My summer reading preferences are so particular they have, at times, stopped me from reading at all. I need a romance for a train trip — for obvious reasons. When it's hot, I prefer something with no climate congruence at all; I've never enjoyed Anna Karenina so much as I did on the beach (that romance is a train exception — er ... for obvious reasons). When I'm on a plane trip, I like a passel of good young-adult novels, filled with cliffhangers, reversals and quick emotion. It's a mood makeover in flight. At home in D.C., with its climate that goes beyond mere heat and closer to inferno (Sure! you can read that, too!), I've discovered that the only way to take me out of one sense is to focus on another, so here in the nation's capital, there's a lot of food in my summer reading — cookbooks! food memoirs! Little House on the Prairie re-reads! Michael Pollan! And in the dog days, when there's no vacation in sight, I need a great piece of historical fiction, just for perspective. (You think you got it bad 'cause the air conditioning's broken? At least the Luftwaffe isn't coming to get you.)
Here's a preview of a few upcoming books. It's wide enough to satisfy almost any nitpicky summer requirement I might have: There's a YA novel set in World War II; a rousing historical ode to abolitionist John Brown with a great twist; two wonderful food memoirs — one about an infamous piece of cheese (not kidding!), and one small, devastating piece of fiction for nights when you can sleep with the windows open.
You may know the story of John Brown's unsuccessful raid on Harpers Ferry, but author James McBride's retelling of the events leading up to it is so imaginative, you'll race to the finish. The tale is told by a young slave from the Kansas Territory, Henry Shackleford, who's around 12 when he's freed by Brown and mistaken for a girl. It's an error that goes uncorrected, and Henry, dubbed "little Onion" by his new companion, finds the disguise useful as he travels with Brown and his men. Onion meets more than one historical character on his journey — there's even an outlandish vignette starring a drunken Frederick Douglass. But through Onion's eyes, it's the famed abolitionist he calls "Old Man" who really comes alive — radical and obsessive, and ultimately doomed.
I love Kate Christensen's novels, but you don't have to have read them to enjoy her memoir. It's constructed around food and memory, unfolding in a series of recipes and vignettes. The book begins with a scene from her early childhood — her father erupting in a sudden act of violence toward her mother over a breakfast — and continues all the way to the breakup of her first marriage and a second chance later in life. Taste, texture and smell all become part of the way she experiences the world, and the places she goes — her childhood in Berkeley, Calif., her coziest days with her divorced mother and her sisters in Arizona, a European adventure, and her life as a writer in New York. Christensen's life isn't an extraordinary one, but taking the journey with her, through the prism of meatloaf and spinach pie, is enough to jog your own sense memories.
A new YA novel from Elizabeth Wein? Yes, please. I'm still shaking from her last book, Code Name Verity, a deftly plotted book about girl pilots and friendship in World War II. In Rose Under Fire we begin in the air again. Rose Justice, a spunky American pilot, is captured by the Nazis after attempting to stop a bomb mid-flight, and is sent to the Ravensbruck women's concentration camp. There she bonds with her fellow prisoners, some of whom are known as "Rabbits," victims of brutal Nazi medical experiments. The scenes at Ravensbruck are harrowing but never exploitative, and the friendships that develop are layered and complex. Somehow, Wein has managed to make both female friendships and Nazi brutality her beat. Rose Under Fire is a companion to Verity and shares some of its characters, but it's a quieter, less breathless read, which ultimately makes it that much more devastating.
Forget the summer, The Telling Room may turn out to be my favorite piece of nonfiction this year. Michael Paterniti's meditation on a piece of cheese (yep, that's what it's about) has all of the elements of the best true tales: a quirky and exceptional story; a captivating central character; and a lesson to teach about the passage of time. It begins in 1991, when Paterniti reads a description of a sublime Castilian cheese — Paramo de Guzman — and decides, years later, to chase down the story of the cheesemaker. What luck! Ambrosio Molinos turns out to be a charismatic, down-to-earth philosopher, with a story about his betrayal by a childhood friend. But the terrific storytelling isn't just limited to Ambrosio — Paterniti's writing sings, whether he's talking about how food activates memory, or the joys of watching his children grow. It's the first biography of a cheese that might just bring a tear to your eye.
Paul Harding's follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers follows the grandson of that novel's protagonist, Charlie Crosby, as he navigates life after the sudden death of his daughter. Over the course of a year, he descends utterly into his grief. Moving back and forth through time, from memories of his daughter to the intolerable present, Harding never lets the material stray into manipulation; each moment of Charlie's life, even his hallucinations, seems unbearably real. Enon is one of those rare books where nothing much happens, and yet the quality of the language is so strong that each sentence feels like a cliffhanger. Forgive me, for this book, with its enormous loss and cool descent, is truly for fall.
Barrie Hardymon is an editor with NPR's Weekend Edition.