'Talk of the Nation' Summer Reading List Memorial Day means summer and summer, of course, means time for reading. Book critics and guests offer their on what's new and interesting.
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'Talk of the Nation' Summer Reading List

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'Talk of the Nation' Summer Reading List

'Talk of the Nation' Summer Reading List

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From NPR News in Washington, DC, I'm Neal Conan, and this is TALK OF THE NATION.

As summer gets underway, it's time to think about the books you may want to escape in once you get to the beach or the backyard. A thriller maybe, like Alex Berenson's The Faithful Spy about CIA operative John Wells.

Mr. ALEX BERENSON (Author): He'd been undercover since the late '90s and, in fact, was aware before September 11th that there was going to be some kind of attack and so ever since then has vowed that he's gonna make sure that doesn't happen again.

CONAN: The TALK OF THE NATION Summer Reading List.

(Soundbite of the news)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Memorial Day means summer, and, of course, summer means it's time for the TALK OF THE NATION'S annual Summer Reading List. You know that's always the first thing that comes to everyone's mind as they make their plans for this season. That's why we've invited some book experts to give us their recommendations on what's new and interesting, and of course we want your suggestions as well.

What kind of summer reading do you like: fantasy, biography, literature or page-turners? Maybe it's mystery or history. Later on in the program, San Francisco Giants' play-by-play man Dave Flemming, whose mike died yesterday as Barry Bond's 715th homerun soared out of the ballpark. Oh, the humanity.

But first, help us compile our Summer Reading List. What are you or your book club taking to the cabin or to the living room couch this summer? Join the conversation. Our number in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK, and our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Laura Miller is the book critic for Salon and a regular contributor to our Summer Reading List. She joins us now from our bureau in New York. Good to talk to you again, Laura.

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

CONAN: Also with us is Oscar Villalon. He is the book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, with us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. OSCAR VILLALON (Book Editor, San Francisco Chronicle): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And our third guest is Charlotte Abbott, senior editor at Publishers Weekly, also at our bureau in New York, tucked up there next to Laura Miller, I guess. Thank you for joining us today.

Ms. CHARLOTTE ABBOTT (Senior Editor, Publishers Weekly): Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Laura, let's start with you. What's number one on your list for reading this summer?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I think the book that a lot of people are gonna be talking about, although it's definitely a very intense book with some gruesome moments in it, is The Ruins by Scott Smith. This is a book that if you - I would not recommend you pick it up if you have anything else you need to do in the next eight hours or so because you're not gonna want to put it back down again.

It's about five backpackers who are stranded in a Mexican jungle, and it's a kind of a combination of a very sort of grueling survival story - they have to deal with some basic issues like food and water, and then there's an extra menace that takes them a long time to understand.

And the thing that's so gripping about it is that it's very realistic. The people behave in very realistic ways, and the problems they face are very realistic, and yet there is this extra added element of horror to it that kind of takes it over the edge.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. MILLER: It's a book that a lot of people are gonna wanna talk to other people about when they finish it.

CONAN: This extra menace. You're not gonna tell us what this extra menace is.

Ms. MILLER: No, I don't wanna ruin it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Charlotte Abbott, is this gonna be the The Da Vinci Code of this summer?

Ms. ABBOTT: Well, I would definitely say I've been hearing a lot of buzz about it, especially come out of the Book Expo, which was last weekend. That's when all the booksellers get together.

CONAN: Mm hmm. And so there is definitely a buzz about it, and is there something that you're looking forward to reading when you go to the beach?

Ms. ABBOTT: Well, I'll tell you one thing that everybody was talking about at Book Expo, was a novel called Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, which is just out in hardcover from Algonquin, and one of the causes of excitement was that it's one of the first works of fiction that's really taken off. It's been a quiet spring, I think, in the wake of James Frey and Katya Basnowathen(ph), and the sort of plagiarism and memoir scandals have kind of dampened enthusiasm for books for a while.


Ms. ABBOTT: This one is, it's set, it's about a veterinarian who joins a second-rate circus during the Depression, and there's a love story. He falls in love with one of the performers. Unfortunately, she's married to a psychotic animal trainer, so it has a sentimental tinge, but a lot of people are enjoying it for its historical detail and, of course, for the love story.

CONAN: Hmm. Let's get Oscar into the mix out in San Francisco. Oscar Villalon, what's your number one pick for the summer?

