Staff picks: Summer reading
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Staff picks: Summer reading

From dystopic fiction, to linguistics to gardening, these books have captured our attention and imagination

(Image by Sofia Iivarinen via Pixabay)
(Image by Sofia Iivarinen via Pixabay)

It’s summertime, and the livin’ is easy — most definitely easier than last summer, when we were all still basically confined to our homes, avoiding public places, and other people.
Now that most COVID restrictions have been lifted, we at the Chronicle are embracing our newfound freedom to gather with friends, dine at favorite eateries and enjoy live concerts.
But, of course, as always, we are still reading.
Something old, something new, something borrowed, something…true? Here are some of our picks this summer.

“Annihilation,” by Jeff VanderMeer (‎Fourth Estate, 2014)
Jeff VanderMeer’s “Annihilation” is a dystopian story that blurs the lines between reality and imagination. In the novel, four women are sent on an expedition to Area X by government officials. Besides small chunks of knowledge from a past life, the women don’t know how they got to Area X, who they were before or what their mission is supposed to be; all they know is that they must surveil one another’s actions through journal entries.
The leader of the group has a special power: If she renders another team member unfit for the mission, she can use a psychological method to induce annihilation (self-destruction).
But what if one character is immune to her annihilation? Can she stop the team’s leader? What exactly is Area X and why are these four women there? The more questions answered, the more questions readers will have.
The book is told through the eyes of unreliable narrators, and readers are never sure whether the information they are given is accurate or a mirage resulting from a descent into madness. The story is a great read for anyone interested in dystopian literature or ecofeminism. “Annihilation” is the first book of three in the Southern Reach Trilogy.
Sarah Abrams

“The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language,” by John H. McWhorter (Oxford University Press, 2014)
This delightful little “manifesto” comes from my favorite linguist, John McWhorter, who, through books and his podcast, makes the world of linguistics accessible to anyone. Here McWhorter explains and critiques a fascinating and persistent theory, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which posits that every language structures the way its native speakers perceive the world, and indeed how they think. Benjamin Lee Whorf, an amateur linguist, first proposed his theory in the 1930s, but it shows remarkable longevity and hold on popular imagination.
The theory sounds appealing, and perhaps even intuitive. Unfortunately for its adherents — but fortunately for the rest of us — McWhorter demonstrates that it’s just not true.
Whorf and others had good intentions, wanting to show that certain indigenous tribes were not inferior to modern Western civilizations by discussing how their languages were, in certain aspects, more complicated than, for example, English. However, taking a broad sweep of evidence from many languages and cultures, as well as many psychology experiments, McWhorter demonstrates there is no evidence that language determines perception or thought in any meaningful way. It is true that different cultures have different vocabulary depending on the material objects available to them (certain animals or plants, for example) and the social structures in their society (think of politeness terms in Japanese, for example). However, this is a far cry from determining how they think.
Most compelling, though, is that if one accepts the argument that some language speakers have more complex or subtle ways of thinking than, let’s say again for the sake of argument, English speakers, because their languages explicitly express more differences than does English, then one must assert the opposite for speakers of languages that are more stripped down than English. For example, one would have to claim that speakers of Mandarin Chinese don’t think in as sophisticated a fashion as do English speakers, a claim that is not only offensive but empirically false.
The book is an energetic romp through linguistics, psychology, and anthropology.
Jim Busis

“The Premonition: A Pandemic Story,” by Michael Lewis (W. W. Norton & Company, 2021)
I’ve been hooked on Michael Lewis ever since 2004 when I read “Moneyball.” Not only was he ahead of the curve (or maybe the slider?) in presaging baseball’s advanced-statistics era, somehow he even made numbers fun.
This time Lewis set out to find who was responsible for the United States’ botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic, expecting the breadcrumbs to lead directly to former President Donald Trump. But while neither Trump nor his administration were blameless — far from it — in Lewis’ telling, during his deep dive into the actions that led to the death of thousands of Americans, he found a systemic failure in government that was years, and administrations, in the making: Because of the gradual politicization of local and national health departments, officials acted as if “First, do no harm” applied to government leaders at the top of the food chain, and determined that the best way to accomplish that goal would be to do nothing at all, to tragic effect. Lewis tells the story through the eyes of multiple state and federal officials who saw it coming and tried to sound the alarm, their efforts resulting in little other than the derailment of their own promising careers.
Yes, reading “The Premonition” is a little like watching a car crash in slow motion, but as with “Moneyball,” Lewis manages to write a page turner nonetheless.
Gabe Kahn

“The Ministry for the Future,” by Kim Stanley Robinson (Orbit, 2020)
Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future” is a sprawling, decades-spanning novel of speculative fiction. It’s a work of climate fiction that grounds itself thoroughly in hard science so that it feels overwhelmingly relevant; in fact, the opening chapter details a horrific heat wave that eerily and purposefully echoes those that have encompassed the country in the past couple weeks. The book slows near the end — the characters that give the story focus also end up bogging it down — but “The Ministry for the Future” is still an intelligent, optimistic and thoughtful look at the all-too-nonfictional climate crisis.
James Musial

