Arts & Culture Commentaries

Downtown View: Beach Reading

Sometimes I recommend books not to read. This summer I’ll recommend some books I think you’d enjoy as you loll on a beach somewhere or hang in a hammock in the mountains. These are not necessarily new books, but they are good books.

As Always, Julia
Edited by Joan Reardon

I had already read a biography of Julia Child, so when a friend gave me this book as a present, I was a bit disappointed. I was so wrong. The letters Julia and her friend Avis DeVoto exchanged for many years reveal their cooking strategies, decorating dilemmas, political opinions, and problems with their friends and families. Since Avis lived in Cambridge during the time of their correspondence there are even some juicy tidbits on people you might know or at least have heard of. The letters are intelligent and witty and show the devotion the women have for one another. They provide a wonderful insight into a good friendship and an age, not so long ago, when people had time to write long letters.

Los Alamos
By Joseph Kanon

If you like spies and mysteries, Joseph Kanon’s novels will intrigue you. Kanon was an editor and book publishing house executive for many years. In fact, he was Boston Globe columnist James Carroll’s editor in his 1996 book, An American Requiem.

His stories take place during or just after World War II. The characters are an international group, with secrets and contradictory motives. The sense of place is always vivid. We had just driven around the gorgeous Los Alamos a few weeks before I read this book, and the book’s descriptions were eerily accurate.

There is a murder. There is a woman. There are many trips to Alamogordo. There are the bare bones accommodations for those who worked on the Manhattan Project. Just before reading Kanon’s novel, I had read American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I was ready for something lighter, and this was it. If your summer reading includes biographies, you might indulge in that book too. And there is a new Oppenheimer biography by Ray Monk that has gotten good reviews. It seems that readers have many resources available to probe the whole matter of Los Alamos.

Read all of Kanon’s other books too. They are as good as Los Alamos.

Past Caring
By Robert Goddard

Goddard’s books share one idea—that others’ actions affect you in ways you may never understand and can’t control and often contribute to your destruction. In this case, a troubled man teases out another man’s tragic story of a political downfall, a lost love and an empty life lived on the island of Madeira. Part mystery, part love story, part travelogue in that it makes you want to go to Madeira, the narrative eventually reveals why things fell apart, and puts them back together again with sadness and regret. Past Caring was Goddard’s first novel, written in 1986, and it was nominated for the Booker Prize. Since then he has written about one book a year, so if you like his work, you’ll be able to indulge yourself for many hours.

I’ll Walk Alone
By Mary Higgins Clark

I thought I would hate this book. It isn’t literary. It is cheap drama – a woman’s son is kidnapped, and her identity is being stolen, and on and on.

But it was one of the books given out at a Literary Lights fundraiser for the Boston Public Library a couple of years ago, so I told myself not to be so snooty and just go ahead and read it.

And it is true— it is not literature. And it is cheap drama. But I gained respect for its author. Sometimes books like this are so badly written that you can’t get off the first page. But Mary Higgins Clark can write, and she can devise a plot that moves, so why not give her the credit for that. I then read the two other free Mary Higgins Clark books I had picked up from the tables that night. They weren’t bad. I took them to my local bookseller who trades used books for credits in the main bookstore, since I don’t want to make space on my bookshelves for books I’m not going to read again. But since I haven’t yet written a novel, I won’t begrudge a good writer her well-deserved success.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at

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