You know how Hollywood just loves cranking out movies about moviemaking? The literary world has a similar predilection for books set in the book world.
Often the protagonists in these novels are underpaid underlings at the lowest rungs of major publishing houses. They suffer under uncompromising, out-of-touch bosses. They struggle to find love, solve a mystery, and make rent.
Sometimes their coveted Manhattan publishing jobs figure in the plot, as with Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl, one of this summer’s big books. Other times, the industry is just an establishing shot.
The whole thing is maddeningly meta, but when a great one like Harris’ comes along, you can only say: Keep doing what you’re doing, you vain, self-mythologizing publishing houses. And maybe pay your underlings better.
Our short list of summer reads for 2021 also has lots to offer from the world beyond Publishers’ Row: new fiction from Kathy Wang and Dana Spiotta, a collection of boundary-pushing sci-fi, a Facebook tell-all, and the latest Michael Pollan mindfork, to name a few. Here’s the list:
The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris. Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada? How can any book live up to that? Even with the lofty comparisons and high praise, Harris’ The Other Black Girl stands on its own as an impressive and powerful debut novel, full of wit and brains. Nella’s lonely but oddly comfortable role as the only Black woman at an old-school Manhattan publishing company is simultaneously bolstered and threatened by the newcomer she can’t help but compare herself to. Pretty soon there’s a lot more going on besides interpersonal drama and office politics, but let’s not spoil the fun. (Atria Books, out now)
Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape, Cal Flyn. The saying at the start of the pandemic — when people were driving less, buying less, and just generally doing less — was that nature was “healing.” As the meme goes, “We are the virus,” and there is some truth to it. Scottish journalist Cal Flyn’s new book takes a global approach to the issue of what humans leave behind. With lush, sometimes thrilling prose, Islands of Abandonment takes readers into a few well-known wastelands, like postindustrial New Jersey and post-Chernobyl Ukraine, but also to locales in Estonia, Tanzania, Cyprus, and more, where the situations are just as fascinating and the stakes are just as high. (Viking, out now)
The Best of World SF, edited by Lavie Tidhar. The “SF” stands for science fiction. Hopefully the little rocket on the cover will let readers know what they’ll find inside this 26-story, 575-page cinder block of a collection. We’re talking spaceships and nanobots, creeping horrors and astral wonders, cyberpunk dystopias and cold, empty places where no one can hear you scream. It’s true the sci-fi world is always expanding, writes Israeli author/editor Lavie Tidhar in the forward, but this sort of international compendium — which includes the works of mostly non-white, non-famous authors from such far-flung homeworlds as Singapore, Brazil, Croatia, and the Philippines — is still something of a novelty in our timeline. Embrace the unknown. (Head of Zeus, out now)
Impostor Syndrome, Kathy Wang. Following up on the success of her 2019 debut, Family Trust, Wang returns to Silicon Valley for a tale of espionage and isolation that’s probably too thoughtful and character-driven for the “psychological thriller” tag, but it’s a page-turner nonetheless. At times funny and harrowing, Impostor Syndrome centers on Julia Lerner, the Russian spy who rises to COO of an internet giant (like Google but less evil), and Alice Lu, the lowly support staffer who discovers her secret. From there, Wang explores the two women’s experiences navigating the iniquities and indignities of international politics and tech-bro culture. (Custom House, out now)
Appleseed, Matt Bell. In the prologue to Bell’s time-skipping new novel, a horned and hoofed faun steals seeds from a cider mill in hopes of starting a primeval apple orchard. By the third chapter, North America has become an icy, post-civilization nightmare populated by a single furry, foraging creature named C 432 who might be the last living thing on earth. Appleseed incorporates myth, sci-fi, and satire into its dazzling high-wire act about how things went so wrong, and so weird. In previous works and even more so here, Bell executes a kind of literary daredevilry, making carefully controlled storytelling feel treacherous and delightful. (Custom House, July 6)
