Summer reading heats up
As the pace of campus life slows and the weather turns warmer, vacations are being planned and reading choices are changing.
Franne Davis, general books manager at the Illini Union Bookstore, said the reading habits of the campus community change during the summer months, bringing a sales boost for certain genres, including classics, finance, mysteries and travel.
“We do much better in mysteries,” she said, noting that books by popular authors, including Agatha Christie (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “And Then There Were None”), Ian Sansom (Mobile Library Mysteries), and Alexander McCall Smith (“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series), sell better during the summer months.
Classics such as “War and Peace” and works by authors such as Austen, Camus and Emerson also increase in popularity during the summer. Customers say they’re finally going to catch up on their classics reading, Davis said.
Top-selling non-fiction this month at the bookstore includes any books by Michael Lewis, the author of “The Blind Side,” which was made into a movie in 2009. His other works include “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,” “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine” and “Liar’s Poker.” Also, “War,” by Sebastian Junger is popular, Davis said.
Among the top fiction bestsellers: books by Stieg Larsson, including his detective trilogy “The Millenium” series, which was published posthumously. (“Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” which was recently made into a movie, was the first of the series). Other popular fiction books include the recently released “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War,” by Karl Marlantes; and “Cutting for Stone,” by Abraham Verghese.
Travel books also have sold well recently, Davis said, including those about France and South and Central America.
A non-fiction title that Davis said is catching on with local readers is “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot. The book is about an “immortal line of cells that made some of the most crucial innovations in modern science possible,” according to amazon.com. Other popular books include anything by Jodi Picoult (“House Rules,” “My Sister’s Keeper,” “Nineteen Minutes”), Stephenie Meyer (“Twilight” series), and the “Sookie Stackhouse” novels, by Charlaine Harris, which are the basis for the “True Blood” series on HBO.
Other books selling well include those by local authors including UI English professor Richard Powers (“The Echo Maker,” “Generosity: An Enhancement”), UI entomologist May Berenbaum (“The Earwig’s Tail: A Modern Bestiary of Multi-legged Legends”) and photographer Larry Kanfer (“Barns of Illinois”).
The self-help book “A Kick in the Attitude,” by Sam Glenn, also has been popular, according to Davis. Glenn spoke at the Biennial Conference for Women, held on campus in May.
Illini Bookstore readers also are anticipating the release of “Promise Me: How a Sister’s Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer,” by Nancy G. Brinker, a UI alumna, Davis said. The book comes out in September, but the store has already pre-sold a number of copies.
Editor’s note: Each issue this summer, Inside Illinois will feature two campus readers and what they’re reading.
Andy Blacker, publicity and promotion specialist, Facilities & Services | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Since finishing some academic pursuits and having settled into somewhat of a routine with a new baby at home, I have rediscovered reading for pleasure this summer. I have to admit that even though I love books, they need to grab my attention and entertain me from the very first page or they simply won’t get off the shelf.
My primary areas of interest are science fiction and action thrillers. One of my favorite authors is Dean Koontz because his books usually dive right into the action. However, in some of his more recent works such as “The Taking” and “The Darkest Evening of the Year,” I have been a little disappointed because they end abruptly and without a satisfying conclusion. That being said, I will return to his earlier works to get my thriller fix.
Having been focused more on excerpts from essential baby books such as “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” and “Top 100 Baby Purees” over the past few months, I was happy when my wife suggested a new trilogy that she had been reading. The books by Suzanne Collins are set in the futuristic state of Panem, where the United States once flourished, and focus on the life of a young woman struggling to survive. While I have read of utopian societies, Collins creates a disturbing dystopia where the country has evolved into a dark and centrally controlled state because of drought, famine, fire and war. The first book in the trilogy, “The Hunger Games,” does a fantastic job of capturing your attention and drawing you into the struggles of everyday life in Panem. This new state consists of a capital and 12 districts. Because of a failed revolution by the districts, the capital has established the annual Hunger Games as a method of reminding the citizens in the districts of their place and their lack of power. The districts must hold lotteries and send two tributes between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the games, which are a brutal fight to the death televised across all of Panem as an all-too-real reality show.
