Hot Books

Suggestions for summer reading from Knoxville's civic leaders, artists, entertainers, and assorted curious characters.

Shannon Burke, novelist and author of Black Flies

  • Jennie Gerhardt (Read Books, 2008) by Theodore Dreiser
  • McTeague (BiblioBazaar, 2007) by Frank Norris

I've been on an American naturalist kick recently that started when I picked up a novel called Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser. Paul Giamatti was reading Jennie Gerhardt in the movie Sideways, and I liked that movie and so was interested in the book. The novel's about a love affair between a rich industrialist and a washerwoman—a simple story, really, but told truthfully and perceptively, and with a seeming disinterest in style. It's like Madame Bovary without the pretty sentences but with a real clear-sightedness and directness. At a younger age I might have thought the book was unpoetic, but as I've gotten older I think I've become more appreciative of simplicity and bluntness. I'd been telling people how much I liked Jennie Gerhardt and a friend suggested I read McTeague, which he called "the ultimate naturalist novel." So I started McTeague a few days ago. It's about a dentist in San Francisco in the late 19th century. I assume at some point the dentist will be consumed by greed, as this is the book the famous Erich von Stroheim silent film Greed is based on. I really liked the first chapters. A love story begins when the dentist, attempting a tricky piece of bridgework on a young patient, is almost overcome by desire as she lies there unconscious under the effects of ether. Ah, romance.

Beauvais Lyons, UT art professor and curator of the Hoaks Archives

  • The Agony and the Ecstasy (Signet, 1987) by Irving Stone

This summer I have been reading Irving Stone's thick-as-a-brick 1961 biographical novel on the life of Michelangelo. It is a book that I should have read years ago, but had never set aside time to do so previously. Emerson once said that all history is biography, and I have always had an interest in the biographical representations of artists in literature and film, most of which are as much myth as reality. My favorite section in the novel has been Michelangelo's trip to the morgue at Santo Spirito where he performs candle-lit dissections on corpses against church regulations in order to obtain a deeper understanding of human anatomy. It is a section of the novel that turns your stomach—but all for the sake of making better art!

Chris Woodhull, City Councilman and co-founder of inner-city ministry Tribe One

  • Red Bird: Poems (Beacon Press, 2008) by Mary Oliver

A poem in it is called "Of the Empire." Her poetry is, to use her own words, "tender, luminous, and demanding." I love all three of those words.

  • Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices (Thomas Nelson, 2008) by Brian McLaren

It's about the ancient practices of fixed prayer—praying four times a day—and all the monastic traditions.

  • Community and the Politics of Place (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992) by Daniel Kemmis

It's a brilliant book. He used to be the mayor of Missoula, Mont. It's really a book about community and public life. There's a chapter on barn-building. I don't know what the modern equivalent would be to when people all got together to build something. We get together to complain, not to work on something together.

  • Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening, and Creating New Realities (Berrett-Koehler, 2004) by Adam Kahane

This is the guy that had the Mont Fleur process in South Africa that led Nelson Mandela to lead the ANC to move its vision, using a split scenario for planning that allows you to visualize it. The writer is telling about how to use scenarios to solve tough problems. It's brilliant stuff, man.

Kim Trent, Director of Knox Heritage

  • The Holiday Season (Grove Press, 2007) by Michael Knight

A compact yet engaging book about the realities of life and family during the holidays written by a fellow Mobilian transplanted to Knoxville. Michael creates an intimacy between his characters and the reader that is hard to shake, yet he does it in such a quiet way. Its resonance caught me by surprise and makes me look forward to his next effort.

  • The Secrets of Rome—Love & Death in the Eternal City (Rizzolo Ex Libris, 2007)

I am considering a trip to Rome with friends this fall and I am looking for inspiration as I make my plans. It was recommended by a friend who has visited Italy many times over the last three decades. It is part history book, part travel guide, part architectural tour and manages to illuminate the city's 27 centuries in just under 400 pages.

