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Four Books That Deliver Unexpected And Delightful Surprises This Summer


This is FRESH AIR. Travel near and far, literary souvenirs and the cruise ship companionship of an animal are the subjects of the novels and works of nonfiction on Maureen Corrigan's list of early summer book recommendations.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Earlier this week, my teenage daughter and a friend took a bus up to New York. Of course, I had to burden her with anxious advice like hold onto your wallet and don't use the bathroom at Port Authority. Maybe it would've been cooler if I'd just given her Vendela Vida's new novel. "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty" is both a travel cautionary tale and a fantasy about the infinite possibility that travel offers.

In it, an unnamed woman reeling from divorce flies to Morocco. As she's checking in at her hotel, she places her backpack atop the suitcase in front of her. A few minutes later, she reaches down, and the backpack, containing her wallet and passport, is gone. What ensues is a kind of existential suspense tale in which our heroine is at first paralyzed by the theft and then emboldened to borrow other women's documents and identities. Vida's rye narration lightens up this tense, closely observed tale. Here, for instance, is a description of the heroine's plane landing in Casablanca.

When the plane lands, it veers left, then right and then finds its way into a straight line. Your fellow passengers roar with applause. They are clapping because their existence persists, because they are not aflame on the tarmac, because they did not disintegrate over the Atlantic. When the doors to the plane open, there's a palpable collective thrust of passengers toward the front. As you gather your things, someone from the row behind yours tries to cut in front of you. This is the way of air travel. Fellow passengers applaud because they didn't die, and then they cut in front of you so they can exit four seconds earlier.

Jane Re, the Korean-American heroine of Patricia Park's debut novel called "Re Jane," also takes a few momentous trips by plane, but her usual mode of travel is the number seven train that shuttles between Manhattan and Flushing, Queens. Jane was orphaned as a child and taken in by her uncle, who runs a grocery store in Flushing. Itching to escape a life of bagging lettuce, the grown-up Jane accepts a job as a nanny in upscale Brooklyn, where she falls for the aloof master of the house and even encounters a cultural theory-spouting madwoman, of sorts, in the attic.

By now, dear listener, you've no doubt caught on to the fact that "Re Jane" is a wickedly inventive updating of Jane Eyre. But just as Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece is so much more than a Gothic pot-boiler, "Re Jane" moves beyond mere pastiche to drolly explore issues of class, ethnicity and women's autonomy for an unlikely heroine of the 21st century.

While we're talking Brontes, Deborah Lutz's new nonfiction book, "The Bronte Cabinet," yields up all sorts of fascinating new angles on the famous siblings by closely scrutinizing some of their objects, like Emily's writing desk, Anne's needlework sampler and Charlotte's amethyst bracelet, fashioned out of the intertwined hair of her two sisters. In her preface, Lutz playfully refers to this method of studying objects to recover the past as thing theory, but not all that Lutz surveys is a thing. In fact, one of her most illuminating chapters discusses Emily's dog, a bull mastiff named Keeper.

Emily and Keeper, in their rough way, clearly loved each other, but in "No Better Friend," Robert Weintraub gives the most inspiring true life account I've ever read of a human-animal bond. "No Better Friend" is the story of Judy, a purebred pointer who was World War II's only canine POW. She started out her service as a mascot on a British ship that was bombed during the evacuation of Singapore. The next ship she was on it was torpedoed, and Judy spent hours in the water, paddling wounded men over to floating bits of debris. Even more incredibly, she spent three years in a Japanese POW camp, eluding death through her own cunning - she was good at hiding from angry guards - and through the quick thinking of the prisoners who loved her - above all, a young RAF technician named Frank Williams.

When the POWs were marched out of that camp in 1944, Frank risked execution by smuggling Judy out in a rice bag slung over his shoulder. She stayed perfectly still in that hot bag for hours. After the war, Judy received in the highest military medal awarded to an animal. I know this summary makes "No Better Friend" sound like a canine version of "Unbroken." And as a dog lover, I say what could be better than that? All the books on this early summer list begin in familiar territory and then surprise us readers by going off into places we could never anticipate.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of "So We Read On: How 'The Great Gatsby' Came To Be And Why It Endures." She reviewed "The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty" by Vendela Vida, "Re Jane" by Praticia Park, "The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives In Nine Objects" by Deborah Lutz and "No Better Friend" by Robert Weintraub.

Tomorrow, on our show, we'll talk about the internet underworld where criminals, trolls, pedophiles, extremists and black markets hide. Our guest will be Jamie Bartlett, author of the new book "The Dark Net."

JAMIE BARTLETT: It's really a sort of Wild West because you have anonymous users visiting sites that can't be censored.

GROSS: So join us tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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