Summer Reading Picks from Critics, Listeners What's in your beach bag? A historical thriller or flashy crime novel? Three critics -- and Talk of the Nation listeners -- share their top picks for summertime reading.
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Summer Reading Picks from Critics, Listeners

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Summer Reading Picks from Critics, Listeners

Summer Reading Picks from Critics, Listeners

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

As you pack your bags for summer vacation, make sure you don't forget your swimsuit or your toothbrush. But more important than beachwear, hygiene for that matter, don't forget to pack a good book, something that lets your mind take a vacation, too. Worry not if you have no idea what book to bring along. We'll have some suggestions for you. It's time for TALK OF THE NATION's annual summer reading list. Every year, our favorite book critics join us to share their picks for the season.

If you've already chosen your book for the summer, we want to know about it. Mad about mysteries? Nuts for non-fiction? Salivating over space opera? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And the e-mail address is

And let's get a caller on the line. This is Barbara. Barbara's calling us from Tucson, Arizona.

BARBARA (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Barbara. You're on the air.

BARBARA: Thank you. The book I'm recommending is called "Dream of the Great Blue," and it's written by Don West and it's a love story about a middle-aged couple and it deals with a lot of the problems middle-aged people are going through.

CONAN: Huh. And what particularly--other than the fact that you might identify with it, what attracted you to it?

BARBARA: Actually, my husband wrote the book.


BARBARA: It was just published in May and it's got some good reviews. And it's a poignant love story, it's very serious and well-written.

CONAN: If you say so yourself.


CONAN: Joining us now is our summer reading guest Laura Miller. She's a book critic for Salon, and joins us from our bureau in New York.

Nice to have you back on the program, Laura.

Ms. LAURA MILLER (Book Critic, Salon): It's nice to be here.

CONAN: I don't know if you've read "Dream of the Great Blue" yet or not.

Ms. MILLER: No, I'm afraid not. My husband didn't write it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Barbara--and this is generally available in bookstores anywhere around?

BARBARA: Yes, it is. And it's distributed by Biblio. It can be ordered directly through them, or the bookstore can order it through Biblio.

CONAN: Well, we wish your husband and you the best of luck with it.

BARBARA: Well, thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

By the way, listeners, don't worry about scribbling down the name of an intriguing title as it flits by. We'll post our critics' selections and your suggestions on our Web site at after the program's over, so you can go back and check the list then.

Laura Miller, if there was one--just one book you could read this summer, what would it be?

Ms. MILLER: Well, that would probably be "Bangkok Tattoo" by John Burdett. I loved his previous novel, "Bangkok 8," which is about a Buddhist police detective in the Thai capital city and, in particular, he works in District 8, which is the red-light district.


Ms. MILLER: And it's just a kind of a crazy, wild, very funny, very smart and very, very non-Western look at life in a big city. And one of the fascinating things about it is that pretty much every government institution that the hero deals with is corrupt and yet everything works and they can't understand why the Westerners that they meet keep objecting to this.

CONAN: Let's get another listener on the line. This is Paul. Paul's with us from St. Louis, Missouri.

PAUL (Caller): Hi.


PAUL: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PAUL: I would like to recommend "Kite Runner," and I'm sure your guest can help me with the author. Unfortunately, I can't remember who it was.

CONAN: It's an Afghan writer. Laura, do you remember the name?

Ms. MILLER: Oh, if I don't have it in front of me, I get...

PAUL: I know that...

CONAN: Khaled Hosseini. Our crack research staff...


CONAN: ...came up with Khaled Hosseini.

PAUL: Well, a coming-of-age tale of a boy, a Pashtun boy in Afghanistan, and I learned a lot about Afghanistan pre- and post-Taliban. And then also about the different classes of the two boys who were growing up together. And just--it's a kind of a tragic tale, but you just get a very good appreciation for life in Afghanistan and also about his life when he and his father came to the United States. His father was a very heroic figure in his eyes and in the eyes of all the people in his community. But when he came to the United States, you know, he essentially traded a lot of stuff at the swap meets and got by on lesser means. So...

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, Laura, "The Kite Runner" was both a critical and popular success.

Ms. MILLER: It was, indeed, and that is--it shows that people are really interested in learning about other countries and other cultures particularly through reading fiction; also non-fiction. "Reading Lolita in Tehren" is another great book, a non-fiction book, about a woman teacher who taught Western literary classics in Iran and writes about how her students responded to them. But these books are ways that people learn about other societies that takes you kind of off of the front page of the newspaper and more into how people live.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the recommendation.

