It’s my favorite week of the year. It’s Christmas in July.
It’s peachy, juicy, reading season. Burning backs, breaking spines season. Sandy, sunny, chlorine-eyes, water-crinkling pages season.
It’s time for the second annual Staunchly Midsummer Reading List.
The SMRL is an homage to the reading lists of our youths—those stapled packets of suggested lit we used to get between grades in elementary school—and a full-coven, community effort. I ask some of the smartest, most well-read women I know what they’re reading this summer, what they’re nudging their friends to read, what they’ve read and can’t stop thinking about, and I put it all together in one wild, exclusive collage of tastes, tones, and styles. This year there are 17 micro genres. I throw some of my own recs in there, too, for good measure.
Enough preamble. Let’s get to the premium content.
Happy reading, friends !
(A note on links: Most of the links below are to Amazon, unless the contributor otherwise requested. I know nothing beats Amazon for convenience, but please consider buying from a local, independent bookstore or straight from the publisher to support these authors).
Juliet The Maniac
By Juliet Escoria
I devoured Juliet Escoria’s Juliet The Maniac in two days. It's like Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl in book format. It follows Juliet, a 14-year-old girl, on a journey from over-achieving student through suicide attempts* and her eventual recovery at a therapeutic boarding school. Quick, dark, relatable if you've dealt with depression, impulsivity and mood swings, the book is easy to read, but still carries depth and meaning. If you like Plath, Moshfegh, Buntin, or Fridlund, you'll like this.
*A note on the suicide attempts: as a person currently dealing with self-harm/suicidal ideation on and off, I didn't find them particularly triggering. They were treated with care by the author and not graphic.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls
By T Kira Madden
I don’t like recommending books about Florida. I am allergic to Florida. And yet this is the second fooking year I’ve had to eat crow and recommend a book about or based in the Sunshine and Felon State because it was simply too sensational not to. This is a wild, messy, gummy, beautiful, tangled coming-of-age memoir I couldn’t put down.
By Sally Rooney
Read it in a day. Its uncomfortable, but I couldn't put it down. The two main characters are filled with anxiety and insecurities. They're detached, attached, totally fucked up and totally great, all at different times. I just loved it.
- Anna G
Happiness, As Such
By Natalia Ginzburg
I loved this book so deeply, and yet I hesitate to recommend it. First, because I don’t think it’s for everyone. It’s too lean, and much too dry at times to be a universal crowd-pleaser. Ginzburg never holds your hand and takes you to a place of contrived, cozy feeling. She is not your mother. This a spare book where every emotion is earned and you have to do the earning. Second, because I only read it once, and I feel like I need to read it at least three more times before I have a true sense of its impact.
What is the book about? A family? A society? Grief, politics, the loneliness of country houses, the obstinance of youth, the almost scary ability, per our design, humans possess to adapt to any circumstance, no matter the tragedy? All of it. It’s a (mostly) epistolary novel between multiple characters whose worlds are all made shakier by the impulsivity of one young man—a brother, a son, a friend, a lover. It’s your responsibility to gather the information, their intimately diametric missives, and compose the story. You’re so busy working to fit things together you miss the moment it hits you: the jolt of life’s randomness, the way things don’t actually fit together. And yet, still we adapt, filling the spaces life perforates in our hearts and our days with books, companionship, irritations, nature, babies, jam.
“After a certain point in life,” Ginzburg writes, “a person has to dunk her regrets in the morning coffee, just like biscuits.” How perfect then that her writing is as finely ground and unsentimental as very good espresso.
By Elena Ferrante
Maddie recommended this book to me (to us!) and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s dry and violent and raw in both rage and poetry. Good with something vibrant and bitter like a campari spritz.
- Carey (but really Maddie)
By David Mitchell
I find whether it be lying by a pool, hanging at the beach, sitting in the a/c in your family living room, or eating at a restaurant counter alone, the best way to shut out the world is with a mystery that takes you straight into a new one. For me, David Mitchell does this in such a way where I completely forget where I am. I’m like, “Yes, Norah. I'll get my check and follow you that way to the pool of my dreams.”