“Hellstrip Gardening: Create a Paradise Between the Sidewalk and the Curb,” by Evelyn J. Hadden (Timber Press, 2014)
Early on in the pandemic my plant collection bloomed. Beside my snake plant I placed a miniature jade, then a bird of paradise and a Monstera, and then a vining philodendron to hang down over the big leaf philodendron that I had purchased months before I knew my den would become a 16-month-long office/personal substitute for Phipps Conservatory. As the pandemic continued, and my plant collection grew, I snatched up books like a Venus fly trap catches prey. I read Hilton Carter’s “Wild at Home” and “Wild Interiors,” Lauren Camilleri and Sophia Kaplan’s “Indoor Jungle,” Jen Stearns’ “The Inspired Houseplant” and Lisa Eldred Steinkopf’s “Grow in the Dark.” With each book I better appreciated the importance of plant placement, lighting and drip trays — especially beneath the pilea and peperomia both situated beside my keyboard. Together, my plants and I weathered the seasons, but at points I wondered which of us living things was faring better. Winter 2021 was difficult. It was cold. There was little sunlight. I should have adjusted my watering routine. Unfortunately, some of my plants — like a fiddle leaf fig and a ficus tree — didn’t make it. When warmer days arrived, I began a new text: Evelyn J. Hadden’s “Hellstrip Gardening” and took my “talents” east by about 50 feet. I’m still reading it and determining how best to “create a paradise” between sidewalk and curb. It’ll take work to convert that barren plot. Perhaps, I’ll begin by burying the fiddle leaf fig and ficus tree.
Adam Reinherz

“Turning to the Other,” by Donovan Johnson (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2020);
“This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A,” by Steven Hyden (Hachette Books, 2020);
“Travels with My Aunt,” by Graham Greene, (Vintage Publishing, 1999, originally published in 1969)

I view summer reading as a combat sport. There’s no leisurely trip through a book meant to be read at the beach; rather, I spend my time working through a minimum of three different tomes at once. Each book loosely fits into one of three categories: arts/entertainment, literature or Judaism. My goal is to complete at least 12 books by the time the first leaf falls.
As a proud member of Generation X, much of the music I listen to centers around grunge and college/alternative rock. Music critic Steven Hyden’s book “This Isn’t Happening: Radiohead’s Kid A” explores the cultural significance of one of the genre’s seminal works. Hyden is an interesting writer, albeit one that uses the pronoun “I” quite a bit and occasionally plays loose with the facts.
Donovan Johnson’s “Turning to the Other” examines Martin Buber’s most famous work, “I and Thou.” It looks more deeply at some of his extra-Jewish influences — including mystic Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism — than I’ve seen in other works. It also places the writer and lecturer in relation to other philosophers, most prominently Max Scheler and Søren Kierkegaard.
Despite being adapted into a 1972 film starring Maggie Smith, “Travels with My Aunt” is one of Graham Greene’s lesser-known works. Featuring a now familiar and oft-repeated plot, the novel is modern, enjoyable and comedic.
As I mentioned, I consider reading a sport. If you’re interested, I will be following these three works with Bob Mould’s autobiography “See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody”; another Graham Greene work, “The Power and the Glory”; and “Outpouring of the Soul, Rebbe Nachman’s path in Meditation.”
David Rullo

“The Nimrod Flipout,” by Etgar Keret (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006)
I realize I am a bit late to the Etgar Keret party, but I’m happy I’ve arrived.
Actually, I first came across the Israeli fiction writer four years ago while listening to “The Writer’s Voice,” a New Yorker podcast featuring authors reading their stories published in the magazine. In 2017, Keret read “Fly Already,” a beautiful, tragic and bizarre tale about a father’s attempt to shield his young son from a suicidal man perched on the roof of a building, whom the son thinks is a superhero. It’s the kind of story that stays with you.
Last week, I came across a collection of Keret’s (very) short stories, “The Nimrod Flipout,” on the bookshelf of my son-in-law, and he graciously lent it to me. First published in Israel in 2002, it’s not the most current work by Keret (in fact, in 2019, he won Israel’s Sapir Prize for his story collection also titled “Fly Already”) but it’s wholly engaging — in a Kafka-meets-Aesop kind of way.
Keret writes in the genre of magical realism. His stories are parables, allegories. They are set in contemporary Israel but probe ideas that stretch beyond time and place. In “Fatso,” the narrator’s girlfriend transforms into a hairy, uncouth man at night — but the two remain smitten with each other as the story turns into a tale of male bonding. In “Pride and Joy,” a young boy’s mother and father physically shrink as he grows, a commentary on parental sacrifice. And in “Shriki,” a man gets rich and famous for his mundane invention of an olive-stuffed olive. When a TV interviewer asks the title character if he thinks people aspire to be like him, Shriki responds: “They don’t have to aspire…They already are like me.”
These 30 stories are hilarious, heartbreaking and surprising. There is no way to predict how any of them will end. I love that.
Toby Tabachnick PJC

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