The HCG Summer Book Guide

dsThe HCG community has Amanda Ludwikowski (a.k.a. A. Lud) to thank for this post.  After Amanda expressed a genuine plea for more solid book recommendations, we set out to create a list of some of the books we'd suggest you read this summer.  And yes, we know summer is almost over. But some of us have Hawaiian vacations and daily train rides to look forward to. By no means is list this a comprehensive guide to The World's Best Books or even The World's Remotely Decent Books; it is simply a sampling of enjoyable books we would recommend to a friend.  We're willing to bet many HCG readers have already read a good number of the books on this list, but maybe a few haven't.  Special thanks to CF and MR for their assistance with this post!

wfeWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen Every woman we know was surprised by how much she enjoyed this book.  The context and time period - circus life in Depression-era America - sounds terribly boring and kind of dirty at first, but the vivid imagery and engrossing plot are well worth your time.  After 23-year-old Jacob Jankowski's parents are killed in a car crash, he drops out of school and joins a traveling circus where he acts as caretaker for a menagerie of animals and falls madly in love.  This romantic page-turner has so many touching moments, plus a dwarf clown, and portrays a circus life that seems so different from current-day circuses (which HCG fervently boycotts).  Hurry up and read this before the movie version, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson, is released next year.

tgcThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls If you think you had a tough childhood, chances are Jeannette Walls has you beat (but Precious still tops the overall category.  There really can be no life situation worse than getting AIDS from your father).  This candid memoir chronicles Walls's incredibly impoverished upbringing and is honest, raw and, at times, heartbreaking.  But you can take comfort in the fact that Walls didn't allow growing up homeless and poorer than you can imagine with a certifiably crazy mother (if you're read this book, the scene with the chocolate bar is almost unbearable) and an alcoholic father to derail her bright future.  Take our word on this one; books like The Glass Castle don't come around often.

btmBelong to Me by Marisa de los Santos A beautifully written but easy chick-lit and even mommy-lit read which is perfect for summer.  The stories of three women are woven together around the main character, Cornelia, who has just moved to suburban Philadelphia.  The characters are complex, and though the book builds a climax that you will see coming from a mile away, the resolution is heart-warming and you'll be sad to leave the characters behind.

wolfeI am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe Tom Wolfe's 2004 novel follows beautiful, brilliant Charlotte Simmons, a poor, sheltered freshman from rural North Carolina to DuPont University, an elite fictional school based off of Wolfe's research at schools like Stanford, Michigan and Duke.  Naive Charlotte has no idea what she's about to encounter among the jocks, rich kids and more experienced students at DuPont, and we'll just say most of it is sad, wince-worthy and left us feeling slightly ashamed at having gone to college during this time. Sure, it's no Bonfire of the Vanities, but Charlotte Simmons is a masterful chronicle of college life in the 2000s.

prepPrep by Curtis Sittenfeld Most people loved this first novel by young author Curtis Sittenfeld, but certain HCG staffers refer to it as the poor man's I am Charlotte Simmons, since comparisons between the books are nearly unavoidable.  Lee Fiora, an underprivileged young girl from South Bend, Indiana wins a scholarship to a prestigious East Coast boarding school where she struggles to fit in among her more well-bred peers.  If you're not into Tom Wolfe or don't have the energy to plow through nearly 700 pages (did we forget to mention Charlotte Simmons is a brick?), Prep, which was named one of top 10 books of 2005 by the New York Times, is a quick, engrossing read with cleanly-written prose.

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Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult While we've read our fair share of Jodi Picoult books, we wouldn't exactly call ourselves devotees of this author (sometimes even we tire of reading about children dying). In Nineteen Minutes, Picoult chronicles the life of a high school shooter from his elementary school days of incessant bullying, and she attempts to pinpoint what caused him to wake up one day, load his backpack with four guns and kill nine students and one teacher in the span of 19 minutes. As with all Picoult novels, the story concept is powerful, the moral lines are blurry and the reader identifies with every character (including the shooter and his parents). While I haven't read this book yet, CF and her crew speak very highly of this book and the lasting effect it has.

awAmerican Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld Curtis Sittenfeld's fascination with Laura Bush produced this captivating novel based on Ann Gerhart's biography of the former first lady. Sittenfeld traces the life of Wisconsin-born Alice Lindgren (Laura) from her career as a young librarian to her complex marriage to Charlie Blackwell (George W. Bush). When Charlie becomes governor of Texas and eventually president, Alice finds herself struggling to balance her private political beliefs with her husband's public opinions. Like Laura, 17-year-old Alice accidentally killed a classmate in a car accident, and the profound impact of that tragedy on Alice's life reverberates throughout the book. While we know American Wife is not a truthful account of the life of Laura Bush, reading it with the mindset that "all of this stuff definitely happened to Laura Bush" no doubt makes the book more exciting.

radziwillWhat Remains by Carole Radziwill When Carole Radziwill married a cousin of JFK Jr., she gained access to America's most famous family but she also scored the most glamorous best friend a woman could want: JFK Jr.'s wife Carolyn Bessette Kennedy. In this memoir, Radziwill shares her grief after JFK and CBK die in a plane crash and Radziwill's husband succumbs to cancer only three weeks later (when it rains on a Kennedy, it pours). Terribly depressing but insightful, What Remains is hopeful despite the heartache. While we didn't hate Radziwill's narratives of her working-class upbringing and career as a producer for ABC News, the real draw of this book is the author's relationship with CBK and the ultra-private Kennedy clan.

