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staff picks summer

Mind-Bending Reading

In light of the summer reading theme of “Exercise Your Mind”, I am presenting some novels that look at the world from odd angles, portray unusual viewpoints, and explore thought-provoking stories.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker – What happens when the underpinnings of how life works starts to unravel? In The Age of Miracles Earth’s rotation is slowing and with it twelve-year-old Julia’s world starts to distort. The world’s governments decide to keep society on a twenty-four hour “clock-time” schedule, but some cannot or will not change, and the “real-time” people become more isolated and eventually shunned. Others, including Julia’s mother, have physical side effects. This novel looks at how fragile our civilization is, through the eyes of a young girl coming of age.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – This dystopian novel with a feminist viewpoint is a haunting, perverse portrait of male domination of women. In the near future, a war-torn United States is now the land of Gilead, where the strict theocratic government rules and nuclear waste is rendering large swaths of the population sterile. Women are reduced to three limited roles: wives of commanders, considered moral and who have limited power; “Martha”s who do the domestic work; and handmaidens, still fertile women forced to breed for the ruling class or be banished to hard labor. Offred (“of Fred”, the commander to whom she “belongs”) tells of her life as a handmaiden, and shares her memories of being a wife and a mother before the war. Written in 1985, the theme is never more relevant than in today’s world of religious extremism.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender – What if you are privy to the intimate emotional life of someone without them knowing? That is the gift and the burden that faces Rose Edelstein. Biting into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake for her ninth birthday she discovers she has a magical insight to her mother’s hidden despair. Soon she has awareness of the secret emotional existence of her father and brother. Eating develops into an exercise in trying to avoid emotional mine fields, and her life becomes a world of seeing what she doesn’t want to know or knows how to deal with. This is a novel that stays with you long after you have read the final chapter.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – Time travel is notoriously difficult to write about – there are logistical holes to cover and difficulty in maintaining emotional investment in the story. Niffenegger does a fairly adept job at both. Henry has Chrono-Displacement Disorder, causing him to travel to different time periods of his life without warning. His future wife Clare first meets him when she is six and he is thirty-six; Henry meets Clare for the first time when she is twenty and he is twenty-eight. Weaving around the paradoxes and disconnects is a story of love and faith in each other.

The Martian by Andy Weir – Space travel is always fertile ground for enlarging the scope of the imagination. When a novel introduces an alien planet and mixes it with real-life science, it’s a formula for a mind expanding adventure. Mark Watney, left for dead on the Martian surface, has to find a way to survive until he can be rescued. The problem? Well, you can start with the fact that he has no way to communicate to Earth that he is still alive. Then he has to find a way to feed himself for the years it might take for him to be rescued. Clever, resourceful, and really humorous, Mark’s diary entries show the true nature of human existence in a harsh, unforgiving world.

Helen Freeman

Helen Freeman is the Technical Services librarian.