So many choices for a summer read

Stone fruit, long days, baseball and endless reading choices are some of my summer favorites. Come summer I have less pressure to read books for upcoming discussions and tend to range farther afield in my choices.

Since we do spend time on the road each summer, e-books and audiobooks have a greater presence than when I stick closer to home. The public library is my go-to source for audiobooks that Dan and listen to long trips.  Once you get the hang of it, it’s not hard to download titles that are available for up to 3 weeks. An inexpensive Bluetooth speaker makes it much easier to hear if your car is not so equipped.

We’re hoping to listen to The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore, a fact-based novel of Westinghouse, Edison, and Tesla in 1888. Joshua Hammer’s telling of the rescue of Mali’s treasured Islamic and secular manuscripts from impending destruction by Al Qaeda is the narrative of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. Mysteries or thrillers can also be a good traveling pick. I’m looking at The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King, the first in a series of Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes stories. We have also enjoyed John Grisham’s Sycamore Row, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, and Bill Bryson’s One Summer: America, 1927. Any of their books would be fine picks – good readers with easy on the ear accents, engaging narratives that sustain your attention without distracting from the road ahead. Try out a new genre, if you dare.  We loved Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. A mix of dystopic and classical storytelling, it was a great listen.

Above is a photo of some of the books I hope to read as the summer progresses. A bit of everything, fiction based on fact, memoir, literary fiction and mystery. I’ve listed them all at the end of the post. The plan is to review as many as possible. Some are certain to appear on my book groups lists. If the library waitlist treats me kindly, I’ll also read Daniel Silva’s latest, House of Spies, and  Louise Penny’s Glass Houses.

Right now I’m finishing up Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows. Toews is an award-winning Canadian novelist. This is a family story of two sisters, Elfrieda, a concert pianist, and her sister, who has a more well-rounded life despite some poor decisions. I’ve been listening to Behold the Dreamers since before it became one of Oprah’s Book Club picks. It is Imbolo Mbue’s story of two families, one in the 1% but with many problems money cannot solve, the other an immigrant family desperate to stay in the U.S. with the father working as the driver for the wealthy family. Set in New York where spectacular wealth and barely-scraping-by live barely a few miles apart.

Before I forget, plan to stop at local bookstores while you are visiting new places. Yesterday I picked up Hag-Seed, Margaret Atwood’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in narrative form while at Four Seasons Books in Shepherdstown, WV. There are knowledgeable booksellers in independent bookstores just about everywhere. Invest in the future of the book. Patronize these shops wherever you find them. IndieBound is one good source to scout them out.

Finally, what have I finished already? Anita Shreve’s The Stars Are Fire, Joanna Trollope’s City of Friends, Charles Todd’s A Casualty of War, Bianca Marais’s Hum If You Don’t Know the Words, The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow and Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend. All would be fine choices to pack in your carry-on and those I have reviewed are linked.

Titles Pictured Above

  • Daring to Drive by Manal al-Sharif
  • Celine by Peter Heller
  • The Leavers by Lisa Ko
  • The Golden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang
  • The World Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews
  • The Lost History of Stars by Dave Boling










My visit to ‘Station Eleven’

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) Audiobook – Kirsten Potter, narrator (Random House Audio)
  • In 40 words or less: A famed actor collapses on stage as a worldwide flu pandemic that destroys civilization begins.  Twenty years later, the survivors struggle. Despite desperate conditions, they cherish fragments of life before and seek family and community connections in their new world.
  • Genre: Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction
  • Locale: Toronto, Great Lakes region
  • Time: Near future
  • Read this if you think post-apocalyptic fiction is not your thing. A beautifully crafted story with compelling characters that will likely surprise you.

I admit it. I steer way clear of classic science fiction and dystopic literature. There are so many books I’ll never have the chance to read in my preferred genres so why bother. Last month we took a road trip to visit family in South Carolina. As usual, we explored out of the way places (good material for another post) and avoided radio roulette by downloading audiobooks. I’d been hearing about Station Eleven for two years and thought it might bridge the differences in our reading tastes. It turned out to be a great decision.

Emily St. John Mandel uses the stage to open Station Eleven. Arthur Leander, a noted actor, is starring in an unusual production of King Lear which includes a few child actors. During the performance, he collapses in full view of the audience and one of the young girls. Despite the best efforts of an EMT in attendance, he dies. The lives of these three characters – Arthur, Kirsten, and Jeevan- are inexorably linked across more than three decades, from the earliest days of Arthur’s film career to twenty years after the earth’s population was virtually destroyed in a flu pandemic.

Jeevan, the EMT, leaves the theater into a Toronto snowstorm and learns of the virulent flu from a doctor watching patients sicken and die in the emergency room. With great descriptive detail, Mandel follows Jeevan as he stockpiles cart after cart of supplies from a closing store and then drags them to his brother’s high-rise apartment where they seal themselves in, hoping to escape unscathed.

Almost twenty years later, Kirsten is traveling the Great Lakes Region with a group of musicians and actors that perform concerts and Shakespeare when they encounter other small groups of survivors. Without electricity or other measures of modernity, daily life requires foraging and scavenging through buildings and cars abandoned as the owners died. Kirsten has blocked out the early years after the pandemic but continues to seek out information about Arthur, who showed her great kindness and gave her a book that’s her constant companion.

Also traveling the region is a young cult leader known as the Prophet, controlling his followers by force and intimidation. The encounters between the groups are classic good vs evil, with some twists. And it all began with Arthur.

Station Eleven is filled with comfortable individuals. Fully-drawn, they are far from perfect beings. Heroic actions come from innate humanity and personal growth, not superpowers. This combination of story and character makes this a genre-busting winner. The audiobook version, narrated by Kirsten Potter, seamlessly shifted from character to character allowing the story to shine brightly.

