Monday, August 26, 2013

Summer is for Reading...

...but then, so is the whole year around.

Now that I am retired, I have the luxury of reading whatever I want at any time.  The closest I come to "having" to read something is reading the selection for a book group I attend.  There was a time--when I was teaching literature--that I might be only one chapter ahead of the students.  And, then the pressure was to read what I "had" to read.

But, old habits die hard, and I still associate summer with a time to read.

So, herewith a couple of recommendations and one warning.

I have just finished reading the book The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.  This novel captures with stunning effect what it was like to live through the siege of Sarajevo, which began in April, 1992 and continued until February, 1996.  The novel revolves around a factual event--a cellist appears one day in a public place (keep in mind, the city is being bombarded with shells, and snipers in the hills that ring the city are shooting anyone), sets up a chair, takes out his cello and begins to play Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. The achingly beautiful music speaks to the pain and suffering the residents of Sarajevo must endure.  The impetus for the cellist is his vow to play every day for 22 days as a way to honor 22 people who were killed while standing in a bread line.

In the novel, three other characters' lives are slowly revealed in pieces.  You do not learn everything you could about a character.  You really have little sense as to how they looked.  You only learn first names, and the cellist himself is unnamed.  And yet, each of the characters is affected by the cellist.
A second novel I recommend is The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich.  I previously have recommended Erdrich as an author, having identified her novel The Master Butchers Singing Club.  And once again, she met my expectations.  The Plague of Doves draws on some of Erdrich's own background, as native American, and yet the work is far more complex than simply drawing on personal biography.  The book begins with a farm family being brutally killed, except one crying baby.  It is not until the end of the novel that you learn the identity of that baby.  Not surprisingly, the people who are seized and charged with the crime are several native American young men from a nearby reservation.

Erdrich moves across decades, intertwining generations and families, and only at the end does she gather up the many strands and reveal the final mystery of her tale.
In a completely different vein is the delightful and informative non-fiction work A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage.  Standage writes about beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.  These six beverages, in chronological order, can be used as a means to view human development and history.  It is the sort of book you can pick up, put down, interrupt, resume--and not lose the train of thought of the author.  Along the way you learn many fascinating tidbits about each beverage.

Here's a quick example.  Did you know that beer was originally drunk from a communal bowl, with partakers drinking from the same vessel rather than individual glasses?  So, when you clink glasses with someone, and say CHEERS (or whatever), you are recreating the experience of the communal bowl.
This warning can be summed up in a quick sentence: don't trust the promotional blurb you get from Amazon.
Yes, dear reader, Amazon can phony up the description of a book, and can even have all manner of glowing reviews--and the book turns out to be crap.

So it is that I ordered No Regrets, Coyote by John Dufresne.  It was billed as a murder mystery (those can be fun summer reads, but you need a skilled author such as P.D. James or Tony Hillerman).  What it turned out to be was a foolish trifling melange of too many characters, ridiculous descriptions, totally confusing names, and an improbable plot that manipulates the characters rather than letting things develop out of the character's personality.  

Mind, if that's your kind of book--by all means, get it.  Otherwise, save your money...and your time.

How about you?  Do you have any recommendations?