Top Reads for July
The summer season is in full swing, which means it’s officially too hot to do anything but read when you’re outside soaking in that Vitamin D. As is appropriate for the season, we give our hot takes on some buzzy books, including: Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest, a big mystery involving bears, a story about “Urban Indians” from Tommy Orange, and a reminder that it is, indeed, getting hotter in a book detailing the first five mass extinctions.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Alex P.: It’s a reasonable enough desire, in moderation: taking time to hide away at home, doing nothing more than sleeping, eating takeout, maybe watching a couple movies. But in Ottessa Moshfegh’s new novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the idea is taken to extremes. The unnamed protagonist quits her job, living — if you can call what she’s doing “living” — off her parents’ inheritance. She finds a kooky psychiatrist who is willing to prescribe more and more absurd sleeping pills. She breaks from her cycle of sleeping only to refill her prescriptions and to occasionally pick up coffee at the corner bodega. And so she passes, as the title suggests, a year.
It’s a pretty strange concept, aided by the strangeness of the character herself, a fairly misanthropic young woman who, on paper, has everything going for her: well-educated, wealthy, well aware of her own striking good looks. It’s hard to imagine why — despite the deaths of her parents, who she was never close to — she would choose to hibernate in this drastic way. Moshfegh expands the issue beyond the character’s idiosyncrasies, however, until the story becomes as much about art and the commodification of beautiful, damaged women. A smart, odd read, I’d recommend it for anyone whose summer plans include a staycation.
Karyne: Rice Moore does what anyone would do when trying to escape the past: He takes a job in a remote forest reserve in the Appalachian Mountains. But soon his peaceful life gets shaken up, when a stranger leads him to a bear that’s been skinned, with its paws and some organs missing. Moore goes from caretaker to detective, as he tries to figure out who’s skinning bears on the property, soon finding himself in the middle of a poaching ring that’s far more complicated than what’s on the surface.
But this isn’t your typical mystery, reading more like literary fiction than something that makes you jump out of your seat. Bearskin’s vivid detail makes you feel like you’re right on the mountain with the bears and the bees and other critters that live on the land. It’s a thrilling, beautifully written debut novel.
Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam
Andrew: Mark Bowden, famously the author of Black Hawk Down, brings us a ground-level view from both sides of one of the bloodiest battles in the Vietnam War (aka, “the American War in Vietnam”).
I don’t think it’s possible to read this book and come away feeling good about war generally or this war in particular. Drawn from first-person interviews, it’s a brutal, day-by-day and block-by-block account of the North Vietnamese surprise attack and the American and South Vietnamese fight to retake Hue. By the end of the battle, thousands of combatants and civilians were dead, and the historical city of Hue lay in ruins.
Bowden details how this battle was the beginning of the end for the United States’ role in Vietnam’s conflict between North and South. Public opinion imploded after the lies of the Johnson administration and its generals became too much to ignore; the North Vietnamese strategy of outlasting its imperialist opponent finally succeeded.
He connects this battle to lessons that America should have drawn from its war in Vietnam: the folly of self-serving belief and the risks of adventurism in parts of the globe we do not understand. These lessons are relatable to present US military ventures in the Middle East and elsewhere. Where once we imposed our influence across the globe in the name of fighting communism, now we do so in the name of fighting terrorism.
War. War never changes. And that, perhaps, is the ultimate tragedy.
Katie: Hyped as the book of the summer, Tommy Orange’s debut novel features a chorus of different voices, all Native Americans living in Oakland, California. And the book lives up to the hype. Funny, devastating, thrilling, and smart, There There is a vivid, character-driven story with the city itself a character. Born and raised in Oakland, Orange brings the city to life in rich, gritty, loving strokes as the character that grounds all the others. The New York Times published a review titled, “Yes, Tommy Orange’s New Novel Really Is That Good.” Believe it.
A different character narrates each chapter, telling eclectic stories of grappling with identity and representation. Through their voices, Orange articulates wide-ranging ways of being an “Urban Indian,” and the challenges of carving out a space between the cultural notion of Native people as stuck in the past and city living that strips away tradition.
At first the narrators seem disconnected, or rather connected only by their shared home of Oakland. But as their stories unfold, connections click into place for the reader. Sometimes small and fleeting. Sometimes momentous. In addition to their city, the characters are united by the upcoming Big Oakland Powwow they will all attend. Right off the bat, Orange drops a bomb that propels the narrative forward, adding a thriller-like suspense. We hear each character’s story, knowing they are barreling toward the doomed powwow.
The Ends of the World
Ashley: Climate change skepticists have argued to me that, since the earth has experienced warming patterns in the past, nothing is truly wrong in the present, we’re just at a warmer phase in the cycle. And it’s true: The planet has been both much cooler and much warmer before. But Earth also hasn’t harbored human life for most of its history. And what life did exist has been nearly wiped out five times in mass extinctions. The main culprit? Rapid increases in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
As Peter Brannen points out in this post-apocalyptic true fact science book, there’s still plenty of contention about the specifics of the first five mass extinctions, but one thing all scientists agree on is that carbon dioxide always plays a deadly part. As much as this book likes to point out all the sobering parallels between volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts of the past to human’s severe technological alteration of the planet in the present, it also revels in trying to make the differences between now and the far, far, far, far distant past more comprehensible. The Ends of the World serves as a warning for what apocalyptic ends could befall us, and as a beacon of hope that we can still stop the destruction of life as we know it.
Also available as an audiobook.
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