10 Blogs to Add to Your Summer Reading List

Ah, summertime! The hammock beckons. But what to read while soaking up the UVAs?

Here I share 10 blogs (and videos, podcasts and surprises) that are so good, you’ll want to take them on vacation with you. They’re brimming with intelligent discussion and run the gamut from social media to news, culture and inspiration.

I hope you’ll enjoy them and, while you’re at it, please tell me what you’re reading this summer, whose blogs inspire you, and which podcasts you make a point of downloading.

1) TED Talks
It’s a little awkward, “attending” TED Talks at work, which makes vacation the perfect time for these short downloads of inspiration. Vacation is all about rebooting your energy and enthusiasm; think of TED as your wellspring. The site offers helpful menus to browse subjects, such as technology, entertainment, business, global issues, science and design. You can also search based on ratings – from “jaw-dropping” to “funny” or “informative.” I can think of no better way to get started than to share this talk by a young woman, who was so nervous that her knees buckled when she stepped onstage, but her passion for her subject and deep respect for the audience carried her along on a wave of enthusiasm that enveloped the crowd and made everyone breathless with excitement. You can also access your daily dose of inspiration via @tedtalks on Twitter.

2) Problogger
Launching a blog? Have a blog – corporate or personal – that’s lost its audience along with its purpose? You need Darren Rowse. The man has an especially beneficent approach to creating blogging communities and sharing his knowledge. He believes blogs and bloggers should “do good in the world, do something heartfelt,” and he shares that philosophy on his own blog; in an instruction manual (also titled Problogger) that welcomes, guides and comforts newbie bloggers; and at social media conferences around the world. Rowse’s blog offers a wealth of resources, step-by-step guides, and immeasurable amounts of inspiration. Follow Rowse on Twitter @problogger.

3) NPR’s Monkey See Blog
I’d never subscribed to a blog until I read Linda Holmes’s posts on popular culture. This blog is what sold me, and it had everything to do with the strength of Holmes’s writing, the attitude she and others who post at Monkey See bring to the blog, and the vision she has for this medium. Holmes and Co. do not subscribe to what might be called the “King Me” view of many of the pop culturati. This worldview engenders the kind of exclusive club of insiders who know more than you ever will about the minute details of the plots of their favorite TV shows, the origin stories and bizarro world tales of superheroes, the alternate tracks that never made it onto the albums of the bands they idolize. The Monkey See bloggers don’t create divisions between experts and explorers, high art and low.

In a post on just such a divisive issue, Holmes noted: “Fun and art are natural allies (despite often appearing separately), and forcing them to do battle just divides us into tinier and tinier camps, where we can only talk to people who like precisely the same kinds of culture that we do. That benefits absolutely nobody – not artists, not audiences, and not the quality of discourse.”

Monkey See gives away the secret password, so that everyone can enter the clubhouse. And isn’t this what social media engagement, and the communities we’re hoping to engage on social media, are all about? Join the club on the NPR website, check out the Monkey See weekly podcast, Pop Culture Happy Hour, and follow Linda Holmes on Twitter @nprmonkeysee.

4) KD Paine’s PR Measurement Blog
Katie Delahaye Paine gets it – she understands social media, PR and corporate communications measurement like no one’s business. From strategy to tools to the science, she explains it all on her blog and in her book Measure What Matters. And she does it with a focus on understanding how and why programs perform in order to help companies save money and demonstrate ROI. Sign up for the e-newsletter and follow her on Twitter @kdpaine.

5) BrandSavant
Like K.D. Paine, Tom Webster is here to make science of social media. He is not about the simple solution; he’s wary of data that’s incurious and hasn’t been tested by scientific method. On his blog, and on Twitter (@webby2001), he dissects how we use social media and everything we share there.

6) Hardly Normal
“Change only happens when we have the courage to look at ourselves and our world as it really is. When we do, we’re often brought face-to-face with pain. It’s only when we face suffering, confront it, and work to overcome it, that we experience growth,” writes Mark Horvath about his work and his blog, Hardly Normal, where he provides a robust forum – from the political to the personal – on issues that affect homeless people. Horvath also founded Invisible People TV to help the homeless tell their stories and encourage a community of viewers to act on behalf of their fellow men, women and children who need help, health care, housing and three square meals a day. This is reading and watching that inspires action. You’ll find both @hardlynormal and @invisiblepeople on Twitter.

