Brittany Allen
June 01, 2014 12:35 pm

I always mosey into summer with the best of intentions, regarding my bookshelf. This year, I tell myself, as I unfurl a blanket on Coney Island, I’m going to sit right here and read Middlemarch. I am asleep in the sunshine with a book on my face, moments later. And so it goes.

But then I got to thinking: perhaps it’s so hard to hold on to virtuous summer plans to “read more!” because I’m picking the wrong sorts of books. Depending on where you vacation (or staycation), hefty tomes can be difficult to push through, especially given an islander’s mentality. So dreaming of sunshine and barbecue, dreaming of water and porches, here’s an adjusted list of summer beach reads. All suited to individual locations, notions, needs.


The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison’s insightful and heartbreaking new collection of essays is the kind of read that will have you circling passages every few minutes, sand in the pages or no. The author travels (emotionally and physically) from a village in Nicaragua to the romantic side-streets of the French Quarter, all the while questioning the limits of human empathy.

White Girls, Hilton Als

As one of the New Yorker’s “boldest cultural critics,” Hilton Als has made a career of finding connections between history, art and hefty social issues. His latest project — a big, fat excavation of racial designations in pop culture — toes the lines of fiction and non-fiction, the personal and the distant, the highbrow and the lowbrow. This book is meant to puzzle — and could be great fodder for those languid, front-porch chats.

The Neapolitan Trilogy, Elena Ferrante

The first book in this series follows two best friends (Lila and Elena) as they begin to discover boys, class divisions, and the gritty heart of their country’s suffering — all while coming of age. This is a great series, filled with spot-on insights about the nature of female friendship.


Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
, Maria Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is a quirky send-up to mother/daughter relationships. Recommended to me by my own mother (who likens the novel’s style and tone to the first Bridget Jones’ Diary), this slightly absurd story about a missing helicopter mom is supposed to delight and entertain. Need more proof? Writer Maria Semple has a history writing for TV shows like Arrested Development and Ellen.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman

This is the sort of book that may well start fights between your male and female friends. Of Nathaniel P. — cause celeb in the Brooklyn lit world — some say, “He’s a monster. He’s also like every guy I’ve ever dated.” Others? “He’s a pretty accurate sketch of how a straight, white dude thinks.”

Either way you spin it, Waldman has accomplished something neat in her well-developed satire of the publishing world: namely Nathaniel himself, who’s likable, intelligent, and loathsome all at once.

Swamplandia! Or Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Karen Russell

Wunder-kind Karen Russell has an epic imagination. Vampires currently rests in my daunting to-read pile, but for those who haven’t experienced Swamplandia! — get thee to a bookstore, lickety-split. Following the whipsmart Ava Bigtree — heir apparent to her family’s crocodile-wrestling theme park on an island off the coast of Florida — this book is a wild adventure, a mystery, a tragedy and a coming-of-age story rolled into one.


The White Album, Joan Didion

Nobody knows California quite like Joan Didion, the original lady essayist. Her stellar collections (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The White Album, Political Fictions) paint a hyper-detailed portrait of life on the cusp of the counterculture. I like The White Album for its range: Didion talks about the natural landscape of her beloved Cali, and pages later there’s a scintillating essay on the Manson family. Never disappointing.

Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller

Self-explanatory; super-fun. Now updated with an additional hundred pages of insider-stories (revised to include the last ten years of SNL’s history), this book is gold for the comedy-gossip-maven.


The Phantom Tollbooth, The Nancy Drew Series, Lord of the Rings or Harry Friggin Potter.

..and of course, there’s no better time than summer vacation to binge on the first books you fell in love with. Bonuses? Re-reading requires slightly less focus, and less people will see you (and judge you) for hauling around children’s books on an isolated island. But also, be proud! The books of your youth have adventure, idealism, and some of the best characters you’ve ever encountered.

Whatever you choose, happy lounging!