Summer Daze

Books we recommend for warm-weather days

Richard Walker (Flickr/richardwalkerphotography)
Richard Walker (Flickr/richardwalkerphotography)

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly given new meaning to the word “staycation,” as most of our travel plans have been rendered moot. Fortunately, escaping into a book is hardly a second-rate alternative to the usual summer outing. From illuminating biographies to fast-paced dramas, these eight books can help you break through the stupor of a summer at home.

The Last Lion by William Manchester

For those beach readers looking for something more substantive than a spy thriller or a romance novel, permit me to suggest an alternative you’ll find no less juicy and gripping. Manchester’s three-volume biography of Winston Churchill will take you through his subject’s impossibly varied and consequential life, leaving you wishing that a leader of his quality would emerge to bring us through the many crises that assail us today. Churchill was a politician, a war hero, a journalist, a novelist, a historian, a devoted husband, a lover of animals, a fine painter, a builder, an inveterate smoker of cigars, and a gourmand. Oh, and he singlehandedly confronted Hitler when no one else would, helping to save the world from tyranny. Now that’s a life—one that deserves every one of the many pages Manchester devotes to it. –Bruce Falconer

Atonement by Ian McEwan

This book has been sitting on one of our household shelves ever since my older brother had to read it in high school, and I only just got around to reading it myself. Maybe that’s a good thing, because I can’t remember the last time I was so absolutely gutted by a twist that came in a book’s eleventh hour. Atonement’s first half covers only a single, languid summer’s day in 1935, when 13-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses a flirtation between her older sister and the son of one of their servants. Her misunderstanding of that event spirals into a devastating crime, the consequences of which reverberate for decades. McEwan’s prose is gorgeous; his characters are deeply, interestingly flawed; and the story’s heart-wrenching conclusion will linger long after you’ve read the last page. Next up: watching the movie adaptation (and probably crying my eyes out). —Jayne Ross

A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr

Haunted by his experiences in the Great War and broken up over the collapse of his marriage, Tom Birkin arrives in the Yorkshire village where he is to spend the summer restoring a medieval church mural concealed beneath centuries of accumulated grime. The metaphorical implications of that premise seem obvious enough, yet Carr’s novel—despite its brevity and deceptively simple style—contains a wide range of tone and feeling. In a work that is part romance, part pastoral elegy, the shimmer of the warm summer days seems to just barely obscure a pervasive sense of gloom. Few other novels I can think of so beautifully convey nostalgia and loss. Consider, for example, the following lines: “We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever—the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.”—Sudip Bose

Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation by John Ferling

This is probably not a beach read unless you like political drama, but it is timely. The filmed performance of Hamilton the musical will be released on July 3rd, and this book is the perfect precursor to help you better understand all of the drama between two of the show’s protagonists. I mean, the characters have rap battles, so it must be pretty scandalous! Plus, at only 464 pages, Ferling’s book is a summer breeze compared to Ron Chernow’s behemoth Alexander Hamilton biography. —Taylor Curry

Death in Venice by Thomas Mann

The hero of Mann’s novella, Gustav von Aschenbach, is initially unaware that a serious illness has settled upon hot and humid Venice, though he does notice one or two things amiss while taking in the sights and swooning over the young Polish boy Tadzio. With warnings from the health department beginning to appear around the city, Aschenbach reluctantly seeks out the reason. He’s told that the sirocco, the notorious wind that swirls up from Africa and is thought to cause ill health, is to blame. In truth, an epidemic of cholera—which began in India, spread across much of Asia, and then traveled to Europe—has finally made its way to Venice. Early on, Venetian authorities stated that “the health conditions in the city had never been better, and they took the most necessary precautions to ward off any problems.” By early June, the illness had taken a severe toll, and yet,

the city fathers were concerned about overall damage to the vast tourist trade, about the painting exhibition that had recently opened in the Public Gardens; they were worried that a panic might break out, that the hotel might lose its reputation, that business would suffer if tourists kept away in droves. And these fears proved more powerful than love of truth and respect for international agreements; these fears compelled the authorities to uphold their obstinate policy of concealment and denial. Venice’s chief medical official, a meritorious man, had indignantly resigned and had been surreptitiously replaced by a more compliant individual. [tr. by Joachim Neugroschel]

Sound familiar? —Sudip Bose

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

As protests against police brutality rock the nation once again, I keep thinking of Thomas’s stunning debut novel, which just about shattered any preconceived notions I’d once loosely held about systemic racism. The book is narrated by 16-year-old Starr Carter, who feels caught between her poor black neighborhood and the elite suburban prep school she attends. Those worlds collide after she witnesses her childhood friend Khalil die at the hands of a police officer, which unwittingly thrusts her into the spotlight of a national conversation. Far from one-sided, the book takes care to explore all the gray areas of Starr’s life: her boyfriend is white; her uncle is a cop, and she doesn’t always know what other people want her to believe or say. Ultimately, though, Starr comes to find that her voice is the one worth honoring most, and it is impossible not to grieve and cheer alongside her as she seeks justice for Khalil and for her community. —Jayne Ross

Love and Summer by William Trevor

This lovely, melancholy novel, published in 2009, is representative of Trevor’s late style, the prose spare and lyrical, shorn of ornament, full of nuance. Set in a rural Irish town in the 1950s, it depicts the arrival of an alienated young man named Florian Kilderry, who intends to pass the lazy summer months photographing the dilapidated local movie theater. When Florian meets Ellie Dillahan, the two begin an affair, though theirs is hardly a simple summer romance. For one thing, Ellie is married. For another, Florian still nurtures feelings for another woman. Trevor imbues the tryst with an importance that extends well beyond the lives of the two lovers, as we sense in their developing relationship the frustrations and failings of an entire town caught up in a kind of perpetual, postwar stasis. —Sudip Bose

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

This is the second of Moriarty’s books I’ve read (the first being the exceptional Big Little Lies), and I think I can officially categorize her character-driven style as “deliciously soapy.” This novel focuses on nine people who sign up for a health retreat at Tranquillum House, a “boutique health and wellness resort” that promises life-changing results. Life-changing, indeed—as the days tick by, the resort guests become increasingly suspicious of their leader’s, um, unconventional tactics. While Nine Perfect Strangers somewhat lacks the incisive social commentary of Moriarty’s other work, it’s a wild, fun ride from start to finish—perfect for a day at the beach. —Jayne Ross

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Our Editors include Sudip Bose, Bruce Falconer, Stephanie Bastek, Jayne Ross, and Ellie Eberlee.


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