7) Ragan
A traditional website, rather than a blog, Ragan provides comprehensive coverage of the communications, PR and marketing professions and reports regularly on social media, too. Ragan’s free daily e-newsletter is essential reading; the organization also offers webinars, conferences and white papers to keep readers informed and educated. Follow on Twitter @MarkRaganCEO.

8) On the Media
What Wired is to technology (and all the thorny issues we have to reckon with because of technological advances), OTM is to social and traditional media (likewise thorny issue reportage). The weekly newsmagazine can be tough to find on your local public radio station’s schedule, so it’s handy that OTM is available as a podcast and even more helpful that the blog and website are updated regularly in between broadcasts.

9) The Guardian’s Books Blog
In case you want to spend your summer vacation reading things that don’t remind you of work, U.K. newspaper The Guardian’s book blog brings a world of entertaining, absorbing books to your computer or tablet. Thanks to The Guardian’s global perspective, you’ll find the latest from Asia and the Mideast reviewed alongside selections from Africa, Ireland, Oceania, Europe and the United States. Follow them @GuardianBooks on Twitter.

10) The Dinner Party Podcast
You plan to unplug this holiday, but still want to sound erudite at the Labor Day barbeque. Try this painless recap. The Dinner Party is a wry take on the news, politics, arts, sports and assorted oddities that make up the week. Its very purpose is to provide you with on-trend tidbits to make you sound like you’re tuned in, even when you’ve spent your entire vacation snoozing in the hammock.

New Titles and Old Favorites

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of July’s selections.

SCORECARD

July
4 down, 19 to go!

REVIEWS

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
Walker’s first novel has been compared to The Lovely Bones, another elegy for a lost childhood.

One Saturday morning, just before soccer practice, 11-year-old Julia’s entire world is upended. At this age, everything feels like a catastrophe – from break-ups with BFFs and crushes on boys to parental betrayals – and she’ll have to go through those traumas, too, but on this day, Julia is just one of billions whose life on Earth changes, literally and irrevocably, by the slowing of the planet’s orbit.

Some of Julia’s friends turn to religion, other families stay on “real time,” rather than “clock time,” as the days gain minutes and then hours, stretching to 30 hours and beyond, followed by equally long, frosty nights. Birds, whales and even people succumb to “gravity sickness.”

There is some hoarding and looting, but mostly folks cling to ordinary life and hope things will go back to normal. This means Julia enters middle school on schedule and has to cope with everything that adolescence (the Age of Miracles of the title) brings with it, including loneliness.

“Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realized it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.”

The one person who seems to understand her is Seth, the boy she has a crush on, but he’s experienced a personal catastrophe, which leaves him standoffish, serious and a bit morbid.

“We collected the neighborhood’s last blades of grass. We kept the final flowering of daisies, of marigolds, of honeysuckle. We pressed petals between the pages of dictionaries. We lined our shelves with relics from our time. Look here, we pictured saying someday, this one we called maple, this one magnolia, this aspen, this oak. On dark days, Seth drew maps of the constellations as if those bodies, too, might soon fall away.”

As you can see, there’s some beautiful writing in this novel. There are also some real clunkers, especially at the beginning:

“Bare of the glasses, his eyes always looked squinty to me, and too small.”

“I was glad to be sitting in a classroom full of kids who had none of them been at the bus stop.”

“At the appointed hour, my alarm clock exploded.” (It rang loudly.)

Basic science is discarded in favor of lyricism:

Describing the astronauts stranded on a space station because of the slowing: “They’d been away for ten months, the last humans left who had not yet experienced a day longer than twenty-four hours.” (Well, no. Space stations don’t simply float around in space, they orbit the earth, like satellites, yet none of these man-made heavenly bodies apparently is affected by the change in gravity from the slowing Earth. Nor are insects. Only birds.)

