For many of us, summer reading is code for what we plan to take to the beach to occupy our time while our loved ones frolic in the waves. We’ve all noticed that the more addictive the book, the less we’re noticing the damage to our epidermis as we revel in the sun’s ultraviolet glory.
After all, the goal is always to lose oneself in the literary experience, be it heavy or light. Light never has to mean frivolous.
The following summer reading list is by definition idiosyncratic. As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s book editor for nearly two years, I’ve learned to get out of my own well-worn groove in both assignments and recommendations. These recommendations reflect my tastes, but it is a far more populist list than it would have been two years ago. These are some of the books I recommend while frying under the sun this summer:
● Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Our Troubled Times by Andrew D. Kaufman (Simon & Schuster, $25).
What happens when one of the world’s foremost Russian literature experts applies the wisdom cribbed from Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece War and Peace to our 21st-century sociopolitical blues? You’ve been putting off reading what many consider the world’s greatest novel because it is so massive, but fear not. You don’t need to fully grasp the nuances of the Napoleonic wars to understand what this novel is about.
If you come from a family, then you’ll understand the book’s deepest meaning, thanks to Kaufman’s erudition and scholarship. Turns out Tolstoy wrote War and Peace with our generation in mind, too.
● Peter Pan Must Die by John Verdon (Crown, $25, July 1).
I’m a recent convert to the crime/thriller genre, but John Verdon has made me an eager and willing supplicant to a whole category of books I once sneered at. Verdon writes about genius-level criminals who really have committed perfect crimes. Alas, these smug killers never counted on the sheer intuitive brilliance and doggedness of retired NYPD homicide detective Dave Gurney, a modern Sherlock Holmes and Watson rolled into one.
● Prayer by Philip Kerr (Putnam, $26.95).
Someone is killing the nation’s most prominent atheists in ways only the Lord himself could differentiate from legitimate acts of God. FBI agent Gil Martins is a lapsed Catholic based in Texas trying to make sense of these unfathomable acts. Oh, there’s also a serial killer nicknamed St. Peter on the loose killing only good people. This is not your run-of-the-mill thriller.
● California by Edan Lepucki (Little, Brown & Co., $26; July 8).
When the American economy collapses and anarchy reigns in the land, a couple from Los Angeles head for the hills where they have to forage for food and improvise shelter. They are quickly confronted by stark choices and must figure out whether reconnecting with other survivors would be worth the aggravation that comes with being a part of civilization.
Be warned: There are no zombies or mutants in this apocalyptic drama.
● The Martian by Andy Weir (Crown, $24).
Astronaut Mark Watney is stranded alone on Mars after he is believed killed during a violent dust storm that forces his comrades to make an emergency launch back to Earth less than a week after arriving. Though injured, Watney figures out how to survive the hostile Martian environment with minimal supplies and food. His ultimate plan is to make it back to Earth, though it will be years until a rescue mission can be launched. His ingenuity is rewarded by dramatic failures and successes.
Be prepared to read this sci-fi thriller in two or three sittings.
● The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber (Penguin, $29.95).
Dan Barber, co-owner and executive chef of New York’s Blue Hill — a pioneer in serving food close to the source — wants you to think about where your food comes from while disabusing you of any quaint notions you continue to harbor that there was a time when American commercial farming wasn’t an exploitative racket. Barber may be our foremost muckraker about cooking and food.
● The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman (Doubleday Canada, $28).
Every journalist you know has either read or intends to read Tom Rachman’s 2010 literary debut The Imperfectionists, about the staff at an English-language newspaper in Rome. As a result, his sophomore effort is highly anticipated among writers. The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is not about newspapers, but it is about book lovers and book culture.
● So Long Marianne: A Love Story by Kari Hesthamar, translated from the Norwegian by Helle V. Goldman (ECW Press, $24.95).
The subject of one of Leonard Cohen’s most haunting songs is given flesh and blood and context in this memoir about Marianne Ihlen, the singer’s muse from his years on Hydra, the Greek island in the 1960s.
● I Am Having So Much Fun Here Without You by Courtney Maum (Touchstone, $25.99).
After cheating on his fabulous French wife, a British painter tries to win her love back by doing the sort of art he did when they were in love. Meanwhile, the extent of his cheating sabotages his plans. A very funny comedy of modern manners.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Tony Norman is the Post-Gazette’s book editor. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org