The spring reading list: add your favorites


Photo: Amanoth via deviantArt

On Tuesday, March 26, from 10-noon, we aired our spring reading list call-in. We’ll keep adding to the body of this list through the weekend, then we’ll archive it in the “list” section of our book club pages.

Listen to the Cabin Fever Reading Call-in
These first titles are drawn from suggestions made during the call in or shared via Facebook or email. SCROLL DOWN TO SEE PROGRAM CO-HOSTS’ RECOMMENDATIONS.

Patrick Henry responded to our request for recommendations for younger readers. Here are his “10 great books for your kids” suggestions.

“The City of Orphans” – Avi and Greg Ruth
“The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman” – Meg Wolitzer
“Future of Us” – Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler
“he Fault in our Stars” – John Green
“Masterpiece”– Elise Broach
“See You at Harry’s” – Jo Knowles
“The Lions of Little Rock” – Kristin Levine
“Okay for Now” – Gary Schmidt
“Dave at Night” – Gail Levine
“The Year We Were Famous” – Carole Estby Dagg

Elizabeth in Malone: “Virgin Soul” by Judy Juanita

bob in Watertown: “Florida Road Kill” and related comic novels by Tom Dorsey

Phyllis in Norfolk: “Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep and Enough Wool to Save the Planet” and “Hit by a Farm” by Catherine Friend

Carl in Norwood: “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” by William Blake; “Howl” by Alan Ginsberg

Leslie Ann in Owego: “How It All Began” by Penelope Lively

Brenda in Potsdam: “The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice” by Amy Logan; “Mornings in Jenin” by Susan Abulhawa

Anonymous in Burlington: The Inspector Banks mystery series by Peter Robinson

Rich in Saranac Lake: “The Timekeeper” by Mitch Albom; “Aviator’s Wife” by Melanie Benjamin

John in Warrensburg: “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff

Mike in Brant Lake: “Cold Mountain” by Charles Frazier; “Wind Up Bird Chronicles” by Murakami

Tanya in Massena: “Thurber: Writings and Drawings” edited by Garrison Keillor

Carol: “Guests of the Emperor” byJanice Young Brooks.  This book from the 90’s is based on a true happening.  It tells the story of women and children taken captive during WW II and their life in a prison camp.  One woman kept a diary and much of the story is based on the diary.  It is very well written and a great read.

Rebekah Wilkins-Pepiton: “Fugitive Pieces” by Ann Michaels

Jamie Sheffield:  “Here Be Monsters” by Alan Snow and “A Monster Calls” by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay

Constance Brown: “Pigs in Heaven” by Barbara Kingsolver

Trevor Buchanan: “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein; “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

Sarah O’Connell: “The Favored Daughter” by Fawzia Koofi. Because Jon Stewart ordered his audience to buy this book and read it.

Ellen in Vermont: I have a 15 yr old with Down Syndrome who loves the Greek mythology stories..and also loves puns. His 9th grade class is currently reading The Odyssey and we needed a children’s version. Geraldine McCaughrean version is fantastic! We are have a blast finding all the hidden puns. So…for classics made available for children, would recommend Geraldine’s version.

Jill U Adams: “Me Before You” by JoJo Mayes

Phil Greenland: “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle (third re-read this year)

Joan Beaudette: ” A Walk Across The Sun” by Corban Addison is the kind of book that stays on your mind long after you finish it. Two Indian girls end up as sex slaves after their family dies in a sunami. A young lawyer in the U.S. goes to India to work pro bono for an agency that intervenes to save such girls. His estranged wife is in Bombay. All their lives cross and intertwine to save these girls. This story of hope and love is an excellent first novel for this author.

