Monthly Archives: June 2011

Summer reading recommendations No. 3

Editor’s note: Stephen Bates is an assistant professor in the Hank Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at UNLV. He is a contributing editor of the Wilson Quarterly, a magazine of ideas published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

By Stephen Bates

Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men by Mara Hvistendahl. A Beijing-based writer for Science, she cites a demographer who estimates that Asia is short 163 million girls and women — more than the total female population of the United States — because of sex-selective abortion. It’s a huge issue in China and India, but it’s happening in the Caucasus and the Balkans too. In nearly every country, people want boys. (The great exception is the United States, where fertility clinics that do sex selection report that parents strongly prefer girls.) It’s a smart and deeply alarming book, the kind of thing that makes you wonder why this isn’t a front-page problem. Part of the answer, the author says, is that it’s entangled in abortion politics here. Christian Right groups hope — and abortion-rights groups fear — that sex-selective abortion may be a wedge for restricting abortion rights in general.

Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground by Jonathan Kay. A book about conspiracy theories and their adherents, by an editor of Canada’s National Post, that manages to be both richly anecdotal and cleverly analytical.

The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting by Rachel Shteir (forthcoming in July). Includes an amusing account of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, which was hugely popular — and frequently stolen — despite the fact that most bookstores wouldn’t carry it and most newspapers would neither review it nor publish ads for it.

Extravagant Expectations: New Ways to Find Romantic Love in America by Paul Hollander. A cultural historian’s mildly crotchety look at today’s ways of wooing. One chapter analyzes the self-inflated personals ads from the New York Review of Books and other upscale American publications, and compares them to the self-deprecating, often hilarious personals that appear in the London Review of Books.

Still ahead are a couple of books from last year:

Hitch-22: A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens. When I was literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly, he wrote several reviews for me. He came to a couple of my writing classes in D.C., too, and we went to dinner a half-dozen times there and once in Vegas. The smartest, best-read and most prolific person I’ve ever met.

Freedom at Risk: Reflections on Politics, Liberty, and the State by James L. Buckley. When he was a federal appellate judge in D.C., I clerked for him. Formerly a senator from New York (Moynihan beat him), he’s a conservative environmentalist in the Teddy Roosevelt mold and a principled, courtly, old-fashioned gentleman.

And, for a class I’ll teach in fall 2012 in Prague, I’m reading a lot of travel writing. Suggestions welcome!

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Summer reading recommendations No. 2

By Scott Dickensheets

Here’s what we’re gonna do. Instead of suggesting books you should read this summer, because how would I know?, I’ll tell you what I plan to read — hope to read — foolishly believe I’ll actually read — in the next few months. (It’s hard, people; the heat messes with my brain.) Since I haven’t read any of ’em yet, I can’t recommend them on any basis except that something about each has goosed it toward the top of my to-read pile.

FICTION

Okay, I’m mildly contradicting myself first thing, because I have read 10 or 15 pages of Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, which I was relieved to discover is not, in fact, about a pregnant widow. It is about sex, but that’s not why I want to read it; it’s also about rich, textured language, which is why. (Also, it’s about sex.) Newly out in paperback, its story involves randy young Brits experiencing a hot, wet Italian summer back in the 60s, when sex was still incredible and filled with meaning. If that’s not enough British fiction for me, I have a copy of Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot idling at the ready, although I fear it might actually be about Flaubert’s parrot.

Flaubert was French, which I mention solely because it transitions smoothy into Disaster Was My God, Bruce Duffy’s forthcoming (July 19) novel about that other great French literary prospect, Season in Hell poet Arthur Rimbaud. Duffy is an acclaimed and brainy writer — he previously novelized upon the life of Wittgenstein — and Rimbaud is a notorious figure (transformed poetry by age 20, then quit literature for African gun-running), who inspired such great performers as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith and Eddie and the Cruisers. So it should be heavy duty.

When I want some light duty, though — and I surely will, summer being the season of escapist reading — I’ll turn to Death Likes It Hot, one of the mystery novels Gore Vidal wrote under the name Edgar Box back in the 1950s. It stars a dashing PR man, which is how you know it’s fiction.

NONFICTION

No one noticed this book when it came out late last year: The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story From Buchenwald to New Orleans. In it, journalist Mark Jacobson tries to learn the origin of a lamp with a shade made of human skin. It screams Nazi, of course, and Jacobson runs down that angle, but he also uses the occasion to investigate death, hatred and evil. Jacobson’s a good reporter and a great stylist, so I expect the book to be filled with terrific place descriptions and nicely drawn characters. I’ll probably augment that by reading Rescuing Evil: What We Lose, Ron Rosenbaum’s 22-page essay, available as a Kindle Single, about the pitfalls of trying to ameliorate the concept of evil.

