In the summer, I like my reading to be dark—a sort of literary sun block. That’s why I recommend two gloomy but compelling novels: Tamar, by Mal Peet, and The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville. Both alternate between a troubled time in European history and the peace that followed, focusing on how violence torments individuals’ psyches long after conflict officially ends. Tamar is a story of the Dutch resistance and how it changes a family for generations to come, while The Ghosts of Belfast is about a hitman from Northern Ireland who begins to see the images of the 12 people he killed. (A movie version of The Ghosts of Belfast, going by the original title The Twelve, is going into production later this year. The screenplay was co-written by Craig Ferguson and his Late Late Show head writer Ted Mulkerin.) Both are page-turners that are perfect for summer—especially if you want to be reminded of what a blessing it is to live in relatively peaceful times.
Life Itself, by Roger Ebert
Recommended by Aisha Harris, “Brow Beat” assistant
In light of his recent passing, I’m looking forward to finally checking out Roger Ebert’s memoir Life Itself. It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while, but now that summer is upon us, I can’t think of a better time to finally dive into it. For me, this season is when I feel happiest the most, and as a movie nerd, my reading tastes skew pretty far toward cinema-related things, especially during summer movie season. And because Ebert seemed to embrace life so vigorously, I think reading about the film critic’s struggles, triumphs, and positive attitude through it all will be fitting.
My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road With Old Bones, New Science, and Our Favorite Dinosaurs, by Brian Switek and Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz.
Recommended by Laura Helmuth, science and health editor
Do you remember being fascinated by dinosaurs when you were 8 years old? Well, they’re even more awesome today. In the past few decades, paleontologists have discovered that dinosaurs were more agile, more diverse, and more social than we thought—and feathered, which, by the way, drives creationists crazy. Brian Switek shares our affection for outdated Brontosaurus, but he will thrill you with tales of the true beasts that dominated the Mesozoic Era. (Disclosure, or boast disguised as a disclosure: I edited Switek’s Dinosaur Tracking blog at Smithsonian.com, where he first worked on some of the material in this book.)
Living on Earth is not a good long-term survival strategy, according to Annalee Newitz, editor of the awesome futuristic website io9. Most mammalian species last about 1 million years, and at a mere 200,000, Homo sapiens had better think to the future if we want to avoid mass extinction. How will the planet end? Well, the apocalypse is complicated, Newitz says—but it’s dreadfully fascinating to read about the various disaster scenarios. Even more intriguing are her ideas for how to invent our way out of certain doom. Space elevators may be involved, but whatever happens, it’ll be even weirder than we imagine.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John Le Carre
Recommended by Dan Kois, Slate Book Review editor
This is the summer, I am telling myself, that I will finally read John Le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The reason I haven't read it before has nothing to do with being daunted by its length or the intricacy of its plot. It's just that I've always had this vision of myself sitting on a beach reading an old Bantam mass-market paperback of Tinker, Tailor—not one of the new trade paperbacks with Gary Oldman on the cover, as great as he was in the recent film. No, I want a battered old TTSS, a paperback that might fool people into thinking, "This gent's read this one before." I'm not picky—it can be this cover OR this cover. Anyway, this summer I'm gonna find it on the Internet and buy it and read it. I've tried ordering it three or four times on the Internet, but it always turns out to be some other edition, and this is a book that for some reason is basically never in used bookstores or rummage sales or church spring fair book sales. If anyone has a line on one, let me know.
I like to be overly ambitious in the summer. There was 2009, when I lugged Infinite Jest on the subway (and only made it 300 pages before giving up—it’s still a great shame of mine) and 2012, when I tried to read War and Peace (and only finished a few weeks ago). I’ve had my eye on Middlemarch for some time (and not just because I’m sure Rebecca Mead’s 2011 ode is wonderful; I haven’t read it yet—spoilers!). I attempted it a few years ago, but I was moving and switching jobs at the time, so it got lost in the process. I hope to pair it with Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, which I’ve come to understand is the modern American Jewish remake.
Barcelona, by Robert Hughes.
Recommended by J. Bryan Lowder, editorial assistant
Hughes writes in the introduction that this book was meant to be much shorter than it is—just an assessment of the modernist art that makes Barcelona such a distinctive city. But the final result, weighing in at 541 pages, is all the better (so far!) for its density. Hughes deftly weaves dogged history, luminous art criticism, and wry cultural commentary into the most toothsome account of my summer vacation destination I can imagine—and I’m only up to the Middle Ages!
The Never List, by Koethi Zan
Recommended by Alissa Neil, publicist
I loved The Never List, a gripping debut novel by Koethi Zan, who also happens to be Stephen Metcalf's wife. It's an engrossing psychological thriller in its own right, filled with twists and turns. But it's also extremely eerie in light of recent events in Cleveland. The Never List is a story about three women who were held captive in a cellar for nearly three years by a sadist who by day was a prominent university psych professor. It's as if Zan is clairvoyant, inviting the reader to imagine a version of the horror endured by the Cleveland victims. Perfect read for the hammock, the beach, or backyard— but I'd definitely stay out of the basement.
A book that I've already read but plan to read again: Project X, by Jim Shepard, a short, pitch-perfect novel about two teenage boys planning a Columbine-style school shooting, told from the perspective of one of the plotters, the scared, sympathetic Edwin Hanratty. Shepard's last line has stayed with me since I first read the book 18 months ago. I can't wait to read it again.
A book I haven't read yet but plan to read this summer: Bruce Duffy's The World as I Found It, a fictionalized retelling of the lives of philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell, and G.E. Moore. (Beach reading!) I actually started on this book in April but haven't had time to get past the first chapter. But, man, what a first chapter!