Readers & Writers 2009 Summer Reading List

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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
ellen@ncpr.org
877-388-6277

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, Clarkson University

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. 

Fiction

  • 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 muddy.
  • 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 professors.
  • 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 lived.
  • 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 wonderful.
  • 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 reading it.
  • 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 and derivatives.
  • 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 versions.
  • 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 liked Resilience.

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 Confederacy.
  • 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 genius.

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.

Carol, Carthage

  • 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 Apartment Kitchen.
  • Jane Stern, Ambulance Girl: How I Saved Myself By Becoming an EMT.
  • 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.

Jennifer, Canton

  • Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science.

Nathan, Burlington

  • 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.

Pat, Winthrop

  • Carl Hiasson, The Downhill Lie.
  • Vicki Myron and Bret Witter, Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.

Pam, Hastings-on-Hudson

  • 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.

Doug, Clayton

  • Ivan Doig, The Whistling Swan and Dancing at the Rascal Fair.

David, Potsdam

  • 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 Enders series.

Katie, Pierrepont

  • 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 each sentence.
  • 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 radio@ncpr.org or write:

North Country Public Radio
St. Lawrence University, Canton, NY 13617

1-877-388-6277

Fell free to email me directly at: ellen@ncpr.org