By Sarah Moss
This book has every element I'd like in a summer read; it’s set in the 70s, it takes place in England, it’s about a teenage girl, and it’s got a bit of spookiness. At just 130 pages, it’s short but completely captivating—I loved every moment of this wild little book. Also, it might have the prettiest cover I've ever seen; I've kept it on my nightstand since I finished it because I can't stand the thought of it sitting on a shelf out of view. Doable by the pool in a single summer afternoon.
By Rona Jaffe
When Nicole Cliffe tweeted, "RONA JAFFE, PUNCH ME IN THE FACE"—I felt that. Jaffe follows the formula found in most of her novels (particularly The Best of Everything): a set of women almost impossible to like endure and rebuke the fuckery of men over a span of years through college, careers, marriages, babies, divorces, deaths and many other mundanities that Jaffe manages to make perfectly absurd. Class Reunion specifically follows four friends on their 20th reunion from Radcliffe. Yes, that means 1950s Radcliffe, ladies!!! What more do you want in a summer read? Class Reunion is for fans of: Up Your Ziggy with a Wa-Wa Brush, sneaking cigarettes on campus, and calling your therapist your “analyst.”
By Stefan Zweig
You think you know her—and much has been said about her depending on what point people were trying to make—but Zweig really digs deep here and tries to set the story straight. It’s a rich, complex, and fascinating portrait of an extraordinary woman that truly wasn’t meant to be.
By Candice Carty-Williams
I hate to use this analogy but I will—if Bridget Jones were reincarnated as a complex, loving, relatable Jamaican Brit in 2019, she would be Queenie! This book will draw you in with its rawness, humor, and obviously, its main character.
Custom of the Story
By Edith Wharton
A delicious story about an unrepentant brat. I’m ferociously protective of the woman at the core of this book, Undine Spragg—a striving, irritable, narcissistic pretty young thing who uses her beauty, i.e. her one currency as a turn-of-the-century woman, to lure suitors/suckers into giving her exactly what she wants, then leaves them when they start to bore her. Maybe they should have tried not being boring? Also, Elmer Moffat can bang. Favorite line: “Divorce without a lover? Why, it’s—it’s as unnatural as getting drunk on lemonade.” Spike your lemonade this summer.
Ask Again, Yes
By Mary Beth Keane
Maybe the perfect family drama? Two cop families are forever intertwined after a shocking (and I mean shocking) crime in late 70s/early 80s suburban New York. Each chapter switches perspectives creating incredibly developed characters, and the book offers meditations on mental illness, addiction, first loves, everlasting love, the hierarchies of families, forgiveness, justice and so much more. This book is soapy, heartfelt, poignant and nostalgic; Keane's voice is like if Ann Patchett and Maria Semple had a love child.
By Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie retells the Greek myth of Antigone through the lens of Islamophobia in contemporary London. An epic story told in a surprisingly short amount of space, the book morphs into something you don't expect with every page. Selfishly, I am recommending this book because I want to talk about the ending with more people. I have QUESTIONS!!!!!!!! Part political commentary, part love story, 100% family tragedy.
By Tommy Orange
This is a gutting, honestly-expressed story about Native Americans living around—and getting in trouble in—current day Oakland, told from multiple perspectives that all converge in a tragic ending. A refreshing break from my usual reads that are generally about white girls like me, this is the slap-in-your-face perspective I needed right now.
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy
An intimate look at a complicated family’s history and the relationships that develop in the wake of a tragic accident. It’s political, personal, and disturbing, centered in a world dictated by the class someone is born into. A dark and mysterious story that goes in all different directions until the very end.
By Tara Isabella Burton
Have you ever wondered what would happen if Tom Ripley was a woman and she found a way to friend Daisy Buchanan, amidst the millennial gig economy, in the time of Instagram? Then do I have the novel for you! Toxic female friendship goes buckwild in Social Creatures and all the men in this book (and I do mean every last one of them) SUCK, but that's not the author's fault. As they say: that's just men, baby! A great glossy thriller for fans (earnestly or ironically, no judgement) of Blake Lively's suits in A Simple Favor.
A Time to Be Born
By Dawn Powell
For a book published in 1942, A Time to Be Born is incredibly modern. It’s a paean to New York City, the one that belongs to the strivers and reinventors only. The novel follows Amanda Evans as she slinks her way through social climbing, affairs, and writing the Next Great American Novel. She’s a columnist who’s weaseled her way into a marriage with a dull, divorced publishing magnate and vaulted herself into the public consciousness. She’s smart enough to turn her political vapidity into fame, shrewd enough to use her looks for social gain, and fully, deliciously, unlikeable. Come for the barbed bon mots and stay for Dawn Powell’s send-up of 1940s Manhattan society. Beauty fades but grifting is forever.