Mr. VILLALON: Well, my number one pick is actually a book that came out in 1956, originally, but was reissued not too long ago by the New York Review of Books. It's Oakley Hall's Western Warlock, which some people may remember from, I guess, the movie with Anthony Quinn and Richard Widmark.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. VILLALON: But it is astounding, frankly. It's a big, fat tome, in the best sense. It's beautifully written, and it's absolutely, it's absolutely gripping. Technically, yeah, it's a Western in that it involves the town of Warlock. It's set somewhere, probably, it could be around, it looks like Arizona, around the Arizona-Mexico border, and it's a struggle for the civility of the town.

That is to say, are they going to let the outsiders, who literally live outside the town take control of it or will civilization triumph in the form of the businessmen and their plans for, you know, for basically, well, growing the town and making it respectable and maybe one day even making it a county seat?

Now that's the, if you will, that's the front story. But the backdrop, real story, is that this struggle becomes, well, you know, a metaphor for the whole American experience, basically, not only of trying to settle a, you know, so-called wild land but also dealing with the fact of how vicious people can be, you know, doing, you know, evil in the name of good, these sort of things.

And it's also just, it's just flat-out suspenseful, and the action is beautiful, and the characterizations are lovely. It's literature. Don't mistake it for, you know, for anything else. It is actually literature, but it's a beautiful genre work.

CONAN: When was it first published? With that cast in the movie, some time ago.

Mr. VILLALON: Right. I think 1956 is when the book originally came out, and the New York Review of Books reissued it with an introduction by Robert Stone and with a blurb from, of all people, Thomas Pynchon, who apparently could not get enough of the book when he was in Cornell and just read and re-read it and re-read it.

It's told in two different ways. One, there is a diary that's written by one of the local businessmen, and it's written in this arch Victorian sort of speak, and it's very florid and funny. And then the rest of it is in this third-person omniscient. That's this plain, stripped-down prose but very, very muscular, and it's a prose that if you've read Cormac McCarthy or Robert Stone, you'll recognize it right away, and basically Oakley Hall was the first guy to do this.

He's probably more better known now for running the UC Irvine MFA program and also for running the Squaw Valley Writer's Workshop for years and years and years. But I'm telling you, this book, it's perfect for the summer. It's fat. It's like 500-odd pages. It'll totally involve you, and it's gruesome in some parts, but also in others, just the descriptions of the landscapes are just stunning, also stunning because of the fact that, you know, he does in few sentences what some people would, you know, milk for paragraphs. Anyway.

CONAN: Anyway, if you're...

Mr. VILLALON: Anyhow, that's, it's a good book, is what I'm saying.

CONAN: If you're scurrying around the house looking for a pencil to write down some of these titles, don't worry. You can go to our website. Our critics have been kind enough to give us their lists to post on our website at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

We're also gonna be adding our listeners' recommendations, so call and tell us what you're picking up to pack for the beach this summer or whether you're going, in fact, to the beach or just the backyard, 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our email address is talk@npr.org. Let's get some recommendations from Carl, Carl calling from Sonoma in California.

CARL (Caller): Hi, this is Carl from Sonoma.


CARL: It looks like the Bush administration's taken us into an endless war, so my wife and I are reading American Theocracy by Kevin Phillips and State of War by James Risen to try to give us some more perspective on this endless war.

CONAN: That's pretty heavy literature for summertime reading, don't you think?

CARL: Well, it's a pretty heavy time in our history, don't you agree?

CONAN: I would.

CARL: It's time to read something serious instead of fluff. Americans and untold numbers of Iraqis are dying for oil.

CONAN: Mmm. Charlotte Abbott, is summertime in the publishing industry seen as - thank you very much, by the way, Carl, and we'll add your recommendations...

CARL: Thank you.

CONAN: ...to our webpage. Is summertime reading seen as a - well, those are pretty thick, dense works, you know, Cobra II, the recent history of the invasion of Iraq. Is summer when those kind of books sell or is it more page-turner time?

Ms. ABBOTT: Well, I think, certainly most people think of it as page-turner time. But it's been interesting in the last couple of years because political books really have had more of an audience. And I think for some of these heavier books, people have a little bit more time to delve into something that's dense. And when they're on vacation they can mix it up with other, lighter things.

So it's going to be interesting to see because we're going into the midterm elections. There's a lot of political books coming down the pike this fall. Some are starting to land a little bit in the summer. And it's a question, you know, how well they're going to do. How many people are feeling what that caller was feeling.

CONAN: Mm hmm. We'll find out, I guess. Is summertime - the spring lists come out, is that with an eye towards summer?

