Downtime

A Quarantine Summer Reading List

Cozy mysteries! Epic fantasies! Rom-coms! And zero viruses.

A collage of covers of the books mentioned in the article.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Amazon.

Read the rest of Slate’s guide to your quarantine summer.

Count summer reading among the many simple pleasures that 2020 has turned into a smoking minefield. Any thriller featuring a pandemic or the breakdown of society now feels a little too relevant to work as light entertainment. Even an old favorite like Jaws, with its city officials willing to put lives at risk in their doomed attempt to boost the local economy, stirs up more real-life anxiety than many readers will have the stomach for. A globe-trotting suspense novel may trigger a melancholy longing for places made inaccessible by the existential gantlet of air travel. So here’s a list of stress-free beach reading for the beach-deprived, with an eye toward books you’re less likely to have already read. It’s a mix of mostly time-tested (and a few new) titles to help you get away from being away from it all.

Epic Fantasies

If you’d prefer to lose yourself in a less European dream world than Westeros and you like a bit of magic to go with it, this is a boom time for epic fantasy with settings based on non-Western cultures. N.K. Jemisin’s novels in this genre—the Inheritance Trilogy and the Broken Earth series are my favorites—have won many prizes are well worth checking out, but I also enjoyed immersing myself in David Anthony Durham’s Acacia trilogy, about four royal siblings avenging the assassination of their father in a Mediterranean/North African–flavored empire. Guy Gavriel Kay’s ravishing Under Heaven is set in Kitai, a fictional version of Tang dynasty China, and refreshingly saturated with the aesthetics of Chinese poetry and folklore instead of focusing overmuch on martial arts.

Cozy Mysteries

Anglophilia constitutes a major subset of escapist entertainment, and one to which, I confess, I am particularly susceptible. This passion has less to do with England the actual country than with the cozy Neverland where Sherlock Holmes pursues villains, Miss Marple applies the wisdom of a village gossip to homicide investigations, and Bertie Wooster gets into an endless series of ludicrous scrapes. You could do a lot worse than turning to Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and P.G. Wodehouse right now, but if you’ve already run through all three, let me suggest the Hilary Tamar mystery novels by Sarah Caudwell, beginning with 1981’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered.

The eminently trustworthy friend who recommended these books to me described them as “perfect, like a tidy box of macarons,” and she did not lie. This delightful series applies a Wodehousian sensibility to the exploits of a group of young barristers specializing in tax law, as narrated by their history professor mentor, an individual whose gender is never identified. (It’s fun to see how Caudwell dances around Hilary’s identity, once you realize what she’s up to.) Hilary Tamar sounds a lot like Jeeves and the barristers can be as feckless, if not nearly so moronic, as Bertie. For some reason, only the last three novels are available as e-books, but you might want to nab the used paperbacks, as they have Edward Gorey covers.

Similarly charming, far more celebrated, and murder-free is Stella Gibbons’ 1932 classic Cold Comfort Farm, about a brisk young Jane Austen fan who goes off to live with her brooding, earthy country cousins and whips their squalid agricultural lives into shape. It’s the ideal comic novel about making the best of being stuck in a dismal situation. I also recommend the fluffy early fiction of Angela Thirkell—1936’s August Folly is a good place to start—in which assorted rural British types fall in love, put on amateur theatricals, and otherwise make fools of themselves while nothing truly bad ever happens.

And if you like all of that, consider what might initially seem like a radical departure: James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, published earlier this year and reviewed here. Sure, it’s set in a Brooklyn housing project in the 1960s, but it has everything you love in a village novel—local characters, great dialogue, running jokes, a profound essential sweetness—although, granted, with a lot less tea.

Rom-Com Novels

If romantic comedy is more to your taste, seek out the novels of Jennifer Crusie, who published multiple bestsellers in the ’90s and 2000s, but not much since, although she remains an active blogger and promiser of books to come. Crusie’s rom-coms strike me as the apotheosis of the form: sexy, smart, witty, down-to-earth, powered by the kind of banter you find in a Howard Hawks film, and with characters just plausible enough to make you believe that people like this might exist somewhere. Bet Me, Faking It, and Fast Women represent Crusie in top form—Faking It, with its romance between a con man and lady forger is particularly fetching.

2000’s Welcome to Temptation is a delicious feminist twist on the “big-city woman goes to a small town” premise. You can tear through these novels like they’re bags of potato chips without that queasy feeling afterward.

A more sparkly cosmopolitan option is Lauren Ho’s sprightly debut, Last Tang Standing, described by its publisher with pinpoint accuracy as “Crazy Rich Asians meets Bridget Jones’ Diary.” Andrea Tang, a Singaporean lawyer in her early 30s, recounts her romantic misadventures while trying not to become the only remaining single woman in the extended Tang clan. Where Bridget wrestled with the contradictory messages of pop culture and women’s magazines, Andrea has to fend off a gaggle of judgmental, controlling aunties.