PAUL: Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Do you think that's a great--an important quality of a summer book in particular, that it take you away?

Ms. MILLER: Well, sometimes. Sometimes people--I mean, I think the whole chick-lit phenomenon is really for people who want to read about people who are just like themselves. But I think a lot of us do want to be swept away to another world or another culture. And I think a lot of us, particularly in reading novels, want to learn something, and this is just a kind of pain-free way to do that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. But some--is it important that a summer book be fun in some way?

Ms. MILLER: Oh, yeah. But learning can be fun. I mean, that is one of the great myths of, I guess, instituted by our educational system is that learning is a chore. Most people really, really enjoy it when it's done right.

CONAN: And one of the other problems that our learning system imposes on us is that something with the weight of "Ethan Frome" or "The Return of the Native"--these certainly can't be fun. I mean, heaven knows, they weren't successful.

Ms. MILLER: Well, that's funny because I just read for another story on summer reading we did for the first time "War and Peace," which is a very long book, if I might say so.

CONAN: Famously, famously long.

Ms. MILLER: Yes. And it was really fun. It was full of adventure and romance and intrigue and war and peace and...

CONAN: And the good guys win.

Ms. MILLER: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Dave. Dave is with us from Palm Coast in Florida.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. How you doing, Neal?


DAVE: I just wanted to make a recommendation to all the listeners out there, a kind of a light read that's made for summer and takes place during the Franco years, in 1945. It's called "Shadow of the Wind," and...

Ms. MILLER: I love that book.

DAVE:'s a wonderful book. I've not finished with it yet, hence being it's a great summer read. But it's very light and yet it's a period piece and the characters are so alive and it allows you to be emotional and get emotionally attached to the characters and the situation and still not have to worry about, you know, setting it down with the fear of not picking it up again.

CONAN: Well, again, it may be a misconception, Laura, but a lot of people wouldn't think of Franco's Spain as a real chuckle fest.

Ms. MILLER: Well, you know, what that book really reminded me of is like a really great, old, romantic, international, black-and-white movie like "Casablanca" or "To Have and Have Not."


Ms. MILLER: It's just really atmospheric, Barcelona is really vivid and there's this strange mystery. I mean, there's a little Victor Hugo in there, the page-turner with the mysterious, you know, shadowy figure lurking in the darkness and who's out to get the main guy, and it's just really fun.


DAVE: And what's also neat is the fact that it's written by someone in Spain and it was on the top of the charts in Europe before it came over here. So I thought that that was a real fascinating...

CONAN: And, again, we've gotten the author from the World Wide Web, Ruiz Zafon, if I'm not mispronouncing that, Z-A-F-O-N.

DAVE: Right.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Dave.

DAVE: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Laura Miller with Salon is with us. Joining the conversation now is David Kipen, book critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. David's at our bureau in Los Angeles, NPR West.

Nice to have you back on the program, as well.

Mr. DAVID KIPEN (Book Critic, San Francisco Chronicle): Hi, guys.

CONAN: I think you just admitted that you finished an unsummery book?

Mr. KIPEN: And unsummery book. Well, I kind of thing the whole idea of summer reading is a vast marketing conspiracy that we're all complicit in. But the book that I'm keenest on these days is, in one respect, a very summery book because contained inside it is a really great '70s-era, pulpy thriller. The book is called "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell. He's an Englishman; this is his third novel. And it is really six novellas in one, in a way that a few novels are lately. Michael Cunningham's novels seem to be combining books within books. This one is so cunningly structured that I can't really get it out of my head. It's like six books chevroned inside one another...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KIPEN: ...if you can picture that. You read the first half of the first book and then the first half of the second book, there's a self-contained book in the middle of it and then you start reading the last halves of each of the books in this sort of bracketed, nested way. And...

CONAN: Not just a book but a puzzle.

Mr. KIPEN: Yes, exactly. And yet not one of those sort of brain-busting, post-modern, how-smart-am-I kind of puzzles. There's that component to it. But I mean, also some rip-roaring plotting. And the way the stories interlock in a way that is subtle and yet unmistakable, this book crawled into a brain in a way that no book since I've been doing this job seven years now has done and I still haven't fully shaken it.

CONAN: Wow. You really liked it.

