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I have got to start carrying a little notebook with me so I
can write down titles of books people recommend. The other day, my friend David
spoke rhapsodically about a recent read…and now, of course, I can’t remember
the title, the author, anything. On the other hand, the pile of unread books
continues to grow. It reminds me of my son’s first visit to the ocean. He built
a sand castle (well, a sand blob) and was happily sticking things in it and on
it when, avast, the tide started coming in. He stood at the water’s edge trying
to push the ocean back, to protect his castle. Which is not so unlike me trying
to make a dent in the “must read” stack. Might as well let the pile tumble
underwater and read whatever is left high and dry. Like the titles on this
year’s summer reading list.
Thanks to everyone who contributed, particularly co-hosts
Chris Robinson and John Ernst. Keep those recommendations coming all year long.
Email or post them to me…you’ll save me the price of a little notebook.
Ellen Rocco, NCPR Station Manager
- Joseph O’ Neill, Netherland. Now in paperback. See
John’s review elsewhere on this list.
- Rachel Kushner, Telex From Cuba. A National Book
Award finalist last year.
- Salvatore Scibona, The End. Another National Book
Award finalist. A first novel.
- Anne Enright, The Gathering. A Man Booker
Prize-winner. An Irish family—sex, love, disappointment, memory.
- Everyone is talking about Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger,
another Booker Prize-winner. It’s a love/hate split. I haven’t read it yet, but
I plan to.
- And, for tome-y summer reading, Hermon Wouk’s World War II
pair of titles provide lots of absorbing storytelling, The Winds of War
and War and Remembrance.
Chris Robinson, Co-host Readers & Writers,
I celebrated one of those painfully big birthdays this past
winter. The number of years I have been around now adds up to physical decline
and impending dotage. As Paul Newman said, “growing older is not for the weak
of heart.” On the positive side, chronological age signals a long lifetime of
reading that insinuates itself into every corner of the memory. Books and poems
long forgotten make their way to the surface of my consciousness at the oddest
times. What I am finding now is one of the greatest rewards reading can
afford: My brain has become a self-entertainment system that lacks an on/off
button or even a pause. While I still like television and movies, I sense that
I have no need for them. I can sit for hours in quiet isolation, or, more
dangerously, while driving, and my brain unleashes uncontrollable torrents of
memories, scenes, and perversities that are entirely engaging and satisfying.
There is an important relation between reading and the health of the brain, and
this had proven a great consolation as I watch my waistline expand, my stamina
diminish, and my skin wrinkle, all while my partner in life seems to grow more
youthful and beautiful each day.
- Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons. I’m fairly sure
I was supposed to read this for a high school class way back when. It is one of
those works that has come to fit Twain’s description of a classic (“a book that
everyone talks about, but no one reads”). These days I’m drawn to books and
people who examine their convictions closely, know why they believe the way
they do, and defend those beliefs. Thomas More endures a formal trial based on
his refusal to compromise his religious beliefs, but Bolt’s play shows us that
more significant was the lifelong trial that characterized More’s relationship
with those he pledged loyalty. I’m really happy I got around to reading this.
- Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles. This is
a novel that received more than its fair share of very bad press when it was
first published in France several years ago, and then again when it was
translated into English a year later. The novel features half brothers of the
same mother. Both suffered from her detachment and both were raised by
grandmothers from their respective father’s side. Houellebecq offers an
insightful psychological study of their sexual development that is deeply
moving despite its hokey social theory (the sexual liberation of the sixties
ruined sex), and its forays into misogyny and racism as expressions of
frustration. This is not a great novel, by any means, but it is provocative.
Sex scenes are described explicitly, but they cannot be called erotic because
they are tinged with disaffection and hostility, and this works to make them
all the more interesting. I stayed with the narrative even as I was deriding
its philosophical pretenses.
- P.F. Kluge, Gone Tomorrow. This is the first of two
novels I read this past winter that was set on a college campus. I’m a sucker for
these things. Kluge’s book is quite good, however. It is a mystery story that
has profound things to say about making art. The protagonist, George Canaris,
is a successful writer of two bestselling novels. At the height of his literary
fame, he accepts a position teaching writing at a small rural college. He never
publishes another word, although there are rumors of a great new work close to
completion or completed. In the end, he is forced out of his position by a new,
young literary star. When they meet, the exchange is priceless. “I read your
books,” says the new guy, “Great!” “I lifted your book,” responds Canaris,
“Heavy.” Kluge really succeeds in evoking the atmosphere of college life.
