Summer is when lovers of books feel freest to read without restraint—lying on a beach, swinging on a porch, or perching on a stoop at the end of a sweaty day. The Atlantic’s writers and editors want to help in this endeavor, and so we’ve selected books to match some warm-weather moods: Maybe you want to transport yourself to another place, or to take a deep dive into one topic. Perhaps you have a yen to feel wonder about the universe or rediscover an old gem. Some readers just want to devour something totally new. Here are 20 books you should grab this season.
Transport Yourself to Another Place
by Penelope Lively
The pleasure of Heat Wave is its slow, mesmerizing drama. Set in the English countryside over a hot summer, Lively’s slender novel introduces us to Pauline, a divorced editor in her 50s who has opted for an existence “rich in carefully nurtured minor satisfactions.” Among those satisfactions is the freedom she feels in her summer cottage, unleashed from London, her partner, and her office job. Staying next door—and buzzing at a different frequency—are her daughter, Theresa; her son-in-law, Maurice, a smarmy, up-and-coming writer; and their toddler. With a gimlet eye, Pauline observes Theresa’s unhappiness and Maurice’s shifty egotism, the amalgam of repression and delusion that seems to hold their relationship together; as she fixates on them, she thinks back on her own marriage. Lively’s wry prose captures the mundane clarity of Pauline’s life among the wheat fields and the way that a maternal ache, when left to its own devices, can crescendo. Never has a mother-in-law’s judgment seemed so deliciously understated—and so devastating in its conclusion. — Jane Yong Kim
by Don Paterson
The Scottish poet Don Paterson is kind of a genius. His poems are ferocious, his critical writings are chatty or witheringly technical or both, and he’s also produced—who does this?—several collections of aphorisms. (“Anyone whose students ‘teach him as much as he teaches them’ should lose half his salary.”) And now a memoir, Toy Fights: It covers God, guitar, origami, breakdown, and Dundee, Scotland, the poet’s hometown, “dementedly hospitable in the way poor towns are,” he writes. It was a place where, once upon a New Romantic time, you could encounter beautiful Billy Mackenzie of operatic popsters The Associates: “He had the attractive power of a 3-tesla MRI scanner, and if there was as much as a paperclip of susceptibility about your person, forget it: you’d find yourself sliding across the room as if you were on castors.” The prose is fizzing-brained, hyperbolic, and it has a hyperbolic effect: It makes you want to delete everything you’ve ever written and start again, this time telling the truth. — James Parker
Love in Color
by Bolu Babalola
Babalola’s story collection updates and retells romantic myths and fables from a bevy of cultures, tossing a reader into the richly imagined world of characters from Egypt or Nigeria, then sending them to her version of Greece or China. (She also has some fun with history: Here, Queen Nefertiti runs a club-slash-criminal-underworld-headquarters, where she punishes abusive husbands and protects vulnerable women.) The characters and scenarios can feel a tad archetypical, though that is understandable given her source material. But the stories are just fun, and none of them is long enough to drag. Many of them end with a new couple on the precipice of a great adventure. And in each encounter, love is neither an uncontrollable fever that sneaks up on a person, nor an inevitable force that shoves a couple together. It’s a kind of shelter where artifice can be abandoned—the result of careful attention that does away with illusions and misconceptions. — Emma Sarappo
by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
My first exposure to Adjei-Brenyah’s work was in a crowded, airless classroom where he read aloud a passage from the title story of his collection, Friday Black: “It’s my fourth Black Friday. On my first, a man from Connecticut bit a hole in my tricep. His slobber hot.” In the scene, the employees of a big-box retailer face down a horde of (literally) rabid shoppers lured by deals that are (again, literally) to die for. Each story in this brutally absurd, original book, Adjei-Brenyah’s debut, similarly whisks the reader somewhere unexpected: an amusement park where customers can legally fulfill violent racist fantasies against Black actors; a courtroom where a George Zimmerman analogue explains why he was justified in murdering children with a chain saw. But these summaries don’t capture the alchemy that Adjei-Brenyah performs. Friday Black presents a warped reflection of our own reality that feels both horrifying and clarifying. — Lenika Cruz
Take a Deep Dive
The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power
by Garry Wills
Come join the cult of Garry Wills, the greatest of all American political journalists. His books smuggle the psychological acumen of a novelist and the insights of a first-rate cultural critic into exegeses of the most familiar figures in American history, whom he somehow interprets anew. The first book that members of his cult will thrust into your hands is Nixon Agonistes. By all means, read it. But in the pleasure-seeking spirit of the season, take The Kennedy Imprisonment and plant yourself under an umbrella. It’s a riveting critique of the first family of 20th-century liberalism, a work that, among other things, scrutinizes the sexual and drinking habits of the Kennedys. Not fixating on Wills’s baser insights is hard. (For example: Jack’s womanizing was born of competition with his father’s philandering. Or: The Kennedys acted more like English aristocrats than Irish immigrants.) But really those are just enjoyable grace notes, because the book is, in the end, a deep essay on that irresistible intoxicant—power. — Franklin Foer
Travels in Hyperreality
by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver
Imagine you’re taking a road trip across America—but forgoing the country’s natural splendors for its manufactured ones: Disneyland, wax museums, amusement parks. Oh, and your guide on the journey is an Italian semiotician with a roving intellect and a keen eye for the absurd. That’s Travels in Hyperreality. Eco’s travelogue collects 26 dispatches, mostly written in the 1970s during the author’s visits to the U.S. In the essays, the theorist and novelist plays a classic role: the foreigner who is alternately amused and appalled by American maximalism. (A famously kitschy roadside inn, in Eco’s rendering, resembles “a nuptial catacomb for Liza Minnelli”; Disneyland is “an allegory of the consumer society” whose “visitors must agree to behave like its robots.”) But Eco’s postcards from the past are also infused with insight—and a sense of prophecy. They explore, in technicolor detail, what Eco calls our “faith in fakes.” Travel the country long enough, his trip suggests, and it becomes difficult to tell where the landscape ends and the dreamscape begins. — Megan Garber
The Last Whalers
by Doug Bock Clark
Like an anthropologist determined to get lost in the world of his subject, Clark, a journalist, went to live on a remote Indonesian island in the Savu Sea a decade ago so that he could get as close as possible to the Lamalerans, a tribe of 1,500 people who are some of the last hunter-gatherers on Earth. Their various clans subsist mostly off the meat of sperm whales, when they manage to harpoon and kill the large animals. Clark goes out to sea with them on their hunting boats, becomes emotionally involved in their conflicts, and sees firsthand the way modernity, in the form of cellphones and soap operas, encroaches on their isolated community. In the book, Clark recounts the lives of the Lamalerans with a deep respect, while also spinning a wondrous, thrilling story out of their struggles to balance their traditions with all that entices them to step outside their communal way of life. — Gal Beckerman
Aftermath: Life in the Fallout of the Third Reich, 1945–1955
by Harald Jähner, translated by Shaun Whiteside
Two of the most unavoidable presences in German life after Hitler were rubble and a disproportionate number of women. Bombarded ruins were everywhere. Cities like Frankfurt that managed to quickly remove them would flourish. Others lived with the mess and stagnated. Women did most of the cleanup, as part of bucket brigades, because of a postwar imbalance in the population—many men never returned home from the front. For every 1,000 German men in 1950, there were 1,362 women. This is the off-kilter society dissected in Jähner’s highly readable cultural history. What makes his book so fascinating—and so poignant—is the relative banality of his subject: a country of one-night stands and wild dance parties, with little recognition of the atrocities it had committed. In fact, Germany largely wallowed in self-pity. Rendered with irony and based on skillful scholarship, Jähner’s book describes both a democratic rebirth and a moral evasion, uncomfortably and inextricably linked. — F. F.
Feel Wonder About the Universe
by Alison Mills Newman
Mills Newman originally published Francisco, based on her life and love affair with her eventual husband, the director Francisco Newman, in 1974; the publisher New Directions rereleased it earlier this year. It’s told by a young Black actor in California, and the eponymous character is her lover, who is obsessively working on a documentary. The narrator is dissatisfied with Hollywood and her career, but she’s hungry for everything else life offers. She is a wise and insightful reader of people, and she and Francisco hang out with a lot of them, up and down the coast of California. Mills Newman’s novel feels like a long party, punctuated by difficult questions: about white standards of beauty, what it really means to be a revolutionary, how to be an artist, and how to be a woman partnered with a man. In the decades since it was published, Mills Newman has become a devout Christian and come to reject elements of the novel. These include, as she mentions in a new afterword, the “profanity, lifestyle of fornication, that i no longer endorse”—adding another layer of complexity to this curious, short book. — Maya Chung
by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle
Elena Knows is a mystery novel, but it’s certainly not a traditional page-turner. It follows the narrator, Elena—a stubborn, cynical 63-year-old woman with Parkinson’s—over the course of a single excruciating day. She’s traveling by train to reach someone she believes can help her find her daughter’s killer, but the journey is near impossible: Even when her medication is working, she can’t lift her head to see where she’s going or walk without great effort. As her pills wear off, she risks being stranded wherever she happens to be at the time. Still, Elena’s not meant to be pitied; she’s flawed and funny and irreverent. (Her name for Parkinson’s is “fucking whore illness.”) Piñeiro’s book is smartly plotted and genuinely suspenseful, but her greatest achievement lies elsewhere: She describes Elena’s minute-by-minute experience so meticulously that I was almost able to comprehend—even just for a moment—the incredible multitude of perspectives that exist in this world at once. And isn’t that the point of fiction, after all? — Faith Hill
by Victoria Kielland, translated by Damion Searls
The universe is a live wire in the hands of Byrnhild, later called Bella, later called Belle Gunness, in Kielland’s short, electric novel. Her book reimagines the real Gunness, a late-19th-century Norwegian immigrant and early American female serial killer, as a woman overcome by yearning. Belle can’t shut her eyes to the dazzling, splendid world; in Searls’s translation, the thoughts running through Belle’s head are breathless. “All this longing, this dripping love-sweat, it stuck to everything she did,” the narration frantically recounts. From the first pages she craves a blissful obliteration that can be found only through intimacy. After she moves from Norway to the American Midwest, her desire curdles into something more delusional that threatens everyone in her orbit—especially her lovers. Kielland gives readers scarce glimpses of lucidity as the novel takes on the tone of a dream. Belle has “the northern light tangled around her ribs”; she feels “the wet grass grow in her mouth.” Empathy slowly turns to horror, though, as it becomes clear that nothing can fill up the canyon inside her except an ultimate, bloody climax. — E. S.