Mr. KIPEN: I really, really like this book.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller on the line. Floyd. Floyd's with us from Portland, Oregon.

FLOYD (Caller): Yeah. Hey, how's it going?

CONAN: All right.

FLOYD: Oh, I'd like to recommend a book called "How I Paid For College."

CONAN: By publishing this book, presumably.

FLOYD: No, it's not a how-to book. The subtitle is--let me see if I get this right--"A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship and Musical Theater."

CONAN: Uh-huh.

FLOYD: And I read it on an airplane across the country and, I swear to God, my seat mates were, like, `What are you reading?' 'cause I was crying I was laughing so hard. It's like--oh, it's like the literacy equivalent of "Ferris Bueller." I mean, it's a totally light and just a complete romp about a kid who schemes to steal his college tuition when his dad refuses to pay for him to study acting at Juilliard.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FLOYD: And it's just--but it's intelligent. I mean, it's--I guess I'd say very David Sedaris-like in its voice.

CONAN: Oh. See, that's the difference in our age. I would have said--the name I would have come up with is probably Dobie Gillis, which just explains how old I am. We did find the name of the author of this book. It's Marc Acito.

FLOYD: That's right. That's right. And the jacket calls him the gay Dave Barry, but--and I guess that...

CONAN: Oh, wait. Dave Barry already--oh, no, no. I didn't mean to say--go ahead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIPEN: Dave Barry on line one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLOYD: Yeah. It's like I said--but the thing I like about it, though, is it's not--it's got a lot of heart and it's also--like I said, it's intelligently written so it's--I mean, it's not literary fiction. It ain't "War and Peace," it ain't "Cloud Atlas," but it's smart and yet--like I said, I was laughing on every single page. People kept saying, `What are you reading? What are you doing over there?' 'cause, like, I couldn't help myself. So I can't--it's been the book that I bought everybody for Christmas and now I've been buying it for everybody for graduation that I know 'cause it's the perfect--it's the perfect book for kids graduating from high school. Although, I keep telling them it's not a how-to book 'cause I don't want anyone to turn to a life of crime to, you know, pay for college.

CONAN: Floyd, thanks very much for the suggestion. Appreciate it.

FLOYD: Thanks for letting me on.

CONAN: We'll be back with more of your calls, more of your suggestions and more from our critics, as well, when we come back from a short break. (800) 989-8255 if you'd like to join us;

It's the summer reading show on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It's time again for the lovely phenomenon of summer reading. As the weather warms, we've gone straight from spring to swelter here in Washington, DC. And as vacation hours come due, the final piece of the equation is a good book. Whether for you that means self-improvement or merely a cerebral escape, give us your suggestions for what others may take to the beach this summer. Our number is (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. E-mail us:

Our guests are David Kipen and Laura Miller, book critics for the San Francisco Chronicle and Salon respectively. You can find their summer reading picks and those of TALK OF THE NATION listeners as well as some other fun summer reading stuff at our Web site at

Now Laura began with a suggestion for a sort of genre fiction, a mystery story set in Bangkok. Any genre fiction that's appealed to you, David Kipen?

Mr. KIPEN: Oh, let me wrack my brain for just a second. Can I reach back a ways?

CONAN: Go ahead.

Mr. KIPEN: Well, OK. Let's--there is a book that maybe some of your listeners already know. This is the book that, to me, defines genre fiction. Oh--OK. "The Murder of Roger Akroyd" by Agatha Christie.

CONAN: Boy, that is going back.

Mr. KIPEN: It is. It is. And yet this is a real gateway drug for a lot of people, myself not excluded. And I think--I would recommend it for young people, too, because this is a book that sort of lures you in and you think you're reading this nice, cozy English mystery and the ending just swivels your head 180 degrees and you're not really the same reader again after dipping into it. So if anybody's of a mind to pick up a nice, old paperback and just have--you know, be knocked off your pins, I apologize for something quite so old as that, but it is the first novel that came to mind and there must be a reason for that.

CONAN: OK. Laura, let's go in the other direction. Are there things coming out later this summer that we may want to reserve a place for?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I mean, there's definitely the new Michael Cunningham novel, "Specimen Days." I think that people might find it sort of the departure from "The Hours" that it might not be quite to their taste. But it did also remind me of "Cloud Atlas," another book that I liked a lot, and I thought it was kind of an exciting departure for him.