I have just begun reading the second book, “Catching Fire,” and I look forward to escaping into Collins’ fictional world in the final book in the series scheduled to be released later this month.
I usually am reading two or three books at once and that almost always includes one about history. I also love mysteries and thrillers like those by David Baldacci and Stephen King. My guilty pleasure would be the “Outlander” series by Diana Gabaldon.
Summer is a great time to break out of your reading rut. This month I have challenged myself to read three books that are polar opposites in genre and style. We can learn and appreciate so much when we try a book that we might not normally consider.
The first book on my list was “Trigger Men,” by Hans Halberstadt. This tells the true-life accounts and history of America’s combat snipers, including intense training and encounters from the Gulf War, South America and Afghanistan. The author takes us on an amazing trip though the art and science behind this deadly accurate form of shooting. And, I assure you, it is indeed an art. Whether you are for or against the current military deployments doesn’t matter; the enormous impact of these highly trained and dedicated men is fascinating to learn about and made me appreciate their skill.
The second book also was nonfiction: “Trapped!: The Story of Floyd Collins,” by Roger W. Brucker and Robert K. Murray. Following his own curiosity down a hidden hole into an undiscovered Kentucky cave system, Collins suddenly became a prisoner of tons of rock, total darkness and bone-sapping cold. The authors provide a detailed account of search and rescue in such a way that kept me on the edge of my seat and dreaming about caves for days.
Lastly, there was “The Imperfectionists: A Novel,” by Tom Rachman, a current bestseller that has all the earmarks of a page-turner. Unfortunately, this freshman author was very adept at crafting witty remarks, quotable passages and multidimensional characters – just not a coherent plot. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective and this proved too jumbled to flow smoothly. He set his characters down in a failing English-language newspaper office in Rome. Their eccentric intertwined lives become the meat of the book. I really wanted to like this book as it was very original and had a raft of witty one-liners but … oh well, two out of three isn’t bad.
For work I read a lot of nonfiction, mostly books about politics and history. When I read for pleasure, I am looking for pure escapism and so I turn to science fiction and mystery.
My interest in science fiction is not so much in stories of people battling alien monsters as in stories of people trying to cope with radically changed circumstances, and changing radically in the process. I have particularly enjoyed Ian McDonald’s books “River of Gods” and “Cyberabad Days,” both set in a future India. Other favorite writers are Alastair Reynolds and Charles Stross. I am always happy to find something new from these three authors.
When it comes to mystery, I love a gritty urban noir set in an exotic locale. If that sounds good to you, I would recommend the novels of John Burdett, beginning with “Bangkok 8.” There are now four in the series that revolves around a young Thai police detective named Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a man who struggles with the challenges of being both a good cop and a good Buddhist.
I feel I must be one of the last people to read “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” by Stieg Larsson. That book and the two that follow are at the top of my mystery list for this summer.
Right now I’m reading a new novel by David Mitchell, a two-time finalist for the Booker Prize and a writer who has been lucky enough to win both popular and critical success. “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” is set in Japan in 1799 and the title character is a young Dutch clerk who is among the small contingent of traders allowed to do business with a country otherwise closed to the outside world. It is both a love story and a story of culture clash. I would also heartily recommend one of Mitchell’s previous novels, “Cloud Atlas.” It takes the unusual form of a series of linked novellas that are intercut so that one story builds to a cliffhanger and then stops, leading to another story and then another. Reading this book is kind of like climbing a steep hill and then finding resolution climbing down the other side.
In addition, here are recent nonfiction books I particularly enjoyed that are not about politics or social issues: “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition,” by Daniel Okrent; “The Lost Cyclist,” by David Herlihy, about a young man named Frank Lenz who set out in the late 1880s to ride around the world on a bicycle; “Nine Lives,” by William Dalrymple, looks at traditional religion in contemporary India.
