Better than Sliced Bread: Summer's Best NonfictionFresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan presents her nonfiction summer reading list — three true tales, plus one book of fiction she just couldn't resist.
When I was a kid, family vacations took place in the dead of winter, not summer. My dad was a refrigeration mechanic: His job was to maintain those huge air-conditioning units that you see on the roofs of tall office buildings.
Naturally, summer was his busy time, so it was in that holiday week between Christmas and New Year's that he, my mom and I would pile into our Rambler Classic and go off on a road trip. Washington, D.C.; Williamsburg, Va.; Mystic, Conn.; Niagara Falls — I remember tramping around all those places on overcast, icy days.
Inventing Niagara, by Ginger Strand, hardcover, 352 pages
Now, Ginger Strand's new book, Inventing Niagara, casts another pall over my childhood vacation memories. One of the facts about Niagara Falls that Strand highlights in her idiosyncratic cultural history is that, since 1950, the volume of water that tumbles over the falls roughly doubles during the summer tourist season — from about 50,000 cubic feet of water per second to 100,000 cubic feet per second. During the blah winter season, Canada and the U.S. divert more of that water as a source of hydroelectric power. So, the falls I dutifully stared at on a frigid winter's day were a falls with the faucet turned halfway shut.
Strand's book is a kick — illuminating and inflected with her wry voice. A self-proclaimed "hydrogeek," Strand says that she became obsessed with Niagara Falls because it's "a monument to the ways America falsifies its relationship to nature." If that thesis makes Strand sound like a scold, here's how she elaborates:
"Much of the real story of America's best-known landscape goes untold, and as I began to trace it, I often felt like I was entering Bizzaro World. From ... Indian casinos built on brownfields to 280,000 radioactive mice buried at the Falls, many of Niagara's stories are like the drums secreted in its landfills: shoved out of sight, covered over to look presentable, and driven by with glazed eyes ... "
The most fascinating chapter of Strand's book deals with mid-19th century high-wire aerialists who crossed the falls, sometimes bound in burlap bags and shackles. Strand makes a convincing case that these stunts were encoded representations of the desperate crossings of fugitive slaves over the border into Canada. If you just think of "Viagra Niagara" as a has-been honeymoon destination, Inventing Niagara will alert you to the torrent of other meanings Americans have assigned to the spot.
Minders of Make-Believe, by Leonard S. Marcus, hardcover, 416 pages
I don't remember spending a lot of time looking at the passing scenery on those long-ago vacation car rides; my head was usually buried in a Nancy Drew mystery. If you want to revisit some of the beloved books of childhood and learn a lot about the history of children's literature in America, Minders of Make-Believe is the substantive tome to dip into.
Written by Leonard S. Marcus, a prominent scholar of children's lit, Minders of Make-Believe takes readers from the first children's book to originate in the New World — The New-England Primer of 1689 — up to the Harry Potter phenomenon. Throughout, Marcus traces the tussle that's been going on for more than three centuries over whether tykes and teens should be reading books primarily for entertainment or for erudition.
The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, by Don Robertson, paperback, 224 pages
While we're on the subject of children's lit, I just have to wedge one fiction recommendation into this nonfiction roundup: HarperCollins has just reprinted Don Robertson's 1965 young adult novel called The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread, and — true to form — that it is.
The multilayered story is set in 1944, when a 9-year-old named Morris Bird III decides to walk across Cleveland, pulling his little sister in a wagon. Morris wants to find his old friend, Stanley Chaloupka, who's moved across town; unfortunately, it's the day of the East Ohio Gas Explosions — an actual disaster that killed 130 people and destroyed one square mile of Cleveland. Both the disaster and its chronicler, Robertson, have faded from memory, but with the boost of this reprint featuring wise child Morris, who worships both Veronica Lake and FDR, a whole host of new readers will be ushered back into this lost world.
The Importance of Music to Girls, by Lavinia Greenlaw, hardcover, 224 pages
For a generation of kids who came of age in the 1960s and '70s, summer memories are suffused with the tinny sound of rock 'n' roll playing on transistor radios. In her eccentric new memoir, The Importance of Music to Girls, British writer Lavinia Greenlaw writes about the way music — especially rock — propelled her into her first experience of puppy love (with Donny Osmond) and later, her Clash- and Banshee-inspired punk rebellions.
Greenlaw is gifted with a sharp eye for the deeper significance of the ephemeral. Here, for instance, is how she describes a street scene of her youth:
"To be a teenager in 1970 was to suffer an excess of gravity. I watched them move slowly along Camden High Street, boys and girls alike with faces half-closed behind long, center-parted hair. The shape their clothes made was that of something being pulled down into the earth: scoop-necked tops ... and flared ankle-length skirts and trousers made of cumbersome corduroy. ... Their colors were vegetal — umber, ocher, aubergine, mushroom, sage. They looked damp."
Whether you're traveling this summer or you find yourself stuck in place (as my family once did), any of these provocative books offer a lot to think about — and might even dredge up a few things you'd rather forget.