Ms. ABBOTT: Absolutely. This April was a very heavy month, a lot of books landing in anticipation of Mother's Day and Father's Day, which were two of the biggest book-buying holidays. And usually whatever becomes a bestseller in those months tends to carry through to the summer.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another listener's suggestion. Jeannie, Jeannie calling from Swallow Meadows in California.

JEANNIE (Caller): It's Squaw Meadows.

CONAN: Squaw, okay, go ahead.

JEANNIE: By the Sierras. And I'd like to recommend The Last Season. It just came out April 1st and it's by Eric Blehm Bleem(ph), B-L-E-H-M. It's an incredible read.

CONAN: And what's it about?

JEANNIE: It's about a true story of a backcountry ranger in Square Kings National Park. He went missing, I think, in 1996. And so it's the whole epic of finding him and, you know, what a search is involved - what's involved in a search in a national park. But it's also a really interesting perspective on what is like being a backcountry ranger.

And I just - it was an incredible read. I'm giving it to a lot of friends for summer. If you backpack, if you go into the mountains - it's in hardcover. But well written. It's just a great, great read.

CONAN: Is this a true story or one that purports to be true?

JEANNIE: True story. The ranger's name is Randy Morgenson...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

JEANNIE: ...so the story's his life and, like I said, about what rangers do and how rangering has changed since the Wilderness Act came into - since that was legislated. Very interesting.

CONAN: All right, thanks very much.

JEANNIE: You're welcome, take care.

CONAN: Bye. Oscar Villalon, do you have any nonfiction recommendations for this summer?

Mr. VILLALON: Actually, I do. The one that I'm recommending is Adam Hochschild's book Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels and the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. It came out, I think, in last far, but it's still in hardcover. It may be coming - actually, I think it's actually now on paperback. But anyway, Hochschild, your listeners may know him from his last book, King Leopold's Ghost, which was his nonfiction account...

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Mr. VILLALON: ...of the Belgian king and his atrocities.

CONAN: Brutalities.

Mr. VILLALON: Yeah, right. That he oversaw in the Congo. And this is sort of an offshoot from that, because what Hochschild did was he went back to sort of that story and looked at the - basically, what was the first human rights movement in the West, where you had a group of people, and a small group of people, who banded together and basically said that slavery was unacceptable. Now, they did this at a time when slavery was more the common condition than freedom. I mean, we tend to focus on, you know, just the South and stuff. But anyway, that's the one. It's a beautiful piece of narrative history, if I may use the word beautiful again.

CONAN: All right. We're talking today about summer reading, ours and yours: 800-989-8255, e-mail talk@npr.org. We'll all be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Today we're compiling the TALK OF THE NATION summer reading list. We've asked book critics and experts to give us some of their thoughts on page turners and literature for this summer. You can see the full list of their picks and some listener choices too at the TALK OF THE NATION page at NPR.org.

Our guests are Laura Miller, book critic for Salon; Oscar Villalon, the book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, and Charlotte Abbot, senior editor at Publisher's Weekly. Of course you're invited to participate as well: 800-989-8255 is our phone number. You can also send us email, talk@npr.org.

And Laura Miller, as we mentioned, page turners, any mysteries in your list this year?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I do have one. The new sort of darling of the crime-writing field is a woman named Denise Mina. She's Scottish. And her second book to feature the character Paddy Meehan, who is a very young, working-class woman working for a newspaper trying to get a - make a career for herself as a journalist in Glasgow, in the 1980s, when she's the only woman in the office.

And she is this kind of insecure, awkward but ambitious young woman who's trying to make her way in the world and then also sort of trying to figure out what's going on in some of these stories that she covers. And it's a - the first book was called The Field of Blood. And the new one is called The Dead Hour because it's about how she has to work the nightshift in Glasgow, which is not the cheeriest time to begin with.

CONAN: No, it's not.

Ms. MILLER: And it's very gritty and very realistic and - you know, she's just a very sympathetic character.

CONAN: And why don't we go to Oscar Villalon, and any ideas for science fiction this summer?

Mr. VILLALON: Well, yes, but technically it's not a sci-fi story when it came out. It's Kazuo Ishiguro novel Never Let Me Go. Ostensibly - this gets into a whole, something else, completely different, which is the idea that sometimes we don't find it compatible to say that something that's a genre work is also literature.