Bill Haslam, Mayor of Knoxville

  • Same Kind of Different As Me (Thomas Nelson, 2006) by Ron Hall and Denver Moore

The non-fiction story of a great friendship between an international art dealer who lives in upscale Dallas and his unlikely friendship with a homeless man.

  • So Brave, Young, and Handsome (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2008) by Leif Enger

Leif Enger wrote Peace Like a River, a book that I read a couple of years ago and loved.

  • The Reason for God: Belief In an Age of Skepticism (Dutton Adult, 2008) by Tim Keller

Keller is a pastor in New York City. Apologetics for the 21st Century.

  • Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Random House, 2004) by Tracy Kidder.

Non-fiction story of Paul Farmer, M.D., who took on global health issues with amazing results. It's been recommended to me by three very different people, including my daughter who is in Africa for the summer and said it should be the next book I read. I will follow her orders and start it this week.

Sara Schwabe, singer and actress

  • Respect For Acting (Wiley, 1973) by Uta Hagen

It's required reading for most actor training programs, including the one at Arizona State University I'm about to enter. Hagen, a respected actress and educator (1919-2004), stresses a naturalistic approach to performing that requires the actor to draw on his/her own life experiences in developing a believable character. Not exactly "beach reading," right?

David Butler, Executive Director of Knoxville Museum of Art

  • Knoxville, Tennessee: A Mountain City in the New South (University of Tennessee Press, 2nd edition, 2005) by Bruce Wheeler

I highly recommend this book for anyone who's ever tried to figure out what makes Knoxville tick. This enjoyable read was a real eye-opener for a newcomer like me. Wheeler sees instructive parallels between our situation today and the city's bright prospects 100 years ago, with some mighty rough patches in between (the fistfight at a city council meeting in 1956 might have been the low point). I think this time we won't screw things up.

Nkechi Ajanaku, Executive Director of African American Appalachian Arts

  • Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison

I'm reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man for about the third or fourth time. I needed to go back to it with the days and time we're living in. He essentially only wrote this one book, and it's so powerful, an African-American male's perspective on the racial issues of the time. It still stands up. People need to read it with an open mind and heart... I don't think he wrote it with malice, but it can make some feel defensive. His message about how ethnic relationships in our country work is significant. I also enjoy Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize laureate's autobiographies and essays. He's wonderful.

And I do read purely for enjoyment, too—I'm a science fiction nut. Octavia Butler, the African-American science fiction writer who wrote Wild Seed (1980) and Parable of the Sower (1993); she's good now, she was great. And I've been a fan of Frank Herbert's Dune series ever since he started to write them. I'm a book fanatic, and to have a true passion for reading you have to be eclectic.

Cherel Henderson, Director of the East Tennessee Historical Society

  • An Abolitionist in the Appalachian South: Ezekiel Birdseye on Slavery, Capitalism, and Separate Statehood in East Tennessee, 1841-1846 (University of Tennessee Press, 1977) by Tennessee Wesleyan College professor Durwood Dunn, Ph.D.

In the 1810s to early 1830s, there was a strong anti-slavery movement in East Tennessee, occasioned largely by the Quaker population and somewhat by other denominations. For instance, in 1827, one-fifth of all the anti-slavery societies in the U.S. were in East Tennessee and one-sixth of the total membership. This is an example of the fascinating history that took place in our own backyards, of which we are often unaware.

Derek Senter, WUTK-90.3 DJ, "The Funhouse," with help from son Will

  • Elmo Pops In! (Publications International, Ltd., 2003)—"Elmo!!" raves 2-year-old Will Senter.

A harrowing combination of pop-up book and sounds as the author successfully mixes standards like "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow" into "For He's A Jolly Good Elmo" and "Do Your Ears Hang Low" into some other Elmo reference. So good, I've read it at least 150 times!

  • My Spanish Book Of Numbers (Dalmation Press, 2007)

Prepare your kids to be able to push any button when dealing with automated answering services that banks, credit card companies, KUB and Comcast use.

"Cinco gatitos!!!" exclaims Will.

