One reader's pick: "Swamplandia" by Karen Russell

by Hugh Gilmore

The following appeared at the bottom of my column last week: Readers: Are you traveling this summer? We’d like to know: (1) Where you’re going; (2) Why you’re going there; (3) What you’ll read while you’re away.

Amma Napier of Chestnut Hill was first to reply, saying that she, her husband and two daughters were leaving for Brazil this week to visit her sister who has a Brazilian husband. They live in Niteroi, just outside of Rio de Janeiro, on a hill that overlooks a lake and the Guanabara Bay.

And her reading? Amma says, “I feel I should be reading ‘Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,’ by the Brazilian writer, Jorge Amado, since my sister gave it to me for my birthday. I tried it, but couldn’t keep up with all the characters right before bed (when I do most of my reading). I’m definitely bringing “Hope in the Dark.” by Rebecca Solnit. I loved her book about traveling in Ireland, and it is supposed to be a great book for learning about possibility and change (something I deal with in my career as a facilitator/coach/change agent).  I am also bringing a lighter book by Chris Bohjalian, ‘The Law of Similars,’ recommended by a friend at the Plymouth Meeting Friends Strawberry Festival (I get several favorites there each year).  Still might bring “Dona Flor,” as it is really fun. See you around the neighborhood.”

I was also glad to hear from Tom Keels and his partner, Larry Arrigale. They just finished publishing “Philadelphia’s Golden Age of Retail” for Acadia Publishers. Tom writes, “Larry and I will be taking a late summer trip to Ogonquit, Maine, to celebrate our 20th anniversary. While there, I hope to get a chance to read “Malcolm’s Wine,” if I can ever pry it out of Larry’s hands. I will probably try to read more Michael Cunningham (either ‘A Home at the End of the World’ or ‘Specimen Days’), since I fell in love with ‘The Hours’ last year and am anxious to try more of his work.  BTW, I am loving “Scenes from a Bookshop.” (HG: Ahem.)

We also heard from MacArthur Award winner Bill Siemering, of Wyndmoor, who heads the nonprofit organization Developing Radio Partners. He writes, “I’m traveling to Madison, Wis., for a high school class reunion and probably won’t be gone long enough to read a book. But my wife, Lucretia Robbins, artist and teacher of Art in the Garden, (HG: very worth Googling, especially if you have a 12 to 16-year-old daughter) is an avid reader and she recommends ‘The Gift of Rain’ by Tan Twan Eng as an excellent read.”

From Fort Washington, legal wizard George C “Skip” Corson, Jr. wrote to tell us he intends to go to “a small cabin on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee … a full mile off of any paved road … to be again with members of my family and of my late wife’s family (who’ve been going there since right after World War I), to enjoy the delights of no TV, no PC, no laptop.”

That would be delight enough, but Skip avers he will also “eat fresh, local fruits and vegetables, swim (or at least float) before breakfast and before bed, sail, canoe, kayak, and motor boat, hike, play some tennis and “cow pasture pool.”

We’ve checked, and that was officially the first time “cow pasture pool” has ever been mentioned in the Local. When not living the healthy life, Skip Corson also will attend performances by The Barnstormers in Tamworth and, of course, read.

And what shall he read? He says, “Various and sundry works by Rafael Sabatini, John Buchan, Edmund Crispin, P. G. Wodehouse and a book recently written by my Penn Charter/Penn Law School classmate and friend, David M. Jordan, ‘FDR, Dewey and the Election of 1944.'”

Another energetic vacationer, Chestnut Hill businessman Tom Tarantino, writes that he and his wife, Barbara, are going to Switzerland and Italy to tour the Alps and the Dolomites. “We will go to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn, take the “Glacier Express,” a special bubble-roofed train across almost 300 bridges and through almost 100 tunnels from Zermatt to St. Moritz and then drive through the Dolomites to Bolzano and Cortina d’Ampezzo, ending up at Venice.”

Mr. Tarantino’s motive? “We are going there to chase two people. Edward Whymper, the greatest mountain climber of the 19th Century – he was the first person to climb the Matterhorn. And Reinhold Messner, the greatest mountain climber of all time (he is still alive) who, among other things, is the first person to climb all 14 Eight Thousanders (the 14 tallest mountains in the World) and the first person to climb Mount Everest solo and without oxygen.”

