20 Books for Your Summer Reading List
I recently learned, or perhaps relearned, that the word “meander” is over two millennia old and comes from the Greek name of a particular river in the ancient world. I’m taking the word as my guide for this year’s book list, meandering along major streams and interesting backwaters. I hope you enjoy the trip.
I began Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin some time ago but put it down because of its subject: “In the middle of Europe in the middle of the 20th century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people.” In March, I picked it up again and found this fifth sentence: “It was 1933, and Joseph Stalin was deliberately starving Soviet Ukraine,” killing “more than 3 million.” Is it any wonder that Ukraine has been fighting so fiercely against today’s Russia? Snyder’s words that “the mass killing of the 20th century is of the greatest moral significance for the 21st” is truer today than he could have known when he wrote 10 years ago.
After Bloodlands, I needed a jolt of optimism and found it in Jane Goodall’s The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times. Often, our elders (Goodall is now 87) provide the wisdom and courage we need. Since turning 65, Goodall has written four books with hope in their titles—more than her books on chimpanzees. Goodall’s hope is not a blind optimism: “We are going through dark times,” she opens. The key words here are “going through,” displaying her belief darkness won’t prevail. Though she sees serious ills, particularly environmental, all around, she believes “we still have a window of time during which we can start healing the harm we have inflicted on the planet” but warns “that window is closing.” She says, “real hope…requires action and engagement” and asserts that “hope is contagious.”
To return to an ongoing condition, David Quammen’s Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, though published eight years before COVID-19, explains the animal-to-human contagion pattern as well as if it were just written. Of course, we’ve already had “the next,” and it’s all but certain there will be more “nexts” coming. After all, Quammen observes, “about 60% of all human infectious diseases currently known either cross routinely or have recently crossed between other animals and us.” Although Quammen has written a dozen books of science journalism, this is, so far, his most immediately relevant.
We’ve read about the complex and numerous organisms under our feet, around our houses, and within our bodies. The newest entry in this genre is Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, by Merlin Sheldrake. Without fungi, Sheldrake explains, plants could never have evolved or moved on land. Nor could we dine on mushrooms, which are only to a fungus what a blossom is to a plant. Fungal research is in its infancy, with an estimated 2 to 3 million species, of which we have studied only about 6%.
Despite its frightening title, A Molecule Away from Madness: Tales of the Hijacked Brain, by Sara Manning Peskin, is highly optimistic, describing the progress toward understanding how heredity, diet, or simply bad luck can ravage the human brain and nervous system, and how doctors are learning to manage and sometimes cure neurological conditions the way they developed cancer treatments over the past half century. Peskin, both a neurologist and a student of medical history, explains neurobiology clearly and succinctly. From Alzheimer’s to pellagra, prions to vitamins, she leads the reader around the world and into the laboratory with passion and compassion.
Closer to school, Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It, by psychologists Gale M. Sinatra and Barbara K. Hofer, is divided into two segments. They suggest key reasons for its prevalence: a “belief-based attitude,” “dysfunctional skepticism,” motivated disinformation on the part of authors and organizations, such as tobacco, pesticide, and energy companies, and the proliferation of non- or anti-scientific information sources. They suggest educators teach information literacy, not occasionally but consistently, training students to be enthusiastic fact-checkers. They show the U.S. generally lags behind other countries in scientific and mathematical literacy. Their work is replete with secondary sources that allow teachers to delve more deeply into the issues.
A Range of Histories
Charles King’s Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century is a history not of gods but of humans founding what came to be known as anthropology or ethnology, a subject made prominent at the end of the 19th century. The field centered on the academic work of Franz Boas and his disciples, first at the Smithsonian Institution and then at Columbia University. Boas, known as Papa to his students, organized separate Columbia scholars into the first department offering a Ph.D. in anthropology, which despite early ties to racist theories began to study world cultures in a comprehensive way. Many of Boas’s followers were women, including Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston’s work provided sources for her now renowned novel Their Eyes Were Watching God as well as her cultural study Mules and Men.