  • Where The Sidewalk Ends: Poems and Drawings by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins, 1974)

Do I really need to say anything?

  • I Am America (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert (Grand Central Publishing, 2007)

This book is as witty and hilarious as The Colbert Report. This is actually the third time I've read it. I still laugh out loud.

  • Fargo Rock City by Chuck Klosterman (Scribner, 2002)

If you were in junior high/high school in the '80s and listened to bands like Motley Crue, RATT, Metallica, Skid Row, etc., this book should be highly amusing to you.

  • When Presidents Lie by Eric Alterman (Viking Adult, 2004)

This book looks at four lies told by presidents in a postwar period: The Yalta Conference, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Gulf Of Tonkin incident, and the Central American Wars of the 1980s. Pretty much tells you that honesty is the best policy in politics because anything gained from these lies ends up being undone by consequences that weren't foreseen. Wonder if there'll be a sequel to this book if we ever get out of Iraq?

Laurens Tullock, Director of the Cornerstone Foundation

  • World Without End (Dutton Adult, 2007) by Ken Follett

Loved it. It's a sequel to Pillars of the Earth, my favorite historical novel of all time. It's the masterpiece that Ken Follett wanted to write while he was writing the serial novels. It's about the building of a cathedral in England in the Middle Ages. World Without End is set a couple of centuries later in the same place, during the plague known as the Black Death. I love historical novels; I do so much reading in my work, it's my form of escapism.

Dr. Mark Harmon, 2nd District County Commissioner, Associate Professor in the University of Tennessee School of Journalism and Electronic Media

  • The Audacity of Hope (Crown, 2006) by Barack Obama
  • Our Endangered Values (Simon & Schuster, 2005) by Jimmy Carter

One prospective look and one retrospective look at inspiring people toward the better angels of our nature.

  • Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom (Westview, 2001) by Martin and Susan Tolchin

A historical tour of the alterations, and the altercations, in the struggle for behavior standards on Capitol Hill.

  • Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel (Da Capo, 1996) by Judith and Neil Morgan

A biography of the best-selling children's author, a playful and very private genius.

Dr. Hector Qirko, guitarist/frontman of the Hector Qirko Band, Professor in the UT Anthropology Department

  • The Kiln (Sceptre, 1997) by William McIlvanney

William McIlvanney is a Scottish author I discovered when on the road in the UK with RB a few weeks ago. I read The Big Man by him while over there, and really enjoyed it. I started out just hoping to get a bit of a feel for the Scots, because I like what I've experienced of the country and its people so much, but found much more than that. He's hard-edged and precise, and asks some good questions of his characters. I just learned he's written some crime novels too, which should be interesting. I tried a couple by Ian Rankin, but he didn't do much for me...

  • In the Heart of the Country (Penguin, 1982) by the South African writer J.M. Coetzee

I've read a lot of his work, but had missed this one, so am looking forward to it. If it's like his others, it'll contain stunningly beautiful writing, pull off some kind of adventurous form, and in a very quiet way tackle enormous issues related to power and humanity. They gave him the Nobel prize, and as far as I'm concerned it's well-deserved.

In non-fiction, I'm getting interested in chimpanzee social behavior and what it can tell us about culture. It's now pretty clear that chimps have it, and that raises a bunch of questions about adaptations and the like. So I just read Significant Others: The Ape-Human Continuum and the Quest for Human Nature (Basic Books, 2001), by Craig Stanford, which I unfortunately didn't find very enlightening, and am getting ready to read Chimpanzee Material Culture: Implications for Human Evolution (Cambridge University, 1992), by W.C. McGrew. That we possess culture has been the last best argument (after tool-use, language, consciousness, etc.) for humans being different in kind, rather than degree, from other species, and it's exciting to see that one falling away as well.

