Summer Crossing by Truman Capote (fiction)
Truman Capote hated Summer Crossing so much that he shelved it without publishing it and later claimed he’d destroyed it. It was one of his first books, written when he was just out of his teens, and he felt that while it was well-executed it was also thin and lacking in genuine feeling. The manuscript wasn’t discovered until well after Capote’s death, and published in 2005.
It’s true that the novel, about a young socialite who finds herself ensnared in a dangerous romance, isn’t a grand psychological masterpiece. But it is a near-perfect evocation of New York City in the summer. It’s all atmosphere — glorious, immersive, deeply compelling atmosphere.
Here’s Capote describing the city in the midst of a heat wave: "Hot weather opens the skull of a city, exposing its white brain, and its heart of nerves, which sizzle like the wires inside a lightbulb. And there exudes a sour extra-human smell that makes the very stone seem flesh-alive, webbed and pulsing."
I can’t think of anything better to read when you’re stuck on the N train platform on a hot August day, breathing in that sour extra-human smell. —Constance Grady
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (fiction)
The women at the center of The Enchanted April have spent their lives being nice, respectable middle-class women. They are dutiful wives and daughters, taking care of their houses and their hapless husbands and eking out dull, respectable lives, and all of them are thoroughly sick of it.
Then they see an ad in the paper, addressed "to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine," and they decide that for once they deserve to do something for themselves.
If you have ever wanted to drop everything and go live in an Italian castle by the sea, this book is for you. It’s as sweet and old-fashioned as a glass of pink lemonade, and just as appealing on a hot summer day. — Constance Grady
The Girls by Emma Cline (fiction)
Emma Cline’s debut novel, The Girls, isn’t perfect. There are times when it feels like Cline is smashing too many thoughts together, as if she’ll never be able to write another book again (she has a three-book deal with Random House). But that’s the harshest thing I can say about this impressive and at times hypnotic book.
With sharp phrases and crisp, rhythmic sentences, Cline achieves a certain kind of magic that grabs you by the throat and plunges you into the world she’s exquisitely crafted: It’s the '60s, a young girl named Evie Boyd is at the dawn of adolescence, and Cline has a remixed, fictionalized telling of the Manson murders to share.
The Girls is compelling stuff, electrifying in the way it tells a soft-tissue story about Evie’s teenage desire for friendship, love, and attention wrapped around the bones of a cult. Ultimately her yearning and the Manson-esque story are impossible to cleave from one another.
It’s in those moments, in a pocket of a sentence, that you realize (possibly with envy) that Cline has the ability to see and translate life with a unique clarity that cuts in unexpected, even electrifying ways. And you wish there were just a little more of The Girls to read. —Alex Abad-Santos
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (fiction)
Graham Greene isn’t fashionable these days. It’s a shame. The author whom John Irving called "the most accomplished living novelist in the English language" remains, in death, "the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness and anxiety." Of Greene’s 25-plus works, The Power and the Glory is his best.
The novel follows the last free priest in a Mexican province, now under communist dictatorship. Known as the "whisky priest," the character is a degenerate: He drinks, he fathers a child, he prays to be captured and killed. But he persists, running for years and ministering to a people abandoned by their leaders.
When I am asked about my own moral ambitions, I cite him: On my best day, I might be as good as this poor sinner. On your best day, you may be as wretched as him, too.
"The glittering worlds lay there in space like a promise — the world was not the universe," Greene writes, "He could not believe that to a watcher this world could shine with such brilliance: It would roll heavily in space under its fog like a burning and abandoned ship." This is beautiful prose. It is hopeful also: the core of a grim story about goodness and hope. —Emmett Rensin
The Story of the Stone, Volume I: The Golden Days by Cao Xueqin (fiction)
A dense, multi-volume family saga about aristocrats written in 18th-century China may seem forbidding, but The Story of the Stone (also known as Dream of the Red Chamber) is a literary classic that people of every culture should spend time with.
Believed to be inspired by author Cao Xueqin’s own family and its downfall from the heights of society, the tale features a love triangle among three young central characters, set against a backdrop of dissolution, corruption, and tragedy — with the occasional magical vision or visit from demons thrown in.
The book is very dense, the plot doesn’t exactly sprint along, and you will need to repeatedly consult the complex set of family trees at the end to keep the characters straight. But those characters — the young, spoiled heir Bao-Yu, the introverted but passionate Dai-Yu, the iron-fisted matriarch "Peppercorn" Xi-Feng — are utterly compelling, and the effort will be worthwhile.