But anyway, this book is, Ishiguro's novel, about - it's a coming of age story essentially of children who live in this sort of specialized school. And they live there from when they're very little to - all the way through high school and graduate. And essentially they're clones, human clones. And their destiny in life is essentially to provide organs.

Now that sounds - now that's the sci-fi and sounds very grim, but actually, what it becomes is this beautiful meditation. There's that word again. Must be the weather in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VILLALON: It becomes this meditation on the loss of innocence and coping with your mortality. Ishiguro wrote, of course, The Remains of the Day, which most people probably know his work, and that same sort of subtlety in his writing and that same sort of subtlety in his characterization, and carefully paints these pictures of these people, are there.

But at the same time, there's also sort of that creepy vibe from the outside knowing that what's going to happen to them. Because of course, you can only donate so many organs before you can't donate anything at all.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. VILLALON: So that plays in the background. Again I mean, technically, it's, you know, sci-fi, but it's also literature. It's both.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. Anthony calling from Cape May in New Jersey.

ANTHONY (Caller): Yeah, hi. I actually had three books and then I thought of a quick fourth one also. First off, Altered Carbon by, I think it's Richard Thomas, outstanding cyberpunk sci-fi, very gritty and wonderfully...

CONAN: I believe that's Richard Morgan who wrote that.

ANTHONY: Oh, Richard Morgan, I'm sorry. I don't know why I came up with Richard Thomas. You're right, Richard Morgan.

CONAN: And he's written two other any - boy, he's a terrific writer.

ANTHONY: He's fantastic. Still, Altered Carbon is my favorite of the three. Also, Absurdistan, which I think was also profiled on another show on NPR, fantastic book.

Ms. MILLER: The author of that is Gary Shteyngart.

ANTHONY: Gary Shteyngart, thank you. And also Al Franken's The Truth with Jokes, literally kept me laughing. And The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama.

CONAN: By the Dalai Lama?

ANTHONY: Yes, it is...

CONAN: Not the...

ANTHONY: It is an excellent piece of work.

CONAN: All right, Anthony, thanks very much.

ANTHONY: Thank you.

CONAN: What's Absurdistan about?

Ms. MILLER: Absurdistan is about a young man, he's around 30, and very, very, very big man who is a Russian citizen but he's been going to college in the U.S. and he gets stranded in Russia and he's trying to get back to the U.S. and he has all these kind of grotesque and hilarious and horrifying adventures in post-Soviet Russia and this satellite state called Absurdistan.

CONAN: All right. Let's get another caller in. This is Garreth, and Garreth's with us from San Francisco.

GARRET (Caller): Yeah, hi. First of all, I'd like to say hi to Charlotte. She's an old friend of mine. I haven't talked to her in a long time.

Ms. ABBOTT: Garreth, hello!

GARRETH: Hey, how you doing? So great to hear you.

Ms. ABBOTT: Likewise.


CONAN: (Unintelligible) apartment? Anyway, go ahead.

GARRETH: I'm sorry, what?

CONAN: I was just making a joke, go ahead.

GARRETH: Okay. I'm really quite busy, so I usually don't have a lot of time to sit down and do a lot of reading. But I've been doing a lot of reading of poetry, and I'm wondering if anybody has any suggestions on summer poetry reading. I've been reading a lot of Jarrel(ph) now that we're involved in this fabulous crisis. And just - and I'm wondering if anybody has any contemporary...

Ms. ABBOTT: I can actually think of somebody who is great if you don't have a lot of time. Her name is Kay Ryan and she writes very short poems that have the advantage that you almost never find in contemporary poetry, which is that they're very witty. And I have often been reading her books. The one that I think of, off the top of my head, is Elephant Rocks. But she has a more recent one that's called Niagara.

And I've been reading them on the subway sometimes and laughed out loud. And I think that that's probably the most extraordinary thing about them, is that they're literally so clever and so funny that...

GARRETH: Yeah...

Ms. ABBOTT: ...you might laugh out loud.

GARRETH: I actually heard Kay Ryan, recently, speaking about her work, and it sounds really great. I haven't actually - I've yet to read her, but I'm...

Mr. VILLALON: Oh, she's good, yeah.

Ms. ABBOTT: They're also very short.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRETH: That's good.

Mr. VILLALON: And along those lines too, I mean, it came out a while ago, but if you want to check out James Fenton's last poetry collection, Out of Danger, that also has the, you know, the advantage of being, you know, brief but also incredibly witty, very moving and rhythmic.

GARRETH: Terrific.

