RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The art of stories. That's on the minds of the independent booksellers we turn to this time of year for advice on good vacation reads. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg finds, this year, there are stories about assimilation, con artists, and what a young adult novelist learned in prison.
RONA BRINLEE: First of all, what do these books have in common? "Gone With the Wind," "Payton Place," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Valley of the Dolls," "The Godfather,"...
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: They were all mega-hits, and Rona Brinlee at the BookMark in Neptune Beach, says James W. Hall's book "Hit Lit" tries to figure out why. The subtitle is "Cracking the Code of the 20th Century's Biggest Bestsellers." The code includes excitement, sex, and...
BRINLEE: There has to be some information. People want to learn something in spite of themselves. Read a good novel and find something out.
STAMBERG: Also, these bestsellers let readers peek at a segment of society that's usually inaccessible.
BRINLEE: So that reading is the great equalizer, whether it be a secret society, like in the "Da Vinci Code" or "The Godfather."
STAMBERG: Usually, you writer wannabes taking notes, the protagonist is in a tough situation.
BRINLEE: And often in search of the American Dream. I mean, you know, Scarlett always wants to go back to Tara, fiddle-dee-dee.
STAMBERG: Now, the heroine of "Glaciers," the Alexis M. Smith novel picked by Daniel Goldin at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee. The "Glaciers" heroine has no big problems. In fact, living in Portland, Oregon, Isabel has a pretty uneventful sounding day.
DANIEL GOLDIN: She goes to work, she's invited to a party, she buys a dress, she has lunch with a young man she's interested in, she learns that he's leaving for Iraq and she goes to the party.
STAMBERG: But she's sent a postcard that unlocks her memories of growing up in Alaska, her parents' divorce, and ongoing love of vintage things. And Daniel says these memories provoke changes in Isabel.
GOLDIN: She find herself becoming more aware of her own identity as a result.
STAMBERG: A similar awakening comes to Coral Glynn, the eponymous - I always wanted to use that word - heroine of Peter Cameron's new novel. Daniel says Coral is a private duty nurse in a gloomy country house in 1950's England. When her elderly patient dies, the woman's son proposes.
GOLDIN: They are not in love, but she accepts anyway.
STAMBERG: And thereby hangs part of the tale, a story about secrets and repression in a small British town. Coral befriends a town florist and learns a lesson about class.
GOLDIN: At her wedding she tries to invite the florist to the dinner. It's a very small dinner. And they say oh, no, no, no, no. That's totally inappropriate. You can't invite a shopkeeper to this wedding.
STAMBERG: The book has echoes of "Jane Eyre," "Rebecca," other great British novels, and Peter Cameron was born in New Jersey. Had enough of English manors? Lucia Silva, who was book buyer for Portrait of a Book Store in Studio City, California, offers crime in Amy Reading's new novel, "The Mark Inside: A Perfect Swindle, a Cunning Revenge, and a Small History of the Big Con."
It's the true story of a Texas rancher in 1919, who twice loses his fortune in elaborate cons and crosses the country to find the swindlers.
LUCIA SILVA: And he dons disguises and poses as a mark in cities all over to try and infiltrate their world and attempt to con the con men and bring them to justice.
STAMBERG: Another Lucia crime pick is a re-release of 2012 Newbery Medal winner Jack Gantos' memoir "Hole In My Life." At the age of 19, Gantos went to jail for smuggling.
SILVA: I don't know if there's another Newbery Award winner with that exact pedigree.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
STAMBERG: I guess. "Hole In My Life" is the story for young adults of a smart school dropout who gets a job in a shipyard. He's offered $10,000 to sail a ship loaded with 2,000 pounds of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City.
SILVA: He wants to go to college. He wants to be a writer and he's a big dreamer. So he pretends he's some combination of Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, and just says yes.
STAMBERG: So, jail, big life lessons, a non-saccharine, cautionary true tale with a happy ending.
SILVA: He ends up being accepted to college from his prison cell, and not too many years later writing a bestselling picture book.
STAMBERG: Another young person from an unnamed war torn country is the protagonist of Stephen Dau's debut novel "The Book of Jonas." Rona Brinlee says the 15-year-old Muslim is desperate to assimilate.
BRINLEE: He changes his name when he comes to the United States. He makes his name more American. He names himself Jonas.
STAMBERG: The orphan has nightmare memories. Sent by his father to hide in a cave, he encounters the American soldier who has just killed his family.
BRINLEE: And the two of them survive together, and they go through things together. And it's an interesting question of what happens when the enemy and the person being attacked find themselves in a situation and have to work together.
STAMBERG: Storytelling goes back to the days of the caveman, and Jonathan Gottschall's book "The Storytelling Animal" has this subtitle: "How Stories Make Us Human." Lucia Silva says the book challenges a basic premise.
SILVA: We think of novels or movies as a form of escape, something that's entirely apart from our real lives that we do to get away and spend time somewhere nicer. But he argues that it's more key to our survival, actually, and that it's not just a byproduct of being human, but it is what makes us human.
STAMBERG: Lucia Silva reads the last page of the book.
SILVA: The next time a critic says the novel is dying from lack of novelty, just yawn. People don't go to Storyland because they want something startlingly new. They go because they want the old comforts of the universal story. Don't despair for story's future or turn curmudgeonly over the rise of videogames or reality TV. The way we experience story will evolve, but as storytelling animals, we will no more give it up than start walking on all fours.
Rejoice in the fantastic improbability of the twisting evolutionary path that made us creatures of story, that gave us all the gaudy, joyful dynamism of the stories we tell, and realize most importantly that understanding the power of storytelling, where it comes from and why it matters, can never diminish your experience of it. Go get lost in a novel. You'll see.
STAMBERG: Indeed we will. Thanks to all our independent booksellers for the summer reading ideas. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And telling stories every morning on NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.
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