by Hugh Gilmore

Last week Tom Tarantino of Chestnut Hill, emailed me, saying, “Hi Hugh, Always like your articles in the C H Local. Have you considered an audience participation piece: ‘What’s your choice for Summer Reading?’”

I usually do run a couple of audience participation columns along those lines, one in July and another in winter when the first snow-in occurs. I was going to wait till the Chestnut Hill Book Festival arrives on July 9 & 10, but Mr. Tarantino’s suggestion sparked me to get started right away.

This summer’s version will be printed in two, possibly three, installments. I began by going through my address book, looking for people I know who like to read. I try not to ask anyone to participate in two columns in a row, simply for the sake of scope and variety – though some folks are so interesting, it’s hard not to. I have edited several responses, primarily because space is limited.

This week, my email request was worded: “For a late June or July column in the Local, I’m planning another summer roundup of ‘Who’s reading what? and would be really happy if you joined in this time. The question is: ‘Is there (or was there) a book you set aside to read on vacation this year?’  What was it? And why? Alternative, (or also) have you read anything lately you recommend heartily, joyously, enthusiastically”?

Let’s start with Tom Tarantino, since he rang in first. He wrote, “My Favorite Book of the Year so far is ‘The Sands of Kalahari,’ (1960) by William Mulvihill.”

What would you expect? (HG: Mr. T. recently returned from South Africa, where he visited the Kalahari desert.) It was turned into a movie, which, unfortunately, is not available on DVD. It tells the story of six survivors of a plane crash in the Desert … and it makes you feel what it’s like to be lost. As an added bonus, it shows you what a Harvard Man is really worth.

Mr. T. adds “The second is one I am just starting –  ‘Andes’ (2010). I think it will be great, and it already makes me want to go back to Patagonia.  Written by Michael Jacobs, it describes his trip down the spine of South America, through seven different countries and across two different centuries. So why am I here in Chestnut Hill”?

Susan Bockius, of Mt. Airy, brings a similar wistfulness for travel to her reading choices this summer. Susan is a very active member of the Unitarian Society of Germantown. She also sells stained glass for the Willet Stained Glass Studio, a Chestnut Hill business for 40 years (now located in the lower Northeast). Ms. Bockius writes, “My reading this summer is a result of last summer’s, when I bought a remaindered book by W. S. Merwin called ‘The Mays of Ventadorn.’ (2002) He was a discovery.

“The gift of language he developed through his poetry shines through his prose in this non-fiction book. He illuminates the area of France that was the home of the troubadour poets, the Languedoc (where he maintained a second home for decades). His book made me want to experience southwest France, the Aquitaine. And this summer I am reading ‘Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings’ (orig. 1950) by Amy Kelly.  The book makes for lively historical summer reading. By the way, I intend to visit this region this September when I travel there with a dear, French-speaking friend.”

James H. Hill, Chestnut Hill resident and devoted oarsman, writes, “Thanks for thinking of me. I’m afraid I cannot help: I have set nothing aside for Maine this year. I did love (& highly recommend) Luke Jenning’s ‘Blood Knots’ and Peter Hessler’s ‘Country Driving.’ Both were so well written I bought the authors’ earlier books to read also.”

(HG:  Reviews of “Blood Knots,” tout it as one of the best recent angling books and, like so many of the best of this genre, as a touching and beautiful memoir that uses fishing as an excuse to be near water – which, as Thoreau would remind us, is where all men and women become philosophers. As for Hessler’s book: in the summer of 2001, this longtime Beijing correspondent for The New Yorker acquired his Chinese driver’s license and spent the next seven years traveling the country, tracking how the automobile and improved roads were transforming China.)

Our next contributor is Chestnut Hill resident Nathan Sivin. Just as I finished a recent series about how I, as a bookseller, dispersed a scholar’s huge library, Professor Sivin wrote to me. He told me he knew the gentleman whose library I’d bought. Soon after, we got together and had what I hope was only the first of a number of great conversations.

In response to my summer reading request, he wrote, “I’m a generalist scholar and author, retired five years ago from the Department of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania and frequently found at the Chestnut Hill Cheese Shop. For me, work is recreation, and I spend much of my time reading, much of it in Chinese, in order to extend my understanding and imagination. The most fun I have had recently began in the summer after my retirement, when I reread all of Shakespeare’s plays and all of Honoré de Balzac’s roughly a hundred novels. The latter are actually one vast super-novel that lays out, with a single, giant cast of characters, all the variety of human relations in one generation of French society in the midst of dizzying change. Nothing since begins to compare with it.”

I’ve heard many people say they intended to read through all of an author’s works – usually Dickens – but have never met anyone who actually did. I’m amazed, and jealous. And must find out what Mr. Sivin is doing as a follow-up.

Another prodigious reader from our community, Carol Rauch, has lived in Chestnut Hill for 25 years. She describes herself as a former marketing consultant to the design professions, now retired, who loves reading, competing at Scrabble, painting, building furniture, gardening and exploring new ideas. She also describes herself as an excellent editor who would love some freelance assignments.