Escapism for the Whole Family

Readers with overactive superegos that will torment them if they spend the “extra” time of quarantine reading anything but classics may be struggling with War and Peace right now. Sure, it’s great, but all those essays about the great man theory of history are no one’s idea of a good time. What is? Why a nice old-fashioned revenge story, naturally. The Count of Monte Cristo is the novel I recommend to any parent worried about their child’s disinterest in classic literature. It is a stealth thriller and catnip for the young. What teenager can resist the saga of a falsely accused, horribly mistreated lad who brilliantly plots his triumph over the powers that once imprisoned him? In fact, plenty of adults should find this scenario engaging as well, which makes The Count of Monte Cristo an excellent choice if you’re looking for an audiobook that your family can listen to together.

Revisiting childhood favorites may be the quintessential form of comfort reading, and for each reader, the choice—from Harry Potter to The Wind in the Willows to the Little House on the Prairie series—will be personal. But if you are looking for an adult novel that imparts the same sequestered, dreamy reverie induced by The Secret Garden or its like, try I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (author of 101 Dalmatians), a coming-of-age story told by a young girl who lives with her impoverished bohemian family in a half-ruined castle. It is perfection from beginning to end.

I Capture the Castle

By Dodie Smith. St. Martin’s.

Charming Memoirs

“Unlike some people who love to go out, I love to stay home,” wrote the late Laurie Colwin in her beloved 1988 essay collection, Home Cooking. She also enjoyed having friends over for dinner, so the current situation would probably be as trying for her as it is for the rest of us. Colwin’s unaffected essays (sample title: “Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant”) made her a forerunner of food bloggers well before the internet had penetrated into every crevice of contemporary life. If you love Ruth Reichl’s memoirs, Colwin should be to your taste as well. The pieces here are a warm blend of memoir, advice, and recipe—a form many, many writers have taken up since Colwin’s death, in 1992, without a single one surpassing her. The dishes she describes preparing, from beef stew and potato salad to fried chicken, are classic American meals, put on the table to feed her family nightly. (Colwin wrote a piece called “Bread Baking Without Agony,” which should give you a sense of just how in tune these essays are with the minds of countless Americans who have suddenly been shoved into the role of home cooks.) Colwin dispenses failsafe recipes for shepherd’s pie and chocolate pudding and reassurances that creating a meal that leaves its diners “happy, drowsy, and content” is much easier than you think.

Book-length memoirs tend to be sagas of trauma and struggle, but the short autobiographical essay has always offered a haven to humorists. One of the best of these was Shirley Jackson (known for The Haunting of Hill House and other unsettling gothic novels and stories) who wrote hilarious pieces for the New Yorker about life in the rambling old New England houses where she and her husband raised their four kids. These were republished a few years ago in two paperback collections, Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons.

Although delivered with Jackson’s mordant, precise wit, these anecdotes—of eccentric cats, misbehaving classmates, doors that will not close, and the stubborn obsessions of toddlers—are infused with a sense of indomitable togetherness completely lacking in Jackson’s lonely, haunted fiction. Her imagination was dark, but these tales of her family are flooded with sunshine and laughter.

Sandra Tsing Loh’s personal essays about her chaotic bohemian life in Los Angeles, beginning with 1996’s masterfully titled Depth Takes a Holiday (in which, among other things, she and her boyfriend discover Trader Joe’s) and running through 2014’s The Madwoman in the Volvo (in which she bails on her marriage of 20 years and soldiers through menopause), are raucous and unapologetic but irresistibly funny.

Travel Writing That Won’t Make You Sad

Perhaps for the armchair adventurer, travel essays still offer undimmed pleasure, but who else wants to read about the glorious places it feels like we’ll never get to see in person? The solution: great travel writing about places you never want to go to. Robert Macfarlane is regarded by many as the greatest living travel and nature writer, and Underland, published last year, is his masterpiece. But while most of Macfarlane’s writings on ancient pathways and mountain climbing leave me wanting to strap on my hiking boots, Underland gorgeously recounts Macfarlane’s journeys to unwelcoming sites beneath the surface of the earth—a cave where a trapped spelunker slowly suffocated on his own exhalations as rescuers frantically tried to rescue him, a nuclear waste repository off the coast of Finland, gigantic sinkholes, places where horrid, toxic things long preserved in the permafrost are thawing into the light. It’s all very awe-inspiring but not the least bit inviting. Plus, an added bonus of reading Underland is that it makes being confined to your home seem like a blessing.

Finally, one alternative to dreaming of other places is to better understand what’s around us right now. David Allen Sibley’s lushly illustrated What It’s Like to Be a Bird makes looking out the window more rewarding, especially if you’ve set up a feeder. Sibley unfolds the mysteries of the tiny winged dinosaurs that flit past us every day: their surprising capacity for reason and emotion, their complex methods of communication, their varied family lives. There’s a lot more going on out there than most of us realize, and the fewer opportunities we have to interfere with the lives of these remarkable creatures, the more they are flourishing. So let them have the world again for a little while longer while we hunker down to read another book or two or five. We’ll get it back soon enough.