Summertime generally brings an uninspiring slew of beach reading ready-made for kicking back and not thinking. But your reading time can be so much better than that.
There are many ingredients involved in creating a classic work of literature. The two I search for are character development and storyline. I love being transported by a great tale. Characters that make me care about them -- fictional people that seem so tangible and real that you watch little snippets of your own life unfold within the pages -- are essential. The following five books tell stories that took me to that place, featuring characters as meaningful to me now as when I first turned the pages. Try them and you won't be sorry.
Historian, environmentalist and novelist Wallace Stegner captured the spirit of the American wildness like few other writers. Crossing to Safety, his last novel (published in 1987), takes the perspective of two couples and longtime friends, the Langs and the Morgans. Despite minor power struggles between the characters, the novel is predominantly a reflection of the choices we make in life and how they affect our emotions and mentality as we age. Stegner is a writer's writer, and he's known for his beautiful prose and the gradual unfolding of his characters' psychology. As in all of his work, the landscapes (in this case New England) come alive; you're introduced to natural surroundings as vivid and realistic as those you would see if you had lived through the book yourself. As with John Williams' brilliant Stoner, you will be seduced by a stunning survey of 20th century Americana.
Although I've read the English version of this Japanese novelist's every novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle remains my favorite (even though his recent 1Q84 was quite a journey). Murakami's characters are predominantly simple figures who never quite understand how they end up in extraordinary circumstances. For example, Toru Okada ends up in a well contemplating his life while trying to find his missing cat, only to eventually reemerge in a strange new world. Murakami's unassuming style is reflected in all of his characters, who offer unexpected depth while simultaneously making you want to fly through the pages to see what will happen to them next.
John William Barry is an heir to a fortune, yet he shuns riches to embark on his own Thoreau-like experience: living in the woods outside of his Seattle home for seven years. Told by Barry's friend, the English teacher Neil Countryman, this meticulously crafted tribute to friendship explores relationships, gnosticism and dreams of youth. It is easy to fall in love with both characters, and while you can smell eminent tragedy in the opening pages, you nonetheless allow yourself to get fully wrapped into their lives. Guterson is mostly known for his 1994 book, Snow Falling on Cedars, which was made into a 1999 movie featuring Ethan Hawke. But to me, The Other is Guterson's masterpiece.
Cloud Atlas put English novelist David Mitchell on the international map. But I think Black Swan Green is the finest coming-of-age book since The Catcher in the Rye. Narrated by Jason Taylor, a stammering 13-year-old, the tale chronicles 13 months in his life, painfully and joyously detailing the victories and defeats of adolescence. It is also one of the funniest works of literature you'll ever read. You've been there before, and Mitchell shows you just how much you've forgotten about it and how much you missed being there. (Watch David Mitchell discuss his writing process here.)
Few writers can get you out of your head and into another world like Margaret Atwood can. In this dystopian novel, Canadian society has been divided into corporate compounds and pleeblands. Corporate life rules all, and only the foolish are willing to risk leaving the life they've built inside the hygienic compounds. Filled with genetically engineered humans and animals, risky science, and media domination, Oryx and Crake is wake-up call that looks eerily familiar. (Learn about Atwood's creative process here.)