Booksellers' Picks: 15 Soaring Summer Reads

summer books i i
Chris Silas Neal
summer books
Chris Silas Neal

As days get longer and the sun's rays get stronger, books that are lighter and brighter stand a better chance of squeezing into packed beach bags and suitcases. But that doesn't mean summer books need to be weightless. Finding the perfect balance in a single bound edition can seem impossible, but it's a challenge that's just right for independent booksellers like Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, Fla., Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, and Lucia Silva of Studio City, Calif.'s Portrait of a Bookstore. Among the three of them, they've managed to find 16 books that fit the bill. Showoffs!

This summer's rays of literary sunshine come from 15 authors whose topics range from loaves of bread to small-town life in the Texas Hill Country. There's fiction from Sarah Blake, Hilary Thayer Hamann and Brady Udall, whose 600-page novel, The Lonely Polygamist, about a man with four wives who finds himself drawn to a fifth woman, was picked by two of our booksellers. There's also poetry (and a memoir) from quadriplegic writer Paul Guest, the story behind the making of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, and a first-person, nonfiction book from Ander Monson that's definitely Not a Memoir. The title even says so.

Lucia Silva, Portrait Of A Bookstore

Recommendations from Lucia Silva, the book buyer at Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif.


Big Machine

Big Machine

Big Machine: A Novel, by Victor LaValle, paperback, 384 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $15

Ricky Rice is a sort-of ex-junkie working as a janitor at a bus depot in Utica, N.Y., when he's summoned to join a group of "Unlikely Scholars" at the mysterious Washburn Library in the backwoods of Vermont. A motley crew of mostly tender souls with shady pasts, the Scholars are faced with baffling protocols and cryptic assignments to investigate paranormal activity in service of some larger scheme.

LaValle uses Ricky's past as a child of a bizarre religious cult in Queens and his later battles with soul-sucking specters to deliver an intense rumination on faith and doubt, and how vital both are to survival. Victor LaValle's prose is thrilling and electric from the first word to the last as he shapes Ricky into a character you want to follow to the ends of the Earth — and beyond. (Read about the mysterious package — containing a bus ticket to Vermont and an enigmatic message on a Post-it Note — that Ricky Rice opens while hiding from his boss in the station's bathroom.)


Anthropology of an American Girl

Anthropology Of An American Girl

Anthropology of an American Girl: A Novel, by Hilary Thayer Hamann, hardcover, 624 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $26

Flawed, but beautifully, and perhaps purposefully so, Anthropology of An American Girl is an emotionally haunting novel, entrancing from the first to the last of its 600-plus pages. The arrestingly intimate first-person narration follows Eveline, a townie from East Hampton, from her senior year in high school in 1979 through the next five years of her life into a fast-lane, moneyed life in 1980s Manhattan.

Eveline is cerebral and deeply reflective, and it's her take on the world around her — her musings, budding desires and wrestlings with contradictions — that creates the mesmerizing drive behind the story. As she negotiates herself into adult life, she teeters in a dangerous netherworld between finding and losing herself. An emotional anthropology of what it's like to be a certain kind of girl reckoning with the kind of woman she might become, Anthropology is both beautiful and terrifying — and uncommonly true. (Read about the Cold War-era bomb drills Eveline endured as a schoolgirl on the South Shore of Long Island.)


Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, by Ander Monson, paperback, 208 pages, Graywolf Press, list price: $16

Ander Monson is one of my favorite writers and thinkers, and this is his "not a memoir" — a series of explorations and meditations on the very idea of memoir, of self-representation, vanity, and memory. A piece on jury duty digresses into ideas about "truth" and "facts," Monson's own petty-criminal past, and the very nature and impossibility of justice. Another chapter takes us into the now-common obsession with "self-Googling," as Monson explores all of the other Anders he finds online. Other sections are assemblages pieced together from lines from other people's memoirs, both famous and infamous.

In a brilliant twist on the digitization of books, Monson inserts symbols throughout his beautifully designed paper-and-ink book that indicate places where readers can access footnotes, marginalia, images, video, and other digressions on his website — kind of like inked hyperlinks, or "text adventures." So funny and so smart (but never smug), Monson's writing makes you realize how very alive thinking and writing can be. (Read Monson's explanation of why he kept his underage conviction for felony credit card fraud to himself while being chosen for jury duty in Grand Rapids, Mich.)


Welcome to Utopia

Welcome To Utopia

Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town, by Karen Valby, hardcover, 256 pages, Spiegel & Grau, list price: $25

On assignment for Entertainment Weekly to find an American town untouched by popular culture, Karen Valby happened upon Utopia, Texas — a town with "no stoplights, one constable, six real estate offices, and seven churches," no chain stores or fast-food restaurants, no movie theaters, bookstores, or video stores.

