Vote: The Best Beach Books Ever
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Morning Edition, June 19, 2009 · Summer is a great time to cozy up with some good books, and, boy, do I have some fantastic suggestions for you!
The following are a few of my favorite recent reads. Despite their differences of plot, settings and genre, what I love about each one of these books is the same: the voice of the narrator. These narrators are so compelling, so engaging, so real that I resented each moment I wasn't reading them. I hope you enjoy their company as much as I did.
'The Disreputable History Of Frankie Landau-Banks'
The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, by E. Lockhart, hardcover, 352 pages, Hyperion Books CH, list price: $16.99
Twelve- to 15-year-old girls looking for a relationship novel that's neither sappy, angsty nor a fantasy need search no further: E. Lockhart's The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks is not only one of the most enjoyable teen novels that I've read in a long time, it's also one of smartest. Intelligently written with a cast of well-drawn characters and a witty narrative voice, Lockhart's novel features an original, thought-provoking plot that carries a serious message along with its good humor.
Frankie starts her sophomore year at Alabaster Prep a changed young woman from the geeky freshman she was just a few months ago. When she starts going out with handsome Matthew — the senior boy who's the catch of the campus — she's pretty sure she's left all remnants of the old nerdy Frankie behind. But when she learns that Matthew is the president of an all-male secret society of juniors and seniors at the school called "The Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds," her immense annoyance at being excluded simply because she's female leads her to come up with a brilliantly inventive (if perhaps slightly illegal) scheme to get back at the club members.
Entertaining as it is, the caper-filled plot is Lockhart's method to get us interested in knowing Frankie, who is simply a delight. A fan of P.G. Wodehouse, Frankie loves words, and she's not afraid to either ask questions or challenge accepted norms. I wish I had been exactly like her when I was 15. This would be a terrific choice for mother-daughter book groups.
The Photographer: Into War-Torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders, by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre, paperback, 288 pages, First Second, list price: $29.95
In 1986, on his first assignment as a photojournalist, Didier LeFevre accompanied a team of Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) members who were traveling to Afghanistan during the long bloody conflict between the invading Soviet Union troops and the Taliban. It was a dangerous journey that began in Peshawar, Pakistan, and ended three months later in Afghanistan. Straying off the path was not encouraged, as land mines were prevalent, and there was always the fear of snipers or of being attacked by roving soldiers of either side. Their destination was a small village in northern Afghanistan, where they set up a clinic to treat the men, women and children who were the collateral damage in a brutal war. When the team was returning back to their home base in Pakistan, LeFevre made an unwise choice to travel back to Pakistan by himself — a decision that nearly got him killed.
Now, in The Photographer, an unusual and powerful graphic novel that mixes photographs, illustrations and text, LeFevre, artist Emmanuel Guibert and graphic designer Frederic Lemercier revisit that journey. The book includes LeFevre's original contact sheets, which, it's interesting to note, are not unlike strips of comics. Supplementing the photos are drawings by Guibert and text that was reconstructed from discussions Guibert and LeFevre had about the journey. (LeFevre's journals — mentioned in the book — were lost years ago.)
The Photographer is a good example of how the graphic novel format can work elegantly for nonfiction; it's also a good example of how inadequate the term "graphic novel" is for a work that makes equal use of text and illustrations. And the decision to do this as a graphic novel — however inadequate the phrase is — was exactly right, because we need both the visuals and the text to fully grasp the experiences LeFevre and the MSF team underwent. Reading The Photographer is a stunning, unforgettable experience: You somehow emerge from your time spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan a better, more humane individual.
'The Color Of Lightning'
The Color of Lightning, by Paulette Jiles, hardcover, 368 pages, William Morrow, list price: $25.99
The Color of Lightning, Paulette Jiles' powerful and moving third novel, begins with a real person and — taking the little that is known from the historical record — creates a life for him that illuminates a morally complex time and place in American history. Britt Johnson was a black man, a freed slave, who, along with his wife and three children, accompanied his former owner and several other white families to homestead on the north Texas Plains during the last years of the Civil War.
At the time, Texas had opened up its land for settlement, but the Kiowa and Comanche Indians, who were afraid of losing their traditional hunting grounds, retaliated by kidnapping and/or murdering the settlers. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was trying to corral (almost literally) the Indians on reservations.
One day, while Johnson and most of the other men are away, their settlement is raided. Many — including Johnson's oldest son — are killed. The others, mainly women and children, are taken north with the Indians. Heartbroken and in an angry despair, Johnson rides to the Indian camps to rescue his family. Along the way, we meet the (wholly fictitious) character of Samuel Hammond, a member of the Society of Friends who is appointed as an agent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to try to use peaceful means to disarm the Indians and get them to agree to become farmers. Other characters for whom we grow to care deeply are Tissoyo, who was banished by his tribal leaders; Mary, Britt's wife, almost fatally damaged both physically and psychologically by her treatment in captivity; and Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a terrifically stubborn white woman taken in the same raid as Mary.
