What I read on my summer vacation (2020 edition)

Summer 2020 was the opposite of what we’ve been told a summer should be: it wasn’t carefree, it wasn’t fun, it wasn’t restful or rejuvenating or rehabilitating. From the pandemic to the clamoring hoards of aggrieved white supremacists in our streets to the wildfire smoke that’s clotting the air over the Northwest as I write this, the summer was in fact uncomfortable and grim.

But at several points in the summer, I tried my best to shut down the world and attempt to be just another mammal relaxing in warm weather by a body of water. And I actually got a fair amount of reading done in those times! What follows isn’t a list of every book I’ve read this summer, but it is a list of the books that I finished (and mostly enjoyed) while trying to enjoy that fabled joy of Summer Reading which has captivated magazine editors since the dawn of time. 

I started my vacation with Today Tonight Tomorrow, a charming YA romantic comedy written by Seattle author Rachel Lynn Solomon, which follows two high school seniors as they race around Seattle in a scavenger hunt. Solomon has a lot of fun with the opposites-attract framework, forcing two overachievers into what might be the most charming romantic mortal combat you’ll read all year.

The mainstream success of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is kind of breathtaking to behold. Just fifteen years ago, this dark comedy narrated by the jealous sister of a glamorous sociopath would likely have been buried deep in the backlist of a college press somewhere. But now it’s a huge hit, and a very worthy one. The story, which moves at a pace that could put some readers in a neck brace, is told in a sparkling voice that never shies away from the darker side of things. Patricia Highsmith would blush with envy.

Is it weird to call a pair of YA alternate history horror novels the most timely books I’ve read this year? The all-stars of my vacation reading were Dread Nation and Deathless Divide, the breakout alternate history duology from Justina Ireland. Set in a United States in which zombies walked the earth in the wake of the battle of Gettysburg, these two novels really stand out for their world-building and their character work. If you’re exhausted by zombies—and God knows, I went into the pandemic expecting to not read a single zombie novel, yet alone two—this story is still very much worth your time, with a complex understanding of race in America and a cracking good sense of dramatic timing.

Miles Harvey’s The King of Confidence seemed like a smart follow-up to Ireland’s duology. It’s non-fiction, but it’s set in an American wilderness not too very long after the Civil War. I enjoyed learning about James Strang, the Mormon con man with a utopian messiah complex at the heart of this book, but Confidence’s pacing is its greatest obstacle. Even at less than 400 pages all told, I kept wishing the story would lose about 100 pages and gain a more propulsive sense of narration. Strang’s story is tremendously resonant with the moment—can anyone else think of any big-talking American con men who’ve swindled their way into leadership of an out-of-control cult?—but in the end, the story got into its own way a few too many times.

Luster, a debut novel by Raven Leilani, begins with a barrage of scathing scenes set in the high-minded publishing industry, revealing the racism (and sheer intellectual laziness) that’s still at root in the biggest presses in the world. Our protagonist, a twentysomething Black woman named Edie, is so used to playing the dumb games that white people put her through that she’s basically sleepwalking. When she stumbles into the open marriage of an affluent white suburban couple, though, Edie finds an opportunity to take action—particularly when the couple’s adopted daughter, a Black girl named Akila, begins to take notice of her. I liked the first half of Luster, with its elaborate performative cynicism,  a lot more than the second half, but it’s beautifully written throughout, and Leilani is such a confident storyteller that I have no doubt she’s on the way to a successful career as a novelist. I’ll be there for her second book, and her third and fourth and…

Audio books either completely work for me or they don’t. And weirdly, I can’t seem to predict which ones will hit my subconscious in just the right way—there’s no one genre, narrator, or even length of an audiobook that is guaranteed to appeal to me. So I was surprised by how taken I was with the Libro.fm edition of Margarita Montimore’s novel Oona Out of Order. Brittany Pressley’s narration has something to do with it, I’m sure: Pressley puts in just enough acting to push the book off of the page and into the realm of drama, without distracting from Montimore’s prose. The premise here is elaborate and also catchy: On New Year’s Eve 1982, a young woman named Oona Lockhart is just about to turn 19 years old. Instead, she wakes up in an older version of her body on New Year’s Day in the far-flung 21st century. Oona is told that she’s living every year of her life out of order, that on every New Year’s Day she awakens, seemingly, at random, in a younger or older year of her life. The book follows Oona’s first few years in this state, bouncing around from the future to the past and back again. If Oona sounds vaguely like The Time-Traveler’s Wife, that’s probably not entirely misleading, though I found it to be not as deeply considered, and with the twists more telegraphed in advance. But it’s a fun book with passion for its characters, and it’s very well-told.

Hari Kunzru’s new novel The Red Pill, about a do-goodnik liberal artist who begins to flirt with nihilistic right-wing memelord culture, is likely to strike up a huge debate on all the usual virtual literary watering holes. But I don’t think the book is especially controversial, or intended to be a bomb thrown at polite society. It feels to me like Kunzru is curious about the failings of 21st-century liberalism, and he’s seriously investigating how so many of our mediocre-est thinkers have fallen into the Trumpian nationalist honey pot. This isn’t some dumb Amis flamethrower of a novel, or a disingenuous Houellebecqian anti-life treatise disguised as a novel. It’s a work of genuine curiosity, and an attempt to get behind the eyes of some of the worst people in the world today.

To someone who was unaware it was published in 1990, William Styron’s self-described  “Memoir of Madness,” Darkness Visible, might read like a fairly banal account of what it’s like to be deeply depressed. But those of us who were alive in 1990—I was just starting high school, and just starting to wrestle with some new melancholic tendencies at the time—will understand how remarkable Styron’s account must have been at the time. Styron is taking great steps in this book to communicate with a whole new vocabulary that had previously existed only in the hands of psychiatric professionals, and at the time he must have been putting his career on the line by admitting to feelings that in larger literary culture were widely interpreted as weakness. Hell, some of the more lame-brained macho posers I come across on social media could learn a lot from spending time with Darkness Visible. I bet many of them would, if given the opportunity, see themselves in its pages.

Now comes the fall. I don’t think I’ll have as much time for novels this autumn, with the presidential election consuming ever-larger portions of my brain until November—and God knows what will happen after that. I look at this stack of books on my floor and I already feel nostalgic for those times when I was able to shut off my phone and get lost in a book—experience the pleasure of reading for reading’s sake. Who knows when I’ll get that chance again?

See you next summer, maybe.

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