Start Storing Up: Indie Booksellers Pick Summer's Best ReadsNPR's Susan Stamberg asked three of our go-to independent booksellers to help fill our beach bags with good books. The result is a reading list that's all about youth and ritual.
Start Storing Up: Indie Booksellers Pick Summer's Best Reads
NPR's Susan Stamberg asked three of our go-to independent booksellers — Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Neptune Beach, Fla.; Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee; and Lucia Silva, former book buyer at the now-closed Portrait of a Bookstore in Studio City, Calif. — to help fill our beach bags with good reads. What they came up with is a summer book list that's full of youth and ritual.
It seems one thing creative people have in common is a routine. Writers, artists and musicians all follow "daily rituals" in order to get their work done; what they don't share is the same routine. There is no correct way to organize your day to ensure maximum productivity. In Daily Rituals, Mason Currey looks at how 161 artists got their jobs done and debunks a few myths along the way. Gertrude Stein wrote half an hour per day, figuring it would add up over time, while Stephen King demands 2,000 words a day from himself. Both Marcel Proust and Truman Capote wrote while horizontal, and William Faulkner worked only in his library and removed the doorknob to ensure no one would disturb him. One consistency is how nice it is to have a helper — someone to do the mundane things like cook and do the laundry. Sigmund Freud had Mrs. Freud, and Jane Austen had her sisters. Another consistency is the understanding that creative endeavors are work, and that it's easy to procrastinate. The hope is that the routine "saves you from giving up," as John Updike once put it. Daily Rituals is an encouraging read for creative types, and a delightful peek into that world for the rest of us.
Darwin's theories of evolution thread through this exploration of one man's mission to make contact with another planet, and his unconventional assumption that humans have much to learn from more evolved, extraterrestrial beings. On June 17, 1894, when Earth is most visible from Mars, astronomer Sanford Thayer plans to ignite the sides of an equilateral triangle measuring 300 miles on each side to communicate with Martians. He assumes trigonometry is the universal language, and author Ken Kalfus illustrates that with diagrams of triangles and mathematical calculations littered throughout the book. The triangle is being constructed in the Egyptian desert by 900,000 men, and must achieve "Pythagorean perfection" lest Earth's inhabitants be considered less evolved than those on Mars. Thayer's late 19th-century fascination is enough to carry the book, but Kalfus adds a love triangle as well as a cast of characters — some who support the professor's efforts and others who rebel against them — for an even richer story.
Everyone at the Pine Haven Retirement Facility in the fictional town of Fulton, N.C., has a story. Joanna, the hospice volunteer, is determined to record each person's life history in a notebook so they won't be forgotten. Sadie works magic with her Polaroid camera, a glue stick, scissors and glossy magazines. And then there's Stanley, who feigns dementia so his son will leave him alone and get a life of his own. When he's not pretending to be consumed by wrestling, Stanley hides out in his room and listens to NPR. There are others, and all of their stories are worth telling and reading. As the residents form relationships with one another, they reveal secrets and experiences from their pasts that not only help them appreciate each other more, but also allow them to understand their own lives better. Some of Pine Haven's residents have come to escape their pasts, and others to embrace it. McCorkle captures the essence of each with love, insight and an ever present sense of humor. You will fall in love with her characters.
This debut novel begins as an enjoyable story of a young woman who is a typist in a New York City police precinct in the 1920s. It's clear from the outset that Rose is an unreliable narrator and that she is "disturbed," or at least her routine is disrupted, by the arrival of a new typist. But this new typist is a little different from her co-workers: She's better dressed, she flirts a bit, and she breaks the rules. Early on, Rose must decide whether to join her or report her to the authorities. About one-quarter into the book, the effects of her relationship with the other typist becomes tantalizingly clear. After that, the trajectory of Rose's life is impossible to fathom. It's a riveting ride both through Prohibition New York and the psyche of two young women caught up in the crime and excitement of the time. Rindell also pays homage to another literary treasure set in the '20s — F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Jay Gatsby's ability to re-create himself is a theme that haunts The Other Typist.
Claire Messud's "woman upstairs" is not a crazy woman in the attic — she's the quiet woman at the end of the hall on the third floor who always smiles and never makes trouble. She never calls at 4 a.m., and she never, ever thinks of herself as lonely. That would be the end of everything. She's also very angry and eager to tell why. Nora Eldridge has been a good daughter and a good teacher. She's still unsure about her ability to succeed as an artist and a lover, but she gets her chance when she meets the Shahids. The mother, Sirena, is an up-and-coming artist who offers to share studio space with Nora; the father, Skandar, is a scholar who introduces her to the issues of the world; and the son, Reza, becomes a student in Nora's class. As Nora's life becomes entangled with theirs, she experiences some of the excitement she's been missing — but at what cost? Don't be fooled by that quiet presence upstairs. There's more there than you suspect at first, and Messud masterfully tells you what it is.