CONAN: All right. You keep saying brief. People don't write epic poetry much anymore, do they?

Mr. VILLALON: W.S. Merwin does.

Ms. ABBOTT: Some of them can seem pretty long.

CONAN: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARRETH: They can be long.

Mr. VILLALON: Check out Merwin's book on Hawaii if you want epic. That's a...

Ms. ABBOTT: A typical Kay Ryan poem might be only eight or 10 lines long. So, very, very short.

CONAN: You might also want to try, in honor of Stanley Kunitz, who just passed away, the former - to look up some of his, maybe his collected poems or go back to some of his work.

GARRETH: Oh yeah.

CONAN: And they're all short too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Garreth, thanks very much. And catch up with your friends, not on the radio, okay.

GARRETH: I certainly will.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right.

GARRETH: All right.

CONAN: All right, let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Ronnie, Ronnie calling from New York City.

RONNIE (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to have - I wanted to ask two questions. Number one, is anyone looking forward to the next Harry Potter book or is it just me? Because, I don't know, I'm in the middle of reading all this serious stuff about the ward and everything, the world of mongrels and wizards just seems that much, you know, more enthralling.

CONAN: I think it's you and me, Ronnie, and about 14 billion kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VILLALON: Harry who?

RONNIE: I know! It just seems so much better to read about that than open a newspaper and read about what's going on in the rest of the world.

CONAN: Yeah.

RONNIE: And I have one more question to the people, you know, in your panel, that is there anything good in the historical genre which is going to come out this summer which doesn't have the word Da Vinci, Templar, Priory of Scion and, gosh, one more, Mary Magdalene. Anything like that?

Ms. MILLER: I actually - I do have one.

CONAN: Go ahead.

Ms. MILLER: It's called The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, and it is set in the early 19th century at West Point when Edgar Allan Poe was either a student or a cadet. I can't remember what his exact status was. And there is mystery. Some of the cadets turn up dead and a detective comes in to figure out what's going on and Edgar Allan Poe becomes his friend and assistant in solving this mystery. It's very moody. You know, it very much has the feeling of the Hudson River Valley in the early 1900s. And it's fairly accurate about Edgar Allen Poe's personality. So you might want to check that one out.

Mr. VILLALON: Also, I recommend, along those lines in terms of a historical novel - would be Luis Alberto Urrea's novel, The Hummingbird's Daughter. It won the Kuriyama Prize, I think, this year. And it's set in northern Mexico in the state of Sinaloa, which is sort of like central north.

Anyway, it's his story basically, about a relative of his, I guess, who at some point became sort of like this unofficial saint. And it's 19th century Mexico going into the early 20th century. It's beautiful. There's that word. And he was a poet, and so every single line in that book is written with a sort of care that you normally don't find in a lot of novels. And the pages fly by. And it's got everything in it. It's got war, love, tragedy. It's hilarious. And it's probably, you know, one of the best novels frankly to come out in the last five years.

CONAN: Ronnie, were you looking for historical fiction or history?

RONNIE (Caller): History mainly, actually. But, you know, I think the first one that she said, the Edgar Allen Poe one, really seems interesting.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

RONNIE: And one more thing, just a quick anecdote. I had a big discussion with one of my nieces in India and they're all convinced that Harry is the final hocrux. So, if J.K. Rowling turns up with that, you heard it from me first.

CONAN: Alright, well, speaking of history books, Nathaniel Philbrick, who had, of course, great success with his previous books, has a doorstop coming out about the pilgrims. Anybody read that?

Mr. VILLALON: The Mayflower.


Mr. VILLALON: It's about the Mayflower.

CONAN: And it goes all the way to King Philip's War. I've just read the blurb, I haven't read the book. But it's - he's certainly describing the trials of that whaler The Essex - had a great success with that. So, this is a new one coming out. So, anyway, thanks for the call Ronnie. Appreciate it. And let's see if we can get another caller in on this. Let's go to Anya(ph). Anya calling from Green Bay, in Wisconsin.

ANYA (Caller): Yes, hello. Thanks for having me on, first of all.

CONAN: Sure.

ANYA: And it is a summer ritual of mine, you've caught me out here in the garden, to read The Great Gatsby every year. Since I was about 12.

CONAN: What about that book entrances you to such a degree that you read it every year?

ANYA: Well, I think because it's A) so beautifully written and so concisely written. Hunter Thompson used to retype the book, just to practice the act of writing, because it's so well done. There's not one word more or less than you actually need to tell the story.

