Journeys — near and far, into the past and even into near space — are the subject of the novels, memoirs and narrative histories that make up my summer reading list. Here are six books to escape with:
There's still time to make travel plans for Aug. 21, when a total solar eclipse will cross the contiguous United States — the first such eclipse in 99 years. The total eclipse can only be witnessed within a 70-mile-wide path (called "the path of totality") which stretches from Oregon to South Carolina. According to author David Baron, it's "nature's most awesome show."
Baron should know: He's a self-professed "umbraphile," or eclipse chaser, who has followed them around the world. He's also a science writer who's written a suspenseful narrative history about the total solar eclipse that occurred in the summer of 1878.
Baron's book, American Eclipse, follows a group of 19th-century adventurers who raced out to the Rocky Mountains to study the eclipse up close. Thomas Edison, then 31, was part of this intrepid band; so was astronomy professor Maria Mitchell, who took some of her Vassar students out to Colorado to prove that women could "do science" too.
Baron vividly describes how, as the eclipse got underway, the temperature plummeted, nocturnal animals emerged from hiding and familiar colors of mountains and trees shifted. The total eclipse itself lasted about three minutes — the same span of time predicted for the upcoming Aug. 21 eclipse — but Baron makes those three minutes seem transcendent. Experiencing a total eclipse, he says, is "like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. ... The most prominent object is thoroughly foreign. You may know, intellectually, that is it both the sun and the moon, yet it looks like neither. It is an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos."
If David Baron is obsessed with eclipses, Helene Stapinski is obsessed with family history. But she isn't one of those genealogy bores, predictably intent on proving her relation to royalty. Rather, Stapinski wants to get to the bottom of a long-ago murder case that propelled her great-great-grandmother Vita from Southern Italy to Jersey City, N.J., in 1892.
Stapinskis' atmospheric new book, Murder in Matera, is part memoir, part novel and part travelogue, and it reads like a detective story, with Stapinski playing the part of her clan's Columbo. As she tantalizingly tells readers in her introduction, by the end of her 10-year investigation, Stapinski would travel deep into the countryside and dusty archives of Southern Italy and discover "one shotgun blast and five dead bodies, most of them belonging to my family."
Transatlantic family calamities of a more comic sort are the subject of Francesca Segal's novel of manners, The Awkward Age. Segal's heroine, Julia Alden, is a middle-aged British widow with a teenage daughter. Julie has fallen for a divorced American obstetrician with a teenage son. The foursome move in together into Julia's North London home, and the teenagers, at first, loathe each other; but when a truce is called, trouble — of the erotic sort — ensues.
This is a smart and droll domestic drama reminiscent of the work of Laurie Colwin and Lorrie Moore.
To my way of thinking, nobody gives "ordinary" human beings their due with the grace and precision that Richard Ford does. His slim new memoir about his parents, Between Them, is so gently spellbinding that I've already read it twice. Ford's father was a traveling bleach salesman in places like Mobile, Ala., and Little Rock, Ark., during the 1930s and early '40s, so part of the bonus of this little book is that it sits readers down in the company car and takes us on an unsentimental but enchanted journey through the long-ago landscape of the American South.
According to Sherman Alexie, his mother, Lillian, was a beauty and a liar; a sometimes loving, sometimes abusive parent who lost custody of her kids at least once; and a strong-willed woman who gave up drinking cold turkey one day and never looked back. I'm just skimming the surface of Alexie's portrait of his mother in his whirlwind of a memoir, You Don't Have To Say You Love Me.
There's straight personal history here as well as fable, poetry and raw, mordant accounts of life on the Spokane Indian Reservation where Alexie grew up. Unexpected revelations are a constant throughout this memoir. At one point, Alexie tells us:
"White folks love to think that Native American culture is progressive and liberal. But it is often repressive. Indians are quick to socially judge one another. ... I wouldn't realize it until I read more widely in college, but living on an Indian reservation was like living inside an Edith Wharton novel — a place where good and bad manners were weaponized."
For decades, the weapon of choice in John Grisham's thrillers has been his main characters' quick wits. In June, Grisham published his 30th novel, a standalone and the perfect beach book for bibliophiles.
Camino Island is a heist caper that begins when a gang of thieves successfully steals a priceless literary treasure: the handwritten manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald's five novels, which are kept in a vault deep in Princeton University's Firestone Library. I've been there! This could never happen! But, as usual, Grisham is such a deft suspense writer, he makes me believe.
Camino Island roams from Princeton to Paris to a shady independent bookstore off the coast of Florida, with short detours into Fitzgerald's life.
Even if you can't get yourself to the solar eclipse's "path of totality" this Aug. 21, any of these very different books will get you onto the path of a totally good story.