Vacation Reading

Now that I’m retired, the concept of summer vacation seems passé. There is no school or work routine looming at its end. Yet I find myself happily planning for vacation reading in the spirit of long lazy days by the beach.

But rather than heading for the ocean, our summer spot is my family’s cottage in upstate New York, set on a small spring-fed lake in the rural countryside. Three weeks to swim, kayak, take long walks, and read. It’s heaven.

What books to take along?

For early morning coffee on the lakeside deck, I have China in Ten Words (Anchor Books, 2012) by Yu Hua. The author chooses ten symbols, such as People, Leader, Grassroots, and then tells of his own life and China’s history. I started reading the chapter called Reading. Yu Hua was in elementary school during the Cultural Revolution. Books were burned, and the local library had few tracts—he read everything there, and hunted in friends’ houses for anything to read. By high school he was reading “poisonous weeds,” foreign books smuggled from person to person. These “headless and tailless books,” read by thousands of people, would appear missing the front and back pages so that the boy never knew who wrote the books or how they ended. This will be a book to focus on chapter by chapter.

For rainy days on the porch I have Khaled Hosseini’s new book And the Mountains Echoed (Riverhead Books, 2013), a multi-generational novel that begins in an Afghan village. Friends who have read it say it surpasses The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

I’m bringing Anna Keesey’s debut novel Little Century (Picador, 2013). I was influenced by the fact that it is a pick of the Parnassus Books book group. The story, featuring orphan Esther Chambers, has been described as “a top-notch novel of Western Americana.” This sounds perfect for reading late at night while ensconced in bed listening to sounds from the lake below.

For walks, I’ve loaded two classics on my MP3 player from the library’s free download service: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. Listening to Austen’s words aloud is pure pleasure, and Jeeves will have me laughing outright as I trek around the lake.

Covering all bases, I have loaded Gail Godwin’s new book Flora (Bloomsbury, 2013) on my iPad. The book’s narrator is ten-year-old Helen whose feisty demeanor reminds me of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Also, I just heard about an historical mystery series set in ancient Rome. I loaded the first title The Silver Pigs: A Marcus Didius Falco Mystery (St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 2000) by Lindsey Davis. I’ll let you know if it’s fun to read.

Surely that will cover my reading needs while away. But happily, in the nearby small college town there is a well-stocked bookstore!

These books are available at your local public library and at Parnassus Books, Nashville.


Summer at the Lake


Those Italians

My son gave me a clever Mother’s Day gift. He adopted an olive tree for one year in the Nudo La Monla grove near Abruzzo, Italy. In the fall I will receive a bottle of olive oil from “my tree.”

 He knows I am fond of all things Italian. My father’s family came from southern Italy. His was the classic story of the first-generation immigrant boy who dropped out of school early to help support his mother and siblings, but through hard work and an optimistic outlook, rose from errand boy to own the company. When I traveled to Italy for the first time in college, it was a revelation. Everybody looked like my aunts and uncles!

A new book by Tim Parks reminds me about how much I enjoy learning about Italian character and culture. The book Italian Ways: on and off the rails from Milan to Palermo (W.W. Norton & Co., 2013) describes Parks’ experiences while riding trains throughout the country. He details the exasperating network of bureaucracy that governs train travel. Just buying an annual season ticket from Verona to Milan requires hours of standing in line and complicated negotiations. The train system is representative of larger inefficiencies—how do things ever get done? Parks writes with impatience, affection, and wonder that somehow trains move and people reach their destinations. Parks, from Manchester, England, has lived in Italy since 1981, wryly notes “Italy is not a country for beginners.”

 Other enlightening books about life in Italy by Tim Parks include Italian Neighbors (Grove, 1992), An Italian Education (Grove, 1996), and A Season with Verona (Arcade Publishing, 2002).

 American-born author Donna Leon like Tim Parks has lived in Italy over 30 years. And like Parks, her love for Italy encompasses passion and frustration. A book of essays called My Venice and Other Essays, coming out this year, includes vignettes from her life in Venice. I found the essays a little lackluster compared to her superb mystery series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti deeply loves Venice, and the descriptions of its beauty are lyrical, if threaded through with despair over its worsening condition. Meanwhile, there are mysteries to be solved, and the labyrinth of Italian bureaucracy to be dealt with.

