What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Some Ideas for Great Summer Reading

I don't know what it's like where you are, but here in New York, the temperatures are heading back into the 90s this weekend after spending last weekend flirting with 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly unpleasant, by any stretch of the imagination. Whether you're spending the summer poolside, beachside or stuck indoors cozying up to your air conditioner, here are some tips for some fun, reasonably unchallenging books, all of which meet my definition of being "thumping good reads" and that will take your mind off the heat!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: This is a novel that has got lots of new fans, and it deserves every one of them. The epitome of a "can't-put-it-down" rollercoaster ride that starts when a young woman goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary. Another Scott Peterson/Laci Peterson story? We are seeing the story through the eyes of her husband, who acknowledges he's great at the art of omitting material facts -- so how reliable is he in what he tells us? Alternatively, how reliable is Amy -- can we trust what she is telling us? Just when you think you know what is coming next, Flynn whisks you off in another direction. This has to be the best thriller I'll read this year.

 The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri Murari: What if... the Taliban decided to reach out the world through cricket? And what if one of the only ordinary Afghans to know how to play the game is actually a young woman, educated at a college in India? And what if she and her male cousins form a team as a way of helping them all escape the horrors of Taliban rule? Unexpectedly, this is an entertaining, amusing and heartwarming tale, one with sharp undercurrents reminding us just what is at stake for Rukhsana, a frustrated journalist who has risked her life to tell the outside world what is happening to Afghanistan's women under Taliban rule, and now may be facing the prospect of sharing their fate. At heart, it's a conventional romantic suspense yarn, but with enough bite, edge and novelty to make it compelling reading.

Defending Jacob by William Landay: There are several novels out right now about children or young adults committing -- or being charged with -- unspeakable crimes, and the adults who defend them. There is The Good Father by Noah Hawley and The Child Who by Simon Lelic -- and then there is this novel, in my opinion the best of the bunch. A classmate of Jacob's is found murdered, and Andy Barber -- his father, and the local assistant district attorney -- overseas an investigation into the crime. Suddenly,  Jacob is charged with the crime... and a father's protective instincts go into overdrive. Is he seeing things clearly, or is he choosing to ignore uncomfortable truths? The ending has one of the best twists imaginable.

Taft 2012 by Jason Heller: This is the novel to pick up when you just can't take any more political attack ads on television; when you want to tell both presidential candidates their handlers to put a sock in it. It's a gleeful romp of a book, that imagines what might have happened had William Henry Taft drifted off into the gardens of the White House during the inauguration of his successful rival, Woodrow Wilson, and ... vanished! Flash forward a century, and Taft finds himself waking up in the muddy grounds of his former White House domain -- and into a different political reality altogether. Heller has tremendous fun with what Taft discovers -- pleasant and revolting -- about the 21st century. While some of the gotcha moments are very predictable -- Taft and TV! Taft and the Internet! -- that doesn't spoil the fun, as long as you're not wedded to the idea of thinking logically about it all. Just enjoy the ride.

Double Cross by Ben Macintyre: This author has done several other books focusing on spy intrigues during World War II, and this, the latest, is easily the best of the bunch. It's the story of a motley crew of double agents -- a Serbian playboy, a Peruvian heiress, a Polish nationalist, a Spanish chicken farmer -- worked with British intelligence to mislead the Germans about the timing and direction of the D-day invasion. Bits of this story -- especially about Agent Garbo, Juan Pujol -- have already come out, but this is a great story that covers the experiences of a host of other people, with all their foibles and eccentricities. Worth reading for the exploits of one man convinced that the secret to keeping secrets and deception involved pigeons. Yes, pigeons.

Trapeze by Simon Mawer: Yup, another tale of World War II spies -- this time of the fictional variety. I was delighted to learn from Mawer's publishers that he plans a sequel to this novel, as it ends with a tremendous cliffhanger. To some, it spoils the book; to me, it was the only thing he could do and not end up with a too-trite ending. In any event -- there have been lots and lots of novels around the adventures of the SOE, entrusted by Winston Churchill with the mission of setting Europe ablaze. One young woman goes off to France -- and finds her life becomes unexpectedly complicated. One of the most nailbiting and compulsively readable chase scenes ever, through the streets of Paris, features in this.

The Cranes Dance: by Meg Howrey: A paperback original from a novelist who I hope will go on to write more novels. Howrey takes us backstage at the ballet -- and it's not as glamorous as you might think. (Although neither is it quite as deranged and maniacal as the movie "Black Swan" would have you believe.) Kate Crane has damaged her neck but her pain can be quashed with Vicodin, which she pops steadily as she tells us the story of her life and that of her sister. Talented enough to be one of a tiny handful of soloists in a top ballet company in New York, Kate knows she'll never measure up to younger sister Gwen in sheer talent. But as the reader learns, it's not that that makes Kate uneasy and anxious in her relationship with Gwen, who, at the time the novel opens, may be physically absent from the company and the stage and the pages of the novel but who is vividly present as a part of Kate's life nonetheless. The ending doesn't do justice to what came before -- the last page or two is an odd anticlimax -- but for ballet fans or chick lit readers looking for something a bit different, this is just the ticket.

1222 by Anne Holt: Now, here's a novel that will chill you ... Anne Holt has set her mystery yarn in a snowbound resort hotel -- when a train is derailed by an avalanche, its passengers all must take refuge there, where they will be struck as the storm of the century swirls through. Hanne Wilhelmsen, a retired detective now confined to a wheelchair, is among their ranks, and when a murderer strikes, she has to step into the breach. It's the last thing Hanne wants -- she'd rather not interact with any of these strangers, most of whom seem to her to be keeping secrets, some large, some small. There's a mysterious passenger, a runaway teenager, a priest, a television personality... A kind of hommage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, this Norwegian mystery made me reconsider my recent aversion to Scandicrime and eagerly await Anne Holt's next novel to be released here.

Any of the novels above should help you beat the heat, and if you haven't managed to read any of the following (among my top books of 2012 so far), the summer is an excellent chance to catch up. Published over the last year or so, each is an excellent "thumping good read".
  1. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: Shame on you if you've missed it!
  2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Fantastical, and imaginative. 
  3. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: It's not just about the Trojan War.


  1. You continue to amaze me...and feed my Reading Habit....you are a blessing, Suze...never forget it


  2. Great choices... I already have Gone Girl and totally agree with you, am now gonna add the Taft one to my list!

  3. The Taft book was a random discovery, and a real delight to read! Just as much substance as a given reader chooses to look for, and some entertainment of the kind that anyone who enjoys Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert can relish. The epitome of a summer read.

  4. I liked 1222 as well--especially reading about being snowbound in a blizzard when the temps are kissing 37C!