What to Read this Summer? Summer reading means some tough decisions: the mystery or memoir? "Chick lit" or literary fiction? With help from some experts, it's time to craft your summer reading list.

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/10497458/10497469" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


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

Checklist for summer vacation: bathing suit, sunscreen, hiking boots, bug spray. Wherever you're heading this summer, chances are, you'll also pack a bag full of books. On the beach, on the plane, or stuck at home with a broken air conditioner, this is the time of year to catch up on all those books you've been meaning to read.

And if you don't know where to begin, we are here to help, because it's time for TALK OF THE NATION'S annual summer reading list. We'll tell you which paperback will fit best in your beach bag and what books to stack next to your bed. And we want to know what's on your list already, so please email those lists to talkofthenation@npr.org. Or you can post them on our blog - it's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later in the hour, it's the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. We'll hear what Memorial Day is like in Iraq. But first, help us compile our summer reading list. What are you or your book club taking to the cabin or to the couch? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And our email address is talk@NPR.org. And you can also comment on our blog - it's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Laura Miller is a book critic for Salon and a regular contributor to the summer reading list. She joins us now from our New York bureau along with Maud Newton. She's a literary blogger at maudnewton.com, and she's also reviewed for the New York Times, book review of the Boston Globe, the Washington Post, and Newsday. Welcome to both of you.

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

Ms. MAUD NEWTON (Literary Blogger, Maudnewton.com): Thank you.

NEARY: Laura, let's begin with you. What's number one on your list to read this summer?

Ms. MILLER: Well, in terms of the - the sort of page turner that is not so stupid with such flimsy characters that you're just depressed after you're done reading it even though you can't help reading it to the end - a great substitution for that is "The Book of Air and Shadows" by Michael Gruber.

I'm not a big fan of "The Da Vinci Code," but one of the good things about the success of that book is it has spawned all of these really smart, historical, literary thrillers that actually are literary. And this is a book about a bunch of contemporary people who get on the trail of an encoded 17th century manuscript that might point to a previously unknown Shakespeare play. And it's just great - great characters, great writing, really fun.

NEARY: And you'd describe it as a real page turner?

Ms. MILLER: Yes, absolutely. It's that - it hits that sweet spot of being really well written but yet something that you don't really want to put down.

NEARY: And would you say that that's sort of a crucial quality for a summer read, that page-turning quality?

Ms. MILLER: Absolutely. When I put together our summer reading list, I make that the first qualification. But it also has to not be stupid, which is really difficult to come by these days when it comes to page turners.

NEARY: All right, Maud, what about you? What is your top pick?

Ms. NEWTON: Well, last weekend, I had the experience of reading four books by the same author…

NEARY: Oh, good on you.

Ms. NEWTON: …in three days.

NEARY: Four books in a weekend. That's good.

Ms. NEWTON: As though anyone has that kind of time, right? I read Kate Christensen's first three novels. And then the fourth one that comes out in August, I believe, and they're all incredibly suspenseful, even though really they're just about sort of misanthropic people who are having various problems in their lives.

The first one is "In the Drink," about a girl, a 29-year-old girl named Claudia Steiner who spends her nights boozing it up and her days doing secretarial work and ghost writing for an unseen socialite. And it doesn't sound like the stuff that suspense is made of, but somehow it really is. And unfortunately, Christensen has been miscast as a chick lit author. Her work is much darker than that, I think.

NEARY: Do you think when you call it chick lit that that sort of sends out a signal that it's just for women? And do you think, to the contrary, that this might be a book that men might enjoy as well or what?

Ms. NEWTON: Well, I do think that it's a book that anyone can enjoy. And I haven't read enough chick lit to sort of dismiss the whole genre of it, but the little bit I have read does tend to have sort of a triumphant ending, a sort of not very complex ending in my opinion, and her work is far more complex than that. In fact, Claudia - you kind of feel like the book ends on an up note for her, but you don't really feel that all of the woes of her life have gone away by any stretch.

