21 Books for Your Summer Break
I started compiling this summer’s reading list in March. It’s a bit more focused than last year’s list, as our lives have been and probably will be for the rest of 2020.
The State of Our (Dis)Union
This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta
The Mumbai-born American author aims his deliberately subtitled “manifesto” at the policies of the West, which for nearly half a millennium took from, enslaved, and impoverished countries on three continents. To Mehta, immigrants are asking only for partial payment of the debt that nations, corporations, and individuals ran up as they profited from their colonies. But this is not simply a diatribe; half the book makes the case that immigrants’ presence is, in almost every way, a gain for their new societies, where they provide ideas, labor, and renewal, while at the same time easing the burdens of those who remain back home. This is an essential counterbalance in an era of resurgent xenophobia.
America For Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States by Erika Lee
We are a nation of immigrants, but also of xenophobes. Leading the world in immigration, and also in deportation—more than 400,000 annually over the past 140 years. Lee provides distressing data, along with startling anecdotes: Ben Franklin lost his seat in the Pennsylvania assembly after provoking outrage among German-Americans, with the epithet “Palatine boors.” (A boor/boar confusion helped.) From bias against Germans to fear of Catholics, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans, and recently Muslims, Lee shows this strain runs deep, as in a Newsweek cover showing Lady Liberty drowning in a sea of refugees, and the caption that 60% of Americans thought immigration was “bad for the country”—in 1993.
This America: The Case for the Nation by Jill Lepore
Few can excel at longform historical scholarship and pithy journalism like scholar and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. In the past year, Lepore has published a 960-page history of the United States that major reviewers have called brilliant, elegant, sweeping, and gripping, as well as almost a dozen articles, reviews, and podcasts, and perhaps most meaningful, this short defense of the American project.
Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life by Louise Aronson
Anyone who knows, loves, is, or hopes to be an old person should read and act on this analysis of our treatment, both medical and social, of the elderly. In an aging society, medicine still focuses on the “normal adult,” as if there were only continuity between our early 20s and life’s final decades. Years ago, Nobel Prize winner Pearl Buck said “Our society must make it right and possible for old people not to fear the young or be deserted by them, for the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” When geriatricians are in short supply and below the top 30 in specialist earnings, we haven’t succeeded.
The Gifted School: A Novel by Bruce Holsinger
Some readers will think this story of competitive parents, pressured children, and an admission process that brings out the worst in each is exaggerated. But our readership will see quite familiar behaviors. Holsinger gives us four closely bonded families and one outlier. The four families are varied enough—doctors and shop owners, athletes and sideline screamers, chess nerds, artists, and average kids—to hold our attention, and provide surprises both redeeming and damning. For the most part, the children, though not perfect, are caught in the machinations of their elders. Think Big Little Lies with only emotional casualties.
The Art of Being Lewis by Daniel Goodwin
Canadian architect Lewis Morton, co-designer of a major new building, is at the top of his career, when his world suddenly comes apart: a revered master architect accuses Lewis’ firm of plagiarism, the firm’s head dies suddenly, the business collapses, and Lewis finds himself in a personally compromising situation. Ever the worrier, Lewis’ motto appears to be, “If something is possible then it is worth fearing.” But in the end, the series of real troubles, and Lewis’ comic magnification of them, bring him to a new level of courage, as he “becomes who he is,” in the Nietzsche epigraph to the book’s final section.
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Patchett’s latest novel is, yes, about a house and a family, but it’s also about love and hate, revenge and forgiveness, exile and redemption, and materialism and spirituality. Born out of Cinderella and all the other stepmother tales, and most of all Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, but forget the analogies and watch in fascination as the book’s originality and richness take over. You will never pass a great old house again without wondering what stories it might hold.
Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang
This is a perfect example why science fiction now calls itself speculative fiction. No aliens, no space travel, no dystopias. Only nine mind-stretching tales based on technological or historical hypotheses. What would the world be like if creationism was orthodox scientific thought? If androids ran on air and picked up refilled lungs as we do propane tanks? If branching universes existed and you could meet an alternate self through a future Super-Skype? The sensation of the year in its field and beyond.
Paris in the Present Tense: A Novel, Mark Helprin
C.S. Lewis once wrote “You can never get a cup of tea large enough nor a book long enough to suit me.” He would have loved Helprin, whose novels average nearly 650 pages. His latest, at 400, is the baby of the family, perhaps because it follows Helprin’s fellow septuagenarian main character over a single year. But in this briefer span Helprin gives us not only exquisite prose, a vivid portrait of Paris, and a marvelous characterization of an aging musician, but a rich meditation on time, choice, and life.
The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life: A Library of America Special Publication
“Peanuts” almost perfectly spanned the second half of the 20th century, from October 1950 to December 1999. Twenty years later, the Library of America has added “Peanuts” to its American classics, between Paine and Poe. This collection offers a delightful range of commentaries, by authors from Umberto Eco to Maxine Hong Kingston, including analyses of Lucy’s incongruity as a psychiatrist and Snoopy’s triumphant narcissism, to a Jonathan Lethem parody of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” beginning “I saw the children of my neighborhood destroyed by comics.”