The other one that I am excited about is a book that's being widely publicized and advertised called "The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova. That one's already out, I believe, but it, to me, is a great middle ground between the literary novel and the kind of historical mystery, a la "The Da Vinci Code." If you read "The Da Vinci Code" and were really caught up in the historical mystery part of it but just were gritting your teeth at the terrible writing and the flimsy characters and the cliches, then this is a book you might like. It is a vampire book. It does have Dracula in it, but it's not very gory. And it is a great tour of all of these kind of exotic locations. You know, the deep forests of Bulgaria, which were a very savage and wild place particularly in the '50s when part of this book is set, and Istanbul and obscure little towns with monasteries in the south of France. It's really like a little vacation between two covers with a little Dracula thrown in for good measure.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Lisa's calling from Cleveland, Ohio.

LISA (Caller): Hi, Neal. I'm so happy to be on the phone.

CONAN: Well, thanks for calling.

LISA: I'm calling to say I'm re-reading a book called "The Accidental Pope," and that is what happens with the College of Cardinals can't decide and inadvertently elects a layperson pope.


LISA: He brings the kids and everything because he's no longer a priest. He left the church to get married and inadvertently they elect him and he brings the kids to the Vatican. And it's full of mystery, yet it's full of political issues such as AIDS in Africa and women in the priesthood and kids skateboarding through the Vatican. It's a fabulous, fabulous, fun read.

CONAN: Well, after watching and listening to all that pomp and ceremony earlier this year, the transition of the popes there in Rome, a little fun would be welcome.

LISA: It's a great book. It's a fast read. It's big, but it's fast and fun.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the suggestion, Lisa.

LISA: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Jim McCauley in Ft. Collins, Colorado sends us an e-mail: `If any listeners are heading out into the wild, may I suggest a book that will illuminate their relationship with all other living things on this planet, "The Ancestor's Tale" by Richard Dawkins, written with fine style and good humor by one of the world's philosophers of science.'

Rob sends an e-mail: `Hello. I loved the first book by Susanna Clarke, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell." It's a full summer read. This book takes you to an imagined England at the time of the Napoleonic wars to an England that had a magical past, a time when practical magicians were part of the fabric of society. After a few centuries, magic is making a comeback. It's very well-written with a social, satirical wit that would make Jonathan Swift curl a smile.'

We have also a request for assistance. This is Michael McDunnah writing to us from Boise, Idaho. `My wife and I are leaving on vacation tomorrow. I'm stopping to buy a book on my way home from work tonight, and I'm really in the mood for a good thriller, page-turner like Leon Uris' "Topaz." Would you please give me a recommendation?'

David, Laura, whatcha got?

Ms. MILLER: Well, that's a little tough. I don't think I've ever read Leon Uris' "Topaz," so I might have to fall back on my "Bangkok Tattoo" recommendation. Or another really great one, if you like thrillers that sort of get involved with contemporary issues, is "Cast of Shadows" by Kevin Guilfoile, which is about--set in the near future, you know, pretty much like now except that the hero is a cloning doctor who clones--has a little DNA from the man who murdered his daughter and clones him in order--so that he can find out what the guy looks like when he grows up so that he can catch him. It sounds completely preposterous, but it's actually an incredibly clever, well-executed thriller.

CONAN: David, I confess, I have not read "Topaz." I have read other Leon Uris' works and I think I'm probably safe to say, `Sprawling epic.'

Mr. KIPEN: Yes, sprawling epic would be accurate. I made due with watching Alfred Hitckcock's sub-par version of "Topaz," which doesn't have a whole lot to recommend it. Boy, if I were to wrack my brain for a sprawling epic--gosh.

Ms. MILLER: They don't really write them so much anymore.

Mr. KIPEN: No, they've kind of fallen out of fashion. Now we get...

Ms. MILLER: Yeah.

Mr. KIPEN: ...sprawling all-ages books like "Harry Potter" and, you know, the contemporary Michener must be out there scribbling and looking for a publisher.

CONAN: OK. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Gary. Gary's calling from Buffalo, New York.

GARY (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GARY: I've had to ask myself recently: `What books influenced writers whose works I like to read?' And it has taken me to take a second or third look at some of the classics. And currently, I'm reading "Moby Dick," and it's been about 45 years since the last time I read "Moby Dick," as an example. And, of course, being the day that it is, I think we certainly need to recommended James Joyce's "Ulysses."

