When I was an undergraduate, I meant to be an English major. I loved to read, surely I would be an English major, right? But when I got to college I was placed with the anthropology department for my freshman adviser, and I fell in love. People! An entire discipline about people! Figuring out why people do the things they do! It didn’t hurt that my adviser specialized in the cargo cults of Papua New Guinea, which led her to an interest in UFO movements. We studied all kinds of interesting stuff, I tell you what.
Margaret Mead was hugely popular once upon a time. She took her experience as an anthropologist and turned it into a career as a writer, columnist, and speaker. Alas, anthropology isn’t all that popular any more, and a lot of Mead’s own research has since been improved upon to the point where I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly. And Clifford Geertz, one of the great ethnographic writers, died just a year or so after I graduated. But I love anthropology, and I love recommending it to people, so even though there’s no such genre as “popular anthropology” any more, I have made it my project to amass a collection of books about people I can foist off on people and say, “Here! Isn’t this awesome?”
- Ishi, Last of His Tribe by Theodora Kroeber (who is Ursula K. Guin’s mother, for the fantasy fans out there). This is an anthropological classic, still fascinating today. Ishi was what they called the last surviving member of the Yahi people of California – in his tribe, it was forbidden to speak your own name. Kroeber wrote his biography, and this is pretty much all we have left of an entire way of life.
- Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. More psychology than anthropology, this book is an enthralling exploration of studies on why humans do things that don’t make rational sense. Because we’re human, is Ariely’s conclusion. I love that he argues that we should change our social systems to fit our brains, rather than trying to change our brains to fit our badly-designed systems.
- Stiff by Mary Roach. I love all of Roach’s books (although Bonk was a little disappointing), but this is still my favorite. Stiff follows the life of a corpse – how forensic scientists study them, how funeral directors care for them, how cemeteries and crematoria dispose of them. Fascinating (if slightly grisly) stuff.
- Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. Yes, it’s a study of traffic patterns. Also traffic control measures, drivers’ perceptions and attitudes, and the social history of the American relationship with cars. Vanderbilt has put together a fascinating study of something most of us do so often we don’t think about it any more – and offers some great reasons for why we should.
- The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. Another classic of the field, this one in history, Darnton pieces together the culture of early modern France from the texts we have available. Great stuff, from his attempts to understand just why people would find it necessary to slaughter all the cats in a city to his descriptions of – and quotations from – the Rousseau fangirls.
- The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher, my favorite book for which I can never remember the title. Language is complicated stuff, moreso when you’re a mongolot like me, but Deutscher explains things clearly, with a friendly, casual tone that invites you in to learn what you can. (He even managed to make Hebrew structures understandable to me for a while, which I remain incredibly impressed by.) If you’ve ever had the slightest interest in the history of human communication, you’ll want to take a look at this.
I always used to resent the idea that I ought to read nonfiction to learn something – I read it because it’s fun. Got any fun nonfiction reads to share?
Heck with reviewing books one at a time, sometimes what you want is a big pile of books to lay up. (Especially as it heats up outside and all you want to do is sit on the couch with a glass of iced tea, a fan, and a book. Now that sounds like an ideal summer vacation.) My disappointment at The Unremembered has made me think about all the other fantasy books I’ve loved. Fantasy is such a huge genre; there’s so much you can do, so many exciting worlds you could explore, why read the same thing over and over? While I admit to a fondness for cheesy 80s fantasy (it’s what I grew up on), I can guarantee that none of these books are a Lord of the Rings ripoff, and they will all surprise you at least once. These are my favorite summer fantasy rereads.
- Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle – published in four volumes in the US as A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy. Ash is a female mercenary captain in late medieval Burgundy, and she is going to save the world. Just not her own. This is fantastic alternate history at its very best.
- Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. This is a classic journey-into-the-underworld type story, but what an underworld! (I bought a copy when I was in London a couple of years ago, because it took me two days to figure out why I was so familiar with the Underground map when I’d never been there before, and then I just needed a reread.)
- Caught in Crystal by Patricia C. Wrede. Although she’s given up her old life, Kayl’s past hasn’t given her up, and she and what’s left of the friends of her youth have to finish what they started. Wrede was my very first writer crush – I was introduced to her through Dealing With Dragons, a sort of fractured-fairy-tale wonderfulness which you should also read – and I’ve loved this book for years. I doubt I noticed it at the time, but it features not only a female protagonist, but a middle-aged one at that. And yes, she kicks ass.
- The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. Fantasy thieves and con men. If you are the kind of person who likes that kind of thing, do you really need more? This is the sort of book they mean when they say “rollicking adventure,” and better yet, it’s the first in a series. (Red Seas and Red Skies is Locke and Jean plus pirates, and the third is coming out — someday.)
- Jhereg by Steven Brust. The first in Brust’s epic Vlad Taltos series, this is still one of my favorites: the story of an assassin and his telepathic flying lizard, and their quest to dominate the underworld of the Dragaeran city of Adrilankha. (At least for now. They’ll have other quests later.) Brust takes fantasy tropes and dances on them, with a hefty dose of wry humor. Get in on it now before the series gets any bigger: he’s churning them out at a rate of one a year, and he’s only got six left to go.
- Mélusine by Sarah Monette. Felix is a wizard of the Mirador, flighty, petty, and damaged. Mildmay is a former assassin, now the best cat burglar in the city. Not always the easiest book to get through, with half of it from the point of view of a man who’s gone so insane he cannot reliably identify humans as humans, but it’s a fantastic world, amazing characters, and the series builds most wonderfully.
I find summer terribly nostalgic for some reason, so I love using it to get reacquainted with old favorites. What are some of your favorite summer rereads?