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The Vox summer reading list

28 great picks, from Friday Night Lights to Junot Diaz

  • The Chaperone

    The Chaperone

    By Laura Moriaty

    If you are looking for an escape from your day to day (which all the best beach reads are), pick up a copy of Laura Moriaty’s The Chaperone. The story begins in the 1920s in Wichita, Kansas, when the talented, sassy, and headstrong Louise Brooks needs a chaperone to accompany her to New York City for a summer dance class. The adventure is told through the eyes of her chaperone, Cora Carlisle, who admires beautiful, young Louise for her open spirit but is horrified by her impropriety and lack of judgment.

    Fans of Mad Men will find much to love in this story. In the same way Matthew Weiner used the 1960s as a critical backdrop to tell rich human stories, Moriaty gives us deep and complicated characters who must carefully navigate the issues of Roaring '20s, from women’s role in American culture to racism and class to sexuality and Prohibition.

    As the book progressed I found myself getting quite nervous. Moriaty had created a world so believable, with characters I had become so attached to, that at one point I contemplated closing the book early and writing my own ending. When the story did end, I clutched the book to my chest, took an Instagram of the cover, and sat it on the beach chair next to me, thrilled to pass on this great summer read.

    — Allison Rockey, Engagement editor

  • The Black Dahlia

    The Black Dahlia

    By James Ellroy

    James Ellroy was 10 years old when his mother was strangled and left dead near a schoolyard near Los Angeles. Ellroy hated his mother before she died, he would later write. He hated her and he loved her, and he grew up to become a famous American crime novelist, finding that fame by spilling out the pain, the confusion, and the torture in his troubled 10-year-old mind. His books all tell the same story: in Los Angeles, beautiful women die, men shoot at each other, people hurt. Empty bottles fill empty lots, and sometimes there's a body there, too.

    My favorite Ellroy, the one in which all his demons come out to play, is based on another real-life murder. Elizabeth Short was found in a Los Angeles lot in 1947. She was 22 years old, cut in half at the waist and drained of all her blood. She became known as "the Black Dahlia." As with Ellroy's mother's murder, Short's murder was never solved. But over the pages of this book, Ellroy chases down the killers, the motives, and the ghosts of his own past, and the result is a book that left me actually gasping. It's the type of book best read in the full blaze of sunshine, away from any shadows.

    — Melissa Bell, Executive editor

  • Our Man in Havana

    Our Man in Havana

    By Graham Greene

    To those who've read Graham Greene's darker novels, like The Quiet American or The End of the Affair, he might seem an unlikely beach read candidate. But 1958's Our Man in Havana is a perfect, slightly sweaty, rum-soaked read. The lightly comic satire follows Wormold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman in Havana who, through a series of unlikely events, becomes an agent for MI6. Though he files fake reports and cobbles most of his "intelligence" from vacuum cleaning manuals, he starts to rise through the ranks and stumbles on a big adventure.

    While there's a satirical element to the book — made all the more interesting in light of the United States' current diplomatic polka with Cuba — it's more of a screwball comedy with political flair (and, of course, a love story). Think Dr. Strangelove, but sweeter. That turns out to be just the right combination to read between sips of a daiquiri.

    — Phil Edwards, Reporter

  • Sahara Unveiled

    Sahara Unveiled

    By William Langewiesche

    It may be a long time before you could safely reproduce William Langewiesche's long, meandering journey, taken in the mid-1990s, from the Mediterranean coast of Algeria south all the way across the Sahara, much of which has since erupted into lawlessness and war.

    But following his travels, perhaps from a lounge chair somewhere more comfortable, is a delight. Langewiesche's travelogue accomplishes what only the best travel writing can do: transport you utterly, and absorb you in a series of places and experiences that feel so real it's as if you were there.