My pal Steve Friedman’s memoir of life and bad behavior in the trenches of romance and the Manhattan media world, Lost on Treasure Island, comes out any minute and will show you a good time: breezily self-lacerating one moment, bleakly revelatory the next, and funny throughout.

A trio of books coming out in late August or the first of September will let me end the season in a blurt of — I trust — quality reading. Christopher Hitchens’ Arguably collects a batch of his essays on politics, which I don’t always agree with, and literature, which I don’t always understand. But I almost always enjoy watching his mind work. Tom Piazza’s Devil Sent the Rain is a collection of essays about about America, music and, if I’m reading the title correctly, New Orleans, about which he’s written before.

And the book I’m most curious about: Colby Buzzell’s Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey. Expanding on a transcontinental ramble he took for Esquire magazine, Buzzell’s book should be a ground-level look at our country, through the haunted eyes of a former soldier wracked by his service in Iraq and wondering what America is all about. Some quality about Buzzell’s prose, something I can’t pin down and analyze, has stuck with me since his Esquire days. Can’t wait.

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Summer reading recommendations No. 1

By Geoff Schumacher

I don’t buy the longstanding assumption that “summer reading” must be breezy and escapist. First of all, the image of the woman in bathing suit and floppy hat on chaise lounge under umbrella on beach engrossed in book is something you almost never see. Perhaps a few people read on the beach — I’ve done it — but sadly, most modern-day vacations don’t offer enough time for that sort of leisurely activity.

Plus, even if that image held true, it’s not clear why the beachgoer must necessarily read a murder mystery or international thriller. It feels more like a device to sell airport books than an actual reflection of American life.

And so, I offer a somewhat unorthodox list of summer reading recommendations. These are not “difficult” books by any means, but I would contend that they are more challenging and satisfying than the typical summer fare, while still bringing the pleasure commonly associated with a summer vacation.

The Wilding by Benjamin Percy. This 2010 novel is a combination of so-called literary fiction and suspenseful crime/adventure story. Although Percy’s literary efforts are evident in the nuanced characters and vivid settings, the novel actually works best as a fast-paced narrative. Three generations of men go hunting in the mountains of central Oregon and encounter a range of threats to their very survival. A separate menace threatens the wife/mother who stays behind. Along the way, Percy does a brilliant job of portraying the flora and fauna of central Oregon, where he is from, and exhibiting his knowledge of the practices of fishing, hunting and camping. The novel falls down in its unconvincing portrayals of a troubled marriage and a near-miss act of infidelity, but the gripping narrative is ample compensation.

To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 by Adam Hochschild. This 2011 history of anti-war protesters and soldiers sent to slaughter during World War I is as eye-opening as history books get. By almost all accounts, World War I was an unmitigated disaster, from its absurdly unjustified causes to its horribly bungled execution on both sides to its wholly unsatisfactory conclusion — a conclusion that ultimately and inevitably led to the even more destructive World War II and still reverberates in the Balkans and the Middle East to this day. Hochschild does a brilliant job of telling the stories of those relative few who opposed the war and paid a price for it, and the millions of soldiers who walked into the buzzsaw of warfare in which they were doomed to death before they ever stepped on the field of battle. If you don’t know much about World War I, start with this brilliant book.

Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer. I’ve written about Dyer elsewhere on this site, so I would refer you farther down the page for more information on why I think this is such a great book. But suffice to say here that Dyer’s reviews, essays, and articles all possess his distinctive, fascinating, and at time annoying voice. This Londoner is the ultimate slacker. He has managed — no doubt through a combination of writing talent and persistence — to carve out a freelance life in which he writes about whatever he wants whenever the fancy strikes him. Fortunately for us, Dyer can make just about any subject interesting.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson. Bryson is a fun and endlessly informative writer on many nonfiction topics. In this 2010 book, he strolls through the history of domestic life, using the rooms of the very old house in which he lives in England as the foundation. This is far from an academic or comprehensive treatment of domestic history, and that’s what makes it so engrossing. Bryson covers the interesting stuff — the advent of glass windows, the Victorian reluctance to bathe — and leaves the rest of it for somebody else. This is a history of how daily life developed into everything we take for granted today. Hard to imagine a more entertaining beach read.

Here are a few other books I heartily recommend:

Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin. Beautifully wrought 2010 novel of a boy and a horse, by the author of Motel Life, soon to be a major motion picture.

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Easily one of the best — and funniest — novels of 2010. Shteyngart’s visions of a near-future dystopian world is equal parts hilarious and terrifying.

How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell. Engrossing exploration of the life and practical philosophy of the great French essayist, perhaps the first “modern man.”

The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories by Debra Marquart. Short stories about life on the road for rock ’n’ roll bands that are a long way from the big time. These stories have the flavor of authenticity, as Marquart writes from firsthand experience. First published in 2001.

Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps by Ted Kooser. Touching and beautiful prose sketches and essays about the grit and glories of country life in the Midwest by the nation’s former poet laureate.

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