Some summer books put ideas in the driver's seat

Summer reading doesn't have to mean light reading. A summer vacation can offer the free time to grapple with weighty themes. Whether you're lying on the beach or pressed against the air conditioner this month, you might give one of these idea-driven books a try.

"Exorcising Hitler"

by Frederick Taylor

Bloomsbury Press, $30

The evils of the Nazi regime have long been fodder for popular history, as has the Allied battle to defeat it. But what happened once the Allies succeeded? Frederick Taylor, author of "Dresden" and "The Berlin Wall," tells the morally, politically and logistically complicated story of the efforts to rebuild the German nation.

The Americans, British, French and Soviets had their own priorities, as well as their own ways of treating the conquered Germans. Meanwhile, attitudes toward the Allied invaders varied greatly among the Germans. A few joined "werwolf" resistance brigades. Others fled their homes, desperate to surrender to the Americans or British rather than the infamously brutal Soviets. Some tried to minimize Nazi ties and groom themselves for administrative positions in the new government.

Capturing the perspectives of these many participants is a formidable task, one to which Taylor rises with aplomb. "Exorcising Hitler" is gripping and humane, but Taylor does not sacrifice scholarship in the interest of storytelling. He makes use of an array of primary sources (many in German), and the book's informative endnotes assess the reliability of many secondary sources as well.

"The Chairs Are Where the People Go"

by Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti

Faber and Faber, $13

"The Chairs Are Where the People Go" is a slim volume, but its physical slightness belies the heft of some of its contents. Misha Glouberman is a Toronto performance artist with an idiosyncratic yet often sensible view of the world. His friend, Sheila Heti, began to write a novel about him but decided his real-life musings would make a better book. This collection of short pieces on "how to live, work, and play in the city" is the result. Many are lessons taken from Glouberman's experiences teaching quirky classes in charades and improvisation.

From the "get louder or quit game" to the "conducting game," these chapters offer amusing observations of human interaction. Glouberman also tackles more universal topics, including career paths, computer obsolescence and the right not to make eye contact on public transportation.

"The Chairs Are Where the People Go" focuses a bit too much on the improvisational exercises, sometimes growing self-indulgent. But there is enough thought-provoking material to make for profitable reading, especially for those at a career or personal crossroads.

"The Hundred Brothers"

by Donald Antrim

Picador, $15

Just in time for family reunion season comes this reissue of Donald Antrim's modern classic novel of weird fraternal bonding. Doug has, literally, 99 brothers. All but one of them are gathered at the family home to lay to rest the ashes of their father, whom they refer to in terms not printable in a family newspaper. Doug feels like his siblings' scapegoat, though it becomes clear their hostility may be justified.

Over the course of a very long evening, the brothers drink, squabble, peruse the mansion's antique pornography collection and finally sit down to eat. But it's after dinner that things get really exciting — and deadly.

"The Hundred Brothers" is a bit overlong and is probably not for those new to postmodern dark comedy. Fans of Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, however, will find something to like in its pages. This new edition features an insightful introduction by Jonathan Franzen. Franzen's essay contains many spoilers, though, so it is best enjoyed after reading the novel.

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