Read All Over: Summer Reading Picks

Summertime is the best time to catch up on some good literature.

Jun 19, 2013 at 12:00 am

The Plot Against America

By Philip Roth; Houghton Mifflin Co., $26 (hardcover), 391 pp.

PHILIP ROTH IS one of those iconic authors that readers know can be counted on to include similar elements across nearly every story in his catalogue: Locales are typically set in New Jersey; there’s a healthy dose of Jewish angst; and requisite pre- or post-war economic hardship.

Most — if not all — those pieces are in his 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, but this book is atypical Roth in both its political fantasy and his take on historical fiction.

In Plot, the America we thought we knew has been turned on its head when aviation great, and real-life Nazi sympathizer, Charles Lindbergh — who was born in Detroit — runs for president on the Republican ticket in 1940 as the dove candidate, and ends up defeating the hawkish Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Plot’s story arc is narrated by a saddened older man who recalls a summer evening in 1940 when he and his older brother Sandy have gone to sleep while, in another room, his parents listen to a radio broadcast from the Republican Convention in Philadelphia.

While the real convention that year saw the GOP nominate a lawyer named Wendell Willkie, in Roth’s world, the narrator recalls a heated multi-count balloting process where Lindbergh’s name was tendered for consideration in the milieu. At 3:18 a.m. (Roth is fastidious about detail), Lindbergh makes a surprise appearance at the convention, which galvanizes the delegates; thus a new history is set in motion. As an aside, Roth didn’t completely fabricate the notion of a GOP embracing the Lone Eagle — some politicians did think of running him for president.

In the novel, Lindy is depicted as a Nazi sympathizer, which isn’t far afield from the flyer’s real-life considerations, where he looked upon American Jews with great suspicion and even accepted a medal from Hitler’s government.

Upon Lindbergh’s defeat of Roosevelt, the history of America is altered in a way that is simultaneously unbelievable yet frightengly plausible.

Like other contemporary American literary greats, Roth has taken the notion of “It Can’t Happen Here,” a seminal tome by Sinclair Lewis, by using the fascism scare of the 1930s as the vehicle to evoke terrifying “what if’s” that are both outrageous and seemingly within reach.

— B. Gottlieb


Bad Monkey

By Carl Hiaasen; Knopf, $26.95 (hardcover), 317 pp.

ANDREW YANCY IS a pot-smoking former cop who lost his badge after shoving a vacuum cleaner nozzle up the ass of his girlfriend’s husband, out in public, in front of hundreds of shocked tourists. And he’s the good guy in Carl Hiaasen’s latest novel, Bad Monkey.

Those familiar with Hiaasen’s offbeat humor won’t be surprised that one of his heroes is, shall we say, slightly flawed. As for those of you haven’t read

Hiaasen, well, get with it. The guy is a terrific writer.

A former investigative newspaper reporter who still pens a weekly column for The Miami Herald, Hiaasen has written 12 previous novels. A Florida native, his stories are routinely set in the Sunshine State, a place with more than its fair share of slimy scammers, dim-witted hustlers and whacked-out lowlifes.

A consistent theme for Hiaasen is a visceral disdain for developers of all sorts. That familiar territory is mined again in Bad Monkey, a murder mystery that begins when a tourist fishing in the Florida Keys hooks a severed human arm. That odd catch is loosely connected to a dead-sailfish scam that’s “based on a true-life scandal in Miami,” which Hiassen playfully points out in the usual disclaimer at the front of the book declaring the names and characters are all “either invented or used fictitiously.”

Yancy, who has been reduced to “roach patrol” inspecting restaurants after his ill-conceived application of the vacuum attachment, sets out to find the killer of the man that arm was once attached to, hoping that solving the crime will help him win back his shield.

So, if you are looking for some breezy fun while kicking back on a beach somewhere this summer, Bad Monkey is a good place to turn.

— C. Guyette


Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal

By Vern; Titan Books, $15.95 (paperback), 352 pp.

ACTION MOVIE FANS aren’t usually bookworms, but don’t they still deserve an entertaining read at the beach? How about “an in-depth study of the world’s only aikido instructor turned movie star-director-writer-blues guitarist-energy drink inventor, the ass-kicking auteur Steven Seagal”?

Self-described “outlaw film critic” Vern is a fresh voice, very well informed on Seagal’s oeuvre, obviously having watched each film repeatedly, but also knowing the backstories on production, even having read the books the movies were (in many cases loosely) adapted from. So he’s like a total scholar — on the totally badass films of Steven Seagal. But Vern writes in a loose, relaxed style, like some dude who dropped in, ripped some bong hits, snorted a few rails, and is now frantically, hilariously riffing on the films in your living room. Seagalogy will march you through Seagal’s “golden age,” “silver age” and the scads of direct-to-video works of his later years — along with detailed checklists for each film on such hallmarks of the mini-genre as bar fights, unusual weapons and broken glass.

All told, Vern is guaranteed to make you double over with laughter in much the same way Steven Seagal sends foes somersaulting through clouds of broken glass. For a taste of his style, see  

— M. Jackman


The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People

By Neil Shubin; Pantheon, $25.95 (hardcover), 240 pp.

