Summer Readers' Picks
by Wendy Bronson
My first reaction to the idea of books as gardens was delight in the notion of green and quiet places set aside for reflection and enjoyment. I thought of the murmur of fountains in exotic gardens, of the golden boughs of Byzantine artifice, of the exquisite quiet jewels of Oxford quads you can glimpse from the dusty and bustling streets, like Alice glimpsing a magical garden past a door through which it seems she can never fit. Lately, however, I have found this image a bit more earthy, as I am daily confronted with my own very real Midwestern vegetable garden. As the heat and humidity of a Louisville summer reduce me to a sluggish torpor, my garden flourishes like the green bay tree, wickedly. All that generation! Neatly ordered rows disappear in an unruly riot of vines, stalks, tendrils, flowers, fruit: it is exhausting even to look at it. And the idea of carrying around something like that in my pocket is distinctly unsettling. But I suppose it is just an apt an image for the books I do carry in my pocket, for not only do books order and shape and give meaning to my experience, they also surprise me with vital images and generate new ideas and connections.
And so -- forgive me, dear reader -- I begin my summer picks with some perennial favorites, novelists whose work is always a pleasure. Louise Erdrich has a new novel about the family patterns through generations of Native Americans, including life in contemporary Minneapolis. The Antelope Wife (Browsing PS3555 .R42 A8 1998) extends the branches of the families who populate her novels, and like her earlier novels, it is full of humor in the midst of despair, a kind of magic realism, and characters like a dog named Almost Soup. This sixth novel can be read on its own or as a welcome continuation of her earlier works. All of Jane Smiley’s books, on the other hand, seem very different from each other. But they are all excellent, and I have especially enjoyed The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (Browsing PS 3569 .M39 A79 1998). This is the first person account of an unconventional woman who goes to live in Kansas Territory in the 1850s. This novel brings alive the struggles over slavery that were tearing the country and people’s lives apart. One little detail I loved about the book is that each right hand page has its own heading, such as “A Discomforting Incident’ and “At the Mercy of a Ruffian.” It is indicative of the care and skill with which this disquieting novel is constructed. Anne Tyler also has a new novel, A Patchwork Planet (Browsing PS 3570 .Y45 P38 1998), which continues her evocative portrayals of eccentric, yet very real characters living in a Baltimore that is Anne Tyler’s own magical place. One critic says that she subverts domesticity with fantasy and fantasy with domesticity. Her novels are a wonderful combination of superb craftsmanship and deceptively easy reading. Ruth Rendell, the British master of suspense thrillers and mysteries, has a relatively new novel called The Keys to the Street (Browsing PR 6068 .E63 K48 1996). She manages to bring alive the streets of London and the inner lives of a homeless man, a vulnerable young woman, and a crack addict. Two perennial favorites are still on my list: Toni Morrison’s Paradise (Browsing PS 35 63 .O8749 P37 1998) and Sarah Paretsky’s Ghost Country (PS 3566 .A647 G47 1998).
I finally tried a novel by a writer I’ve enjoyed for years as a poet. Marge Piercy’s Gone to Soldiers (PS 3566 I4 G6 1987) is a huge sprawling novel about World War II which brings alive the experiences of people in both the United States and Europe, including many branches of a Jewish family. Even though it is such a monumental novel, it is composed of small, telling details and growing, developing characters, especially women who experience the dislocation of war. At the end of the book the emigration to Palestine of several characters is completely understandable and even inspiring, but the book ends with the words: The End of One Set of Troubles Is But the Beginning of Another. Immediately after finishing Gone to Soldiers, I read my favorite novel of the year, Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate (Browsing PS 3569 .T6418 D36 1998). And indeed, his book is the best description I have read yet of the set of troubles in what is now Israel, with its explosive mixture of people of different fanatical faiths (and complete cynicism) and the violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in the terrible conditions of the refugee camps. This is book is a suspenseful thriller about a bomb plot on the Temple Mount, but it is also the portrait of a country and the fascinating city of Jerusalem, and an examination of what faith means in a secular age. I couldn’t put it down. David Horvath first introduced me to Robert Stone by telling me about his novel A Flag for Sunrise (PS 3569 .T6418 F59 1981), which examines similar themes in a Central American setting. This brings me to one last novel, another depiction of Central America called The Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman (Browsing PS 3557 .O368 L66 1992). The title does not appeal to me particularly, so I probably wouldn’t have read this excellent novel if a friend hadn’t recommended it. This is a murder mystery, but it is also a novel about the cultures of Guatemala and the U.S. and their relationship. This is a bi-cultural novel about what it was like to live under the repressive military regime in Guatemala and also about our complicity in creating that world.
