25 Books for Your Summer Break
As I prepared this blog post, two quotations kept running through my head: Samuel Johnson’s aphorism, “The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it,” and Karl Marx’s directive, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Enjoy, endure, describe, change—I leave it to each reader to decide which books they think will offer the benefits they desire.
The Silence of The Girls by Pat Barker
The Iliad may be the most masculine of epics—certainly more than The Odyssey, in which many writers and critics have seen a feminine hand. But what if we heard from one of The Iliad’s women: Briseis, taken from Achilles by Agamemnon, then returned. Out of a bare half-dozen mentions, Barker created a character rooted in the ancient world who speaks for the conquered, the forgotten, and the half of humanity that stuffers the special horrors of war—and sees through the bravado and brutality of men.
There There by Tommy Orange
A first novel by a Native American writer hailed as the successor to Sherman Alexie, There There takes us into the world of the “Urban Indian,” for whom “the downtown skyline” of Oakland is more familiar than any mountain range. By turns lyrical and coarse, hopeful and despairing, Orange shows us truths of both history and the present—truths that explode in a foreseen, yet nevertheless shocking, denouement.
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Life After Life, Atkinson’s dazzling tour de force about Ursula Todd, a woman living multiple lifetimes during the 20th century, is followed by this somewhat more linear story covering four generations of the Todds. The book centers on her brother Teddy, a World War II bomber pilot, and the rest of the family. Atkinson uses all the tools of narrative fiction in this parallel tale, while displaying her metafictional chops even more dramatically.
No Ivory Tower by Stephen Davenport
This novel about an independent girls’ school, by a longtime teacher and head of school, is the sequel to Saving Miss Oliver’s. As Miss Oliver’s School for Girls begins the year under its new African American head of school, its opening crisis arrives on campus in the form of a belligerent conservative talk show host. Inside the school, we find a declining classroom superstar, a brilliant but impetuous student, and an all-too-familiar variety of life and work issues that test both leader and community. Many of this blog’s readers can relate.
The Gates, The Infernals, and The Creeps (The Samuel Johnson Series) by John Connolly
Somewhere between Lemony Snicket and J.R.R. Tolkien, Connolly has carved out a unique territory of goofy humor, literary erudition, and occasional terror. Ten-year-old Samuel Johnson and his dachshund, Boswell, find themselves at the center of a War of Worlds, as the CERN collider opens a wormhole to the underworld, and a middle-aged woman becomes the vessel for Beelzebub’s incursion into ours. Add kleptomaniac dwarves, allusive character and place names (“science teacher Mr. Karloff”), and sly asides to the reader, and you have a trilogy for kids and young-at-heart adults.
The Hope Circuit: A Psychologist's Journey from Helplessness to Optimism by Martin Seligman
In 1895 Freud wrote that psychiatry had done well if it had turned hysterical misery into ordinary human unhappiness. Fortunately, recent therapists have had more ambitious goals. One of the pioneers in this direction, Seligman recounts the story of the positive psychology movement with enthusiasm, humor, and modesty. He proposes counter-Freudian aphorisms such as “happiness is more than the absence of unhappiness” and “we are drawn into the future rather than driven by the past.” In doing so, he has written a book that might serve as a therapeutic experience itself.
Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen
From the authors of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most comes an equally insightful study of the hardest conversations of all—the ones in which we find ourselves at the receiving end of insights we want to reject at any cost. Two key pieces of advice: Be sure the giver and the recipient agree the conversation is one of appreciation, coaching, or evaluation, and seek useful feedback by asking “What’s one thing you see me doing that’s getting in my way?” (Try to find the original hardback, which has the funniest self-referential cover ever.)
Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say it, and When to Listen by Wendy Mogel
The author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B Minus offers a cradle-to-college guide for communicating with young people. Though aimed at parents, Voice Lessons should be on the shelf of every school counselor, adviser, and administrator. Drawing equally on the latest developmental research and on uncommon common sense, she offers advice that seems exceptionally apt today: “The way to protect your child is not by trying to outmaneuver the future. It’s by focusing on what is timeless and providing the basics children have always needed: stability, consistency, tenderness, and acceptance.”
Brain Rules for Aging Well: 10 Principles for Staying Vital, Happy, and Sharp by John Medina
Medina’s 12 Brain Rules argued that we were evolutionarily designed to solve survival problems in an unstable outdoor environment while in near-constant motion—the inverse of a traditional classroom. In his latest book, he has better news for those who have spent careers on the other side of the desk. Research shows the benefits of having friends of all ages; voracious reading, but only of books, decreases mortality significantly; each year you work after 60 cuts your risk of dementia; and every year of education delays cognitive decline by about two and a half months. In short, lifelong learning makes for a long life.
