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Posted by on Jul 16, 2007 in At TMV | 17 comments

Five Great Books For Summer Reading

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Irène Némirovsky

The Internet and blogosphere notwithstanding, we live in an age of great books. Well, perhaps every age since Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type around 1450 is a great age for books, but I revel in and continue to be amazed at at the incredible breadth and depth of the contemporary bookshelf.

Following are five books that I’d recommend for summer reading. None are long, can be read between swims in the ocean, dips in the pool or TSA searches at the airport, and are available in paperback.

Falling Through the Earth

This 2006 memoir is about author Danielle Trussoni’s journey to try to understand her father, Daniel, by turns a nasty and loving man who was a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam, a nightmarishly dangerous job that involved hunting for Viet Cong guerrillas in their subterranean labyrinths.

When Daniel moved out after a bitter break-up with her mother, Danielle followed him. Most of Falling concerns her life with her father — much of it in various smoky bars communing with his friends and lovers — and her efforts to learn who he was before the war so inextricably changed him. Trussoni herself travels to Vietnam, and it should come as no surprise that Falling also is a story of self discovery.

Trussoni writes with a direct, spare and unaffected style that makes Falling even more engaging. It is a book for our times, as well, with soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan who like her father will be changed forever.

Life of Pi

Beware when anyone tries to tell you that a book is magical, but this one is.

The plot line of this 2001 novel by Canadian writer Yann Martel is simple: A young man and a 450-pound Bengal tiger spend 227 days in a lifeboat in the Pacific, and the young man learns a lot more than just how to stay at his end of the boat.

The young man is Pi, the 16-year-old son of a zookeeper who tries on religious faiths like outfits of clothing. But after a harrowing shipwreck he finds himself drifting in a 26-foot lifeboat with the tiger, named Richard Parker, and a zebra, spotted hyena and orangutan.

To say that Pi finds faith as he struggles to survive one hallucinatory experience after another is an understatement. Does Life of Pi have a happy ending? You’ll have to be the judge.

The Man Who Would Be King

The full title of this fascinating 2005 history by Ben Macintyre is The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan. It recounts the story of Josiah Harlan, a Pennsylvania Quaker who sailed to Calcutta on a merchant ship in 1822 to erase the memory of a fiancée who jilted him and married another man.

Harlan eventually ended up in Afghanistan with the dream of carving out a kingdom for himself. Amazingly, he sort of succeeded, albeit temporarily, by becoming a confidant of Afghan warlords and a player in the “Great Game” between Russia and Britain.

Macintyre draws heavily on Harlan’s beautifully written but unpublished journals, which include accounts of his introduction of Western medicines and doctoring. Incidentally, while Quakers eschew violence, Harlan never let that get in the way of pursuing his goals in a fierce backwater that was dominated then — as today — by superpowers. By the way, he made it home without a crown on his head, but very much alive.

Suite Française

It has been a long time since I have encountered as beautiful a writer as Irène Némirovksy, a Russian Jew who converted to Catholicism and was a literary sensation in in Paris prior to World War II.

Némirovksy had begun a planned five-novel cycle as the Nazis overran northern France in 1940, but only two parts were written before she was arrested and taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she died in 1942. The book surfaced more than six decades after her death and was ably translated by Sandra Smith prior to its publication in the U.S. last year.

The first suite concerns a disparate group of Parisians who deal with the approaching German army in their own ways, while the second focuses on a farming village under Nazi occupation.

This is, for my money, the most beautifully written book to come along in years, and all the more so because it had not even been polished.

The Year of Magical Thinking

Shortly before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall gravely ill. Days later, Dunne suffered a fatal heart attack, ending a symbiotic marriage between the two great American writers who had talked to each other every day for some 40 years no matter where they were.

This account of the year following Dunne’s death is Didion’s most powerful book. While she had many friends and family, her husband wasn’t there and each new day seemed as devastating as the one before as she realizes there is no one to hear the news, with whom to make plans and to complete her thoughts.

Didion attempts to make sense of the “weeks and then months that cut loose any fixed idea I ever had about death, about illness . . . about marriage and children and memory . . . about the shallowness of sanity, about life itself.” She succeeds admirably.

What are your suggestions?

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Copyright 2007 The Moderate Voice
  • George Sorwell

    The Man Who Would be King and Suite Française seem like my kind of thing.

    Does this mean I can give up on Gravity’ Rainbow?

    I recommend:

    A Fan’s Notes.

    The Killer Angels.

    Battle Cry of Freedom.

    I hope all that HTML works.

  • Mr. S:

    Funny that you should mention Gravity’s Rainbow. I know I have plenty of company in noting that I always have struggled with Pynchon, but I am now over 400 pages into Against the Day, his new 1,300-page opus, and it is easily his most accessible book. And a real hoot.

    Meanwhile, I heartily second your recommendation of A Fan’s Notes.

  • I would add any of those to my reading list, but my ‘to read’ pile is already a mile high.

    Anyway, I thought about what I’ve read, and these should qualify as ‘light’ reading:

    Never Have Your Dog Stuffed ( Alan Alda)

    Pope Joan (Donna Cross)

    Brick Lane (Monica Ali)

    Also, if you don’t mind large series of books, Bernard Cornwell, especially the Sharpe novels. And if anyone likes fantasy, Robert Jordan is great, though there are eleven books in his series so far.

