Our summer reading call-in was Thursday, July 9, 10-noon. We count on you to add titles and recommendations, via the comment section here or email [email protected].
The compiled book list is below
Chris Robinson, program co-host
“Race” is a category that finds no support in biology, but it is certainly real enough socially to cause enormous pain and suffering. Racial divides are never symmetrical; they are there to demarcate and perpetuate power over the powerless. Our racist culture serves to make this unjust and oppressive order appear normal and natural. Various strands of narrative, like the justifications we have been hearing for continuing to fly the Confederate flag over the South Carolina capital building, defend the racial divide designed to protect white supremacy with obfuscation. These narratives hide the underlying racist reality and it takes strong thinking and writing to achieve clarity. My reading involves seeking out those who conceive of truth as a tool for exposing what has been buried over with claims about heritage, military valor, purity and nature. Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Malcolm X and Dr. King exemplify this kind of dangerous thinking and writing.
A couple of years ago, Jonathan Brown (weekend announcer for NCPR) sent me a link to an article by a new writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates. The title of the piece was “The Case for Reparations,” and Jonathan told me I’d be a fool not to read it. He was absolutely right. Since receiving that sage advice, I have been careful to read everything I could by Coates, including his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle. I’ve been reading illuminating works on “whiteness” and “blackness” by a whole range of thinkers, but Coates remains the most profound author around. His work creates the categories and vocabulary we Americans really need to finally expose or racism as a first step toward its abolition.
Here’s my list for this summer:
- Gary Shteyngart, Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story. Shteyngart is one of the finest comedic writers working today. Yes, he is funny, but he also has a gift for creating stunning worlds in his novels – a whole country in Absurdistan and a dystopian future in Super Sad True Love Story. This is beach entertainment that won’t embarrass you when someone from the next blanket asks you what you’re reading.
- Hans Faluda, Every Man Dies Alone. Faluda was a very popular author in Europe between the wars and immediately after. In this novel, a German couple resists the Nazi Party by dropping cards with anti-Hitlerian slogans throughout Berlin. It is a fascinating portrait of life lived under Nazism. Those images of uniformity in belief and action I associate with Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” prove inaccurate in Faluda’s examination of the society through his characters.
- John Wideman, Fanon. This is an impressionistic novel that manages to capture the spirit of Frantz Fanon’s anti-colonialism, his defense of violence on behalf of the colonized over their much better armed oppressors, and his sense of justice. It took me a while to catch on to the rhythm of Wideman’s sentences. It felt like I was just grasping the material when I finished the book. I think this is a good thing.
- David Foster Wallace, The Pale King. This novel was published after Wallace’s death. It was put together from one large manuscript in draft form that was sitting on his desk, and then from various pieces found on floppy disks, stray pages and file folders. It is not the novel that Wallace was seeking to write. But the work does manage to evince great art from the complete and utter boredom of life in the offices of the IRS.
- Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Volume 3. Last winter I led with my complete absorption in the world of Knausgaard as it is presented in the first two volumes of this six volume opus. I plan to read one a year as they are translated and published in paperback editions. Volume three is a brilliant portrait of Knausgaard as a child. The narrative is not as temporally discordant as the first two volumes. He stays in the past tense with one small exception. Much of the book is taken up recalling how much Knausgaard feared his father and how awful his father made his life. In the one temporal jump, Knausgaard turns to his relationship with his own children. He walks into the room where his children are playing and they don’t notice him. For Knausgaard this signals his success as a parent. His children are comfortable enough around him to fail to notice he entered the room.
- Antonio Skarmeta, The Days of the Rainbow. The setting for this novel is Chile under the military dictatorship of Pinochet. The son of a philosophy professor witnesses his father’s arrest. What follows is a fascinating dissection of the relationship of politics to advertising as one family engages in dangerous oppositional politics in the form of a fake election and another seeks the truth of what happened to their loved one.
- Zadie Smith, NW. I am a huge and unabashed fan of Zadie Smith’s novels and essays. Thus I was pretty worried when I read the uniformly negative reviews of her latest work before I read the book for myself. If you like Smith’s work, then you will see this novel, NW, as a character study of the neighborhood where she grew up in North West London as an experiment in form and style. The dialogue is pure Zadie Smith. The pastiche form the work takes is distinctive. How do you bring a neighborhood – buildings, cars, noise, cooking smells, community, violence, and love – alive? I say that Smith accomplishes this. Critics disagree (and they are wrong).
- Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue. I like Chabon a lot too. I don’t think this novel is as successful as his earlier books, and it does not compare to Smith’s NW. Chabon, too, attempts to bring a neighborhood to life, as well as a musical and political culture. The novel has high aspirations and I admire this.
- Hilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies. This is the second volume of the Wolf Hall series that will include a third. If you have read Wolf Hall and grew to love Thomas Cromwell, then this second book will not disappoint.
- James McBride, The Good Lord Bird. What a stunning novel this is. The setting is pre-Civil War America and the militant abolitionism of John Brown. The story is told from the vantage of a slave liberated by Brown. This boy was mistaken for a girl, and he spends much the novel in a dress. He’s nicknamed “Onion” by Brown and the name sticks. To be an abolitionist was to be a fanatic. John Brown’s devotion to the cause of freeing slaves was fed by religious fervor, and McBride is brilliant in depicting this aspect of Brown’s character with a strong dose of comedy. This is an oddly and effectively funny book. You know how the story will end before you begin reading. There’s no mystery. But McBride manages to tell this story so compellingly it is difficult to put it down. McBride is also the author of The Color of Water, a memoir, which has made our reading lists several times over the last few years.
- Marisha Pessl, Night Film. I read Pessl’s debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a few years ago and placed it high on my list of favorite books. I was excited to get my hands on her sophomore effort, and it was worth the wait. Like her first novel, a father/daughter relationship is the animating force of the work. A young woman, daughter of a famed movie director, commits suicide. A disgraced journalist decides to take up the story and seeks to understand why someone so wealthy, beautiful and talented would kill herself. The investigation takes him through the director’s actual and filmic world. The story is dense and complicated, but Pessl builds scenes and characters that are absorbing. In the end, all the mystery has been exposed as, well, not very mysterious. We have learned a deep lesson about the magic of film: We buy into the illusions because we love and even need them.
- Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road. I know this is regarded as a classic by readers I respect, but I just got around to reading it. Is there a better take on the psychological toll of the corporate rat race in literature? A marriage begins in love and mutual respect. Under the pressure of life in middle-class America, it unravels. Yates is just plain unflinching when it comes to showing how destructive marital arguments can be. Intimacy becomes a weapon; love is a crowbar that wrenches open ribs to expose the soul. It is awful to read, and yet mesmerizing. All those compromises we make just to live and live well come back to haunt as resentments.
Poems, Memoir, Non-Fiction
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle. Let me admit that I’m just not cool enough for this book. Much of the slang and the knowing takes on the music of Coates’s youth are beyond me. But this is an insightful and moving memoir of Coates’ experiences growing up on the streets of Baltimore. What must you know to get to school and home again safely? What facial expression at the wrong time could get you killed? How many friends do you need to ward off violence? The relationship of Coates to his scholarly Black Panther, then former Black Panther, father is drawn lovingly, but without sacrificing the idiosyncrasies of the relationship. The writing is electric and edges toward the incendiary when it needs to. Racism is exposed in the fear and anger of this young person try not simply to survive, but to flourish as a human being. Coates is emerging as a major writer and public intellectual. He has a new book coming out this month. It will be on the top of my list come November or December.
- Christopher Finch, Chuck Close: Life. I love biographies of artists and musicians. But I have to say that I go into these works hoping to discover some key to creativity and vision and I always seem to come away disappointed. It turns out that much of what it takes to be a great artist is hard work. Talent comes in a distant second. Finch is a friend of Close’s, and the biography was commissioned. I knew there would not be any surprises about the life as it was portrayed. But the story of how Close responded to a devastating event – an occlusion of the spinal artery that left him nearly quadriplegic is amazing and inspirational. I love Close’s work. The book brought helped me understand this work a bit better. It was well worth the trip.
- Chris Hedges, The Wages of Rebellion. Hedges has been coming out with a book a year for over a decade now. I’ve read them all. I need his passionate critiques of corporate capitalism, party politics, the distortion of Christianity to justify hateful policies, and his diagnosis of our nation as sick and in need of radical democratic medicine. This book is a study of what Reinhold Niebuhr called the “sublime madness” at the moral core of any rebel or act of rebellion. The study is composed of an array of stories of those who willingly oppose policies and conditions they regard as unjust and criminal, even when these actions place them at great risk. The studies of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange and others are compelling, learned and insightful.