John in Potsdam: “Island Practice: Cobblestone Rash, Underground Tom, and Other Adventures of a Nantucket Doctor” by Pam Belluck; anything by Jim Harrison

Joy in Queensburg: “Till Morning Comes” by Han Suyin

Patricia in Old DeKalb: “Beowulf” translation by Seamus Heaney; and for young adult readers, “Green Glass Sea” by Ellen Klages

Phyllis in Glens Falls: “The World to Come” by Dana Horn; “Sign Painters” by Faythe Levine; “The Dog Stars” by Peter Heller

Michael in Potsdam: “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” by David Graeber

Fred in Lisbon: “Canada” by Richard Ford; “Left Behind” series of novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye

Suzanne in Saranac Lake: Reading the iconic writers of American literature including Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Also, Willa Cather’s “My Antonia” and Sinclair Lewis’ “Elmer Gantry”


Here are the recommendations from our call in co-hosts:

From John Ernst:

Apache women at camp site.

JOSANIE’S WAR: A Chiricahua Apache Novel – Karl H. Schlesier (1998)

Also: The Wolves of Heaven

I recently re-read this favorite of mine, a novel about the outbreak from Turkey Creek, near Fort Apache on May 17, 1885, of a small band of Chiricahua Apaches trying to escape a bleak life on the reservation and return to their homeland. Leading the band were Chihuahua and his brother, the war chief Josanie (who has also been known as Ulzana). Among them were Geronimo, Cochise’s son Naiche, Mangas, and the aged Nana — the flowers of the Apache warrior class.  In total there were 35 men, 8 boys, 101 women and children.

From the spring of 1885 until March 1886 they raided at will, cutting telegraph lines, evading large parts of the U. S. Army (led by paid Apache scouts like Chatto) and the Mexican army, killing soldiers and ranchers who offered opposition and miners, universally hated for their desecration of the earth, wherever they found them.

This is a kind of documentary novel, the narrative interspersed with contemporary newspaper accounts, dispatches and eyewitness reports. It also incorporates a view of Apache culture. Religious beliefs, rituals like the gotal (becoming a woman) ceremony, and purifications against such threats as ghost sickness. The author is professor emeritus of anthropology at Wichita State University and the novel is published in the distinguished American Indian Literature series at the University of Oklahoma. It is the real deal.

It is also the antidote to the 1972 Robert Aldrich film Ulzana’s Raid starring  Burt Lancaster, which covers the same ground but portrays the Apaches as despoilers, torturers and heartless rapists.

As to the writing, I find it compelling. One chapter begins:  “The war party left at sunrise on the cold morning of October 2 under a red sky…” If you can resist this, maybe you should skip the novel. If you find yourself wanting to know what comes next, prepare for a delight.

A HOLOGRAM FOR A KING – Dave Eggers (2012)

Also: Zeitoun, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Times 10 best of 2011

Alan Clay is middle-aged, divorced, near bankruptcy – reduced to worrying about having to pull his daughter out of college because he can’t pay tuition. He is also fresh from having witnessed part of a bizarre suicide by a disturbed neighbor who wanders into a freezing pond and stands there until he dies. Clay now finds himself in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, accompanied by a team of three young technicians whose mission is to sell King Abdullah, who is building an ambitious “Economic City” in the desert, on a brand-new hologram system of communication.

From this offbeat premise, Eggers forges a very odd but involving story, told simply and directly in short machine-gun bursts. Alan Clay’s serio-comic flounderings dramatize the enormous gap between the culture he represents and the one he is attempting to navigate. Eggers also hits themes relating to the export of manufacturing jobs, the centrifugal forces of a global economy, and ill-advised vanity construction projects.

Clay is a hollow man, not unsympathetic but completely unable to connect with other human beings – including a couple of interesting and attractive women who attempt to secure his attention. He is adrift in a strange land, waiting for a king who seems about as likely to show up as Godot. Finally, he enters a kind of limbo/stasis in which he is unable to move from a large tent in which he has spent so much time waiting for life to happen.

This is a poignant, interesting and sometimes comic novel– very timely, very unliterary – peopled largely by types rather than characters. I am of two minds about it but am left with a strong image of a man wandering about in 110 degree heat, trying to get from one half-completed glass building to another.

