It's summer—so it's time to read. You read on the plane; you read at the beach; you read at home while your kids are at the multiplex seeing the latest mindless summer blockbuster.
There, now that we've gotten the intro out of the way, here are some books I highly recommend this summer.
At the top of the list has got to be The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Big Horn, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, $29.95). Philbrick is probably best known among readers of history for the spellbinding In the Heart of the Sea, the story of the whaleship Essex, which was rammed and sunk by a rogue whale off the coast of South America. (It served as the basis of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.) The survivors of the ramming could have easily sailed to Tahiti, but there were rumors of cannibalism there, so they tried to go the 2,000 miles back to Chile, with tragic and ironic results.
In Stand, Philbrick takes on one of the most iconic moments in American history. You have to figure that if one is going to tackle such a familiar story, he'd better bring it, and he does. Having read Evan S. Connell's brilliant Son of the Morning Star a couple of decades back, I didn't think there was anything left to tell of the Custer saga. But Philbrick fleshes out all of the characters and clearly lays out the battle site and the strategies employed by both sides.
While reading Heart of the Sea, I had no idea what was going to happen to the crew. Everybody knows what happened at the Little Big Horn, but Philbrick's re-telling is nevertheless gripping and completely satisfying. That's saying something.
Then there's Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Manhunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides (Doubleday, $28.95).
Baby boomers have long been burdened because modern American history was so tragically altered by three lone nutbirds with guns. It's always been easier to take solace in conspiracy theories, with the JFK assassination theory being the most likely to be true. But it seems that the two events that shocked my generation and the world just two months apart in 1968—the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy—were indeed just the doings of two really pissed-off guys.
In Hellhound (the title comes from a song by father of the blues, Robert Johnson), Sides follows assassin James Earl Ray from the time he breaks out of jail until the time he is caught, two continents away. Ray escapes to Mexico, but finds his way to Los Angeles, where the pill-popping stickup artist plans to start producing porno flicks. He gets involved in the third-party presidential campaign of George Wallace, at which time his violent plans begin to coalesce.
Much has been made of the fact that Ray escaped to Canada, and then London, before finally being captured as he tried to make his way to then-racist South Africa. Many at the time knew of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's hatred of Martin Luther King and thought that the FBI was dragging its collective feet on the manhunt. Not so, says Sides, and quite convincingly.
Sides sidesteps the question of where Ray got his money in the United States, but he does point out that Ray pulled a couple of stickups in London, poking at least a couple of small holes in the well-funded conspiracy theory.
This book is grim, but engrossing.
On the lighter (and fictional) side of things is Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist (W.W. Norton, $26.95). You gotta love somebody who put a clever joke in a three-word book title.
Udall's flawed central character, Golden Richards (who, oddly enough, has the same name as a former Dallas Cowboys wide receiver), has four wives, 28 kids and a failing construction business. He's also got the warm, trembling thighs for yet another woman, and while the four sister-wives are cool with each other, adultery outside of polygamy is still adultery.
Udall does a good job of making the mundane interesting, and the interesting comical.
One of the summer's hot reads in the third part of Stieg Larsson's Swedish mystery trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Knopf Doubleday, $26.95). I know a whole lot of people who swear by the late Larsson's books. (I read the first one on an airplane and mostly just swore at it.) But, different strokes.
To be sure, Larsson's Lisbeth Salander is a truly unique character, an antisocial punk with at least one major disorder, but an equally strong mental gift. She makes deductive leaps that strain credulity while teaming with an investigative financial reporter, Mikael Blomkvist.
It is suggested that readers tackle the three books (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire) in chronological order. You might as well. Larsson died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50 in 2004. The books were supposed to be part of a 10-book series, but three is all you get. The poor guy died before his books were published and became an international phenomenon.
One book off the beaten path that you might consider is Greil Marcus' When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison (PublicAffairs, $22.95). Morrison is one of the true musical gods of our time, but he's also irascible and perhaps too prolific for his own good. This is not a bio of the idiosyncratic (to say the least) Irish legend, but a rumination on some of his music. Marcus dismisses at least 15 of Morrison's albums (including some of my favorites) and does a jaw-dropping job of backing up Morrison's (and others') contention that the blues came to America from Scotland, not Africa.
On the local scene, there is Tom Miller's witty Revenge of the Saguaro (Cinco Puntos Press, $14.95). The title refers to a person who was killed by the very saguaro cactus he was trying to jack, and it's just the beginning of the fun in this book. Novelist Martin Cruz Smith says of Miller, "(He) loves the American Southwest the way a man loves a wayward, difficult woman, accepting her trashy, all-too-interesting history while knowing the heartbreaking truth."
This book is a treasure.
While you're at it, perhaps it's time to read Margaret Regan's The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories From the Arizona-Mexico Borderlands (Beacon, $26.95). It's heartbreaking and infuriating and uplifting, all at the same time. With the passage of SB 1070 and Mexican President Felipe Calderon's visit to the U.S., the topic of illegal immigration has nudged ahead of rampant drug violence on both sides of the line.
Regan's poignant tales, balanced against the shouting in the streets, reminds me of the Joseph Stalin line that "the death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic."
Pardon my noticing, but I found it odd that both Miller's and Regan's books had 256 pages.
Which, quite clumsily, brings me to math: The Math Book: From Pythagoras to the 57th Dimension, 250 Milestones in the History of Mathematics by Clifford Pickover (Sterling, $29.95). As delightfully nerdy as it sounds, this book looks at wondrous "A-ha!" moments in math, as well as years, or even centuries, of torturous work to solve just one problem.
Math is your friend, and this book is your friend's friend.