Kelly Searsmith, assistant director for planning and development, edream (Emerging Digital Research and Education in Arts Media Institute)
Kelly Searsmith, assistant director for planning and development, eDream | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
My reading pace and what I read do not change in the summer. I’m always reading, from popular and scholarly books to periodicals along the spectrum. Other people’s stories and ideas and word images flow through my mind like water; they’re a life-giving force.
For pure pleasure, I’ve been reading Jim Butcher’s “Dresden Files” with my husband, Duane. The most recent installment, “Changes” (book #12), came out in April, but we waited until it was released for the Kindle (wireless reading device). “The Dresden Files” combines fantasy and mystery, following the world-saving adventures of wizard private eye Harry Dresden. It’s set in an alternate modern-day Chicago, which is a hot spot for supernatural activity of nearly every kind, from vampires to fairies. The pleasures of the series are many, including its rejuvenation of fantasy clichés and off-the-wall sense of humor.
Speaking of the Kindle, we love ours. We like to watch lectures and discussions on C-Span and then download related books instantly. We did that recently when we saw a rerun of Steven Pinker’s lecture on “The Stuff of Thought” and again when we saw Dan Ariely’s lecture on “Predictably Irrational.” Writing from the perspective of cognitive science, Pinker focuses on how language constructs and reveals certain aspects of cognition. In this book, he’s especially astute at inferring what informal language structures reveal about our cultures and how we think within their terms. Ariely also is interested in researching how we think, but from the perspective of behavioral economics. He focuses on how we fool ourselves into thinking we are making rational decisions when it’s often quite the opposite. He argues that if we can identify our patterns of irrational choice, then we can begin to make more self-consciously rational decisions and so improve our lot.
I also read regularly with my son, Quinn, who is almost 9. One of our favorite series has been “Guardians of Ga’Hoole,” by Kathryn Lasky. The 15-book series blends Arthurian-style fantasy with learning from the natural sciences. This beast fable focuses on a band of owls that strive to preserve nobility, community, learning and creativity in a post-human world. We can’t wait for the movie to come out this September.
And, I read a great deal on my own, especially Victorian literature and scholarship, as well as poetry and short stories. I’m nearing the end of Linda Lear’s “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature,” a biography that reveals the Victorian-era female writer and illustrator of books for young children (the “Peter Rabbit” series) as a serious artist, dogged naturalist, astute businesswoman and committed farmer.
Even during the summer my reading objectives remain the same: I read to learn something. I tend toward biographies and histories, and I try to read a book a week. Reading is about the only salvation of long plane rides.
At the moment I’m reading three books. The first is “The Man Who Loved China,” by Simon Winchester. China is a country I have visited often and one that continues to fascinate me. The man Winchester refers to is the English scientist Joseph Needham who is credited with “unlocking” the scientific and technological secrets of China. He writes about the “Needham question,” which, to simplify a more complex issue at the time, was, ‘“Why did China fall behind the West in industrializing when it was so far advanced in earlier times?” (The question seems moot today.) Winchester gives an entertaining account of Needham’s travels and research in China during the last century.
I am also making my way slowly through our own historian Lillian Hoddeson’s “Crystal Fire, The Birth of the Information Age.” Dr. Hoddeson is the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in the History of Science and I had the honor of participating in her investiture this past April. Her history of our campus “No Boundaries” is a classic and I believe should be required reading for everyone who works here. I don’t think there is anyone who has a better understanding of who we are as a campus and, more importantly, how we got here.
In a way, “Crystal Fire” continues that history. Dr. Hoddeson writes about the development of the transistor and the large role 1956 Nobel Prize-winner John Bardeen played in that development. (That was one of two Dr. Bardeen won.) If you don’t know who John Bardeen is, well, I suggest you read “No Boundaries.”
