War, recession, environmental disaster — unless you have a superhuman ability to withstand bad news, you're probably looking for a way to escape this summer. I've been indulging my own escapist urge in two ways: The first involves pretending it's already next year, when all countries in the world will sign a peace treaty after scientists discover a way to harvest the energy from kitten smiles.
The second, more satisfying way is escaping with the help of a good historical novel. Luckily, there's been a bumper crop this year. If you want to be taken back to a time when, say, the ocean was full of Viking long ships instead of leaking oil, wait no more.
The Long Ships
The Long Ships, by Frans G. Bengtsson (translated from the Swedish by Michael Meyer), paperback, 520 pages, New York Review Books Classics, list price: $17.95
It might be difficult for anyone younger than 30 to remember, but there was a time when you could talk about a "smart summer blockbuster" without everybody laughing. Even though The Long Ships was first published in 1941, it remains the literary equivalent of an action- and intrigue-filled adventure movie that won't insult your intelligence. Bengtsson's novel follows a 10th-century Swedish boy named Red Orm who is kidnapped by Vikings as a child and then enslaved by Moors in Spain, eventually escaping to Ireland, where he begins to play a part in various political intrigues of the day.
Orm is a charismatic character, and Bengtsson is an infectiously enthusiastic and surprisingly funny writer — even readers with zero interest in the Europe of a millennium ago will want to keep turning the pages. All novels should be so lucky as to age this well. The new edition contains an introduction by Michael Chabon, who's been agitating for more of this kind of adventure novel for years. (Read Bengtsson's compelling backstory for young Red Orm, a "scatter-limbed" survivor from the earliest age.)
Parrot and Olivier in America
Parrot and Olivier in America, by Peter Carey, hardcover, 400 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95
If The Long Ships is an action blockbuster, Parrot and Olivier in America is the book version of both a buddy comedy and a road trip movie. It's just that in Peter Carey's funny and inventive novel, the buddies in question happen to be a fictionalized version of the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville (Olivier) and the hardened British jack-of-all-trades forced to watch over him (Parrot). And the "road" contains not just the byways of 19th-century America, but also the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.
It might sound like a stretch, but Carey, an engaging and disarmingly witty writer, handles it perfectly. The novel is, at its heart, a comedy, but it's one with great respect for history, and real reverence for its subject matter. (Read Olivier's witheringly arch description of his childhood home and his beloved, maddening, long-suffering mother.)
The Last Rendezvous
The Last Rendezvous, by Anne Plantagenet (translated from the French by Willard Wood), paperback, 288 pages, Other Press, list price: $14.95
The Last Rendezvous is a beautiful, tragic romance about a real-life leading lady: Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, the French singer, actress and poet of the early 19th century. Desbordes-Valmore's poetry was famously dark, though obsessed with themes of love; French novelist and biographer Plantagenet follows her through a series of failed pregnancies and unsuccessful relationships. Her prose is nearly flawless: elegant, self-assured and filled with a profound sense of longing.
Plantagenet has picked the perfect subject in Desbordes-Valmore, one of the most troubled and introspective of the Romantic poets, for her second novel. As Marceline reflects: "History constantly remakes itself, sometimes leaving me, in the shadow of the strangers who surround me, fallen to earth, drained and dazed. Something is about to, must, explode." (Read The Last Rendezvous' first pages, where the heartbreak of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore begins with a lover named Henri: "Night has come. Time for it to be over.")
Stettin Station, by David Downing, hardcover, 320 pages, Soho Press, list price: $25
In literature, thrillers are notoriously hard to pull off. It helps to have a setting where the stakes are high — like, say, 1941 Berlin, where Stettin Station takes place. This is Downing's third novel featuring John Russell, an English-born American journalist-turned-spy living in Deutschland's capital city and dating a German movie actress named Effi. In this installment, Russell realizes (finally) that he and Effi need to leave; he has become embroiled in intrigues with intelligence agencies and is working on a story about the fate of Germany's Jewish citizens.
World War II thrillers are obviously not a new concept, but Downing distinguishes himself by eschewing the easy ways out. He doesn't shy away from portraying the cold brutality of the Third Reich, and his characters are far from stereotypes — they're flawed, confused and real. (Read as Downing's protagonist John Russell feels the Nazi forces tightening around him, prompting the urge to retreat from Berlin — if only the Third Reich would let him.)
I Hotel, by Karen Tei Yamashita, paperback, 640 pages, Coffee House Press, list price: $19.95
It seems like every year brings a breakout indie hit in movie theaters; it's great to imagine a world where I Hotel is this year's bookstore equivalent. Published by one of the country's best independent publishers, Minnesota-based Coffee House Press, Yamashita's fifth novel is a sprawling, postmodern epic of Asian Americans in San Francisco in the civil rights era of the late 1960s and 1970s.
I Hotel is essentially a novel composed of 10 smaller novels, each set in a different year in Chinatown, and Yamashita incorporates photographs, comics, diagrams and screenplay excerpts into her prose. If all that sounds complicated, don't be scared — it's a stylistically wild ride, but it's smart, funny and entrancing. (Read about a seething confrontation between hundreds of displaced Asian Americans and the heavily armed San Francisco police.)