12 Summer Vacation Book Ideas For AlterNet Readers

For much of the world, August is time to get away from it all and take a breather. After the first seven months of 2012, some AlterNet readers just may want to get out of town—or ponder leaving the country—for good.

But a week or two at the beach, the mountains, or some other far-off primal place will soothe the savage beast. And a good book will help too. So here’s a bunch of new books that might make you laugh or cry, angry or hungry, richer or poorer. They may be just what are needed.

Here's a dozen literary delights. We’ll start with one for people who can’t stop checking their smartphones for the latest news. (Pretend to be on vacation….)

1. Politics as Usual
It’s the Middle Class, Stupid! by James Carville and Stan Greenberg (Blue Rider Press). Kirkus Reviews says this book is “for Democratic political junkies who enjoy straight-talk policy discussion.” Carville is certainly known for that. You’ll remember that strategist Carville and pollster Greenberg worked on Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign, with the relentless message that “it’s the economy, stupid.” That’s still the message a dozen years later. As Kirkus points out, “The authors take a similar tack here, asserting that President Obama and other Democrats must zero in on the needs of the middle-class in order to win the upcoming election, and as might be expected, there is a certain amount of preaching to the choir. To the authors’ credit, they are refreshingly specific in some of their policy recommendations in areas such as energy investment and campaign finance reform.” There are tidbits here that you can recite, even after that third poolside vodka gimlet—yes, waiter, with real lime!

2. Politics as Unusual
What Really Happened: John Edwards, Our Daughter, and Me by Rielle Hunter (Banbella Books). Care for some tawdry summer reading in one of the latest tell-all tomes? This just could be better than a cheap romance novel. The two-time presidential candidate and two-timer’s latest mistress writes that John Edwards had affairs with other women besides her over the past two decades, even as his wife Elizabeth was dying of cancer. The dirty little secret has led some to call Edwards the most hated man in America. Hunter says she wrote the book to explain the torrid sexual relationship to her daughter, the product of their romance. She says everyone made mistakes and claims she is no longer seeing the former U.S. senator. (Does she really want to explain all this? Oh, never mind.)

3. Political Intrigue
Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews (Riverhead). This novel is cool, compelling and well worth reading. It’s February 1939, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt has a domestic political problem on his hands as the world braces for war. Publishers Weekly picks up the story. “Roosevelt recruits 21-year-old John F. Kennedy to be his personal spy in this imaginative, well-researched mix of fact and fiction.” FDR meets secretly with the ailing young future president and asks him to travel through Europe, not just to research Kennedy’s senior thesis at Harvard but also to stop a courier from transporting German money to the U.S., part of a plot by Adolph Hitler to defeat FDR for re-election in 1940. Outlandish, you say? Not likely given the outrageous and incredible true stories that emerge in the politics of today.

4. Breaking Bad
Predator Nation: Corporate Criminals, Political Corruption, and the Hijacking of America by Charles Ferguson (Crown Business). If you are trying to get away from what’s wrong with America right now, this may not be the book for you. It directs a critical eye at the financial industry and possible criminal activity. Aside from castigating business, it’s also critical of both political parties. Imagine! Liberals aside, not everyone loves it, among them Gary Black, reviewing the book for Vortex Effect. “Predator Nation is a well-written book… extremely well-sourced; it’s an easy read, even easier for those who view the world through the same perspective as the author.” Ferguson was the writer and director of Inside Job, the documentary highlighting the lowlights in the financial industry from 2007-2010. Black calls the book a no-brainer read for liberals and Occupy Wall Street supporters. But he’s critical of the book’s author for telling readers to “hold your nose and vote for (Obama), the least of the available evils.” That not-so-liberal reviewer wants readers to go in a completely different direction – supporting Ron Paul for president. No comment.

5. Feeling Good
Love is the Cure: on Life, Loss and the End of AIDS by Elton John (Little, Brown and Company). Sex, drugs and rock ‘n' roll all in one package. The 64-year-old super-singer has written his first book about his own experience fighting AIDS while watching with horror as several of his friends died from the disease. But it’s not just agony, there’s anger, as John wonders why the world is not doing more to fight the international epidemic which is one reason, he says, he penned this book. Elton John has already done his part. He founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992.

6. That’s Novel
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins Publishers). Lots of readers are enthralled by this novel and it is selling briskly. A few reviewers have panned it. The Book of the Month club enthused that it is a “tale of science and sacrifice set in the Amazonian jungle, Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is both a gripping adventure and a profound look at the difficult choices we make in the name of discovery and love. It’s her most enthralling novel to date.” The story centers on Dr. Annick Swenson, a scientist doing top-secret research deep in the jungle. She sends out word that Anders Eckman, the man sent to check on her, is dead and it falls to Marina Singh, a medical researcher from Minnesota and Eckman’s lab partner, to discover what happened. But there’s more to the tale. Singh is not happy to take on the task because as Book of the Month Club notes, it “will force her to confront the ghosts of her past…and take her on an odyssey into her own heart of darkness…” Kirkus rcalled the novel “thrilling, disturbing, and moving in equal measures, even better than Patchett’s breakthrough Bel Canto (2001).” You decide.

