What makes a good summer read? Should it be light, briskly-paced, suitable for digestion in one hot afternoon on the nearest available beach or patio? Sure, that’s one way of looking at it, but it also feels like a waste to shield your summer self (one of the best and strongest selves) from the books you’ll carry with you long after the warm weather has worn off. So, por que no los dos?
With that in mind, here are our picks for the best books released this summer. Happy reading!
“There is much to be learned from wanting something both ways,” writes poet and critic Maggie Nelson, and The Argonauts, Nelson’s story of building a family with her partner, the genderqueer artist Harry Dodge certainly bears that out. While Dodge (who identifies as neither male nor female) was starting testosterone injections, Nelson was pregnant with their son—and questioning anything and everything about family and identity, and the restrictive labels that come with them. Could “breeding,” traditionally one of the straightest of heteronormative institutions, actually be queer? What does it mean to grapple with the stubborn expectation that mothers happily give up their identities for their children, while also trying to reconcile your politics and your sexuality with the normalcy of the nuclear family? What does it mean when that makes you really happy?
The Argonauts is, on one level, the very specific narrative of how Nelson and Dodge made their family, but the questions it’s getting at aren’t just about their family, or just about queer families. Her experience is a jumping-off point for an exploration of universals: birth and death, bodies, identity, sex, happiness (which comes with its own set of problems), and—in perhaps the most poignant scene ever to include a mention of X-Men: First Class—the seemingly intractable question of assimilation versus revolution. Everywhere, Nelson sees binaries and rejects them—must we always be transgressive or normative, queer or straight, men or women, mothers or perverts? Or can we want it both ways?
As Nelson tries to untangle the impossible knot of identity, she weaves in ideas from theorists Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Roland Barthes, and Gilles Deleuze, as well as from artists, poets, and psychologists, noting her sources in the margins. The theory and Nelson’s biography are mutually reinforcing, each adding clarity to the other, and the finished product is absolutely worthy of every thinking, feeling human being’s attention. Like Nelson, we’ll probably spend the rest of our lives wresting with these questions, but none of us may ever articulate them with such beauty, care, and precision. —Jay Hathaway
Bacigalupi, who established himself as a leading prophet of our dystopian near-future with The Windup Girl, has spun another sharp tale of elites scheming and killing to maintain control of a basic resource, to the detriment of the struggling, desperate masses.
But, where The Windup Girl foretold a world in which calorie companies have a stranglehold on all food and the means to grow it, the The Water Knife presents an American West where cities and states rise and fall with the water rights they control. California and Vegas have monopolized the flow of H2O, and proven they’re not afraid to cut off anyone who crosses them. That’s where our titular Water Knife comes in, and he’s forced to make some tough moral calculations when he comes face to face with the real people he’s screwing over as a tool of his employers.
Pick it up to see California’s drought spun out into a too-real horror story that each of its characters scrabbles to live through by any means available. Sounds like a nice, lighthearted beach read, right? —Jay Hathaway
One time, Aziz Ansari took a girl back to the house he was renting from James Earl Jones, and then she stopped responding to his texts. His only option was to conduct years of sociological fieldwork and review extensive existing literature to produce the missing manual for dating in the text-and-Tinder era. And then footnote it with all the jokes he wasn’t saving for his standup. (Sure, he could have tried calling her, but phone calls are terrifying—see page 39).
Although some of Ansari’s points will be obvious to readers who’ve advanced past the straight white boys texting dot tumblr dot com approach to mating, he and NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg (who’s got second author credit on this text) back them up with copious statistics and anecdotes. Aziz’s jokes, which are mostly the good kind of corny, keep the pacing brisk. I laughed out loud probably ten times while reading Modern Romance and had to show half a dozen charts to my wife, because can you believe this shit?
Modern Romance will make you feel some combination of sad and hopeful about online dating, but it will ultimately remind you that you are not alone. Everyone sucks at this stuff, because it’s only very recently that we’ve overcome the stigma of we met on the internet enough to seriously discuss how to do it right. —Jay Hathaway
How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt (June 16)
The only way to revive a lagging music industry, so believed Doug Morris, the enthusiastic and sharp-toothed CEO of Universal Music Group from 1995 to 2011, was with hits. Morris’ thinking was: It worked in 1982 when Michael Jackson released Thriller—an album replete with uptempo, mostly feel-good tracks—so why wouldn’t it work in the late 1990s and early 2000s?
The answer, as Stephen Witt chronicles in How Music Got Free, is a complicated one. The math was not simply a matter of shepherding powerhouse songs like Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up”; there were, as Witt goes about reporting, other factors at play. Enter Dell Glover, the man responsible for leaking 2,000 albums over a period of eight years from a PolyGram CD-manufacturing plant in North Carolina. Glover, who has had a profound impact on the way music is consumed and distributed today, is perhaps the most notorious digital pirate in history.
