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What’s on Your Pile of Summer Reads?

By Ann Boland July 08, 2023 Lifestyle

Let our summer readfest begin! Though it may be a while before I come up for air again. I’m in the midst of reading three 500 – 700+ page books! Almost finished with Franzen’s Crossroads. Next will be Verghese’s new book (see below). And one more difficult read, Pynchon’s historical novel, Mason and Dixon.

Welcome to the Circus of Baseball: A Story of the Perfect Summer, at the Perfect Ballpark, at the Perfect Time by Ryan McGee (Doubleday, 2023)

I was born and raised in St. Louis, so I should be a baseball fan, but I’m not. I selected this book because the review in The Wall Street Journal was so enthusiastic – written by a baseball fan.

McGee’s story begins when he graduates college and seeks employment – any employment – in baseball. He ends up as a season intern with the minor league Ashville NC Tourists in 1994.

It’s a fun story about living in poverty (the three interns resided in one unit at the senior living home because the rent is so cheap) and learning everything about the business side of baseball from loading the kegs of Bud Light on Thirsty Thursdays ($1 beer) to pulling the tarp across the infield in a rainstorm. McGee has since gone on to a long career with ESNP Sports. If you like baseball, this is a fun read.

The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North (Orbit Books, 2019)

After slogging through all 420 pages of The Pursuit of William Abbey, I researched my recent sources to see what had turned me towards this book. I found nothing. Maybe the supernatural aspects of North’s writings conjured an irresistible force that led me to reserve it at the library. I’m glad that it is out of my system.

I’m not in thrall to supernatural novels, especially historical ones, nor mystical realism, nor horror. Occasionally, a dystopian novel will satisfy me, but I don’t seek them out.

How could I feel so cheated by this book when most reviewers loved it? It must be a genre thing. It’s too long by about 75 pages; it’s predictable; it’s a road/chase book that moves at about 30 mph. I would not even grace it with a review except that others may be overcome by an unknown force and slip into the abyss with me.

The Queen of Dirt Island by Donal Ryan (Viking, 2023)

This book has my heart. In a world where some folks question a man writing a book in which all the central characters are women, Donal Ryan stands out as an illuminating painter of women and generational love.

The Queen of Dirt Island is about four generations of Alsward women living near the small Irish market town of Neenah. It took me back to the love between my grandmother and mother; between my mother and her four sisters.

This is Ryan’s sixth novel. I’ve read them all. His writing is gentle, enveloping, so clear in his characters. Let this little spot of Ireland grow in your heart. By the way, the main character’s name, Saoirse, is pronounced Ser’- sha.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (Vantage Books, 2009)

Finally, a big, delicious novel about different cultures, wonderful people, from a great author. Cutting for Stone, written 14 years ago, grabbed me from the first pages. Set in Ethiopia and Queens, NY, this story of doctors, nuns, East Indians, love, lust, coming of age – all components of a great story worth it’s 658 pages.

I actually gasped at one of the plot turns. Verghese’s ability to sustain the momentum of the plot, enhance his characters and provide satisfying resolution is rarely equaled. Can’t wait to try out another of his books. His new novel, The Covenant of Water, was released to rave reviews. I want to read all his back list before digging into Covenant’s 800 pages!

You Are Here by Karin Lin-Greenberg (Counterpoint, 2023)

“Debut novel”, I usually shudder at that phrase and move onto a more experienced writer. Not that I ignore debuts, but usually turn to them after I’ve read more substantial, subsequent pieces. Two debuts turned up in my last stack from the library. This one, clearly labeled “debut” in Anna Mundow’s review in The Wall Street Journal, intrigued me because Mundow praised its gentleness, despite a bit of pivotal horror.

And You Are Here is gentle, but almost always with a passive-aggressive edge. Black and white neighbors co-exist, but not as friends. Husbands and wives make great sacrifices for each other but aren’t truthful about why. A single mom and her obedient child keep order and peace but conceal their true hopes.

Lin-Greenberg’s editor might have instructed her to “turn the heat up a notch” – more aggression, more bitterness, more thickening of the plot. But the sacrifice would be gentleness. Sometimes, books accomplish more by sticking to how people act in the real world, covering their secrets, being polite, but not effusive, revealing themselves through small “tells” rather than grand gestures. This is a quick and worthy read.

