The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, July 2, 2004


Forum writers create their perfect summer reading list

For Forum writer Phyllis Zinicola, the best summer afternoon is spent in her garden with a cool drink and a good book. (Photo by Ellen Huber)

As summer breezes blow and the hammock beckons, the Mosquito has asked members of its Forum staff, who regularly express their opinions about town matters, to suggest some of their favorite books to while away a lazy summer afternoon. The following is the list of tantalizing titles they proposed.

Christy Barbee of Cranberry Hill Lane recommends:

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

More than a year after reading this fantastic tale of a boy, a big cat, and a life raft, it's still a joy to me. I still marvel at how a book whose plot contains horrific details of survival at sea is, in theme and in total, a wonder of whimsy and wry humor. I seldom remember the ends of books; I think all authors have trouble writing them. But Pi has a very satisfying and memorable conclusion.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

Because Patchett lets us know early in the book that it will end with disaster, the reader is free to join the characters in a kind of suspension of time, free to admire and love them, to appreciate their talents and their circumstances. Forced together in a cruel predicament, characters with very different intentions and from different conditions and cultures present — and themselves partake in — an engrossing study of how wonderful human beings can be.

Ellen Miller of Indian Hill Road recommends:

Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

This book is on my own summer reading list, having been suggested by several friends whose literary judgment I trust. It's autobiographical, the story of a woman professor of literature at the University of Tehran who was forced to resign in 1995. She asked seven of her best women students to study great Western literature with her in her living room. They had to meet in secret, and since the books she selected were banned by the government, the women had to share photocopied pages of the books. Works by Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, Austen and Dashiell Hammett were discussed, and the Iranian students' own stories were interwoven with the literary figures they met for the first time. The book offers a revealing look at the repressed lives of women in revolutionary Iran.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler

This is a great beach book! It's witty, poignant and revealing as five women and one man meet monthly to discuss all six Austen novels. We learn about each of them, how they met, their marriages and relationships and the narrator's view of "their private Austen." The discussions of the novels are fun and often illuminating, but the author is more interested in telling us what goodies were offered at the meetings and describing the various homes. Two of my favorite lines: "Bernadette had already spilled hummus on her yoga pants," and "He had brought the Gramercy edition of the complete novels, which suggested that Austen was merely a recent whim." You don't have to be an Austen reader to thoroughly enjoy this book.

David Freedman of Hutchins Road recommends:

Schott's Original Miscellany, by Ben Schott

This small gem, for the beach or the bathroom, begins with a definition of miscellany, "a publication containing miscellaneous information of general interest on a variety of subjects," and that is just what this is. In no particular order, the author presents information, statistics, definitions, charts and lists ranging from useful to intriguing to peculiar. One two-page spread includes a list of medical shorthand with meanings, a pie chart of Miss America hair color percentages since 1921, the origin and definition of the word "horsepower," and the winning countries of soccer's World Cup.

The Trees in My Forest, by Bernd Heinrich

The author chronicles 25 years of his stewardship of 300 acres of overgrown farmland and woodlot in Maine that he bought on a whim. An ecology professor, Heinrich engages the reader with his love and vast knowledge of the dynamics of a forest. I even learned why the central leader of many of my white pines has been dying and what to do about it. He concludes with a pitch for mixed woodland forestry, lamenting famously forested Finland, where practically the entire country is filled with even-aged monoculture of non-native Scots pine and Norway spruce. Managing the overgrown woodlots in Carlisle seems to be creeping onto the agenda; if it takes root, this book is a must read.

Mark Green of Hartwell Road recommends:

The Dante Club, by Matthew Pearl

Like The DaVinci Code, The Dante Club looks to historical figures for its setting and context. In this case, prominent Boston intellectuals, including Henry Longfellow, Robert Lowell and Oliver Wendell Holmes, discover during their mid-19th century collaboration on a translation of Dante's Inferno that a string of grisly murders imitate the punishments Dante described. It's not a page-turner, but the story is well-crafted and carries its suspense to the end.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

More accurately, it's a not-so-short history of the development of science, and our understanding of how we — and our planet — came into being. Bryson describes how various scientific theories, in various fields, came about, and often offers humorous insight into the men and women who made the discoveries that moved the theories forward. Overall, it's a pleasantly accessible introduction into some fields that I would otherwise find intimidating, with the added bonus of Bryson's inimitable writing style.

Ultimate Punishment, by Scott Turow

Turow is best known for his legal mystery thrillers, but he has maintained a career as a practicing attorney in Chicago. In this book, he reflects on his service as a member of Illinois Governor George Ryan's special commission on the death penalty, whose report contributed to Governor Ryan's controversial decision to commute all outstanding death sentences in Illinois before concluding his term. Regardless of your views on the death penalty, Turow's description of the commission's work illuminates many of the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system.

Phyllis Zinicola of Sunset Road recommends:

All my suggestions are three of the best mysteries written by Elmore Leonard. They all bear his signature style which I think is perfect for beach reading: slightly sleazy characters, wacky dialogue, bad guys who aren't too bright, a little sexy sex, and exotic plots with satisfying endings you can follow even if your mind is operating at summer speed. The book-on-tape versions of all three are also excellent.

Tishomingo Blues by Elmore Leonard

The story of Dennis Lennahan, a Las Vegas-type high diver who has taken his show on the road and ends up in Tunica, Mississippi, where he witnesses a mob murder from his diving platform. The murder is also witnessed by a Detroit hustler who is supposedly on a blues tour of the South but of course has a shifty business deal brewing, and he thinks Dennis will make a perfect partner. The plot thickens as everyone prepares for the annual Civil War re-enactment of a battle in which the South emerges victorious.

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

Maybe you saw the movie with John Travolta playing nice guy Chili Palmer, a shylock who follows a loan welcher to LA and discovers he has a knack for the movie business. Needless to say, the book is better. You get more of Leonard's funny give-and-take dialogue when the characters kick around twists in the plot of the screenplay Chili is considering. It's almost a story within a story.

Be Cool by Elmore Leonard

A sequel to Get Shorty, set in the record business, this isn't as good as Get Shorty, but I like it because you get to read more about Chili Palmer, who is an enjoyable character. There are also some great send-ups of rap and gangsta musicians.

Bob Rothenberg, Forum editor, recommends:

Funny in Farsi, by Firoozeh Dumas

The title is accurate. This story of an Iranian family adapting to American life has laughs on every page. It's a lovable and loving family, and the laughs are on Americans and American culture as well as these typical and confounded immigrants.

Life and Death in Shanghai, by Nien Cheng

This autobiography will chill your bones. Cheng, the widow of a Shell Oil executive in China, was caught in the tumult and anguish of the Cultural Revolution. Interrogated mercilessly and held in solitary confinement for more than six years, her will and humanity became pillars of survival.

Family Honor, by Robert Parker

Parker fans tired of his Spenser mysteries might enjoy this new series based on the unlikely detective skills of Sonny Randall. Daughter of a cop and romantically involved with a straight son of a Mafiosi, Sonny's got what it takes to survive and conquer. Like the Spenser stories, it's set in the Boston area, making much of the action seem very familiar. You'll go through it in a day on the beach, with little mental effort needed.

On the road? Here are some suggestions for audiobooks that will lighten, if not shorten, the journey:

The Veteran, short stories by Frederick Forsyth.

Me Talk Pretty One Day, wry essays by David Sedaris.

Amsterdam, the Booker Prize winner by Ian McEwan.

Any Harry Potter, by J.K. Rowling and read by the inimitable Jim Dale.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, read by Jeremy Irons.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito