Sunscreen and paperbacks: spring break essentials

Spring break is the perfect opportunity to set aside your Biblically proportioned reading packet in favor of (literally) lighter fare. Here are some possibilities to guide your bookstore wanderings.

1. “You Shall Know Your Velocity” by Dave Eggers

When Eggers leaped from obscurity to literary darling in 2000 with the publication of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” the world was at his fingertips. In his latest novel, he literally puts the world at his characters’ fingertips, sending Will and his friend Hand on a cross-continental adventure that is at times innovative and effortlessly hilarious and at other times self-consciously clever and repetitive. But if you enjoyed “AHWOSG,” chances are you’ll also enjoy “Velocity.”

Also recommended: “The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002,” edited by Eggers. The compilation is just as irreverent and occasionally brilliant as McSweeney’s, the quarterly publication put out by Eggers from San Francisco.

2. “The Hipster Handbook” by Robert Lanham

This tongue-in-cheek update of “The Official Preppy Handbook” lays out the differences between those who are “deck” and those who are “fin” with entertaining perspicacity. There has been speculation that Lanham’s new colloquialisms refer to surfboards, a fitting reference for any true hipster. A test at the end allows you to place yourself on the hipster spectrum – though needing to take the test probably indicates that you fall closer to “fin” than “deck.” If such is the case, Lanham recommends trying to drop postmodern – or PoMo – into casual conversation as often as possible, bearing in mind its versatility as adjective, noun and verb.

3. “Snobbery: The American Version” by Joseph Epstein

Any shortcomings with regard to conceptual originality in this collection of essays by Joseph Epstein are eclipsed by the wit and humor of the writing. His observations of snobbery in America are honest and intermittently self-deprecating; each chapter dissects a different variation of snobbery, ranging from reverse snobbery to the snobbery of “virtucrats.” In the end, the essays illuminate everything you’ve noticed about society but have been unable to articulate. Is snobbery intrinsic to human nature? Read the essays and draw your own conclusion.

4. “Paris to the Moon” by Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik’s essays are more personal than Epstein’s, but no less elegant. Drawing on his experiences while living as an expatriate in Paris with his wife and infant son, Gopnik approaches the city with a schoolboy’s love and a writer’s sense of irony. From being overwhelmed by haute couture to avoiding the ubiquitous Barney – a favorite of even Parisian children – the essays are objective enough to ring true and personal enough to be appealing. Moreover, Gopnik’s parallels between French and American sensibilities, sprinkled throughout the book, are always sharp and intelligent. One of my favorites: for the Frenchman, “university student” carries the same connotations as “yeoman farmer” does for the American.

5. “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown

Art history students take note: Dan Brown proves in his latest page-turner that art history can be thrilling and sexy, especially if you’re Robert Langdon, Harvard professor and Indiana Jones look-alike. Drawn to the Louvre by the murder of the chief curator, Langdon is off to the races before long in search of the Holy Grail, joined by beautiful French cryptologist Sophie Neveu. Portions of the plot sound a little hokey, but the writing is smart – Brown has a healthy sense of humor and avoids the traps plaguing so many contemporary thrillers by having his characters poke fun at themselves. Harrison Ford never looked so good in print.

6. “Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal” by Eric Schlosser

In terms of shock value, Eric Schlosser’s exposé falls into the same category as Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” published nearly a century ago. When I say that Schlosser boldly explores the meat of the issues in order to reach their heart, I’m not speaking figuratively. An award-winning journalist, Schlosser explains the findings of his research to support his “beef” with the industry, portraying fast food corporations as manipulative and irresponsible. Taking a cross-country spring break trip that will involve frequent fast food dining? Don’t read this book.

7. “Why Orwell Matters” by Christopher Hitchens

Recommended by Prof. Tess Chakkalakal.

In “Why Orwell Matters,” Christopher Hitchens combines elements of biography and political philosophy to paint a probing portrait of Orwell and his writing. Those familiar with Orwell (“1984,” “Animal Farm”) will appreciate the insight; those less familiar with his work will be spurred to further investigation. Chakkalakal comments: “I’m a fan of Hitchens’ journalism and although this book isn’t as incisive as some of his journalism, it does manage to bring together politics and literature in interesting and important ways. I would recommend it to students of both literature and political science.”

8. “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain

Recommended by Prof. Kenneth Savitsky.

How many writers have resumés that include both executive chef experience at a 3-star restaurant and the publication of two culinary mysteries? With scathing honesty and arrogance, Bourdain reveals the reality hiding behind the kitchen door at every high class restaurant. Savitsky writes: “It’s a look at the surprisingly seedy but fascinating life and history of a professional chef. Bourdain is dark, obsessive, foul-mouthed, manipulative and ridiculously macho – but he makes up for it by being an excellent writer and storyteller. He beats the pants off off Emeril.”