And her next two books "Jeremy Thrane" and the "The Epicure's Lament" actually they're also first-person narrative and they are about men. The first, "Jeremy Thrane," is about the kept boy of a married male actor basically, and it's just a fascinating book. And then "The Epicure's Lament" - which I did enjoy but I enjoyed somewhat less - I just didn't buy the narrator quite as much or perhaps I had just overdosed finally on her - on her incredible writing. But the narrator of the "The Epicure's Lament" sequesters himself from society and everyone with the aim of smoking himself to death. So - and he will die, in fact, is the premise of the book, due to a rare illness, and he'll die soon if he doesn't stop smoking.

NEARY: Well, that's a truism, I would say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: You know, there are some real heavyweight authors with books coming out this summer, too, as there usually are. Don DeLillo for one, has a book that's getting a lot of attention. What are some of the most anticipated books this summer? And are these the kinds of books that are worth buying now in hardback, or should you wait for next summer until - when they're going to be in paperback?

Ms. MILLER: Well, there are a lot of late spring books like the DeLillo or the Michael Chabon book, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union." And, you know, it really kind of depends on how big of a fan you are and how much patience you have with waiting for the paperback to come out, because you could always read them next summer.

I wouldn't really call the DeLillo book - which is pretty good - I wouldn't call it summer reading, but I think that the Michael Chabon novel does also sort of hit that sweet spot. It's kind of a hard-boiled novel, but it's set in an imaginary province where Jews, Europe's Jews, were settled after World War II.

It was a plan that had been floated by (unintelligible), and he - Chabon just imagines what would happen if this part of Alaska had been given over to Europe's Jews. And it's - it's really a lot of fun to read, although it deals with a lot of serious issues as well. So, that's a - that one is one I would say hey, go ahead, spring for the hardcover if you're a Chabon fan. and I know a lot of people are.

NEARY: And why not the Don DeLillo book? Why do you say that's not summer reading? What makes it…

Ms. MILLER: Well, it's a little kind of serious and somber and a little static maybe. And it's a 9/11 novel, and some people may not just want to think about that when they're on an airplane or at the beach.

NEARY: What about you Maud? Are there any books coming out that have a sort of heavier kind of feel to them that you're thinking about maybe bringing to the beach with you? Or you're (unintelligible) waiting for January for those books?

Ms. NEWTON: I am really interested in reading though I haven't read them yet -Min Jin Lee's "Free Food for Millionaires." It's about the child of immigrant Korean parents, and it's just supposed to be - I saw the author speak the other night, and she was incredibly articulate. And her influence are - influences are everyone from George Elliot to Dante, so I - and "Fantasy Island," she says. So I was really - I'm really looking forward to reading that. And I also want to read Nathan Englander's "The Ministry of Special Cases," which is about Argentina's dirty war.

But a book that's kind of surprisingly serious yet riotous and crazy is Roberto Bolano's "The Savage Detective." I really enjoyed that book, and as James Woods(ph) said, in the Times Book Review, a novel about poets and poetry could very, very easily go wrong and be just the most pretentious thing in the world, but Bolano made it very funny and very insightful. And I always enjoy books that are clever about literary striving and literary relationships.

NEARY: We are talking about summer books at TALK OF THE NATION right now. My guests, Laura Miller and Maud Newton. And if you would like to join us, give us a call here in studio 3A. We're going to Justine. She's in Boise, Idaho.

Hi Justine.

JUSTINE (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Hi, go ahead Justine.

JUSTINE: My summer reading suggestion - and this is a kid's book - is "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief" by Rick Riordan.

NEARY: Say that again?

JUSTINE: "Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief."

NEARY: Are either of you familiar with that Laura or Maud?


Ms. MILLER: I'm not, either.

NEARY: Tell us a little bit more about it, then.

JUSTINE: It's the story of this poor kid who totally got everything going along for him and then he discovers that he's the son of one of the Olympian gods, and all these Greek myths come to life around him. He gets chased by a minotaur. He goes to a camp with a centaur, and it's a great way to introduce Greek myths. And my brother and my sister, who are 13 and 17 respectively, just absolutely loved it.

NEARY: All right. That's great. Thanks so much for calling.

JUSTINE: Thank you.