ESCAPE VELOCITY: A Charles Portis Miscellany — edited by Jay Jennings (2012)

There is a small but hearty band of enthusiasts who believe that Charles Portis is the greatest under-appreciated American writer – a writer who has been justly called “a twentieth century Mark Twain.” These patient people have been waiting over twenty years for a new work from the reclusive Portis. This collection is a partial answer to their prayers.

For the uninitiated, Charles Portis is the author of five novels. One of them, True Grit, is well known, although mainly due to two film versions (the first won  John Wayne his first academy award, the second was voted best motion picture for the Coen Brothers.) Both films completely miss the brilliance of the narrative voice in the novel. Of his four other novels –Norwood, The Dog of the South, Masters of Atlantis, and (my personal favorite) Gringos – I agree with Ed Park  in his appreciation in this book who calls, “three of them masterpieces, though which three is up for debate.”

This collection contains a selection of Portis’s newspaper reporting, notably pieces filed in 1963 from Selma and Birmingham at the height of the Civil Rights struggles; four terrific short stories; four travel pieces that are gems; a memoir fragment that one hopes is being fleshed out into a full book; a rare interview with a newspaper colleague; and a three act play produced by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in 1996.

For me, a 1967 piece about driving a ’52 half-ton Studebaker pickup over 1200 miles of washboard and ruts and mountain switchbacks down to Baja California is alone worth the price of admission. But it’s got close competition from a hilarious survey of $3 a night motels.

Portis is the Shakespeare of the delusional and the crooked, as Ed Park describes them: “brilliant and garrulous con artists, defrocked doctors, disgruntled inventors, dispossessed cranks, and disgraced dreamers who crawl out of the cracks and crevices of Trailways America with confident claims that they have the Philosopher’s Stone, the key to all mysteries.”

NW – Zadie Smith (2012)

NY Times 10 Best of 2011

Also: White Teeth, On Beauty

NW stands for the North West district of London. The novel focusses on two young women who have grown up in council estates (public housing) in the Caldwell section: Leah Hanwell and Keisha (later Natalie) Blake. In gradually widening circles, the story takes in their families, their school companions, and the neighborhood at large. Leah and Natalie are well-educated and upwardly mobile; many of their compatriots live in a war zone of drugs and casual stabbings.

But I don’t want to create the impression that this is a sociological tract. This is a novel blazing with life and energy and power. It is inventive in its form, electric in its telling. I don’t think there is a single listless sentence in the entire novel.

Zadie Smith is a prodigiously talented writer in full control of her medium. Her characters are conflicted, subtle, infuriating — they are real. The last section of the book is told in numbered sections of unequal length, like shards of broken glass that reflect light as brilliantly as diamonds.

If you are as deprived as I was, having never read Zadie Smith before, it is time to get on board. I don’t think you will regret it in any way. I certainly wonder why it took me so long.

From Chris Robinson:

I have been thinking a lot about the changes in the experience of time that emerge over the course of a lifetime. Relativity plays a role. As a child, a year is experienced as a terribly long expanse, particularly when a birthday or holiday is on the horizon. For teens, time is felt in terms of impatience, fear of the unknown, and a yearning for independence. Once you leave the structure of compulsory education and strike out as a young adult, the old measures fall away. You find yourself experiencing time as pressure for employment, promotions, serious dating, marriage and children. Time in one’s mid-forties through sixties is an ever-accelerating blur lived between nostalgia for one’s youth and preparation for a future that promises more leisurely time and physical decline. Hannah Arendt wrote that time slows down when you reach old age. I’m counting on this.

Reading provides unique space for reflection on the experience of time. In a novel, which is inevitably about time, I can see that even the more coercive encounters with its passage are preferable to a life without time.  Life in a universal present would be akin to endless and inescapable childhood. Time is inextricably tied to growing acceptance of mortality. Reflection of time’s qualities of beginning and end render life meaningful. You must ask, as literary characters must ask, how can I make my short time on this earth interesting?  What can I do to render life rich and significant for myself and for those I love?  A life committed to reading is also an imagination open to the influences of time.

