Indie Booksellers Target Summer's Best ReadsSome of the best summers are those filled with journeys, reunions and good food — three themes that factor prominently in the books recommended by our independent booksellers.
Some of the best summers are those filled with journeys, reunions and good food. We hope that all three figure into your summer plans this year. As it happens, those themes also happen to be featured prominently in some of the books that our trusty independent booksellers are recommending for your summer reading pleasure.
This year's warm-weather picks come from Lucia Silva, the book buyer at Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif; Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, Wisc; and Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, Fla. Happy reading!
By Chris Adrian; hardcover, 304 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $26
In Chris Adrian's reimagining of A Midsummer Night's Dream, three lovelorn people on their way to a party get lost in San Francisco's Buena Vista Park and become trapped in Titania and Oberon's secret faerie kingdom. As Titania's magical world collides with the unreality of the pediatric oncology ward where her changeling son is dying from leukemia, her mortal neighbors nurse fantasies of reclaiming irrevocably lost loves. Adrian's recurring idea that the line between reality and surreality is most blurred in either tragedy or ecstasy whisks this story out of the physically fantastic and into the emotionally real. A sweet fever dream of a book, The Great Night is playful, erotic, hilarious and, of course, heartbreaking.
The Ada Poems
By Cynthia Zarin; hardcover, 80 pages; Knopf; list price: $25
My husband and I love one of the poems from this book so much we had it blown up to poster size, framed it and hung it on our living room wall. Sexy and sonorous, they dazzle on the first reading but demand many more. Cynthia Zarin's collection is inspired by the title character of Nabokov's Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, a novel that tells the story of lifelong lovers who discover they are actually brother and sister. Zarin's poems intertwine that complex love story with a simpler kind of heartbreak. Nabokov's obscure symbols and motifs blossom in a recognizable landscape of pop culture, backyard gardens and quotidian concerns. Don't worry about reading the famously difficult Nabokov first; you'll have the guts to do it after you've fallen in love with Zarin's poems.
The Family Fang
By Kevin Wilson; hardcover, 320 pages; Ecco; list price: $23.99
Annie and Buster are walking works of art — or, rather, part of their parents' ongoing performance art, enlisted to create uncomfortable public spectacles. ("Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief.") Flashing back and forth between Annie and Buster's extremely odd childhood and tentative adulthood, the novel's madcap premise quickly deepens. When art is everything and all art is extreme, what does real life look like? How much of our life is our own creation, and how much are we only playing parts? As he did in Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson asks big questions with subtle humor and deep tenderness.
The Sisters Brothers
By Patrick DeWitt; hardcover, 336 pages; Ecco; list price: $23.99
Think Deadwood, but directed by the Coen brothers — a classic western with deadpan comic narration. Eli and Charlie Sisters are hired henchmen tracking a thief through the 1850s West. As the thief eludes them and their quest drags on, Eli realizes he's had enough of this rootless and violent life. As he grows weary and suspicious of his blood-thirsty, hard-drinking brother, Eli is an utterly endearing narrator, longing for quietude and love, even as he displays his fair share of gun-slinging. By turns hilarious, graphic and meditative, The Sisters Brothers hooked me from page one all the way to 300 — and I could have stayed on for many more.
A Moment in the Sun
By John Sayles; hardcover, 968 pages; McSweeney's; list price: $29
Independent filmmaker John Sayles has managed to create a work that is both cinematic and literary in its scope and style — a blend so entrancing that you could polish off its 955 pages in one long weekend. It begins in 1897 during the Yukon gold rush and takes us into the Spanish-American war, the Filipino fight for independence, racial injustice and the plight of working people throughout the United States. Short, powerful chapters follow four unconnected characters to create a mosaic of America as a nascent superpower, underscoring the personal and cultural consequences of its ambitions. If you only read one book this summer, make it A Moment in the Sun. It's not available in e-book format, but once you start, three pounds of paper will seem awfully light for the heft of the story they contain.
The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season In The Kitchen At Ferran Adria's elBulli
By Lisa Abend; hardcover, 304 pages; Free Press; list price: $26
There have been plenty of books devoted to the renown Spanish restaurant elBulli over the years, but having just read Life, on the Line, the wonderful memoir from elBulli graduate Grant Achatz, I was intrigued to read journalist Lisa Abend's account of the stagiaires -- or apprentices — that keep the world's top restaurant going. Though the stagiaires come from restaurants at the level of The French Laundry and, yes, Alinea, once they arrive at elBulli, it's back to square one: Chefs work unpaid in exchange for experience and insight that they can use later in their careers. Unlike other apprenticeships, the program at elBulli doesn't really have an educational component. But even more problematic is the fact that that most of the techniques in modernist cuisine are time consuming and could not be duplicated without free manpower. As Abend makes clear, elBulli could not exist without the stagiaire program, which begs the question: What really is the program about — preparation for a career or indentured servitude? And yet, while many of the chefs are frustrated by the internship, most of them emerge grateful for the experience — or at least they seem to be. Add this insight to a generous helping of detail about modernist cuisine, and you get a delightfully satisfying narrative.