Later, when the Earth’s magnetic fields weaken and sunlight brings risk of radiation exposure, no one goes out during the day again. So it was odd to read that, weeks later, Julia spies Seth’s tan stomach.

Simple editing and scientific fact-checking would have gone a long way to making this book more accurate. The story also would have benefited from a bit more extrapolation: it moves along on the rather unbelievable premise that there is no panic, rioting, looting, or war as food supplies dwindle, huge swaths of territory grow arid and water dries up.

Ultimately, Julia, at far too young an age, becomes a lot like her octogenarian grandfather. The story sings when these two are together, each locked in a house of memento mori.

Crazy Salad by Nora Ephron
When Ephron passed away June 26, many news stories credited her as the ultimate Hollywood hyphenate: screenwriter-director. Growing up as one of four talented daughters of two screenwriters, this second career was probably inevitable. But, she started out as a journalist and essayist, and a darn good one, too.

After learning the news of her death, I immediately pulled this essay collection off my bookshelf and began re-reading. This is one of the books I cherished as a journalism student, learning about literary journalism and magazine writing.

More than a salad, this book is a smorgasbord of subjects that were buzzing around the zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. The fact that they were buzzing was thanks to Nora Ephron’s brilliant observations about Linda Lovelace, Dorothy Parker, breasts, Gloria Steinem, bake-offs, feminine hygiene, sex fantasies and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, to name a few.

It was quite funny to realize that Ephron gave Sally Allbright in “When Harry Met Sally…” her own sexual fantasy. And to read again about consciousness raising, encounter groups and The Rap (not a type of hip-hop, but a very formal-sounding way of describing “rapping,” also known as “letting it all hang out”). I was going to say this is what people did before reality TV, but ever ahead of her time, Ephron includes a discussion of the Louds, the family with “no selectivity index whatsoever” when it came to letting it all hang out in the spotlight.

Ephron is up front with her concern about reporters “getting really involved in what they were writing about.” But, one reason she was hired by Esquire and New York magazines was to represent what women were thinking, especially as the women’s movement took hold in the American psyche.

“I would still hate to be described as a participatory journalist,” she writes in one essay, “but I am a writer and I am a feminist, and the two seem to be constantly in conflict…ever since I became loosely involved with it, it has seemed to me one of the recurring ironies of this movement that there is no way to tell the truth about it without, in some small way, seeming to hurt it.”

Personally, I think Ephron’s honesty about some of the divisions in the women’s movement, between Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, for example, is what keeps this book relevant some 37 years after it was published.

She allows everyone their say and if sometimes people hang themselves out to dry, Ephron lets them do it in their own voices, on their own terms. And, with a sharp wit, she lets you know what she’s thinking about it all, too. (Like the brief fad among consciousness-raising groups for – this is as delicately as I can put it – bodily self-examination, about which Ephron sighs, “It is hard not to long for the days when an evening with the girls meant bridge.”)

She aims her wit at anti-feminists, as well, penning excellent pieces on the man who brought feminine-hygiene sprays to market, the porn industry that corrupted Linda Lovelace, and Bobby Riggs, among others.

According to Entertainment Weekly, which wrote a moving tribute on Ephron’s legacy, Crazy Salad is “tragically out of print and unavailable as an e-book.” Ephron died at 71, having written six essay collections, 13 screenplays, plays and the novel Heartburn. Her latest collections, 2006’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections, shared her thoughts on aging.

I’m sorry we won’t have Ephron’s insights and humor to get us through the crazy salad days ahead. But, gosh, it was delicious tucking in to this well-worn book again.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
I had the opportunity to hear Didion speak at The Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hamshire, in late June, and combined Didion’s comments on writing with a few thoughts about her latest memoir in a previous post, “A Blue Night with Joan Didion.”

Navigating Social Media Legal Risks: Safeguarding Your Business by Robert McHale with Eric Garulay
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher. My review, “Unraveling the Mystery of Social Media Law,” can be found on the Social Media Club website.

Summertime and the Reading is Easy

Are You My Mother?

Beauty and complexity at play in Allison Bechdel’s latest graphic novel “Are You My Mother?”

