WYSO

Maureen Corrigan

Fall is when the publishing industry gets serious, when it leaves beach books in the sand and turns to weightier topics. And what could be weightier than the greatest question of all: the meaning of life. Two new books — one a novel; one a (sort of) memoir — tackle that ultimate question through experimental forms of writing.

I know, I know: "Experimental writing" is surely one of the least enticing literary terms. But don't be put off, because both of these odd new books offer something special, something that more "broken in" forms of writing can't provide.

About halfway through Claire Messud's new novel The Burning Girl, our narrator, a 12-year-old girl named Julia, makes this pronouncement:

Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theater or the fire escape in a hotel. You came to know, in a way you hadn't as a kid, that the body you inhabited was vulnerable, imperfectly fortified.

Back in the late 1980s, when I was first starting out as a critic for The Village Voice, one of the books I was assigned was Laura Shapiro's Perfection Salad, a social history of the home economics movement during the turn of the last century.

Most readers these days who know Chester Himes know him for his detective fiction, novels like The Real Cool Killers and Cotton Comes to Harlem, which were written late in his career during the 1950s and '60s. These hard-boiled stories — featuring black New York City police detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson — are brutal and wildly surreal. But no more brutal and surreal, Himes may have said, than the situation of being black — even of being a prominent black writer — in mid-20th century America.

A year-long getaway to a Greek island; a week by the sea at an arts colony. Fantasies of escape are the common premise of two new comic novels, both smart and sprightly in style, and both informed by a sad wisdom that echoes John Milton's lines in Paradise Lost: that we carry "troubl'd thoughts" and "hell within [us]`" wherever we go.

Ever since Peter Minuit bought Manhattan Island from the Native Americans, New York City's character has been defined by money and con artistry. So it is that classic New York stories are always populated by a grifter or two.

The title of Maile Meloy's new novel is misleading: Do Not Become Alarmed sounds like a suspense story. Granted, I did read it in two nights; but, while I'm a unapologetic fan of thrillers, Meloy's novel is something else, something trickier to characterize. I'd call it a very smart work of literary fiction that exposes how very thin the layer of good luck is that keeps most of us from falling into the abyss.

Journeys — near and far, into the past and even into near space — are the subject of the novels, memoirs and narrative histories that make up my summer reading list. Here are six books to escape with:

Even if you can't get yourself to the solar eclipse's "path of totality" this Aug. 21, any of these very different books will get you onto the path of a totally good story.

Rakesh Satyal's new novel checks off a lot of boxes, but its charm lies in the fact that it wears all of it various identities so lightly. This is an immigration story, a coming-out story and something of an old-school feminist story about a timid woman learning to roar.

My timing has always been a little off with Elizabeth Strout. I've read and pretty much admired everything she's written, but, for whatever reason, the books of hers I've picked to review have been the good ones, like her debut Amy and Isabelle and The Burgess Boys, rather than the extraordinary ones, like Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

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