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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

When we read, we travel. Pick up a book and off you go. By boat, by plane, by spaceship or broomstick. Summer is a time for travel, so our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, has put together his summer reading recommendations. And don't worry if you can't remember the whole list. You can also find it at our website, NPR.org.

Here's Alan Cheuse.

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

Let me play literary travel agent for your summer journeys, book by book.

First, across the pond to rural England. David Mitchell has written one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the year. Stick close with this writer as he dives back into the miseries of adolescence and returns with an eccentric story about growing up in a quiet English village, same as the title, Black Swan Green.

The book's distinctive language, its brilliant comedy, introduces us to one of the most memorable 13 year olds we'll ever encounter. Here David Mitchell re-enacts for us his stammering young schoolboy's dilemma.

Mr. DAVID MITCHELL (Author): The word nightingale kaboomed in my skull but just wouldn't come out. The end got out okay, but the harder I forced the rest, the tighter the noose got. When a stammerer stammers, their eyeballs pop out and their mouth guppa-guppa-guppas like a fish in a net.

Ms. Stockmore was waiting. Every kid in the classroom was waiting. Every cloud, every car on every motorway, even Mrs. Thatcher in the House of Commons had frozen, listening. Watching. Thinking, what's wrong with Jason Taylor?

CHEUSE: David Mitchell, reading from his novel Black Swan Green.

Now here's my favorite airplane reading for the summer, a book that transports us back in time to Europe on the verge of World War II.

Mr. ALAN FURST (Author): In Spain, an hour before dawn on the 23rd of December, the Nationalist field guns fired their first barrage.

CHEUSE: A new novel by Alan Furst, one of our country's most admired thriller writers. It's called The Foreign Correspondent. We follow this courageous newsman into the struggle between Italian anti-Fascists and Mussolini's secret agents and Hitler's worst. On the streets of Paris, Berlin, Genoa and the battlefields of Spain.

Mr. FURST: He stood up, unwound himself from the rubber poncho he'd slept in and went out the doorway into the courtyard of the monastery. An El Greco dawn, he thought. Towering billows of grey cloud piled high on the southern horizon, struck red by the first shafts of sunlight. As he watched, muzzle flares flickered on the cloud and a moment later, the reports like muttering thunder came rolling up the segre(ph). They'd been told to expect a new offensive just before Christmas. Well, here it was.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

CHEUSE: It's a lucky summer for jazz buffs who want to meditate on the funky stuff of life. Pianist Horace Silver, a founding member with Art Blakey of the Jazz Messengers, has written his autobiography with help from Phil Pastras. It's called Let's Get To The Nitty Gritty. Silver delivers some great anecdotes of the jazz life and the lessons he learned that keep a gifted musician still grooving after all these years. This is the signature tune he composed in 1954. It's called Doodlin'.

(Soundbite of Doodlin')

CHEUSE: Now from funk to high pageantry. The prize winning young Chinese writer Shan Sa emigrated to Paris as a teenager in 1990, where she began to paint and write. Her new novel, Empress, takes us back in time to seventh century China and the rule of the Tang Dynasty. She creates a luxurious portrayal of the life of the Chinese empress who opened up the Forbidden City to all eyes. In this brief sequence, the Empress's lover makes a dangerous proposition that they marry.

Ms. SHAN SA (Author): "Majesty," scribe of loyalty interrupted me. "You know very well that I'm not interested in power. If you care for me, if you love me, I ask just one thing of you. Give me status. Marry me. Name me your imperial husband."

I was so astonished by what I heard that I could find no words to reply. Could a female emperor raise a man to the position of imperial husband? My voice became hard. "This may be what you dream of, but it is impossible."

CHEUSE: Chinese ex-pat writer Shan Sa, reading from her novel Empress.

Leaping forward from seventh century China to a romance in 1960s Japan -

Ms. ANGELA DAVIS-GARDNER (Author): She turned with him and saw the lake shining below and the bowl of green mountains. Beyond the lake, Fujisan glistened in the light.

CHEUSE: Angela Davis-Gardner's novel Plum Wine is the story of an intense and secret love affair between a visiting American school teacher and a Japanese potter, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. In this excerpt, the couple takes a ride on a chairlift for a view of Mount Fuji.

Ms. DAVIS-GARDNER: They started off into the trees and soon were skimming high above them. Barbara looked down, her heart thudding. Sage(ph) took her hand.

"There's a fine sight behind us," he said.

The cable car wobbled slightly. She closed her eyes and gripped Sage's hand.

"Are you faint?" he asked.

"No," she said with a little laugh.

"I am happy for meeting you," he said. He put his arm on the seat behind her, his hand just touching her shoulder.

Something gave inside her like a latch undone and she let go, letting herself rise with the motion of the lift. She took a deep breath and looked around her. Everything - the vista of mountains, the filmy clouds - was brilliantly clear.

CHEUSE: That excerpt from the novel Plum Wine by Angela Davis-Gardner.

From the Japanese countryside to Mexico. Graphic novelist Jessica Abel brings to life the noisy streets of the capital city.

