Summer is for Readers

Five new and recent recommended novels.

What is a beach read but a book one reads at the beach? Steamy paperbacks and boilerplate thrillers aren’t my go-to, no matter the season, but longer days mean more hours for reading en plein air.

My ideal summer reading list contains humor (to help the medicine go down) and the ability to transport (no hidden airline fees, plus legroom galore). Evidently, I’m also drawn to single word titles — give or take a definite article or two.

Here are five new literary fiction picks for the well-lit months ahead:

 

Author Ryan Chapman. Photo by Beowulf Sheehan, courtesy of Soho Press.

“The Audacity” by Ryan Chapman (Soho Press)

This Sri Lankan-American author is among the decade’s sharpest satirists; no small feat in an era where current events and the characters populating them regularly reach the absurd on their own, as we find ourselves living in a new Gilded Age of dystopian proportions. For his second novel, Chapman sends up the whole mess of (too) late capitalism we’re in, to hilarious effect. A big pharma-cum-venture capitalist doyenne pulls a Theranos, but disappears before news breaks, leaving her failed, classical musician, kept-husband to fend for himself on the brink of their doomed fate. He retreats to a secretive tropical island summit of the richest of the rich, gathered under the pretense of, first, agreeing on the world’s greatest philanthropic cause, and second, pulling their funds together to solve it. The lavish proceedings along with the characters are detestable and beyond redemption, but skewering abounds and Chapman’s love of language shines line by line, working wonders with wordplay in the latest tech speak and Ted Talk argot. It’s a parody from the jump, but not without narrative substance and pathos that underlies the immigrant experience, specifically, and more broadly: the struggle to thrive as an artist, let alone survive as a decent, if not content, adult in America.

 

“James” by Percivel Everett (Doubleday)

This reimagining of Mark Twain’s classic, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” by a contemporary master is a perfect summer read, not unlike seeing an old friend after a chunk of time has slipped by. You assess what’s different and what remains the same through a more current, elucidating lens. Telling the story from Jim’s narrative perspective, giving him the added agency of being a fully formed and literate character, Everett lends greater nuance to truths never articulated in Twain’s original. Who would have guessed that the experience of an enslaved adult would be more representative and illuminating than a pair of freewheeling pipsqueaks? That conceit offers a mordant through-line to an old adventure made new with expanded dimensions and historically enriched edges, writ large for the benefit of still turbulent times. As access to education remains in the balance IRL [that’s “in real time” for the chat-speak challenged] Everett makes an indelible case for the power and necessity of language at any cost. The book is also a propulsive page-turner with twist after twist as an added bonus for readers. I can’t wait for the inevitable movie adaptation.

 

Author Camille Bordas. Photo credit: Yann Stofer.

“The Material” by Camille Bordas (Random House)

No surprise, this novel about an MFA program for stand-up comedy delivers a variety of laughs: dry, belly, ironic, satiric, glib, controversial, inspirational, aspirational, and on occasion, out-loud. With an emotional pendulum that can swing between pathos and bathos, this French-born author’s second English-language novel (quatrième overall, if you’re counting) is a high-wire act and masterclass in tone, observation and the beneath-the-surface substance. It’s set in a single day, told through the shifting third-person perspective of students and faculty who populate the Chicago-based program. On the surface, this framework is at odds with the structure of stand-up itself — the individual voice of a comic on the mic — but the juxtaposition works to great effect. The material drawn on as subject matter is vast and reveals as much about its tapestry of characters as it reflects the circumstances that produced them. How this stuff can be rendered creatively, humanely and ideally with a well-landed punchline is the pursuit of their lifetime. Delivered by Bordas, it’s also malleable material for a far reaching and stirring read.

 

“Reboot” by Justin Taylor (Pantheon)

This book is framed as the tell-all memoir of a former teen sitcom star, David Crader, as he navigates the nadir of his personal and professional life. He’s a two-time divorcé with a DIY approach to his recovery, whose recent appearances have been reduced to video game voiceover work and fan conventions. The past — slyly referred to as his origin myth — is the backstory to his narrative present and the potential springboard for a brighter future. When renewed interest in the series that brought him success (and his first marriage) promises an opportunity for redemption, Crader sets out to relaunch his star in a postmodern hero’s quest, or Hollywood’s version of the second coming: the reboot. In our age that’s morphed fans into stans, parasocialized celebrity, and made conspiracy theories mainstream entertainment. Taylor has crafted a sardonic romp with heart for audiences of literature and myriad pop culture alike.

 

Author Alexandra Tanner photographed by Sasha Fletcher.

“Worry” by Alexandra Tanner (Scribner)

Gone are the days when Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, me worry?” motto might resonate. Today the emergent question is what, specifically, are you worrying about? The answer in Tanner’s debut domestic novel is: a lot. The worry is pervasive (and personal and social(s) and familial and environmental and foundational and warranted and manic) surrounding a pair of sisters and a dog named Amy Klobuchar, turned unwitting roommates for a series of days that stretch into weeks and then months in 2019, pre-pandemic Brooklyn. Simpler times, you ask? Not a chance. Tanner deploys an intense and engrossing first person narrative through the older sibling, Jules, that’s relentless in her interior strife and anxieties of every stripe, but routinely played out on her phone. Incessant arguments and festering frustrations with her younger sister, Poppy, and their mom in Florida, are triggering to a degree reserved for family. Fortunately and importantly, they’re also hilarious. In what Tanner has likened to a funhouse mirror reflection of her own experience, the characters and their conflicts are readily recognizable, yet outsized and distorted to comedic effect. Exemplifying Seinfeld’s “No hugging, no learning” credo, it’s a wild ride, without a finish line and absolutely no winners or consolation prizes. But look at them go!

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