Take a Mental Vacation With These 17 Summer Reads

Updated 05/02/19
books to read this summer

There's a lot to love about the summer, like longer days and balmy nights, or the spike in ice cream consumption and pool days to cool off. But as avid readers and travel enthusiasts, we think lounging with a good book in the sun during a day trip or while on vacation is the best part of the summer season. And with so many buzzy recent releases, we decided to compile a summer reading list. Don't worry, we promise it's a lot less tedious than the one you probably had to work through as a kid.

Even if you aren't planning on booking it to the nearest beach this summer, curling up with the books in our roundup in your own living room will be just as rewarding—maybe even more so if you plop yourself in front of the AC. From uplifting essays to haunting ghost stories, funny coming-of-age tales, and biting short stories, you'll definitely find at least one book worth dog-earing the pages. So without further ado, scroll through our selection of the best books to read this summer that are bound to satisfy a hungry bookworm.

Laura Van Den Berg The Third Hotel $14

Our protagonist is a grief-stricken widow whose late husband was a horror film scholar. When she travels to Havana, Cuba, she spots her supposedly dead husband standing on a street corner. Now that is you set a scene. Part psychological thriller, part meditation on grief, this novel is a must-read if you love an intellectually stimulating book that also delivers emotional effect and gripping entertainment. 

The Teaser: "Her body remained rooted to the sidewalk, but already her mind was slouching down the sea-dark streets, past the Wi-Fi park, a concrete half circle where people sat hunched in the shadows and tapped away at phones, back into the Third Hotel, and up the steep staircase."

Melissa Broder The Psces $13

You may recognize Melissa Broder from her darkly hilarious and honest twitter handle and collection essays So Sad Today or by her poetry. This is her first venture into fiction, and we definitely hope it isn't her last. Though she paints a picture of life well anchored in contemporary Los Angeles, she also dabbles in whimsy and fantasy. Drug addiction, academic bureaucracy, Greek mythology, new age woo-woo, and real-life mermen blend in this page-turner. 

The Teaser: "Maybe [the ocean and I] were on the same side, comprised of the same things, water mostly, also mystery. The ocean swallowed things up—boats, people—but it didn't look outside itself for fulfillment. It could take whatever skimmed its surface or it could leave it. In its depths already lived a whole world of who-knows-what. It was self-sustaining. I should be like that. It made me wonder what was inside of me."

Tao Lin Psychedelics, Alienation, and Change $12

This genre bender dabbles in memoir, essay, and even some history while diving into philosophical musings about the meaning of life, art, and language. Chronicling his recovery from prescription drugs and looking at the research about psychedelics, Lin offers a ton of wisdom with a fresh worldview. 

The Teaser: "For one human being to seek enlightenment from another is like a grain of sand on the beach seeking enlightenment from another."

David Sedaris Calypso $15

Here's another laugh-out-loud essay collection from mastermind David Sedaris. Whether you're an avid Sedaris reader or newcomer, his clever, biting, and always resonant writing will make this book hard to put down. And it's particularly well-suited for the summer months since it's a study on vacations and how one can never truly take a vacation from oneself, try as we might. 

The Teaser: "Pretty much everything that isn’t terrible is awesome in America now."

Rachel Kushner The Mars Room $13

Romy Hall finds herself in a women's correctional facility for two consecutive life sentences and the reader joins her as she navigates the violence, heartbreak, and more. Sometimes gritty and rough around the edges, this book is also full of tender humor and wisdom about class, government, and the futility of societal norms. It also draws a sharp image of San Francisco, so if you're from the city you'll likely resonate with it. 

The Teaser: "No Tank Tops, the sign had said at Youth Guidance. Because it was presumed the parents didn’t know better than to show up to court looking like hell. The sign might have said Your Poverty Reeks."

Viet Thanh Nguyen The Refugees $14

If you loved The Sympathizer, then you should drop everything you're doing and pick up a copy of The Refugees. As the second work of fiction by Pulitzer Prizer winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, this collection of short stories will transform the way you think about language, identity, and love. There is much to learn from each beautifully crafted narrative in this book, and it's a great option for anyone short on time (or anyone who has a short attention span) since it isn't a full-fledged novel.

The Teaser: "In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories."

Joan Didion South and West $11

If you're a die-hard Joan Didion fan, you've probably wondered what it'd be like to step inside her mind. Reading her notebooks full of observations, passing thoughts, or drafts of articles is probably the closest way to find out. South and West is a compilation of Didion's notebook entries from a road trip she took in the 1970s, which never materialized into published work until now. The L.A. Times summarizes it beautifully, writing, "That sort of paradox is central to Didion's work: She takes a ruin and in prose makes it whole and beautiful." As one of the most seminal thinkers about the American west and how it shapes one's identity, this piece is a window into the living legend's process as a writer and thinker.

The Teaser: "In June the air is heavy with death and sex. Not violent death, but death by decay, overripeness, rotting … fever of unknown etiology … Dark like an x-ray: The atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with morbid luminescence."

Morgan Parker There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé $10

With a grasp on language and unmatched an attention to the complexities of intersectionality, Morgan Parker is the poet to watch. In this collection of poems, each stanza is so impactful that the cacophony of feelings practically jumps out of the page and down your throat (in a good way, of course). You'll get a sense of Parker's moments of vulnerability, tragedy, joy, celebration, and pretty much anything else you can imagine.

