Reading is (and has been, for as long as I can remember) my favorite non-active hobby. I still read real paper books, because I haven't liked using an e-reader, but whatever way you consume books, summer is the time to do it. Maybe it's because the days are so long that you can enjoy the great outdoors and still have plenty of time to read. (I like to take a novel on hikes and take a long break on top of a mountain or next to a stream to delve into another world.) Or maybe it's because there's something about the summertime that makes being a little "lazy" (reading instead of working) seem OK. Or maybe it's because summer is the time of dreams, when other worlds seem less unlikely than when you're deep into the workaday schedule the rest of the year.
I love both novels and nonfiction books in equal measure: Below are my recommendations for summer 2013 (all of these books were published in the last three years); most have some kind of environmental bent or theme, but not all.
"America Pacifica" by Anna North is a post-apocalyptic novel with a huge heart. Set on a Pacific Isle several generations in the future, it is both a cautionary tale of the environment writ small (after a terrible global cooling that forces some lucky mainland escapees to equatorial living, time passes, and the island's inhabitant's — of course— destroy their local environment) and a coming-of-age story. The book also explores feminist themes and there's plenty of out-and-out adventure; it's all held together by an overarching mystery. The prose zips along in an almost-breathtaking fashion (I read the book in two long sessions, and found myself actually holding my breath several times) and the cast of characters is curiously weird but still relatable as human beings in the future, dealing with the new (Big Brother/Wizard of Oz-like leaders, soylent-green-ish food) and old (crushes, growing pains, politics). It's a lot of fun — but ultimately left me thinking about it still, weeks later — always the sign of a book that is deeper than just a set of characters with an entertaining plot (which this is too).
"Everybody Has Everything" by Katrina Onstad, is the unexpected story of a modern relationship that's not a romance at all (except maybe in the abstract), and a story of motherhood that turns expectations of what's 'natural' for women on its head. The story is simple: A couple in their early 40s, who hasn't had luck conceiving, naturally and unnaturally, suddenly finds themselves as guardians of a friend's child; but this seemingly neat-and-happy-ending is anything but, as the rest of the novel focuses on the aftermath of what might be the finish of another, lighter story. The husband and wife in the story find themselves thrust into a new way of being, and this baby they had hoped for becomes not what it looks like in the happy-family commercials. By the end of the novel, I was crying, not because I was sad — or overjoyed — but from relief. Because here was a novel (one of the only contemporary ones I've read) that takes on the very hard question of what it really means to men and women to parent and how that answer is (and shouldn't be) obvious, simple or the same for everyone.
"All-Natural: A Skeptic's Quest to Discover if the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Health and the Environment Really Keeps Us Happier and Healthier" is Nathanael Johnson's whirlwind journey into what many of us wish we could do, but few every attempt: to take what our parents have taught us about how to live in the world and really put it to the test — not just for ourselves, but for larger swaths of humans. Nathanael, who was raised much as I was — which may be why I loved this book so much — had parents who didn't believe in Western medicine, ate whole foods and eschewed TV, and who encouraged their babies to crawl around in the dirt. The author takes their whole hippie ethos and plumbs their claims and beliefs, including those about, as the title suggests, natural childbirth, vaccines and health care, forest stewardship, food and bacteria, factory farms and Western medicine. There's a significant amount of first-hand reporting, mixed with some fun (but never overmuch) memoir of his own growing-up, as well as decisions made for his own first child based on his findings. For anyone who appreciates alternatives to the mainstream, but maintains a healthy skepticism about some of the assertions that come from the other side, this book covers plenty of ground, in a fun and readable way.
"Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks" by Ken Jennings (most well-known for his epic winning streak on Jeopardy in 2004), covers maps and geography like everyone who loves them wishes they could. My love of maps goes back to my grandmother realizing, at about age 6, that I had no sense of direction at all. I would get lost everywhere (literally, even on airplanes), with no natural understanding of where north or south are — I still don't, and use the sun as my guide. Thus began, at age 7, an intense, multi-year education in mapreading, which not only led to my adoration and connection to maps, but allowed me to navigate the world without fear (important for the independent traveler I grew up to be). Jennings' love of maps came from spending his formative years abroad with his family in Korea and Seattle, Washington, and seems to be, unlike my own, an intrinsic love of cartography. However you get to an appreciation of geography, Jennings' book is fun and funny — and still packed with information, from why certain maps are valuable, to the dismal state of geography education (and those at the opposite end, the kids and adults who obsessively love to compete in the Nat Geo Geography Bee), to the gender divide among mapheads. Apparently, it's uncommon for women to be as excited about maps and geography as men are; guess I'm an exception! The chapter on fictional maps might have been my favorite — as a writer, I always wondered how authors created them out of thin air. Each chapter stands apart as an independent essay, so if you want to tackle this book in parts, which is a great tactic for summer reading, it's perfect for that.
"The House in France: A Memoir" by Gully Wells is a fun romp around in a near-past that I'm just old enough to have never been able to experience (I'm 36). Wells is a Vanity Fair contributor who grew up in Provence (summers), London (dad's home) and New York City (mom's home) during the '60s and '70s. Wells' mother, Dee Wells, was the famously rebellious American journalist, and her father, A.J. Ayer, the classic womanizing (but in the nicest possible way) Oxford philosopher. Via Wells' delicious storytelling, we read about famous literary folks like M.F.K. Fisher, Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis and more, as well as businessmen, politicians (Robert Kennedy!) and others who liked to party just as hard as they worked. Told believably from the perspective of a smart and somewhat bookish child, we get to know — and see, via her great descriptions — all of these larger-than-life personalities during their off-times, all in fabulous, international locales.
"Devotion: A Memoir" by Dani Shapiro is, on its face, a beautifully written, thoughtful meditation on faith and relationships (with one's partner, friends, child and community). But underneath these concerns that may or may not apply to most people (I have little interest in questions of faith or spirituality and don't have kids and still loved it) it's one of the best books I've read on how to make sense of being alive. That sounds hugely vague, I know, but within the confines of the subjects Shapiro tackles is a tremendous trove of wisdom, from someone who has experienced a blessed but challenging life (her child had an almost-fatal disease, her relationship with her difficult mother was never really resolved). While Shapiro brings ideas from Judaism (her extended family is orthodox, but she is not) and yoga philosophies, they don't really come across — nor are they presented as — answers, but instead both spiritual traditions are considered as ways toward resolutions, as guiding thought processes, to reach one's own conclusions, not ends unto themselves. Unlike most books about more spiritual subjects, this one held my interest all the way through, offering me insights and ideas, but never pat solutions. It's one of those texts that I will likely pick up again when I need a little mental mooring in my modern life.
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