    Langewiesche weaves history, politics, geology, and some surprisingly interesting passages on climate into his book. "The essence of any desert is its overwhelming power, and the Sahara is the most powerful of them all," he writes. "It exists beyond the scale of human engineering." But this is principally the story of what it felt like to cross the Sahara in that brief window when it was safe, whom you met, and what you saw. An immersive but relatively quick read, Sahara Unbound offers you a feeling of adventure and discovery without leaving the beach.

    — Max Fisher, Content director

  • Station Eleven

    Station Eleven

    By Emily St. John Mandel

    Dystopian novels always help me reevaluate things: life, society, technology, government. Station Eleven did that for me. The book tells the story of what could happen if the globe were hit with a massive epidemic that killed nearly everyone. The world is suddenly reduced to a society devoid of modern technology. Airplanes and cars rust and decay, the electric grid has no one to run it, and disorder ensues.

    In spite of all the chaos, a group of former actors and musicians assemble to form a traveling symphony, visiting towns and performing the works of Shakespeare. We follow the story through the perspective of seemingly disconnected groups of characters, only to find that they all somehow connect, however indirectly. This book helped me to appreciate the fragility of the complex global systems we all rely on, from international shipping to electricity production to road construction. We are all dependent on networks of millions of people we don't know. And if those people disappear, our lives could change dramatically. Give Station Eleven a read.

    — Johnny Harris, Multimedia producer

  • The Interestings

    The Interestings

    By Meg Wolitizer

    The Interestings is the perfect novel for a long plane flight because it’s so completely engrossing. Meg Wolitzer follows a group of friends who meet at an arts summer camp — where they dub themselves “the Interestings” — up through adulthood, exploring how their trajectories do and don’t follow what they expected in adolescence. She tells the story through the eyes of Jules Jacobson, who begins the novel lionizing her friends for being unique people but, as she gets older, begins to rethink what it means to be interesting, and whether that’s ever of as much value as it seemed during teenage years. My dominant memory of reading this book a few years ago — it helped me breeze through a nine-hour plane ride — was how quickly it sucked me into the characters’ lives, and how I loved seeing their stories, of both success and failure, unfold in front of me.

    — Sarah Kliff, Senior editor

  • The Cut

    The Cut

    By George Pelecanos

    I'm too mentally feeble to read serious literary fiction, and summer reading recommendations are no place for nonfiction. So time and again when the temperature rises, I find myself turning to the hard-boiled DC-based crime thrillers of George Pelecanos. The Cut — published recently, set just a few years ago, and introducing a brand new protagonist and set of characters — is currently the most fun and most accessible Pelecanos yarn out there. This is a book that's about story first and foremost, followed by setting. Writerly prose takes a back seat, as it should for a summer read, and you get to just buckle up for an awesome ride.

    — Matthew Yglesias, Executive editor

  • Bicycle Diaries

    Bicycle Diaries

    By David Byrne

    If you like biking, cities, urban planning, or history, you’ll love this book. David Byrne, a musician and founding member of the band Talking Heads, has been riding around New York City since the 1980s. In Bicycle Diaries, he shares his observations about the changing ways of cities and transportation from the viewpoint of his bicycle seat. And his findings aren’t limited to the US – Byrne bikes through Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Berlin, and London. The book occasionally veers away from transportation-related thoughts to Byrne’s musings on life in general. It’s incredible how much you can learn on two wheels.

    — Lauren Katz, Social media manager

  • A Judgement in Stone

    A Judgement in Stone

    By Ruth Rendell

    Most mysteries spur you along by withholding the secret of whodunit until the very end. Ruth Rendell gives up the who and why in the very first sentence: "Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” WHAT?! “There was no real motive and no premeditation. No money was gained and no security. As a result of her crime, Eunice Parchman's disability was made known not to a mere family or a handful of villagers but to the whole country. She accomplished by it nothing but disaster for herself, and all along, somewhere in her strange mind, she knew she would accomplish nothing.” Thus begins Rendell’s slim novel, a dark, witty, and twisty tale of unfortunate misunderstandings (and murder) that’s the perfect companion for a summer day.

