As Emily Dickinson wrote, there is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. Summer isn’t all vacation; for those weeks you’re stuck at a desk, Slate staffers recommend books that took them places they’ve never been.
Lucky Us, by Amy Bloom
Recommended by Emily Bazelon, senior editor
Amy Bloom’s novel Away is one of my favorite books—a tale of love and suffering, about an immigrant mother’s search for her daughter, that for me is the Jewish version of Beloved. I’d recommend it any summer, and this year Bloom has a new novel called Lucky Us that I also thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a story of two half-sisters: Iris the sparkling starlet and Eva the mordant sidekick, and their downward spiral, against the backdrop of World War II, from Hollywood to Long Island. This book is about scheming and thievery, and how you can stitch together a self-identity out of all kinds of scrap cloth. It’s rollicking, cinematic, and great fun.
The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
Recommended by Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor
This is not the romantic South Pacific of Bali honeymoons. Hanya Yanagihara’s troubling, beautiful novel follows a young doctor on a research expedition to an island whose people hold a secret to eternal life. From there, it examines scientific ethics large and small while riffing on the infamous case of D. Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel Prize winner charged with molesting children he adopted from the South Pacific.
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.
Recommended by Jamelle Bouie, staff writer
The best thing I can say about this book is I read it a month ago, promptly reread it, and am still thinking about it. Published in 1959, Leibowitz tells a story of discovery, enlightenment, and hubris, set in a post-apocalyptic world. If you can get past the quirks of the novel—like frequent use of Latin—you’ll find a thoughtful mediation on religion, science, and what can happen when technological progress is divorced from morality.
Hot Pink, by Adam Levin
Recommended by Alexandra Coakley, excerpt assistant
Adam Levin’s collection of stories took me inside the obsessive minds of people falling quickly and cruelly in love in Chicago. A legless, lesbian wunderkind finally gets the girl just in time to meet her untimely end, the author of “the world’s greatest love letter” never reaches his origami-loving office crush, and a Skinnerian drug dealer falls for a girl who likes to get punched in the face by strange men. Levin’s love stories are beautiful and thrilling and ultimately, doomed. In the summer at least, I prefer them that way.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Recommended by Hana Glasser, editorial intern
Summer’s as good a time as any for bleak (fascinating, beautiful) dystopian fiction. In Ishiguro’s sixth novel, a young woman’s experience at a boarding school for “special” children takes on new meaning. The world he creates is steadily disquieting and scarily close to home.
Baba Yaga Laid an Egg, by Dubravka Ugresic
Recommended by Stephanie Gomory, Slate PR
The myth of Baba Yaga, a feared old hag from Slavic folklore, informs every inch of this bizarre romp through contemporary Eastern Europe. An elderly mother’s apartment in Zagreb, a broken-down Bulgarian seaside town, a circus-like spa resort in the Czech Republic, they’re all backdrops for the narrator’s exploration of what it means to be old—and a woman—in a world where being both at once can feel close to tragic.
The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud
Recommended by Laura Helmuth, science and health editor
Yeah, I know: a young adult book about magic. But it’s summer! The main character is a snide demon with a vicious sense of humor, and the books lay out a mechanism for magic that is self-consistent and logical within its own world. The books are funny, dark, and utterly transporting.
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver
Recommended by Jane Hu, AAAS Mass Media Fellow
Kingsolver masterfully weaves memoir and food writing for a breezy read that will leave you fantasizing about ditching your day job to grow your own food on a small farm. (Or maybe that’s just me.) It also includes some fantastic recipes, which will make you grateful for all the fresh food of summer.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
Recommended by Joshua Keating, staff writer
A painstakingly meticulous and vivid recreation of an underappreciated historical turning point—Japan’s reluctant opening to the outside world in the 18th century—a star-crossed love story, and a gripping adventure. If you liked Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, this one is even better.
Travels in Siberia, by Ian Frazier
Recommended by Dan Kois, culture editor
Getting sick of feeling hot and sticky while stuck in traffic? Can’t stand the bugs that come out every dusk while you’re trying to grill? Read Ian Frazier’s delightful book about the endless steppes of Russia’s largest, most remote region, and you’ll never complain about your summer again. From the ramshackle roads to the towns with nothing to do or eat to the mosquitoes that descend from the sky every night “as if shot from a fire hose,” Frazier’s Siberia sounds awful—which is what makes his ability to convey why he loves Siberia so very much all the more impressive.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Recommended by Miriam Krule, copy editor
I hope I’m not cheating by choosing a place that doesn’t exist, but this book is all about going to places you never thought existed. Though the book’s been dubbed by some as Harry Potter for adults, it feels more accurate to think of it as Harry Potter with adults. While the first part of the novel deals with a Hogwarts-like school, the rest is devoted to the angst of post-grad life and, well, discovering that a made-up Narnia-like land really exists. The final installment in the trilogy comes out Aug. 5, so now’s the perfect time to go to Fillory.
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Recommended by Rachael Larimore, managing editor
In her novel about a woman who is repeatedly reincarnated, Kate Atkinson takes us to the same places—the English countryside, London, Germany—again and again. The story is really transportive, though, when Atkinson plants her protagonist, Ursula, into the middle of the Blitz. She conveys both the horror of war—the panic, the smell of the bombs and fire, the randomness of who lives and who dies—and the very British sang-froid response. I wouldn’t want to visit, but you can see how people managed to live there.