Summer may be almost half over, but there are still plenty of excellent books to tide you over until the great big books of fall.
Here, we present 10 of the best nonfiction and fiction titles out this summer:
As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda
New York Times political columnist Collins (When Everything Changed, 2009, etc.) zeroes in on what makes Texas so important and why the rest of the country needs to know and care about what’s happening there. Texans, she writes, think they live in a wide-open empty space where carrying a concealed weapon is acceptable because people have to take care of themselves, and the government has no business telling them what to do. In her inimitable style, the unabashed liberal examines the shenanigans of Texans from four angles: first, a hilarious look at some of Texas’ past heroes and present politicos and at how the empty-space ethos has shaped the state’s policies; second, a close-up examination of several areas wheres she says the state has gone wildly, sadly wrong (its deregulation of financial markets, attempts at reforming schools and funding, or defunding, education, and major missteps on sex education, energy, the environment, pollution and global climate change); third, a scathing report on the two-tiered, low-tax, low-service economy of the state; and finally, Collins’ take on where Texas, soon to be a Hispanic-majority state, is heading. The author loads her report with funny but dismaying anecdotes and dozens of revealing interviews…A timely portrait of Texas delivered with Collins’ unique brand of insightful humor.
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats
In 1951, in a cow pasture outside Denver, the U.S. government broke ground for a secret Cold War nuclear weapons facility that would manufacture plutonium triggers for atomic bombs. Owned by the Atomic Energy Commission, the plant produced more than 70,000 fissionable triggers and considerable radioactive and toxic waste. Iversen (Creative Writing/Univ. of Memphis; Molly Brown: Unraveling the Myth, 1999) grew up in a new suburban development three miles from the plant, totally unaware—like her family’s neighbors—of what went on there. In a gripping narrative that intersperses stories of the Rocky Flats plant and her family life, the author describes how an astonishing habit of silence flourished in the community, which would not permit suspicions about the cluster of gray concrete buildings to shatter its idyllic 1950s suburban innocence. The same silence reigned at home, where Iversen and her siblings were expected to overlook their father’s alcoholism and their mother’s pill popping. In 1969, after a second plutonium fire, the AEC admitted that Rocky Flats worked with plutonium, but claimed this posed no threat to the public, a position the government maintained for years. This exquisitely researched book details official efforts to hide the plant’s toxic dangers…Iversen took a secretarial job at the plant and began gathering information for this extraordinary book. “Nearly every family we grew up with has been affected by cancer in some way,” she writes…Superbly crafted tale of Cold War America’s dark underside.
Harvey Pekar, illustrated by J.T. Waldman
This posthumous publication reflects the seminal graphic memoirist at his edgy best. From the grave, the pugnacious Pekar (Huntington, West Virginia “On the Fly,” 2011) is still issuing challenges and picking fights. But the handsome hardback publication and the masterful illustration by Waldman (Megillat Esther, 2006) confer a respectful legitimacy that shows how far the genre Pekar helped spawn has advanced since his early comic-book narratives. The tone is quintessential Pekar, pulling no punches, while the focus extends beyond the purely personal to the history of the Jewish people and the formation and essence of Israel. Both of his parents were ardent Zionists, but the author was not. The story begins with a visit by the narrator and the artist to a huge used bookstore in his native Cleveland and ends with them doing more library research. In between, it encompasses centuries and continents against a backdrop of Jewish history (with appropriate flourishes and framing from the artist as the tale moves through Roman and Muslim periods), interspersed with the tale of Pekar’s experiences in Hebrew school, his initiation into the leftist politics of the 1960s, his disillusionment with Israel as an oppressor, and his empathy with Arabs who were seen as the enemy…Even if other posthumous work follows, it likely won’t be any richer than this.
