Heady, Not Heavy: 5 Smart, Playful Summer Books

Shakespeare reading
Chris Silas Neal/

For readers who like to fire up not just the barbecue but also their brains — and have fun in the bargain — there are some good options this summer. I'm always on the lookout for heirs to Vladimir Nabokov or the literary equivalent of Tom Stoppard's plays or Woody Allen's films — smart, playful, witty narratives with ideas to bounce around the cerebral cortex, as if on mental trampolines. This year, I've taken to three clever novels that offer modern twists on Shakespeare and Aristophanes, plus a wry, gory page-turner narrated by a philosophical werewolf, of all things. For those who like their linguistic hijinks undiluted by fiction, there's a fresh, offbeat glossary here, too. It's all heady but not heavy.

The Great Night

The Great Night

by Chris Adrian

Hardcover, 292 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $26, published April 26 2011 | purchase

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In Chris Adrian's magical third novel, the unbearable heaviness of being finds both expression and relief in the supernatural world of faeries and beasts. Based loosely on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Great Night interweaves fantasy, mythology, enchantment and bawdiness to revisit several of this dazzling, deeply humane writer's pet themes: grief over failed relationships and dead brothers, the intolerable fact of childhood cancer and the frequent disconnects between love and happiness.

Adrian, a pediatric oncologist who holds a master's degree in divinity from Harvard and an M.F.A. in writing from Iowa in addition to his medical degree, has set his absorbing, complex tale in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park. Three strangers, each of them recovering from heartbreak, head to the same party to celebrate the summer solstice. They become hopelessly lost and unwittingly entangled in a faerie uprising stirred by Queen Titania, desolate over the death from leukemia of her adopted son.

Like its Shakespearean template, The Great Night's multiple plotlines interconnect as characters chase around the fog-shrouded forest, befuddled by mistaken identities. Each sees in the night's phantasmagoric events reflections of his or her own obsessions as they movingly wend their way to self-discovery.

The Uncoupling

The Uncoupling

by Meg Wolitzer

Hardcover, 271 pages, Penguin Group USA, $25.95, published April 5 2011 | purchase

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Every few years, Meg Wolitzer produces a sparkling new novel that brings back the shine to big, tarnished issues of gender politics. She's applied a lot of elbow grease especially to the matter of women's pull between work and family and the role of sexuality in family dynamics.

With The Uncoupling, Wolitzer takes on lagging lust and the vicissitudes of female desire in a fable-like tale. When the new high school drama teacher in Stellar Plains, N.J., decides to mount a production of Lysistrata, a frigid spell is cast over the women in town. Wolitzer uses Aristophanes' comedy, in which his heroine leads the women of Greece in an anti-war sex strike, as a springboard for a smart and sassy examination of the role of passion and sex in relationships.

She is both playfully mocking and compassionate toward her characters, who include a chubby guidance counselor whose husband makes insensitive remarks about her weight, and a gym teacher who feels "overtouched ... like a computer with a thousand fingerprints on the screen" when she comes home to her horny husband and three needy toddler sons.

The Last Werewolf

The Last Werewolf

by Glen Duncan

Hardcover, 293 pages, Random House Inc, $25.95, published July 12 2011 | purchase

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A grisly novel about a 200-year-old werewolf is not my usual fare, but I was seduced by this lively hybrid of literary and supernatural fiction, which features the irresistible line, "Reader, I ate him." Glen Duncan, author of seven previous midlist literary novels, manages to make the intellectual cannibalistic beast in The Last Werewolf both wildly original and endearingly sympathetic as he discusses Nietzsche, Darwin, mortality and morality while fleeing members of WOCOP — that's World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena — who are out to exterminate him, the last of his kind.

Jake Marlowe, afflicted by "the Curse" at each full moon, is sick of "the lunar shuffle" and "the endless logistics" that life — and his monthly transformation from single malt-loving man to fanged monster — entail. He's weary of the challenges he's set himself — "Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t'ai chi" — and feels he's exhausted every mode of existence "from miserable Socrates to the happy pig" over his two centuries. Still, Marlowe is not quite ready to give up, especially after finding unexpected love. He asks, "What can it mean that I killed and consumed my wife and unborn child and now have love in my life again — except that there's no justice and that one must, if one can bear it, live?"

Reader, I devoured this book on a single moonlit night.

Alphabetter Juice

Alphabetter Juice

Or, the Joy of Text

by Roy Blount Jr.

Hardcover, 283 pages, Farrar Straus & Giroux, $26, published May 10 2011 | purchase

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Or, the Joy of Text
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"Give me writing that reeks of sound and motion," writes Roy Blount Jr. as he one-ups his 2008 lexicon, Alphabet Juice, with Alphabetter Juice.

Blount is partial to words that are what he calls "sonicky," at once sonic and kinesthetic — words like hump, hunch, blurt and blob. He likes hippopotamus for evoking both hippy and bottomous and because it's fun to say. Before getting into the etymology of strumpet, he comments, "A synonym for whore that rhymes with trumpet! If that ain't brassy, what is?"

Nothing if not opinionated, Blount doesn't hide his disdain for words like decalced, which means shoeless or barefoot. What's his beef? "Hardly anyone will recognize it, and it fails to evoke feet." As for G-mail without the hyphen, it "looks like someone sat on Warren Harding's middle name."

Whether you're a wordsmith, a stickler for grammar, or you just miss William Safire's column on language, there's a lot to wrap your head around in this quirky, freshly squeezed alphabetical compendium of verbal curiosities, spiked, of course, with Blount's sharp wit.

The Tragedy of Arthur

The Tragedy of Arthur

by Arthur Phillips

Hardcover, 368 pages, Random House Inc, $26, published April 19 2011 | purchase

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The brilliant author of Prague (2003) satirizes literary hagiography in general and Shakespeare scholarship in particular in his hilarious, wonderfully clever fifth novel, which boasts more layers than a Patagonia clothing catalog. For The Tragedy of Arthur, Phillips has conjured a supposedly long-lost Shakespeare tragedy which is being reluctantly ushered into print by a novelist named Arthur Phillips — who is the skeptical son of a convicted forger.

The bulk of the book, like Nabokov's Pale Fire, is an introduction to the poetic work that follows. In order to explain his family's involvement in this dubious document's provenance, "Arthur Phillips" the narrator casts his eye back "across time's moat," plunging not just into the "Fakespeare bog" but into "that most dismal" genre, the memoir. In this wild and woolly riff on the epidemic of questionably veracious personal memoirs, Phillips gamely casts himself as a king of self-delusion.

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The Tragedy of Arthur

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Arthur Phillips

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The Great Night

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The Great Night
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Chris Adrian

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The Uncoupling

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Meg Wolitzer

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The Last Werewolf

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Alphabetter Juice, or The Joy of Text

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