CONAN: Ah, of course, Bloomsday.

Mr. KIPEN: Yeah.

GARY: Yes. So anyway, my recommendation is don't neglect the classics; they're still good books.

CONAN: And you tend--read "Moby Dick," you're going to find out an awful lot about whaling.

GARY: Isn't that the truth. Now if one were to be sitting on a beach in Nantucket and reading "Moby Dick," that would even be better.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much. And just call me Ishmael.

GARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Bye.

GARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Joining us now is Steve Bercu. He's the owner of BookPeople in Austin, Texas. Publisher's Weekly recently named him Bookseller of the Year. Every year on this occasion, we invite a bookseller to join us and he's with us from the studios of member station KUT in Austin, Texas.

Welcome, Steve, and congratulations.

Mr. STEVE BERCU (Owner, BookPeople): Well, thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here.

CONAN: So what's flying off the shelves at BookPeople these days?

Mr. BERCU: Well, by the way, before I fly off the shelf, I wanted to give a sprawling recommendation to that last caller, "Misfortune" by Wesley Stace is a...

Ms. MILLER: Oh, that's on my list and I didn't even think to recommend it. Thank you.

Mr. BERCU: That's certainly a sprawling book and...

Ms. MILLER: It is, indeed.

CONAN: You know, the people who need blurbs need to write to me and I'll just send them back `sprawling epic.'

Mr. BERCU: Well, there you go. And I would also like to second "The Shadow of the Wind" recommendation that--my men's book club read that just about two months ago, I believe, and I thought it was just an incredible book, particularly if you happen to have any interest in books as a topic by themselves.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERCU: It's incredible without the setting, without everything else. But the book is--I think it's an incredible novel, and my book club almost never reads a novel...

CONAN: Really?

Mr. BERCU: we thought that was dramatic on our part.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, when you go to your next non-fiction title for your book club, what's that going to be?

Mr. BERCU: "Devil's Teeth" by Susan Casey. It's a story about two biologists and her--it's more or less a memoir, a sort of a meditation. She goes out to the--I'm not sure how to pronounce this actually, the Farralone (pronounced far-ah-yone) or the Farralone (pronounced far-ah-lahn) Islands that are just west of San Francisco...

CONAN: Farralone (pronounced far-ah-lahn).

Mr. BERCU: ...uninhabited islands--and basically stays out there while they observe great America and great white sharks. It's an incredible story. The two biologists learn a lot about great white sharks. They apparently follow migratory feeding patterns and come there each year to eat seals, basically.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BERCU: But the inner play between her, the sharks, the biologists is--it's a great story. It's sort of a combination adventure story, good novel, good meditation, but it happens to be a true story.

CONAN: Hmm. Here's an e-mail from Suzy Katey(ph): `My friends and I, from age 13 to 70, have thoroughly enjoyed "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" by Mark Haddon, a feel-good book with humor and touching moments written first-person narrative of an autistic teen; just a great book. I have an 11-year-old reading at adult level and trying to find age-appropriate subject matter that matches her reading level is getting more difficult. She really enjoyed the first two "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants" books, but the third one has sexual content. Any suggestions for her?

And any of you, just jump in there.

Ms. MILLER: Well, if she's 11 years old, she cannot go wrong with reading "The Golden Compass" by Philip Pullman, which is the first of a trilogy that so many kids--so many smart, kind of ahead-of-the-crowd kids her age just really love.

CONAN: OK. There is going to be a Harry Potter book out later this summer; I think I've heard something about that.

Mr. KIPEN: Rumor has it.

CONAN: Yeah--something about it--I'm sure it's already been stolen already. Is it on the Internet already, David?

Mr. KIPEN: They--I haven't seen it on the Internet. Supposedly some guy wanted to sell a manuscript of it for $90,000 and got himself a nice, long British prison hitch instead.

CONAN: What...

Ms. MILLER: The security is very tight in that operation.

CONAN: Heather Kalisiak--I hope I got that right--in North Tonawanda--I know I got that right--New York: `Our entire family--myself, my husband, our seven-year-old son and our four-year-old daughter--are all anxiously awaiting the "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which won't be released until July 17th. We'll cheat, though, and listen to it on CD, all 672 pages, according to I'd be totally hoarse reading it aloud.' So that gives you the date on which the official release of "Harry Potter" will be coming out.

