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.

Snob Appeal

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Most people are snobs. We all like to think we know best about some area of life – wine, music, food, fashion. Some people are even snobby about not being snobs. You know them. They are aggressively regular “(wo)man of the people” types.

I am a snob in a couple of areas. One is literature. I cannot read a book, however thrilling, if the writing is poor. I have tried to get on the bandwagon of some immensely popular bestsellers but could not get past the substandard writing style. Yet I am far from the worst literary snob I know. I know people who refuse to read any book on the Oprah’s Book Club list, for example.

I’ve also met many wine snobs. They have opinions on everything from certain vintages to storage to serving temperature to appropriate glasses for drinking. Yet when I read articles by wine experts, I find that many of the wine snobs’ opinions are wrong, or at least debatable. In fact, many studies have shown that even the most respected experts often can’t tell a prestigious wine from a $10 bargain brand.

Along with wine comes food, and being a foodie has become something of an art form in America. The prevalence of televised cooking competitions, the fame of chefs in big cities across the country, and the sheer number of upscale restaurants all speak to this tendency to take food a little too seriously. I enjoyed the animated movie Ratatouille because I loved imagining the looks on these food snobs’ faces when they realized a rat was doing the cooking.

Film aficionados, music buffs, fashion mavens – all spout their lists of preferences as if they were inspired by God Himself. I am fine with people having their opinions. After all, the purpose of these blog posts is to express mine. I just don’t like the implication that if my taste in something is different from yours, that means that it is bad.

I especially dislike the snobbery of “it’s so bad it’s good.” These are people who proudly proclaim their preference for cheesy B movies, corny old television shows, and cloying pop music. It feels slightly defensive, as if they are insulating themselves against criticism by being defiantly tacky.

It would be nice if we could all just enjoy our pastimes in peace without anyone sitting in judgment on them. But human nature being what it is, we will probably never live in such a world. So if you have negative thoughts about what I am eating, drinking, wearing, or watching, please keep them to yourselves.

In turn, I won’t say a word about that trashy novel you’re reading!

Nothing But the Truth

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“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure truth.”
― Maya Angelou

Since her death last week, Maya Angelou’s many profound quotes have been circulating on the internet. The one that struck me the most forcefully was this statement about truth and fact. At once I felt a kindred spirit in Angelou. I have always loved fiction, preferring it to non-fiction for many reasons. Stories are enthralling, and the characters born out of writers’ minds are so fascinating. There is nothing I love more than a fat, juicy novel that I can spend hours absorbing. Non-fiction, on the other hand, is more utilitarian. I associate it with school studies or simple information-gathering.

I am not negating the importance of facts. As an aspiring journalist in college, I learned to gather and disseminate facts, to be objective and to write simply, without flourishes or figurative language. Each day I read the newspaper (Yes, the actual paper, not a digital version!) and try to keep abreast of what is happening in the world. And I would certainly want the facts if I were confronted with a medical diagnosis or a lawsuit.

But facts can be misleading. Commentators and politicians can use selective facts to support their positions while leaving out important contradictory evidence. In fact, studies have shown that most people pay attention to evidence that supports their world view and discount or ignore facts that conflict with it. More importantly, facts often don’t get to the heart of a matter, to truth with a capital “T,” if you will.

A good example of the difference is the approach to history. History textbooks and non-fiction accounts of historical events contain a wealth of knowledge. But good historical fiction can bring history to life. I recently read the novel The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. It is the intertwining story of a young white girl living in an upper class Southern family and the young slave girl she is given for her birthday. Through the novel, I learned many things about antebellum South Carolina and also the abolitionist movement led by Quakers in the North. But I was also able to feel the shame, heartbreak and triumph of people trying to overcome the terrible scourges wrought by slavery. The novel is based upon real people and events from the 1800s, yet I don’t think I would understand the reality of their situation any better by reading non-fiction accounts of their lives.

Throughout history human beings have attempted to search for Truth. In the New Testament, Pontius Pilate ironically and rhetorically asks Jesus, “What is truth?” as if to say, “It’s all relative.” The Romantic poet John Keats asserts in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty./That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know.” As for myself, I will continue to look for glimpses of truth in the beautiful world of literature.

