After months and months of gloom, warmth and sunshine have returned to New York City. Melt away winter funk, you grimy, soul-sucking cannibal; into the sewer you go. Summer, as they say, is coming.
Though this time of year means different things for different people, there’s a pervasive leaning—especially in areas that experience four seasons—toward wanting to take a break, a vacation; as a friend of mine likes to say, people find their “chill castles.” Some people head to the beach where they can bake their skin, shovel the Earth’s sediment with a pail, and ride waves. Some people prefer to find the shade of a deciduous tree, against which they can stare up through its leaves and think about stuff or zone out entirely. Some people camp, rising with dawn then settling down at dusk. Some people simply seek air conditioning.
This summer, as you chill, put away your phone. There’s nothing on it but notifications and information, both of which have no place on vacation. Your phone, as you know, is a life clogger. Instead, think and converse, and, when that’s all said and done, pick up a book—one with paper pages.
Chances are, the books on your bookshelf have already been read, or, more likely, they’ve been sitting there on the “I’ll get to that eventually” section. The other books are there for show, novels like Madame Bovary or Seabiscuit or some Gogol page-turner that some semi-friendly neighbor couple bequeathed to you when they were moving out. And you’ll never read those. Which means: You need some book suggestions.
OK then! So, I’ve asked some of the most whip-smart, well-read, wonderful people I know from the Tablet family to recommend one book—new or old—that they adore. These suggestions are listed below and there’s something for everybody. And, if for some reason nothing piques your interest, be sure to check out Tablet’s incomparable list of 101 Great Jewish Books.
Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser
My favorite summery read of last summer, this short and kinda delicious novel reads a little like an updated Rules of Attraction, except with fewer suicide attempts and more dance parties and enviable thrift store finds. Centered on two great female characters who don’t quite understand the forces drawing them together, Paulina & Fran is a book that’s equal parts sexy and satire. Glaser is a gorgeous and lyrical writer, and knows how to use language to wink at her readers while satisfying their need for emotional gratification. The picture she paints of a window of time at a small, remote art school is sharply observed and lots of fun.
— Esther Werdiger
Eighty-Sixed by David B. Feinberg
Much has been written about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, some of it great—from Angels in America to Paul Monette’s elegies to any number of Pet Shop Boys songs. But nothing else comes close to the searing yet comic fury of Eighty-Sixed, written while the most horrific years of the plague—no effective treatments, no hope, nothing but laughter from the Reagan administration—were still raging. David B. Feinberg, an ACT UP street activist, created a (somewhat autobiographical) neurotic Jewish protagonist named B.J. Rosenthal to lead us through his debut novel’s two acts: one set in 1980, when gay life in New York was teeming with creativity and erotic possibility; and one in 1986, when death rolled in like a bulldozer, destroying everything in its path. Feinberg got his start writing a humor column for the porno magazine Mandate, so he knew how to find the humor in sex; he’d continue writing for everyone from the New York Times to the sardonic AIDS ‘zine Diseased Pariah News, and publishing a sequel to the Lambda Literary Award-winning Eighty-Sixed called Spontaneous Combustion, before dying in 1994 at age 37, shortly after releasing his ferocious book of essays, Queer and Loathing: Rants and Raves of a Raging AIDS Clone.
— Wayne Hoffman
Sandman by Neil Gaiman
If you’re even willing to give comic books a try, you have to read Sandman. The series ran from 1989 to 1996, beginning as a sort of horror comic exploration into the DC universe, but emerged out the other end as a weird mythological, philosophical wonderland of nuanced characters, sophisticated themes, all the while with gorgeous art from some of the industry’s best.
What’s more, Gaiman only lets the occasional Jewish reference slip, but they can be fun easter eggs, and it’s important to see such an important comic series in the hands of a Member of the Tribe after comics had so lost their Jewishness.
There are about 75 issues in ten small volumes, so you can give up just one afternoon of your summer, or a much longer period of time, locked in a sunless room, ignoring your so-called friends, empathizing more and more with the series’ titular brooding incarnation of Dream, until one day you emerge, changed, as though the Dream itself has become Reality, and the mere mortals around you know not of the Truth of the Universe, and of the Endless.