We're talking with three book people: Steve Bercu, who owns the book shop of that name in Austin, Texas; David Kipen, who's a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle; and Laura Miller, who's a book critic for Salon. This is our annual summer reading show. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another caller on the line: Rodney. Rodney's with us from Cleveland, Ohio.

RODNEY (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you and your guests today?

CONAN: I'm well. I think they are, too.

RODNEY: Good. The book I want to recommend is one called "Pest Control" by Bill Fitzhugh. I this came out, like, maybe like in the middle '90s somewhere. But it has to do with our hero, Bob Dillon, who happens to be a bug exterminator, who places an ad in The New York Times trying to get people interested in his all-natural pest control, which--he uses bugs to kill other bugs. Unfortunately for Bob, though, a group of international assassins and drug cartel also picked up his ad, and they think that he's one of them.

CONAN: I see.

RODNEY: So now you have an entire community of people who are after Bob, who has no idea what's going on around him. People are dying left and right and other assassins are going, `Hey, this guy is good. We gotta get rid of him!' But then--and "Pest Control"...

CONAN: So hilarity ensues. Yes.

RODNEY: a wonderful read. It's a very quick read and I just wanted to give it to your crowd.

CONAN: And the writer's name again?

RODNEY: Bill Fitzhugh.

CONAN: Bill Fitzhugh. Thanks very much, Rodney.

RODNEY: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Alyssa Frances(ph): `I'm trying to decide between finishing "A Hundred Years of Solitude" or chucking--ha, ha--it all and reading "Diary" by Chuck Palahniuk. Help! I'm going to the big island of Hawaii in a week for a week.'

Chuck Palahniuk? David?

Mr. KIPEN: Sure. He's the guy who wrote "Fight Club." That's probably his most widely read book. And I wouldn't steer anybody...

CONAN: You're not allowed to talk about "Fight Club."

Mr. KIPEN: No, sorry about that. We can cut that out later. I have nothing against his work, and I want to put in a good word for taking a breather in the middle of "A Hundred Years of Solitude," because that's a book I started about 15 years before I finished it. And I wouldn't go around recommending that recklessly, but I found that the book had changed and grown and, presumably, I had, too, in the interim. So there's no shame in having a palate cleanser before you come back from your vacation and finish it.

CONAN: Let's go now to Jason--Jason in Raleigh, North Carolina.

JASON (Caller): Hello. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well.

JASON: My recommendation is for "American Gods" by Neil Gaiman. It's a couple years old, but I think it's a great travel book.

CONAN: It's a terrific science fiction novel by a wonderful guy who's best known for writing comic books.

JASON: That's right. That's right. I've read them all.

Ms. MILLER: He's got a new book coming out this fall, too. I also loved "American Gods." So you might want to look for his new book. I think it's called...

JASON: "The Anansi Boys."

Ms. MILLER: Yeah.

CONAN: I do have to say "American Gods" was considerably better than his other books, his comic books aside--those are great stuff. But "American Gods" is really the best of Neil Gaiman's books.

JASON: It was wonderful. And it--again, for anybody taking a trip over the summer, I think that's a great book to read because it takes place all over the Midwest and everything.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the suggestion, Jason.

JASON: Yeah.

CONAN: And, Steve Bercu, I don't know about you; "American Gods"--good, fat paperback. That, to me, spells summer reading.

Mr. BERCU: Well, yeah, we--yes, it does. Of course, I brought you some new books to talk about, so I brought some big, fat hardbacks, I guess. I wanted to...

CONAN: Well, why don't you give us a couple?

Mr. BERCU: Well, one--another one I think's a great, great book--it's along the same line as this Neal Gaiman--is "Lint," by Steve Aylett. It's another science fiction book, but it's a very good one. He's a great British science fiction writer. This one's a mock biography the life of a science fiction writer named Jeff Lint, and it goes from his early days when he was doing pulp fiction to comic books to his screenplays. It's got details from all of it, cover art from his books, and all of this is, of course, made up. There is no such person as Jeff Lint. It's dense, it's funny; it's a great book on a lot of different levels. He's not a well-known author in the United States, but he really ought to be.

CONAN: We've got time for one more recommendation before we go to the break. Steve?

