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30 Summer Books To Get Excited About

Any book is a beach read if you read it on a beach.

Posted on May 14, 2018, at 2:16 p.m. ET

1. Severance by Ling Ma

FSG, Liliane Calfee

In Severance, Ling Ma creates an alternate recent past, in which most of humankind has been wiped out by Shen Fever. But Shen Fever doesn't just kill — it renders those infected useless, slowly rotting away while trapped in an infinite, mindless loop of their most mundane activities. When Candace Chen finds herself among a small group of survivors, she comes to terms with the fact that her identity is tied up with her productivity and her conception of freedom tied to success in a system which has now collapsed. Ma's language does so much in this book, and its precision, its purposeful specificity, implicates an entire generation. But what is most remarkable is the gentleness with which Ma describes those working within the capital-S System. What does it mean if a person finds true comfort working as a "cog" in a system they disagree with? Is that comfort any less real?

Get it from Amazon for $25.56, Barnes & Noble for $26, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

2. No One Tells You This by Glynnis MacNicol

Simon & Schuster, Twitter: @GlynnMacN

In No One Tells You This, Glynnis MacNicol's 40th birthday is a reckoning, demanding she come to terms with the fact that she's reached this moment — so easily accepted in pop culture as the end of a woman's era of possibility — without that which all happy endings are supposed to have: a marriage, a child, a family of her making. Her memoir follows her 40th year, as she enters into a life largely without a blueprint. How does the single, middle-aged woman live when she's not relegated to the role of the cautionary tale, the punchline spinster, the wacky aunt whose family suffers her visits out of equal parts love and pity? In No One Tells You This, MacNicol forges her own storyline, drawing power from herself. It's a year of dating unabashedly, traveling freely, surviving grief, and redefining family. That she lets us in on this journey is a gift.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $26, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

3. The Optimistic Decade by Heather Abel

Algonquin, Beowulf Sheehan

I loved every minute I spent reading Heather Abel's The Optimistic Decade, a sharply rendered portrait of the United States in 1990. The novel is rich in the conflicting energies of the time — lingering resentments from the previous decade's stark class divisions, a renewed hope for the decade to come — and these clashes are played out over the course of one summer at a Colorado camp. Abel centers her story on a trio of protagonists: Rebecca, a Berkeley student whose parents send her to be a counselor; Caleb, the camp's founder, who's turned the camp into a rich-kid haven at the expense of the surrounding town; and David, Rebecca's childhood friend struggling through a delayed coming-of-age. The result is an exuberant and nonjudgmental examination of the unique conflicts of the era.

Get it from Amazon for $14.33, from Barnes & Noble for $18.87, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

4. Old in Art School by Nell Painter

Counterpoint Press, Creative Commons / Via

It is impossible to read Nell Painter's generous and whole-souled memoir without feeling enlivened by motivation. In describing her stepping away from an acclaimed academic career to matriculate as an art student at (gasp!) 64 years old, Painter gives a fervent defense of reviving old passions, of welcoming a more elastic identity, of challenging what it means to be an "artist" — and encourages her readers to do the same. Old in Art School is a celebration of courage, curiosity, and the audacity to live by one's own rules.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $26, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

5. Junk by Tommy Pico

Tin House, Niqui Carter

In Tommy Pico's latest (and final) installment of his Teebs trilogy, he delivers a thoroughly examined survey of junk: junk as miscellany, junk as food, junk as body parts, junk as baggage of the emotional and physical varieties, junk as all that scattered rubble that keeps us weighted in the past. Pico — a 2018 Whiting Award recipient — is most impressive, his writing most immediately felt, when he weaves pop culture and slang throughout his deep-rooted criticisms of US history and culture, wooing readers into a comfortable, if brief, moment of familiarity (see: Janet Jackson lyrics) so that the swift pivot to violence and heartache hits like a gut punch. Junk can be fun, and it can be benign, but Pico compels us to consider what, or who, is categorized as "junk." Or, as Pico (who is part of the Kumeyaay Nation) explains: “I’m from a place where ppl became / garbage.” And how dangerous that an entire people can be stripped of their humanity, redefined by an oppressive other as something awaiting disposal.

