Look, this summer, read whatever you want.
Don’t listen to me. Indulge your whims. It’s been a few summers since you could comfortably relax on a beach, towel to towel with strangers, and just lose yourself in a long book for a couple of hours. Not entirely sure you can do that now, either. But it’s likely. So read the collected works of Proust. Or the collected works of Nora Roberts. Read comics (the finest ones right now are smarter than many novels). Read self-help, or if you’re in tune with the coming dystopia, read something darker and devoid of help.
Like the climate itself, our cultural climate is as fluid as it has ever been.
Once a season defined by escapist, light reads, summer is still that, plus a world of variety that acknowledges: Not everyone has a beach or time for a long book. What follows are some titles (new or coming soon), ideal for the warmest months of the year, with an eye on the many moods and scenarios of summer, now to Labor Day:
There was a time I would be excited by a new David Sedaris book, but somewhere in the past 20 years, while his autobiographical snapshots stayed as mordant and funny as ever, a familiarity set in. “Happy-Go-Lucky” ($29, Little Brown) is like a reminder of an old friend who can still make you laugh out loud, but with a poignance now. Subjects include the ugliness of his father, art school in Chicago (“if you could draw Snoopy on a napkin, you were in”) and entitled fans.
“I could feel the trouble but I couldn’t put words to it,” Isaac Fitzgerald writes plainly in his rowdy, more traditional memoir, “Dirtbag, Massachusetts” ($27, Bloomsbury), about a childhood of homelessness, told without piety or violin strains of uplift, but rather, an embrace of the chaos of just getting by.
David Ellis, a justice in the Illinois First District Appellate Court, has built an impressive side gig from the Chicago suburbs as a master of the classic airport thriller — meaning the sort you absorb during a plane ride someplace warmer. If the name is familiar, he’s also a James Patterson co-writer, and that speedy tone rubs off. “Look Closer” (Putnam, $27), his latest, is full of Loop business bros and loathsome Wicker Park creeps, and the tale of murder and misdirection is a solid two days of beach escape.
Conversely, “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” the debut of Chicago transplant Shelby Van Pelt, is sweet and warm, and you can see the Oscar adaptation clearly: A kindhearted elderly widowed janitor strikes up a friendship with an aquarium octopus (who also narrates).
Toya Wolfe reaches into her debut novel, “Last Summer on State Street” (William Morrow, $28) and pulls out a thoughtful snapshot of the end of public housing high-rises in Chicago. Wolfe grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes on the South Side and seems to have remembered the living room of every neighbor and the quality of the light in every hallway, mapping the geography of a childhood with the kind of vividness that brushes aside nostalgia.
Beyond the North Side, in Evanston, Illinois, we find ‘80s theater students in Adam Langer’s “Cyclorama” (Bloomsbury, $27). When the plot skips ahead 40 years, and accusations fly among the former students, as in his 2004 breakthrough, “Crossing California,” Langer arranges the present beside a harsh reassessment of the past.
“Everything I Need I Get From You: How Fangirls Created the Internet As We Know It” (MCD, $18) is partly about One Direction, and “This Is Not a Book About Benedict Cumberbatch” (Putnam, $17), is, yes, mostly about Benedict Cumberbatch. But the real subject of both these wonderfully fresh takes on fandom is the unabashed, self-aware embrace of joy. Kaitlyn Tiffany, a writer at The Atlantic, uses her love of One Direction ingeniously to trace how online culture came to feel. And Tabitha Carvan, now long out of adolescence, wrestles bravely with an embarrassing addiction to the former Sherlock, but also, considers the way we treat women who feel deeply: “When a lot of women love anything, that’s all we need to know about it.” Subversively important stuff.
It’s a good time for books about the natural world, and that (sorta) includes Jody Rosen’s “Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle” (Crown, $29), if you see it as a lively biography of a tool central to the greening of urban spaces. It’s also a fascinating, sweeping everyday explainer, moving from the bike’s 19th-century origins to its importance globally, allowing room for side trips into health, class and death.
“This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild” (Mariner, $28) by Nate Schweber, recounts another underreported history. Here, the midcentury struggle to push back attempts by industry and politicians (including Joseph McCarthy) to reclaim and strip the national parks.
Similarly touching: “In the Spirit of Wetlands: Reviving Habitat in the Illinois River Watershed” (3 Fields Books, $20), by former Peoria Journal Star staffers Clare Howard and David Zalaznik, is a set of slender profiles of conservationists and their projects, across the state, quietly preserving your world.
Just when you thought the great Chicago epic was a relic of the literary past, Chicagoan Adam Levin drops “Mount Chicago” (Doubleday, $30), a vast new Chicago novel with satire and raunchy pulse reminiscent of old-school Roth or Bellow. Boy, this premise: A sinkhole eats the Loop, which draws together a comedian, his fan and the mayor of Chicago — who refers to the tragedy as a “seismic event” until it sounds too “earthquakian” and depressing. Sure to become, at the least, a local classic. And certainly, a nice antidote to the usual New York epic, such as, sigh, another great one, “Trust” (Riverhead, $28), by Pulitzer finalist Hernan Diaz. As much as Levin’s book is about politics, this is about money, rooted partly in Henry James, partly in “Succession.”