John Rice Irwin, Founder of the Museum of Appalachia

  • Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2005) by Merle Miller

Although I'm not familiar with all works on Harry Truman, I can't imagine one that is more interesting and revealing about this son of the Midwest. The book is, in fact, a long interview with Truman regarding his farm days in Missouri, his not-so-successful business ventures, his philosophy, and his plain and honest approach to politics. It's as if you're there, listening to Truman comment in person. My interest was enhanced by the fact that he reminded me so much of my own grandfather, who lived in the Midwest as a young man. Also, I almost bought a log house on the Tennessee-Kentucky border that was reputed to have been the home of the ancestors of Solomon Young, who was Truman's grandfather.

  • Where There Are Mountains: An Environmental History of the Southern Appalachians (Athens: University of Georgia, 2000) by Donald Davis

In the past few years, it seems there has been a proliferation of books on various phases of the Appalachian region—its people, culture, folkways, etc. Although I have perused many of them, and I have read some in their entirety, this book by Donald Davis is, in my opinion, without question the best from the standpoint of solid information, substantive research, and readability. The discussion of early inter-relationships between the Native Americans and the European settlers is fascinating. I know of no other book on the subject that is even comparable. I know of no other book on any subject that is so thoroughly and voluminously footnoted.

Jake Winstrom, The Tenderhooks

  • Goodbye, Little Rock and Roller (St. Martin's Griffin, 2004) by Marshall Chapman and Lee Smith

Chapman uses her songs as jumping off points to tell stories about her life and times as a well-groomed Southern debutante-turned-rock-'n'-roller. Her anecdotes about Nashville, ‘60s civil rights stuff, and Elvis are all really cool. The first chapter recalls a backstage incident in the ‘70s where Jerry Lee Lewis advises her to tone down the hard living, which is pretty hilarious.

Theresa Pepin, professional organist and leader of UT Botanical Gardens

  • A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead, 2007) by Khaled Hosseini

You will never think you have ever had a bad day again. Especially if you are a woman. Daily life of Afghanis with a core of resolve and strength that is astounding. What Hollywood used to call strong women are now almost invariably found within the covers of books.

Lucas Richman, Music Director and Conductor of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra

  • Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (Knopf, 2007) by Oliver Sacks
  • Blaze (Pocket, 2008) by Stephen King
  • Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life's Greatest Lesson (Broadway, 2002) by Mitch Albom

With all the traveling I've been doing, I have had a chance to do quite a bit of reading over the past few months. (I'm a pretty quick reader) Here goes: Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. I'm still in the middle of reading this, but it presents a fascinating study on people and the music they hear inside their heads. Also Stephen King's Blaze. I'm a huge Stephen King fan, so it was interesting to read this recent release of a novel he wrote early in his career under the name Richard Bachman—one can see his compelling writing style in its beginning, more rough form. And Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie. A poignant and very touching recounting of a relationship that reflects on our own lives and how we should honor our teachers and mentors.

Joy Davis, Artistic Director of Circle Modern Dance

  • Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Bantam, 1995) by Daniel Quinn

Receiving the knowledge this book provides has truly changed my thought processes and perspective on our culture. It has opened my ability to see the "story" that has been so integrated into our lives—we can barely tell it's there. One of the main points this author makes via the enlightened gorilla, Ishmael, is that the landmark of our culture was set in motion when food went under "lock and key"—the illusion that unless we make it, control it, and price it, there will be none.

This book coupled with Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth is disintegrating former thought patterns and the addiction to "shoulds" that have been so ingrained in me. I am un-learning! Tolle provides deep insight into the ego and in such a neutral way allows the reader to see and observe her/himself. Lots of space—very refreshing and dense and mind-blowing.

Chris Molinsky, Art Gallery of Knoxville

  • My Own Private Alexandria (

Check out the website of artist Paul Chan, National Philistine, to listen to him reading all kinds of books. The project My Own Private Alexandria is a free, audio-only library of books from Chan's collection. Through the website you can find such titles as "Advice to the Civilized About the Coming Social Metamorphosis" by Charles Fourier, "The Aesthetics of Silence" by Susan Sontag, and "Text for Nothing #2" by Samuel Beckett. This is a wonderful project—it helps me keep up on my reading, even when I have no time to sit down and read.

