I'm not exactly sure when the commercial notion of "summer reading" first appeared in the parlance of publishers, bookstore clerks and readers. Not until after World War II did American families with little more than modest incomes find they had leisure time to enjoy a weekend — or, at the upper end of the great middle, perhaps a week or two — at the beach or in the country. But the expectation of even a few leisurely summer days and nights gives hardworking people who also happen to be readers a goal. I confess that I began stockpiling terrific new books to recommend for summer while still shivering in the middle of winter's cold and snow, trying to keep warm by looking forward to those relatively unbroken stretches of sultry chill-out time.
Fun With Problems
By Robert Stone, hardcover, 208 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $24
This is only Robert Stone's second collection of short stories. The first one, Bear and His Daughter, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Just about anything he writes deserves our attention.
The major characters in Fun with Problems, each of them a gloomy soul, meet the most uncheerful ends. Lawyers, drug smugglers, software magnates, honeymooners — they drown in Caribbean waters or in swimming pools or in enough booze to fill a swimming pool, if not an ocean. Down, down, down, down they go! Stone's sentences are so stark, yet so dramatically persuasive, that we follow them all the way to the bottom, instructed by the writer's dramatic insights into the painful interior states of his characters and how they might, devils willing, apply to our own lives. Here, a software magnate is about to take a dive:
"His mountain property had two levels, both of them set well back from the river so he could assure himself that he was not like the reckless householders downstream. Some of them had balanced themselves on picturesque but heart-stopping outcrops, where they could crawl to the edge of their decks and look down over the rim into swirling white water. Leroy never failed to see, in his imagination, their terrifying fall into the canyon, houses and Franklin stoves and heritage tomatoes and trophy wives in fatal descending whirl..."
(Read an excerpt from Stone's hilariously biting story "High Wire," about a screenwriter tiptoeing between drug addiction, his indifferent wife and his ex-lover, Lucy.)
Walks With Men
By Ann Beattie, paperback, 112 pages, Scribner, list price: $10
From one of the country's foremost storywriters comes this novella-length volume about a young female Harvard graduate and her life on the loose in 1980 New York City and Vermont — a woman who meets a mentor whom she immediately turns into a lover. Beattie tells the story of promising magazine journalist Jane Costner in a cool style, tamping down the fires of heartbreak that are always flaring up on the edges of her life.
That very coolness, the seeming off-hand accuracy in the use of real speech and the illusion Beattie creates that she's always working from actual experience, gives Walks with Men a convincing sense of life. Even the way the book ends, with a second round of Jane Costner's walking, this time in the suburbs, with a pair of aging males, one of them her stepfather, makes inconclusiveness seem conclusive. As if to quantify that tentative view of the world, her stepfather's companion says, "You can never know a person ... Never know 'em any more than you can figure out their life story by looking at their photograph." Still, Beattie does her best, and often, as she does here, succeeds. (Read Beattie's tart description of the second encounter between Jane Costner and her mentor/lover Neil. In classic Beattie fashion, the first involved a laparoscopy.)
By Pam Munoz Ryan, hardcover, 374 pages, Scholastic Press, list price: $17.99
A sidestep here — in case you don't want the young readers in your family subsisting all summer on a diet of vampire novels. Give them a copy of The Dreamer, Pam Munoz Ryan's novel about the childhood of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Ryan dramatizes the young poet's discovery of love, and his love of the ocean and beetles and pine cones and language.
The novel can be funny on the page — as when we see water dripping while the young Neruda listens, or witness him first discover the way language can be played with — and also quite pretty. MacArthur Award-winning artist Peter Sis did The Dreamer's sublime illustrations. (See an illustrated excerpt from the novel, in which a young and frustrated Neftali Reyes struggles with his math homework: "His teacher called it simple addition, but it was never simple for him.")
A Visit from the Goon Squad
By Jennifer Egan, hardcover, 288 pages, Knopf, list price: $24.95
This is Jennifer Egan's episodic safari through time with a bunch of music lovers, from the early days of punk to the near future, in which, with a touch both tart and sympathetic, she shows us the way we lived then, the way we live now and the way we will live (we hope) down the road. As it starts, the novel appears to be about urban youth and the business of punk music, but it quickly opens up to reveal time's comical and relentless permutations at work on children and adults of several generations. It even reproduces a young girl's PowerPoint chapter on family, love and hope.
Told with both affection and intensity, Goon Squad stands as a brilliant, all-absorbing novel for the beach, the woods, the air-conditioned apartment or the city stoop while wearing your iPod. Stay with this one. It's quite an original work of fiction, one that never veers into opacity or disdain for the reader. (In this excerpt, Egan introduces us to Sasha, whose urge to steal another woman's wallet is as strong as her need to talk about it with her shrink.)
By Laurence Gonzales, hardcover, 320 pages, Knopf, list price: $24.95
Does time ever flow when you're caught up in this one! Lucy is a Congo-born adolescent girl with a primatologist father and a bonobo ape for a mother. You heard right. The trouble erupts when the U.S. government and rabid American right get wind of her existence, producing all the thrills and pleasures of a book at least as good as something from the late Michael Crichton. (In fact, in Next, one of his last novels, Crichton introduced us to a "humanzee," a creature nowhere near as entrancing as Lucy.)
The science in Gonzales' novel is fascinating, the politics perhaps just a bit exaggerated, but hey, that's entertainment. Lucy herself is a natural-born sweetheart, a serious reader of novels who also tries to fit into American high-school culture. Her story is an all-season treat, a fast-paced but thought-engendering book you'll keep on reading, through heat or cold, rain or snow or sleet. (Read an early Gonzales passage in which Jenny Lowe, an American primatologist, discovers the death, in the Congo, of a fellow scientist — and the survival of his very unusual adolescent child.)