Is it too late to contribute some recos for your summer reading list? People still go on vacation in August, right?
In case you’re still in the market for a beach read or four, here are a few books – three fiction, one biography – that should appeal to literary tastes of all kinds.
The first came across my path quite by happenstance, one of those serendipitous discoveries that makes a terrific book even more special. It caught the eye walking out of the Concord Mall Barnes and Noble in the entryway up front where the discounted stock is displayed. Let’s start there: “A Gentleman in Moscow” by Amor Towles.
“Gentleman” is Towles’ second novel, following his acclaimed maiden effort “Rules of Civility.” Towles and “Civility” weren’t on my radar but the book jacket plot blurb – a young Russian count, judged an enemy of the new Bolshevik state, is sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s grand Metropol hotel – was too intriguing (and cheap) to resist.
The Count is a rare kind of character, polished and urbane in the extreme, oozing old world manners and charm, a bon vivant who knows just the vintage to pair with braised rabbit, appropriate flowers for every occasion and the correct seating strategy for important dinner parties. Over the decades of his imprisonment in the Metropol we see the world – and the hotel – change around him, often in sad and predictable ways.
Yet the Count remains unruffled throughout, civil and genteel as ever, refusing to let the grim Soviet system grind down his spirit or the cherished, romanticized memories of his youth. The Count is a survivor, and his mischievous energy and grace lift and inspire the lives he touches. He’s a throwback nobleman to be sure, but a shrewd and even cunning judge of people and politics, and those traits, and Towles’ skill for telling an engrossing, beautiful story largely confined to one address, make this 447 page book a winner.
My next two fictional entries were breezier reads – but with stories and players set in distinctly different locales and cultures.
Carl Hiaasen and Robert Harris are among the contemporary greats when it comes to cranking out successful, fast-paced fiction. The backdrop of the Hiaasen canon is of course his native Florida – if he isn’t the guy who made up the line the state is a sunny place for shady people, he should have. The Miami Herald columnist’s playground is filled with crooked politicians and scheming developers, sun-baked stoners and layabouts, and goofy, feckless grifters. His books are hilarious and over the top (but not always so far-fetched for close Sunshine State/”Florida Man” observers – see below).
“Razor Girl” is Hiaasen’s fourteenth novel, on top of five children’s books, and it’s a paperback worth your time and ten bucks. Razor Girl is good racy fun, a rollicking (and literal) bumper-car ride lampooning the absurdity of Reality TV stardom and featuring a cast of bungling, brain-addled and occasionally big hearted Florida originals that will make you grin.
Unlike Hiaasen’s seedy, sun-drenched venues, Robert Harris’s preferred milieu are the corridors of power in government, business – and, for “Conclave,” the Roman Catholic Church. And players in his novels are much more likely to be found advising prime ministers than cadging drinks at sketchy Key West watering holes.
The progressive new Pope has died. Unexpectedly. Top Church officials are scrambling to contain the fallout – and jockeying to replace him. Who is on the level? Who can be trusted? What is best for a Church beset by challenges from all sides – and within?
These are the questions Italian Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli must resolve, an honest man in a Vatican buffeted by corruption, raw ambition and perhaps, even deadly crimes. Harris leads us inside the conclave of cardinals that meets to select a new pope, depicting with gripping color and detail the deliberations, process and people inside the Sistine Chapel that will determine the Church’s future.
Conclave joins “Fatherland,” “The Ghost” and “Archangel” among Harris’ best, I believe, “unputdownable” in the plain language of one reviewer.
Finally, we have our nonfiction entry for the summer list: “Richard Nixon: The Life,” by John A. Farrell.
I’ve consumed a good amount of Richard Nixon data, and shared some of my own thoughts about the man in this space. So I was somewhat skeptical about Farrell’s book bringing much new to the table about our 37th president.
Mark me down as pleased to be wrong.
Not that I didn’t have faith in Farrell, a longtime journalist who wrote a winning biography of Clarence Darrow. As I wrote about Nixon in this space:
At the heart of the enduring enigma that is Richard Nixon sit two Gordian riddles: First, how did someone beset by such severe social maladroitness become the most successful American politician of the last 75 years? The second connected mystery is how an individual seemingly obsessed with petty grudges and vendettas could get so much done.
Farrell’s work brings fresh light upon these central questions, with an extensive examination of Nixon’s California farm boy upbringing amid difficult circumstances and his role in the Hiss Case that made him a national figure. Farrell’s chapters on Nixon’s rise from congressman to senator and then his time as vice president – his idiosyncrasies and insecurities, his victories and his often informed and wise judgement – are particularly compelling and the book’s most important and revealing content.
How many times can a man be brought to the edge of doom and claw his way back? How many public figures in American life have had such a combination of good and bad fortune? How many politicians could reach the greatest heights and remain unfulfilled?
This is the incomparable story of Richard Nixon, and who among us can look away?