My Korean Deli: Risking It All For A Convenience Store
By Ben Ryder Howe; hardcover, 320 pages; Henry Holt and Co.; list price: $25
When I think of New York, instead of iconic landmarks like the Statue of Liberty, I think of those newsstands and corner stores with flowers and fruit outside, and a steam table within. So you can imagine my attraction to this engaging memoir, wherein Ben Ryder Howe, his corporate lawyer wife Gab and his mother-in-law Kay team up to buy and run a convenience store in Boerum Hill. Kay has experience in running restaurants and bakeries, though her vision of America is much shaped by gigs in Ohio and Texas; New York is a whole 'nother kettle of fish. And Boerum Hill turns out to be not exactly what they expected either. It's gentrifying, but not that quickly. Change the coffee to something drinkable (and more expensive) or get rid of the "cash in a flash" lottery machine and face the consequences! The resulting store turns out to be not quite a Korean Deli so much as a "Ko-dega." Throughout it all, Ben keeps his day job at The Paris Review, where he becomes a professional-amateur that recalls editor George Plimpton's own pursuits — only instead of playing football, Ryder sells hot sauce.
Ex Libris: The Art Of Bookplates
By Kevin Wilson; paperback, 112 pages; Yale University Press; list price: $15
The bookplate is said to have come into usage just after the death of Gutenberg. Originally woodcuts, and then engravings, these personalized plates were used to identify one of the owner's most valuable possessions, a book library. Early bookplates focused on the coat of arms, while later ones would display the owners' interests. This collection from the British Museum features full-color replications that document the bookplate craze that went from the 1880s to the 1920s. As plates become popular, the middle class was able to purchase bookplates that allowed them to fill in their own names on a ready-made plate. Most would say "ex libris" or "from the library of." Some well-known artists such as Aubrey Beardsley designed book plates, and Rudyard Kipling created one for his publisher's daughter. Meanwhile, Calvin Coolidge created one with a bust of his icon, Benjamin Franklin. This exquisite, modestly-priced book would be a welcome publication at any time, but in a year when we are contemplating the future of the printed word, a collection that celebrates the physical book and its connection to the reader is a particular treat.
The Solitude Of Prime Numbers
By Paolo Giordano; hardcover, 288 pages; Pamela Dorman Books; list price: $25.95
If you are hard-pressed to name many Italian novelists of the last half century beyond Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, you are probably not alone. Paolo Giordano's novel won the Premio Strega – Italy's premiere literary prize — but many of the winners do not even get an American publication. And while you are probably thinking that this book has a mathematical angle (especially since its author is a former physicist) the title is simply a metaphor for two sad and lonely people, divisible by one and themselves. Alice Della Rocha and Mattia Balossini are twin primes, pairs of primes that are only two apart (like 17 and 19), with just an even number between them. Like primes, they become increasingly rare, but also like primes, it is conjectured that there is an infinite number of them. Alice is crippled by a childhood accident, and her body image issues have led to serious eating disorders. Mattia has a childhood secret regarding his twin sister, and this has led him to be unable to excel in anything except his studies. Both characters are quite memorable, and the story is filled with sparkling, beautiful, distinctly Italian prose.
By Nina Revoyr; paperback, 230 pages; Akashic Books; list price: $15.95
What makes a person hate? That question is central to Nina Revoyr's fourth novel, which is set in a small central Wisconsin town circa 1974. The story is narrated by young Michelle "Mikey" LeBeau, a half-Japanese outsider being raised by her bookish grandmother and her good-old-boy grandfather Charlie. Though Charlie was unhappy with his son's mixed marriage and only reluctantly took Mikey on, he's bonded with her over their shared love of the outdoors and Charlie's retired hunting dog Brett. The antipathy of the town towards Mikey, however, is nothing compared to the hatred that bubbles up with an African American couple moves to town, with the center of hatred coming from Charlie's good friend, Earl Watson, the local gun shop owner. Revoyr sure can tell a story, and though there's not a lot of gray area in her book's moral universe, Charlie LeBeau winds up being a fascinatingly tortured character.
