Remember the children’s summer reading program at your local library? Whether it trafficked in gold stars, free food, or toys from a treasure chest, no doubt you remember the swell of accomplishment you felt at each reading milestone ticked off your list. We’ve got some good news for you: summer reading programs aren’t just for kids. You can design your own summer reading program—and your own reward system, too.
Wondering where to begin? We’ve got twenty suggestions for you, all drawn from this summer’s blockbuster line-up of new literary releases. Our favorite books of the season delve into everything from biker bars to beaches, Hollywood to high school, young love to bad sex. Whether you’re into novels, short stories, memoirs, or nonfiction, there’s something here for every type of reader.
Not all of these books have hit shelves yet, but if you see something you like, pre-order it now and thank yourself later. Have it delivered to your little slice of summer paradise, and you’ll be rewarding yourself with new grown-up treats in no time.
Tracy Flick Can’t Win, by Tom Perrotta
Nearly 25 years after Election was published, Perrotta’s hyper-competent heroine returns. Now in her forties, Tracy Flick is ruminating on roads not taken: the #MeToo movement causes her to question a long-ago sexual encounter with a teacher, while caretaking responsibilities have dashed her law school dreams and led her back to Green Meadow High School as the beleaguered assistant principal. With her boss set to retire, Tracy seems like a shoe-in for the top job—but first, she’ll have to overcome the male stakeholders seeking to derail her ascension. Told with Perrotta’s piercing wit, wisdom, and exquisite insight into human folly, Tracy’s second act delivers acerbic insight about frustrated ambition.
Cult Classic, by Sloane Crosley
Crosley brings her prodigious gifts as a humorist to this crackling novel about Lola, a thirty-something with cold feet about her impending nuptials who keeps bumping into former flames. But as it turns out, it’s not coincidence behind these run-ins: Lola is patient zero in a wellness cult’s quest to offer romantic closure on demand. At once acerbic and poignant, Cult Classic’s tour through heartbreaks past yields bittersweet truths about finding love by swipe. It’s as fine a treatise on modern romance as they come.
How You Get Famous: Ten Years of Drag Madness in Brooklyn, by Nicole Pasulka
Pasulka takes us tumbling down a glittery rabbit hole in this engrossing look at the last decade of Brooklyn ballroom culture. How You Get Famous introduces readers to electric performers like Merrie Cherry, who overcame a stroke to continue her drag career; Aja, a multiple-time contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race; and Sasha Velour, who made waves with her bald head. Through this electric constellation of performers, Pasulka paints a vivid portrait of a singular subculture: joyful and scrappy, it’s gone on to galvanize a community and inspire a wider cultural movement.
Nuclear Family, by Joseph Han
In this electric debut novel, we meet the Cho family: Mr. and Mrs. Cho run a popular Korean plate lunch restaurant in Hawai’i, where they dream of growing the business into a franchise their adult children, Grace and Jacob, will someday inherit. But trouble is brewing on the other side of the Pacific: while teaching English in South Korea, Jacob makes international headlines when he’s arrested for attempting to cross the Demilitarized Zone. Back in Hawai’i, gossip threatens to sink the family’s fortunes, but the truth is stranger than anyone can imagine: Jacob was possessed by the ghost of his grandfather, who’s desperate to find the family he once abandoned in North Korea. Through a multitude of hilarious and heartbreaking perspectives, Han tells a charged story about identity, migration, and borders.
Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me, by Ada Calhoun
When Calhoun once went looking for a childhood toy, she stumbled upon a far greater treasure: dusty cassette tapes of interviews recorded by her father, art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who started but never completed a biography of the gone-too-soon poet Frank O’Hara. As a lifelong O’Hara fan, Calhoun gleefully committed to finishing what Schjeldahl started, but the task proved to be anything but easy. Like her father before her, Calhoun was stonewalled by Maureen O’Hara, the poet’s prickly sister and executor; the project also revealed the faultlines in her complicated bond with Schjeldahl, whom she longs to impress. In this heartfelt memoir, Calhoun recounts how going in search of O’Hara revealed so much more—namely, the painful complexities of parents, children, art, and ambition.
Lapvona, by Otessa Moshfegh
Five novels into her prolific and varied career, Moshfegh continues to surprise, delight, and disgust. Her latest madcap outing finds us in the medieval fiefdom of Lapvona, where plague ravages the population, drought chokes the fields, and cruel Lord Villiam controls the village larder as his subjects starve. Enter Marek, a thirteen-year-old boy questioning his belief in God amid all this misery, who comes under the tutelage of Lord Villiam’s lessons about “this stupid life.” Haunting, absurd, and full of trademark Moshfeghian gross-outs, Lapvona is a trenchant allegory for our own pandemic-riddled world of theocracy and corruption.