CONAN: Hmm. I always associate Gatsby with summertime because, by chance, my family used to go see the fireworks in Rockville, Maryland, and we watched from the graveyard where Fitzgerald is buried.

ANYA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, it's a beautiful book and I think it outlines a time that sort of created the sort of, the birthing place of those myths, of sort of the high ideals of what America can be, and it's also a cautionary tale.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, thank you very much.

ANYA: Well, thank you.

CONAN: We're compiling today's talk of - this summer's TALK OF THE NATION summer reading list. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And was that Oscar trying to get in there?

Mr. VILLALON: Yeah. No, I was going to say, there's nothing wrong with reading classics. In fact, you know, often - frankly with all the books that come out every single year - and summer, you know, being perhaps the time people have the most time, you know, just to relax and to indulge themselves, in terms of, you know, whiling away the hours. There's nothing wrong with reading the Gatsby's; and, you know, The Sound and the Fury's; and whatever it is you want to read that are classics. Lord knows that they've, at least, stood, you know, the test of time.

CONAN: Laura Miller, like me, you do a lot of reading professionally. It's such a pleasure. I always describe it as getting the chance to read a book without a pen in my hand.

Ms. MILLER: Well, I don't know if that happens very often in my case. Even when I'm reading - we do our summer reading special, which we call Page Turners with a Brain at Salon. And even when I'm plowing through, very quickly, a lot of really great, well written, but still very plot-driven novels, like I am right now, I still have that pen in my hand.

CONAN: Still have the pen in your hand. Charlotte Abbott, do you get to - what do you read when you take the pen out of your hand?

Ms. ABBOTT: It's hard to think of a book that I haven't read with a pen in the hand. I guess, certain graphic novels that might interfere with, you know, with what I'm finding on the page. And actually, speaking of those, there's a book that's coming out next month that I really love.

It's called Fun Home by Alison Bechtel. She's been around for over 20 years. She wrote a strip, a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, that's been around for a really long time - sort of chronicling lesbian culture for many years. And by people like Harvey Pekar, and really well-known graphic artists, really hail her as sort of one of the godmothers of graphic work.

And she's written a memoir where she puts her entire life under the microscope. Plus it's a wonderful father daughter story. She lived in a family with many secrets, and you learn quickly, what some of her father's were. And it's really, you know, like an onion she sort of unpeels the layers of her life. And it's a really haunting, wonderful story that I think, anyone who grew up in a family with secrets, can relate to.

Ms. MILLER: This is a book that a lot of people are talking about this summer.

CONAN: Really?

Ms. MILLER: Yeah.

CONAN: Are graphic novels - has this medium grown up?

Mr. VILLALON: Oh, yeah.

Ms. MILLER: Well, and I also think that the graphic memoir, which is, you know, Maus was possibly the first one. And then, Persephone is another one about growing up in Iran. And I think it's a sort of genre where some of the people, who are worried that they might be reading a comic book and they're not sure how they feel about that, are more comfortable - because they know it's a true story. And Alison Bechtel is an incredibly talented woman, and it's great to see her getting all this attention.

CONAN: Well, be careful...

Mr. VILLALON: Also on those lines, too, Jessica Abel, who had her graphic novel, La Perdida, that came out from Pantheon not too long ago. I think it came out in March. She also, you know, speaking of, you know, fantastically talented female graphic artists, graphic novelists.

Hers is the story about a half-Mexican, half-Anglo young woman who travels to Mexico City to try to reconnect with her roots, and becomes a pretty interesting observation about culture clash and identity, and this sort of stuff - and then segs into a pretty interesting crime story involving a kidnapping. I think it originally came out as a series of comic books and was collected, by Pantheon, to one big volume.

CONAN: Yeah, a lot of graphic novels are issues of comic books collected together. Be careful, some of those are perhaps not of the quality we're discussing here. Though, there's a wonderful writer by the name of Brian Vaughan, who's got a book coming out - I've just seen an advance of it - called The Pride of Baghdad. It's about the Baghdad zoo, and as you might suspect, it's a bit of an allegory - coming out later this summer.

So that might be something you want to look forward to if you're into graphic novels. We're going to have to take a short break. When we come back, more picks for our annual summer reading list. Plus Barry Bonds hits number 715 and the announcer's mike goes dead. We'll find out what happened after the break. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Here are the headlines from some of today's top stories. A wave of bombings in Iraq has killed dozens today. A car bomb parked near Baghdad's main Sunni mosque killed at least nine Iraqi civilians. A bomb planted in a parked minivan killed at least seven at the entrance to an open-air market. Another car bomb killed two CBS news journalists and critically wounded a third.

