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Update your beach read: 52 books for summer 2023, with some themes in mind

By Christopher Borrelli, Chicago Tribune
Published: June 19, 2023, 6:02am
3 Photos
Front cover of "Good Night, Irene" by Luis Alberto Urrea.
Front cover of "Good Night, Irene" by Luis Alberto Urrea. (Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company/TNS) Photo Gallery

Let’s try something new this summer.

Rather than burdening yourself with postcard dreams of a beach towel and a book, instead of picturing yourself inside a portrait of lazy mornings with a hammock and a Stephen King, toss out the bougie old summer reading mirage. Has it ever been attainable for more than an hour or two? Replace it — as I do, to the detriment of family, TV and sleep — with a small project. But not a project project. More like a personal dare.

Pick a theme for your summer reading and dive into it until Labor Day: Read only books banned in Florida. Or only Nordic noir, or only Asian sci-fi. Alternate novellas with epics. Or stick to novellas. Make a list so long you never finish it, but show up every day for it: Give yourself a minor degree in true crime or octopuses. Spend your summer scaling just the mountain of great Chicago-centric books so far this year — Jonathan Eig’s “King,” Catherine Lacey’s “Biography of X,” Aleksandar Hemon’s “The World and All That It Holds” — buttressing it with great Chicago books to come in the next eight weeks, and that list would go so long, you’d look up and see Halloween candy in Walgreens.

What follows are 13 choose-your-own-adventure themes for summer reading:

  • Goofy Idea, Great Read

Evanston’s Daniel Kraus is one of those bubbling-under authors. He collaborated with George Romero on a “Living Dead” book, cowrote (with Guillermo Del Toro) the story that became “The Shape of Water.” But remember this title: “Whalefall” (Aug. 8). He has no collaborator here, and it should make him a star. I giggled for a full year at the premise: A man is trapped in a whale and must find a way out. Then I read it, luxuriated in it, and I could not stop reading it. Picture Jack London, but with a more nuanced handling of broken, damaged men. I’m not going to say much about “Oh God, the Sun Goes” (Aug. 1) by David Connor, only that it sells the dual feelings of awe and loss in an America where the sun has vanished suddenly. Likewise, “Time’s Mouth” (Aug. 1) only sounds corny if you have never read Edan Lepucki. Time itself narrates, then the story slides, touchingly, through generations of women in a family nursing pain — but also shouldering an ability to time travel into their pasts. Think less sci-fi than magic realism.

  • Read Locally, Think Globally

In Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Good Night, Irene” — a summer sleeper hit if there ever was — the Chicago novelist tells a slightly autobiographical story culled from his mother, a Red Cross volunteer during World War II, and a resulting patchwork of memories: friendships, fleeting run-ins, explosions of surrealism, moral abandonment. All of which was held tight for decades by his mother, whose post-traumatic stress went undiagnosed. The beauty of the book is how lightly it wears violence without ever completely removing it from the corner of your eyes. You can feel the Oscar-ready movie bubbling between the lines. Same goes for Julia Fine’s ambitious “Maddalena and the Dark” (June 13): To say it reminds you of “Black Swan” is to say it captures a visceral, obsessive friendship between two young women in the throes of creating art. In this case, Fine paints 18th-century Venice, and the passions of Vivaldi’s prodigies, while making room (unlike “Black Swan”) for a gothic romance about a feverish adolescence.

It’s a humid book for a humid season, pairing well with “Dona Cleanwell Leaves Home,” by Ana Castillo. The Chicagoan’s poetry tends to obscure her graceful fiction, which, in the seven stories in this new collection, capture Latina women, immigrants and children of migrants, shuttling between Mexico City and new lives in Chicago. As with Castillo, I don’t understand why more Chicagoans don’t know the Chicago stories of Christine Sneed, whose latest collection, “Direct Sunlight” (June 15), is fueled by variety: Lincoln Park relationships, alongside Wisconsin factory workers who win Mega Millions, alongside a Chicago advice columnist getting advice letters from her own mother. Janice Deal, another story ace from Chicago, goes the novel route with “The Sound of Rabbits,” a palpably homesick story about two sisters reuniting in their small Wisconsin town, drawn back into a place they once either wanted to escape or forget.