After finishing her assignment, Valby couldn't shake the town, and she returned to Utopia to mine its simple mysteries. She takes us deep into the morning kaffeeklatch of older gentlemen who hang out at the general store, introduces us to the waitress at the local diner who has three young sons fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hangs out with the oddball emo kid and only African-American family in town; all of whom reveal why so many stay in Utopia, and why some ache to leave. Filled with personal portraits and complex issues, Valby's account reads like a book-length New Yorker article — compulsively readable and deeply affecting. (Read Valby's description of the early-morning crowd of old-timers at the Utopia General Store.)


One More Theory About Happiness

One More Theory About Happiness

One More Theory About Happiness: A Memoir, by Paul Guest, hardcover, 208 pages, Ecco, list price: $21.99

My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge, by Paul Guest, paperback, 96 pages, Ecco, list price: $13.99

I lived with the opening poem from My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge pinned to my wall for a year before learning that its author had typed it with his mouth. When he was 12 years old, Paul Guest broke his neck when the brakes gave out on a borrowed bicycle, leaving him paralyzed.

One More Theory About Happiness chronicles the years that follow as he battles his physical limitations on the unfettered playground of his poet's mind. Far from a saccharine "triumph of the human spirit," Guest's memoir is marked by his winning humor and bare-naked honesty, distilled into poetic prose. His poetry is brutal, funny, and tender — an unusual and exhilarating mix. Together the two books paint an indelible portrait of a writer, and alert us to the amazing ability of the human body and mind to reconcile with an unbearable reality. (Read Guest's account of the bike accident that broke his neck.)


Rona Brinlee, The BookMark

Recommendations from Rona Brinlee at The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, Fla.


52 Loaves

52 Loaves

52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, by William Alexander, hardcover, 352 pages, Algonquin Books, list price: $23.95

William Alexander has such a fond memory of the perfect bread he once ate that he's now embarked on a quest to re-create this loaf, starting from scratch. When he says "from scratch," he means it. This journey begins with planting wheat.

52 Loaves, by the author of The $64 Tomato, is a yearlong log of Alexander's personal and obsessive journey back to that perfect loaf. He starts the project at a weight of 196 pounds; his shelf of bread books weighs a mere 2 pounds. At the end of the year, the author tips the scales at just 201 pounds (not bad considering all the bread he consumed), while the books have expanded to 60 pounds.

This baking and eating adventure includes a trip to Morocco to use a specific oven. Alexander's related lessons include a resolution not to drink the water next time, or to consider just going to Barbados. He also spends time with monks in a French abbey and builds an outdoor oven (which defies the notion that any do-it-yourself project takes just one weekend). In the end, baker and author Alexander is reminded that life is a journey, not a destination. (Read Alexander's description of his first harvest — and how he learned the hard way why the combine was such a revolutionary invention.)


Alice I Have Been

Alice I Have Been

Alice I Have Been: A Novel, by Melanie Benjamin, hardcover, 368 pages, Delacorte Press, list price: $25

In this novel, 80-year-old Alice Liddell Hargreaves muses about her life, her relationship with Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson), and what it's meant to be his Alice from Wonderland. She remembers meeting the muse for Peter Pan and offering him advice on how to deal with such notoriety.

Benjamin mixes historical facts with fiction to recount Alice's adventures in lyrical and playful language reminiscent of the children's classic Liddell herself inspired. Alice's memories include conversations with Dodgson about whether she'd like to stay young forever and whimsical plans on how to "spend" a day. She focuses on one particular day when Dodgson told Alice the story that would later become the book. Responding to Alice's repeated encouragement to write it down before he forgets how it begins, Dodgson assures her that remembering how it begins is easy ... it's knowing how it will end that is more difficult. (Read about one of young Alice's adventures with Mr. Dodgson — and her thoughts on his proposal to photograph her.)


The Kingdom of Ohio

The Kingdom Of Ohio

The Kingdom of Ohio, by Matthew Flaming, hardcover, 336 pages, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, list price: $24.95

As a young laborer helping to build the New York subway tunnels in 1900, Peter Force encounters a beautiful but tattered-looking woman who claims to be from a different time and place. Their growing friendship — and ultimately love for each other — lead the two on a path to save the world from the effects of time travel if a machine that makes it possible falls into the wrong hands. Flaming casts Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison as rivals eager to claim this scientific invention, while financier J.P. Morgan covets its potential moneymaking possibilities.