  • Davebo

    Might I suggest, for the dog lovers, Merle’s Door. Lessons from a free thinking dog.

    But warning, it’s a tear jerker at the end. But aren’t all books about dogs?

  • My wife read Suite Francaise, but said that it reads like the first draft it is. Too many poor parts and undeveloped characters.

    Life of Pi is an ok idea, but is the sort of banal literature Jason Steck is mentioning in his Harry Potter post.

    http://www.cosmoetica.com/B198-DES140.htm

    It’s not coming out till the end of summer, but I’d recommend Steven Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought:

    http://www.cosmoetica.com/B598-DES519.htm

    He deals with everything from politics to the way people think to the way they name themselves. It’s a great book.

  • Cosmo:

    Your wife shouldn’t quit her day job. One of the things that makes Suite Française so sweet is precisely what she objects to.

    Regarding Life of Pi, “banal” literature is in the eye of the beholder, and I am respectful of the fact that you breathe air far rarer than most mere mortals like myself and can flick this well told story aside with the back of your hand.

    The Harry Potter series will never be confused with the Alexandria Quartet, and I bogged down 30 pages into the one Rowling that I tried to read. But I don’t give a hoot because the series has brought great pleasure to so many young people, including a computer-addled nephew, who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a book except to use as a doorstop.

    In my view, there are few bad books, only varying degrees of good books.

  • Shaun Mullen’s tombstone: ‘Too many poor parts and undeveloped characters are the stuff of great literature.’

    SWEET, dude!

    As for Life Of Pi, he even cribbed the story from another writer, and then told a much more compelling version of the tale after the main tale, and was unaware of it.

    And then the stonesmith amended the tombstone:

    ‘Too many poor parts and undeveloped characters [PLUS BANAL AND BLOATED STORY ARCS) are the stuff of great literature.’

    ‘But I don’t give a hoot because the series has brought great pleasure to so many young people, including a computer-addled nephew, who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a book except to use as a doorstop.’

    So has crack, sniffing glue, and consorting with ladies of the night- but they all can fry your brain.

    ‘In my view, there are few bad books, only varying degrees of good books.’

    Crack, glue, or ladies, for that silly quote?

  • George Sorwell

    I appreciate the joy Shaun takes in reading.

    And since he’s known to praise Frederick Exley and Tim O’Brien, I’m completely willing to vouch for the quality of Shaun’s taste.

    Sorry I’m a day late. I had no inkling this pleasant thread would degenerate into tedious scolding.

  • George:

    H-U-M-O-R.

    You can get some from the ice cream truck.

    bbbrriinngg!

    ‘I’m completely willing to vouch for the quality of Shaun’s taste.’

    ‘Twasn’t the taste, but the gray matter, that was under question.

  • George Sorwell

    Cosmo–

    So, your defenses are

    a) it was a joke

    b) Shaun’s brain don’t work!!

    I must concede, I am laughing now.

  • George:

    I need no defense, as I posited nothing idiotic re: literature. I just humorously nettled the idiocy. Trying to defend the idiocy, ‘I’m completely willing to vouch for the quality of Shaun’s taste’- and rather vapidly, needs defense.

    As for his brain, quit the guffaw, and get to work on that defense!

  • George Sorwell

    Cosmo–

    Just to be clear:

    a) You’re calling Shaun an idiot?

    b) You’re calling me vapid?

    c) You think these judgements are self-evident?

  • George:

    a) Shaun: ‘In my view, there are few bad books, only varying degrees of good books.’

    This is known as self-explanatory idiocy.

    b) George: re: the above comment: ‘I’m completely willing to vouch for the quality of Shaun’s taste.’

    This is known as ‘making it easy.’

    c) A = B = Yes!

  • To put it in stark terms: If you kiss a lightbulb socket and someone says, ‘Whoa, not cool dude!’, one cannot blame the commenter for your frizzy hairdo!

  • George Sorwell

    Kissing a lightbulb socket?

    Normally I would end my part here by saying this is a public thread, and I’m satisfied that I’ve made my points. And that I’m satisfied with the judgment any reader might care to make of me on that basis.

    But this is a rather old thread. I’d guess you and I are the only ones reading it. So I’m going to offer you a little assistance here.

    There are differences between fact and opinion. One might think this an obvious point, and yet the world is full of people who express their opinions as if they were facts: obviously true. And anyone who disagrees must have something wrong with them.

    Not all opinions are equally valid. Ignorance, for example, is a poor basis for opinion. Though it seems to me that ignorance is more often a motivator than an inhibitor. Still, it is possible for diametrically opposed opinions to be equally valid. In cases where people disagree, reasonable arguments might be possible on either side. Or so, at least, in my opinion.

    There is difference between a merely clever argument and an actually good argument. Just as there is a difference between an argument and no argument at all. And having no argument at all is often the fate of those who can’t tell fact from opinion. Or so, at least, in my experience.

    Take or leave, as you like. And have a nice day.

  • George: ‘There is difference between a merely clever argument and an actually good argument.’

    Which obviates your very posts here.

    Shaun said a stupid thing. He was called on it. You defended it, then got silly.

    W/no argument here, was it merely gastritis that impelled you?

  • dania

    I thought I had found my summer reading, but alas, the thread is dead :o( It was was starting to get quite entertaining, loved the socket comment, that was pretty funny. Sorry to see it all end, but we must play nice now. Pity. Thanks for the giggles though.

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