My summer reading guilty pleasures tend to be murder mysteries. I’d like to start by recommending three new works by popular authors. They are very different in tone and mood, so you can select one that suits your taste. Each of these writers has been fairly prolific, so there are many more hours of enjoyable reading ahead for you.
The darkest of the trio is Marcia Muller. Her sleuth Sharon McCone’s detective agency is the apparent target of a smear campaign in The Dangerous Hour (Warner Books, 2004, $25). “The dangerous hour isn’t always at night. During the day, in unfamiliar territory, you’re exposed and vulnerable. Particularly when you’re tracking a man who’s intent on destroying you.” There is suspense and sometimes disturbing violence against women. But at the same time, Muller’s female characters are clever and resilient.
Tony Hillerman’s The Sinister Pig (Harper Collins, 2003, $25.95) focuses on Navajo Tribal Police Sgt. Jim Chee and retiree Joe Leaphorn. The mystery in this novel surrounds a corpse whose identity and mission the reader knows from the start. Watching these two men sift the clues, you will be immersed in the desert’s beauty and the peaceful philosophy of its indigenous peoples.
The third mystery novel, Guardian of the Horizon by Elizabeth Peters (Harper Collins, 2004, $24.95), is so lighthearted that it’s almost a spoof. The humorous incongruities arise because the proper Edwardian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody thinks like a 21st century feminist. She defends herself with a specially designed parasol, but occasionally swoons into the arms of her outrageously handsome husband, Radcliffe Emerson. The storyline of this volume concerns a dangerous desert journey to the famed Lost Oasis.
Recent events have turned our eyes to another (actual) ancient city, and so I offer some non-fiction suggestions concerning the papacy. Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium by Pope John Paul II (Rizzoli International Publications Inc., 2005, $19.95) are philosophical reflections in response to questions such as: What does freedom consist of and what purpose does it serve? What do you consider to be the most important tasks facing the church in today’s world? How do we define the role of culture in the life of a nation?
When asked how he viewed the events surrounding the 1981 attempt on his life, Pope John Paul answered, “It was all a testimony to divine grace.” And that is the recurrent theme behind all of his reflections in this volume; however, given that their context is an examination of the impact of Nazism and communism on the culture of the 20th century, many of his comments about modern culture are very critical.
In contrast, I offer some images from more distant history in Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King (Walker and Co., 2003, $28). When Michelangelo was a mere 19-year-old, he completed the Pieta. Although he had never frescoed before, he started the Sistine Chapel at age 33. This enlightening book details his genius and his labor on this project, exposing as myth the idea he painted the ceiling all by himself while lying on his back.
King describes a vast cast of characters: assistants, supporters, detractors, competitors — including Leonardo da Vinci — papal advisers and the pope himself. The portrait of the warrior pope, Julius II, who led troops in battle to recapture papal states, is a riveting balance to Michelangelo’s.
Author Carol Shields received the United Kingdom’s Orange Prize for Fiction for Larry’s Party (Penguin Books, 1998, $12.95). That might seem surprising when readers learn that nothing much happens in the novel. Shields’ protagonist, a landscape architect who specializes in mazes, is born in 1950, and after “a slow start in the world, and a life so frictionless he never learn[s] to push.” This sounds really boring, doesn’t it? But, as we learn, “There’s a comic side to human striving …”
Each chapter presents an in-depth study of some time in Larry’s life, or an aspect of his identity, including his body. The author is wise about how we all struggle to understand what gives our lives meaning. Larry’s second wife asks him, “Well, what do you want, Larry?” The author comments, “If only he knew.”
The next non-fiction work is another glimpse into the ordinary that is truly extraordinary. The reader will know much more about squirrels and crows after reading Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn by Hannah Holmes (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005, $24.95). She isn’t a scientist and refers to many of her lawn’s inhabitants as “creepy-crawlies.” She imbues her plants with personalities and is greatly relieved that her suburban lawn is not, as it turns out, a blight on the ecosystem.
One book that promises to cause a lot of talk this summer is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, which will be available on July 16. On the strength of J.K. Rowlings’ previous installments in this popular series, I will suggest that you add this to your list.
I must issue two warnings, however.
Don’t start a young or sensitive reader with this volume. Every piece of advanced publicity has indicated that the increasingly dark mood of the series will continue in this book. Also, important background on Harry’s life and talent in the first five volumes provides the context for the events in The Half-Blood Prince.
Poetry for Peacemakers, compiled by Peggy Rosenthal (published by Pax Christi USA), will be available at www.paxchristiusa.org after July. She shared these thoughts with me: “(It’s) poems about war and injustice; poems about celebrating life, and poems to be used in rallies, vigils, or prayer services.”
She solicited pieces from such “luminaries as Daniel Berrigan, Mart√≠n Espada, Thich Nhat Hanh, Joy Harjo, Czeslaw Milosz and Alice Walker” to be used as a resource in personal meditation or reflection.
I’ll leave you with an adaptation of a wish from Larry’s Party: “Let this (summer) be soft and open, let us be kind.”
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.