Just as hot cocoa doesn't sound as appealing as a cool iced tea on a warm June afternoon , books for summertime satisfy a distinct craving. Stretch out your hammock and take a load off.
The Epic: "Lonesome Dove" — Larry McMurtry (1985)
Capt. Gus McCrae—a charismatic, clever, womanizing Texas Ranger-turned-cowpoke—is perhaps the most likeable character in modern fiction. And whatever few traits McCrae lacks (austerity, diligence), Capt. Woodrow Call, his workaholic partner and best friend, more than makes up for. But this isn't John Wayne on a page. It's Larry McMurtry's sweeping, page-turning, post-Civil War era epic. Full of beauty and heartache, the story follows the two ramblers' late-life adventure as they pick up stakes and drive their cattle from Lonesome Dove, a small Texas border town, to the wilds of Montana, the new frontier. A virtuous whore, bastard teenager, ex-slave scout, lazy gambler and bandit cook—all riddled with idiosyncrasies and charm—join the pair in their travels. McMurtry's brilliant development of sturdy characters, combined with all the familiar Wild West themes—honesty, chivalry, virility, hardship—keeps readers gripped throughout the novel's 843 pages. (James Williams)
The Classic: "The Adventures
of Huckleberry Finn" — Mark Twain (1884)
A prologue to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" reads: "PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.—BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR" Can't be no better summer readin' than a book that'll learn folk some fine ol' fashioned American history without thinkin' on motives or morals. A story about a young'un gettin' lit out in a bad way to the Mississippi River on a borrowed boat with his slave-no-more runaway Jim. From escaping the backwoods of Missouri, Huck and Jim dig up blood feuds in Kentucky, murderers and thieves in Arkansas and good ol' Tom Sawyer on Phelpses' farm, where fixin' to free Jim for good becomes an adventure all its own. Huck Finn may be old, but that ain't no matter; we reckon the book is still more hot, Southern readin' than a body can tell what to do with. Ain't nothin' more American than summertime and Mark Twain. (Brianna Brey)
The Thriller:"Swimming Home" — Deborah Levy (2011)
Deborah Levy has ingeniously melded mystery, British humor, romance, and intense interpersonal drama into this story about a summer vacation turned into an existential crisis. A family travels to the French Riviera for a needed respite for Joe, the poet/husband on the verge of a breakdown. When they arrive at their holiday villa, they are surprised to find they are not alone. Kitty Finch, a stranger who can best be described as a troubled forest nymph, is found floating naked in the backyard pool. The matriarch of the family, Isabella, nonsensically, yet purposefully, invites Kitty to stay with them. This is part of the allure of the story. Levy has an ability to pull these characters through a series of bad decisions that scream "self-implosion," and rather than making the whole experience seem false, magic surrealism and human vulnerability instead invade the story in a way that makes every character charmingly flawed yet lovable. (Kristine Swann)
The Underrated:"Mr. Toppit" — Charles Elton (2010)
The Hayseed Chronicles are an epic (and completely fabricated) series of children books that serve as the dark center of this novel. Narrated by Arthur Hayman, a failed British filmmaker, the Hayseed Chronicles become a posthumous international sensation, a sinister yin to Winnie the Pooh's yang.
The novel is a charming, enchanting and gripping story that shuffles together the stories of several people intimately connected to Hayman—the American tourist first to the scene when the writer is crushed by a cement truck and takes his children's books to America to launch their fame; the author's widow; his two children, the boy around whom the stories revolve and the daughter who sullenly feels ignored by her absence in the stories; and the River Phoenix-esque actor who plays in the film adaptation of the stories before sinking into drug addiction. Each individual story playfully examines fame's dark shadows and lost adolescence. Funny and poignant, the novel has been oddly overlooked. Its author, Charles Elton, a veteran book agent and British film producer himself, clearly understands the blueprint for a page-turner. (Phil Busse)
The Prize Winner:"This is How You Lose Her" — Junot Diaz (2012)
This most recent collection of lovelorn short stories expresses the perspective of a man's broken heart in a way that would make even Bruce Lee nod his head in understanding. There is pain within the narrative, but it is always masked by the voice of a romantically macho half-hearted quip. It is like listening to a Dominican-American uncle review the romantic and familial tragedies of the neighborhood while he drinks a beer and grills some steaks in the backyard. There is an intimacy within Junot Diaz's writing (author of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao") that is its own high-speed patois, served well over his forceful incorporation of Spanglish idioms and failed eroticisms. After reading each of the life lessons presented in these stories, you are forced to reach for your loved one like he or she may slip from your fingers at any moment. Maybe in the end, the message Diaz is trying to shout to us is a very real carpe diem. (Kristine Swann)