17 Refreshing Books to Read This Summer
Posted May 17, 2018 5:20 p.m. EDT
Here come the page-turners of summer 2018. They’re about ... maritime disaster? America’s opioid crisis? Toxic social media? The legacy of the Confederacy? How about a man who falls in love with a bear and is completely serious about it? No one said this was going to be pretty, but there are some very fine reads out there this year. There’s also some of the season’s usual fun, like the glitter of Broadway and fiction that wallows in the richly dramatic lives of the rich.
— Social Living
Meet Lavinia and Louise, two glamorous blondes roaming the depraved extremes of New York’s all-night clandestine party circuit. They’re the main characters in “Social Creature,” the diabolical debut by Tara Isabella Burton, a Ph.D. in theology who has been drawn to the thriller genre. She describes herself as a “raconteuse of bizarre tales, clamberer over ruins.” And she knows her way around good, evil and the eternally reader-friendly realm in between.
“Social Creature” is a wicked original with echoes of the greats (Patricia Highsmith, Gillian Flynn). It tells of how the impoverished Louise falls into the orbit of the fabulously debauched Lavinia, who adopts her as an instant bestie and gives her clothes, a room, a complete makeover — everything but the keys to Lavinia’s family manse. Louise moves in, but Lavinia retains control. Sort of. To use one of the book’s favorite phrases, here’s the thing: Lavinia isn’t going to live very long. We’re told that from the start. But the book builds enormous suspense around the questions of how, when and why she will die. And what will happen after that.
Text messages and Facebook posts produce many twists in “Social Creature.” Futurist philosopher Jaron Lanier has sent forth “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now,” which mixes prophetic wisdom with a simple practicality that would warm Marie Kondo’s heart. “It might not seem like it at first, but I’m an optimist,” Lanier writes. But each of his arguments — like “Quitting Social Media Is the Most Finely Targeted Way to Resist the Insanity of Our Times” or “Social Media Hates Your Soul” — presents a dark premise. And at a time when social media gets uglier and more polarizing by the minute, Lanier’s insights qualify as essential reading.
— Mind-Altering Subjects
So does “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America,” Beth Macy’s timely investigative report into the story of OxyContin. Macy, the author of “Factory Man,” is known for her familiarity with Appalachia and her serious reporting skills. She brings both to bear on this detailed account of how the drug was created, aggressively marketed to doctors, readily prescribed and then enabled to spread through all economic strata of society. We’ve seen a lot of generalities about opioid addiction, but Macy follows one specific drug through the range of problems it has caused, the people it has hurt, the difficulties in fighting it (with plenty of too little, too late) and the glimmers of hope that remain.
Michael Pollan (of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) also has a lot to say about drugginess in his new book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.” Though he has yet to write a book that doesn’t jolt the zeitgeist, he wades with atypical caution into his latest subject. That’s because he is well aware of psychedelics’ dissolute reputation. “How to Change Your Mind” is about the resurgence of scientific interest in the potential therapeutic uses of hallucinogens. Pollan has been more readable than this, but not more groundbreaking.
Here’s a wonderfully oddball companion piece of sorts: Ryan H. Walsh’s “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968,” which takes its title from the well-loved but largely incomprehensible Van Morrison album. This isn’t a book about Morrison — who, according to this account, was himself mostly incomprehensible when “Astral Weeks” was conceived. It’s about the many different elements — sounds, cults, underground newspapers and drugs — that were brewing in Boston when an acid culture was in full flower.
— Personal Relationships
On a higher musical if not astral plane, Todd S. Purdum’s “Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution” lives up to its title. A must for anyone interested in musical theater, this lively, evocative joint biography is thorough enough to be revealing and too distinguished to sound gossipy — even though, of course, it is. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s personal relationship was not especially close, but each man’s individual history had more than enough color. The stories of the shows — “The Sound of Music,” “Oklahoma!” and “South Pacific,” just for starters — have already filled many books. They’re enough to burst the binding of this one.
A very different kind of partnership is immortalized in “Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America,” a haunting memoir by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo. The book is centered on the troubled relationship between the author and his father, although it roams freely in many other directions. Gregory Pardlo Sr. was an air traffic controller and labor organizer who lost his job in 1981 when 13,000 controllers went on strike and President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 of them. The younger Gregory isn’t simplistic enough to blame all of his family’s problems on this, but it was definitely a giant head start.
He writes of how his father’s stubborn nature, profligacy and addiction destroyed the family’s stability. He also writes of his own addiction issues, and the overlap between father’s life and son’s. Simple description does not do Pardlo’s story justice; only his own sublime words can achieve that. “My father’s example is the storm on the horizon I don’t want to lose sight of and can’t let myself get close to,” he writes. “A lifetime of calibrating these perils of proximity gives me credentials in a kind of metaphysical math, a telemetry of spiritual disaster.”
