This Week’s Hot Reads: July 25

From Zen monks battling a forest fire to Lee Siegel’s defense of seriousness, five great new books to read this week.

Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of TassajaraZen monks battle a raging wildfire in this gripping account of unlikely Californian heroes.

As author Colleen Morton Busch points out early in this narrative, we are accustomed to think of Zen monks as contemplative, not active. So the central event here—a 2008 California forest fire that threatened the Tassajara monastery near Big Sur and the heroic response of the monks inside the monastery—is full of paradox. And full of action. Not many books about Zen monks can be called nail-biters, but this one can.

Malcolm Jones

Thick as ThievesA former CIA agent stars in this international crime thriller from Peter Spiegelman.

Carr, a former member of the CIA, is leading a group of criminals in a massive heist that, if successful, will set them all up for life. But the group is uneasy: bad intel, mysterious deaths, and trust issues are plaguing them. Perhaps worst of all, it is becoming clear that no one on the crew is who they claim to be, not even Carr himself. Shamus Award–winning author Peter Spiegelman returns with this psychologically thrilling novel.

Are You Serious? How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly A bracing and funny treatise on "seriousness" by the cultural critic Lee Siegel.

The book begins and ends with the same three-part interrogation: “Are you serious? Are you sure? Can you tell?" Those are the central questions of critic Lee Siegel's new work, which offers a detailed history of "seriousness" and explains why it's missing from our political and cultural life these days. Siegel doesn’t just criticize, but also offers a way forward with his "Three Pillars of Seriousness": attention, purpose, and continuity. All of which are conspicuously absent from today's culture, and he tells us why, citing modern distractions and spotlighting some of the major subverters of seriousness (Palin, Olbermann, and Oprah, to name a few). With the debt debate in Washington proving his point, Siegel delivers a necessary, sharp, and wide-ranging book that deserves to be taken seriously.

Everything Beautiful Began AfterA young European love triangle that isn't.

Three young people find themselves in Athens for different reasons. Rebecca is there to make art; George consumes liquor and ancient literature in equal measure; Henry digs into a career as a promising archaeologist. They are entangled for one transformative summer, and a tale that might superficially resemble a trite love triangle quickly grows into much more. Van Booy's prose has a delicate, almost ethereal quality, at once eminently readable and oddly detached. His richly imagined tale also has a visual component: embedded in the story you'll find the occasional stray clipping from the characters' world, like typed letters, handwritten postcards, and scrawled drawings.

American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican PartyA fresh conservative voice exhorts the Republican Party to engage a new generation.

As a member of two presidential campaigns, a member of the George W. Bush White House, a regular Fox News contributor, and a great-granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover, Margaret Hoover has an unimpeachable conservative pedigree. But over the years this "lifelong member" of the Republican Party has grown increasingly convinced that her party has lost touch with the rising generation of young Americans. Though they are a largely Obama-voting demographic, Hoover provocatively suggests that the millennials would align perfectly with conservative principles—and that they can be convinced to vote that way. Hoover delivers a blueprint to capturing this vital demographic, and one just hopes that the Republican Party’s presidential hopefuls are listening to what she says.