Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The A.V. Club’s summer reading guide

(Illustration: Nick Wanserski)

The words “summer reading” have become synonymous with fluffy garbage, easily digested and disposed of in one sitting. But there’s no reason beach reads have to be light enough to float away on a warm breeze. Here we recommend books substantial enough to be worth your time, but not so heavy that they block out the sun.

Smith Of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles Of Ham


J.R.R. Tolkien’s best-known work is also his darkest: The Lord Of The Rings is heavy on the dread and sparse on the humor. But much of the prolific author’s work was lighthearted and breezy—The Hobbit is among the latter group, though you wouldn’t know it from Peter Jackson’s ponderous three-film adaptation. Smith Of Wootton Major and Farmer Giles Of Ham are two stories often published together. Smith Of Wootton Major centers on the Feast Of Good Children and its Great Cake; the farmer of Farmer Giles is a very hobbit-like man who becomes an accidental hero. Although they don’t share a plot or characters, both are charming tales appropriate for children and enjoyable for adults, especially on a lazy day when you might long for Tolkien’s imaginative prose without committing to his three-book epic. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Dream Park

Imagine the biggest, coolest, most spare-no-expense gonzo version of LARPing imaginable, and you’ve got the basic idea behind Dream Park, Larry Niven and Steven Barnes’ novel about a futuristic amusement park. Basically Disney World for live-action adult role-playing, the page-turner tells the story of a vacationer’s perfect adventure gone horribly wrong. Not, mind you, in a Westworld way (or Itchy And Scratchy Land way, in terms of killer robots); it’s more drawing-room murder mystery by way of a near-future, sci-fi yarn, and it’s breezily addictive. Plus, if you find yourself entranced by the universe Niven and Barnes develop, there are a few sequels that are almost as geeky. [Alex McCown]

The Inn At Lake Devine


Elinor Lipman (author of Then She Found Me) specializes in charming, engaging reads with characters you want to spend more time with in locations you never want to leave. One of these is Lake Devine, an idyllic Vermont vacation area that fascinates protagonist Natalie Marx at a young age, when her family is denied entrance in a politely worded anti-Semitic letter: “Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles.” For Natalie, the Inn becomes both an unattainable WASP ideal as well as a stand-in for hateful, must-be-defeated prejudice and segregation. Through determination, luck, and fate, Natalie becomes more embroiled in the goings-on at at the Inn than she ever could have imagined, turning into a “spy in the House of Devine,” staying there as both an adolescent and an adult. Lipman delights with well-crafted descriptions of Natalie’s growing-up years in the 1960s; for example, her mother’s “interior decoration was thought to be advanced: Shellacked Gourmet covers as wallpaper and an oil painting in the living room that no one understood.” This is best read while gazing at your own vacation lake, appreciating Lake Devine’s breezy nostalgia alongside the fact that we now live in a more inclusive age. [Gwen Ihnat]

Treasure Island!!!


The 25-year-old narrator of Treasure Island!!! is a lightning-quick-witted, self-centered, negligent nut-bar. Having recently read (and refused to return) her sister’s library copy of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, she decides to adopt the book’s four tenets: boldness, resolution, independence, and horn-blowing. While these might sound like noble principles, in the narrator’s self-serving hands, they ignite one disaster after another, a few involving her job at a pet-loaning library and a parrot named Richard, which squawks phrases like “Steer the boat, girlfriend!” at inopportune times. Skirting responsibility with the clean conscience of a sociopath, the narrator manipulates her kind-hearted boyfriend, mooches from her parents, and belittles her meeker sister and well-meaning friend. Author Sara Levine doesn’t waste a syllable in her 2011 novel, so tight is her comedic writing, and while she eventually brings the narrative to slightly heavier places, the book maintains its lightness. [Laura Adamczyk]