NEARY: I wonder if - Maud or Laura - if you have some ideas for books of around that age group as well?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I think a lot of people this summer will be re-reading Philip Pullman's trilogy "His Dark Materials," because the film will be coming out. The film of the first one, "The Golden Compass," will be coming out in December, and it would be hard to imagine that the film could be as good as the books, so that's definitely one to read.

And, of course, there's the "Harry Potter" book, which will probably suck up all of the air in terms of children's fiction this summer. And I'm sure it's going to be very, very long, so that kids may not have a lot time for anything else.

NEARY: Yeah, but then they're going to have to read it really fast before their friends tell them what happened.

Ms. MILLER: Yes.

NEARY: What about you, Maud? Have you thought at all about kids' books?

Ms. NEWTON: Well, one of the great things about having a stepdaughter - who is now 13 actually, so she's almost starting to get into adult books now - but I do get to revisit favorites like "Harriet the Spy" and the "Ramona" books and whatnot with her.

One thing she's really been enjoying, sort of, as she waits for the new "Harry Potter" book - which inevitably she's crazy anticipating - she's been enjoying the "Magic or Madness" series of books…

NEARY: Oh yeah.

Ms. NEWTON: …by Justine - I'm going to butcher her last name, but -Larbalestier. And…

NEARY: Hold that thought; we're going to come back to it when we return from a short break. We're talking about summer reading at TALK OF THE NATION. Give us a call or send us an email to talk@npr.org. I'm Lynn Neary. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. We're counting down the TALK OF THE NATION summer reading list this hour, all the books you might get some sand in this summer. My guests are Laura Miller - she's the book critic for Salon.com - as well as Maud Newton who reviews books at maudnewton.com. And of course, send us your reading list. We'll post some of our favorite choices tomorrow. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also read what other listeners have to say at our blog - that's npr.org/blogofthenation. And of course, we would love to have you, give us a call at 1-800-989-TALK.

I want to begin with this email because it spring up a subject that I wanted to raise. My name is Naima and I'm a graduate student who will be spending the summer in Yemen studying Arabic. I'm bringing along Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park" as I have never read it. I've intended to for a long time. I anticipate a strange sense of displacement reading Austen in Yemen, but in many ways that is exactly what I am hoping to induce.

I love this email because it brings up two subjects for me, Laura and Maud. One is, is summer a good time to read one of those books that you should have read back in college and never did, and you've had it on your mind ever since? And also that sense of reading something like Austen in Yemen that just seems completely out of place. Laura Miller, what do you think of that?

Ms. MILLER: Well, I think that it's a great idea to take the extra time to catch up on something you've always wanted to read, but it might be a bad idea if you take it as a kind of a chore or a self-improvement project. So I think it would be - I did that a couple of years ago with "War and Peace," and the thing that inspired me to do it was a friend of mine saying, you know, really, it's a really fun book. It's not a chore at all the way that, you know, maybe something else would be that has an equally lofty reputation. And so that made it seem like a good summer book to me. But you, kind of have to go into it with the right attitude that this is going to be enjoyable, not that this is something you have to check off a list, because summer is really not about that sort of thing.

NEARY: What's your take on that, Maud?

Ms. NEWTON: I agree. I, in general, in the world, believe that there are too many books to read more than a hundred pages of something that feels completely like a chore. I mean, obviously, if something is just complex, that's one thing. But yes, I have been actually voraciously reading "Somerset Mom" recently.

I reread "The Moon & Sixpence," a book about Gauguin, basically it's sort of based on Gauguin. And in the book, a middle-aged English stockbroker abandons his family and runs off to Paris and finally Tahiti to paint, and it's just an amazing book. It's very precisely observed. It's somewhat cold, though, and so that's not going to work for everyone, and so I would also recommend "Cakes and Ale," which is a hilarious novel satirizing 1920s London literary culture.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take another call now. This is from Catherine, and she is calling from California. Hi, Catherine.

CATHERINE (Caller): Hi. Can you hear me?

NEARY: I can, go ahead.

CATHERINE: Great. My suggestion is "Swann's Way" by Marcel Proust.

NEARY: All right. I don't know if you've just heard our discussion, Catherine, but we were talking about whether you should take up novels like "Swann's Way," which is…

CATHERINE: Well, here's the reason why.

NEARY: Okay.

