Outside the covers

What I’ve been reading lately besides books

A weekly roundup of long reads you won’t find between the covers of a book.

📰 Nina Martyris serves up a variety of ways that the world’s most popular beverage has made its presence known in fiction in When Tea Reaches Its Boiling Point in Fiction, So Too May the Story. It’s hardly surprising, then, that it’s not just tea drinkers who are addicted to the seductions of hot tea — writers are, too. Across tea-drinking cultures, in China, England, India, Russia, Egypt or the U.S., writers have milked hot tea for all its worth to add a splash of narrative panache to comic or erotic scenes or to build mood, momentum and character. (via NPR’s The Salt)

📰 This one hits home. When I first read Noreen Malone’s The Case — Please Hear Me Out — Against the Em Dash , I got a little defensive. I am an enthusiastic supporter of em dashes, as you’ll know if you’ve read much of this blog. I know the convoluted Unicode to conjure them on a computer running Windows (ALT+0151). I know how to achieve the same mark with much less effort on a Mac (Option+Shift+-). They are useful little marks, more visually appealing and less formal than parentheses. But in the interest of presenting all sides of a contentious issue, I’ll let you read Ms. Malone’s treatise and make up your own minds. (via Slate’s The Good Word)

📰 Living in the rural Midwest as I do, I read and hear a lot about the shrinking small towns in Iowa and the rest of the heartland. Everyone can see the problem, but no one has yet come up with a viable solution. As I learned while reading ‘This Is All We Can Afford’: Shrinking Lives in the English Countryside, England is facing much the same problem. The compelling story by Ceylan Yaginsu is illustrated with achingly poignant photos by Laetitia Vancon. (via The New York Times)

Literary links

Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

It’s a hot summer holiday weekend, and for me that usually means curling up in an air-conditioned safe space with a book. Maybe you prefer to turn the pages while lounging poolside or at a cabin by the lake. Wherever you’re going to be this weekend, here are some reading-related articles that caught my eye.


I’m not gonna lie: Microsoft’s Ebook Apocalypse Shows the Dark Side of DRM by Brian Barrett sent chills down my spine. I read a lot — I mean, A LOT — of ebooks because I’d much rather carry around a compact e-reader than a pile of books that get scuffed and battered and weigh down my tote bag. I never bought a book from Microsoft’s ebook store (truth be told, I never knew Microsoft had an ebook store, which might be partly why it failed) but it doesn’t take much imagination to see how easily this could happen elsewhere, including at Kobo Books, my preferred e-tailer. So I guess I have a new task for this holiday weekend: Making sure I’ve got all my ebooks downloaded onto my computer’s hard drive so even if they disappear from the Great Internet Cloud they will still exist.

The Guardian

Oliver Twiss? Nickelas Nickelbery? The Penny Pickwick? What in the name of Charles Dickens is going on here? Just a little 19th century plagiarism, according to Alison Flood’s recent article, Oliver Twiss and Martin Guzzlewit – the fan fiction that ripped off Dickens. It’s all down to a fellow named Edward Lloyd, a prominent press baron of the time who capitalized on the immense popularity of Dickens’ serialized novels by publishing his own ripoff versions.

In some ways the plagiarisms could be seen as the original fan fiction, as they took familiar characters and did different things with them.

Professor Rohan McWilliam

By all accounts, the author of A Tale of Two Cities was mad as the Dickens (oof, sorry) about the whole situation but a judge said he had no recourse to force Lloyd to stop publishing. You can read more about Lloyd’s appropriation and his other influences on Victorian Britain in a new book of essays edited by McWilliam and Sarah Louise Lill, Edward Lloyd and His World: Popular Fiction, Politics and the Press in Victorian Britain (Routledge, 2019).

The Atlantic

Next week is Major League Baseball’s All-Star Break, when the theoretically best (or at least most popular) players in MLB gather to compete in a Home Run Derby and an American-vs-National game that thankfully no longer counts for anything. Since you’re not going to have any actual games to watch for four long days, why not take some time to read The New Science of Building Baseball Superstars, an article by Jack Hamilton that reviews a new book, The MVP Machine: How Baseball’s New Noncomformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players (Basic Books, 2019) by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik.

Hamilton makes a thoughtful analogy to the rise of the steroid scandal in the 1990s with the more-or-less simultaneous popularization of “sabermetrics” an advanced form of player analysis encapsulated in Michael Lewis’ now-classic Moneyball.

The steroid and stat revolutions have unfolded very differently so far, but they arose from a common source: a desire to deploy scientific methods to improve the way baseball is played. Steroid use focused on player enhancement, whereas analytics focused on player value. To put it polemically, one was a revolution driven by labor, and the other by management, which is probably one of many reasons the latter has been more readily accepted.

Jack Hamilton, The Atlantic

There are other nuanced takes throughout the article, as Hamilton casts a skeptical eye on some of the claims made by Lindbergh and Sawchik about this new era of “Betterball.” Far from discouraging me from reading the book, I’m more eager than ever to check it out see for myself whether The MVP Machine is firing on all cylinders or running on fumes.

Battle of the book covers

U.S. versus U.K. — who ya got?

Illustration created by Electric Literature

Are your Mondays filled with too much thinking? Ease into your work week by gazing upon some beautiful and striking book covers. The fine folks over at Electric Literature pitted the U.S. and U.K. cover versions of some new books to see which their readers preferred. I agreed with some of their choices (the U.K. version of Elizabeth McCracken’s Bowlaway), disagreed with others (I prefer the U.S. cover for Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future), but mostly I added a bunch of titles to my library holds list. Let me know in the comments which ones stand out to you.

Literary links

Bronze Link” by Michael Coghlan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What time of year is it, boys and girls? It’s “Summer/Beach Reading List” Time! Any number of media markets have jumped into the deep end of the pool with roundups of books that are worth tucking into your suitcase or beach tote. Let’s take a look:

The Washington Post

The 20 Books to Read This Summer does not confuse “summer read” with “mindless read,” though you’ll find plenty of options to fit the category a friend of mine calls Thumping Good Reads. There is both fiction and nonfiction on offer here, some available now and some that will be published later in the season. Among the titles that caught my eye:

  • The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (Berkley). I’m not a dedicated reader of contemporary romances but I thoroughly enjoyed Hoang’s first novel, The Kiss Quotient. What makes Hoang’s work stand out is the way she navigates storylines featuring people on the autism spectrum with wit and sensitivity. There’s also a generous helping of steam, perfect for readers already hot and bothered at the beach.
  • First: Sandra Day O’Connor by Evan Thomas (Random House). The first woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court overcame plenty of sexism in her rise through the judicial branch, but it was her brain, not any more noticeable body part that earned her a seat on the nation’s highest court.
  • Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman (William Morrow). I’m a big fan of Lippman’s series of Baltimore-based detective stories featuring recovering journalist Tess Monaghan but this book is a stand-alone, set in the 1960s and featuring a housewife-turned-reporter who sets out to solve a mystery.

The New York Times

The Times does everything bigger and better, so naturally their Summer Reading roundup spotlights 75 books. That sounds overwhelming, but the NYT at least had the sense to present their picks in an interactive layout with browsable categories: Thrillers, Travel, Sports, True Crime, Music, Horror, Historical Fiction, Cooking, and The Great Outdoors. Whew! Let’s take a gallop around the pool and see what’s up:

cover image from The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
  • See You in the Piazza by Frances Mayes (Crown). I enjoyed Mayes’ first memoir, Under the Tuscan Sun, quite a bit, and the follow-up Bella Tuscany was also good. I was startled to realize while researching this post that she had written yet another volume, Every Day in Tuscany, and a host of companion books that plumb the depths of Italian cooking and home decor and scenery. Not having exhausted her subject matter or her readers’ patience yet, this year she aims to take her devoted readers along with her and her husband as they visit out-of-the-way spots in — where else? — Italy. If you can’t spend your actual summer vacation in Italy yourself, you might as well read about while you’re fighting off mosquitoes at that KOA campground in Nebraska.
  • The Salt Path by Raynor Winn (Penguin). Winn tells the true story of walking journey she and her husband took along England’s South West Coast Path, which spans 630 miles between Somerset and Dorset. The Winns did not undertake this journey on a whim; as the reviewer Liesl Schillinger explains, ” In middle age, they had become homeless as if by thunderclap: In the space of two days, they lost the farmhouse that had provided both their home and their livelihood and learned that Winn’s husband had a terminal illness.” It sounds utterly fascinating, if a bit grim.

If those lists aren’t enough for you, here are some other folks who have compiled summer reading lists:

Lists, and more lists

Do you have a favorite go-to source for book suggestions? Please share in the comments section!