Thinking of summer as a lazy time for reading seems so, well, so last-century. To us, it seems Labor Day, the balmy holiday weekend of the summer, is the perfect time to steal away with a book and a couple of uninterrupted hours. Here is a compendium of recently published works that caught our attention.
Extraterrestrials meet Orrin Hatch
Year Zero is a great read for sci-fi geeks who don't take themselves or the genre too seriously. Entertainment lawyer Nick Carter is visited by extraterrestrials obsessed with human music the best in the galaxy. And the threat is that these aliens could get Earth obliterated. Utahns, take note Orrin Hatch makes an appearance in Rob Reid's smart, funny novel.
Scott D. Pierce
In the gutter, but looking at the stars
Quests in search of home have surely preoccupied many a mind long before Homer's. As those who have ever set out know, such quests often reflect the pull of two irreconcilable forces: to drift, to settle down. For some, like Hig, the protagonist of Peter Heller's briskly contemplative Dog Stars, the ensuing dilemma can become a way of life. In Hig's case, because the dilemma is thrust upon him, his concerns run deeper still. While trying to survive on a pandemic-devastated planet, with only two companions to trust and homicidal scavengers lurking all around, he longs to know if things can still matter despite all the loss. His quest, then, is to find a way to feel at home in his mind.
A literary two-fer: Dear Sugar, I'm feeling wild
For Cheryl Strayed, the 2010 writing assignment started as a lark: an anonymous advice column on The Rumpus, a hip little literary website. No pay, no word count, no editor just an excuse to write fierce literary gems that attempt to take the questioners seriously. Over time, the Dear Sugar column developed a cult following, thanks to Strayed's no-coddling, literary reinvention of self-help advice columns. Strayed stepped out beyond her anonymous cloak in February, and when readers clamored for a collection, it was published as Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar in late July. The Dear Sugar columns are addictive, best swallowed in small doses, yet read beautifully in concert with the coming-into-one's-own wisdom of Strayed's Wild.
Ellen Fagg Weist
If these walls could talk
The resourceful Miri travels from her mountain home to the Palace of Stone in Shannon Hale's sequel to the Newbery Honor-winning Princess Academy. Torn between revolutionary sympathies and loyalty to her best friend the princess, Miri discovers that people and situations are seldom as simple as they seem. Hale's storytelling resonates with integrity as she skillfully subverts fairy-tale conventions yet again.
Catherine Reese Newton
Little Woman of the Oregon plains
I can't even attempt to be journalistically objective about how much I love Little Century, a debut novel written and rewritten over the past decade by my friend and fellow Oregonian Anna Keesey. At the center of this historical fiction is the newly orphaned 18-year-old Esther Chambers, who leaves the civilization of Chicago to homestead her distant cousin's claim on Half-a-Mind Lake in the Eastern Oregon frontier town of Century. Upon arrival, Esther finds she's locked-and-loaded in a desert range war between sheepherders and cattle ranchers. Keesey's beautifully layered prose reinvents Western clichés, thanks to her deeply realized portrait of a female character coming to greater consciousness, a subject that feels both fresh and timeless in a literary world stacked deep with stockpiles of contemporary urban tales. This is a reinvention that's worth the time of any reader who can't return often enough to masterpieces such as Stegner's Angle of Repose or Wilder's Little House books.
Ellen Fagg Weist
From five perspectives, the story never quite adds up
In Tigers in Red Weather (Little, Brown and Co., $25.99), the central fact is certain: The Portuguese maid of wealthy summer inhabitants of Martha's Vineyard is found brutally murdered, and her death profoundly affects one family over the next decade. Author Liza Klaussman, the great-great-great granddaughter of Herman Melville, reveals the murderer not by solving the case, but by leading readers to the obvious conclusion through the life stories of cousins Nick and Helena, women confronting a post-World War II world not overly welcoming to women of means and dreams. Also shared are the perspectives of Nick's somewhat distant husband Hughes, her competitive daughter Daisy, and Helena's dark son Ed. We never learn much about the maid or her actual killer, but we learn plenty about what motivated Klaussman's five key characters in lives defined by disappointment.
A beautiful starlet cast out of Little Italy
Jess Walter's redemptive Beautiful Ruins is a novel of discovery that defies labels, beyond hyperbole like "masterpiece." This epic is set in motion in 1962 when Pasquale, the provincial yet dreamy innkeeper of the Italian backwater Hotel Adequate View, falls in love with a mysterious guest, Dee Moray, a fledgling Hollywood starlet sent away from the doomed set of "Cleopatra" to hide her pregnancy after a disastrous affair with Richard Burton. Juggling multiple narrators and sweeping through time, Walter spins a laugh-out-loud story that works to satirize Hollywood excess, while finding the rich heart of what it means to fall in love with life while you're settling far away from the dreams of Tinsel Town. After readers settle into the rhythm of a deliberately slow-paced opening, the story picks up steam until it reaches a universal crescendo. A beautiful read, well worth your time. (Read a longer review here: http://bit.ly/MMVBck)
Ellen Fagg Weist
Hollow City dies of repetition
Utah author Dan Wells' The Hollow City is told through the point-of-view of a paranoid schizophrenic, and while the concept is intriguing, it limits the storytelling to tedious repetition. When Michael Shipman wakes in a hospital, he can't recall the previous two weeks. Instantly suspicious, Shipman is unsure whether to trust the doctors. All he remembers is a hollow city and a deep, dark hole, but he's sure he must escape. It seems he's being hunted by men without faces who are watching him through electronic devices TV, computers, cell phones and they have a Plan. Locked in a mental hospital and linked to gruesome murders, Shipman insists he's not crazy. Wading through delusions, medication and his subsequent discovery that much of what he "sees" is unreal including an imaginary girlfriend takes half the book. At first, the story seems unique, until it's just boring. In the last chapters, Wells ties it all together, and the ending is clever and scary enough to cause nightmares, but he's taken too long to deliver the goods. His tale would be better told as a short story. (For a recent profile of Wells and his writer brother, visit: http://bit.ly/tPT3GT.)
