Summer reading

What the hot, the cool and the controversial are reading this season.

By the staff of Salon Books
July 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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The record-setting heat wave punishing much of the nation has health experts recommending that everybody stay indoors -- preferably no more than two feet from an air conditioner. Perhaps that's why the summer reading lists below -- gathered from various notables by Salon Books -- contain remarkably few beach books. The folks who responded to our query "What are you reading this summer?" have lined up some heavy lifting for themselves -- that is, if they're being scrupulously frank about the books on their bedside tables. And, if anyone switches to bestsellers, thrillers or tell-alls by August, well, who among us hasn't weakened when the heat index hits 110 degrees?

Andrea Barrett, novelist ("The Voyage of the Narwhal")
"I just finished Joseph Roth's "The Radetzky March." A friend recommended it to me, and I hadn't read any of his books. It's just splendid."

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Roz Chast, cartoonist
"David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens. I know it sounds like I'm making it up. Really, I had not read any Dickens since high school. I ran across a nice edition at Borders and bought it."

Al Franken, presidential candidate
"The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization" by Thomas Friedman. I figured it was about time I confronted the realities of the global economy. And also I only read stuff by Jews.

Lucianne Goldberg, literary agent
So far I've read Michael Isikoff's "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story," Bob Woodward's "Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate 1974-1999," Lanny Davis' "Truth to Tell: Notes From My White House Education," Christopher Hitchens' "No One Left to Lie To: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton," Joyce Milton's "The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton," Bill Gertz's "Betrayal: How the Clinton Administration Undermined American Security" and virtually every magazine published, regularly. I honestly don't know what's coming up but if it has to do with politics I will read it.

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Larry Flynt, publisher
I'm reading Matt Drudge this summer, because of his integrity, honesty and forthrightness about our political system.

Barbara Kopple, documentary filmmaker ("Harlan County, U.S.A.")
"Push Comes to Shove" by Twyla Tharp, "Heading South, Looking North: A Bilingual Journey" by Ariel Dorfman and "The Call of Service" by Robert Coles.

Robert Wilson, theatrical director ("Einstein on the Beach")
Presently I am reading Gogol's "Diary of a Madman," as I am interested in developing it as a theatrical work. Further, I am reading about Saint Denis in France, where I am going to make an installation at the basilica.

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Paul Mazursky, film director ("Enemies: A Love Story")
"For the Relief of Unbearable Urges" by Nathan Englander, "Kazan -- The Master Director Discusses His Films: Interviews with Elia Kazan" by Jeff Young, "Truffaut" by Antoine De Baecque, Serge Toubiana and Catherine Temerson (translator) and "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink.

Mary Matalin, political commentator
"Shadow " by Bob Woodward: another masterpiece; "Peter The Great" by Robert Massie: epic history; "Turn Of The Century" by Kurt Andersen: phenomenal writing; and "Betrayal" by William Gertz: real life.

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Jeff Greenfield, CNN senior analyst
Summertime means novels to me -- old, new, favorites, as long as it's fiction -- intentional fiction, I mean (As a political journalist, I deal with unintentional fiction far too often). The list so far:

Kurt Andersen's "Turn of the Century" is filled with sharp observations and is dead-on about millennial media, but a little like eating an eight-course dinner where every course is a rich dessert.

"Mr. Sammler's Planet" by Saul Bellow. It's even better the second time around. One question: would the portrait of New York City be quite so despairing if Bellow were writing today?

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"A Man in Full" by Tom Wolfe. Spare me the complaints about the ending. There is nobody whose descriptive powers -- about people or places -- can match his.

"The Redhunter" by William F. Buckley Jr. This fictionalized look at Sen. Joseph McCarthy is not what you might have expected. There's a more-in-sorrow-than-in-celebration tone about the man who may have done more to undermine responsible anti-communism than a battalion of civil libertarians.

Ira Glass, radio host and producer ("This American Life")
I'm carrying around John Bayley's "Elegy for Iris." The friend who told me about this said that it's rare to read about such a happy marriage, to see any believable picture of how love could survive so long. I'm only about a third of the way in, but that seems to be true.

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I'm also reading "Love Trouble" by Veronica Geng, who is so funny and so surprising and so smart. I'd never heard of her before seeing this book. The title story -- in which every sentence -- for reasons too complicated to explain here -- includes the phrases "Mr. Reagan" and "reads Proust" is so breathtakingly great that I've found myself reading it to friends over the phone.

Sister Souljah, musician, author
"Have Gun Will Travel: The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records" by Ronin Ro. Hip hop is a billion-dollar industry. A lot of people try to dismiss its relevance, but I think it needs to be looked at and analyzed so we can learn from its strengths and weaknesses.

Neil LaBute, film director ("Your Friends and Neighbors") and playwright ("Bash")
Two books at the moment: Vladimir Nabokov's version of the "Lolita" screenplay that went virtually unused in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film (fascinating to retrace the birth of a film from two such distinctly different artists) and Christa Wolf's "Medea: A Modern Retelling," a crisp, intelligent and ruthlessly modern take on the myth.

