In the summer, I like my reading to be dark—a sort of literary sun block. That’s why I recommend two gloomy but compelling novels: Tamar, by Mal Peet, and The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville. Both alternate between a troubled time in European history and the peace that followed, focusing on how violence torments individuals’ psyches long after conflict officially ends. Tamar is a story of the Dutch resistance and how it changes a family for generations to come, while The Ghosts of Belfast is about a hitman from Northern Ireland who begins to see the images of the 12 people he killed. (A movie version of The Ghosts of Belfast, going by the original title The Twelve, is going into production later this year. The screenplay was co-written by Craig Ferguson and his Late Late Show head writer Ted Mulkerin.) Both are page-turners that are perfect for summer—especially if you want to be reminded of what a blessing it is to live in relatively peaceful times.
Life Itself, by Roger Ebert
Recommended by Aisha Harris, “Brow Beat” assistant
In light of his recent passing, I’m looking forward to finally checking out Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while, but now that summer is upon us, I can’t think of a better time to finally dive into it. For me, this season is when I feel happiest the most, and as a movie nerd, my reading tastes skew pretty far toward cinema-related things, especially during summer movie season. And because Ebert seemed to embrace life so vigorously, I think reading about the film critic’s struggles, triumphs, and positive attitude through it all will be fitting.
My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road With Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, by Brian Switek and Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz.
Recommended by Laura Helmuth, science and health editor
Do you remember being fascinated by dinosaurs when you were 8 years old? Well, they’re even more awesome today. In the past few decades, paleontologists have discovered that dinosaurs were more agile, more diverse, and more social than we thought—and feathered, which, by the way, drives creationists crazy. Brian Switek shares our affection for outdated Brontosaurus, but he will thrill you with tales of the true beasts that dominated the Mesozoic Era. (Disclosure, or boast disguised as a disclosure: I edited Switek’s Dinosaur Tracking blog at Smithsonian.com, where he first worked on some of the material in this book.)
Living on Earth is not a good long-term survival strategy, according to Annalee Newitz, editor of the awesome futuristic website io9. Most mammalian species last about 1 million years, and at a mere 200,000, Homo sapiens had better think to the future if we want to avoid mass extinction. How will the planet end? Well, the apocalypse is complicated, Newitz says—but it’s dreadfully fascinating to read about the various disaster scenarios. Even more intriguing are her ideas for how to invent our way out of certain doom. Space elevators may be involved, but whatever happens, it’ll be even weirder than we imagine.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carre
Recommended by Dan Kois, Slate Book Review editor
This is the summer, I am telling myself, that I will finally read John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The reason I haven’t read it before has nothing to do with being daunted by its length or the intricacy of its plot. It’s just that I’ve always had this vision of myself sitting on a beach reading an old Bantam mass-market paperback of Tinker, Tailor—not one of the new trade paperbacks with Gary Oldman on the cover, as great as he was in the recent film. No, I want a battered old TTSS, a paperback that might fool people into thinking, “This gent’s read this one before.” I’m not picky—it can be this cover OR this cover. Anyway, this summer I’m gonna find it on the Internet and buy it and read it. I’ve tried ordering it three or four times on the Internet, but it always turns out to be some other edition, and this is a book that for some reason is basically never in used bookstores or rummage sales or church spring fair book sales. If anyone has a line on one, let me know.
I like to be overly ambitious in the summer. There was 2009, when I lugged Infinite Jest on the subway (and only made it 300 pages before giving up—it’s still a great shame of mine) and 2012, when I tried to read War and Peace (and only finished a few weeks ago). I’ve had my eye on Middlemarch for some time (and not just because I’m sure Rebecca Mead’s 2011 ode is wonderful; I haven’t read it yet—spoilers!). I attempted it a few years ago, but I was moving and switching jobs at the time, so it got lost in the process. I hope to pair it with Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, which I’ve come to understand is the modern American Jewish remake.
Barcelona, by Robert Hughes.
