Staff picks: summer reading
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Staff picks: summer reading

Life & Culture

Summer is a time for enjoying sand, swimming and sweet sugary popsicles. It is also a chance to sit back and dive into a great read, so whether you plan on hitting the Atlantic shore or that of the Youghiogheny River, kick off your shoes, prop or drop your shades and grab a good book. We have some ideas on what to read, but our general recommendation is to savor the season, have some fun and keep on reading.

Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected
(W. W. Norton & Company, 1997)
By Stanley Kunitz

I invited a friend for lunch and what he brought was a book. Not a plant, not a dish, but his gift was something equally satisfying if not to the senses then to my sensibilities. In the weeks since I was gifted Stanley Kunitz’s “Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected,” I have enjoyed toiling with the 176-page text. Though each entry could be read in minutes, it’s been no easy read.

Kunitz’s poems, like meals made right, are deceptively simple and inviting. Five-dollar words tantalizing writers and spellers alike are largely absent as are cryptic references to classical tales. Easy terms are presented in uneasy ways, which makes deciphering Kunitz’s work pleasingly laborious. I find myself reading and rereading words I know and phrases I should understand but cannot glean without repetition, pause and rumination.

“Chariot” and its image of the speaker’s studio “where curiosity runs the shop” should remind me of Geppetto, but I keep wondering how “Toy Story 4” won’t unravel the satisfying ending of its predecessor. “The Gladiators” makes visual a barbaric scene relishable to a cadre of pugilists, historians and “Game of Thrones” aficionados. But who is the battler in this book?

“Passing Through” may be something wholly different to Kunitz and his readers, but to me it is the struggle for interpretation and understanding that makes this book delightfully difficult and a sure accompaniment to my summer sandy getaway or the refreshingly familiar woodsy-concrete combination at Monroeville Pool.

— Adam Reinherz

Ascension: John Coltrane And His Quest
(Da Capo Press, 1995)
By Eric Nisenson

Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane spent his life searching. Professionally, he sought his voice and the right type of saxophone to capture that voice; personally, he was seeking God and what it meant to be an African American in the 1950s and ’60s. As an artist he was attempting to combine these pursuits and communicate them to the public.

In his book “Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest,” Eric Nisenson documents Coltrane’s explorations and how they affected his career as an artist. “Ascension” isn’t your typical biography. It quickly dispatches with the facts of the musician’s life and moves to his early days in jazz where he struggled with both his playing and drug use. The book explores Coltrane’s time with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and how each helped him discover his unique “sheets of sound” playing technique.

Nisenson spends time connecting Coltrane’s output, recorded and live, to his quest for God, including his attempts at using LSD for spiritual insight. Along the way Coltrane’s recordings are discussed in light of these quests — “Mediations,” “Ascension” and, of course, “A Love Supreme” are written about in depth.

The book itself is, at times, a clumsy read. Nisenson’s writing can be both repetitive and hyperbolic. These deficiencies though, in no way lessen the value of this study of John Coltrane and his immense impact on the world of jazz. A must-read for any fan of the late saxophonist.

— David Rullo

Where the Crawdads Sing
(Putnam, 2018)
By Delia Owens

I have been in the same book group for 19 years. Every month, eight women, more or less, gather in someone’s living room to catch up on each other’s lives, have a glass of wine, and discuss whatever work of literature we have chosen for that meeting.

Besides the friendships that have been nurtured since 2000, I also cherish the experience of being forced — I mean encouraged — to read books that others choose, and which are often those that I would not necessarily select if left to my own devices. It has broadened my literary bandwidth, which cannot be a bad thing.

I just finished reading our book for July, “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens, which has been ranked at the top of the New York Times bestseller list for 39 weeks and counting. Despite its rave reviews in several newspapers, despite the buzz it generated when Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine company was tapped to produce a film version, and despite its five-star rating on Amazon, “Where the Crawdads Sing” is a book I probably would not have picked up on my own.

