10 must-read books of summer 2020
Summer 2020 will likely look different from the many other summers you’ve enjoyed: no catching popcorn flicks in a frigid theater, no sitting shoulder to shoulder at a baseball game, no cannonballing into a crowded public pool. But not everything has to be different—in fact, one beloved summer pastime remains as available and accessible as always, and that’s summer reading. By and large, the pandemic hasn’t shuffled book releases, meaning that there’s no shortage of buzzy new titles to put you in conversation with the cultural zeitgeist (even if that conversation has to happen over Zoom). From debut writers to members of the old guard at the top of their powers, feed your mind and heart with some of our favorite books of the summer,
A Burning, by Megha Majumdar
In this breakneck literary thriller, debut novelist Megha Majumdar sets the scene in India, where a young Muslim woman from the slums lands in jail after criticizing the government’s handling of a train bombing on Facebook.
Jivan finds herself wrongfully charged with terrorism, swept up in a highly public trial presided over by a kangaroo court, while her former student and her former gym teacher weigh their ability to clear Jivan’s name against the self-serving path of least resistance.
A Burning lays bare the urgent need for a justice system that upholds its ideals, elegantly excoriating a world where corruption and inequity rot the lives of those wrongly viewed as disposable. In blistering, beautiful prose, Majumdar illuminates the dark truths of the modern world, while also celebrating the burning deep in the hearts of strivers everywhere.
Pizza Girl, by Jean Kyoung Frazier
In Jean Kyoung Frazier’s explosive debut novel, our nameless narrator is eighteen, pregnant, and feeling adrift as she stumbles through her days as a Los Angeles pizza delivery driver, all the while grieving the death of her alcoholic father and avoiding the smothering ministrations of her loving mother and boyfriend.
Everything changes when she delivers a peculiar order to a suburban housewife, who becomes the locus of a pyschosexual obsessesion with dangerous consequences. In just 193 wry, propulsive pages, Pizza Girl hurtles through the dark waters of obsession and addiction, as our dysfunctional Pizza Girl downs Miller Lites while studiously avoiding any semblance of forward motion. Yet at the same time, the novel bristles with biting wit and optimism, each page a feast of Cheeto-fingered heart, humor, and lyricism.
Blue Ticket, by Sophie Mackintosh
The breakout author of The Water Cure returns with another chilling speculative fiction set in a feminist dystopia, this time about a world where an authoritarian lottery determines a woman’s destiny: a white ticket means marriage and motherhood, while a blue ticket means “freedom.”
Calla, a young woman whose blue ticket prescribes a child-free life of reckless abandon, takes umbrage with this conscripted notion of “choice.” Her harrowing journey to take charge of her own future wrestles with timely, thought-provoking questions of fate, free will, and bodily autonomy.
Interlibrary Loan, by Gene Wolfe
The late Gene Wolfe, a science fiction luminary of the twentieth century, left behind one final book: Interlibrary Loan, the sequel to A Borrowed Man.
In this high-concept novel, it’s the twenty-second century, and a vastly shrunken human population lives in harmony with robots, clones, and other advanced technologies. Clones of long-deceased writers can be checked out from libraries (for a steep deposit), acting as interactive books and living resources on an author’s life and times.
E. A. Smithe, the clone of a deceased mystery writer, falls in with the clones of a cookbook author and a romance writer; together, they find themselves checked out to solve the mystery of a missing man who may not actually be missing. Ambitious, imaginative, and packed with twists and turns, Interlibrary Loan is a major achievement from a legendary writer gone too soon.
Self Care, by Leigh Stein
Brutal and brutally funny, Leigh Stein’s latest novel skewers influencer culture and the cult of wellness through the ups and downs of the wellness start-up Richual: “the most inclusive online community platform for women to cultivate the practice of self-care and change the world by changing ourselves.” As a number of high-profile employees are outed for hypocrisy and bad behavior, the novel takes aim at the multibillion-dollar scam of selling consumers the sickness of body dysmorphia disguised as self-care.
Self Care is an incisive cultural commentary, to be certain, but also an exciting formal experiment, with blog entries, press releases, and text messages woven seamlessly into the lacerating prose. Stein presents a punchy, bracing criticism of modern feminism’s transformation into a commercialized hellscape of goat yoga, healing crystals, and “girl bosses.”
Antkind, by Charlie Kaufman
The Oscar-winning screenwriter behind Synecdoche New York, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich delivers his debut novel, a whopping 720-page opus about B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, a film critic who stumbles upon the masterpiece of a reclusive auteur.
Rosenberg is convinced that the world must experience this film, but there’s just one problem: all but one frame has been destroyed, meaning that he must recreate the film from memory while keeping his head above water in an increasingly vapid, Twitter-driven world. Brimming with Pynchonian grandeur, wit, and inventiveness, Antkind is a dazzling foray into a new form from one of our most ambitious storytellers.
The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones
In this eerie, slow-burning horror novel, four young members of the Blackfeet Nation break with long-held tradition by trespassing on hunting grounds reserved for tribal elders, where they slaughter a herd of elk. A decade later, their hubris comes back to haunt them, with a vengeful spirit hunting them down one by one to exact its gruesome revenge.
Gory, haunting, and ultimately hopeful, The Only Good Indians explores what it means to navigate the world as an Indigenous man, where guilt, shame, and grief are part and parcel of life not just for those who leave the reservation, but for those who stay.
I Hold a Wolf by the Ears, by Laura Van Den Berg
Laura Van Den Berg, a modern master of all things strange and spooky, returns to form with a new collection of mesmerizing stories about women on the brink. In one story, a woman starts a business impersonating the deceased wives and lovers of lonesome widowers; in another, a woman’s moods are medicated away by her husband with a magical sparkling water, albeit with intense side effects. Each otherworldly story teems with surrealism and madness, straddling the familiarity of the known and the menace of the unknown, making I Hold a Wolf by the Ears one of the most unforgettable collections of the year.
Luster, by Raven Leilani
Raw, racy, and utterly mesmerizing, Luster is among the most dazzling novels of the year, marking the arrival of a major new voice in American letters. Twenty-something Edie is drifting ever closer to self-destruction; after losing her dead-end admin job in a publishing office rife with racism and misogyny, she turns to delivering takeout by bike in order to make the rent on her squalid Bushwick apartment, where she spends her nights growing in fits and starts in her development as a painter.
Meanwhile, she’s sleeping with a much-older man in an open marriage, whose carefully constructed boundaries come crashing down when his enigmatic wife invites a destitute Edie to stay in their suburban home. There Edie meets Akila, the couple’s recently adopted Black daughter, to whom Edie grows close when she realizes that she may be the only Black woman in this teenager’s life. Edie’s voice is unforgettable, with Leilani bringing painterly precision and biting humor to a feverish novel where each pyrotechnic sentence is a joy to experience. Dreamlike, tender, and big-hearted, Luster is a must-read from an immeasurably talented new writer.
Daddy, by Emma Cline
In 2016, Emma Cline skyrocketed to literary fame with The Girls, her award-winning debut novel; her hotly-anticipated sophomore effort, Daddy, is a worthy successor, each of its sharp-edged stories taut with insight and precision.
Cline interrogates the delicate balance of power and its tradeoffs, with each lacerating story of fathers and father figures illustrating profound and ineffable truths about men and women. Cline is a master of fiction that wallows in the heavy weight of the unsaid, with perversion and darkness simmering beneath her characters’ tightly controlled surfaces. Daddy’s ten masterful, provocative stories confirm that Cline is a staggering talent.