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NPR Arts & Life

This Week's 5 Must-Read Stories From NPR Books

A woman reads.

When I was a kid I used to read all the time — at meals, in cars and even while walking around. I'd hold a book in one hand, and I'd use the other to feel my way along. It's a good method for getting a lot of reading done, but not so great for if you want to see what's in front of you.

But no matter where you're headed, NPR Books has got you covered. Here are the week's five most engrossing stories about books.

1. Capital Offense

Washington, D.C., the nation's capital: a place where you can see democracy in action — and if you read Mike Lawson's thrillers, you can see some other kinds of action, too.

Mike met with NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer, to talk about D.C. for our series Crime in the City. He told her that in order to write about the place, he had to explore it for himself. How else would he know where to stage attempted assassinations and get cheap midday meals?

During one of Mike's walks he found himself in the rotunda of the Capitol building. "I saw a set of steps with a little velvet rope across it. And I just stepped over the rope and nobody stopped me or said anything," he said. He kept going and found "an emergency diesel generator room and a printing office and a janitor's space" — the perfect place for a fictional villain's office.

2. Sleaze At School

Spend enough time exploring any place and you'll get to know its dirty little secrets. In her Three Books essay, author Jennifer Miller focused on one particular kind of secret; she came up with this list of books about teachers who lead their students into bad, sometimes dangerous, situations.

What begins as a student-teacher affair spins wildly out of control in What Was She Thinking, Notes on a Scandal. In The Secret History a group of students is told that "beauty is terror." Naturally, their inclination is to engage in a night of "extreme revelry, substance abuse, sex, and ultimately, murder." Wouldn't you do the same?

But if you're looking for a more civilized read, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is for you. This teacher mentors the "creme de la creme" of her Scottish prep school in "the virtues of good breeding, the history of classical art," and, oh yes, "the values of fascism."

3. Space Jam

Miss Brodie had one thing right: It's important to know about the history of music. That way when aliens land, hoping to license "all of humanity's music," you'll be all set.

I know what you're thinking — but it could happen. In fact, it does happen in Rob Reid's new book, Year Zero.

Turns out, the aliens calling themselves Carly and Frampton are here from space to settle the bill for all the music they've been listening to. They especially like the theme song to "Welcome Back Kotter." Who knew?

In this blog post, NPR's very own Bob Boilen outlines the three things you'll need to know when the extraterrestrials do make it here.

4. Summer Science

OK, enough with the silliness. You're tired of the fantastical, the melodramatic and the far out. You want to learn something new.

Well, look no further than journalist Jonah Lehrer's summer roundup of books about the human brain's genius for innovation. Want to know why so many good ideas came out of 19th century Vienna? Jonah's got the book for that. Curious about the science of storytelling? Or the study of human biases? There are answers here for you.

There's also a history of Bell Labs, that bastion of research that produced, among other things, the transistor, the radio telescope, the communications satellite and the digital camera.

And if you need a little adventure with your innovation, Jonah's thought of that too. He suggests a thrilling read about the origins of that eternal mystery — the Internet.

5. One Big Book

Sometimes all it takes is one Big Idea to change your life; other times it's one Big Book.

Or at least, that was the case for Ben Mezrich. He wrote this funny essay for our summer series PG-13: Risky Reads, where authors tell us about the books that influenced them as young people.

For Ben, finding the right title was easy: "my childhood was turned upside down by a book that I'd discovered a little too early," he wrote. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, inspired him to "travel to Paris and try to have a drink at every bar" that the book's main character visits. Along the way, he learned some very important life lessons. "It turns out," he wrote, "it is nearly impossible to drink that much, and certainly one should never attempt it in the order described in the novel." Oh well.

If you've made it this far and you're hungry for just one more great read, check out this week's NewsPoet with Paisley Rekdal.

Rosie Friedman is a member of the NPR Books team.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.