My favorite biography is always about an influential outsider I assumed I knew. Alec Nevala-Lee’s deeply researched “Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller” (Dey, $35), scratches that itch. The Oak Park author offers a history of revelatory design so transformative that much of it remains unrealized. It’s also a clear-eyed portrait of the cult of (tech) personality that reads very 2022.
Alexandra Lange’s “Meet Me By the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall” (Bloomsbury, $28) works similar magic, reacquainting us with the roots of half-accomplished dreams; in this case, one of our best design writers traces the influence of Waukegan’s Genesse Street, “Dawn of the Dead” and department stores on now-struggling suburban sprawls saddled with acres of parking.
When last we saw her in Alexander Payne’s classic comedy “Election,” Tracy Flick (played by Reese Witherspoon) was in Washington, her high school ambitions running unchecked in the real world. That was the film. Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel was more vague. “Tracy Flick Can’t Win” (Scribner, $27) catches up with her decades later as a high school vice principal, for a new microcosm of a book about frustration and small-town power. (The author of “The Leftovers” and “Little Children,” Perrotta knows the subject.)
Less clear is “Heat 2″ (William Morrow, $29), Chicago-born Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner’s literary sequel to another ‘90s classic. All I know is that it’s a prequel and a sequel.
I leave room each summer for one good horror. Maybe it’s a reflection of the dread hanging over this country, but one won’t cut it now. “Other Terrors: An Inclusive Anthology” (William Morrow, $17) by Vince Liaguno and Rena Mason is an ingenious collection of frights by marginalized identities. Vampires aid the trans community. Latinx heroes see “something in the woods.” It’s a lot of fun.
As is Modern Library’s welcome, ongoing new reissues of the great underappreciated British science fiction writer John Wyndham, best known for being the inspiration of drive-in classics like “Village of the Damned” and “The Day of the Triffids.” He’s also aged well. “Trouble with Lichen” is about a feminist revolution, and “The Kraken Wakes” addresses rising seas. And those are 60-plus-year-old books.
Do you spend summers pining to return to class? (Regardless of your age?) Try Jhumpa Lahiri, Pulitzer fiction winner in 2000, who spent part of the decades since then in Rome, translating, and learning to write in Italian. “Translating Myself and Others” (Princeton, $22) is about how translation changed how she related to fiction, teachers, her mom.
“How to Read Now” (Viking, $26), by Elaine Castillo — who had a hit with her generational Philippine saga “America is Not the Heart” — aims to remind us how provocative great writing can be. As in, she questions rigorously the familiar ideas that fiction installs empathy and reading needs to be a safe space. Often thrilling stuff.
The memoir that doesn’t wind its way toward a harsh revelation or the summiting of a mountain, the memoir that merely considers a life, is rare. But here’s a pair of excellent new examples from Chicago: “Crying in the Bathroom” (Viking, $27), by Erika L. Sánchez, whose YA hit “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” was a National Book Award finalist (now being developed into a film). It’s an account of childhood depression, and falling in love with comedy, a “fraught” relationship with her grandmother, suffering through a bad marketing job in the Sears Tower, risking the uneasy life of a writer. It’s also a lesson in nurturing a clear voice.
Jesse Ball’s “Autoportrait” (Catapult, $20), you might say, is all voice. A writing professor at the School of the Art Institute, his small memoir is one solid 118-page paragraph, yet so evocative and bright, it rarely reads like a chore. It’s less a narrative than a set of memories that add up to a person.
The funny novel that doesn’t evaporate as you turn the page is hard to pull off. So much so that I read “Invisible Things” (One World, $27) waiting for a crash that never came. Instead, once done, I picked up Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” to compare. Mat Johnson, whose great novel “Pym” took on Poe, is that good. Here, he tells the story of astronauts who discover a city of Americans somehow living in a bubble on a moon orbiting Jupiter — a city just as ideologically polarized as the Earth kind.
Sloane Crosley’s “Cult Classic” (MCD, $27) adopts a similar soft sci-fi vibe, and slaps it against a rom-com: A young New Yorker runs into an old boyfriend, then another. Then another. That plot (she’s the unwitting focus of an experiment) is less interesting than Crosley’s spot-on understanding of dating, and the roads not traveled.
Rarely does a book arrive so on time, blowing out the noise. Diana Goetsch’s “This Body I Wore” (FSG, $28) is not a memoir of a New York City schoolteacher who transitions but rather, a straightforward, well-remembered, hilarious personal history of the full life as a trans woman. It’s never pedantic or even inspirational, which is exactly why it is.
Getting a new reissue in July is the influential 2013 novel “Nevada” (MCD, $17), by Imogen Binnie. Like Goetsch, her tale of a trans woman doesn’t serve lessons so much as a portrait of awkwardness, acceptance and kindness in unexpected places.
Nothing about the new Penguin Classics Marvel Collection ($50 each) suggests a beach read. They’re weighty, elegant, stuffed with dozen vintage issues of Captain America, Black Panther and Spider-Man; archival letters; and appreciations (including from Flossmoor’s Nnedi Okorafor on Black Panther). Each, though, is an ideal rainy day of escape, and posterity.
