Better Summer

Summer Reading 2014

Get away from it all with these Slate staff picks.

Illustration by Sam Alden.

Illustration by Sam Alden

As Emily Dickinson wrote, there is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. Summer isn’t all vacation; for those weeks you’re stuck at a desk, Slate staffers recommend books that took them places they’ve never been.

Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom
Recommended by Emily Bazelon, senior editor

Amy Bloom’s novel Away is one of my favorite books—a tale of love and suffering, about an immigrant mother’s search for her daughter, that for me is the Jewish version of Beloved. I’d recommend it any summer, and this year Bloom has a new novel called Lucky Us that I also thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a story of two half-sisters: Iris the sparkling starlet and Eva the mordant sidekick, and their downward spiral, against the backdrop of World War II, from Hollywood to Long Island. This book is about scheming and thievery, and how you can stitch together a self-identity out of all kinds of scrap cloth. It’s rollicking, cinematic, and great fun.

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
Recommended by Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor

This is not the romantic South Pacific of Bali honeymoons. Hanya Yanagihara’s troubling, beautiful novel follows a young doctor on a research expedition to an island whose people hold a secret to eternal life. From there, it examines scientific ethics large and small while riffing on the infamous case of D. Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel Prize winner charged with molesting children he adopted from the South Pacific.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Recommended by Jamelle Bouie, staff writer

The best thing I can say about this book is I read it a month ago, promptly reread it, and am still thinking about it. Published in 1959, Leibowitz tells a story of discovery, enlightenment, and hubris, set in a post-apocalyptic world. If you can get past the quirks of the novel—like frequent use of Latin—you’ll find a thoughtful mediation on religion, science, and what can happen when technological progress is divorced from morality.

Hot Pink, by Adam Levin
Recommended by Alexandra Coakley, excerpt assistant

Adam Levin’s collection of stories took me inside the obsessive minds of people falling quickly and cruelly in love in Chicago. A legless, lesbian wunderkind finally gets the girl just in time to meet her untimely end, the author of “the world’s greatest love letter” never reaches his origami-loving office crush, and a Skinnerian drug dealer falls for a girl who likes to get punched in the face by strange men. Levin’s love stories are beautiful and thrilling and ultimately, doomed. In the summer at least, I prefer them that way. 

Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Recommended by Hana Glasser, editorial intern

Summer’s as good a time as any for bleak (fascinating, beautiful) dystopian fiction. In Ishiguro’s sixth novel, a young woman’s experience at a boarding school for “special” children takes on new meaning. The world he creates is steadily disquieting and scarily close to home.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugresic
Recommended by Stephanie Gomory, Slate PR

The myth of Baba Yaga, a feared old hag from Slavic folklore, informs every inch of this bizarre romp through contemporary Eastern Europe. An elderly mother’s apartment in Zagreb, a broken-down Bulgarian seaside town, a circus-like spa resort in the Czech Republic, they’re all backdrops for the narrator’s exploration of what it means to be old—and a woman—in a world where being both at once can feel close to tragic.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended by Laura Helmuth, science and health editor

Yeah, I know: a young adult book about magic. But it’s summer! The main character is a snide demon with a vicious sense of humor, and the books lay out a mechanism for magic that is self-consistent and logical within its own world. The books are funny, dark, and utterly transporting.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver
Recommended by Jane Hu, AAAS Mass Media Fellow

Kingsolver masterfully weaves memoir and food writing for a breezy read that will leave you fantasizing about ditching your day job to grow your own food on a small farm. (Or maybe that’s just me.) It also includes some fantastic recipes, which will make you grateful for all the fresh food of summer.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
Recommended by Joshua Keating, staff writer

A painstakingly meticulous and vivid recreation of an underappreciated historical turning point—Japan’s reluctant opening to the outside world in the 18th century—a star-crossed love story, and a gripping adventure. If you liked Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, this one is even better.

Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier
Recommended by Dan Kois, culture editor

Getting sick of feeling hot and sticky while stuck in traffic? Can’t stand the bugs that come out every dusk while you’re trying to grill? Read Ian Frazier’s delightful book about the endless steppes of Russia’s largest, most remote region, and you’ll never complain about your summer again. From the ramshackle roads to the towns with nothing to do or eat to the mosquitoes that descend from the sky every night “as if shot from a fire hose,” Frazier’s Siberia sounds awful—which is what makes his ability to convey why he loves Siberia so very much all the more impressive.

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Recommended by Miriam Krule, copy editor

I hope I’m not cheating by choosing a place that doesn’t exist, but this book is all about going to places you never thought existed. Though the book’s been dubbed by some as Harry Potter for adults, it feels more accurate to think of it as Harry Potter with adults. While the first part of the novel deals with a Hogwarts-like school, the rest is devoted to the angst of post-grad life and, well, discovering that a made-up Narnia-like land really exists. The final installment in the trilogy comes out Aug. 5, so now’s the perfect time to go to Fillory.  

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Recommended by Rachael Larimore, managing editor

In her novel about a woman who is repeatedly reincarnated, Kate Atkinson takes us to the same places—the English countryside, London, Germany—again and again. The story is really transportive, though, when Atkinson plants her protagonist, Ursula, into the middle of the Blitz. She conveys both the horror of war—the panic, the smell of the bombs and fire, the randomness of who lives and who dies—and the very British sang-froid response. I wouldn’t want to visit, but you can see how people managed to live there.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories, by B.J. Novak
Recommended by Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor

I loved this book, a series of short essays on everything ranging from dating a warlord to trying to check in with your grandma in Heaven. It’s a twisty and wonderful journey into the strange and magical brain of a person who thinks at about five levels of weirdness simultaneously. It’s hilarious and dark and mad and you’ll find yourself quoting bits of it back to yourself forever after.