  • I’m Not Paranoid, You Are

Conspiracy, real or fantasy, is the underrated genre, the go-to 2 a.m. doomscroll of 21st-century lit. “The Theory of Everything Else” (June 27), a spinoff of Dan Schreiber’s “No Such Thing as a Fish” podcast) is ideal for the distracted, full of absorbing histories of improbable beliefs (a 1952 prediction of Elon Musk, jinxed sports teams), as thoughtfully written as it is nuts. Chase it with “Under the Eye of Power” (July 11), Colin Dickey’s poignant argument on how belief in secret societies, from the KKK to QAnon, influences American democracy. More solid ground is found in Kerry Howley’s “Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State,” a pinballing, necessarily digressive road trip across a national security state that will “outlast the faith that built it,” told through not completely sympathetic portraits of whistleblowers. If our fascination with conspiracy is that it operates beyond our line of sight, “The Sullivanians” (June 20) is Alexander Stille’s addicting, compassionate account of how earnest societal questions about community were quietly warped in broad daylight, through an ugly Manhattan cult (once the largest in the country) that splintered families for decades.

  • The Fantastic Four

Between Deborah Levy, Lorrie Moore, Ann Patchett and Ann Beattie, it’s hard to think of an upper-middle-class malaise that hasn’t been unsettled in their pages. “August Blue” by Levy (June 6) is another slender, elegant, sparse novel that belies depths: A concert pianist walks offstage mid-performance, abandoning her career, only to stumble on her twin following her across Europe. Camus would be proud. As would Chekhov with “Tom Lake” (Aug. 1), a new career high from Patchett, building on “State of Wonder,” “Commonwealth” and “The Dutch House,” a run that cemented her stature as our great chronicler of family. This one is set in a Michigan cherry orchard, where three sisters urge their mom to recall her summer-stock days and romance with a famous actor. “Onlookers” (July 18) by Beattie hits the short-story master’s best notes (hypocrisy, college towns) but with a clever frame: Six stories set in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, linked by protests over public monuments. They’re also tied to Moore in their deft mash of lonesomeness and wit. “I Am Homeless If This is Not My Home” (June 20) is Moore’s first novel in a decade, and other than alternating chapters set in the 19th century, it’s trademark Moore — a kind of melancholy hoot (if that’s possible). Rather than give away too much, here are a few elements: zombies, suicide and the Midwest.

  1. Laugh Factories

Dying, the cliché goes, is easy, comedy is hard. “Boom Chicago” (July 4) by Andrew Moskos and Pep Rosenfeld, founders of the 30-year-old Dutch institution, provides evidence, with an oral history charting the unlikely importing of Chicago improv, with contributions by Matt Diehl and Saskia Maas and takes from Boom alum such as Jordan Peele and Seth Myers. “Kind of a Big Deal” (Aug. 22) by Saul Austerlitz is a well-reported, if fawning making-of “Anchorman” that’s a more insightful history of the (now broken) comedy partnership of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. For just laughs: Ignore the tidy title “Everybody’s Favorite: Tales from the World’s Worst Perfectionist” (July 23), by Chicago writer Lillian Stone, and luxuriate in millennial-centric thoughts on office bathrooms, Evangelical childhoods and horny Evangelical childhoods. The contemporary queen of the laugh-out-loud hot take, though, is Samantha Irby of Evanston (now Michigan). “Quietly Hostile,” her latest collection, perfect for a beach day, takes on the real issues: poop, public defecation, intimidating teens and the “Lane Bryant that’s now a Chipotle in downtown Evanston.”

  • When Journalism is Art

You know the feeling that you’ve heard the news even if you haven’t? “Evidence of Things Seen: True Crime in an Era of Reckoning” (July 4) is an addicting anthology of reporting that reframes crime writing itself, from pieces on the real-life models for David Simon’s fictional police, decades-old murders facing charges of indifference to Amanda Knox on “Amanda Knox” the image. (Editor Sarah Weinman has become a seal of excellence for true crime.) “American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress” (June 27) sounds familiar: Wesley Lowery, one of our great young journalists, begins in Grant Park, election night 2008, then documents, and redefines, in a tight volume, American racial history as a forever war of “diametrically opposed movements.” Jeff Sharlet’s startling, Didion-esque “The Undertow: Scenes from a Slow Civil War,” with its CinemaScope landscapes and slightest of hopes, visits the dirt lanes and country rallies where Christian nationalism threatens. “The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight” doesn’t fit that bunch. Expect in one big way: Andrew Leland writes about his own gradual blindness using cultural histories and the politics of disability to upend what we assumed we knew. It’s one of the year’s best.