Get it from Amazon for $15.15, from Barnes & Noble for $15.16, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

6. Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel

A Strange Object, Rita Bullwinkel

Rita Bullwinkel's Belly Up is an astounding collection of short stories — stories about girls who want to be plants, or a living boy who grew up in a family of zombies, or a dying woman who sneaks out for a night swim with an ailing man. These stories exist in worlds just past reality, just slightly uncomfortable, familiar until, suddenly, they aren't. And I didn't just read these stories, each revealing at once the absolute absurdity and magnificence of being alive; I savored them. Bullwinkel's writing — her world-building — demands space to reflect on it, react to it, and then, if you're like me, shout about it to anyone who will listen. And so, it's fitting that in "Fried Dough," a story about teenagers falling in love in a 24-hour doughnut shop, one of the teens, while reading, "got on a chair and screamed a passage ... that she thought was more beautiful than anything she had been previously told was beauty," because there were so many moments, while reading this book, in which I wanted to do the same.

Get it from Amazon for $13.54 or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

7. Pops by Michael Chabon

Harper Collins,

It seemed the whole world fell in love with Michael Chabon's writing about fatherhood when his essay "My Son, the Prince of Fashion" was published in GQ two years ago — at least based on its immediate ubiquity. The internet's fervor was warranted: The essay, about bringing his son, the sartorial wunderkind, to Paris Fashion Week, is a loving testament to parenting — the pride of seeing one's child in his element, the aching realization that with such autonomy comes greater distance, and the often bumbling attempts at bridging that gap anyway. The essay (renamed "Little Man") is one of seven essays in Chabon's new collection, Pops, and each strikes the same tender, humble note. Most striking, though, is Chabon's exploration of manhood and masculinity through this lens of parenting. It's in his work toward collapsing the myth of the male writer as absentee father, toward rejecting conformity, and in his emphatic insistence that men bear the unique obligation to tirelessly fight against, as Chabon puts it, "dickitude" — and to raise their sons to do the same.

Get it from Amazon for $17.99, Barnes & Noble for $18.71, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

8. The Terrible by Yrsa Daley-Ward

Facebook: YrsaDW, Penguin Books

It's hard to define Yrsa Daley-Ward's The Terrible; it exists somewhere between poetry and prose, between memoir and philosophical tract. What is inarguable is that it is devastating, in the very best way. Daley-Ward shifts between first and second person, writing with the sort of immediacy that plants you directly inside her mind, her experience. And that experience is harrowing — fractured family relationships, a childhood cut short, addiction, poverty, and periods of all-encompassing depression named, alternately, as the "down under" and "the terrible." It can often become too much until you remember this is inherently a story of survival; you are, after all, holding Daley-Ward's work of art in your hands. And so, while this is a difficult read, it is generous, utterly human, and, eventually, hopeful.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $16, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

9. Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Grove Press, Takuyasugiyama Bungeishunju

Reading Convenience Store Woman — a spare, quietly brilliant novel about an offbeat woman whose life revolves around the convenience store she works at — is like being lulled into a soft calm. The book's narrator, Keiko Furukura, leads a simple life and wants nothing more. At 36 years old, she's worked at her local convenience store for exactly half her life, and it is the nucleus of her life; as a lifelong outsider who has difficulty understanding human interactions, she eats, conserves with, and observes the people around her at the shop so she can best mimic and exist among them. And though she feels like the odd one out, it's her frank appraisal of the systems of the world that reveals the absurdity of everyone else. Why has society at large agreed to live by these arbitrary rules? And why does everyone else treat Keiko's rejection of these rules like a threat?

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $20, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

10. Against Memoir by Michelle Tea

Feminist Press, Jenn Rosenstein

Michelle Tea's is a singular voice — brilliant but also irreverent, optimistic but also abrasive, as curious as it is critical. In Against Memoir, Tea has gathered essays, speeches, and new texts into a collection weaving personal history with deeply considered, researched, and, I'd wager, necessary ideas on queerness, gender, humanity, and belief. It's a book best read here and there, so many of the pieces being quick but dense, and warranting the reader's own reflection. But there's another benefit to reading this one slowly: Reading Tea can feel like conversing with your smartest friend, and it's one of those hangouts you never want to end.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $18.95, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

11. How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

Penguin Random House, Twitter: @AlexiaArthurs

The stories in Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican are about home, identity, how we define family, and what we owe them. At the core is Jamaica, where each of Arthurs’ characters are from — whether they live there or not. But these relationships between person and homeland are complicated by gender, sexuality, and wealth. In “Bad Behavior,” a mother sends her 14-year-old daughter to live with her grandmother in Jamaica because she’s scared of her burgeoning sexuality; in “Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowland,” an NYU freshman grapples with the fact that a fellow Jamaican student lives that same identity in a very different way; and in “Mermaid River,” a teenager finally joins his mother in Brooklyn after being raised by his grandmother in Jamaica, and is saddened to find a stranger. In vibrant, evocative prose, Arthurs brings these characters, and their varied experiences of a shared home, to life.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $27, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

12. Kudos by Rachel Cusk

FSG, Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images

In the finale to her groundbreaking trilogy, Rachel Cusk continues her investigation of the symbiotic relationship between identity and creativity, her exploration of that blurred line between existence and performance. Those who've read Outline or Transit will recall our narrator, Faye, who returns in Kudos remarried but surrounded by people long since disillusioned by love. The book veers into abstraction at times — the narrator's meditations and discussions at a European literary festival can seem to exist outside of reality — but it also offers a profound, if bleak, interpretation of human relationships.