- James Wood, The Nearest Thing to Life. Wood is the critic who convinced me I needed to read Karl Ove Knausgaard, and so I am completely indebted to him. What I like most about Wood’s critical works is how they are suffused by love of literature and a belief that literary works make the world better. As crappy as we humans are and as awful as things are, we still can create works of surpassing beauty and wisdom. Sroies and novels by Chekhov, Sebald, Knausgaard and others not only describe the shape of our life, but they can give life shape too (as we readers know all too well).
- Marie Matsuki Mockett, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye . Matsuki Mockett is the daughter of a Scotsman and a Japanese woman, and she has traveled between Japan and the United States since her childhood. She is an outsider in Japan, but she speaks the language fluently and has made a study of Japanese tradition and spirituality. This is the background she brought to her visit to northern Japan after the earthquake, tsunami and contamination from the Fukushima nuclear facility. As she traveled, she sought to understand the changes this disaster made to the ordinary life of those affected directly. Yet, the book transcends the ordinary travelogue and becomes a philosophical reflection on family, death and the ordinary human quest to comprehend reality.
- Benjamin Lerner, The Good Doctor. This is a wonderful memoir by a physician and medical ethicist that compares the practice of his physician father with his own. We no longer live in a world where the doctor is God. The consequences of this transformation of how medical decisions are made are wide-ranging.
- Atul Gawande, Being Mortal. This is the most important book on healthcare in America available. Gawande blends the story of his father’s experiences of aging and dying with an analysis of American healthcare. Our country is getting older, but the system does not reflect this. Geriatric care should be a growth industry for current medical students, but it is an unpopular minor specialty instead. Gawande researches the history of nursing homes, euthanasia and palliative care in this rich and provocative volume. This is the book we need to begin a robust conversation on how we should take care of one another.
- Claudia Rankin, Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankin’s book was a finalist for the National Book Award in two categories: poetry and criticism. I think this is a first. What does it feel like to grow up black in America? Can you write of this experience in a way that leaves a white reader comprehending the injustice of the privilege and sense of entitlement they would experience if privilege and entitlement were not so invisible to the possessor? There are lines and sections of this book that left me ashamed and inspired to make the kind of social changes that originate in the activist. Rankin quotes James Baldwin’s observation: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.”
- Melanie Jordan, Hallelujah for the Ghosties. My colleague Lisa Propst turned me on to this debut collection of poems. The only sort of connection between the poems is the “I” of the writer and her playfulness. The emotions are entirely human and the voice, slow mostly, but occasionally fast, is brave. I keep this volume on my desk at work. I’ve been dipping into it for months now. It is a companion.
- Hoberman, Film After Film. Hoberman is a film critic who does more than assess the individual film. He raises larger, philosophical questions about what happens to movie making and the experience of watching a movie when the medium of the art has transitioned from film stock to digital, and when the effects achieved in a film are largely computer-generated. This book is divided between two large subject areas in the film world in the 21st century. The first area is composed of the ontological and experiential issues I just noted. The second pertains to the way the film industry responded to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and their aftermath. Hoberman is an intelligent guide to the intersection of movies and politics. Not only did I come away from the book with some deep questions about the movie business, but I have a fine list of films that I need to see.
- Donald Hall, Unpacking the Boxes. Hall is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and he has received the Medal of Freedom from President Obama. I do like his poetry. But it is his memoir writing that draws my attention and cultivates devotion. This book is a companion to his memoir on his marriage to Jane Kenyon and her death. I found it moving and now wonder why I fear aging so much.
John Ernst, program co-host (details on these titles coming soon)
Hold Still: A Memoir in Photographs — Sally Mann
Redeployment – Phil Klay. A collection of short stories and National Book Award winner
Bang the Drum Slowly – Mark Harris (oldie but goodie). A highly recommended classic, part of the author’s series of books about a baseball player and his life
Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson. A novel of big themes in American society
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir – Roz Chast (Ellen, you should read if you haven’t already)
As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride – Cary Elwes with Joe Laydon. For everyone who loves the film (and who doesn’t?)
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania – Erik Larson
Ellen Rocco, NCPR
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates. A collection of letters to his son about growing up, coming of age, and understanding the artificial construct of race in America. Coates is a leading thinker in a new generation of African-American writers.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Michel Alexander, introduction by Cornel West. “We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.”