Ms. JESSICA ABEL (Writer): "Dos melons, cinco pesos."

(Unintelligible)

CHEUSE: In La Perdida, Jessica Abel's illustrations and text tell the story of a likeable but naïve American woman. She leaves the U.S. for Mexico and gets caught up in a kidnapping scheme that changes her life. Here's Jessica Abel reading from the opening of this comic book for adults as her protagonist arrives in Mexico City.

Ms. ABEL: I thought that I went because I was sick of the USA, sick of everybody. I wanted to find my Mexican roots. Somehow it seemed I would like them better than my Anglo ones, which makes no sense when you think about it. I'd spent most of my life resenting my disappearing Mexican dad.

"Senorita, taxi."

"No. No taxi. Donde esta el metro?"

(Speaking foreign language)

"Gringos locos."

CHEUSE: Gringos locos, indeed.

Now to a true story of turmoil in a foreign country, the Iranian hostage crisis.

President JIMMY CARTER: I had received word officially for the first time that the aircraft carrying the 52 American hostages has cleared Iranian airspace on the first leg of the journey home and that every one of the 52 hostages was alive, was well and free.

CHEUSE: President Jimmy Carter in 1981, announcing the end of the American embassy takeover in Tehran. That's the subject of Mark Bowden's nonfiction narrative Guests of the Ayatollah. Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down, combines meticulous research with a terrific sense of narrative drive to tell the hostages' story from the inside out.

Here's part of his portrait of the tribulations of young American diplomat, Michael Matrinko.

Mr. MARK BOWDEN (Author): At times, Matrinko's spirit sank. The worst prior moments for him had been the two weeks in the chancery basement, handcuffed day and night, and then more recently, the two weeks of cold, dark and loneliness in the punishment cell. In those circumstances, Matrinko's despair was salvaged by the pride he took in defying his captors. But time and tedium eroded even the defiance that sustained him.

CHEUSE: And now, after this reportage on the ground, let's light out for the outer most reaches of space. From prominent American scientist Joel Primack and his writer wife Nancy Abrams, a fascinating new consideration of the nature of the cosmos. The View From the Center of the Universe takes on big questions, such as what we human beings are made of. Here's Nancy Abrams reading first, then her husband, Joel Primack.

Ms. NANCY ABRAMS (Author): Human beings are made of the rarest material in the universe, stardust. Except for hydrogen, which makes up about a tenth of your weight, the rest of your body is stardust. What is stardust? It may bring to mind a shower of glitter, but a single fleck of glitter is made of many billions of atoms. Stardust is the atoms themselves.

Mr. JOEL PRIMACK (Author): Hydrogen and helium, the two lightest kinds of atoms, came straight out of the Big Bang, while a little bit more helium and essentially all the other atoms were created later inside stars. These atoms are the building blocks of everything in the universe that is visible, but most of the matter in the universe is neither atomic nor visible.

CHEUSE: From stardust to the poetry of Earth. Here's a collection from our nation's reigning senior poet, Richard Wilbur. Listen as he reads for us a poem about the raw stuff of nature.

Mr. RICHARD WILBUR (Poet): A barred owl. The warping night air having brought the boom of an owl's voice into her darkened room. We tell the wakened child that all she heard was an odd question from a forest bird asking of us if rightly listened to, who cooks for you? And then, who cooks for you? Words which can make our terrors bravely clear can also thus domesticate a fear and send a small child back to sleep at night not listening for the sound of stealthy flight or dreaming of some small thing in a claw, born up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

CHEUSE: Richard Wilbur, reading from his Collected Poems: 1934-2004.

Now for younger readers, the popular writer Lois Lowry has a new novel out called Gossamer, a book about tiny, imaginary, but quite believable little creatures. Each night, they gather memories from our belongings and bestow dreams on us as we sleep. Littlest is a dream giver just learning the craft. Let's eavesdrop on her midnight labors.

Ms. LOIS LOWRY (Author): I get a lot of sad fragments from the photograph of the soldier. Feelings of never coming back. Feelings of now I'm all alone. But the kiss is there, too, in that photograph, so I always collect there, just to keep that kiss fragment for her. And you know what, (unintelligible), sad parts are important.

If I ever get to train a new, young dream giver, that's one of the things I'll teach. That you much include the sad parts, because they're part of the story and they have to be part of the dreams. You'll be a good teacher one day, he told her. Thank you, she said demurely. But you must stop sucking your thumb, he said. She sighed, I know. Soon I will.

CHEUSE: Lois Lowry, reading from her novel Gossamer. Finally, from paper-engineers extraordinaire Robert Sabuda and Matthew Reinhart, a pop-up book for kids. Something to remind everybody to stay out of the water. It's called Sharks and Other Sea Monsters.

(Soundbite of Jaws theme)

CHEUSE: Sound familiar? Stay on the beach. Hold onto your books. Happy summer reading.

BLOCK: You can find a list of all of Alan Cheuse's summer reading picks and more books for the season at NPR.org/summerbooks. ALL THINGS CONSIDERED will continue in a moment.

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