Wednesday, July 27, 2011

K.C's Corner: Dog Days of Summer Reading List Part One

by Kelley Coyner

In the tradition of Ancient Rome, the Dog Days started on Sunday, July 23th. For many in Washington, the Dog Days begin when Congress goes home and locals are left in the heat albeit with easier commutes. For me, the Dog Days come in waves with the heat, slip away, and then slam down again and again. Last week when a dome of stagnate, dog breath air sat on us for days—I knew the Dog Days had arrived.

What to do but read and sip iced drinks.

 Having gorged myself on a baker’s half dozen of mysteries, a couple of novels, and clutch of poems in honor of Midsummer’s Eve, I am ready to return to nonfiction.  What makes my summer nonfiction reading list? I mostly am drawn by a good story, intriguing characters, a slightly askance point of view, drama, weirdness, mystery, and, most of all a good pace.  Occasionally I will pursue a themed reading. In summer, I especially like polar adventures like stories by and about Shackleton and tales of faraway places like lost Inca Ruins of Manchu Picchu.
Here a handful ideas for your Dog Days reading. Next week in part 2 I will share some more lists and what you said you are reading. 

Stories, stories, and more stories. In The Immortal Henrietta Lacks Rebecca Skloot tells several stories. She draws a picture of Henrietta Lack’s life, her struggle and death to cervical cancer and Skloot tells how Mrs. Lack's cells – known as HELA--become the workhorse cell of biological research. Along the way she tells the story of Mrs. Lack’s children, of how legal  and research communities view the ownership of cells, of medicine in the 1950s, of life in segregated Baltimore Maryland and Clover, Virginia, of cancer care at Johns Hopkins and more.   

News of the unusual. In the category of strange but not funhouse weird, The Hare with Amber Eyes tells the story of potter and sculptor Edmund de Waal’s Jewish family of grain traders who moved from Russia to major cultural centers of Europe before being destroyed by the Nazis and the story of their netsuke collection. De Waal’s ancestor Charles acquired the netsuke – tiny Japanese carvings that the author is pulled to as "small, tough explosions of exactitude”--in the last half of the 19th century during a fad of Japonismo.  De Waal inherits 240 netsuke, none of which are larger than a matchbox from his great Uncle Iggie. In like measure, de Waal is intrigued by the intricate netsuke and the intricate stories of his ancestors. (By the way, for those of who prefer print versions of their books, the paperback is due out next Tuesday.) 

Three makes good company
One and two: In Good Soldiers by David Finkel and When Janie Comes Marching Home by Laura Browder and photographer Sascha Pflaeging, the writers go to the soldier to learn and then tell his or her stories. As Washington Post reporters embedded for much of their 15 months in Baghdad during the surge, Finkel reports the stories of the soldiers and commanding officers of Batallion 216 or the Rangers. Finkel looks over the shoulder of soldiers--in Humvees, during prep for promotion review, on foot patrol, at a burn unit in a military hospital--and tells the story of Iraq from their point of view.  Browder, a Richmond-based film documentarian, captures the oral histories of the women who are marching home in record numbers from combat zones in Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan. She tells her story of writing the book in the preface and tells Janeys’ stories of camaraderie, voluntarily extended deployments, and motherhood through interviews of more than 50 active-duty and retired military women. I was put off by the When Janeys’ coffee table book format. Bear with it. The layout is needed for the photographic portraits that are paired with Browder’s interviews.

And Three. In An Unexpected Light, Jason Elliot’s Afghanistan travelogue evokes a very different sense of the place of this contemporary war theater than Good Soldiers or  When Janie Comes Marching Home. Elliot contrasts the Afghanistan he traveled in as a 19-year old in 1979 during the time of mujahedeen with the version he found when smuggled into the country during the Soviet occupation. Finkel and Browder give us a window on these modern war zones from the perspective of the soldier. Elliot gives a view of Afghanistan in the context of two earlier modern conflicts from the perspective of an adventure traveler rather than an embedded journalist or documentarian. I read Elliot’s book in October 2001, the year it was first published. An Unexpected Light will be reissued next week.

Noir meets Memoir.  David Dow’s memoir The Autobiography of an Execution is not light beach reading, but it gripped me like a noir mystery. The book is peopled with puzzling characters and gritty scenes. The story taunts and yanks you along with unexpected turns and detours to an unavoidable end. The book jacket blurbs focus on Dow’s critique of the death penalty and work as a post conviction defense lawyer—one who represents clients after they have been sentenced to die. Dow does set out his cases against the death penalty, but through the stories and characters of defendants, the warden on death row, raunchy bars, mountain bike rides in the heat of Houston, trips to death row in Huntsville. He does not defend death penalty clients because he believes they are innocent; in Autobiography he tells the story of a man who might in fact be innocent. (A disclosure: I have known David since I was thirteen. He has always been a terrific storyteller.)

Nothing quite hits the mark? Stay tuned for Part Two of Dog Days. 


LSL said...

Just ordered "Rock the Casbah" and "Playing With Fire. Also read The Lemon Tree, We Look Like the Enemy,Hour of Sunlight, Painting For The Absolute and Utter Beginner,Don't Be Nice Be Real, Writing to Change The World,The Chicken Chronicles,Curious? and Ill Fares The Land.
I usually read fiction, but have decided to make this my summer of non-fiction. Many have been a result of hearing the author on Diane Rehm.

LSL said...

PS The Hare With Amber Eyes is the October selection of my book group. I'll be curious to see who reads it and what they think as we are pretty much a fiction group.

Kelley said...

LSL-- what prompted your book group to head to the nonfiction aisle? I am always curious how book groups choose books. Kelley