- Sherman Alexie, Flight. This is the summer reading
selection for Clarkson students this year. A Native American teenager nicknamed
“Zits” goes on a strange dream quest that allows him to see himself as part of
a long history of oppression, violence, and struggle for identity. As the title
suggests, imagination gives us a place to go when the friction of this world
overwhelms. From this otherworldly vantage we have a place to see, to criticize
what is, and strive for something better.
- Neil Stephenson, The Big U. This is, I believe, the
first novel by Stephenson. Of course he is now recognized as a master of
contemporary science fiction, and you can see traces of this yet to be realized
potential in this early work. The setting is a major university, described in
the most dystopian terms imaginable: the dorms are prison-like skyscrapers with
windows that open wide enough for couches, pianos, and bodies to be launched
out; hallways become the space for the formation of violent gangs; the
bureaucracy is so tangled it is a miracle anyone graduates; the education is a
sideshow; and giant radioactive rats live, breed, and eat, in the tunnels
beneath the campus. The novel fails as satire, but it has enough funny moments
and quirky characters to keep the reader interested.
- Walter Moseley, The Man in My Basement. One of my
colleagues is a brilliant scholar of Moseley’s writings, and under his tutelage
I have begun to make my way through this considerable and ever-growing body of
work. I won’t begin to do this book justice here. A white man rents out the
basement of a black man so that he can live in cage for several months. The
black man agrees to see to it that the prisoner is fed and hydrated. From this
strange beginning, Moseley raises profound questions of justice as reparation,
the experience of powerlessness, and the relation of death to the good life.
Moseley’s style is light, but the material he wanders through is deep and
- Amy Hempel, The Collected Stories. This is the second
time this book has appeared on my reading list. Hempel is one of my very
favorite writers in general, and when it comes to the short story, I rank her
with Chekov. No kidding. There is nobility in all of her lonely characters.
Disappointment is offset by humor. Dignity is the only goal worth the pains of
life. I’m skimming the surface here. Hempel’s characters live for only a few
pages, but they stay with you and resonate long after you have closed the
covers of this great collection.
Essays, Memoirs, Letters, Poems, NonFiction
- The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940. This is
the first of four volumes of letters by the great dramatist, novelist, and
poet. Beckett’s published writings are so spare and delicate that they cannot
be traced back to the person who wrote them. These letters then give us a
different Samuel Beckett – friend, citizen, lover, antagonist, and secretary to
James Joyce. The correspondence included in these collections all has bearing
on his published writings and his literary career. Thus they are intimate, but
not too intimate. Still we get deep look at Beckett’s humanity. This is, for
instance, how he described his employment by Joyce. “Joyce paid me 250 fr. for about 15 hrs. work on his proofs. He then
supplemented it with an old overcoat and 5 ties! I did not refuse. It is so
much simpler to be hurt than to hurt.”
- Owen Brady and Derek Maus, eds. Finding a Way Home: A Critical
Assessment of Walter Mosley’s Fiction. This is a nice collection of essays
that lead any reader directly back to Walter Mosley’s work. It is an important
collection on an important contemporary author. Both editors are local
- George Scialabba, What Are Intellectuals Good For? Scialabba
was the very first recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Excellence
in Criticism Award. Reading through the writings of Lionel Trilling, Richard Rorty,
Christopher Lasch, I.F. Stone, Ellen Willis, and members of The Partisan
Review and Dissent circles, among others, Scialabba makes a
convincing case for the importance of intellectuals, and he worries about their
decline into various forms of academic self-delusion and specialization. In
losing intellectuals as voices in our culture, we do not lose authors who
create “monuments of unaging intellect.” Their role in society is distinct from
the artists they read or view and criticize. What we lose is a brand of
thinking and writing that has “hemmed in everyday barbarism a little.”
- Simon Critchley, The Book of Dead Philosophers. Critchley
is a leading exponent of continental philosophy today, but this book is not a
dense, jargon-filled tome composed of allusions to Heidegger. Rather, it is a
beautiful collection of interesting obituaries of philosophers from the
Pre-Socratics to the Present. If philosophy is indeed an activity that
prepares practitioners for death, do philosophers die differently than the rest
of us? Well, no; not in most cases. However they do, as an odd assortment that
does not amount to a community, give us glimpses into the value of life well
- Studs Terkel, Touch and Go. Since Studs was taken
from us at the all too early age of 95 last November, I have been reading
through his books again. Touch and Go is an autobiography that takes the
form of a series of amusing anecdotes. If you loved Studs Terkel, as I did,
then you read this hearing his voice resonating off every page.