I was especially moved by the dilemma of the white children who were kidnapped at a young age and had little memory of their early years, as they grew up knowing nothing except their life on the Plains. Here's how Jiles describes one little girl's feelings about being brought back to the white family she scarcely remembered: "She was not afraid of going hungry, or starvation. She was afraid of the slow death of confinement. Of being trapped inside immovable houses and stiff clothing."
With fully developed characters and vivid, brilliantly crafted writing, Jiles skillfully re-creates a complicated period of history. (Incidentally, Johnson's adventures as an Indian hostage hunter became the inspiration for Alan Le May's 1954 novel, The Searchers, which was turned into the 1956 John Ford film of the same name. In the movie, the character based — very loosely — on Johnson, through the vagaries of the creative process and Hollywood casting, is played by John Wayne.)
'The Gone-Away World'
The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway, paperback, 592 pages, Vintage Contemporaries, list price: $15.95
Some books are relatively easy to talk about: I tell a bit of the plot, describe a character or two, maybe compare it to another book, and — voila! — there you have it. And then there is Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World. I refuse to reveal much about Harkaway's outstanding first novel because I want readers — and I hope there will be many, many of them — to discover its joys without prejudice.
Nevertheless, I will say this: You'll probably find the book in the science fiction section of the library, since it's a post-apocalyptic novel. The narrative voice is likely to capture you from the very first paragraph. And the characters are mostly sympathetic and always three-dimensional.
And without giving anything away, I'm pretty sure that I can tell you that there's a spectacular plot twist that totally changes the way you read the book. (As a result of that, I suspect that you'll want to go back to the beginning and reread it, just as I did, looking for the clues that Harkaway helpfully planted for us along the way.)
If you're a reader, you'll find echoes of other books and authors in The Gone-Away World, including the narratively complex fiction of Harkaway's father, John Le Carre (although Harkaway's novel is of another genre, entirely); Neal Stephenson; one particular short story of Clifford Simak's; a lot of military science fiction, including Joe Haldeman's The Forever War; Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind (or perhaps the movie made from it); Robert Heinlein; Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; and Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles.
I've never met Nick Harkaway, so I don't know if he's ever read (or enjoyed) any of the books or authors I've mentioned, but as I was reading The Gone-Away World, these came to mind. What I can say is that if you're looking for an inventive, intelligent, rousing and simply all-around terrific novel, then Nick Harkaway's The Gone-Away World is for you. Let's hope it's the beginning of a long career.
'Narrow Dog To Indian River'
Narrow Dog to Indian River, by Terry Darlington, paperback, 352 pages, Delta, list price: $15
I laughed pretty much the entire time I was reading Terry Darlington's Narrow Dog to Indian River, a delightful recap of Darlington's journey with his wife on the 1,150-mile Intracoastal Waterway from Virginia to the Gulf of Mexico. Despite their ages and the fact that it had never been done before, the septuagenarian Darlingtons leave their home in Stone, England, and set out in their narrowboat accompanied by their dog, Jim.
A narrowboat, as I learned, is also known as a canal boat; it's 6 foot, 10 inches wide and 60 feet long, with a top speed of 6.2 miles per hour. (Jim, a whippet, is about 6 inches wide.) The boat is perfect for cruising the canals of Europe, but perhaps not so great for the open water that the Darlingtons encounter on their journey. Nonetheless, the trio sets out, encountering along the way ice storms, high seas, piranhas, chiggers and various Southern phenomena, including sweet tea, grits and good ol' boys and their families. There's also lots of that hospitality the region is known for — despite Jim's behavior at Christmas, which I'm still chuckling about. While I'm not brave enough to ever reproduce the trip the Darlingtons made, reading this made me think about a) getting a whippet, and b) taking a narrowboat trip through the canals in England.
'What Happened To Anna K'
What Happened to Anna K, by Irina Reyn, paperback, 256 pages, Touchstone, list price: $14
Discovering a first novel that I love and want to share with others reaffirms my faith that it's still possible to find books that offer me insight, knowledge and pleasure in a voice I've never heard before. Irina Reyn's What Happened to Anna K, a retelling of Anna Karenina, was such a book for me. Reyn ingeniously reinvents Leo Tolstoy's tragically selfish eponymous heroine, moving her more than a century and many time zones away from her native Russia, while maintaining the outlines of Tolstoy's plot.