 In The Jewels of Paradise (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), Donna Leon introduces Caterina Pellegrini, a native Venetian and musicologist. Pellegrini, hired to examine the contents of two locked trunks of a composer rumored to have hidden a fortune, finds herself entangled in a mysterious and threatening situation.

 Reading these books makes me want to hop a plane to Verona or Venice tomorrow.

 These books are available at your local public library and Parnassus Books, Nashville.

Guest Narrative: Yellowstone Inspirations

I invited J. Mark Nickell, a recent guest for Let’s Talk Books at Parnassus Books in Nashville, to reprise his inspiring presentation.  Below please find his narrative and reading recommendations.


In my teenage years and beyond I dreamed of traveling out West. Music has a way of stirring dreams deep in the soul; the acoustical rhythms of the hit song Ventura Highway, by the band America, inspired me to hit the road. Images from travel guides of the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park lit my fire. Edmund Morris’s book, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, (Deckle Edge, 2010) provided the vision of an active life to live into. So, in 1984, when both time and money converged, a buddy and I made our first trip together out West.

Including that first trip, I now have visited Yellowstone National Park eleven times.  Yellowstone is a gift that keeps on giving.  Every visit sparks some new curiosity about this wonderland.  It was the country’s first National Park established in 1872, after the Hayden expedition brought back images of its unique features from painter, Thomas Moran, and photographer, William Henry Jackson.  The history of Yellowstone and the National Parks idea is chronicled in The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (PBS, 2011), the companion volume to the Ken Burns documentary on PBS.

Yellowstone’s “discovery” by European explorers is credited to fur trapper, John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Colter left the expedition to join some fur traders on the expedition’s journey home.  The impact of the fur trade in the settling of America and the West is discussed in Fur, Fortune, and Empire (Deckle Edge, 2010) by Eric Jay Dolin.

Yellowstone is one of the last places left in its pure state, as it was “in the beginning,” similar to what Lewis and Clark found on their journey to discover an easy route from the headwaters of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean from 1803-1807.   The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Abridged) (National Geographic, 2002) present a faithful and vivid account of the expedition. Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (Simon & Schuster, 1997) is a good biography of the expedition with special attention to Lewis.  Weapons of the Lewis & Clark Expedition  (Arthur H. Clark Co., 2012) by Jim Garry is a valuable resource in understanding how the expedition fed itself on the long journey and how weapons were used for diplomacy and for protection.

The experiences from 1984 and following were seared in memory and led me to drill deeper into the world above and the world below, to ponder how this beautiful place called Yellowstone came to be.  The Earth is ever-changing, and its geologic past and present is beautifully described in Annals of the Former World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000) by John McPhee.  I didn’t know it in 1984 when I stood atop Mt.Washburn, but I was viewing a giant volcano from one of its rims. The Yellowstone volcano has erupted about every 600,000 years as pressure builds from the “hot spot” underneath—a plume of molten material that causes the earth above the hotspot to rise and fall a few centimeters per year.  Moreover, each successive eruption appears to occur farther northeast than the previous eruption, but that is because the North American continental plate is drifting from northeast to southwest about two centimeters per year.

My Western journeys would not be complete without learning to fly fish in Yellowstone. The clear, cold waters from snowmelt create the conditions for outstanding trout habitat. A River Runs Through It (University of Chicago, 2001) by Norman Maclean is a semi-autographical memoir about his family, and conveys a reverence for nature, a love of the Montana countryside and fly fishing. The book opens with the sentence: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” The writing is beautiful. Maclean taught English literature at the University of Chicago during his working years, but his heart was always in the West. It is easy to see why.

J. Mark Nickell is the owner of the investment advisory firm, J. Mark Nickell & Company, Brentwood, TN.

Reading and Talking

I have been working at Parnassus Books in Nashville for about a year and a half. My one day a week behind the cash register gives me insight into this truth: people are reading books.

Lots of people are reading such a wide variety of books that it’s mind-boggling, books that range far beyond the best seller lists. Customers confidently request a title, assuming you will be familiar with it. Most often one of the talented booksellers will know it, and where to find it on the shelf.

