Staff Picks: Summer Beach Reads

Summer is here! Whether you’re planning to plop down with a good book on the beach, in a park, or even on your couch, here are some recommendations for great summer reads from staff.

What are you reading this summer? Let us know in the comments!

Maggie Ardiente:
Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer

I recently finished bestselling author Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, an excellent investigative work on rape culture in the university setting. It was so compelling, timely, and heartbreaking, I finished reading it over a three-day camping trip. If you’re familiar with his well-known works Into the Wild (the story of a young man who tragically died in the Alaskan wilderness), Into Thin Air (disaster on Mt. Everest), and Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (a true-crime involving fundamentalist Mormons), then you know Krakauer’s writing is superb. There’s no doubt that our justice system is broken, and Krakauer—along with millions of sexual assault victims—demands that it be fixed now.

Jennifer Bardi:
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

My family knew a woman years ago—probably the most prolific bibliophile any of us had ever met. When asked if she had a favorite among all the many, many books she’d read her answer was Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I’d always intended to read it, and when I was at my public library last week there it was on a display shelf. At 592 pages, I decided it would be a great summer read.

Written in 1971, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the story of a writer and illustrator, Susan Burling Ward, and her engineer husband crossing the frontier and living in various Western mining towns in the late 1800s. It’s told by Susan’s grandson, an aging wheelchair-bound historian living in 1970s Northern California. Stegner based the character of Susan on Mary Hallock Foote and even had permission to use Foote’s correspondence, which appears as letters written by Susan.

The title is taken from the engineering term that means the steepest angle a pile of sand, earth, or any granular material maintains when poured into a heap. At the angle of repose, a substance is holding but is on the verge of sliding—which seems like an apt metaphor for humanity (and, personally, a position I can relate to!). I read an analysis that said the book’s title also evokes “the loose wandering of the Ward family as they try to carve out a civilized existence in the West and, Susan hopes, to return to the East as successes.” As a native Californian living in the East who someday hopes to return triumphant to her frontier roots, I’m digging this reversal.

Rachael Berman:
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

Bad Feminist, for me (and possibly for others), is one of those books I wish I’d written—not with her life experiences and interactions with pop culture, but with my own. Roxane Gay has perfected the art of putting Tumblr-esque essays about our relationships with food, songs, movies, and other people, and the conflicts between our feminist ideals and our actual desires, preferences, and beliefs, into book form in a very smart and relatable way that vocalizes implicit social mechanisms that we might not have otherwise been able to identify. As you might imagine from the title, she never aims to be perfect. This book is one voice—her voice—and it makes you consider owning your own.

Peter Bjork:
Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I just finished the 2014 Nebula Award-winning novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer—the first book in his Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a vague and haunting tale of an area of land, “Area X,” that has been cut off from civilization for decades. As it has grown wild and lush, a government agency has sent eleven expeditions into the zone to learn its secrets—and all have suffered disastrous consequences. The novel is written as the field journal of one of the members of the twelfth expedition, a woman referred to only as “the biologist.”

Far from the nature-mystery novel I was expecting, Annihilation quickly became a page-turning, suspenseful psychological thriller. As the biologist becomes more and more affected by the mysterious forces at play in Area X, her writing becomes erratic and the experiences she recounts become more enthralling. It becomes impossible, at times, to discern what is really happening, but that only serves to propel the story along. I haven’t yet decided if I will continue on with the other books in the trilogy, as this book can easily stand alone, but Annihilation easily ranks as one of my top reads of the year so far.

Matthew Bulger:
East of West by Jonathan Hickman

Imagine a world in which the American Civil War never really ended, a world in which both slaves and Native Americans were able to carve out their own nations next to the Union, a world with the Confederacy, an independent Texas, and a nation formed by communist exiles from China. Add to this a cryptic religious message propagated by the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and you’ve got East of West by Jonathan Hickman, the best graphic novel to be published in years.

Sincere Kirabo:
White Nights, Black Paradise by Sikivu Hutchinson

Sincere’s recommendation is an excerpt from a review he wrote for The Feminist Wire. The book follows three fictional characters caught up in the Reverend Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple and its ultimately fatal move to Jonestown in Guyana.

Sikivu Hutchinson’s new novel White Nights, Black Paradise is a provocative and eye-opening piece of historical fiction that captures a dark moment in time and gives a voice to the Black women whose heart-wrenching stories were lost amidst tragedy.

…This is the kind of book that lingers with a purpose. Hutchinson writes in such a way that satiates the reader while also inspiring us to discuss it with others as well as seek out more details of what exactly went down in Jonestown.

White Nights, Black Paradise is a delight and, more importantly, an awesome representation of women of color, whose stories and voices are often devalued or erased, even in the darkest of times.

Merrill Miller:
Is It Evil Not to Be Sure? by Lena Dunham

I know, I know, Lena Dunham is the privileged, whiny white girl that everyone loves to hate, but there’s a reason why her award-winning HBO show Girls has made headlines—Lena Dunham is funny! And her latest book, Is It Evil Not to Be Sure?, does not disappoint! Taken from snippets of Dunham’s college journal, this short book chronicles the trials and errors of fumbling one’s way into adulthood. This is a short, witty, satisfying read that will leave anyone who has survived their early twenties cringing in sympathetic embarrassment while also chuckling to themselves at Dunham’s keen and concise observations.

Roy Speckhardt:
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

I just finished a quick read: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a powerful look into the depth and persistence of racism in America, delivered as advice to his fourteen-year-old son.

Read more reviews of Between the World and Me on and in the Humanist magazine.

Jessica Xiao:
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Those close to me will know that I’ve been on a Haruki Murakami binge lately, and his novels, often classified as magic realism, are quintessential companions to the beach.

Murakami’s genius comes from his skillful grounding of the surreal and whimsical with everyday life—making use of the beauty in coincidence (“My life is full of strange coincidences,” he says.) and bringing out the magic in human emotional development and growth. You’re not quite sure you understand everything that happened by the end of one of his novels, but rationalizing the individual elements was never the point—grokking the journey was.

Although I wasn’t on a beach while reading this one, I did devour Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World while picnicking on a lazy Sunday at Tam-Tams. Another Murakami recommendation is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.