My American Unhappiness
By Dean Bakopoulos; hardcover, 288 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; list price: $24
In Dean Bakopoulos' hilarious and heartfelt new novel, Zeke Pappas is head of a small nonprofit that grants funds for cultural projects in the Midwest. He also happens to be a widower who is taking care of his two orphaned nieces, an arrangement made precarious by the fact that Zeke's mom, who officially has custody, is dying of cancer, and has decreed that if Zeke isn't married by the time she passes, the kids should go to his sister-in-law. But don't worry, as Zeke's got prospects — sort of. In addition to his assistant and a local barrista, he's also interested in Sofia Coppola. At the same time, Zeke's work at Great Midwestern Humanities Initiative is under investigation by a wing of the Department of Homeland Security. Maybe it wasn't a good idea to let their biggest donor use his GMHI credit cards for sexual trysts. All this could threaten Zeke's pet project, the "Inventory of American Unhappiness," which is a sort of "This I Believe" for this distraught. This funny-sad novel seems to take elements of the author's own life (happily married, with kids) and twists them in a funhouse mirror — with delightful results.
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The Sorcerer's Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adria's elBulli
By Siobhan Fallon, hardcover, 227 pages; Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam, list price: $23.95
In eight loosely connected stories, Siobhan Fallon microscopically examines the lives of women left behind at Fort Hood when the men deploy. While these women are not technically "real", their stories, which reflect what life is like on a military base when the men leave and the women and children are left to fend for themselves, certainly feel genuine. There are women who have trouble waiting and others who worry about their husbands' fidelity. There are men who have adapted so well to war that it makes more sense to them than being home and others who don't trust their wives while they're away. Then, of course, there are those who return wounded or not at all. Not only do you know when the men are gone, you also know when the men are home — and the stories about when they return are just as compelling as those about their absence.
22 Britannia Road
By Amanda Hodgkinson, hardcover, 336 pages; Pamela Dorman Books, list price: $26.95
In Amanda Hodgkinson's debut novel, survivors of World War II try to reconstruct a life as a family in a new country. A husband, wife and son are reuniting after being apart for six years. On the surface, the three have all the ingredients for a happy ending: The wife and child are safe, and the husband has a job and a house for them. But nothing is ever so simple. Neither husband nor wife is the same person that each knew before the war; each has secrets about what happened during those long years apart. The house at 22 Britannia Road offers hope, and yet it can't protect its residents from the secrets they keep. Hodgkinson has a talent for introducing complicated characters who tear at your heart and keep you worrying and wondering about them. She also knows how to let secrets simmer and boil over in surprising ways.
World Without Fish
By Mark Kurlansky, illustrated by Frank Stockton; hardcover, 192 pages; Workman Publishing Company: list price: $16.95
In World Without Fish, Mark Kurlansky ponders what the world would be like without fish and how we got ourselves in this predicament. He presents information and proposes actions to remedy the problem and does it all in a visually appealing book that includes beautiful drawings, large and colorful text describing the issues and even a graphic novel that winds through the book. While there are three main causes for the problem — over fishing, pollution, and climate change — Kurlansky is the first to admit that reversing the trend is complicated. Nonetheless, he offers some ideas and bestows his faith in the next generation to accept the challenge. Ostensibly for young adults, World Without Fish is a primer and a call to action for readers of all ages.
By Karen Russell; hardcover, 320 pages; Knopf, list price: $24.95
Karen Russell's debut novel centers on Swamplandia!, a fictional 100-acre theme park in Florida that is run by the alligator-wrestling Bigtree clan. As is the case with most good entertainment, much of Swamplandia! and the Bigtree family is all smoke and mirrors. The head of the family, a man called Chief, has absolutely no Indian heritage; rather he is descended from Ohio coal miners. His wife, Hilola knows how to charm an alligator and an audience, but when Hilola dies, business literally goes to hell as tourists switch their allegiance to the World of Darkness, a competing park. As it follows each member of the Bigtree family and how they try to save the family business, this wonderfully wacky work of Florida fiction becomes a poignant examination of family relationships.
The Poison Tree
By Erin Kelly; hardcover, 336 pages; Pamela Dorman Books, list price: $26.95
Erin Kelly's novel The Poison Tree starts with a car speeding away from somewhere, someone or something. Then, it's 10 years later, and a woman and her daughter are on their way to prison to pick up the woman's husband and the girl's father. You know there's a murder, and you even know who committed it. Most of all you know there's lots you don't know about how we got to this point. Clues that only hint at the truth keep you riveted and remind you that you'd better pay attention. As the details unfold, the characters get more complex, as Kelly keeps the surprises coming until the very last page.