We all need good books to crack while sitting in the sun, but the notion of "summer reading" needn't be given exclusively to mindless diversions. Herewith, a few good books, newly published or new to paperback, to make your seasonal mind right.
American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau
Bill McKibben, editor (Library Of America)
This comprehensive anthology, thick at 1,000 pages but light enough for a beach bag, brims with essays and excerpts from canonical works about the nice little planet we all live on. Whether it's Henry David Thoreau musing on huckleberries, Buckminster Fuller wondering about "Spaceship Earth," or Michael Pollan surveying livestock in a bit from The Omnivore's Dilemma, the source material covers lots of enriching and surprising ground. And it even comes with one of those cool ribbons glued into the binding, to save on the waste of discarded bookmarks.
Lore Segal (New Press)
The interlocking but self-contained short stories in Shakespeare's Kitchen are set around a cozy New England think tank, where academics weather everyday occurrences and mull estranged relationships with the minds of Modernists given to quips and self-questioning. Lore Segal is a master of squishing complex interactions into just a few words–one woman apologizes to another with the tone of "a gently brought-up voice that had always had its questions answered when it was young." Her concision plays well in dense tales that stop profoundly after 10 pages.
Trying Leviathan: The Nineteenth-Century New York Court Case That Put The Whale On Trial And Challenged The Order Of Nature
D. Graham Burnett (Princeton University Press)
Is a whale a fish or a mammal? And, anyway, what does it really mean to be classified as one or the other, or even to be classified at all? These are among the many questions circled with obsessive glee by D. Graham Burnett, a young Princeton professor who gets off on both heady thematic digressions and wry citations of all sorts of weird facts about whales in history. The 1818 trial at the heart of the book concerns not just mysteries about whales, but also problems related to the rise of the scientific enterprise in a young America not yet ready to cede convention to "experts" at odds with more homespun wisdom. It's funny and more than a little wowing. Plus, it's all about whales.
Bigfoot: I Not Dead
Graham Roumieu (Plume)
This uproarious sequel to Me Write Book: It Bigfoot Memoir finds the charmingly sketched monster in the midst of an identity crisis after losing touch with himself and all that he stands for. One page, with a picture of Bigfoot kicked back at home with a bucket of chicken, says: "Bigfoot get real down sometimes. Hard not to. Bigfoot give best of self to world and still get treat like shit." The premise shouldn't prove half as sustaining as it does, but author-illustrator Graham Roumieu shows a certain genius for pressing down on the pathos in the comically absurd.
B.S. Johnson (New Directions)
This fabled "book in a box" dates back to the '60s, when B.S. Johnson counted among the bellwethers practicing the art of experimental fiction. The beginning and end sections are marked, but the 25 parts between (some just one page, others a few pages stapled together) are meant to be picked up and read in any random order. Other than the opportunity to do factorial math for how many different iterations the novel can offer, The Unfortunates presents a chance to get lost in a story where getting lost is part of the point.
No One Belongs Here More Than You
Miranda July (Scribner)
Just out in paperback, No One Belongs Here More Than You has become ubiquitous for good reason. Miranda July's cracked imagination makes for all sorts of surreal scenarios–swimming lessons on the kitchen floor of an apartment among them–and her way with words transforms what could be twee ticks into true marks of style. It's a book that stands to make you think of July as a writer more than a filmmaker, performance artist, or whatever else. It's also a book that may make you want to go off and write one yourself.