Brainy Beach Reads for 2012

‘The Long Road To Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution’ by Richard Slotkin. 512 p. Liveright. $19.84

For the Battlefield Tourist

by Richard Slotkin

Every Civil War buff knows that the Union victory at the battle of Antietam, the single bloodiest day in American history, paved the way to the Emancipation Proclamation. But in showing how the two sides approached that pivotal moment in 1862, Slotkin has produced an absorbing revisionist history of what could be called the second American Revolution.

For the Chaise-Lounge Philosopher

Why Does the World Exist?
By Jim Holt

why-does-the-world-exist-om04 ‘Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story’ by Jim Holt. 320 p. Liveright. $16.36

Why is there something rather than nothing? We might have found the Higgs boson, but what’s the Higgs boson made of? To these cosmic questions Holt applies his usual wit and verve to weave together insights from ancient Greece to modern times, along the way introducing the mathematician Roger Penrose, the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, and even the novelist John Updike.

For the Ebullient Splasher

Swimming Studies
by Leanne Shapton

swimming-studies-om04 ‘Swimming Studies’ by Leanne Shapton. 336 p. Blue Rider Press. $18.56

A cool memoir about competitive swimming that might as well be called The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Swimming can be so healthily euphoriant, yet what happens when you spend years training for the Olympics and never attain greatness? Shapton, never self-pitying, offers an original, mythical elixir of life in the water.

Not for the Cabana Prude

Mrs. Robinsons Disgrace
by Kate Summerscale

mrs-robinsons-disgrace-om04 ‘Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady’ by Kate Summerscale. 384 p. Bloomsbury UK.

In 1858 Victorian England, an industrialist found his wife’s diary, read it, and filed for divorce on grounds of infidelity. The shockingly racy private thoughts of Mrs. Robinson (what’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?) were read out loud in court, causing a sensation at the time. But did she actually have an affair?

For the Global Worrier

The Twilight War
by David Crist

the-twlight-war-om04 ‘The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran’ by David Crist. 656 p. Penguin Press HC. $21.66

The Iran-contra affair showed America at its most arrogant and hypocritical. The U.S. is once again engaged in a standoff with Iran, this time over its nuclear program. Crist’s book is crucial to properly understand a conflict that has plagued America for the past 30 years.

For Those Who Prefer to Explore the Inside

The Violinists Thumb
by Sam Kean

the-violinists-thumb-om04 ‘The Violinist’s Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code’ by Sam Kean. 416 p. Little, Brown and Company. $15.43

We ought to beware of genetic determinism, but what Kean offers up are strange stories of how our genes help or hinder us, from why we broke away from monkeys to how bits of DNA can help determine whether budding athletes and artists (for example, Niccolò Paganini is featured in the title story) can fulfill their talents.

For the Aesthetic Traveler

All We Know
by Lisa Cohen

all-we-know-om04 ‘All We Know: Three Lives’ by Lisa Cohen. 448 p. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $19.00

Modernism wasn’t supposed to have limits, but 1920s women still couldn’t quite break free. This charming portrait of the “promising” writer Esther Murphy, the lover to movie star Mercedes de Acosta and British Vogue fashion editor Madge Garland, is a meditation on falling short of expectations, with style, élan, and desperation.