Here’s how I have been feeding my imagination:

  • David Shields, How Literature Saved my Life. There is irony in the title of this collection of short essays; literature cannot save your life; literature cannot save you from loneliness. But it can instill senses of honesty and offer a vocabulary for critical self-reflection. As Shields shows, this is enough of a reason to commit yourself to reading.
  • Pico Iyer, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto. Last year, I recommended Iyer’s beautiful memoir of his father and his favorite writer, Graham Greene, The Man Inside My Head. The strength of that book led me to seek out the whole catalogue of Iyer’s writings. The Lady and the Monk refers to Iyer’s love affair with the city of Kyoto. There is a love story within this love story.  Iyer meets a woman who is married and has two children. Their friendship blossoms into love, and it should be one of those relationships doomed to fail. The forces of tradition should have been too strong for this love to even be consummated much less survive. I won’t ruin the story and its ending for you.
  • Benoit Peeters, Derrida.  This is the most comprehensive biography of the great philosopher Jacques Derrida to date. Of course there are a lot of scurrilous prigs out there in philosophy land who contend that Derrida was not a philosopher at all. This book was written as a response to such claims. Derrida was a thinker possessed by creative forces. Peeters does a magnificent job of showing Derrida in the act of philosophizing though his dozens of books on subjects that range from writing, to art, to the instability of meaning, to death. I read this enormous tract in about four days. I was utterly immersed in Peeters careful linking of life and work in this important philosophical biography.
  • Gillian Rose, Paradiso. This is a fragment of a book, published posthumously. It should be seen as a continuation of Rose’s autobiography, Love’s Work. In the first book, Rose recounts the death of her friend Jim of AIDs, her romantic relationship with a Priest, and the diagnosis of her cancer. Paradiso was composed in the final months of her life. She thinks profoundly on how philosophy in ancient Greece took a therapeutic turn designed to provide relief from delusions, while ancient medicine took a turn to the philosophical. Rose situated herself at this intersection.
  • Chris Kraus, Torpor. I have been promoting Kraus’s literary works and her art criticism for a couple of years now.  I Love Dick, her first novel, is something of a cult classic at this point. Torpor is another novel that is the result of creative entwining of Kraus’ autobiography and the life she would truly like to lead. This book lacks the humor of I Love Dick, and verges toward self-absorption that ignores the reader. Nevertheless, Torpor is part of a larger and interesting project that seeks to efface traditional oppositions between fiction and non-fiction, masculinity and femininity, creativity and mimicry, truth and illusion.
  • Laurie Frankl, Goodbye for Now: A Novel. The protagonist of this novel is a programmer who designed an algorithm for a matchmaking site that was so accurate and good that he was immediately fired for threatening to destroy an industry that profited from people’s repeated failures to find a perfect mate.  Before he is fired, he tries it for himself, and meets the most perfect soulmate imaginable.  He moves onto a new project which promises immortality for those who have enough online video and email presence.  After you die, this repository of communications can be reassembled by algorithm so that you can appear to be communicating with loved ones. Is this a great gift or is it something else?
  • Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. This is the most important book I’ve read in years. It has been compared to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring because of the size and depth of the injustice it observes. Alexander’s focus is on the racial underpinnings of the mass incarceration implemented under the guise of “the War on Drugs.” Alexander digs out the irrationalities at work in this putative war that have been covered over by claims of legal neutrality.  Today we have a society divided between those who have rights and those who have lost their rights during and as a result of incarceration. Not surprisingly, those deprived of rights associated with citizenship are disproportionately African American and Latino.
  • Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve. What a cool book this is!  It is a study of Lucretius and his philosophy of nature primarily, but Greenblatt offers a rich and thoughtful examination of the effects of the epic poem “On the Nature of Things” for Western Culture and modernity. Greenblatt traces this influence through the works of Galileo, Freud, Darwin and Einstein. This book by Lucretius, lost for centuries, returned to become an extraordinary lens through which one can examine the emergence of materialism and science as cultural forces.
  • Roman Krznaric: The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live. Krznaric thesis is that we can read history for insights on how to live, rather than for information or to avoid repeating unpleasant events. From ancient Greeks we can learn a lot about love and relationships. From the Balinese we can learn something about how to live apart from the rigid structure of the clock. The Renaissance can teach us about leading a life devoted to creativity. This is a book full of interesting little oddities and tidbits from thinkers and eras. The section on “Belief” is particularly strong.