When You Are Engulfed In Flames


Any of David Sedaris’ nonfiction works make for good summer reading, but When You Are Engulfed In Flames finds the humorist at the top of his game as he deals with a midlife crisis by moving to Japan in order to quit smoking. With his signature wit, Sedaris spins his neurosis and fixation on death into memorable essays he calls “97 percent true.” Whatever that 3 percent of embellishment is, it works well for Sedaris’ very funny stories about the French countryside and learning Japanese in Tokyo. His family, lovingly dysfunctional and a big part of Sedaris’ prior books, don’t take center stage in When You Are Engulfed In Flames. A lot of time is spent instead with Sedaris’ partner Hugh, a homemaker whose lack of neuroses makes him a good foil. Like his other work, however, the book is really a collection of essays, making it ideal for piecemeal reading. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

The Sparrow


Upon first glance, a story of Catholics debating the nature of faith doesn’t sound very exciting. But The Sparrow is no ordinary tale of religion, and these are no ordinary Catholics. Mary Doria Russell’s novel recounts an ill-fated journey to Alpha Centauri, sparked by the discovery of a music transmission coming from that region of space. A group of Jesuits decide to launch a space mission without approval from the U.N., and the story alternates between the expedition and the decades-later interrogation of the mission’s sole surviving member. Along the way, readers get both crackling prose and sharp philosophical insights—the perfect beach read for the thinking person’s nerd cravings. [Alex McCown]

The Object Of My Affection


Please don’t be turned off by the lame Jennifer Aniston/Paul Rudd movie this novel turned into: The source material is a lovely, witty portrait of an intense connection between two people. George, gay, and Nina, straight, are roommates in Brooklyn who quickly become indispensable to each other. So when Nina becomes pregnant, she decides she would rather raise the baby with George than the baby’s father. Shy George is a wonderful self-deprecating narrator (“I put on a turquoise shirt I often tried on but never had the bad taste or the courage to wear out of the house”) who becomes entangled with people without meaning to, wanting to build a life with Nina even though it means putting up romantic roadblocks for both of them. His quiet but funny asides make it clear why so many characters in the book fall for him, but his relationship with Nina resonates most of all. Stephen McCauley beautifully depicts the elements that tie the two together, bound by “a force much stronger than love.” [Gwen Ihnat]

The Historian


It’s only a matter of time before Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian gets the prestige television treatment. Three stories from three generations center around the historical inspiration for Dracula, Vlad Țepeș. Kostova’s penchant for overly romantic writing can be forgiven considering Bram Stoker’s source material and the shadowy mythology that’s grown up around it. The Historian ferrets out the legend with a thorough history lesson on the Ottoman Empire and its conquest of the Balkan lands. Our protagonist—the teenage daughter of a historian—investigates her father’s mysterious past and the reason her mother isn’t around. While her story takes place in the ’70s, she learns of her father, a historian, through letters that tell his story in the ’50s. The third plot takes place in the ’30s, through letters from her father’s professor and mentor. Each storyline unravels the mystery of Vlad Țepeș, history’s importance in modernity, and the never-ending struggle between good and evil. It’s a lesson in history and sociology disguised as a page-turning horror story. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]



Comedian Tina Fey begins her bestselling autobiography, Bossypants, with a warning: The book won’t cover juicy, tell-all topics like sex, drugs, and recipes, but it will tell “lurid tales of anxiety and cowardice.” With the same cutting wit she shows on television, Fey chronicles her life from geeky adolescence to her time at Chicago’s Second City to becoming the first female head writer at SNL and creating and starring in the award-winning 30 Rock. As with her delivery on screen, Fey’s comedic timing on the page is impeccable. She hits it and quits it, never lingering too long in any particular anecdote, which makes this easy to dip in and out of (as you dip in and out of the closest body of water). Like Fey herself, Bossypants is fun, funny, feminist, and wicked smart—one of the beachiest of the bunch. [Laura Adamczyk]