Combining real historical figures with fictional characters gives the story a layer of wonderment about what's real — or at least possible. You've got to love a book that messes with your mind and then leaves you smiling and pondering at the end. It's not often one can say this, but the ending of this book is just perfect. (Read the reaction Flaming's narrator has to his discovery of a life-changing photo in an old magazine.)


The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist: A Novel. by Brady Udall, hardcover, 602 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., list price: $26.95

"To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair." This first sentence sends your mind racing in so many directions. Apparently, a family with one husband, four wives, and 28 children has the same dysfunctional issues as a family with two parents and two kids. There are more issues — but more people to help resolve them.

Husband and father Golden Richards' life is out of control. He's broke, so to feed his large family, he's accepted a job building a brothel; he's found himself attracted to a woman who is not one of his four wives; and he manages to get a wad of chewing gum tangled in an unlikely — and decidedly uncomfortable — location. All of which make lying seem an appealing option, until one considers how difficult it must be to keep a story straight when you have to repeat it to four different wives. (Read about Golden's attempt to explain a misunderstanding to his four wives.)


The Postmistress

The Postmistress

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake, hardcover, 336 pages, Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, list price: $25.95

We expect the mailman to deliver the mail and the reporter to tell the story, especially when fulfilling these obligations helps provide order in a world gone awry. What if the decision to not comply with professional norms derives from compassion and a sense that not doing the expected is the kinder act? What if the postmistress decides not to deliver a letter, and the reporter decides not to turn in a story?

The thread of this novel connects people on both sides of the ocean during World War II — those waiting at home and those fighting abroad. What they all share is a search for order and reasons — explanations for horrific events and seemingly random acts.

What stands out and makes The Postmistress such an intimate look at the realities of war is the consideration of close relationships as well as relationships with strangers, both those who return again and again and those who just pass through life and are gone. (Read the explanation Blake's narrator — reporter Frances Bard — gives for why a postmistress might not deliver the mail, to a shocked dinner party.)


The Prince of Mist

The Prince Of Mist

The Prince of Mist, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, hardcover, 224 pages, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, list price: $17.99

Although new to the U.S., The Prince of Mist is actually the first book written by the best-selling author of The Shadow of the Wind. Technically a young adult book, it really is for readers "ages 12 & up" (emphasis on the "& up"), and it has all the fantastical and spellbinding elements of Zafon's adult novels.

Early clues to the mysteries to come include a clock that runs backward and a garden where the statues change positions. An old lighthouse keeper regales three teenagers with tales of shipwrecks and deals made with the devil. These teens find themselves in a mortal battle with an unknown entity that may or may not be the devil. This evil force is determined to get what he considers is owed to him. After all, a promise is a promise. (Read what happens when Max's father decides to move his family out of the city to a small coastal town.)


Daniel Goldin, Boswell Book Co.

Recommendations from Daniel Goldin at Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee.


Day for Night

Day For Night

Day for Night: A Novel, by Frederick Reiken, hardcover, 336 pages, Reagan Arthur Books, list price: $24.99

A few of the characters who bounce through the pages of Frederick Reiken's novel Day for Night: Forty-something doctor Beverly accompanies her scientist boyfriend, David, and his son on a trip to swim with manatees. David has leukemia and they are talking about Beverly adopting his son, but she hits it off with their guide, Timmy, and agrees to see his band, featuring the mesmerizing lead singer Dee. Jump to Dee and Timmy traveling on a plane to rescue Dee's brother Dillon, who is in a coma after a motorcycling accident in the Negev desert. Dee is panicked that evil family members are going to harm Dillon. Timmy — not her boyfriend but sleeping with her nonetheless — is there for her; his only distraction is the mysterious woman seated next to them, who is reluctant to engage them in conversation. Jump to an FBI report on the whereabouts of Katherine Clay Goldman, a radical '60s fugitive.

As Day for Night progresses, the tendrils of the story reach out, double back, and expand again. This is a story about coincidence and connection, about the stories we tell that keep us apart, and the ones that bring us together, of good and evil, and how sometimes we think we are doing one when we're doing the other. This philosophy plays out in scientific experiments, song lyrics, references to Carl Jung, a literary analysis of 1984 (which happens to be the year in which the book is set) and in the game strategy of Dungeons and Dragons. Day for Night is a joy and a rare thing, a feast for the mind and the heart that almost demands a second reading. (Read about Beverly's swim with the manatees in Florida.)