And there's a curfew in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, after rioting there killed at least eight people and injured more than 100 others. It's being described as some of the worst violence in the region since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Rioting started after a traffic accident involving U.S. military personnel. Details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION the hurricane season starts Thursday. Coastal home owners from Florida to New England are in for a surprise. Still reeling from Katrina, some insurance companies are drastically raising their rates. Others are refusing to take on new policies. The high cost of protecting your home. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

In a few minutes, the microphone malfunction at the milestone moment in San Francisco yesterday. But first we continue our conversation about the annual summer reading list we compile. Our guests are Laura Miller, she's the book critic for Salon. Also, Oscar Villalon, the book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. And Charlotte Abbott, senior editor at Publisher's Weekly.

Here's an email we got from Jamie(ph) in Oakland.

(Reading) I'm not a mystery reader, but a friend recommended Feint of Art, that which is the first in a new series about art forgery and theft, set in San Francisco and features a great heroine and a truly funny cast of characters. It reminds me of Janet Ivanovich's early books. Funny, smart, and a really great beach read.

Well, that's what we're looking for, beach reads, today. And why don't we turn to Charlotte Abbott. Anything else on your recommendation list?

Ms. ABBOTT: Well, I know you like science fiction, so I put out some feelers for you. And I think the movie version of A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick is probably going to send a lot of people back to the book. The film is coming in July and it's a classic novel about the perils of drug use - which is kind of funny because, of course, we remember Philip K. Dick as a counter-cultural icon.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

Ms. ABBOTT: But he wrote the novel as a cautionary anti-drug tale, because he'd destroyed his own health through drugs. And in fact, he acknowledges a lot of other friends in the book who - he lists their names as people who have suffered the consequences of their profligate drug use. And it was written in the '70s, but it's set in the '90s, so it sort of anticipates the law and order ethos we now associate with the war on drugs.

CONAN: Philip K. Dick, a prolific writer - which is a good thing, since about half of his stuff has now been made into movies. So...

Ms. ABBOTT: And actually there's a graphic novel version of that coming from Pantheon, as well as the original novel.

CONAN: Oh, look forward to that. I have read the book The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge. One of my favorites.

Ms. ABBOTT: That's my favorite one.

CONAN: Yeah. Oh, that's just a terrific book. But - and when - the movie's going to be fabulous, whenever it's made. So, let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Nancy. Nancy calling from Louisville, Kentucky.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. I am a high school librarian and we have a reading program called The Kentucky Bluegrass Awards. And at the 9-12 level, they read about 15 books. I mean, they don't have to read all 15, but they can choose from 15.

The choice this year, of the high school students in Kentucky, was, Looking for Alaska. Now, I have to tell you I haven't read it, but it's the book that they chose and - so that might be something that younger people might want to read. Actually, older people too, because a lot of those books are really books that are worthy of any age.

CONAN: Mm hmm.

NANCY: And somebody earlier asked about poetry. A poet that we really like here is Frank X. Walker, and he has a new book called Black Box. I'm not sure who the publisher is and how - you can find it on Amazon, I know.

CONAN: What kind of poet is he?

NANCY: He's black. And he writes about African Americans, but they, of course, have greater themes than just that. And he wrote about - another one of his poetry books is about York, the slave that went with Lewis and Clark. And, of course, they're heading back, you know, this is the return year. And it's called Buffalo Dreams. And he's just wonderful. He reads a lot at our library, things here in Kentucky, and I really, really liked his poetry. And so if anybody is looking for poetry, they're not real long. But his - in this black box, they're about kind of unsung, unknown black folk of Kentucky. But again, he's - I'm not black, and I think anybody, you know, could find messages in his poetry.

CONAN: All right, Nancy. Thanks very much.

NANCY: Uh-huh.

CONAN: Let's see if we can now turn to - this is Kathleen, Kathleen in Charlotte.

KATHLEEN (Caller): Hello?

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

KATHLEEN: Hi, nice to speak with you.

CONAN: Nice to speak with you.

KATHLEEN: I would like to recommend a wonderful book that I just finished called The Lost Child by Keith Donohue(ph). It's about - it follows the lives of two characters. One is a changeling, an Irish spirit, and the other is the child that he steals and replaces. So it follows the two characters throughout next 40, 50 years of their lives, and it's a lot about identify and finding your place in the world. It's very, very lyrically written.

