Top Books for August

In this final splash of summer, in between stints of watching the Olympics, be sure to: Read The Queen of Katwe prior to the movie adaptation’s release in September, learn some political history with Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine and A.J. Somerset’s Arms in the run-up to November’s election, and kick back with some sci-fi from Drew Magary.

The Queen of Katwe

Niree: First, there was the incredible true story of Bobby Fischer. Now, there is the incredible true story of Phiona Mutesi, a teen chess prodigy who defied societal expectations and circumstantial limitations to become Uganda's national champion. Tim Crothers expertly weaves together a multitude of narratives spanning generations to tell the heartwarming tale of how a nine-year-old from an impoverished slum could not just pick up an unlikely hobby, but rise up to compete in the prestigious World Chess Olympiads and become a Woman Candidate Master. Catch Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo in the movie adaptation, in theaters this September.

The Nine

Alex: Despite the anachronism, it’s hard not to find a note of irony in the title of Jeffrey Toobin’s insider account of the Supreme Court, The Nine. With Antonin Scalia’s vacancy on the Supreme Court left defiantly unfilled by the Senate, the nine has become the eight, and the fog of lofty dignity that usually protects the Court from quotidian political drama has been lifted. Which isn’t to say that the Court hasn’t seen its share of commotion over the years; as Toobin’s compelling book reveals, the turmoil just usually takes place in hushed tones behind heavy curtains.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Supreme Court leading up to the turn of the century, though, is just how moderate it was. Despite being heavily stacked with conservative judges, the Court’s decisions generally tracked with public opinion and liberal precedent. In The Nine, Toobin attributes this moderate tack almost entirely to one judge: Sandra Day O’Connor. In fact, Toobin goes so far as to state that, especially when it came to abortion, “the Rehnquist Court was in fact the O'Connor Court.” It’s an interesting lesson as the country awaits a ninth judge who will determine the new majority; the professed political leanings of any given judge don’t necessarily determine how the court will rule. In this time of extreme partisan dysfunction, there’s some measure of comfort in that thought.

Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun

Ashley: As a former soldier, current gun owner, and sardonic Canadian, A.J. Somerset offers a much-needed perspective on the United States’s gun culture. Though he makes it abundantly clear which side he’s on (he believes America’s modern-day obsession with guns is out of control), Somerset didn’t write Arms to argue for gun control or to show that guns are what really kill people. Instead, he writes: “This is a book about ideas that kill people, about the palimpsest of untruth, half-truth, and wishful fabrication that Americans have piled up to paper over their inconvenient truths.”

From that jumping off point, Somerset spends a lot of well-researched and darkly humorous time moving through history, from technological advancements to the honor of cowboys to racial tensions. It’s fascinating to see what incidents sparked pushes for new gun legislation, and how all that history has compounded and led to the political standoff we’re in today. Arms doesn’t provide all the answers to our current gun violence woes, but it definitely provides the background knowledge necessary to more successfully engage in this loaded debate.

The Postmortal

Dave: This book opens with the ominous warning that “Immortality will kill us all.” It’s the simple thesis behind Drew Magary’s sci-fi novel, which heroically explores the dangers of living forever. Set in the near future, The Postmortal follows one man’s experience with the cure for aging. John Farrell effectively becomes immortal after receiving a new (and largely illegal) treatment that isolates and deactivates the gene in our DNA that causes human beings to age. Farrell is now frozen at age 29, without the ability to grow older or die of old age. 

Sadly, easily-accessible immortality quickly produces a unique set of negative consequences, including a dangerous religious cult, secret government euthanasia programs, and—of course—evil, green-skinned people. While the tone of The Postmortal can easily be described as “macabre,” Magary’s wit carries the narrative with immense humanity.

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