As days get longer and the sun's rays get stronger, books that are lighter and brighter stand a better chance of squeezing into packed beach bags and suitcases. But that doesn't mean summer books need to be weightless. Finding the perfect balance in a single bound edition can seem impossible, but it's a challenge that's just right for independent booksellers like Rona Brinlee of The BookMark in Atlantic Beach, Fla., Daniel Goldin of Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee, and Lucia Silva of Studio City, Calif.'s Portrait of a Bookstore. Among the three of them, they've managed to find 16 books that fit the bill. Showoffs!
This summer's rays of literary sunshine come from 15 authors whose topics range from loaves of bread to small-town life in the Texas Hill Country. There's fiction from Sarah Blake, Hilary Thayer Hamann and Brady Udall, whose 600-page novel, The Lonely Polygamist, about a man with four wives who finds himself drawn to a fifth woman, was picked by two of our booksellers. There's also poetry (and a memoir) from quadriplegic writer Paul Guest, the story behind the making of the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's, and a first-person, nonfiction book from Ander Monson that's definitely Not a Memoir. The title even says so.
Bloated. Self-indulgent. Cliched. These are the common traps of self-published books, those that never make it into the hands of a gimlet-eyed editor, someone willing to sacrifice pretty prose for the sake of the overall work. In 2003, Hilary Thayer Hamann published her novel Anthropology of an American Girl through her own press. It became something of a sleeper success, and seven years later, it is now being reprinted by the Random House imprint Spiegel & Grau. Clocking in at 624 pages and covering a few years in the life of teenager Eveline Auerbach in closeup detail, it suffers from all of the problems that can befall the self-published.
And yet there is something so beguiling, so charming about the book. At first you might reject it like a sugary pop song, but you will find yourself singing along a few days later. Anthropology is so very, very long, and yet it continues to beckon after you think you've finished with it. It becomes ensnared in that Twilight-esque trap of having every male character inexplicably and compulsively in love with its heroine, and yet her reveries on teenage love and lust are so authentic, you don't lose your patience.
It's Eveline's voice — equal parts pretentious and poetic, bratty and poignant, wise and naive — that saves the book. It captures exactly the thought processes of an introspective teenage girl. Her worldview is sharp and dead-on. On seeing her absent father at graduation: "It depressed me somewhat to be faced with my DNA like that." On femininity: "Girls are truly game as soldiers, with the brave things they do to their bodies and the harsh conditions they are able to tolerate." On being a teenage girl: "When you're fourteen, pretty much everything puts you in a difficult predicament."
Evie doesn't do much — she joins drama club, she falls in love, she outgrows high school friends — but her dry wit and keen sense of observation make her a fine companion. Likewise, Anthropology isn't a masterpiece, but it is addictive reading. Hamann inhabits the skin of a teenage girl so accurately, so effortlessly, it's a bit of a relief she has found her way into the book world. (Six-hundred-page epics about the inner lives of teenage girls are not generally considered marketable, unless there's a vampire involved.) If Hamann can accomplish this on her own, it'll be amazing to see what she can do with a little help.
Maureen Corrigan hails the "genius" of Stieg Larsson's vision, as revealed in his final "Girl Who" mystery. Is Anthropology of an American Girl the next Catcher in the Rye? Neda Ulaby says no. And novelist Aimee Bender evokes the taste of love in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.
The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest
By Stieg Larsson
In this anxiously awaited final installment of what everyone calls The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series, Stieg Larsson gives readers a look backward into the grotesque childhood that shaped his heroine, Lisbeth Salander, into the asocial street fighter and crackerjack computer hacker she became. As in the preceding mystery, The Girl Who Played With Fire, Salander is the still point of a furiously churning plot that involves, in this case, high-level business corruption as well as a rogue special-ops agency secreted in the Swedish government. For most of this tale, Salander lies immobile in a locked hospital room; meanwhile, her sometime partner in crime, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist, frantically races around Sweden trying to save Salander, who's been accused of committing a ghastly triple murder and assaulting her own monstrous father. Blomkvist bets that the uncommunicative Salander isn't guilty of the crimes; but because she's Salander, Blomkvist knows she's not really innocent, either.
