For those who prefer nonfiction, here are eleven of my summer reading recommendations. They range from fashion to neuroscience, Amazonian explorations to Shakespeare. Pour yourself a glass of iced lemonade and refresh your literary brain with these summer picks.
1. The Lost City of Z, by David Grann
Here is a book sitting on my bookshelf, eagerly waiting to be read. The Lost City of Z holds all the components of that “perfect summer book”: adventure, historical mystery, and ancient legends. Author David Grann happened upon a set of hidden diaries, which then propelled him into the quest of solving “the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.” In 1925, Percy Fawcett—British explorer and adventurer—ventured into the Amazon to search for an ancient civilization and its legendary city, referred to only as “Z.” He and his two companions never returned.
The Amazon has always held an allure for me, and David Grann’s gripping narrative does not disappoint. An accomplished writer for the The New Yorker, Grann’s masterful treatment of the topic results in a thrilling and accessible piece of history. The New York Times hails the work as a novel that “reads with all the pace and excitement of a movie thriller and all the verisimilitude and detail of firsthand reportage.”
2. A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.
Howard Zinn is one of those figures that I wished I could have met. (He died this past year.) I so appreciate and agree with his approach to history—that of examining history from the perspectives of the “losers.” Of those that did not have the privilege or ability to include their voice in the documentation of mainstream U.S. history. Of the people who have been politically or economically exploited—and then omitted from our history textbooks. Zinn goes back to 1492 and moves through history, telling America’s story from the viewpoint of women, Native Americans, factory workers, African-Americans, immigrants, and the working poor. There is enough material within this book to make one’s blood burn from the past injustices, ignorance, and manipulation. Yet it is also a vivid—and necessary—portrait of all Americans, not just the ones wealthy and privileged enough to write their version of history. This is on my Required Reading shelf.
3. Will in the World, by Stephen Greenblatt
Summer seems to be the time for Shakespeare festivals. I just recently watched my friend perform in Merchant of Venice in The Public’s Shakespeare in the Park production in New York City. Will in the World provides a lucid and fascinating account of Shakespeare—and how he became the masterful Bard. I am admittedly a complete Shakespeare nerd, but even the vaguely curious will find Stephen Greenblatt’s research and hypotheses interesting reading. I know what you might be thinking. Another book about Shakespeare? As someone who taught a Shakespeare class, I skimmed through dozens of books—most of them trite, under-researched, mind-stiflingly dry or stuffed with absurd conspiracy theories—and Will in the World is a winner. Greenblatt knows his stuff, and he transports his readers to the Elizabethan England with style.
4. The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine
Put away the magazines that describe the best swimsuit for your body shape. Yes, bikinis are as abundant as iced tea during the summer. But let us move up fourteen inches from the bikini zone to the brain. And there, let Dr. Brizendine regale you with everything you have ever wanted to know about the female brain. This is not a treatise on the superiority of the female psychosis. In fact, it is her equal, scientific treatment of the brain and neuroscience that caused this book to leap into my all-time favorites. Dr. Brizendine uses her knowledge as a neuropsychiatrist to show how the structure of the female brain determines “how women think, what they value, how they communicate, and who they love.” The highest praise I can give this book is that I learned so much. Brizendine’s obvious lens of evolution might be difficult for some to swallow, but her overall findings—regardless of personal belief—are fascinating. She has just published another book The Male Brain, which I plan to read quite soon.
5. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, by Maryanne Wolf
Staying in the brain vein, check out Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf, world-renowned cognitive neuroscientist. I have picked up this book countless times at the bookstore, never bringing myself to purchase it. Well that time is over. This book chronicles the development of the individual reading brain. How do we read? How do those characters on a page suddenly transform into ‘Midway upon the journey of life I found myself within a forest dark’ ? What happens within our brains when we read a line of text? Wolf gives a tour from the brains of a pre-literate Homer to a literacy-ambivalent Plato, from an baby listening to a storybook to a scholar on Proust. Psychology students and avid readers alike are bound to enjoy this book.
6. Dogtown: Tales of Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Redemption, by Stefan Bechtel
This one is for my mom. She is whole-heartedly a dog lover, as are over 37% of Americans (according to the American Veterinary Medical Association). Dogtown is the canine section of the nation’s largest companion animal sanctuary, run by Best Friends Animal Society. There is now a National Geographic Channel show entitled DogTown, in which people can learn about animal behavior and hear heartwarming stories. Dogtown is well-written, though it can sometimes sneak into the realm of over-sentimentality. Bechtel balances stories of dog rehabilitation with thoughtful research and information about animal health, behavior, and affects of trauma. The stories of fifteen dogs are showcased throughout the book—a definite recommendation for dog lovers everywhere.
7. Dreaming of Dior, by Charlotte Smith
If you enjoy fashion—or merely looking at sketches of beautiful dresses—this book is for you. This 292-page book is filled with drawings of vintage dresses, a delightful feast for the eyes. Yet Dreaming of Dior is not just a picture book. The story behind the book is the truly captivating part: Charlotte Smith inherited a vintage clothing collection from her Quaker godmother. Boxes of dresses, totaling over three thousand, arrived to Smith’s address—the pieces dating from 1790 to 1995. Rather than just exhibiting the dresses, Smith located her godmother’s book of stories. The dresses in Dreaming of Dior are not just fashion pieces; they are a collection of snapshots from women’s lives. Each dress in the book includes the real-life story of the woman who wore it. As one bookseller put it, Dreaming of Dior is utterly charming. The perfect escape on a hot, summer day.
8. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan
Summertime abounds with farmer’s markets. Fresh produce, local vegetables, simple cooking. Something within me feels so good—so clean—when I use local, healthy food to create meals. There are several cookbooks to help you transform those veggies into luscious entrees (such as Fast, Fresh & Green, by Susie Middleton and Eating Local, by Sur La Table and Janet Fletcher). So how about some theory as to why we should be eating all those greens—and supporting the environment while doing so? In Defense of Food is the follow-up to Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In case you have not heard them before, Pollan’s advice for eating comes down to seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. If you’re interested in food movements and health, this is a good book to check out.
9. A Monk’s Alphabet : Moments of Stillness in a Turning World, by Jeremy Driscoll
I discovered this enchanting book during one of my recent excursions to Powell’s. It was tucked away, somewhat hidden behind larger, hardcover books. I felt as though I had come across a secret treasure, and I’m almost hesitant to share with others. It is a collection of short essays (ranging from a single paragraph to three pages), written by a Benedictine monk. The format is flexible; you can read from front to back or search for a word that resonates with you on a particular day. The essays are all centered around a single word, and they are arranged alphabetically…perfect for daily meditation. Summer can get crazy, despite its best intentions of relaxation. A Monk’s Alphabet provides an exquisite antidote the daily stresses of life.
10. Annie Leibovitz at Work, by Annie Leibovitz
There are summer days where it is far too hot to venture outside, and all we want is to splay our bodies on a slab of cold concrete and lazily flip through magazines. (At least, that’s what I want when the thermometer passes 100 degrees.) Here is one better than the July issue of Vogue: the 240-page compilation of Annie Leibovitz’s photography. I greatly admire Leibovitz and her work. She is innovative, sharply creative, provocative…a master in her field and art. She has captured iconographic images of such figures as Queen Elizabeth, Kate Moss, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Rolling Stones. In this compilation, she shares how her pictures were made, along with topics of reportage, fashion photography and portraiture. Drink in the pictures. Your blistering summer day will fade to the back of your mind.
What is your nonfiction recommendation?