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Season of the list

When temperatures climb and editorial energy wanes, up pop the reading lists. Sparing you the need to search for what others are compiling/recommending/typing into their smartphones as they get the grill going, here’s a brief rundown of some of the reading lists now making the rounds.

The Millions asks nine “experts” to identify which books might qualify as “the Great American Novel.” In addition to the predictable (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), the inevitable (The Ambassadors), the clearly estimable (Invisible Man), and the obligatory obscurity (Corregidora?), Mario Puzo’s The Godfather also makes the cut. Nominator Tom Ferraro notes that it’s the most read adult novel in history, but more importantly that it remains as relevant as when it first appeared:

The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming.

It’s been up for a couple of weeks now, but the list of ten worst American prize-winning novels of all time assembled by D.G. Myers probably won’t wilt for a while. The good thing about this compilation is the background Myers provides on just why judging panels may have seen fit to reward works like Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Pulitzer, 2010), Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (Pulitzer, 1980), and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (National Book Award, 1997). Plus there’s this about William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own (National Book Award, 1997):

Once again the novelist declines to punctuate speech or identify speakers, which might be effective in a story or short novel (although I am still trying to figure out the artistic purpose of making things hard for the reader), but is wearying in such a long novel. Supposedly a satire on the law, the novel also includes tortuously reasoned legal decisions, in full tortuous detail, which are longer than most Supreme Court decisions, including the dissents. A Frolic of His Own is a great unmovable monument to tedium. What a thing to be remembered for!

At the New York Times Room for Debate page, nine novelists reveal what they like to read in the summer—Sandra Cisneros opts for biography and memoir, Nathaniel Rich for noir—but Colum McCann cops to “year-round snobbery”:

In relation to reading, I have absolutely no guilty pleasures at all. No graphic novels. No murder mysteries. No "milky-white thigh" stories. No fifty shades of anything….

So, my guilty pleasures are my original pleasures. I read Ulysses, or at least a part of it, every summer for Bloomsday. It's hardly a beach read, and I understand that Molly Bloom might not be very content with me, as a reader, carting sand into her bed, but that's life. The great thing is that she has no say about it. Sorry, Molly, but you are in with the suntan lotion.

Yes, but would McCann be willing to go tome-to-tome with R. R. Reno? At First Things, Reno claims a fondness for both gin and Beowulf even if, disappointingly, he doesn’t detail how one may have led to engagement with, or necessitated use of, the other. (Maybe nothing says summer to Reno like “Nowell Codex,” but Woody Allen had it about right when he said, and I paraphrase, never take a trip where you have to read Beowulf.) Reno also includes Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in his beach tote (no room for Pope’s Essay on Criticism apparently) plus some of Henry James’s later, denser novels and, of course, Piers Plowman. But you probably could have guessed that.

Pass the Hendricks, please!

About the Author

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s digital editor.



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I'm reading Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick.  Fabulous.  I learn something new on every page.  (E.g.: a "flash-in-the-pan" and a "Puritan whine".)

And I'm reading Guerrilla Hunters in Civil War Missouri, by James W. Erwin.  Looks good, although I've just started.

And I just finished a total immersion in Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley's mysteries.  I read all of them.  I didn't think I'd like them, judging by the execrable t.v. shows, but they're great.  

And I finally read two oldies-but-goodies:  Peyton Place and A Summer Place.  Both surprisingly different from the movies.  (I was surprised to read in the 1998 foreword to Peyton Place that several reviewers of the book in 1956 referred to Grace Metalious as the "authoress."  I remember when it came out, but I had forgotten that that stupid term was still in use then.  In the book, GM uses it, too, in  dialogue about what a character hopes to be.)



Right now I'm reading <a href = " Sparrow</a> .... Jesuits in outer space  :)  Before that, <a href = " Last Policeman</a>.  Next up - <a href = " the life of Rome's first emperor</a>


Sorry about the weird linking

I'm reading Frances Hesselbein's My Life in Leadership and a Detective Segeant McRae mystery. 


I'm currently reading Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (John E. Woods' translation) and I love it.   I must confess, however, that the discussions on music theory are a bit intense.  The translation is by John E. Woods.

 If anyone is looking for a good novel to read, I recommend Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara and The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark (if you can find it.)

I guess it makes sense to choose books that will be "readable" under certain conditions (i.e., in an airport), but I never really got the need to make seasonal selections when it comes to reading.

I just read Tove Jansson's Fair Play (kind of like Frog and Toad for melancholics), and am now trying to read Joseph Brodsky for personal reasons.



I have a growing list of books UN-read, that I bought after reading about on the Commonweal blog. It seemed like a good idea at the time,  and  I have the best intentions of trying to read them, but still in untouched and pristine condition are (to name a few)

  • Quest for the Living God
  • Just Love
  • America's Cold War: the Politics of Insecurity
  • Death and Life of the Great American School System


Frog and Toad, especially Frog and Toad are Friends, I could probably manage to get through. 


What I really need is a new music list.  Seems like all of the new music I've been listening to are whiny introspective bands out of Williamsburg; I could use some hot pounding rock  but will even settle for some crosssover country. 

We could all use more hot pounding rock, Irene.



I've liked recently William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault, a sad Irish tale, beautifully told; a spy thriller By Charles Cumming called The Trinity Six that reminded me of  The Third Man; and  a novel inspired by the story of the first Native American graduate of Harvard College, Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. I  enjoyed them all, though most of our informal neighborhood book group didn't. (That's all right, as I didn't like some of the books they raved about.)  Meanwhile, my husband has been reading John O' Malley's "A History of the Popes," and has just passed O' Malley's "Trent: What Happened at the Council" on to me.  So far, the book on Trent has been a real eye-opener. I had been wondering how the same Bishops who had been cooperating with the previous regime could have felt so strongly the appeal of a clear reform candidate like Francis..But--even only part way into the book-- I  get the picture that  a desire for reform of the hierarchy by the bishops themselves has been around for longer than one might think, maybe never acted on effectively enough,  but there as a recurrent aspiration. I'm not sure how comforting this thought is, but maybe this time... 

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