The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: Reading Gay American Writers, by Rick Whitaker
Recommended by J. Bryan Lowder, assistant editor

It happens that Whitaker is a friend, but I would have picked up this book regardless. With his careful, welcoming prose, the author acts as a sort of docent to the opaque minds and hazy worlds of writers like Dickinson and Whitman who we now think of as “gay.” And later, once the “Gay Century” is in full swing, he arranges knowing conversations with queer writers—Stein, Baldwin, Holleran—who more readily fit within the somewhat limited boundaries of the term. Whitaker’s trustworthiness and arresting insight as a gay reader hold his literary séance together.

The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
Recommended by Ava Lubell, assistant

A fantastical mystery novel set in an alternate Britain where all bow down to the cult of the written word, the book features incorrigible, magically enhanced villains, very human heroes, time-travelling parents, and dodos brought back from extinction to live a life of marshmallow-eating leisure. Fforde’s whimsical stories belong to the Pratchett/Gaiman tradition and are a total delight. 

A Life in Men, by Gina Frangello
Recommended by Abby McIntyre, copy editor

From Grecian beaches to bohemian London, a Kenyan safari, Mexico, the Midwest, Marrakech, and more, this novel bounds between exotic locales to tell the life of Mary, a stubbornly adventurous young woman, not just in men but also in places. Each spot is described with as much immersive detail as the last as Mary inhales the world around her in what little time she has. 

Mistborn, by Brandon Sanderson
Recommended by Dan Skahen, senior sales planner

Intelligent characters, a riveting narrative and the reversal of virtually every convention in the genre make this the best fantasy I have read to date. Mistborn is a breezy read that takes your imagination on an epic ride, the momentum of which keeps it on your mind long after you put it down.

Six Months in 1945, by Michael Dobbs
Recommended by Mark Joseph Stern, staff writer

Dobbs has a novelist’s heart and a historian’s brain, capturing details that are by turn darkly comical and deeply unsettling. Human life has rarely seemed as puny and pointless as it did in 1945, when the horrors of World War II culminated with the atomic bombings of Japan. Dobbs takes us to the rooms where decisions were made that would determine the fate of millions, from Yalta to Potsdam, illustrating how the seeds planted there would sprout the century’s next catastrophes.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
Recommended by Ann-Marie Taylor, West Coast director

I’m half sad and half relieved that my childhood bears no resemblance to this story, which is magical yet creepy at the same time. What if childhood nightmares were true, and there were “spaces beneath the fences” that hid entire magical worlds?

Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino
Recommended by Julia Turner, editor in chief

If you haven’t read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, do. It will take you to many places you’ve never been before because they don’t exist. The story is one long conversation between explorer Marco Polo and emperor Kublai Khan, in which Polo describes all the cities he has seen. There’s one that’s just plumbing and women in bathtubs. There’s one that’s made out of string. My favorite is the one that’s just the vision of a city you have before you go there, and the city itself writes over your prior mental image of it. It’s also a book that is basically a poem, a taut but expansive little volume that will blow your mind best if you consume it in one sitting. Read it in one afternoon in a hammock with a glass of lemonade cooling your spare hand and a contemplative state of mind.

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers, by Tom Rachman
Recommended by Josh Voorhees, senior writer

Rachman’s ingenious new novel spans more than three decades and roughly twice that number of countries, taking us from Asia to America to Europe in a repeating cycle that is as delightful as it is disorienting. But perhaps as fitting for the question at hand, the book’s best-crafted characters—Tooley, a young woman unsure of her past, present, and future; Humphrey, an aging, ping-pong playing intellectual who may have kidnapped her for her own good—use books to anchor themselves in places they’ve never been as they remain on the move, by choice, by chance, and by necessity. 

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki
Recommended by Katy Waldman, staff writer

It’s 1739 and a cocky young soldier on his way to Madrid loses his way in the mountains of the Sierra Morena. He falls into a company of thieves, gypsies, cabbalists, geometers, ghosts, and knights, each of whom has a story to tell. In the gorgeous and bonkers knot of interweaving tales that coheres, sort of, over the next 66 days, the officer is seduced by two Moorish princesses (who may also be the dead brothers of Zoto the bandit), arm-wrestles the memory of his authoritarian father, and uncovers an international conspiracy of underground Muslim mystics. What I love about this collection of stories (all overlapping and echoing in mind-bending ways) is the pleasure it takes in polyphony—lots of crazy people talking—coupled with its use of silence and mystery. When you’re done, you will want to go to Saragossa and look for more manuscripts. 

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
Recommended by Forrest Wickman, staff writer

What better way to celebrate being chained to your desk than by reading about the horrors of vacation? You’ve heard it said before, but David Foster Wallace’s epic meditation on the excesses of luxury cruises really is one of the funniest essays ever written. (The rest of the collection isn’t exactly dull, either.) As he journeys into the heart of darkness that lies at the deepest reaches of the hot-stone spa, he delivers the kind of escapism that will make you glad you never left home.

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson
Recommended by Emily Yoffe, Dear Prudence columnist

I’ve never hiked the Appalachian Trail, and I don’t have to because Bill Bryson did it for me in this incomparable tale. He set out to walk all 2,100 miles accompanied by his former classmate Katz, an overweight, recovering addict who just before the journey starts declares, “I gotta eat something every hour or so or I have, whadayacallit, seizures.” This hilarious account will both transport you and make you so grateful for your cozy bed. 

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