CATHERINE: Because it has - he talks about flowers and gardens. And it takes you into a time long ago. Through a child's mind, you see trees and gardens, and he has a special relationship to even the rain and the clouds. It's so beautiful. I'm a painter, and I want to be able to paint like he writes someday.

NEARY: I have to confess that is exactly one of those books for me that I've felt like I should have read a long time ago and haven't read and…

CATHERINE: You know, this is my second summer reading and I'm going to confess…

NEARY: Okay.

CATHERINE: I've finished it last summer. This is my second summer, so it's not a page turner, but it's a page wow.

NEARY: Wow. All right.

CATHERINE: With wow per page.

NEARY: Okay. Thanks, Catherine. All right, Catherine raises another issue, which is - or another subject, which is, are there books that you want to reread. And the summertime - a good time for doing that?

Ms. MILLER: I think that if you know that you really, really love a book - yes. I mean - again, it's, as Maud said: it shouldn't be a chore. And I would say that, you know, I would agree that "Swann's Way" is not - it's a very beautiful, sort of, sensual, love-drunk book and not a slog at all. The only trick is that the first few pages tend to put you to sleep because they're all about falling asleep, and so you shouldn't assume that if you have difficulty getting through the first few pages that the rest of the book is going to make you fall asleep. It's just that he's just a good writer that when he's writing about falling asleep, you tend to fall asleep.

NEARY: But, you know, one person's slog is sometimes another person's great read.

Ms. MILLER: It's true. It's - there's no accounting for taste.

NEARY: All right. We're going to find out now what writers like to read. ZZ Packer is the author of "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," a collection of eight stories, and is currently working on a novel about Buffalo soldiers. And she joins us from her home in San Francisco.

Thanks for being with us ZZ.

Ms. ZZ PACKER (Author, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere"): Oh, great to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: So what are you looking forward to reading this summer?

Ms. PACKER: Well, I'm glad that Laura Miller mentioned "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," because that is what I'm reading and I'd completely agree with what she said about it being at once incredibly serious but also just a fun read. And, you know, it is sort of strange because there is a sort of hodgepodge of these Jews who speak Yiddish and, you know, occasionally will say curse words than Americans as it's written.

And it's kind of like the wire in some ways with a set of blank whiteboard and, you know, trying to track down the killer of this chess player and yet, you know, you have Yiddish gangs and they're literally the black hats, you know. And then you have allusions to them being, sort of, riot with the Jewish settlers and the native Alaskans and the kids were this sort ironic, retro pajamas with snowflakes and igloos on them. So it's just this wild - completely wild ride, and it's a little intimidating because if you put all the elements together, you would think they would never ever work, and yet they somehow do. So that's the, you know, the top one on my list.

And then the next one is a memoir, but it kind of reads like a novel, and that's "The Mistress's Daughter" by A.M. Homes, which I would qualify as summer reading because it's a very, very quick read. You know, A.M. Homes is a fiction writer, and she also writes nonfiction, but I think of her and love her primarily as a fiction writer. And she was adopted and discovered one day, basically, that her - her biological parents wanted to meet her, and so she ends up, you know, meeting her mother who is basically a pathological liar.

And her father - her biological father -she meets in these sort of seedy hotel rooms, and, you know - and he's kind of this aging athlete corporate type. And, you know, this is a very - it's just sort of incredible, and it's kind of like watching a sort of highbrow version of - I don't know - Jerry Springer. Something…

NEARY: Well, you know, I actually think memoirs are really good summer reading, myself. You know, a good memoir is - can read as well as a novel. Do you find, ZZ, that you read differently in the summer?

Ms. PACKER: I do. I think just because - I was hearing later about - earlier about reading the classic. I do because I, kind of, think, well, you know, everything I read now is sort of optional and this is going to be for me. And that's why I actually do things as a (unintelligible) to read classics because you don't - if you don't set up any expectations, you can just, sort of, say I'm going to put this down on page 50, and it's perfectly fine. I don't feel guilty about it. I don't feel as though, I've, you know, somehow, you know, not, sort of, gotten my way through the quote/unquote, "canon" or anything like that. And it's really liberating so I can just do that, I can mix it up with something that I think that's, you know, a little on the trashier side. So it is - and, you know, just because you have - tend to have more time or, you know, supposedly, you're supposed to have more time.