valleyValley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann If you're an American woman and you haven't read this book, you're doing yourself a severe disservice. Published in 1966, Valley of the Dolls begins in 1945 and follows three young women who become best friends while trying to make it in New York's notoriously tough entertainment scene. Chock full of sex, drugs (think lots of pills and drinking) and plenty of drama, this cult classic is trashy in a good way. We're not promising you'll feel smarter after having read Valley of the Dolls, but you will feel cooler. After all, it's vintage.

summersistersSummer Sisters by Judy Blume My personal obsession as a 15-year-old girl, Summer Sisters is one of Judy Blume's rare forays into adult fiction (don't mistake this book for Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret which is also awesome). The story unfolds over almost 20 summers in the lives of two young women spent in Martha's Vineyard - from 1977 when they're twelve to 1995 when they celebrate their 30th birthdays. Like all best friends, the women grow closer and apart over the years, and this story of friendship is one to which every girl can relate. Believe me, there isn't a better beach read than this book; my hardcover copy still has sand between the pages 12 years later.

eplEat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert Are you one of the few people who haven't read Eat, Pray, Love?  Recent divorcée Elizabeth Gilbert decides to ditch regular life and spend a year on a mission of self discovery by eating in Italy, praying in India and loving in Bali.  Like most people, we loved the eating + loving and could've done without the praying (CF even skipped right to the love after she was full from eating).  We really enjoyed this book, and you'll want to judge Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert on the big screen in the upcoming movie version for yourself.

shadowThe Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon A complicated, fast-paced and deeply entertaining novel, The Shadow of the Wind is the story of a boy, Daniel, who is trying to uncover the truth behind the enigmatic author of an obscure mystery story with which Daniel has become obsessed.  The book takes the reader on twists and turns, through murders and love stories - you will undoubtedly be captivated until the very last page.

nakedNaked by David Sedaris Of all the collections of autobiographical essays by David Sedaris, this might be the funniest.  Sedaris takes the reader on hilarious adventures (to a nudist colony, to summer camp in Greece, to a psychiatric hospital where the author worked for a stint) and the reader gets to know Sedaris's family, which, though eccentric, is always good-hearted and loving (unlike the family in Running with Scissors, which was just awful and weird). Sedaris's humor is pointed and irreverent, but is never mean-spirited.  If the stories "Next of Kin" and "True Detective" don't have you rolling on the ground laughing, gasping for air, then we feel sorry for you.

middlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides Much like Water for Elephants, the premise of this book initially turned me off - the story of Calliope, a first-generation American girl raised in Detroit by Greek immigrant parents who realizes during adolescence that she is a hermaphrodite. But I swear it's not like that. Middlesex is a beautifully written, magical novel from the author of The Virgin Suicides that traces the complex and incredibly entertaining tale of the Stephanides family. Calliope's personal story is unique and her longtime struggle with her gender confusion is especially compelling. If you still need convincing, Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2003. Read it.

goodinbedGood in Bed by Jennifer Weiner Jennifer Weiner's first novel, published in 2001, is classic chick lit at its best. Weiner's smart, witty dialogue is quick, sarcastic and funny. We meet 28-year-old Candice Shapiro as she gets unceremoniously screwed in print by her ex-boyfriend whose magazine column dedicated to loving a larger woman (translation: Candice) mortifies and devastates her. But don't worry, Candice uses the experience to revamp her life and ends up happier than she ever could have imagined. An added bonus: the novel is set in Weiner's (and HCG's) hometown city, Philadelphia. Woot, woot!

skSarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay Watch out: it's tough to read about Parisian children suffering in Nazi death camps during the Holocaust. In Sarah's Key, American journalist Julia Jarmond retraces the ordeal of Sarah, a 10-year-old Jewish girl brutally snatched from her home in Paris during the 1942 Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup. The events Jarmond learns of are horrifying, but the chapters written from young Sarah's perspective are the most touching. This novel, which was our November 2009 book club choice, is an eye-opener to say the least. We're willing to bet that you, like most people we know, had no idea of the atrocity that was the Vel’ d’Hiv’ or the involvement of the French police.

larssonThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson A stay-up-all-night read, this book - our March 2010 book club pick - is already an international best seller, and the U.S. movie version is currently in the works. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist finds himself on an unexpected hunt through Sweden for a serial killer with the tiny, bad ass, world-renowned computer hacker Lisbeth Salander as his partner. This book is awesome, and you won't want to be left out of the discussion once you realize everyone else you know has read it (along with Larsson's even better sequels The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest). The drama surrounding the author''s sudden death in 2004 and the battle over his estate (which may or may not include manuscripts for additional books) makes his novels all the more compelling. While we readily acknowledge that many HCG-recommended books lean toward the ladies, this one is loved by men and women alike.

choleraLove in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez Our last pick is quite possibly the best on the list. If you're looking for an enjoyable, engrossing summer book that won't make you feel embarrassed while reading in public (and this book is way more than not embarrassing), your search ends here. You will lose yourself and many hours in the magical and passionate love story between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza that spans 50 years. Lots of unexpected and deliciously steamy love scenes are an added and welcome bonus.

Image of amazing book table via one of our favorite blogs Design Sponge.