The best “beach reads” often have nothing to do with the beach. Or summer. But we all know what we’re looking for. A beach read has to be easy to pick up, hard to put down, and it’s got to make you feel all the feels. Summer 2018, here we come!
Top 10 Beach Reads for Summer 2018
My top pick for Summer 2018 is The Mars Room, a new novel by Rachel Kushner that shimmers and sweats in the heat of a women’s prison in California. Romy Hall, a night club dancer, has been sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for killing her stalker boyfriend. She’s figuring out prison life and agonizing over the fate of her young son – now in foster care – when she meets Gordon, a prison employee and teacher, idealistic and broke when he took the job. “If his students could learn to think well, to enjoy reading books, some part of them would be uncaged,” Gordon tells himself – and sometimes he even believes it. You’ll believe in every one of the characters Kushner introduces us to as Romy navigates life behind bars, a place where the human spirit is sometimes but not always crushed, in which there is room for ingenuity and compassion as well as brutality. The Mars Room will open your eyes and break your heart and stay with you long after you’ve pressed it into the hands of your best friend saying, “You’ve got to read this.”
Another book that will pull you in and wring you out this summer is Educated, a memoir that’s already spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Tara Westover grew up in remotest Idaho, in a survivalist Mormon family, with little knowledge of the outside world. Civil Rights? The Holocaust? Never heard of them. Doctor’s office? Never been. She became acquainted with the pain of abuse and eventually found her way to Brigham Young University and later Harvard and Cambridge, England. Her memoir is a testament to the power of education and of family love that can bind – and nearly destroy. “Despite its harrowing plot, Westover’s book is no misery memoir. Yes, there’s hardship, the depiction of which could be compared to Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle or Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. But the book is also an elegantly written story of a young girl finding herself by leaving America and going to Europe – closer in that sense to Henry James than James Frey,” writes Vogue. Everyone you know is reading this memoir.
They’re reading Educated, or maybe David Sedaris’s latest story collection, Calypso. If you’re a Sedaris fan (Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Me Talk Pretty One Day), you know what to expect from him: short, punchy chapters infused with deliciously black humor and poignancy. Calypso does not disappoint, especially if you’re familiar with his earlier work and read it in that context. “Death and family are what this book is all about. Maybe what all David Sedaris’s work is about? …We can avoid neither and the existence of both reminds us that we are no different from one another,” writes The New York Times. His work has been described as “tragicomic” and himself a “cheerful misanthrope”; this work falls on the darker side of the line without plunging into an abyss.
One aspect of Sedaris’ life is, of course, being gay – touched on lightly in Calypso. This year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Less, inhabits gay culture and identity more fully – and with more sweetness in its humor. It’s a romp and an opera and something deeper, “a generous book, musical in its prose and expansive in its structure and range, about growing older and the essential nature of love,” according to the Pulitzer award committee.
From the publisher:
Who says you can’t run away from your problems? You are a failed novelist about to turn fifty. A wedding invitation arrives in the mail: your boyfriend of the past nine years is engaged to someone else. You can’t say yes – it would be too awkward – and you can’t say no – it would look like defeat. On your desk are a series of invitations to half-baked literary events around the world.
QUESTION: How do you arrange to skip town?
ANSWER: You accept them all.
…Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty…
…Less shows a writer at the peak of his talents raising the curtain on our shared human comedy.
Less, Calypso, Educated, The Mars Room: all thrilling! But not thrillers. If you’re looking for more straight-up suspense in your summer reading, check out Sunburn, the latest from New York Times bestselling author Laura Lippman. Polly Costello is in the process of slipping away from her husband and young daughter when we meet her, on the lam, in a small town in Delaware. Two private investigators have been sent to track her down, one by her husband and the other by a man who believes she owes him a lot of money. Things get hot between Polly and one of the PI’s … are they falling in love? Or just using each other? “Ingeniously constructed and extremely suspenseful, the novel keeps us guessing right up until its final moments,” writes Booklist. “Modern noir at its best,” writes Library Journal. Agreed! That being said – you’re probably not going to shed any tears for the heroine of Sunburn.
