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Summer Reading List
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Ghost Ship: The Mysterious True Story of the Mary Celeste and Her Missing Crew

by Brian Hicks

Ballantine Books

The author of Raising the Hunley offers this well-researched, well-written exploration into one of maritime history’s most misunderstood chapters. The Mary Celeste was discovered drifting through the Atlantic in 1872, fully sailed and equipped, but with no one aboard. Through the years that followed, much speculation arose as to her demise.

Some said it was the curse of the Bermuda Triangle (despite the fact that she was not near the Triangle when found). Others said the crew’s strange disappearance had to do with the ship’s cargo of alcohol (even though it was industrial alcohol, not drinkable).

We won’t give anything away here, but Hicks’ solution to the mystery is not nearly as sensational. But because of his skill as a researcher and storyteller, Hicks makes the (probable) reality much more interesting than the myth.(jm)

The Girl Who Played Go

by Shan Sa


A very beautiful story of love, coming of age, war, and friendship during the 1930s of Japanese-occupied China. Set in Manchuria, a sixteen-year-old school girl faces the ever-more complicated issues surrounding her as she take her first lover, who is part of the resistance, and learns more about how her favorite ancient strategy game of “Go” is central to how she lives her life. Into her life enters a stranger, a Japanese soldier, who becomes her regular “Go” opponent, as the game and her story mount to meet their inevitable fates.

This is a really lovely, poetic, dream-like story told through the two voices of the soldier and schoolgirl about human relationships and the intensity of love and war. (dg)

Plan of Attack

by Bob Woodward

Simon & Schuster

Much like the soft-spoken Midwesterner who wrote it, this book is not nearly as explosive as the media has made it out to be. In fact, George W. Bush comes off as perhaps the most sympathetic character in this story of the run-up to the Iraq war, the sequel to Woodward’s Bush at War, which dealt with Afghanistan.

As Woodward reports it, the president is skeptical of most claims of Saddam’s supposed WMDs. He is constantly worried about civilian Iraqi casualties. Indeed, he nearly calls off the missile strike against Saddam in the first hours of the war, afraid that the bunker is where Saddam is sheltering his grandchildren.

Bush’s only real failing in this account is an almost comical reliance on the opinion of Vice President Dick Cheney. Whenever there’s a big decision to be made, Bush gets everyone’s opinion. He then meets with Cheney alone in his office, and gets the only advice that really matters -- which generally proves faulty.

Less a political book than a true-life military thriller, Plan of Attack approaches the level of a Tom Clancy thriller for those interested in the nuts and bolts of military planning and execution. The two portions that stand out the most for me are the CIA’s recruitment of literally dozens of Saddam insiders as double agents, and the story of the previously mentioned missile strike on Saddam at war’s beginning. (jm)

Little Black Book of Stories

by A. S. Byatt


Eerie and even a little strange, the first of the five short stories in this collection by A. S. Byatt, who is a well-published, Booker Prize-winning English author, called The Thing In The Forest, is a little Freudian nightmare. Two girls become friends on the train taking them away from London to escape the bombing during World War II. It is there as refugees in a house that they get lost in the woods and encounter something odd. Later as adults they return as strangers, recognize each other and each tries to decipher what really happened to them that long ago afternoon.

Other stories, one about a doctor and one of the visiting artists in his hospital, have an equally psychologically dark undercurrent to them. This is a disturbingly well-crafted set of shadowy stories, not quite grounded in the real and living world. (dg)

The Rule of Four

by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason

The Dial Press

Marketed as a book for lovers of The Da Vinci Code, I have my doubts. This is a far more literate and dense work, nothing like The Da Vinci Code’s quintessential airport read. While the subject matter is similar -- a murder mystery surrounding a Renaissance manuscript written by an eccentric with a penchant for codes -- this may disappoint those expecting another breezy page-turner.

Still, if you liked Da Vinci but were disappointed in its amateurish writing style, you will enjoy The Rule of Four, an erudite tale of a few renegade Princeton students who stumble across the deadly legacy of the Hypnoerotomachia Poliphili. (jm)


by Louis Begley


Like My Dinner with Andre, this novel is almost a monologue as the reader becomes both the listener at the bar, and accomplice, as John North, celebrated novelist in Paris, tells his story about his own plunge into fiction, his marriage, a consuming affair and how a story is made.

Louis Begley, who wrote About Schmidt the novel, which became About Schmidt the movie with Jack Nicholson, has written a writer’s book about process, desire and decision. Having been interviewed by a Vogue magazine writer in Paris about his writing, John North then descends into a long psychological spiral between his long-time wife in the states and the female interviewer.

