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Thursday, May 24, 2007 02:33 pm

Summer books

Something black, something blue, something old, something new

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Untitled Document One of the pleasures of summer vacations is a visit to the bookstore or library to pick out those special volumes you plan to take to the cottage or the beach. Pretending that I was about to embark, I did just that, and these are the ones that caught my eye. While perusing the new books, I had a thought: Wouldn’t it also be great to revisit those writers I loved from long ago? I thought so, and after the new books I’ve included a few “classics” for your consideration. You’ll have to provide your own lemonade. Happy summer reading!
NEW RELEASES
Dream When You’re Feeling Blue 
By Elizabeth Berg (Random House, 288 pp., $24.95) Irish sisters Kitty, Louise, and Tish form their Chicago family’s home front during World War II. The letters they write to their faraway lovers and the replies they receive chronicle this story’s tragedy and triumph. Reading them is like untying a packet from the past and realizing that a family’s love is among life’s greatest gifts.
The Blackest Bird 
By Joel Rose (W.W. Norton, 464 pp., $24.95) This murder mystery will be knocking at your chamber door in the wee hours, insisting that you keep turning its pages. Set in 19th-century New York, it features Manhattan’s first detective, 69-year-old Jacob Hays. In the summer of 1841 he faces three high-profile murder cases, the clues to which are not forensic but poetic — found in the lines of none other than Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.
 
Summer People 
By Brian Groh (Ecco, 304 pp., $24.95)
Nathan Empson is a fish out of water, but he still enjoys the ocean view. Hired for the summer as caretaker for the eccentric matriarch of Brightonfield Cove, Maine, the college dropout finds time to fall for the Episcopal priest’s nanny. This glimpse of a rarefied society through the eyes of a young man wiser than he knows, and an author wittier than most, makes the novel both humorous and satisfying.
The Sea Lady 
By Margaret Drabble (Harcourt, 352 pages, $24)
Perhaps no contemporary novelist captures the essence of relationships quite as acutely as Drabble can. Two childhood friends, a marine biologist and a celebrity feminist, return to the North Sea country 30 years after they first met and find, surprisingly, in flashbacks of their separate lives, how closely they’ve been linked all along.

Coal Black Horse 
By Robert Olmstead (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 224 pp., $23.95) Fourteen-year-old Robey Childs is an unlikely Civil War hero. Compelled by his mother’s premonition, Robey sets out to find his soldier father and discovers instead what it means to be the best, and worst, man he can be. This fable can be compared to such classics as The Red Badge of Courage.
District & Circle
By Seamus Heaney (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 96 pp., $13) This book by Ireland’s reigning poet won the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2006. One critic says that Heaney writes things “an ordinary person might actually say,” high praise for poetry. “Contrary, unflowery/ sky-whisk and bristle, more/ twig-fret than fruit-fort,/ crabbed/ as crabbed could be-/ that was the tree/ I remembered.”

CLASSICS
Uncle Fred in the Springtime
By P.G. Wodehouse (Penguin, 250 pp., $9) Do yourself a favor. If you’ve never read Mr. Wodehouse, don’t let another summer slip by without meeting the zany likes of Bertie Wooster (once played on TV by Dr. Greg House, a.k.a. Hugh Laurie) and his butler, Jeeves. These 1920s British farces include my favorite Wodehousian romp, Uncle Fred in the Springtime. In it, Bertie’s uncle Lord Emsworth faces the dilemma of losing his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings. Smashing good fun.
Master and Commander 
By Patrick O’Brian (Norton, 412 pp., $13.95) The great thing about this classic swashbuckler (besides imagining Russell Crowe in an open-necked blouse) is that if you like it there are 19 more in the series. Set it the early 19th century, when England ruled the seas, it has been called the greatest sea adventure ever written. Bon voyage!

A Coffin for Dimitrios
By Eric Ambler (Vintage, 304 pp., $12.95) Le Carré and Ludlum fans, make way for the master. Written in 1939, this thriller takes us to Istanbul, where Charles Latimer, a successful mystery writer, stumbles into a world of espionage, drugs, and treachery that spans the Balkans. It’s realistic and original.
Sometimes a Great Notion 
By Ken Kesey (Penguin, 628 pp., $14.95)
Kesey’s best-known book is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but in my opinion Sometimes a Great Notion is Kesey’s masterpiece. The Stampers, a logging clan in Oregon (Henry Fonda and Paul Newman played father and son in the 1971 film), buck a lumber strike and each other in this tale of mythic proportions.
The Metamorphosis and Other Stories 
By Franz Kafka (Barnes & Noble Classics, 184 pp., $6.95) Think you’re having a bad day? Try waking up as a giant cockroach. Find out where the term “Kafkaesque” comes from in this series of anxious, alienated, yet surprisingly humorous tales.
Travels with Charley in Search of America 
By John Steinbeck (Penguin, 288 pp., $9)
Just a guy, his truck and his . . . poodle? In 1960, Grapes of Wrath author Steinbeck set out with what he calls “the virus of restlessness” to find the real America. From San Francisco to the New Jersey Turnpike, it’s fascinating to discover, 60 years later, what has and hasn’t changed in between.
Springfield writer and poet Corrine Frisch is a regular contributor to Illinois Times.
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