To feel all the feels, and also get swept up in suspenseful story, try Kristen Chen’s new novel, Bury What We Cannot Take. It’s late 1950s China, and a nine-year-old girl and her brother live with their family in the upper floor of what used to be their family villa. Mao is in power – his ideology ascendant – and the girl’s formerly wealthy family now shares their home with many. Party leaders enforce political orthodoxy and punish dissent with public denunciation and execution. When the girl’s brother reports that his grandmother shattered a framed photo of Mao in their home, he sets in motion a terrifying chain of events. One child must be left behind as the others secretly flee. “[T]he novel succeeds in drawing a very striking portrait of this turbulent period of Chinese history,” writes The Millions. “Bury What We Cannot Take explores what it takes to survive in a world gone mad – and what is lost when we do. Kirsten Chen has written both an engrossing historical drama and a nuanced exploration of how far the bonds of familial love can stretch,” writes author Celeste Ng (Little Fires Everywhere, Everything I Never Told You).
The biggest titles in historical fiction this summer may well be Varina, by Charles Frazier, and Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje. Charles Frazier enchanted and moved us with his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel, Cold Mountain (1997). Varina remains rooted in the historical time period and region of Cold Mountain – the Civil War South – and imagines the life of Jefferson Davis’s wife. As military defeat became inevitable, Davis sent Varina, their children and a few soldiers on a wild journey towards Florida, Cuba and safe haven. The novel begins somewhat awkwardly, imagining that a middle-aged man has found Varina in her old age at a health sanitarium in New England. He’s a black man, a free man, and he’s trying to find out what she knows about his past. The novel comes to life more convincingly when Varina begins telling the story of her nearly-successful escape – and how their lives intersected when he was a very young child.
Michael Ondaatje transported us to North Africa and Italy in the waning days of World War II in moody, transcendent style in The English Patient (1992). His new novel, Warlight, tells a similarly atmospheric tale, set in post-World War II England. “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals,” the book begins, gorgeously. The story is told by one of the children much later in his life as he reflects on his parents’ choices and their consequences.
Warlight illuminates by looking backwards, but Curtis Sittenfeld chooses to illuminate by focusing squarely and painfully on the present moment. Each story in her new collection You Think It, I’ll Say It introduces us to a character in a terribly awkward or uncomfortable situation. For instance: what if you’re married with kids, you’ve been flirting with a fellow parent at school events for a long time, you think you’re both falling in love, you confess your feelings, and you learn that his feelings were completely platonic. Awkward! Horrible! Real. A moment to despair – and reflect. What if the woman you’ve hated all through pregnancy yoga and breast-feeding classes ends up being the one person who helps you when you need it most? Awkward! Painful! Real. Sittenfeld’s main characters – mostly women – can be resentful and ungenerous and distrustful. They remember hurts from high school. And, over the course of the story, they are forced to confront their ugliest feelings. Their most painful memories. They’re forced to think about their actions – then and now. They don’t always want transformative change. Sometimes they get it anyhow, and sometimes they avoid it. These unsettling stories surprise and ask us: who are you, at your worst? Who do you want to be?
Not everyone’s looking for dagger-like short stories in their beach read. You might be looking for something more rom com, more fun, more frothy. But still smart! If so, try What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw, by Leah Stewart. Charlie Outlaw’s a movie star, getting more famous every day. His girlfriend, also a movie star, is not. They’ve broken up – and he’s broken-hearted – when he disappears. Will they ever find each other again, each of them longing for the other? This novel offers adventure, suspense, exotic locations and a compassionate look at what it might be like to walk this earth as a famous actor.
Bonus book: If you are counting, we have an extra selection from Jennifer — so that’s ELEVEN books to keep you company all summer long!
You aren’t that interested in celebrity. You’re looking a family drama, with some conflict of course, but something fundamentally warm and satisfying. If you like novels by Anne Tyler or Sue Miller, try Go Ask Fannie, by Elisabeth Hyde. Three middle-aged siblings living in different cities visit their aging father in the family home, an old farmhouse in New Hampshire. One of the siblings possibly assaults her ex-boyfriend in the process of defending a family heirloom – he damaged it! – and a crisis ensues. Who’s telling the truth about what happened that day in the kitchen? In this heartfelt, sometimes funny story, told with an assured voice, family conflict and love intertwine. And – spoiler alert – happyish endings are in fact possible, in fiction as well as life. You just have to be willing to feel all the feels.
For additional reading recommendations and miscellaneous musings by Jennifer Puryear, please check in at BaconOnTheBookshelf.com.
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