  • Graphic Content

My own summer reading goes long book-short book, long-short, then, after every few books, a comic. The key is choosing well: “Impossible People: A Completely Average Recovery Story,” Julia Wertz’s very funny story of addiction, is a pleasant meander through typically heavy memoir material, but also ordinary days, the promises we never plan to address, the thoughts we entertain (Wertz fantasizes falling through a subway grate and recouping millions). Chuck D’s excellent “STEWdio” (yes, Chuck D of Public Enemy) is a literal diary of stray thoughts, three books of them, in a box — and some of the most compelling reading I’ve done this year. In one-page panels recalling a meld of eighth grade homeroom sketches and the exuberantly unstable lines of Basquiat, Chuck offers portraits of collaborators, tales of loss and quarantine, nights huddled before cable news. For something more traditional: “The Human Target, Vol. 2″ (July 18), with art from Greg Smallwood that time travels from 1961, continues one of DC’s best books in years: A man hired to act as a decoy hunts his poisoner before he expires, in 12 days.

  • Meet the New Bosses

It’s going to take another decade or so before Morrison, Bellow, Roth, et al., give way to a new canon. In the meantime, catch-up: Now with two Pulitzers for novels on the Underground Railroad and child abuse, Colson Whitehead had fun last year with a heist thriller, “Harlem Shuffle.” And a hit. He continues its story with “Crook Manifesto” (July 18), leaping ahead to a ‘70s New York of Black Power and civic neglect. “Beware the Woman” could only be written by the great Megan Abbott: A young woman is unsure if she married into a sinister legacy, or she’s just claustrophobic in the dense woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Few novelists today bring the suspense, and the politics, so effortlessly. Fewer still write as brightly on community as James McBride, whose “The Good Lord Bird” and “Deacon King Kong” are contemporary classics. “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” (Aug. 8) fits nicely on that shelf: It’s the story of a Pennsylvania neighborhood where Black and Jewish residents, and their less accepting Evangelical neighbors — “proof of the American possibility of equality” — are upended when a literal skeleton appears in a local well. As for nonfiction: David Grann (“Killers of the Flower Moon,” “The Lost City of Z”) is the new sure thing for disaster narrative. “The Wager” follows the aftermath of an 18th-century shipwreck, a story that somehow gets uglier after survivors appear. Harrowing, fascinating — read it now, before the inevitable film.

  • Words Count

“August Wilson: A Life” (Aug. 15), the first major biography of the great playwright since his death in 2005 (and really, the only good one, strangely), does the heavy lifting: Patti Hartigan, former theater critic at the Boston Globe, working from interviews with the Pittsburgh legend, walks us, play by play, through the influences, rough childhood, regional loyalties, self-mythologizing, the Goodman Theatre relationship. There will be more critical books, but this sets a high bar for future Wilson studies. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” (June 27) by Peter Moore explains the intellectual world of 18th century America, pre-Red Coats, the personality clashes about those famous words, and their ironic trans-Atlantic roots. (“The American Dream,” the book argues provocatively, is a British import.) There’s a melancholy of unrealized goals hanging over the history that resonates off “Tabula Rasa: Vol. 1″ (July 11), the nine millionth book by John McPhee in seven decades. But what a lovely addition: McPhee, at 92, recalls in short bursts all of the journalism he never expects to finish, from Malcolm Forbes’ yacht to plane crashes, with thoughts on his classics, his famously rangy curiosity never quite settled.

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  • Sorry, but It’s Science

If science books don’t sound like summer, watch me change your mind: “The Possibility of Life: Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos,” by Jaime Green, is that rare book on a chance of life beyond Earth you will not hide on the CTA. Instead of UFOs and probes, it’s a breezy skip through planetary climates, the politics of first contact, what an alien might actually be — you know, actual natural considerations. “Edison’s Ghosts: The Untold Weirdness of History’s Greatest Geniuses” by Katie Spalding is a survey of stupidity perpetrated by the smartest people you know: Freud’s coke habit, Tycho Brahe’s penchant for getting his pet moose drunk. (Sigh.) “What an Owl Knows” (June 13) by Jennifer Ackerman (our smartest bird writer) should do for hooting what a wave of octopus books did for slithering. (Did you know: An owl’s auditory system, its hearing, does not age with the rest of it?) Finally, “The Heartbeat of the Wild,” by David Quammen, former Chicagoan, science legend, collects decades of National Geographic pieces, and there’s not a dud story: a lion’s life, a couple who try to “rewild” Patagonian animals, iffy Russian salmon conservation, etc.

