Summer reading, fun to functional Regional writers and booksellers talk about their seasonal reading traditions, favorite tomes of summers past, and current plans.

Posted: July 04, 2007

Summer promises a feast of more free time, the shimmering illusion of hours of reading in the backyard, the park, on the porch, at the Shore, the pool.

Some readers trend toward pure pleasure, the breezy brief novel or short-story collection coruscating with humor or revelation, or a mystery that pulls you along in its slipstream, inviting you to devour the thing in one sitting. For the latter, Robert Wilson, Alan Furst, John Burdett, Ian Rankin, Ken Bruen and Denise Mina are contemporary masters.

Some readers feel the season is optimal for tackling overlooked classics, those big books never assigned (or finished) at school, the masterworks that seem essential to life's education. War and Peace remains the Summer of '97. The summer of '04 was spent in the Alps - well, not literally - with Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Last summer? A festival of Roth.

Toward exploring the bounty of summer reading, we queried regional authors and independent booksellers about their seasonal traditions, favorites and current ambitions.

"Whatever I tend to be writing determines what I'm reading," says Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love who now lives in New Jersey near the Delaware River. "The only sad thing about making my living as a writer is I've lost the ability to be a casually inspired reader. Right now, I'm writing about marriage, so I'm reading books on the subject."

Gilbert has written award-winning fiction and nonfiction, but tends toward the latter in her suggestions. "One of my favorite books ever, which I tend to reread, is Meadowlands by Robert Sullivan, which resonates even more now that I live in New Jersey," says Gilbert, a world traveler.

Her sister, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of the young-adult novels The Off Season and Dairy Queen, says, "Before I was ever a children's book writer, I was a passionate children's book reader. I still prefer them to anything written for so-called 'adults.' "

Christian Bauman, author of the novels Voodoo Lounge and The Ice Beneath You, acknowledges that his reading habits differ with the seasons. "It's a different time with a different mood, just as with food, things tend to be heavier in the winter," he says. "This summer, I'm really attracted to shorter and briefer novels. The British have this great tradition of the brief yet powerful novels, where in America all the writers seem to think they need to weigh in with 800-pound books."

Nevertheless, his nonfiction selection is a massive 732-page doorstop, Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan's de Kooning: An American Master, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for biography. "This will span the summer," he says. "I'm writing a novel where the protagonist is a woman and her husband is an artist."

Ken Kalfus, a National Book Award finalist for A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, likes to read about places where he is traveling. He e-mails from vacation on the Greek island of Skopelos in the western Aegean, "I'm working through The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault, a novel about classical Greece, Socrates and the Peloponnesian War."

Summer doesn't always deliver a respite for writers. "It seems like the past many years, I always have a book deadline at the end of the summer," says Diane McKinney-Whetstone, author of Leaving Cecil Street and Tumbling. "Reading remains sort of a fantasy at this time. It almost feels illicit to read a short story when I sneak one from Edward Jones' collection, All Aunt Hagar's Children."

Andy Kahan, director of the Free Library of Philadelphia's author events office, says, "My summer reading is an opportunity to catch up on all the great books I missed during the fall when I'm forever just dashing through first chapters to keep up. The ones I love, I return to." In this case, he returned to Michael B. Oren's Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present and the enigmatic Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.

William Lashner, the best-selling mystery writer, is big on Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. "Books that are assigned in high school get a bad rap. This one is a blast."

He's also game to read a biography if the writing and reporting are significant. "I was never interested in Dean Martin," says the author of Marked Man and Falls the Shadow, "but Nick Tosches' Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams is amazing," an opinion shared by many.

"I literally have a list of 60 books at any time that I want to get to," says Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the best-selling novel Prep. "I have a bad habit of reading six books at once." Summer is proving no respite as she works on her third novel and is immersed in nonfiction on a specific subject - "but I can't say what it is because I'm sort of paranoid that way."