What did 15-year-old Thea Atwell do that compelled her parents to send her away to riding camp in the middle of the season, and then leave her there for an entire year? That secret is slowly revealed in Anton DiSclafani's debut novel, and it's that well-paced unraveling that keeps the pages turning. But there's so much more to this story, including the questions of how the Depression affected families, and how those same families weathered their internal storms. Yonahlossee is a horse-riding school for wealthy girls sent away during the 1930s to learn life skills beyond anything academic. Some are more successful than others, and some are forced to leave due to economic circumstances. Thea arrives "still more child than adult," feeling confused and wronged, and emerges a changed woman at the end. Whether the changes are good or not is up to the reader to decide. DiSclafani's writing is smart and sexy, and her characters are flawed and worth knowing as they navigate through life and don't always make the wisest decisions.
The groundbreaking Mary Tyler Moore Show almost didn't make it on the air; then, when it did, it was hailed for changing television and the image of women; and then it was blamed for not changing it enough. Of course, its creators' first ideas would have given us a divorced woman assisting a gossip columnist in Los Angeles, a far cry from our Mary. Learn how Mary's friend and neighbor, Rhoda, was perceived as unlikable by test audiences, and how they fixed it; imagine a world with Lyle Waggoner from The Carol Burnett Show as anchorman Ted; picture Gavin MacLeod as producer Lou Grant, the role he actually read for. In addition to her basic research, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong interviewed producers, writers and others — including Valerie Harper, who played Rhoda — to create a compulsively readable narrative. To me, it's the one thing Minneapolis has over Milwaukee — I'll take Mary over Happy Days any day.
I'm a perennial lover of Elinor Lipman, and I don't think she gets the kind of love she deserves — if she were British, she'd be a legend. Her 2013 release, The View From Penthouse B, is about two New York sisters, a widow and divorcee, who struggle to get on with their lives after the divorced one falls victim to a Ponzi scheme. They move into the widow's apartment and take on a boarder, an out-of-work, gay finance guy who lost his job in the meltdown and makes a mean cupcake. Then his sister, a naughty nanny, starts staying over, and the ex-husband takes an apartment downstairs. Let's just say things get crowded. The widow's idea for a business plan — a chaste dating service — doesn't work out particularly well, but the story, of course, does. Nobody writes comedy more sharply and yet with such sweetness. After I recommended this to my bookseller Hannah, she said, "I couldn't stop smiling all the way through."
Some books have a strong and somewhat intimidating concept that might scare readers off. Mohsin Hamid's novel, for example, is told in the rather unusual second person and written as a self-help manual. Though that's just a framing device, I actually had a fellow tell me he was not interested in the subject of getting filthy rich and had to correct the misconception. Perhaps it was chapter headings like "Get an Education" and "Befriend a Bureaucrat." Another conceit that sometimes doesn't wash down easily is unnamed characters in the nameless city — readers do like naming stuff. But I say read it anyway. It starts out being a satire of Asian business practices, a bit like The White Tiger, but by the end turns into a repressed romance, much like Love in the Time of Cholera. I love the way Hamid takes our assumptions of Pakistan (the nameless city is said to be Lahore), twists them around and throws them back at us.
It's hard to believe there was a time when the circus was the center of popular culture; when, instead of movie stars, television actors and music sensations, we had trapeze artists. But it's true. This is the story of a love affair between two acrobats: Leitzel, Queen of the Air; and Alfredo Codona of the Flying Codona Brothers. First, Leitzel's mother rose to fame, and then Leitzel started showing up Mom in their act. (Who doesn't love mama drama?) As for Codona, he pined for Leitzel from afar and, despite her history of dalliances with all sorts of men, when he finally won her, he thought he could keep her to himself. The book is a popular history and passionate biography of a couple that was the Liz and Dick — or Brad and Angelina, or Madonna and whoever she happens to be with — of the day. It's an invitation to a magically different world, and by the end it will break your heart at least three times.
After leaving Sarajevo on an art fellowship to the United States, Aleksandar Hemon found himself blocked from his homeland by the Bosnian War. He's written about his journey from Sarajevo to Chicago in fiction, but this time he's collected personal essays that cover everything from neighborhood gangs to avant-garde literary presses to chess and soccer. I love the way a series of seemingly unconnected pieces — why he loves Chicago, the story of his sick child — can come together to form a memoir. In the end, its message is that no matter how badly one's life falls apart, we as a species are generally made of sturdy enough stuff and keep going with the right attitude. Oh, and the writing is just beautiful; did I mention that?