Most of you are probably so busy upgrading computers and implementing Voyager that you don't have the time to read these suggestions about books, much less the books themselves. This pressure may, however, put you in a more receptive frame of mind to read the following nonfiction book about "technophilia and its discontents" (the subtitle of the book). This refreshing and well written look at computers comes from the ultimate insider, Ellen Ullman, who is a computer programmer and software engineer. A commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered", Ullman has written Close to the Machine (1997), a funny, delightful, and frightening book. Ullman describes the life and work of a programmer and presents her reservations about our virtual lives, which are all the more legitimate because of her expertise. One of her observations is that computers are not really neutral machines: "there is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data, that recreates the world in its own image. Like the rock and roll culture, it forms an irresistible horizontal country that obliterates the long, slow, old cultures of place and custom, law and social life. We think we are creating the system for our own purposes. We believe we are making it in our own image...But the computer is not really like us. It is a projection of a very slim part of ourselves...We place this small projection of ourselves all around us, and we make ourselves reliant on it...The only problem is this: the more we surround ourselves with a narrowed notion of existence, the more narrow existence becomes." And which of us has not experienced the following? "When I watch the users try the Internet, it slowly becomes clear to me that the Net represents the ultimate dumbing-down of the computer. The users seem to believe that they are connected to some vast treasure trove--all the knowledge of our times, an endless digitized compendium, some electronic library of Alexandria--if only they could figure out how to search it properly. They sit and click, and look disconcertedly at the junk that comes back at them." This is a short but insightful book, and I think it would be as enjoyable and thought provoking for computer lovers as for Luddites like me.
My favorite nonfiction book of the season is Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (Browsing BV 4501.2 N63 1998). This is a series of short reflections on many different words associated with spirituality and religion, from judgement to redemption to one of my personal favorites, Ebenezer. Norris, a poet, examines these words from the perspective of a writer who gradually came back to the church after she left New York City and moved to her grandmother's home in rural Dakota. (She discovered a Benedictine monastery, of all things, on those bleak but nourishing plains, and has written of her experiences in two earlier books also.) Norris deals with the “scary” language of the church in a way that is particularly meaningful to people who may have been scarred by their experiences with institutionalized religion. This is a moving and accessible book, not preachy or scholarly, comprised of short segments which are easy to read in a sitting. It makes ideal summer reading, and it is an excellent gift book too.
Many thanks to Eric Neagle, who found a jewel in the "junk" of the Internet as he located a book I have tried to find for twenty years or so. This childhood favorite, Marion Bullard's The Enchanted Button (1930), is a real treasure. Please check out "Eric's Cool Places to Find Books on the Web" for ways to find your own old favorites or out of print books. I hope you enjoy the following Readers' Picks for this summer as much as I have, and may your gardens prosper!
Eric Neagle: I have been taking a trip down memory lane this summer. I've been reading books that I loved during my grade-school years. The first is a collection of poetry called All the Silver Pennies by Blanche Jennings Thompson. It is the 1967 compilation of Silver Pennies (published in the 1920s) and More Silver Pennies (published in the 1930s). It has work from a number of poets such as Vachel Lindsay, Sara Teasdale and Langston Hughes. The illustrations (Ursala Arndt) are perfect for the poems which center around topics such as fairies, elves, stars and mythical figures such as the griffin. It is the book that I renewed at the library every week for nearly two years when I was in the 3rd and 4th grades. It is a very sweet book of poems for little kids. The other is a favorite from my 6th grade year, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. It is the story of a little boy who wants nothing more than to have two coon hounds so that he can hunt racoons. Since his family is poor, he begins to do odd jobs around the area and saves up enough money to get the dogs. It's a great story about the love of a little boy for his dogs and their love for him.
Both of these books should be available at your local branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. All the Silver Pennies has been out of print for a number of years, but Where the Red Fern Grows is still available in paperback as it is often used in summer reading programs.