Lashner tries to finish a book before the season so he can relax. "The best summer books you can't stop reading. It's not a good time to go back to Ulysses for the third attempt. I reread Chandler and Hammett. Chandler is my one constant."

Sheila Avelin, owner of the Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Mount Airy, has "such piles and piles of books to read that I have an impatience for ones that don't immediately suck me in. I tend to reread detective series in the summer that are enjoyable."

"We're not really of the leisure class," says Ed Luoma, co-owner of the Readers' Forum in Wayne. "My reading habits don't really change. I'm always looking for good books."

Joe Drabyak, general bookseller at the Chester County Book & Music Co. in West Chester, says, "I have real eclectic taste but will read things related to a particular event when it's occurring. I'm always interested in the Tour de France and am reading a memoir of Floyd Landis."

Another seasonal read is Philip Hoose's Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me, "which is just wonderful about the sport."

Sometimes summer reading, or rereading beloved tomes, evokes long-shorn behavior: They're a memory of the way we used to be. The Free Library's Andy Kahan recently read the 50th anniversary issue of Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which comes out in the original scroll - and no paragraphs - next month.

"It makes you want to start drinking and smoking and jump into the back of a pickup truck and see the country - not that we do any of these things anymore," he says. The delight, though, "is in welcoming back an old friend."

Contact staff writer Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

For your warm-weather perusal

Here is some suggested summer reading from regional writers, booksellers and others who love books:

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love:

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz. "The foremost historian on marriage. Immensely readable. Stupendously fascinating."

Easter Everywhere: A Memoir by Darcey Steinke. "Intelligent and beautifully written. A hipster growing up in a family of ministers and her own evolution through Christianity."

The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventure on the Edge of a City by Robert Sullivan. "Literally, in his backyard, he found this adventure story."

Oh The Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey. "Pretty spectacular memoir."

Timothy, or Notes of an Abject Reptile by Verlyn Klinkenborg. "Based on the notes of 18th-century naturalist Gilbert White's notes on a tortoise in his backyard and told from the view of Timothy, who is a she and one of the most eloquent, elegant narrators and a naturalist herself."

Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters. "A British advocate for the homeless recreates the biography of this homeless character who is like a Martin Amis character, a foul-mouthed, chaotic disaster of a person who is also very funny."

Christian Bauman, author of the novels The Ice Beneath You and Voodoo Lounge:

At Freddie's and Offshore, both by Penelope Fitzgerald. "The first is about a theater school in London in the 1960s run by this slightly crazed woman. Offshore [winner of the 1979 Booker Prize] is about a houseboat community."

Felicia's Journey by William Trevor. "People know him as this great Irish short-story writer, but he also writes great short novels. This one is a bit of a psychological thriller."

de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan. "In my new novel, the protagonist is a woman and her husband is an artist so I'm reading this wonderful book," winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

Joe Drabyak, general bookseller, Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester:

The Visible World by Mark Slouka. "Almost autobiographical fiction told from the voice of a son of Czech immigrants who settle in the Lehigh Valley after World War II. He goes back to reconstruct his parents' life, beginning with the understanding that his mother was in love with someone else, a man in their country's resistance."

Perfect, Once Removed: When Baseball Was All the World to Me by Phillip Hoose. "A lovely memoir about a boy ungainly in sport who wants to be proficient in baseball. So he writes his cousin once removed, who happens to be Don Larsen, the Yankee who pitched a perfect game in the 1956 World Series."

Grayson by Lynne Cox. "Memoir of a competitive long-distance swimmer who befriends a lost baby whale while training off the coast of California and realizes that, if she swims to shore, the baby will be beached and die. Her true efforts to reunite the whale with her mother."

Land of Lincoln by Andrew Ferguson. "There are 14,000 books on Lincoln, and he's adding another one while trying to understand our national fascination."

Crashing Through: A True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared to See by Robert Kurson. "Blind since youth, Mike May never hesitated to do anything, setting speed records in downhill racing, becoming the first blind analyst for the CIA. Then he finds out he is one of the rare people eligible for an operation where he can have his sight restored, and does."

