The Vanishing Half
This feels like the book of the summer, the one everyone is reading. I’m drawn to it not only because I love Bennett’s prose, but because Nella Larsen’s novella, Passing, still haunts me. To read another fictional account of passing, written almost ninety years later, gives us the chance to ask: what has changed, and what has stayed the same?
Tokyo Ueno Station
Anything that is both a ghost story and an allegory of inequality seems the perfect fit for the present moment.
I loved Dept. of Speculation, so I can’t wait to read Offill’s latest.
Toni Morrison: The Last Interview
When Morrison passed away last summer, the sharpness of my sadness took me by surprise. She was a giant, and I want to get close to her words again.
The Sweetest Fruits
Truong is perpetually underappreciated. The Book of Salt was one of my favorite books—I remember loving it when it came out.
The Margot Affair
The reviews of this book have been intriguing—plus, I like the cover!
Andre Aciman considers this book the inspiration for Call Me By Your Name, which is enough of a recommendation for me.
Evvie Drake Starts Over
My editor, Sara Weiss, also edited this book, so I’m sort of professionally curious. And it sounds like a delightful beach read!
Everyone Knows How Much I Love You
When I think about summer reading, I think about a stone bench in a sun-dappled park where I imbibed the misadventures of Don Quixote, errant knight extraordinaire. I think about a gnarled tree stump on a rocky mountainside where I shook my head over the adultery of Emma B. Say “summer reading,” and tents, and flashlights, and beach towels by the community pool come to me. I remember too a saggy couch in a stuffy apartment during a heatwave in Brooklyn, New York; I remember hours with P.G. Wodehouse and Edward P. Jones and Jamaica Kincaid. I remember drilling through War and Peace while rocking in a rocking chair in a screened-in porch in Iowa while two lovable and completely insane dogs compulsively licked the wooden floorboards inside.
I was heartbroken that summer, blasted by a love affair gone wrong. Stuck in the cornfields, dog-sitting for a couple who had fled to the cool Oregon coast, left with a broken air conditioner and a string of ninety-five degree days, I thought I would lose my mind. Days drifted by in a haze of sweat and grief, wet rings from water glasses, cold showers and sleepless nights in front of listless electric fans.
In most essays about summer books, I would tell you that reading about Napoleon’s snowy retreat from Moscow helped me escape my own sweaty misery. I would say that the frozen corpses and stiffened fingers and visible breath all perversely cooled me; I would say something vague but lovely about the power of books to provide escape, or something broad but comforting about history and the wisdom of Tolstoy’s expansive heart.
But that’s too simple. The truth is that War and Peace didn’t cool me down. Reading it, I was still hot, and bored, and heartbroken. Sometimes I could barely concentrate. Even now, there are whole sections of the masterpiece that are blank to me. But it gave my mind somewhere to go. It was a net saving me from insanity’s roiling pit.
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Now, of course, a great many of us feel suspended above insanity’s roiling pit. Most of us won’t be going anywhere this summer; the travel and beaches and mountains—even the community pool—of my first paragraph are fantasies, even for those who have the means to go. (Looking back at that list, I realize how lucky I’ve been.) And some of us are really struggling. We have sick friends, or family. We’ve lost our jobs. Our bank accounts are dwindling. We’ve been taking care of the kids alone. We’ve been marching for racial justice. We’ve been organizing, and grieving; taking action, and trying to understand. It’s a strange time in America, both fast and slow. It doesn’t seem quite right to offer the usual paean to the pleasures of escapism. Even my use of the first person plural is vexed: are we really all in it together? Perhaps it’s not right to make a general statement about what “we” want from reading, why “we” pick up one book over another.
So rather than make some vague, lovely statement about the power of books to transport, I’ll offer a single observation, based on my own experience: when you read for hours in the summertime, sometimes the words and the place braid themselves more deeply into your heart.
All that time in Iowa, when I was trying so hard to travel to 19th century Russia, I was learning something about the power of endurance, of sustained attention. I just didn’t know it. And now, when I look back on that time, I can’t understand it without Tolstoy: Tolstoy has become part of what that hot heartbroken summer means.
By leaving your life, you might come more fully into it.
In hopes of coming more fully into my life this summer, I’ll be reading the following.
Featured image: @kawamura via Twenty20