Summer reads


Do you have a definition for “summer reading”? Some seem to suggest it is a quick, pulls-you-in, you-can’t-put-it-down read. Others might indicate it’s the time of year when a favorite author’s novel or a current 2008 book is waiting to be picked up for a relaxed read.

For myself, since I read intensively year round, there aren’t books I would designate specifically for summer. My reputation within the nine book groups I facilitate is that I choose only “dark” books.

Is it possible for dark books to help cool us in the heat of summer? How about trying some of these? I’m using them in book groups around the theme “Mystery, History and Art.” What a way to learn history, in novels filled with mystery!

What about Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901 and nearby Niagara Falls? This historical novel, The City of Light, (1999) by Lauren Belfer, who grew up in Buffalo, includes passion, murder, romance, history. Fact and fiction are woven around Louisa Barrett’s experience as headmistress of Buffalo’s most prestigious school. A story of politics and power-broking to control Niagara Falls and the electricity the falls can provide.

People of the Book (2008) by Geraldine Brooks is a novel based on a true story, which is perhaps more complicated and detailed than many of us want to know, but well worth the read. Protagonist Hanna Heath, an Australian manuscript conservator, is offered the job of analyzing a Hebrew manuscript created in 15th-century Spain and recently saved from destruction during the shelling of Sarajevo’s libraries. Thus begins the back and forth story of the Sarajevo Haggadah (which Brooks learned about when she was reporting on the Bosnian war for the Wall Street Journal) and those who possessed it at various points in time. A great way to learn about art, history and mysterious possibilities.

The Tenderness of Wolves (2006) by Stef Penney is set in the Northern Territory of Canada in late fall 1867. The London Sunday Telegraph called it, “a fascinating, suspense-filled adventure, a refreshing contrast to the conventional murder mystery.” Couldn’t agree more. We’re talking winter cold, history, death, a mother’s search for her son, many types of relationships and betrayals. Clearly there is no black or white. Can’t wait to discuss the meaning of the title as well as the way Penney ends the book. Let me know the meaning for you.

In The Various Haunts of Men: A Simon Serrailler Mystery (2004) by Susan Hill people are disappearing in a small English community. Nothing seems to connect them, but detective Freya Graffham will not give up. On a personal note, I read many mysteries, and I cannot ever remember crying as I finished one. With this book I did. Had to read the last four chapters a second time; really looking forward to group discussion.

If you pick up no other book this summer, the one to read is Louise Erdrich’s latest, The Plague of Doves (2008). Publishers Weekly calls it “a tour de force of sin, redemption, murder, and vengeance.” Indeed! Across generations an unsolved murder of a white farm family shapes the lives of the people-Ojibwe, white and mixed blood-around the off-reservation town of Pluto, North Dakota.

Although Erdrich always writes amazing stories, for me she most of all is highlighting the complexity of the human condition and the challenge of what we do to each other, as she explores the meaning of individual life.

In Newsweek (May 26), Erdrich noted that important books for her include Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. The line from O’Connor that electrified her and made her want to write was, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.” She describes Rhys’ book as “Savage, strange and perfect.” I agree about the Rhys book and haven’t read O’Connor’s, but will.

Erdrich also mentions four books by men, one of which I’m reading now: The World Without Us (2007) by Alan Weisman. This challenging book shifts your head into the possibility of a world in which all humans have disappeared. When I mention it there are strong reactions about such a possibility, and so far I haven’t found others willing to read and discuss it. I was comforted when I read Erdrich’s reaction to the book, “The most shattering and consoling book I read this year,” Couldn’t agree more. What possibility for discussion.

Perhaps each of these books could be classified as “dark” or perhaps simply wonderful reads of “mystery, history and art.” No matter, they’re worth the read any time of the year.

Glenda Martin is the founding co-publisher, with Mollie Hoben, of the Minnesota Women’s Press. Along with facilitating book retreats, the two co-publish BookWomen, a bimonthly publication for those who love women’s words. Send your book thoughts to