The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach, by Sarah Stodola
Quick—picture your perfect vacation. Does it involve staying at a resort and sipping a Mai Tai on the beach? We’re not out to yuck anyone’s yum, but beachgoers everywhere need to read this gripping account about the dark side of paradise. In The Last Resort, Stodola investigates the origins of beach culture, revealing that our understanding of the beach as paradise is actually a modern concept; it wasn’t until the 18th century that the seaside wellness craze changed our views about the ocean, once seen as a fearsome foe. Today, beach travel has become de rigueur, but it carries heavy costs, as it strangles local economies, threatens natural resources, and widens social inequality. After reading The Last Resort, you’ll never look at an all-inclusive vacation quite the same way.
The Angel of Rome, by Jess Walter
One of our finest practitioners of the short story form returns with an ebullient second collection. Fans of Walter’s seminal Beautiful Ruins will fall hard for the swoony title story, in which a Nebraska co-ed studying Latin in Rome encounters the Italian bombshell of his teenage dreams. In another darkly comedic standout, a middle-aged divorcée goes to desperate lengths to find a home for his aging father, a “horny alcoholic toddler” unfit for traditional assisted living. Elsewhere, a woman suffering from cancer seeks out her stoner ex—the only person who can assuage her fear of dying. Wise, poignant, and generous of spirit, these stories remind us that Walter is a national treasure.
Night of the Living Rez, by Morgan Talty
An astounding new voice arrives in this debut collection of twelve linked stories, all set in the Panawahpskek (Penobscot) Nation of Maine. In one standout story, two friends, inspired by Antiques Roadshow, stage a heist at the tribal museum; in another, a grandmother suffering from dementia mistakes her grandson for her dead brother, believing that he’s come back to life. Talty’s accomplished stories turn an unflinching eye on the hardships of life in this community, like drug addiction and economic instability, while also capturing the scrappy growing pains of adolescence. Night of the Living Rez is proof that Talty is an important new writer to watch.
Harry Sylvester Bird, by Chinelo Okparanta
The title character of Okparanta’s gutsy new novel is a white teenager born to xenophobic parents, but everything changes for young Harry Sylvester Bird on a safari in Tanzania, when he develops an enduring fascination with Blackness. Harry soon escapes to college in Manhattan and begins to identify as Black, joining a “Transracial-Anon” support group and longing for “racial reassignment.” When he falls in love with Maryam, a student from Nigeria, a study-abroad trip to Ghana’s Gold Coast puts both their romance and his identity to the test. Outlandish and arresting, Harry’s miseducation is a deft satire of prejudice and allyship.
Hollywood Ending: Harvey Weinstein and the Culture of Silence, by Ken Auletta
Twenty years ago, Ken Auletta wrote a definitive New Yorker profile of Harvey Weinsten, which exposed the movie mogul as a violent and volatile person. But one story remained frustratingly ungraspable: though it was rumored that Weinstein was a sexual abuser, none of his victims would go on the record. Award-winning journalists including Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor, and Ronan Farrow would later draw on Auletta’s reporting in their quests to expose the truth about Weinstein. Now, with his erstwhile subject behind bars, Auletta is revisiting him anew—and paying dogged attention to the systems that allowed him to operate unchecked. From the executives who abetted him to the brother who covered his tracks, Weinstein didn’t act in a vacuum, Auletta reveals—rather, he was enabled at nearly every turn. Exhaustively reported and utterly enraging, Hollywood Ending is a damning look at Hollywood’s history of corruption and complicity.
Pretty Baby, by Chris Belcher
As a financially strapped PhD student in Los Angeles, Belcher fell into an unusual side hustle: she began working as a pro-domme, fulfilling the fantasies of male clients aroused by feelings of shame and weakness. Belcher found unique power in the work as a queer woman: “My clientele wanted a woman who would never want them in return, and at that, I excelled,” she writes. But as she illuminates in this discerning memoir, the work had its drawbacks: namely, the brutality and blackmail of men. In a lucid examination of power, sexuality, and class, Belcher tells a gripping story about the performance of identity, inside and outside of the dungeon.
The Great Man Theory, by Teddy Wayne
Divorced, demoted, and living with his mother, Paul is having a rough year. Downgraded from lecturer to adjunct, he scribbles away at a grand theory of the universe titled The Luddite Manifesto, but struggles to improve his reduced circumstances. Soon he’s driving for a rideshare company and attempting to make good with his tweenage daughter, all while his outrage about our abhorrent orange president festers. Just when Paul seems to hit rock bottom, another trap door opens, leading the novel to a shocking crescendo of pent-up rage. Wise and grimly funny, Wayne’s dyspeptic satire of the Trump years paints a vivid portrait of male misery.
