. Burnham is masterful in his portrait of an American family—quietly suffering behind their white picket fence—and his characters are solidly of this earth. They bleed both metaphorically and literally. We dip in and out of their heads and are left wistful, wishing to spend more time with their flawed natures. What do they want? Forgiveness, redemption, and love. They seek the chance to hurt each other once more. As only a family will do.