Toes in the Sand, Nose in a Book

Photo by Rosa De La Herran

Summer reading is, ideally, the time during which you can catch up on those stacks of books at your bedside that you didn’t have either the time or stamina to get through during the workweek. From fluffy beach reading to trashy romance novels, from sparse poetry collections to finally attempting to digest Infinite Jest, now is the time to explore the titles you’re curious about but to which you could never fully devote yourself.

Crossing the threshold into the Paperback Exchange (via delle Oche 4/r), visitors are treated to a brief reprieve from both the summer heat and the bustle of the Florentine streets. Billed as Florence’s “Anglo-American Bookshop,” the Paperback Exchange is both a haven and a valuable resource for study abroad students, expats, schoolchildren, backpackers, and tourists alike, offering access to English-language books of all genres to all audiences since 1979. As July picks up, the Paperback Exchange is chock-full of recommended books for the remaining summer months.

One of the perpetually popular genres at the Paperback Exchange – especially during the tourism-heavy summer months – is historical fiction, specifically that which spans the Italian Renaissance. This year, local writer Christine De Melo is one of the authorial forerunners with her two novels – Sabina and Allegra – about young women combatting the social confines of Florence in the 15th century. In conversation with an employee of the Paperback Exchange, it was said of De Melo’s books, “There’s a lot of the Medici, intrigue, etc.” 

In fact, “People are continuing to read the books on the Medicis,” a Paperback employee says with a wry smile. Many of the historical analyses of the Florentine family, she says, can be read like novels, “because it’s entertaining reading. The Medicis are captivating, of course.”

For the more modern reader, Katja Meier’s compelling memoir Across the Big Blue Sea: Good Intentions and Hard Lessons in an Italian Refugee Home provides a searing yet sympathetic portrait of the refugee crisis on Italian soil. By turns optimistic and devastating, Across the Big Blue Sea reminds readers of the strength of empathy, compassion, and humility against corruption, greed, and self-servitude. Meier’s memoir is an intimate, heartfelt work that recognizes the complicated state of both interpersonal and international relations, a must-read for any global citizen.  

For those who are less interested in the Medicis or in history-heavy nonfiction, Jessie Chaffee’s novel Florence in Ecstasy comes with glowing recommendations: “People who have read it rave about it… everybody’s saying it’s really, really good.” Florence in Ecstasy chronicles the secretly struggling Hannah, a young American woman battling an eating disorder, and her desperate attempt to reacquaint herself with the world by immersing herself in Florence’s history and spirituality. Chaffee handles Hannah’s mental health with a deft gentility, adding a certain viscerality to one woman’s complex, contradictory relationship with herself.  

A bit of a lighter book, Jenna Evans Welch’s Love and Gelato is a bright and playful story of teenaged self-discovery, with protagonist Lina spending a summer with her estranged father in Tuscany. Lina, like Lizzie McGuire or Frances Mayes before her, transforms under the Tuscan sun, growing from a somewhat sullen, unsure girl to a confident, curious young adult. A fast, fun, and frolicsome novel with a happy ending, Love and Gelato is a satisfying, restorative read, ideal for a day on the Arno with a cone of refreshing fragola gelato in hand. 

For those looking for literature beyond the Florentine bubble, the Paperback Exchange also has recommendations for summer reading based on their current bestsellers.

A Paperback employee says of Gail Honeyman’s new novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, “It won Book of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2018. It was remarkable… It’s funny, but serious, it’s sad, but happy, it has a lot of layers to it, and it’s not a heavy read [either].” Titular protagonist Eleanor – timid, finicky, and often wrong-footed – falls into friendship with IT worker Raymond and mild-mannered, elderly Sammy, forming an unexpected trio of awkward but warmhearted people who make each other a little less lonely. A sharp, melancholy, and yet ultimately hopeful debut from Honeyman, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine takes the trials of mundanity seriously, but not so seriously that the reader becomes disillusioned with everyday life. 

For something more plot-driven, the Paperback Exchange suggests James Patterson, the prolific thriller and romance writer. “James Patterson always goes, no matter what he writes,” Paperback says, “A lot of [his] stuff is being reprinted, and we still sell it.” Patterson’s most recent work, written in collaboration with former U.S. president Bill Clinton, is titled The President is Missing, a fast-paced political thriller saturated with details straight from a president’s mouth. 

As far as authors with loyal audiences go, young adult writer Philip Pullman (of His Dark Materials fame) has returned to the writing world with The Book of Dust, “the new [book] that he’s written 15 or 20 years down the line,” a Paperback employee laughs. Readers eager to feed their nostalgia for The Golden Compass can satiate their appetite for fantasy with Pullman’s latest, the first volume of a promised trilogy that tackles themes of totalitarian rule, religion, and free speech. Steeped in the rich sensory details characteristic of Pullman’s fictional universes, The Book of Dust is a bleak yet fully imagined prequel to The Golden Compass. Like the desolate and desperate Star Wars film Rogue One – alive with all the rage and hopelessness of a failing rebellion before the turning of the tide in A New Hope – The Book of Dust vows to be an exercise in empathy and resistance in the face of futility.

Younger readers, according to bookshop employees, are “still reading Wonder [by RJ Palacio], [since] they made a film out of that… They’re [also] reading A Wrinkle in Time [by Madeline L’Engle] again because the film came out, so we’ve ordered the whole [series]… Oh, and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe [by Benjamin Alire Sáenz], this one people are really talking about, we’re selling it [a lot] to young teens.”

Additional recommended reads for July and August include the suspense novels of Linda La Plante, the detective novels of Lee Child, the fiction of Christina Lynch, and the coming-of-age writing of Sophie Kinsella. Whatever your taste, you’re sure to find something special for the summer at the Paperback Exchange. (claire francis)

The Paperback Exchange will be closed from August 9 to August 22.