What’s that you’re reading?
Another person’s nose in a book makes your nose itch to get in for its own sniff. The casual pass, the sidelong look, the binocular stare: They’re techniques we’ve all tried to pick up a title.
The sight of another reader’s wordy intimacy with a story is an irresistible provocation.
In time for your summer reading, we’re scratching the itch without subterfuge. I’ve asked a dozen and a half dedicated readers what they’re reading.
Their answers make me itch for more books.
–Sandra Olivetti Martin, Bay Weekly Editor
Abraham Lincoln: A Life
by Michael Burlingame
I’m reading a two-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. I impersonate Lincoln for special events, and people ask me Haven’t you read all there is about him? You never do. I’ve read at least a dozen books on Lincoln, but this is the most detailed, most comprehensive. I read and reread passages for Lincoln’s language.
You learn these wonderful details.
Here’s an interesting one. Marching through Baltimore, the Sixth Massachusetts Company was attacked by a mob and four were killed. Baltimore mayor George W. Brown told Lincoln you can’t let federal troops march through our city. Lincoln said, they can’t fly or tunnel through.
And another: Francis Scott Key’s son Philip Barton Key, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia who went on to become a judge, was killed on a street in the District. His killer was acquitted in the first use of the insanity defense. Key’s grandson was imprisoned in Fort McHenry as a Southern sympathizer during the Civil War.
All these intertwined stories; it’s so fascinating to learn all these things.
–John Leopold, Anne Arundel County Executive
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Passage to Power
by Michael Burlingame
Robert Caro’s latest book covers the stormy period between 1957 and 1961. The book begins with Lyndon Johnson masterfully taking over the Senate and becoming “the second most powerful person in Washington.” We follow LBJ as he is steamrolled by the Kennedy machine at the 1960 Democratic Convention and reluctantly accepts the offer to serve as Kennedy’ s vice president. The former Senate leader fades into oblivion while he and Bobby Kennedy carry on “America’s greatest blood feud.” Suddenly he returns to power, ascending to the presidency after JFK’s assassination in Dallas. The book culminates with LBJ at full strength championing Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill.
–Steve Carr, Annapolis: Novelist, Maryland Department of Natural Resorces’ man on trails and Bay Weekly columnist
Autobiography of Mark Twain
by The Mark Twain Project
How does a literary legend tell his life story? Mark Twain had no idea. He tried dozens of times to write an autobiography, each time coming away with an odd chapter or just a scrap of a paragraph. Instead of trying to make sense of his life, Twain dictated the story as it came to him, with strict instructions to publish the work 100 years after his death.
The Mark Twain Project and Harriet Elinor Smith did just that, compiling a complex, non-linear tome of Twain’s life in the first of three volumes. If you can read past the footnotes and a 200-page introduction chronicling how they compiled dictations, letters and more, you’ll find the unrestricted thoughts of Mark Twain.
Even academic density can’t spoil Twain, whose writing is so vivid you can almost see the seersucker and smell the cigar smoke amidst his snipes about the Rockefellers and all who crossed the Clemens family. Let’s hope the next two volumes focus on the man.
–Diana Beechener, Pasadena: Bay Weekly MovieGoer
Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief
by James M. McPherson
One hundred fifty years ago, the Civil War threatened to tear apart the fragile union of states. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, was determined to do everything in his power to keep that from happening.
Confronted with a nation at war with itself, generals unwilling to fight, a Congress looking for a quick, easy victory and an electorate increasingly wary from battle and bloodshed, Lincoln blazed a trail that greatly expanded the president’s role as commander in chief and gave him the means to reach a victorious end.
From the revocation of habeas corpus to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln tailored the rules to suit his cause.
Modern presidents — from Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam to Ronald Reagan in Latin America, from George W. Bush’s invasion in Iraq to Barak Obama’s drone attacks — have been accused of stretching their reach and over-stepping their constitutional authority. Lincoln, too, faced similar criticism in his time, but how many today would question his methods?
–J. Alex Knoll, Bay Weekly general manager and Lincoln buff
Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People and a Better World
by Joel Salatin
In the last hundred years, local food systems virtually disappeared and were replaced by major grocery chains that provide nearly all food distribution and marketing services. Today, 39 percent of all fruits and 18 percent of all vegetables are imported. Most food items travel more than 1,500 miles to our tables.
As Joel Salatin says in his new book, “This ain’t normal.” He says that it’s time we build local sustainable food systems so that we can improve our health and the health of the environment. As always, Salatin’s recommendations are provocative, fun to read and well worth considering.
