August Reading

The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.
Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

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Getting ready to settle in with Shirley Jackson this afternoon.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky middle-aged person, I don’t like the fact that August has become the new September. Labor Day used to signal the end of summer, and even that seemed too early, given that September is usually the most glorious month of the year. One good thing about this unwelcome change is that more books seem to be released in August. Maybe publishers are thinking of August as the beginning of the fall season — traditionally the prime time for publication?

The trend towards shortened summers has bothered me for years (although not nearly as much as it must bother people trying to run seasonal businesses).  “Autumn creep” also annoys Ann Patchett and her staff at Parnassus Books — their blog post, Summer’s Not Over — Keep Right on Reading and Relaxing, echoes my feelings:

Do not despair. Despite all those back-to-school flyers about pencils and backpacks, summer is nowhere near over. (At least not for grownups, right?) It’s August! The sun’s out, the days are long, and every week brings a new crop of fantastic new releases in your neighborhood bookstore. So plant yourself defiantly in a hammock and insist on what’s yours: one more month of leisurely reading time. Reality can wait its turn.

9781400063369The Parnassus staff has some great book recommendations, including two of my recent favorites: The Light of the World, a beautiful meditation on loss and healing, by Elizabeth Alexander, and Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, by Robert Kurson, as well as a new novel my colleague Molly absolutely loved: Fishbowl, by Bradley Somer. The August selection for Parnassus’s First Editions Book Club is Circling the Sun, a biographical novel about Beryl Markham by Paula McLain (The Paris Wife). I enjoyed Circling the Sun very much, although some of my coworkers weren’t enamored with McLain’s writing style. It inspired me to reread sections of Markham’s memoir, West With the Night, which was one of the first books my book club read, back in 1988.

9781101873472-1I’m really excited about several books published this month. Melanie Sumner’s debut novel, How to Write a Novel (a paperback original), is a delight. I loved every page of this book, and what I enjoyed most was the voice of the 12.5-year-old (and yes, that’s how she refers to herself) narrator, Aristotle. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? will adore this smart and endearing novel — and since almost everyone loves Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, that means almost everyone will enjoy How to Write a Novel. You could also look at this book as a Harriet the Spy for grownups.

9780307268129Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox, also features a protagonist with a memorable voice. Isabel, a wife, mother, and middle school teacher, is crippled by grief and guilt when her best friend dies in a car accident. Days of Awe is a story of self-discovery, as Isabel redefines her relationships with everyone she loves. It’s by no means an unrelentingly sad book — Isabel, who makes plenty of mistakes, is filled with clever, self-deprecating humor.

9780385540049Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Admissions (available August 18) is not just another book about college admissions and the associated parental and teenage angst. This insightful and delightfully witty novel is about much more than getting into college: the secrets the members of the upwardly mobile Hawthorne family are keeping from each other, and the admissions they must make. I loved Moore’s previous books (The Arrivals and So Far Away) and I’m not sure why she hasn’t received more acclaim. Please look for a Q & A with the author on Books on the Table later this month!

a-window-opens-9781501105432_lgComing on August 25 is a book that touched my bookselling heart — it’s sort of a mashup of Goodnight June (Sarah Jio) and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. A Window Opens, by Elisabeth Egan, makes me want to gush, so I’m not going to hold back — I adored it! It’s the clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture that plans to develop e-book lounges. (At least, that’s the party line Scroll feeds our heroine, a book lover.) Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books,  the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time.

Don’t rush the end of summer — there’s still plenty of outdoor reading time!

10 Summer Paperback Picks — Nonfiction

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to
possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Mark Twain

Lee Gutkind, editor and founder of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction, wrote a book on narrative nonfiction called You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Many of the best stories I’ve ever read are true — yet they are improbable, unlikely, and downright unbelievable. In an interview with Creative Nonfiction, brilliant narrative historian Erik Larson discusses the joy of researching and telling a true story that readers would find implausible if it were presented in a novel:

If you find the story and you get enough details, you can tell a good story. There’s a great paradox with fiction. If I tried to write a novel in which I proposed that the daughter of the American ambassador was sleeping with the first chief of the Gestapo, no one would believe it. But because it happened—wow!—this is interesting.