  • Brian Lamb, Book Notes. Many thanks to Joel Hurd and June Peoples for donating this book to my library. It is no secret in my house that my favorite channel is Book TV (C-SPAN 2 on weekends).  I have a special affection for Brian Lamb’s interviewing style. When he speaks with an author, he gets right to the nuts and bolts of the writing life.  How do you go about writing? Where do you do it?  The result is a collection of interviews that offer a range of avenues onto the life of the writer. Brilliant stuff, even though many of the figures included in the volume espouse political beliefs that are insufferably conservative.
  • Alfred Kazin, Journals. The world of the New York Intellectual fascinates me.  I can’t get enough about The Partisan Review crowd. Kazin was one of the exemplars of the era. Along with Edmund Wilson, Kazin invented the area of study called “American Literary Culture.” While many of his cohort were thumbing their noses at American literature and seeking true literary experience in Europe, Kazin took on the American transcendentalists, the progressives, and other outliers in the culture, and through a fine set of studies made a compelling case for the profundity and democratic character of our literary heritage. The Journals are sites of experimentation and soul baring that makes for compelling reading.
  • Lars Iyer, Exodus. It is my job to inform you that there is a contemporary author who writes in a manner reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. That is, Iyer in his trilogy – Spurious, Dogma and Exodus – presents two characters (W. and Lars) that appraise and represent the decline of contemporary Western culture. These books are often hilarious, and unfailingly poignant. Exodus is the best volume of the trilogy and covers the neoliberal destruction of the university and the messianic turn in W’s thought.
  • Eleni Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend.  Ferrante is a mystery in Italian literary circles. She is a best-selling author, but no one knows if she is a recluse or a pseudonym.  What I know is that this novel is brilliant and the translation superb.  My Brilliant Friend is the story of two girls growing up in the same impoverished neighborhood of Perugia. Both excel at school.  One because she is a genius and the other because she struggles to keep up with her friend. Neither comes from a family that values education. In the end, one leaves school after her grammar school education is completed. The other continues on and rises to the very top of her high school class. How the friendship survives the divide is a central issue in the story.  The psychological depth of these characters is an achievement of great literary talent.
  • J. Courtney Sullivan, Commencement.  I think I got this book because Fresh Air’s Maureen Corrigan recommended it.  Corrigan rarely steers me in the wrong direction. At first, I thought this novel was going to be popular and lightweight – a mere entertainment (which is fine). But after several chapters of this novel about four women who meet in their frosh dorm at Smith College I was convinced that this was a work of true literary ambition. Sullivan does a brilliant job of entwining the lives of the characters to create a rich, piebald tapestry that reveals important dimensions of friendship, privilege, radical politics, sexuality and feminism as they are experienced by young women today. Yes, it is about Smithies and the strange traditions of the campus; but the characters come from unique backgrounds and experience life in ways that prove their college years formative, yet idiosyncratic and unpredictable.
  • Michelle Orange, This is Running for Your Life: Essays. This is a first book that inaugurates, I believe, what will be a great literary and journalistic career. Orange’s themes are memory, nostalgia and coping with life’s changes.  She must be in her mid-thirties, but she possesses a voice that resonates with wisdom and clarity. I really should hate her.  An essay on visiting her grandmother at a retirement home is the occasion for remarkable reflection on the indignities of aging. The closing essay on running and obsession is a superb psychological portrait of a person who seeks escape from the friction of the real world in an idealized fantasy stimulated by physical exhaustion.
  • Daniel Mendelsohn, Waiting for the Barbarians. Readers of the New York Review of Books, The New Republic and The New Yorker will be familiar with the critical essays of Mendelsohn.  His last book was The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million, an affecting memoir of the Holocaust and its aftermath for a family. Waiting for the Barbarians is a collection of essays on literature and popular culture. Mendelsohn is a trained classicist, and is at his best when he is showing how the themes of Homer and tragedians are revisited in contemporary works and films.  You will never watch a James Cameron movie the same way again.
  • Ali Smith, Artful. This is a difficult book to categorize or to describe. But it is beautiful and moving.  Smith has achieved something unique in this book that is, explicitly, a set of lectures on aesthetics and language. But the lectures blur the line between novel and poetry, literature and literary criticism. The lectures are united by the story of a woman in the throes of mourning her recently dead husband. He comes back to visit her, and to pine over the set of lectures he failed to complete or deliver before he died. This is no gimmick – this fictional component is too sad to be seen as anything other than “artful.” I’m sure I don’t understand everything going on in this book.  Smith anticipates this, and chides us for accepting that we cannot know a piece of music after one listening. Why would we believe we could grasp a book after only one reading? Indeed.