My transition to the east coast can take a few days, especially when little critters like to winter in your summer home, so I panicked at losing reading time during the first week of the month. I grabbed Allison Bechdel’s graphic novel at my country bookstore, thinking it would be a quick read, spotted a new book by favorite writer, Anne Lamott, then picked up several John Updike novels at the library, and boom! I was off.

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of June’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought all of these books except the Barnes and Updike novel, which I borrowed from my local library. Several are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

June
5 down, 23 to go!

REVIEWS

Some Assembly Required: A Journal of My Son’s First Son by Anne Lamott and Sam Lamott
At first glance, I thought this was a sequel to Operating Instructions: Annie shares the foibles of raising a teenager. Then my jaw dropped as I re-read the subtitle: It’s not about Sam as a kid, it’s Sam’s kid!

I felt like I’d just read the journal of Sam’s first year of life a few months ago. How old could he be? Nineteen, it turns out.

Like Operating Instructions, Some Assembly deals with the all-too-human aspects of coping with the unexpected, the mistakes you make along the way, the anger, the exhaustion, the kindness of strangers, and the miracle that is a loving family and friends.

Lamott shares co-authorship with her son, writing the throughline of her grandson’s birth and first year in journal entries. Sam provides his perspective on new fatherhood via transcribed phone interviews and emails, as does his girlfriend, Amy, who is Jax’s mother.

What’s lovely about this generous shifting of authorship is that you get to see a beautiful circle being completed, from the baby we first met in Operating Instructions to the stroppy teen of Blue Shoe to the bewildered, but all-in dad here. Through these books, memoir and fiction, we’ve had the rare opportunity to watch a family be made, grow and be remade.

“I watched Sam and Jax gaze at each other while Jax sucked on the bottle,” Lamott writes. “To have mothered this young father fills me with visceral feelings of awe, joy, and dread. Love, fierce pride, a new power, and faint anxiety flitted across Sam’s face: you love your kids way too much to ever feel safe again. I could see in his love that this baby had broken his turtle shell, the way Sam broke mine.”

Nevertheless, the unplanned pregnancy meant that everything from Sam finishing art college to whether Sam and Amy would remain a couple and where Amy (and ultimately baby Jax) would live – the Bay Area or back in Chicago – was up in the air.

Hard for a control-junkie to handle. I won’t spoil how, or whether, these threads get tied up by book’s end. Reading Anne Lamott so often feels like receiving a gift, her brave, honest, wise observations reminding us to have faith no matter how crazy life becomes: “Since Jax’s birth, my ideas about what would be best for everyone usually got in the way. Life is already an obstacle course, and when you’re adding your own impediments (thinking they’re helping), you really crazy it up. You should not bring more items and hurdles to the obstacle course.”

Exactly. Bring this book instead.

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Allison Bechdel
I hadn’t heard of Bechdel before seeing rave reviews for her latest graphic novel. I picked this up, thinking it would be a quick read. What I discovered, from its gorgeous presentation in hardcover to the complexity of Bechdel’s storytelling, stunned me.

Told in seven parts or chapters, Are You My Mother? places Bechdel’s relationship with her mother under a microscope, focusing on memories, analysis sessions, the views of major psychoanalysts on the parent-child relationship, Virginia Woolf and women writers, and the author’s present-day experiences with her mom. Pretty amazing territory for a comic.

Bechdel draws in black, grey, white and a maroon red. She uses this muted palette to perfect effect. Each chapter opens with a dream – vivid and powerfully emotional, these are drawn against a black background. As she delves into her own studies of analysis, the background is a pale maroon with frequent intrusions of white, as the character Allison highlights key points for us in the texts she’s reading. Memories are diffused with a soft grey, like Bechdel is shaking them free of cobwebs; flashbacks also feature sharp swaths of maroon.

Honest and thought-provoking, Bechdel takes this medium where few have, using it to investigate multiple points of view and points in time, complex theories of the mind, her childhood, her parents’ lives, and how women struggle (with their pasts and their family obligations) to become writers.

