When you’re stretched out on that beach towel, put your mind to work
If you think summer reading equals paperback trash, think again. There’s no rule that says you can only read cheesy bodice-rippers or bloody-knife thrillers from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Here’s a selection of the best recent fiction and non-fiction. Take one of these with you to the lake, and prepare to be admired for your looks and your brains.
Which Brings Me To You by Steve Almond and Julianna Baggott (Algonquin, $23.95): And you thought epistolary novels were so two centuries ago. Jane and John almost hook up at a wedding but instead decide to take things slow. Their intimacy grows through the written word as they confess the secrets of their checkered sexual pasts in long, rambling letters to each other. This postmodern romance drifts into self-consciously clever cuteness at times, but it deserves points for an original premise.
Intuition by Allegra Goodman (Dial Press, $25): Ethical issues loom large in this engrossing probe of scientific research. Cliff, a struggling junior researcher at a Boston lab, is desperate to prove himself. When his experiments with a new vaccine appear to cure cancerous tumors in lab mice, publicity-hungry lab director Sandy rushes to publish the results. Cliff’s co-worker and ex-girlfriend, Robin, becomes jealous and resentful, launching an official investigation into the supposed miracle cure. Well-written and thoroughly absorbing, this story tears down the comforting myth of science as a world of solid facts and clear-cut truth.
The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon, $22.95): In an afterlife known only as the City—a shadowy, ever-expanding metropolis— the dead carry on a muted existence for as long as they are remembered by living people, then they disappear for good. But when the dead begin to vanish en masse, rumors spread about a virus that has decimated the humans. Meanwhile, Laura Byrd, a research scientist left behind by her team in Antarctica, struggles to survive alone in the harsh, icy tundra. Alternating between the stories of the living and the dead, this apocalyptic tale is both original and affecting.Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz (Crown, $24.95): This entertaining history of the 1920s flapper—the saucy party girl who scandalized polite society with her drinking, smoking and short hemlines—explores the contributions of seminal Jazz Age figures, like quintessential flapper Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of F. Scott), clothing designer Coco Chanel and iconic actress Clara Bow. Grab your cigarette holder, and sip a Manhattan while you read about the spirited, sexually bold young women who defined a generation.Rose of No Man’s Land by Michelle Tea (MacAdam/Cage, $22)—Trisha Driscoll is 14 years old and sick of her white-trash family, from her talk-show-obsessed hypochondriac mother to her older sister, who dreams of starring in a reality show. Trisha encounters rebellious Rose shoplifting from the trendy clothing store where Trisha works. The two girls become fast friends, embarking on a surreal overnight odyssey of drugs, alcohol, infatuation and betrayal. Sprinkled with Trisha’s smart and funny observations, this gritty, fast-paced coming-of-age story is a quick and enjoyably squalid read.
Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (Putnam, $25.95)—In 2005, Alice Tanner is volunteering on an archaeological dig in France when she uncovers a secret cave containing two ancient skeletons, a carved ring and a labyrinth. Meanwhile, in 1209, Alais Pelletier is a young Frenchwoman whose city is soon to be attacked by the Crusaders for tolerating the heretical Cathar sect. Alais’s father gives her a priceless book to protect, one of a trilogy that contains the secret of the Grail. Flashbacks follow the intertwined stories of the two women, with leisurely stops along the way for medieval history lessons.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan (Penguin Press HC, $26.95)—Michael Pollan takes four typical American meals and traces them back to their origins, making some surprising discoveries about our relationship with food. First is lunch at McDonald’s, which, like much of the American diet, owes a huge debt to corn and oil (corn, he says, is an ingredient in over 25 percent of the items at a supermarket). Pollan examines the organic-food movement. He even forages and hunts to obtain sustenance the old-fashioned way. With insightful discussions and startling facts, Pollan reminds us that we really are what we eat.