Top Reads for August
In the dog days of summer, we’ve finally gotten to some of the season’s biggest hits, including the hottest book of them all, City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert, and a book club favorite, The Whisper Network by Chandler Baker.
Alex: In case you’ve somehow managed to avoid the laudatory deluge raining down on Colson Whitehead since the release of The Nickel Boys, allow me to try to explain this slim novel’s terrible appeal.
The Nickel Boys is at once the thematic successor to Whitehead's Pulitzer-winning The Underground Railroad and so stylistically different, it’s hard to imagine the two novels came from the same author. (Though for anyone familiar with Whitehead’s genre-hopping tendencies, it’s not quite so unbelievable.) Where Railroad relied on the myth-making nightmare of slavery and the heroics of those who escaped, there is nothing mythical about the newest book. Based on the real-world discovery of a mass grave at a boys’ reformatory academy in Florida, the novel explores the brutality of a “school” where abuse is rampant, severe, and arbitrary. Given the gruesome topic, Whitehead’s restraint is astonishing; his economy of words and imagery make the snippets of overt racism and violence all the more potent. This reticence allows the reader to see the tragedy of the less florid horrors, too—I found the early chapters to be some of the hardest to read, as we follow a promising black boy caught up in the thrill of the Civil Rights movement, knowing all the while what horrors await him. It’s not hard to see the parallels to today, and the young black and brown men whose lives and ambitions are strangled by the injustices of the justice system. A powerful and expertly crafted book, I expect we’ll see The Nickel Boys on plenty of awards lists later this year.
City of Girls
Karyne: I’m a sucker for entertaining summer reads, especially those with the word “girl” in the title, and double-especially historical fiction. And Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, City of Girls, does not disappoint on either front.
It’s written in the form of letters from narrator Vivian to an unknown Angela, and is set in New York in the early 1940s. Well-to-do Vivian has flunked out of Vassar and has moved to the city to live with her aunt who runs a decrepit theater company at the Lily Playhouse. The doey-eyed 19-year-old sheds her naivety quickly in the big city, boozing it up with showgirls and staying out all night dancing. That is, until one false move (and some racy photos) threaten to end her life in New York.
But as with most coming-of-age stories, her missteps lead her to something greater, and this turns out to be a story that’s less about how girls are, and more about what girls can do.
Lady in the Lake
Katie: This month I’m diving into one of the summer’s hottest new thrillers, Lady in the Lake. Sexy and stylish, it’s a murder mystery set in 1960s Baltimore with a Mad Men vibe, only swap out the ad agency for a gritty newsroom. A female reporter for the Baltimore Sun investigates the murder of a woman found dead in the fountain of the city’s lake, and her obsession with solving the crime triggers dangerous repercussions. Crime writer Laura Lippman started her writing career as a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, where the protagonist works in the novel, and she captures the period’s racism, sexism, and classism, adding dark atmosphere to the already edgy suspense.
The best summer thrillers end with a twist, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Stephen King, reviewing Lady in the Lake in The New York Times, gushed about the book’s “totally cool double twist that your reviewer — a veteran reader of mysteries — never saw coming.” You might not want to take a dip in the lake after reading this, but you’ll be so absorbed in the propulsive page-turner, you just might forget you’re at the beach in the first place.
Tifa: One part thriller, one part ripped-from-the-headlines, Chandler Baker’s Whisper Network is a timely and relevant whodunnit set in the middle of the #MeToo movement. The story focuses on four women in a fictitious Dallas-based sports brand corporation who are each affected, to varying degrees, by the sudden and mysterious death of their CEO. When an ambitious upstart with a lecherous reputation is nominated to fill the role, the women wonder if it’s time to step up and out the lout, even if it’s at their own detriment.
“By whispering, whose secrets were we keeping anyway — ours or theirs? Whose interests did our silence ultimately protect? … we grew tired of whispering because what were we hiding, after all? We had stories, all of us. Would speaking up cost us? Maybe. But maybe it would cost them, too.”
The overarching camaraderie of the women is refreshing — no workplace rivalries or backstabbing tropes here — and the struggles they face are universal and timeless. Baker tackles a multitude of issues that women face in the workplace and ties them in nicely with the murder mystery. It's no surprise why Reese Witherspoon chose this as her July pick for her Hello Sunshine Book Club — you’ll definitely want to add this to your book club list.
The Lightest Object in the Universe
Ashley: My boyfriend hates most apocalyptic fiction and dystopias. He thinks that, in the face of almost-world-ending distress, humans would set aside their differences and work together to survive, rather than fall into totalitarian regimes. As a pessimist and fan of dystopians myself, I’ve been skeptical of this hopepunk-ish outlook, even though I’ve enjoyed a few optimistic stories over the years, from Station Eleven to Steven Universe.
The Lightest Object in the Universe takes this optimism to another level, with its central love story and quaint portrayal of the reconnection of communities in the wake of a devastating flu, the collapse of the global economy, and the loss of running electricity. It follows Beatrix, who lives on the West Coast and was once a fair trade activist, and Carson, who lived in New York City and was a school principal, as they navigate completely new terrain, trying to survive and find each other. Kimi Eisele’s novel is at once a harsh reminder that all the systems we’ve put our trust in run on faith — truly, that we’re having a collective fever dream that money is inherently worth something — and at the same time an actualization of the sharing economy’s ideals: Its main belief is that when you build and share resources together, you grow closer. It’s enough to make you wish you were living through the apocalypse. Assuming you can survive the flu first.
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