And what will they be reading? “Two books:  ‘Killing Dragons: the Conquest of the Alps’ by Fergus Fleming. And ‘Die Messner Mountain Museen’ by Andreas Gottlieb Hempel. It is the official catalogue of the five MMM – Messner Mountain Museums – that have been established by Mr. Messner at five different locations in the Dolomites with the idea that driving from one to the next will also show you all the mountains themselves.”

Among the true friends of the writer in our area is a young woman named Nicollette Milholin. She lives in Mont Clare, Montgomery County, across the Schuylkill River from Phoenixville. Nikki, as she’s called, is a literary columnist dedicated to interviewing authors, reviewing books and promoting events. Visit for links to her published columns and a list of recommended literary events. We think it’s the best book blog in the Delaware Valley.

This summer she’s traveling back to her hometown in western Michigan, “traveling along the breathtaking shore of Lake Michigan, Mackinac Island and into the Upper Peninsula.”

The occasion? “My cousin is getting married, so it’s a prime time to spend a couple of weeks visiting with family and traveling the picturesque region.”

What she’ll read? “When I travel, I love to immerse myself in works written by authors with local ties. For this trip, I’m delving into filmmaker and Traverse City, Mich., resident Michael Moore’s new book ‘Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life,’ which I’ll be reviewing for an upcoming Book Bound column.  I’m also hoping to read more from Michigan favorites Bonnie Jo Campbell (Kalamazoo, Mich.) and poet Catie Rosemurgy (Escanaba, Mich.).”

Christina Kobland is the director of Native Return LLC, of Lafayette Hill, an organization dedicated to ecologically responsible land management solutions. She writes that she is traveling to Prague, then Germany, Hungary and Austria (on the Danube) and ending in Krakow, Poland. “I have never been there so I want to see those countries, and also because I’m half Polish.”

What will she read? “I don’t know yet. I’ll be lucky to read my email.”

Another devoted Philadelphia educator, Mary Silverstein, writes, “Hi Hugh, I enjoy your column. When I travel, I always fortify myself with many books. Sometimes choosing books takes a lot longer than picking out my wardrobe.

“This summer, I am going to Pine, Ariz., to visit my brother and his wife; I haven’t seen my bro for three years, and since I just turned 80 and he is 77 – though hale and hearty – I don’t know how many times more I will get to see him. They are readers too, so I expect lots of hammock time under the soughing Ponderosa Pines, enjoying this year’s picks. After that, I go on to West Hollywood to my youngest daughter’s abode. We’ll play some Scrabble and see a movie or two, but I’ll have some reading time there as well.

“I shall take about six books on this 12-day trip, including ‘Swamplandia,’ ‘A Plague of Doves,’ two by Chinua Achebe, ‘No Longer At Ease’ and ‘Anthills of the Savannah.’ Perhaps also ‘Invisible Man’ because I haven’t read it cover-to-cover in many years.”

Mary Ann Domanska, Springside teacher, actress and writer, says, “I’m heading off to San Diego for the 2012 International Society for Technology in Education Conference next week. I’m presenting a talk on ‘Publishing Kids’ Creative Writing as Podcasts using the Haiku Learning Management System.’ I plan to bring back lots of great ideas for my classroom.”

She continues, “I plan on reading ‘Al Capone Does My Shirts,’ by Gennifer Choldenko (required reading for a Creative Writing Institute I’ll be taking later this summer at Arcadia. It will focus on writing middle-grade novels and, more importantly, my 12-year-old daughter loved it). I also plan on listening to ‘Where the Mountain Meets the Moon’ by Grace Lin on my iPhone as part of a literature study group.”

And the final words for today come from librarian extraordinaire Marsha Stender, of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Andorra branch. “I’m going to Beantown to visit my daughter, son-in-law and grandpup. Audrey D. Dogg is growing up fast! “I’ll be taking along ‘State of Wonder’ by Ann Patchett and ‘Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil’ by Tom Mueller.”

Note to our readers: Last week’s survey asked a fourth question – “Where do you stand on the eBook vs. print book controversy?” The replies were many and interesting and are being saved for a future column, probably to appear in two weeks.

Next week this column will come to you from Montreal. I will get through the first night with my Kindle or a New Yorker. Then I’ll head out hunting for a book or two that should entertain me for the short week we’ll be there. Au revoir!