Photo courtesy of Chanel Shaw
The Summer 2020 Book List
From Trinidad to Hong Kong to Tehran to Kolkata to Puglia to the American South to a small town in southeastern Nigeria: We’re mind-traveling with the help of eleven brilliant writers this summer. We’ve ordered the list by publication date, starting with a searing essay collection that came out at the end of May and ending with three preorder-worthy novels for August.
We listened to the audiobook version of this one, which is read by the author, Porochista Khakpour, who also wrote the memoir Sick and the novels Sons and Other Flammable Objects and The Last Illusion. The title of this book, her latest, which came out in May, speaks to The White Album by Joan Didion. The obvious difference is that Brown Album explores race and what it means to identify as a brown person in America. It’s a collection of essays that delves into Khakpour’s experience growing up in Los Angeles (where her family moved after fleeing the Iranian Revolution) as well as the years she spent in and around New York City. Some of the stories are angry and urgent. Some of the observations are hilarious, some are cutting, and many are just so spot-on that we found ourselves vigorously agreeing while knowing we never could have captured a cultural phenomenon so precisely.
Being a bestseller isn’t everything. But: We loved seeing this one land at number one on the New York Times bestseller list in its first week out. Like many readers, we loved Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers, and have been not-so-patiently waiting for her second book. The Vanishing Half is about the Vignes twins, who leave their small Southern Black community at the age of sixteen. They thought they’d never leave each other, but everything changes when one of the sisters makes a decision that brings her to another life, where she lives as a white woman. Years later, their worlds intersect. One of Bennett’s gifts as a writer is this: Her plots entertain you while her characters make you think. In this case, about race, gender, privilege, and the ways an identity can be built, challenged, and rebuilt.
Tommy Orange, Yaa Gyasi, and Colum McCann all blurbed A Burning, so of course we’re reading it. Megha Majumdar’s debut novel is set in Kolkata, India, and begins with Jivan, a young woman, who makes an offhand comment on Facebook about a terrorist attack and then finds herself the prime suspect in the attack. What happens to her next is partly up to Lovely (a hijra whom Jivan tutors in English) and PT Sir (Jivan’s former gym teacher). It’s about power, circumstance, injustice, the way systems fail, and the way individuals try to beat them. It feels as if the words are on fire as you read them.
For fans of Sally Rooney looking for a fix: Naoise Dolan’s debut novel follows twenty-two-year-old Ava from her Dublin home to Hong Kong, where she teaches English to rich children. And where she becomes involved with a banker named Julian. Julian is, in a word, unavailable. It’s difficult for him to say, “I like you a great deal.” Ava promptly moves in with him. But while Julian is in London for business, Ava meets a Hong Kong–born lawyer named Edith. Edith is, in a word, alluring. After a few months, it’s time for Julian to return. And time for Ava to make a decision. It’s a story about the complexities, absurdities, inequalities, and the potential in our financial and political systems and in our most intimate relationships with ourselves and others.
This is the smartest thriller we’ve read in a while. Which is to say it messed with our minds. Seven Lies is told in seven parts—each one marked by a lie that Jane tells her best friend, Marnie. You can see how the first lie happened: Marnie asked Jane if she liked Marnie’s awful husband. And Jane said yes. What comes next is much less innocent and much more obsessive. It’s twisted and thrilling, and you will zip through it. (Comes out June 16, available for preorder.)
There have been a spate of beautiful memoirs written by doctors in recent years, and several have focused on end-of-life experiences. The Beauty in Breaking, which comes out July 7, is distinct for a few reasons. Michele Harper is an emergency room physician—a profession that is very male and very white—and she is a Black woman. As a writer and as a doctor, Harper takes enormous care in bringing the reader inside the emergency room as it is: intense one moment and mundane, political, unjust, vital, bureaucratic, or hopeful the next. (Stretches of the book cover Harper’s posts at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Philadelphia.) You feel as if she is working alongside you. The driving force of the memoir is Harper’s journey to make sense of trauma (starting with her own childhood experiences) and the ways that she believes people break and heal. (For a different, also extraordinary understanding of trauma, see Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s book, The Deepest Well, and listen to her talk to GP on The goop Podcast.)
Gail Caldwell, the beloved author of Let’s Take the Long Way Home, Pulitzer Prize winner, and former book critic for the The Boston Globe, returns with a memoir about how she was shaped by women’s movements from the ’60s to today. Caldwell writes about her intimate relationships with men, the experience of being single later in life, about searching for purpose, trying to understand an ideology, and an unexpected friendship that she forms in her sixties with a young girl in her neighborhood. It’s short and deeply affecting. (Also comes out July 7.)
It’s been too long since Italian author Paolo Giordano (who happens to have a PhD in particle physics) wrote a novel. Let us begin counting down until the release of this one on July 21. (And if you haven’t read Giordano before, let us recommend The Solitude of Prime Numbers and The Human Body.) Heaven and Earth is set in Puglia and focuses on four friends trying to grow up. It’s a story that sprawls and stuns.
We’re going to go ahead and say this will be one of the best books of 2020. Reading The Death of Vivek Oji is a vivid, propulsive experience, almost like watching a movie on fast-forward. The story opens with the death of a teen named Vivek in a town in southeastern Nigeria. It moves through time and characters as you, the reader, try to put together Vivek’s life, death, hopes, worries, joys, and loves. It’s about loss, yes. But also about freedom and our capacity to imagine what it’s like to be someone else, or perhaps, more so, what it’s like to experience them as they are. (Preorder for August 4 publication.)
Ingrid Persaud, who won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize a few years ago, has written the kind of novel that transports the reader instantly, without requiring anything of you besides flipping the page. In Trinidad, Betty Ramdin’s husband dies. And her colleague Mr. Chetan moves in with her and her son, Solo. What might have initially appeared to be a temporary arrangement becomes permanent, and a new kind of family forms. (Will also be published on August 4. Fun fact: All the major publishers release books on Tuesdays.)
Last one to put on your radar for August: Luster hooked us from the opening sex scene, fully clothed, between Edie, who is at work downtown, and Eric, who is at an office uptown. There are twenty-three years between Edie (the younger) and Eric. And from Eric’s message to her, Edie learns both that she has typos in her online profile and that apparently Eric has an open marriage. There are rules, of course. Which get tangled and untangled. Charged and hypnotic, Luster is poised to become one of the books that defines what it’s like to be young in this moment.
We hope you enjoy the books recommended here. Our goal is to suggest only things we love and think you might, as well. We also like transparency, so, full disclosure: We may collect a share of sales or other compensation if you purchase through the external links on this page.