City of Fire by Robert Ellis. "Well-written thriller about a serial killer in Los Angeles. Lead investigator is a female. Very suspenseful."

Diane McKinney-Whetstone, author of Leaving Cecil Street and Tumbling:

All Aunt Hagar's Children by Edward Jones. "A terrific collection of short stories."

Rattlebone by Maxine Clair. "A collection of connected short stories that really has a feel of a novel. Her October Suite is also wonderful."

Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. "A master storyteller."

Sula by Toni Morrison. "She can be an intimidating writer. This is more approachable, a good place to start with a great artist."

A Day Late and a Dollar Short by Terry McMillan. "A fun read."

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of the novels Prep and The Man of My Dreams:

When We Get There by Shauna Seliy. "A fantastic beautiful book that takes place in the '70s in a Western Pennsylvania coal-mining town. The narrator is 13-year-old Lucas. His father has died in the coal mine, and his mother has gone missing. It has a lot about Eastern European immigrants and mysticism, and manages to be funny and sad."

Filibuster to Delay a Kiss: And Other Poems by Courtney Queeney. "Intelligent but sexy poetry with sort of a crazy-girl element, which most good poetry has."

The Interloper by Antoine Wilson. "Creepy and suspenseful mystery about this guy whose brother-in-law was murdered and he's corresponding with the murderer."

Open Secrets by Alice Munro. "She's a writer whose stories are so complicated, they're actually more enjoyable on the second reading. She's my favorite writer."

Andy Kahan, director of author events, Philadelphia Free Library:

Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren. "A great history of the Middle East through a human perspective through little biographies and vignettes."

Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. "Anarchy and conspiracy, corporate capitalism and greed, so it's typical Pynchon. A monster."

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan. "She's an Israeli graphic novelist. It's a ground-level look at love and its emotional trajectory."

On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition by Jack Kerouac. "Just as engrossing and absorbing as the first time you pick it up in your youth."

Catherine Gilbert Murdock, author of the young-adult novels Dairy Queen and The Off Season:

Magyk (Septimus Heap, Book One) by Angie Sage. "Just raced through this - woke up every morning to plunge back in. Better, in my humble opinion, than the Harry Potter books."

The Wayfarer's Redemption Series by Sara Douglass. "Not really kids' lit per se, but a big hit with teens (and me)."

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. "Drawings and prose - both enthralling - intertwine to tell the adventures of an orphaned thief hiding in a Paris train station."

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart and Carson Ellis. "Many twists and turns as children hired for 'special opportunities' must outwit their nefarious employer."

The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden and Hal Iggulden. "I love this book. If my son doesn't do something dangerous with the information packed inside, then I most certainly will."

Ken Kalfus, author of the novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country:

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault. "A novel about classical Greece, Socrates and the Peloponnesian War. It's very moving, very philosophical and comparable, I think, to War and Peace."

The Folded World by Amity Gaige. "A touching story about a young married couple and their ordinary travails. It's really an amazing book."

Jon Clinch, author of the novel Finn:

A Miracle of Catfish by Larry Brown. "A great, gritty yet lyrical Southern writer. The book is gorgeous and fun and harrowing. Brown died before finishing the last three chapters, and it doesn't matter."

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (the inspiration for Clinch's novel). "Only when we revisit this book as an adult do we realize what a weird, surreal book this is."

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. "There's a great application of his ideas everywhere you look. He's quite a philosopher about how it's really a game of risk about what's going to succeed or not."

Memoir from Antproof Case by Mark Helprin. "A little known but hysterical fictional memoir told not by an idiot but a lunatic. The only known novel dedicated to Juan Valdez."

William Lashner, author of Marked Man and Falls the Shadows:

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler. "This has everything: the doctor with the needle, the femme fatale, the big moose guy, the gamblers."

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. "Really such fun, a blast of a book."