Dirtbag, Massachusetts: A Confessional, by Isaac Fitzgerald
In this bleeding heart memoir, Fitzgerald peels back the layers of his extraordinary life. Dirtbag, Massachusetts opens with his hardscrabble childhood in a dysfunctional Catholic family, then spins out into the decades of jobs and identities that followed. From bartending at a biker bar to smuggling medical supplies to starring in porn films, it’s all led him to here and now: he’s still a work in progress, but gradually, he’s arriving at profound realizations about masculinity, family, and selfhood. Dirtbag, Massachusetts is the best of what memoir can accomplish: blisteringly honest and vulnerable, it pulls no punches on the path to truth, but always finds the capacity for grace and joy. “To any young men out there who aren’t too far gone,” Fitzgerald writes, “I say you’re not done becoming yourself.”
Honey & Spice, by Bolu Babalola
If you fell for Love in Color, Babalola’s sensuous retelling of ancient love stories from around the world, then her sophomore outing won’t disappoint. Ambitious college sophomore Kiki Banjo has no time for the mediocre guys she dubs “wastemen,” but before too long, she meets her match in Malakai Korede, the transfer student who becomes her collaborator at the college radio station. A fake romance intended to promote their professional projects soon gives way to real feelings, but can Kiki move beyond the careful walls she’s constructed around her heart? Clever, confident Kiki is a romantic heroine for the ages, while the witty repartée and pop culture passion between these young lovers make for a vivacious romp.
The Last White Man, by Mohsin Hamid
This extraordinary novel opens with a Kafkaesque shock: Anders, a young white man, awakens to discover that he has “turned a deep and undeniable brown.” One by one, the rest of the world follows suit; as time passes, each person loses their “memories of whiteness,” leading to a restructuring of civilization as we know it. When whiteness is stripped away, along with all of its privileges and structures, what remains? In this provocative fable about race and social justice, Hamid offers a hopeful tale of transformation within and without.
Bad Sex: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution, by Nona Willis Aronowitz
When Teen Vogue’s sex columnist decided to end her marriage at 32 years old, chief among her complaints was “bad sex.” Newly divorced, Aronowitz went in search of good sex, but along the way, she discovered thorny truths about “the problem that has no name”—that despite the advances of feminism and the sexual revolution, true sexual freedom remains out of reach. Cultural criticism, memoir, and social history collide in Aronowitz’s no-nonsense investigation of all that ails young lovers, like questions about desire, consent, and patriarchy. It’s a revealing read bound to expand your thinking.
Perish, by LaToya Watkins
In this beautifully wrought debut novel, Watkins chronicles multiple generations of the Turner family, all gathered at the bedside of Helen Jean, their dying matriarch. Helen Jean’s choices have rippled across the generations, irrevocably shaping the lives of descendants like Julie, who resents how Helen Jean once controlled her emotional weather, and Jan, who yearns to leave their troubled Texas town far behind her. Perish offers a moving look into Black communities, bringing complexity and nuance to this story of intergenerational trauma and the toll it takes on the human spirit. But for all the secrets, resentments, and bitterness here, Watkins has generosity of spirit enough to entertain the possibility of forgiveness; miraculous and moving, light glimmers at the edges of this wise novel.
Didn’t Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta, by James Hannaham
Hannaham’s buoyant sophomore novel introduces us to the unforgettable Carlotta Mercedes, an Afro-Latinx trans woman released from a men’s prison after serving two decades. Returning home to Brooklyn, she encounters a gentrified city she doesn’t recognize, as well as a host of new stressors; life on the outside soon involves an unforgiving parole process and a family that struggles to recognize her transition. Over the course of one zany Fourth of July weekend, Carlotta descends into Brooklyn’s roiling underbelly on a quest to stand in her truth. Angry, saucy, and joyful, Carlotta is a true survivor—one whose story shines a disinfecting light on the injustices of our world.
Raising Lazarus: Hope, Justice, and the Future of America’s Overdose Crisis, by Beth Macy
Macy’s gripping follow-up to the mega-bestselling Dopesick finds her in a familiar milieu: back on the frontlines of the opioid crisis, where she embeds with healthcare workers, legislators, and activists seeking to save lives and heal communities. Where Dopesick focused on addiction sufferers and their families, Raising Lazarus turns the lens to the fight for justice, from the prosecution of the Sackler family to the reformers pioneering innovative treatments for the afflicted. Enlightening and exhaustive, it’s at once a damning exposé about greed and a moving paean to the power of community activism.
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