Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Summer Reads for Hipsters (or others just looking for a good book)

If you're looking for something to read this summer, but are just too darn cool to read something off the "best-sellers" rack at Barnes and Noble, I've got just what you need. By stealing an idea from my very own domesticated harpy, I've decided to put up a list of book recommendations that you're unlikely to run into anywhere else. Frankly though, you should start with her list, since most of those are books we've both enjoyed. I especially recommend:
Little Britches
Ender's Game
On Writing
World War Z
All Creatures Great and Small
The Book of the Dun Cow

Feel free to read either the ones off of her list or the ones off of mine below and tell all your friends that you read them before they were popular. Or, in the case of many of these books, years after...


The Talisman by Stephen King (and Peter Straub, but, let's face it, no one cares about Peter Straub).

What it is: The story of a boy trying to save his mother from his wicked uncle by going on a cross country (and cross dimensional) question for the Talisman, which can heal all diseases.
Why you should read it: This is quite simply a delightful story in the best tradition of fairy tales and adventure stories. That is, real fairy tales, where bad things happen and happy endings have to be fought for...
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "I'm reading this as an exploration of the difficult questions of adolescence and coming-of-age through loss, hardship, family, and self-sacrifice. Also, every once in a while I like to read the tripe embraced by the masses, just to keep my finger on the pulse of the common man."
Bonus reason to read it: If you finish it and love it, there's a sequel that is very nearly as good called Black House.
The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber

What it is: The story of a villian, a prince, a princess, time, and the Golux. Can the prince rescue the princess from the villian? Mabe, but only with the help of the Golux and a maiden who cries tears of gemstones...
Why you should read it: The villian, of course! This particular villian ("the Duke") wears both an eyepatch and a monocle (not on the same eye). He also has a theory of humanity: "We all have our flaws... mine is being wicked."
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "As all educated people know (from Wikipedia), James Thurber was one of America's most eminent humourists [it's very important that you use the British spelling- be sure to let your friends know that you did so if this is a verbal rather than electronic conversation], in the tradition of Mark Twain. I'm not reading it because it's humourous as such, it's really more that I want to understand the idea of the absurd in early 20th century America. Any delight I get out of the book is strictly incidental, and will undoubtedly pass."

Shane by Jack Schaefer

What it is: A mysterious stranger rides into a town beset by the henchmen of old man Fletcher, who hates change and wants to keep the range open for his cattle. Set against him are the homesteaders, who are gradually fencing off the range and developing the valley into a livable piece of civilization.
Why you should read it: In addition to being short (160 pages in the mass market edition), this book is action packed and full of colorful, interesting characters.
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "While this book looks to be like any other trashy Western, it's really about the development of civilization, the place of violence in founding a new society, and the need for change even in the face of those who resist progress. I'm really reading this to help myself understand the other side of current political arguments."
Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

What it is: The story of Juan Rico as he enlists in the Mobile Infantry to fight against the alien menace to earth. Mostly this is the story of his training and development from a recruit to an officer, with a few action-packed battles along the way.
Why you should read it: Heinlein is one of America's most underrated authors- as one scholar said, "Heinlein was easily as good as Hemmingway, and if he hadn't written in the science fiction genre he would have been a strong competitor for the Nobel Prize."
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "It's a serious look at questions of war, politics, and the problem of how to raise the next generation to be as tough and virtuous as the former, without having to put them through the same ordeals [think- how can we replicate the World War II generation without actually replaying World War II?]."
Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

What it is: A look at the Moscow underworld where Werewolves, Vampires, Shape Shifters, and all manner of good and evil beings battle for the soul of Russia (and mankind as a whole).
Why you should read it: If Tolkien had been Russian with a deep, dark, pessimistic streak, this is the series of books he would have written. Also, there are vampires that do not glitter.
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "I'm only reading this because I saw the indie Russian version of it a few years ago. (I'm pretty sure I was the only person in the theater.) I wanted to see if this book is as good 1) as the movie; and 2) as the summary I once read of Dr. Zhivago."
Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin Abbott

What it is: The story of a square who thinks he understands his world (which is two dimensional), until he is confronted by a circle which claims to be a sphere from the mysterious "third" dimension. And, well, that's really about as complex as the math gets. So if you can keep in mind the difference between two dimensional and three dimensional objects, you've got a solid enough grasp of math to enjoy this book.
Why you should read it: This book is a wonderful criticism of closed-mindedness and bad social mores, and encourages us to engage the universe with a sense of wonder.
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "I didn't really 'get' math in high school, so I'm giving it a try in novel form."
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

What it is: The story of Arthur Dent, who is rescued from earth minutes before it's destroyed to make way for a space-bypass. Flung into the universe with nothing but his English upbringing, hijinks ensue.
Why you should read it: Adams has a wonderful sense of humor that will keep you laughing on nearly every page.
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: "I started reading this because I thought it was Adams' book on the environment, and once I've started reading a book I hate to leave it unfinished... Also, this book made BBC's '100 big reads,' so it can't be all bad."

