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22 books that local experts say you should read this summer
The coronavirus pandemic may have put the brakes on your summer travel plans — but there are plenty of new books on the horizon that can still provide you the perfect escape.
We asked staff members at four local bookstores —Brookline Booksmith,Harvard Book Store,Porter Square Books, and Trident Booksellers and Cafe— for the 2020 titles they are most looking forward to reading this season. All four shops are still doing business online, but staff members said to check the businesses’ websites for the latest information on purchasing as the state eases some restrictions on operations for retailers, allowing new options like curbside pickup.
Whether you’re enjoying some outdoor time while practicing social distancing at your local park or beating the heat at home, they say these novels, works of nonfiction, and short story collections will entertain and engage you through the dog days of summer — pandemic or not.
“Breasts and Eggs” by Mieko Kawakami (April 7)
Shuchi Saraswat, curator of the transnational literature series at Brookline Booksmith, said she just started reading this novel, translated from Japanese, and she can’t put it down. The story follows three women — 30-year-old Natsu, her older sister, Makiko, and Makiko’s daughter — examining womanhood through each character’s individual journey. “The whole book in general is about women’s bodies and navigating that relationship with our bodies, and how our bodies change over time and how we relate to our bodies when we’re around other women,” Saraswat said.
“Summer Solstice: An Essay” by Nina MacLaughlin (April 27)
This essay collection is perfect for getting into the mood for summer, Saraswat said. In the series, MacLaughlin takes a deep dive into examining the season, exploring ideas of summer rooted in literature, poetry, nature, and her own memories. “She has this fantastic ability to open it up in so many different directions,” Saraswat said. The volume by the author of “Wake Siren” may be slim, but it is packed full of “dense, lush ideas and images” perfect for the season, she said.
“Four by Four” by Sara Mesa (May 5)
Saraswat said fans of Shirley Jackson will appreciate this new novel, translated from Spanish. The story takes place on a college campus where mysteries exist just below the surface of the wealthy school. The bookseller said she couldn’t put it down. “Little by little you’re getting the sinister nature of this school through these different perspectives,” Saraswat said.
“On Lighthouses” by Jazmina Barrera (May 12)
This work of nonfiction — part memoir, part literary history — is another perfect book for summer, according to Saraswat. In it, Barrera explores lighthouses — as structures and solitary homes in reality as well as what they evoke in works of art. The book, translated from Spanish, also contains Barrera’s own sketches of lighthouses. “It feels like a very profound book to be reading right now,” Saraswat said.
“Stray” by Stephanie Danler (May 19)
Courtney Flynn, manager of Trident Booksellers & Café, recommends this new memoir from the author of the bestselling “Sweetbitter.” In it, Danler delves into her unstable childhood with parents struggling with addiction and the effects on her path. “She’s a beautiful writer, and it’s a really raw account of her own life,” Flynn said. “I think there’s a lot of connections she makes with the reader through her own experience, so it’s really well done.”
“The Vanishing Half” by Brit Bennett (June 2)
This new novel by the author of the hit debut “The Mothers” is another Flynn recommends picking up this summer. The work, a reflection on cultural attitudes about race, follows the story of two identical twin sisters, whose paths, years after growing up in a small southern Black community, have diverged. One sister lives in the town with her daughter, who is Black, while the other sister has left, living with her white husband and passing as white. “It’s a really compassionate look at two people’s experiences through the lens of race and the culture around both races,” Flynn said. “It’s really, really well done and interesting. She’s a beautiful writer.”
“Surviving Autocracy” by Masha Gessen (June 2)
Carole Horne, one of the buyers and managers at Harvard Book Store, said she’s been looking forward to the release of this work of nonfiction since she first heard about it. The new book picks up and expands on the viral essay, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” that Gessen, a journalist who was born and raised in the Soviet Union, penned in 2016. “She brings a perspective that a lot of commentators from the U.S. don’t really have,” Horne said of Gessen’s writing. “She’s seen [totalitarianism] up close. She’s very clear. She’s a passionate writer, but she’s also just very down to earth and solid and straightforward.”
“Echo on the Bay” by Masatsugu Ono (June 9)
This novel, translated from Japanese, is full of memorable characters and happenings that make the story a joy to read, Saraswat said. Told from the perspective of the teenage daughter of the new police chief in a small fishing village, the author slowly introduces the reader to the intricacies of the community, so that by the time the outside world enters in, you’re fully immersed. “What I love so much about this is it starts so intimately,” Saraswat said. “You’re meeting the different people that her father works with and the neighbors, and it slowly swells out into the different things happening in the community.”
“I Was Told It Would Get Easier” by Abbi Waxman (June 16)
Flynn says this novel that follows a mother and daughter on a carefully mapped out tour of colleges is a fun read for the current times. It’s filled with misadventures and relatable, humorous characters along the way. “Whether it’s through the lens of picking a college or any other experience we’ve had with our mothers or with our daughters, it’s very true,” Flynn said of the story. “You have to smile at some of the relatable antics they get into. There’s inevitable angst between the two of them but also a lot of love.”
“Death in Her Hands” by Ottessa Moshfegh (June 23)
This novel delivers on the brilliance Flynn said she’s come to anticipate from the author of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” It follows a 72-year-old woman who finds a note on her daily walk through the woods that suggests someone has been killed in the secluded wooded area. The woman becomes obsessed with the note and what it could mean, determined to solve the mystery. “[Moshfegh] really flirts with the cross between reality and psychosis, and we follow this woman’s mind as she churns over the mystery of this note,” Flynn said.
