Arts and Culture

Summer is for reading — in air-conditioned Tucson or at the ocean’s rocky shore

Sheila Wilensky

I’m an undisciplined reader. I’m always reading a few books at a time, at least one novel, a memoir and some other nonfiction. Here’s a sampling of my recent reading, with and without Jewish connections.

When I find a novelist I like I’ll read everything she’s written. At this year’s Tucson Festival of Books, I moderated a fiction panel that included fellow New Englander T. (Tammy) Greenwood. Her latest book, “Grace” (Kensington Books), drew me back into a familiar Vermont winter. Unfamiliar was the opening scene of a distraught father pointing a rifle at his son. The story of a loving family beset by non-communication unfolds in luminous prose, depicting the mysteries of daily life — and finally clarifying the tense opening scene. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”)

Have you ever read a biology page-turner? I hadn’t until “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” (Broadway Paperbacks) by Rebecca Skloot. The author recalls a high-school biology class where she first heard about Lacks, a black woman with ovarian cancer who died at Johns Hopkins Medical School and whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951. Scientists knew Lacks as HeLa, using her cells in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and more — while also launching a multimillion-dollar industry. Skloot propelled herself into a decade of research to divulge what happened to Lacks and her family, restoring Lacks’ identity 50 years after her death.

“Geography of the Heart” (Scribner) by Fenton Johnson brought me back to Tucson. Johnson currently teaches in the University of Arizona’s creative writing program. His memoir takes place at another time of his life, in 1987, hurled into the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco. He was in love with Larry Rose, who was HIV-positive, the only son of Holocaust survivors. Johnson elegantly juxtaposes his upbringing in rural Kentucky and Rose’s favored childhood in Los Angeles. The memoir heartbreakingly brings both men and their histories alive.

From two such different cultural backgrounds they came, writes Johnson about the love of his life, “each laden with traditions of hospitality, friendship, and ritual. Matzo balls or hush puppies — in the end the recipe doesn’t much matter. What matters is the presence on the table of those doughy, bland balls, the living presence of the shaping hand of history.”

—Sheila Wilensky, AJP associate editor

Phyllis Braun

I’m not quite as eclectic in my reading as our associate editor. Mostly, I’m a sucker for British mysteries (and yes, the newest Elizabeth George, “Believing the Lie,” is splendid). But lately I’ve also been drawn to bittersweet stories of family love and loss.

I found “The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky: A True Story” (Vintage) on the recommended shelf at my local library. Published in 2006, it’s written by Ken Dornstein, whose brother, David, was one of the victims of the Pan Am flight blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988. More than David’s story, this is an honest, often moving portrait of a young Jewish man struggling to grow up in the shadow of the death of the older brother he idolized. Ultimately, I found David’s literary yearnings and bouts of depression a bit tedious. But I share Ken’s sorrow that David was denied the chance to face his demons and make a life for himself, even if that life might not have included writing the Great American Novel.

“Saving Henry: a Mother’s Journey” (Hyperion) by Laurie Strongin has been in my office since March 2010, waiting for me to gather courage. I knew there’d be heartbreak in this quest to save a child from Fanconi anemia, a rare blood disorder most common in Ashkenazi Jews. But there’s also bountiful inspiration, both in the determination of Strongin and her husband to do anything for their child — including trying, with the help of pioneering doctors, to conceive a baby who’d be a bone marrow match — and in their determination to learn from Henry to “live well and laugh hard.”

Last but not least, “The World Without You” (Pantheon) is a haunting and compulsively readable new novel by Joshua Henkin, author of “Swimming Across the Hudson” and “Matrimony.” On a July Fourth weekend, the Frankel family gathers at a summer home in the Berkshires to memorialize Leo, the youngest of four siblings, a journalist killed a year prior while on assignment in Iraq. Henkin creates an extraordinarily believable family, from the parents, Marilyn and David, whose solid 40-year marriage is coming apart, to the three sisters: Clarissa, struggling with infertility; angry, commitment-phobic Lily; and Noelle, a born-again Orthodox Jew with a wild past, who arrives from Israel with her husband and four children. The reunion is rounded out by Thisbe, Leo’s widow and the mother of their 3-year-old son, who arrives from California with her own heartwrenching secret.

—Phyllis Braun, AJP executive editor