There is something about summer and books, especially those we’re not required to read.
I think it has to do with how many places there are that one can sit and read, where the reading is enhanced by the place itself and the setting, in turn, completed by the act of reading. Porches come to mind, as do beaches and garrets with a crossbreeze. One imagines faculty members Rob and Sharon Merrifield settling into a tent somewhere out in the woods, the pages of their books illuminated by a lantern. Perhaps English teacher Doug Compton, in a rowboat off the rocky coast of Maine, reading In the Heart of the Sea. Or mathematics department chair Latta Browse, on a couch in his living room in Blairstown, a month or more of summer stretching out before him as he marches through a stack of volumes accumulated just for this purpose during the course of the year.
In my case, I spent many hours in a cafe in Shanghai in July reading a detective story of sorts called When We Were Orphans, by the contemporary British writer Kazuo Ishiguro. It is always gratifying to read a book where it is set, and so, intrigued to learn what of 1930s Shanghai might still exist, I began most mornings with a run along the Bund, the historic district along the Huangpu River. During those forays, I was pleased to discover that the columned buildings and tree-lined settlements of the novel are still there, standing as a reminder of the impact of Western imperialism
and a real backdrop for the narrator’s search for his lost parents. When We Were Orphans is both a page-turner and a haunting historical travelogue that I recommend to anyone who enjoyed Ishiguro’s most-famous work, The Remains of the Day, or who simply enjoys a richly detailed mystery.
I read another notable book in between coaching sessions on a shaded bench outside the Williams College squash courts in western Massachusetts: an advance copy of Über Alles, the first novel by Robert Neff ’49, P’83, P’08. If it’s precise historical detail you’re looking for, Bob Neff is your man; a retired lawyer and businessman, he has spent much of the last decade developing a remarkably comprehensive understanding of the political, societal and cultural atmosphere in Europe in the years before World War II. Through these lenses, Bob reveals a tale that is equal parts historical treatise, star-crossed romance and escape thriller. In Über Alles, we encounter the larger-than-life Hitler consigliere Hermann Goering at Carinhall, expounding on the importance of family while surrounded by artwork pillaged by Nazi troops from the homes of prominent Jews. We follow the heroine Sophie, caught between her rising fame as a singer for Django Reinhardt’s Quintette du Hot Club de France and the necessity to conceal her Jewish heritage. And we suffer along with Dieter, the book’s reluctant hero, during his incarceration at the
Theresienstadt concentration camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, as he watches his fellow artists and musicians die before him
or simply disappear
all the while wondering whether he will be next.
is a big, compelling read and I hope you’ll all look for it when it’s released by John Clark ’66’s Old Stone Press later this month.
As I did, other members of the Blair community
students, alumni and faculty
found a good place to recline with a book this summer. I hope you’ll take a look below to learn what they read and what they thought about it.
English Department Chair