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summer reads

I wait all year for summer. I did as a child, growing up in suburban New Jersey. Summer meant freedom from coats and boots and car culture. I rode my bike to the pool, swam and raced all day, ate a deli-sandwich downtown. With my mom we bought peaches and tomatoes from the farm stand. 

Now that I live in Chicago I savor summer even more. Winters are hard, bitterly — often dangerously — cold. Summer provides early morning walks to the lake, outdoor yoga at the Zoo, lap swims in the sun, reading in my back yard. 

Too, summer is my time at Pythonga. Others enjoy spring fish and autumn hunting. For me, late July through Labor Day there is a time for sun, swims, saunas, walks, hikes. Always, Pythonga is a place for me to read, at length, uninterrupted.

I was in Pythonga over Labor Day for summer’s last blast. (As I write this it’s 85 degrees and humid in Chicago.) Our friends hosted a canoe race and beach picnic; we played Scrabble and Giant Jenga at night; we hosted a pizza and cocktail party. The water was too cold for long swims but when we were hot from a hike or the sauna it was fun to jump in — and out! 

Here’s what I read and enjoyed:

If This is a Man, The Truce, by Primo Levi.

As a young Jewish man in fascist Italy, Levi was arrested and sent to Auschwitz. These books are the story of his unlikely survival in the camp, as it was emptied, and during the journey home. It’s a classic (first published in 1958, recently reissued) because Levi takes us into every day life in the camp and elsewhere: how what when they ate, where they slept, how they bathed. We understand the labor, the cold, the ill-fitting shoes, the flimsy clothing. Illness is a ticket to the infirmary, its warmth, its clean sheeted beds — and survival, when others who are weak are sent to the gas chambers. 

Levi lives — how? The journey home is also fraught. Will he and his Italian mates ever return? 

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers

My friend Deborah and I were returning to our Old Town neighborhood from a long lakefront walk. Deb lamented that “no one has yard sales anymore.” Just steps after she mentioned it, we came upon a yard sale in a garden on Wells Street. A young couple was ridding what they could: they were heading to London School of Economics. Among the dresses and wrapping paper and coasters, we found books. I grabbed A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr, for Deborah, who’d never read it. She pulled Zeitoun for me; I’d missed it. 

Glad I got to it. Eggers rarely disappoints and this one’s a doozy, deeply reported and fluidly told. It reads like a novel. It’s the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant in New Orleans. He’s married, a father, a painting contractor and owner of rental buildings. When Hurricane Katrina overwhelms the city, Zeitoun stays, sleeping on his garage roof, canoeing flooded streets so that he can help trapped residents and dogs. (His wife and children evacuated.) A Muslim, he sees this work as divine; he has been chosen. He won’t leave. Then he and his friends are arrested for looting, they’re jailed, and held — by whom? Do they think he’s a terrorist? Why can’t he make a phone call? 

The Stranger in the Woods, the Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, by Michael Finkel

A Pythonga friend pressed this book in my husband’s hands. “There’s something about this that reminds me of you.” A hermit? Upon reading this entrancing tale, I know what she meant. That’s because FInkel explores the value and history of being alone as he tells the hermit’s fascinating tale.

For 27 years, Christopher Knight lived in the Maine woods. He stole all of his needs — food, clothing, batteries, booze — from nearby summer homes and camps. This book is the story of his capture and re entry into the every day world. 

I thought this would be a creepy read; it’s not. It’s enlightening. 

Ah, summer: I’ll miss your healing rays, your bounty.



Ah, summer. Some readers head to fluff, others head to big, long, challenging reads because summer offers unbroken stretches and quiet at the beach, by the pool, on a dock.

Here are three deep reads I can recommend.

imagesJon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (2015). Krakauer is the ace reporter and storyteller who has given us Into the Wild, Into Thin Air and Under the Banner of Heaven, each an unsettling, deeply researched read.

Same goes for Missoula, which details four years in this Montana college town, when young women who’d been raped by football players and other students forced police, the state’s attorney and university leaders to take action. An absorbing read.

images-1Joby Warrick’s Black Flags: The Rise of Isis reads like a thriller, but it’s the true story of the missteps by Presidents Bush and Obama that led to the powerful rise of al-Zarqawi.

Freed from prison in 1999, the radicalized Zarqawi aimed to create an Islamist caliphate throughout the Middle East; his terror attacks included suicide bombings and beheadings. A 2006 airstrike killed Zarqawi, but his organization lives on: when the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Zarqawi’s followers stepped in, raising the black flags of ISIS. Most interesting to me was Al-Quaeda’s initial rebuff of Zarqawi, whose leaders considered him a thug. A must read.

images-2And finally, fact-based fiction: Jonathan Lee’s High Dive, which imagines three people forever changed by the 1984 bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, England. The target was then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; the long-delay-timer bomb was the master work of the Irish Republican Army, then fighting for independence from England.

Lee’s magnificent story unfolds the lives of IRA bomb expert Dan, hotel manager Moose, and teenage daughter Freya. We come to know the hotel’s every day workings, the life and times of Moose (a champion diver), his motherless daughter and her teen friends, Dan’s IRA initiation and fraught home life in Belfast.

At times I thought this book too long, but now that I’ve finished I wouldn’t know where to cut. I savored this read.

Happy summer, happy reading.


The New York Times ran a breezy piece recently about summer reads aimed at women. I turned to it excitedly: I’m a girl, I love to read. Surely there’d be something on the list for me. Nope.

What to read during the summer? Do we really seek out “lighter” reads in the warmer months? I don’t.

512j2j57yjl2Here’s a list of books I love that are by, for or about women.

  • The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, (Vintage, $15.95). Nothing and everything happens in this big read set in Osaka after World War Two. Clinging to ancient ways, two sisters try to place Yukiko in a proper, aristocratic marriage — increasingly difficult as she ages. Another sister brazenly takes on lovers. Lovely descriptions of various regions, and ways of life, in postwar Japan.
  • Anne Sexton: A Biography, by Diane Wood Middlebrook, (Vintage, $17.95). The poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was celebrated in her time for her confessional poetry. Middlebrook knows poetry and poets; her “reading” of Sexton’s poems is smart and digestible. This is a deeply affecting life story that reads more like a novel than the scholarly work that it is. (Recommended by my friend Jennifer.)
  • Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West, by Victoria Glendinning, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, buy used). Vita’s gardens, homes, marriage, lovers, and writings made her a legend in her own time (1892-1962). Virginia Wolff was among her lovers, and Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle is said to be the most visited garden in all of England. I didn’t want this book to end: what a life! (Pressed on me by my friend Suzanne, lent in a plastic bag, bound by a rubber band.)
  • The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Shine, (Picador, $14). An ensemble piece set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. People, and dogs, get together, fall in love, and fall apart. A rich read, with a surprisingly sweet, and fitting, end.
  • The Great Man, by Kate Christensen, (Anchor, $14.95). A textured story of the women left behind after a famous artist’s death: his widow and their autistic son, his mistress and their twin daughters, and his sister, who’s also a painter. A window into the New York art world, and a rare depiction of older women. (Thanks, Jennifer, for recommending.)

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