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin. With so many race-related stories, issues and events on our national radar in the past couple of years, I’m planning to re-read Baldwin’s 1963 classic. I haven’t read it since it first came out—how will it touch me now, vs. the way I saw and understood the book when I was still a teenager?
Our Souls at Night, Ken Haruf
A Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan
The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee
Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, Dan Fagin
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Connie Meng, NCPR
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr — Won the Pulitzer. A WWII novel that tells the stories of a blind FRench girl and a young German boy whose stories eventually converge. It’s beautifully written has some of the feeling of “The Book Thief.”
Words Without Music, Philip Glass — A memoir, surprisingly humorous and interesting. Chronicles how he developed his musical style. Of interest to musicians and entertaining for the general public.
Jackie Sauter, NCPR
Kate Atkinson. All her books are wonderful, from her early Behind the Scenes at the Museum, to the Jackson Brody mysteries, to her more recent paired novels, Life After Life and A God in Ruins. Beautiful books about coincidence, the confluence of events, and how our presence and our actions impact the world around us.
Some authors I love and always recommend: Frances Itani. Her beautiful Deafening. Set in Belleville, Ontario, and her recent critically acclaimed sequel, Tell. Michael Ondaatje. Everything. But try some of his earlier work, like In the Skin of a Lion for a sense of farming near Lake Ontario and the building up of Toronto in the 1920s. Louise Penny. Mysteries set in Quebec, great summer reads — get going — her newest is out in August.
Donna Walsh Inglehart, Grindstone, A Novel. Civil War Era Confederate spies roaming through the Thousand Islands. A great summer read for young adults and their elders. Adventure, romance and a real sense of what life might have been like in our islands back then.
What I’m reading next: Jo Walton’s The Philosopher Kings, and her just-out sequel, The Just City. With a nod to Plato’s Republic, we’re talking sci-fi-fantasy complete with time traveling gods and goddesses and philosophical robots. I can’t wait!
Sarah Harris, NCPR
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Radio Bob Sauter, NCPR
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, the Game of Thrones series, classic Rex Stout novels from way back then
Michael Coffey, writer/editor
Note: Michael recommended the Philip Glass book, Words Without Music, too, and sent along a review he wrote for Bomb magazine (in the current issue). And, Michael pointed out that Philip Glass is cousin to Ira Glass. The book is really very good: great stories, artistic adventure and purity and ambition melded in one very nice man who worked for everything he got.
Elizabeth Folwell, Board Chair, Adirondack Center for Writing, an organization for readers and writers alike
As an audiobook, Dead Wake by Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City, is fascinating. He does such extensive research, and the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania even has an Adirondack hook–Alfred G. Vanderbilt, who owned Great Camp Sagamore, went down with the ship.
Like millions of other readers, I really enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See, and the story was all the more poignant because descriptions of people, places and events were not visual, depicted as a blind person would have observed them. I thought that was a terrific example of storycraft.
Marcia Brooks, a reader via email
The Nightingale, Kristen Hannah. I have long enjoyed Kristen Hannah books, but this one is outstanding. Men as well as women will enjoy it. The Nightingale takes place during WWII, mainly in France, and is the story of two sisters. Very well written with a great ending.
Pat Nelson, a reader via email
One of my favorites is On Behavior by Karen Pryor, a series of essays on the use of scientific behavior concepts by orchestra conductors, music teachers, dog obedience instructors, professors, sports coaches and many more. Who can resist articles with titles like “Why Orchestra Conductors Would Make Good Porpoise Trainers”, or “The Rhino Likes Violets” or “The Dreadful Dowager Dolphin”? Pryor’s writing is knowledgeable, perceptive and witty.
For those that like dogs and like mysteries, Neil Plakcy’s Golden Retriever Mysteries series, Karen Harbert’s Murder at the Dog Show, and Krista Davis’s Paws and Claws series will provide plenty of well-written suspense and interesting characters — human, canine and feline. Davis also has a series, “The Domestic Diva Mysteries” which is equally well-written with quirky characters and fewer canines. Both of Davis’s series feature recipes that may rouse you from your deck chair and into the kitchen.
For those who will be teaching or taking Chemistry 101 in the fall, and those who wish that Chem 101 had been more interesting, Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon: and Other True Tales of Madness, Love and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements will bring the subject to life.
Sally Lynch, a reader via email
My most memorable read this year is Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. This is nonfiction, beautifully researched, very well written and really original. It is an important book.
