One of the greatest pleasures of my summer each year is the opportunity to read books that I do not feel I have time for during the school year. I am sure that I am no busier than any other academic during term-time, but am usually preparing classes or otherwise working during evenings and weekends. So I collect books from September to May in anticipation of turning to them come June. My taste is pretty eclectic, and I am usually surprised when I review my summer reading in September.
I have been addicted to Swedish detective stories ever since I was turned on to them long ago by the work of Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall. More recently I have enjoyed the Kurt Wallander novels of Henning Mankell, though I have been less interested in his more recent work. But I am now reading his new collection of stories that create Wallender’s pre-history, and I like them quite a lot. I guess I should confess right off that I found the time to read the second and third novels by Stieg Larsson early this summer—he is certainly not in the class of either Wahloo or Mankell as a writer, but they make for good trash reading.
My favorite American writer in the John Le Carre vein is Alan Furst. I saved the new novel, Spies of the Balkans, for the end of the summer, and it was well worth the wait. His feel for the historical texture of continental Europe during World War II is wonderful, despite the bitchy review that appeared belatedly in The New York Times Book Review a couple of weeks ago.
I have actually been reading less and less fiction in recent years, but a colleague urged me to read Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. I found it a little precious and slow-going at first, but her wonderful sense of the social dilemma in which well-heeled Bengali-Americans can find themselves made a profound impression by the time I had finished this wonderful collection of interrelated short stories. She writes very beautifully, and with considerable psychological subtlety.
But of course I still read history for pleasure, first and foremost. I began the summer with David Remnick’s long book on Obama, The Bridge. I think it is too long, probably because trade publishers think they can market long-winded nonfiction better. This beats me. Remnick stops to tell the back-story on everyone and everything he mentions, thus slowing down the pace of the book, and boring the well-informed reader. But he is very smart and perceptive, and I felt I came away from the book with a much better sense of what our president is all about.
My rabbi urged me to read a long and intensely interesting book by Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman on “the life and afterlife” of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe. It is called The Rebbe, and I found it a fascinating account of the Americanization and institutionalization of the Lubavitcher movement, which has had such a profound impact on (among other things) Jewish student life on American campuses. It is a case study in the institutionalization of charisma, and it is very much worth reading by anyone interested in the phenomenon.
In a lighter vein, I ended the summer by reading John Brewer’s The American Leonardo, an excellent account of the post-World War I attempt to authenticate an alleged alternative version of Leonardo’s “La Belle Ferronniere”. It is really an essay in the rise of connoisseurship in the Old Master market, and in the history of the development of taste in the fine arts in 20th-century America. The book, written by John Brewer, is quite well done.
And now I can start collecting the books to read next summer!
(Photo by Flickr user takomabibelot of George F. Fishman’s 1991 mosaic “Faces of Flower Avenue”)