— Diving Into History
The travels through time and geography in “Air Traffic” take us at one point to Charleston, South Carolina, which is the subject of a fascinating and important new historical study. “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy,” by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, examines Charleston as the capital of slavery in the United States and, therefore, the place where the ways slavery is remembered matter most. This book examines rival sets of memories: from a segregated tourism industry, which not long ago gave out different sets of information to different people, to today’s fights over Civil War monuments.
For sheer drama on the water, it’s hard to beat the tragedy recounted in Rachel Slade’s “Into the Raging Sea: Thirty-Three Mariners, One Megastorm and the Sinking of El Faro.” Slade has pieced together and embroidered the mystery of a container ship’s 2015 disappearance in the Bermuda Triangle. She has added high drama to dialogue obtained from the ship’s data recorder, turning the story into a fast-moving cinematic adventure. But for all of the drama, the worst scares are in the epilogue. This sinking was no simple accident. According to Slade, safety regulations were ignored. Shipping company executives were inept. Lack of funding has reduced the accuracy of weather forecasts, the degree of Coast Guard preparedness and the extent to which container ships are inspected. The death toll was 33.
— Newcomers of Note
Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ superbly witty debut, the story collection “Heads of the Colored People,” takes its title from the work of a 19th-century abolitionist. As the author recently told The Times, she once thought of becoming a stand-up comic. The topics she takes on are often deadly serious (one is about an impending suicide), but every story flashes grim humor. She is also a brutally sharp observer. The epistolary story “Belles Lettres” could have been written with a scalpel.
A few other books by new writers command attention. Tommy Orange’s “There There” is a groundbreaking novel about Native Americans who are city dwellers. But it’s not the Oakland, California, setting that leaps out. It’s Orange’s extraordinary ability to invest a series of interlocking character sketches with the troubled history of his displaced people. Half-white and “an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma” (as one of the book’s characters is), Orange has written a tense, prismatic book with inexorable momentum. It all heads toward an annual Oakland powwow that confuses real and fake Americana more wrenchingly than any book since “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.”
Debut novelist Nafkote Tamirat manages to find antic possibilities in “The Parking Lot Attendant,” the story of how a charismatic Ethiopian hustler in Boston, who runs a lot more than a parking lot, works his magic on a trusting teenage girl. The girl and her father begin the book as the least popular members of a colony on a desert island, and part of the fun is wondering how they got there. Tamirat’s calmly assured voice grounds her story in refreshing understatement.
Maxim Loskutoff, a former student of David Foster Wallace’s, begins “Come West and See: Stories” with a devastating story about a homesteader and a bear. It’s 1893 in the Montana territory. And at first Bill, the narrator, just seems lonely. Perhaps that explains his strong physical attraction to the female bear that eats apples from his tree. Perhaps it doesn’t. Let’s just say the story grows increasingly bizarre and haunting until it’s left an indelible mark.
— Reliable Pleasures
More critters, lots of them: Lucy Cooke’s “The Truth About Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales From the Wild Side of Wildlife” is a surefire summer winner, no matter how cheerless its cover looks. Here is a book that will tell you how sloths defecate (not easily) and why a French scientist needed to put frogs into pants. Even Cooke’s simple facts are funny.
Christopher Moore is always good for laughs, too. His new satire, “Noir,” gives him his best material in ages. He’s great with the genre’s one-liners. “She had the kind of legs that kept her butt from resting on her shoes,” he writes. His gumshoe narrator says things like, “I just stood there, lifting one eyebrow like I do.” By this point in his career, Moore may not have to do much more than lift one eyebrow to churn this stuff out, but he’s still dependably good at it. For another reliable pleasure, try Allison Pearson’s follow-up to “I Don’t Know How She Does It,” “How Hard Can It Be?” If you liked Pearson’s Kate Reddy as a frazzled working mum in her prime, you should enjoy her frantic efforts to get out of the doldrums, into shape and back to work while pushing 50.
The Duplass Brothers, Mark and Jay, have written such a copacetic memoir that you can enjoy it even if you have no who the Duplass brothers are. If you’ve never heard of “The Puffy Chair,” fine. They direct, produce and loom large on Netflix. “Like Brothers” is the story of their lifelong working collaboration and love for each other, which has somehow found room for their wives, children and colleagues. In a recent interview with IndieWire, Mark said the brothers are “essentially ex-soulmates” who need to “maintain a level of intimacy that is healthy, but not what we once were, which was an unhealthy, twin-like codependency.” “Like Brothers” is full of choice anecdotes. Its philosophy, in a nutshell: 80 percent is good enough. Get things 80 percent right and then get good people to do the rest. Then you can be huge in the B leagues and write a book that anyone will love.