Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Your summer reading list

Last year about this time, when I was still being paid regularly by a national magazine for doing such work, I drew up a summer reading list. It’s May now, and I’m working for free. Classes are over or are ending at most universities. Time to stock up on books that are sprawling (“We laid off our best editor before this came in”—Mark Athitakis), brave (“We couldn't talk the author out of these terrible, terrible sex scenes”—Michael Schaub), lyrical (“Uses adjectives”—the Amateur Reader), and luminous (“Also adverbs”—ibid.).

I don’t know how good these are; with the exception of the first one listed, I haven’t read them. Some sound better than others; some of the authors are better known than others. But somewhere among these twenty-five titles there must be something you can take along on vacation without regret. Me? I’m most excited about Rick Bass’s novel and Allison Lynn’s. I’m skeptical of Roxana Robinson’s, but can’t wait to finish it. The real addition to American literature, though, is Katherine A. Powers’s collection of her father’s letters.

• Kingsley Amis, The Alteration (New York Review Book Classics, May). Amis’s brilliant alternate history of the modern world if Martin Luther had become pope and the Reformation had never occurred. Originally published in 1976.

• Rick Bass, All the Land to Hold Us (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August). All about George W. Bush’s hometown in multiple layers of fiction about oil wildcatters, high school football, displaced Mormons: a novel to prove me wrong about place in the contemporary American novel.

• Robert Boswell, Tumbledown (Graywolf, August). In his first novel in a decade, Boswell tells the story of a 33-year-old man who appears headed for success and steers for failure instead.

• Italo Calvino, Letters, 1941–1985 (Princeton University Press, May). The first collection of letters by the great Italian novelist.

• Truman Capote, The Complete Stories (Modern Library, May). Does not, however, include “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

• Edwidge Danticat, Claire of the Sea Light (Knopf, August). Seven years after her mother dies in childbirth, a Haitian girl disappears before her father can give her to another family to raise.

• Cristina Garcia, King of Cuba (Scribner, May). A Miami exile in his eighties plots to murder Fidel Castro, who has tired of life and torturing dissidents.

• Gail Godwin, Flora (Bloomsbury, May). For her fourteenth novel, Godwin rewrites The Turn of the Screw among an atomic scientist’s children at the end of World War II.

• Allan Gurganus, Local Souls (Liveright, September). In his first book of fiction since 1997, Gurganus returns to the setting of his celebrated first novel Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All for three linked novellas about the South in the internet age.

• Dara Horn, A Guide for the Perplexed (W. W. Norton, September). A software prodigy invents a program that is like a postmodern Cairo Geniza, recording everything computer users do. Like many other novels right now, an “interweaving” of stories from different time periods.

• Thomas Keneally, The Daughters of Mars (Atria, August). The author of Confederates, perhaps the best historical novel about the American Civil War (yes, author of Schindler’s List too), turns his narrative talents on World War I.

• Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland (Knopf, September). Two lifelong Indian friends are torn apart by a radical political movement.

• Allison Lynn, The Exiles (Little A, July). Starting over in Rhode Island—after losing everything except the ten-month-old kid upon arrival.

• Colum McCann, TransAtlantic (Random House, June). A tour de force in which three different transatlantic crossings—each separated by some seven decades—are juxtaposed with implied linkage.

• Alice McDermott, Someone (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, September). A family chronicle set in Brooklyn during and after the Second World War by the underappreciated novelist of Irish-American Catholic life.

• Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth, May). Not exactly ripped from the headlines, but a lucky accident of timing: a first novel about the Chechen war.

• Steven Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600–1800 (Bloomsbury, August). From Don Quixote to Cao Xueqin’s Dream of Red Mansions, which Moore calls the greatest novel of the period, a contrarian and international history.

• Howard Norman, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July). Mark Athitakis praises it as the best book of the year so far. A coming-of-age memoir by the author of The Northern Lights.

• Craig Nova, All the Dead Yale Men (Counterpoint, June). A sequel to his brilliant Good Son, originally published three decades ago, in which the son of the earlier book becomes a father (no less dictatorial?) in the later.

• Thomas G. Pavel, The Lives of the Novel (Princeton University Press, September). The history of the novel from ancient Greece to the program era, arguing that a conflict between idealism and satire makes sense of the genre’s progress.

• Katherine A. Powers, ed., Suitable Accommodations: An Auto­bio­graphical Story of Family Life—The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August). The great comic novelist, author of the classic Morte D’Urban, had long planned to write a novel of family life. His daughter, one of our best literary critics, has collected her late father’s letters and organized them into the novel he wanted to write.

• Roxana Robinson, Sparta (Sarah Crichton, June). The author of Cost tries her very best to give a balanced account of a U.S. Marine’s return home from the war in Iraq.

• Jane Urquhart, Sanctuary Line (MacLehose Press, September). The eighth novel by the Canadian novelist whose Underpainter won the 1997 Governor General’s Award tells the story of a woman who, hammered by loss, returns to her family’s deserted farmhouse to study the migratory patterns of the monarch butterfly.

• Adelle Waldman, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (Henry Holt, July). For her debut novel, Waldman sets out to upset the Vida counters and everyone unhappy with Wikipedia’s category of women writers by telling the story of a male hipster’s literary debut.

• Steve Yarbrough, The Realm of Last Chances (Knopf, August). A loosely attached couple relocates from California to Massachusetts and settles in next door to another loosely attached couple. Guess what happens.

Steve Abernathy points out a forthcoming novel that I overlooked: The Shanghai Factor by the great spy novelist Charles McCarry, one of my personal favorites. The only reason it doesn’t belong on the list above is that I have no doubts about how good it will be.


scott g.f.bailey said...

I'm 115 pages into Steven Moore's The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600–1800, and it's little more than chronologically arranged synopses of writings that Moore has labeled "novels." Arbitrary and opinionated but not much in the way of informative. A "novel" is anything Steven Moore says is one. His larger point (I think), that the art of literature follows no linear path, is buried beneath the weight of the pocket descriptions of examined works.

My big summer read is going to be Dostoyevski's Devils.

D. G. Myers said...

Thanks for the on-the-run review, Scott. I included Moore’s book for the perhaps less-than-obvious reason that I am on a promotional kick for literary history.

Anonymous said...

“This novel is beautifully hypnotic in its movements...”—Emma Donoghue of Trans Atlantic.

Be careful, DG, you might become mesmerized and fly all the way to London.