Wayward, Dana Spiotta. Summer can’t be all satires, thrillers, and escapism, right? You’re gonna want something heavy and deep in the mix. That’s where Spiotta shines, in earlier novels like 2011′s Stone Arabia, 2016′s Innocents and Others, and in this entrancing new one about a woman who sees her country and her family dissolving before her eyes at the dawn of the Trump presidency. Riddled with insights into aging, womanhood, and discontent, Wayward is as elegant as it is raw, and almost as funny as it is sad. Spiotta will kick your heart’s ass. (Knopf, July 6)
This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan. The author’s transition from food philosopher to microdosing psychonaut has been so smooth, so driven by science and history, you might not have noticed it happening — especially if you jumped on board with the 2006 crowd-pleaser The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Following up on 2018′s foray into psychedelics, How To Change Your Mind, the new This Is Your Mind on Plants focuses on three brain-altering substances that occupy decidedly different places in Western consciousness: caffeine, opium, and mescaline. Pollan says we should reexamine our relationships with these “natural” drugs. (Penguin Press, July 6)
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination, by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang. This exposé on the inner workings of Mark Zuckerberg’s social media empire could be the nonfiction book everybody’s talking about this summer, though its specific revelations remain a mystery at the moment. (Advance copies are hard to come by, and the release date was pushed back a month to allow for additional reporting.) Written by two veteran New York Times investigative journalists, An Ugly Truth aims to lift the curtain on Facebook’s “fall from grace,” as the company attempted to weather controversies surrounding its business decisions, handling of user data, and platforming of hateful rhetoric, all of which have had dire consequences IRL. (HarperCollins, July 13)
Strange Beasts of China, Yan Ge. In this marvelously untamed novel, a nameless “amateur cryptozoologist” sets out to catalog the otherworldly creatures that roam her city. Unlike most cryptozoologists (even the professional ones), she seems to have no trouble finding them, and though they exist outside the normal order of things, these various “beasts” — the heartsick beasts, the sacrificial beasts, the joyous beasts — are fragile, dangerous, and sympathetic in unexpectedly human ways. “Legend has it that a sorrowful beast’s smile is so beautiful, no one who sees it could ever forget it,” we’re told. “But no matter how many jokes you tell them, they never laugh, let alone smile.” Strange Beasts of China feels like a riddle and a parable and a dream, the kind of book you want to get lost in. (Melville House, July 13)
The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You, Maurice Carlos Ruffin. New Orleans author Ruffin blew minds with his satirical debut novel We Cast a Shadow (2019), about a Black father hoping to turn his kid white via dystopian “demelanization” surgery. His new collection is all about breaking hearts. Rooted in the here and now — including pandemic masks and marches protesting police brutality — The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You sings sad, small songs about people on the fringes: a rookie teen hooker, a fragile trans kid, an ex-con trying to go straight, an out-of-work literary professor mugging tourists in the French Quarter, and so on. These characters need a miracle, and you end up praying along with them. (One World, Aug. 17)
Others to consider:
The Hollywood Spiral, Paul Neilan. A sardonic, tech-driven dystopian novel by the author of Apathy and Other Small Victories. (Grand Central, out now)
Sevastopol, Emilio Fraia, The Brazilian author taps Tolstoy for inspiration is this slim but moving collection of interconnected stories. (New Directions, out now)
Las Biuty Queens, Iván Monalisa Ojeda. The trans Chilean author and ex-sex worker draws from personal experience in these stories about life on the periphery of mainstream New York City. (Astra House, out now)
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke. A gorgeous, thoughtful graphic novel that explores the connectedness and isolation of modern life. (Pantheon, July 6)
The Final Girl Support Group, Grady Hendrix. The survivors of long-ago slasher-movie-style attacks are being hunted in this bloody, satirical thriller. (Berkley, July 13)
MORE BOOKS TO COME
Look for Patrick Rapa’s monthly roundup of great reads on Inquirer.com and in the Sunday Inquirer starting in August.