- Anna S
Sun Seekers: The Cure of California
By Lyra Kilston
This book is for those of us who staunchly (see what I did there?) support “taking to the waters” in times of crisis and brief, periodic stints in sanatoriums. Kilston retells the history of California health culture, tracking down the original Gwyneths and Amanda Chantal Bacons of the mid-1800s and onward. It can be dry at times but Kilston does a great job of sprinkling in fantastical stories—including Chekov's last words—to keep you engrossed. Sun Seekers is for lovers of California history, scams, aura photography, and nudism.
By Tara Westover
I know, I know—I'm very late to reading this book that has sat atop many a bestseller list. I decided to pick it up this summer after it sat on my shelf for months, and I'm so glad I did. This is an extraordinary memoir detailing a tough-as-nails young girl’s commitment to education within the context of her homeschooled Mormon survivalist upbringing. Violent, loving, thoughtful—Westover tells the hell out of her own story. This has been my favorite read of the year thus far. You'll rip through it in one long-haul flight to whatever destination you're headed to this summer. [ed. note: I hope for your sake that destination is not Clifton, Idaho.]
Stay and Fight
By Madeline ffitch
The first two pages of this book are the boldest beginning I have ever read in a novel. Did not know it was possible for a writer to recover and come ahead by the end but ffitch definitely proved me wrong. This book is worth staying and fighting for—you’ll fall in love with the women of Appalachia in this survivalist novel. You'll also learn a few tips in case the apocalypse is upon us.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat
By Samin Nosrat
Some of my favorite books I’ve read this year have been cookbooks, and I’m going to put in a weird plug for downloading the audiobook of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. If you, like me, fell in love with Samin Nosrat over the past year or so, you might find a certain amount of comfort from listening to her geek out about salt crystal structures and salad dressing matrices. Much of the book is about the science of cooking, so it isn’t simply listening to her read recipes, and it’s a great break from listening to podcasts about current events or reading the New York Times on your phone.
By Allie Rowbottom
This book tells the story of a troubled family written through the lens of Jell-O, the classic American dessert the author’s great-great-great uncle bought the patent for in 1899. It's mostly a book about women, both the women in Rowbottom's line as well as the women across America in the 1950s who gave rise to the domestic science movement. I strongly associate summer with Jell-O, having grown up making molds with my sister, mom, aunt, and grandmother at our house by the beach—and in more than one way, this book felt a bit like home. Highly recommend.
by Cal Newport
I loved and hated this book at the same time. As someone who is extremely online, I wanted to see what this “digital minimalism” stuff was all about. While I won’t be ditching Twitter or IG any time soon, I think this book is a timely call to question the value and time we place on some of the digital products that are literally destroying our ability to concentrate.
How to Do Nothing
By Jenny Odell
“What the tastes of neoliberal techo-manifest destiny and the culture of Trump have in common is impatience with anything nuanced, poetic, or less-than obvious,” writes artist Jenny Odell, in a book I’m going to go ahead and call essential for anyone who, like me, has struggled to find a balance against the disruptive waves of culture and technology eroding my own happiness—without fully isolating myself from the world. Odell pulls from everything from ancient Greek examples of alternative living to the failed commune experiments in sixties counterculture to propose a uniquely modern concept of existing, of disengaging from the attention economy, reclaiming our loyalties and responsibilities to the earth and our communities with fresh perspective, and building a steadier, more meaningful relationship with our own happiness. I’m only about of the third of the way through, but I already feel her lessons breaking through to me.
The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself
By Michael A. Singer
Simply put: The Untethered Soul equips people with the tools to let go. It has the capacity to help us drastically change and question all the internal narratives we’ve been telling ourselves for as long as we can remember. As humans we are so conditioned to thought patterns and ways of relating to things, to the point they become normalized. What’s scary is that we don’t even realize how harmful and powerful those messages can be! This book helps you break those mean thoughts. It says let’s dance with fear and acknowledge that it’s here. It says let’s put a stop sign on all stories that aren’t serving us in an effort to move beyond our limitations. It says attaining internal peace is possible by rejecting the paradigms so heavily ingrained in us. It’s one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read!
