Top 10 Books for July 2014
Including plenty of local authors.
Summer isn’t always the best season for new books—but this year, a bumper crop has been released. I truly had a tough time choosing, and when I had to make tough choices, I erred on the side of those who call DC home. After all, this magazine is named after them!
As always, I’ve given five picks in fiction and five in nonfiction, and they are listed in no particular order. If I’ve missed one of your personal favorites, please let me know in the comments (you can also email me: email@example.com). There’s truly something for everyone on this list: Environmentalism. History. Biography. A thriller. A series. A debut novel. And so on…
You’re going to need a bigger beach bag!
Admirals, activists, submarines, and dolphins—you can’t make up a story like this, and Horwitz didn’t need to: The saga of an attorney who discovered that a submarine detection system’s high-intensity sound was driving whales from the water onto beaches is all true and completely shocking. The people involved are all passionate about their causes and beliefs—and at least one (I’m trying not to spoil the story, which is amazing) is caught between the loyalties of his past and the realities of his present. Forget toting the latest spy novel or horror story to the beach this summer; take War of the Whales instead. You don’t need to be an eco-warrior to learn from this real-life thriller.
“But there’s no danger/It’s a professional career” sang Elvis Costello ironically in his song about hired guns, “Oliver’s Army.” Unfortunately for all of us, hired soldiers, or mercenaries, have become increasingly common in a world order dominated by the need for contractors. This isn’t about ragtag guerilla groups or vicious cybercriminals; no, these “neomedieval” freelance military personnel are trained by and work for…us? Sean McFate was a contractor for US military contractor DynCorp International, and the story about Burundi with which he begins this well-researched book should make any reader think twice or thrice about how modern warfare and statecraft are conducted.
Gather ‘round, mes enfants, and hear of a time in which ardent US patriots spoke la langue Française, not even trying to call delicious potato sticks “Freedom fries.” It’s true, c’est vrai, that back in Revolutionary War times, we Colonials had more in common with some Frenchmen than not. Author Furstenberg follows the New World perambulations of five wellborn, Anglophilic countrymen as they explore 18th- and early 19th-century America, demonstrating in the process how much Enlightenment thought brought to our young nation. This book might also remind us today that every group of immigrants has its influence on and role to play in the making of the United States.
Timothy Beatley believes that human beings should have a deeper relationship with the ocean, and that the best way to foster this relationship is for coastal communities to develop holistic lifestyles that both respect saltwater and harness its benefits. In Blue Urbanism, Beatley sets forth his ideas, which include aquaponics, tidal energy harvesting, and communal fisheries. He also describes current practices, such as Rotterdam’s “water plazas,” open city areas that allow gatherings when dry and collect and allow drainage of flood waters when sea levels rise. His phrase “ocean literacy” has interesting implications for the years of climate change to come.
“Uncle Billy,” as William Tecumseh Sherman was known by the public, may have been the first celebrity general in the mold of Patton, Schwarzkopf, and even (dare I say it?) Petraeus, but according to Robert L. O’Connell he was a strategic genius whose head for logistics helped the North win The Civil War. Readers may or may not be convinced, but Sherman had so many incarnations that even without his military experience his life would make for fascinating reading. O’Connell calls his subject “the human embodiment of ‘Manifest Destiny,’” which seems appropriate given his exploits from Florida to California to the Midwest. A great read on a man who deserves our attention.
From its cover readers might imagine this is a beach-y novel about female friendship. It is indeed about female friendship, and the two females involved do grow up together in Corona del Mar, California—but this is a book of muscular, brave grappling with the darkest corners of the female psyche, not a feel-good story in the slightest. Washingtonian Rufi Thorpe’s debut promises great things ahead. Her characters Mia and Lorrie Anne deal with the scars of their lower-middle-class childhoods together and apart over several decades as Mia pursues academic success and war widow Lorrie Anne copes with a severely disabled son.
What do you call a novel that takes place entirely through emails? Is “epistolary” accurate in this case? Whatever the term might be for Alyson Foster’s debut, God Is An Astronaut, the result is an affecting journey through a family’s downward spiral after Spaceco employee Liam Frobisher is fingered with blame after one of the company’s initial flights goes up in flames. Jessica Frobisher reports on the disaster and aftermath in emails to her former lover and colleague, Arthur, and her fumbling, fragile attempts to make sense of her life’s crash and burn is well wrought by Foster (who lives in DC and works as a librarian at National Geographic).
Silva’s Renaissance-man protagonist Gabriel Allon is a more cerebral Jack Reacher and a more dangerous Cotton Malone; in other words, this Israeli-spy-turned-art-restorer has it all. Silva’s last Allon novel, The English Girl, was gripping and entertaining, and so is The Heist—no small feat for an author whose series started in the late 1990s and includes over a dozen titles. This time around, Allon is at work on a Veronese altarpiece when he learns that a London art dealer friend is being held as a murder suspect—and a Caravaggio masterpiece is missing. In a lesser writer’s hands, that might sound convenient. Not so in Silva’s. The world he’s created for Allon is whole and wholly believable.
It’s another debut novel—please don’t stop reading this post! This one is from a non-DC author because it’s so, so good. There’s no mystery about the victim in this carefully crafted examination of a multiracial family’s unraveling, as Lydia Lee’s death is in the first sentence. But are there other victims? Lydia’s blonde “American” mother, her Chinese academic father, and her siblings are all part of a web of secrets that both made Lydia who she was and affected how she died. From race to gender to culture to personhood, Ng plumbs the depths of what holds a family together, and finds that in them are also the forces that can force it apart. Truly stellar and not to be missed.
Breena Clarke, born in Washington, DC, now lives in Jersey City—but her first two novels (River, Cross My Heart and Stand the Storm) took place in Civil-War era DC. This new volume about 19th-century African-Americans brings her story north to New Jersey, where Underground Railroad passenger Dossie Bird is living in Russell’s Knob, a community of “amalgamators,” or people of mixed race living and working together (like southern New York’s “Jackson Whites” and Virginia’s Melungeons). The Smoot family, which holds sway, seems like an anchor to Dossie, until something happens that propels her to New York City. Rich, readable, and filled with authentic detail.