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM SAYS that, even though we’re a part of the cosmos, that the cosmos is something very far away. The sun, for instance, is roughly 93 million miles away from us. The next nearest star is about 25 trillion miles away. To discuss the galaxy, or the distances between galaxies, we must throw away planetary measurements altogether to express the vast distances involved. It’s enough to make you feel very, very small.

But here’s an interesting way to turn that on its head: The cosmos are inside us. In fact, human biology as we know it would be impossible without all the complex matter produced in stellar furnaces, ejaculated across the universe by exploding supernovae, only to become vital elements of our physical makeup. As Carl Sagan once said, “The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

And, in many ways, author and geologist Neil Shubin picks up where Sagan left off. Chapter by chapter, Shubin traces the histories of scientific hypotheses that explain the development of the universe, the solar system, the planet, life, mammals and, of course, humans. This is pop science of the highest order, taking some of the big ideas that explain our world and shaving them down into histories of the key researchers instrumental in their discovery. Once you look at all the happy accidents that made the planet suitable for human life — from continental drift to billions of years of stellar explosions — you come away with a sense of how precious a thing it is to be alive and sentient at all. It’s all here, in easily digestible chapters, perfect for quick bits of reading that help explain, for instance, how the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau started filtering carbon from the air 40 million years ago. And that’s excellent; it isn’t easy to translate hard science into something accessible the way Sagan did.

But Sagan did so much more. More than just wanting to excite your sense of wonder, Sagan recognized that science itself was a human institution, linked to the rise and fall of empires, subject to suppression by mystics or support from merchants, which forced him to analyze the political science of, say, Greece of the sixth century B.C. For today’s readers, however, political agnosticism is probably a small complaint.

Besides, you kind of have to be a big old hippie to say something like, “We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon. …”

— M. Jackman


1861: The Civil War Awakening

By Adam Goodheart; Knopf, $16 (paperback), 496 pp.

IT'S AN UNUSUAL CONCEIT: Writing a Civil War book about the least eventful year of the war, 1861. Instead of the battles of Gettysburg or Appomattox, or the Emancipation Proclamation, or many of major events of the war, we get a view of the waning months of the lame duck Buchanan administration, follow the slow journey east of a newly elected Abraham Lincoln, and witness a country gradually awakening to the reality of war.

In this age, when wars are produced like television programs, with timetables, deadlines and instantaneous destruction, it’s unusual to look at 1861 in detail. Before use of the telegraph was widespread, communication was much slower, and mustering armies across the vast distances was an arduous process. Key events were acted out by ordinary citizens, who took the initiative to seize stockpiles of weapons or trick their opponents with diversionary tactics. Low-level officers made pivotal decisions on whether to shelter defecting slaves or return them as property. Meanwhile, out-of-touch elders in the upper echelons of government still grasped at prolonging the uneasy peace even as it fell apart.

What becomes clear in the end is that Goodheart’s story is about a new generation of men who were coming into their own in the Union. Among them were German immigrants, barnstorming Midwestern politicians, smartly attired Zouave drillmasters and even humbler sorts. This new generation of men would be manlier, whiskered, determined to settle the arguments the past generation hadn’t.

The generals who’d win the war were still civilians: William Tecumseh Sherman was running a streetcar company in St. Louis, and Ulysses S. Grant was partner in a leather goods shop in Galena, Ill. Future hero Lincoln was still a cipher to be made fun of in newspaper cartoons.

All in all, it’s remarkable how Goodheart makes his slender premise work so well, painting 1861 so richly as not just a warm-up period for the main event, but as a time when the actors of a new age were throwing off the hypocrisies of the old order and winning converts for the battles to come.

— M. Jackman


The Detroit True Crime Chronicles: Tales of Murder and Mayhem in the Motor City

By Scott M. Burnstein et al.; Camino Books, $17.95 (paperback), 240 pp.

FOR THE METRO DETROITER who’s a fan of the true crime genre, Scott M. Burnstein’s book offers a survey of 20th century crime in our fair city, and it’s a rich history. The book’s jacket proclaims, perhaps a bit too proudly, “No other American city can boast such a cavalcade of remarkable criminal characters.” Well, it’s true: Detroit has punched above its weight, crime-wise, and the grisly record gangsters and murderers have left written in blood makes for an entertaining read.

Burnstein and company cover many of the more notable gangs, including the Purple Gang, Young Boys Inc., the crack empire of the Chambers brothers, such biker gangs as the Highwaymen and the Outlaws, as well as Detroit’s established Italian crime families. The older tales are told using research and historical reporting, whereas many of the more recent stories employ sources from law enforcement. While the bulk of the chapters are about organized crime, there are a few outliers, such as the Oakland County child killer of the 1970s, or the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

The book isn’t perfect. There are rookie misspellings (Kercheval Street is rendered “Kerchival,” for instance), and it’s written with enough hard-boiled clichés to make Bogie blush. Some chapters are better than others when it comes to taking the admittedly vast array of facts and shaping them into a page-turning story that gels. But most readers won’t complain, given an appetite for this kind of material. What’s more, the author’s access to police doesn’t mean it’s a one-sided portrayal of crime. Not only does the reader get a sense of many of the criminals’ acumen and intelligence, some of the “good guys” don’t come off looking so great, giving it all the ring of truth.

— M. Jackman