NEARY: Yeah. Define trashy there.

Ms. PACKER: I would define trashy as just something that I would typically try to hide because I've been freeing…

NEARY: How do hide your - wrap in a brown paper?

Ms. PACKER: I usually don't - I just don't admit it until someone else because they (unintelligible), reading and that's - and I would like…

NEARY: Can you give an example or do you not there?

Ms. PACKER: Yeah. I, kind of - think of something that fits that because all the ones I've been reading so far have, you know, like "The Yiddish Policemen," you know, I think anyone would be ashamed to read that or "The Mistress's Daughter." But, let me see, what is this something that I've been…

NEARY: Well, you think about that and we'll put that on our list when the time comes.

Ms. PACKER: Sure.

NEARY: And just one other thing, do you trade books with other writers, or do you read in the summer - might you be reading somebody else's manuscripts that's in progress, ZZ?

Ms. PACKER: I'm always reading manuscripts and that is, you know - on the one hand, it's sort of a labor of love. And it's also fun because you get to discover what, you know, your colleagues have been up to for all this time. So that's fine, but I will also say that I end up - we do end up, sort of, you know, someone will have a book - for instance, when I read "The True History of the Kelly Gang" that was - I don't know - one summer, and I told one of my friends about it and she it end up reading it and another friend ended up reading it, and, you know, we're kind of late to the game reading it, because I think it won a Booker - I don't how long ago - but we all just - it just became the sort of thing that just got passed around. But I will say the other thing that I want to read - I'm glad that Maud Newton mentioned "The Ministry of Special Cases," because I have this right here. I haven't started it yet, but I'm planning on it.

And the other one that's sort of really juicy is this memoir called "The Space Between the Stars," which, since it's the 40th anniversary of "The Summer of Love," I suppose - you know, it's by Deborah Santana - and she sort of chronicles that whole era and, you know, relationship with Sly Stone and Carlos Santana and then just - sort of everything in between, which is kind of, you know - that's kind of racy and completely interesting but in this very Zen kind of way.

NEARY: All right.

Ms. PACKER: And…

NEARY: Go ahead.

Ms. PACKER: And you were talking about children's books, and actually, now that I have two children - this has been something that's been on mine - you know, pretty recently. And so one is called "Henry's Freedom Box," which on the one hand, you know, it's always difficult when you have a children's book that deals with something that's a sort of major, weighty historical concern, and it concerns slavery and about this, you know, actual man who boxed himself up and sent himself to Philadelphia to these abolitionists. And, you know, it's not something that my son, you know, who's less - who's not quite two years old - is going to understand. I mean, basically, he just puts himself in a box. And when I mention box and, you know - doesn't get the point. But it - I think it is something that's nice to have around knowing that, you know, children can be affected by the - you know, what you read to them and what they end up reading and it teaches this, you know, obviously important lesson about slavery and what the nature of freedom is, and that sort of thing.

NEARY: Great. Well, thank you for joining us, ZZ.

Ms. PACKER: Thanks for having me.

NEARY: ZZ Packer is the author of "Drinking Coffee Elswhere," a collection of short stories. And she is currently working on a forthcoming novel about Buffalo Soldiers. She joined us from her home in San Francisco.

We have a couple of emails here asking us more about the list. Sea Hunter(ph) from Idaho wants us to repeat the name of the first book that we mentioned about the Shakespeare manuscript, and this from Cathy saying:

Oh, the summer book day is going by too fast. Please, lists from the guests. Love this topic.

So we want to let you all know that the list, the summer reading list, will be available online at 2 o'clock - by 2 o'clock tomorrow afternoon. So you will be able to go online and read those lists.

And in the meantime, I'm going to ask you to repeat the name of the first book you mentioned, Laura, about the Shakespeare manuscript.

Ms. MILLER: Yes. That's "The Book of Air and Shadows," and if that appeals to people, they also might want look for "The Grave Tattoo" by Val McDermid, who usually writes these gritty Scottish crime novels, but this is a similar book based on the true facts that the great poet William Wordsworth and the famous mutineer Fletcher Christian, who was the leader of the mutineers of the bounty. Went to the same school and were connected by the family, and she sort of imagines a scholar who finds out that they actually met and that Wordsworth wrote a lost poem about Fletcher Christian.