A girl's view of the apocalypse
For a preteen girl, everything feels like the end of the world. So what does young Julia do when the world is ending, as the Earth's rotation mysteriously slows? That's the brilliant conceit of Karen Thompson Walker's touching and breathtaking debut novel The Age of Miracles, in which Julia finds both the cosmic and the domestic baffling and capable of shattering her world.
Sean P. Means
A chef's flavorful read
It would be easy to pigeonhole Yes, Chef, the candid memoir of award-winning chef Marcus Samuelsson, as a simple rags-to-riches story. Born in a remote village in Ethiopia, Samuelsson was orphaned at age 3, adopted by a loving Swedish family and fortunate enough to have a grandmother who sparked his passion for food. Just as intriguing are the missteps Samuelsson endured in the kitchen and in his personal life and his persistence to break into the world of fine dining, an arena where white men traditionally rule the stoves.
How a Wild girl saves herself
Cheryl Strayed's Wild is one of hottest books of the summer, now a 17-week fixture atop the New York Times hardback nonfiction list. But this book serves to redeem the recent flabby period in the genre of literary memoirs, thanks to its muscular prose and sassy wisdom. For readers who relish the interiority that sets apart the best of the genre, this book is worth paying attention to even setting aside the stamp of approval by book-club magnate Oprah Winfrey. As a young woman, Strayed was damaged by her beloved mother's sudden death of cancer, which caused Strayed to fling aside a good-enough marriage and flirt, briefly, with bad boys and heroin. To save herself, she sets out on an unlikely solo wilderness trek, backpacking 1,110 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail in too-small hiking boots and an impossibly heavy backpack, which she names Monster. The 17 years of living between her 1996 trek and the publication of this book helped Strayed become the kind of writer who can tell a universal story about what it takes to face the wild work of saving one's own life. (See our interview at http://bit.ly/O42bgR).
Ellen Fagg Weist
Clay of Arabia
Dave Eggers' last two books What Is the What, about a Sudanese refugee in Atlanta, and Zeitoun, about an Arab-American in post-Katrina New Orleans revealed him as an author whose foremost concern was people caught between cultures. That continues in A Hologram for the King, except here Eggers places a struggling, befuddled American in the sand and heat of Saudi Arabia. Alan Clay, the book's 54-year-old divorced antihero, must secure an IT contract with King Abdullah's nascent "economic city" or default on past business debts and his daughter's college tuition. When the king's schedule proves makeshift, Clay resorts to drunken binges before venturing out into the reclusive kingdom at large, escorted by driver Yousef. Eggers draws convincing characters of them both, but it's Clay being molded at the center. Eggers' prose and craft at building scenes are streamlined to rocket-fueled propulsion, and Clay is perhaps the best portrait of a man in crisis since Saul Bellow's Herzog. At times, the book packs in too much global-economy zeitgeist between its covers, with China lurking in the background. Still, it never distracts from Eggers' goal. He demonstrates with heartfelt ease how Clay's yearning for simple, substantive purpose drives him toward destinations that may yet feel like home, even if he's clueless to how he finally arrived.
Gone, but not easily forgotten
Gillian Flynn, former TV critic for Entertainment Weekly, knows that television can be addicting when it's served fast-paced with complex characters in one big, messy soap opera. That formula succeeds with Gone Girl, her third novel. The mysterious disappearance of a wife, whose diary entries chronicle an unraveling marriage, is told in alternating chapters from the vantage point of an enigmatic husband. The premise of "the seemingly perfect marriage that really isn't" is a tired one, but the author's juicy prose injects energy, thrills and surprises into that cliché. Flynn's pop-culture-obsessed voice will keep you guessing about why this dysfunctional duo of bad apples ever got hitched in the first place as well how this mystery can ever be solved.
The first rule of Book Club
The Republican Bar will host a monthly book swap beginning in September. Patrons are invited to permanently swap books, comic books or "anything else that might be read," event organizers say. The only rule? No money can be exchanged.
When • Thursday, Sept. 6, 9 p.m.
Where • The Republican, 917 S. State St., Salt Lake City; must be 21 to enter
Info • Call Joshua Stasinos at 801-414-1378