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Critics' Lists: Summer 2013
Best Of The Summer: 6 Books The Critics Adore
Originally published on Tue March 18, 2014 3:30 pm
There is no one definition of a summer book. It can be a 1,000-page biography, a critically acclaimed literary novel, a memoir everyone is talking about — or it might be your favorite guilty pleasure: romance, crime, science fiction. Whatever you choose, it should be able to sweep you away to another world, because there is nothing like getting totally lost in a book on summer day. Here are a few books that swept away some of our favorite critics.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What is your favorite kind of summer read? Have you been waiting to dig into a riveting 1,000-page biography over the vacation? Or is it time for guilty pleasures, romance novels, mysteries, science fiction?
NPR's Lynn Neary caught up with some book critics to find what they are reading this summer.
LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Freelance critic Marcela Valdes doesn't really care what kind of book she's reading, as long as she can get lost in it on a summer's day.
MARCELA VALDES: I like a book that erases the rest of the world. It doesn't matter actually if you are at the beach or you're in an armchair in your house, but that the whole rest of the world kind of falls away.
NEARY: This year, the book that had that effect on Valdes was "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini. Valdes says it's a complex novel, but at its heart it's the story of a father who sells one of his children to save the rest of his family. Hosseini's genius, says Valdes, is that he uses multiple viewpoints to explore the effects of this decision.
VALDES: There are nine chapters and each one is told from the perspective of a different character. So the effect is a little bit like seeing that great movie "Rashomon." You think you know what happened. And you think you know who got hurt and how and why. And then, with each chapter, you have to begin revising your understanding of the events.
NEARY: Another book that absorbed Valdes is "The Sound of Things Falling" by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. The main character, Antonio Yammara, grew up in Bogota in the 1980s at the height of the drug war. As an adult, he is injured when a friend is killed in a drive-by shooting. It shatters his life and sweeps him up into the mystery of his friend's death.
VALDES: Vasquez talks about how Bogotanos of that era kind of got inured to that violence, got toughened to it. But when Yammara catches that bullet, even though that period of in Columbian history is over, that toughness just falls away and it reveals this terrorized soul.
NEARY: Washington Post critic Ron Charles recommends a book about people who are living through a reign of terror - "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra. It begins in a small Chechen village that is caught up in the fighting between Russian troops and Chechen rebels. A young girl's father has just been taken away by the government. She's rescued by her father's friend, the village doctor.
RON CHARLES: So he takes her and he hides her somewhere. The book only takes five days but it constantly falls back into the past and tells us how we got there and explores the lives of the people in this village. It's a very different kind of book, although it does circle through many different stories. It's beautifully written. It is absolutely heartbreaking.
NEARY: A different kind of historical novel, Charles says, is "The Son" by Philipp Meyer. This is a sweeping story that traces the history of Texas through the saga of one family. Charles says this is also a novel that a reader can get lost in.
CHARLES: It's perfect for that. It's almost 600 pages. It is sprawling. In three parts, it tells the history of Texas and, by implication, the history of the United States. It starts back before the Civil War and moves all the way up past the Iraq War into 2012. It's a remarkable book and this is a big, exciting novel.
NEARY: Now, if all this is too heavy for you, Laura Miller has another option, "NOS4A2" by Joe Hill. That odd title is a story in itself.
LAURA MILLER: It's a license plate number of an evil car.
NEARY: Put those letters and numbers together, say them out loud and you'll hear a very significant name.
NEARY: So you see where this is going. Miller says it's an epic supernatural horror story that is a tribute to Stephen King. That's because Joe Hill is King's son.
MILLER: As I understand it, he doesn't usually do a Stephen King novel. But he decided to do it this time, since he has established enough of a reputation on his own. And it's just uncanny, even a little spooky, that he can do it as well as his dad can.
NEARY: And Miller makes a case for another candidate for a good summer read, the memoir. She recommends "She Left Me the Gun" by Emma Brockes. It's the story of Brockes' search for the truth about the traumatic events of her own mother's childhood. Miller says Brockes' mother emerges as a true hero in the story.
MILLER: She's just this amazing, funny, tough talking, practical, incredibly loving mother who just made a safe place for her daughter in the world, despite the incredible danger and damage of her own childhood.
NEARY: So go ahead, pick up a book and get lost.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.