Get it from Amazon for $23.26, Barnes & Noble for $24.19 or a local bookseller through IndieBound here.

13. A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

Crown Hogarth, Gregg Richards

Fatima Farheen Mirza's A Place for Us is everything I love about family sagas. It traverses time and place, explores the conflicts between a parent's expectation and a child's desires, and, most importantly, introduces us to fully imagined, flawed characters whose relationships are deep, entangled, and rich in love. The story — which centers on an American Muslim family navigating the tension between tradition and autonomy — is told in fragments, jumping from one character to another, slowly adding layers to scenes by revisiting interactions from multiple perspectives. And Mirza renders this family with a gentle hand, lovingly, so that each character will make their way into your heart.

Get it from Amazon for $24.30, from Barnes & Noble for $27, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

14. Hey Ladies! The Story of 8 Best Friends, 1 Year, and Way, Way Too Many Emails by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss

Abrams Media

I finished Hey Ladies! the same night I started it. I couldn't stop, no matter how much I knew my next-day self would be mad about it. It's that good. The story follows eight friends preparing for one wedding over the course of a year, and it is painfully funny. With their update on the epistolary novel — the plot unravels through overly enthusiastic, often passive-aggressive group emails, with behind-the-scenes info scattered throughout in texts — Moss and Markowitz do a phenomenal job of drawing out distinct characters, building tension that keeps the pages turning, and making clear that we're laughing with these ladies as much as we're laughing at them. Because, of course, there's a little bit of Hey Ladies! in us all.

Get it from Amazon for $15.29, from Barnes & Noble for $15.90, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

15. New Poets of Native Nations, edited by Heid E. Erdrich

Graywolf, Chris Felver

Graywolf's new poetry anthology New Poets of Native Nations is a testament to the multiplicity of experiences that exist within an identity which the US so often insists on constraining and flattening. Edited by acclaimed poet Heid E. Erdrich, and including work by Native writers whose first books were published post-2000, this collection is a breathtaking, wide-ranging work of art, comprising everything from electrifying political dissent to narratives in verse to abstract formats. It is a modern classic.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $18, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

16. Early Work by Andrew Martin


Listen, I will be honest. As a rehabilitated English literature major from a small liberal arts college, I am inclined to avoid books about the sort of overwrought navel-gazing I found (and engaged in myself) during those four years. But to ignore Andrew Martin's Early Work — a wry and pitch-perfect novel about late-twentysomething writers and lazy, progressive creatives in varying stages of existential crises — because of any painful familiarity is to do yourself a disservice. The book follows Pete, an obviously smart if insufferable man who calls himself a writer despite not actually writing anything, a man who hasn't yet figured out the difference between loving another person and loving what another person tells him about himself. Unfortunate both for his long-term girlfriend and for the new girl, Leslie, whom he can't stop thinking about.

Early Work is a cautionary tale; it reveals, with damning irony, that one who romanticizes the agonized and drug-addled artist, prioritizing the lifestyle over any actual output, does so at his peril. Because, eventually, the people around him will have created some early work of their own — if only for the opportunity to move beyond it.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $26, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

17. Mem by Bethany C. Morrow

Unnamed Press,

In her debut novel, Mem, Bethany C. Morrow achieves the nearly impossible feat of creating truly new speculative fiction; reading it feels like discovery. The book takes place in 1925, in a Montreal of a different universe. Here, scientists have figured out how to extract memories from people who'd like to forget them, and these memories manifest as physical clones — human-appearing entities whose entire brief existence is a continual loop of the extracted memory, relived in the underground vault where they are kept and observed. But then there's Dolores Extract No. 1 — or, as she's named herself, Elsie — who is something of a miracle, "born" conscious of her identity as a Mem and able to feel emotion. In her investigation of memory and other Mems, and in pushing the limits of her autonomy outside of the vault, Elsie confronts those big questions which underlie our existence: Who are we without our memories? And what defines our consciousness?

