MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Every week, it seems we hear at least one story about how book publishing and bookstores are in bad shape. Well, that may be, but our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, has put together a list of books he recommends for summer reading and he says, as far as fiction is concerned, this summer couldn't be better.
ALAN CHEUSE: In fact, I began stockpiling hot books this winter while the cold and snow was coming down around my ears. And one of the first I tagged is a first-rate collection of short stories by Robert Stone. It's called "Fun with Problems." Yes, you can hear it, a completely ironic title. Fun? The major characters meet 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 itself, if not an ocean bed. Down, down, down, down they go. I know this doesn't sound at all summery, but you can follow Stone's characters all the way to the bottom instructed by his dramatic insights into their painful interior states and carried along on the stark and marvelous intelligence of his sentences.
Mr. ROBERT STONE (Author, "Fun with Problems"): (Reading) Hampton County locked them down in a 19th century brick fortress of a jail, a penitential fantasy of red brick keeps and crenellations. The sight of it had twisted many a cocky smile. Citizens waiting at its marble stoop could contemplate the solipsisms of razor wire and the verse of all-weather civic poetry on the rosy keystone learn to labor and to wedge.
CHEUSE: Another book I've been hugging close to my chest all through the winter, Jim Harrison's new novella collection, three of them, under the title "The Farmer's Daughter."
Mr. JIM HARRISON (Author, "The Farmer's Daughter"): (Reading) She was born peculiar or so she thought. Her parents had put some ice in her soul, not a rare thing. Among things went well, the ice seem to melt a bit. And when things went poorly, the ice enlarged.
CHEUSE: Imagine, hugging that voice close to your chest. I enjoyed this book so much I wanted to write to the president and nominate Harrison for a new Cabinet post, secretary of quality of life.
He writes about a Montana ranch girl with a hunger for knowledge and a thirst for revenge against a man who's violated her; about Brown Dog, a rowdy Michigan Indian with a raw lust for food and life that everyone should have to set as a new standard for pleasure and replenishment; and about an educated young man from the Midwest who tells the story how after a bite on his cheek from a carnivorous Mexican humming bird, he turns into a werewolf. That's Jim Harrison for you - flying like a humming bird, biting like a werewolf.
Hey, so these are some of the best books I've saved up this winter for summer reading. And now here are a few more recommendations from the latest postal delivery.
Ms. ANN BEATTIE (Author, "Walks With Men"): (Reading) In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he'd change my life if only I'd let him. The deal was this: He'd tell me anything, anything, as long as the information went unattributed, as long as no one knew he and I had any real relationship.
CHEUSE: That's Ann Beattie reading from her BBC audiobook version of her volume "Walks with Men." The book is only about a hundred pages long and focuses on a young woman and her life on the loose in New York City and Vermont. As you can hear, Beattie tells it in a cool style, tamping down the fires of heartbreak that are always flaring up around the edges of life.
Now, I want to suggest that you pick up a collection of unclassifiable short fiction edited by Neil Gaiman and fellow writer Al Sarrantonio. The collection is simply called "Stories," and it's got nearly 30 new tales from a varied group of contemporaries like Joyce Carol Oates, Jodi Picoult, Gene Wolfe and Roddy Doyle and Gaiman himself - some out-and-out fantasy, some science fiction, some about reality just tilted ever so slightly.
The work in these pages, these stories, really shows you, especially shows a genre curmudgeon like me, how constricting the genre label can be.
Mr. NEIL GAIMAN (Co-Editor "Stories"): The idea for "Stories" was incredibly simple. It was just saying, okay, there had been lots of great anthologies over the last years in specific areas - some horror, fantasy, crime, romance - all of this kind of stuff. But what happens if you just tell people writing the story, just make it great. And I think the thing that all of the authors gave us was an interest in narrative, that sort of wonderful page-turning quality of what happens next.
CHEUSE: I love narrative and so, okay, okay, I'm going to put what I used to call more fantasy in my life, which is what we see happening to great effect in a new book for young readers by Pam Munoz Ryan.
Ms. PAM MUNOZ RYAN (Author, "The Dreamer"): (Reading) Neftali Reyes sat in his bed, propped up by pillows, and stared at the schoolwork in front of him. His teacher called it simple addition, but it was never simple for him. How he wished the numbers would disappear. He squeezed his eyes closed and then opened them.
The twos and threes lifted from the page and waved for the others to join them. The fives and sevens sprang upward. And finally, after much prodding, the fours, ones and sixes came along. But the nines and zeroes would not budge, so the others left them.
They held hands in a long procession of tiny figures, flew across the room and escaped through the window crack. Neftali closed the book and smiled. He certainly could not be expected to finish his homework with only the lazy zeroes and nines lulling on the page.
CHEUSE: This comes to us from the pages of a novel called "The Dreamer" about the childhood of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. It's all about the young poet's discovery of love, his love of the ocean, his love of beetles and pinecones and language.
MacArthur Award-winning artist Peter Sis did the evocative illustrations for "The Dreamer."
Finally, a brilliant all-absorbing novel for the beach, for the woods, the air-conditioned apartment or the city stoop while wearing your iPod is called "A Visit from the Goon Squad," and it's by Jennifer Egan.
As the novel starts off, it seems to be about urban youth and the love 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. And toward the end of the novel, it even includes a PowerPoint chapter on family, love and hope from one of the teenage characters.
Listen to this, Egan reading from the opening page.
Ms. JENNIFER EGAN (Author, "A Visit from the Goon Squad"): It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel. Sasha was adjusting her yellow eye shadow in the mirror when she noticed a bag on the floor beside the sink that must have belonged to the woman whose peeing she could faintly hear through the vault-like door of a toilet stall.
Inside the rim of the bag, barely visible, was a wallet made of pale green leather. It was easy for Sasha to recognize, looking back, that the peeing woman's blind trust had provoked her. We live in a city where people will steal the hair off your head if you give them half a chance, but you leave your stuff lying in plain sight and expect it to be waiting for you when you come back? It made her want to teach the woman a lesson.
CHEUSE: I've got to say Egan lifted my wallet with this one. Stay with this novel. It's an original work of fiction, but never veers into opacity or disdain for the reader. Its rewards are many.
(Soundbite of music)
CHEUSE: So happy punky summer. I think it's going to be a good one for reading.
NORRIS: Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University. His summer reading list includes "Fun with Problems" by Robert Stone, Jim Harrison's "The Farmer's Daughter," "Walks with Men" from Ann Beattie.
BLOCK: Also the anthology of short fiction titled "Stories" edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, the children's book "Dreamer" by Pam Munoz Ryan, and Jennifer Egan's novel "A Visit from the Goon Squad."
You can find Alan Cheuse's reviews and more of these authors' readings at our website, npr.org.
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