Selections for the sultry season
Reading in the summertime has a different pace. Life slows down as the weather heats up, leaving readers with more time to savor a special book. Whether you’re heading to the beach, cooling off in the mountains or simply relaxing at home, add one of these recommendations to your summer reading list.
A MASTER OF APPALACHIAN FICTION
Author Sharyn McCrumb has forged a successful career by dipping her pen into the inkwell of Appalachian culture and conveying the region’s stories to the rest of the world. A resident of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains herself, McCrumb has the unique ability to paint mythic portraits from the past and present of the people who call this region home.
Her latest offering, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, skewers folks who distort the truth, notably big-city journalists who have arrived in 1930s rural Virginia to cover a murder trial. The case makes headlines only because it contains sensational elements sure to sell papers: A beautiful, educated young teacher is on trial for killing her coal-miner father.
McCrumb introduces two veteran journalists, Rose Hanelon and Henry Jernigan, as well as their accompanying photographer Shade Baker, as the vultures that promptly descend upon Wise County as soon as the accused, Erma Morton, is booked for the crime. Instead of communicating the facts, these three will relay whatever headlines are most likely to increase the paper’s circulation. In Rose’s own words: “What you emphasized and what you omitted told the viewers what they ought to think of the subject.”
There is one honest, fledgling writer in the ranks of gawkers as the court case unfolds. Newbie reporter Carl Jenkins struggles with separating fact from opinion as he tries to make a name for himself.
Readers may recognize Jenkins’ young cousin, mountain psychic Nora Bonesteel—introduced in McCrumb’s beloved Appalachian Ballad books—who arrives at Carl’s urging to help forecast the trial’s outcome.
McCrumb demonstrates her usual mastery of historical detail and pointed description of place in The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, a finely spun tale where neither guilt nor innocence is evident until the final page is turned.
—Lizza Connor Bowen
A LOVABLE HEROINE FROM ISAACS
Does anyone create more likeable characters than best-selling author Susan Isaacs?
I thought my favorite Isaacs heroine was a toss-up between feisty Amy Lincoln, the investigative reporter in Any Place I Hang My Hat, and suburban amateur detective Judith Singer of Compromising Positions and Long Time No See. But now, after reading Isaacs’ latest, As Husbands Go, there’s a new contender.
Susie B. Anthony Rabinowitz Gersten lives on Long Island with her four-year-old triplets and husband Jonah, a successful plastic surgeon, doting father and devoted husband—which makes it kind of strange when he turns up murdered in the apartment of Manhattan call girl Dorinda Dillon, stabbed in the chest with a pair of scissors.
Anxious to solve the high-profile case, detectives quickly determine that Dorinda is the culprit. She’s arrested and charged, but Susie can’t shake the feeling that everyone—police, prosecutors, her own family—is missing some piece of the puzzle. To make matters worse, her high-society mother-in-law has suddenly become Susie’s biggest critic, accusing her of pressuring Jonah to work too hard to maintain their comfortable lifestyle. And neighbors are gleefully (but not subtly) whispering about this unexpected turn of events for what seemed like the perfect family.
With her usual keen eye for detail and humor, Isaacs takes a hard look at the sometimes impenetrable, often absurd social politics of upscale New York. Susie is a winning heroine: wry, smart and self-deprecating. Fast-paced and immensely satisfying, As Husbands Go is a novel about a woman trying to prove that her charmed life was no fairy tale, and in the process learning a lot about herself.
ANOTHER BINCHY WORTH WATCHING
If nice guys always finish last, then David, the hero of Chris Binchy’s American debut, Five Days Apart, is doomed from the start. Sweet and unassuming, he has navigated his college social life by hiding behind his gregarious friend, Alex, an immature heartbreaker who never seems to take anything seriously. Then, at a party just before graduation, David is struck by a woman in a way he never has been before, and he turns to Alex for romantic help. But Alex is as smooth as David is awkward, so he inevitably moves in on Camille himself, leaving David devastated.
David graduates from college and outwardly does everything he should—he gets a job in a bank, earns praise from his superiors and becomes a grown-up. But he can’t forget Camille, and eschews any attempt to get over her or meet anyone else. Meanwhile, Alex and Camille have moved in together, though Alex is sputtering through his stalled college career and can’t seem to make any real commitment either to her or to himself. David isolates himself, from the world and particularly from Alex, and the demise of their lifelong friendship and David’s staggering loneliness is detailed with particular insight.
Binchy—a bestseller in Ireland and the nephew of beloved author Maeve Binchy—tackles the age-old issues of love, friendship, loneliness and ambition with a surprisingly nuanced hand. There are some flaws here—the story is so simple and timeless that it doesn’t always feel completely fresh, and David’s total social paralysis undermines his narrative sympathy at times. But where Binchy excels is his subtle commentary on this new generation, clearly stunted by an unparalleled amount of choice. The ways in which David and Alex treat their freedom—and friendship—is fascinating, far beyond their conflict with Camille, and their dilemma makes this perceptive debut stand out from America’s lackluster lad lit scene.
A LIGHT, DREAMY READ
Francesca, Louise Shaffer’s heroine in Looking for a Love Story, won the publishing jackpot. Yesterday she was an unheard-of writer. Today she is a best-selling author. Now the publisher is panting for a sequel, but when Francesca fires up her laptop, she is met with radio silence. For months. And as that sound of silence becomes all-consuming, her very handsome husband moves out (or on). The only thing sticking by her side is her dutiful dog, Annie, and the few extra pounds inertia brings to someone frozen in fear of failure.