Please Kill Me and Edie


Oral histories make for compulsive vacation reading, just dishy quotes from people compiled into a story mosaic. Here are two of the best. In Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History Of Punk, Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil thrust you into the seediest punk clubs, from New York to Detroit, as interviewees including musicians, club owners, and hangers-on tell what it was like in the early days for bands like The Stooges, Ramones, and New York Dolls. (The fact that Iggy Pop is not only still alive but also kicking ass will seem even more incredible after hearing how many times his bandmates found him nodding off on a hotel bathroom floor.) Along similar lines is the story of iconic Edie Sedgwick. Jean Stein’s book Edie: American Girl wisely starts off with narratives about her illustrious East Coast family that was plagued by mental health issues. It then traces how she met Andy Warhol and quickly ascended to the top of his Factory scene in New York, until her own drug issues resulted in her death at 28. Don’t forget to reapply your sunscreen—both of these books are so difficult to put down, it’ll be hard to move from your beach spot. [Gwen Ihnat]

A Visit From The Goon Squad


Sure, the structure of A Visit From The Goon Squad gets a lot of attention; its chapters jump around in time, from character to character, with no overarching plot. Yes, Jennifer Egan has compared her Pulitzer Prize-winning book to a concept album (music is, in fact, one of its subjects). And, of course, there’s that one chapter: a PowerPoint from the perspective of a 12-year-old. None of this innovation would merit much, however, without Egan’s gorgeous, incisive prose. In the first chapter, a woman with a compulsion for stealing spies an unattended purse, the wallet “tender and overripe as a peach.” But why this literary experiment for summertime? Because summer is not just beach balls and state fairs. Summer does allow for more celebrating, but it also offers more embarrassment, pain, and heartache. The characters in Goon Squad have big lives that are full in the same way that summer feels full—with the good, the bad, and the ugly. [Laura Adamczyk]

The Name Of The Wind


Patrick Rothfuss’ meta fantasy looks like a typical hero’s journey at first glance: Kvothe, the preternaturally talented boy, tests his daring to become the most powerful wizard in the Aturan empire. What heightens this book—first in a trilogy—is Rothfuss’ poetic writing, which often favors long ruminations on what it means to make music, fall in love, or carry secrets. While Kvothe’s journey sometimes appears meandering, as if Rothfuss doesn’t really plan out how he’ll get from point A to point B, there’s enough information tucked into the subplots to awaken fierce fan speculation about the true nature of certain characters, whose stories may or may not overlap with the group of demon-like people who killed Kvothe’s parents. The structure of the book creates a compelling mystery woven into the story, with an older Kvothe hidden away for reasons that slowly become clear as he tells his tale. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Magnus Chase And The Gods Of Asgard, Book 1: The Sword Of Summer


“My name is Magnus Chase. I’m 16 years old. This is the story of how my life went downhill after I got myself killed.” Rick Riordan has conquered the YA charts by blending steep mythology with relatable modern-day teenagers. The latest of these heroes is Magnus Chase, a homeless Kurt Cobain look-alike who dies in an unexpected battle on a Boston bridge and winds up in Valhalla. There he discovers that he is (of course) descended from a Nordic god and must set out on a quest with a few Valkyries, dwarves, and elves to use the Sword Of Summer to prevent Ragnarok, the coming apocalypse. Magnus’ quippy sarcastic asides (“The thing about talking swords… it’s hard to tell when they’re kidding. They have no facial expressions. Or faces.”) as he’s thrust into this unbelievable situation will keep you turning pages. You’ll also encounter familiar figures like giants, Loki, and Thor, but not in any form that you’d recognize from an Avengers movie. Riordan masterfully sprinkles modern-day references over these age-old myths, as Odin spends days trying to discovery the “sorcery” of the smartphone and Thor has a “Find My Hammer” app and is a Game Of Thrones fan, naturally. All of that would be engaging enough, but it’s laid on top of Riordan’s own addition to the myth canon: how bravery can affect destiny. [Gwen Ihnat]

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