Blown by the Same Wind by John Straley (Soho Press, 2022)

A blessedly short book, 203 pages, but I felt that Straley crammed too much into this story about people living in the small town of Cold Storage, Alaska in the late 60s. There are visiting schemers in the assassination of MLK Jr., a Viet Nam vet with PTSD (happens after he witnessed the Mi Lai massacre), older 30’s radical labor organizers, a beautiful teen aptly named Venus, a large Dog named Dot, a mother-daughter team of sea-plane pilots.

Then throw in a visit to Cold Storage by Thomas Merton, the Cistercian monk/author from Kentucky. My head kept snapping from one back-story, to another, to yet another. Oh, and there are several murders. There is enough here for 400 pages. I just can’t recommend this abbreviation.

The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3 by Kira Yarmysh (Grove Press, 2023)

Once you’ve read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, your first thought about another Russian prison book is to keep it at arm’s length. Ivan’s story is short and intense. Contrast that with The Incredible Events in Women’s Cell Number 3 – not a story about the gulag, a story about a detainment center for minor offences in Moscow.

Most people are sent there for several days or a week because they didn’t pay a traffic fine, drove drunk, or without a license. Our protagonist, Anya, participated in a political demonstration against corruption. She appears to have been set up for detainment.

The beauty about this story is that the setting in the center enables Yarmysh to bring together six women from various Russian backgrounds in a neutral place with nothing to do but share their stories. There really aren’t “incredible events.” Yarmysh develops Anya’s back story but does not spend much time on the other women. Personally, I found Anya tedious and selfish, but I did react emotionally to her story, like it or not.

I recommend the book because we don’t get much authentic female fiction from contemporary Russia, and it was good, but not great read.

Cat Brushing by Jane Campbell (Grove Press 2023)

Campbell writes her debut book of short stories at age 80. There is hope for us, ladies. Jane Campbell’s 13 stories are so comfortable, even those that deal with difficult subjects. I long to hear more from her. Most important to me is her emphasis on human touch – how we yearn for it.

What is better than the long hug from a beloved relative, a hand on your hand by your husband, wife, lover, or friend. Things we pay for like a pedicure, massage, hairdresser do give us comfort. But losing the touch of an intimate lover, whether through death or lack of desire causes such loneliness. Growing old together should be wrapped in tender touch, sweet and sometimes lustful kisses, laughter, and love. We can dream…

Campbell’s honesty reminds me of Jane Juska’s A Round Heeled Woman – about a retired woman looking for uncommitted sex. She places an ad in a literary journal and writes about the results. Such a fun read.

Eastbound by Maylis de Kerangal, translated from the French by Jessica Moore (Archipelago Books, 2023)

Archipelago published these beautiful books in 5 x 6-inch size. The quality of the paper and the cover make you feel like you are holding a precious thing. Only 116 pages, Eastbound’s story erupts as the Trans-Siberian Railway streams across Russia, gaining and losing passengers. Among them are a young army draftee and his platoon, a French woman leaving her Russian lover, and a provodnitsa, a Russian railway worker who handles the needs of passengers in her car.

I guarantee you will like this small two-hour read. Whether it’s the beautiful passages describing the Russian countryside, the small tensions that build and resolve, the intensity of the overall plot, de Kerangal is a master writer.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What have you read thus far in the summer? What else is on your pile of books? What new titles have you discovered that you absolutely want to read?

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I just finished Heartbreak by Florence Williams who is a scientist. She dispels conventional wisdom about grief, which I am dealing with. I just started Middlesex which has been on my list for decades. City Arts &Lectures has a podcast with Verghese. I read Cutting for Stone years ago.I have Alka Joshi’s The Perfumist of Paris, last in the series to return to. For authors, I search for podcasts and FB them. Now I have MasterClass. Just watched David Sedaris. Esther Perel has another season launching this week. It is all good and distracting me from my trauma.


The Author

Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater, opera, and arts. Involved as a theatre-goer since the early 80s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of Chicago's theater scene, its exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation. To support her good and bad habits, Ann handles public relations for authors and the arts.

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