Nothing says summertime in Little Rock like staying indoors, avoiding other people and pretending you are somewhere else. To that end, we reached out to a team of locally based novelists, screenwriters, rappers and magazine editors to assemble our 2014 summer reading guide, featuring graphic novels, Norwegian memoirs, essay collections and more.
Managing editor of the Oxford American
Emma Straub's "The Vacationers" is one of the most delightful books I've read this summer. In the story, a dysfunctional family travels to Mallorca on vacation, and the patriarch reveals a devastating secret. Though the plotline may be a bit predictable, the characters are lovable and the dialogue endearing. I tore through the book on a hot afternoon, immediately gave it to my mother, then started daydreaming about a trip to the Mediterranean.
I read everything by Meg Wolitzer, and her latest novel for adults, "The Interestings," is recently out in paperback. Wolitzer follows a group of friends from adolescence to middle age, starting when they meet at a summer camp for promising young artists. The novel is a meaty and a satisfying meditation on success, ambition and friendship. It's equally appropriate for both book clubs and beach reading.
Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, "Seating Arrangements," is a quintessential summer read — a family comes together for a wedding on Cape Cod, and few things go according to plan. However, it's Shipstead's second book that kept me awake far too late on weeknights. "Astonish Me" immerses readers in the competitive world of professional ballet, combining gorgeous descriptions of dance with a compelling love story.
Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention new releases from two of the South's most beloved bookstore owners. Ann Patchett (of Nashville's Parnassus Books) is best known for her novels, though I adored her book "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage," an intimate and lovely essay collection; she covers everything from her affection for nuns to her experience at the Los Angeles Police Academy. Lisa Howorth (of Oxford's Square Books) debuted in June with the novel "Flying Shoes," a portrait of a woman who must confront the long-ago murder of her stepbrother. Get to know the memorable main character in an excerpt published in the summer issue of the Oxford American.
Lately I've been gravitating to either the very long (Proust) or the very short (Helen Phillips, Giorgio Manganelli), but this summer I've read one great middle-sized novel — not too hot and not too cold but just right. "Under the Skin" by Michel Faber straddles the border between character-driven realism and science fiction with a grace of presentation and an oddity of conception that reminds me of Walter Tevis' "The Man Who Fell to Earth," my favorite such borderline case and a clear influence on Faber's work. Though I saw the recent film adaptation of "Under the Skin," I had little idea where the novel would take me, or how compelling I would find the experience. Suffice it to say that it's one of those books that reminds you what narrative fiction can do better than any other artistic medium: allow you to occupy another consciousness as if it were your own.
Poet and UALR professor
What comes to mind first and foremost is "The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature." The premise of this book is deceptively simple: Biologist David George Haskell observed a one-square-meter patch in the woods of Tennessee (a small piece of land he calls his "mandala") almost daily for a year and writes about what he saw. Now you wouldn't think that someone could scribble nearly 250 absolutely fascinating pages out of staring at a tiny patch of dirt that long, but he pulls it off. His lyrical and informative chapters detail the lives of the countless creatures there: lungless salamanders and flowering spring ephemerals and hermaphroditic snails; even the unseen microbes in the soil below become part of an unexpectedly moving cast of characters in this old-growth forest. As deeply intelligent as it is poetic, I'd recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the life teeming right outside our doors.
"What It Is Like To Go To War" (Karl Marlantes): One of the most significant books I've read in terms of combat, PTSD, but also acute human understanding. I don't throw the word "brilliant" around. This book is brilliant. As a country at perpetual war, it should be required reading for every American.
"Tenth of December: Stories" (George Saunders): The structure of every George Saunders story is, 1) Start reading and be charmed at how clever and whimsical are the world and characters Saunders creates; 2) Laugh frequently as a growing discomfort sets in and you feel your heart sink deeper and deeper into yourself; 3) Finish story and be left immobile, full of compassion, dread and a kinship with your own pain as Saunders has pulled that heart from that deep spot only to eviscerate it before your eyes. As someone who prides himself on discerning how storytellers manipulate me, I have studied Saunders's work. I still do not know how he does this.
"I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like: Mostly True Tall Tales" (Todd Snider): Jerry Jeff Walker told Todd Snider, "You ought to set up some Christmas lights on your roof to spell out 'SORRY.' And then when you get home from a long night of drinking, you just flip on the lights and go to bed." That's the thesis statement of this book. I don't know if Snider is a better songwriter or a better storyteller. It doesn't matter. What matters is that I woke my wife up at least a dozen times while reading this because I was laughing so hard I shook the bed.
Writer and Arkansas Literary Festival chair
Last week my vacation became a Karl Ove-cation, that is, I holed up with Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle: Book One," the first volume of a six-book autobiographical novel (or semi-fictional memoir) by a 45-year-old Norwegian writer. In the U.S., only the first three volumes have been translated into English and were published with little fanfare, until this summer, by a small Brooklyn nonprofit press. "Book Three" improbably made the New York Times best-seller list. Unlike others of his Scandinavian brethren, he doesn't specialize in gruesome crimes or tattooed computer sleuths, but documents in often mundane but oddly hypnotic detail the ordinary course of his domestic and work life as a father, husband, son and ambitious writer. Often these descriptions seem to no purpose, even as they carry a reader along with familiar, poignant detail; sometimes they end (or begin) with intelligent, wrenching meditations on mortality. Near the end of "Book One," he describes his state of mind at one point that captured my feeling about this remarkable project: "... my world, in all its unbearable banality, was radiant."