“The Great Gatsby: The Graphic Novel” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, adapted by Fred Fordham (June 30)
Everyone may know the story of this classic work of literature, but this marks the first ever graphic novel adaptation of the Fitzgerald classic, said Ellen Jarrett, book buyer and an employee owner at Porter Square Books. With the copyright for the novel up next year, Jarrett said the new adaptation out this summer is likely just the first take on the classic. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “This is one of my all time favorite books.”
“Becoming Duchess Goldblatt” by Anonymous (July 7)
Jarrett said she’s also looking forward to this new work of nonfiction, which she called “part memoir, part imaginary tour de force.” It tells the story behind a pseudonymous Twitter account, Duchess Goldblatt, created by the anonymous author struggling with grief, and how the account brought people together. “It’s this incredibly original book,” Jarrett said.
“Bright Precious Thing” by Gail Caldwell (July 7)
The new memoir from the Pulitzer Prize winner and former book critic for the Boston Globe should be on your list this summer, Horne said. The work of nonfiction contains parallel stories of her life and how it was influenced by the women’s movement, juxtaposing the author’s childhood in Texas and her global travels with her present-day friendship with a young neighborhood girl. “She’s just a great memoirist and storyteller,” Horne said.
“Utopia Avenue” by David Mitchell (July 14)
Horne said she’s a huge fan of the author of “Cloud Atlas” and can’t wait for his new novel this summer. Mitchell is always amazing, she said, but this new work is particularly fun. Set in the late ’60s, it follows a British rock band, Utopia Avenue, as the musicians journey from London to California. “If you’ve ever read David Mitchell you know that it’s just a romp,” she said. “It’s great fun. You are just dazzled all the way through … He’s phenomenal.”
“Big Friendship” by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman (July 14)
Flynn said the new book from the hosts of the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” feels more relevant than ever, with social distancing measures and the feelings of disconnection associated with the coronavirus pandemic. The work is about the friendship of the two authors, but also more generally about friendship and female friendships in particular. “[It’s about] how it’s such an important part of our lives, really examining what it takes to sustain a lasting bond and to continuously reconnect and give friendships the kind of energy that we give some of the other relationships in our lives,” Flynn said. “So it’s really a great book, I think, for what we’re all going through now.”
“I Hold a Wolf by the Ears” by Laura van den Berg (July 28)
This new short story collection is not to be missed, according to Saraswat. All the tales in the book are centered on female characters who are at a point of unraveling or dealing with circumstances that throw them into new territory. And there’s always something just slightly off about the settings in the tales. “She’s just really, really fantastic with the uncanny,” Saraswat said of van den Berg’s writing. “So reading these stories, they’re always surprising, even if the setting is familiar. The unfamiliar elements of it always sort of throw you off kilter, and they’re still also somehow deeply enjoyable to read.”
“Hieroglyphics” by Jill McCorkle (July 28)
Horne said this new novel that follows a couple who move from Boston to North Carolina is really a story about parents and children. Both lost their parents when they were young, and the loss was part of what brought them together. “It’s all about generations and how parents and children affect each other and take over each other’s lives,” Horne said. “It’s very moving. [McCorkle’s] a lovely writer.”
“A Lab of One’s Own” by Rita Colwell and Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (Aug. 4)
Fans of the 2016 memoir “Lab Girl” will appreciate this new work, part memoir and manifesto, from the first female director of the National Science Foundation, Jarrett said. “It documents [Colwell’s] work experience and career over six decades in science,” she said. “The harassment she got in the lab, hidden systems that blocked women from advancing and publishing their work. But along the way there are also positive stories about other women pushing back and trying to change the status quo.”
“Migrations” by Charlotte McConaghy (Aug. 4)
This is the novel Jarrett said she’s been looking forward to since she got a very early advance copy a year ago. The story follows a young woman, haunted by her past, who is on a journey to track the migration of the last flock of Arctic terns from Greenland to Antarctica. She ends up on a fishing boat in her mission to follow them on their migratory path, winning over the crew with promises that the birds will lead them to fish, and her past is slowly revealed through the journey. “It’s just a hauntingly, devastatingly beautiful book,” Jarrett said.
“The Boy in the Field” by Margot Livesey (Aug. 11)
Both Jarrett and Horne recommend picking up this new novel about three siblings who come across the body of a boy in a field on their way home from school. The boy survives, but the lives of the siblings are changed as a result. “She’s one of smartest writers I’ve read when it comes to human behavior and family dynamics,” Jarrett said of Livesey’s writing. Horne agreed, saying the author is able to convey “wonderful” plots along with real depth of psychology. “Her descriptions, particular descriptions of place, are phenomenal,” Horne said. “She just makes you feel like you’re there.”
“Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson (Aug. 11)
In this new work of nonfiction, the acclaimed author of “Warmth of Other Suns” makes the argument that there is a caste system in the United States beyond race and class. “[Wilkerson] looks at the U.S., India, and Nazi Germany, and the caste structures that were in place in those locations,” Horne said of the book, which she recommends. “And as she did with ‘Warmth of Other Suns,’ she tells stories of individuals … She makes it very personal by telling these stories of individual people.”
“Tales from the Ant World” by Edward O. Wilson (Aug. 25)
Horne said she’s really looking forward to the new book from the Harvard professor, in which the scientist recalls and examines his nine-decade long obsession and study of ants. Wilson, in addition to being a renowned scientist, is also a great humanist and writer, she said. “I’ve always read him, and this is supposed to be a sort of culmination of his writing about ants,” Horne said.
What books are you turning to during the virus outbreak or looking forward to this summer?