Finally, I am reading Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2002.
Nancy Westcott, atmospheric sciences researcherIllinois State Water Survey | photo courtesy Nancy Westcott
When I want to relax, I turn to historical novels, usually mysteries – usually long ones or a long series, if possible. Two of my favorite authors of historical mysteries are Anne Perry and Lindsey Davis. Any kind of mystery will do as well. At the library, I seek out new books by Martha Grimes, P.D. James, Laurie King, Laura Lippman and Sara Paretsky but I am always open to suggestions.
This summer, I first read “The Language of Bees,” by Laurie King, which I thought was the latest in the series that began with “The Beekeeper’s Apprentice.” This book ended as a cliffhanger. I was relieved to find that the next installment in King’s take on the elder years of Sherlock Holmes, “God of the Hive,” is now out. As much as I take comfort in historical novels where you know how things turn out, with some plausible explanation, I enjoy being immersed in long books or series with familiar characters where you know that they will at least survive.
Lindsey Davis’ “Rebels and Traitors” fit the bill for a long historical tome this summer. The story takes place over a 16-year period encompassing the English civil war. It examines events that led to and followed the beheading of Charles I and gives the reader a feel for the historical figures, events and lifestyle of that time.
Most recently, I diverged from mysteries and historical novels to a book club selection, “Out Stealing Horses,” by Per Petterson and translated by Anne Born. This was truly a rewarding book – a dual coming-of-age story of a 15-year-old boy and the same man at 67. The storytelling and descriptions of rural Norway during this hot humid Illinois June was a great way to get away.
Mary Ellen O’Shaughnessey, executive assistant dean,
College of Fine and Applied Arts | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Currently, I am reading Ted Kennedy’s autobiography, “True Compass: A Memoir,” and I just finished the “Girl Who Played With Fire,” by Stieg Larsson.
One of the most interesting books I have read recently is “Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds,” by Olivia Gentile. It is a portrait of Phoebe Snetsinger (daughter of advertising executive Leo Burnett) who quite innocently began bird-watching to deal with her restlessness in being a wife and mother of four. What started as a Thursday afternoon pastime in Webster Groves, Mo., grew to consume most of her time and energy. She pursued bird-watching all over the world taking bird tours that were paid for by an inheritance. In fact, when given a terminal diagnosis of melanoma she started traveling more often, living longer than expected and dying in a bus accident while on a birding trip.
I found the book interesting in a number of ways. I learned a great deal about the world of bird-watching. People keep a list of the birds they have seen, thus the title “Life List,” and I discovered that bird-watching is quite competitive. To this end, Snetsinger died in 1999 having recorded 8,400 birds on her life list – 2,000 more than her nearest competitor. The book also is a travelogue with the trips Snetsinger took and places she visited described with amazing detail. Throughout the book are sketches of the birds mentioned in the text.
This is the story of a complex, smart woman who appeared to feel more comfortable sleeping in a tent in Kenya than being home with her husband and children, who struggled in their own way to cope as the wife and mother became more consumed with adding to her life list. All but one of Snetsinger’s children pursued careers relating to birds. Snetsinger grew up in Lake Zurich, Ill. Interestingly, both she and her husband attended graduate school at Illinois. Her degree was in German literature and his in animal science.
Since I moved to Illinois from California a few years ago, I have rediscovered my passion for reading. During my first few weeks here, I visited almost every park after work with a book in order to get outside and stimulate my mind. I have continued cultivating my inner bookworm and also started a book club, “The Reading Divas.” I also help coordinate the Student Affairs Book Club through the division’s Professional Development Committee. Here are a few books off my shelf I recommend:
If you’re looking to get inspired, read “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time,” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. I just finished this book with my book club and felt so motivated and passionate after learning about Mortenson’s life mission of enhancing education and inter-faith action in the Middle East.