The full genius and compassion of Stieg Larsson's vision is revealed with the publication of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Larsson was a feminist and the larger mystery that his incomparable series probes is the mystery of misogyny — most explicitly in this furious whirlwind of a final book. Without sentimentalizing his enigmatic heroine Lisbeth Salander, Larsson gives readers a deeper understanding of the sources of her singular patterns of thought and prickly emotions. Salander, who weighs in at 90 pounds, speaks in sullen monosyllables and sends out aggressively mixed sexual signals, is the most charismatic and powerful woman to prowl the mean streets of detective fiction since Miss Marple laced up her walking shoes. The fact that, as far as we know, there will be no further installments (Larsson died in 2004, shortly after delivering his three mystery manuscripts) makes finishing this series — which, all together, forms one monumental novel — a melancholy experience. — Maureen Corrigan, reviewer for Fresh Air
Hardcover, 576 pages; Knopf; list price, $27.95; publication date, May 25
Anthropology Of An American Girl
By Hilary Thayer Hamann
Anthropology of An American Girl follows the romantic fixations and travails of one Eveline Auerbach as she progresses from high school in Sag Harbor, N.Y., to college at NYU in the 1980s. She roams through the Hamptons, Jersey and Manhattan, trying to locate her place in the world and carve out a personal mythology. The novel was self-published a few years ago, then picked up by Spiegel & Grau and allegedly re-edited.
The blurbs on the back jacket compare the author to Jane Austen, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, Henry James and J.D. Salinger. That's a lot to live up to, and I'm sorry to report that author Hilary Thayer Hamann doesn't manage it. Hamann is splendid when it comes to describing bedsheets ("soft and dry, like cooking flour when you are little and you dig in with a metal spoon"), a boyfriend's eyes ("a beautiful horizon, dominions of clouds and winds of ice and insinuations of birds") or clothes ("Her silk shirt caught the light the way pearls do, the way pearls in light look like milk on fire"). But it's difficult to describe her narrator as anything other than empty and pretentious. Eveline says practically nothing, ever, to anyone, nor does she do much, but she's constantly being congratulated by everyone around her for her intelligence, discernment, bravery, soulfulness and, particularly, beauty. Three pages cannot pass without someone marveling at how cool or gorgeous Eveline is. Through it all, Eveline is a blank recorder of others' fascinations with her. It is hard to share them. Can anyone do an "anthropology" of just one person? This book feels more like a case study of narcissistic personality disorder than a novel. — Neda Ulaby, NPR entertainment reporter
Hardcover, 624 pages; Spiegel & Grau; list price, $26; publication date, May 25
The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake
By Aimee Bender
Until she's about to turn 9, Rose Edelstein seems to be a normal little girl, especially in comparison with her older brother Joseph, a scientific genius who is her mother's favorite. Then her mother bakes her a lemon cake with fudge icing, and Rose, upon eating a slice warm from the oven, recognizes a strange new emotional flavor — the moroseness behind her mother's cheerful mask. From then on her emphatic sense of taste intrudes upon every bite of food. Meanwhile, her brother's growing social withdrawal overshadows his precocious brilliance. Rose and Joseph share a fragile bond in this Los Angeles household haunted by neurotic limitations. Their father is so phobic about hospitals he waited out the children's births on the sidewalk. Their mother has a wide array of thwarted ambitions. This sensual and detailed portrait of Rose's coming of age as a "magic food psychic" also reveals the complicated negotiations within a family where missed connections are the norm.
Aimee Bender's audacious, sexy and surreal short stories (The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, Willful Creatures) did not fully prepare me for the richness and depth of this empathetic and exquisitely paced novel. In the Edelstein family, which lives in a Los Angeles neighborhood combining American families, Eastern European immigrants and "screenwriters who were usually having a hard time selling a script," Bender has created a set of characters who could be modern-day West Coast descendants of Salinger's Glass family. Salinger fans should find familiar Rose's alertness to hypocrisy, her haunting vulnerability and her yearning love for her brother Joseph. The fabulist elements of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake are stunning, but what makes this novel a keeper is the sheer beauty of the language Bender uses to describe love. — Jane Ciabattari, NPR book reviewer
Hardcover, 304 pages; Doubleday; list price, $25.95; publication date, June 15
Hilary Thayer Hamann
LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language some might find offensive.
Kate turned to check the darkening clouds and the white arc of her throat looked long like the neck of a preening swan. We pedaled past the mansions on Lily Pond Lane and the sky set down, resting its gravid belly against the earth.
