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Radio Smart Talk for Monday, June 3:
What books are you reading this summer? Maybe something off the best-sellers list or a classic? Do you have a certain type or genre you like to read on the beach, when you're on vacation, or just relaxing at home in warm weather?
Monday's Radio Smart Talk is all about books.
I just finished Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz. It's the best account I've read about John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 that precipitated the beginning of the Civil War. After reading the book, I'm still not sure if John Brown was delusional in believing he could incite a slave revolt or he knew exactly what he was doing to start a violent resurrection over the institution of slavery. It's a great example of a book that makes you ask more questions.
We'd like to hear from you as well. What books have you read recently that you liked and would recommend or what titles do you want to get your hands on this summer?
Perhaps, there are a few children's books you can suggest for kids to read this summer when they're out of school.
Let us know!
Children's books recommended by witf's Education Coordinator Debbie Riek:
Summer Children’s Books
It Looked Like Spilt Milk by Charles Shaw
Repetitive text story about looking for familiar images in the clouds
At Night by Jonathan Bean
Wonderful bedtime story with beautiful illustrations
Skippyjon Jones by Judy Schachner
Skippyjon Jones is a cat who thinks he is a Chihuahua and a spirited one at that. He has great adventures.
The True Story Of The Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka
The classic tale told from the wolf’s perspective
Junie B. Jones series by Barbara Park
Junie B. is a precocious, funny girl—these stories take real life kid issues like losing teeth and bedtime and make them funny and enjoyable for children and adults
Older kids (recommended by Olivia Riek, 11 years old)
Diary of The Wimpy Kid series by Jeff Kinney
The main character Greg navigates growing up and managing middle school in a funny, relatable way
Charlotte’s Web by E. B.White
This is a wonderful, classic story about friendship and loyalty.
August is born with a facial deformity that has kept him out of mainstream school but now he is starting 5th grade with challenges and bullies and also friends. Told from August’s perspective and many other characters.
Matilda by Ronald Dahl
Matilda is an exceptional young girl with a big heart and a massive imagination. She finds a friend in her teacher.
A Whole Nother Story by Dr. Cuthbert Soup
Three children and their father are on the run, trying to protect a secret invention. Full of action and strange characters, it is very entertaining.
Todd Dickinson and Jon Walker
Todd Dickinson's Book Suggestions:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane; Neil Gaiman
Hardcover, available June 18
This is the summer book I am most excited to read. Gaiman writes wonderful books for children (e.g. Coraline and The Graveyard Book) but his best work is for adults. This book is being called a modern fairy tale, with mystery and magic. If it's half as good as American Gods, it will be well worth the wait.
The Great Gatsby; by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Now is the time to revisit this American classic. It is the bestselling book of the spring at Aaron's Books, and we expect this to continue through the summer. Whether you think the new film is bright and refreshing or loud and pointless, the book will remind you why it's one of the great works of the 20th Century.
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo; by Tom Reiss
Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography, this is the true story of the mixed-race French general whose life as a swordsman and revolutionary inspired his son's novels, including The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Looking for Me; by Beth Hoffman
Hoffman is the author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, continuously one of our bestsellers at Aaron's Books. Her new novel is a wonderful study of about family dynamics in a small Southern town. This is the one for fans of Fannie Flagg, Lee Smith and other standouts of Southern women's fiction.
His Majesty's Hope; by Susan Elia MacNeal
This is the third in a new mystery series we are excited to share. The Maggie Hope books started with Churchill's Secretary and continued with Princess ELizabeth's Spy. Maggie is British woman, raised in the United States, working in London at the start of WWII as a typist for Churchill. The mystery, history, romance, and adventure are fun, but the fascinating characters, both real and fictional, are what really make these books stand out.
Jon Walker's Book Suggestions:
Red Brick by Christopher Benfey
There's an iconic artistic pattern known as the "Greek Meander" that frequently appears as a design motif on ancient Greek clay pots. The Mayans of Central America also came up with this same design and variations of it echo down the ages and in different cultures all around the world. Besides pottery, you see it in paintings, textiles and architectural friezes.
