Summer Reading List

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With the waning of the school year and the lengthening of days comes a desire to relax and destress. What better way to do so than with a good book? Here are some recommendations for your 2017 summer reading list.

  1. The Crazy Rich Asians trilogy by Kevin Kwan. Kwan writes hilariously about the exploits of the very rich in Singapore and mainland China. His first novel, Crazy Rich Asians, exploded on the scene in 2013 and spawned the equally brilliant continuation of the series, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, the latter of which just came out in time for my own beach reading. So do start the trilogy before Crazy Rich Asians, the movie, comes out.
  2. The Bruno, Chief of Police series. Author Martin Walker is a serious man. But his mystery novels about the Perigord region in France are delightful excursions into the wine, cuisine, and idiosyncrasies of small town France – all with a mystery thrown in to keep the plot humming.
  3. The Cormoran Strike thrillers by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling. When Rowling published The Cuckoo’s Calling under a pseudonym in 2013, her cover was blown and the novel became an instant best seller. But deservedly so. Her deeply flawed but somehow lovable detective Strike and his assistant Robin solve troubling and sometimes gruesome murders in The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent thrillers The Silkworm and Career of Evil. If you are looking for Harry Potteresque fantasy, these are not for you. But for heart pounding thrills and intriguing characters, you can’t go wrong with this series.

While I love book series, there are also some great stand alone novels to consider adding to your list.

4. Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. My husband complained that I laughed out loud too frequently while reading this novel during a beach vacation. Bridget’s haplessness, terrible track record with men, and general knack for embarrassing herself help make her an endearingly flawed character any modern woman can relate to.

5. The Saving Graces by Patricia Gaffney. I picked this book up off of my sister’s coffee table some years ago and could not put it down. It’s a story of female friendship and the hardships such friends can help us get through.

6. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. Semple lampoons upper middle class life in Seattle, Washington, as well as the corporate culture of Microsoft, while at the same time giving us an eccentric but sympathetic middle-aged character in Bernadette, an artist and mother who is coming apart at the seams. Semple has written a newer novel that I have not yet read titled Today Will Be Different. Indeed.

Lest readers think these works lean toward women-only interests, I must also reiterate my fondness for all things Harlan Coben. Start with Deal Breaker, and make your way through the entire Myron Bolitar oeuvre in one summer.

And for male middle-aged angst, look no further than the novels of Jim Kokoris. My favorite is still his very first novel, The Rich Part of Life, about a widower and Civil War re-enactor who wins the lottery.

So get thee to a bookstore or a library and pick up some fun summer reading. It’s the perfect escape.

Harlan Coben a Cure for the Reluctant Reader

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Myron Bolitar has returned! In his latest novel Home,  Harlan Coben resumes his popular mystery series about the intrepid basketball star turned sports agent turned detective and the cast of colorful characters that peopled Coben’s 10 previous Bolitar novels.

I first became addicted to Coben’s twisting, heart-pounding thrillers with his novel Hold Tight, a story about every modern parent’s nightmare, their children’s online world. The novel asked the question: How far would you go in invading your child’s privacy in order to protect him?

Like one of Coben’s troubled junkies, I was hopelessly hooked on his blend of humor, character development, and endless plot twists. For Christmas that year, my husband gave me a box filled with most of Coben’s early novels, and I immersed myself in the world of Myron Bolitar.

In between his prolific publication of adult thrillers, Harlan Coben managed to dash off a trilogy of novels for teens starring none other than Myron Bolitar’s nephew, Mickey Bolitar. Although I had been aware of their existence and had even given the first novel, Shelter, to my son, I had never thought to read them myself – until Home was published recently.

I realized that the Mickey Bolitar series, which does feature Myron, might be a continuation of  his story and decided I needed to catch up by reading the trilogy. Like his adult books, Coben’s Mickey Bolitar series were instantly riveting, and I devoured them like candy corn.  The character of Mickey is similar to his uncle Myron in that he has a sarcastic sense of humor, a great sense of integrity, and a need to save people that propels him on adventures and puts him in danger.

Parents of teenagers, especially boys, who find their kids loath to pick up a book would do well to check out this teen series by one of the masters of modern crime novels. It is no accident that Harlan Coben has won every major mystery writing award.

Now that I have caught up on the life of one of my favorite fiction characters, Myron Bolitar, I have started to delve into his latest adventure in Coben’s novel Home. I encourage reluctant readers of any age to start on the Harlan Coben oeuvre. I guarantee you won’t be able to put them down.

Penny for Your Thoughts

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The line outside Pfeiffer Hall in downtown Naperville, Illinois, wound around the block. Those queued up, my sister and I among them, excitedly chatted as the line inched forward. What were we all so eagerly standing in line for? A concert? A great sale? A glimpse of an A-list celebrity?