NEARY: Laura Miller is the book critic for Salon, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Laura and Maud, let me - I'm going to ask you this question that came in by email from Sarah(ph) in Gainesville, Florida. She says:

Could you please tell me what chick lit is - chick lit book is?

What a chick lit book is. And I'm stumbling because who wrote it C-H-I—C-L-E-T, which is different from what it really is. It's chick lit. So maybe, Maud, you can explain what it is.

Ms. NEWTON: Chiclet is the gum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That's right.

Ms. NEWTON: Well, there's been a lot of debates about what constitutes chick lit and the merits of chick lit. And as I said earlier, I haven't read enough of it to offer any sort of overwhelming opinion about the genre, but I think the sort of quintessential example is "Bridget Jones' Diary."

NEARY: Right.

Ms. NEWTON: That, I believe, was published in 1999, around the same time as Kate Christensen's "In the Drink," which I mentioned earlier. And it's a sort of ultimately - it's - I haven't read "Bridget Jones' Diary," which shows you exactly how little education I have on this subject. And it's, you know - have you read it, Laura?

Ms. MILLER: I have.

NEARY: I have also.

Ms. NEWTON: How did you like it?

NEARY: It was fun.

Ms. MILLER: I liked it. You know, my - I always think of chick lit as being the book equivalent of the kind of movies we call romantic comedies. There's usually a kind of lovable, wacky heroine and a man that maybe she's not sure that she can get, then a lot of misadventures and they wind up together. You know, I don't have a huge experience with the genre either, you know, and - but I have read some in the process of researching various stories. And, you know, the best ones are, like, are really good romantic comedy, kind of the classic screwball comedy era in Hollywood. And the bad ones are like a really, really bad Meg Ryan movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NEWTON: I think I've mostly read about one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: And just in case anybody is still confused, it's chick as in cute, young girl or cute, young woman, I think, and lit, short for literature. So it's about young women in sort of romantic situations. Is that the fast - easiest way to describe it, do you think?

Ms. MILLER: Well, those also often have interesting jobs, too.

NEARY: Right. Okay.

Ms. MILLER: I think that there's - it's a literature of young women in the workplace, too.

NEARY: All right. And here is one from Kim in Salt Lake City:

A truly wonderful, quirky book - "The Thirteenth Tale."

Are either of you familiar with that one?

Ms. MILLER: I am. I have read that one too, and I like it. Not as much as my literary thrillers that I'm recommending, but it is definitely entertaining. It's kind of a similar story about a kind of a lost - a lost tale, and an investigation into the past. It's sort of a gothic.

NEARY: All right. Let's see if we can get one caller in here before the break. We're going to go to Isaac in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Isaac, briefly…

ISAAC (Caller): Hi. It's "A Song of Ice and Fire." It's a fantasy series that - one of the most amazing things to read when you've spent a whole year in college reading books you don't want to, and you finally get to read just a trashy page turner. It's better written than you expect.

NEARY: A storm - a storm - was that the first word? "A Storm of Ice and Fire"?

ISAAC: It's called "A Song of Ice and Fire." The first book is "A Game of Thrones."

NEARY: Okay. "A Song of Ice and Fire."

ISAAC: Think American Tolkien.

NEARY: Oh, okay. All right.

Ms. MILLER: I have a friend who swears by these books.

NEARY: Oh yeah?

Ms. MILLER: I haven't tried them myself.

NEARY: All right. That's a great suggestion. Thanks so much for telling us, Isaac.

ISAAC: All right. Have a great day.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take a short break now, and Laura and Maud will stay with us for a little longer as we discuss summer reading and summer reading lists. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, when Congress (unintelligible) war funding, much of the wrangling focused on when to get out of Iraq. But in some circles, the talk has moved away from when and toward how. Withdrawal options and exit strategies - that's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Today is the TALK OF THE NATION summer reading list. We're giving you the inside scoop on all the books that might distract you if your air conditioning goes out. My guests are Laura Miller - she's the book critic for Salon.com - as well as Maud Newton, who reviews books at MaudNewton.com. And we're going to try and wrap up this discussion now.