In the spirit of this timeless and ubiquitous design, Christopher Benfey explores the meanderings of his far-flung family -- going back in some cases hundreds of years -- as his forbears make their way through the rich twists and turns of the American cultural experience. Like many of us, Benfey can trace his lineage down through some highly unlikely roots. His mother was the daughter of a North Carolina brick layer of Quaker descent -- hence the "Red Brick" in the title. His father, a theoretical chemist and college professor famous for devising a spiral periodic table, comes from a prominent German Jewish family that was forced to escape the Nazis. His aunt and uncle, Josef and Anni Albers, were influential modern artists and key players in the avaunt-garde Black Mountain College which flamed into and out of existence in much the same way as did the hippy "happenings" that were invented there. He's also related to William Bartram, a 18th century naturalist from Philadelphia who became famous for wandering around and writing about the swamps of Florida and Georgia. All of this is somehow intertwined with the historic search for the rare type of white clay that the Chinese used to fire into their highly prized fine porcelain. Turns out, there's a few pockets of the stuff in the hills of Western North Carolina, and Josiah Wedgwood of Wedgood dinnerware fame spent a lot of time and money trying to procure it back in the 1700's, which is just one of the many fascinating back alleys that Benfey leads you down.
When it's all over, you've traveled around the world -- from North Carolina to Indiana, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Chili, Cuba, Greece (to name but a few of the stops) and back and forth through time on a rambling yet provocative reflection of art, family and survival. Benfey's prose is sometimes highly cerebral (especially when he gets into the ins and outs of artistic theory) and sometimes warm and touching, like when he talks about his mother's experience with love and loss that predated her marriage to his father.
While there were times when I felt all but completely lost in Benfey's maze, I just kept going with the flow and found this hard to define and oddly faceted little book utterly spell binding.
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
It is the sheer beauty of the writing that makes The Yellow Birds so breathtakingly out of kilter. This, I believe, is Kevin Power’s intention in his debut novel about a foot soldier in Iraq: to frame the horrors of war in such beautifully poetic terms that the irony of it all blares like a dissonant trumpet right up against your ear. The screech sounded between the words is so loud and out of tune you have no choice but to take notice.
Powers reminds us that war is about as horrible and senseless a thing as was ever invented. While veterans of other wars may say otherwise, it’s hard to imagine a conflict more nightmarish than the War in Iraq. It’s a military misadventure with no clear objective waged against an enemy that is so hard to define, bewildered soldiers at the front (if you can even call it that) end up shooting everybody and anything that moves. It’s a war so fu-barred, even little old ladies and children must be seen as threats and occasionally taken out. And it’s a war waged in a country so dysfunctional and turned upon itself it’s impossible to see what’s worth defending (or was it liberating?) and what isn’t.
Powers doesn’t make any political judgments about the War in Iraq – he makes no indictment of this particular war of choice but does succeed in making the most searing indictment of war in general I have read in a long time.
A Hologram for a King, by David Eggars
Move over Willy Loman … hello Alan Clay! David Eggars’ newest novel, A Hologram for a King has got Death of a Salesman written all over it. It’s a pitch-perfect re-examination of a regular guy facing the end stages of his career. Just like Death, Hologram is about an older man contemplating the extent of his usefulness. There are however, important differences between these two classic works. Willy Loman is his own worst enemy whose downfall is largely the result of his half-baked understanding of the American Dream. Willy Loman had choices. Things could have worked out differently for him if only he wasn’t such a hapless boob.
Alan Clay’s situation is a bit different. He’s a boob alright and his life is careening out of control, but unlike Willy Loman, Alan Clay owns up to his failures. He blames the mess he’s in on the business decisions he made, and therein lays his blind spot. His career choices were and continue to be just as illusory as the hologram technology he’s hoping to sell to the King of Saudi Arabia. He’s not out of control because of his own poor choices. He’s out of control because the entire virtualized global economy is out of whack. That’s the part of the picture Alan isn’t quite able to see and what he wrestles with as his character grows throughout the novel.
Here’s a quick sketch of the plot: Alan Clay is a 54 year old businessman (most of his career was with Schwinn Bicycle) who finds himself as a consultant-for-hire hoping to convince the King of Saudi Arabia to purchase his client’s hologram technology for the sparkling new modern city the King is planning to erect in the desert. Alan’s been out of steady work for a while. He’s divorced and in debt – so broke in fact, that he may need to ask his daughter (whom he cherishes) to drop out of college. Pulling off this deal is Alan’s last chance to turn things around. Trouble is, when he gets to the desert he finds nothing but a few buildings, a hole or two in the ground and a big Bedouin tent. The prospects for the city ever getting built appear to be remote, especially in the opinion of the few skeptical locals who are wandering about. What’s worse, the King isn’t even there to listen to his presentation, and in spite of assurances he will be arriving any day, Alan and his small team of young assistants are kept waiting for weeks.
