The Big Summer Read.

pile of books in shallow focus photography
Photo by Pixabay

The summer reading marathon has begun. Here is the list – in no particular order as I read more than one book at a time. The ones I’ve begun are asterisked. Some are also collections of short stories that I put down and randomly come back to. I hope some of these interest you. As I finish each one, I’ll report on it. Yeh, I’m still that sixth grader who likes to do book reports.

  1. *Eiffel’s Tower – Jill Jonnes
  2. *Sister India – Peggy Payne
  3. The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls
  4. Cinnamon Gardens – Shyam Selvadurai
  5. Stoner – John Williams
  6. The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
  7. Atmospheric Disturbances – Rivka Galchen
  8. Our Man in Havana – Graham Greene
  9. The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley
  10. Hot Milk – Deborah Levy
  11. Fresh Complaint: Stories – Jeffrey Eugenides
  12. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan Philipp Sendker
  13. The BugHouse – Daniel Swift
  14. *The Heaven of Mercury – Brad Watson
  15. *There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories – Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
  16. *At The Existentialist Café – Sarah Bakewell
  17. *The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu – Joshua Hammer (completed)
  18. Manuscript Found in Accra – Paulo Coelho
  19. Music Through the Floor – Eric Puchner
  20. Laughable Loves – Milan Kundera
  21. The Lost Equation of Isaac Severy – Nova Jacobs
  22. Jackson’s Dilemma – Iris Murdoch
  23. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank – Thad Carhart
  24. *The Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
  25. *Star Quality: The Collected Stories of Noël Coward



Drinkin’ the Good Kool-Aid

Illustration: Karl Gustafson

Now I wish I (1) liked Kool-Aid as a kid and (2) saved packets of those crazy flavors from the 70s and 80s. Selling them on the Kool-Aid black market would garner lots of book money. Oh well…


Where the Hell Have You Been?

when will you return signage

I’ve been asked this question by old friends a lot lately. My answer is simple: I got a real job. Yep, you read that correctly. At the ripe old age of 47, I got one of those jobs that require you to be there every day. All day.

The bad thing about this job: It has massively curtailed my wanderlust. I have a brand new passport – acquired in January – that has yet to receive a stamp. And it won’t do so until early November. But that’s ok. I’m still traveling – armchair style, of course. If you know me well, you know that I read voraciously. I work my way through three or four books at a time + a variety of online travel journals/blogs. Of late, I’ve turned more to travelogues – the Sand in my Bra and Other Misadventures rather than the Eat, Pray, Love kind – in order to curb my wanderlust. It’s that job thing again.

The good thing about this job: Massive amounts of freedom. I’m teaching history, economics, government, and creative writing. I am free to design my classes and curricula, and the work-life balance thing is a priority. It also helps that my students are amazing. They are bright and funny and creative and quirky and are out to change the world. I love that I have a part in shaping their minds and that I get to share in their intellectual discoveries on a daily basis. I am truly lucky.

So as my first year in a “real job” winds down, I am looking back on it with a great deal of gratitude. There was a difficult period of adjustment – especially in getting accustomed to so much structure – but I have learned a lot about my work, my gifts, and myself. After a summer of reading and writing, I will be looking forward to heading back into the classroom in the fall.

In the meantime, let the summer reading begin. Stay tuned for my list. I’ve hit the sale table at Politics & Prose, a pop-up used book sale at Columbia Heights, the Little Free Library on my street, and the free shelves of books in the alcove of my local public library in Petworth. Yes. I’m well stocked.

Spain for Chocolate?

When asked about the best chocolatiers in the world, many people think of northern Europe: France, Switzerland, and Belgium. But enter Spain, whose Cacao Sampaka has redefined the traditional gastronomic experience of cacao. Owned by Albert Adrià, the former pastry chef at El Bulli and brother of Ferran of Tickets & 4 fame, its whimsical chocolatiers have made traditional, handcrafted chocolates cosmopolitan. They have redesigned ingredient pairings to create unique flavor experiences; gone are the ganaches and nougats in place of unorthodox, almost schismatic, ingredients. From curry to parmesan to wasabi to balsamic vinegar, these Spanish chocolates exhibit the infinite creativity in the art of chocolate making. Creations of single bean origin – Tanzania, Ecuador, and Madagascar – sit aside those with ingredients of Indonesian origin – clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg – in a display of chocolates that would please the exquisite palate of even the most discerning of chocolate lovers. While many would call this a gourmet chocolate shop, gourmet is too mediocre. It is simply sublime.

Discovering Graham Greene

I spent a very long time in the academic world – 25 years to be exact. Although I read a lot of fiction in high school (at the fault of Chamblin Bookmine in Jacksonville, Florida), once I got to university, that all but stopped as I delved into the “literature” of my discipline – history. That meant many, many historical monographs. Along the way in my two-and-a-half-decade foray into academia, I did do a bit of “promiscuous reading” of novels, but there was never enough time because of teaching and research. Fast forward from 1989 to 2014 when I left that world behind and took off for DC. It was time to start reading fiction again, so I went to Politics & Prose, the mothership of books. I was excited at first, but that excitement soon turned to an overwhelming sense of frustration because I didn’t know where to begin. I had sold my entire academic library just before I moved to DC, so I had no books at all. Should I go for the classics? Should I read the Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize winners. Or should I go back to my old favorite of mystery novels. It was just too much, so I left the store and went next door to Comet Ping Pong and got a pizza and a beer instead. I had to clear my head. What to do about this dilemma – a total book nerd not knowing how to jump back into the game of reading for fun. And then it hit me: library book sales. I would leave what I read up to the randomness of people donating the books they’ve read to the library. And it worked. At fifty cents a pop, I have built up a nice little library of fiction books since that afternoon inoculation of pizza and beer.

I’ve read perhaps a hundred and fifty books since I arrived in DC in 2014, all of them procured from library book sales or the Little Free Library on my block. Most of them have been fantastic, but there were a few duds. Surprisingly, one of these duds was Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch. I got 13 pages in before I couldn’t take it anymore. The prose was just hideous. Anyway, I digress. The point is that my latest read – Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene – is one of the best books I’ve found in my “let the universe decide” quest for books these days. I must admit that I knew of Graham Greene, but this is the first of his books I’ve read. And what an introduction it was. And a humorous one to boot. It is the story of Henry Pulling, a retired bank worker who spends his days tending his dahlias until he reconnects with his long lost Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral and learns that his mother may not have been his mother after all. From there, the adventures begin. Aunt Augusta, a crass and bold septuagenarian, has lived all over Europe for half a century, working in the theater world where she has collected a group of friends who have a penchant for breaking all kinds of rules. Aunt Augusta is enamored of Henry and persuades him to leave his boring life of dahlia tending and travel to Brighton, Paris, Istanbul, Argentina, and Paraguay. Along the way he meets a disparate cast of characters that includes war criminals, CIA agents, hippies, con men, shady bankers, and an actor who is way past his prime in acting, but certainly not in the art of the flimflam. Ultimately, this is the story of a man who is reborn in middle age and comes to realize that the boring world of the bank and dahlias has not been at all fulfilling. In Greene’s version of planes, trains, and automobiles, Henry comes alive as he crisscrosses countries with Aunt Augusta, the both of them often running from the dodgy deals in which she and her friends have engaged over the years.