The Sovereignty of the Accidental by Michael Brosnan
Common wisdom has it that poets flourish in youth. But Independent School’s former editor challenges that assumption with a first volume rich in every virtue poetry can command: precise descriptions, original metaphors, personal revelation, cosmic speculation, and lively wordplay. Time, he tells us, “hates houses and borders and walls and clean hair,” and “sort of likes history, but after a while gets bored.” You won’t.
The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan; Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays; and Come, Thief: Poems by Jane Hirshfield
It takes three books to encompass the breadth of this poet, translator, and critic. Whether bringing the writing of Japanese women poets from the first millennium to the modern reader (Moon), delving into the poetic mind and its procedures (Gates), or exemplifying what she extols (Thief), Hirshfield belongs in a rare circle of tri-talented writers. A favorite line: “Wrong solitude vinegars the soul/right solitude oils it.”
Biography and Autobiography
Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom by David W. Blight
Blight tells us Frederick Douglass was the most photographed, most widely heard, and perhaps most traveled American of the 19th century. Yet, this multiple autobiographer remains an elusive figure. Using newly available materials and a deep understanding of Douglass’s era, Blight gives us insight into Douglass’s impact and the forces that drove him. If Lin-Manuel Miranda reads this book, we might expect another Broadway phenomenon.
The Bold World: A Memoir of Family and Transformation by Jodie Patterson
Patterson’s bold world is Janus-headed. A contemporary African American woman of significant privilege, she looks back on generations of women who rebelled against social and legal strictures, yet finds herself boxed in as a light-skinned woman who “can marry well.” Instead, she finds her own mission as the parent of a transgender child who, like his ancestors, demonstrates that “we are who we know ourselves to be, not how others perceive us.”
Educated by Tara Westover
Westover lived most of her life on American soil but in an environment few of her readers have experienced or even imagined. The daughter of a survivalist parent, she and her siblings were never even registered as having been born but lived under a father’s brutal domination, as he prepared for the apocalypse by hoarding gasoline and making his own bullets. How she escaped that world to Cambridge and Harvard is the subject of this ambiguously titled memoir.
Essays and Nonfiction
Impossible Owls: Essays by Brian Phillips
For the armchair traveler, Phillips’s breadth of interests and dazzlingly imaginative prose make it “almost like being there,” whether following the Iditarod in a two-man plane, touring Indian game preserves in search of tigers, or learning why small towns seem the favorite vacation spots for aliens. There are also chapters on the greatest film animator in Russian history and on Queen Elizabeth II.
The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel; The Library Book by Susan Orlean
From the Library of Alexandria (established around 250 BCE) to the Los Angeles Central Library (1926–1986), both consumed by massive fires, these two volumes take us in radically different yet complementary journeys. The Library at Night is a reverie, traveling in its author’s mind as he writes his personal bibliothèque in a renovated French barn, from China to Buenos Aires, from Hammurabi to Hitler (a part of whose library, we learn, resides in the Library of Congress). The intrepid journalist Orlean takes us through the devastation of the LA Library, the physics of book burning, the work of re-collecting and restoration, and the unsolved mystery of its probable arson.
Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean
Kean’s previous popular science books have considered the periodic table, the gene, and the brain. In this work he takes up the atmosphere, or atmospheres, as he explains, that have over millennia come and gone before finally staying on and around our planet. He provides comprehensible explanations of everything from planetary formation to anesthesia, along with stories of scientists, con artists, and ordinary people whose lives are altered by one gaseous phenomenon or another.
Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live by Rob Dunn
In 2016, Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes revealed the countless creatures cohabiting our bodies that are mostly harmless, beneficial, and necessary. Dunn tells a similar story of everything we can (rarely) see, and usually don’t notice, in our dwellings. This microanalyst’s theme is that our homes, like our bodies, are more complex and less threatening than we think in the heyday of germ- and dirt-phobia. The moral seems to be: “Keep it clean, but not too clean.”
For Our Time
The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump by Michiko Kakutani
During her decades as a lead reviewer for The New York Times, Kakutani studied both the issues of our age and the conflicts that preceded, often by centuries. In a brief yet remarkably thorough book, she traces the roots of our current confusion and polarization, from relativism to deconstructionism, from Nazi propagandists to Internet silos. In the end, she turns to the beliefs of Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King for a vision of how we can return to a civil and rational polity.
White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo
As Einstein may have said, explanations should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. Authors such as Peggy McIntosh, Beverly Daniel Tatum, and Claude Steele have deepened our understanding of race. DiAngelo, who is white, is the latest writer to examine how complex the issue remains, and why even raising the topic is often met with anger and refusal to engage.
Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor
When a nationally renowned Episcopal preacher leaves the pulpit to spend a decade teaching comparative religion at a small Christian college in Georgia, her blending of classroom and field work on the major faiths opens her, and many of her students, to the variety of blessings to be found in each. In a time when a single week can bring news of atrocities committed against the adherents of many different creeds, this is a singularly necessary book.