Witt’s book is a deeply reported account of Morris’s roller-coaster reign at UMG, Glover’s bootlegging days and ultimate demise, the creation of the mp3 by a media-shy German audio engineer, and how it all led to the end of a halcyon era in the music industry. Midway through the book, I wondered: Just how far down the rabbit hole does this all go? —Jason Parham
Love—or rather, the motivations that fuel our desires; who we want to love us and how we want to be loved—assumes many forms in Naomi Jackson’s moving debut, The Star Side of Bird Hill. The Iowa grad has delivered a novel of remarkable strength and beauty in her chronicle of two sisters sojourn to their mother’s homeland of Barbados for the summer. Dionne, 16, and Phaedra, 10, are sent to live with their grandmother, Hyacinth, a woman of earthly fortitude who only wanted “to have Phaedra and Dionne in the fullest versions of themselves” while with her, but the pair soon find themselves down divergent paths: Dionne yearns for escape (she wants to return to the familiarity of her Brooklyn home), and Phaedra hungers for more of the Barbados her mother left behind. This is a story of sisterhood and tough, unbreakable love. This is a book that asks: What happens when you go home and find the answers you didn’t know you were looking for? —Jason Parham
Coming eventually to a theater near you, Armada is unapologetically built like a summer blockbuster. In his followup to Ready Player One (which is just about the most fun you can have in a video game dystopia), geeky screenwriter Ernie Cline recombines the DNA of Ender’s Game, Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, and old-school arcade games like Asteroids into something that’s both familiar and unpredictable. It’s a mutant homage to sci-fi tropes past.
Truly, the deepest thing about Armada is Cline’s abundant knowledge of and affection for his book’s many pop-cultural antecedents, with the protagonist’s confused feelings about his absent father running second. (And with that, you already know whether this book is for you.)
Armada has everything we’ve come to demand from a summer tentpole flick, right down to the soundtrack—our hero flies his missions to the beat of his dad’s “Raid the Arcade” mixtape, heavy on the Queen and AC/DC— so it’s no surprise Cline sold the movie rights just after he sold the book back in 2012. He’s also signed on to write the screenplay, which shouldn’t be surprising, considering that he’s basically already written it. —Jay Hathaway
A Cure for Suicide is a formal experiment, act one of which is a dialogue between an unnamed man, the “claimant,” and a woman who serves as his “examiner.” He doesn’t know any more than we do about what’s happening to him or how he came to be in this house in a small village. The examiner does, but she’s not telling—she’s just teaching him the bare essentials of functioning in society, most of which he has forgotten, and taking notes on his progress. After meeting a mysterious woman at a party, the claimant is left with a sense that he was someone else before, but he doesn’t quite know who. As his circumstances are gradually revealed, Ball hits us with a jarring twist. The heartwrenching story of the man’s previous life and what happened to him comes rushing out at full force, casting the early stages of the story in an unsettling new light.
Without taking any power away from the startling revelation at the center of the novel, here’s what I can tell you: Of Jesse Ball’s previous novel, Silence Once Begun, James Wood wrote in the New Yorker that it “appears to be attempting to make a space” for “silence—which is to say, death.” In A Cure for Suicide, the space reserved for death is large and oddly-shaped, and people try, unsuccessfully, to fill it with something else. —Jay Hathaway
Several neighbors, each of whom is broken in their own, unique way, live their solitary lives inside the enclosed world of their small Manhattan apartment building. There’s the heartbroken comedian; the artist who’s lost the use of his drawing hand; the woman who fears leaving her apartment full of carefully-arranged curios; the big-hearted, childlike man with Williams syndrome; and his disillusioned lawyer sister. But they’re forced to and confront the outside world—and each other—when Edith, the landlady who’s always held their sanctuary together, begins to show signs of crumbling under the weight of her 80 years. The mission brings them together, giving them the purpose (and, in a way, the family) that they’d previously been missing.
At root, Infinite Home is a story about a handful of people’s lives and their excuses not to live them, and how neither our lives nor our excuses can last forever. Each of them is by turns lovable, sympathetic and infuriating (this is sometimes known as real or human), and Kathleen Alcott’s beautiful telling of their stories is dense with individual sentences that are beautiful all on their own. She’s that kind of writer. You might cry. You’ll probably cry, actually. (I cried.)
“However you call it, the upshot of the process is our nakedness before the criminal forces of the world. It does not matter if the agent of those forces is white or black—what matters is our condition, what matters is the system that makes your body breakable.” This declaration arrives early in Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book, which serves as part love letter to his son, Samori, and part memoir. The story belongs to Coates—he logs moments from his formative days in West Baltimore and his time at Howard University (commonly referred to as The Mecca) to his early years of fatherhood and living in New York City—but it is also the story of America, and of the country’s cruel legacy of plunder upon the black body. “It is truly horrible to understand yourself as the essential below of your country,” Coates continues. “It breaks too much of what we would like to think about ourselves, our lives, the world we move through and the people who surround us. But the truth of our circumstances is the embers within us, and the world around us stokes the flame.”
At 155 pages, Between the World and Me is a small epic in the tradition of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, the revelatory essay collection published in 1963 during the apex of the civil rights movement. And yet, for all the book’s power, it is the intimacy and vulnerability with which Coates writes to his 15-year-old son that will reach you at your core. You can imagine the author telling his son: Let me tell you of “this terrible and beautiful world” I brought you into. “The entire narrative of this country argues against the truth of who you are.”
It is this truth—a centuries-old truth in the beauty and power of the black body, and thus the reason for its destruction under American custom, a truth which later led to the killing of the author’s college friend, Prince Jones (“[He] had made it through, and still they had taken him”)—that Coates charges his son, and readers, to face head on. —Jason Parham
Wait! Here are five more books, also highly recommended by Gawker Review:
- Lord Fear: A Memoir by Lucan Mann (May 12) [read an excerpt from the book here]
- Loving Day by Mat Johnson (May 26) [read our Q&A with Johnson here]
- In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar (June 16)
- The Sisters are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America by Tamara Winfrey Harris (July 7)
- Lovers on All Saints’ Day: Stories by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (July 21)
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]