- Jeffrey Abramson, Minerva’s Owl: The Tradition of Western
Political Thought. Every so often I receive a call or e-mail from a former
student. They fill me in on what they have been doing since graduation, and
they leave me with a great sense of pride and happiness. But they contacted me
for something more, they say. They miss the intellectual stimulation they knew
and sometimes resisted at college. Would I please recommend some books for
them? I have a running list of books for these occasions, and I have added
Abramson’s book to this list. Abramson has been teaching political theory for
years, and this book is a distillation of all that reading and teaching. It is
always a joy to read someone who has mastered her or his field and still
regards it with passion. I have a ton of quibbles with Abramson on just about
every thinker he writes on in this book, but I love his lively style and his
passion for his subject.
- Gerald Martin, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Life. My
dear friend Ellen Rocco gave me this book as a gift. I started reading it two
days ago and I am now fifty pages in with about 800 more to go. It is
- Paul Muldoon, Horse Latitudes. Muldoon’s collection
from 2002 was my favorite book that year, and it won him a Pulitzer Prize. Horse
Latitudes is another monument to poetic playfulness, music, and surprise.
John Ernst, Call in co-host, Elk Lake and New York City
- Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge. This collection
of linked stories set in a small coastal town in Maine was this year’s winner of
the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it is a knockout. What holds the stories
together, in addition to the common setting, is the character of Olive Kitteridge,
a big, blunt-speaking, opinionated former math teacher who dominates some
stories and is a peripheral presence in others. The thirteen separate
narratives are each enlivened by characters who are so vivid and compelling
that one is drawn into the book as though by a whirlpool.
- Joseph O’Neill, Netherland. Touted this spring as the
novel President Obama was reading, Netherland has been compared in a
raft of enthusiastic literary reviews to The Great Gatsby. It won the
Pen Faulkner Award and was on the NY Times best books of the year list. All
this may have helped the novel to triumph over its unpromising subject matter:
the game of cricket as played by a rainbow coalition of ex-pats in New York
City and environs. Of course, the novel is not solely about cricket. The
writing is so careful and pristine that it almost seems mannered, but this is
definitely a novel of real charm, written with great skill. It is one of those
books you might even enjoy more in retrospect than while you are actually
- William D. Cohan, House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and
Wretched Excess on Wall Street. This big, sprawling, timely book centers on
the collapse of Bear Stearns in March of 2008. But it also takes in the bigger
story of the turmoil on Wall Street that included other bankruptcies. Cohan, a
former investment banker, tells in heart-pounding detail the story of the final
days of Bear Stearns and then circles back to tell the full story of the
company from its founding days. The book bears traces of haste in preparation
but on the whole it tells an important and fascinating story very well. It
gives you a pretty good idea of how the blame for this financial fiasco is
shared among the banks and investment firms, the rating agencies and
regulators—all of whom attempted to whistle past the graveyard of mortgage debt
- Tim O’Brien, July, July. This is Tim O’Brien’s
scorching look back at the Vietnam War generation. The class of 1969 at a
fictitious college returns for a 30th reunion in 1999 to face each
other and confront what they have become. This is a tour de force by a writer
of great power and great finesse. Anyone close to the generation described will
feel a chill of recognition.
- Julian Barnes, Nothing to be Frightened Of. This is a
difficult book to describe without putting off potential readers. It is
basically an essay about mortality. But that doesn’t begin to do justice to
what is a witty, funny, thoughtful and always interesting exploration of
Barnes’ life, his family, his work, his views on memory and art, on life and
death, on evolution and on God. This is a profoundly enjoyable book—sharp,
amusing, intriguing, provocative and always compelling reading.
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrun.
These are two completely original narrative poems recovered from Tolkien’s
papers, the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and a
renowned Oxford professor. It includes notes and commentary by his son and
literary executor, Christopher. The poems are drawn from Old Norse poetry and
prose sagas—bloody battle scenes, great doomed loved stories, heroic
sacrifices, dark betrayals, dragons to be slain and gold hoards buried
underwater. This is a rich tradition beautifully re-told in these two new
- George Pelecanos, The Night Gardener. Pelecanos is a
novelist, filmmaker, and one of the writers (along with Richard Price) for the
much-acclaimed HBO series, The Wire. Here Pelecanos tells the story of three
Washington, DC policemen investigating a series of horrifying child murders.
This is a big, complex story with a lot of moving parts and Pelecanos keeps the
gears meshing smoothly throughout. Great entertainment, but also a serious and
grownup look at policing.
- Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier. Published in 1927,
this is Ford’s gem of a narrative—perhaps the classic example of an unreliable
narrator, a man of little self-awareness and limited perception. It is a book
that definitely stands the test of time.
Susan Sweeney Smith, NCPR Outreach and Major Gifts Director
My latest faves…all read on the KINDLE…
- Mary Ann Shaffer, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel
Society. A must read.
- Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge. A tad hard to
swallow if you feel like only reading happy (and sometimes I am so there) but I
liked this and it’s very, very interesting.
- Stephanie Kallos, Sing Them Home. If you liked her
first, Broken for You, you’ll love this. Intricate plot—small towns are
so rich in nuanced relationships—and the characters are, well, characters and
by the end you really know and like most of them.
- Lionel Shriver, The Post Birthday World. A great read
for mid-life women who wonder…what would happen if I…
- I find Elizabeth Edwards intriguing and though I usually
read literary novels (and preferably happy ones at that), I read and quite
Connie Meng, NCPR Theatre Critic/Announcer
- Frances Itani, Remembering the Bones. It’s terrific.
By the author of Deafening.
- Nick Harkaway, Gone Away World. Funny, fascinating,
creative, and it has the weirdest plot twist I’ve ever read. It’s on my list to
re-read. The author is the son of John LeCarre.
- Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain. It’s a
very human story of family, tragedy and love narrated by the canine, Enzo, who
has much to teach about being human. It’s not cutesy. It made me cry.
Steven Sauter, Canton
- Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, Halsey’s Typhoon: The True
Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue.
Elise Widlund, North Creek
I spent a great deal of time listening to books this winter.
Here are a few that I found special.
- Kathryn Stockett, The Help.
- Brunonia Barry, The Lace Reader.
- Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.
- Anne Easter Smith, The King’s Grace.
David Demarest, Potsdam
Some recent favorites—the first three I bought after hearing
the authors interviewed on public radio.
- David Benioff, City of Thieves. A fast-paced novel telling
the wartime experiences of a young man living in Leningrad during the siege.
From the Russian perspective—this tale gives us insight into the horrific
deprivations the Russians suffered. A terrific read.
- T.C. Boyle, The Women. I find Boyle to be a great
storyteller and this novel about Frank Lloyd Wright’s incredible relationships
with the opposite sex is no exception.
- Alan Huffman, Sultana: Surviving the Civil War, Prison
and the Worst Maritime Disaster in American History. Although I have read
my share of Civil War books, I had not heard of the Sultana, a Mississippi
River steam boat hired by the government to transport recently released Union
prisoners of war. The book follows three survivors of not only the sinking of
the ship, but the horrors of the war and military imprisonment in the
- Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone. A wonderful
novel of Africa from the perspective of an intriguing cast of medical providers
in a missionary hospital in Ethiopia.
- Phillipp Meyer, American Rust. This story, set in the
Pennsylvania of former steel mills and factories, reminded me of the work of
Richard Russo who writes about the declining cities of the Mohawk Valley and
Maine. This is a debut novel that I thought did a great job of weaving the tale
of the aftermath of a murder with that of the dying town in which it is set.
Jeffrey and Kellie Soper, Malone
- Brian Doe, The Grace Note. The author is from the
North Country and he has written a beautiful story about lost love, making the
best out of dreadful situations, coincidence, and the idea of pre-ordained
George, via email
- Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things
Can Make a Big Difference.
Don Carlisto, Saranac Lake
- Ken Grimwood, Replay. Discovered this after it was
featured on NPR’s series, You Must Read This. The protagonist dies at
age 43, only to awaken and discover he is 18 again. The best part for me? Our
hero, who has foreknowledge (actually a memory of his previous life) of the
outcome of the Kentucky Derby bests big on the underdog and hits it to the tune
of 11-1 odds. The winning horse? Chatueagay (the 1963 Derby winner) named for
my home town!
Ann Adams, DeKalb
- Jodi Picoult, Handle With Care. A wrongful birth
lawsuit and its repercussions.
Matt Galloway, Hinesburg
- James Scott, The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story
of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship. Riveting. I can’t
recommend this book enough.
Kathy, Lydia, and others from Old Forge and Forestport
- John Briant, The Adirondack Detective series.