The title of Shipwreck becomes more and more appropriate as the layer upon layer of inner dialogue develops revealing obsession and self-delusion in a layered, almost autobiographically, confessional novel. (dg)

The Undressed Art: Why We Draw

by Peter Steinhart


First things first: Any 250-page book about “why we draw” is bound to contain some filler. This one is no different.

The surprise here is how little filler this book has. The section “Why the Figure” uses scientific info to explain why we’re drawn to the human body. Sorry, bucko, but we don’t need no science to explain that one. But a later chapter specifically focusing on the dynamics of a nude drawing class is not only more titillating, but more interesting as well. Go figure (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Of more import in this book is how Steinhart chronicles the importance of drawing to today’s art world, particularly with regard to drawing as a response to “the substitution of abstraction for realism as the reigning American art form,” as he puts it.

Overall, this is a great gift idea for the artist in your life.(jm)

Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America

by Robert Reich


Kudos to this former Clinton cabinet member for the witty title and cover design takeoff on the horrible Ann Coulter’s work of blood libel, Treason, in which the conservative ringwraith advocates executing liberals.

Not so many kudos to the fact that Reich at no point actually says why liberals will win this battle for America of which he speaks.

There are two parts of this book that make it worth picking up: One, Reich’s insightful look at how radical conservatives, or “Radcons” as he calls them, have hijacked all public discourse in this country through the indiscriminate use of lies and character assassination, with no real policy positions to speak of; and two, a section of poll results that shows the vast majority of Americans actually hold what would be called liberal positions on most issues.

Reich hits the nail on the head when he says despite America’s actual liberal leanings, the Democratic Party is a poor vehicle for expressing them. Reich goes so far as to say that “there’s no real national Democratic Party. At least nothing like what the Republicans have. They have discipline and organization. They decide on a party line and stick with it. What do Democrats have? Conferences on ‘The Future of the Democratic Party.’” (jm)

Providence of a Sparrow: Lessons from a Life Gone to the Birds

by Chris Chester

Anchor Books

A tiny house sparrow fledgling, known only as “B,” literally falls into our protagonist’s life. What follows is a lively meditation on the impact of small things in our lives, as the author proceeds to slowly adapt everything around him to the needs of his tiny charge (if such a thing should happen to you, remember, don’t feed it milk or cat food -- puppy food seems to do the trick).

The concept may sound a little too precious, but this is actually a sparkling read, spiced with a lot of scientific information that’s easy to digest (sorry, again I couldn’t resist). (jm)

How To Breathe Underwater

by Julie Orringer


It is funny how sometimes short stories feel too short, but these are intense, unusual and complete. This is a debut series of stories from the inside out of little moments and struggles universal to all girls as they become women.

To call them all coming of age stories is to really cheat this amazing group of nine stories. Issues include living beyond a friend’s death, sexual awakening, turmoil, religion, these are the moments we have all experienced alone outside of the adults eyes in the next room. It is hard to put down as each story is as unique and eye opening as the previous one. (dg)

Bush Versus The Environment

by Robert S. Devine

Anchor Books

Well, where to begin with this one, eh? Might as well review a book entitled Hitler Versus the Jews or Wile E. Coyote Versus the Roadrunner. This is the print equivalent of a slam dunk, with the same repetitively hypnotic effect.

If you are looking for a well-researched and definitive one-stop shop for Bush’s many, many crimes against our common American stewardship, this is the place to go. If you are looking to become very depressed while reading a book, this is also the place to go. You know who you are. Me, I’m depressed enough already. (jm)

The Kalahari Typing School for Men

by Alexander McCall Smith

Anchor Books

Have you read the first three? This is #4, now in paperback and #5 is now just out in hard cover. These best sellers have swept reading lists. Set in Bostwana, Africa, Mma Precious Ramotswe is the owner of the The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. Her assistant Mma. Makutsi is looking for husband and her own fiancé Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has still not set the date.

In between the cups of bush tea, personal and professional issues a woman of traditional build must smooth and figure out, there are insights into the country, life, and African ways all written in a respectful, and humorous tone that transcend the mystery genre.

These are truly must-read books, that live up to their “Satisfaction Guaranteed for All Parties, Under Personal Management” signs. (dg)

The Full Cupboard of Life

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books

If you have not had the remarkable pleasure of reading the first four books in this series it is never too late to start. Number 5 of Alexander McCall Smith’s vastly popular The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, it is every bit as funny, philosophical and delightful as the previous adventures of Precious Ramotswe and her friends.

The best part is that these humorous novels set in Botswana, Africa can be beautifully read out of order as they are such good fictions and the characters and natural setting so strong that they hold up to a really wide audience. The feel for the land and the people, tradition and human nature, make this a success and fun story to engage.

If there were a book, or series, to read this summer, this would be a prime choice, which even the ever so subtle, discriminating, and resourceful Mama Ramose would agree upon.(dg)