It’s summer — a time to catch up on missed readings, turn back to old favorites, and discover new ones. A time to sit with an easy read on the beach, or read something darker on the porch late at night.
For the best summer reads, we turned to two authors who own independent bookstores and their book-loving staff. Louise Erdrich, who is the author of 15 novels, including “Roundhouse” and “LaRose,” along with nonfiction and poetry, owns Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, while Emma Straub, whose novels include “Modern Lovers” and the “Vacationers,” recently opened Books are Magic with her husband in Brooklyn.
In the summer, Erdrich says, she often goes to the lake in Minneapolis, “and I bring a load of books, and I sink into them… It’s reading on the docks. It’s reading if you’re floating in the lake. It’s reading if it rains.”
For Straub, summer is also about endless reading. “I’ve always thought of summer reading as the stack of books I would bring with me to summer camp… You’ll have to bring as many as you’ll think you’ll read. And then, when you read all of those books in three days, you have your parents send you another box.”
Here are Erdrich and Straub’s essential summer books, along with more recommendations from their staff. In their words:
“Do Not Become Alarmed” by Maile Meloy
It feels almost cruel to recommend this for summertime vacation reading, because it is a vacation gone extremely, horribly, horribly wrong. It’s about two families who go on a cruise together and they decide to disembark the boat one day and go and have a little adventure. And then the children are separated from their parents and a lot of things go really, really badly. It’s an incredibly gripping thriller, one of those books that you will stay up late to read and say: “Oh, I’ll just read one more chapter, I’ll just read one more chapter.” It’s so delicious when you get one of those books and this is definitely one of them.
The Donna Leon crime mysteries
There are actually 25 of these mysteries, and they are set in Venice. Venice itself becomes a character in these books. They center on Commissario Guido Brunetti, his entire family, and the people he works with. You become so wrapped up in these compelling characters that I think you could go through all 25 this summer. Each one is better than the last.
“Somebody With A Little Hammer,” by Mary Gaitskill
Is it her breadth of experience? Range of interest? Depth of intelligence? All of these. She cuts through the malarkey like nobody. Her prose is like a diamond drill. And charming as always.
–Christien Shangraw, manager, Books are Magic
“The Answers,” by Catherine Lacey
Lacey has a style-spiraling narration that makes you feel like you’re falling down a rabbit hole. Her latest novel is about a woman who, when ridden by inexplicable pain, seeks out a way to pay for treatments. She finds work as an “emotional girlfriend” to an actor on a quest to perfect love. Naturally, things go sideways. This is a bizarre tale of a woman and what she’d do to save herself.
–Ikwo Ntekim, bookseller, Books are Magic
“Too Much and Not the Mood,” by Durga Chew-Bose
There are two essay collections we can’t keep on our shelves, and this is one of them. It’s an FSG paperback original that looks like a work of art — and is a work of art. It is about identity, and family, and becoming an adult, and personhood. The essays are so smart and so well-written. It’s a really perfect gift.
“Sunshine State,” by Sarah Gerard
The second essay collection is about Florida, which is where the author is from. It’s a deep dive into identity, and weirdness and location, and family. Together, these books point toward a really exciting and fresh new corner of American essays in particular. What I’ve noticed that people have been buying a lot at Bookstore Magic over the past couple of weeks are things like this that come in small packages.
“When My Brother Was An Aztec,” by Natalie Diaz
I don’t think people usually take poetry to the beach, but this is different than your normal poetry book. Diaz is a powerhouse of a writer and this book is a wild ride. It has headlong rushes of ecstatic beautiful language, small details about life on Mahovi reservation. Diaz is Mohavi, one of the tribes of the Colorado river. And this is set in Arizona, but it’s also of course set in her heart and her head. There’s a sensibility that is so dark but so funny. It’s a rich, compelling piece of literature. And I would take it to the dock, put it down, and read it again. It’s the kind of book that you want to live with each poem for awhile.
“The Love Interest,” by Cale Dietrich
This sci-fi young adult novel is the answer to all of our cliché love triangle woes. Caden, the kindhearted boy-next-door, and Dylan, a brooding bad boy complete with dark poetry and a leather jacket, are in competition for the genius Juliet’s heart. The winner gets the girl, and gets to live out his life in peace. The loser gets incinerated. This fight to the death gets upended, however, when the boys start developing genuine feelings — not for Juliet, but for each other. If you’re looking for something funny, action-packed, and romantic this summer, then this is your next read.
–Abigail Rauscher, kids specialist, Books are Magic
“The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas
This book blew me away in the three short days it took me to devour it. It is narrated by a teenage black girl living between the privileged and stifling world of her private prep school and the harsh yet vital neighborhood she comes from. She has witnessed police brutality, gang violence and one specific incident that becomes a catalyst for her own growth and education. The protagonist is likable, smart and funny; the story is both timely and universally important. This book does not fall prey to tropes of tragedy. It rises above. A must read for any teen or adult.