Combine them with a society whose mores and a family whose habits are reconstructed in such incredible detail, and The Story of the Stone becomes a completely immersive experience into a long-lost time and place. —Andrew Prokop
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (fiction)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah has been a go-to recommendation since it debuted in 2013, and with good reason. But if you look further back in the Nigerian author’s bibliography, you’ll find That Thing Around Your Neck, a slimmer work of 12 short stories that showcase her skill with less sprawling narratives.
The stories jump from Africa to America, shifting focus from lifelong relationships to chance encounters to new marriages. Each of them is singular, heavy with the weight of change or conflict — a good reason to read them one by one instead of devouring the book in a single sitting.
Perhaps the most affecting is "Tomorrow Is Too Far," in which a young woman travels home to Nigeria to grapple with the details surrounding her brother’s death, 18 years after his funeral. It’s told in the second person — "He asks you if you dreamed the way he did and you say no, your eyes avoiding his, and he turns away from you" — a style that, well-executed in Adichie’s hands, makes the story feel all the more heart-rending. —Bridgett Henwood
Nos4a2 by Joe Hill (fiction)
It's summer. Do you really want to read an insightful look at the human condition? Or would you rather read a book about vampires and vampire-like creatures? Both, you say? Well, have I got a book for you!
Joe Hill's Nos4a2 isn't a traditional vampire tale — no capes or bloodsuckers here — but it is about an old man who wanders the country's back streets, luring kids into his strange netherworld, where he sucks their life forces dry. So it's close enough. And along the way, Hill has plenty to say about how hard it can be to forgive yourself, the very human desire for survival, and kids with magic powers.
Nos4a2 is huge, but never unwieldy, and if you're looking for a page turner, it's one of the very best options out there. —Todd VanDerWerff
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (fiction)
Whenever I'm asked to name my favorite writer, I increasingly answer with Kelly Link, the brilliant New England short story writer whose tales never take the predictable path. Her Pulitzer Prize–nominated Get in Trouble, released in 2015, might be her strongest collection yet.
Link's stories are technically fantasy, in that they take place in a version of our reality where magic and ghosts are commonplace. But she's less interested in her genre devices than in the emotional reality of living in a world where things are just slightly askew.
Link's stories are often desperately sad and bittersweet, and few writers are better than she is at capturing the inner turmoil of teenage girls. Get in Trouble features many stories that knocked me out, but of particular note are "The Summer People," in which a teenage girl cares for resort guests who may or may not be fairies, and "The Lesson," a stunner about a gay couple expecting their first child where the "genre elements" are the fear that grips the heart of any expectant parent.
Link is somehow simultaneously carrying on the traditions of Ray Bradbury and Alice Munro, and she's an author you need to know right now. —Todd VanDerWerff
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (fiction)
You probably don’t need yet another person telling you to read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing — it’s been on virtually every list of the most anticipated books of summer 2016 — but, well, here’s another one, because it really is that good.
The "novel" is really a collection of interlaced short stories springing from a single compelling premise: In 18th-century Ghana, two half-sisters, unknown to each other, are born. One marries into the British occupying army, and her descendants sell slaves; the other is sold into slavery in the US. The rest of the book explores how that divergence affects the lives of their children and their children’s children, up until the present day.
Some of the vignettes are more successful than others. But Homegoing shows how, sometimes, fiction is better than fact at illuminating history.
Gyasi’s writing is gorgeous, and her descriptions, particularly of the less familiar landscape of historical Ghana, are evocative. However, it’s the dramatic irony that permeates Homegoing — characters’ stories trail off and are unknown to their descendants, but not to us — that makes it so moving. —Libby Nelson
The Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce (fiction)
Tamora Pierce had the bad luck to start writing young adult fantasy novels at a time when those two genres were a double-barreled recipe for obscurity. In a just world, she'd have her own spectacular TV deal, a less rapey, more accessible Game of Thrones.
The best entry point to Pierce’s sword-and-sorcery world, Tortall — where about half of her 29 books are set — is her four-part series Protector of the Small (First Test, Page, Squire, and Lady Knight). Like most of her work, the quartet gives a woman character (in this case, a knight) her own hero’s journey.
Pierce's work is briskly plotted, fun to read, and full of feminist fist pumps, but it also engages with other themes that feel very relevant: the corrosive effects of inequality, for one, or how justice systems work and fail.
Pierce has been building her Tortall universe for 33 years, since 1983's Alanna: The First Adventure, and her stories keep getting better as her worlds become more expansive, more diverse, and more morally nuanced. (If knights aren’t your thing, the author’s Beka Cooper series, starring Tortall’s equivalent of a policewoman, is arguably her best work.)
