Traveling on the Cheap
A preview of the most promising summer releases
By John Freeman
Gas prices have shown little sign of dropping. Airlines are warning of serious flight delays. And, to top it off, anti-American sentiment overseas has hit such a pitch that the U.S. World Cup soccer team can’t put the Stars and Stripes on the side of its travel bus. Maybe this is the summer to stay home, to catch up on some yard work.
That doesn’t mean the world can’t come to you, though. The cheapest way to travel is in the pages of a book, and this season publishers have brought an unusually rich crop of literature from abroad. The best part? None of it requires a yellow-fever shot.
But let’s start off in our own backyard. The most talked-about novel of the summer will certainly be John Updike’s 22nd novel, Terrorist (Knopf, $24.95), the story of a young Muslim teenager who is feeling increasingly isolated in the fictional town of New Prospect, N.J. With the temptations of American life all around him, he takes a job at a furniture store run by Lebanese immigrants and soon finds himself embroiled in a plot that attracts the attention of the Department of Homeland Security.
Curiosity about Muslim life is understandably high now, and two other novels this summer will bring readers deep inside without the drama of terrorism. Gautam Malkani’s Londonstani (Penguin Press, $24.95) portrays the lives of young Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men who live in the housing projects around Heathrow airport, while Faiza Guene tells the story of a young Muslim woman living in the projects outside of Paris with Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (Harcourt, $13).
Meanwhile, Booker Prize finalist Monica Ali returns to form, leaving behind the London neighborhood of Brick Lane for a small village in Portugal in Alentejo Blue (Scribner, $24). In Cellophane (Dial Press, $24), Marie Arana takes readers to her native Peru in the ’30s, where a papermaker’s discovery of the formula for cellophane sparks a compulsion for transparency among his family members.
June’s best nonfiction will also require a passport. John McPhee looks at the freight-shipping industry in his 28th book, Uncommon Carriers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $24), as he travels by tugboat, big rig and oil tanker. His travels take him to Nova Scotia, the French Alps, up and down some of America’s most famous rivers, and all through the huge UPS sorting facility in Louisville, Ky.
In A Sense of the World (HarperCollins, $26.95), Jason Roberts pays tribute to James Holman (1786-1857), a British naval officer who was blinded at age 25 but still went on to become the greatest traveler of his era. Readers might be similarly inspired by Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards (Delacorte, $20), a homeless man’s life story, told backwards, all the way to his happy youth.
Readers looking for a bit more intellectual rigor in their summer reading might be wise to check out Cynthia Ozick’s new collection of essays, The Din in the Head (Houghton, $24), which features appreciations of Susan Sontag, Lionel Trilling, Delmore Schwartz and Saul Bellow. In Considering Genius (Basic Books, $27.50), critic and provocateur Stanley Crouch brings together all his thoughts on jazz for a rather tuneful collection.
As we tip toward the Fourth of July, the best fiction offerings take on a more American cast. In A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (Ecco, $24.95), Philadelphia resident Ken Kalfus describes a couple’s marital breakdown against the backdrop of post-9/11 America. Domestic terrorism eclipses what’s happened in Manhattan, and Kalfus writes his way to the first (gulp) satire to grow out of the terrible events of nearly five years ago.
Also this month, the prolific T.C. Boyle delivers a hilarious novel, Talk Talk (Viking, $25.95), about identity theft. In Shelley Jackson’s much-anticipated Half Life (HarperCollins, $24.95), conjoined twins go to war with each other for dominance in a relationship that has them literally attached at the hip. And two of America’s best short story writers—Thomas McGuane and Bobbie Anne Mason—deliver new collections, Gallatin Canyon (Knopf, $24) and Nancy Culpepper (Random House, $22.95).
Those looking to leave these shores can enter the legal black hole of America’s military prison system in Dan Fesperman’s latest novel, The Prisoner of Guantánamo (Knopf, $24), which chronicles the downfall of an FBI agent and Arabic translator. In Turing’s Delirium (Houghton Mifflin, $24), Edmundo Paz Soldán describes a Latin American town where computer viruses are being used to bring down the government, while Finnish novelist Anita Konkka makes her American debut with A Fool’s Paradise (Dalkey, $12.95), an atmospheric novel about a woman on the brink of madness.
Madness of a political sort begins to boil in July, judging by the nonfiction offerings. Two new books—Geoffrey Nunberg’s Talking Right (PublicAffairs, $26) and Steven Poole’s Unspeak (Grove, $23)—examine the way language has been manipulated by the right wing.
George Lakoff argues that Republicans have redefined the very nature of the word freedom; his book Whose Freedom? (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23) performs a point-by-point analysis of how this has happened and what it means. Chances are the subject of Bill Minutaglio’s The President’s Counselor (Rayo/HarperCollins, $24.95), a biography of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, has something to do with it.
All of this might make you want to hop in the car and flee. If so, you’ll find an entertaining travel companion in Robert Sullivan, whose new book Cross Country (Bloomsbury, $24.95) offers a hilarious take on that American rite of passage, the road trip.
If you do plan to drive across the country, chances are you have enough time to get through Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa’Thiong’O’s Wizard of the Crow (Pantheon, $30), his 768-page attempt to "sum up Africa of the twentieth century in the context of 2,000 years of world history." Perhaps optimistically, the book begins with illness and ends in a Joycean celebration of life.
For those who want to get lost in translation, no one uses fiction more inventively these days than Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who brings together 25 new stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (Knopf, $25). In Jennifer Egan’s The Keep (Knopf, $24), two cousins get together after 20 years to renovate a castle in Eastern Europe and discover that the building has a secret history all its own.
But you won’t have to leave these shores to get a chill in the bones. Most Americans would need a guide to the part of the Ozarks that Daniel Woodrell explores in his eighth novel, Winter’s Bone (Little, Brown, $22.95). Tom Franklin also heads south in his second novel, Smonk (Morrow, $23.95), a rip-snorting tale about an ornery Alabama man who is put on trial for misdeeds.
Speaking of misdeeds, the bilking of reconstruction money in Iraq has been chronicled in newspapers, but T. Christian Miller’s Blood Money (Little, Brown, $24.99) will probably make news for its comprehensive glimpse at just how much profit was made out of the suffering of soldiers and Iraqis. Meanwhile, Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower (Knopf, $27.95) chronicles al Qaeda’s road to 9/11, showing how little room we have for capitalist boondoggles in the Muslim world.
This kind of thing has happened since the dawn of time, and legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn chronicled some of it. In Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (Henry Holt, $32.50), we see a different side of her. We hear of her relationship to Hemingway, peep in on her correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt and watch her hustle as a freelance journalist.
After all this traveling, as the first day of school looms again, readers will probably be ready to settle down, feather the nest and prepare for colder weather. Along those lines, we could do worse than spending some time with Karrie Jacobs’ The Perfect $100,000 House (Viking, $25.95), in which the author travels 14,000 miles to find the perfect affordable home.
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