TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Journeys near and far, into the past, and even into space are the subject of the novels, memoirs and narrative histories that make up our book critic Maureen Corrigan's early summer reading list. Here are her recommendations.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: There's still time to make travel plans for August 21. That's the date when a total solar eclipse will cross the continental United States, the first such eclipse in 99 years. The total eclipse can only be witnessed within a 70-mile-wide path called the path of totality which stretches from Oregon to South Carolina. According to David Baron, it's nature's most awesome show. And he should know. Baron is a self-professed umbraphile, or eclipse chaser. He's also a science writer who's just written a suspenseful narrative history about the last total solar eclipse to cross North America in the summer of 1878. Baron's book is called "American Eclipse," and it follows a group of 19th-century adventurers who raced out to the Rocky Mountains to study the last eclipse up close.
Thirty-one-year-old Thomas Edison was one of this intrepid band. Another was astronomy professor Maria Mitchell, who took some of her Vassar students out to Colorado to prove that women could do science too. As the eclipse got underway, Baron vividly describes how the temperature plummeted, nocturnal animals emerged from hiding and familiar colors of mountains and trees shifted. The total eclipse itself lasted about three minutes, the same span of time predicted for the upcoming August 21 eclipse. But Baron makes those three minutes seem transcendent. Experiencing a total eclipse, he says, is like falling through a trapdoor into a dimly lit, unrecognizable reality. The sun and the moon are thoroughly foreign, an ebony pupil surrounded by a pearly iris. It is the eye of the cosmos.
If David Baron is obsessed with eclipses, Helene Stapinski is obsessed with family history. But she's not one of those genealogy bores predictably intent on proving her relation to royalty. Rather, Stapinski wants to get to the bottom of a long-ago murder case that propelled her great-great-grandmother Vita from southern Italy to Jersey City in 1892. Stapinski's atmospheric new book "Murder In Matera" is part memoir, fiction and travelogue. And it reads like a detective story, with Stapinski playing the part of her clan's Columbo. As she tantalizingly tells readers in her introduction, by the end of her 10-year investigation, Stapinski would travel deep into the countryside and dusty archives of southern Italy and discover one shotgun blast and five dead bodies, most of them belonging to my family.
Transatlantic family calamities of a more comic sort are the subject of Francesca Segal's novel of manners called "The Awkward Age." Segal's heroine, Julia Alden, is a middle-aged widow with a teenage daughter. Julia has fallen for a divorced American obstetrician with a teenage son. The foursome move in together into Julia's north London home, and the teenagers, at first, loathe each other. But when a truce is called, trouble of the erotic sort ensues. This is a smart and droll domestic drama reminiscent of the work of those two magical Lauries, Laurie Colwin and Lorrie Moore. Two American writers with one-of-a-kind voices and sensibilities have written superb new memoirs about their parents.
To my way of thinking, nobody gives ordinary human beings their due with the grace and precision that Richard Ford does. His slim new memoir about his parents called "Between Them" is so gently spellbinding that I've already read it twice. Ford's father was a traveling bleach salesman in places like Mobile and Little Rock during the 1930s and early '40s. So part of the bonus of this little book is that it sits readers down in the company car and takes us on an unsentimental but enchanted journey through the long-ago landscape of the American South. According to Sherman Alexie, his mother Lillian was a beauty, a liar, a sometimes loving, sometimes abusive parent who lost custody of her kids at least once and a strong-willed woman who gave up drinking cold turkey one day and never looked back.
I'm just skimming the surface of Alexie's portrait of his mother in his whirlwind of a memoir called "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." There's straight personal history here, as well as fable, poetry, and raw and mordant accounts of life on the Spokane Indian reservation where Alexie grew up. Unexpected revelations are a constant throughout this memoir. At one point, Alexie tells us white folks love to think that Native American culture is progressive and liberal, but it is often repressive. Indians are quick to socially judge one another. I wouldn't realize it until I read more widely in college, but living on an Indian reservation was like living inside an Edith Wharton novel, a place where good and bad manners were weaponized.
For decades, the weapon of choice in John Grisham's thrillers has been his main character's quick wits. This summer, Grisham is publishing his 30th novel. This one is a standalone, and it's the perfect beach book for bibliophiles. "Camino Island" is a heist caper that begins when a gang of thieves successfully steals a priceless literary treasure, the handwritten manuscripts of F. Scott Fitzgerald's five novels, which are kept in a vault deep in Princeton's Firestone library. I've been there. This could never happen. But as usual, Grisham is such a deft suspense writer, he makes me believe. Even if you can't get yourself to the solar eclipse's path of totality this August 21, any of these very different books will get you onto the path of a totally good story.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the investigations surrounding General Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser. My guest will be Matthew Rosenberg, who covers intelligence and national security for The New York Times. He knows Flynn from the years Rosenberg was covering Afghanistan and Flynn was the U.S. military intelligence chief there. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF HUTCHINSON ANDREW TRIO FEAT. ROGERIO BOCCATO'S "MINTAKA")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly states that 1878 was the last time a total solar eclipse crossed North America, and that the upcoming Aug. 21 eclipse will cross the continental United States. In fact, the last time a total solar eclipse crossed North America was in 1918, and the Aug. 21 eclipse will be crossing the contiguous U.S. In 1878, an eclipse crossed the nation from the Montana territory to Texas.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. 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.