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "The detective Porfiry Petrovich is my favorite detective in literature."

Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams by Nick Tosches (a biography of Dean Martin). "Amazing."

Sheila Avelin, owner of the Big Blue Marble Bookstore, Mount Airy:

Missing Joseph by Elizabeth George "This is part of the Inspector Lynley mystery series which I've read and reread. It's about class and her constant theme of broken parenthood and missing children."

Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen. "The narrative voice is funny and accessible about the immigrant experience. Mona's one of my favorite characters."

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel. "A tour de force of art and narrative."

Ed Luoma, co-owner of Readers' Forum, Wayne:

Ellis Island by Mark Helprin. "The writing is just magical. I've never read a collection of short stories so dynamically different yet each one is very satisfying."

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. "The precision of the writing is astounding. It's barely over 100 pages, and there isn't a wasted word."

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. "An odd duck of a novel and a perennial bestseller here."

The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. "A great memoir."

Hannah Schwartz, owner of Children's Book World, Haverford:

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks. "This kid is super, super smart and, after he finishes school, finds out he's adopted and his actual father is a super-evil genius who wants him to join the Axis Institute for World Domination. Really smart and clever."

Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell. "A wonderful retelling of 'The Lady of Shalott.' "

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. "Based on Greek mythology but set in the present, the hero discovers he is half-human, half-god and that his father is Poseidon. He's sent to Camp Half-Blood and goes on all these adventures where Hades is Los Angeles."

The Penderwickes: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by Jeanne Birdsall. "Just a wonderful, beautiful old-fashioned book that kids love."

David Hiltbrand, an Inquirer editor and author of the mysteries Dying to be Famous and Deader than Disco:

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. "An exquisite treat: an ingenious conceit told with heart, humor and chutzpah."

Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett. "Another exotic and endlessly engaging case for Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

A Question of Attraction by David Nicholls. "A delightful coming-of-age comedy about a student consumed with appearing on the BBC version of College Bowl."

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. "The ridiculously rich and enchanting saga of a pair of accomplished British magicians in the Napoleonic era."

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. "Breathtakingly dyspeptic and derisory stories about America in the age of malls."

Frank Wilson, Inquirer book editor:

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad. "The very humidity of the jungle is turned into poetry."

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. "Brings to mind expansive lawns in bright sunlight where supremely civilized men and women stroll and bicker."

Travels with a Donkey by Robert Louis Stevenson. "The perfect walking tour with the perfect companion, at the end of which you will surely shed a tear."

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier. "A gentle venture into pure magic."

Karen Heller, Inquirer staff writer and columnist:

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. "A luscious fat English novel about class, ambition, risk and reputation."

The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton. "A luscious American novel about class, ambition, risk and reputation with an impossibly selfish and ruthless heroine, as modern today as she was in 1913, who bolts out of the book with the first line: 'Undine Spragg - How can you?' "

The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker. "An exquisite trio of books about the horrors and psychological devastation of World War I, the nature of sanity and art in the face of absurd, suicidal warfare. Each novel, now published in one volume, is brief yet rich and unforgettable."

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow. "A life of such complexity and range, especially the patriarch's early life as the impoverished son of a scoundrel and bigamist, that it reads like great fiction."

Michael Schaffer, an Inquirer editor and writer:

Amsterdam: A Novel by Ian McEwan. "A darkly funny tale, soaked in a pool of irony worthy of Evelyn Waugh."

Through a Glass Darkly: A Commisario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon. "A thoroughly enjoyable cruise through the canals of Venice with a police detective who manages to keep his idealism and humanity intact while navigating a corrupt bureaucracy."

Little Tiny Teeth by Aaron Elkins. "Anthropology prof Gideon Oliver, also known as the Skeleton Detective, finds more than he bargained for on an Amazon expedition in a series that never disappoints."

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie. "A long but readable - and rewarding - story of sectarian hostility in the early days of independent India."

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