This is the story of three African-American women in a small Indiana town. One of them is a musician who gave up her dreams to be with her high school boyfriend, now a coach and a bit undependable; another married an older gentleman caller after dumping the white beau she was secretly dating; and the third is dealing with health issues on top of an offbeat problem — she can talk to ghosts, in particular her mom. The narrative jumps back and forth from the characters in their 50s to their high school years. I like to say it's sort of a Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe crossed with Waiting to Exhale — a carefully detailed story of an African-American experience that will reach all readers. Moore churns up every emotion you'd expect in a read like this, from humor to pathos to righteous anger; but like the cellist he is, he hits every note perfectly.
Ramona Ausubel delivers a wonderfully weird collection of short stories, all circling around love, conception, gestation and birth. In "Chest of Drawers," a husband grows jealous of the miraculous transformation of his pregnant wife's body. (While his wife writes nightly "Dear Baby" letters to their unborn child, he sarcastically composes letters to the "uninspired mess in his abdomen" that begin "Dear Guts ...") But his jealousy turns to deep longing, and finally to a miracle of his own: A chest of drawers begins to form in the middle of his chest, in which he collects tiny treasures. In "Atria," a pregnant teenager imagines not a baby, but a giraffe, a giant-beaked bird and a koala growing inside her. Strange stories, to be sure; but really, how much stranger are they than "real" life? What pregnant woman hasn't pondered the surreality of tiny fingernails, eyelashes and organs forming inside her own body? Ausubel plumbs the constant mysteries of life, death, falling in love — all these impenetrable things we human beings quest for — and honors them with the magic they deserve.
The narrator of this slim, Chilean novel is a 9-year-old boy who recounts his budding infatuation with an older girl in his neighborhood. But the narrator is also the recently divorced writer of the story that begins in that first section (who may or may not have married the girl his character fell in love with as a child). As the novel flips back and forth between character and writer, the two stories form a meditation on the questionable facts of one's past, and the fluid nature of personal history. Leaking into the personal story is the larger story of post-coup Chile and the rootless way children — born to parents who lived through the terror of persecution — process the spectral stories of their shared past.
If I could choose one book to give to absolutely anybody this summer, this would be it. In fact, I think if there was some wonderful program by which we could give a copy of this book to every family in America, that would be a truly worthwhile public service. From "The World Is Round" by Gertrude Stein to "Theme for English B" by Langston Hughes; "The Tale of Custard the Dragon" by Ogden Nash to "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks, these poems are for toddlers, teens and grown-ups alike. We tend to balk at memorization these days for all sorts of reasons, but just think about the phrase "learning by heart": We learn "by heart" and not "by brain" because this kind of memorization takes us deeper, to a much more visceral experience. A poem we know by heart belongs to us, and, as Caroline Kennedy writes in her introduction, we can share it without giving it away. A large-format picture book with a full-color painting on every page, Poems to Learn by Heart is mesmerizing even if you're too young to read. Jon Muth's illustrations are the rare kind that you can fall into and get lost in; the kind that tell a whole story and reveal an entire world on their own; the kind that should make this book a keepsake for generations.
Fourteen-year-old Micah Darling leaves tiny, Midwestern Grouse County for Los Angeles to reunite with his mother, a struggling actress who deserted him years ago. Against alternating backdrops of Micah's mind-blowing new life with wild L.A. teenagers and Grouse County's small-town scandals, the real story emerges from the characters' emotional lives and the towns that make them who they are. Tom Drury's L.A. is the insider's L.A. — the city as experienced by teenagers for whom buses and cars are freedom and traffic is nothing. As they traverse the freeways from downtown Vietnamese taco trucks to hippie ranches in Topanga Canyon, the sprawling metropolis compresses into a slow-motion haze of days packed with possibility. Through this uniquely native perspective, Drury exposes L.A. as the strangely small town that it actually is — a town that is more Grouse County than an outsider would ever guess. An intensely intimate sense of place emerges — as much a character as the people who walk through it — creating scenes that have lodged in my memory as true as if they were my own. Quietly stunning and deceptively spare, Drury's prose is the rare kind you can return to again and again for examination, instruction and celebration of the tender gestures, inflections and tiny details that make up a life.
Ma Jian presents a disturbing and powerful novel about a family on the run in rural China, escaping persecution for violating the country's one-child policy. When the government begins forced abortions and sterilizations in their village, Meili (pregnant with their second child), her husband, Kongzi, and their 2-year-old daughter leave the village on a rickety houseboat down the Yangtze River. On the run and without permits to live or work, they are literally unmoored, living on the river, scraping together a painfully meager existence and facing unimaginable horrors at every turn, all the while struggling to bring a new child into the world. Based on Ma's travels in the rural southwestern province of Guangxi, the novel is at once an indictment of China's human rights violations, a cry for women's rights and an homage to the desire to create new life in the face of the darkest realities. With delicate and fluid prose, Ma transforms this terrible reality with a thread of myth and magic into an elegy for the real women and children whose tragic stories remain unknown and untold.