Get it from Amazon for $20.09, from Barnes & Noble for $20.38, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

18. Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Penguin Random House,

Ingrid Rojas Contreras's fierce debut explores the violence and political chaos of Colombia under Pablo Escobar's reign, from the perspective of 7-year-old Chula Santiago. While her Bogotá neighbors largely live in the fear of bombings, kidnappings, and murder, Chula and her family live safe in the confines of a wealthy, gated community. When her mother welcomes a young maid into their home — saving her from a slum terrorized by Escobar's accomplices — the two girls grow close, creating their own peaceful world in the midst of a growing unrest which is dead set on destroying it. It's a haunting, dreamy read.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $26.95, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

19. Still Lives by Maria Hummel

Counterpoint, Karen Pike

Maria Hummel's Still Lives is moody and restless, propelled by a gradually intensifying sense of unease. Hummel envelops the reader in the LA art scene, all whispered rumors, false smiles, and glam parties — a world which is rattled when one of its buzziest painters, Kim Lord, goes missing on the opening night of her latest, shocking installation. It's a gruesome exhibit — famous photos of murdered women recreated with paint and giant canvasses — and the city can't help but wonder if Lord has suffered the same grisly fate as her subjects. Maggie, a former journalist turned gallery copywriter who has a dark past of her own, decides to take the investigation into her own hands, and her journey illuminates the misogyny that allows a culture to turn murdered women into objects for consumption.

Get it from Amazon for $23.40, from Barnes & Noble for $26, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

20. There There by Tommy Orange

Knopf, Elena Seibert

In There There — an intricate study of Native American life in Oakland, California — Tommy Orange pushes the boundaries of fiction to write this story as he wants to tell it. The result is a series of vignettes, moments in the lives of characters — each expertly rendered in voices completely distinct from each other — who are linked in ways that become clearer as the narrative progresses. And from the beginning you know the narrative is progressing toward something terrible, as we move closer to the Big Oakland Powwow where the characters will collide. A current of violence runs through these stories — even as these characters go about their daily lives, even as Orange successfully refutes the idea of a monolithic Native American identity — and it has to do with the violence done to them: historically, physically, systemically. The novel's staggering opening makes it impossible to forget that this violence is its foundation.

Get it from Amazon for $23.36, from Barnes & Noble for $24.29, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

21. Lilith, but Dark by Nichole Perkins

Publishing Genius, Sylvie Rosokoff

Lilith, but Dark is such a generous collection of poetry; Perkins’ writing whispers and aches, its emotion so immediately and effortlessly felt. The poems are connected by themes of lust, loss, and trauma, often in conversation with each other, alluding to intimacy but leaving room for surprise — after all, there is always something inaccessible in someone else, no matter how much that person bares. And that is one of the most striking themes which permeates this collection: closeness as it’s felt by someone who’s already experienced extreme loss, the joy of finding intimacy where you thought it had been destroyed. In “Clouds That Follow,” which continues in a thread hinting at miscarriage, Perkins (who is a former BuzzFeed emerging writing fellow) writes, “At home, his hands rediscovered me / and to my surprise / a menagerie had gathered / in the ceiling over our bed.” It is a testament to resilience.

Get it from Publishing Genius for $10.

22. The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Riverhead, Smeeta Mahanti

In The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon circles three disastrous characters — lapsed evangelical Will; the highly suggestible former piano prodigy Phoebe, whom Will loves; and John, the gulag prison escapee and cult leader who has successfully wooed Phoebe. Kwon draws the trio closer and closer to a climax hinted at from the beginning, but it isn't suspense alone that drives this story forward. Kwon's lyricism is enchanting, soothing even while describing the most disturbing details, and nearly impossible to break away from.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $26, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

23. The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

Penguin Random House,

Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is an absolute delight — charming, sexy, and centered on a protagonist you love rooting for. Stella Lane is 30 years old, highly successful in her career as an economist and almost entirely inexperienced in the romance arena. Her parents are itching for grandchildren, but interpersonal relationships have never come easily to Lane (she, like author Hoang, has Asperger’s syndrome) so she decides to call in a pro to help as she navigates the dating world. Enter Michael Phan, Daniel Henney lookalike and male escort. Their fumbling relationship is equal parts endearing and (very) steamy, and Hoang’s writing bursts from the page.

Get it from Amazon for $13.50, from Barnes & Noble for $15, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

24. Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau

The New Press,

Patrick Chamoiseau's Slave Old Man is alive with anxious energy; it is a pulsing, kinetic chase, following the titular "slave old man" as he flees the Caribbean plantation on which he's spent his long life. As the unnamed protagonist makes his way through the surrounding forest (which, so richly described, leaves the reader spellbound) he is pursued not only by the plantation owner's monstrous mastiff, but also his own memories — the dark history of the slave trade, experienced in all his senses, as if anew. The novel was first published in France in 1997, and now is carefully translated to honor the oral tradition of blending French and Creole, with a glossary in the back to add contextualized definitions. It is a difficult — but also haunting, beautiful, and necessary — read.