The difference between narrative nonfiction and other nonfiction (history, biography, politics, etc.) is that in narrative nonfiction the story is more important than the subject. I have zero interest in horse racing, for example, but I loved Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit. The best nonfiction writers transcend their subject matter to shape stories that read like novels. That said, there are some topics I find irresistible; here are some paperbacks, new and old, that kept me up late at night and that I think are perfect summer reading. The publication dates are the dates when the paperbacks were released; in many cases, the paperback editions include updated information as well as author interviews and discussion questions.

If you’re interested in polar exploration and the indomitable human spirit:

9780307946911In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides (2015)

Like all the best narrative nonfiction books, In the Kingdom of Ice is much more than an enthralling account of historical events. Sides paints a detailed picture of post-Civil War society, when many young men who missed the opportunity to fight in the war were looking for opportunities to become heroes. His engaging, and often very funny, portrayal of newspaper titan James Gordon Bennett, Jr. (backer of the voyage), shows us the increasing role of the press. He covers Native American culture in the Arctic . . . the state of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Victorian era . . . and most of all, the enormous human capacity for courage and endurance.

Like the crew of the Jeannette, the sailors in Alfred Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (reissue, 2015) were locked in the polar ice pack. You won’t complain about summer heat and humidity when you read about their hellish experiences. The book was originally published in 1959, and the survivors of the expedition to Antarctica all provided first-hand accounts to Lansing. The new edition includes more illustrations and maps, as well as a terrific introduction by Nathaniel Philbrick, who explains how “a young Midwesterner . . .  came to write this classic tale of survival and the sea and how, after languishing in relative obscurity, Lansing’s Endurance came to be so enthusiastically embraced by a new generation of readers.”

If you’re fascinated by cannibals and headhunters:

9780062116161Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest by Carl Hoffman (2015)

In 1961, the 23-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller disappeared while traveling through New Guinea on an expedition to find art for his family’s Museum of Primitive Art. While his death was officially ruled a drowning, questions remain — and Carl Hoffman attempts to solve the 50-year-old mystery, delving into an investigation of the violent culture of the Asmat tribe. The New York Times calls the book a “taut thriller”, and it’s an apt description.

Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Daring Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff (2012)

Lost in Shangri-La, one of the best nonfiction page-turners I’ve ever read, is unusual in that one of the heroic survivors is a woman. A plane is shot down over the cannibal-infested jungles of New Guinea, with only three survivors, all of whom are injured.

If you are a fan of antiquarian maps and books, not to mention true crime:

9781592409402The  Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by Michael Blanding (2015)

You rarely encounter a baffling title in narrative nonfiction. The subtitles almost always do a great job summarizing the book, although sometimes — as in this case — they sound a little unwieldy. (I think the reader should decide if the story is gripping, thank you.) The story is gripping, as promised in the subtitle, and interesting from a psychological point of view. What drove E. Forbes Smiley to destroy his career by becoming a thief?

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester (2005)

I’ll never get tired of recommending this book. Once again, the subtitle provides almost all the information you need to know before starting the book, but I’ll fill in the blanks by telling you that the “professor” is Dr. James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the “madman” is Dr. William Minor, a Civil War veteran incarcerated in a mental hospital who is the dictionary’s most prolific contributor of definitions. The shocking ending of this book gives new meaning to the phrase “you can’t make this stuff up”.

If you are struggling to understand class and race, especially in relation to higher education:

the-short-and-tragic-life-of-robert-peace-9781476731919_lgThe Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs (due in paperback 7/15)

Robert Peace, a 2002 graduate of Yale and a product of inner-city Newark, was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Hobbs, who was Peace’s roommate in college and who remained a close friend after graduation, has written one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long time. Why did Peace, a brilliant young man with a promising career in scientific research, succumb to the drug trade? Hobbs thoroughly and thoughtfully examines Peace’s life in all its complexity and contradictions, with the help of Peace’s family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.

A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League by Ron Suskind (1999)

Pulitzer Prize winner Suskind follows teenager Cedric Jennings as he, with the help of his dedicated and hardworking mother, strives to succeed at a high school in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. and later at Brown University.

If you love Shirley Jackson as much as I do:

9780143128045Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (reissue, 2015)

These gems from the 1950s have recently been reissued in paperback — I suspect because a collection of Jackson’s previously unpublished writings (Let Me Tell You)  is being published in August. The  humorous essays about family life in Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are very different from the dark, sinister fiction for which Jackson is known.

What are your favorite nonfiction books?

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