A different sort of chronicle, Scott Borchert’s Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America recounts how the Federal Writers Project provided work for Depression-era writers, producing thousands of pages on cities, states, and people. Borchert doesn’t attempt to cover the vast project, focusing on a few locations and lead authors. Two of these, Richard Wright (New York City) and Zora Neale Hurston (Florida), remain well-known, while a third, Nelson Algren (Chicago), was a major figure in his time. The fourth, Vardis Fisher (Idaho) was an “American original” whose unique and massive volume was highly praised by reviewers but now languishes among three used copies on Amazon. Chronicling tales of editors trying, usually unsuccessfully, to rein in writers, and of quirky volumes, which “mentioned all the places where Washington slept and where Lincoln was born,” but wouldn’t give you directions to Times Square. A delightful outlier that should send you to the library see if your locale was covered.
A pair of books published this past winter within weeks of each other cover other aspects of the written word most of us take for granted. Silvia Ferrara’s The Greatest Invention: A History of the World in Nine Mysterious Scripts widens our understanding of written language. Most of us have a vague awareness of the Greek and Cyrillic alphabets and grasp that ancient Egyptian and many East Asian languages work differently from our alphabetic ones. But what about Cretan hieroglyphics, the Mayan logo-syllabary, and most mysterious of all, the unique script Rongorongo, created on the Easter Islands before the language and population vanished? Ferrara explains why she believes writing is not only one of our most interesting but our greatest invention: “Without it, we would be only voice, suspended in a continual present.”
From the laziest student to the most serious scholar, we all depend on indexes. But we know very little about this tool, which came millennia after the first written works, because it depended on the now universal “book”—the codex. Before the codex, books were written on scrolls, which, having neither pages nor page numbers, could not be indexed. In Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age, Dennis Duncan points out that ebooks with a “search” function can to some degree do without indexes. But that form of search loses the serendipity of noticing another print-indexed word near the one we started with. If you can picture yourself with Duncan at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, a book from the 1470s in his hand, having “the most intense experience…of the archival sublime,” this book is for you.
The Personal Side
We end the catch-all term “nonfiction” with three very personal works, loosely grouped around the concept “memoir.”
In South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, independent school graduate and Princeton professor Imani Perry offers a revelatory travel narrative. She explains “while this book is not a history, it is a true story,” because “I passed over many famous places and lingered in unusual ones.” Perhaps replying to laws barring schools from talking about race, she says, “If you want to understand a nation, or have aspirations for it that are decent, myth ought to be resisted.” She observes that the chronicle of 1940s Alabama, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, covered white people exclusively even though Blacks were a “supermajority” there. Taking a long view, she connects the pre-Civil War diagnosis of drapetomania, the belief that only mentally ill slaves would want to run away, and the current massively disproportionate imprisonment of Black people in states across the South. But she also honors the efforts of Black people and white allies to create necessary organizations, including most historically black colleges, and accurate monuments like the National Lynching Memorial.
Grace M. Cho is another cross-cultural writer who explores her roots through scholarship and life experience. After her award-winning academic study Haunting the Korean Diaspora, Cho turned to her family’s immigrant life in Tastes Like War and recounted her mother’s American life as “a war bride…saved from third world Korea.” Through a cross-cutting timeline, she writes of her “three mothers”: the glamorous cook and housewife, the increasingly fragile victim of “florid psychosis,” and the somewhat recovered parent accepting Cho as her late years’ support. In each phase, food was central to mother’s story but beneath all was the never completely answered question: Was mother’s mania the result of her PTSD as one of the so-called Korean “comfort women,” forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese conquerors and later by her own government and the U.S. military?
Five years ago, this list included two books by rural authors James Rebanks and J.D. Vance. In the interim, the authors’ lives diverged in profoundly different ways. Vance is now a “populist conservative” candidate for the Ohio Senate, while Rebanks has remained committed to farming in England’s Lake District. Rebanks’ recent Pastoral Song: A Farmer’s Journey describes a period in which, he believes, “people everywhere seemed to have gone insane, electing fools and doing strange things in their anger. England was divided and broken.” He chose to respond by emulating his grandfather, whose goal was “Doing things well…not doing things quickly or with the least effort.” He enlarged his farm, learned new methods of husbandry, and worked with environmentalists to repair the damage done by bad farming methods of the past. Will he ever run for office? Will there ever be a movie about him? Probably not. But he will have the satisfaction of raising his children on his farm, and of moments like this: “One of the old men tells me quietly that he is proud of me, and I look to see if he is joking, but he isn’t.”
While nonfiction usually begins with a topic or problem, fiction often starts with a unique premise: What if someone followed a white rabbit down a rabbit hole or commissioned a self-portrait that aged while the subject stayed youthful?
Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly develops such a premise with consummate skill. (Spoiler alert: I can’t go on without revealing the bare bones of his concept.) What if a commercial flight from France to the U.S. encountered severe turbulence, and U.S. radar saw the flight but couldn’t find any data about it until discovering that the exact same flight had landed two months earlier with the same passenger manifest? How would the travelers cope with the appearance of doppelgängers whose lives exactly paralleled their own, except for the last 60 days? Multiple stories display the variations of these dual lives. Finishing The Anomaly, I had to agree with a reviewer who asked if it’s science fiction, philosophy, or high-concept thriller, and concluded “none…all.”
Dutch-born South American novelist Benjamín Labatut also surprises in When We Cease to Understand the World, which stirs history, science, and speculation into an absorbing stew. Beginning in the late 19th century, when numerous chemical discoveries were used either to slaughter opposing armies or to keep soldiers fighting “in a deranged state,” Labatut turns to later physicists and mathematicians, whose discoveries often defied rationality, such as the little known Karl Schwarzschild, who calculated the complete deformation of space-time at the heart of a dying star and who soon died of a rare autoimmune disease, mimicking the internal death of the stars; or Irwin Schrödinger, whose cat is neither alive nor dead until observed, and Heisenberg, whose Uncertainty Principle is known to many who know no other quantum physics. These discoveries made Einstein cry “God does not play dice with the Universe.” But Labatut does.
Despite Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ title, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois offers only a fleeting glimpse of Du Bois. But his words begin each of the book’s “Songs,” framing the events of several centuries, moving from one modern woman to her family and ancestors, direct and indirect, in Africa and slave-era Georgia, focusing on the endless chain of domination and degradation by whites of people of color, both African and Native American, and of women by men. It is impossible to give even a taste of the power and complexity of this 800-page book, which is an astonishing first novel by a writer previously known for her poetry. But it occurred to me that the book may best be summarized as a “quest for a usable past.”
Irish writer Colm Tóibín's novel The Magician, which covers the same period as Labatut’s, tells the story of Thomas Mann, from the 1880s to the early 1950s. Tóibín reveals both the outer Mann, who shuns the family business to become a Nobel Prize winner and a symbol of German resistance; and the inner man, whose diaries expose aspects of his thinking that deepen and enrich the reading of his novels. Tóibín dramatizes certain moments in Mann’s life, such as a World War II dinner with the Roosevelts, but stays entirely faithful to what is now known about the author. The Magician exemplifies Mann’s own dictum that “only the exhaustive can be truly interesting.”
After consecutive Pulitzers and a National Book Award, Colson Whitehead apparently decided to give someone else a chance for glory, publishing Harlem Shuffle, a tale of urban life featuring an occasionally shifty furniture store owner named Ray Carney. It takes place in the late 1950s, as he tries to grow a business that sells both new and used furniture to a Harlem clientele and also avoid too much involvement with the darker side of the law. The sometimes harsh story of police brutality, payoffs to protect the store, and a thwarted robbery by white gangsters, is illuminated by humor, vivid depictions of New York City, and a warm family life that shows Ray to be what Harlem called a “striver. “
Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians takes us into a fictional world but one that walks the line between life and literature. The grammarians are twin sisters Daphne and Laurel—Laurel is older by 17 minutes and “Daphne hated those 17.” But the sisters share a love of words beginning almost as soon as they can talk. In childhood “they played with words as if they were…mental toys,” and as adults, they each take language-related jobs: preschool teaching and copy editing. Daphne later becomes a prescriptive newspaper columnist, saying “I don’t judge. I discriminate between right and wrong,” while Laurel follows more descriptive principles. Another perfect book for language lovers.
Martin Cruz Smith gained a worldwide following for mysteries featuring the career of Moscow detective Arkady Renko. But December 6 takes us to 1940s Japan, following civilian bar owner Harry Niles (shades of Casablanca), an American brought up in, and deeply acculturated into, Japanese society, who finds himself in Tokyo as his adopted and original nations move inexorably closer to war. After a brief introduction to Harry’s boyhood, Smith condenses his story into a bare 48 hours. The ending is a fitting conclusion to an edge-of-your-seat story, the kind that will reward you for completing one or more of the “serious” works above.