Welcome to the dog days of summer! If you are taking your vacation this month, you can keep cool with your choice of excellent books.
Gas prices are up, people are driving less, but there are still traffic jams. Read Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and find out why. The author visited labs in which driving simulators are used to test driver reaction times; he also traveled the world to see how other cultures handle their motorized traffic. Reading about the polite drivers in Helsinki and the apparent chaos of New Delhi is fascinating, but the most interesting segment focuses on DriveCam, a camera installed inside a car to record unsafe “trigger events”. Companies can install the device in their fleet and make sure that their drivers are driving safely and responsibly. In addition, an 18-week trial in Iowa put DriveCams into the cars of 25 teenage drivers to see if their driving improved. The film of trigger incidents was sent to their parents, and each driver could keep tabs on his/her own “score” to see how their record compared to that of their peers. The result? Risky behaviors dropped dramatically. According to Vanderbilt, most drivers in the United States think they are better than average drivers. Reading this book might change your mind and make you a more careful driver; you might even change your merging habits!
The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson, is a very odd, yet wonderful, book. It is a horror story, a love story and a morality tale. It is as full of graphic, gruesome details as a Steven King novel, but it is drenched in the redemptive power of timeless love. Our unnamed narrator, a drug-addicted, promiscuous pornographer, begins the story with his horrific car accident. Instead of ending up dead, he is severely burned and helpless. He is bitter and depressed; he plans to commit suicide as soon as he is released from the hospital, until he meets an odd visitor named Marianne Engel. He doesn’t know her, but she seems to know all about him, and she begins to tell him stories of lovers whose tales end tragically. Then she begins to tell him about her life 700 years ago in a German monastery. Is she schizophrenic? Bipolar? Telling the truth? It is hard to tell, but her personal intensity and the stories she tells make the narrator (and the reader) eager to find out more. Filled with medieval details, references to Dante’s Inferno, and detailed descriptions of third degree burns and how they heal, this novel is not for the faint of heart, but would be a great selection for a book club because there is so much to analyze and discuss.
In stark contrast, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is a charming, bucolic epistolatory novel set in the British island of Guernsey after the Second World War. Juliet, a writer based in London looking for her next book topic, receives a letter from a man from Guernsey who found her name by chance in a second-hand book. He is looking for other volumes by that same author. Slowly, she is drawn into her new friend’s world as she begins to correspond with him and his neighbors and finds out about their lives during the German occupation during the war. When she finally decides to visit Guernsey for herself, she discovers not only the subject for her next book, but a whole new way of life. Quirky characters, hilarious letters, and a strong core of the courage of ordinary people in extraordinary times make this an inspiring and deeply satisfying read.
Susan Taylor has been in the book business, in one aspect or another, since 1982. She currently works at the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza. Stop by the store if you are looking for a good book—she’s read a lot more than she can talk about here!