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Summer Books That Make The Critics' Cut

Just what is a summer book, anyway? Does it have to be a big, fat, juicy page turner to earn the right to be packed away in the luggage (or downloaded on the e-reader) and taken along on vacation? We put that question to several book reviewers. After all, they make make their living reading books, so what do they take with them when they go on a road trip, fly overseas, or hunker down in the country?

John Freeman, editor of the literary magazine Granta, thinks our collective idea of summer reading may be too narrow. He likes to read all kinds of things when the weather gets warm. Big novels are great on the beach, but later, when sitting on the porch or settling down for the night, he'll pull out a more slender volume: essays perhaps, or even poetry. Salon book reviewer Laura Miller also reads essays in the summer, but she really loves a novel that carries her away to a far off place where she can get lost, even when she's not on vacation. And Slate reviewer Troy Patterson, who says he's more of a hammock reader than a beach reader, likes the extra time summer allows to linger over a book, reveling in the language as well as the plot. So here are a few of the books these three reviewers say will make for some good "summer reading" this year.

Recommended By Laura Miller


Under Heaven

By Guy Gavriel Kay, hardcover, 592 pages, Roc Hardcover, list price: $26.95

Miller calls this epic adventure story "completely transporting." It is set in an imaginary country based on China during the Tang Dynasty, complete with a culture full of poetry, art and plenty of palace intrigue. The hero, a general's son, is given a gift of 250 perfect horses by a foreign princess. It's a gift with consequences as he gets caught up in the schemes of the emperor's favorite concubine, a legendary and cunning beauty. Miller says the book combines the best of historical and fantasy novels to create a great read where "you don't know what could happen next." (Read about Kay's hero, the soldier-slash-poet Tai, as he prepares for a new day -- which he will spend burying casualties of war.)


The Good Son: A Novel

By Michael Gruber, hardcover, 400 pages, Henry Holt and Co., list price: $26

No summer reading list would be complete without an international thriller that takes you to exotic places. And this one, says Miller, combines a great plot with such wonderful writing that you don't feel like you "just ate a bag of potato chips" when you are finished. It's a smart thriller about a U.S. special forces solider raised in Pakistan whose mother gets kidnapped by militants in Afghanistan. He devises a way to trick the Army into rescuing her while she desperately bargains with her captors for the lives of her fellow hostages. Miller says the novel has lots of action and suspense but is also thought-provoking in its examination of the differences between modern Western culture and a tribal way of life. (Read the book's mysterious opening, in which our narrator is awakened in the middle of the night by a call from his mother -- who, despite being under a fatwa, is about to jet off to Pakistan.)

Also recommended: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman. "A hilarious collection" of essays and travel stories about people who obsess about Russian novels. Miller says even if you can't get through a Russian novel, you'll find something to laugh about in this book.

Recommended By John Freeman


Parrot And Olivier In America

By Peter Carey, hardcover, 400 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95

This historical novel is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, famous for his 19th century study of American society, "Democracy in America." In Carey's fictional account, Olivier, the character based on de Tocqueville, comes to America with his companion, Parrot, a young English printer who has been in and out of prison. The story is told in both voices, and because they come from such different backgrounds they have very different impressions of America and its young democracy. As the two hit the road, argue and fall in love, they develop something of a "bro-mance." And though the novel is sophisticated and beautifully written, Freeman says it is also a page turner and quite simply "one of the best novels I've read in the last few years." (Read Olivier's witheringly arch description of his childhood home and his beloved, maddening, long-suffering mother.)


The Best Of It: New And Selected Poems

By Kay Ryan, hardcover, 288 pages, Grove Press, list price: $24

Summer, says Freeman, is not just about page turners. He argues that novels are like the "big meal," whereas smaller books of poems or essays are more like palate cleansers. For those moments when you're looking for a book that you can pick up or put down when you want, he recommends this book of poetry by the nation's poet laureate, Kay Ryan. Freeman says Ryan has a "well-carpentered, deeply intelligent, plain-spoken American voice" that harks back to Robert Frost. (Read three wistful, poignant poems by Ryan about the passage of time, and the "dreamy wading feeling" of relief.)

Also recommended: For another "palate cleanser," Freeman recommends film director John Waters' book of essays, Role Models, which he says is very funny, sometimes dirty and "sort of like an intellectual autobiography through collage."

Recommended By Troy Patterson


Hitch-22: A Memoir

By Christopher Hitchens, hardcover, 448 pages, Twelve Books, list price: $26.99

Hitchens, the acerbic pundit known for blistering attacks on his political and philosophical foes, shows a softer side in this memoir that Patterson says is more like "a great raconteur telling stories about his own life." Here, Patterson says, Hitchens is in "armchair," not "lectern," mode, and perhaps the best stories in the the book involve his longtime friends such as Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. In fact, Patterson says the book emerges as something of a tribute to friendship itself. (Here, Hitchens describes his mother, Yvonne. He writes, "It makes a great difference to have had, in early life, a passionate lady in one's own corner.")


The Pregnant Widow

By Martin Amis, hardcover, 384 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95

Perhaps it's not surprising that Patterson would also like this novel by Hitchens' pal Martin Amis. Patterson calls Amis "the best living English-language prose stylist" and says he returns to form after some disappointing books in recent years. This coming-of-age novel tells the story of 20-year-old Keith Nearing, who is spending the summer of 1970 in Italy with two girls. An English major, Nearing is immersed in reading about old-fashioned notions like virtue just as as the sexual revolution of the '70s is getting under way. In the end, it proves to be "an erotically decisive summer" for Keith. (Four days into his summer in Italy, Keith describes the experience like "living in a painting ... with its cadmium reds, its cobalt sapphires, its strontian yellows." In this excerpt, he strolls through the streets, flanked by two young beauties, Lily and Scheherazade.)

Also recommended: Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney by Marion Meade. Though the publicity material describes this as a story of star-crossed lovers, Patterson says it is really "two life stories with a love story at the end," and each of the life stories is interesting in its own right.

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Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.