The Mansion of Happiness: A History of Life and Death
A sharp, illuminating history of ideas showing how America has wrestled with birth, childhood, work, marriage, old age and death. Brilliantly written and engaging throughout, the latest from New Yorker staff writer Lepore (American History/Harvard Univ.; The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History, 2011, etc.) is about how American society reacts to change. The author starts with the perfect metaphor: In 1860, a young entrepreneur named Milton Bradley created a popular board game called Life. The game had long existed in earlier versions, but Bradley gave it a capitalist spin, changing it from a game of good versus evil to one that “rewards only those virtues that lead to Wealth and Success, like Industry and Perseverance.” From there, Lepore tackles conception and how the famous pictures of a fetus in Life in the mid ’60s fostered the relatively modern idea of “being unborn as a stage of human life, a stage that was never on any board game.” The author shows how E.B. White’s surprisingly controversial novel Stuart Little created a small revolution in a country that has always worshipped childhood; she sees it as “an indictment of both the childishness of children’s literature and the juvenilization of American culture.” Lepore's topics are broad, and they lead her into many interesting byways…A superb examination of the never-ending effort to enhance life, as well as the commensurate refusal to ever let it go.
Published to coincide with what would have been her 100th birthday, this biography of the iconic Julia Child (1912–2004) does full justice to its complex subject. Spitz (The Saucier's Apprentice: One Long Strange Trip through the Great Cooking Schools of Europe, 2008, etc.) describes the “irrepressible reality” of Child, who became a TV superstar, effectively launching “public television into the spotlight, big-time.” In his view, the 1961 publication of her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, came at just the right time. Americans were tired of the preceding “era of dreary button-down conformity,” and they were ready for a gastronomic revolution. Frustrated housewives reading Betty Friedan's groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique welcomed the larger-than-life personality and showmanship of this tall, outspoken woman as she demonstrated the intricacies of French recipes with what appeared to be blithe disregard when things went wrong…Spitz captures another side of her complex personality: her fierce diligence in mastering the science as well as the art of cooking through detailed experimentation and her concern to translate the preparation of complex French recipes for readers in America—an attention to detail that carried over to her TV programs. An engrossing biography of a woman worthy of iconic status.
The granddaughter of an Armenian and a Bostonian investigates the Armenian genocide, discovering that her grandmother took a guilty secret to her grave. Laura, the narrator of Bohjalian’s latest, is doing genealogical research, attempting to learn more about a fact that has always intrigued her: Her Boston Brahmin grandmother, Elizabeth, and her grandfather, Armen, were brought together by the Armenian genocide. Flash back to 1915. Elizabeth has journeyed to the Syrian city of Aleppo, along with her father, on a mission sponsored by an American relief group, the Friends of Armenia. They have come in an attempt to deliver food and supplies to the survivors of the Armenian massacre. The Turks are using Aleppo as a depot for the straggling remnants of thousands of Armenian women, who have been force-marched through the desert after their men were slaughtered. Elizabeth finds the starved women, naked and emaciated, huddled in a public square, awaiting transports to Der-el-Zor, the desert “relocation camp” where, in reality, their final extermination will take place. Elizabeth takes in two of these refugees, Nevart and an orphan Nevart adopted on the trail, Hatoun, who has been virtually mute since she witnessed the beheading (for sport) of her mother and sisters by Turkish guards. By chance, Elizabeth encounters Armen, an Armenian engineer who has come to Aleppo to search for his wife, Karine. Armen has eluded capture since murdering his former friend, a Turkish official who had reneged on his promise to protect Armen’s family. Despairing of Karine’s survival—and falling in love with Elizabeth—Armen joins the British Army to fight the Turks…A gruesome, unforgettable exposition of the still too-little-known facts of the Armenian genocide and its multigenerational consequences.
