Whether you want a good beach read or need an antidote to the Prohibitive Gas-price Blues, I hope you and your family will find something suitable on this list. Unintentionally, the titles came together around the summer rhythms of adventurous travel, and of quiet relaxation.
In Iain Pears’ The Bernini Bust (Berkley, 2001, paperback: $13), a cultured Englishman who really wishes to be Italian arrives in California, delivering a rare and expensive painting to an exclusive museum. Jonathan Argyll is this novel’s unintentional, distracted sleuth; the real detective work is done by Flavia di Stefano of the Italian National Art Theft Squad.
The cast of characters involved in smuggling, wire-tapping, tax fraud, forgery and conspiracy includes Hector di Souza (soon dead), who has a “carefully cultivated air of aristocratic fastidiousness,” and Arthur M. Moresby II (also soon dead), museum patron and owner who looks “a bit like a malevolent garden gnome.”
Among the suspects are Samuel Thanet, museum director (“restrained to the point of neurosis,”) and Anne Moresby, the now wealthy widow of Arthur Moresby, in her early middle age, “but fighting back with the best technology money could buy.”
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Frank McCourt’s Teacher Man (Scribner, 2005, hardcover: $26), a memoir by the author of Angela’s Ashes, would make the perfect gift for grads (especially future teachers) or Dads. It is very funny in the way of the immigrant Irish storyteller, yet sad because of the real-life crises experienced by the New York City high school students McCourt grew to love.
McCourt’s genius as a teacher was to use himself as the subject material. How I wish I had thought of the creative writing lesson based on books of recipes, or the assignment to write “an absence excuse for Adam and Eve” which grew out of the all-too-familiar frustration with badly-forged notes “from home.” He crafts endearing portraits of the kids and their teen angst, which any parent or teacher will recognize.
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The next two titles make terrific teen-reader fare, but both engage themes that will appeal to adults who enjoy escaping into parallel worlds. Their sophisticated tale-weaving leads all readers to explore the meaning of our own goals and decisions.
The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis (Harper Trophy, 2000, Paperback: $15) is recommended for ages 9-12, but welcomed by adult Lewis fans. Not the next in the order the series was published, this allegorical adventure fills in many details left at the end of Lion, Witch and Wardrobe — or, more accurately, existing before the time of that book.
The nephew of the title uses his uncle’s magical rings to travel with a neighbor girl to many different worlds. One of the planets is lit by a dying sun and ruled by the evil Queen Jadis, who is the chief antagonist of the tale. Another world to which the children travel is just being created. This will be Narnia.
However, if you are a stickler for the “proper order of things,” then the Narnia title you will want is Prince Caspian, which is sometimes listed as Book Two of the Chronicles of Narnia.
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Christopher Paolini is the astonishingly young author of Eragon: Book One of Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005, hardcover: $21). In this fantasy, the 15-year-old title character grows into the role that destiny long ago created for him. His adventures begin when a large blue stone magically appears in the wild mountains where Eragon has become a proficient hunter.
Driven to avenge the death of his uncle, he begins tracking the mysterious assassins, guided on his travels by the village Bard who trains the boy in the practice of his craft. As much a voyage of self-discovery as a hunt, his travels take him into regions of his world that he had only heard of in legends and to comradeship with beings and species he had thought long dead.
The good news about both of these novels above is that there is more to enjoy from the same authors.
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For the youngsters, I recommend two Caldecott Medal winners that will whet their appetites for the exotic vacation spots around our own nation.
Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder (Puffin, 1989, hardcover: $9.99,) recommended for ages 3-8, takes place in Penobscot Bay, on the coast of Maine. It tracks the sights and sounds of nature and the human residents through the changes of the seasons. Read-aloud fans can savor delicious seashore vocabulary: cormorants, fiddleheads, schooners, yawls and ketches. You will almost smell the salt air.
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The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, story and illustrations by Paul Globe (Athenaeum Books for Young Readers, 2001, hardcover: $17), will appeal to ages 5-8, but who of us hasn’t at one time been enraptured by the thought of a “beautiful, wild stallion ‚Ä¶ proud and strong”? So your young reader will easily identify with the girl from the village who is happiest when she’s out among her favorite creatures.
The expressive faces of horses and animals and gorgeous details of the People’s robes and decorations capture actual Native American motifs. Each painting stretches across the two opened pages, conjuring the wideness of the plains and sky. And there are plenty of little creatures and birds and bugs for the sharp-eyed, non-reader to hunt for.
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Thomas Merton’s Gethsemane: Landscapes of Paradise(The University Press of Kentucky, 2005, hardcover: $29.95), is a collaboration between photographer Harry L. Hinkle and essayist Monica Weis, SSJ, of the Rochester Sisters of St. Joseph. This visual retreat has received the Kentucky Literary Award for 2006. It “draws mainly on Merton’s journals from 1941-1968” and gives the reader a “sense of accompanying Merton in his solitary hikes in the woods.”
What I did not know, was that Merton himself was a photographer. So Hinkle’s black and white images likely show the same ponds and “knobs” where the monk “sought greater solitude ‚Ä¶ in order to penetrate beneath the mask of the false self advocated and valued by society.” Here, he was also finally able to “decide that religious discipline did not exclude a love of nature.”
So when the humidity is high and a trip to the shore an impossibility, sample these titles and find yourself far away.
Palma is an adjunct English instructor at Nazareth and Monroe Community colleges in Rochester. She earned an MS in education at Nazareth College and an MA in theology at St. Bernard’s Institute.