Alan Cheuse's Summer Book PicksBook critic Alan Cheuse recommends seven works of poetry and fiction for the dog days of summer. Hit the road, wander the great American desert or play violin with Beethoven. Whatever you decide to read, these books will make perfect companions for this summer's hot, sultry nights.
You know the song by The Jamies: "Summertime, summertime, sum sum summertime" When we sing or hum it, we joyously celebrate good old American hell-with-it-all anti-intellectualism. As The Jamies say, "Well shut the books and throw 'em away. And say goodbye to dull school days."
Except that most of us who care deeply for our lives open the books whenever we find the time, and summer usually offers more time than other seasons.
So, twist The Jamies' lyric a little bit is what I say: Say goodbye to dull school days, and consider some of these recommendations for books that, in some cases, I've been storing up during the winter to pass along to you for the coming summer months.
Lark & Termite, by Jayne Anne Phillips, Hardcover, 272 pages, Knopf, List price: $24
Jayne Anne Phillips' new novel Lark & Termite, which came along in darkest January, is a dense, sharply rhythmical work of fractured narrative about a nearly fractured West Virginia family. As beautifully composed as any book this year, Lark & Termite pulls you into its hypnotic pages like metal to a magnet. The story shifts back and forth over a nearly 10-year period, moving between North Chungchong Province in South Korea in late July 1950 and a West Virginia hamlet in 1959. The 1950 storyline follows Robert Leavitt, an American corporal who is caught with a band of South Korean war refugees in a friendly fire incident, while the West Virginia story concerns Leavitt's developmentally disabled son, nicknamed Termite, and the boy's half-sister, the Lark, who find themselves besieged by threats from the local family service agency and rising flood waters. The West Virginia boy's sequences are virtuoso segments in which Phillips plays English the way Casals played Bach. In this one, you come for the story, and stay for the music.
In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin, Hardcover, 256 pages, W.W. Norton & Co., List price: $23.95
Another virtuoso book I want to recommend is Other Rooms, Other Wonders, a collection of stories by the Pakistani-American writer Daniyal Mueenuddin. I can't praise Mueenuddin's work too much: He has the gifts of insight into human behavior of Alice Munro, the gift for detail we find in Updike and William Trevor, and the ability to make sentences and paragraphs that pack the punch of something out of James Salter and Richard Ford.
Like a number of his characters in these sharp and insightful stories, Mueenuddin lives on a farm in the Punjab, which, given his strong talent, he offers as the center of the world. From the opening story onward, a large cast of characters, from wealthy landowners to servants, pass through his pages, giving us a clear sense of the strata of contemporary Pakistan. Mueenuddin's Pakistan is populated by seekers and dreamers young and old, the content and the terribly restless, men and women with talent and no vision, visionaries with hopes and no talents. In other words, he has given us a country like our own, but different enough in landscape, religion, hopes, dreams, flaws and fears, so that we can easily contrast — if we dare — our own troubles and triumphs against theirs.
'The Servants' Quarters'
The Servants' Quarters, by Lynn Freed, Hardcover, 256 pages, Norton, List Price: $24
Lynn Freed, a South Africa-born writer and a longtime California resident, takes us to her native country in her new novel, The Servants' Quarters. The book couldn't show her love of home — and her keen attentiveness to the larger questions of growing up female anywhere — in a better light. Her main character, a young Jewish South African girl named Cressida, is both repulsed by and attracted to a disfigured World War II fighter pilot named Harding, who wears a hat and veil to disguise his wounds. He's the rich house-holder who keeps Cressida's family — her and her older sister, her attractive and hyper-flirtatious mother, and her invalid, comatose father — above water. He also takes up the matter, sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly, of Cressida's education into the world. The broadest echoes of this wonderfully engaging novel come from Jane Austen and George Eliot. For this accomplishment any reader, male or female, wants to wave hat and veil and shout brava, brava!
Road Dogs, by Elmore Leonard, Hardcover, 272 pages, Morrow, List Price: $26.99
What are "road dogs"? Prison buddies who live among incarcerated gang members but not with them, watching each others' backs. In Elmore Leonard's new novel of the same name, the "dogs" are smart, handsome and big-hearted Jack Foley, America's best bank-robber (having hit over a hundred banks in his long career); and Cundo Rey, a sharp-minded Cuban hustler who took a bullet more than a dozen Leonard novels ago but survived, "a little guy about fifty with dyed hair pulled back in a ponytail."
Leonard is the reigning master of dialogue in American genre fiction, and every line that comes out of his characters' mouths reads like butter — flavored slightly with rue —and each line of dialogue pushes the action along with just enough spin to keep you reading even as you're enjoying the previous moment. As the novel moves along, people double-cross each other with gusto, take bullets, fall off roofs, just not nice things. I want a sequel. Maybe next summer?
The Increment, by David Ignatius. Hardcover, 400 pages, W.W. Norton & Co. List Price: $26.95
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius' new spy novel The Increment is set in Washington, London and Iran. The book gets its title from the small team of British special operatives whose specialty is the out-of-the-ordinary, and particularly dangerous, undercover operation. Frustrated with the bureaucracy at Langley, an American operative named Harry Pappas goes to the Brits for help in extracting an informant of his, an Iranian scientist He hopes he'll discover the truth about Iran's nuclear secrets and, possibly, stave off a full-scale American attack on the nation's nuclear assets. Commanding The Increment is a seriously over-the-line British spy named Adrian Winkler — "dark-haired and intense, with a furtive twinkle in his eyes" — an old friend of Pappas." "The Increment," we hear, is "Sex Pistols, Prince Nassim, and Hanif Kureishi all rolled into one ... New Britain, with a vengeance." But despite all the New Britain trappings, Ignatius' The Increment is a classic spy thriller with a vengeance and certainly the most engrossing entertainment of early summer.
'Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition'
Shannon: A Poem of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, by Campbell McGrath, Hardcover, 128 pages, Ecco, List Price: $23.99
Campbell McGrath's book-length poem Shannon recounts the story of young George Shannon, the Pennsylvania-born teenager who was the youngest member of the Lewis and Clark expedition.
McGrath's dramatizes George's 16 days of wandering across the Great American Desert alone after getting separated from the main group of explorers. The boy studies the land, he studies his past, he studies his heart and, as poet McGrath would have it, fills entire days (and pages) with sightings of "buffalo buffalo buffalo ."
Sonata Mulattica, by Rita Dove. Hardcover, 224 pages, Norton. List Price: $24.95
And brava, too, for former Poet Laureate Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica, a book-length group of poems about the life of George Polgreen Bridgetower, an African-European who played violin with Beethoven and then had a falling out with the great man over a woman.
Dove tries to get under the skin of this unique and compelling character in a series of smart — sometimes even smart-aleck — musical verses.