16 Books for Your Summer Break
Almost everyone has read Emily Dickinson’s “There is no Frigate like a Book,” if only on a free bookmark. The poem reminds us that books have the capacity “To take us Lands away.” It is that sentiment that inspired me when putting together this annual summer reading list. The picks I share here will take you to lands and times away, as well as on inner journeys.
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
The book opens: “Deacon Cuffy Lambkin…became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .38 Colt in the face of a 19-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.” Both Sportcoat and Deems live many years more, despite encounters with Italian, Irish, and Black mobsters and a mysterious message leading to a Stone Age relic. McBride offers a blend of urban patois and sudden lyrical outbursts from his characters, creating a work at once gritty and moving.
Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
This novel takes us to Elizabethan England during the time of the Bubonic Plague in a vividly imagined tour de force that covers two decades and three generations of a certain family in Stratford, England: grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, and the eponymous child, dead at age 11. Hamnet’s father, barely mentioned and never named, only takes center stage—pun intended—in the last pages of the book, in the one role he is said to have played—the ghost of Hamlet’s father. This novel gives substance to a whole family almost lost to history or skillfully defeats all our expectations regarding a particular glovemaker-turned-actor/playwright. In fact, it does both.
The King at the Edge of the World by Arthur Phillips
An entirely different imagining of the Elizabethan era: “In Constantinople, in the land of the Turks, early in the Christian year 1591, viziers to Murad the Great...Sultan of the Ottomans, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Caliph of Caliphs, dispatched an embassy to a far-off, sunless, primitive, sodden, heathen kingdom at the far cliffside edge of the civilized earth. The sultan chose as his ambassador a loyal and trusted man, but nobody of great importance, to negotiate with the people of that patch of damp turf.” That ambassador’s personal doctor lives out his life in England, undergoing metamorphoses worthy of Ovid and providing glimpses of both Elizabeth I and James VI.
Bone Horses by Lesley Poling Kempes
Kempes is a regional writer, who is likely to be found only by travelers whose souvenirs come from a well-stocked bookshop. Her book is set in contemporary New Mexico and stretches back to the unexplained death of the main character’s mother, an archeological dig for a Triassic dinosaur descendant, and an enduring mystery that affects several families over three generations. It exemplifies the state’s nickname “Land of Enchantment,” while bringing together two characters whose enchantment with goodness and evil provide a shocking climax.
The Encampment (Volume 3 of the Miss Oliver’s School for Girls series) by Stephen Davenport
This novel brings us back to our home ground of independent schools—and the boarding school that has been at the center of Davenport’s ambitious trilogy. This concluding work, like its predecessors, manages adroitly to combine its own genre about the little world of single-sex prep schools with the sudden clash of a large moral wrong and the instinctive reaction of three sheltered students. The book’s vivid scenes of a school community, its head, and her family, and the young man in need who challenges all of them to balance obedience to rules with an opposing imperative.
Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World by Simon Winchester
Having covered the Atlantic and Pacific oceans a few years ago, Winchester concluded the only thing left large enough for his attention was land. His focus here is more anthropocentric and more polemical than his watery works, as he explores “how the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world.” Starting with his first purchase of a small plot 20 years ago, he surveys the history of land ownership, reveling in the many ways the earth has named its categoric divisions: “prefectures and wapentakes, dioceses, sokes, hundreds and boroughs.” But Winchester attests to the ills caused by the hunger for property, from the wry, “It is not so much that you own it; it is just you own the right to tell everyone else to keep off it,” to the somber question of “why so many all across the world seem to go to such great lengths to acquire, to mortgage themselves for, to fight for, to steal, to borrow, to buy, to marry for, to settle upon, to commune with an entity which, in truth, cannot possibly be owned, by anyone, ever.”
War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan
Although relatively brief, War covers a vast range of topics, from weaponry to causes, soldiers to civilians, rules of engagement to horrific abrogations of those rules. Perhaps her most important observation is, “Most of us clearly would not choose to make war to get its benefits. Surely there is some other way of doing it. But have we yet found it?” When conflicts of all sorts, from riots to revolutions, invasions by military force and by technological infiltration, appear only to grow in variety and frequency, McMillan offers a helpful perspective on this unending epidemic.
What’s It Like to Be a Bird by David Allen Sibley
Illustrated by the author’s own paintings, the book works on several levels: as a general guide on bird behavior, a series of character and habit portraits, and a quirky look at the odd habits of many species. A surprising birder’s footnote: The great ornithologists of the past three centuries are each triple-named—Sibley, his predecessor Roger Tory Peterson, and John James Audubon—each of whom lived or died in New York state.
