What to Read Now

Our favorite book critic, Ellen Heltzel, stopped by with some great ideas for what to read now.

AMERICANA BETWEEN THE COVERS: What do all these books have in common? In one way or the other, they deal with the U.S. of A., from the first European explorers to a whacky fellow in our own day who thumbs his way from one side of the country to the other. I love America! Don't you? Happy reading!

1. "Before, During, After," by Richard Bausch. Boy meets girl, and they fall in love. 9/11 happens. Relationship upended, and neither knows how to get it back on track. If you like love stories with complications, this novel is one of the best of its type. Bausch, a veteran writer, can read the inner thoughts of both men and women with remarkable sensitivity (take that, Hemingway) and shows us two fragile souls struggling to find their way out of both public and private calamity.

2. "The Orenda," by Joseph Boyden. This extraordinary novel about the first French missionaries to the New World in the 1600s and the Indian tribes they encountered has three protagonists: a Jesuit priest the Indians call Crow, a Huron leader known as Bird, and Snow Falls, a young woman he captured from a rival tribe. They tell the story, painting a vivid and violent portrait of tribal rivalries and the way people thought and reacted in such an unforgiving environment. Boyden, a Canadian author who teaches at the University of British Columbia, has won all the top writing prizes his country has to offer, and "The Orenda" shows why.

3. "Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival," by Peter Stark. Here's another way of looking at American history: through the eyes of America's first multimillionaire and the first U.S. community on the Pacific Coast, the town we now know as Astoria. The immigrant John Jacob Astor lived a fabled rags-to-riches story, building his fortune on the fur trade during the late 1700s. It wasn't a business for sissies.

4. "The Mockingbird Next Door," by Marja Mills.  In 2001, journalist Mills received an impossible assignment from the Chicago Tribune, to interview Harper Lee, the reclusive author of the modern American classic "To Kill a Mockingbird."  Mills not only succeeded in getting the interview, but ended up moving next door to and writing a book about the reclusive Lee. The result is a portrait of two maiden sisters, one a famous author, and the small town in Alabama that was the inspiration for the fictional "Mockingbird."  A lawyer purporting to represent the sisters disavowed the book, but Mills has a signed document from Alice Lee giving her approval to write it. However, one more extenuating circumstance, your Honor: Harper Lee is now 88 and her sister over 100. So is Mills guilty of exploiting two old ladies, or should she be exonerated for creating this sympathetic glimpse into their lives?

5. "Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America," by John Waters. Finally, what kind of 66-year-old man with enough money to buy his way across the country decides to hitchhike, instead? The answer: a slightly crazy one who also writes for a living. That description would fit Waters, best known for films like "Hairspray." One day Waters thinks to himself that hitchhiking -- or an "undercover travel adventure," as it might be called -- would make good fodder for a book. He was right; a guy like Waters isn't going to give you an ordinary trip. He's an hilarious aging hipster who mines America's eccentrics with glee. Viewer warning: Profanity and gay sex are mother's milk to Waters, so if either disturbs you, shift quickly back to Choices 1-4.

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