The subject just didn’t interest me that much: A young girl, abandoned by her family, gets by on her wits living alone in a marsh in rural North Carolina in the 1950s. Once I started reading, though, I couldn’t put it down.

Although Owens is not a particularly gifted writer, she is one heck of a good storyteller. I found myself liking this book a lot. What it lacked in lush language was completely overshadowed by a compelling plot which the author deftly developed through its surprise ending.

“Where the Crawdads Sing,” which is Owens’ debut novel, is at once a murder mystery and a coming-of-age tale, and it is peppered with provocative themes that kept running through my head days after I finished the book. Humanity in the midst of isolation. Social responsibility. Gender roles. What it means to be a family.

There will be lots to talk about at book group next month.

— Toby Tabachnick

A Thousand Hills to Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda
(Little, Brown & Company, 2013)
By Josh Ruxin

For this feature last year I wrote about a memoir from a remote, obscure, landlocked country, Bhutan, so naturally I am following up this year with a memoir from another remote, landlocked country, Rwanda, although Rwanda is anything but obscure. Probably most readers have heard of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and some may know that since then Rwanda has made a remarkable recovery, with enough progress to be called the “Singapore of Africa.”

The author, an expert in international development, and his bride, an expert in public health, moved to Rwanda in 2005 to lead an ambitious new project to accelerate development in one of the most impoverished regions of Rwanda, which itself was in dire condition. The couple arrived only 11 years after the end of the long-running civil war that had culminated in the three-month genocidal campaign in which 500,000-1,000,000 people were brutally murdered. The country had little infrastructure and a population beset by widespread poverty and disease, including AIDS and malaria. It took an enormous amount of optimism and chutzpah for Ruxin to believe that his project could succeed under these conditions, especially when so many other international aid projects had languished with such little success for so many years in most other parts of Africa.

Throughout the book Ruxin weaves together three intertwined stories: the progress of his development project, the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide and the progress of his wife and growing family, especially as they establish a world-class restaurant in Kigali, the capital.

Ruxin had become convinced that the fancy international development consultants and their fancy studies were too far removed from real life in developing countries, and especially from the people who lived there and were supposed to be being helped. He structured his project to be hands-on and practical, with intense involvement of local leaders and communities from the very beginning. Over the ensuing years, he and his team faced a bewildering series of challenges, but they ultimately transformed their pilot region in a way few could have believed possible beforehand. His success was largely due to his unique approach to the work, but also could not have occurred had not Rwanda been governed by the most capable leader in Africa today, Paul Kagame, a talented and non-corrupt pragmatist.

Ruxin does not attempt to give a complete history of the genocide and what led up to it, but through the personal stories of the Rwandans he knows the reader gets a good feel for the horrors of that time. He also sketches out the remarkable healing and unifying process that Rwandans have been going through since 1994. I know of no other comparable conflict where the parties have made so much progress in reconciliation in so short a time with so little violence in the aftermath.

In the most charming and accessible part of the story, Ruxin describes his wife’s struggles to adjust to life in an extraordinarily challenging environment and to raise a family there. Ultimately, she led them to create Heaven, a seriously good restaurant which itself became a mini-development project for its local staff who went on to prosper in the new Rwanda.

The author and his wife are Jewish, but there is very little of explicit Jewish life or themes in the book, other than family photos from Chanukah and Passover. However, in a broader context, there is a lot that will resonate for a Jewish reader. Anyone who is interested in tikkun olam should carefully consider the lessons learned in Rwanda when thinking about programs with which they are involved here. While reading about the Rwandan genocide, it is impossible to not think about the chilling parallels to the Holocaust. Finally, throughout the book, I found myself frequently drifting toward the many conflicts in the Middle East, and wondering how different the Middle East would be if the various tribes there focused on grassroots human and economic development, and reconciliation with their former enemies no matter how bitter the history, rather than perpetuating the hate and destructive conflicts. pjc

— Jim Busis

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