    — Susannah Locke, Associate editor

  • Stories of Your Life and Others

    Stories of Your Life and Others

    By Ted Chiang

    Ted Chiang, a self-described “occasional writer,” averages about one short story every couple years, making his 2002 science fiction collection Stories of Your Life and Others all the more cherished by fans. The eight narratives tend toward the literary and philosophical — mini thought experiments carried out to their most logical consequences. Chiang’s ruthless inventiveness and knowledge provoke the awe and wonder of genuine scientific discovery.

    In the title story (soon to be a film starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner), a linguist deconstructs an alien language that allows her to foresee her own future. In another piece, an experimental drug grants a comatose man superintelligence, enabling him to access and control his thoughts as if they were processes within a computer system.

    Chiang’s austere style and empirical tone commingle the banalities of everyday life with the wondrousness of his fictional worlds. When you’re done with the book, you can cope by finding more of his works scattered around the Internet.

    — Soo Oh, News app developer

  • Ticket Masters

    Ticket Masters

    By Dean Budnick

    Sure, this book isn't as romantic or emotionally compelling as Love in the Time of Cholera, unless you're in love with music, which I am. Ticket Masters is hard-hitting and concisely written, and incorporates a modern sense of digital media (which is hard to find, even in books published after 2000). The author reviews the stories of why and how it came to be that concerts are so expensive and venues so big, and yet less and fewer people seem to be going to live events. I'll never listen to music or see a concert in the same way again!

    — Margarita Noriega, Shortform editor

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

    By Rebecca Skloot

    Henrietta Lacks was a woman from Virginia whose cervical cancer cells started the first "immortal" human-cell line for research. Taken without her consent, the cells have been continuously harvested in scientific labs around the world, used in research that contributed to the development of the polio vaccine, in-vitro fertilization, chemotherapy, and gene mapping, among other medical breakthroughs.

    Because of systemic prejudices in the health-care system (the Lacks were poor and black) and the clandestine nature of medical practice, for years after Henrietta's 1951 death her family had no idea about her contribution to science. While her cells multiplied in labs everywhere, helping to advance modern medicine and make innovators money, the Lacks didn’t even have access to basic health care. But this book is not a dry lesson in human genetics or health policy. Above all, it's a narrative about a woman, her family, and their lives in Virginia and Maryland. It's a family history, a medical history, and an American history.

    — Julia Belluz, Health reporter

  • My Struggle: Book 1

    My Struggle: Book 1

    By Karl Ove Knausgård

    It won’t be a beach read for everybody, but if you’re the type who’d enjoy following a ferociously introspective Norwegian man’s stream of consciousness for several hundred pages, the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle series is the book for you. Knausgård oscillates between detailed, non-chronological recreations of past events in his life and musings on what it all means. He’s made a self-conscious effort to reveal what he truly thinks, even if it involves harshly critical judgments about the people closest to him (though he’s toughest of all on himself). Yet he’s no mere cynic — there’s an earnestness to his approach and worldview that was very endearing to me.

    This first volume may seem like structureless ambling early on, but it finds shape with a long, harrowing, sad, but frequently darkly comic sequence that takes up much of its second half. And if you like this book, I have good news — there are five more, three of which have already been translated into English!

    — Andrew Prokop, Reporter

  • View With a Grain of Sand

    View With a Grain of Sand

    By Wisława Szymborska

    Wislawa Szymborska, the late Polish poet, is often referred to as the “Mozart of poetry.” When I first read her work, I was astounded at how it took her so few words to get to the heart of human existence.

    A View With a Grain of Sand is a collection of expertly crafted poems written by a woman who had a unique perspective on the world around her. Observations on war and terrorism are effortlessly juxtaposed with poems about the details of everyday moments and the vastness of nature. These poems are philosophical and moving and make you question your existence on Earth. They are also incredibly witty and accessible and a joy to read. “So much world all at once — how it rustles and bustles!” is the opening line of the poem “Birthday.” Perhaps it’s the perfect mindset to have on a peaceful hike or a sleepy day at the beach.

