Another blistering Arkansas summer, another round of book picks to give you an excuse to sit around inside the cool, comforting AC. Not that you really need one, but regardless, here are some recommendations.
"The Girls of Murder City:
Fame, lust, and the beautiful killers
who inspired 'Chicago' "
by Douglas Perry
I saw the revival of "Chicago," the musical, on stage in 1997 and enjoyed it greatly. (So much that I didn't bother to see the movie that came later.) I don't remember whether I knew at the time that the show was supposedly based on real events. Now I not only know, I feel like I was in Chicago in the 1920s when both Beulah Annan ("Beautiful Beulah," the papers called her) and Belva Gaertner knocked off boyfriends — both had husbands too — were acquitted in circus trials, and became celebrities in the process. All of this before reality TV.
A young newspaper reporter named Maurine Dallas Watkins, something of a character in her own right, covered the two women's trials, and wrote a non-musical play called "Chicago" that became a hit on Broadway while Watkins was still in her 20s. The play was turned into a 1942 movie, "Roxie Hart." "Roxie" was the character based on Beulah. The film was also non-musical, though it starred Ginger Rogers in the title role. In the 1970s, "Chicago" was made into a musical, and in the 1990s it was revised and revived, and has had its greatest success since. But no stage production could do a better job than Perry has done with this book. The original Girls of Murder City are still bigger stars than anyone who followed them.
— Doug Smith
"The Sisters Brothers"
by Patrick DeWitt
Patrick DeWitt's "The Sisters Brothers" was one of the hot books of 2011, though I only got around to reading it late last year. Images from the tragicomic western are still imprinted on my mind even many months later, however. It's a darkly funny tale of two assassins, the titular Charlie and Eli Sisters. Both are notorious and widely feared among the bedraggled frontier folk they encounter. They receive orders to kill a prospector accused of thievery. Much of the book consists of their mission to track down the supposed thief and dispense with him. So it's a road novel, minus the roads. But along the way, the narrator Eli — the less psychotic of the two by a good degree — begins to question the purpose of his life and whether he could ever truly break away from the brutal life of a hired killer. I don't want to give anything away — the book is full of bizarre surprises, after all. The archaic yet fascinating language echoes Charles Portis's "True Grit," (but won't have you reaching for the dictionary every fifth word like, say, "Blood Meridian"), while its bizarre, almost sci-fi touches and bone-dry humor recall Richard Brautigan's psychedelic absurdist horror Western "The Hawkline Monster." But "The Sisters Brothers" is truly its own thing, and a rare one at that: a very funny, original book that you'll likely devour quickly, wanting more where that came from. Hopefully, you'll get that, as actor John C. Reilly has purchased the film rights.
— Robert Bell
"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"
by Karen Joy Fowler
Rosemary Cooke tells the story of the disappearance of her sister, Fern, and her brother's decision to leave home by starting in the middle of the story and looking back. Rosemary — whose voice Fowler imbues with both the insouciance of the multi-year college student who puts up with a crazy friend just because it's too much trouble not to — yearns for the return of her beloved Fern, a chimpanzee, and her brother, Lowell, who has become an ecoterrorist, and mourns the dissolution of her family. The story is about one-tenth Carl Hiassen, thanks to the element of absurdity mixed with facts on chimp experimentation in the 1970s, and 100 percent pure joy to read.
"The Sisters Grimm"
by Michael Buckley and Peter Ferguson
"The Sisters Grimm" series is as good as "Harry Potter," and we know how popular that one is. The adventures and thrills in the books are captivating, and the losses and gains help you see exactly what the characters go through. Written by Micahel Buckley and illustrated by Peter Ferguson, it is a nine-book series about two girls, Sabrina, 12, and Daphne, 7, whose parents disappeared mysteriously. The orphanage where they live found a grandmother who they thought was dead. The girls go with her to a town called Ferryport Landing, and Sabrina is hostile to her "grandmother." Those feelings increase when Granny Relda informs them that the Brothers Grimm were not fairy-tale authors, but biographers. These books are probably good for ages 8 and up.
—Jasper Potts (this pick appeared in the May issue of our sister publication, Savvy Kids, where 10-year-old Jasper writes a monthly column called "Potts' Picks")
by Paul Harding
If a great novel is a rare thing, a great first novel is a thing so exceedingly rare as to be relegated to the land of myth and legend. With notable exceptions, even the best writers can't seem to hold their liquor the first go round; too ambitious, too immature, too intoxicated by the honeyed milk of language to restrain themselves to the measured sips that truly great novels are made of. Every once in awhile, though, somebody gets in right, and in 2009, Paul Harding got it right with the little debut novel that could, "Tinkers." Published by the almost unknown Bellevue Literary Press and relatively thin at only 191 small pages, the book's beautiful prose and mazelike structure won over readers from the start. Against all odds, without even a review by the New York Times, "Tinkers" went on to win the 2010 Pulitzer for Fiction. The book seems simplistic when boiled down to a sentence: the last, delirious hours in the life of elderly Maine clock repairman George Washington Crosby, who lies on his deathbed, the delirium causing him to flip through all the memories of his life like the pages in a book. If that sounds a little weird, it is. If it sounds complicated, ditto. But "Tinkers" is well worth the effort. While definitely not one for reader faint of heart, it's a wondrous, marvelous book in practice, full of beautiful prose and deep questions about life, both of which must be sipped, not chugged.
"The Southern Cross"
by Skip Horack
This may be a minority opinion, since there is real joy in going all-in on a big fat novel on the beach, but there's something about the summer time that brings out the dabbler in me. I reach for the short stories, which at their best pull off emotional punch and poetic verve in the time it takes to finish a cocktail. Skip Horack's "The Southern Cross," which came out several years back, is a beautiful example of the form. The book's 16 stories aren't connected, but they take place over the course of the year in 2005 and 2006, all set in various spots along the Gulf Coast. There are four stories for each season, beginning with spring, which means that Hurricane Katrina happens right in the middle of the book. Horack doesn't overplay his hand; the storm shows up at the margins, shadowy portents in the first half, spare remnants in the second. The one story that tackles the hurricane head on, "The Redfish," is the book's one masterpiece, an epic in 15 pages. "Southern Cross" is Horack's debut collection and it has both the fresh energy and the occasional missteps of a first book. But in every story, there is something irresistible about Horack's prose — it was one of those books I just loved loving. Just about every other page, we're treated to sentences like this: "They had been high-school lovers — the option quarterback and the queen of the Duck festival." Horack has a perfect ear for the cadences of speech in the various cities and rural towns along the gulf, the stories are sharply attuned to moments of transcendence and simple human decency, and he's damn funny to boot. The book is deeply rooted in both the natural and the spiritual worlds: sturgeon and cypress knees, bayou voodoo and redneck Jesus. You might call it Christian humanism — the book's religious and ex-religious characters go out searching for signs and redemption in a hard world. "Sister, is there anything at all that you would like to pray for?" a Pentecostal preacher asks a stripper displaced from New Orleans. Her response: "I'll finish you off for fifty bucks. Amen."
— David Ramsey