9 Brainy Beach Books for Your Summer Reading List
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The Fiscal Times
July 5, 2013

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about what you should be reading this summer. If you’re a high net worth investor with an account at JPMorgan Chase, you’ll have received a package of books ranging from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir to Sheryl Sandberg’s ubiquitous volume, Lean In, as well as a cookbook and a tale of an Antarctic trek, Alone on the Ice. (It’s tempting to ponder whether the latter is supposed to be seen as a metaphor for endurance in the face of underwhelming market returns…)

Mohamed El-Erian of Pimco suggests three tomes that he believes you will find “instructive and relevant,” given that they offer “a set of conceptual approaches and practical tools that are applicable to a world that is full of rapid technological change, re-aligning economic relationships and changing geo-political interactions.” (Gulp.) El-Erian’s picks include Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald.

Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times weighed in with his list of favorite business books, including Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and the iconic Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis. (Is there anyone who hasn’t read that yet? If you haven’t discovered it yet, time to get cracking.)

But what about when you want to read something else – something that is, perhaps, a little more interesting or demanding than the kind of beach reads being pushed on you by Barnes & Noble and Amazon. (Do you really want to read the sequel to The Devil Wears Prada? I can tell you right now that it isn’t worth the effort.)

With the primary focus of helping you find a compelling book to read this summer that is a little off the beaten track, here are some suggestions:

NOIR

June was the “International Crime” month for several publishers, who joined together to host events from Brooklyn to Chicago. It’s too late to catch the readings, but far from too late to discover some of the books they were promoting. One of my personal favorites is the black comedy, Death and the Penguin, a creepy and hilarious quasi-mystery set in post-Soviet Kiev. Journalist Viktor finally thinks he has landed on his feet when he is hired to write profiles of local VIPs – obituaries that can run when they die, which they begin to do with suspicious regularity. What to do next? After all, the gig is helping him keep his penguin, Misha, in fresh fish… and it could be the local gangster’s apparent need to borrow Misha for events of his own that is keeping Viktor in business. It’s hard to find a novel that makes you gasp and chortle simultaneously, but Andrei Kurkov pulls it off, even in translation.

Other titles promoted over the course of the month included the acclaimed series of city noir collections of short stories (recent titles include Venice Noir and Delhi Noir) published by Akashic Books and a masterful trilogy set in Marseilles by the late Jean-Claude Izzo, which kicks off with Total Chaos. For more conventional fare, you can seek out two recently published thrillers, The Dying Hours by Mark Billingham (in which a disgraced London cop, busted back to uniform, can’t let go of his detective instincts) or The Shanghai Factor by Charles McCarry. Both of these authors are veterans of their genres, if not yet household names, and it’s worth seeking out either tome.

AFGHANISTAN AND SYRIA

It has been more than a decade since the Taliban was swept from power by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, and yet violence and war remains a fact of life in that country, and now has become the norm for those in Syria, as well. The Afghan conflict has given rise to dozens of books, many of them indifferently written memoirs. It also has helped establish Khaled Hosseini as an acclaimed novelist, although his latest work, And the Mountains Echoed, is a disjointed effort that relies rather too heavily on an appeal to coincidence (in the plot) and sentimentality (on the part of the reader).

But there are alternatives. Russian-born Anna Badkhen, who already has penned Waiting for the Taliban, returns to Afghanistan to tell the story of a village and its inhabitants, a place so remote that it can’t even be located on Google Earth. The World is a Carpet focuses on the everyday struggles of those villagers, and specifically on the battle of one family to complete the weaving of a single carpet, the meager profits of which will help them survive another year. The war is a backdrop to the narrower story, as elegantly and delicately portrayed by Badkhen as the work of any Persian miniaturist. Moving, not sentimental, and a reminder of the ways in which ordinary lives can be so similar and yet so different. And guaranteed to be a sharp reminder of just how lucky we are.

You’ll have to send off to England to get a copy of Under the Wire by Paul Conroy, another novel about war by a war correspondent; it won’t be published here until October. But if you have the intestinal fortitude to read the horrific story of the siege of Homs, during which Sunday Times war correspondent Marie Colvin met her death, and the plight of Syria’s ordinary citizens, you’ll want to fork over the extra postage. It’s a blunt and gritty tale, written by the photographer who accompanied Colvin on her final trip to Syria and who barely made it out alive, of what it takes to bring the stories to our newspapers and television screens on a daily basis.

POLITICS, THEN AND NOW

“You can always spot a fool, for he is the man who will tell you he knows who is going to win an election.” Sounds like any political pundit on CNN, doesn’t it? In fact, the words are penned by Tiro, the slave of Roman lawyer and politico Marcus Tullius Cicero, in Robert Harris’s masterful work of historical fiction, Imperium.

If you’re overwhelmed by the dysfunction in Washington, and craving the kind of sanity you are sure must once have existed, pick up Harris’s novel (and its sequel, Conspirata) for a glimpse into the shenanigans of a different group of senators, those of Republican Rome circa 70 B.C. It may not console you, but it will entertain: The lucky reader gets a ringside seat at the action as Cicero struggles to win support for his election as aedile, praetor and ultimately consul, even as he annoys the Roman aristocrats by challenging their sense of order and prosecuting those among them guilty of corruption. It’s all narrated by Tiro, famed for inventing shorthand, who offers his own outsider’s view of the political haggling in which his owner is involved.

Harris takes a wry and cynical view of the early machinations of Julius Caesar, and even if you’re not familiar with Roman history, these are books to savor and a reminder that politics is politics, regardless of which millennium you happen to be born into. Best of all, these political events are ones that you, as a citizen of another country in another era, don’t have any responsibility to sort out.

Business journalist Suzanne McGee spent more than 13 years at The Wall Street Journal before turning to freelance writing. Author of the book Chasing Goldman Sachs, she has written for Barron’s, The Financial Times, and Institutional Investor.