Summer’s winding down, but there’s still a month left for sun and reading by the pool! If you’re looking for a book to put in your beach bag, here are my 10 recommendations.
10. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise on an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
In her most recent book, journalist Rebecca Traister (also the author of Big Girls Don’t Cry, a chronicle of the 2008 election cycle) tackles the history of marriage in the United States. The book is not anti-marriage (after all, Traister has a husband and two children), but instead an objective examination of changes in the purpose of marriage over the course of the last three centuries. Traister examines the social factors which have contributed to a steady rise in the average age of first marriage for both men and women, reminding us time and again that singlehood is now the norm in some demographics: “For young women, for the first time, it is as normal to be unmarried as it is to be married, even if it doesn’t always feel that way.” Traister notes these trends are particularly significant from a political perspective, as single women (whose ranks are predicted to continue to grow) will increasingly represent a very potent political force. The profiles in the book range from everyday women to seminal historical figures like Gloria Steinem and Susan B. Anthony. “This is the epoch of the single women,” Traister writes, “made possible by the single women who preceded it.” Traister is a fine journalist and has ultimately produced a book that celebrates singlehood without denigrating marriage, which is an achievement in itself.
9. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
I’m not precisely sure when I became aware of the term “introvert” (probably 7th grade or so during a Myers Briggs assessment), but I remember knowing instantly that I fit the mold. This book is a validation and treatise for all of us (at least 1/3 of the population) who fall into the introvert category. Cain, an introvert herself, reminds us not to be discouraged by social messaging that portrays extroversion as a defining quality for leaders. To that end, she spends 300 plus pages profiling introverts, from Steve Wozniak to Rosa Parks, who made sweeping changes with their unique brands of quiet and persistent advocacy. She chastises society’s bias against introverts, arguing that introverts in the professional world shouldn’t ever be asked to change their personalities to fit into an organization’s culture. One interesting idea the book introduced me to is the “situational extrovert” – an introvert who assumes the personality of an extrovert in certain situations. This situational extroversion — pretending to be a person who is more extroverted than I actually am — is how I’ve gotten through every presentation/talk I’ve ever given and every social gathering I’ve had to attend with unfamiliar people . Apparently this is a psychological adaptation that’s very common in the introvert population and provides a way for us to cope with situations that we’re innately uncomfortable with. Introverts is a fascinating read. It’s validating for those of us who claim the title, but it might also help extroverts come to a better appreciation of their quieter kin.
8. In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
Wading through the sea of books on nutrition and diets is an overwhelming task, made more difficult by the fact that what you find at the bookstore often isn’t rooted in peer reviewed scientific research. Enter New York Times food writer Michael Pollan, who’s here to help us consumers of food understand what science actually has to say about a myriad of topics, from gluten to vegetarianism to the Atkins diet. Pollan’s book is an easy read that cleverly distills his extensive review of academic journal articles and interviews with the leading researchers in the field of food science into an easily digestible set of recommendations. There’s a good bit of nutrition history here, as Pollan reminds us that at various times in recent memory each major food group or food constituent has taken its turn as the source of ire (“red meat gives you cancer!”, “fat is bad, but then again maybe it’s ok if you just don’t eat transfat”, “carbs are the devil!”, etc.)
Pollan’s book ultimately isn’t too prescriptive about anything. Turns out gluten likely isn’t bad for you unless you indeed have Celiac disease, but your diet probably shouldn’t entirely consist of it. The same goes for red meat, alcohol, and chocolate. It seems that most things in nutrition (as in science) follow an inverted U-curve – good for you up to a point and then take a turn into not so good territory when you consume them in excess. “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” – Michael Pollan
7. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot will make you wish you paid more attention in college bio.