Once a month I host a program in the store called Let’s Talk Books, where we ask notable Nashvillians what they are reading. Guests have included the mayor, the former governor, the editor emeritus of the city newspaper, a community philanthropist, a musician, local authors, a historian, a travel business owner, a newspaper columnist—you get the idea. These are busy, successful people who read. I find that they are intrigued by my proposal: “I’ve never been asked that before!”

And the breadth and depth of their reading is astonishing.

Guests talk about old and new books that have affected their personal lives, impacted public policy, clarified history, suggested new cuisine or presented a mystery to be solved. Beautiful writing is treasured. Fiction and nonfiction are equally represented. If I were an author, these conversations would make me swoon. Good books are loved forever.

Audiences have been enthusiastic. People respond to personal reading recommendations, this of course being one of the tenets of Parnassus Books.

It occurred to me that you might be interested in their reading suggestions too. So I thought from time to time, I would ask a guest to provide an essay summarizing his or her presentation for Let’s Talk Books, and publish it in this blog.

Next month recent guest J. Mark Nickell will discuss his book selections which focused on his adventures out west. He has hiked the Yellowstone National Park eleven times. Mark is the owner of the investment advisory firm, J. Mark Nickell & Company, Brentwood, TN.

I hope you like this idea.

** I just finished reading The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urea (Little Brown and Company, 2005), an enchanting book recommended by a guest for Let’s Talk Books. It is a magical tale based on the true story of Urea’s great-aunt Teresita, a woman renowned for her mystical powers.

At Sea

We just returned from an extraordinary three-week trip which included a 12-day cruise of Australia and New Zealand. Here are the cities we visited: Sydney, Melbourne, Queenstown, Dunedin, Christchurch, Wellington, Tauranga, and Auckland. We explored by ship, tender, tram, bus, steamboat, and on foot. The scenery in the Fiordland National Park, New Zealand was breathtaking.

Sydney is a sophisticated harbor city of over 4 million people–it reminded us of Chicago. New Zealand is a gorgeous, young, vibrant country with more sheep than people. If these destinations are on your dream list, I urge you to go.


When we embarked, we were amused to discover that our stateroom was on Deck 10—The Library Deck! It was a lovely two-deck-high space with lots of light. Every time I passed by, there were people reading books and iPads.

Of course I checked out the collection, and was surprised by its quality. I had expected a ragtag bunch of books. Instead I found a neatly shelved popular collection. There were many titles with 2012 publication dates. I noticed The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar (Suzanne Johnson) looked like it had spent time in the water—had it been rescued from the ocean?

I often assert that the quality of life of a city can be measured by the viability of its public library. Perhaps a cruise ship can be judged in a similar fashion–we found the services and accommodations delightful aboard the Celebrity Solstice.

During the days at sea, I explored all the outdoor seating areas looking for just the right sunny nook. It was such a pleasure to see the blue water, feel the sun, and read a book.

From the library I borrowed The Age of Desire by Nashville author Jennie Fields (2012). The novel explores the relationship between Edith Wharton, and her tutor and friend Anna Bahlmann. I also succumbed to the lure of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012), which has been on the bestseller lists for months. I was glad to be reading outdoors, so that the fresh sea breezes could blow away the book’s pathological malaise.

I took along Independent People by Halldor Laxness (1946), a saga, both elemental and comic, of the sheep farmer Bjartur of Summerhouses, Iceland. It seemed an apropos choice for New Zealand travel. For the long plane ride, I loaded on my iPad a Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery Death in a Strange Country by Donna Leon. If you don’t know this series set in Venice, Italy, I suggest it to you. But the best book I read on my trip was the new book by Kent Haruf titled Benediction (2013). It is a beautifully written, quiet book describing the love of family and friends as they await the death of the father, “Dad Lewis.”

These books are available at your local public library and at Parnassus Books, NashvilleImage

Good Food Writing

I attended a splendid dinner party recently. Thinking about how I could contribute to the evening’s gaiety, I realized all the guests were people who were serious about good food.  For fun—because this is my idea of fun—I put together a list of books written by people who have devoted their lives to the enjoyment of food.

**Incidentally, if conversation lags at your next dinner party, try this question: “What is the earliest food you remember eating?” Responses will be surprising and entertaining.

