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Big summer books for 2019 by Mark Haddon, Elizabeth Gilbert, Colson Whitehead, Tan France

And good reads on robots, Russia, bugs, and TV

Two of this summer's big novels
Two of this summer's big novelsRead moreRiverhead Books (Gilbert) and Doubleday (Haddon)

Good books are friends you can take to the beach or the mountains, any coast, any continent. Faithful to the end, they can help beguile a lazy summertime. Below are some choice blossoms from summer’s crop of new reads.

Start filling your book bag. Summer fiction regales us with disappeared daughters, espionage in the Bahamas, magical drinking parties (hey, it’s summer), and robot dating. Nonfiction titles promise to enlighten and entertain with insects, punctuation, fashion, history, and man fasting (see below).

But first, an honorable mention, published in April. Walt Whitman just turned 200, and you’ve probably got that big copy of Leaves of Grass on the shelf ... but if you want to know old Walt of Mickle Street in Camden, pick up Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America, as told to Horace Traubel, edited by Brenda Wineapple (Library of America).

This little book samples his rambling chats with friend Traubel in the last years of Whitman’s life. It’s uplifting, invigorating, full of American talk. And a great read any season.


New Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Writing by Women of African Descent, edited by Margaret Busby (Amistad, May). A sequel to the popular volume Daughters of Africa, this 1,000-page gathering of poems, essays, memoirs, and more is perfect for summer dipping.

City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead, June). She gets kicked out of Vassar and goes to live with an aunt in New York — and the theater world beckons. By the author of Eat Pray Love.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Penguin, June). A gorgeous novel about a young man and the Vietnamese mother who raised him in America.

In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow (Bloomsbury, June). The wonderfully named Knot Centre doesn’t care what people think of her lifestyle, but the neighbors won’t let her be. In a small town in North Carolina, she turns to her neighbor Otis to fix things.

The Porpoise by Mark Haddon (Doubleday, June). New from the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Angelica survives a plane crash, and from there her story weaves past and present, suffering and Shakespeare, all caught in the network of human lives.

Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok (William Morrow, June). The successful daughter of an immigrant family goes to see her grandmother — and disappears. Dark family secrets erupt.

Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman (NYRB Classics, June). His Life and Fate is a 20th-century War and Peace, set during the war years in Russia. But that, amazingly enough, was the sequel to this book, which is now in English for the first time. If you like a big, engrossing read for the summer, here it is.

The Unbreakables by Lisa Barr (Harper, June). Your glitzy marriage collapses. What do you do? Hop on a jet to France, that’s what, to rediscover everything that makes life fizzy and delectable. A glass of tart rosé for your summer reading banquet. Speaking of wine ...

Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain (Gallic, June). Such a great premise: A 2017 drinking party features a 1954 Beaujolais, which magically propels folks back to the Paris of the 1950s. Delightful to the last drop.

The Golden Hour by Beatriz Williams (William Morrow, July). Beachworthy is a good word for Williams: Her summer romances are a cut above, grounded in good, substantial storytelling, worthwhile themes, and adventure. In this one, we’re in Nassau, the Bahamas, in 1941, and we get thrown into an intrigue involving the British court, espionage, courage, and love.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. (Doubleday, July). In the Jim Crow Florida of the early 1960s, two boys land in a juvenile reformatory and fight to have a future.

The Plus One by Sarah Archer (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, July). Ready for a wild one? Kelly is not too good at the social thing, but she’s excellent at building robots. So when she doesn’t have a date for her sister’s wedding … she builds one. Thus the title!

Inland by Téa Obreht (Random House, August). Since the much-praised The Tiger’s Wife, readers have been awaiting this talented writer’s next mix of realistic fiction, romance, and magic. Inland has plenty of all three: It’s the 1890s in the Arizona Territory. The lives of a man and woman are about to intersect … and a mysterious presence stalks the land.


Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered: The Definitive How-to Guide by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark (Forge, May). Good title. Good advice. The authors run the true-crime comedy podcast My Favorite Murder. They’ve concocted a combination double memoir and advice book.

A Dream Too Big: The Story of an Improbable Journey From Compton to Oxford by Caylin Louis Moore (Thomas Nelson, June). From a middle-class household to a crime-ridden neighborhood dominated by the Bloods, to … being a Rhodes Scholar. An American arc.

Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion by Tanisha C. Ford (St. Martin’s, June). A tour of the hoodie, the dashiki, the Jheri curl, the door-knocker earring, and six other fashion items in this combination memoir, pop-cult discussion, and history.

Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light by Peter Schjeldahl (Abrams, June). You pronounce it SHELL-doll. In a book made for summer, the great New Yorker art critic writes like an angel about everyone from Vermeer to Picasso, Donatello to Andy Warhol, in beautiful, enjoyable, accessible essays across 30 years.

I Like to Watch: Arguing My Way Through the TV Revolution by Emily Nussbaum (Random House, June). The sparkling TV writer for the New Yorker narrates TV’s rise to cultural prominence, with special attention to the big shows, developments, and turning points. She also worries aloud about the meaning and costs of watching and living in a culture so dominated by this private eye.

Man Fast by Natasha Scripture (Little A, June). Sometimes you need one. A memoir of how, for this reporter, activist, and former U.N. spokesperson, swearing off the whole dating thing for a while was a way to inner peace.

Naturally Tan by Tan France (St. Martin’s, June). He of the Netflix series Queer Eye tells of growing up queer in a traditional Muslim Pakistani family in, where? South Yorkshire, England, of course — and becoming one of the world’s best-known fashion designers. Positive and summery.

Buzz Sting Bite: Why We Need Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson (Simon and Schuster, July). Just right for summer: a very enthusiastic look at the flying, crawling, stinging bug universe world, and why we should cherish it.

The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America by Margaret O’Mara (Penguin, July). It began in Palo Alto in the late 1940s, picked up steam in the Cold War/space race 1960s, reached white heat in the 1980s and 1990s, and now is a sprawling center of incredible influence and wealth. Its history, told here in all its thrilling, crazy weight, tells us much about the country.

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl (Milkweed, July). This warm, rich memoir might be the sleeper of the summer. She grew up in the South, nursed her aging parents, and never once lost her love for life, light, and the natural world. Beautiful is the word, beautiful all the way through.

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson (Ecco, July). What? Sit on the beach reading about punctuation? Yes, when it’s as fun, rangy, and witty as this.

And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks by Lawrence Weschler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, August). A portrait of a friendship, and of one of the most fascinating lives of recent times, filling in many blanks.

A Good Provider Is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century by Jason DeParle (Viking, August). This years-in-the-making, panoramic story follows the Portagana family from the slums of Manila across four continents. A humane epic of real people in search of better lives.

Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy by A.N. Wilson (Harper, September). It’s the bicentennial of the birth of Albert, one of history’s strangest people. This is the long-awaited companion to Wilson’s marvelous Victoria, about Albert’s queenly spouse.