Summer is almost over! But in these final weeks of August, there is still time to pick up a good summer read, and we asked our staff at America for their suggestions. While some of us preferred a classic beach book, others went deep into history, musical biography or explorations of motherhood. It all made for more serious fare than perhaps the average summer reading list, but one or more of these might catch your fancy.
Georges Simenon’s ‘Inspector Maigret’ mystery novels
This summer I have been reading the Inspector Maigret mystery novels by Georges Simenon. I find “true crime,” whether in book or podcast form, too misanthropic and too alienating to enjoy, but Simenon writes with compassion about people who give in to their worst impulses (which can be as violent as murder or as quiet as an indifference to the suffering of others).
The stoic, take-charge Inspector Maigret usually investigates a murder in a working-class neighborhood of Paris or in a small town, in the process learning about the people who do the dirty jobs of cleaning the streets or fixing cars. Most of those people are stoic, too, but occasionally one can’t accept a cheating spouse, or a double-crossing business partner, and that is when a headless body may surface in a canal or a corpse may be discovered bobbing next to a fishing trawler. (A lot of the bodies in Maigret mysteries are in or near water, but murder is never a cleansing act.) Maigret puffs on his pipe and finds the truth not because he’s a great finder of clues but because he understands human nature and admires people who can keep going past tragedy.
Also, there is a lot of drinking in the Maigret novels, so I never feel bad about having a single summer cocktail.
-Robert Sullivan, senior editor
There is a lot of drinking in Georges Simenon’s “Inspector Maigret” novels, so I never feel bad about having a single summer cocktail.
The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved to Build the American Catholic Church, by Rachel L. Swarns
Family sins are the most difficult to confront. And for those of us who work in Jesuit ministries, telling the stories of Jesuit wrongdoing are the most difficult to report. That is true of the sexual abuse scandal, and it’s true of the history of Jesuit slaveholding.
Sometimes, we need outsiders to tell these stories, to lay them bare in all their ugliness, so that the difficult work of reconciliation can begin. That’s what Rachel L. Swarns provides in The 272: The Families Who Were Enslaved to Build the American Catholic Church, an unsparing account of the enslaved men and women who were sold by the Society of Jesus to support Georgetown University and other ministries. (Look for an upcoming review in America.) The book builds on Ms. Swarns’s reporting for The New York Times, and follows Georgetown’s own efforts to reconcile with its painful past. The Jesuit have also partnered with the descendants of enslaved people to raise money for racial justice.
There are so many tragic aspects to this story, starting with the fate of the 272 men and women sold from Jesuit plantations in Maryland to a slaveholder in New Orleans, who put them to grueling work harvesting sugar cane. Debate raged in Jesuit circles before the sale, but the financial needs of the order won out, as the income from the sale helped support not only a struggling Georgetown but other Jesuit provinces as they began building schools. Jesuit leaders in the United States and in Rome tried to put conditions on the sale—to prevent the breakup of families, for example—but it should come as no surprise that these conditions were violated. Evil won out.
This may not be a natural summer reading pick, but it’s an essential part of U.S. Catholic history. Attention must be paid.
-Maurice Timothy Reidy, deputy editor in chief
The 272 may not be a natural summer reading pick, but it’s an essential part of U.S. Catholic history. Attention must be paid.
The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem, by Julie Phillips
When I was pregnant with my son last fall, I felt insatiably creative. This urge couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was rushing to deliver a book proposal before I delivered a baby. At the same time, I was nervous that once my son arrived, the book would fall by the wayside; I might lose both my writing time and my newfound creative drive. Julie Phillips’s The Baby on the Fire Escape: Creativity, Motherhood, and the Mind-Baby Problem explored exactly this tension.
A combined biography of several 20th-century writers and painters who were mothers, the book explores different ways artist-mothers have balanced their dual callings, from Ursula Le Guin stealing a few moments amidst her children’s interruptions to Audre Lorde incorporating motherhood into her identity as a Black, socialist, polyamorous lesbian. As Le Guin writes, “The difficulty of trying to be responsible, hour after hour day after day for maybe twenty years, for the well-being of children and the excellence of books, is immense.” But it is not, Phillips’ book shows, impossible.