Once a Spy, Always a Spy – The English Teacher

  • Unknown-2The English Teacher by Yiftach Reicher Atir, Philip Simpson (Translator) (Penguin Books, August 2016) Charlotte Albanna (narrator, Penguin Audio)
  • In 40 words or less: A retired Mossad officer, Atir uses his experience to bare the personal conflicts of an intelligence operative and her handler through a retrospective of their mutual history.  An unconventional thriller, the day-to-day costs of spy craft are as compelling as the missions.
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Locale: London, Israel, unidentified Arab nation
  • Time: Contemporary
  • Read this for an insider’s perspective on the personal price of intelligence work, wrapped in a well-crafted story.

Rachel leads three lives: 1) Rachel Goldshmitt, London-raised and educated daughter who has moved to Israel; 2) Rachel Ravid, Mossad operative; and 3) Rachel Brooks, Canadian Christian English teacher, nature enthusiast and tourist.    Upon the death of her father, Rachel decides to take back her life. Using the skills taught in training, she disappears raising alerts in the agency. Operatives are not permitted to leave the life – it’s too dangerous for all concerned.

From her initial training, Rachel has worked with Ehud, one of the agency’s most senior and skilled handlers. Rachel was his prized student, and his concern and infatuation for her created schisms within in his own family, though Rachel carefully kept dealings only professional. Now, having left the agency, Ehud is called back to recall every detail of their twenty-plus year association in the hope of finding clues to her location. Atir goes back and forth, having Rachel and Ehud voice the details of their operations and communications over the years.

Articles about Atir and his writing indicate that the Mossad demanded changes to plot and techniques to protect its operations. Presumably, there is also some measure of literary license to bring the story together. What Atir accomplishes is bringing the reader face-to-face with the extraordinary stresses and sacrifices demanded of embedded operatives, often for extended periods of time. Operatives may be required to develop relationships, only to leave in the dark of night with no future contact. The English Teacher achingly describes the loneliness of a woman living a dual-life, but really having no life at all.

Note: I listened to the audiobook, thanks to an early copy from Penguin Audio. This is a great book, regardless of format.



Road trip audiobook – Part 1

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  • 51Yb2zZHp+L._SX448_BO1,204,203,200_The Wright Brothers by David McCullough, narration by the author (Simon & Schuster audio, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: There’s far more to the Wright brothers’ story than the first flight at Kitty Hawk. McCullough brings the family to life and sets them in the context of their times. His narration provides the gravitas the story deserves.
  • Genre: History/Biography
  • Locale: Ohio/NC/Europe
  • Time: Late 19th – Early 20th centuries
  • Read this to understand the genius and persistence of the Wright brothers and the family that inspired and stood behind them in their work.

Several things need to work well for an audiobook to be a good choice – the subject, the reader and the quality of the material. When you are choosing a book for more than one person to listen to on a road trip, the stakes are higher. Knowing that our tastes differ, I had several selections. The Wright Brothers was not the first pick but within minutes we were hooked.

Orville and Wilbur Wright’s successful flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 is credited with launching the age of flight. The brief paragraphs about this achievement in most history books tell of brothers that began as bicycle builders who parlayed their mechanical knowledge to create the first successful airplane. The brothers and their siblings were raised in a household where reading books on all subjects from classical philosophy to mathematics to contemporary literature was the primary activity. Throughout their lives, Sundays were reserved for reading and contemplation, a tribute to their minister father who instilled in them their love of learning and persistence of purpose.


The flight at Kitty Hawk was barely heard of beyond those working on the project for more than five years. Politics and scientific jealousies sent the Wrights to Europe looking for support and a market when U.S. government officials created stumbling blocks or ignored them outright for several years.  Throughout it all, the Wrights remained fixtures in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio and maintained their bicycle shop as an ongoing concern. From beginning to end, their sister Katharine provided personal support and business guidance critical to every success they had, often sacrificing her own aspirations.

David McCullough’s deep and expressive voice is perfect for telling the story as he wrote it.  The only downside to listening to the audiobook is the lack of photos and a map. I had given an autographed copy of the book to my father, so upon our arrival at his home, I was able to look at the photos. Having a map handy is a great reminder of the very narrow spit of land that was so important to the birth of modern aviation.

Whether your interest is in history, aviation, the power of genius or just a great story, David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers will fit the bill.

The beauty of Kent Haruf’s ‘Our Souls at Night’

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  • Unknown-8Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (Random House Audio, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: A beautiful, yet spare tale of two older adults who are changed through their relationship.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Colorado
  • Time: Present
  • Read this to savor a story about the essence of humanity and the importance of relationships at every age.

There are some things are far better with a healthy measure of life experiences behind you. Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night is such a book. As with Haruf’s other novels, it takes place is small town Colorado. Addie Moore drums up the courage to approach her neighbor, Louis Waters, with a proposal. Both are widowed and up in years.  She suggests that they consider spending some nights together, talking in bed, an intimacy she misses and suspects he might as well. And so the story proceeds.

Over the course of this short novel their relationship grows.  They become the subject of gossip in town and consternation from their children. Life happens, both good and bad.

Our Souls at Night is written beautifully. The language is befitting the wise, yet simple characters. I had the good fortune to listen to the book read by Mark Bramhall. If anything, his reading amplified the message. It has been years since I wanted anyone other than my children to read me a bedtime story. More so than any other audiobook I’ve listened to, this one was true artistry. Whether holding the book in hand or listening to Bramhall’s voice, Our Souls at Night warms the heart.

Kent Haruf died on November 30, 2014, shortly after completing this book. At its publication six months later it was heralded as a fitting swan song. If only we could all finish out our days so well.