The sixth novel by Walter (The Financial Lives of the Poets, 2009, etc.) opens in April 1962 with the arrival of starlet Dee Moray in a flyspeck Italian resort town. Dee is supposed to be filming the Liz Taylor-Richard Burton costume epic Cleopatra, but her inconvenient pregnancy (by Burton) has prompted the studio to tuck her away. A smitten young man, Pasquale, runs the small hotel where she’s hidden, and he’s contemptuous of the studio lackey, Michael Deane, charged with keeping Dee out of sight. From there the story sprays out in multiple directions, shifting time and perspective to follow Deane’s evolution into a Robert Evans-style mogul; Dee’s hapless aging-punk son; an alcoholic World War II vet who settles into Pasquale’s hotel to peck away at a novel; and a young screenwriter eagerly pitching a dour movie about the Donner Party. Much of the pleasure of the novel comes from watching Walter ingeniously zip back and forth to connect these loose strands, but it largely succeeds on the comic energy of its prose and the liveliness of its characters. A theme that bubbles under the story is the variety of ways real life energizes great art—Walter intersperses excerpts from his characters’ plays, memoirs, film treatments and novels to show how their pasts inform their best work…And simply put, Walter’s prose is a joy—funny, brash, witty and rich with ironic twists…A superb romp.
A middle-aged man scrapes for his identity in a Saudi Arabian city of the future. This book by McSweeney’s founder Eggers (Zeitoun, 2009, etc.) inverts the premise of his fiction debut, 2002’s You Shall Know Our Velocity. That novel was a globe-trotting tale about giving away money; this one features a hero stuck in one place and desperate to make a bundle. Alan Clay is a 50-something American salesperson for an information technology company angling for a contract to wire King Abdullah Economic City, a Saudi commerce hub. Alan and his team are initially anxious to deliver their presentation to the king—which features a remote speaker appearing via hologram—but they soon learn the country moves at a snail-like pace. So Alan drifts: He wanders the moonscape of the sparely constructed city, obsesses over a cyst on his back, bonds with his troubled driver, pursues fumbling relationships with two women, ponders his debts and recalls his shortcomings as a salesman, husband and father. This book is in part a commentary on America’s eroding economic might (there are numerous asides about offshoring and cheap labor), but it’s mostly a potent, well-drawn portrait of one man’s discovery of where his personal and professional selves split and connect. Eggers has matured greatly as a novelist since Velocity: Where that novel was gassy and knotted, this one has crisp sentences and a solid structure…This book is firm proof that that social concerns can make for resonant storytelling.
A mystery that is perfectly in tune with the times, as the ravages of the recession and the reach of the Internet complicate a murder that defies easy explanation within a seemingly loving household. The Irish author continues to distinguish herself with this fourth novel, marked by psychological acuteness and thematic depth. As has previously been the case, a supporting character from a prior work (Faithful Place, 2010, her third and best) takes center stage, as Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy attempts to penetrate the mystery of what transpired during a night that left a husband and two children dead and a wife barely clinging to life, with injuries that couldn’t have been self-inflicted. Or could they? This is the most claustrophobic of French’s novels, because the secrets seemingly lie within that household and with those who were either murdered or attacked within it. The setting is an upscale property development at what had once been Broken Harbor, where Kennedy’s family had itself suffered a fatal trauma decades earlier. The property development has been left unfinished due to the economic downturn, which had also cost Patrick Spain his job. He and his wife, Jenny, had done their best to keep up appearances, with their marriage seemingly in harmony. Then came the attack that left Patrick and their two children dead and Jenny in intensive care…The novel rewards the reader’s patience: There are complications, deliberations and a riveting resolution.
Alexander McCall Smith
The third installment in a series concerning the denizens of London’s Corduroy Mansions. Member of Parliament Oedipus Snark has been appointed Undersecretary of This and That, but his psychotherapist mother Berthea still doesn’t like him. Nor does his ex-lover Barbara Ragg, whose knowledge of his unsavory past gives her an unexpected opportunity for revenge. It’s likely to provide cold comfort from a rift that looms with her fiancé, Hugh, after the confessions they feel impelled to make to each other, or the revenge of his own that Rupert Porter, Barbara’s partner in the literary agency their fathers founded, plots after Barbara decides not to sell him the flat her father left her after all. Wine merchant William French’s son Eddie, financed by his heiress girlfriend, Merle, hires Cosmo Bartonette, the sharpest design eye in London, to decorate a space he wants to turn into a Hemingway-themed restaurant, and in the process he learns a bit about both Cosmo and himself…This third volume of Chekhovian soap opera is every bit as addictive as the first two. Fans will be sad to see any of the plots tied up, even by happy endings, and hope for more complications next season.