    — Estelle Caswell, Multimedia producer

  • Jupiter's Circle

    Jupiter's Circle

    By Mark Millar

    I'm three issues into Jupiter's Circle by Mark Millar (Kickass, Civil War, Kingsman: The Secret Service) and artist Wilfredo Torres and couldn't be more impressed. The comic is wrapped around a group of '50s superheroes that appear to be cut from the same wholesome cloth of the Super Friends. But beneath the surface, they're just as sexy, messy, scared, and neurotic as the rest of us. Millar set out to make the Mad Men of comic books, and he achieved it. Circle is dripping in dark, even ugly, personal drama, encased in a beautiful jewel box of a comic.

    — Alex Abad-Santos, Reporter

  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

    By Susanna Clarke

    The BBC adaptation of this sprawling, beautiful novel is coming to America in June. If the series is half as good as the source material, it’ll be the show of the summer.

    Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is set in 19th-century England, around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. In this world, England used to be a hub of magic, but the actual practical art of casting spells appears lost — until a recluse named Gilbert Norrell stuns English society by claiming to be “quite a tolerable practical magician.”

    Norrell’s telling the truth, of course: an alternative history of England where magic dominated the country for centuries wouldn’t be interesting if magic weren’t, in fact, real. And it really is an “alternative history”: you get a sense of the sweeping ways in which magic transformed England, including through footnotes that read like short stories set in the same world.

    Though that might sound a little dry, it’s anything but. Norrell and his partner/rival, Jonathan Strange, take extraordinary risks in their quest to rediscover magic, risks with tremendous repercussions for themselves and a host of other characters, like Norrell’s secretive servant Childermass or a crazy-but-also-maybe-prophetic drifter named Vinculus, that you come to care for deeply by the end of the novel. That Clarke manages to invent such vibrant characters, put them together in a compelling plot, and develop an entire alternative history of England — all in one book — makes Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell nothing short of a masterpiece.

    — Zack Beauchamp, Reporter

  • Anne of Green Gables

    Anne of Green Gables

    By Lucy Maud Montgomery

    I never wanted to “be like Mike.” My jump shot was off, I was too small to dunk, and I wouldn’t shave my head. I had a room filled with empty pizza boxes, Mountain Dew, and things that blinked, buzzed, and used enough electricity to propel me to space. I was bullied. Badly. The world around me was broken. I retreated into books and characters and my own imagination.

    I found Anne Shirley of Green Gables.

    Anne was an orphan. Mothers didn't like her and wouldn't let her play with their daughters. The neighborhood busybody stalked her moves. Anne was a mess. She got her friend drunk. She talked all the time, out of turn. She wasn't proper like people wanted her to be.

    But what she was, was caring and passionate. She had an imagination that ran for days, and a solution to every problem even when no one believed in her. She called her best people her "bosom friends."

    I thought that was the most beautiful phrase I had ever read. I wanted a bosom friend and to be someone's bosom friend.

    Michael Jordan got the way he did because he practiced so much harder than other basketball players. The person who does the work gets the ball. Anne did the work. She did the work when she graduated a year early. She did the work with people. She did the work with her adopted parents when she gave up her scholarship to help her mom.

    Everyone loves Anne. Eventually.

    Anne of Green Gables wasn't just a book to me. I wanted to be like Anne.

    — Yuri Victor, Senior UX designer

  • The Turner House

    The Turner House

    By Angela Flournoy

    The Turner House is a summer read not because it’s a light or frivolous story, but because it’s the kind of book that will get you so wrapped up in another place (Detroit) and another family (the Turners) that you feel like you’ve been on a real journey when you finish it. It is the colorful saga of siblings who reunite to decide what to do with their family matriarch’s house, with generations’ worth of relationship and secrets as the backdrop. It’s funny at times, with tons of insight into the complicated ways families work (anyone with a family will be able to relate to their dynamics), and into the plight of the city of Detroit, which is almost its own character.