-Colleen Dulle, associate editor
Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, by Lucinda Williams
I had my summer reading all planned out this year. I’ve been a John Irving fan ever since a somewhat freewheeling English teacher in high school assigned us A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I’ve read pretty much everything Irving wrote, fiction-wise. My project this summer was his new novel, The Last Chairlift, his first in seven years.
I can’t do it. I can’t even start it. I can barely lift it! It is 912 pages long. So it just sits on a shelf above my head at work like a morbidly obese Sword of Damocles.
Instead, I dove into Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You, a new memoir by alt-country legend Lucinda Williams. (The title is a lyric from Williams’s amazing breakup song, “Metal Firecracker.”)
This book captured my attention for its unflinching honesty. Memoirs by musicians are notoriously spotty: There’s classics like Willie by Willie Nelson and Cash by Johnny Cash, but there are also plenty that read like rushed money-grabs or are simply rehashes of tired tales of debauchery on the road and beefs with label heads. Williams succeeds because she knows how to deliver a straightforward account, focusing on the stories her fans want to hear and adding details we never knew (including many tales of meeting other musicians, like the bassists for whom she always admitted a romantic weakness). She also tells us stories that are harder to hear, including a great deal about family mental illness and other difficult topics, as well as her own depression and struggles with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Above all, it is a love story to music, both in its performance and appreciation. After half a century of touring, recording and exploring music herself, Williams has a lot of stories to tell about that love and what it has meant to her.
-James T. Keane, senior editor
When We Left Cuba, by Chanel Cleeton
For those of us who fancy ourselves above the likes of Nora Roberts (though former O’Hare fellow Jill Rice would argue there is no reason to feel guilty about picking up a true romance novel) but still want to read a good love story on the beach, it helps if the furtive glances and stolen kisses come with a side of history. That’s what you get in When We Left Cuba, a historical novel about the aftermath of the Cuban revolution by Chanel Cleeton. In between the intrigues and romances (including with a prominent U.S. senator who summers in Palm Beach when he’s not rubbing elbows with the Kennedys), the reader is given just enough historical material about the Cuban revolution and the tense enmity between the United States and Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s that she can close the book feeling like she’s learned something.
The protagonist, Beatriz Perez, moves to South Florida with her family after Castro grabs power in Cuba. She is determined to avenge the death of her brother at the hands of revolutionaries and also rebuild her life after having lost almost everything. Meanwhile, her mother is determined to marry her off to one of Miami’s big-bucks bachelors.
As Beatriz’s life becomes increasingly intertwined with political intrigues and social maneuverings, she finds herself torn between past and present, family loyalty and love—but it doesn’t stop her from being an engaging, relatable character in a fast-paced Cold War drama.
-Ashley McKinless, executive editor
Lucinda Williams succeeds because she knows how to deliver a straightforward account, focusing on the stories her fans want to hear and adding details we never knew.
Death Wears a Mask, by Ashley Weaver
A masked ball is given at the home of Lord Dunmore, where the legendary family diamond is put on display to entice a thief who has already stolen a sapphire and killed a man. It is 1920s London, and Amory Ames, a magnificently wealthy flapper girl beauty—“the sapphires complemented the backless blue gown and emphasized my dark eyes and fair coloring”—has reluctantly been drawn into another murder mystery in Death Wears a Mask, by Ashley Weaver.
Meanwhile she has exiled her rakish and gorgeous husband Milo—“he looked superb in his evening clothes, his smooth, handsome features….light from the flashbulbs glinting off his black hair”—who was caught by a gossip rag kissing a woman not his wife. Milo’s apparent infidelity gives Amory a chance to tell her husband, “I’d rather you stay at your club, or at the Ritz, or go back to Thornecrest. I don’t care where….” It gives us a chance to want to stay at his club, or the Ritz, or Thornecrest too or wherever these people go and whatever they do.
-Joe Hoover, S.J., poetry editor
We hope you enjoy—and feel free to offer your own recommendations in the comments!