Victor Ashe, U.S. Ambassador to Poland and former Mayor of Knoxville

  • China Diary of George H. W. Bush: Making of a Global President (Princeton University Press, 2008) edited by Jeffrey Engel

A day-by-day account in his own words of his time in China when formal relations had just begun between U.S. and China. Given my current job, I found it especially compelling to see diplomatic life in a crucial time first hand.

  • Franklin and Lucy: President Roosevelt, Mrs. Rutherfurd and the other Remarkable Women in His Life (Random House, 2008) by Joseph E. Persico

Previously rumored but not fully disclosed aspects of FDR's personal life which impacted public policy. Contrasts with today's presidents and candidates for whom nothing is private.

  • Gandhi and Churchill: Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged our Age (Bantam, 2008) by Arthur Herman

Two incredible men with complex personalities who inspired the world in different ways, faced troubling family issues, and rose to the national call for leadership.

  • The Lincolns in the White House: Four years which shattered a Family (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006) by Jerrold M. Packard

Makes Lincoln's determination and leadership seem even more unique and inspired given the tragic circumstances of his personal life and a spouse who was an incredible burden and distraction plus the loss of a son. All of these are fascinating. I read parts of each daily. Have finished the Lincoln book.

Jeff Barbra, singer-songwriter

  • Road Mangler Deluxe (Colin White & Laurie Boucke, 1998) by Phil Kaufman and Colin White

I got a copy from Phil at the Nanci Griffith show. Phil road-manages (mangles) Nanci. He is most famous for being the guy who stole Gram Parsons' body and burnt it in Joshua Tree National Park, back in the day.

I also just finished Larry Brown's last book that he was working on when he died, A Miracle Of Catfish. I'm a huge Larry Brown fan. I'd recommend any and all of Larry's books. Also, for songwriters, if you can find it, Tom T. Hall's book, How I Write Songs.

Tom Parkhill, Producing Artistic Director of the Tennessee Stage Company

  • Truman Capote: Enfant Terrible (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2008) by Robert Emmet Long
  • Laughing Gas (1936), by P.G. Wodehouse
  • The Fools in Town Are on Our Side (1970) by Ross Thomas

I'm usually reading multiple books and at the moment I'm reading a new critical study of Truman Capote called Truman Capote: Enfant Terrible. It's brand new, I've hardly cracked it yet. I'm also in the middle of Laughing Gas, by P.G. Wodehouse. I always read three or four books by Wodehouse in the summer. Because there are more than 100—he started writing when he was 18 and wrote until he was 94—it's like a lifetime reading plan.

For some reason I can't explain, last night I got inspired and picked up a Ross Thomas novel called The Fools in Town Are on Our Side. I love him, and the title of course comes from Huckleberry Finn, "Ain't we got all the fools in town on our side."

Mike Ragsdale, Knox County Mayor

  • The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House (Center Street, 2007) by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Preacher and the Presidents is a book about Billy Graham and his relationships with presidents of the United States. It discusses several individuals from Harry Truman to George W. Bush—it is a great book and I would highly recommend it.

I would also recommend Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years (Free Press, 2007) by David Talbot and Team of Rivals (Simon & Schuster, 2005) by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which focuses on Abraham Lincoln's administration.

George Dodds, Professor of History and Theory in the College of Architecture and Design at UT

As I read over 300,000 words a year in my work as Executive Editor of the Journal of Architectural Education, and this does not include my reading for teaching and research, I look to pulp fiction as a release. Unfortunately, I find it increasingly difficult to "lose myself" in novels filled with clichéd plot lines and, well, clichés. My wife, from whom I obtain these books, keeps telling me to stop reading them if they hurt so much. But it does feel so good once you get to the end. I guess that is the true release.

I am just now finishing The Last Templar (Dutton Adult, 2006) which will hopefully be the last book Raymond Khoury writes. Of course, as it was a New York Times bestseller, I suspect Mr. Khoury has more clichés to share with the world. His book (yes you can tell a book by its cover) is about the last Templars and the great secret they took with them to their graves after being sufficiently tortured beyond imagination in the presence of the Pope himself, in Avignon. It is similar in spirit to The Da Vinci Code, with far too many references to 9/11, which is ostensibly part of the grounding of the book. I actually enjoyed The Da Vinci Code, despite all the academic criticisms of it, which I thought were misplaced on a piece of simple fiction. But that was last summer.

