If your idea of packing for vacation is a suitcase full of books and two bathing suits, you've come to the right spot. We've gathered suggestions from three independent booksellers about hot-weather reads to go on your packing list.
The moods range from mystery to giddy romp, the topics from life behind the veil to wedding-night anxiety to superhero angst — and the literary modes from sprawling apocalyptic novel to what might be called a puzzle-master's experiment with form. Read on to meet our bookseller friends and discover their recommendations — including several not heard in the radio broadcast — about what the well-read traveler will be carrying this summer.
The Children's Hospital, by Chris Adrian, paperback, 624 pages
Imagine Grey's Anatomy, set in a children's hospital floating upon seven miles of post-apocalyptic floodwaters, and penned by a writer of staggering talent and sensibility. I know, it sounded weird to me, too. But when I finally cracked the cover of The Children's Hospital, it was clear from the first 30 pages that this is a giant miracle of a book. The next 600 pages fly by in a majestic whirl of a story, with indelible characters and writing that makes you want to kiss the writer who brought it to the page. Part hospital drama, part divine exploration, The Children's Hospital has one foot in this world and one in another, as its stunning cast of characters attempt to remake the world. Chris Adrian's writing is simultaneously irreverent and deeply tender, startlingly brilliant and beautiful, moved by a mix of all things good in the world and a sense for what is behind our darkest evils. A novel of creation and destruction, The Children's Hospital is epic in scope but assembled from the most intimate graces and notions, making it one of the most remarkable novels of recent years.
The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy, paperback, 272 pages
Originally published in 1958, The Dud Avocado is as fresh, sexy and modern as today's best chick-lit. Imagine Holly Golightly just out of college, dropped off in Paris' bohemian Left Bank in the late 1950s, cut out in chatty, sparkly, bubbling prose, and you've got Sally Jay Gorce, Elaine Dundy's irresistible, semi-autobiographical heroine. Witty, lovable and sexy in a safety-pinned, broken-pearls, never-wearing-the-right-dress kind of way, Sally Jay sleeps with all the wrong men and a couple of the right ones, managing misadventure after misadventure in a series of deliciously debauched months among artists, writers and affected intellectuals. Not your typical American-in-Paris story, The Dud Avocado is a delightful romp through another side of the city with an utterly endearing and most unexpected tour guide.
If you write fiction, or if you consider yourself a serious reader of modern fiction, Anagrams is a must-read. In this darkly funny, achingly wistful novel, Lorrie Moore creates an anagram of a life, rearranging the elements to reveal a portrait of a woman that's more real than the mutable facts of her life. What could easily be a dense experiment with form is instead a seamless, deeply revealing and heartbreaking portrait of a woman — and a riff on the power of the imagination, on how the secret stories we tell ourselves reveal more than our actual lives, on the ways in which our own stories save us from ourselves and the world. It's rare to laugh out loud and be touched deeply on the same page, but Moore inspires those outcomes over and over again, demonstrating a jaw-dropping mastery of writerly craft — a craft that she manages to redefine in less than 250 pages. Anagrams is so readable, so masterful, that it's difficult not to start reading it over again the second you've reached the last page. Originally published 20 years ago, it's just been reprinted in a new paperback edition from Vintage.
At Large and At Small, by Anne Fadiman, hardcover, 240 pages
At Large and At Small marks a return to the lost art of the "familiar essay," an art that mixes the intellectual with the personal, and a passion for minutiae with a curiosity about the bigger picture. Delightfully tangential, Anne Fadiman begins one essay with an adoring portrait of her father's obsession with the daily mail, digressing seamlessly into a history of the modern postal system, the origins of the postage stamp and the current state of our electronic correspondence. Whether writing about ice cream, butterfly collecting, Charles Lamb, Arctic exploration or coffee, Fadiman is utterly delightful, witty and curious, and she's such a stellar writer that if she wrote about pencil shavings, you'd read it aloud to all your friends. Fun enough for the beach, sweet enough for bedtime reading, intellectually stimulating enough for serious readers, At Large and At Small is a great companion for any kind of summer.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, Camille Kingsolver, and Steven L. Hopp, hardcover, 384 pages
Beloved writer Barbara Kingsolver and her family decide to pack it up, move to their farm in Southern Appalachia and for an entire year eat only food grown in their garden or on local farms by people they know. But instead of a sweet, idyllic farming journal, this is a powerful treatise on the impact that agribusiness and the global food trade have had on the environment and our families, as well as an impassioned argument for eating locally. And because it's Kingsolver making the case, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is also beautifully written, hilarious and moving. She reveals the treasures she finds in eating seasonally, cooking with her family and farming, while simultaneously providing a thoroughly researched investigation into current food production practices. And while the picture she paints is grim, Kingsolver also offers a gorgeous, living portrait of possibility and change. She makes it clear that you don't have to be a farmer or make your own cheese to effect change in your life and in the world. Not in a very long time has a book so radically and permanently altered my way of thinking and affected the choices I make every day — and also been such a joy to read.
Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman, hardcover, 288 pages
Heroes have become a common theme in our culture, from the military to Little Leaguers with self-esteem issues, so it's not surprising that we are a nation with superheroes on the brain. No country has the need that we do; the Belgians have Tintin the boy reporter, while we have a man who can leap tall buildings, which says a great deal about America. Following the superhero fiction of Michael Chabon, Austin Grossman takes the genre to its next level in his exuberant debut, Soon I Will Be Invincible; the novel is narrated alternately by a new superhero, the half-woman, half-cyborg Femme Fatale, and a super-villain, Doctor Impossible, who breaks out of prison for the 12th time to prepare yet another Doomsday Machine. The author exploits plenty of the usual comic-book stereotypes while simultaneously digging into the characters' down-to-earth problems, which seem to defeat even the strongest. The novel is as funny as it is introspective, as human as it is superhuman.
Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje, hardcover, 288 pages
Romantic, poetic, artistic: Michael Ondaatje is indeed a poet, and his novels read like moments set not in stone but in moonlight. Divisadero, his first novel in seven years (and his most accessible), opens in the 1970s, where two young half-sisters live in pastoral splendor on a Northern California farm with their father and a farmhand named Coop. When one sister's secret relationship with Coop is discovered and the father nearly kills him, both sisters leave the family and each other, escaping on their own separate paths. Ondaatje, who's as much a traveler as a poet, takes the novel in diverging directions, from the casinos of Las Vegas to the French countryside. He also jumps around in time and space, leaving some threads incomplete, reflecting the title's metaphor of how we can become divided from one another, and even from ourselves.
Bangkok Haunts, by John Burdett, hardcover, 320 pages
In the growing genre of international crime fiction, Thailand, a complicated land of both the sacred and the profane, makes the perfect setting for John Burdett's compulsively readable series set in Bangkok's sleazy District 8. His third novel, Bangkok Haunts, opens with a grotesquely murdered woman and no evidence as to the obscene killer — though one of the individuals implicated happens to be one of the country's wealthiest businessmen. It's an ideal set-up for Burdett's police detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who's half-white, half-Thai and a practicing Buddhist. (We're a long way from the likes of Sam Spade.) While Sonchai digs deeper into the murder (the victim turns out to be his once-great love), Burdett digs into Thai culture; undercurrents involving government payoffs and otherworldly spirits combine to become a character in themselves, gradually coming to haunt the reader — as it does Sonchai and Burdett.
The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler, paperback, 352 pages
A great book is one you think you know by heart, only to discover something new each time you go back to it. Any of Anne Tyler's 16 novels would fit that bill, but her masterpiece is The Accidental Tourist, the 1985 novel in which her finest character, a guidebook writer for travelers who prefer the safety of home, makes his memorable appearance. After Macon Leary's young son is killed in a robbery, his wife, Sarah, leaves, and Macon is forced first to try to live on his own and then to move in with his family. Their family name defines them, hilariously — though always with the undercurrent of Southern melancholy that runs throughout Tyler's fiction. Macon's life is transformed by his exact opposite, a ditzy dog walker named Muriel who shows him that he does not have to be an accidental tourist in his own life; it's the way Tyler makes such a walled-off individual into a Quixotic hero that's key to the novel's quiet quest for self-forgiveness and love.
In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin, paperback, 240 pages
The late Bruce Chatwin was one of those travel writers who could be said to have rewritten the idea of what travel writing can be; a one-time auctioneer at Sotheby's, an amateur archeologist, a journalist and a novelist, he was able to persuade people that he was whatever he chose to be at the time. His greatest book, In Patagonia, is ostensibly a journey through the southernmost tip of South America; part travelogue, part parody of those 19th-century world travelers and the fabulous stories they inevitably brought back, it is also an homage — and a bit of a fantasy, too, given that Chatwin the novelist played off his travel-writing side by making things up and misdirecting the reader. Yet in these brief, diary-style chapters, a fuller portrait emerges of Patagonia, both in its vivid and varied history and in its poetic myths.
Rona Brinlee, The Bookmark
Recommendations from a store by the sea, The Bookmark in Atlantic Beach, Fla.
Here is what happened. In London on the morning of August 19, 1985, David Kozol and his father-in-law, William Field, had a violent quarrel on George Street ... William stumbled backward from the curb and was struck by a taxi. The London police record called it 'assault by mutual affray.' This simple beginning sets the stage for a compelling story of misunderstanding, intrigue and love, beckoning the reader to find out what caused these two ostensibly normal men to come to blows on the street. Devotion is about love in its various forms and the mistakes that ordinary people make.
Clinch takes on one of America's icons — Mark Twain — and his masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this first novel, Clinch explains why Pap Finn was such a nasty drunk: According to this tale, Finn was a racist who fell in love with a black woman and couldn't reconcile his two contradictory thoughts. It was this contradiction that destroyed him and everyone around him. If you've ever read Huckleberry Finn (even if it was 30 years ago), Finn will evoke memories and help make sense of things that Twain left unexplained.
This is the first novel in 30 years for short-story writer Ron Carlson, and it was worth the wait. Three men come together to build a stunt ramp over a gorge in the mountains of Idaho. Each is burdened with a painful past: Arthur is recovering from the death of his brother and the guilt of his affair with the brother's wife; Darwin lost his wife, but can't seem to lose his anger; Ronnie is a young man with a checkered history as a car thief. The two older men try to educate the younger about life as they themselves struggle to heal and form new friendships. The story of these three men is set against the panoramic view of the Rockies, and the expanse of sky is ever-present.
Knots, by Nuruddin Farah, hardcover, 432 pages
Nuruddin Farah parts the veil that shrouds Muslim society in war-torn Mogadishu, revealing what life is really like for the survivors of the violence there. Ostensibly, this is the story of Cambara, a woman who returns to her native country to reclaim her family's property. But Knots is actually a literary look at how women operate behind and outside the veil to control their surroundings. What The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns do for Afghanistan, Knots does for Somalia — it puts a human face on a country and a people who are in the news but not necessarily in our shared knowledge.
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, hardcover, 208 pages
Ian McEwan is a master at capturing lifetimes in just one day. In his newest novel, the time frame is a mere evening — but it's a critical one. It's the wedding night of Edward and Florence, who are truly in love but frightened by their first encounter as man and wife. The year is 1962, and each of the two characters brings a lifetime of baggage to the evening. In On Chesil Beach, as in so many great novels, the story turns on tiny moments — a gesture made, a word not spoken — that alter lives forever, launching an endless series of "what ifs."