10 books recommended for summer reading

Judith Stokes
Electronic Resources/
Serials Librarian and
Associate Professor

Continuing a series that began in 2008, Judith Stokes reviews selected books from Adams Library’s Browsing Collection. In April, she reviewed the 10 books of fiction that have been borrowed most frequently (as of spring 2012). In May, she examined the 10 most popular nonfiction books. This month, she will assess 10 of her favorites.

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

1. “The Buddha in the Attic” by Julie Otsuka, written in the tersely poetic style of her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, follows Japanese “picture brides” who came to America, or were sent here, on the strength of a long distance proposal, a handsome photograph, and the reputation of America, itself, where so many prospered and wives did not have to walk three steps behind their husbands. From “Come, Japanese!” to the “Last Day” before internment, we are among them, as they discover the handsome photograph was twenty years old when he sent it, or the romantic letter was written by another man. We are with them as they labor and serve, and as they give birth to children who will grow to be ashamed of them and their old country ways, but will return home to help them pack, and will accompany them to the concentration camps where issei and nissei, immigrants and citizens alike, were accused, imprisoned, humiliated throughout World War II.

2. “The Surrendered” by Chang-Rae Lee ranges across three continents and half a century, following a few of war's refugees. Orphans and missionaries, neither as innocent or selfless as they might wish, being damaged by the inhumanity around them, survive or not. June, a Korean orphan, turns from death and destruction to survival for its own sake, building a life of safety and prosperity without caring. Hector, an American soldier, despairs, questioning everything, his own survival most of all, but still cares.

3. “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” by Laura Hillenbrand is the action-packed biography of Louis Zamparini, Olympic track star, second lieutenant, Air Force pilot, and one of only three survivors of a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean. Lost at sea, he and two others survived in inflatable rafts longer than anyone had until then, but even that was only prelude to two and a half years in Japanese prison camps where execution, hard labor, torture and starvation were routine. Red Cross rations were appropriated by prison administrators, never reaching the prisoners, and inspections of the camps were staged affairs. We know that Louis was alive and well at the time the book was written, but not how he found food and clear water enough to survive in a raft under the burning sun and above, but only barely so, the relentlessly prowling sharks. How he was rescued, dealt with PTSD and alcoholism after the war, and all the rest of the story makes this an irresistible tale of courage and adventure.

4. “State of Wonder: A Novel” by Ann Patchett is aptly titled for its effect on the reader. Not that it is less than believable, as fantastic as this trip turns out to be. Leaving the crisp clear air of Minnesota, Dr. Marina Singh flies to the Amazonian tropics to locate the research site where her colleague has died of an unnamed fever, to retrieve his effects, and to report back on the research project their employer, an American pharmaceutical company, is funding. Even before her departure, the side effects of an anti-malaria drug have her coping with sleep deprivation and the disturbing visions of her nightmares, but our heroine is more resilient than she seems, and the surreal jungle adventure ahead of her will be more fascinating than we could have imagined.

5. “The Marriage Plot: A Novel” by Jeffrey Eugenides is named for Madeleine’s thesis topic and, unsurprisingly, the fate of her love triangle. Three Brown University seniors: Madeleine, the beautiful, romantic, and wealthy English major; Mitchell, the thoughtful, scholarly, and philosophical Religious Studies major; and Leonard, the mercurial, brilliant Don Juan of a biologist graduate into the early 1980’s recession, hard times nearly like our own, with 10 percent unemployment and even the best and brightest worried about getting a good start in life. For Madeleine to discover there is an academic vocation in Victorian literature, and that she has the intellect and the resources to pursue it is not the point. Her love for Leonard, Mitchell’s love for her, and their coming of age, their 20th century young adulthood is the marriage plot.

6. “Foreign Bodies” by Cynthia Ozick evokes Henry James' “The Ambassadors.” In the role of the middle-aged New England Protestant Louis Lambert Strether of 1903, is the long-divorced Jewish American school teacher, Beatrice Nachtigall, now Miss Nightingale in 1952. The boy who has attached himself to an older woman in Paris is her nephew, Julian, and the juxtaposition of American innocence and European experience is made flesh in the person of Lili, an underfed Romanian widow displaced by World War II. Julian’s European escape frees him from his father’s domination and worldly ambition. What Bea discovers in Paris is not an illicit affair, but Julian's secret marriage to his beloved Lili. Julian's sister, Iris, decides on her own to go find her brother and have her own fling. Aunt Bea, the official “ambassador” was dispatched by their father, Marvin Nachtigall, a rich and pushy Jew, who had parleyed his East Coast Ivy League education into sufficient respectability to achieve marriage with Margaret, daughter of a wealthy New England Protestant family, and settle in booming Los Angeles. Julian’s “disappearance” has so upset Margaret that Marvin has had her confined in the Suite Eyre Rest Home in Beverly Hills. Displaced persons, indeed!

7. “The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht weaves tales of a beloved grandfather with a quest to uncover the mysterious circumstances of his death. Ever shifting Balkan boundaries, wars, fear, and folklore inspire this web of magical realism. The quest is loosely structured and characters seem to be visited rather than developed. Like her grandfather, Natalia is a doctor, and his stories of “the deathless man” challenge their science, while the tale of the tiger’s wife, arising from the actual escape of zoo animals during the World War II bombing of the Belgrade zoo, bridges the bond between grandfather and grandchild. Her childhood memories of their visits to the zoo, and later, during the Balkan wars, their participation in nighttime vigils around the zoo to bear witness to the fate of the animals, and the worn copy of “The Jungle Book” he carried with him everywhere, send Natalia to the remote mountain village where he grew up and the tale of the tiger and the woman they called the tiger’s wife is told.

8. “The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” by Deborah Blum has it all: murders, speakeasies, corruption, pollution, mysteries galore, science and biography. Following the careers of two dedicated civil servants gives the book its narrative form, while this fascinating chronicle of poisons, from Chloroform (CHCI3) 1915 to Thallium (TI) 1935-36, traces a history of scientific advancement. The pathologist, Charles Norris, first chief medical examiner of New York City, had to wait until a drunken city coroner lost his sinecure before he could begin his campaign to bring forensic science to bear on the cause of justice. By hiring toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, he formed a partnership that revolutionized police work and helped to supply the evidence that brought about the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938, not to mention the proliferation of Law and Orders and CSIs on television today.

9. The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow is more than just quantum physics for dummies, addressing as it does the big questions: “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?” in contemporary multiverse terms. They make a good case for a grand design without a godly designer. Those of us who are pleased to take the mathematics on faith will marvel at this clear and concise account of the theories that collectively contribute to our understanding of our world.

10. When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to Present by Gail Collins draws from the popular press, politics, and interviews, an engaging history of second wave feminism. From “My Little Margie” to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Gail Collins, the first female editorial page editor for the New York Times, considers it all – the fashions, freedoms, families, politics and economics of American women’s lives during the past 50 years.