Recreating the Past
The Boys in The Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
In the 19th century, rowing was the ideal British sport because it prepared young men for the duties as they took their posts, military, administrative or diplomatic, among the far-flung possessions of Victorian England. Alone on the water, the cox and crew had to surmount whatever came their way. Brown’s tale of contests in the 1930s, and their small but meaningful place in a clash of ideologies, depicts a time before quarterback headsets and coaching histrionics, when “sporting values” meant more than contracts and endorsements. His balance of biography, rowing, and boat-building knowledge, the looming 1936 Olympics, and a crew of young men from the Pacific Northwest, rivals Levels of the Game or Seabiscuit.
A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith by Timothy Egan
Pilgrimage, eternity––neither will be selected soon as word of the year, though they might have often been during the past two millennia. But Egan makes them come alive as he follows the Christian pilgrim’s ancient route from Canterbury to Rome, in a book that’s an improbable blend of travelogue, spiritual reflection, culinary diary, and inner journey of a writer who describes himself as “lapsed but listening,” and who finally embraces a personal credo.
Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving by Mo Rocca
Not murdered mobsters, but a surprisingly varied, well-researched, and eloquent ramble through Rocca’s encyclopedic interests, including very few mortal passings— rather the “deaths” of trends, products, reputations, and eras. Whether you’re a fan of Audrey Hepburn or Thomas Paine, remember disco or the station wagon, or are curious about the demise of Prussia or medieval science, you’ll find this eclectic compendium by a notable journalist/humorist the absolutely perfect bathroom read.
Sight, Sound, and Science
On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation by Alexandra Horowitz
According to anthropologists, we evolved to learn while moving through ever-changing environments. Yet as moderns, we can miss almost all of what is happening around us walking along familiar city streets. But if you walk, as Horowitz did, in the company of observers, from a toddler to a typographer, a diagnostician to an urban designer, a doctor to a sound engineer, your walks will soon exemplify Proust’s observation,“The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life by Amy E. Herman
The author offers a guide to looking, not when in motion, but when closely examining something of significant interest to us. A lawyer and art historian, she has used her skills of intensive observation to teach not only museum-goers, but soldiers being posted to the Middle East. By seeing art with greater patience and curiosity, she offers the latter skills that may even save their lives. After reading her book, I found I was viewing paintings and sculptures I had known for years with greater attention and new insights.
Listening For America: Inside the Great American Songbook from Gershwin to Sondheim by Rob Kapilow
Concert-goers know Kapilow as an incisive musicologist who explains, without explaining away, the special qualities of a Mozart symphony or a Beethoven sonata. Now Kapilow turns to the American songbook and Broadway stage to give composers the same attention. Best of all, the book, and especially the e-book, is coordinated with YouTube videos that allow readers to listen to, and read the notes of, those key moments that make “I Got Rhythm,” “Tonight,” and 14 unforgettable others. The best blend of old and new technologies between covers I’ve yet found.
The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli
Any writer on physics who’s praised by novelist John Banville, naturalist Michael Pollan, and actor Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as his professional colleagues, must be exceptional—and Rovelli is. He uses analogy, witty diagrams, a sense of drama, and quotations from Horace, Shakespeare, Rilke, and the Grateful Dead to make his explanations of space-time, gravitational fields, and such, as Einstein said, “as simple as possible, but no simpler.” His idea that quantum time is composed of pointillist dots should take its place alongside Einstein’s elevator and Hilbert’s infinite hotel as masterpieces of explaining the inexplicable.
Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country by Pam Houston
Intrigued by this subtitle, I forgot finding hope means first losing it. Houston endured a horrendous childhood, subjected to the varied cruelties of wounded parents, to become an author and a teacher across North America. But her hope comes most from being a partner with nature for 25 years on a mountain ranch, under conditions few of us could endure for a season. Part memoir, part chronicle of ranch life, with detours to Alaska and other earthly wonders, it is most of all an ode to friendship and a prayerful elegy for nature.
One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder by Brian Doyle
With luck, every few years you find a writer who tells truths you knew and others you didn’t suspect, in language so perfect you want to read all they’ve ever done. This winter I found Brian Doyle, who poured out work in a fever pitch while facing death from cancer, before dying in 2017. Writing about family, nature, 9/11, silence, or scripture, Doyle’s long, resonant sentences are pitch-perfect and achingly true. He’s joined Wendell Berry, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Annie Dillard—even Emily Dickinson —on my shelves. One (short) example: “All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference.”
Recollections of My Nonexistence: A Memoir by Rebecca Solnit
Prolific author and social critic, most famous for Men Explain Things to Me, Solnit tells us how her complex life has led to her convictions, concerns, and activism. Although she writes about the “nonexistence” of, and the damage wreaked on, girls and women, native peoples, and others, her outlook is hopeful, and profoundly expressed. In a time of almost unparalleled fear and confusion, she tells us that “Our best as well as our worst emotions are contagious” and that we must resist “the best excuse for doing nothing: that you have no power and nothing you do matters.”
The Mind Has Cliffs of Fall: Poems at the Extremes of Feeling
This mostly somber collection of poems seem to have been poured out at the peak of emotion, unsubsided into tranquil recollection. In sections on madness, grief, love, manic laughter, and other heightened states, poets renowned and unfamiliar, declare themselves “Damn’d below Judas,” lament that “nothing now can ever come to good,” and ask, too late, “what did I know/of love’s austere and lonely offices?” If you believe with Keats that “in the very temple of Delight,/Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine,” this anthology is for you.