President Obama shared his official summer reading list — a mix of fiction and non-fiction, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning surf memoir, a psychological thriller, and a science fiction novel. Here is the list:
- “Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life” by William Finnegan
Finnegan shares stories of life in a whites-only gang in a tough school in Honolulu even while his closest friend was a Hawaiian surfer. He shows us a world turned upside down for kids and adults alike by the social upheavals of the 1960s.
He details the intricacies of famous waves and his own apprenticeships to them. Youthful folly—he drops LSD while riding huge Honolua Bay, on Maui—is served up with rueful humor. He and a buddy, their knapsacks crammed with reef charts, bushwhack through Polynesia.
They discover, while camping on an uninhabited island in Fiji, one of the world’s greatest waves. As Finnegan’s travels take him ever farther afield, he becomes an improbable anthropologist: unpicking the picturesque simplicity of a Samoan fishing village, dissecting the sexual politics of Tongan interactions with Americans and Japanese, navigating the Indonesian black market while nearly succumbing to malaria. Throughout, he surfs, carrying readers with him on rides of harrowing, unprecedented lucidity.
Barbarian Days is an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art. Today, Finnegan’s surfing life is undiminished. Frantically juggling work and family, he chases his enchantment through Long Island ice storms and obscure corners of Madagascar
- “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.
- “H Is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald
When Helen Macdonald’s father died suddenly on a London street, she was devastated. An experienced falconer, Helen had never before been tempted to train one of the most vicious predators, the goshawk, but in her grief, she saw that the goshawk’s fierce and feral temperament mirrored her own.
Resolving to purchase and raise the deadly creature as a means to cope with her loss, she adopted Mabel, and turned to the guidance of The Once and Future King author T.H. White’s chronicle The Goshawk to begin her challenging endeavor. Projecting herself “in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her” tested the limits of Macdonald’s humanity and changed her life.
Heart-wrenching and humorous, this book is an unflinching account of bereavement and a unique look at the magnetism of an extraordinary beast, with a parallel examination of a legendary writer’s eccentric falconry. Obsession, madness, memory, myth, and history combine to achieve a distinctive blend of nature writing and memoir from an outstanding literary innovator.
- “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck.
She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?
- “Seveneves” by Neal Stephenson
A catastrophic event renders the earth a ticking time bomb. In a feverish race against the inevitable, nations around the globe band together to devise an ambitious plan to ensure the survival of humanity far beyond our atmosphere, in outer space.
But the complexities and unpredictability of human nature coupled with unforeseen challenges and dangers threaten the intrepid pioneers, until only a handful of survivors remain . . .
Five thousand years later, their progeny—seven distinct races now three billion strong—embark on yet another audacious journey into the unknown . . . to an alien world utterly transformed by cataclysm and time: Earth.
A writer of dazzling genius and imaginative vision, Neal Stephenson combines science, philosophy, technology, psychology, and literature in a magnificent work of speculative fiction that offers a portrait of a future that is both extraordinary and eerily recognizable. As he did in Anathem, Cryptonomicon, the Baroque Cycle, and Reamde, Stephenson explores some of our biggest ideas and perplexing challenges in a breathtaking saga that is daring, engrossing, and altogether brilliant