And it is Annie who jumpstarts this tale. After all, a dog that lives in a Manhattan condo must be walked. And fed. So income must come from somewhere, even if the dog’s owner has writer’s block.
After several ill-fated attempts, Francesca finally lands a freelance writing assignment with “Chicky,” an old woman who wants to tell the story of her 1920s vaudevillian forebears. To Francesca, it sounds a bit lame, but a job is a job. Then for some inexplicable reason the characters start to get into Francesca’s blood. Words flow effortlessly onto the page. But Chicky holds a mighty big secret that sets the stage for life lessons that will smack Francesca right between the eyes and, to her delight, squelch that radio silence.
A story all tied up in a pretty bow? No, but you’ll find several real love stories from the past and present smoothly braided together in this light, dreamy read.
—Dee Ann Grand
AN ESSAY COLLECTION WORTH SHARING
No one would call Sloane Crosley’s first essay collection, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, juvenile, but her second effort, How Did You Get This Number, is decidedly more grown-up. It matures, say, from a fabric scrunchie to a sleek hair clasp without losing any of the can-you-believe-this-is-actually-happening-to-me moments. Crosley, who lives in New York City and is developing her first book as an HBO series, writes like your enviably witty, completely chic friend who also swears like a sailor when relaying a story.
Crosley begins her essays with captivating leads, the first sentences telling stories of their own. In “Light Pollution,” a small anecdote flourishes and crescendos, taking the reader from an Alaskan car-trip musing to a baby bear’s shocking mercy killing. “An Abbreviated Catalog of Tongues” details her family’s escapades with pets—from a stingray named Herb to a blind bichon frise to a series of birds that died mysterious deaths. And finally, the collection’s title comes from “Off the Back of a Truck,” in which Crosley has a perfect working relationship with a dishonest furniture store worker and a not-so-perfect relationship with a handsome writer named Ben.
Crosley writes like a student of literature, figuring out along the way which techniques work, which words are funny and how seemingly separate storylines parallel. She seems to unravel the morals to her own stories aloud, while the reader almost embarrassingly listens in. Her stories are joyful and nostalgic, but above all, they are really funny. Her new essay collection, like the last one, should be taken on trains and planes, read on the beach, shared and enjoyed. Crosley is going to be around for awhile; best to get on board now and say you knew her back when she bought furniture off the black market and played charades with Portuguese circus clowns in Lisbon.
ANOTHER HIT FROM WEINER
Jennifer Weiner's Fly Away Home opens with a scandal: a philandering senator caught with a much-younger mistress. But after the familiar headlines fade, a broken family flounders in their wake.
Weiner creates realistic characters in the senator’s wife, Sylvie, and daughters Lizzie and Diana, all central to this story of unraveling and rebuilding relationships. Sylvie, who has long abandoned her personal ambitions to buoy her husband’s political aspirations, faces her newfound independence with a mix of joy and trepidation. She finally has the opportunity to pursue interests like cooking, dating and mothering the daughters she overlooked while trying to be the perfect politician’s wife, but she finds that freedom isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
Meanwhile, Lizzie and Diana are dealing with their own set of problems: Lizzie, a recovering addict, tries to prove to her family that she’s not a lifetime screw-up. However, she gets herself into a predicament that could grease the hinges for a relapse. Diana, a successful doctor, wife and mother, struggles to maintain a pristine exterior while her own loveless marriage deteriorates.
While the subject matter is heavy, Fly Away Home isn’t a downer. Weiner’s light touch, especially evident in Diana’s sarcastic dialogue as well as with the amusing Selma, Sylvie’s Jewish, feminist mother who never lacks an opinion, makes this a quick and engaging summer read.
—Lizza Connor Bowen
FOR THE MUSIC GEEK IN ALL OF US
In 1995, Nick Hornby gave a gift to music geeks everywhere with High Fidelity, a charming novel with a hero who somehow knew all the same obscure B-sides that they did. In 2007, music journalist Rob Sheffield picked up where Hornby left off with his heartbreaking memoir, Love is a Mix Tape, about, in equal parts, Nirvana and the crippling loss of his young wife, Renee. Now Sheffield is back with the same encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and touching, resonant prose in Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, this time tackling two profoundly painful topics—adolescence and the 1980s.
Growing up a nerdy Catholic boy in a Boston suburb, Sheffield turned to music for the same reasons as everyone else: to fit in, and to be able to talk to girls. He doesn’t really achieve either goal, as a hilariously awkward conversation with one potential conquest attests—she assures him that while he is sadly destined to remain a geek for life, thus giving him no chance with her, one day he will meet “others like him.” It’s an oddly poignant moment, and pinpoints what’s so special about Sheffield’s writing—sheer recognition, for anyone who has ever felt a little bit different.
Amid Sheffield’s adolescent angst, too, is incredible, almost stream-of-consciousness commentary on 1980s music, from total one-hit wonders to the phenomena of David Bowie, Boy George and, of course, Duran Duran. The minutiae of his musical mantras can feel overwrought at times, overwhelming the seemingly effortless charm of his childhood stories, from an idyllic summer job as an ice-cream man to his awe for and helplessness in the face of three younger sisters. But fans will appreciate his total nerddom and value his impressive knowledge of and, above all, raw emotional response to music.