A couple more emails I wanted to get to. This from Mark, who says:

I was fascinated with the HBO series "Rome," and I'm looking forward to a good historical fiction book. I briefly looked at "Augustus" published in 2006. It looked interesting. Can anyone recommend this, or if not, Laura and Maud, do you have any other recommendations?

Ms. MILLER: Well, he might want to try either the classic - Robert Graves classic - "I, Claudius," which has a lot of skullduggery. Or for something very different, there's Robert Harris' "Pompeii," which is about a - I think it's about a plumber in Pompeii. So the thing about "Rome" was that it had the ruling class and then it had some sort of prol characters - not quite prol but just some regular army guys. And - so depending on which part of that series you like, you could go with either "I, Claudius" or "Pompeii."

NEARY: And Susan from Ann Arbor, Michigan recommends a book that I've started and have - I think it's quite good, at least as much as I've read of it, which is "Sweet Francaise" by Irene Nemirovsky. Susan writes:

This novel was published 64 years after the death of the author in Auschwitz. It describes the tearing apart of the lives of various citizens of Paris as the Nazi occupation begins.

Have either of you read this, Laura or Maud?

Ms. MILLER: I have not.

Ms. NEWTON: I have not either.

NEARY: All right, well, I can only recommend it based on having started it but not having finished, and it looks like a pretty good read. And one other recommendation here from a listener: "The Shadow of the Wind" by Carl Ruiz. I know it's not new, but it sure is fun. That's Carl Ruiz Zafron. Either of you familiar with that book?

Ms. MILLER: I have read that book. Yeah, that is a great, high-end summer reading classic, I would say - very romantic, set in Spain, full of mystery and atmosphere. It's a lot of fun.

NEARY: All right. We're going to take one more call here. We've got Mai Li(ph) calling from Boise, Idaho. Hi, Mai Li.

MAI LI (Caller): Well, hello. I have a great collection to recommend to you, and that is "The Bullfighter Checks her Makeup" by Susan Orlean. It's actually a collection of non-fiction, profiles of interesting people, and she just has such a refreshing and wonderful writing style. It's like having a popsicle on a hot day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: That's a good way to describe a summer book.

MAI LI: Yeah.

NEARY: Maud, Laura, do you know that book?

Ms. MILLER: Oh, of course. Susan Orlean is great.

NEARY: Okay. Great. Thanks so much for calling in.

MAI LI: Thank you.

NEARY: And I'm going to - we're going to finish this up now, but Laura and Maud, just as we go - quickly, just each of you, tell me - what's the best thing to read if the air conditioning goes out and you're stuck sitting by a fan? Laura first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MILLER: Well, if you still want to stay in the thriller-mystery mode, in Agusut - which is about the time that happens - there is a new Martin Cruz Smith novel coming about his - the same Moscow police detective who featured in "Gorky Park," and I read that while I was on vacation in a very hot place, and it's all blizzards and frozen lakes, so…

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Okay.

Ms. MILLER: I would recommend that one.

NEARY: Maud, have you got a recommendation for that kind of situation? Or let's say, you're stuck on a plane on the tarmac; you're not going anywhere.

Ms. NEWTON: Well, for being stuck on a plane, I would recommend Scarlett Thomas' "The End of Mr. Y."

Ms. MILLER: That's a great book. I recommend that one, too.

Ms. NEWTON: It's - in the novel, the narrator finds a cursed book by a dead man. She's actually trying to write a paper on the book, and it turns into a sort of sad(ph) experiment current science and outdated science and Derrida and creation myths and transgressive sex. It's a very strange and very fascinating novel, and a friend of mine said, oh she definitely play these video games.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Okay. Well, thanks to both of you for being with us today. Maud Newton is a literary blogger at MaudNewton.com, and Laura Miller is the book critic for Salon. They joined us from our New York bureau.

And tomorrow, you'll be able to see their full list of picks plus some listener choices at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. In the meantime, head over to our blog and see what other listeners are recommending at npr.org/blogofthenation.

(Soundbite of music)

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.