They’re also a nice warm-up for “Fantastic Four: Full Circle” (Abrams, $25), the first book-length story by Chicago’s Alex Ross, and “Acting Class,” (Drawn & Quarterly, $30) by Nick Drnaso, the North Side cartoonist whose eerie last book, “Sabrina,” was longlisted for the Booker Prize. This new one shows Drnaso becoming one of our leading voices on American disconnect and loneliness.
My favorite kind of book right now explains, with clarity and humor, how the world works, and no one is better at this than science writer Ed Yong, whose latest, “An Immense World” (Random House, $30) restores our wonder to animals — by describing the very different sensory worlds they inhabit. How owls hear, squid see, crocodiles feel. Each page is a peek inside hidden alcoves, suddenly available.
This is also true of “Serious Face” (Random House, $28), by Jon Mooallem, whose sweet spot, journalistically, occupies the space between the natural world and our confusion toward it. His new collection spends time with cloud fandoms, Neanderthals, loose monkeys in Florida.
Both books bring you closer to nature, but leave room for Barry Lopez’s goodbye, “Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World” (Random House, $28). The outdoors writer, who died of prostate cancer in 2020, looks back on life, considers his impending death, and what we owe the land. Never afraid to get lyrical, his climate-change writing alone is for the ages: “We are searching for the boats we forgot to build.”
Hear me out: Grab one of Harold Green III’s two new books — or both, they’re designed as companions — find a spot by the lake then read his poems while staring meaningfully into the waters. I’m only half-kidding. Green is a Chicago poet whose heart is with the relatable, appreciative, unabashedly sincere. “Black Oak” and “Black Roses” (Harper, $18 each) are collections of thanks, “Oak” for Black men and “Roses” for Black women. Subjects include Kerry James Marshall, Jennifer Hudson, Chance the Rapper, teachers, pastors, comics, activists. Illustrator Melissa Koby sprinkles sweet pastiches throughout.
Two of my favorite novels lately: Dan Chaon’s “Sleepwalk” (Holt, $28) and Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Lapvona” (Penguin, $27), which share only a resistance to easy summary. “Lapvona” tells the story of a shepherd’s son who comes fatally close to the rulers of a medieval fiefdom. Moshfegh, following up on her acclaimed “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” continues to plumb entitlement and class; here, she adds magic and revenge. “Sleepwalk” offers a world of similar cruelties, set in a near future. From his Cleveland home, Chaon has been an underrated gem for so long it’s nice to say his latest reads like a breakout: A Big Lebowski-esque drifter navigating a crumbling country learns his time in Evanston left a strange, unsettling legacy. To say more would spoil it.
Another pair of recent favorites: “His Name is George Floyd” (Viking, $30), by Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa of the Washington Post, reaches way beyond the familiar narrative to consider the world of George Floyd, his country, his history, and the politics and policies that shaped his family — and the family of his murderer, Derek Chauvin. It’s a feat of fresh reporting, and vivid, contextual contemporary history.
As is “Rogues: True Stories of Grifters, Killers, Rebels and Crooks” (Doubleday, $30) by Patrick Radden Keefe, who set new standards for contemporary true crime with the bestsellers “Say Nothing” and “Empire of Pain.” This is a victory lap, a collection of New Yorker pieces, yet also timeless, intricately built portraits of willful neglect, madness and hubris — featuring mass shooters, drug lords and “The Apprentice” creator Mark Burnett.
“Planes” (Knopf, $27), the debut novel of Evanston writer Peter C. Baker, which reads like vintage Don DeLillo at his most thoughtful, is a short work of recent history about the way our choices resonate beyond our view. The life of a woman in Italy whose husband has been renditioned by the United States is altered when a woman in Virginia runs across a sliver of black-op info. Baker isn’t depicting le Carre-like geopolitical maneuvers, but internal, personal ethics.
“The Last White Man” (Riverhead, $26), Mohsin Hamid’s first novel since his celebrated 2017 hit “Exit West,” veers more toward Kafkaesque fable. White people start to become Black. No one understands why. But like Baker’s novel, that mystery is less important than a chance to see one another again, with fresh eyes.
I don’t understand bringing a book about people on vacation with me on vacation. If I want to feel bad about vacation plans, there’s Instagram. “The Beach Trap” (Berkley, $17) by Ali Brady — the pen name of friends Alison Hammer of Chicago and Bradeigh Godfrey of Utah — at least have the decency to smirk at the feud between half-sisters who inherit (boo hoo) beachfront property in Florida.
“The Lost Summers of Newport” (William Morrow, $29) — by a trio of historical fiction icons, Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White — is an elegant approach to the old “trouble in paradise” scenario, spanning generations of deceit in a New England mansion.
Now for my own shocking admission: I like Elin Hilderbrand. You should, too. Her latest is “The Hotel Nantucket” (Little Brown, $29), and like Stephen King, she brings knowing confidence to an abused genre. This one is about secrets. And pretty nuts. But then, aren’t they all?