by Thomas Pierce
The Afterlives is set in the near future, in a town full of holograms; the plot involves a haunted staircase, a “reunion machine” meant to reunite the living and the dead, and a physicist who argues that everything in existence is roughly 7 percent unreal. And yet, the protagonist—a 33-year-old loan officer named Jim—is a thoroughly normal guy. Even as the book’s events spin off in strange, supernatural directions, its real focus is on Jim and his developing relationship with Annie, a high-school girlfriend who’s recently been widowed; when they’re offered the chance to try the reunion machine, the story is less concerned with the details of that futuristic technology than it is with Annie’s grief and Jim’s quiet, persistent love for her. No matter how surreal things become, Pierce implies, people will keep moving forward in much the same way, living humdrum little lives together, wondering and hoping in the face of existential mystery. Our desperate curiosity about the afterlife is really about this life, and the people in it we don’t want to give up. — F. H.
An Old Gem
by Virginia Woolf
Woolf’s 1925 fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway, is made for summer reading or rereading, overflowing with vitality. “What a morning—fresh as if issued to children on a beach. What a lark! What a plunge!” Clarissa Dalloway thinks as she sets out to buy flowers on a June day in London. An upper-class English woman in her early 50s, she is preparing to throw a party with her husband that evening, not yet aware that two people she once loved passionately will be there. Woolf slips in and out of Clarissa’s consciousness, “tunneling” (her term) into other minds, too, as the day unfolds. The most notable of them belongs to Septimus Smith, a young World War I veteran who hallucinates, hears voices, and speaks of suicide—and yet who is, like Clarissa, a celebrant of life in all its abundance: For him, death offers the only way to preserve his vision of plenitude. Treat yourself to a beautiful supplement as well, The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway, full of notes, photos, and insights, and edited by the critic Merve Emre. But first, just pick up a paperback and dive into Woolf’s daring experiment to find out whether “the inside of the mind,” as she put it in her notebook, “can be made luminous.” — Ann Hulbert
Her First American
by Lore Segal
The originality of this love story between two outsiders in 1950s New York City, Carter Bayoux and Ilka Weissnix, cannot be overstated. Bayoux is a middle-aged Black intellectual, a former United Nations official who seems to know everyone and can opine on every topic; he is also an alcoholic at the bottom of a deep pit. Weissnix is a 21-year-old Jewish refugee from Vienna who can barely speak English when the book begins, unsure if she has been orphaned by the war. The story of their affair is also a story about Ilsa’s American education: She learns from Bayoux how to function at the margins, how to succeed by charming, how never to lose a sense of one’s own distance from the center. The more she grows into her independence, though, the further he sinks, until it’s clear that he can’t be saved even as she begins to build a life of her own. — G. B.
