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Summertime, and the reading’s easy: a literary wish list.

June 21, 2011

I hope to read more YA fantasy, like Franny Billingsley's first-rate Chime.

During all the years I’ve been a literary journalist (and really, who needs a number?), I’ve always resisted doing summer reading stories. Or beach book stories, or whatever. Why? Because I think people favor the same fare year round.

For a full list of summer programs offered by the Florida Center for the Literary Arts, visit the website at

I’ve read John Updike in train stations, Kafka on Greyhounds, and I once read almost the entirety of Simon Mawer’s excellent religious literary thriller The Gospel of Judas on a flight from Miami to Portland, Ore.

True, there are exceptions to the rule. I’ll never again make the mistake of carting Henry James along to the beach, where I was unable to get through a single sentence of Portrait of a Lady, though he read quite well on my living room couch.

On the other hand, Michael Critchon’s excessively silly but compulsively readable science-thriller Congo immensely lightened a seven-hour Amtrak trek to Jacksonville.

So why write about summer reading at all?

Because the idle hours  associated with vacation and travel time provide more leisure than usual to read — at least for those of us not yet watching “30 Rock” on their smart phones and tablet computers — and therefore, whatever our tastes, we may give our book selections a bit more forethought.

In that vein, the Telegraph has a semi-cool feature in which imminent contemporary writers are asked to reveal their summer reading choices. I say only “semi” cool because the idea is somewhat more interesting than the outcome. Also, a lot of the queried authors are British scribes I’ve never heard of and don’t (yet) care about. And the piece is way too long.

But here are some of the results from authors you might know: White-hot lit newbie Tea Obreht plans to tackle Cormac McCarthy’s violent Western allegory, Blood Meridian, generally thought to be his masterpiece. Ali Smith is taking a proof copy of a first novel, Bright’s Passage by Josh Ritter, on vacation.

Frederick Forsythe (he’s still alive?!?) will finally tackle Hilary Mantel’s excellent Tudor historical, Wolf Hall, while thriller writer Jeffrey Deaver takes up David McCullough’s latest nonfiction history, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, and Lionel Shriver plans to read Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector — despite misgivings about the title.

Me? Well, since you asked, I’d love to catch up on some classics I’ve so far missed: The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, maybe or Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, each long recommended by trusted friends.

Or considering a different kind of classic, something by John Buchan or M.R. James or Dorothy Johnson or Hilda Doolittle or Dennis Fairbain’s lost noir classic, the ur-Miami thriller Street 8, which Les Standiford first told me about 20 years ago.

But I still feel the responsibility to keep up with new stuff, and review it, as much as possible. I’m currently reading Arthur Phillips’ The Death of Arthur (and finding it much more affecting and less jokey than I had expected).  Before that, Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, and next up Sapphire’s new novel The Kid — it’s been 15 years (!) since Push.

I’m also cramming in as much new Young Adult stuff as I can get my hands on, reading randomly and without a plan. I loved Franny Billingsley’s smart fantasy Chime, with its sharp characters and linguistic verve. I look forward to more in the same line, and I’ll tell you as I find good ones.

Somehow, just for giggles, I fit in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and found it far exceeded my expectations. The writing, if not especially distinguished, is clean and serviceable — but the characters are all, down to the most minor, finely delineated, and the handling of a complicated multi-strand storyline is impressively adroit.

I guess my taste, while not changing with the seasons, does oscillate to some obscure rhythm. I’ve always loved nonfiction — and by nonfiction I mean science, history, biography, true crime, not (shudder!) the memoir.

But lately I’ve had a real hankering for it, fueled by Brian Fagan’s Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans — which, despite its misleading title (the first modern humans emerged in Africa), is excellent. I was very sorry to come to the end.

If I had my druthers, I’d take up another popular science or history book today….

But enough about me! What do you plan to read this summer?

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011 3:54 pm

    Leaving today for Minnesota, Chauncey. My aunt’s 90th. I’m taking a book to read on the plane. It’s by a writer I’ve neglected for far too long – Richard Bausch. A collection of his short stories.

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