Summer Books: Dare to experiment, think outside your favorite genre


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Last September, I searched for a good book to read during a beach vacation in Charleston, S.C. Inside a gift shop run by local preservationists, my eyes fell on one of those gold stickers that publishers plaster on prize-winning books. Moments later, I bought "Slaves in the Family" by Edward Ball.

This gutsy author, who teaches at Yale, interviewed many candid descendants of black people enslaved by various branches of his family on several South Carolina plantations. The compelling narrative kept me planted in my beach chair for hours. "Slaves in the Family" won the National Book Award after it was published in 1998, became a bestseller and was translated into several languages. (Find more winners at www.nationalbook.org.)

My tastes cover history, biography and nonfiction, but summer offers us a chance to experiment with other genres. Cole Porter rhapsodized about the joys of experimentation in one of his lyrics, promising "it will lead you to the light." (He was probably thinking of amorous liaisons, not adventurous reading, but go with me here.) However you find enlightenment, here are some suggestions for summer reading:

If you like bad guys, Tony Norman, Post-Gazette columnist and book editor, suggests "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined)" by Chuck Klosterman. The book comes out July 9.

Mr. Klosterman's cultural analysis often sounds like stand-up comedy and prompts readers to reconsider assumptions about what constitutes evil. Mr. Norman also recommends "Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From 'The Sopranos' and 'The Wire' to 'Mad Men' and 'Breaking Bad' " by Brett Martin. This is a book about why cable dramas matter and network programming doesn't, he says.

If you like to read American history in novel form, Bob Hoover, the Post-Gazette's retired book editor, suggests "The Son" by Philipp Meyer. Hailed as a great American novel, this book was favorably compared to Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove." For nonfiction, Mr. Hoover suggests "Bunker Hill" by Nathaniel Philbrick or, for students of World War II, "The Guns at Last Light" by Rick Atkinson.

Andrew Druckenbrod, our classical music critic, suggests "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller Jr. He says this science fiction novel is a compelling vision of Earth many centuries in the future and after a devastating nuclear world war. The tale is told from the viewpoint of an order of Catholic monks committed to saving knowledge and artifacts in this new dark ages. It is poetic and fascinating take on the post-apocalyptic sci-fi sub-genre, Mr. Druckenbrod says.

When food writer Gretchen McKay isn't cooking, she reads memoirs and recommends "Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child" by Bob Spitz or "Yes, Chef," a memoir by Marcus Samuelsson, the Ethiopian-born chef who was raised in Sweden and is a star in New York.

Our food editor, Bob Batz Jr., enjoyed "Pepper: A History of the World's Most Influential Spice" by Marjorie Shaffer. The book includes this tasty anecdote: A British pepper trader who made a fortune in Boston selling the ubiquitous spice gave a carton of goods to the Collegiate School of Connecticut. The school sold it and used the money to build a new structure. In gratitude, they renamed the college for their benefactor, Elihu Yale.

Speaking of the Brits, the PG's resident Anglophile, Mackenzie Carpenter, recommends "Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography" by Charles Moore. Ms. Carpenter notes that while the author is a Thatcher sympathizer, he interviewed everyone, has full access to her private papers and is a gifted writer who makes flesh and blood of the Iron Lady. This book is Volume I and covers her tenure up to the Falklands War.

Science writer Mark Roth recommends "After Visiting Friends" by Mark Hainey, an account of his attempt to learn the truth about the death of his father, a Chicago newspaperman, in 1970 at the age of 35. The story evokes the era when journalists smoked cigarettes nonstop and drank whiskey while they raced against deadlines.

PG theater critic Sharon Eberson looks forward to the latest fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, "The Ocean at the End of the Lane," due out June 18.

Curtis Sittenfeld captivated readers with her 2005 debut "Prep" and 2008's "American Wife," loosely based on Laura Bush. I, for one, am looking forward to the June 25 release of Ms. Sittenfeld's new novel, "Sisterland," about two sisters born with psychic abilities.

Nancy Pearl, a well-known librarian in Seattle, chairs a committee of judges who will choose the winners of the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in fiction and nonfiction. She recommends "The Supremes at Earl's All You Can Eat," by Edward Kelsey Moore. This is the tale of three African-American girls who visit a restaurant every Sunday after church. The proprietor nicknames them "The Supremes" after the famous Motown singing trio, and the novel follows the women into adulthood.

Another of Ms. Pearl's favorites is "The Cowboy and the Cossack" by Clair Huffaker, whose story is about cowboys from Montana transporting a herd of cattle to Siberia. "This is for fans of Larry McMurtry's 'Lonesome Dove' who think they don't like Westerns," Ms. Pearl says.

One of her favorite beach reads is "One Minus One," Ruth Doan MacDougall's story about a young woman deserted by her high school sweetheart after many years of what she thought was a happy marriage.

Some other picks by Ms. Pearl:

Mystery fans may like "Visitation Street," a second novel by Ivy Pochoda about two 15-year-old girls from Brooklyn who go out looking for fun. Only one returns. It's due in early July in the Dennis Lehane imprint from HarperCollins.

"The Expats," an intriguing 2012 novel (now in paperback) by Chris Pavone, is set in present-day Europe and focuses on a young couple and their layers of deception.

Timothy Hallinan is the author of "Crashed," which features a California thief named Junior Bender. "When other criminals are in trouble or need help in getting something done, "they go to Junior Bender for help," Ms. Pearl says. "My husband is not a huge fiction reader. He couldn't stop reading it."

On June 18, science fiction writer Max Barry comes out with "Lexicon," a story set in the future that focuses on the power of persuasion and words. Guy Gavriel Kay, a popular fantasy writer, has "River of Stars," a historical novel set in China's Tang Dynasty.

Ms. Pearl also recommends "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America" by George Packer of The New Yorker. One of her favorite nonfiction writers, "he looks at 21st-century America through the lives of five people who live in different parts of the country."

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Marylynne Pitz: mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648. First Published June 9, 2013 4:00 AM


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