I've also read a few books by James Rollins, a Ph.D in Veterinary Medicine who has turned his talents to writing New York Times bestseller books so formulaic that I suspect he uses one of those computer programs that do most of the writing for him. I know no other contemporary author who overuses such words as "limned," in lieu of "outlined" and "purchase" in place of "foothold." Like Khoury, he writes for the Dan Brown crowd and like Khoury, the title of his most recent book, released on June 24, 2008, has the adjective "last" in it—this time it is The Last Oracle.

As soon as I complete the last of The Last Templars, I plan to devote my reading time to plowing through all of Jane Austen and Philippa Gregory's sequel to The Other Boleyn Girl, which is The Boleyn Inheritance. I need a break from books focusing on the world coming to an end and CIA spooks operating out of the Vatican. At any moment I expect to find in one of these Rollins/Khoury novels, Michelangelo's dome opening on a hinge, only to launch a nuclear war-headed missile in the shape of the crucified Christ. After all, one man's missile is another man's missal. No idea where it would be headed by the way. I suspect that would be left to the sequel. Pick your "evil empire."

A summer without J. K Rowling is a difficult thing.

John J. Duncan, Jr., U.S. Congressman

I am just finishing The Death Chamber (Simon & Schuster UK, 2008) a British mystery novel by Sarah Rayne. Just prior to that, I readAin't My America (Metropolitan Books, 2008), by Bill Kauffman, about anti-war conservatism, and How Starbucks Saved My Life (Gotham, 2007) by Michael Gates Gill (although I am not a coffee drinker).

I read a wide variety—novels, history, politics, sports. I would recommend these books about politics: Path to Power (1990) by Robert Caro, about Lyndon Johnson's life and first years in Congress; and The Last Hurrah (1956) by Edwin O'Connor, a novel about the last campaign of a former Boston Mayor.

My favorite books I have read more than once are How Green Was My Valley (1939), The Fountainhead (1943), Good-bye, Mr. Chips (1934) , and A Man Called Peter (1951).

Reggie Law, Managing Artistic Director of Oak Ridge Playhouse

  • Schulz and Peanuts (Harper, 2007) by David Michaelis

I've been a Peanuts fanatic since I was very young—I like the way Schulz sees the world and translates it back. As you get older, you can find a lot more in the strips that you didn't see before. I don't read much mainstream fiction; I tend to like biographies. And I am writing this summer, too, working on a play about what an actress has to go through as she ages, continually reinventing herself... it's a study of what this business can do to you. The plot involves four actresses getting locked in the ladies room at the Oscars—four who didn't win.

Larry Frank, Director of Knox County Libraries

I generally read about a six to eight books during the course of a couple weeks. For example, I am reading:

  • Journals, 1952-2000 (Penguin, 2007) by Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
  • Three Cups of Tea (Penguin, 2007) by Greg Mortensan and David Oliver Relin
  • Conversations with Woody Allen (Knopf, 2007) by Eric Lax
  • Collected Writings of Thomas Paine (Library of America, 1995)
  • Abelard: A Medieval Life (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999) by M. T. Clanchy
  • Sources of the Faust Tradition (Octagon, 1978) by Philip Mason Palmer
  • House of War (Mariner, 2007) by James Carroll
  • Sotheby's New Wine Encyclopedia (DK, 2005) by Tom Stevenson

And rereading The Parable of the Tribes by Andrew Schmookler and The Prehistory of Sex by Timothy Taylor.

Being a library director is in some fashion like a conductor of a symphony orchestra one day or a jazz ensemble the next. I have to be familiar with as many aspects of knowledge and the instruments of knowledge as I can, so I get to read everything time permitting. In other words, I know a little about a whole lot.