NPR Books' Petra Mayer has come back from vacation with a bunch of books to share.
Here are her recommendations:
"Matrix" by Lauren Groff
This is a marvelous historical novel, loosely based on the life of Marie de France, who lived at the turn of the 13th century and is thought to be the first woman to write poetry in French.
We know almost nothing about Marie, other than that her name probably was Marie, she was probably from France and judging by her writing, she was well-educated.
From these little scraps, author Lauren Groff has woven a rich altar-cloth of a story: She imagines Marie as an illegitimate relative of the Plantagenet ruling family, once even a lover of Eleanor of Aquitaine, who gets exiled to England and placed as the head of a failing, starving nunnery. And once she comes to terms with living her life there, we see her emerge into herself as a strong, competent woman who builds up the convent into a big, prosperous place but has to balance her genuine faith with her equally genuine enormous worldly ambition. She's a wonderfully compelling character and so are all the women around her at the convent.
Groff has created a really convincing little corner of medieval England here; you can almost hear them all snoring in the dormitory at night or squelching around in the spring mud.
"Harlem Shuffle" by Colson Whitehead
I've been describing this as a heist novel because it's an easy shorthand, and yes, a lot of it does turn on an elaborate hotel robbery that gets described in detail — but really, there's so much more here.
It's set in Harlem in the early 1960s and our main character, Ray Carney, is what you might call multilayered. His father was a serious crook, but Carney describes himself as "only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked." He owns a furniture store, he has a wife and family, he has dreams of moving to a nice apartment on Riverside Drive. But he's also his father's son. And the furniture store is pretty useful for his side business as a fence, which leads to all kinds of complications, especially when it comes to Ray's cousin Freddie, who cannot stay out of trouble to save his life.
Whitehead has talked about the idea that fences serve as the line between the crooked world and the straight world — and Ray really walks that line. It's great to be in his head as he thinks through fencing the stuff Freddie brings him, and at the same time earnestly lists the values of a particular model of sofa in his showroom. And it's even greater to see a rich portrait of 1960s Harlem through his eyes.
"The All-Consuming World" by Cassandra Khaw
The All-Consuming World is a wild ride. Kind of like "Harlem Shuffle," this is a book that gets described as a heist story because that's the quickest way to sum it up, but it's so much more.
It's set in a dystopian future where a lot of people are cyborg clones made for labor; when they wear out or get killed, their minds are uploaded to a new body and they keep going. Our stars are a ragtag band of criminals called the Dirty Dozen, most of whom are clones, who've been getting blown up and reborn for decades, even centuries. Their last job went badly wrong, they've all gone their separate ways, but now the mad scientist in charge is trying to get everyone together for one last job.
That's the core of the story, but really it's about these people — all either women or nonbinary — and how they relate to each other, and how they manage to fit back together for this one last job.
And I'm not even getting into the world Cassandra Khaw is building, and the way they write the massive artificial intelligences who control most of that, because we'd be here all day. And their language is stunning — just like fireworks on the page. It's not often that a novel makes me look up words, but I had to do it a lot for "The All-Consuming World" and every time, once I'd learned the word, I realized it was the perfect choice.
"Peter Cabot Gets Lost" by Cat Sebastian
This is a sequel to Cat Sebastian's novella "Tommy Cabot Was Here" — and though you don't have to have read that book to understand the story, you really should, because it's lovely.
This is a queer road trip romance set in the early 1960s; Peter Cabot is the young, hapless college-kid son of a family clearly based on the Kennedys — they're Massachusetts nobility, generations of politicians, his dad is a senator running for president, you get the idea. And that's a problem because Peter wants none of it, and also he's gay. He's decided he doesn't want to be anything like his family, so just after graduation, he spots his classmate Caleb crying on the street corner because he has to get to Los Angeles and his ride has just bailed, and on the spur of the moment Peter decides to drive him, all the way from Boston to Los Angeles. And of course, Caleb is a prickly, grumpy poor kid who hates Peter on principle. And of course, along the way they fall for each other — one of the joys of a good romance is seeing the main characters grow to be worthy of each other. That's exactly what's going on here; each of them has preconceptions and habits they have to get beyond.
I will say that this is kind of a magical universe; the homophobia of the early 1960s is always in the background and in the characters' pasts, but it doesn't intrude a whole lot on the actual road trip. But in a romance novel, that's not the worst thing.
"Poet Warrior" by Joy Harjo
Joy Harjo is the U.S. Poet Laureate, the first Native American to hold that position, and she's also a musician. She plays the saxophone and performs in a band, and all of that is rolled up in her memoir.
This is partly a companion piece and partly a sequel to her first memoir "Crazy Brave" but again, you don't have to have read that one first. You just kind of have to open the book and let yourself go because reading "Poet Warrior" is like sitting around on the porch shooting the breeze with Joy Harjo and whoever else she knows that happens to stop by, including family ghosts who've been dead for years.
Her poems are there throughout, about a character called Girl Warrior who grows to become Poet Warrior as Harjo grows up, goes to college, follows poetry and music and eventually becomes Poet Laureate. It's a really nonlinear story, but the overall sense you get is one of connection, between generations and cultures and people and land, even when things are difficult and broken. And it's easy to kind of slide along the pages because Harjo's language is simple and poetic and you can get carried along, but it's worth stopping and sitting with what she's saying. "Poet Warrior" is a wonderful, rewarding book if you take it slow.
This segment aired on September 23, 2021.