Mr. BERCU: Yeah. Well, "Acts of Faith" by Philip Caputo, that's another book that I'm very high on. It fits into what someone was saying earlier about getting a little information in a fiction form. This book takes place in the Sudan. It's, I guess you could say, you know, a modern version of "The Quiet American." In this case, it's--the protagonist is a fellow named Douglas Braithwaite, who is considered to be a mercenary with a heart, I believe. He founds Knight Air, which is a charter airline that starts taking risks in the Sudan that the United Nations won't take, but he ultimately devolves into gun running and drug running. And he--the story has a whole lot of elements with some great character development. It's really an excellent, long, atmospheric novel that will you through a lot of the summer.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we'll finish up our conversation on summer reading and talk about a new documentary which tells the story of a professor whose research led him from his college campus to the devastating bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad, "Pulled from the Rubble."

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're discussing summer books this hour, and the seasonal theme continues tomorrow on "Science Friday." Ira Flatow turns the conversation to summertime science, from keeping safe from the sun to the worldwide variety of bees--and where did they all go? That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION/"Science Friday."

Our guests right now are book critics Laura Miller of Salon and David Kipen of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Steve Bercu is the owner of the fine bookstore BookPeople in Austin, Texas. They're all with us.

Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Kate. Kate's in Livonia, Michigan.

KATE (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Kate.

KATE: The book I would like to recommend is called "A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian." It's by an English author who is the child of immigrants. The story is about--it has to do with the immigrant experience, also about the relationship between people and families. And what it has to do with is when a new immigrant comes and tries to gold-dig her way into an established family. It's very--it's funny, it's hilarious in spots; I think anybody who, you know, is part of an immigrant family or who knows a lot about immigrants will think this book is just tremendous.

CONAN: David, I heard you `humph'-ing.

Mr. KIPEN: Yeah, that was my...

CONAN: Is that a recommendation?

Mr. KIPEN: That was definitely a recommendation. I've only read about half of this book, but I'm dying to get back to it. The author's name is Marina Lewycka, and oh, God, it's just really witty and enjoyable. I second the recommendation in the highest possible terms.

CONAN: Kate, thanks for the call.

KATE: Thank you.

CONAN: `"Last Days of Summer" by Steve Kluger or Kruger(ph)--I can't remember which. Sorry.'--this from Joe Corey(ph). `It's a book for two types of people, the ones who love baseball and the ones who could care less about it. It's hilarious and touching, told in the form of letters between a kid and a pro baseball player.'

And this is also another recommendation from David Berensen(ph) in Cleveland, Ohio: `I get so many recommendations for the well-known books, but I have to recommend one that nobody else I've known has heard of: "The Childhood of Sherlock Holmes." Imagine that. Someone thought of creating an early biography of a fictional character, and it's really quite involved and good; even includes some thrilling crime-solving, and I'm not even one of those Sherlock Holmes fanatics I've heard about.'

And, Laura, this reminds me--isn't there a new book out about Sherlock Holmes as a much older man?

Ms. MILLER: Yes. Actually, there are two; one by Michael Chabon, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay," and then a new book called "A Slight Trick of the Mind," by a writer named Mitch Cullin, which is not exactly a summer read, but it is one of the best novels I've read this year. It's mysterious, but in a kind of metaphysical way, and it's one of the best depictions I've ever read of what it's like to have so many years of experience that you see life in, really, a different way than young people do. And the idea that your life is like a fine wine that gets more complex and interesting as it gets older--although in this case, Sherlock Holmes has a lot of sorrows as well.

CONAN: Let's talk now with Billie. Billie is in San Mateo, California.

BILLIE (Caller): Yes. I'd like to recommend "Oh, the Glory of It All" by Sean Wilsey. I also went to the book reading. I picked up the book right after I had given my final exam at the end of the semester. I was so tired. Do you know, I read this book in one sitting! It was so...

Mr. KIPEN: Not a short book, either.

BILLIE: You know, it's funny, and I really think that it would appeal to all ages, because he talks about skateboarding, he talks about the 1906 earthquake; so I think people of all ages would love it.

CONAN: Hm. Thanks, Billie.


CONAN: Here's a question, an e-mail question, from Nan: `What do you suggest for a grandmother whose favorite author is Jane Austen? This should indicate how narrow my parameters are.'

Any ideas, Steve Bercu, for a grandmother who loves Jane Austen?

Mr. BERCU: Well, let me see. I don't know--trying to think who would be good for a grandmother who loves Jane Austen. Well, I'm drawing a blank right now.

CONAN: Laura?

