Could this be the summer we finally bury the notion that a beach read must be mindless to be fun? We find ourselves particularly drawn this season to nonfiction and a few realistic novels. Below, some of our top picks through July. Save August for Thomas Pynchon’s latest, Inherent Vice—“part noir, part psychedelic romp”—a mere 400 pages.
In the Land of Invented Languages
By Arika Okrent, Spiegel & Grau, $26
For hundreds of years, geniuses and kooks have invented, from scratch, perfect new languages that will unite the planet in utopian rational harmony. For hundreds of years, they have failed. Okrent takes us on a tour of the most colorful attempts: Solresol, the language built entirely from the seven notes of the musical scale (statements could be sung or played on the violin); Láadan, a language to express the full range of women’s experiences (ásháana = “to menstruate joyfully”); Dritok, made from chipmunk noises (clicks, pops, and hisses). She ends, delightfully, with one of the most successful, Klingon: There are instructional videos, conferences, even a translation of Hamlet in it. All of these failures ultimately add up to a celebration of the power of natural languages: They are spontaneous, organic, and gloriously, humanly flawed. –S.A.
By Gillian Flynn, Shaye Areheart, $24
In her first psychological thriller, Sharp Objects, Flynn created a world unsparingly grim and nasty (the heroine carves words into her own flesh) written with irresistibly mordant humor. The sleuth in her equally disturbing and original second novel is Libby Day, the survivor of a famous mass murder (the victims were her mother and two sisters; the accused her brother) paid to reinvestigate the tragedy by a secret society of true-crime obsessives. They believe her brother—to whom Libby hasn’t spoken in 25 years—is innocent. It’s Flynn’s gift that she can make a caustic, self-loathing, unpleasant protagonist someone you come to root for, even if you never entirely like her. –M.K.S.
How to Sell
By Clancy Martin, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24
A novel about the duplicity and shady connections that underlie the jewelry business—or at least one grubby sector of it, in Fort Worth, Texas—turns out to be just as much of a con as the games its coke-snorting salesmen play. The fun, flash, and fakery of Martin’s story are all on the surface, expertly hooking the most casual browser. But underneath it’s a timely capitalist satire (wide-eyed Canadian Bobby Clark’s unsentimental education in the dastardly business of American consumer culture) that stealthily creeps toward heartbreak: of Bobby and his nasty brother, Jim, liars and sinners both, but all too human; of their crazed and broken father; and of the women they don’t know what to do with after they’ve sold them a bill of goods. –B.K.
The Food of a Younger Land
Edited by Mark Kurlansky, Riverhead, $27.95
As more and more Americans are eating locally grown, nonprocessed food by choice, interest in an era when such an approach was the only possibility makes sense. Kurlansky—author of food histories Salt and Cod—investigates “America Eats,” an effort by the Federal Writers’ Project to document the local idiosyncrasies of American cuisine in the thirties and forties. The book is a thoroughly entertaining collection of highlights from the never-completed project’s archives at the Library of Congress, including recipes like “Squirrel Mulligan” and kitsch traditions. To wit, this description of the “Washington Community Smelt Fry”: “The thousands of guests departed, each content that a good performance had been given and that a most worthy member of the fish family had been eulogized.” –B.M.L.
Newton and the Counterfeiter
By Thomas Levenson, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25
Levenson gives us a historical metamorphosis you’d never believe if it weren’t so well-documented: Isaac Newton—the antisocial human calculator who revolutionized Enlightenment science—as badass London supercop. In the 1690s, England faced a financial crisis that almost destroyed the country: The silver coins at the foundation of their economy had been counterfeited, clipped, melted down, and sold overseas until there was little left to spend. The desperate government summoned Newton to be warden of the Royal Mint. He aimed his genius at the money problem, organizing a massive recoinage and tracking, Law & Order style, a counterfeiting supervillain. The plot is fast, loaded with rich pockets of history (gravity, alchemy, bubonic plague), and strangely resonant with current affairs: Imagine Stephen Hawking solving the global financial meltdown while catching Ponzi schemers. –S.A.
Just Like Family
By Tasha Blaine, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25
The author worked briefly as a nanny, an experience so unsettling it led her to write this book—a thought-provoking, intimate, and well-reported series of character portraits far deeper than many books about the child-care relationship, which have tended toward arid ideology or focused only on the employer. In three sections, we meet a trio of contrasting nannies: a career Caribbean nanny (Claudia) working in the West Village, an emotionally fragile live-in nanny with wealthy control-freak employers, and a bossy young pro so invested in her job she crosses boundaries in problematic ways. Blaine is sympathetic to all three, but her heart is clearly with Claudia, whose dissolving marriage and struggles to stay afloat financially—while wheeling a stroller through boomtown Manhattan—could form a book of their own. –E.N.
By Greg Grandin, Metropolitan, $27.50
In 1927, Henry Ford was the world’s richest man, with a company so strong it tried to do something only countries usually manage: It became a colonial power. Seeking a source for tires and gaskets, Ford exacted a concession from the Brazilian government for a piece of Amazon jungle the size of Connecticut and set out to build a rubber plantation. Moreover, he decreed the town of Fordlandia would be an all-American place, never mind the habits of the locals (bandstands and ice-cream shops were built; Prohibition was enforced). From page one, it’s clear Fordlandia was doomed. Two things keep you reading: curiosity over how long this harebrained scheme could go on, and Ford himself, who, in his later years, was less a visionary than a wack job, full of crackpot ideas about diet, sociology, and (as everyone knows by now) Jews. –C.B.
By Leonard Levitt, Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s press, $25.99
Leonard Levitt has been covering the politics and personal relationships of One Police Plaza since 1983, giving him access to the city’s governing elite—connections he puts to excellent use here. The book examines New York’s heralded drop in crime in the nineties (with an egomaniacal Rudy Giuliani center stage), and it’s fascinating to see how toxic the atmosphere at NYPD headquarters became despite—or because of—that success. Levitt addresses the big issues via an engaging, character-driven narrative and wisely never resorts to the macho melodrama that poisons so much of tabloid police reporting. –B.M.L.
Bury Me Deep
By Megan Abbott, Simon & Schuster, $15
In 1931, a young wife, Marion Seeley, is deposited by her husband on the steps of a TB ward in Phoenix. Eager to escape her job as a medical secretary among the “lungers,” as patients are known, Marion quickly falls in with the wrong crowd: fading flappers with marcelled bobs and blank eyes. Enter Gentleman Joe, a married “wet druggist” who is all about the “business of ruin.” He unlocks a dark obsession in Marion, and, true to noir style, desperate passions lead to despicable actions. In this novel based on the true-life case of the “Trunk Murderess,” Abbott turns the stuff of sensational confession magazines into a rich meditation on the unclouded depths of the soul. –C.R.