Recommended Summer Reads!

Melody Pickle

Jeannette Walls Half Broke Horses (270 pages); Reviewed by Melody Pickle, Writing Consultant, Writing Across the Curriculum, Kaplan University Writing Center

 Who should read this book? Anyone who read Walls first book, The Glass Castle, should read this book because Half Broke Horses traces the family charades backwards by telling the story of Jeannette’s grandmother.  Anyone who enjoys stories based on real life, those who like strong no- nonsense women characters, and anyone who likes stories about the frontier, the west, and Native Americans will also enjoy the book.  

 Summary: Based on the true-life stories of Jeanette Walls grandmother living on the frontier, this book is positively riveting, especially the first half.  The book begins with Lily barely escaping a flash flood demonstrating her strong and relentless character that drives the book forward in this first person narrative. Born just after the turn of the century, Lily breaks her first horse at 6 years old. She goes on to survive tornadoes, the Great Depression, a disappointing father, and at 15, she bravely rides her horse 500 miles across the desert by herself to take her first teaching job.  She ends up driving cattle and running a giant ranch in Arizona, but not before working a while in the big city. Life makes Lily tenacious, tough, and real in almost all the right ways.

Why I picked this book? This was an airport pick. I needed something to read on the plane. I like books based on true stories, strong women characters, and familiar places. But, it was the back cover line that hooked me: “Half Broke Horses is Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults.” Being from the west, I easily identified with the hard characters who seem shaped by an unforgiving but striking western landscape. I read for three hours straight – from take-off to landing. 

Favorite quote from the book: “I used to break horses. One thing I know how to do is take a fall.”


Kurtis Clements

Keith Richards’ Life (564 pages); Reviewed by Kurtis Clements, Writing Consultant, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who should read this book? This memoir is for music lovers, Rolling Stones’ fans, and anyone interested in the life and times of one of rock n’ rolls great innovators. It’s the perfect beach book to tote along this summer.

Summary: The book, co-written by music writer James Fox, chronicles Keith’s life from his childhood, first guitar, and alienation from an inflexible British educational system to the formation of the Rolling Stones, incredible success and excess, his relationship with lead singer Mick Jagger, heroin addiction, and the longevity of the band and his life. Through it all, readers are taken on an intimate and candid journey that is rollicking, engaging, insightful, and well worth the price of admission. The book captures the excitement and chaos of the rise of the Rolling Stones and dispels myths about the guitarist’s life (e.g., blood transfusions to purge drugs from his system) and shows the outlaw rocker as an artist pushing the limits of his creativity.  

 Why I picked this book? What struck me most about this book is the endearing and convincing voice Richards uses to tell his story. Whatever one may think about Richards as a person, it’s hard not to like him in the book. In addition, this is not a scandalous or hurtful memoir; it’s not full of trash talk nor does it glorify drug and alcohol abuse. Instead, readers are given an honest and unabashed look at what it is like being Keith Richards.

Favorite quote from the book: “People say ‘why don’t you give it up?’ I don’t think they quite understand. I’m not doing it just for the money, or for you. I’m doing it for me.”

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Kella Hammond

Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me: A Novel (432 pages); Reviewed by Michaella Hammond, Resource Specialist, Writing Across the Curriculum, Kaplan University Writing Center

 Who should read this book? Those who secretly watch the television series, America’s Next Top Model (and would love to see a fictionalized “washed-up and older series”); people who think social media has run amok and we’re paying the price socially and psychologically; anyone interested in the timeless themes of truth, beauty, schadenfreude, reinvention, and progress; Midwesterners who have lived out East and Easterners who lived in the Midwest; those who loved Lorrie Moore’s novel, A Gate at the Stairs, or Gary Shteyngart’s, Super Sad True Love Story; readers who would like to understand how the Midwest serves as both a protective, quieting space and place of rage and rebellion for those who seek solace and cover there; and anyone who wants to read an award-winning writer before her runaway success and Pulitzer-prize winning novel (2011), A Visit from the Goon Squad – which I’m reading now, actually.