CONAN: All right. And this is out already?

KATHLEEN: It's just been out. It's been out probably about a month.

Ms. ABBOTT: The title is The Stolen Child.

KATHLEEN: I'm sorry. What did I say?

Ms. ABBOTT: The Lost Child. But it's very close, and it's interesting because there was actually a special campaign on Amazon.com where they got all of their reviewers to review it ahead of time. So there's been a lot of online talk and buzz about it.

CONAN: All right, Kathleen. Thanks very much.

KATHLEEN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Have a great summer.

KATHLEEN: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get one recommendation from each of our - our reviewers before we have to wind this up. Oscar Villalon in San Francisco.

Mr. VILLALON: I have one more, one more I'd like to recommend. It's Elizabeth McKenzie's novel and story, Stop That Girl. It's very - it's extremely funny. It's essentially a bunch of stories about an 8-year-old girl growing up on Southern California, and how all the sort of zany, for lack of a better word, things that happen to her as she gets older. Particularly just trying to fit in, her family, she feels sort of a misfit. She has this grandmother who's a doctor, Dr. Frost, who also seems to be a little bit out of her mind. She's kind of like Holly Golightly at 70, and keeps dragging her out of her normal existence and putting her in very awkward situations. I think people may really, really dig that one for the summer. Again, it's one of very few things I've read that made me laugh out loud. You know, there's a lot of things you read that are somewhat funny, you kind of, you know, snicker a little bit, but start cracking up like a madman on the bus and people look at you. But...

CONAN: Christopher Moore has that affect on me.

Mr. VILLALON: Yes, exactly.

CONAN: Charlotte Abbott, another one from you?

Ms. ABBOTT: This is a true crime memoir called Strange Piece of Paradise by Terry Jentz, just out in hardcover from FSG. It's a memoir by a woman who was seven days into a bike journey across the country in 1977, when she was a Yale student, and she and her roommate were run over in their tent and attacked by a man with an axe. It seems almost a cliché, and yet she had to survive it. Her arm was gashed and her friend was nearly blinded from head injuries. And the culprit was never found, and she felt she lost a part of herself, an innocence, but more than that, in the experience. And she was haunted by it, as you can imagine.

Fifteen years later, she went back to the town in Oregon to try to recover the part of herself she lost, and found that the town hadn't really been able to move on, either. The man who many people suspected of this crime was still among them, and she - come - follows the story to a point of some emotional resolution, and it's not quite In Cold Blood, but I think readers who like that kind of story will find some real chills and catharsis there.

CONAN: Laura Miller, you will be our alpha and our omega.

Ms. MILLER (Book Critic, Salon): Okay. I'll try to take that responsibility seriously. This is a late addition to my list. In fact, I'm still reading it right now, so I can't (unintelligible) the ending. But I'm really loving a novel called, excuse me, Moonlight Hotel by Scott Anderson. And it's for those sort of Graham Green fans out there. It's set in the 1980s in a kind of backwater Middle - small Middle Eastern nation, and the hero is this sort of mid-level American diplomat. And this gung-ho American colonel, who is a military adviser, comes to this little sleepy country and stirs up this border war, and it just keeps escalating into one more debacle after another until the whole nation is, you know, just bathed in blood. And it's sort of bitterly funny. It's about the - the Americans who foolishly get into situations, foreign adventures that they don't really understand, and how the least competent people sometimes wind up running the show. It's - the man who wrote it is a foreign correspondent. So I think some of the most chilling parts are just descriptions of things like what happens to a city when it starts to be shelled, and that sort of thing. And it's just - it's suspenseful and sort of mysterious so far. I don't know what the ending is, but I'm just loving that.

CONAN: Our critics' recommendations are already compiled at our website. Go to the TALK OF THE NATION page, at NPR.org. We'll be adding your recommendations, too, so the later you log in, the more you'll get. So anyway, thanks to you all. Laura Miller, Book Critic for Salon, with us from our bureau in New York, along with Charlotte Abbott, the Senior Editor at Publisher's Weekly. Thank you both very much.

Ms. MILLER: Thank you.

Ms. ABBOTT: Thanks.

CONAN: And Oscar Villalon, the Book Editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, who joined us from the studios of member station KQED in San Francisco. Our thanks to you as well.

Mr. VILLALON: Anytime, sir.

CONAN: Coming up, microphone malfunctions.

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