  • Social Justice Thrillers, They Wrote

There’s a moment in every S.A. Cosby crime thriller where the legacy of gothic fiction arrives like a ghost — only to be pushed past for fresher terrain. “All the Sinners Bleed” (June 6) sounds overburdened in timeliness. It starts with a school shooting, then veers to Confederate monuments. But then subverts expectations with a vintage serial killer cat-and-mouse about systemic indifference. Similarly, “Small Mercies” finds Dennis “Mystic River” Lehane working his finest muscle, employing American history (the ‘70s busing protests in working-class Boston) to crack skulls (and belief systems) on the way to a (darker) future. After a ho-hum stretch, it’s peak Lehane. “Sing Her Down” by Ivy Pochoda grafts a Western to a rowdy tale of female rage, desert dust, Los Angeles and intransigence, set in motion by a prison break. It’s the rare literary thriller to start at 50 mph, then accelerate. “Genealogy of a Murder,” by longtime New York Times reporter Lisa Belkin, works similar muscles, but for a nonfiction account of three men whose histories (violent, working-class, guilt-ridden) pass through Chicago, the Great Depression, Joliet. Like last year’s Pulitzer-winning “His Name is George Floyd,” its real subject is the turns of fate and society that define us, and sometimes destroy us.

  • Behind the Music

You could spend six zillion dollars on two concerts this summer, or eight weeks immersed in more music than any live show offers. “Gentleman of Jazz: A Life in Music,” the charming new memoir by late Chicagoan pianist Ramsey Lewis (written, crisply, with Aaron Cohen) is a gentle stroll through 20th-century jazz. “Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival” is Mark Guarino’s smartly-written, surprising puzzle piece of Americana: How Chicago, before Nashville, then later with Wilco and other cross-pollinators, was the quiet engine beneath country music for generations. Threads of it reverberate through “Deliver Me From Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska,” by Warren Zanes, of the great garage band the Del Fuegos. Through chats with Springsteen himself, Zanes pulls together cultural markers (Terrence Malick, early punk, Flannery O’Connor) and generational haunting that led to a raw oddity made on a cheap tape deck in Springsteen’s kitchen, yet pointed to “Born in the U.S.A.” (As producer Jon Landau says: “It’s like he had his ‘Star Wars’ and his art film in his hand at the same moment.”)

Speaking of haunted: New Yorker editor David Remnick’s “Holding the Note” is hard to read without pausing now and then, staring into space and counting years. These are not 11 hagiographies (Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy) but snapshots of what greats think about long after sainthood. Ghosts float through Howard Fishman’s “To Anyone Who Ever Asks,” an exhaustive argument for the importance of Connie Converse. No, you don’t know her. But she was a cult musician’s cult artist, if briefly, then vanished in 1974 from her home (Ann Arbor). And was never seen again.

For more of an audience POV: “Gone to the Wolves” by John Wray, one of my most engrossing reads this year, tells the story of hardcore metal heads in Florida in the 1980s, their frustrations, friendships, inevitable splintering and, because this is a blast of a summer novel, their road trip into the cold heart of darkness, Norwegian death metal.

  • Summer (Late) Nights

Finally, my summer book theme: Scary. Horror is the new sci-fi, and the field is rich: A good toe-in-the-water is “The Only One Left” (June 20) by Riley Sager, the latest dependable airport bookstore grab and name in summer suspense. This one is about an old woman who comes clean — or so we think — about what happened the night her family was Lizzie-Bordened. (I.e., murdered.) Paul Tremblay — whose “The Cabin at the End of the World” was recently adapted for M. Night Shyamalan’s “Knock at the Cabin” — returns to what he does best: Short tales, fringed with experiment. “The Beast You Are” (July 23) is anchored by a title novella (about a large rampaging monster) that plays like an epic poem. “Silver Nitrate” (July 18) is the latest Mexican horror from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who had a quarantine word-of-mouth hit with “Mexican Gothic.” And likely another hit: A sound engineer in 1990s Mexico City is drawn into a plan to finish a cursed film. (You’ve heard that saying, that movies bring the dead back to life?)

If you only want a taste: Try Victor LaValle, particularly his wonderful new Western “Lone Women.” It tells the story of a Black woman in 1915 who leaves California on the promise of homesteading in Montana. Forget the threat of racist white settlers and that inky night in need of electricity. She carries her demons in her baggage. Literally.