Slate has asked a number of its contributors to recommend some recent books of note. Below is a list of their responses. Pack them up for the beach or sit down next to the air conditioning, and enjoy.
A Day at the Beach, by Helen Schulman (Houghton Mifflin). This intense, disconcerting novel chronicles a single day in the life of a Manhattan couple: Gerhard Falktopf, a once-sensational choreographer past his prime, and Suzannah, his former prima ballerina and now wife and mother to their son, Nikolai. That day happens to be Sept. 11, and after Suzannah and Nikolai watch from their window as the first plane crashes into the World Trade Center, the Falktopfs pack up and head for the Hamptons. At one point Gerhard expresses admiration for the “hyperrealism” of Chuck Close’s portraits, a term that aptly characterizes Schulman’s technique: Every detail of that torturous day is magnified for her scrutiny, from the duck eggs Suzannah serves Gerhard for breakfast to the clothing on people falling from the towers. This privileged pair have little in common with the average New Yorker, but Schulman acknowledges their very real troubles even as she satirizes their excesses. Her steely vision of human relationships makes this book a standout in the increasingly crowded field of 9/11 novels.— Ruth Franklin
The Nature of Monsters, by Clare Clark (Harcourt). Clare Clark’s The Nature of Monsters is a flat-out fun read. Set in 1718, the story blends influences from Edgar Allen Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, Michel Foucault (the potentially monstrous nature of scientific knowledge), and Daniel Defoe. Imagine a veiled apothecary who appears to practice black magic, holds captive a woman who is virtually mentally retarded, and has strange dealings with a free-thinking bookseller. Should you, as a pregnant woman without a husband, stay in his house or flee? The tone of the book is serious, and the style is borrowed from the 18th century. Things are most dangerous precisely when they appear most safe.— Tyler Cowen
Magnetic North, by Linda Gregerson (Houghton Mifflin). Linda Gregerson’s style works the way intense curiosity works: By sorting and sifting, Gregerson’s poems move only in one direction, forward, and at one speed, fast. Her sentences hurdle across lines and stanzas, self-correcting instantaneously as new bits of information enter the field. If this style sounds forensic or drafty, read Gregerson’s poem “Bicameral”, which is in part about a child born with a cleft palate; of all the terrific American poets working today, Gregerson is best at complex, disabused acts of empathy. Probably no poet so smart (Gregerson is also a leading scholar of the English Renaissance) dares to take people and sadness so seriously. As the title of Gregerson’s “Bicameral” would indicate, this is a book about America, but obliquely so, by means of possums and falcons, roundworms and Marlowe. I will read these beautiful poems aloud to my children when they are old enough to wonder how it is anybody can still care deeply about our country.— Dan Chiasson
Islam: Past, Present and Future, by Hans Küng (Oneworld Publications). Hans Küng’s deep and thoughtful Islam: Past, Present and Future completes the trilogy he started with his books on Christianity and Judaism. Küng, arguably the world’s leading Christian theologian, believes that both Christians and Jews can find considerable common ground with Muslims and that a religious dialogue is a must. This is the definitive Western source on Islamic theology and how Islamic doctrine was shaped by the history of the Middle East. Küng speaks against the idea that different religions’ civilizations must clash, but he is not uncritical of Islam; he also offers reasons why a Christian should not accept every element of Islamic doctrine.— T.C.
The First Word: The Search for the Origins of Language, by Christine Kenneally (Viking). In her compelling book The First Word, Christine Kenneally explores how and why we are able to talk. Examining the issue from an evolutionary perspective, she reminds us that researchers interested in this question once had to break free of influential linguist Noam Chomsky, who thought answering it was a waste of time. (Chomskyans tended to emphasize the uniqueness of language, setting it apart from other human cognitive abilities as well as from adaptations in animals.) Over the past 20 years, however, a messy, thriving field dedicated to tracing the origins of language has developed, with contributions from scholars of linguistics, neuroscience, and genetics, among other fields. Many researchers now agree that language can be fruitfully studied in relation to other human and animal phenomena. Kenneally describes research, for instance, on the vocalization and gesturing of nonhuman primates, the neuroanatomy of apes, and the genes of mice and songbirds to suggest that language evolved piecemeal, over many, many years. Kenneally also presses researchers to extrapolate on their views: “If we shipwrecked a boatload of babies on the Galápagos Islands,” she cleverly asks them, “would they produce language in any form when they grew up?” (Answers include no and yes and every shade in between.) The book’s wit and sophistication will appeal to anyone interested in talking about talk.— Amanda Schaffer
Around the World on a Bicycle, by Thomas Stevens (Stackpole Books). My favorite thing I’ve read recently is Thomas Stevens’ epic two-volume account of his bicycle journey across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, Around the World on a Bicycle, originally published 120 years ago and reissued in a single softbound edition the size of a cinder block. The book offers pleasures not found in contemporary travel literature, chiefly, some serious derring-do. Stevens fought off attack dogs in Angora using his pennyfarthing’s big front wheel as a shield, biked through blinding snowstorms in Persia, faced down sword-brandishing Kurdish bandits, and fled mobs in cities throughout Central Asia, adventures which Stevens recounts in a hilarious High Victorian deadpan. (“For the first time in China I have to appeal to my Smith & Wesson in the interests of peace.”) The book brims with the prejudices typical of an Englishman of the time, but the writing is brisk, occasionally lyrical, and filled with passionate praise songs to the bicycle, then a cutting-edge machine. But Stevens was not averse to older transportation technology: His subsequent travel memoir—my big summer beach read, if I can find a copy on eBay—was titled Through Russia on a Mustang.— Jody Rosen