I used to be the kind of reader who had to finish one book before I could begin the next. This usually related to fiction, and was obviously before I went to college. In college, I would still only read one pleasure book at a time, and not very many of those — at least not during the school year. I also drew an artificial line between what I was reading for school and what I was reading for pleasure. Looking back, it’s interesting to think that this line existed even when I was studying American literature and reading Toni Morrison, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Elizabeth Spencer and others who I now read for pleasure. And if I’m honest, I still kinda draw the line today; my office is filled with books I need or want to read for work, but all I can think about is what else I’m going to read this summer.
Because I work at a school I still get excited this time of year because the semester is over and even though work doesn’t stop, summer is here! And we all know what summer means: time to read for pleasure! Although, quantitatively, I won’t have any more time to read than I normally do, it feels like I do. So, I’ve been putting my lists together — books I’m in the middle of and need to finish up, and books I want to read. I’m throwing in a couple of recently completed books for good measure, as well as a few others I’m considering. Not that you care, but here are those lists, fiction and nonfiction alike. The last two are works in progress, so recommendations are most welcome.
- Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. Despite being tempted to put it down numerous times, I read the whole thing, and there was something compelling about it as a lengthy reflection on death and dying — through the introduction of a ghost she was able to explore ideas about death (and life) in ways that other authors, bound by ordinary physical constraints, cannot. In some ways it was satisfying as an extended meditation on loss. But otherwise, the twin stuff felt contrived (the mirror images, the dressing alike, the alternateen affect); the dialogue was kind of terrible (Niffenegger is American, the main character twins are American, but she wrote the entire novel in British English — including the twins’ dialogue (!), which was truly cringeworthy); and the plot — despite my willingness to entertain a ghost — was never really compelling. I’ll give her this: I did find myself wanting to know what happens next (a good thing), but then when I found out it was never very interesting (a bad thing). Niffenegger has said that she was inspired to write the novel by Highgate Cemetery in London. Great. The seeds for a novel have got to come from somewhere. But for a novel to be good that inspiration has to be turned into a story that’s worth telling and, for me at least, this one wasn’t. I suppose she faced a problem that any writer whose debut novel is a worldwide phenomenon faces: the second one will [just about] always seem like a disappointment. Her first novel is what made me want to read her second novel; it’s also the only reason I’ll look forward to her third.
- Pat Conroy’s South of Broad. In a word: overwrought. But even then, he does paint a particular portrait of the South, which I enjoyed. It’s not a book I would recommend, but I finished it. And Conroy did manage to strike a personal chord with the dead brother bit. This quote, in particular: “And then the memory of Steve rises up in the room. It troubles me that I cannot even summon up the palest image of him. His face is lost to me forever, as though he never really lived at all. Even Steve’s photographs seem stillborn and shapeless to me. My memory has come to a terrible point, passing a statute of limitations from being able to call out my brother’s face from the void…. I wonder where my brother would’ve lived in Charleston. I believe in my heart that he would’ve married a local girl, a good Catholic girl, and they would have a houseful of kids, living on James Island or maybe over in Mount Pleasant. I would be a real uncle many times over, and my nephews and nieces would love me, and I would volunteer to coach their Little League and soccer teams. They would grow up knowing everything about me. My brother’s kids, Steve’s kids, would be the ones to take care of me when I began to die. Yes, Steve’s kids, that noisy, chattering gang that lost all chances of being born when time and life went dark for Steve” (418-419).
- Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs.
- David Plouffe’s The Audacity to Win.
- Many thanks to KPB for recommending Deborah Tannen‘s The Argument Culture. (It’s interesting that I have found this book with two different subtitles. The subtitle on the copy I am reading is Moving From Debate to Dialogue. I wonder if her publisher decided that wasn’t catchy or provocative enough, because on Amazon and even on her website [in Worldcat you find both], the subtitle is listed as: Stopping America’s War of Words.) It was published in 1998, but her argument seems to have (unfortunately) grown even more relevant in the intervening years. I’m about a hundred pages in, trying to knock out a chapter every day or two, and I’m really enjoying it. Makes me want to check out some of her other work; any recommendations out there?
- Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Yes, still.
- Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna. I’m less excited about this than I would like to be. I bought the Kindle version, started it, then got distracted by the other books on this list. I’m hoping to get back to it this summer.
- Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch. I found a used copy of The Night Watch a year or so ago and it sat on my shelf for a long time. Now I’m almost finished with it and am kind of blown away. Waters has been around for about a decade; her first novel was Tipping the Velvet in 1999. She’s been short listed for the Booker Prize twice, and won many other literary awards and recognitions. She seems to do a lot of period writing; The Night Watch is set in London during World War II, and evidently Fingersmith (below) is, according to The New York Times Book Review, “a Victorian novel the Victorians never dreamed of writing …” (back cover).
- Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers: the Revolutionary Generation. I think I’ve actually been reading this in fits and starts for about two years. Seems like it’s about time to finish it.
- Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion.
- Ted Kennedy’s True Compass: A Memoir.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In spurts. Will finish before I die. Maybe.
- Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith.
- Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays.
- Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington.
- Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates. I heard her read from this book at the Avalon Theatre last year; I can’t wait to read it.
And to satisfy my recurring Tudor cravings:
- Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall won the 2009 Booker Prize and looks at Tudor England by focusing on Thomas Cromwell, rather than on Henry himself. Also, totally thrilling: Philippa Gregory’s The Other Queen, about one of my favorite historical figures, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles. If anyone ever deserved a great big Bless Her Heart, I think it was Queen Mary.
- Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs — read mediocre reviews; downloaded a sample to my Kindle.
- Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness — Munro is someone I want to explore; but I have to be in the right space to read short stories. So we’ll see.
- Rebecca Skloot‘s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
- Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.
- Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.
- Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic.
I’m also interested in reading Paul Harding’s Tinkers, which recently won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and garnered this headline from NPR: “For A Tiny Press, The Pulitzer Arrives Out of Nowhere.” You can listen to that story from Weekend Edition. It sounds depressing, but I’ve heard from close friends, even from someone who knows Harding personally, that it is outstanding. So it’s on the list.
There’s more I’m sure, but for those who haven’t already dozed off, I’ll stop.
For book lovers out there, check out Library Thing (apparently more than a million of you already have)! I have an account and tried to get into it a couple of years ago, but it just never took. If anyone is on Library Thing and cares to share, I’d love to know what you think about it, how you use it, why you like it, etc. Leave a comment!
Lastly, I was thrilled to recently discover the blog Hot Guys Reading Books. Umm, yes please. What great inspiration for a little summer reading!