How a natural disaster prompted this poet to focus on race in America
Book recommendations for every kind of summer reader
William Brangham: It is that time of year. As many head out on vacation, along with their sunscreen, they pack a good book.
Jeffrey Brown is here now with a roundup of some of the best summer reads, part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: This is a time of the year when many catch up on their reading while away on vacation.
Let's look at some interesting reads for this summer.
For that, we're joined by Maureen Corrigan, book critic for "Fresh Air" on NPR. She's a professor at Georgetown University and author of So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures." And Carlos Lozada, nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism this year.
So, first of all, congratulations.
Carlos Lozada: Thank you very much.
Maureen, why don't you start us off with two or three fiction picks from your list?
Maureen Corrigan: Yes.
OK, my first pick would be Ocean Vuong, who is a Vietnamese American writer. He's 30 years old.
Jeffrey Brown: Known first as a poet, right?
Maureen Corrigan: Known first as a poet.
He came to everybody's attention two years ago. He won a lot of awards for his volume "Night Sky With Exit Wounds," which, as far as titles go, that's pretty good.
The title of his debut novel is called "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous." And it's an immigrant story. It's semi-autobiographical. Vuong himself was born in Vietnam, and came to this country when he was about 2 years old.
It's figured in the form of a letter by a young man written to his mother. And his mother's illiterate. She works in a nail salon. And, really, it's a novel that you read because of the language. Vuong's use of language is spectacular. And I really found myself -- it's a small book. I really found myself taking a long time to read it, because I kept rereading pages.
So that's one.
Jeffrey Brown: How about another one?
Maureen Corrigan: Jill Ciment's novel "The Body in Question."
I feel like Jill Ciment is a novelist who's kind of just under the radar in terms of literary fiction. She's been writing for a long time. This is a wonderful novel, again, short. It's about two jurists on a sequestered trial for murder, and they start having an affair.
So, Ciment does a great job in terms of catching people's personalities, and kind of the emotional energy in that jury room and in the motel where everyone is sequestered. But it's really a novel about guilt, the murder as well, as the guilt of the two illicit lovers.
Jeffrey Brown: All right, Carlos, you're our nonfiction guy here. Start us off with a couple of those. And I saw the list. It's politics.
Carlos Lozada: Yes. I work at The Washington Post. What can you do?
Carlos Lozada: One that I want to highlight is called "Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America" by James Poniewozik.
When we think of President Trump and television, we think of how much cable he watches and his mind-meld with FOX News and the like. This is a book that looks at how Trump has embodied and benefited from some of the big shifts in television programming over the years, like the rise of popular antiheroes and the techniques of reality TV.
The author is the television critic at The New York Times. And he basically treats Trump as the most important character in the history of American television. It's just a smart approach to the subject.
The next book I wanted to highlight is called "These Truths" by Jill Lepore, the historian and "New Yorker" writer. It's a one-volume history of the United States, and looked at through the prism of the self-evident truths of the Declaration, right, so human equality, natural rights and popular sovereignty.
And she assesses the extent to which we have lived up to those truths or not.
Jeffrey Brown: That's one that our viewers might know, because I talked to her on the program. She's definitely worth reading.
OK, Maureen, you have a couple in the mystery category.
Maureen Corrigan: Absolutely. I think summer, mystery...
Jeffrey Brown: A good mystery for the summer, right?
Maureen Corrigan: ... they go together like gin and tonic.
So the first one would be James Ellroy, "This Storm." Anybody who's read Ellroy knows that he writes -- he writes, himself, like a storm, like a hurricane. It's set in 1942, January '42, in L.A. of course, giant rainstorm coming into the city.
A body is unearthed in Griffith Park from a former -- an older crime. You have got Japanese citizens being interned. You have got Fifth Columnists in the city. It's over the top. It's crazy.
Barbara Stanwyck makes like a cameo, loads of historical figures. But what Ellroy is, I think, really doing is, he's writing this epic of L.A. This is his fifth novel in his L.A. series. And it's really about the corruption that's general all over the city.
So that's -- that's a fabulous one.
And then Ruth Ware is a British writer. She's a relatively new discovery, for me anyway. And she has been writing these mysteries that are sort of Daphne du Maurier-type mysteries that are very Gothic tradition.
The latest one that she's got coming out is called the turn of the key. And, as the title suggests, it's really indebted to "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James, a governess in an isolated mansion. The mansion is a smart house, so it's technologically up to date, and it seems to be watching her.
Lots of unseen forces are watching her as well.
Jeffrey Brown: OK, Carlos, you picked a novel and a book of poetry, I see, right?
Carlos Lozada: Yes. Yes.
The book of poetry is called "Citizen Illegal" by a young Mexican American poet named Jose Olivarez. And it's just funny and touching at the same time. And it really grapples with some of the complexity and absurdity of identity today.
A lot of it is set in Chicago, where he's from. There's a poem called "Mexican Heaven," which is memorable. I have -- I have watched him recite it.
And the novel I want to highlight is a couple of years' old now, but I wish it gotten more attention than it did. It's called "American War" by Omar El Akkad. And it imagines a second American civil war set late in this century. It's a climate war. It's a resources war.
And so you have internally displaced peoples, climate refugees, youth radicalization. Florida is now the Florida Sea. The capital has moved inland to Columbus, Ohio, which is always the sign of dystopia, when the capital is in Ohio.
And red and blue America have ceased to be just election night constructs and are real physical and political realities.
Jeffrey Brown: OK, that's a few books for the summer. We have to leave it there for now.
Carlos Lozada, Maureen Corrigan, thank you very much.
Maureen Corrigan: Thank you.
Carlos Lozada: Thank you.