Critics' Lists: Summer 2012
4:46 am
Sun June 17, 2012

Want A Winner? These Books Made The Critics' Cut

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 8:32 am

It's an election year, and that may be good news for those of us who like our summer reading: Laura Miller of Salon.com says a lot of publishing companies don't want to release all their best books in the fall because they'll have to compete with all that presidential campaign news. And that means more great books to choose from when the weather is hot.

Miller has picked out a couple of juicy crime novels and some "narrative nonfiction" for her lazy, hazy summer days. David Ulin of the L.A. Times likes to read "outside the box" in the summertime, so he has an eclectic list, from "graphic nonfiction" to the letters of a well-known writer whose work has haunted us since the middle of last century. And Ron Charles of The Washington Post is delving into a couple of literary novels — one from a major American writer. He says both offer great writing, a good story and a lot to think about. So sit back, relax and dig into this potpourri of pleasure from our critics.

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's that time of year again - maybe a vigorous hike in the woods, a long swim on a hot day or a tough game of tennis. And afterwards, when you have collapsed on the porch or on the beach, it's time for a good summer read. NPR's Lynn Neary talked with several book critics to find out what they are recommending and came up with an eclectic mix.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: L.A. Times book critic David Ulin was an avid reader even as a kid. So, for him, summer was a time when he could leave the required books of school behind and read what whatever he wanted.

DAVID ULIN: This was where I got to be an ambitious reader and read outside of the box - in a certain way, read outside the lines. And I like the idea of it being a period where we're free to challenge ourselves, we're free to think for ourselves, we're free to read for ourselves. We've got some time and some breath to take things on.

NEARY: Ulin doesn't like to take big novels with him on vacation because his reading gets too easily interrupted and he hates to leave a chapter unfinished. So, he prefers shorter forms, like "Journalism" by Joe Sacco. A cartoonist and journalist, Sacco has spent years covering conflicts in places like Iraq, Gaza, Bosnia and Chechnya. Ulin says Sacco transforms these stories into graphic nonfiction.

ULIN: These are real people, and real names, real situations. You know, he's on the ground reporting and does a lot research, takes photographs, all those kinds of things, to use as the basis of his art work. But, you know, if you look at the page of it, it looks like a comic book.

NEARY: Ulin is also reading the "Diaries of George Orwell" this summer. Ulin says the author of "1984" and "Animal Farm" has always been an inspiration to him, so he loved getting a glimpse into his life.

ULIN: For me, there's always something really interesting about reading or experiencing the daily life of an icon. You know, because Orwell is so deified in a certain sense by me and others, that just to see him as living, breathing human being in a way that feels somewhat unfiltered is always kind of revelatory.

NEARY: Ulin does have one crime novel on his list "The Twenty Year Death" by Ariel Winter. It's actually three novels in one, each set ten years apart and each written in the style of a famous writer. It is, says Ulin, an homage to the genre and a well-told story. Crime novels top the list of Salon book reviewer Laura Miller. One must read, says Miller, is "Broken Harbor," Tana French's fourth novel. All of French's novels are about the fictitious Dublin murder squad and in all of them a minor character in the previous book becomes the main character in the next one.

LAURA MILLER: I would just say to any of your listeners who have not read every single Tana French novel, just go out and get them right now.

NEARY: Miller says another compulsively readable crime novel is "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn. Nick Dunne, a good-looking but not especially likable guy, is suspected of murdering his beautiful young wife who goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. The story, which is told from the point of view of both the husband and wife, is as much about a marriage gone wrong as it is about a crime.

MILLER: It's fascinating to see how differently they see the same situations and then also how weirdly they are on the same wavelength, even though they think that they're not. And you can see why their relationship is falling apart but then on the other hand you can see why they are completely bound to each other.

NEARY: Miller also thinks that we're in a golden age for narrative nonfiction and that no one does it better than Kate Summerscale. Her new book is "Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace," about a divorce scandal in the Victorian era. But for those who prefer fiction to fact, Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles says Richard Ford's new novel "Canada" is spectacular. A husband and wife, down on their luck, rob a bank and end up in prison, leaving their two children stranded in Montana.

RON CHARLES: You know, for 200 pages, I thought it was just some kind of a trick 'cause Canada didn't come up at all. But at that 200 page point it goes across the border. And that's kind of what the book is about. It's about these invisible borders that we cross without knowing it; from the United States to Canada, or from a functioning family to a dysfunctional family, or from legal activity to illegal activity.

NEARY: Another literary novel that Charles recommends is "Arcadia" by Lauren Groff. It's the story of a commune founded by hippies in 1970s upstate New York. The novel follows the life of Bit, the first child born in the commune during its early idealistic days.

CHARLES: For Bit, it's just a magical place. You know, it's sort of utopia. And then it all - he has to watch it all fall apart in fairly violent terms, and he never gets over it. We see him at three more points in his life - as a young teen, as a young man and then older in a kind of dystopic future, and he keeps hankering after that paradise lost.

NEARY: Whatever you choose to read this summer, says Laura Miller, it doesn't have to be a classic.

MILLER: It's meant to while away the hours but, you know, five years later you're not even going to really remember it.

NEARY: And that's OK. It is summer after all. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

MARTIN: You can find details about all the books on this list and get a lot more recommendations for great reads in the Summer Books section of our website, nprbooks.org.

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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.