Catching Up 

From famous hypochondriacs to a frozen rabbi: a mid-summer selection of recommended reading.

he Flyer's summer reading issue ran a couple weeks ago, but here are a few more titles — brand-new or new in paperback — and they've got little to nothing in common save for the fact they're worth your time and attention. Here ya go:

What do James Boswell, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Alice James, Daniel Paul Schreber, Marcel Proust, Glenn Gould, and Andy Warhol have to share? Not much. Except they all led tormented lives, lives tormented enough to make them literally sick. Or so they believed. And so writes Brian Dillon, brilliantly, in The Hypochondriacs (Faber and Faber).

No doubt about it, though, Patricia Morrisroe had it bad — bad insomnia — until she learned to get her overactive brain out of gear (through meditation) and arrived at a decent night's sleep. Time was, though, she lived the anguished life of the chronically sleep-deprived. But Morrisroe's Wide Awake: A Memoir of Insomnia (Spiegel & Grau) isn't only eye-opening. It's funny as hell as well.

And speaking of funny: Don't let the author's graduate degree in Russian literature steer you clear of the delightful Elif Batuman. She's possessed in The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (in paperback, from Farrar, Straus and Giroux) — possessed of a keen eye for the absurdities of grad school and literary conferences and travel grants gone haywire and the wonders, equally absurd, of a summer spent in Samarkand. How winningly written is The Possessed? Winning enough to end up a surprise best-seller.

Winning may not be everything, but religious faith unquestionably is for a subset of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Reza Aslan looks at all three, and beyond, in Beyond Fundamentalism, originally published under the title How To Win a Cosmic War (Random House Trade Paperbacks). Still puzzled about the nature of and causes for and what to do about today's extremism-turned-terrorism? You won't be after you've read Aslan's book, with its updated content and analysis. It's both a refresher course and up-to-the-minute look at some scary stuff.

"Scary" isn't the word for singer-songwriter Tom Waits, but, damn, he's a hard subject to get a handle on. Ask Barney Hoskyns, who got turned down big time by some pretty major musical figures (including Waits himself) when he asked for interviews for his Lowside of the Road: A Life of Tom Waits (in paperback, from Broadway Books). Even so, there are good insights here into Waits the man, the persona, and the musician.

Not a single interview — not a one! — informs the very readable Young Romantics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Daisy Hay and for this very understandable reason: All of Hay's subjects are dead. But what lives they led! Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, Keats, etc. And talk about a refresher course. Hay's great subject is the greatest generation — a generation of 19th-century English poets whose romantic entanglements (and Romantic genius) outstrip anything the tabloids dish out today.

"Tangled": That's a good way to term the troubled lives described in David Means' latest (and excellent) collection of short stories, The Spot (Faber and Faber). Tangled approaches to narrative too, whether the stories are set in the wide-open American Midwest or the confines of Manhattan.

But nothing says "tangled" like Steve Stern's fictional worlds — both earthly and celestial — and that goes too for his newest novel, The Frozen Rabbi (Algonquin), much of which is set in Memphis, Stern's hometown and the inspiration for so much of this first-rate writer's imaginative tales. This time out, there's a 19th-century rabbi in the home freezer of an East Memphis family, but he isn't frozen for long, and in no time, he's heading a successful, but dubious, self-actualization enterprise that is one part New Age gobbledygook and two parts age-old Jewish mysticism. Tangled up and intercut with the present-day story is a long back story that follows that ice-blocked rabbi from the Russian Pale across Europe, then to a Lower East Side icehouse, then to an East Memphis deep-freeze. "Crazy" doesn't begin to describe what happens here. "Meshuggah" does. From famous hypochondriacs to a frozen rabbi:

a mid-summer selection of recommended reading.Catching Up

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