–Aza, Birchbark Books
“What It Means When A Man Falls From The Sky,” by Lesley Nneka Arimah
This new collection of short stories just came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s about family and relationships. And it’s got a gorgeous cover and it’s been sitting there and I keep walking past and fondling it, and picking up and waiting for the right time to read it. So I’m really excited to read this one.
Lorrie Moore’s books
I’m rereading her books, because it was such a pleasure to read them the first time and I wanted to re-experience them the way I did before. So I started “Bark” again, and “Birds of America,” and I have “Who will run the frog hospital?” They are funny, sharp, of course she’s known for her extremely sharp wit, sharp observations, and her tremendous ability to capture the moments between couples where they grate against each other, or where they come together. Those are beautiful moments in the book and sometimes they’re very poignant.
“A Visit From the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan
It’s one of those books that when I read it I felt kind of like I’d been hit over the head with a frying pan. Stars were twirling around my head like a cartoon character. I was gobsmacked. It’s such an inventive, astonishing book. And every time I have dipped my toe back in I am delighted all over again. So I’m looking forward to rereading that.
“Chemistry,” by Weike Wang
It’s a great (she calls it) “late coming-of-age” story. The protagonist is a first-generation Chinese immigrant and college student majoring in chemistry, though failing, and thus the occasion for her self-probing. She’s grappling with immigration, family, love, and chemistry in all its forms. It’s wry and witty, but tender and philosophical—searching. The narrative moves swiftly, as does the prose, which never lags, and even edges into poetry at times. It is a profound meditation on self and humanity.
—Sarah Gerard, author of Sunshine State, and bookseller, “Books are Magic”
“Difficult Women,” by Roxane Gay
The short story collection I never knew I needed until I picked it up and began reading. The women Gay highlights in her first story collection are wild, wicked, and completely difficult — depending on who’s looking. I stumbled upon “North Country,” a story in the collection, for a class and it has remained one of the very best stories I have ever read. Each anecdote follows suit in that you’ll never forget the women you come across because they’re your sisters, mothers, and friends.
–Ikwo Ntekim – Receiving/Bookseller, Books are Magic
This collection of short stories artfully pulls you in and keeps you hooked. The lives of the women remind readers of the diverse and complicated lives of women everywhere.
–Sasha, Birchbark Books
“Meet Me in the Bathroom,” by Lizzy Goodman
Just like every other twenty-something, I moved to New York right around the time all these bands were getting their start. Despite their annoying attitudes, it was pretty magical and electric feeling. Maybe it was the music? Maybe it was just that I was living in the greatest city in the world at 24? I don’t know. Either way, I feel like there are some interesting stories and lots of nostalgia in these pages.
–Michael Fusco-Straub, owner, Books are Magic
“Give a Girl a Knife: A Memoir,” by Amy Thielen
Don’t miss this memoir or the author’s James Beard award-winning “The New Midwestern Table: 200 Heartland Recipes.” This book reveals the real life of line-cooking for New York’s best chefs and tells of the author’s life in rural Minnesota before and after New York. Awesome for foodies, this book should also be read by fans of literary memoir.
–Martha, Birchbark Books
“I Am Where I Come From,” edited by Andrew Garrod, Robert Kilkenny, and Melanie Benson Taylor
When I first saw this book I immediately felt called to read it. Within just 10 pages, I laughed and cried (twice). Though this book exemplifies the incredible diversity of Indian country, the memoirs are united by common themes of perseverance and adaptiveness on majority non-Native campuses. These fascinating, hilarious, and heartfelt stories of unbelievable pain and struggle are contrasted by the strength that the authors draw from their families, their communities, and their ancestors–strength that has led them to defy the odds. A+.
–Jack, Birchbark Books
“The Master and Margarita,” by Mikhail Bulgakov
This wonderfully strange masterpiece is a biting satire of 20th century Muscovite high society under Stalin’s regime in the form of an absurd, magical, hilarious fantasy. The devil and his colorful band of cohorts (including a large talking cat) sow gleeful havoc on the streets of Moscow, with special interest in Margarita, whose paramour, known only as the Master, has re-visioned the story of Jesus and Judas Iscariot in a manuscript that may or may not be lost forever. Bulgakov himself is The Master, with language that weaves seamlessly between tragedy and farce, visiting the profound and surreal, laughing all the way. Really one of my favorite books ever.
~ Nate, Birchbark Books
“The Wonder,” by Emma Donoghue
Set in Ireland, a Florence Nightingale-trained nurse is hired to monitor a young girl who is proclaimed not to have eaten in four months. This a completely engrossing read–you will barely be able to tear yourself away from it. I want to tell you more, but I don’t want to give anything away!
~ Carolyn, Birchbark Books
The above recommendations have been edited lightly for length and clarity.