This taut and oftentimes darkly humorous retelling of Death of a Salesman soon takes on strong echoes of Waiting For Godot, but there are again important differences. From what I remember, nothing happens or gets resolved in Beckett’s play. It’s two acts of empty promises. And while on one level Hologram is also an empty promise wrapped in an illusion inside a chimera, you do eventually get a sense of there being some “there” out there someplace.
Some words of warning: Anyone who has ever worked inside a corporate cubicle will immediately identify with Alan Clay, and the book is definitely going to pull back the curtain on your own career’s successes and failures. Indeed, Eggars’ depiction of the corporate rat race in our rapidly evolving virtual age is spot on target and his insights about how the global economy has grown into a beast no one can grasp or tame will make you despair. And yet in the end, as Alan comes to terms with his life, you are left with something important; something about the enduring human condition to hang onto.
I highly recommend this book. It’s a must read for 2013.
The Three Weissmanns of Westport, by Cathleen Schine
This is a highly entertaining modern day knock-off of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility set in Westport, CT which just so happens to be my hometown. But you don’t have to hail from Westport or be a big Jane Austen fan to enjoy this quick breeze of a novel. It’s a beach book through and through with a bunch of characters you eventually grow to admire who are dealing with their various affairs of the heart. Like in Austen’s novel, the protagonists (the “sensible” older daughter, the drama queen daughter, and the disinherited “widow”) fall in love in all the wrong places. We watch them stumbling around trying to make the most of their diminished circumstances against the backdrop of the cold cruel world (with welcome splashes of comic relief) only to find – as you strongly suspect all along – that everything works out happily in the end.
There is plenty of sharp satire about modern day living and America’s pop culture smattered throughout the novel. Indeed, Schine couldn’t find a more appropriate setting for this Jane Austen remake. Like Austen’s Devonshire, Westport offers equal measures of Old World-esque charm and phony-baloney social artifices. While Austen jabs at the English obsession with titles and social pedigrees, Shine jabs at the American obsession with celebrities and those who strike it rich. I was delighted to see that even one of my old girlfriends from high school earns a brief nod in the book! She’s the cheerleader who grew up to become one of the country’s most notorious porn stars and one of the many resident celebrities Westporter’s love to casually mention they just bumped into at the supermarket.
I’ve never actually read Sense and Sensibility but my wife dragged me out to the movie and we’ve probably rented other versions of it on numerous occasions over the years. I feigned to yawn my way through each showing of the movie and feel exactly the same about this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it from cover to cover but totally hate to admit it!
Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power, by Jon Meacham
No doubt about it, Thomas Jefferson was an uber dude. As Jon Meacham chronicles in his most recent book, Thomas Jefferson - the Art of Power, our third president was both a deep thinker and a practical politician who never let his ideology get in the way of getting things done. He had the political vision and skills to write the Declaration of Independence and effectively weigh in on the Constitution, and as President he snookered France out of half the North American continent for just three cents an acre.
That’s one hell of a resume and the lessons to be gleaned from it are self-evident. If only Barack Obama had Jefferson’s personal charm and political instincts to go along with his innate intelligence he’d magically turn into the effective leader we so desperately need. Channel his inner Jefferson, and Obama would finally achieve sensible gun controls, immigration reform, a comprehensive energy plan, peace in the Middle East, equal rights for gays and lesbians plus a Grand Bargain with Republicans that will create jobs and fix the long term debt while at the same time protecting our safety nets and re-establishing a vibrant middleclass.
Meacham’s book may have been marketed as a parallel lesson for our times, but Meacham himself doesn’t directly make that argument. He simply provides a rather detailed biography of one of our most influential Founding Fathers. He uncovers a few things about Jefferson’s life – especially his personal life – that I didn’t know before and can relate to. Like, for example, Jefferson had a few unrequited love interests in college; he made a point to read and exercise every day all his life; and he loved to have long informal discussions (what we might call “bull sessions”) over dinner with people that interested him. Meacham’s portrayal of Jefferson’s life at Monticello after his stint as Pres is the most interesting and insightful part of the book. You really get an intimate look at the “Renaissance Man” in full possession of his talents in his golden years, working on his estate, studying in his library and building the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power is an excellent cradle-to- grave review of a remarkable man’s life. It is rich in detail yet a bit short on depth.
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