The Stone Face
by William Gardner Smith
Following the path of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Chester Himes, a Black American émigré arrives in 1950s Paris to find an existential freedom in the city’s cafés and bars, a space free of white leering and judgment. Simeon Brown, an aspiring painter and the protagonist of Smith’s deeply underappreciated novel, grew up in Philadelphia, where he suffered a brutal racist attack that left him blind in one eye, an incident that haunts him. While abroad, his reprieve from racial animus dissolves when he befriends a group of young Arabs struggling against France’s colonial atrocities in Algeria. These young men see Simeon as benefiting from a kind of whiteness, insofar as he’s free from the racial violence of their state. But Simeon’s Black expat friends believe taking up the Arab cause risks the very freedom they all came searching for. Trapped by a dizzying moral question, Simeon is forced to confront the shifting realities of identity and racial allegiance as he fights the personal demons that have followed him across the ocean. — Oliver Munday
Hotel du Lac
by Anita Brookner
Hotel du Lac is technically a vacation novel. On the page, though, it’s much cooler and more dispassionate than that description implies. When Edith Hope, a 39-year-old romance writer, arrives at a Swiss hotel as fall begins for a period of self-imposed exile, the landscape is gray, the gardens are damp, and everything in her bedroom is “the color of overcooked veal.” Edith has committed a sin that Brookner withholds until midway through. Suffering through dreary evening dinners with the Hotel du Lac’s similarly compromised guests is her uncomfortable penance, until she receives an offer that forces her to think about how she really wants to live. The novel, Brookner’s fourth, drew uncharitable responses after it won the Booker Prize in 1984. But there’s fascinating, bracing tension amid the book’s women, each deemed unfit to be anywhere else: Monica, whose aristocratic husband bristles at her eating disorder; the narcissistic, flamboyant widow Iris Pusey and her stolid daughter, Jennifer; the elderly Madame de Bonneuil, deaf and desperately lonely. Edith can’t quite bond with any of them—she’s too brittle and skeptical for sisterhood—but each woman shades a different kind of existence that throws Edith’s final decision into sharper relief. — Sophie Gilbert
Devour Something Totally New
by Emma Cline
Alex, the protagonist of Cline’s second novel, is an escort in her early 20s, desperate to evade paying both her New York City back rent and a menacing ex-boyfriend to whom she owes an apparently hefty sum of money. She’s been spending time on Long Island’s East End with her much-older boyfriend, Simon, who dumps her shortly after the book begins. But Alex doesn’t want to return to the city, where the only thing that awaits her is her debt. So she whiles away the week until Simon’s Labor Day party, where she plans to win him back. She’s broke, with a busted phone and nowhere to stay; she survives only by taking advantage of everyone who crosses her path. Some of her victims: a group of rowdy young house-sharers, an unstable teenage boy, a lonely young woman who thinks she’s found a new friend. Alex, a blatant (and terrifyingly skilled) user of people, maintains a chilly distance from each of them, even as she sleeps in their beds, eats their food, and takes their drugs. As the novel closes in on the party, Cline creates a feeling of sweaty anxiety—though her protagonist never panics. — M. C.
by Samantha Irby
No one describes the human body quite like Irby. She’s a poet of embarrassment: Her confessional style is frank and unashamed about all of its possible fleshy or sticky causes. (Straightforward lines like “Yes, I pissed my pants at the club” abound.) The discomfiting yet universal phenomena of aging, being ill, and having your body let you down are Irby’s most reliable subjects, and anaphylaxis, perimenopause, and diarrhea all get their moments in Quietly Hostile, her fourth essay collection. But the book is also a receptacle for her wildest dreams, such as what she would say to Dave Matthews if she could meet him backstage, or a self-indulgent meditation on how she would rewrite original Sex and the City episodes (fueled by her time as a writer on its reboot, And Just Like That). When she wants to, Irby can evoke grief without blinking: She recounts, for example, her final, painful, conversation with her mother. But her writing about the great transition from being “young and lubricated” to middle-aged is reliably moving in its own way, and consistently hilarious. — E. S.
by David Grann
The dramatic story of the 18th-century shipwreck of the HMS Wager seems almost ready-made for Grann, the best-selling New Yorker writer famous for dynamic narrative histories, such as his previous book, Killers of the Flower Moon. When the British ship gets shredded traversing the treacherous waves and rocks of Cape Horn on a quixotic mission to search for and plunder enemy Spanish boats, the survivors find themselves stranded on an island off the coast of Patagonia. What happens next can be neatly summed up by the fact that Grann has used a quotation from Lord of the Flies as part of his epigraph. His dogged search through ships’ logs and other contemporaneous accounts of the disaster and its mutinous aftermath has turned up the kind of sterling details that make his writing sing; he is also interested in the way these events were recorded and then recounted, with many different people trying to shape the memory of what happened. Grann simultaneously reconstructs history while telling a tale that is as propulsive and adventure-filled as any potboiler. — G. B.
The Late Americans
by Brandon Taylor
A small, quiet act “had the indifference of love,” Taylor writes near the end of a chapter in The Late Americans. In this scene, a couple is on the outs; they each seem to feed off of needling the other. Yet even as the relationship fissures, Timo makes sure Fyodor gets home safe, driving behind him as Fyodor walks, unsteadily drunk, through the Iowa City night and back to his cold, blank apartment. Their distant togetherness echoes across the novel, where young poets, pianists, meatpackers, and aspiring investment bankers are clumped on and around a university campus, teetering through graduate courses, financial strain, hapless affairs, and the casual dread of not quite knowing their place in the world. The connections between Taylor’s multiple protagonists seem alternately random, doomed, and deeply romantic—much like the conditions that tie them to their creativity, and that keep them moving elliptically, tenderly, toward coming of age. — Nicole Acheampong