The Teaser: "I am free with the following conditions. / Give it up gimme gimme."

Xan Brooks The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times $12

In this quirky, dark fairytale, you'll get transported to the English countryside with an orphaned little girl who is haunted by the past as she explores a mysterious forest. Xan Brooks's The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times almost feels like a piece of Wizard of Oz fan fiction, as some of the grim forest characters mirror a few of the characters and even share their names. This novel is eccentric yet poignant, and as the title suggests, it disrupts clock time in a fabulously relatable way.

The Teaser: "There are too many stars."

Ottessa Moshfegh Homesick for Another World $13

If you love clean, blunt prose, then you'll love Ottessa Moshfegh's latest work, Homesick for Another Love. You may recognize her name from her best-selling novel, Eileen. This time, she brings us a collection of short stories for which the title is a taste into the tales she constructs; they're evocative, slightly unsettling yet accessible, relatable even. She drops you inside her land of eccentricities with such nonchalance that it truly transports you to another world. 

The Teaser: "He put the skull in a pocket of his cargo shorts and left."

Mohsin Hamid Exit West $13

Exit West follows two central characters who deeply love each other while they're also navigating brutality, violence, and destruction during a civil war. At once an entertaining love story and a literary treat set in a dystopic slight future, this novel is hard to put down once you pick it up. You'll find yourself torn between wanting to reread each line over and over again to truly understand and absorb its brilliance, or simply wanting to turn the page to see what will stun you next.

The Teaser: "And so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born."

Ali Smith Autumn $13

Ali Smith is known for her experimental representations of time, both formally and thematically. Her writing is evocative and unique because she does not strive to capture the human experience through linear time, but rather through the internal consciousness of her characters. Interestingly enough, her newest project is a series of four books, each separated neatly by seasons, which is a traditional measurement of the passing of time. But don't be fooled; she still manages to push boundaries and create wholly innovative stories. Autumn is the first in the quartet.

The Teaser: "The pauses are a precise language, more a language than actual language is."

Hari Kunzru White Tears $14

This brilliant and biting novel by Hari Kunzru is so much more than just a ghost a story or murder mystery about the underbelly of the music world, but if you enjoy a spooky read that will linger long after you've put it down, you can't miss White Tears. It feels like a very timely read, as it reveals and unpacks a variety of issues, like racial conflict and cultural appropriation in the contemporary U.S. 

The Teaser: "The inventor of the radio believed that sound waves never completely die away, that they persist, fainter and fainter, masked by the day-to-day noise of the world. Marconi thought that if he could only invent a microphone powerful enough, he would be able to listen to ancient times."

Elif Batuman The Idiot $14

In this coming-of-age novel about a young Harvard student going abroad for the summer to Hungary, Batuman offers us subtle wit and dry humor. You'll especially love it if wordplay is your thing. She also has a way of making flatness feel robust. The Idiot is a relatable tale, but it's also quite thought-provoking and revealing of our current cultural priorities. As we travel along with the main character during her adventures abroad, the sense of dull familiarity and the lack of depth with irrelevant nonevents will still engage you. By the end of it, you will likely feel like the protagonist is one of your dearest friend or even an iteration of yourself.

The Teaser: "An amazing sight, someone you’re infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans pocket."

Ariel Levy The Rules Do Not Apply $16

Ariel Levy is a master at crafting the essay in a way that's funny, moving, and at times, upsetting. Levy invites us into her most intimate thoughts and moments so we can conjure up our own. When reading The Rules Do Not Apply, you'll ask yourself questions that you've probably never even considered before but will thoroughly entertain you.

The Teaser: "I was looking out the window at the moon and thinking of the last long trip I took across the sky, and of the person who went with me and didn't come back. For a while, it was as poisonous and wrenching as it had been since the day it happened, as intolerable: a crime against nature. Then the grief went back to sleep in my body."

Andrés Barba Such Small Hands $10

Chronicling the life of an orphan with a troubled, haunted past, Such Small Hands will grip you from the first sentence. The lyrical, almost poetic, prose makes it a magical treat to read aloud, and the contrast between the beauty of the language and the vivid violence thematically make it all the more enticing. Indeed, this novel is like a riddle you aren't supposed to solve. Oh, and a pretty significant part of the story focuses on a doll, which is an indication that things get pretty scary.

The Teaser: "Fragrant. The words take on dimension, shooting upward and outward, making the air thick."

Durga Chew-Bose Too Much and Not in the Mood $10

If any of the books on this list are required reading, it's this one. Too Much and Not the Mood is a masterful collection of essays that grapple with feelings that we can all relate to, regardless of what behavior and events or nonevents led us to them. The first essay is particularly moving and resonant, as Chew-Bose begins the essay discussing an obscure, probably infrequently used emoji and its larger implications about the heart's will to continue beating against all odds. (Sidenote: I had to visit three bookstores in Los Angeles to track this down… It's flying off the shelves.)

The Teaser: "When I stand naked in the room after a long day of stupid letdowns… Even then, when nakedness can't undo the day, when my heart is lodged in my throat, and my whole body falls limp—my whole body like my left wrist when I fasten my watch with my right wrist. Limp like that. Even then."

For more gripping books to read this summer, check out these lists of the best historical fiction novels, short story collections, and memoirs

This post was originally published on May 12, 2017, and has since been updated.


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