Summer Reading Reviews

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

There’s something about reading a novel in the place where it’s set that imbues the narrative with a physical dimension, while lending to the place itself the significance of the events, historical or fictional, that happened there. Accordingly, on this summer’s Blair trip to Italy, which my wife and I helped chaperone, I read Henry James’ The Aspern Papers in Venice, E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View in Florence, Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley in Rome, and, appropriately, Dan Brown’s entertainingly bad Inferno on the flight home. James’ narrator mounts the Istrian stone steps of the palazzo’s water entrance, the likes of which we saw as we strolled along the Venetian canals. The violence of the murder Forster’s heroine Lucy witnesses becomes even more jarring as one stands beside the Neptune Fountain, in which the bystanders try to revive the victim. Indeed, just as the location itself enhances a story’s sense of place, so does the story return the favor to the location.

But the looser structure of summer also enables us to travel in less predictable literary directions, browsing through libraries, bookstores, websites and, often most interestingly, the suggestions of friends for something new and different. In July, for example, I found in my mailbox a copy of Mitch Cullen’s novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, placed there by Blair library assistant Holly Newcomb; she knew that I would enjoy the tale of a retired and declining Sherlock Holmes, more emotionally complex even than the detective created by Arthur Conan Doyle, as he revisits a case that had confounded him half a century before. Quite by accident, I discovered The Unprotected, the debut novel by Kelly Sokol ’96, and read it, rapt, over the course of three days. And, in the absence of a new Alan Furst novel this summer, I was able to get my fix of atmospheric World War II-era detective stories through the first two volumes of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.

As I did, other members of the Blair community—students, alumni, faculty, parents and Trustees—punctuated their summers with good books. I hope you’ll take a look below to learn what they read and what they thought about it.

Winter's Tale (Mark Helprin)
Doug Compton, Blair English teacher, Flight Deck housemaster and boys’ varsity squash coach

For me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of Winter's Tale was Helprin's ability to paint New York City in an ethereal and fairy tale glow.

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Dreamfall (Amy Plum)
June Dinias ’20

This fantasy thriller details the experience of seven teenagers who take part in a new experimental procedure to cure their chronic insomnia.

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Compass (Mathias Enard)
Jackie Gunn ’10, a fine art photography gallery sales and exhibition manager, London

The opening line of Enard's latest novel, Compass, sets forth its primary preoccupation: "We are two opium smokers each in his own cloud, seeing nothing outside, alone, never understanding each other."

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Big Little Lies (Lianne Moriarty)
Emma Moore ’12, teacher and coach at Greens Farms Academy, Connecticut

Lianne Moriarty's novels are somewhat formulaic in that they always seem feature three female Australian protagonists whose lives intersect in some way.

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Destiny Disrupted (Tamim Ansary)
Sanjay Paul ’16, sophomore at Columbia University

Unlike many other authors who write about similar topics, Tamim Ansary does not claim to offer a scholarly, objective retelling of the history of Islam.

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (J.D. Vance)
Micki McMillan, Blair English and performing arts teacher and debate team advisor

An uncompromising and singular look at America's Appalachian Hill People, a group that greatly contributes to the demographic of the white, working class in the U.S. (and one whose viability has been in decline over the past 40 years with devastating consequences) from one of its own who, against all odds, made it out and went on to graduate from Yale Law School.

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The Gate of Heavenly Peace (Jonathan Spence)
Marty Miller, PhD, Blair history teacher and director of the Society of Skeptics program

Focusing on the life and work of eminent Chinese literary figures during the tumultuous period from 1895 to 1980, the author weaves together the complex history of 19th-century dynastic decline right through Maoist rule.

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Option B (Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant)
Blair Trustee Robin Scheman P’10 ’14, Rumson, New Jersey, and Manhattan

I loved this part-personal sharing and part-psychology class book written by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and top-rated Wharton Business School professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant.

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Lincoln in the Bardo (George Saunders)
Kelly Sokol '96, writing teacher and author, Norfolk, Virginia

Of all of the books I devoured this summer (from feminist personal essay to psychological thrillers to literary fiction), Lincoln In the Bardo rendered me unable to pick up another book for several days.

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FROM THE EXPERTS: RECOMMENDATIONS FROM LIBRARY STAFF

White Field, Black Sheep (Daiva Markelis)

by Olga Brazaitis, library assistant

The daughter of Lithuanian parents displaced in World War II, Markelis has written a memoir about growing up during the ’60s in an ethnic community of Cicero, near Chicago. Her book is an enjoyable read, mixed with humor, while capturing the essence of personal struggles and cultural insight into what it meant to be Lithuanian in America during a tumultuous time in history. I guarantee anyone looking for another take on immigration to America will enjoy her biography and get a better understanding of the challenges it entailed.

Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya (William Carlsen)

by Holly Newcomb, library assistant

Jungle of Stone comes under the heading of ripping yarn. It is mostly an account of the exploration of Meso-American ruins in the 1830s and 1840s by two adventurers, American author/diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and British artist/architect Frederick Catherwood. Together, they documented sites in Guatemala and Yucatan, facing revolutions, insects, disease and climate. Their conclusion that the cultural remnants were the product of independent Native American genius, rather than of stray Egyptian or “lost tribes of Israel” influence, transformed the interpretation of pre-Columbian New World history. They both went on to help plan and execute the building of the trans-Panama railroad, among other adventures. Pair this with Douglas Preston’s recent Lost City of the Monkey God, and you will see that conditions for such exploration have not changed much, although the practice of archaeology is very different.

The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)

by Ann Williams, Blair history teacher, Director of Timken Library, and JV girls’ soccer and softball coach

This memoir is a literary exploration of the real components of a life—love and loss. Excruciatingly beautiful and painful by turns, this deeply felt work is expertly delivered as both an acid bath and a balm to the human heart. If you love the superficial life of social media, prepare for a deep dive into the exquisite beauty of an experience no one would click “like” for—struggling to keep your child alive and dealing with the death of your soulmate. Somehow, this read is a positive comment on the human condition and an embrace of the complexities of a life truly lived in love. I don’t know how this book has escaped my attention for so long! It is a masterpiece.


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