The return of recreational reading; or, stuff to do this summer

I stopped reading for fun a couple of years ago. It happened gradually. I didn’t really notice for several months. And then one day I realized I hadn’t cracked a book in a long time, forget fiction novels. It just wasn’t happening.

It worried me a little. Reading was my primary hobby dating to childhood. It opened doors to different worlds, a variety of opinions, unlimited information and the perspective to put life and its complexities in context. And I also know that my own writing improves when I read the work of talented writers.

The problem wasn’t that I stopped reading. In many ways I was reading as much or more than ever. As a newspaper editor too many things entered into my computer screen on a given day. Some of it good, some of it not so good and in the realm of editing letters to the editor some it was godawful.

Yes, you can become less intelligent by reading the wrong, rotgut kind of stuff. I learned this the hard way.

The best reading I accomplished during this period came via newspapers. I had access to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on a daily basis. Both employ quality writers and diligent reporters. Both have different views on what stories to pursue or how stories should be presented. News readers who scan both receive a full view of the day’s news in a way that can lead to informed opinion about any issue in the nation. Add in a local newspaper for information about what’s important in your community and that’s a healthy diet for the mind and an informed citizenry.

But after hours of job-related reading and healthy news consumption recreational reading fell by the wayside. Eye strain was another part of that equation, too.

Meanwhile the stack of books I obtained over a two-year period grew.

So when I left newspapers on Nov. 18, 2016 it was with the idea that I would not only tackle that stack, but savor it.

And I did. Over the past five or six months I plowed through some of the best fiction of the past couple of years. I capsuled the more noteworthy items for a few summer reading recommendations for those who haven’t sampled some of these. I plan to write more about books here, hopefully now I can get to some new releases.

Meanwhile, enjoy these …

Fiction

“Redeployment”; By Phil Klay; 2014; The Penguin Press; 291 pages.

books redeploymentThis is the best book I read over the past 12 months. Author Phil Klay is a former U.S. Marine based at Camp Lejeune and it shows in every page of this series of short stories — vignettes really — from the post 9/11 war in Iraq. This is front lines stuff in the language of the Marine Corps grunt facing a mostly unseen enemy, vaguely hostile friendlies, uncertain terrain and an inconsistent command structure. Klay, a graduate of Dartmouth College, tells the stories of life in-country from a perspective seldom available — the guy from some flyspeck part of America whisked to a military outpost on the North Carolina coast where life poses its own odd challenges – and then, of course, you’re sent to war. National Book Award winner in 2014.

“The Underground Railroad”; By Colson Whitehead; 2016; Doubleday; 306 pages

Book underground railroadThis much celebrated and innovative novel from 2016 is deserving of praise. It’s a tough but enlightening read that takes an offbeat look at a point in history most would rather forget –the perilous lives and journeys of men and women bound by slavery. This allegorical tale of the Underground Railroad is endlessly creative yet profound and dotted with historical details that bring the issues and lives from that era into sharp focus. Author Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017, the National Book Award in 2016 and The Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in 2017.

“The Good Lord Bird”; By James McBride; 2013; Riverhead; 432 pages.

Book good lord birdIt took me a couple of years to get around to this remarkable book by James McBride. In fact, this National Book Award winner in 2013 is the most recent thing I’ve read. This novelized account of the historic events surrounding abolitionist John Brown and his attack on the U.S. armory at Harpers Ferry in 1859 unfolds as the diary of Henry Shackleford, a young slave who Brown wrongly identifies as a girl, who follows his small rag-tag army from Kansas to Virginia. Mayhem, humor, danger and surprising encounters are on every corner in a pre-Civil War America largely untamed where laws have little meaning.

Something lighter

“The Throwback Special”: Chris Bachelder; 2016; W.W. Norton & Co.; 224 pages.

Books throwback specialThis was my favorite book last year for sheer entertainment. The setup: A group of men approaching middle age gather annually to re-create one – just one – play from a professional football game played in the 1980s. It’s a famous event in National Football League history from a game involving the Washington Redskins and New York Giants, a wholly unremarkable game – except for one significant outcome on one specific play, “The Throwback Special.” But really author Chris Bachelder examines the desperate, hilarious and baffling lives and thoughts of men and why they do what they do. Funny and thought-provoking, Bachelder has done the near impossible, written a book about football with the literary sensibilities of a book written about baseball. A finalist for the National Book Award in 2016.

Just for fun

“Sundance”; By David Fuller; 2014; Riverhead Books (The Penguin Group); 338 pages.

Imagine the legendary gunfighter and train robber Harry Longabaugh – better known as the Sundance Kid – didn’t perish in a hail of gunfire in Bolivia in the 1800s with his partner in crime Butch Cassidy. That’s the premise of David Fuller’s “Sundance.” It’s a journey that takes Longabaugh across country in search of his true love, Etta Place. Uneven storytelling but worth a read for someone interested in western tales or the legend of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Personally, I like the original story and 1969 film with Paul Newman and Robert Redford better.

Non-fiction

“The Legends Club”; By John Feinstein; 2016; Doubleday; 405 pages.

Book legends clubIt’s hard to believe that John Feinstein didn’t begin writing this book when he was a student at Duke University in the 1970s when he first met University of North Carolina coach Dean Smith. Feinstein, the most prolific author of sports non-fiction of his generation, brings decades of stored up historical knowledge, past interviews and fresh perspectives to this look at the heyday of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball – the confluence of three coaches – Smith, Mike Krzyzewski of Duke and N.C. State’s Jim Valvano — all remarkable in their own ways. This is an outstanding look at how each impacted the other, the foibles of all three and the incredible success each attained in no small part because of the other two. Recommended for anyone with an interest in ACC sports history.

“The Undoing Project”; By Michael Lewis; W.W. Norton and Co.; 2017; 362 pages.

Michael Lewis, author of several of the more analytical and interesting nonfiction books from the past two decades, examines how we think – or fail to think completely – in “The Undoing Project.” Lewis, author of “Moneyball,” “The Big Short,” and “The Blind Side,” brings the same kind of reporting here to uncover how failing to ask the right question is often more significant than asking the wrong one. There’s some aspects of design thinking here for those who want to understand the concept better. For a full review go to my post here.

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