"Now wait a second," you might be saying to yourself, "I'm all for looking down on fiction. But that doesn't mean I actually want to read nonfiction. Isn't all of that stuff boring?"
Don't panic! I've selected books that are easy and enjoyable reads, in addition to being informative. The goal was to pick books that read almost as if they are novels. The good news here is that you almost never have to defend yourself when you're caught reading non-fiction, since everyone assumes that you're just trying to better yourself as a human being.

Amusing Ourselves To Death by Neil Postman

What it is: A (quite accurate, I think) anticipation of the result of a mass media culture on our sensibilities as human beings.
Why you should read it: This book will make you think about how you interpret the world around you. Which doesn't sound terribly exciting, but the way Postman does it is roughly the equivalent of watching a crotchety old man shout at kids for playing on his lawn. Which if you're anything like me is just endlessly entertaining.
God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson

What it is: Exactly what it says: the story of the creation of the King James Bible.
Why you should read it: Not only is it a fascinating story, but Nicolson is a wonderful story teller. And maybe if you don't believe me, you'll believe Christopher Hitchens, who wrote one of the cover blurbs "Adam Nicolson's re-creation of this context is beyond praise."
The Man Who Would Be King: The First American In Afghanistan by Ben Macintyre

What it is: The story of, well, the first American in Afghanistan. He was a Quaker from Pennsylvania who (understandably) got bored with being a Quaker. He joined the British army as a (self-taught) surgeon, defected into the Afghan royal army, and worked his way up the ranks, finally earning the title of "Prince of Ghor", which has technically been passed down to his (American) descendents. Also, he raised his own private army to fight for the North during the Civil War, and introduced camels into the American West.
Why you should read it: Camels! In the West! Also, in case you missed it, an American Quaker became the prince of freaking Afghanistan!
My Soul Is Rested by Howell Raines

What it is: A narrative history of the Civil Rights movement, in the words of many of the primary participants.
Why you should read it: You will come to realize how little you actually care about any given issue compared to the sacrifices these folks were willing to make for what they should have had in the first place. Also, you'll see that most claims to be "oppressed" today are pretty much bunk compared to what was going on in the South in the 60s.
Gods, Graves, and Scholars by C.W. Ceram

What it is: The story of all the Indiana Joneses of the past who dug up forgotten cities, went diving in bottomless pits, and discovered the secret to dead languages on a dare.
Why you should read it: This book will make you want to be an archaeologist, so long as you forget that modern archaeology is more about digging through the dirt with a toothbrush than it is about hiring a thousand natives to unearth fabulous treasure.

Alexander the Great by Ulrich Wilcken

What it is: The story of Alexander the Great written for Germans in the... uh... early 1930s...
Why you should read it: Okay, so here's the thing. Why am I recommending a book written by someone (who may have been a Nazi) for the German people in the 1930s as the Nazis were coming to power? Frankly, because in addition to being well-written, this book is simply fascinating not only in how it handles Alexander, but in its ideas about the role of the state and the place of a great man in troubled times. Wilcken may or may not have been a member of the Nazi party (my money is on not), but his take on Alexander raises all sorts of questions about the relationship between the idealist and the chaotic world of politics.
What to say to your friends if they catch you reading it: Since you might actually need it for this one... "Man, that Alexander was one crazy guy, and NOTHING like Hitler. Not even a little bit!"
Warriors of God by James Reston
What it is: The story of the Third Crusade, in which the English King Richard the Lionheart squares off against the Muslim General Saladin over the control of Jerusalem.
Why you should read it: Yet another instance of the conflict between Western Civilization and Islam, this particular history puts both sides in a fairly generous light (easy enough with Saladin, who was such a decent bloke that even Dante put him in Limbo with the virtuous pagans). Reston tells a fast-paced tale but leaves it up to the reader which side to take.

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