    — Jenee Desmond-Harris, Reporter

  • Little, Big

    Little, Big

    By John Crowley

    Is Little, Big a beach read? I don't know. Maybe? I read it on the beach for the first time and was endlessly gripped by it, but it's also a long, dense, literary book that doesn't give up its secrets easily. On the surface, it seems like it should be a beach read, what with its story of a mysterious family, the fantastical forces they commune with, and the unlikely drifter who happens into their life and family circles. It is, at its base, a fairy tale, but set against the backdrop of East Coast America, amid the rise of new money and the decline of old. It is, in essence, an economic parable starring fairies that turns into dystopic science fiction by the end. Just from reading that, you probably know if it's for you or not.

    But Little, Big is about much more than its genre. Its author, the illustrious Crowley, writes fantasy, sure, but in the way that, say, Cormac McCarthy writes Westerns. The genre trappings are only there to give the narrative focus. What he's really interested in are the interior lives of his characters. And on that level, Little, Big soars. There's always been a tone of mournful resignation to even the best fairy tales — this world existed once, but now it doesn't, and we are the poorer for it. Crowley's book is filled with joyful moments, but its overall effect is that of stumbling upon a once-great mansion in the woods. There is a story here, but one that just eludes us.

    — Todd VanDerWerff, Culture editor

  • Friday Night Lights

    Friday Night Lights

    By Buzz Bissinger

    Hear me out on this one. Yes, you've watched the show. And yes, the show is great. But the book is great, too — and more than great, it's really, truly a different kind of thing. I read it on a plane, and went into it with low expectations: I figured I already knew what it was going to be. Sports. Inspiration. Family. America! But it's a much deeper, rawer kind of reporting than I expected. Bissinger writes about a town built on oil, wrecked by OPEC, and suffused with racism. He wrote his book with compassion, but he wrote it true enough that he left the town with a whole lot of enemies. And if you don't care much for football, don't worry — this isn't really a story about sports. It's a story about a certain kind of Texas town, at a certain moment in American history, as seen by a reporter who wants to love what he sees but isn't willing to ignore what he finds.

    — Ezra Klein, Editor-in-chief

  • Americanah


    By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

    How do I know this book is a great beach read? Because I read it on the beach — and on a plane, and on a ferry, and in a hotel room as I battled jet lag — on my last vacation. When I got to the last page, I regretted not having slowed down and savoring the story a little more, because I wasn’t ready to stop spending time with Ifemelu and Obinze, the main characters who meet in high school in Nigeria, where they begin a decade-spanning, continent-crossing, rags-to-riches, heartbreaking love affair. And I also wasn’t ready to part with Adiche’s sharp observations on the West — the racial attitudes among the East Coast intelligentsia crowd Ifemelu finds herself in after moving to America, the class divides among Nigerian immigrants in London that haunt Obinze, and the often untold struggles and deep disappointments that newcomers to both the US and the UK experience as they try to build lives for themselves in a new country. Read it on your vacation, but go slow. You won’t want it to end too soon.

    — Lauren Williams, Managing editor

  • The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line

    The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line

    By Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham

    I was late to discovering the fantastic mid-2000s TV series Veronica Mars, but once I did I was immediately hooked. It got a highly publicized revival in 2014 in the form of a Kickstarter-funded movie, but less well-known is that the characters now live on in a series of novels co-written by Jennifer Graham and VT creator Rob Thomas. The first, The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line, picks up where the movie left off and perfectly captures the pulpy, noirish vibe and biting humor that made the show so great. You don't have to have seen the show or movie to enjoy the story: it's got mystery, sex appeal, and a badass, fiercely smart heroine who is not stuck in a love triangle — what more could you ask of a beach read?