Get it from Amazon for $15.75, from Barnes & Noble for $18.11, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

25. The Seas by Samantha Hunt

Tin House,

Samantha Hunt's The Seas was originally published in 2004, but Tin House's new edition is timely (sea romances are really having a moment) and updated with an introduction by the always brilliant Maggie Nelson. The novel takes place in a small, rundown seaside town, where a young woman is still coming to terms with the mysterious disappearance of her father. The 19-year-old finds herself enthralled by those things (and people) which remind her of her father: the sea, which she believes birthed her father and took him away; and a 33-year-old war veteran. Hunt blends myth and reality — if her father is from the sea, our narrator wonders, then isn't such magic in her blood as well? — and ends up with something truly stunning.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $19.95, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

26. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Macmillan, Margarita Corporan

Lillian Li's Number One Chinese Restaurant centers on Duck House, a family-run Chinese restaurant in DC, and the ways in which this restaurant affects the lives of the owner, his family, and his staff. When Jimmy Han, the son turned owner, decides he'd like to build something of his own, he makes the mistake of leaning on a local thug to pull some strings, and throws himself, and those in his employ, into chaos. Li's impressive debut is a lot of things: a thoughtful critique of gentrification from the perspective of the business owners being pushed out, a multigenerational immigration story, an insider look at the often grueling life of the career server or line cook, a romance, a coming-of-age (at any age). Most significantly, it is a joy to read — I couldn't get enough.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $27, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

27. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors


Mirror, Shoulder, Signal's protagonist, Sonja, is an unassuming, fascinating character, whose quiet journey through learning how to drive (the title comes from her instructor's directions) manages to illuminate the angst of her very existence. Sonja is middle-aged and successful as a translator of gruesome Swedish thrillers, and yet she finds herself perpetually at a distance from everyone around her; her life, ironically, is a series of failed attempts at communication. (See the letters she writes to her mother and sister but which she can't get herself to send, or, "the things she cannot find the language to say and the people she most wants to say them to.") And yet, Sonja's little victories feel monumental, in the way your own little victory might. It's because Dorthe Nors has created a woman merely doing what we all are — trying to figure out how to live.

Get it from Amazon for $10.81, from Barnes & Noble for $10.91, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

28. The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams

William Morrow,

Beatriz Williams' The Summer Wives is full of history and intrigue, spanning the 1930s through 1960s on the tiny, elite Winthrop Island. The story is centered on Miranda Schuyler, who arrives on the island — exquisitely depicted by Williams — after the loss of her father. She has a quick education in the island politics, i.e., the clash between the working locals and the summering rich. When her new stepfather, one of the rich, is killed, her world is torn asunder — and when she returns, 20 years later, as a famous actor trying to get over a recent scandal, she finds there's much in her past that needs to be settled. This book is what the term "beach read" was made for.

Get it from Amazon for $24.29, from Barnes & Noble for $25.26, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

29. Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz


Mimi Swartz's painstaking reporting on "the quest to create an artificial heart" reads like a thriller. And why not? The stakes could hardly be higher. Swartz drives this point home by honing in on the people in the muck of it: the brilliant pioneering heart surgeon who literally wears cowboy boots with his scrubs, the indefatigable surgeons racing toward a big break, the tireless inventor who wants to get them there — and, of course, the real, desperate people whose lives depend on their breakthrough. It is a (forgive me) heart-pounding, tireless journey through setbacks and around red tape, and an exploration of human innovation.

Get it from Amazon or Barnes & Noble for $27, or from a local bookseller through Indiebound here.

Harper Collins,

One thing to assert right off the bat: Michael Arceneaux is hilarious. As in, I laughed out loud, on average, once per page. Which is surprising, since much of Arceneaux's memoir is rooted in pain — of growing up in a violently anti-gay environment, of trying to push his identity away, of slowly coming out despite being afraid, and of coming to terms with the fact that the church he grew up in hasn't made room for him. Still, Arceneaux is as joyful as he is shrewd; his writing is affecting, whether describing the pain of his mother's disapproval or the power of Beyoncé's music. His moments of levity are like little rest stops on the thorny path through the loss and redefinition of faith as a gay black man. How lucky we are to have Arceneaux as our guide.

Get it from Amazon for $13.44 or from Barnes & Noble for $13.98.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.