John Goddard, a reader via email
This is more in the way of a “heads up.” Author Sarah Bannan will be giving a talk and readings from her new book Weightless at the Johnsburg Public Library in North Creek at 7:00 pm tonight (Thursday 7/9/15). Sarah lives in Ireland and is visiting her parents who summer in North River.
I have not read the book but a couple of friends have recommended it and it seems to be getting good reviews.
Paul Monroe, A Blue Mountain Lake reader via email
10:04 by Ben Lerner. He is a poet so the prose is both accessible and dense. I read it twice in a row- something I have never done before.
Wendy Gordon, a reader via comment form
Brigid Schulte, Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play when No One has the Time. In a style reminiscent of Mary Roarke, Schulte, a journalist, goes on a mission to discover why she doesn’t have any time – not even enough to keep a time diary for expert analysis. Covering a wide swath of social sciences and different cultures, she does an excellent job of explaining where “the overwhelm” comes from and how to combat it, without ever taking on the preachy or overly-academic tone of so many similar books.
Marti Whitmer, a reader via Facebook
I am rereading the “Outlander” series of 8 books. There are nuances afresh with each rereading. It is one of those novels where one can see, feel, smell, and taste with each page. The characters delve into life issues unflinchingly. Love it!
Ellen Butz, a reader via Facebook
If you like mysteries I recommend any of the Venetian mysteries by Donna Leon. Well developed characters and a great sense of place. I especially enjoyed the recent Falling in Love.
Leslie Anne King, a reader via Facebook
Another mystery series: A series of five books, #5 out earlier this year, all set in Istanbul of the 1820s in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. The author is Jason Goodwin, the Investigator is Yashim a eunuch in the service of the sultan. I just re-read the first of them, The Janissary Tree and loved it again, looking forward to #5. The writing is good, the mysteries are good, and the setting is a wonderful way to learn about that very interesting place and time.
Rod Giltz, from Plattsburgh
Red Notice, by Bill Browder, about a hedge fund in Russia, intrigue and mystery
Jeremy, from Canton
Novels and essays on American pop culture by Chuck Klosterman
Mike, from Brandt Lake
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, post-apocalyptic fiction, for a walk on the dark side
JoAnn, from Lake Placid
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, from the 1980s. About keeping a light heart
Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer by Tracy Kidder, a classic biography about how one person can make a difference
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. Highly acclaimed historic study of African Americans’ move northward. National Book Award winner.
Joe from Wellesely Island
Albany-based William Kennedy novels: Ironweed, Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game
One Thousand Porches by Julie Dewey, the story of a family and TB and Saranac Lake
Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell
Tom, from Warrensburg
Approaching Twinight tby M. Thomas Apple
Mary in Watertown
Some Luck by Jane Smiley, a great read pf a family saga
Jackie in the Adirondacks
On the Move by Oliver Sacks
Ken from Grindstone Island
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, a classic
Michael from Potsdam
A memoir, From Jailer to Jailed My Journey from Correction and Police Commissioner to Inmate #84888-054 by Bernard Kerik. The case for prison reform by the controversial former NYC police commissioner.
Barbara via Facebook
Weightless: A Novel by Sarah Bannan
Champlain’s Dream by David Hackett Fisher
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
Kevin from Akwesasne
Eats, Shoots &Leaves by Lynne Truss, classic and funny take on grammar; Sacre Blau: A Comedy ‘Art by Christopher Moore, a comedy about art and other things
Phil Klay’s Redeployment
Betsy from Blue Mountain Lake
Dead Wake by Erick Larsen, the last voyage of the Lusitania; All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Dave from Burlington
Ulysses by James Joyce;
Master and Commander series by Patrick O’Brien, great summer reads
From the author, who lives in Trumansburg and summers in the 1000 Islands
Wolfe Island A New York Style American Historical Romance (Diamonds on the Water Book 1) by Giulia Torre
2666: A Novel by Roberto Bolano
The Whites: A Novel, by Richard Price
Whitney from Bombay
The Soil Will Save us by Kristin Olsohn
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride; The Sellout by Paul Beatty; Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie , The Arsonist by Sue Miller
Ghettoside by Jill Leovy
Bill from Minerva
New author Jason Matthews, his Red Sparrow and other spy novels; older author: W.C. Heinz, sportswriter and novelist
Louise Penney novels
From a listener
Principles of Navigation by Lynn Sloan
A String of Beads by Thomas Perry