Summer Books That Make The Critics' CutJust what is a summer book, anyway? Does it have to be a big, fat, juicy page turner to earn the right to be packed away in the luggage (or downloaded on the e-reader)? We put that question to several book reviewers to find out what they like to take along on summer getaways.
Just what is a summer book, anyway? Does it have to be a big, fat, juicy page turner to earn the right to be packed away in the luggage (or downloaded on the e-reader) and taken along on vacation? We put that question to several book reviewers. After all, they make make their living reading books, so what do they take with them when they go on a road trip, fly overseas, or hunker down in the country?
John Freeman, editor of the literary magazine Granta, thinks our collective idea of summer reading may be too narrow. He likes to read all kinds of things when the weather gets warm. Big novels are great on the beach, but later, when sitting on the porch or settling down for the night, he'll pull out a more slender volume: essays perhaps, or even poetry. Salon book reviewer Laura Miller also reads essays in the summer, but she really loves a novel that carries her away to a far off place where she can get lost, even when she's not on vacation. And Slate reviewer Troy Patterson, who says he's more of a hammock reader than a beach reader, likes the extra time summer allows to linger over a book, reveling in the language as well as the plot. So here are a few of the books these three reviewers say will make for some good "summer reading" this year.
Recommended By Laura Miller
By Guy Gavriel Kay, hardcover, 592 pages, Roc Hardcover, list price: $26.95
Miller calls this epic adventure story "completely transporting." It is set in an imaginary country based on China during the Tang Dynasty, complete with a culture full of poetry, art and plenty of palace intrigue. The hero, a general's son, is given a gift of 250 perfect horses by a foreign princess. It's a gift with consequences as he gets caught up in the schemes of the emperor's favorite concubine, a legendary and cunning beauty. Miller says the book combines the best of historical and fantasy novels to create a great read where "you don't know what could happen next." (Read about Kay's hero, the soldier-slash-poet Tai, as he prepares for a new day -- which he will spend burying casualties of war.)
The Good Son: A Novel
By Michael Gruber, hardcover, 400 pages, Henry Holt and Co., list price: $26
By Peter Carey, hardcover, 400 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95
This historical novel is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, famous for his 19th century study of American society, "Democracy in America." In Carey's fictional account, Olivier, the character based on de Tocqueville, comes to America with his companion, Parrot, a young English printer who has been in and out of prison. The story is told in both voices, and because they come from such different backgrounds they have very different impressions of America and its young democracy. As the two hit the road, argue and fall in love, they develop something of a "bro-mance." And though the novel is sophisticated and beautifully written, Freeman says it is also a page turner and quite simply "one of the best novels I've read in the last few years." (Read Olivier's witheringly arch description of his childhood home and his beloved, maddening, long-suffering mother.)
The Best Of It: New And Selected Poems
By Kay Ryan, hardcover, 288 pages, Grove Press, list price: $24
Summer, says Freeman, is not just about page turners. He argues that novels are like the "big meal," whereas smaller books of poems or essays are more like palate cleansers. For those moments when you're looking for a book that you can pick up or put down when you want, he recommends this book of poetry by the nation's poet laureate, Kay Ryan. Freeman says Ryan has a "well-carpentered, deeply intelligent, plain-spoken American voice" that harks back to Robert Frost. (Read three wistful, poignant poems by Ryan about the passage of time, and the "dreamy wading feeling" of relief.)
Also recommended: For another "palate cleanser," Freeman recommends film director John Waters' book of essays, Role Models, which he says is very funny, sometimes dirty and "sort of like an intellectual autobiography through collage."
Recommended By Troy Patterson
Hitch-22: A Memoir
By Christopher Hitchens, hardcover, 448 pages, Twelve Books, list price: $26.99