We were all there to see and hear a rock star of the crime novel world: Louise Penny. Penny was making an appearance to launch A Great Reckoning, her latest in a series of best-selling books about Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, and the tiny Canadian hamlet of Three Pines, a fictional town that readers around the world wish they could move to.

A few years ago, another of my sisters had introduced me to the charm of that world by recommending Penny’s first novel Still Life. Like many readers, I was hooked by the other-worldly setting and the carefully drawn characters that inhabited that world. I consumed the subsequent novels in relatively quick succession and now find myself in the position of eagerly awaiting each new book.

To call Louise Penny a mystery writer is to minimize the literary quality of her books. For me, the murder and its solution are almost beside the point. What Penny is really portraying are the secrets of the human heart. All of her novels are about human emotions gone wrong, about integrity and courage, about love and steadfastness in a world gone bad. The characters are not just a bunch of eccentric villagers but well-drawn individuals with their own flaws, yearnings, hopes, and fears.

Last night, the author explained that each book hinges on a few lines of poetry that form the core theme of the work. She talked about the difficulty of becoming a writer and described a bit about her process, all of which I find fascinating as a would-be novelist myself. In person, Penny is as intelligent, funny, charming, and real as I would expect her to be based upon the strong narrative voice in her novels.

Upon returning home from the book launch, my sister and I sat on the couch with a glass of wine and talked about all of Penny’s 11 previous novels, trying to remember which one involved which complex story. We checked out websites to refresh our memories and found that Louise Penny has inspired a Harry Potter-like passion on the part of her avid (if slightly older) fans.

As fall approaches, I can think of nothing cozier than curling up in front of the fire with a strong cup of café au lait or glass of wine and diving into the world of Three Pines and the humble genius of Louise Penny.

The Real Harper Lee

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News of Harper Lee’s death last week has made fans of To Kill a Mockingbird both sad and nostalgic about one of the most perfect pieces of literature ever written. In deceptively simple prose, Lee portrays the weighty themes of character, intolerance, compassion, and personal responsibility. Ultimately, the story of a courageous lawyer in the Deep South and his two young children touches upon our universal humanity, and the necessity to “climb into [someone’s] skin and walk around in it.”

Harper Lee has been an enigmatic figure for the past 60 plus years. Her failure to publish another novel after the phenomenal success of To Kill a Mockingbird and her famous reluctance to grant interviews gave her a certain mystique over the years. Last year, however, with the publication of Go Set a Watchman, a supposedly recently discovered manuscript of hers written before TKAM, Lee’s name was once again in the news.

Many speculated that Lee’s new lawyer was taking advantage of an old woman who had had a stroke and possibly suffered from dementia in order to cash in on her fame. Certainly, the book can’t hold a candle to To Kill a Mockingbird and to my mind, was never really meant to be published in its current form. People were also outraged that their beloved character, Atticus Finch, was portrayed as racist in Watchman. 

All this press reawakened my interest in Harper Lee and led me to read her excellent biography Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields. Lee’s life story portrays a young girl who did not fit the mold for females in her time and place, an acerbic wit who struggled to fit in during college but eventually found her niche on the University of Alabama’s satirical paper, The Rammer Jammer. It describes her friendship with the egomaniacal Truman Capote, who hurt Lee badly by failing to give her credit for her invaluable assistance on the ground-breaking book In Cold Blood, which she helped research and write.

As most people assume, the beloved character of Atticus Finch is based on Harper Lee’s father, A.C. Lee. But from Mockingbird,  I learned that the Atticus who so disappointed critics of Go Set a Watchman is much more like A.C. Lee, who held very conservative views on black rights until around 1962, the date To Kill a Mockingbird was published.

Furthermore, both Lee’s father and her sister Alice constantly pulled Nelle (her given name) back to Monroeville and into their insular world even as Lee tried to make a writer’s life for herself in New York City. Although she never wanted to be the center of attention, Lee did make significant friendships and even had a platonic affair with a friend’s husband.

Like most human beings, Harper Lee was a complicated individual with strengths and weaknesses. Yet she gave us the great gift of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird. And for that, we can be eternally grateful.

Do Nothings

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When was the last time you had nothing to do? Was it back when you were still in “short pants,” as they used to say in the old days? As modern adults, we hurtle through our days, rarely stopping to pause and enjoy the moment. There is simply too much to do: jobs, chores, child-rearing, paying bills, catching up on the news.

And the pervasiveness of technology doesn’t help. With a smartphone always at our fingertips, we need never be bored, whether we are in line at the DMV, in the carpool lane at our children’s school, or at the doctor’s office, waiting for an appointment.

Yet I can’t help feeling we are missing something by always being so engaged in activity. The other day, I decided to sit at my kitchen table and do nothing. It was an uncomfortable experience. I fidgeted, and my mind wandered to the many tasks I wanted to complete by the end of the day. Having nothing in my hands also felt strange, and I could almost feel the typewriter keys beneath my fingers, like a phantom limb that itches even though it’s no longer there.

