Summer reading. It conjures ratty paperbacks, picked from a holiday rental shelf. Paper warped by saltwater. The annual moment when a looming workday or the end of a lunch hour IS NOT THERE TO stop you from continuing to turn the pages.
A good summer read need not be escapist. It just has to be absorbing, pleasurable, and worth putting into that precious, brief window when the book competes only with itself for your attention.
“To the Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf (Harvest, 1927). At the very least, this modernist classic about a family’s holiday trips to a lighthouse in Scotland will make you feel better about your own vacation. Their fractious plans, and the way family history can be perfectly reflected in one destiny, are masterfully evoked. Read it in a slow summer moment, and Woolf’s mesmerizing sentences will unfold in all their hypnotic beauty. If summer is a season where time slows, when you can take stock, here is a book that demonstrates the perils and pleasures of that very activity.
“We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulawayo (Regan Arthur, 2013). Darling, the young heroine of Bulawayo’s furious debut novel, grows up listening to Lady Gaga, fiddling with mobile phones, and wondering about boys. Only she starts this coming-of-age journey in the slums of Zimbabwe and ends it in Detroit after its economic collapse. Like Junot Díaz and Peter Carey, Bulawayo mangles her language into a sprung poetry that is one part vernacular, one part creative genius. And as Darling gets closer to her teenage years in America, it adopts the anguished blue note of a STORY TOLD through the hollow of true loss. This is a boldly political, important novel about the way things have fallen apart for the African diaspora.
“Cat’s Table” by Michael Ondaatje (Vintage, 2011). There are few one-sitting reads quite so enjoyable and seafaring as this novel by the Booker Prize-winning Canadian. A man named Michael looks back on his childhood in Sri Lanka and the trip he took to England in the late 1950s aboard a vessel as vast and diverse as a city. The boy’s friends, his curiosity of the captain, his early brush with romance. Chapter by chapter, Ondaatje beautifully conjures the skepticism and wonder of childhood and the way remembering that one-time state is its own kind of romantic journey.
“TransAtlantic” by Colum McCann (Random House, 2013). McCann wrote about an aerialist in his last novel, the National Book Award-winning “Let the Great World Spin.” It appears he’s becoming the literary equivalent. “TransAtlantic,’ his hugely ambitious new novel, connects three unlikely true-life events: the first crossing of the Atlantic by plane; Frederick Douglass’s trip to Ireland during the Great Potato Famine; and Senator George Mitchell’s closing week of negotiating the Good Friday Accords. The connections McCann makes between these events are so delicate but mystical they are like the contrails one sees in a summer sky. Evidence of something extraordinary made to look easy.
“The Comfort of Strangers” by Ian McEwan (Anchor, 1981). An English couple travels to an unnamed city that is probably Venice and discovers how dangerous it is to meet NEW friends. When pretentious types SAY how much they prefer early McEwan, they often point to this astonishing short novel. McEwan’s prose is as precise and menacing as a German cooking knife. His sense of how vacations can blast open tiny fissures in domestic bliss feels like a warning. If you need a book to put some darkness back into the summer months, this is it.
“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). How is it that decades of college seniors left the hothouse of universities around America without this book? From it’s bravura opening section, set in a 1980s graduation at Brown University, to its closing pages, Eugenides’s novel recreates the romantic and moral dilemmas of post-university life. There is a hugely enjoyable love triangle, a journey of comic proportions, and a finale that has the satisfying scratch of a 19th century classic. All this along with thoughts about why we read novels to begin with.
“The Golden Egg” by Donna Leon (Grove, 2013). Book by book, Leon is telling the secret history of Venice. In this latest installment, kindly Commissario Brunetti gets drawn into a case that involves ignoble nobles, identity theft, and the apparent overdose death of a local man that appears to be anything but. In sentences as clear as lake water, Leon will draw you up the murky canals of a city where everything true is submerged.
“Last Evenings on Earth” by Roberto Bolaño (New Directions, 2006). The 14 stories of this beguiling little book have the seethe and cadence of true-life tales one might hear at a bar after the grate has been pulled down. How poorly it goes for Bolaño’s sad and haunted narrators. As literary work, their stories are a case of how little rules apply. They are too often about writers. They don’t explain the characters’ motivations. They have an odd obsession with literary fame. And yet they are impossible to resist. To sit and read this book in the summer sun over a beer is as close to heaven as you’re likely to come in a long time.
“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami (Vintage, 2004). Insomniacs ought to have a reading list instead of support groups. Aside from Lynne Tillman’s wonderful “No Lease on Life,” Murakami’s nighttime tour of Tokyo by way of four characters’ interlocking fates will make you feel a lot less alone if the heat keeps your eyes open. The action is set in locales including a Denny’s in the small hours and a squalid love hotel. The things that keep Murakami’s cast up till dawn are desperation and boredom in equal measure. Only in his hands can the two meet so elegantly.
“Ways of Going Home” by Alejandro Zambra (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013). Even IKEA doesn’t make so much of so little space as does this young Chilean novelist. His latest book revolves around a quartet of chapters, WOVEN AROUND one thread about a young boy growing up in the Pinochet years AND ANOTHER of the novelist writing his story. In many ways, the book recalls the miniature roominess Philip Roth achieved in his great novel, “The Ghost Writer.” The stories we tell imagine us as much as us them, Zambra reminds, with the power and intensity of a writer who grew up in the shadow of a terrible war.
“Joyland” by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime, 2013). It’s quite possible, 70 years from now, when critics look back at the 20th century it is King they will have to wrestle with. The violence of his work, DEALING WITH the perils of addiction AND the way the past comes to the fore, is so American it is almost mythological. All of his narrative gifts and spooky ability to absorb are on display in this swift little novel, published as a paperback original, about a 21-year-old virgin’s summer spent working at a North Carolina amusement park. Packaged like a pulp novel of yore, the book has a bygone era innocence, at first. And then, of course, there’s a murder that needs solving, and a haunting that will turn down the temperature a few degrees.
“Vampire in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell (Knopf, 2013). In another 10 years Russell will be her generation’s George Saunders: the writer whose books are stolen and studied, flashed like badges, and worn to death with rereading. In the meantime, she has begun an artistic evolution that is simply breathtaking to watch. Her latest collection takes her far from the Everglades setting of her first two books and even further out into the fantasy realm those two volumes flirted with. Here are lovesick vampires, dead presidents reincarnated as horses, and the odd massage therapist who is either hallucinating or her patient’s back tattoo is changing beneath her hands. Russell’s skill is so great, her empathy so elastic, that we cross over to that realm where anything is possible, and emerge on the other side clutching truths that are hot to the touch.
John Freeman is the editor of Granta and the author of the upcoming “How to Read a Novelist.’’