Savor the Season with a Picnic of Good Books Summer is the season we can finally tackle the books that have been piling up on our desks and forming small mountains on the floor. Book critic Alan Cheuse offers a selection of some of the best books of late spring and early summer, and some classics that are always present in his literary landscape.

Savor the Season with a Picnic of Good Books

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It's starting to feel like summertime in many parts of the country. Some of you may even be poolside or at the beach right now, possibly reading a good analog book.

For those of you at work or winding your way home, that's just a daydream. But either way, here's a treat. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, has his summer reading suggestions.

ALAN CHEUSE: I'm a writer, so I should be able to find the right metaphor for what I'm about to recommend to you. Is it a picnic with all the good things to taste and savor, laid out before you on a quilt on a grass or the sand? Is it a mix of old wine and new?

The first thing I want to recommend is a movable feast, all of Anton Chekov's stories, which is to say all of Chekov's "Russia" in box, 13-volume set, of over 200 stories. Offering you countless hours of splendid short fiction by the father of the modern story, the master of the art of the glimpse as master storywriter himself, William Trevor, calls Chekov.

Richard Ford wrote the introduction, and he's going to read for you the opening of the story, "The Lady with the Dog".

Mr. RICHARD FORD (Novelist): (Reading) It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog. Dmitritch Gurov, who had by then been a fortnight at Yalta, and so was fairly at home there, had begun to take an interest in new arrivals. Sitting in Verney's pavilion, he saw, walking on the sea-front, a fair-haired young lady of medium height, wearing a beret; a white Pomeranian dog was running behind her.

And afterwards, he met her in the public gardens and in the square several times a day. She was walking alone, always wearing the same beret, and always with the same white dog; no one knew who she was, and every one called her simply the lady with the dog.

CHEUSE: That passage from Anton Chekov read by Richard Ford.

I was really happy to see a newly published reprint of the late John Gardner's signature novel, the Upstate New York epic, "The Sunlight Dialogues". The book was originally published in 1972. The first time I read it, it bowled me over: what a beautiful dramatic encounter between modern life and ancient mythology.

Gardner's son, Joel, reads from Chapter 1, about the chief of police of Batavia, New York, who has just arrested a man who has painted the word love across the middle of the main street.

Mr. JOEL GARDNER: (Reading) The Chief of Police - it was then Fred Clumly -would sit in his office in front of the cellblock and talk about it with whoever happened to be there — one of his men or Judge Sam White or May Dance from Probation. I think he's from California, Clumly would say. But he wouldn't say why. It's the way he talks, he would explain, squinting, sitting with his bare white elbows planted on the desk like trees. Clumly's whole body was creased and white and completely hairless. He'd had a disease when he was in the Navy, years ago.

Aside from the whiteness and the hairlessness, his only remarkable features were his large nose, which was like a mole's, and his teeth, which were strikingly white and without a flaw. The whiteness, the hairlessness, the oversized nose all gave him the look of a philosopher pale from too much reading, or a man who has slept three nights in the belly of a whale.

CHEUSE: John Gardner's "The Sunlight Dialogues", read by his son Joel.

Among the summer crop of new fiction, I suggest picking up Annie Dillard's new novel. It's actually only the second novel she has ever published. She has written an elegant metaphor strewn and at the same time beach-funky, philosophically minded, ocean-side love story set on Cape Cod, between the dunes and the star-splashed sky above. It's called "The Maytrees". Annie Dillard reads from the opening of the chapter about Toby Maytree. He's courting the reticent Lou Bigelow.

Ms. ANNIE DILLARD (Author, "The Maytrees"): (Reading) Men always chased her and she always glared. She most certainly did not ask him in. His was a startling figure: his Mars-colored hair, his height and tension, his creased face. He looked like a traveling minstrel, a red-eyed night heron. His feet were long and thin like the rest of him. He wore a billed fishing cap. An army canteen hung from his belt. She had been a schoolgirl in Marblehead, Massachusetts, when he went West. Just a walk, he said, sunrise. We won't need to go inside. In his unsure smile she saw his good faith.

CHEUSE: "The Maytrees" by Annie Dillard.

There is more love and death in a story deeply accentuated by the sharp feelings and sharp mind of the main character, and by the setting. Maryse Conde's ferociously told novel set in South Africa, "The Story of the Cannibal Woman", about a woman widowed and left to figure out her life in a troubled neighborhood in Cape Town. Listen to Conde's translator and husband, Richard Philcox, in a passage about Roselie Thibaudin, a painter and medium, alone and widowed after her husband's murder.

Mr. RICHARD PHILCOX (Translator, Maryse Conde): (Reading) She stumbled across to the dressing table with his three opaque mirrors blurred in places by grim spots drifting like water lilies on the Indian lake. And contemplated with a morose fascination, her close cropped hair yellowing in patches, the charcoal lines on her forehead, the color of burnt Sienna, the bags of flabby skin under her slanting eyes, her mouth wedged between two deep furrows. In other words, a ravaged face showing signs of an already long passage that had been rough, so rough.

CHEUSE: That was Maryse Conde's "The Story of the Cannibal Woman", read by her husband.

On to men - men at work - working out their deepest hopes and sorrows. We meet them in short story writer Ron Carlson's first novel in many years.

Mr. RON CARLSON (Author, "Five Skies"): (Reading) Nothing worse in the morning than finding a crescent wrench in the dirt. Key had told Ronnie Panelli the second or third day, when the young man finally understood what a crescent wrench was, the whole nomenclature of tools coming to him in daily increments, a lesson he resisted only for the moment before he saw that these tools were somehow his too, that he would get to wield them, be expected to, without assistance.

CHEUSE: "Five Skies" is the title of Carlson's moving portrait of three construction workers in the wilds of Idaho, during a pivotal summer for them all.

Mr. CARLSON: (Reading) If the weather threatened, the men took the extra time to locate and place the tools in the large waterproof ammo chest by their tent. And so their days ended with this regard for their tools and the days began, as they squinted over coffee, in the exhilarating open air knowing where the shovel was, the chain, the awl.

CHEUSE: Ron Carlson reading from his new novel "Five Skies".

Ms. MIA DILLON (Actress): (Reading) I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me.

CHEUSE: Some delicious non-fiction to sweeten our picnic spread from "Travel Tales", the latest in the "Selected Short" CD series. "Goodbye to All That", by Joan Didion, read by Mia Dillon to a receptive New York audience.

Ms. DILLON: (Reading) When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DILLON: (Reading) … and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.

CHEUSE: Summer, for me, brings recollections of reading Ray Bradbury when I was a kid. The sequel to this much-beloved novel "Dandelion Wine" came out this past autumn. It's called "Farewell Summer". There are those days, which seem a taking in of breath, Bradbury writes, which, held, suspends the whole earth in its waiting. Some summers refuse to end. Maybe that's this one.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: That was critic Alan Cheuse. You can hear extended excerpts from his picks, including a poem from Jane Hirschfield at Search for Summer Books.

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