“I read all year around.” –June 1, 2003

Summer reading as a category seems to me to be as legitimate as greeting-card holidays like Valentine’s and Mother’s Day. Graybeard Norman Mailer had it right when he was asked about his summer reading, "I read all year around." Despite this sensibility, that one would hope is shared by at least a few people, some cultural lighthouses insist on propagating this summer reading list contrivance. On the other hand, joyful exhibition–"Hey, look what I’m reading!"–is not a terrible motivation to get a list on the page, especially for a scribbler who is an enthusiastic reader. Or in the case of John Powers’ list of influential books, a chance to fulminate on what it all means. Though not quite the provocative snapshots that Gore Vidal and later Anthony Lane exhibited with their analyses of the New York Times bestseller’s lists. Here are the titles on Powers’ list (of which I read 1 and 1/2, Bush at War and half of the Of Paradise and Power).

The New York Times Summer (recommended reading) list contains seventy three titles on its fiction list (it must count for integrity not to reach for a low round number with some cliched headline, "The Hot, Hot, Hot 50 Beach Must-reads.") There was something that did confuse me about this list though. I distinctly remember some of the books being given less than positive reviews. Well, who knows? Or cares?

Anyway, I was looking over what I had read in toto this year, to date (that is, all the books that I read all of). And I am surprised, in a way, that I found so many of them worth recommending to the bookish of my world:

DANCER – Colum McCann – a vivid novel using a character called Rudolph Nureyev. Russia, fame, the ’70s and ’80s celebrity culture, the art and dance world–so many tantalizing subjects.

MAN EATER – Ray Shannon – a high spirited crime story set in Hollywood with well crafted characters (A black ex-con with a screen play, a smart and tough woman film producer, a sociopathic drug dealer) that play out the absurdities of America’s adult sandbox.

GENUINELY AUTHENTIC – Michael Gross – a humanely unapologetic biography of Ralph Lauren, short Jewish Bronx boy who made it really, really big.

YOGA FOR PEOPLE TOO LAZY TO DO IT – Geoff Dyer – a minor masterpiece in digression by one those young British writers (I think also of Alain de Botton) who actually put ideas in one’s visual field like the famous image of a philosopher contemplating a human skull. Ruminations on the Burning Man festival, Roman ruins, New Orleans, a Detroit Rave festival and more.

A MEMORY OF WAR – Frederick Busch – a middle aged psychoanalyst heads for the weeds with a young attractive patient and a man who claims to be his step brother while his own marriage does its own fade to black. Fred Busch is a sturdy and dependable writer and good storyteller who, I have a feeling, has not written a bad book.

SOUL CIRCUS – George Pelecanos – Like that great Staples Singers’ song of the ’70s, Pelecanos takes you there. ‘There’ being the mean streets of DC’s urban ghetto of drug dealing and gang turf.

LOST IN AMERICA – Sherwin Nuland – Yale-educated, Bronx-born Shep Nuland looks at his youth and his relationship. If emotional weight were quantifiable, this slender tome should come equipped with wheels.

I SHOULD BE PLEASED TO BE IN YOUR COMPANY – Brian Hall – A novel about the Lewis and Clark expedition that manages the difficult task of keeping the reader in suspense on matters one already "knows" the outcome of and maintains the sense of novelty and excitement of discovery and exploration.

UNDER THE SKIN – James Carlos Blake – Mexico and Texas around the time of Pancho Villa by the author of In A Rogue’s Blood and a few other novels of the mythic American past.

DORIAN – Will Self – With dazzling intention and taut execution, Self recasts the Wilde fable The Picture of Dorian Gray in late 20th century Anglo American celebrity culture.

DROP CITY- TC Boyle – Back to the ’60s and its smorgasbord of new ideas, old ideas on drugs, drugs, communes, sex unleashed and anthemic pop music realized in the hands of the precise Tom Boyle.

THE DEVIL AND THE WHITE CITY – Erik Larsen – A serial murderer’s story runs parallel to the construction and duration of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1892. This book is well researched and well written and the parallels and counterpoints Larsen emphasizes make the two divergent stories part of a greater whole.

THE COFFEE TRADER – David Liss – Seventeenth Century Amsterdam, exiled Jews, a blossoming stock exchange and an esoteric commodity–coffee–combine to form the elements of this clever novel that centers on one trader’s plan to extricate himself from the brink of ruin.

DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE – ZZ Packer – and ON THE NATURE OF HUMAN ROMANTIC INTERACTION – Karl Iagnemma – Two really impressive story collections–powerful for their displays of humanity and writing talent exhibited in the stories

HARVARD AND THE UNABOMBER – Alton Chase – An intellectual history of post-WWII America as embodied in the life and education of Ted Kaczynski, Chase has done good research and thinking to put forward a thesis of "A Culture of Despair." Read it and weep.

GOD’S COUNTRY and WATERSHED – Percival Everett – Everett’s most recent novel, Erasure, is on my required reading list after these two novels. God’s Country takes on the mythology of the America West and Watershed shines a harsh (yet still darkly humorous) light on American notions of social justice against the back drop of a Wounded Knee-like Indian reservation siege.

A SHIP MADE OF PAPER – Scott Spencer and WHAT I LOVED – Siri Hustvedt – are two ruminations on love that couldn’t be more different. A white Manhattan lawyer flees the big bad city and moves back to his small New York State home town and falls in love with a married black woman. In Hustvedt’s novel an aging art historian in Manhattan, recounts his marriage and the tragic and intertwined events and relationship with his painter friend’s marriage and …

BAY OF SOULS – Robert Stone – I read it twice. A Midwestern university professor begins an affair with a colleague that takes him to the other worldly Caribbean of voudon, drug smuggling and post-colonial intrigue.

SHUTTER ISLAND – Dennis Lehane – Young crime story master Lehane pulls off the good trick of maintaining suspense in this novel that takes place at a state hospital for the criminally insane located on an island in Boston Harbor in the early ’50s, just before a major hurricane.

EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED – Jonathan Safran Foer – I liked when Arthur Phillips did it in Prague, that is, as a side story, fabricate a fictional history of a Hungarian family. And Foer’s effort is a central part of his novel of discovery as a character of the same name looks back into his family’s history.

GOOD FAITH – Jane Smiley – The ’80’s rendered humorously through the machinations and ambitions of a group of small town real estate operators. Wry, nimble exposition with sympathetic characters and a look at the ramping up of materialism in America without a catalogue of brand names.

THE LIGHT OF DAY – Graham Swift – A day in the life of an every man on the anniversary of the crime his imprisoned lover has committed. A subtle and melancholy meditation.

MR. POTTER – Jamaica Kincaid – Kincaid packs more political insight into her seemingly personal autobiographical novels than anyone I can think of (maybe Robert Stone, but his stories aren’t as obviously personal). Mr. Potter is her father’s name. Mr. Potter is her father. It’s his story? Maybe.

MONEYBALL – Michael Lewis – Here’s a smart book about baseball mostly because Lewis has turned his writing skills to accounting for the success of one of the games’ great debunkers of conventional wisdom, Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics.

GAME TIME – Roger Angell – A collection of twenty-nine pieces from the length of Angell’s considerable career of forty years of writing about baseball for the New Yorker. Unpretentious, articulate, humane and un-nostalgic. This is not a book to be read cover-to-cover but savored over a season–but that’s just me.

Judging from the publisher’s lists for the rest for the year I am feeling the joy of a radiant future–more wonderful books, stories and public discourse get better from a very hopeful and decent start. But then again things (me) change…back to reading Charlie Smith’s Canaan. What ever happened to him?

birnbaum in new mexico

RB in New Mexico, 1967

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