Part history and part memoir, this phenomenal book from journalist Rebecca Skloot recounts the true story of an African-American woman from Baltimore, the titular Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were cultured without her consent during a procedure to diagnose cervical cancer in the 1950s. Unbeknowst to Henrietta and her family, those cells went on to become the HeLa cell line. HeLa proved to be a godsend for medical researchers, enabling them to develop treatments for everything from AIDS to leukemia. The book serves as a somewhat technical medical history (yet remains incredibly understandable – Skloot, who has a biology background, is top notch at science communication). It’s also a case study in medical ethics. About half of the book centers around Skloot’s interactions with Henrietta’s surviving family. Perhaps understandably mistrustful of Johns Hopkins University (where they felt researchers exploited their mother by using her cells for research without her consent) and the medical community in general, it takes a bit of work for Skloot to gain the family’s confidence. Ultimately, Sloot is able to help them understand their mother’s contribution to medical science and that her cell line remarkably helped millions of people around the world receive treatments for illnesses, including the cervical cancer that took their mother, which were previously death sentences. The Lacks’ story is filled with personal tragedy (a sister, Elsie, died in a mental institution and the Lacks children went to an abusive relative after their mother’s death), but the message here is ultimately one of hope and the power of science. In her unrelenting quest for answers, Skloot finds that Henrietta Lacks was a strong, resilient woman and her cells were no different. Recently HBO aired a (somewhat lackluster) film adaptation of Skloot’s novel with Oprah Winfrey as Henrietta’s daughter, Dorothy. My advice is to skip the film and pick up the far superior source material.
6. The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs has a gimmicky premise: a journalist tries to spend 1 year following a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Humorous at times (such as when Jacobs learns he’ll have to have his clothes specially made because the Old Testament forbids use of different kinds of fibers in the same garment), this is a breezy read that doesn’t delve too deeply into theology. Jacobs does excel throughout at providing some insight into the origin of the more controversial Biblical passages and the historical/cultural context for them. Over the year, Jacobs also accrues a calvacade of religious experiences, from visiting the Creation Museum in Kentucky to attending a festival of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.
Interestingly, The Year of Living Biblically also serves as a sort-of history chronicling society’s recent evolution in its interpretation of religious texts. At the end of the year, Jacobs arrives at a sort of cafeteria approach to religion, taking what he views as the most important tenets of the Bible (primarily New Testament) and striving to integrate them into his life going forward. Ultimately respectful of religion, The Year of Living Biblically never veers into the territory of making fun of a particular belief system
5. Astrophysics for Those in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Too busy to read an astrophysics textbook? Skipped out on that calculus class in high school? Arguably our generation’s best science communicator, Neil deGrasse Tyson, is here for you. In Astrophysics for Those in a Hurry, Tyson devotes a brief chapter to each of the key concepts in astrophysics, from black holes to dark matter to relativity. The book is incredibly accessible but be aware that it just scratches the surface of each topic (chapters are limited to a few pages each). Tyson communicates technical content with his unique brand of humor (Tyson’s telling of the Bell Labs discovery of background radiation from the Big Bang wouldn’t be altogether out of place on Comedy Central’s “Drunk History”). As a successor to Sagan, Tyson also never misses opportunities to draw connections between science and the welfare of society. Highly recommended for any middle school or high school student interested in STEM — it’s a great way to introduce younger students to the physics field and whet their appetite for further study of the topics introduced here.
4. Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 by Ron Eller
I picked up this book initially for two reasons: 1) Dr. Ron Eller is widely regarded as the foremost living scholar of Appalachia and 2) I suffered through 200+ pages of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and needed a balanced look at the region through an academic lens. Eller writes like a college professor (which he is), so the book may have more of a textbook tone than your typical nonfiction read. It’s a remarkable, well-researched, comprehensive history that does what Vance fails to: examine the problems of Appalachia within the context of the political and economic forces that created them. Eller largely remains objective, but strongly places the blame for many of the area’s economic struggles on absentee corporations who made immense profits off of the region’s resources, yet ultimately returned little to the area. Eller argues it’s the 20th century stateside equivalent of British Colonialism. Programs that helped improve poverty statistics (such as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society) and the work of the Appalachian Regional Commission (which is largely responsible for the existence of modern infrastructure in many Appalachian communities) are chronicled in detail. Eller, having grown up in Appalachia himself, has immense respect for the people and culture he studies. If you’re looking for the whole story on the region, Eller’s book should be your first stop.
3. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
David McCullough’s most recent book recounts the lives of two of the most famous Americans and the remarkable, unlikely story of their role in the development of powered flight. Of all the books on this list, this is my most highly recommended (I’m truly envious of anyone who gets to read it for the first time). The story is somehow simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar: Having never set foot in an engineering class, two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio succeeded where academics, government researchers, and private industry had failed by unlocking the aerodynamic secrets to humankind’s conquest of the air.
There are compelling nuances of the story explored in depth here which are left out of high school history textbooks: the influence of the Wright’s mother, who had immense technical acumen herself, as well as the role of their sister, a teacher and the only college graduate in the family, who offered her unwavering support of their efforts. Sister Katherine Wright traveled with the brothers to France to demonstrate their flyer to European government officials and cared for Orville when he was seriously injured in a harrowing crash near the Potomac which killed his passenger.
The fact that the US government initially had no interest in the Wright’s technology and believed Dr. Samuel Langley (director of the Smithsonian and the namesake of Langley Research Center, which became a NASA field center) would be the person to crack the problem of powered flight is also an interesting story that plays out in the background of this chronicle of the Wright’s development efforts. The Wright’s later years, which were mired with patent disputes, the loss of Wilbur, and the marriage of Katherine (which her surviving brother objected to), are less buoyant.
Ultimately McCullough’s telling of perhaps the most authentic American story is an inspiring read and reminds us what’s possible with an appetite for thought and a strong work ethic. The Wright brothers, although they had no formal training in the discipline, turned out to be the best engineers of their day. The Wrights constructed a wind tunnel above their bicycle shop to test airfoil designs, designed and built their own engines when no off the shelf products were adequate, and extensively tested their flyer in multiple environmental regimes (and served as the test pilots) to optimize the control systems and understand the system’s operational behavior. The Wright Brothers reminds us innovation comes from anywhere and sometimes the most unlikely places. It’s enough to make you want to pour funding into the garage-style tinkerers and makers.
2. The Light We Lost by Jill Santopalo
I wanted to like The Light We Lost more than I did. It’s a story of two people – a war journalist and a children’s tv show producer — who (in La La Land fashion) just can’t seem to make it work. The book is a bit of a cross between Same Time, Next Year (minus the delightful Alan Alda) and Me before You. It’s highly readable and the story is compelling, but ultimately a little too formulaic to be the home run hit reviews indicated. The characters veer into unlikeable territory a bit too frequently and the ending in some ways feels like a Friday cliffhanger on General Hospital. Santopalo said she was inspired to write the book after a four year relationship ended unexpectedly and that turmoil comes through on these pages. It’s evident that the key question of the book is why some relationships don’t work out despite the strong connections of the people in them, but (for me) Santopalo leaves that question a little too unanswered. My recommendation of this one is somewhat muted – Santopalo is a strong writer, but the story left me wanting something more. That said, it’s a good read for the beach or a long flight.
1.Saints for All Occasions
J. Courtney Sullivan burst onto the literary scene a few years ago with her stellar novel Commencement, the story of four Smith collegians navigating college (and post-college) life. A sort of feminist St. Elmo’s Fire, Commencement is among my favorite books of the 2000s. In her latest novel, Saints for All Occasions, Sullivan tells the story of an Irish immigrant family who comes to Boston in the 1950s. The narrative centers on two sisters, Nora and Theresa, and the family secret that ultimately tears them apart. This is not a cheery book –it definitely won’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy about the potential longevity of any relationship, but it is absolutely beautiful written and a simple story well told. Clearly a fan of Maeve Binchy, Sullivan’s novel is perfectly paced and the characters are strongly developed. At almost 400 pages, the ending creeps up on you (Sullivan is that good). I have no idea if Sullivan plans to write sequels to any of her books, but all her characters are ones that I find myself longing for a little more time with.