If you’re looking for self-discovery, read “The Alchemist,” by Paulo Coelho. One of my all-time favorite books, it shares a journey of finding oneself in the midst of extraordinary circumstances and the lessons one learns along the way. It will take your mind and heart to new places and make you consider what your own personal legend may be.
If you’re looking to get lost in an intriguing saga, read “Pillars of the Earth,” by Ken Follett. This is a multi-generational story of history, intrigue, drama, romance, action and family relationships. While it takes some dedication to finish (it’s almost 1,000 pages!), it is well worth the investment (and then there’s a sequel …).
If you’re looking to change your perspective, read “Change the Way You See Everything Through Asset-Based Thinking,” by Kathryn D. Cramer and Hank Wasiak. This made me consider how I view the world and interact with others. The concept of focusing on one’s strengths and what’s good about yourself is life changing and can help improve your personal and professional relationships.
Barbara O’Connor sometimes becomes what she calls a “multi-reader” – reading more than one book at a time – both for entertainment and to build understanding of leadership and management.
“Right now, I’m reading ‘Good to Great,’ by Jim Collins, and I’m reading kind of an entertaining book about a female bounty hunter, Stephanie Plum, called ‘High Five,’ by Janet Evanovich,” O’Connor said.
She says some of the titles she chooses might not be much of a surprise considering her law-enforcement career and legal background.
She’s a big fan of mysteries and thrillers – those that deal with both the law and its enforcement.
“It probably comes as no surprise,” she said. “I am a licensed attorney. I never practiced except for when I was in law school. I’ve always had a love of the law.”.
O’Connor also likes reading books by Nicholas Sparks and John Grisham.
Her reading habits change seasonally, she said.
“During the year, I’d focus more on a Jim Collins book – something that might give me some focus on improving myself or organization at work,” O’Connor said. “Last (year) I read Stephen Covey’s ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.’ In the summertime, it’s strictly fun reading – something to sit down at the beach and read.”
She said she’ll pack some beach reads for two trips she’ll take this summer.
O’Connor doesn’t have specific titles in mind to recommend, but she does encourage people to take advantage of the time they do have to read.
“People should read what they enjoy – get out on the deck and enjoy the nice weather. … Take advantage of the few months we have to relax.”
Sharon Meachum, veterinary research specialist in the department of veterinary biosciences | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
My husband and I have been in a book group for more than 12 years, which we enjoy a great deal. I spend time every day reading, and I’m always looking for books that I think would lend themselves to memorable discussions. Finding out what other readers think of a book you have just read is such fun.
I’ve found that the Shelfari.com website is a big help to keep track of what I have read and what is on my “wanna read” list. The “Tags” I add to my brief description of the book make it easy to track down titles or authors I’ve forgotten.
One of my favorite reads recently was “Mr. Pip,” by Lloyd Jones. Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations” plays an important role in “Mr. Pip,” so our book group is reading the Dickens book next, then “Mr. Pip” for the next month’s discussion. I’m excited about the discussion that combination and comparison could trigger.
I commute to work about 50 minutes, so often I will listen to an audio book. Recently I’ve enjoyed Barbara Kingsolver reading her book “The Lacuna” and Sara Zarr reading her book “Once Was Lost.” I also read some children’s and young adult fiction and particularly like “Christmas Moccasins,” by Ray Buckley; “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” by John Boyne; and “Out of the Dust,” by Karen Hesse. My all-time favorites are probably “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee and “I Heard the Owl Call My Name,” by Margaret Craven. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but I do love Mary Oliver.
Recently I have found I am reading a lot of fiction looking at the World War II and Holocaust experiences. It is powerful reading and makes you realize the difference a point of view makes. “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” “Stones From the River,” “Those Who Save Us,” “Diary of Anne Frank,” “Atonement” and “Number the Stars” are fiction set during World War II. They all take place in different places and have different points of view, so comparisons are quite interesting.
I am retiring as of July 31. One of the things I’m looking forward to is lots of time to read.