Share her writing with a 12-year-old in your life, and make sure to read along — you’ll remember what it’s like to stay up late turning pages because you have to know how the story ends. —Libby Nelson
Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West (memoir)
Fellow loud woman Lindy West’s collection of essays is a thoughtful, funny, and revealing read, most definitely. If you know West’s work, you probably know the broad strokes typically used to describe her: funny lady who writes about lady things on the internet and plays pied piper to bajillions of Twitter trolls who scream at her like it’s their full-time job.
But Shrill is a window into West’s life and mind, covering the origins of her comedy geekdom, the way-too-familiar bad relationship she had in her 20s, and the cringeworthy encounters she’s had with people who can’t handle a woman’s body larger than a size 6 — all while offering a touching tribute to her late father. The compilation is definitely one for the beach bag. —Michelle Garcia
Grunt by Mary Roach (nonfiction)
Mary Roach has made a career of writing about dark and uncomfortable topics such as human decomposition, digestion, and sex. What I liked about her latest book Grunt — about science in the military — is that while she delivers on gee whiz and the gross, she also writes with a great deal of heart.
Grunt profiles the scientists whose work is devoted to making war less awful. They have their work cut out for them.
In her travels, Roach shadows physicians perfecting techniques for penis transplants (losing genitalia to an IED is a scar many soldiers have had to bear, with few options for reconstruction); she witnesses cadavers being used as test dummies to help build better IED-resistant vehicles (because current crash test dummies can’t record trauma from below); she wonders how submarine sailors can get better sleep (they barely squeeze in four hours a day, which isn't optimal when your payload is nuclear); and she asks military officials if diarrhea has ever been a threat to national security (because who else will?).
As is the case with many of her other books, you don’t need to read Grunt in any particular order — a great attribute for any summer read. The chapters largely stand on their own, like magazine stories bound in one gross, but oddly tender, volume. —Brian Resnick
Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar (nonfiction)
The world is thick with suffering. It is so thick with suffering that the only way for most of us to survive in it is to block out the suffering, compromise with its existence, ask of ourselves only what we feel capable of giving.
But what if you can't block out that suffering? What if something in you — a class you took with a philosopher, a childhood epiphany that’s stuck with you ever since, a simple online statistic showing how little it costs to save a human life — forced you to measure every action, every expense, and every decision against the suffering you could be using that time, energy, or money to eliminate?
These are the people that Strangers Drowning profiles. It sees them not as saints but as extremists, dogmatists, perhaps even lunatics. But in dismissing rumors of their perfection, in making clear that they too are fallen creatures, it forces us to reexamine what it means for a normal person to live a good life.
What if the minimum that decency asks of us is far more than we are willing to give? Or, worse, what if the minimum that decency asks of us is something we are willing to give, but that we're withholding simply because we haven't thought hard enough about it? —Ezra Klein
Overcomplicated by Samuel Arbesman (nonfiction)
It's trendy to worry about the singularity, but Samuel Arbesman's great new book argues there's another, more imminent threat: confusion. As algorithms become increasingly complex and opaque, it becomes increasingly difficult for anyone to understand them — including the algorithms' authors. As a result, stock exchange crashes, manufacturing defects, and computer glitches have become commonplace.
The problem isn't limited to high-tech fiascos, either; as Arbesman points out, even our legal system has become an impenetrable thicket of rules and regulations.
His recommendation? In solving these problems, we shouldn't try to reverse-engineer what went wrong, or even logically search for a misplaced semicolon. Instead, we should work like biologists, analyzing the systems and forming hypotheses about how they work. Just as biologists might deduce the workings of a cell, we should operate as outsiders to our own programs.
Overcomplicated has the scintillating, big-idea premise of an "it" business book, but it's more than a Hudson News read: It presents a new way to think about the world that makes seemingly impossible problems approachable. By identifying how tangled our world has gotten, we can figure out the best ways to undo the knots. —Phil Edwards
American Dreamers by Michael Kazin
Wondering what’s next for the Bernie Sanders movement? For some historical context, check out Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers, a fascinating history of left activism in the United States that stretches from 1829 to 2011 (the year it was published).
Kazin includes biographical sketches of well-known figures like Frederick Douglass and Emma Goldman as well as less familiar radicals like Thomas Skidmore, who campaigned for equal distribution of property all the way back in 1829.
He also spends time on many fascinating historical tidbits, from early "free love" experiments in the 1840s to the surprising popularity of socialism in Oklahoma in 1914 to the US Communist Party’s key role in defending the Scottsboro Boys.
Overall, Kazin argues that the American left has in fact been amazingly successful at transforming the country’s cultural and social norms. But again and again, efforts to politically unify working-class people around economic issues have run aground among ethnic, racial, and other tensions.
Still, Kazin writes, while the far left has never managed to gain power itself, its "disruptive potential and moral critique" has "helped powerful liberals reform the nation." —Andrew Prokop
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