For July 4, and all the summer days ahead, we’ve cooked something up for our favorite readers (that’s you!). You supply the beers and barbecue, and we’ll get the books—the perfect recipe for a patriotic getaway. So check out our summer reading suggestions below; we’ve got you covered on the indulgent, the intellectual, and everything in between.
Fiction: The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor
If the essence of “Summer Reading” is escapism, then who better to turn to but the intrepid and indefatigable Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose lone novella is being lovingly reissued this July by the U.S. caretakers of his legacy, New York Review Books. That it happens to be the one piece of his travel oeuvre that he declared to be fiction gives this rocambolesque account an added layer of readers’ delight. Brought to life: a mannered Caribbean festival that our crass real internet world makes us weep for. The Violins of Saint-Jacques is a hair’s breadth short of straight-up science fiction (the escapist-est of all), so alien are the names, places, customs, languages, and erupting volcanoes. Good God, that kid could write.
Nonfiction: The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
— Matthew Fishbane
Fiction: A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
This is one of those books that I found in some apartment foyer or stoop, probably in Chicago. And wherever I lugged my books, it came with. I finally answered its call this year; I read it only on the NYC subway and I distinctly recall, somewhere in a tunnel between Brooklyn and Manhattan, that this mysterious tale about a man traversing Japan in order to find a very specific sheep, had dug its nails into my brain. The pace of the book, with its fine detailing, makes demands on you and brings you firmly into its pages. While you read you’ll think of nothing else other than this story about love, nature, obsession, identity, sheep.
Nonfiction: This long-form piece by Davis Miller about having dinner with Muhammad Ali in 1989.
— Jonathan Zalman
Fiction: They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine
The story of how one Jewish family deals with aging parents—and vice versa, for a change—told with a lot of heart and a ton of humor. Think of it as a bookend to Roz Chast’s graphic memoir Can’t We Walk About Something More Pleasant? Just out in paperback this month.
Nonfiction: Man of the Year by Lou Cove
What happens when a charismatic hippie and Playgirl model moves into a Jewish household with an impressionable teenage boy? A lot. Lessons are learned on all sides—about sex, drugs, relationships, self-determination, and Jewish identity.
— Wayne Hoffman
Fiction: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
I thought we reviewed it unfairly. I loved it! Here’s what I said on Goodreads:
“A perfect blend of literary and genre fiction. It would be a great beach read (though it is the size of a medium-sized garden gnome, so, maybe on your e-reader). You’ve got your Jewish and Arabic folklore, your Lower East Side immigration history, your luscious descriptions of the fancy homes and clothes of the families of Park Avenue robber barons. You’ve got your complicated female friendships, a coming-of-age story and a meditation on free will. Oh, and a Valentino-hot demon made of fire. Requisite plot summary: A newborn female golem, created to be the perfect docile wife, is dumped at Ellis Island, knowing nothing of the world. A thousand-year-old jinni is freed from his prison in an ancient lamp, but is stuck in human-looking form, without his powers. It takes a long time for their lives to intersect (this is not a romance novel, though it is a story about love and loyalty and making choices) but their separate Syrian and Jewish worlds are so fascinating, I didn’t mind. The writing is lush without being ungapatchka, the sense of place is top-notch, there’s a slow build of suspense. Yum.”
— Marjorie Ingall
Fiction: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Admit it, you’ve been meaning to get around to this one—next summer, next year, y’know, whenever you can find the time, one of these days, eventually. How ’bout now? Like, now now? Tolstoy’s epic is a better beach read than you probably think it is. The “war” parts bristle with addictive energy; the “peace” sections are no less propulsive, encapsulating nearly the entire range of human experience, positive as well as negative. The Jews are virtually the only sector of Russian society that gets totally written out of this one, but War and Peace is still a 1200-odd page reckoning with what Tolstoy clearly understood to be the most horrific disaster in human history up to that point. This is probably a gross oversimplification for a book with as vast an emotional palette as anything ever written, but Tolstoy’s 1869 masterpiece grapples with the same moral and metaphysical questions that would consume Jewish artists and thinkers just a few short decades later.
Nonfiction: The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee
If you’ve always wanted to annoy your friends with facts about blimps, this is the book for you. Still, McPhee’s 1973 reportage, which tells the mind-boggling story of a group of New Jersey-based intellectual misfits who designed a functional experimental aircraft that could take off and land like a fixed-wing plane but fly like a semi-rigid airship, isn’t really about aviation. It’s about God. The titular aircraft, which made it through a battery of knuckle-biting test flights but never progressed past the prototype stage, was the vision of two Protestant clergymen who turn out to have very different views of their invention’s place within the cosmos—and of their own place within it.
— Armin Rosen
Fiction: The Yid by Paul Goldberg
This debut novel by Paul Goldberg was a Sami Rohr Prize Finalist, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a riveting, superfun, dark trip through Soviet Russia, where an unlikely band of misfits decides to kill Stalin, before he enacts a plan to massacre the Jews. It’s a quick read, but jam-packed, with humor, history, suspense, and creative violence that would make Tarantino proud (it’s a fun little game to try to keep up with the body count as you read). Seriously; it’s so mesmerizing that you may need a beach to read it on to counter the frigid Russian setting.
