DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has been diving into lighter literary novels and mysteries, searching for books suited for the beginning of summer. Here are some of her picks.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: My sense of time is fuzzier thanks to the pandemic, so this could be a late spring or an early summer round up. The one thing I know for sure is that this mixed bag of terrific books is one I'd want to carry with me any time. Emma Straub's new novel "This Time Tomorrow" is a time travel fantasy imbued with her signature awareness of the infinite ways we humans make life harder for ourselves. Straub's heroine here is a single woman named Alice who works at her old high school. Her father, a bestselling novelist who raised Alice on his own, is dying in a New York hospital. That ordeal, coupled with Alice's approaching 40th birthday, plunges her into despondency.
Straub writes that Alice had always thought of her professional life in perfect contrast with her father's. He'd had wild success, and she none, just hanging on to something stable, like a seahorse with its tail looped around some seagrass. On the night of her birthday, Alice returns from a drunken binge and stumbles into the gift of time travel, which allows her to explore the big question, what if? The greatest compliment I can pay to "This Time Tomorrow" is to say that I'd always considered Jack Finney's 1970 novel "Time And Again" to be the New York City time travel tale. Now, Finney's classic has company.
For anyone who's ever served on a committee, Michelle Huneven's comic novel, "Search," is a delicious recipe-laden must read. Huneven's narrator, Dana Potowski, is a food writer living in California who's roped into joining the search committee for the new minister of her Unitarian Universalist Church. Huneven dramatizes how one strong personality - in this case, a young woman swollen with insolence - can control a committee. And her descriptions of conducting first-round interviews over Zoom are hilarious. Here's Dana describing an interview with a female candidate that turns disastrous. (Reading) Just before she signed off, she offered to sing us a song. Plucking a dulcimer off the wall, she started in on "Bridge Over Troubled Water." She began to keep time by slapping the dulcimer. And somehow, each slap was a sharp, direct crack to our eardrums. At the end, she smiled ecstatically and waved.
Group decisions are not something Harry Ingram worries about. He's the star of a new hard-boiled mystery called "One-Shot Harry," by veteran crime writer Gary Phillips. The novel is set in LA in 1963, as racial tensions are escalating in advance of Martin Luther King's upcoming Freedom Rally at Wrigley Field. Harry is the best of all possible guides to this watershed moment. He's a Black freelance news photographer who roams all over LA with his Speed Graphic camera. It's a job that gives him entree into neighborhoods and events that might otherwise be off-limits to him because of his race. In the course of investigating a friend's suspicious death, Harry finds himself facing off with a white supremacist group who wants the speedometer of racial progress pushed way back down. What makes "One-Shot Harry" a standout is the cityscape of mid-century LA it summons up - its music, chromium cars, hateful slurs, invisible racial boundaries and cautious hopes.
The circumstances of this last recommendation are unusual. Dick Lipez, who wrote under the pen name Richard Stevenson, was a groundbreaking author of gay detective novels featuring private eye Donald Strachey. Decades ago, I reviewed one of those Strachey books. And Dick and I became fast friends. He died in March. But one of the things he left behind was the first novel in what would have been a new series about a gay private eye in 1940s Philadelphia. "Knock Off The Hat" may be the best novel Dick ever wrote. Its main character, Clifford Waterman, is a former police detective dishonorably discharged from the Army during World War II for an indecent act. Cliff gets drawn into helping a man who's nabbed in a raid on a so-called degenerates club. As with "One-Shot Harry," the greatest pleasures here are the details that make 1940s Philly come alive - the Horn & Hardart automat meals of meat loaf and coconut cream pie, the network of Cliff's closeted friends, working in town at Wanamaker's shoe department or even on the police force. I wish I could say there'd be more Waterman novels to come, but the fact that Dick was in his early 80s when he wrote this novel, well, maybe that's a reason to believe in springtime possibilities, no matter the season.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of literature at Georgetown University. If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed - like our conversation with two Washington Post reporters about their book on the life of George Floyd or with Hugh Ryan about his book, "The Women's House Of Detention: A Queer History Of A Forgotten Prison" - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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