Recommended by J. Bryan Lowder, editorial assistant
Hughes writes in the introduction that this book was meant to be much shorter than it is—just an assessment of the modernist art that makes Barcelona such a distinctive city. But the final result, weighing in at 541 pages, is all the better (so far!) for its density. Hughes deftly weaves dogged history, luminous art criticism, and wry cultural commentary into the most toothsome account of my summer vacation destination I can imagine—and I’m only up to the Middle Ages!
The Never List, by Koethi Zan
Recommended by Alissa Neil, publicist
I loved The Never List, a gripping debut novel by Koethi Zan, who also happens to be Stephen Metcalf’s wife. It’s an engrossing psychological thriller in its own right, filled with twists and turns. But it’s also extremely eerie in light of recent events in Cleveland. The Never List is a story about three women who were held captive in a cellar for nearly three years by a sadist who by day was a prominent university psych professor. It’s as if Zan is clairvoyant, inviting the reader to imagine a version of the horror endured by the Cleveland victims. Perfect read for the hammock, the beach, or backyard— but I’d definitely stay out of the basement.
A book that I’ve already read but plan to read again: Project X, by Jim Shepard, a short, pitch-perfect novel about two teenage boys planning a Columbine-style school shooting, told from the perspective of one of the plotters, the scared, sympathetic Edwin Hanratty. Shepard’s last line has stayed with me since I first read the book 18 months ago. I can’t wait to read it again.
A book I haven’t read yet but plan to read this summer: Bruce Duffy’s The World as I Found It, a fictionalized retelling of the lives of philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G.E. Moore. (Beach reading!) I actually started on this book in April but haven’t had time to get past the first chapter. But, man, what a first chapter!
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
Recommended by David Plotz, editor
Turn on almost any high-number cable channel, and you can see a reality TV show depicting young American males in their state of nature: talking shit, mainlining energy drinks, punching things, fixing other things, talking more shit, alternately mistreating and mooning over girls. It’s mostly boring and always demoralizing. But what if it wasn’t that way? What if it was great literature instead of bad TV? And what if you could see that these young American meatheads were actually men of profound intelligence, moral decency, and humor? That’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. A young Army private, Billy Lynn, and his unit are guests of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game, heroes because of their bravery in an Iraq firefight. The whole novel takes place at the game, mostly inside Billy’s head, as they meet cheerleaders, are fawned over by passersby, and are schmoozed by the team owner. The dialogue is crazy vivid—profane, jumpy, hilarious, sex-obsessed. It’s also social portraiture that puts Tom Wolfe to shame, as we see working-class Billy encountering the various absurd rich guys who want to take advantage of the Iraq heroes. This is the most different-sounding novel I’ve read in years, and it’s also the most enjoyable.
Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Recommended by Emma Roller, editorial assistant
Pulphead could alternately be titled, “Adventures in Freelance Men’s Magazine Writing.” The first essay is about Sullivan’s trip to Creation, the country’s biggest Christian rock festival, in a 29-foot RV by himself. I’ve seen the writing described as Gonzo Nouveau, and like Hunter S. Thompson, Sullivan indulgently details the kooky subcultures that make up our great nation. This is what I’ll be reading when I’m lying on the concrete deck of the municipal pool with my smuggled-in flask of mojito.
The Death of a President is an entirely gripping account of President Kennedy’s final days and what went down in Dealey Plaza on the day of his assassination, including the surreal aftermath and national mourning that ensued. Since this November marks the 50th anniversary of JFK’s murder, it’s a great time to read Manchester’s book, which is filled with anecdotes and insights, much like his other work. In fact, if you read and like this one, you should then dive headlong into Manchester’s sweeping and amazingly readable opus, Glory and the Dream, a narrative chronicle of American history from 1932 to 1972.
