SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
When a lot of people choose books to take with us on summer vacation, we often think of big, fat, juicy novels that we can soak up with the sun. Maybe our idea of summer reading is a little narrow. We asked several book reviewers about their picks for summer readings. They came up with an eclectic list that includes everything from thrillers to memoirs to poetry. NPR's Lynn Neary has the details.
LYNN NEARY: Laura Miller, book reviewer for Salon, is something of a traditionalist when it comes to summer reading. She likes a book that takes her far away from reality.
Ms. LAURA MILLER (Book Reviewer, Salon): Because we can't always afford to go on vacations, or maybe our vacations are just to stay with our family - which isn't always as much of a getaway as we might want. And so I like the kind of novel that carries you off to some far-off and very different place.
This year, Miller has been carried off by the novel "Under Heaven." It's set in an imaginary version of Tang Dynasty, China. As the book begins, the hero, the son of a famous general, is given a fabulously extravagant gift by a princess.
Ms. MILLER: Which is 250 of the most perfect horses. And it puts him right in the middle of this incredibly complex and dangerous political situation.
NEARY: Filled with palace intrigue, fueled by a famously beautiful and cunning concubine, Miller says "Under Heaven" combines the best of historical and fantasy fiction.
For John Freeman,�editor of the literary magazine "Granta,"�a pure historical novel has caught his attention this year: "Parrot and Olivier in America," inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville's visit to our young democracy in the 19th century.
Olivier, based on de Tocqueville, is a French aristocrat. Parrot, his servant and companion, is the son of an itinerant printer. Freeman says the two are a mismatched pair.
Mr. JOHN FREEMAN (Editor, Granta): And the story is told in their two voices. They go back and forth, narrating the book forward. And you get different impressions of America and American democracy. As it's just brilliant, the storytelling and the voices that he's created for these characters; the way they argue with each other. It's quite a bit of fun.
NEARY: Freeman says he likes to read big novels like this on the beach. But later, sitting on a porch or settling down for the night, he wants something different. He'll pull out a more slender volume: essays or even poetry.
Mr. FREEMAN: I think poetry's like cocktail hour - it comes every day at a certain time, you know? And you look forward to it - at least I do because in some ways, it brings the sense of ritual back to language.
NEARY: This summer, Freeman is taking U.S. poet laureate Kay Ryan's collection, "The Best of It," on his travels. He says her poems aren't fussy or fancy, and they contain some hard truths.
Mr. FREEMAN: But when you read that in this voice, this sort of well-carpentered, deeply intelligent, plainspoken American voice, it's somehow soothing.
NEARY: And with that, Freeman takes out his copy of the book and reads one of Ryan's poems.
Mr. FREEMAN: There's a short poem called "Emptiness," which I really love.
It goes: Emptiness cannot be compressed, nor can it fight abuse, nor is there an endless west hosting elk, antelope and a tough Cayuse(ph). This is true also of the mind. It can get used.
NEARY: But if poetry seems an odd choice for summer reading to some, how about a book by the famously acerbic author Christopher Hitchens.
Mr. TROY PATTERSON (Book Reviewer, Slate): You don't like a good - sort of beach blanket indictment of Henry Kissinger?
NEARY: Troy Patterson, who reviews for Slate, says in his memoir, "Hitch-22," Christopher Hitchens is more chatty than catty - as if he were relaxing in an armchair, not standing at a lectern.
Mr. PATTERSON: This feels less like what we've come to think of as a memoir than just sort of a great raconteur telling stories about his own life.
NEARY: Patterson says some of the best stories are about Hitchens' friendships with well-known writers like Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis, stories Hitchens talked about on this program.
And as a companion to this book, Patterson recommends Amis's new novel, "The Pregnant Widow," a coming-of-age story set in the 1970s, about a character named Keith Nearing.
Mr. PATTERSON: He's British. He's 20. He's spending the summer in Italy with his girlfriend Lily and her friend, Scheherazade. And this will prove to be an erotically decisive summer for Keith.
NEARY: Patterson, who says he's more of a hammock reader than a beach reader, believes Amis is the best prose stylist in the English language today. So he loves the extra time that summer gives him to linger over the words.
But if you prefer the kind of book that makes your pulse race, then you may have noticed a genre that's missing from this list - a genre that Laura Miller says is a must on any summer reading list.
Ms. MILLER: You have to have your international thriller, where the people travel to exotic places. This is Michael Gruber's "The Good Son," which is that rare thriller that when you read it, you don't sort of feel like you just ate like, an entire bag of potato chips.
NEARY: "The Good Son," says Miller, is a smart thriller about a U.S. Special Forces solider raised in Pakistan whose mother gets kidnapped in Afghanistan. It has lots of action and suspense. But it's also a thought-provoking look at the differences between modern Western culture and a tribal way of life. Miller says Gruber is one of the best thriller writers around.
Ms. MILLER: Anyone who's ever read a Michael Gruber novel will sort of buttonhole you and pull you aside and say, you have to read this, you have to read him, he's so great. Because he's such a wonderful writer, and he's such a great plotter. And those two things are so rarely found.
NEARY: So it doesn't really matter if you choose a big, fat, juicy novel or a slime volume of poetry, a memoir or a thriller. The point is, it's summer - a great excuse to read whenever and whatever you want.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
SIMON: And you can read excerpts from all these critics' picks on our website. Search for the summer books package, where you'll find a lot more recommendations, for everything from cookbooks to crime fiction. Go to NPR.org/SummerBooks.
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