 Summary: This novel focuses on another multiple-perspective literary/mystery story set between Manhattan, New York and Rockford, Illinois sometime in the late 20th Century, and told from the voices of Charlotte Swenson, the down-and-out, 35-year-old cynic who starts and ends the story with the recollection of a disfiguring car crash that forces Charlotte to re-evaluate her worth and career as a small-time commercial model; Z/Michael West, a member of a terrorist cell in the United States who goes AWOL and hangs out in Rockford before chasing a Hollywood dream; Moose Metcalf, an academic whose pitiful career and fixation on small-town America’s fall from post-Industrial Revolution grace contextualize the story’s meditation on technological progress; and another Charlotte, the “plain” yet smart teenage daughter of Swenson’s high school best friend Ellen and the clandestine lover of Z/Michael West.

Why I picked this book? I read this book in May 2011 when I was moving to a new apartment across town, studying for the LSAT, teaching two classes part-time, working full-time, and wondering what on earth I was doing trying to cram all of this stuff into my schedule and life. Egan’s book helped me slow down, take stock, and relax for the weekend. What a blissful, bitingly sarcastic yet prescient narrator in Charlotte Swenson. What’s really spooky about this book is that it was written before September 11, 2001, and yet much of the content seems to explain how and why America has been a target of extremists, and how many of the terrorists pre-9-11 were able to ‘hide in plain sight’ in the Midwest.

Favorite quote from the book: “Our father was an electrician, a man who pushed through walls to the hidden circuitry behind, who braided wires between his fingers and made the lights turn on. As a child, I had ascribed magical powers to his work, and arrayed myself in necklaces he made me from bolts and washers and colored wire. But after the library, I began to imagine a perspective from which my father’s life–and my mother’s, too–were small, earnest, and futile, too deeply touched by this place where they both had spent their lives. I grew up waiting to leave. And Grace grew up cleaving to me, knowing that I would go and she would stay.”

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Lisa Gerardy

Rob Lowe’s Stories I Only Tell My Friends; Reviewed by Lisa Gerardy, Writing Center Specialist, Writing Across the Curriculum, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who should read this book? Anyone and everyone.  Whether you are a starry-eyed teen of the eighties, a movie buff or someone who is a regular biography reader, you will enjoy Lowe’s intelligent, detailed and honest look at his life.  Along the way, you will get to know Lowe as a person rather than just a member of the “Brat Pack.” Lowe doesn’t just focus on himself; he introduces us to early versions of many young actors along the way.  It’s truly an interesting read.

 Summary: In Stories I Only Tell My Friends, Rob Lowe shares glimpses of his life from his early childhood in the 1960’s in Ohio to his time on the successful television show, The West Wing, in the 2000’s. After his parents divorced in the 1970’s, Rob, his brother Chad and his mother move to Los Angeles, where Rob meets the Estevez/Sheen and Penn families and begins making amateur action movies with them while still in junior high school.  After minor acting success in high school, Rob decides to give up on acting and go to college until he is asked to audition for The Outsiders. He earns the role of Soda Pop Curtis, and his career moves on from there. Throughout his teen and young adult years, there is a lot of stress in Rob’s life.   In addition to his parent’s divorce, Rob has to endure his mother’s relationship with an unethical psychiatrist, her mental illness and his own alcoholism. 

 Why I picked this book? When I first downloaded Lowe’s book to my Kindle, I thought that the book would just be a nice break from academic reading.  After reading it, I was really impressed with Rob’s honest look at his own life, along with the behind the scene glimpses of some of his peers.  It’s obvious that Lowe has learned from the mistakes and experiences of his youth, and that he really enjoys sharing his stories with all of his “friends.”

 Favorite quote from the book: “On some level you have to be crazy to be an actor.  You must have a masochistic streak to deal with the rejection in failure and the unrelenting scrutiny in success.”

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Kurtis Clements

Andre Dubus III’s Townie (400 pages); Reviewed by KurtisClements, Writing Consultant, Kaplan University Writing Center

Who should read this book? This memoir offers a stark and painful look at what it’s like to grow up in poverty and alienation in a small mill town in New England. The honesty of the writing and the unflinching attention to the story will captivate any reader. Though the genre is memoir, the book’s narrative, gritty and at times violent, is as compelling as any novel. That Dubus was able to survive his youth and come to terms with the circumstances of his life will keep readers engaged as this is a book that is hard to put down.  