The Sense of An Ending by Julian Barnes
The 2011 Man Booker Prize winner is Barnes in full bloom, a masterfully compact showcase of prose, plotting and characters. The basic outline of schoolboy friendships and a youthful affair are quickly covered in part one; part two is where the nuances of those relationships, the harsh judgments of adolescence, the march of time, and the tricks of memory play out.

Don’t let the simple arc of part one dissuade you from going deeper, as Barnes does. This is a plot with more twists than a mystery like Gone Girl. Once you finish, you immediately want to re-read to place the truth in context.

One of the disarming aspects of this novel is that Barnes is so comfortable in his prose, it could be confused for a journal. But he’s clearly constructed a thoughtful narrator, looking back at an incident in his life and recognizing that there was more to it than he’d imagined.

His narrator, Tony Webster, observes, “The history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent. We live in time, it bounds us and defines us, and time is supposed to measure history, isn’t it? But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small, personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

What starts as a tragic take on the boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, girl-goes-out-with-boy’s-more-popular-friend plot morphs again and again as Tony digs through uncomfortable truths.

“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being,” he notes.

“I had underestimated, or rather miscalculated: time was telling not against them, it was telling against me.”

What’s happened to the characters, especially the girl and Tony’s more popular friend, is sad and haunting, but the writing never is. Tony may be clueless, as Veronica describes him, but it’s his commitment to bringing the truth to light – even one that shines harshly on himself – that makes his journey so enthralling.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Flynn’s latest mystery turns the standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl narrative on its head, as well. This is a page-turner, intriguingly plotted, though the writing is utilitarian, moving characters from A to B and back again. And it would be nice if Flynn, like so many other procedural writers who fail to research their subjects, understood forensics and technology a bit better before allowing major plot points to hinge on them.

Strangely enough, for a writer who once worked at a national media outlet (Entertainment Weekly magazine), Flynn’s prose is dullest during the frequent scenes of media hordes following the scent of a juicy story, when Amy, an unhappily married woman, goes missing and her husband, Nick, becomes the prime suspect.

Part One is all set-up; Part Two reveals a major plot turn that the characters struggle to come to terms with all the way through Part Three. It’s impossible to say more without spoiling the entire story. A perfect beach read.

Bech: A Book by John Updike
A few summers ago, I read my way through Updike’s Rabbit series, which, in a way, inaugurated this year’s reading challenge. This trilogy – and Henry Bech – may be less well-known than Rabbit Angstrom, but the stories perfectly encapsulate the eras in which they were written.

Who is Henry Bech? Bech, like Rabbit, spends a good deal of time pondering the world and his place in it (and borrowing from his hero, James Joyce, in the process):

“Who was he? A Jew, a modern man, a writer, a bachelor, a loner, a loss. A con artist in the days of academic modernism undergoing a Victorian shudder. A white monkey hung far out on a spindly heaventree of stars. A fleck of dust condemned to know it is a fleck of dust. A mouse in a furnace. A smothered scream.”

Updike started publishing short stories about Bech in the mid-1960s, and this book features a collection of them up through 1970. He clearly enjoyed conjuring this alter-ego – a writer crippled by writer’s block and, later, by existential crisis – and subjecting him to the politics, culture, whims and neuroses of the time.

“Am I blocked?” Bech asks his mistress.  “I’d just thought of myself as a slow typist.”
“What do you do, hit the space bar once a day?”
“Ouch.”
“I’m sorry, that did sound bitchy. But it makes me sad, to see someone of your beautiful gifts just stagnating.”
“Maybe I have a beautiful gift for stagnation.”

Bech is fairly active for a stagnating man: This first volume sees him traveling behind the Iron Curtain on a cultural exchange, summering off the Cape as the youthquake takes hold, gutted by a visit to the fecund South, and having a confused fling in Swinging London.

It’s just that he’s not writing novels, after a brilliant debut and two politely received follow-ups, any longer. And his lack of legacy is making him panic.

“What was that sentence from Ulysses? Bloom and Stephen emerging from the house to urinate, suddenly looking up – The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit. Bech felt a sadness, a terror, that he had not written it. Not ever.”

Thankfully, Updike is a prolific writer, so I have two more Bech books to look forward to this summer, and a final short story in The Complete Henry Bech. Can’t wait.