Summertime often means lemonade, balmy evenings, and inevitable lists of “beach reads.” But for those of us who are staying at our desks this summer, we’re offering you a list of books guaranteed to give you at least a mental vacation. And heck, if you’re one of the lucky ones headed to the shore, we hope you’ll find this list helpful too. Wiggle your toes in the sand for us!
Outline by Rachel Cusk
A woman flies to Athens to teach a summer writing class and so begins a series of conversations--first on the plane with her seatmate and then in Greece with the people she encounters there. As she asks questions of these strangers and their stories are revealed, the voices begin to resonate and create an interwoven narrative about love and loss and what it means to tell stories. Cusk writes beautifully and the novel is both innovative and emotionally rich—a not easy balance for any writer, but perfectly done here.
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
In February, Ron Charles of The Washington Post called this, “the most dazzling, most unsettling, most oh-my-God-listen-up novel you’ll read this year” and he’s still right. I haven’t read anything else since then that compares to this astonishingly funny take on contemporary American life that pairs Berkeley liberals with Civil War re-enactors. It's a no holds-barred non-traditional read, for sure, but if you loved Ben Fountain’s high-octane language and social commentary in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, this is the book for you.
The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits
“Today I . . .” is how the entries in this diary kept by novelist Heidi Julavits begin, echoing the format of her childhood diaries. Though not in chronological order, what emerges is a sometimes very funny and sometimes very moving chronicle of a very smart writer who is also a mother, wife, teacher, and friend. Julavits is a keen cultural observer with an eye for beauty and an appreciation of the paradoxes and mysteries of everyday life and by the end of your reading you’ll feel like you’ve just met a terrifically engaging woman you’ll want to know forever.
Beginner’s Greek by James Collins
The opening scene of this addictive romantic comedy takes place on an airplane where a young man named Peter Russell finds himself seated next to the woman of his dreams. He discovers, upon disembarking, that he has lost her number and he spends the next four hundred pages trying to win her back. En route the novel takes the reader from New York to London to Los Angeles and the South of France in pursuit of these star-crossed lovers. The story fizzes and delights like champagne but leaves no hangover.
Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller
Set in Europe during the late eighteenth century, Miller’s novel chronicles the life of James Dyer, a Englishman who is unable to feel pain and whose body heals itself with Wolverine-like rapidity. From his early life as a sideshow freak Dyer rises to become an eminent surgeon, able to heal wounds he himself cannot feel. The last third of the novel grippingly describes Dyer's race through the snowbound Russian countryside to become the first physician to inoculate Catherine the Great against smallpox. The result is a gripping metaphysical adventure yarn.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
In summer the days are longer, but never long enough. Set in California in the near future, this novel imagines the environmental and societal unraveling caused by a slowing of the earth’s rotation and a corresponding lengthening of the days and nights. Walker makes these abstract ideas tangible by viewing this catastrophe through the eyes of a single family. When you finish this novel, you’ll be delighted to return to the normalcy of a twenty-four hour day.
The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida
“When you find your seat you glance at the businessman sitting next to you and decide he’s almost handsome. This is the second leg of your trip from Miami to Casablanca, and the distance traveled already has muted the horror of the last two months.” So opens Vendela Vida’s The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. Told in the second person like an adult choose-your-own-adventure, this novel will sweep you along in the story of a woman who loses her identity-- first accidentally, and then, with intent.
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, Swimming Home will make you glad you haven’t gone on vacation. Two British couples travel to the south of France, but a young unstable woman staying at their rented villa brings underlying tensions to the surface. Her appearance at the villa turns out to be more than a coincidence and her fixation on the philandering poet Joe (one half of one of the couples) becomes evident. Levy’s prose is as fluid and changing as water.
In the Country by Mia Alvar
To help you appreciate staying put, read Mia Alvar’s debut short story collection, In the Country. Centered around the Filipino diaspora, Alvar’s nine stories of emigrants, refugees, and travelers are connected by each of the characters’ desire for a sense of home. And for a sneak peek at the book, check out the video of Alvar’s recent event at the Center.