10 books recommended for summer reading

Judith Stokes
Electronic Resources/
Serials Librarian and
Associate Professor

Continuing a series that began in 2008, RIC's Judith Stokes reviews selected books from Adams Library’s Browsing Collection. In April, she reviewed the top 10 most frequently borrowed fiction books, as of Spring 2011. In May, she looked at the top 10 nonfiction books. This month, she reviews 10 of her favorites.

We hope you will enjoy reading these informative descriptions, and perhaps some of these titles will find their way onto your personal reading list.

1. “Room: A Novel” by Emma Donaghue swiftly draws the reader into that 11' x 11' room where Jack was born and has lived his entire five years. We soon learn that Ma was abducted at age 19, by "Old Nick," but since Jack was born, she has lived a life of caring and love for her child within the four walls of their prison. Jack's voice keeps the reader entranced by his innocence, his courage, and his burning need to rescue his beloved Ma. Once you step into the Room, you won't want to put it down.

2. “The Imperfectionists: A Novel” by Tom Rachman ingeniously blends 11 character studies, each one a complete story in itself, with the rise and fall of an international newspaper. The project of an American multimillionaire in the 1950s, the English language newspaper is headquartered in Rome, assigned an international beat, and staffed with an assortment of expatriate American journalists. With an attentive publisher and talented editors, the newspaper develops its voice, and circulation soars, attracting talent of every kind. Just as artfully, in decline, the newspaper's demise is played out in tales of human dimensions.

3. “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart is the “printed, bound media artifact” of the American future, in which narrative is the stuff of “streams.” Our protagonist's, Lenny's, Wall of Books in his beloved New York City apartment reveals his advanced age and pathetic personality, but his beautiful young Korean girlfriend moves in anyway, because she needs a place to live. Lenny's beloved Eunice, with her Assertiveness degree (and minor in Retail) is coming to the end of her Credit because she has been surreptitiously supplying necessities to the homeless Venezuela veterans living in Central Park. Lenny's diary and Eunice's texts on GlobalTeens (recovered after the Rupture) comprise the text that becomes this super funny dystopian love story.

4. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is a well researched and intriguing history of the HeLa cell line – biological material that enabled tremendous 20th-century medical advances, starting with polio vaccine and continuing into present research. The persistent growth of the cancer that killed Henrietta Lacks was the key to its ability to survive in laboratory cultures, but Skloot wanted more, including the human story of its origins. Here is the poor African-American mother of five who died of that cancer in 1951. At the time, doctors thought nothing of using a patient's tissue for medical research without her knowledge or consent, and when her identity was later revealed, they still had no concern about the effects on her family. By the time Skloot began her research, the family had long been painfully aware that their mother's remains had been taken from them and made the object of millions of dollars of medical commerce, while they remain uninsured and unable to afford the medical treatments made possible by their mother's loss.

5. “Parrot and Olivier in America” by Peter Carey offers Olivier as a fanciful version of Alexis de Tocqueville, destined to travel to America to report on the prison system, and famously publish his broader observations as “Democracy in America.” Rather than a fictional Gustave de Beaumont, however, his appointed traveling companion is a picaresque character: Parrot. Survivor of many painful adventures in the service of an improbable French marquis, Parrot has been engaged for yet another assignment, but with hopes of gaining his independence from the marquis, at last. Olivier and Parrot alternate voices: the whiny aristocrat disadvantaged by his pompous prose, and the resourceful secretary trying to make an American life when not busy translating his “Lord Migraine's” incomprehensible English and illegible handwriting. Thus unfolds this rollicking tale of spies and revolutionaries, adventure and romance.

6. “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary” by David Sedaris with illustrations by Ian Falconer is not your mother's book of fables. It is hilariously absurd tooth-and-claw satire, so resist the urge to make it a quick read. Look at the pictures right away, if you absolutely must, but enjoy the stories one, or a few, at a time. Sedaris gives us the funniest alcoholic cat, married dog and sociopathic bunny ever, but also disagreeable opinions about the desirability of a well-licked anus, and all the shallow, self-absorbed, disgusting human behaviors we have ever hoped would be overlooked.

7. “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” by Walter Mosley brings together a very old, childless man and a very young woman, in need of a father, for a surprising adventure with roots in the long past youth of the sharecropper's son, Ptolemy Grey. At 91 years old, Ptolemy had been lost in the mental mists of time since the death of his wife, 20 years before. His grandnephew Reggie's regular visits had enabled his independent if befuddled existence, until Reggie was slain in a drive-by shooting. The mystery of that murder is joined in Ptolemy's mind with another deadly mystery in his storied past, but it takes 17-year-old Robyn, who volunteers to look after the old man, to help him regain his sense of purpose, as well as the means to pursue it.

8. “What the Dog Saw, and Other Adventures” by Malcolm Gladwell collects 19 of Gladwell's articles from the New Yorker, any of which is worth a second read, even if you did catch it the first time around. Pleasant enough for a beach read – a Gladwell essay is always well-written and intriguing, but better than that, it is also always a “thought piece.” The characters' quirks will be included, but it is their ideas he has laid out for your consideration. Successes are celebrated and failures accounted for, but it is the underlying assumptions affirmed or discounted that he will have the reader remember and reflect on.

9. “Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff is history, not drama, although the life and times of Cleopatra are pretty dramatic, even without Elizabeth Taylor or Richard Burton. Schiff takes you there, gives you all the gossip from then and later, but she distinguishes the facts, and colors the scenes with all the glory of the time and place, and the gore, as well. When West meets East, looking at Rome from the perspective of Alexandria makes this biography especially engaging.

10. “Just Kids” by Patti Smith is the memoir of her youth and her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Hungry in New York City, intermittently homeless, they shared young love, work, the determination to become accomplished artists, and the remarkable creative ferment in 1960s New York City. Even after Robert discovered he was gay, they remained close, and supported one another until their work brought each of them the success they craved. The New York art scene, from the Chelsea Hotel to Max's Kansas City, and the big names in rock and roll are included, but Smith's recollections would draw us in even if she had known nobody all those years. Smith, the poet, gives us romantic tenderness, sweet memories, and delight, along with the drugs, the dangers and the AIDS that took Robert's life.