The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars by Jo Marchant
The Number of the Heavens: A History of the Multiverse and the Quest to Understand the Cosmos by Tom Siegfried
These two recent works of popular astronomy consider the ways humanity has struggled to understand the stars and see ourselves in connection to them. Marchant focuses on what John Donne called “dull sublunary” matters, finding that “the movements of the Sun, Moon, and even stars are not just distant events that we observe. They’re directly influencing our immediate environment—and us.” Only recently have scientists confirmed that “butterflies track the Sun; moths follow the Moon…Starlings orient north from the celestial pole and dung beetles roll their dung balls in straight lines by orienting against the glowing streak of the Milky Way.”
Siegfried looks entirely upward, asking whether there are many universes or one? Examining primarily Western thought over the past three millennia, he shows that not only astronomers but philosophers, theologians, novelists, and mathematicians—from Aristotle to Stephen Hawking—have considered this question. He takes us on a journey and reveals that “the message of the multiverse debate may turn out to be that modern science is still, in some respects, medieval.” After all, it was the aptly named Bishop Robert Grosseteste (“Big Head”) who proposed more than 800 years ago that “there might well exist heavenly bodies that no one would ever see.”
Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Two companions to PBS series take us into different periods of American racial history. Gates reminds us of the long determination of southern states to cancel the freedoms enslaved people won through the Civil War and subsequent constitutional amendments. Less than two decades passed before Reconstruction gave way to what Southern states ironically termed Redemption, meaning the return of white supremacy through local laws and vigilantism. Among the most striking portions of the book are the decisions made by the Supreme Court that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was unconstitutional, and that the 13th and 14th amendments only applied to actions by state governments, not individuals, allowing decades of mob violence and lynchings.
Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights by Gretchen Sorin
This book looks to the early 20th century and to our own time, recounting the discrimination, humiliation, and even threats to life that Black motorists experienced almost everywhere they traveled. Cars significantly improved mobility but at potentially great costs. The ongoing deaths of Black motorists at the hands of police provides a distressing insight into these historical issues.
The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee
This volume is sure to take its place alongside Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness as central documents in the exposure of racism’s heavy hand on Blacks and whites alike. McGhee’s work is the product of decades research on how racial stereotypes, fearmongering, and outright deceit have kept Black people oppressed and disenfranchised. Poor whites are just a notch above them, persuaded that people of color—not white bankers, politicians, demagogues, and lawyers—are the cause of their immiseration. By now, many have seen its cover and heard its almost incredible story of how towns across the nation once filled in community pools, formerly a sign of civic pride, lest Black people enter their waters. McGhee also chronicles the destruction of public schools after Brown v. Board of Education, the abandonment of infrastructure, the filling of jails with low-level offenders, the refusal to accept Medicare even when it came with full funding, and the economic ruin of millions of white would-be homeowners as byproducts of racial targeting.
The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael Sandel
Sandel examines the history of meritocracy from Pelagius to Darwinism to contemporary political thinking, arguing that politicians, from left to right, hold that individuals have the right to go “as high and as far” as their gifts take them, only differing about what barriers must be removed to allow this. But Sandel argues convincingly—and disturbingly—that this belief is contrary to the general welfare and has harmed both the “winners,” who must constantly strive to maintain their place. At Harvard, even upon entry, students must compete viciously to join prestigious clubs, so the extra-curriculum of freshman year is “Rejection 101.” Meanwhile, the “losers” have two options: bear the shame of their own inability and meager share of the good life, or rage against the elitism of meritocracy.
The Pattern-Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention by Simon Baron-Cohen
Continuing his examination of people whose systematizing orientation is far above average, Baron-Cohen explores the positive utility of the systematizing and the empathizing mind. He notes how systematizing minds can be found among inventors of genius such as Edison, who combined hyperfocus and exceptional power of what Baron-Cohen calls “if-and-then thinking,” and dogged analysts of mind-numbing reams of data, such as an HP unit of workers on the spectrum who are 30% more successful at debugging programs than average. He makes valuable suggestions about tailoring education to play to these individuals’ strengths.
Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek Murthy
The author describes his distress at the growing isolation of individuals and families—a trend accelerated by the many months when “getting close enough to breathe on another person became synonymous with danger.” As he observes, “even that term, social distancing, seemed to condemn us to loneliness.” But he observes that “social distancing is a misnomer. To be sure we must practice physical distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, but socially, we may emerge from this crisis feeling closer to friends and family members than ever before.” By the time you read this, you can decide for yourself if this hope is being realized.