Kathy Najimy, actress ("Veronica's Closet")
Five years ago Rosie O'Donnell gave me Wally Lamb's "She's Come Undone." It was the best book I ever read -- funny and touching, and I really identified with the heroine. I couldn't believe a man wrote it. I called Wally Lamb and ended up voicing it for the audio version. Last year, I got married on Aug. 8, and my husband gave me Wally Lamb's next book, "I Know This Much Is True," as a wedding gift. Believe it or not I just finished it this week -- I've had a busy year. Now I think I'll start reading the 400 back issues of all the magazines I get.

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Jon Langford, musician (the Mekons, Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts)
This summer I read "London Fields," by Martin Amis, which I thought was one of the best books I've ever read, and I would highly recommend it to anyone. My brother sent me a book called "Peake's Progress," which is the selected writings and drawings of Mervyn Peake. He's the guy who wrote "Gormenghast" and "Titus Groan" and all that stuff. He led a kind of strange life, and some of his writings are really interesting. I just read an interesting thing called "Why Art Can't Kill the Situationist International," by T.J. Clark and Donald Nicholson Smith. I know T.J. Clark has got a new book out ["Farewell to an Idea"] and I want to get it. It's probably really expensive, though -- heh heh. But Martin Amis -- I'm just gonna go buy "Money" and read that again. I read that quite a long time ago and really liked it, but "London Fields" is a fantastic book.

Larry Kramer, playwright ("The Normal Heart")
I come to the end of about 20 books a week, many of which I've started reading weeks or months earlier. My bedside table looks like an aisle in the Strand Bookstore. I seem to be finishing up a truly wonderful batch, all of which have been, in one way or another, very fulfilling. These include: "Shadows on the Hudson" by Isaac Bashevis Singer, "Trying It Out in America" by Richard Poirier, "The Elusive Embrace" by Daniel Mendelsohn, "On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder" by Ed Sikov, "In September, the Light Changes" by Andrew Holleran, "Torquemada" by Benito Perez Galdos, "Juneteenth" by Ralph Ellison, "The Footnote: A Curious History" by Anthony Grafton, "Love is Where it Falls" by Simon Callow, "More About All About Eve" by Gary Carey. I am about to start some heavy stuff for research: "The United States and Biological Warfare" by Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, "Biohazard" by Ken Alibek, "Religion and the Racist Right" by Michael Barkun -- a lot more stuff like this, much less fun to read, and scarier.

Jeffrey Eugenides, novelist ("The Virgin Suicides")
This summer, having just moved to Berlin, I've been reading books to acclimatize myself to my new surroundings and to dull my withdrawal symptoms from leaving New York. My Baedecker here has been "The Gift," the book Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Berlin when he was roughly my age. There's a picture in the Brian Boyd biography showing Nabokov, his wife, Vera, and their son (in a pram) on a Berlin street. I'm also here with my wife, and we have a baby in a Martinelli stroller, and I like to pretend that I'm writing my own version of "The Gift."

To cure my homesickness, I've also been reading David Gates' story collection, "Wonders of the Invisible World." I loved Gates' first book, "Jernigan," and have been meaning to read his second, "Preston Falls" but haven't gotten to it yet. (I mentioned the baby.) Gates is hilarious and wicked and mercilessly honest. For instance, in one story his narrator says, "A late bloomer you could call me, if I were blooming." I read this book before my wife got here, all alone at a Greek restaurant every night, laughing out loud. One thing Gates does in the book is exercise the fiction writer's increasingly endangered right to go into whoever the hell's head he wants to. Gates writes as a woman, as a gay man, as an old religious guy with a debilitating stroke, and always convincingly. (My favorite is still the bitter, white, over-educated, hetero, middle-aged guy -- but then there are reasons for that.) The book has maybe one or two too many stories about failed marriages, but that's my only complaint. We all tend to write the same story over and over anyway. A few stories in this collection have been rattling around in my head for weeks because I just can't figure them out. I like that.

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Oh yeah: one other book. Susan Bordo's "The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and Private." A feminist, semiotic analysis of the male image in movies and ad culture, its increasing eroticization, etc. I found the book sometimes loopy (there is one moment where she believes that her dead father's spirit has entered her cat) but mostly well-reasoned and startlingly empathetic. It's not as antagonistic as books of this ilk can be, but it's not "do-me" feminism, either. I agree with Bordo that the present trend in seeing the sexes as polar opposites (the Mars/Venus thing) is way overblown and that men and women have more in common than not. What can I say? The book made me want to be sensitive again, which hasn't happened since college.

Caroline Knapp, writer ("Drinking, A Love Story")
I just gave up on "Hannibal." I couldn't stand it. It's grotesque. I was on a book tour and I had room for one book, but then found I couldn't bear it. It was much more about Hannibal Lecter than I care to know. Fortunately, I was in a lot of book stores, so I had plenty of alternatives. I'm reading "White Oleander" by Janet Fitch and I'm liking it a lot. I also read Elizabeth Strout's "Amy and Isabelle," which I loved. And David Gates' "Jernigan," I loved that, too.

Ron Shelton, film director ("Bull Durham")
"A Rasta's Pilgrimage: Ethiopian Faces and Places" by Neville Garrick, "Pugilist at Rest" by Thom Jones, "Airships" by Barry Hannah, "Black Sea" by Neal Ascherson, "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends" by Allen Barra and "Four to Score" by Janet Evanovich.


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