"Hurry," I heard her call through the clack of spokes. "Rain's coming."
She rode faster, and I did also, though I liked the rain and I felt grateful for the changes it wrought. Nothing is worse than the mixture of boredom and anticipation, the way the two twist together, breeding malcontentedly.
I opened my mouth to the mist, trapping some of the raindrops that were just forming, and I could feel the membranes pop as I passed, which was sad, like breaking a spider's web. Sometimes you can't help but destroy the intricate things in life.
At Georgica Beach we sat on the concrete step of the empty lifeguard building. The bicycles lay collapsed at our ankles, rear wheels lightly spinning. Kate lit a joint and passed it to me. I drew from it slowly. It burned my throat, searing and disinfecting it, making me think of animal skins tanned to make teepees. Indians used to get high, and when they did, they felt high just the same as me.
"Still do get high," I corrected myself. Indians aren't extinct.
"What did you say?" Kate asked.
"Nothing," I said. "Just thinking of Indians."
Her left foot and my right foot were touching. They were the same size and we shared shoes. I leaned forward and played with the plasticcoated tip of her sneaker lace, poking it into the rivet holes of my Tretorns as the rain began to descend halfheartedly before us. In my knapsack I found some paper and a piece of broken charcoal, and I began to sketch Kate. The atmosphere conformed to her bones the way a pillow meets a sleeping head. I tried to recall the story of the cloth of St. Veronica — something about Christ leaving his portrait in blood or sweat on a woman's handkerchief. I imagined the impression of Kate's face remaining in the air after she moved away.
"Know what I mean?" she was asking, as she freed a frail charm from her turtleneck, a C for Catherine, lavishly scripted.
"Yes, I do," I said, though I wasn't really sure. I sensed I probably knew what she meant.
Sometimes our thoughts would intertwine, and in my mind I could see them, little threads of topaz paving a tiny Persian byway.
My hand sawed across the paper I was sketching on, moving mechanically, because that's the way to move hands when you're high and sitting in an autumn rain. Autumn rains are different from summer ones. When I was seven, there were lots of summer rains. Or maybe seven is just the age when you become conscious of rain. That's when I learned that when it rains in one place, it doesn't rain all over the world. My dad and I were driving through a shower, and we reached a line where the water ended. Sun rays windmilled down, and our faces and arms turned gilded pink, the color of flamingos — or was it flamencos?
"Flamingos," Kate corrected. "Flamenco is a type of dance." I remember spinning around in the front seat of the car to see water continuing to fall behind us on the highway. That was the same year I learned that everyone gets eyeglasses eventually and that there's no beginning to traffic. That last thing bothered me a lot. Whenever I got into a car, I used to think, Today might be the day we reach the front.
The rain let up. I stood and gave Kate my hand. "Let's go to the water." She stood too, wiping the sand off the back of her pants, half- turning to check herself, stretching one leg out at a five o'clock angle, the way girls do. We walked our bikes to the crest of the asphalt lot and leaned them against the split rail fence.
The sea was bloated from the tide. It was dark and thick on top: you could tell that underneath there was churning. A hurricane was forming off the coast of Cuba, and Cuba isn't far from where we lived on the South Shore of Long Island, not in terms of weather. Surfers in black rubber sat slope- backed on boards near the jetty, waiting for waves, steady as insects feeding off a deeply breathing beast, lifting and dropping with each wheeze of their massive host. I stripped down to my underwear and T- shirt and left my clothes in a pile. Kate did the same.
The sand closest to the shore was inscribed with drop marks from the rain, and there were springy bits of seaweed the color of iodine gyrating in the chalky foam. I pushed through until I couldn't see my calves anymore. The water was purplish and rough, and it knocked against me, setting me off balance. It felt good to succumb — sometimes you get tired, always having to be strong in yourself.
Dad said that in Normandy during World War II soldiers had to climb from ships into the sea and then onto shore. They had waded through the ocean with packs on their backs and guns in their arms. He hadn't fought in Normandy; he just knew about it because he knows lots of things and he's always reading. He said the men had to get on the beach and kill or be killed. I wondered what those soldiers had eaten for breakfast — scrambled eggs, maybe — all the boys lining two sides of a galley's gangling table, hanging their heads and taking dismal forkfuls while thinking about what was awaiting them on the shore. Maybe they were thinking of getting one last thing from their lockers, where they kept pictures of their families or of their girls, or maybe just Betty Grable pinups.
