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Summer Reading: Councils Dive In

July 30, 2012 | By Federal/State Partnership Staff

Humanities people read year round, but summertime and reading go together like watermelon and the beach. Summer is also a time when reading lists make an appearance, with suggestions for what to read this summer coming from a variety of places. Earlier this summer, NEH debuted a book list for young readers; while EDSITEment features a comprehensive reading list targeted towards college-bound students (although they admit it really is a list for everyone). State councils also get in on the act, debuting their own reading lists and highlights of council favorite reads. Our July newsletter showcased a few council selections, including what Federal/State Partnership staff are currently reading.

One council, Humanities Texas, got their board and other friends of the humanities involved in the summer reading excitement. They decided to continue a tradition started in 2008 showcasing the books being read by board members and friends of the council in their June e-newsletter. Some of the books chosen include Robert Caro's The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Julia Alvarez's A Wedding in Haiti, Dagoberto Gilb's Before the End, After the Beginning, Jack Finney's Time and Again, and 2011 National Humanities Medalist Andrew Delbanco's College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Almost as interesting as the books are the brief reviews these Humanities Texans have written. Selected reviews are included below.  

Norma E. Cantú, professor of English and U.S. Latina/o literatures at The University of Texas at San Antonio and former Humanities Texas board member, recommends Carolina de Robertis' Perla and Max Holland’s Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat:

I just read Perla by Carolina de Robertis, and I think it is perfect for summer reading as it weaves intrigue and history into a moving story of love and a search for truth. Set in a Buenos Aires still deeply enmeshed in the aftermath of the dirty wars, where desaparecidos still haunt families, and written in clear evocative prose, Perla stayed in my mind long after I had read the last sentence. If you are not drawn to fiction, then Max Holland’s Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat fits the bill with its incisive and thoroughly researched backstory of the Watergate scandal and its aftermath.

Shirlene Bridgewater, humanities and English teacher at Marble Falls High School and Humanities Texas board member, recommends SoulPancake: Chew on Life’s Big Questions by Rainn Wilson with Devon Gundry, Golriz Lucina, and Shabnam Mogharabi:

Combine eye-popping art and journal-like activities with thought-provoking questions about philosophy, spirituality, love, truth, technology, and such, and put it in a book, and you have SoulPancake: Chew on Life’s Big Questions. Speak Your Mind. Unload Your Questions. Figure Out What It Means to be Human. This heart-mind-and-soul-bending compilation is the brainchild of Rainn Wilson and his co-creators Devon Gundry, Golriz Lucina, and Shabnam Mogharabi. Wilson, better known for his role on the TV show The Office than he is for being an author, patterned the book after his website Part of his goal is to take philosophy, spirituality, and art out of traditional classrooms, galleries, and religious institutions and give it back to everyday people to create meaningful discussions.


Success? Yes! One of my high school humanities students introduced this book to our class this past school year, and the energized debates were the highlight of the course. Suggestion: You don’t have to be an inquisitive teenager to enjoy SoulPancake. Pull it out at a family gathering and generate a discussion about one of the 180 "Life’s Big Questions." Or relish a moment of solitude and ponder, "What is the purpose of your life?

Light T. Cummins, Bryan Professor of History at Austin College, former State Historian of Texas, and former Humanities Texas board member, recommends Stephen Harrigan’s Remember Ben Clayton:

I grew up in the Olmos Park and Alamo Heights areas of San Antonio in the decades after World War II. As such, it was my good fortune to have personally encountered the then elderly Alamo City sculptor Pompeo Coppini, who was a fixture of the suburban neighborhoods of my childhood, and to have known for a much longer period of time his younger protégé Waldine Tauch, a friend of my family, especially my aunt. Pompeo Coppini was truly a colorful person, and Stephen Harrigan’s 1984 Texas Monthly article "Coppini the Great" remains the best biographical treatment ever published about the famous San Antonio sculptor. Now, over a quarter century after that magazine piece, Remember Ben Clayton, also by Stephen Harrigan, presents in the form of a novel the fictionalized treatment of a famous chapter from Coppini's real-life artistic career. Given my interest in Coppini and Tauch, I could hardly wait to read it and was not disappointed when I finished it in one long session. This fine book is loosely based on the historical story of the Charles H. Noyes statue located in Ballinger, Texas. In the actual crafting of the 1919 Noyes statue and in the fiction of the book, a headstrong and accomplished sculptor works with the despondent and wealthy father of a fallen son to memorialize the young man's memory with a life-sized sculpture. The historical youth, Charles Noyes, died in a horseback riding accident on the family ranch in West Texas, while in Harrigan's novel the son, Ben Clayton, fell as a casualty in the trenches of World War I. The fictional sculptor, Gil Gilheaney, reflects much of Coppini's personality while the artist’s daughter in the novel is mostly based on the real Waldine Tauch. All of the characters in the book capture both the ethos of the time and the subtle interplay that can exist between people of action and people of art. Harrigan skillfully blends the realities of actual history into the development of his novel, creating in the process one of the most memorable characters to be found in recent Texas fiction—the grief-stricken father Lamar Clayton. As a literary character, Lamar Clayton embodies profound complexities and very human emotions in coming to terms with his son's death, harbors deep secrets, and operates within the codes of the west Texas ranch country in ways that make him the full equal of Charlie Flagg, the iconic rancher in Elmer Kelton's The Time It Never Rained. This very pleasing novel, Remember Ben Clayton, contains many universal truths, all of which are presented to the reader in Texas trappings.

Steven L. Davis, curator at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University-San Marcos, recommends Stephen King’s 11/22/63:

Stephen King may not be everyone's idea of a serious writer, but he has produced a serious book. 11/22/63 is a meticulously researched, deeply satisfying novel that focuses less on JFK and more on the story of King's protagonist, thirty-five year-old high school English teacher Jake Epping, who goes back in time to try to prevent Kennedy's assassination. But the past, as Epping comes to realize, is obdurate. King is a master of horror, and a pronounced evil lurks at the heart of 11/22/63. King has infiltrated Lee Harvey Oswald's mind, deftly exposing the ordinariness of the assassin's misanthropy. This "banality of evil," as Hannah Arendt has described it, is precisely what makes Oswald so terrifying. And he's not the only murderous person in the book. One of the unexpected pleasures of King's novel is seeing his genuine warmth for Texas, particularly small-town Texas. The novel doesn’t shy away from the problems of the time, including racism, but King manages to create something that few Northeastern writers have ever managed: an optimistic yet believable portrait of the state.

Crista DeLuzio, associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University, recommends Nigel Slater’s Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch:

For all those who cultivate home gardens, have ever dreamed of cultivating a home garden, or just love cooking and eating vegetables, I recommend Tender: A Cook and his Vegetable Patch. British food writer Nigel Slater writes with gentle wonder about tending his London garden and preparing his bounty for the table. Each vegetable entry—from asparagus to zucchini—offers a mix of lush description, gardening advice, cooking tips, and recipes. The color photographs of Slater’s yield—in the garden and on the plate—are luscious. While it is a long way from Slater's wet and cool London plot to my own dry and hot one in Dallas, I turn to this book for information and inspiration in all seasons. It abounds with lessons in the arts of coaxing, waiting, and savoring that are essential for every gardener and cook, accomplished and aspirational alike.

Naomi Shihab Nye, poet and author, recommends Zachary Lazar’s Evening’s Empire:

Recently I read a fascinating, incredibly well-crafted memoir by Zachary Lazar, who teaches at Tulane, called Evening’s Empire. A carefully researched book about his father's murder, and a captivating timepiece of the 1960s and 1970s, this book gripped my attention for days, carrying me away into a son's loving curiosity about what on earth happened in his family. It left me feeling tenderly uplifted, grateful again for the power of writing to broaden our lives. The paperback's afterword is a stunning bonus.

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