Here’s an edited list of books she’s recently enjoyed. (1) “Crossing,” by Geraldine Brooks. (“Historical fiction about Native Americans and the small British colony on Martha’s Vineyard in the middle of the 17th century. Compelling read.”); (2) “The Paris Wife,” by Paula McLain. (“An interesting novel about Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson.”); (3) “A Mountain of Crumbs,” by Elena Gorokhova. (“A gorgeous and evocative memoir enriched by her connection to two languages, Russian and English. Brilliant and moving.”); (4) “Mudbound,” by Hillary Jordan. (Brilliant debut novel set on a 1940s farm in the Mississippi Delta.”); (5) “Invisible Bridge,” by Julie Orringer. (“Historical fiction. I knew nothing about Hungary’s experience of WW II. This was an eye-opener to a horrific time for the Hungarian people.”)

Did you know that Jonna Naylor, the executive director of Mt Airy Learning Tree, grew up in the land of Larry McMurtry – Thalia, Texas?  Jonna writes, “My Mom knew him as a kid in Clarendon, Texas. I am from Philly now!  And I maintain my deep-south-Philly accent.”

As for her reading habits, she says, “Sure Hugh … but only if you promise to use my list only if you find it fun! And it fits … In other words … ok to leave me out if you get better ones! I’m a lightweight reader but have loved reading all my life! Historical biographies, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys/ Happy Hollisters are some early favorites!  I learned the finger alphabet as a kid from the back of a Happy Hollisters book.

“Then I moved into Agatha Christie, and on to Michener … they are all good, but “Hawaii” may be my favorite.  So I guess I just think of myself as a “standard stuff” reader.  But I read a fun book about Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith that she wrote called “Just Kids’” this May at the Cape.

“For tee-hees I love Janet Evanovich and try to keep up with her Stephanie Plum novels. My favorite so far was the one with the monkeys in the Pine Barrens! ‘Plum Spooky’ is one for the ages if you grew up around guys who blew things up, or ripped up things using an old Moline tractor and a chain … it just brought back memories!  Different setting, but the same wide-open approach to living!

“I also get a kick out of most of what David Sedaris writes. ‘Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk’ was fun … but my favorite so far has been ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day.’ Let me know if you need more from me and again … perfectly fine if you don’t use this/me! Thanks, Jonna.”

So there. Every columnist should be lucky enough to get a genuine Texan on his panel!

I also heard from, just-moved-to-Ambler Tom Keels. “Hi Hugh, Good to hear from you!  We’re not going away on vacation until November, since Larry Arrigale and I are working on our ‘Philadelphia’s Golden Age of Retail,’ a look at the city’s dear beloved and missed department and specialty stores. Our book is due to the publisher (Arcadia) in September, so it will be a working summer.

Tom’s recent reading: “I’m taking a break from Proust after finishing ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ this spring.  I just finished ‘Mrs. Dalloway,’ which I have wanted to read ever since I saw ‘The Hours’ a while ago. A very interesting book to read right after attending one’s 35th college reunion.  But I’m glad I read it now instead of earlier in my life.  It is a middle-aged book, dealing with remembering, regretting, avoiding and embracing the past. I love how Woolf carries her characters from joy to despair in the course of crossing the street. One of the best books I’ve ever read.”

(Tom Keels’ claims to fame include his authoring or co-authoring five books, including “Wicked Philadelphia: Sin the in the City of Brotherly Love,” and “Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City.”  Most recently he appeared as a talking head on WLVT PBS39’s new documentary, “Philly Firsts.”)

Finally, for today, I present one of my colleagues in the bookselling business, Greg Williams, proprietor of the Mt. Airy institution Walk a Crooked Mile bookstore. Greg writes, “Dear Hugh, Thanks for the invite. As you know, keeping a bookstore open works against one’s ability to read as much as you like. I spend a ton of time reading the backs of books so I know a little about a lot of them and have tons of books I’ve set aside, in my dreams, for retirement or some fantasy day when I have more time. But I have discovered a new writer who gives me pleasure. I have always taken great delight in good “wacky” writers and my new favorite is Christopher Moore.

“One of my high school customers kept asking for him a year or so ago and so when ‘Fluke’ came in I read the back cover and plunged in. I have always been interested in cetology, so a book about cetologists trying to figure out why the humpback whales of Hawaii sing new songs every year or so was right up my alley. The characters were fun and the action, and premise, of the book really took off once one of the cetologists gets ‘swallowed’ by one of the humpbacks.

“I’ve also enjoyed reading modern versions of the life of Christ and, believe it or not, Moore has taken on this topic in the hilarious but interesting ‘Lamb,’ the story of what Jesus and his best friend, Biff, were up to from 6-years-old to the time of his public life at 30. Jesus and Biff pursue the Three Magi so Jesus can figure out how to be the Messiah. His travels immerse Him in the religious disciplines of the day and He finally comes back to the Holy Land ready to fulfill his mission. Sacrilegious? Maybe for some but for me it was a great read and theologically intriguing.”

So, that’s the reading roundup for this week. More next week. In the meantime, I hope you got some “book knowledge” and that you learned a bit more about some our interesting neighbors.

Enemiesofreading.blogspot.com will lead you to more of Hugh Gilmore’s writings.