Even in the 21st century, women's roles are tightly constricted in Anna K's close-knit Russian-Jewish community in Rego Park, Queens. The goal is to marry well (arranged marriages are common), follow the biblical commandments and dictates of the group's rabbi, and raise children to carry on the tradition. When Anna K leaves her financially successful older husband and young son because she's fallen hopelessly and helplessly in love with a younger man (a wannabe writer who happens to be her naive and innocent cousin Katia's boyfriend), the shock waves reverberate throughout the insular community.
The pleasures of Reyn's novel are to be found both in her clear-eyed depiction of the tensions between self and society, as well as in the descriptions of the Bukharian-Jewish emigre community where Anna lives, and whose conventions she both flouts and flaunts. I had never heard of Bukharian Jews before I read What Happened to Anna K, but I spent a lot of time when I finished it looking up information on their fascinating history. I also went out and bought the highly regarded new translation of Anna Karenina by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky to read.
'A Far Cry From Kensington'
A Far Cry from Kensington, by Muriel Spark, paperback, 192 pages, New Directions, list price: $12.95
One of my favorite characters in all of fiction is Mrs. Hawkins, the greatly overweight, greatly capable and greatly opinionated narrator of Muriel Spark's lighthearted novel, A Far Cry from Kensington. As Mrs. Hawkins says of herself: "I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do. At the same time, the wreaking of vengeance and imposing of justice on others and myself are not at all in my line. It is enough for me to discriminate mentally and leave the rest to God."
The heart of the novel, recounted in a long flashback, takes place in 1954, in the world of literary London. Mrs. Hawkins lives in a rooming house in Kensington, then a down-at-heels part of the city, where she works as an editor for a small publishing company. One of her great dislikes (among many) is bad and pretentious writing. One day, Mrs. Hawkins happens upon Hector Bartlett, a writer whom she believes is one of the worst offenders, in the park on her way to work. She accuses him of being a "pisseur de copie," someone who "vomits literary matter." Not unnaturally, he takes great umbrage at being referred to thus, and becomes Mrs. Hawkins' great enemy, not only getting her fired from two publishing jobs, but also, quite possibly, doing even more serious harm to one of Mrs. Hawkins' fellow boarders. Or did he? With Spark, it's hard to know.
Spark is a spare and meticulous writer; she brings her creations to life in a simple sentence or two. One female character in A Far Cry from Kensington is described as being so forgettable that "she seemed to live in parentheses." But it's the character of Mrs. Hawkins who demonstrates Spark's talents at their finest. I first read this novel more than 20 years ago and loved it then. Rereading it for Pearl's Picks, spiffied up in a new cover from New Directions, I found it as buoyant and satisfying as I did back then.
'The Silver Linings Playbook'
The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick, hardcover, 304 pages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, list price: $24Aawww shucks! I know that's hardly a usual way to begin a book review, but it was my immediate response to finishing Matthew Quick's heartwarming, humorous and soul-satisfying first novel, The Silver Linings Playbook. The book opens as 30-year-old Pat Peoples, a former high school history teacher, is being sprung from a Baltimore mental institution and taken home by his mother. Convinced that he was in the hospital for only a few months, Pat has no idea why he was sent there in the first place. What he does know is that Nikki, his wife, wants some "apart time," as Pat calls it. But Pat is bound and determined to win her back, because he believes in happy endings and silver linings. This belief is despite the fact that his father won't even talk to him, there are huge gaps in his memory, and he's become addicted to working out.
As Pat slowly begins to remember and come to terms with the painful realities of his past, he begins to understand that "it's better to be kind than to be right." Along the way he's aided by an eccentric (but effective) psychiatrist named Patel (who shares Pat's love for the Philadelphia Eagles football team) and Tiffany, the widowed sister-in-law of his old best friend, Ronnie.
I could go on and on listing the reasons why this book makes me smile, but I'll limit myself to two: First, I loved reading Pat's critiques of classic fiction like The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Bell Jar and — especially — A Farewell to Arms, which he reads because he's trying to become the person he thinks Nikki (an English teacher) wanted him to be. Second, I never realized that the Philadelphia Eagles inspired such intense, crazed-with-love, live-and-die-with-their-team fanatics. The scenes set around the football games are hilarious — indeed, the only way Pat and his father can seem to communicate is when the Eagles are on television.
What's known as "light fiction" tends to be undervalued among critics. Along with The Silver Linings Playbook, James Collins' Beginner's Greek, Steve Kluger's Last Days of Summer, Stephen McCauley's The Easy Way Out and Elinor Lipman's My Latest Grievance all offer us hours of reading pleasure. This, in my opinion, is not something to be taken lightly.