–Greg Bowen, Calvert County family farm dweller and program director for Maryland FarmLINK after three decades in the Calvert County Department of Planning and Zoning
by Dale Pendell
Pharmako/Poeia is a phantom tollbooth for anyone interested in the junctions between plants and culture, chemistry, neurobiology, spirituality, poisons, history, poetry and art. The first of poet Pendell’s trilogy (followed by Pharmako/Dynamis and Pharmako/Gnosis), Pharmako/Poeia divides plants into categories, including Thanatopathia, Inebrianta, Rhapsodica and Euphorica, where we find tobacco, fossil fuels, absinthe and the opium poppy. Pendell’s pithy yet sweeping approach, his quotations and art — from the Mycenaens to Manet — and his remarks about some of his experiments make Pharmako/Poeia a book you can read through or skip around, put down and come back to easily.
–Leigh Glenn, Cape St. Claire: Herbalist and herbal educator and Bay Weekly contributing writer
Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture
by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier.
This two-volume series provides a how-to for designing and maintaining diverse plantings that are great for our environment. Volume One features the transformation of a half-acre in suburban North Carolina, which inspired me to do my own conversion and launch Forested, a forest-garden education endeavor in Bowie. Jacke and Toensmeier provide the know-how in Volume Two, including maybe the best plant matrix available to show which plants increase which soil nutrients as well as attract the pollinators to support fruit and nut trees.
–Lincoln Smith, Bowie: Landscape designer and edible-forest gardener
The Sun’s Heartbeat and Other Stories from the Life of the Star that Powers Our Planet
by Bob Berman
Like the nose in front of our face, the obvious is beyond our vision. As Bob Berman delves deep into the sun, it’s as if we’re looking in a mirror, surprised at just how familiar that nose is.
An astronomy columnist for Discover magazine for almost 20 years, Berman knows his stuff. He brings the scientific facts to life in friendly terms, so that by the end of The Sun’s Heartbeat, you, too, will know this stuff.
Just weeks on the heels of the transit of Venus, it’s fascinating to learn how this ever-so-rare event allowed scientists in the past couple hundred years to zero in on the “value of the astronomical unit and the completion of the entire solar system jigsaw puzzle.”
The book is broken into 20 chapters, and each vignette a fascinating read on its own. There’s the sun’s birth, the threat posed to our electronic civilization by solar flares, a possible link between growing deficiencies of vitamin D — naturally supplied in sunshine — and mental illness.
–J. Alex Knoll, Bay Weekly general manager and Sky Watch columnist
Across that Bridge: Life Lessons and a Vision for Change
by John Lewis
I’m reading about Congressman John Lewis’ experiences walking across the Medgar Evers Bridge in Selma, Alabama. On March 7, 1965, Lewis led a march of 600 people, two by two, across that bridge from Selma to Montgomery to register to vote. When they got to the other side, [Gov. George] Wallace had called out the state troopers, and they beat the marchers and forced them to go back to Brown Chapel AME Church in Selma. Two weeks later, as a result of the outrage Americans felt about the marchers being brutalized, thousands of people marched across that bridge with the protection of the National Guard. That march took four days. Lewis has since repeated the march 12 or 13 times; I’ve been there almost every time. John Lewis is one of my best friends in Congress, a real hero of America.
–Steny Hoyer, Congressman, Maryland’s Fifth District and U.S. House minority whip
Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
by Ian W. Toll
Getting those six boats that began the U.S. Navy approved was a difficult process. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison disapproved. Yet the British had more than 1,000 ships and were impressing our sailors. Maryland had great captains, and times were desperate. It’s great history, but it reads like a novel.
I’m also reading Passage to Power, about Lyndon Johnson. I love history. Times change but people don’t. We’re at war again. It’s the same old story. If you read history, maybe you can anticipate before you suffer the consequences.
–Thomas V. ‘Mike’ Miller, Calvert County: President, Maryland Senate
Paths to Wisdom
The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything
by Stephen Covey
This is a very good book on the concept of power and trust in the workplace and in personal interactions. Trust turns out to be the Number One factor in success, whether you trust in yourself or others trust you. Covey supports his point with stories, including sports. I like the story of tennis player Andy Roddick. He had won a match because the official said his opponent had served the ball out. Roddick said No, it was in. The call was reversed, and it cost Roddick the match. But his saying I’m not going to let that happen created trust that earned him other rewards. The Speed of Trust is inspirational, moving, true.
–Bradley Gottfried, President of the College of Southern Maryland
Places in the Imagination
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami and
Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks
1Q84, by Haruki Murakami, is an intricate work of magical realism that takes the reader into the year 1984 as well as a parallel, almost exact copy, universe. You live and die with Aomame and Tengo in alternating chapters, as you try to figure out whether they can find one another after 20 years.