7. Wishing You Were Even Farther Away
The Tribes of Burning Man: How an Experimental City in the Desert is Shaping the New American Counterculture by Steven Jones (CCC Publishing). For those of you who have not made the annual pilgrimage to the Black Rock desert or those of you who have, this looks like one of the more intriguing books that seeks to capture that multi-dimensional experience. Jones, a lifelong journalist and committed burner, traces how the gathering has grown and evolved in recent years and spread its influence into popular culture. He's less interested in the futuristic sculptures, buildings and machines than the tribes--the communities--that arise there. Be forewarned: if your trek to a favorite Hawaiian beach isn't working its magic, you may not want to be thinking about mysterious happenings in the Nevada desert.         

8. Cookbook for the Few
It’s not just about tofu anymore. Herbivoracious by Michael Natkin (Harvard Commons Press) may be the vegetarian book for all ages. The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf is positively glowing about the book’s 150 recipes, saying the book heralds “a new generation in meatless cooking and vegetarian cookbooks. This is grown-up vegetarian food, visually stunning on the plate (as seen in more than 80 color photographs), intensely flavored in a way that will appeal to readers with a sophisticated and adventurous global palate, health-conscious in a natural manner, and above all, reflecting the author’s own prodigious originality and creativity in the kitchen—exactly the traits that have made his blog the go-to destination for new and tasty ideas in vegetarian eating. Natkin provides lots of advice on how to craft vegetarian meals that amply deliver nutrients, and the imaginative menus he presents deliver balanced and complementary flavors. The many dozens of vegan and gluten-free recipes are clearly noted, too, and an introductory chapter lays out the simple steps to outfit a globally inspired pantry of seasonings and sauces that make meatless food come alive.” Hungry yet?

9. Cookbook for the Many
United States of Pie: Regional Favorites from East to West and North to South by Adrienne Kane (Ecco). I don’t eat much pie, but when I browsed through this work at a local bookstore, I was impressed at what a good cook can come up with. Some of the pies looked more than just appealing. Among my favorites: shoefly pie, green tomato pie, and I learned about a new one: chipmunk pie (with apple and nut filling). Publishers Weekly calls it a “colorful, varied collection by a blogger, recipe developer, and food writer (that) may well be the definitive resource on the all-American pie.” Kane culled recipes from all over the place and helps pie-makers pull it off with ease, in the view of Publishers Weekly. “For the new baker there’s plenty of guidance on blind baking and crust fluting. Masters of the craft will be lured in by new challenges—rendering one’s own lard, for example. In all, this is a sweet and helpful guide.”

10. Trash Talk
As Texas Goes: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda by Gail Collins (Liveright). Have you noticed the word "hijacked" turning up in some current book banners, which just might tell you how some authors feel about the status quo? In this one, New York Times political columnist and unabashed liberal Gail Collins trashes America’s second-most populous state and many of its 26 million residents. She does so in four sections: contrasting true Texas heroes with some current politicians; telling where Texas has gone wrong (and she has plenty of examples); delving into the state’s economy; and looking to the Lone Star State’s future, as it careens toward the day when Hispanics are the majority population. Publishers Weekly says, "Collins's book is really an indictment of what she calls America's 'empty-places' creed — the rural conservative populism that favors small government, low taxes, and lax regulation — through a takedown of its colorful epicenter. Much like the late Texas dissident Molly Ivins, she slathers plenty of wry humor onto a critique that stings like a red-hot brand.”

11. For the Not Quite Tween
Capture the Flag by Kate Messner (Scholastic). They've read the Hunger Games books and the latest vampire thrillers and you're wondering, what's next? The Southern Independent Booksellers suggests this good (but wink, horrible) tale. The American flag that inspired the "Star Spangled Banner" has been stolen and it’s up to three intrepid children (Anna, Joe, and Henry, three strangers brought together during a snow-delay at a DC airport) to save this piece of history and capture the culprits. One reviewer wrote that Messner “did a bang-up job writing a book for kids that reminded me a lot of the film National Treasure, in that it makes history and its artifacts interesting.” Any adventure story bringing kids together, highlights a mission and new friendships sounds good to me.

12. Personal Favorite
Cronkite by Douglas Brinkley (HarperCollins Publishers). I decided to make this tome part of my summer reading list. The CBS newsman has been one of my personal heroes and role models. After all, he was referred to as the “most-trusted man in America.” It was painful enough shelling out $30 for the 667-page epic but even worse reading that Uncle Walter was not the principled pillar of journalism that I had thought. The Los Angeles Times review says Cronkite modeled himself not after the intensely driven purist Edward R. Murrow but on the more folksy style of radio broadcaster Lowell Thomas when Cronkite entered television in 1950. “That style suited Cronkite … when Cronkite did take a stand, as he did in his famous 1968 'Report From Vietnam,' he delivered a careful, qualified assessment that concluded, ‘it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out … will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy and did the best they could.’ This modest, ‘middling position,’ as Brinkley accurately describes it, was characteristic of Cronkite and the source of his enduring appeal. He was no crusader.” Sigh. And that’s the way it was.

Old Reliables—Some Classics Worth Considering
Perhaps you really want to get away, so reading the books above is too much like work, or reality. There’s always another option, reading or rereading great literature, some of it with a travel tone. In that regard, consider Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe if you plan an island vacation. Although it was first published in 1719, it’s still an interesting read today. And just hope you come back home safely.

Heading to Europe? Take along A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. It just might be the best of times and the worst of times in one volume. Going to the waterfront or on a river cruise? Don’t forget The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. And if you are undertaking a road trip, you’ll enjoy the drive even more by reading Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s charming account of his 1960 travels with his pet pooch, even though he made the trip, likely knowing he was dying.

Enjoy yourself. You’ve earned a break and a good book. (And don't forget to add your suggestions to the comment pages.)


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