    — Tanya Pai, Copy chief

  • The Color of Water

    The Color of Water

    By James McBride

    I was moved after reading The Color of Water; A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” in middle school when a friend recommended it. Almost 20 years later, it’s still one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. A biracial man’s search for racial identity leads to eye-opening discoveries about his mysterious mother, who opens up about her heritage and painful past. The book touches on the importance of family, faith, and education, and it's an insightful and intriguing read.

    — Rachel Huggins, Associate editor

  • Black Swan Green

    Black Swan Green

    By David Mitchell

    David Mitchell is best known for surreal, weighty novels like Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks — intricate, tightly constructed stories that span centuries and continents. Black Swan Green is very different: a semi-biographical coming-of-age novel about a 13-year-old boy battling a stutter in a parochial British town. In many ways, though, the simpler, more accessible book isolates the traits that make Mitchell great: his lyrical, captivating writing, his earnest love for his characters, and the subtle but unbending moral compass at the center of his stories. Black Swan Green never got the accolades of some of Mitchell's other books, but in a sense, it was never meant to. Instead of pushing the boundaries of the novel as an art form, Mitchell uses his talent to peer deeply into the heart of an adolescent and tell the simpler story of how we grow up.

    — Joseph Stromberg, Reporter

  • Pulphead


    By John Jeremiah Sullivan

    Bus rides, plane flights, and a day at the beach aren't always the best for sustained concentration. What you need is something easy to dip into and back out of — like a swimming pool. I read John Jeremiah Sullivan's essay collection, Pulphead, on a plane a few years ago, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. It's that good. Sullivan wanders from a Christian rock festival in West Virginia to the MTV reality show The Real World to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It made Sullivan one of those writers, to me, whose byline alone is enough recommendation to read whatever he's written.

    — Libby Nelson, Reporter

  • How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

    How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read

    By Pierre Bayard

    If I'm being honest with myself, my main motivation in reading books is to signal sophistication and intelligence to my social circle. And because there are only so many hours in the day, the number of books I can actually read will always fall short of the number I want to be perceived as having read. That means bullshitting about books I haven't even opened.

    Some people feel shame about this, but Pierre Bayard argues that that's silly, and that talking about books you haven't read is a craft unto itself. "There is necessarily a choice to be made, given the number of books in existence, between the overall view and each individual book," he writes. "And all reading is a squandering of energy in the difficult and time-consuming attempt to master the whole." It's a compelling argument — at least I think it is. Taking Bayard's lessons to heart, I haven't finished the book yet.

    — Dylan Matthews, Senior correspondent

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

    By Junot Diaz

    The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is based on a concept that I think many people, especially those of immigrant backgrounds, can relate to: the struggle to find an identity that really fits you. The book's protagonist is a nerdy, overweight Dominican kid who lives in the ghetto and grows up fantasizing about love and becoming a great author. But along the way, all these different ambitions and identities tug on his life — fracturing him and pulling him back to his family's country of origin, where he continues his lifelong journey to find meaning and love. It sounds corny, but it's a captivating read with truly relatable characters — especially Oscar — and a never-ending journey to find a complete sense of self that just might not exist in a world that demands more from people than anyone can truly give.

    — German Lopez, Reporter

  • The Age of Innocence

    The Age of Innocence

    By Edith Wharton

    The Age of Innocence is the very best kind of summer reading. It has an engrossing plot, focusing on a love triangle in high-society, 1870s New York. Newland Archer is all set to propose to the lovely, mild, well-bred May Welland, when her fiery, impulsive cousin returns to town after her marriage to a Polish count falls apart. The bulk of the book follows Newland's struggle to decide between these two women as he navigates the darkly comic world he inhabits.

    But like all good love stories, The Age of Innocence isn't just a love story. It's a portrait of a changing society; an examination of how money affects relationships; and a deeply ambivalent meditation on what should rule our lives: our individual desires or our responsibility to others.

    — Eleanor Barkhorn, Features editor


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