“O brave new wo…

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“O brave new world that has such people in’t!” (a quote from William Shakespeare in honor of his birthday)

My son was just assigned the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley for his English class. The book is a dystopian novel about the future written in 1932.  The title is taken from William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, in which a band of sojourners encounters the strange creatures of the island on which they have been shipwrecked. In Brave New World, people live primarily for pleasure. They have plenty of drugs and emotionless sex as well as harmless pastimes in a world whose motto is, “Community, Identity, Stability.” There are no attachments, and words like “love” and “mother” are considered profane. But when the main character, Henry Foster, meets “the Savage” – a man living in the wild who has passions and loves poetry – he begins to questions this Brave New World in which he lives.

By sheer coincidence, I just finished an award-winning young adult novel titled The Giver. In this futuristic book, society knows no pain, no suffering, no hunger. Life is placid and predictable. But the people also have no colors, no choices, and most importantly, no love. Once again the main character, Jonas, starts to realize what is missing when he begins to receive memories of the past from the Giver.

Dystopian fiction, while imagining the future, is really a commentary about the present. In both of these works, we are shown that humans are capable of terrible evil and often subject to horrific suffering. Life is hard. Yet our human spirit gives us great works of literature, a sense of purpose and the ability to love others.

Perhaps no one captured the great variety of human foibles, passions and emotions as well as William Shakespeare. His plays are filled with murder, lust, greed, jealousy, duplicity, love, and honor. Some of his characters – Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Iago, Shylock, and Ariel, to name a few – are among the most beloved in literary history. And his soaring poetry and prose gave life to his depictions of the human condition. We are much richer for having had William Shakespeare’s works in our lives.

So raise a glass to the Bard on his birthday and enjoy the messiness that is life in our brave new world.

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.” – Stephen King

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“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
(goodreads.com/quotes/tag/reading)

In honor of National Library Week, I want to write about some of the books that I have treasured most in my life.

The Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – When I was a child, I fell in love with these true stories about a young girl and her family braving the elements of woods and prairie in the late 1800s. From tragic deaths to frightening encounters with bears, this pioneer family lived the true definition of “roughing it.” At the same time, they enjoyed simple pleasures like Pa’s fiddling, homemade dolls, penny candy and maple sugaring time.

Half Magic by Edward Eager – This book introduced me to the magic of fantasy. Three children discover a magic coin that will grant them only half wishes, leading to some amusing adventures as they learn how to make this strange magic work to their advantage. Along with other books about magic by Eager, I began to explore classic fantasies such as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time. These books transported me into another realm, and my own existence seemed quite dull by comparison.

The Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace – Like the Little House books, these stories about best friends growing up in Deep Valley, Minnesota, were based on Lovelace’s own childhood in Mankato. The stories of the young Betsy, Tacy, and their friend Tib were charming. But I absolutely adored the tales of their high school years. It seemed filled with such innocent fun as dancing, making fudge, and ice skating on the local pond, all the while trying to catch the eye of the local high school boys.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte – I was a little young when I first read this Gothic tale of a poor young governess and the mysterious employer she goes to work for. But I was entranced by the mystery and romance and the elegance of all things English. Reading Jane Eyre led me to an obsession with Gothic romance novels that lasted through high school. However, rereading the novel in college gave me a deeper appreciation for the themes Bronte had developed, including the designation of women’s overt sexuality as madness.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – I have taught this book to high school freshman a number of times, as well as reading it when my children studied it in school. It is a flawlessly rendered period piece about small town Southern life during the Depression. It is also a timeless tale of courage, empathy and growing up. Each chapter is a small gem, a true treasure.

Beloved by Toni Morrison – This was a difficult and haunting book about the repercussions of slavery. I had to read it over several times until I understood this strange but beautiful story of a black woman haunted by the terrible choice she made years before. I had the good fortune to attend a talk with Toni Morrison and was able to have my copy of Beloved signed by the author.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan – The interwoven stories of Chinese women and their daughters captivated me. After each chapter, I would force myself to stop reading so as to savor what I had just read as well as to prolong the pleasure of reading this wonderful novel. Since then, I have read almost all of Amy Tan’s novels featuring Chinese women and Chinese history.

There are so many more great books of both fiction and non-fiction that have enthralled me over the years. I have gone through phases of reading various genres: fantasy, Gothic romance, satire, magical realism, Shakespearean drama, historical fiction, memoir and popular nonfiction such as Freakonomics by Steven Leavitt and just about everything by Malcolm Gladwell.

So in honor of National Library Week, why not visit your local library and find your next favorite book? Happy reading!