Summary: Set in a down-and-out mill town in New England, Dubus’s memoir chronicles his childhood during which his famous writer father abandons the family for a much younger woman. The family—Dubus, his three young siblings, and mother—are left mired in poverty in an impoverished section of town full of crime and drugs. Unable to understand his father’s actions and deprived of any real relationship with him, Dubus falls into a circle of friends that lead him nowhere. To survive on the streets and protect his family, Dubus lifts weights and learns to box, finding a kind of solace in the violence he dishes out to those who bother him or his family. In time, Dubus learns to find solace in words, and it is through his discovery of the power of language and story that he slowly finds a way to reconnect with this father.

 Why I picked this book? I have long been a fan of both Andre Dubus III and his father, Andre Dubus, so selecting this book was easy. I’ve also been attracted to memoirs since I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast many years ago. Rick Bragg’s All Over But the Shoutin’ is one of my recent favorites, which I highly recommend, and two of the most interesting memoirs I’ve read are by the Wolff brothers, Tobias and Geoffrey, each of whom wrote a memoir (This Boy’s Life, by Tobias Wolff; Duke of Deception, by Geoffrey Wolff) about their formative years growing up and each book offers a very different perception of what happened during those years.

What sustains Dubus’s memoir is that it transcends the genre, making it easy for readers to get lost in the story. I also find myself drawn to writing that lacks pretentiousness in its style and treatment of subject, something Dubus’s Townie lives up to.

 Favorite passage from the book: I was a new kid in school again, something I would be over and over for many years, trying to find a solitary desk away from the others, dreading recess because everybody knew everyone else and threw balls back and forth and chased after each other grabbing and laughing, and I just didn’t have the courage to jump in. Then some kid would see me looking and yell, “What’re you lookin’ at? You got a problem?”

Sometimes I’d get shoved and kicked and pushed to the ground. I was still trying to figure out what I’d done to make them mad, I had not yet learned that cruelty was cruelty and you don’t ask why, just hit first and hit hard.

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Kella Hammond

Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves (320 pages); Reviewed by Michaella Hammond, Resource Specialist, Writing Across the Curriculum, Kaplan University Writing Center

 Who should read this book? Literary fiction and lyric poetry types, mystery and murder-whodunit lovers, readers who love stories told from multiple perspectives (a la Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible), American history and geography buffs, those who want to understand the horrors of lynching and the cyclical tragedy of racism and hate, folks who have ties to multiculturalism, Native American roots, and reservation life, and, honestly, anyone who wants to read a riveting yet oftentimes bitterly funny and thoughtful novel.

 Summary: A white farm family in small-town Pluto, North Dakota is brutally murdered in 1911. A group of young Native American men find the family’s bodies and all hell breaks loose, including a lynching of the Ojibwe men conducted by a vigilante mob. Evelina, the wry yet sweet primary narrator of this multiple perspective novel and the granddaughter of the lynching’s sole survivor, picks up where the murder mystery left off in the 1960s and 1970s by tracing how the town of Pluto is intricately (and often mysteriously) connected to that fateful and violent event in 1911.

 Why I picked this book? I read this book last summer (2010) – the book was a Pulitzer Prize Fiction Finalist for 2009 – and I was blown away by the complexity, grit, and wit of Erdrich’s narrators, especially Evelina, whom I identified with in many ways as someone who grew up on a farm in a small Midwestern town during my formative years and then fell in love with academia (and had a hard time explaining to my family and local friends how I had changed after my first year of college). I also come from a multi-ethnic background of European and Creek-Muskogee ancestry, so I really enjoyed exploring how Erdrich’s characters often straddle two or more cultures and how we all are inextricably linked to one another, through our best and absolute worst moments.

 Favorite quote from the book: “When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.”

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1 Response

  1. Excellent book reviews, Lisa, Kurtis, and Melody. I have read Jeanette Walls’ books, but I will definitely have to check out the other recommendations from the Writing Center staff.
    Has anyone here read Suzanne Collins’ dystopian young adult series, The Hunger Games? That’s an addictive trilogy too.
    Happy reading,

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