Are you one of those people who spends half your summer reading time reading summer reading lists? Good. Here's another one. Not the newest books around, these are merely a few books I've enjoyed since my 2002 summer list, which can be found at www.chicagotribune.com/schmich. Click on "reading lists."
"The Whore's Child" by Richard Russo. Entertaining but nuanced short stories by the author of the acclaimed "Empire Falls." It's worth getting just for the title story, about elderly Sister Ursula, who takes a college creative writing course in the hopes of rewriting her life.
"The Catastrophist" by Ronan Bennett. An Irish writer goes to Congo in the 1960s hoping to win back the woman he loves, a political activist out to rout the Belgian colonialists. It's got mystery, history, politics and provocative thoughts on skepticism, impatience and love for a person vs. love for a cause. The book has been wrongly called a "thriller," but the comparisons of Bennett to Graham Greene aren't too far off.
"The Quiet American" by Graham Greene. Indochina, the 1950s. As a friend who also loves this book sums it up: "A cynical Brit, an idealistic and dangerous American, some sex and opium and despair and beautiful, spare writing." Read it for what it teaches about the Vietnam War. Or for what it says about our latest war. At least go rent the gorgeous Michael Caine movie version.
"No Great Mischief" by Alistair MacLeod. An achingly beautiful book, by a writer considered one of Canada's best. It's the story of both a modern Canadian family and their mining, logging, drinking Scottish ancestors who settled Cape Breton. It's also about the stories all families tell themselves about themselves in order to understand and invent who they are.
"Family Matters" by Rohinton Mistry. Mistry wrote the wonderful "A Fine Balance." His slower but soulful new book is set in 1990s Bombay. An old man is suffering from Parkinson's disease. Family jealousies and memories that have simmered for years erupt as his three children connive over who's to take care of him. An unflinching look at caring for an aging parent in any culture.
"Good Poems," compiled by Garrison Keillor. Just like the title says, just some good poems, usefully organized in categories that include "Failure," "Snow" and "A Good Life." Try John Updike's "Perfection Wasted," which begins: "Another regrettable thing about death/is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,/which took a whole life to develop and market."
"Pattern Recognition" by William Gibson. International business travel. Internet communications. London, New York, Moscow. Marketing as religion. It's just another unsettling vision of the world from the guy who invented the term "cyberspace." The heroine's an American woman whose odd genius is helping companies create successful brand names and logos. The plot? Too complicated to explain, but creepily entertaining. It includes the best theory of jet lag I've ever heard.
"July, July" by Tim O'Brien. Not as riveting as O'Brien's brilliant "In the Lake of the Woods," but this story of a Baby Boomer college reunion is both fun and affecting. There's the Vietnam vet on drugs, the suburban wife with breast cancer, the female minister and the rest of a cast of characters that O'Brien brings alive with wit, insight and compassion for the ways lives go awry.
"Tears of the Giraffe" by Alexander McCall Smith. OK, I haven't read it. But my mother loves all the books in this series about a ladies' detective agency in Botswana. Tribune book editor Liz Taylor loves these books. So did the woman sitting next to me on my last flight. Who can resist such eclectic endorsements?
Finally, a couple other books I'm putting on my to-read list based on recommendations from book-savvy friends:
"The Dive from Clausen's Pier" by Ann Packer. A young woman's fiance is paralyzed in a diving accident. Their relationship was already on the rocks. What does she do now? A pleasure read, but more, says the recommender.
"December 6: A Novel" by Martin Cruz Smith. Set in Tokyo the week before Pearl Harbor, it features a missionary's son, Harry, a mythic figure in the pre-war urban underworld. Says the recommender: "Summer reading in the finest, anti-intellectual sense.'"
Now let's all stop reading reading lists and go read a book, OK?