Nonfiction: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
Have you seen Gal Gadot onscreen several times already and need another Wonder Woman fix, STAT? Consider this peculiar history of comics’ most iconic superheroine. Jill Lepore uses Diana’s roots to explore the transition from first to second-wave feminism. There’s also a sensational aspect to the eccentric life of her creator, William Moulton Marston, sure (there’s a biopic about him in the works), but Lepore has bigger fish to fry. For example, Marston’s romantic partner Olive Byrne, a partial inspiration for Wonder Woman? The niece of Margaret Sanger. (Marston was one of the only non-Jewish comic book authors of the day to leave a real legacy, but the publisher, Max Gaines, was in the Tribe.)
— Gabriela Geselowitz
Fiction: Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan
Most of the books I read these days are for our podcast, Unorthodox. This one is inspired by the largely unknown story of Ireland’s Jewish community, and it’s really great. You can also listen to Ruth on a recent episode of Unorthodox, telling us about meeting the last few Jews of Cork while researching the book.
Nonfiction: I can’t wait to read Patricia Lockwood’s new memoir, Priestdaddy.
She’s the one good thing about Twitter.
— Stephanie Butnick
Fiction: The Idiot by Elif Batuman
I highly recommend it—even though I haven’t had such mixed feelings about a novel in a long time! The protagonist, Selin, is a Turkish-American Harvard freshman who falls in love with an older Hungarian mathematics student, and the story is a delightful exploration of late adolescence, linguistics, literature, Russian, ’90s pop culture, Cambridge, and class. Selin’s observations are delicious, hilarious, and sad—often all at once. (To wit: A croissant is “crisp and soft and flaky at the same time. Just biting it made you feel cared for.” And on desire: “An amazing sight, someone you’re infatuated with trying to fish something out of a jeans pocket.”) I wanted to eat this book up. But I also wanted it to hurry up and do something already! There’s an inverse correlation between the richness of Selin’s interior life and her ability to make stuff happen IRL. Her feelings toward Ivan (a stellar new addition to the literary canon of Bad Boyfriends) seem detached from her sexuality, which is totally OK, but I want to know why and we never find out. The plot meanders, especially towards the end. But Batuman, by her own admission, wasn’t interested in crafting a tight, polished novel. (She’s a fan of the Russians, obvs.) And there’s something really pleasing about that: The Idiot is anti-MFA and anti-book club, but pro-words and pro-language play. Look, just read it and send me an email so we can talk about how fun and frustrating it is!
Nonfiction: The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism by Kristin Dombek
I’m finally reading this little book, bought from Brooklyn’s BookCourt last year (alav hashalom). It is serious and well-researched, yet witty and very readable. If you’re a fan of Rebecca Solnit, Leslie Jamison, or Maggie Nelson, you’ll enjoy this slim volume, which combines philosophy, literary criticism, personal reflection, and psychoanalysis.
— Elissa Goldstein
Nonfiction: Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen
“Bruce Springsteen isn’t Jewish,” as Adam Sandler sings, “but my mother thinks he is.” Read Born to Run, his sexy, steamy, literate, and hard-rocking autobiography, and you will learn that Springsteen is Italian (and Dutch), that he’s dated a Jewish broad or two, that he can be quite the tyrannical boss, that he always knew he was destined for greatness, and that he can write a long book with all the lyrical economy that he brings to his epic songs. I always say that we shouldn’t expect artists to be good at anything outside their medium: Don’t expect actors to sculpt, don’t ask pop stars to opine on politics, don’t buy paintings by dancers. Same goes for books by singers, even singer-songwriters. But apparently there is more than one exception to the rule: Springsteen writes as well as Patti Smith. Also as well as Sally Mann, the photographer whose memoir with photos, Hold Still, was my book of the year two years ago. Some artists give and give and find more ways to give. This is 500 pages of spirit in the night, or noonday sun, or whenever you silence the children and the mosquitoes and have some time for a good book.
— Mark Oppenheimer
Nonfiction (or about “97 percent” nonfiction): When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
I actually tried to ration out the final chapters of this book so that reading it would last longer. Looking back, this was a completely misguided effort, as Sedaris has 11 other published works. I’m currently making my way through his recently released memoir—Theft by Finding—but I’m sure you can’t go wrong with any of them. Sedaris has a hilarious gift of turning seemingly innocuous moments into large-scale dramas. In Engulfed in Flames, he describes moments where he faced his existential fear of dying. Despite the dark undertones, I found myself constantly laughing out loud (often to tears). Apparently, death is funny.
— Sophie Aroesty
Other book recommendations from Tablet staffers:
Fiction: The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The destruction of Russian liberal culture by unemployed rural 19th century SJWs eerily parallels the current moment, and is by turns terrifying and funny.
Nonfiction: Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch
The birth of the mid-20th-century movement for racial equality in America told by a master storyteller and historian. A gripping, scary, inspiring story that reminds us of who we are and how social progress is achieved.