I bring you a mix of escapism and realism to lose yourself in over the next month of what could have been a summer break.
I read more than a dozen books every month. I read for work and for fun and to have something to talk about with someone I’d like to know better. I read as research for the book I’m writing. But mostly, these days, I read to do something other than doomscrolling, and to feel tethered to the world outside my house and my quaranteam.
I think you should consider these five page-turners, and I hope they’ll help you feel as informed, creative, curious, connected, and optimistic (perhaps ironically, in some cases) as they did for me.
Opium and Absinthe: A Novel, by Lydia Kang
Your standard period piece murder mystery love story class warfare tale of drug addiction, grief, changing gender norms, perils of wealth, and toxic motherhood in turn-of-the-century New York City… this book is hard to describe but very easy to read. Dive in for a very quick, satisfying genre-bending romp that’s escapist without being vapid, with a narrator-protagonist, Tillie Pembroke, that you care about even when she’s annoying and a problem to solve that’s interesting even after you’re pretty sure you know whodunit. Perfect pandemic summer reading.
Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing, by Allison Winn Scotch
Cleo McDougal Regrets Nothing is another quick, easy, and delightful read for your (re)quarantine summer. Cleo, a protagonist that you almost entirely root for, and, if you’re a successful, ambitious woman who’s also a mom you identify with at least a little bit, is a very young Senator on the precipice of running for President who’s thrown into a wrenchingly public soul-searching deep dive into her life’s deepest regrets… which she’s helpfully documented in a list since she was a girl. Throw in some sometimes hilariously unsubtle commentary on the deeply ingrained sexism of law, politics, and Washington, DC, the lasting consequences of sexual harassment, and how culture seeps into the very core of how women operate in the world, and you’re in for a thoughtful treat. The pages-long explanatory internal monologues can be a bit tedious but stick with it for a thought-provoking contemplation of what it means to take responsibility for your actions, relationships, and outcomes.
Severance, by Ling Ma
When your MAGA-hat wearing relatives (or Twitter frenemies) say that no one could have predicted our current situation, maybe some fiction will be more effective than tomes of science, policy, or news? Send them to Severance, which I think was probably a funny read about office culture in the Before Times but right now reads like a preview of a very grim future. A virus originating in the Wuhan region of China goes global, shutting down businesses, schools, infrastructure, and ultimately maybe everything. Candace Chen, daughter of immigrants, devoted to routine and stability, soldiers on through increasingly intense office politics and a harrowingly intense post-pandemic reality. Less fun than my first two recommendations, but less depressing than, say, Octavia Butler’s extremely prescient preview of our current reality, Severance is a different kind of good read for our pandemic summer.
The End of October, by Lawrence Wright
If Severance is too indirect, go with The End of October, which reads more like academic documentation of the worst-case scenario of our present circumstances than a feat of imagination. The End of October is exactly what you might imagine would result when an extremely knowledgable international affairs expert who is interested enough in microbiology to get the details right and committed enough to telling a good story to craft deeply sympathetic characters writes a work of (mostly) fiction. That’s who Lawrence Wright is and that’s what he’s done here. Wright is best known for his non-fiction account of the lead up to 9–11, The Looming Towers, and if you’ve read that or watched the lightly fictionalized TV show of the same name you’re prepared for his highly detailed, technical, yet still utterly compelling style. Read The End of October if you’re into a fascinating story and learning more about viruses, global geopolitics, and how what we’re living through today could be orders of magnitude worse.
The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai
The Great Believers sucked me in from the first sentence. Gorgeously written about fully developed, honest people that you care about from the moment Makkai introduces them, this is a book that explores what happens to joy when its cost seems to be death or at least suffering. It’s an unblinking look at the AIDS crisis from 1985 to present day, a story about many different kinds of love, and about growing up in the shadow of existential threat. It’s almost impossible to recommend this book in more detail without spoiling it, so… just trust me. Read it.
And let me know if you read these and want to chat. We could ZOOM! (or not.)