Summer book picks 

Short stories, sexy killers and 'Sisters Brothers.'

Another blistering Arkansas summer, another round of book picks to give you an excuse to sit around inside the cool, comforting AC. Not that you really need one, but regardless, here are some recommendations.

"The Girls of Murder City: Fame, lust, and the beautiful killers who inspired 'Chicago' "
by Douglas Perry

I saw the revival of "Chicago," the musical, on stage in 1997 and enjoyed it greatly. (So much that I didn't bother to see the movie that came later.) I don't remember whether I knew at the time that the show was supposedly based on real events. Now I not only know, I feel like I was in Chicago in the 1920s when both Beulah Annan ("Beautiful Beulah," the papers called her) and Belva Gaertner knocked off boyfriends — both had husbands too — were acquitted in circus trials, and became celebrities in the process. All of this before reality TV.

A young newspaper reporter named Maurine Dallas Watkins, something of a character in her own right, covered the two women's trials, and wrote a non-musical play called "Chicago" that became a hit on Broadway while Watkins was still in her 20s. The play was turned into a 1942 movie, "Roxie Hart." "Roxie" was the character based on Beulah. The film was also non-musical, though it starred Ginger Rogers in the title role. In the 1970s, "Chicago" was made into a musical, and in the 1990s it was revised and revived, and has had its greatest success since. But no stage production could do a better job than Perry has done with this book. The original Girls of Murder City are still bigger stars than anyone who followed them.

— Doug Smith

"The Sisters Brothers"
by Patrick DeWitt

Patrick DeWitt's "The Sisters Brothers" was one of the hot books of 2011, though I only got around to reading it late last year. Images from the tragicomic western are still imprinted on my mind even many months later, however. It's a darkly funny tale of two assassins, the titular Charlie and Eli Sisters. Both are notorious and widely feared among the bedraggled frontier folk they encounter. They receive orders to kill a prospector accused of thievery. Much of the book consists of their mission to track down the supposed thief and dispense with him. So it's a road novel, minus the roads. But along the way, the narrator Eli — the less psychotic of the two by a good degree — begins to question the purpose of his life and whether he could ever truly break away from the brutal life of a hired killer. I don't want to give anything away — the book is full of bizarre surprises, after all. The archaic yet fascinating language echoes Charles Portis's "True Grit," (but won't have you reaching for the dictionary every fifth word like, say, "Blood Meridian"), while its bizarre, almost sci-fi touches and bone-dry humor recall Richard Brautigan's psychedelic absurdist horror Western "The Hawkline Monster." But "The Sisters Brothers" is truly its own thing, and a rare one at that: a very funny, original book that you'll likely devour quickly, wanting more where that came from. Hopefully, you'll get that, as actor John C. Reilly has purchased the film rights.

— Robert Bell

"We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves"
by Karen Joy Fowler

Rosemary Cooke tells the story of the disappearance of her sister, Fern, and her brother's decision to leave home by starting in the middle of the story and looking back. Rosemary — whose voice Fowler imbues with both the insouciance of the multi-year college student who puts up with a crazy friend just because it's too much trouble not to — yearns for the return of her beloved Fern, a chimpanzee, and her brother, Lowell, who has become an ecoterrorist, and mourns the dissolution of her family. The story is about one-tenth Carl Hiassen, thanks to the element of absurdity mixed with facts on chimp experimentation in the 1970s, and 100 percent pure joy to read.




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