After a while, however, I started to feel a sense of peace and centeredness. I took the time to enjoy the view of nature outside my window. I could hear the faint chirping of birds through the windowpane. I could feel my breath gently coming in and going out. I quieted my thoughts and reached a state I’d call meditative. I spent only a few minutes in this state, but it changed the way I proceeded through the remainder of my day. I felt calmer, less rushed or harried.

In Patrick McDonnell’s wonderful book The Gift of Nothing, Mooch the cat decides to give his friend Earl the dog a special gift. Realizing that Earl has everything he could want, Mooch searches to find the gift of nothing. Although the people in Mooch’s life seem to think there is nothing to do, buy, or watch on TV, Mooch notices that there are always “so many somethings.” When he sits to think, he realizes that he has found nothing. He puts it in a box and gives it to Earl. Earl is puzzled when he discovers nothing in the box. But the story concludes, “So Mooch and Earl just stayed still and enjoyed nothing and everything.”

Our lives are filled with so many somethings. Wouldn’t it be nice every once in a while to find nothing to do?

Disgraced

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Who are we beyond our race and religion? What is the cost of rejecting our cultural and religious heritage? Is admiration for another culture actually appropriation? Of whom should we be afraid? Does treating people like terrorists radicalize them?

These are some of the penetrating questions asked by Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play Disgraced. Set in a post 9/11 New York, the drama revolves around Pakistani immigrant Amir, who has disavowed his Muslim background and become a successful mergers and acquisitions attorney at a powerful firm. When his idealistic Caucasian wife asks him to get involved in the case of a local imam accused of funding terrorism, things unravel for the couple, their relatives, and friends.

While Disgraced gives no easy answers, the play implies that our hatreds and prejudices lurk uneasily just under the surface of our politically correct veneer. As the couple and their two colleagues/friends, also a married couple, converge at a dinner party, alcohol loosens tongues and inhibitions, and things go horribly awry.

Akhtar has also written an interesting novel titled American Dervish that explores a young Muslim boy’s coming of age and wrestling with the expectations of his parents, his insular Pakistani community, and the deeply held faith of a beloved family friend. The difficulty of being a “hyphenated” American and the temptation to erase one’s ethnicity seem to be themes in Akhtar’s work.

Successive generations of Americans have struggled with this tension between assimilation and appreciation for one’s cultural heritage. In the play, a character has changed his name to one that sounds less “Muslim.” A similar phenomenon occurred during World War II when Jewish and German Americans hid their backgrounds by Americanizing their names. In today’s society, blacks are often criticized for naming their children unique and colorful names, some of which reflect their African roots, and most of which reflect pride in a black culture that grew up alongside mainstream white culture in the United States.

There is a human tendency to categorize people – by race, religion, ethnicity, social class. We ask the seemingly innocent question, “What kind of name is that?” or “Where are you from?” to someone who seems different from ourselves. We hold in our minds the stereotypes that go along with a given group. Taken too far, we assume the worst of someone whose race or religion are very different from our own. And we act, often in destructive ways, towards those we don’t understand and so fear.

Disgraced is 80 minutes of heart-pounding tension and a sense of unease. The audience is taken out of its comfort zone and asked to examine its own prejudices and fervently held beliefs. It is not an easy play to watch, yet the issues it brings up are absolutely essential for Americans to consider in the current age of globalization and worldwide unrest.

East of Eden

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I have always been intrigued by the question of whether humans are intrinsically good or evil. It is a question that has been addressed and debated over the millennia in literature, art, film, and especially sacred scripture.

Last night I had the good fortune to see a dramatization of John Steinbeck’s classic novel East of Eden at the acclaimed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The play did a great job of capsulizing the complex story with its many references to the Biblical Creation story, especially the story of Cain and Abel.

In East of Eden, there are two sets of brothers whose relationships are tested by rivalry and jealousy, universal sibling conflicts made worse by parental favoritism. But it is the choices they make that define who these characters ultimately become in the novel.

In the story of Cain and Abel, Cain is angry and dejected when God rejects his offering. In response, God admonishes Cain,

If you do well, you hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door: his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.

God is telling Cain that he has a choice, that he is not fated to succumb to evil. Cain’s choice is to kill his brother Abel and consequently to be banished to “the land of Nod, east of Eden.”

In his most personal of novels, John Steinbeck is telling his own sons and all his readers that we are not victims of our past or our DNA but rather the sum of our choices.

So are humans inherently evil? Without a doubt. Just a perusal of the daily news gives ample evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. But it is also true that humans are intrinsically good. Every day there are individuals quietly performing small acts of kindness and often huge acts of courage and generosity that speak to their desire to love others.

So while we may be living in the land “east of Eden,” we are in control of the narrative of our own lives. May our actions tell a story of love and hope more often than one of hate and despair.