Ms. MILLER: Well, that's always tough, because hardly anybody is better than Jane Austen, but she might be interested in Karen Joy Fowler's "The Jane Austen Book Club."

Mr. KIPEN: Ooh, yeah.

CONAN: And...

Ms. MILLER: That's a great book. It's about a bunch of people who like Jane Austen, one of whom, I believe, is a grandmother.

CONAN: OK. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to A.G., A.G. calling from Vancouver in Washington.

A.G. (Caller): Hello. How are you?

CONAN: Very good.

A.G.: I wanted to recommend a book by Zsa Zsa Gershick. It came out in May. It's called "Secret Service."

CONAN: Is it about the appalling difficulties of being the other person named Zsa Zsa?

A.G.: No, it's about the appalling difficulties of being a lesbian serving in the US military, and she's done a really good job of putting together a number of vignettes of what it was like to serve and what it's like to serve right now.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

A.G.: The reason I like it for summer reading is because a lot of times, I get interrupted, and I can read these vignettes of these women's lives in a short period of time and then pick it up again. And the other thing is that a lot of the people who are serving right now aren't really going to be relaxing on a beach anywhere, and it's a really good opportunity, I think, to remember that we have lots of women soldiers and airmen and that they are in places where they're in harm's way.

CONAN: Indeed, we should remember that. But maybe not on the beach. I don't know. A.G., thanks very much.

A.G.: Well, that's the best time to remember it.

CONAN: OK. Appreciate the phone call.

A.G.: Thank you.

CONAN: And we're going to ask all of you for one more recommendation, and why don't we begin with David Kipen.

Mr. KIPEN: Sure. There's a book called "Any Bitter Thing." It's a novel by a woman named Monica Wood, who's been turning out good novels every few years from Maine for--I don't know--about 10 years now. This is a story about a woman whose marriage isn't in the greatest of shape. She goes for a run and gets hit by a car, and she has this experience in the hospital room of being visited by her uncle, a priest with whom she lived for years in youth, and who's dead, so far as she knows. And after she wakes up from her coma, she starts to investigate how he was disgraced in the course of a scandal in his parish, and it's a very artfully plotted book, and the woman's whole life is somehow enriched by this exploration. It's a really sensitive, humane book, and cunning, in its way, 'cause it sort of sneaks up on you and leaves you with a real impact I don't think anybody would have imagined going in.

CONAN: David Kipen, book cricket--critic for the San Francisco...

Mr. KIPEN: Book cricket, yeah.

CONAN: critic, yes, for the San Francisco--you know, they pay me big bucks to talk on the radio--San Francisco Chronicle, joined us from our bureau in Los Angeles, the studios of NPR West. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. KIPEN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: Laura Miller, one more recommendation.

Ms. MILLER: Well, I'm going to recommend a book that I picked up because I thought it would be a legal thriller, and we should have a legal thriller on our list if we can find a good one. It's called "In the Shadow of the Law" by Kermit Roosevelt, and yes, he is one of those Roosevelts. And it didn't actually turn out to be exactly a legal thriller, although there's a couple of mysteries in it. And it's about the most unpromising subject, which is corporate law in Washington, DC. But it is a hilarious portrait of what it's like to be a young lawyer just starting out. I don't know how accurate it is, because I'm not a lawyer myself, but it--the characters are so vivid and so funny, and the situations that they get into are both classic, that anyone can relate to, and at the same time you learn a lot about what the most powerful lawyers in the world do, and it's never boring.

CONAN: Hm. Laura Miller, book critic for Salon. Thank you very much for being with us.

Ms. MILLER: Thank you.

CONAN: And finally, we go to Steve Bercu, the owner of BookPeople in Austin, Texas. One more book, Steve.

Mr. BERCU: OK. I'll just end with something light: "The Right Madness" by James Crumley. It's another of Crumley's mystery stories. He's a detective from Minnesota who lives in Montana and who is off on an easy job for a friend of his. It leads to, like most of his books, a mass of drugs, alcohol and blood, but the thing about Crumley is that he never sacrifices his characters for this action. He's a great writer, more or less in the school of Chandler, Dashiell Hammett. He's a great--it'll be a great read, easy, light and good for the summer.

CONAN: Steve Bercu, thanks very much, and continued good luck with your bookstore.

Mr. BERCU: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Steve Bercu is the owner of BookPeople in Austin, Texas, and joined us from the studios of member station KUT in Austin.

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