Bones, Blood, and Butter: the inadvertent education of a reluctant chef by Gabrielle Hamilton (2011)

Chef and owner of the acclaimed New York City restaurant Prune, Hamilton offers an engrossing memoir of her idyllic childhood and her training as writer and chef.  After her parents divorced, she was adrift for years, but kept returning to the kitchen to earn her livelihood.  She describes the unlikely founding and success of Prune. This is a beautifully written memoir.

The Gastronomical Me by M.K. Fisher (1943)

This classic book is worth rereading. It is a story of a woman determined to live her life to the brim.  As a young bride, M.K. Fisher sailed with her husband to Dijon, where she encountered French culture for the first time.  Her writing is energetic and frank—Fisher describes the people and food with an unsparing eye.

Heat: An amateur’s adventures as a kitchen slave, line cook, pasta maker, and apprentice to a Dante-quoting butcher in Tuscany by Bill Buford (2006)

This is a humorous recounting of Buford’s time in the kitchen of Mario Batali’s three-star New York restaurant, Babbo. If you have ever aspired to try your hand in a professional kitchen, read this first.

My Life in France by Julia Child and Alec Prud’homme (2004)

If you only read one book on this list, let it be My Life in France. When Child went to France in 1948, she fell in love with French food. She couldn’t speak the language; she knew nothing about cooking, but by combining her new passion with sheer persistence, she became a master chef. She labored for years with her two writing colleagues to produce the seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She was so joyous! Photographs taken by her husband Paul are a bonus.

The Table Comes First: Family, France and the meaning of food by Adam Gopnik  (2011)

I love the essays of Adam Gopnik. In this book he takes a look at our food culture, tracing how we have reached this odd place in America where we seem obsessed about food, but have lost the understanding of the importance of sitting down together for a meal.

 Tender at the Bone: Growing up at the table by Ruth Reichl (1999)

I would like to meet Ruth Reichl. Her writing is warm, funny, and insightful.  She tells the story of her life from the perspective of a person who loves to eat. The recounting of the early days at her “politically correct table” in Berkeley in the 70’s has just enough cynical edge. The sequel is Comfort Me with Apples: more adventures at the table (2001).

Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin  (1999)

Read anything you can find by Calvin Trillin, one of the wittiest writers ever. He loves to find good eating in authentic restaurants in out-of-the-way places. Trillin is convinced that America’s most glorious food is not to be found at pretentious restaurants. Tummy Trilogy includes three books, American Fried; Alice, Let’s Eat; and Third Helpings.


These books are available from your local public library and Parnassus Books, Nashville.

Travel Dreams

My husband and I are planning major trips this spring. To get ready, I have been reading—it is so exciting to anticipate new sights and adventures.

Right now I am pouring over Eyewitness Travel guides for New Zealand and Australia. Although these series of travel books are really too heavy to carry around all day in your purse, they are delightful to study, featuring loads of illustrations and photographs. For example, the introductory “Portrait of New Zealand,” is fascinating. Along with basic information, there is a section on New Zealand architecture with drawings, and one on famous artists and writers. This whets my appetite! My main connection with New Zealand has been through drinking its fine wines and watching Lord of the Rings!

On his first voyage, Captain James Cook explored the coasts of Australia and New Zealand in 1769-70. My guidebook states that “the Endeavor was well equipped for its voyage, with botanists and artists aboard.” One of those botanists was twenty-six year old Joseph Banks whose vivid account of the plants he found and the sights he saw on an earlier landing in Tahiti comprises the first chapter in The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (2008). I recommend this book–it captures the excitement of the scientific discoveries and inventions of the late eighteenth century.

There are several biographies of the remarkable Captain Cook. The standard biography is The Life of Captain James Cook by J.C. Beaglehole (1974); Richard Hough’s Captain James Cook (1984) is another notable title.

On a different tack, I’m dipping into a couple of classic mysteries by New Zealand author Ngaio Marsh, A Vintage Murder (1937), and Died in the Wool (1945) featuring famous detective Roderick Alleyn.  Paul Cleaves is on my list to sample. He writes modern thrillers set in Christchurch.

Now, the next important consideration is—what shall I take along to read on the trip?

These books are available at your local library and at Parnassus Books, Nashville