The trade paperbacks also make great gifts.
— Gabriela Geselowitz
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A question arose, while reading a particularly brutal scene in The Underground Railroad, the brilliant new novel by Colson Whitehead, about a slave fleeing the South Carolina plantation where she was born. So quick, so stunning was the violence that I gasped and recoiled when I came upon it. Then, I wondered, do writers draw back in similar horror when imagining such realities? How do they recover from the emotional blows that come with making art?
Whitehead’s a friend, which is why I got an early copy of this book due out September 13 (technically summer’s on until the 21st). But friendship is not why I recommend it. That I’m doing because this novel is astonishing. Whitehead creates a vivid, brave heroine and a relentless sense of what it must have been like to be hunted and humiliated in these United States not so long ago. At one point, Cora cowers, Anne Frank-style, in an upstairs attic. From there, she watches villagers convene to celebrate regular lynchings. Will that be her fate? Cora is resilient and determined to get to freedom, with whatever promises and disappointments that condition may hold.
Her story will stay with you. Do yourself a favor: Let it.
— Sara Ivry
Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
What better way to enjoy the hot and sandy beaches than being reminded that “winter is coming” while seeing snow zombies every time you blink? Besides, you’ll be able to join the legion of “well, in the books…” fan club. It’s a very special club.
— Andrea Sparacio
A Good Place for the Night by Savyon Liebrecht
Disclaimer: A Good Place For The Night isn’t exactly light summer reading, but it is a brilliant, harrowing, darkly funny, and relatively unknown short story collection (at least outside of Israel, where Liebrecht is from) that haunted me for weeks after I read it. And who doesn’t want a bit of existential angst when they’re lounging by the pool sipping piña coladas? The mood of the title story (which is quite long) evokes Etgar Keret, Cormac McCarthy, and Margaret Atwood (seriously!), but that doesn’t do justice to Liebrecht’s unique voice. It’s a bleak tale of post-apocalyptic survival and moral dilemmas, but also very beautiful. You can read it as science fiction, a metaphor for the Holocaust, or a story of fierce parental love. Just read it!
— Elissa Goldstein
The Last of the Just by Andre Schwartz-Bart
The Last of the Just is one of those books that resists whatever genre you try to pin it down as. A healthy portion of it takes place during the Holocaust, but it’s not really a Holocaust novel; it’s bursting with family drama and inherited strife, but that’s only a portion of what’s going on. Tracing the Levy family for eight centuries, from medieval England to Nazi Germany, it’s the story of a line of lamed vovniks, of just Levy’s who are a part of the 36 righteous men who bear the brunt of the world’s suffering in their souls. Schwartz-Bart mines Jewish history for fully drawn characters that are as familiar as they are reluctant to fall into cliché. Simply put, there’s no better novelization of the history of Europe’s Jews (even if it didn’t make some cuts).
— Jesse Bernstein
Endgame by Frank Brady
Though I typically lean toward suggesting fiction, I feel the urge to suggest a chess-related book, given all that chess you’ll be playing this summer. Endgame is a deeply reported biography of Bobby Fischer, perhaps the greatest American chess player of all time, written by a career biographer who was the founding editor of Chess Life and the former president of New York’s Marshall Chess Club, where Fischer cut his teeth. Fischer’s descent—from chess great to mystery to raving bigot—is well documented. But Endgame, unlike other portrayals of the Brooklyn-born World Chess Champion, puts Fischer’s upbringing, game, and life path (he died in Iceland in 2008) into deeper if more complicated context, which is fitting.
— Jonathan Zalman
They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine
First of all, this is the best title ever (see: “This Be The Verse,” Philip Larkin). But more importantly, Schine’s latest novel combines the dark, pithy humor of a Lorrie Moore short story with quieter insights into aging, death, and the love, loneliness, and incomprehension that gets passed back and forth between generations. Take this, for instance—the reflections of Molly, grown daughter of recently widowed Joy, during one of their daily phone conversations: “Her mother often made her laugh. Just as often Molly listened annoyed and impatient, yet even then she found herself soothed by the inconsequential drip, drip, drip of the conversation. Her mother’s voice made her feel safe, safe from the loss of her mother.”
— Julie Subrin
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.