Now that the Super Bowl is over and your gray matter is thoroughly tenderized by commercials featuring teenage vampires driving luxury cars and dogs bribing humans with bags of Doritos, wouldn't it be a great time to avert your eyes from the TV and plunge into a captivating book?
1. The Man Within My Head by Pico Iyer. I've been a huge fan of Graham Greene ever since I bought a bootleg paperback version of The Quiet American, Greene's masterful novel of intrigue about Vietnam, from a street vendor in Ho Chi Minh City a decade or so ago. So I'm eager to check out this book by Iyer, a novelist and travel journalist who also writes on occasion for SecondAct.com. Iyer sets out to investigate the peculiar mystery of his own fascination/obsession with Greene, whose bipolar disorder-infused tension about the modern world's moral ambivalence led to classics such as The Confidential Agent, The Human Factor, and The End of the Affair. Reviewer Liesl Schillinger of The New York Times calls The Man Within My Head a "contemplative, idiosyncratic book, a kind of side trip that diverges from Iyer's usual writing." Richard Rayner writes in the Los Angeles Times that the book is "a purging, literary criticism disguised as autobiography, a book filled with insights, sadness, rumination and splashes of the dazzling travelogue that Iyer's readers have come to expect." Washington Post reviewer Justin Moyer isn't as thrilled, but concedes that the book "offers a window on the classic author's legacy."
2. Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor; An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts by Matthew Polly. This book's near-impenetrable title and startling cover art, in which the author is getting punched in the face, is probably enough to scare away a lot of readers. But try to ignore all that. Polly's memoir of a middle-aged, thoroughly out-of-shape couch potato's quest to become a UFC-style cage warrior is one of the funniest yet most insightful books that I've come across in quite a while. Polly is a latter-day version of literary professional amateur George Plimpton on steroids, without the flowery Paris Review pretensions and with a much more deft appreciation for lowbrow contemporary culture in its crude, rude glory. If you've been puzzled about why millions of TV viewers are suddenly clamoring for pay-per-view telecasts of guys in baggy shorts trying to bend each other's limbs into unhealthy shapes, Polly will give you a wry tour of one of the weirdest, creepiest and yet most popular sports spectacles imaginable. Here's a good New York Times piece that will give you a feel for the book, and a Slate podcast interview with the author.
3. In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age by Patricia Cohen. This one should hit home for SecondAct readers. The author, a New York Times reporter, offers both a biography and an investigation of our age group, and why today's midlifers have suddenly become the most affluent, powerful and influential group of graybeards in the history of America (and perhaps the world). Her exploration of the changing nature of middle age takes her from the not-too-distant past, in which factories once refused to hire middle-aged workers, to state-of-the-art contemporary gerontology laboratories where scientists are learning to radically upgrade our aging bodies. While The Wall Street Journal's Kay Hymowitz gives it a mixed review, the Huffington Post's Laura Rowley praises the book as "an exhaustive journey of what it means to be middle aged."
4. The End of Money: Counterfeiters, Preachers, Techies, Dreamers--and the Coming Cashless Society by David Wolman. I don't know about you, but I seldom carry more than a few dollars actual paper money in my wallet anymore, and those lonely George Washingtons are getting pretty crinkly from disuse. Wolman, a Wired contributor, offers a fascinating exploration of how we are evolving into a society that relies entirely on plastic and mouse-clicks to buy, sell and save what we need. Amazon, appropriately, picks The End of Money as one of its best books of February, and Publisher's Weekly calls it "an excellent investigation of a timely topic." From The Atlantic, here's an intriguing excerpt on the history of American money, "from fur to fiat."
5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Okay, so Collins' 2008 novel -- which was followed up by 2009's Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the 2010 conclusion to the series -- isn't new, and the series originally was aimed at "young adult" readers, to whom the notion of survivalist teens forced to live by their wits in a post-apocalyptic dystopia is a lot more novel than it might be to those of us who grew up with scary books such as Neil Shute's On The Beach and the "Mad Max" movies. (Now that we're on the subject, why is it that Australians have such a great knack for envisioning a future of lawless, brutal savagery?) Even so, with the movie version of the novels set to debut in March, maybe it's time to belatedly check out the first novel in the series and figure out why Stephen King's Entertainment Weekly review lauded it as "a violent, jarring speed-rap of a novel that generates nearly constant suspense." Publisher's Weekly picked it as one of 2008's best books, and New York Times reviewer John Green opined that it contained "superb characterization."
SecondAct asks: So what are you reading? Share your recent reads in the comment field below, and maybe we can get an online book club discussion going.