7 Big Summer Books

Which books are on your reading list these days? After a fall and winter spent consuming mostly news (so much news!) it has felt really great lately to crack open a fresh book and let my mind roam. Here are seven I’d highly recommend…

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
I’ve long loved George Saunders’ short stories, so I figured I’d sail through his first novel. But it turned out to be one of the most challenging books I’ve ever read. Here is the premise: Willie, the 11-year-old son of Abraham Lincoln, dies of typhoid in the White House (true story). The grief-stricken president visits his grave, where hundreds of spirits lurk, including Willie. (“Bardo” is the Tibetan word for the limbo between life and afterlife.) Most of the story is told over the course of one night, through the alternating voices of the dead, so it reads like a play filled with sad, profound, humorous, supernatural and ultimately very compelling dialogue. Even though it took me almost 50 pages — no joke — to get used to Saunders’ unusual format, I’m so glad I hung in. After putting it down, the voices of the bardo reverberated through my head for a week, like a beautiful song. (If you’d like to try Saunders’ short stories, check out this one, which compiles his pieces from The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and Harper’s.)

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
Did you read Thanksgiving in Mongolia, the 2013 New Yorker essay by Ariel Levy about her miscarriage? It was so harrowing — and one of the best magazine articles I’ve ever read. Levy’s new book about her life before and after that experience does what great memoirs do: it illuminates her complex life while also opening readers up for their own self reflection. Overall, I found Levy’s story incredibly insightful and relevant. “I wanted what we all want: everything,” writes Levy. “We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.”

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Like her Pulitzer prize-winning book (and HBO miniseries) Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s new novel feels almost like a collection of short stories. Each chapter spotlights a different resident of Amgash, Illinois, a small town where everyone is connected to each other (and to Lucy Barton, the central character of Strout’s last novel, which is one of Joanna’s all-time favorite books.). Sex is a major theme — voyeurism, extramarital affairs and a secret gay life (to name just a few flavors) swirl as Strout paints a picture of Midwestern America. If you’re looking for a new book club pick, Anything is Possible would be a slam dunk, setting the table for juicy discussions about families, sex, marriage, siblings and hometowns.

Startup by Doree Shafrir
This is my pick for your beach bag: a gossipy satire set amidst personal entanglements in the tech industry. Shafrir’s debut novel makes for funny, fast reading, and I laughed out loud a dozen times (especially at the fictional apps Shafrir invented). The plot follows Mack McAllister, the 28-year-old founder of TakeOff, a mindfulness app that sends motivational push notifications. There is a sex scandal and a comedy of errors ensues. It’s all highly entertaining, but Shafrir, who covers startups for Buzzfeed, also smartly nails two dominant cultural themes: women in the workplace and the primacy of technology in our lives.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
No summer book list would be complete without a great thriller, and I couldn’t resist Hawkins’ anxiously awaited second novel (The Girl on a Train was her smash-hit first book). The plot, set in the English town of Beckford, involves the drownings of a single mother and a teenage girl in a the same pool of water where women accused of witchcraft were punished centuries earlier. Water is central to Beckford and plot as a whole — a river runs through everything, physically and metaphorically, just like the train tracks in The Girl on a Train. “The water, dark and glassy, hides what lies beneath,” Hawkins writes. Eek! I found this book’s unexpected layers and urgent pace both scary and addictive.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman
If you came of age in the 90s, you will love this book. A few pages in, iPhones and mp3s are a distant memory, swapped out for boxy computers and CDs of They Might Be Giants. And you will be enthralled by its main character, Selin, a Harvard freshman experiencing her first awkward relationship with Ivan, a slightly older math major. Selin, Batuman writes, is “an American teenager, the world’s least interesting and dignified kind of person,” which perfectly encapsulates the book’s funny and self-deprecating tone. There are so many tender moments — a young woman’s discovery of great literature, travel abroad, swimming dates, solo cigarettes, late-night pizza confabs (at Pizzeria Uno, no less) — and Batuman’s true-to-life writing made me feel like I had mind-swapped with a new archetype. I totally agree with the reviewer who wrote, “Long after I finished The Idiot, I looked at every lanky girl with her nose in a book on the subway and thought: Selin.”

Option B by Sheryl Sandberg
A few years ago, a colleague of mine who was being honored at an office party burst into tears during her speech. Everyone fell silent until she shouted, “Sheryl Sandberg says it’s OK to cry in front of your coworkers!” Laughter erupted, heads bobbed in agreement. Indeed, ever since Sandberg wrote Lean In four years ago, scores of women have taken to heart pieces of her wisdom, even when they couldn’t relate to her unequivocally. But, Option B, written by Sandberg (Facebook’s COO) and the psychologist Adam Grant, is 1,000 times more universal than Lean In. This is not only because Sandberg writes so candidly about her own hardship (her husband’s death) but because she and Grant tell the stories of many others — a painter who is deaf and blind, a woman who had a teenage pregnancy — who have triumphed over adversity. “Resilience is not a fixed personality trait,” they write. “It’s a lifelong project.” If you need a pick-me-up or a perspective shift, you’ll fly through this thoughtful book and feel invigorated.

What are you reading? I’d love to hear. (This is next on my nightstand.)

P.S. Five more must-reads and 10 great audiobooks.

(Photo by Stella Blackmon for Cup of Jo.)