Kathie Johnson: My favorite read of late has been Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells (Browsing PS3573 .E4937 D58.) We read this for my book club (all women in their 40s), and we all loved it. Siddalee Walker, a New York playwright and director in her early 40s, is trying to put together a production about the importance of women's friendship using her mother (Vivi Abbott Walker) and her mother's lifelong friends (known as the Ya-Yas) as inspiration. Unfortunately, Vivi is not speaking to Sidda due to some less than flattering comments that were printed in a New York Times interview. Vivi reluctantly agrees to send Sidda her scrapbook (titled "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”), which Vivi has kept since childhood, to use for research. Through the stories which burst forth from the pages of the scrapbook, Sidda's painful memories of an erratic childhood, and a visit to Sidda from all the rest of the Ya-Yas, the reader learns what makes Vivi the difficult, yet lovable person that she is, the reason Sidda has so many unresolved issues in her adult life, and the importance of friendship in life's journey.
This book is Pat Conroy meets Fannie Flagg, pathos mixed with hilarity. Rebecca Wells has crafted a very readable and true-to-life work of fiction which helps interpret mother-daughter dynamics. By the end of the story, you will wish you could travel to Louisiana to meet Vivi, a cross between Auntie Mame and Mommie Dearest, as well as her wonderful and faithful friends, Necie, Teensy, and Caro. A great beach or hammock read!
[Editor’s Note: Kathie also highly recommends Slow Dancing on Dinosaur Bones by Lana Witt (Browsing PS 3573 .I9157 S57 1996), a novel set in a small town in eastern Kentucky.]
Anna Marie Johnson:
Tooth Imprints on a Corn Dog / Mark Leyner
N is for Noose / Sue Grafton
Fahrenheit 451 / Ray Bradbury
Mary Becker: I haven't read it yet (it's next!) but had two recommendations for Dean Koontz's Intensity (Browsing PS 3561 .O55 I58 1996) within days of one another. I do know that it is about a young woman who hides in her house while her family is killed, then is found, and the killer kidnaps her. It’s supposedly a "can't put down" book. I have not read a lot of Koontz in the last few years (too weird for me) but an older book of his, Strangers, is one of my favorites. It is about a government conspiracy to cover up a spaceship landing in the western U.S. Strangers is long enough to last almost a week on the beach :)
Margaret Merrick: I visited Arches National Park during my vacation. While in the Visitor's Center, I visited the gift shop and picked out Desert Solitaire (PS 3551 .B2 Z5) by Edward Abbey to take home. Abbey, who died in 1989, is considered a western writer and environmentalist. He was considered to be a rather iconoclastic figure. Desert Solitaire is a memoir to Abbey's two-year stint as a ranger at Arches for the National Park Service.
I read Desert Solitaire after I got home and enjoyed it very much, although I wish I had read it before I visited Arches. Having visited and hiked some of the areas he wrote about, the book reinforced my impressions of this extraordinary place. The park itself is not much changed from the time he wrote the book, despite his concerns that pavement would destroy it by bringing hordes of tourists into the park. The town Moab, however, is very much changed from his descriptions of a sleepy, small town. Now, it is a mecca for young mountain bikers. Abbey has been described as the "Thoreau of the American West." If you have an interest in the West or in conservation, you'll enjoy this book.
Gary Freiburger: I would like to recommend A Walk in the Woods (Browsing F 106 .B92 1998) by Bill Bryson. It is a humorous, non-fiction account of the author's attempt to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail. Although used to day-hikes in England, Bryson didn't realize what awaited him along this 1900 mile trail. He was hampered not only by his lack of experience but also by his companion, an old high school buddy and (almost) reformed alcoholic, Steven Katz. Katz's idea of trail food is three dozen Little Debbies and a six-pack of Yoo-Hoo. This is primarily a witty account of a man trying to get in touch with nature but it also describes the history of this trail and some fairly stinging indictments of the National Park Service.
ERIC'S COOL PLACES TO FIND BOOKS ON THE WEB
These are the sites that Eric Neagle has found the most helpful in locating those hard to find books. If you lose the addresses you can always visit Eric's home page on the Web (http://www.louisville.edu~elneag01), where he has them as links. Several other book-related links are on the Collection Management pages as well (http://www.louisville.edu/collmgmt)