From the light food, to the beach vacations, to the gorgeous nights, the summer months can conspire to make life a little too simple and dreamy. Don't get me wrong — I like daiquiris on the ocean as much as the next Hawaiian-shirted day-tripper, but the comedown from the lushness of the dog days can be very hard if you're not careful.
That's why I always recommend good nonfiction for end-of-summer reading. You certainly won't breeze through a wonderful memoir or in-depth travelogue the way you would an airport romance novel. But the ideas and lessons you'll take from them will stick with you like a good meal, perfect for when the weather cools and you fall back to Earth.
Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
By William Dalrymple, hardcover, 304 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95
For a real look at modern India, say goodbye to the semi-alarmist gore of Slumdog Millionaire and hello to William Dalrymple's masterful Nine Lives. With religious devotion as its narrative thread, this book offers readers fascinating glimpses into the transforming worlds of nine Indians, each of whom is watching a globalized future clash harshly with their centuries-old spiritual traditions. Witches sacrifice goats in the name of political victories. Prison guards become deities before again becoming prison guards. Srikanda, a man who constructs sacred idols the way his forebears did, watches as his son abandons the family trade, choosing instead to study computers. "Our work here is very hard," Srikanda says. "Computer work is not so difficult, and it pays much more."
Though religion is its central theme, it seems unfair to say that Nine Lives is a book about religion. Not only is that a vast understatement, but it's also likely to turn off readers with a more agnostic bent, who aren't in the mood to be preached to while trying to enjoy a nice summer read. But fear not — be you faithless or pious, the stories within this book are far more elegant anthropology than heavy-handed gospel, more inquisitive than accusatory. (In this excerpt, Dalrymple encounters a Jain nun with an "air of unmistakable melancholy.")
By Anthony Bourdain, hardcover, 304 pages, Ecco, list price: $26.99
With several books on national best-seller lists and his own Emmy-nominated TV show, No Reservations, seasoned, salty chef-turned-food-writer Anthony Bourdain is a far different man from the one he was a decade ago, when he released his first memoir, Kitchen Confidential. In that book, readers were introduced to someone for whom the vices of the food service industry — drugs, booze, late nights — were seemingly as integral to his livelihood as butter is to a roux.
Fast-forward 10 years. Bourdain is now wealthy, married (to his second wife) and a father, and a guy worldly enough to start sentences with "I often feel this way when alone in Southeast Asian hotel bars." But while the formerly heroin-addicted wild man may have hung up his more dangerous knives — and subsequently ended his assault on Rachael Ray — rest assured that his prose is as sharp as ever. Profane, funny and slightly mean, the Bourdain in Medium Raw is still acerbic; he has just wisely discovered that in life, as in cooking, it's important to balance bitterness with hints of sweet. (In this excerpt, Bourdain talks about teaching his young daughter to view American fast food culture "as the enemy.")
I Know I Am, But What Are You?
By Samantha Bee, hardcover, 256 pages, Gallery, list price: $25
As one of The Daily Show's few female correspondents, Samantha Bee has for years provided a welcome burst of female humor to the program's mostly male talent lineup. Her first book, I Know I Am, But What Are You?, is no different — a quirky, hilarious addition to the testosterone-dominated world of comedy memoirs.
Beginning with her dysfunctional childhood in Toronto — during which she would steal cars with her boyfriend and watch hardcore porn with her mom — I Know I Am then follows Bee through the series of dead-end jobs and crushing but comical life lessons that would come to define her brand of morbid political comedy. Because if you can laugh at the dark banality of assisting in an erectile dysfunction clinic and your family's history of marrying "sex perverts," you'll probably also be able to find the funny moments in our endlessly frustrating government. (Read Bee's description of her "obsession with finding the pitch-perfect gift, accompanied by a severe mental block when it comes to interpreting that person's needs and desires.")
The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates
By Wes Moore, hardcover, 256 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $25
Of Perry Smith, the mass murderer at the center of In Cold Blood, star author Truman Capote famously remarked, "It's as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day, I went out the front door and he went out the back." This idea — that two very similar people can grow up to live two completely different lives — is at the heart of the endlessly intriguing The Other Wes Moore.
Begun when Rhodes Scholar and White House Fellow Wes Moore read an article about a condemned prisoner with the same name, this story follows the free Moore into his past and that of his same-named counterpart, daring to ask what might have been with a few simple strokes of luck. Born within two years of each other, both Moores were raised in poverty and fatherless homes in Baltimore. And yet one went on to speak at the Democratic National Convention while the other is in jail for life, without parole.
The book's most powerful moments undoubtedly come when Moore visits and interviews the other Moore in prison, where he learns firsthand what Capote observed decades ago: "So little separates us from another life altogether." (In this excerpt, Moore describes a meeting with the other Wes Moore — in which they discuss the absence of their fathers.)
Where We Going Daddy?
By Jean-Louis Fournier (translated by Adriana Hunter), paperback, 128 pages, Other Press, list price: $12
Leave it to a Frenchman, humorist Jean-Louis Fournier, to break practically every taboo in the world in order to write honestly and admirably about something off-limits to most everyone else: severely handicapped people. As the father of two sons with profound cognitive and physical impairments, Mathieu and Thomas, Fournier uses a series of short vignettes to bravely discuss the difficulty of coming to grips with his children's limitations.
Occasionally, his sons frustrate him — like when, on car trips, they endlessly rattle off the book's titular phrase — but more irritating to Fournier is the politically correct barriers outsiders frequently place on him and his sons. For instance, as a comedian, Fournier laments that nobody will ever give his sons the pleasure of laughing at them. "When a child splatters pudding all over his face, everyone laughs," he writes. "If it's a handicapped child no one laughs. He'll never see laughing faces looking at him, apart from a few jerks laughing at him."
By the final story, you'll be touched no matter what. But you'll probably also find that you're laughing at things you never thought funny before. (In this excerpt, Fournier writes, "If a child being born is a miracle, then a handicapped child is an inverted miracle.")