- Ron Hall, Denver Moore and Lynn Vincent, Same Kind of
Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the
Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together. According to Amazon.com: An
amazing biographical account that begins outside a burning plantation hut in
Louisiana…and an East Texas honky-tonk…and, without a doubt in the heart of
God. It unfolds in a Hollywood hacienda…an upstate New York gallery…a downtown
dumpster…a Texas ranch. Gritty with pain and betrayal and brutality, this true
story shines with an unexpected life-changing love.
Dan Riley, Lake Titus
Some good ones:
- Nick Taylor, American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the
WPA—When FDR Put the Nation to Work.
- Calvin Trilling, Tepper Isn’t Going Out.
- Robert Kurson, Shadow Divers. The story of wreck
divers off the NJ coast who discovered a WWII German submarine.
Mike via email
- J.W. Schultz, My Life as an Indian. Story of a young
man originally from the western Adirondacks area who went to Montana in the
1870s, traded with Blackfeet and later married an Indian girl and lived with
the Piegans through the last days of the buffalo.
Bea Hunter (age 15), Malone
- Julia Powell, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 1 Tiny
- Jane Stern, Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself By Becoming
- K.L. Going, Kids Rule the World. A young adult book.
- Margaret Buffie, The Watcher/The Seeker/The Finder. A
young adult series.
- Cory Doctorow, Little Brothers.
- Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal
- John Steinbeck, Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday.
Jim, North Pownal, VT
- Anything by the archeologist/geologist/novelist Jean Auel.
- Anything by Carl Hiasson, very funny.
- And, Jim recommends the literary magazine, The Sun.
Julie, Bratingham Lake
- Roland Merullo, Breakfast with Buddha.
- Carl Hiasson, The Downhill Lie.
- Vicki Myron and Bret Witter, Dewey: The Small-Town
Library Cat Who Touched the World.
- L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables.
Mark, North Creek
- Daoud Hari, The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of
Darfur. If you want to learn more about the author and this book, visit
thetranslatorbook.com; if you want to learn more about the situation in Darfur
and perhaps help, visit savedarfur.org.
Linda, Old Forge
- Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book.
- Tatiania DeRosnay, Sarah’s Key.
- Elizabeth Folwell, Short Carries. Betsy is a
long-time editor at Adirondack Life, a keen observer of life in the
mountains, and an exceptional writer.
- Gary VanRiper and Justin VanRiper, Legend of the Lake
Monster. This is the ninth in the young adult Adirondack Kids series.
Brian Houseal, Westport
- Thurston Clarke, The Last Campaign: Robert Kennedy and 82
Days That Inspired America.
- Ivan Doig, The Whistling Swan and Dancing at the
- John Kennedy O’Toole, Confederacy of Dunces.
- John M. Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood
of 1927 and How It Changed America.
- Yann Martel, Life of Pi.
Mitch (age 13), Potdam
- Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game and other books in the
- Ralph Moody’s western series of eight books that includes: Little
Britches, Mary Emma & Company, The fields of Home, Man of the Family, The
Dry Divide…and other titles. Great family reading.
The Best Kids’ Books Ever
A list compiled by Nicholas D. Kristof for the New York
Times. (You may or may not agree with his selections, but certainly
interesting and worthwhile.)
- Charlotte’s Web
- The Hardy Boys series
- Wind in the Willows
- Freddy the Pig series
- Alex Rider series
- Harry Potter series
- Gentle Ben
- Anne of Green Gables
- The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be
- Little Lord Fauntleroy
- On to Oregon
- The Prince and the Pauper
- Lad, a Dog
Dr. Sandra McCloy, Canton/Potsdam
- Atul Gawande, Better: A surgeon’s Notes on Performance.
Jackie Pinover, Potsdam
These are some of our current favorites:
- David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. A must
read for dog lovers! (Have the tissues handy.)
- Robert Goolrick, The Reliable Wife. A mystery of
sorts, so well written it’s almost like sensual poetry, you’ll want to savor
- Lawrence Hill, Someone Knows My Name. Historical
fiction of slave trade told by the slave, extremely well written, so moving,
hard to put down.
- Erik Larson, Devil in the White City. Historical
murder during the 1983 World’s Fair in Chicago—fascinating read, paints an
excellent picture of the Gilded Age.
- Rohinton Mistry, A Fine Balance. A novel of family
life and misery, upheaval and survival in 1975 India. For those who enjoyed A
Thousand Splendid Suns this is a similar tale, only set in India.
Do send me your suggestions for great reads throughout the year. You can find previous lists at at the Reader's & Writers page. You can contact North Country Public Radio at firstname.lastname@example.org or write:
North Country Public Radio
St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617
Fell free to email me directly at: email@example.com