The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist: A Novel, by Brady Udall, hardcover, 602 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., list price: $26.95

With four wives and 28 kids, Golden Richards has more than he can handle. Financial pressures have led him to take a job doing construction work on a brothel, and it's best not to mention it to the rest of the family. Brady Udall's sprawling story is told through Golden, one of his wives (the most distant one, yet to have a child with Golden) and one of his 28 kids, Rusty.

The Lonely Polygamist reminds me a lot of Middlesex in that it takes something alien to most of us, and makes it intimate, almost banal. Several hundred pages into the story and I was thinking that I surely know several polygamous families. Udall also wraps what turns out to be a history of the American West into a very personal story, filled with humor, heart and darkness, the latter mostly in the repercussions of government atomic testing that went on in the area. Though some have compared Udall to John Irving, I was often struck by similarities to Anne Tyler, particularly in the character of Golden, the bumbling patriarch character, leading on the outside, masking his complete uncertainty within. I love big, fat books and Udall's delivers on so many levels that I wished it went on for another 300 pages.(Read about Golden's attempt to explain a misunderstanding to his four wives.)


The Tortoise And The Hare

The Tortoise And The Hare

The Tortoise and the Hare, by Elizabeth Jenkins, paperback, 288 pages, Virago UK, list price: $15.95

Though Elizabeth Jenkins has written 12 novels and a notable biography of Jane Austen — she's one of the founders of the Jane Austen Society — most American readers remain unaware of her work. The Tortoise and the Hare is a delicious tale of life in suburban London in the early 1950s. The heroine, Imogen Gresham, is married to an older man, a barrister, and life with him and her somewhat sullen child is a bit unpleasant.

Imogen almost expects her husband to find comfort in a younger woman, the way she pines after an old beau, a doctor who married a woman far younger than she, but instead, her rival for his affection winds up being Blanche Silcox, an older woman prone to fishing and fast cars. The results are both sharp satire and poignant character study — just who exactly is the tortoise and who is the hare? Jenkins is Barbara Pym with more bite, a more playful variation on Anita Brookner. And yes, you can see the Jane Austen influence as well.


Yarn: Remembering the Way Home

Yarn

Yarn: Remembering the Way Home, by Kyoko Mori, paperback, 240 pages, GemmaMedia, list price: $15.95

After leaving her family in Japan, alienated from her father, brother, and stepmother, Kyoko Mori made a new life for herself in the United States. Settling into the small city of Green Bay, Wis., she found herself one of the few foreigners in town, with little comfort from her husband. The hook to Mori's memoir, Yarn, is that she organizes the episodes in the book around knitting projects, some original and others taken from Elizabeth Zimmermann's Knitting Without Tears.

The story eloquently stitches together history, culture, craft technique and philosophical musings. Memoirs that use a gimmick to frame the story can be hit or miss, but sometimes they work just right. Knitting is something that is generally a solitary pursuit, and yet it is far more gratifying as part of a community. It is this search for community that drives Mori's story. (Read about Mori's disastrous first pair of mittens, knit in a home economics class.)


Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.

Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, by Sam Wasson, hardcover, 256 pages, HarperStudio, list price: $19.99

When Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's — a risque novel about a prostitute and her gay friend — was published, the movie studios saw it as pretty much unfilmable. How two producers and a screenwriter turned it into a romantic comedy that skirted the wrath of the censors is only one of the remarkable stories that make up Wasson's study. How did they get Audrey Hepburn to star in a role that was very much counter to her deliberately developed image? Can it be possible that one of the producers didn't like Henry Mancini's theme song? And can it also be possible that anyone liked Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi? (True confession: My dad did.)

Wasson's story is part encyclopedia, part valentine, and worth reading just to find out what exactly went into making the amazing party scene. One caveat: I do feel that you need to have seen Breakfast at Tiffany's at least five times to truly enjoy the book, but that still leaves a pretty large — and devoted — potential readership. (Read about Truman Capote's relationship with his absent mother.)

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The Postmistress
The Postmistress

by Sarah Blake

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The Kingdom of Ohio
The Kingdom of Ohio

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Alice I Have Been
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52 Loaves
52 Loaves

One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust

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Welcome to Utopia
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Notes from a Small Town

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Vanishing Point
Vanishing Point

Not a Memoir

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One More Theory About Happiness
One More Theory About Happiness

A Memoir

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My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge
My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge

by Paul Guest

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Big Machine
Big Machine

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Anthropology of an American Girl
Anthropology of an American Girl

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Yarn
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Remembering the Way Home

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The Tortoise and the Hare
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The Lonely Polygamist
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A Novel

by Brady Udall

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Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.

Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman

by Sam Wasson

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Day for Night
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by Frederick Reiken

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The Prince of Mist
The Prince of Mist

by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Lucia Graves

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