It's one thing to say you're willing to die for your country, but it's another thing to have to do so when the moment actually presents itself. I could not have imagined Jack or Denny or anyone from my class dying to defend America, though everyone said that war was coming again, and also the draft, just like with Vietnam. The Russians are crazy, people said. This time it's going to be nuclear. This time we're all going to go in one atomic blush.
Kate came alongside me. "God, this water is black."
My mother refuses to go into the ocean. She respects it, she says, which is basically the same as saying she's afraid. I go in because it scares me, because certain fears are natural and it's good to distract yourself from unnatural, more terrifying kinds. For example, the ocean can kill you just like a bomb can kill you, but at least the ocean is not awful like bombs or surreal like overgrown greenhouses, or alarming like the barking sounds that flushing toilets make.
In elementary school we used to have emergency civil defense drills. The lights would go out, and we would rise in synchronized silence, obeying hushed orders and furtive hand signals, rustling like herds of terrified mice — if in fact it can be said that mice manifest in herds rather than as random runners. No one ever told us which particular emergency we were drilling to avoid. Probably Russians then too. The thought of Russians attacking eastern Long Island seemed unlikely, though it is true that East Hampton has beaches like the ones in Normandy. Beaches are a threshold.
I asked Kate if she remembered yellow alerts.
She said she did. "And red ones."
"Didn't we have to kneel under our desks for one kind, like this?" I put my head to my chest and locked my fingers around my neck.
"And with the other type," Kate said, "we had to do the same thing, only in the hall."
"Right," I said with a shiver. "That is so fucked up."
She cupped her mouth and imitated an implausibly tranquil public address warning. It was like a European airport voice, like the one we heard at Charles de Gaulle airport when we went to France with the French Club — sterile and cybernetic, glassy and opaque, like rocks at the bottom of a fishbowl. Kate was good with voices.
"This is a yellow alert. This is a yellow alert. Remain calm and follow the instructions of your teacher."
"Which is which?" I asked. "Like, what do the colors mean?"
"Bombs, probably," she said. "Different styles."
"But a bomb is a bomb. We wouldn't have been any safer in the hallway than in the classrooms. Why not just stay at our desks?"
There was a rush of water. Kate lost her footing.
I continued to speculate. "They must have moved us out because the classrooms had something the halls didn't have — windows. And the only reason they would have wanted us away from windows was if something was outside, like, coming in."
Kate said, "Christ, Evie!"
"A land attack. Gunfire. Grenades. Red alert. Death by blood. Yellow meant gas. Death by bombs. Nukes." Jack was always talking about the massive radiation release that was coming.
The rain had passed; all that remained up above was a series of garnet streaks. The sea slapped ominously, confessing its strategic impartiality. The sea is an international sea, and the sky a universal sky. Often we forget that. Often we think that what is verging upon us is ours alone. We forget that there are other sides entirely.
Kate and I waded quickly back to shore. As soon as we could, we broke free of the backward pull of the waves and started running. We dressed, yanking our Levi's up over our wet legs, one side, then the other.
Sand got in, sticking awfully.
"Shit," she said as we scaled the dune to the lot. "I'm never getting high with you again."
At Mill Hill Lane Kate cut left across Main Street, and I followed. The lane was steep and tree- lined. As we rounded the bend making a right onto Meadow Way, Kate's foot lifted from the pedal, and her leg swung straight back over the seat, parallel to the ground, making me think of fancy skaters. She hopped off in front of a brown ranch house — her house — lying low, like a softly sleeping thing beneath a custodial cover of tree branches. A small sign marked the rim of the lawn — For Sale. Lamb Agency. Kate bent to collect fallen leaves and twigs from around the crooked slate walkway, which seemed like a lonely project. Once when we were little, maybe about nine, Kate swore she had the distances between the slate pieces of the walkway memorized. At the time I called her a liar, not because she was one but because that's the sort of thing to say when you're nine. But Kate had skipped to the first tile, closed her eyes, and continued along the twisting, broken path, never missing a step, never touching grass.
Excerpted from Anthopology of an American Girl: A Novel by Hilary Thayer Hamann. Copyright 2010 by Hilary Thayer Hamann. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.