Head to the bookstore or pick up your Nook or Kindle or iPad, and prepare, if you will, to make some decisions about your summer reading life. My suggestions this year tend to be fine new fiction, the kind that not only flows on the page but also makes a sort of music in your mind. So, word music it is! Strike up the orchestra! It's going to be a big summer for big broad American literary voices, voices that leap from the page and linger with you, echo through your summer and perhaps even beyond.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Time now to head to the bookstore or library or pick up your eReader and prepare to make some decisions about summer reading. It's that time of year when our book reviewer Alan Cheuse makes his recommendations. And, this year, he's got music on his mind.
ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Word music. Yes, that's what I've got on my mind. That's what I'm hearing. Strike up the orchestra. It's going to be a great summer for big, broad American literary voices, voices that leap from the page, voices that will linger with you, voices that will echo through your summer and perhaps even beyond.
First, I want to recommend "Home," Toni Morrison's idiosyncratic short novel, a book made up out of lush, lyrical, memorable language by one of our foremost writers. The novel takes place in that odd time just after the end of the Korean War when an understandably disturbed veteran named Frank Money comes marching, stumbling sometimes, toward his Lotus, Georgia home.
TONI MORRISON: (reading) Lotus, Georgia is the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefield. At least on the field, there is a goal, excitement, daring and some chance of winning, along with many chances of losing. Death is a sure thing, but life is just as certain.
CHEUSE: That's the voice of Toni Morrison reading from her new short novel, "Home."
Voice - that's what novelist and storywriter Richard Ford himself has called the music of a story's intelligence. What a wonderful way to put it. Ford's new novel, "Canada," gives us music aplenty. It's a long, symphonic piece of work set in Montana and Saskatchewan. It's about a pair of prairie teenagers, Dell Parsons and his twin sister, Berner. Their parents, befuddled and in debt, have set out to rob a bank and fumble it, leaving the children to fend for themselves.
Dell, telling the story some 50 years after the events in question, strikes up a memorable tone, a signature voice of Ford's invention, broad enough to include both past confusion and mystery and present understanding. As in this passage, in which Dell describes their father's physical state and his state of mind just before the robbery.
RICHARD FORD: (reading) The longer I delay characterizing my father as a born criminal, the more accurate this story will be. He became one, it's true, but I'm not sure at what point in the chain of events he or anyone or the world would have known it. Intention to be a criminal must weigh in these things and the case can be made that he never had clear intention before he robbed the Agricultural National Bank in Creekmore, North Dakota. Possibly, he lacked the intention even immediately afterward and didn't have it until it dawned on him what might happen to him as a result.
LAUREN GROFF: It isn't important if this story was ever true.
CHEUSE: A new voice out of the territory of the American imagination, the voice of Lauren Groff. In her second novel, "Arcadia," she adds greatly to the breadth and beauty of this summer's reading. Groff invents a great American project, a commune, people by hundreds and hundreds in upstate New York in the 1970s.
And, as she narrates the story of its many inhabitants as seen through the eyes of a fellow named Bit over the course of his young life, she tells a larger story about our country and ourselves.
GROFF: (reading) Bit manipulates images. He knows stories don't need to be factual to be vital. He understands with a feeling inside him like a wind whipping through a room that, when we lose the stories we have believed about ourselves, we are losing more than stories. We are losing ourselves.
CHEUSE: Well, in a voice as lyrically powerful as Lauren Groff's and with a story as vital as this in the novel "Arcadia," we're gaining, always gaining.
More music now, rather sad and antique music, the voice of tragic history rising up out of the pages of a persuasive new novel, Francine du Plessix Gray's novel, "The Queen's Lover." This lively, incredibly readable, definitely R-rated version of the life and death of Marie Antoinette, as told by her lover, the Swedish diplomat, Count Axel von Fersen, grows out of Gray's deep familiarity with the historical documents.
The novel reads like a seamless account of von Fersen's not-so-secret romance with the queen. As he narrates the pathetic last weeks of the royal family, von Fersen's voice swings from ecstatic accounts of his lovemaking with Marie Antoinette to the dark and devastating record of her final hour.
FRANCINE DU PLESSIX GRAY: (reading) The vision of the open tumbrel drawn by two farm horses seemed to startle her terribly. She asks the executioner to untie her hands so that she could relieve herself. This she did, squatting in a corner of the prison wall. Then she offered her hands to him so that he might tie them again.
CHEUSE: From sublime affairs of state to the stark and vulgar popular culture of our own contemporary lives, let's make this descent into the lower registers together and recognize the good, nasty fun of "Gone Girl," Chicago writer Gillian Flynn's novel about the mysterious disappearance of a clever and deceptive young Midwestern housewife. It's a noire he-said, she-said and all the lamenting confessions and plotting and police work leads to an ending you'll never be able to predict.
In this book, voice is part of the fun of it all. There are two voices going back and forth. Here's the he-said.
GILLIAN FLYNN: (reading) Nick Dunne, the day of. When I think of my wife, I always think of her head, the shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it, like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily. I'd know her head anywhere.
CHEUSE: And the she-said.
FLYNN: (reading) Amy Elliot, January 8th, 2005, diary entry. Tra and la, I'm smiling a big, adopted orphan smile as I write this. I'm embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying, I met a boy. But I did. This is a technical empirical truth. I met a boy.
CHEUSE: This from "Gone Girl," a beach book you won't mind being seen with this summer.
May all of these fictional voices, these stories, echo through your easy summer days or cool your mind when things get too hot.
BLOCK: Our book critic Alan Cheuse with his recommendations for what to read this summer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.