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Dive Into Fiction: Five Picks From Alan Cheuse

Hear More Recommendations From Alan Cheuse

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now that the long, languid days of summer are upon us, what better way to pass the time than by sitting down with a good book? And here with a satchel-full of recommendations is our reviewer, Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE: In summertime, when the reading is easy, storywriter Jim Shepard makes reading stories a delightful game with his raucous tales about serious subjects in his new collection, "You Think That's Bad." Sometimes Shepard goes to history for his material; sometimes he explodes our views of the everyday.

In "Boy's Town," we hear the story of a troubled man from the inside out.

Mr. JIM SHEPARD (Author): (Reading) Here's a story of my life. Whatever I did wasn't good enough. Anything I figured out, I figured out too late, and whenever I tried to help, I made things worse. That's what it's been like for me as far as back as I can remember. Whenever I was about to get somewhere, something would step in and block me. Whenever I was about to finally have something, something would happen to take it away.

The story of your life is that you're not to blame for anything, my mother always said when I told her that. Out of everybody on Earth, you're the only one who never does anything wrong. Whatever else happens it's always somebody else's fault. It is always somebody else's fault, I told her. Poor you, she always said back, screwed by the world. Hey, Dr. Jagermeister's calling, I used to tell her. Bottoms up. And she'd just go back to whatever she was watching.

CHEUSE: More short stories to recommend in "The Mother Who Stayed," Laura Furman's new collection. A lot of fine writing in Furman's book, but there's one story in this book that's absolutely both gossipy and delicious about a writer pursuing another writer so she can write a biography. It's called "Here It Was November." And the subject of the biographer's work is a woman clearly based on the figure of Katherine Ann Porter.

Ms. LAURA FURMAN (Author): (Reading) Two biographies of Marion had been published in her lifetime, neither one successful or understandably thorough. Now, I knew the type of chocolate she preferred and that she claimed to sleep well only on ironed white sheets. All the separate bits of Marion Foster Todd were collected and assembled for those who would not read her letters and diaries, would not hear the voices of those who knew her, might not even read her stories. Through my biography, the woman who had lived and died would live and die again.

CHEUSE: I think of novels as the big summer picnics of fiction. Two books I urge you to take up, both of them having to do with families - troubled families, of course. San Francisco writer Carol Edgarian has delivered what may well be the most serious and at the same time the most entertaining domestic novel of the year. She calls it "Three Stages of Amazement." An ambitious doctor, a troubled wife, a mysterious San Francisco family inheritance all make for a beautifully written and deeply engaging novel set in the depths of the dot-com disaster. Listen to Edgarian on the doctor and his wife.

Ms. CAROL EDGARIAN (Author): (Reading) Lately, he had been thinking about age. Forty-seven wasn't the 47 of his father, whose children had finished college by then. No, 47 today was a wife, work and young kids. Forty-seven was dead. Forty-seven was having the stamina of your father at 30 with the stress of a peasant carrying bricks on his back.

Charlie strode across the fog-drenched lawn. Eight hours from now in a locker room at Mass General, he'd unpeel damp socks from his puckered feet and hang them on a hook to dry. All right, guy, he cautioned himself, buck up. I'll call you, he shouted. Doors opening and banging closed, Lena, his wife; Lena of the fairies and the witches waved. Charlie's heart was quite certain she waved.

CHEUSE: And from the East Coast, mainly Philadelphia and South Carolina, comes a novel also about the splintered nature of family life and inheritance, but it couldn't be more different from the Edgarian: "If Sons, Then Heirs," by Philadelphia writer Lorene Cary. The novel wrestles with the tension and love between generations, between country life and city life - an old American story - and Cary does it with the authentic voices of a large cast of family characters.

Ms. LORENE CARY (Author): (Reading) Rain wiped his eyes with the bottom of his T-shirt and bent to kiss Nana Selma good night. Why you not making no babies? Why not? That's why you young. I bet them drug boys out on the road making babies. What you going to do? Wait until you too old like all them white people on TV? Good night, Nana. I'm not always wrong, you know. I do know that. Good.

Yes, he realized with some chagrin he did want to make a baby with Lily. He wanted to watch her grow big and feel a jump under his hands when he pulled her close. Of course he did. How had he not admitted to himself how much he wanted life to run through him.

CHEUSE: Lorene Cary, reading from her powerful new novel "If Sons, Then Heirs."

Novels, novels, I know, it's my addiction, but let me make one more fiction recommendation, and here we leap from husbands and wives to kings; the latest in a terrific series of thrillers by former New York Times writer Alex Berenson: "The Secret Soldier," in which John Wells, a U.S. secret ops agent, and a convert to Islam, tries to stave off a potentially world-stopping terrorist event in the heart of the kingdom of the Sauds. The king is worried and tired.

Mr. ALEX BERENSON (Author): (Reading) Beyond tired. Weariness had crept into his bones, joints, even his skin. He didn't understand how skin could be tired, but his was - papery and dusky. His veins tunneled through it. At the mirror, he didn't recognize himself - the puffy bags that had grown under his eyes, the deep cave of his mouth. Once he had been the heartiest of his brothers, a true Bedouin. He loved the desert; now, he could hardly walk.

With every step, he felt his legs quiver under his big body. He forced himself to push on, though he wanted to sit and sleep for days. When did this happen to him? When had his flesh lost its vigor? If Allah wanted to take him, he would have to succumb. All men did. The dead are children of the dead, the preacher said. But while he was alive, no one would steal his kingdom.

CHEUSE: One final book I suggest you pack or pile on to your summer reading stack: a biography of Edith Piaf by Australian-born Carolyn Burke. The book called "No Regrets: The Life of Edith Piaf," one of those good nonfiction narratives that will carry you away and you can listen to music - Piaf's music - while you read.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. EDITH PIAF (Singer): (Singing in French)

Ms. CAROLYN BURKE (Author): Edith Piaf's velvety Rs underscore the triple negatives in her legendary version of (French spoken), the finale of her 1960 comeback concert at the Olympia Theater. That night, the orchestra held back to let her voice ring out: (French spoken), she cried. I don't give a damn about the past, then swelled to enhance the last line: (French spoken) - it starts again with you.

Piaf was singing for all who believed that what counted in life was a resilient heart. When she left the stage, she saw by the looks on her friends' faces that she had won their hearts, just as she had won the audience's. There would be 22 curtain calls. They had never seen anything like it: 4,000 people enraptured in a collective love fest.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. PIAF: (Singing in French)

CHEUSE: "No Regrets." And, no, I don't regret these recommendations, which I hope will help to make your summer unregrettable and maybe leave you with some good memories of good books.

SIEGEL: Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. You can find more out about his summer reading recommendations at our website, NPR.org.

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