Hot weather, the beach, and the sun are not for me. Nor is light so-called beach reading. No, I’d rather sit in the shade, or indoors, disturbed only by a lovely breeze, and read about women’s struggles, in Cascade, by Maryanne O’Hara, about a New England (read: brisk, cool) female artist in 1935, forced to marry for economic and familial reasons, and her attempts to stay true to herself despite society’s expectations that she be merely a wife and mother. Or Paris Was the Place, by Susan Conley, which I haven’t read yet, but if I can’t actually go to Paris, at least I can read about her young female protagonist living and teaching there in the 1980s, and I trust Conley to take me there, as she took me to Beijing in her lovely memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution, by Brett Martin and The Revolution Was Televised, by Alan Sepinwall
Recommended by June Thomas, culture critic
My summer reading isn’t all that different from my spring, fall, or winter reading except that I sometimes read in the evening, when I’d “normally” be watching television. When I’m on holiday, I like to read about the place I’m visiting, and since Canada is my preferred vacationland, I’ve worked my way through the novels of Robertson Davies (is there any greater vacation pleasure than reading an entire trilogy—Davies’ Salterton Trilogy and Cornish Trilogy are both fantastic, but the Deptford Trilogy, with its astonishing exploration of Jungian analysis, is my favorite) and Mordecai Richler. I have no plans to visit Canada this summer—and not just because Richler’s books about snooker and hockey are the only ones I haven’t yet read—but I will be in Provincetown, Mass., which is the best place to read local resident Mary Oliver’s poems. This year, I also plan to cope with a week without television by reading about it—I’m looking forward to Brett Martin’s Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution and the new edition of Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised.
Prep, by Curtis Sittenfeld
Recommended by Ryan Vogt, copy editor
The cover of Curtis Sittenfeld’s debut novel, Prep, suggests a chick-lit take on the classic boarding-school novel—a Gossip Girl version of A Separate Peace, with a woman as the fish out of water with first-day-of-school jitters. And that’s pretty much what the book is, except you won’t expect it to have the most realistic dialogue you’ve ever found in a book. Sittenfeld makes the school-days roman à clef look so effortless, you’ll be rushing off to write a memoir of your own time prepping for life.
Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold
Recommended by Josh Voorhees, “Slatest” editor
Next up on my reading list is Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil, which has been calling out to me from my bookshelf ever since I blindly picked it up off a tableful of discarded books a few years ago. I know only the basics, but the historical novel appears to contain all the low-hanging fruit needed to satisfy my particular summer hunger: a vaguely familiar name (thanks HIMYM), a few impressive sounding blurbs (“Gold creates a foreboding, dreamlike aura of Americana,” says the Los Angeles Times), and an eye-catching cover that combines a vintage ad from one of the title character’s actual shows and—for reasons I can only guess at the moment—Braille. Americana and magic! I’m imagining some type of cross between Kavalier & Clay and The Prestige, which might sound like unreachable expectations until I tell you I haven’t read either of those yet either.
My Korean Deli, by Ben Ryder Howe
Recommended by Katy Waldman, assistant editor
This is an easy one. I’ve wanted to read Howe’s memoir—which Amazon describes as the “warm and funny tale of an earnest preppy editor finding himself trapped behind the counter of a Brooklyn convenience store”—since my colleague Torie recommended it to me almost a year and a half ago. (She knew about my one-way love affair with the Paris Review, the magazine for which Howe works by day.) But life intervened, other books (and fine, television) beckoned, and I stupidly never got around to it. Now she has bought me a copy. I have no excuse.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Recommended by Meg Wiegand, copy editor
If Americanah is anything like its predecessors, it won’t be an airy, feet-in-the-surf read. Adichie’s previous two novels and one short-story collection—all rooted in her native Nigeria—teem with tales of war, death, isolation, and lots of heartache. But Adichie’s lush storytelling is the perfect antidote to a sweltering summer day stuck indoors. Americanah, which divides its time between the U.S. and Nigeria (as does Adichie), is sure to be filled with complex characters, engrossing storytelling, and powerful narratives that tackle race, immigration, alienation, and love.
Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First-Century Parenthood, by Drew Magary
Recommended by Holly Allen, designer
I read a snippet of this book a few days ago, and it made me laugh out loud (really, out loud!). I can’t wait to read the whole thing.