Writer and Arkansas Times contributing editor
"The Thing with Feathers; The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human" (Noah Strycker): Let's forget the second part of this book's subtitle. Not everything must be seen through our overlarge sense of importance. To this reader, the weakest parts of these 13 essays were their attempts to link interesting stories about birds and even more interesting science about them to humans. What we're discovering about birds is marvel enough.
Take the complexity of long-range navigation. Or the mathematical principles of triangulation inherent in the pecking order of chickens. Or the way a flock of starlings — a murmuration, we learn — swirls through the evening sky, following elegant rules that, we also learn, were first mimicked by a Hollywood animator. And what about vultures: Do they smell supper below or see it?
Birds have fascinated and fed humans for eons, but now hard sciences, unlikely collaborations and big computers are probing behaviors more startling than our clever species suspected or fully understands. A quick, informative, humbling read.
Butler Center for Arkansas Studies
On the eve of the Great Depression, Genevieve Sadler left her home in California for what she thought would be a short visit to the Arkansas farm where her husband grew up. The trip lasted seven years and Sadler's life was changed forever in the time she spent among the cotton farms near Dardanelle in Yell County. The long and elegant letters she wrote back to her mother in California later formed the basis for her engaging memoir "Muzzled Oxen: Reaping Cotton and Sowing Hope in 1920s Arkansas" (Butler Center Books, 2014).
"I went there a rebellious and homesick young woman, hating even the way the grass grew in that so-foreign land," Sadler writes. "I departed years later, with a deepened understanding of the teeming life of the land, and of the friends I left behind me — kindly, courteous, hospitable, hardworking people, uncomplaining under the most unsatisfactory conditions. Indeed, to me, muzzled oxen."
Sadler has a poet's eye and her descriptive powers transform this hamlet and its people into a lush story that strives to find meaning in everyday existence. Above all, she makes the reader feel right at home amidst a rural way of life that remains hardly more than a glimmer.
Assistant editor of the Oxford American
Lately — when I'm not meandering my way through Karl Ove Knausgaard's "My Struggle" — I've been digging deep into essay collections, especially Leslie Jamison's "The Empathy Exams," which won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. In this book, Jamison writes about her time as a medical actor (which is fascinating, since I have a lot of friends who have done that at UAMS), strange diseases, travel in Mexico, heart surgery, bad breakups, James Agee. It's incredibly expansive. She basically spends 150 pages deconstructing empathy, the ways we relate to other people (or the ways we don't), how we experience our own pain and the pain of others. She's published a lot of these essays in various magazines throughout the last year and a half. You can find the title essay in The Believer; "Fog Count" was published in the Oxford American; her essay on Morgellons disease is in Harper's. Most of these essays are online — I like having them all in one place, though.
Chane "Big Piph" Morrow
I've been finding myself picking up, but not finishing books as of late, as I've been in the creation state for a new project. At the moment, I tend to find atypical stories more interesting, so I was recently led to this graphic novel called "Locke & Key" about a family who moves to a house after the father dies only to find these 'magical' keys. It came highly recommended from some credible sites that I visit and although I didn't like it nearly as much as they did, I found this simple concept to be laid out in a unique story and told in a creative way, which I think only a "comic book" style medium would allow (although a pilot show was pitched and rejected by Fox). All and all, it was quick reading that became pretty gripping halfway through to end in a well-thought-out conclusion.
Host of KABF 88.3's "Literary Nation"
Richard Williams' master plan to create two tennis players without any formal training was ridiculed by the esteemed tennis world. His daughters Venus and Serena will go down in history as two of the most successful women tennis champions. In his book "Black and White: The Way I See It," Williams shares with the reader his humble beginnings, wisdom and relentless (and very descriptive) ingredients for success. Because of the practical recommendations, this book is a must-read for beginning and current tennis players, parents, business and community leaders, educators and anyone interested in achieving against ongoing life challenges. Ace!
Trenton Lee Stewart
Tom Drury has been called "a major figure in American literature" (The New York Times Book Review) and "one of our living masters" (McSweeney's). All his novels have been cited as notable books of the year, and GQ even called his first one, "The End of Vandalism," one of the best of the last 45 years. The guy is good, in other words. But until recently I'd never read anything by him.
Now I've read "The Driftless Area" and am really looking forward to Drury's other books. Maybe you'll feel the same. This one's a short novel about a good-natured young man who accidentally gets mixed up in serious trouble, falls in love with a mysterious woman and sets off down a dangerous path that seems eerily predetermined. Think literary Midwestern noir with Elmore Leonard dialogue and a splash of the paranormal. Funny, engaging and unexpectedly moving.