From Ellen Rocco:

Okay, now that I’ve shared my co-hosts’ really robust lists with you, here are my puny additions to this undertaking:

“Salvage the Bones” by Jessmyn Ward (National Book Award winner for fiction a couple of years ago), about a young, poor African-American girl living on the Mississippi coast just before and after Hurricane Katrina

“Girl in Translation” by Jean Kwok, a novel about a Chinese immigrant becoming an American

“Three Graves Full” by Jamie Mason, a first-time mystery, well written

“You Know When the Men Are Gone” by Siobhan Fallon, who will be at JCC and Fort Drum on April 23, at SUNY Canton on April 24–I loved this collection of short stories, mostly about how army families cope

“The Dream Merchant” by Fred Waitzin–a surprise discovery for me, and a current favorite, kind of an updated Death of the Salesman, seasoned with, as the NY Times reviewer put it, Heart of Darkness. Whatever you compare it to, it’s a book that stands firmly on it’s own, with strong clear voices.

And, when Fred Waitzin joined us on air, he recommended “This Is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz (collection of loosely related short stories), and “The Train” by George Simenon.




  1. Brandon Amo says:

    I just finished reading *The Power and the Glory* by Graham Greene. This is the first work by Mr. Greene that I have read, and would recommend it highly. Posting this on FaceBook resulted in accolades from several former professors and friends with recommendations to read Greene’s *The Quiet American.* I will do that after I finish reading a book by a North Country author: *The Plum Tree* by Ellen Marie Wiseman. Another North Country writer and SUNY Jefferson professor, Ray Peterson, PhD. had a second novel published in the fall: *The Middle of Everywhere.* When you read Ray’s book, you will know all the characters. They live next door to all of us.

  2. Couple of suggestions 1. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. Ellen mentioned Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward, which is a great first novel partially written in Blue Mountain Lake. Silver Sparrow is sort of in the same genre. A first novel by a Southern African American writer. This one is about a girl growing up in Atlanta the daughter of a nurse who is the secret second wife of a small business owner. Very well written.

    2. Sort of obvious: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. This is the great African novel by the recently deceased Nigerian writer. It reads sort of like a Shakespearean tragedy.

  3. jim brush says:

    Hi, one of your guests spoke of a book about the Apache, but did not say title or author. could you pass this along? Thanks, Jim

    • Ellen Rocco says:

      John Ernst recommended it. Josanie’s War: A Chiricahua Apache Novel (published by Karl H. Schlesier, 1998). More detail above in body of post.

  4. Joan Beaudette says:

    ” A Walk Across The Sun” by Corban Addison is the kind of book that stays on your mind long after you finish it. Two Indian girls end up as sex slaves after their family dies in a sunami. A young lawyer in the U.S. goes to India to work pro bono for an agency that intervenes to save such girls. His estranged wife is in Bombay. All their lives cross and intertwine to save these girls. This story of hope and love is an excellent first novel for this author.

  5. Great show today, Ellen.
    Cold Mountain and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles; two recent favorites.