Lost Memory of Skin, by Russell Banks, deals with a deeply disturbing theme. You are transported to a world under a south Florida highway overpass that’s the only place a colony of convicted sex offenders can live 2,500 feet away from schools, day care centers and other places children congregate. The Kid, the 22-year-old we get to know, seems almost innocent.
–Skip Auld, Director: Anne Arundel County Library
Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away
by Christie Watson
This summer, besides rereading Barbara Kingsolver’ s early novels, The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven, and escaping into the lushness of The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty, I also want to recommend Christie Watson’s Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away. In this stunning debut novel, Watson blends ugliness with beauty: the rape of land and lives by big oil play counterpoint to the cultural rhythm of Nigerian village life. Into this fray enter two city children, Blessing and Ezikiel, when their mother leaves their father and returns to her parents’ home. Studious Ezikiel turns rebellious, lured by the bravado of local anti-oil boys, while 12-year-old Blessing, shocked by the poverty and violence, finds solace and purpose in her grandmother’ s midwifery. Beautifully written, Tiny Sunbirds whisks us to the Niger Delta, where we wish to step up to the food table, plate in hand.
–Dotty Holcomb Doherty, Annapolis: Outdoorswoman and Bay Weekly contributor
by William Gaddis
I like to spend my summers plowing through demanding tomes. The one I’ve chosen this go-round exceeds 700 pages, has no chapter breaks and consists largely of dense dialogue whose speakers are rarely identified. Oh, and the parts that aren’t dialogue-driven are usually one long, syntactically baffling sentence.
When I noticed that an online reading group calling itself Occupy Gaddis was preparing to read the book, I decided to join in, figuring their schedule would help me power through it.
Why am I doing this to myself? For one, the dialogue is terrific. William Gaddis had an unmatched ear for the stammering and nonsensical jargon of modern bureaucrats and was just as dead-on a mimic of any other American voice you could name.
For all the heavy themes hanging over it, the book is essentially a satirical farce about a wayward 11-year-old who manages to exploit the chaos of the financial system.
Gaddis’ satire has only gotten more relevant in the 37 years since it won the National Book Award. The architects of the financial crisis couldn’t justify themselves any better than JR does: “I didn’t invent it. I mean this is what you do!”
–Jesse Furgurson, Cape St. Claire: Bay Weekly intern and student at St. Mary’s College
by James Joyce
I will be reading one of the 20th century’s truly great works — at last! I have started it twice before, even performed a brief part in a Bloomsday celebration in Philadelphia: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Still, I have not read the whole, even though it is widely recognized at St. John’s College as a truly beautiful book. I expect to reread it in the course of a year-long study group with students and faculty, the prospect of which will spur me on while affording me both great pleasure and increased understanding.
–Christopher Nelson, President: St. John’s College
by Ayn Rand
I am reading a novel originally published by Ayn Rand in 1957, Atlas Shrugged. The prescient concepts of the struggle between the creator and producer classes and those who only use and seek to destroy is fascinating considering today’s political discussions regarding socialism and capitalism. This novel is over a half-century old but could describe current events about government and society and economic philosophy. Simultaneously anachronistic and futuristic, the book is a tough read but extremely interesting. It has my highest recommendation for a long read.
–Tony O’Donnell, Calvert County: Minority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates and congressional candidate
A Summer Full of Novels
I love summer reading. I will start with The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway. This novel about the human spirit takes place during a time of war. It is the One Maryland One Book Selection for the fall. Then I’ll move on to the latest in Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series, The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, featuring Precious Ramotswe, one of my favorite literary characters. What a treat! And just for fun, I’ll read the Dirty Business mystery series by Rosemary Harris. This will combine my love of reading with my love of gardening. So many books, so little time.
–Pat Hofmann, Director: Calvert Libraries
I want to read Hilary Mantel’s historical novel, Bring Up the Bodies, and of course, Superman: The High Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero by Larry Tye. Doesn’ t everyone want to know where Superman came from? Also, Pure by Andrew Miller, set in Paris during the French Revolution, and this fun one by local Severna Park author, Tracy Kiely, Murder on the Bride’s Side. All her mysteries are based on Jane Austen novels. I love A Fierce Radiance by Lauren Belfer, an adventure novel about the development of penicillin. But the one I always reread is Shadow of the Wind (2004) by Carlos Ruiz Zapón. So beautifully written, so lush. Set in Barcelona after World War II, it contains just a touch of magic like a pinch of salt.
–Janice Holmes, Co-owner of the Annapolis Bookstore, where she’s created the Book House, a children’s garden hideaway built of books