MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel. A Western set in Florida, memoirs of young girls and the ocean, and tales from across Africa written by a Nigerian Jesuit priest. Those are just some of the selections from the summer reading list of our book reviewer, Alan Cheuse.
ALAN CHEUSE: My name is Alan, and I'm a fiction addict. I haven't read a novel in two hours. And for all of you other fiction addicts out there, I want to make some recommendations that will help you get through the summer.
Our first book: Peter Matthiessen's "Shadow Country." It's Matthiessen's one-volume reworking of a trilogy he published in the 1990s. "Shadow Country" takes place in the early 20th century on the western Florida frontier. The novel explores from multiple points of view the life and legend of E.J. Watson.
Watson was an Everglades farmer, an outlaw, and a character large and dangerous enough to fill Matthiessen's nearly 900-page novel. Peter Matthiessen reads from the book's opening as a gathering of men wait for the already notorious Watson, ready to take the law into their own hands.
Mr. PETER MATTHIESSEN (Author): (Reading) The men stare away toward the south as the oncoming boat comes into view, a dark burr on the pewter water. Most have worn the same clothes since the hurricane. They're rank as dogs and scared and cranky. They are anxious to enlist Ted Smallwood because the participation of the postmaster might afford some dim official sanction. If nobody is innocent, who can be guilty?
CHEUSE: From the dark world of early 20th-century Florida, we turn to New York in the 1940s. This past winter, a gifted young writer named Samantha Hunt came out with her second book, "The Invention of Everything Else." I loved it, and I've been holding on to it so I could recommend it for the summer.
Its central character is also an historical figure: the great inventor Nikolas Tesla. Tesla's quite ancient when we meet him in an encounter with a young New York hotel maid named Louisa, a young woman on the verge of knowing life and real love who becomes fascinated with the old genius.
Ms. SAMANTHA HUNT (Author): (Reading) And then the miraculous happens. She thinks at first that she is seeing things. She thinks that since every muscle in her body is tense, her eyes might be playing a trick on her, until it becomes undeniable: the bulbs she holds in her hands are glowing. Initially, the light is dim, but it builds. The bulbs are not touching anything. Her hands begin to sweat. Despite his, the glowing grows.
CHEUSE: Samantha Hunt, reading from her novel "The Invention of Everything Else."
A far cry from the '40s and a long way from New York, the Africa of gifted short story writer Uwem Akpan. His main characters are mostly young children. This remarkable collection is "Say You're One of Them." Akpan is a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest. He writes in cool, clear prose about young Kenyan girls prostituting themselves to pay their brothers' school fees, of Rwandan mothers hiding in ceiling crawl spaces while marauding tribal gangs come to slaughter them, and of a deadly bus ride down the spine of Nigeria.
Here's Akpan reading from one of these beautifully made and chilling tales.
Mr. UWEM AKPAN (Jesuit Priest, Author): (Reading) Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids. You have to use a calm head. If not, it could bring trouble to the family. What kept our families secret from the world in the three months of what we planned to sell us were his sense of humor and the smuggler's instinct.
CHEUSE: Now for a little nonfiction. In the wake of our own tumultuous Civil War, some American writers and poets and artists tried to reorient themselves to a new and dynamic post-war world.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER BENFEY (Author): (Reading) In late September 1882, Maple Todd sent Emily Dickinson a painting of Indian pipes, a white woodland plant common in New England.
CHEUSE: That's New England literary scholar Christopher Benfey, reading from "A Summer of Hummingbirds," a delightfully suggestive narrative about this post-Civil War period of readjustment and re-evaluation. The book focuses on real-life figures Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe and others, but it strikes out for new territory on the American map and in the American mind. As Benfey himself sees it, it all begins with a hummingbird.
Mr. BENFEY: A route of evanescence with a revolving wheel, a resonance of emerald, a rush of cochineal and every blossom on the bush adjusts its tumbled head. The mail from Tunis, probably, an easy morning's ride.
CHEUSE: In the middle of another war, a young soldier, a prisoner of war in Dresden named Kurt Vonnegut, wrote a letter home.
Mr. MARK VONNEGUT: (Reading) Dear people...
CHEUSE: Mark Vonnegut, reading his father's letter.
Mr. VONNEGUT: (Reading) I'd been a prisoner of war since December 19th, 1944, when our division was cut to ribbons by Hitler's last desperate thrust through Luxembourg and Belgium. Seven fanatical Panzer divisions hit us and cut us off from the rest of Hodges' First Army. The other American divisions on our flanks managed to pull out. We were obliged to stay and fight.
CHEUSE: That's the first prose of Kurt Vonnegut's we encounter in "Armageddon in Retrospect," a group of mostly early pieces, some fiction, some nonfiction, edited by his son Mark.
Ms. SUSANNA MOORE (Author): (Reading) No memory presents itself of my first acquaintance with the sea. It was always there, and I was always in it. Our mother was fairly irresistible. She was our leader. We would have jumped into a fire had she wished it. As it was, she had us jumping into the ocean.
CHEUSE: My fellow fiction addict, novelist Susanna Moore. She's written "Light Years," a lovely memoir of her girlhood in Hawaii. She conjures up her native beaches, swimming along the then-isolated island coast of Oahu, and returning to shore to find company in books about the sea, from "Robinson Crusoe" to "Moby Dick," and the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and many others. Moore has made the selections from her girlhood reading an essential part of her own story.
Finally, other oceans, other beaches, mostly in colder climes, in the lyrical yet precise observations of Barbara Hurd. In the spare and lovely pages of "Walking the Wrack Line," Hurd writes about shingle beaches, jellyfish, dead sailors, reading "Moby Dick," why Franz Schubert never finished his Symphony in B Minor, and she muses about the life of the soul. Here, she meditates about the essence of a piece of driftwood she finds on an Alaskan beach, polished, like her essays, by the action of the ocean.
Mr. BARBARA HURD (Author): (Reading) I don't know what kind of tree this chunk fell from. It would have been an indistinguishable part of a high forest canopy, one of a thousand barely visible branches holding the green up to the sun - just another source of low groans in a wind storm. If I'd been there the moment it dropped, I could have picked it up from the bank of the Taksu(ph) River and studied the bark, counted the needles. I might have been able to say that it's spruce or fir, or point up at the specific tree from which it fell. Like so many things, it's most visible just after it's broken.
CHEUSE: I've got my own unfinished symphony, all the reading I'll never get to do. But this summer, as always, I'm trying, as I hope you are. This summer, I wish you pleasure from your own symphonies of reading.
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SIEGEL: Our reviewer Alan Cheuse's new novel, "To Catch the Lightning," will be available for autumn reading. For additional recommendations, author readings and reviews, you can go to npr.org/summerbooks.
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