An Island taste of reading

A couple of weeks ago, I sent out an e-mail to a number of Mercer Island luminaries — heads of various city departments, City Council members, school administrators, School Board members, even an erstwhile editor — to see what they were reading this summer. I received a response rate of slightly more than 50 percent, plenty to put together a column filled with interesting suggestions on how to spend your summer leisure.

Superintendent Cyndy Simms is reading “The Children” by David Halberstam. “I’m very interested in the Civil Rights era and the courage of the individuals who led this nonviolent movement. Halberstam’s book is a favorite of several friends, so I’ve decided to read it,” wrote Simms. She’s also hoping to read more of J. A. Jance’s mystery novels, having already read seven or eight of them. “They’re great ‘beach reads’ and it’s fun to follow the action through the streets of Seattle and neighboring towns.”

Mark Roschy, assistant principal at Crest Learning Center, has three books he’s hoping to get to this summer. “Choice Theory,” by William Glasser, M.D., will be a re-read. Another book by the same author, “For Parents and Teenagers,” is a newer book on communication between teens and parents, and “How to Say It to Teens,” by Richard Heyman, is yet another teen communication book for parents. “I would like to author a book in the next couple of years, and this summer’s reading will be a continuation of the research behind it,” wrote Roschy.

One of the first responses I received was from School Board member John DeVleming, who enthusiastically recommended a number of books, and most especially “Class Struggle: What’s Wrong (and Right) with America’s Best Public High Schools” by Jay Mathews. “Anyone interested in public education should read this as a starting point. We hear a great deal about how American schools are failing, but most of it is irrelevant to Mercer Island. This book examines the top public high schools in the country, what they do well and how they can improve,” wrote DeVleming. He plans to re-read the book this summer, and has an extra copy for anyone who wants to borrow it.

DeVleming suggests Jeffrey Sachs’ “The End of Poverty,” but with a caveat: “If you can wade through Sachs’ incessant self-promotion, there are some really good ideas about what could be done to alleviate world poverty right now at a modest cost.” He has also read and recommends as “fascinating” Lee Smolin’s “The Trouble with Physics.” When he wrote the e-mail, he was in the middle of The “Architecture of Markets” by Neil Fligstein, an attempt to bring social insights to capitalist market behavior. And for the rest of the summer? “I am looking for self-help with two biographies of financiers. With time slowed down, I hope to get through David Cannadine’s ‘Mellon: An American Life’ and Roger Lowenstein’s ‘Buffet: The Making of an American Capitalist.’”

Fellow School Board members are busy reading, too. Pat Braman seems to have a personal connection to her summer reading selections. “The River Queen” is authored by Mary Morris, one of her son Jon’s creative writing professors from his days at Princeton. “This is her latest book — takes place in the midwest on the Mississippi (shades of Huck, I hope) and is somewhat autobiographical,” wrote Braman. She’s also hoping to read the newest and final Harry Potter book when her grandson David is done with it. And, she’s looking forward to “Aria,” by Nassim Assefi, who attended Mercer Island High School, where Braman taught English for many years. Braman ended her e-mail: “There's a Goodwill in Port Orchard that I visit on the way to our Hood Canal spot, and I often grab a biography or two from their used books section.”

Lisa Eggers’ list is eclectic, ranging from “Team of Rivals — The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, to “The Art of Raising a Puppy” by the Monks of New Skete. “I have a new puppy, and these guys are like Dr. Spock for dogs,” wrote Eggers. She’s also planning on a couple of good novels: “Breathing Lessons” by Anne Tyler (“She has a wry wit and I love her eccentric characters.”) and “Sea Glass” by Anita Shreve (“Her books are infused with a quiet, building sense of impending discovery.”)

Board member Adair Dingle teaches computer science at Seattle University, and is preparing a new class for the fall, “Computer Games: Design and Consequence,” which is interdisciplinary and targets non-majors. “It combines the themes of introductory programming (problemsolving) with literacy (narrative perspective, cultural context, continuity), so I’m reading a lot on the history of video games, cultural stereotypes as well as literacy.” One example is Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.” For pleasure, Dingle just finished Christopher Buckley’s “Boomsday,” and hopes she’ll have time for Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle,” the first volume of which is “Quicksilver.”

I heard back from only one City Council member, El Jahncke, who said he’s going to be spending his summer reading “Council agenda packets and boring economic forecasts.” As for books, he said he tends to “just pick something when the mood strikes, with no planning involved.”

City attorney Bob Sterbank said he doesn’t have a lot of time for reading now that he has a 2-year-old daughter to chase after, but he’s hoping to resume reading George Packer’s “Assassin’s Gate,” which reviews the run-up to and first three years of the Iraq war. “I’m interested in a more detailed explanation of how the ‘neoconservative politics’ influenced the decision to invade and the level of planning for its aftermath.” He’s also hoping to get to Al Gore’s “Assault on Reason.” “I’m interested in views on how our political system and news coverage of politics are working.” But, adds Sterbank, “I may skip reading entirely and try to get back to the piano, to resume work on some of the Rachmaninoff preludes and Chopin etudes.”

Over at Mercer Island Youth and Family Services, director Cindy Goodwin categorizes her reading list into three subsets. For reading aloud with her 10-year-old son: “Shakespeare’s Secret” by Elise Broach; “Bud, Not Buddy,” by Christopher Paul Curtis, and the “Book of Virtues for Young People” by William J. Bennett. “For enchancing my parenting — a constant source of joy and often a source of angst and concern,” wrote Goodwin, she’s looking forward to “The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog” by Bruce Perry, M.D., and Maia Szalavitz and “Hold on to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers” by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Md Mate. And, finally, for fun and relaxation: “The Inheritance of Loss” by Kran Desai; “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon,” by Richard Zimler; “Hot Six” by Janet Evanovich; and “The Wild Braid” by Stanley Kunitz and Genine Lentine. “Always one book of poetry!” wrote Goodwin.

Glenn Boettcher, the city’s director of maintenance, recently finished “Dream Golf: The Making of Bandon Dunes” by Stephen Goodwin. “If you play golf, you need to play Bandon Dunes. If you’ve played Bandon Dunes, you need to read this book. It’s the story of how the course came to life, and the pretty amazing people who made it happen.” Next up for Boettcher is “Bangkok Haunts” by John Burdett. “I read the first one in the series, “Bangkok 8,” when it came out in 2004. It was a wonderful mystery made so rich and gritty by Burdett’s deep understanding of the Thai culture.”

Finally, I reached Jane Meyer-Brahm, who in years past as a reporter and then as an editor of this newspaper, used to spend her days at her computer reading stories like this one and readying them to be published. Now retired, she’s got some time to read books. She wrote, “I just spent the better part of two days in O’Hare Airport, on my way to and from a family wedding in St. Louis — but I did get a lot of reading in! I finished “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson (I thought it was a case of a compelling writing style in search of a plot) and I read “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell (interesting mind-candy) and I started “Dispatches from the Edge” by Anderson Cooper … I find I’m more drawn to non-fiction these days, maybe because my book group is more of a discussion group and non-fiction tends to generate the most interesting discussions. On my want-to-read list are these: ‘Einstein: His Life and Universe’ by Walter Isaacson and ‘Falling Man’ by Don DeLillo. Also, if I can, I’d like to read some classics that I missed all these years, like ‘Madame Bovary’ or ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’”

Breck Longstreth can be reached at

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