Summer Summaries

From the July/August 2007 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

There aren't enough warm days in which to read all of this summer's books. What follows is a selection of recently published titles—blockbuster novels, international literature, and contemporary poetry collections—for the discerning beach bum.

Each year the major publishers unroll their red carpets—conveniently disguised as beach towels—and present the hottest novels of the summer. This year is no exception. Five of the most eagerly anticipated books, each published in the past two months, have had first printings that total more than eight hundred thousand copies. That's a lot of books, a lot of money, and, as usual, a lot of hype. (Of course, it's only a drop in the bucket of the record-breaking print run for the final Harry Potter book: twelve million copies, piling up in bookstores on July 21.)

Ever since HarperCollins published the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in 2000, readers have been waiting for another full-length adult novel from Michael Chabon. He's published a couple of books—the young adult novel Summerland and the mystery novel The Final Solution: A Story of Detection—and he's even edited some McSweeney's anthologies. But for seven years there's been nothing like The Yiddish Policemen's Union (HarperCollins, May), a 432-page novel about a detective in Alaska—which, in Chabon's fictional world, became the homeland for the Jews after World War II, not Israel—who must solve the murder of a drug-abusing chess prodigy. In her New York Times book review, Michiko Kakutani wrote that some of the details surrounding the murder are "too far-fetched to be plausible," but otherwise lavished praise on the "authoritatively and minutely imagined" novel with "one of the most appealing detective heroes to come along since Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe."

The release of a new book by Don DeLillo is always a noteworthy event, but the publication of Falling Man (Scribner, May), a novel about the intertwining lives of several New Yorkers in the hours, days, and months after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has caused quite a stir. It's DeLillo's fourteenth novel, and although he has won a National Book Award (White Noise) and the PEN/Faulkner Award (Mao II), he has yet to win a Pulitzer. He was nominated twice—in 1992 for Mao II and in 1998 for Underworld—but so far the prize has eluded him. Although his last two novels, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis, were largely disappointing, Publishers Weekly called Falling Man "a return to DeLillo's best work."

Khaled Hosseini's first novel was one of those books that ride a wave of both literary and political relevance and crash into the beach as full-fledged cultural phenomena. The Kite Runner, a novel set in prerevolutionary Afghanistan, was published in 2003 by Riverhead Books and was subsequently adopted by more than thirty city and community reading programs across the country. Four million-plus copies have been published in forty countries. Hosseini's sophomore effort, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead Books, May), has all the same ingredients as his first. The novel, which is also set in the author's native country, is a tale of two generations of characters brought together by war. It received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Booklist, all of which are probably irrelevant to fans of The Kite Runner, who simply want to read more from Hosseini.

Ian McEwan has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction three times, winning the award for his novel Amsterdam in 1998. There has been some talk about whether his latest book, On Chesil Beach (Nan A. Talese, June), will be eligible for the award—given annually for a novel written by a British author—because of its length: a mere 198 pages. But readers who are still considering such inconsequential matters after reading McEwan's story—about an innocent couple in the early 1960s who confront their fears on their wedding night—clearly read the book too quickly. On Chesil Beach provides the exclamation point for anyone wondering if McEwan, the author of Saturday, Atonement, and others, is getting better with age.

Much has been made of Joyce Carol Oates's prodigious output, and rightfully so—she's written more than eighty books of fiction, and then there are the poetry collections, essays, nonfiction titles, and books for young adults and children. So when her publisher announced that The Gravedigger's Daughter (Ecco, June) is "her most ambitious and heartrending novel to date," and her editor Dan Halpern said it will be remembered "as her masterpiece," readers took note. Although it seems that Oates can whip out a novel every six months or so, The Gravedigger's Daughter, based on her own family's history in upstate New York, actually took her more than twelve years to write. Oates is a literary force to be reckoned with, and her new novel is taking its place alongside The Falls, Blonde, and We Were the Mulvaneys as among her best.