By Angie Kim
This suspenseful courtroom page turner will surprisingly capture your heart. Never will I be able to understand what it means to be a parent of a child with special needs, but Angie Kim skillfully outlines its complexities and the desperation it provokes. As law school students together, President Obama selected Kim to be a part of the Harvard Law Review. So why do I mention this? Because she truly was a hardcore courtroom lawyer. With her firsthand experience, she does not hold back.
By Lisa Halliday
I am seldom nostalgic for high school, but occasionally a book begs for an English teacher's thoughtful unraveling. This is one of those books. Unlike other novels à la mode whose primary (read: singular) attribute is page-turning narrative (hello, Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends), Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry stands apart. Halliday's metaphors, parallels, and references run deep. Each word chosen and placed with purpose. If you are a reader who enjoys reflecting on complicated power dynamics (perhaps most millennials), someone who savors a good postmodern self-referential work of art, or a person who is curious about the woman who charmed Philip Roth, run—don't walk—to your local bookstore. Some parting advice: be your own English teacher; ask yourself probing questions; underline if you feel motivated. You will be rewarded!
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous*
By Ocean Vuong
Full disclosure: I've not yet finished this book, but even so, I feel completely comfortable recommending it to Staunchly’s readership. Lovingly intertwined with the author's own life, it tells the story of a Vietnamese boy in Hartford through childhood and adolescence. Vuong's past in poetry is readily apparent in the prose; it's so beautiful it’s, well, poetic. Best read in your favorite chair on the porch at dusk.
By Joanne Ramos
I just finished this. I found it conflicting at points, but also really liked it. It’s about a “gestational retreat” in upstate NY where “hosts” (mainly immigrants) carry the babies of the ultrarich. Both luxurious and difficult, it’s such an interesting commentary on our time and social/financial divides.
- Anna G
Notes From No Man's Land
By Eula Biss
There is no better time to revisit this resonant, pained, searching set of essays by Eula Biss than now. She grapples, she struggles, she considers, and then she produces an incisive, beautiful truth that makes you feel breathless and more substantial, all at once. (If you get through the essays, “On Immunity,” her full-length, is a beyond worthwhile follow up.) I couldn't love her writing more.
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Want a deep dive into the terrors of settler colonialism? Dunbar-Ortiz reveals the systematic genocide of Native Americans throughout history along with their attempts at resistance. There’s also a young readers edition that’s just as good and a quicker read!
So You Want to Talk About Race
By Ijeoma Oluo
For those moments when you really want to engage in conversations about white supremacy and racism but feel like you might say the wrong thing. Oluo doesn’t sugarcoat it but offers ways forward for any reader.
By Robin DiAngelo
This is one of those primer texts for folks exploring their biases and considering white supremacy culture. And proves to be one that you can revisit.
(Looking for additional reading? Amanda also recommends: Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor, and We Want to Do More Than Survive by Dr. Betina Love.)
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions
By Valeria Luiselli
Considering the crisis at the border, this book gives a detailed narrative perspective into the experiences of immigrants trying to escape a nightmare—only to find themselves face to face with a new one.
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America
By Beth Macy
Whether or not your life or that of someone you love has been ripped apart by the opioid crisis, this book should be required reading. It's about pain and family and exploitation and inequity. It puts human faces on the epidemic that began in rural pockets of our nation and has now snaked its way through to every corner. These stories are crushing, maddening, and deeply American.
Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good
By adrienne maree brown
Pleasure Activism is compilation of essays, excerpts, poems and meditations from writers and activists, stemming mainly from black feminist traditions, maintaining the belief that pleasure helps us heal from our oppression. It so beautifully reaffirms the fact that pleasure is linked to every part of our existence, and learning about what safe, vibrant, erotic conditions we need to supply for ourselves and for others is critical to becoming more rooted and empowered. I recommend reading in-between novels!
His Dark Materials
By Philip Pullman
There is something about summer and a book series that feels so right. I have been meaning to use the season to re-read all of Harry Potter for many years now and the task has always felt too daunting, but this year I did the next best thing: I re-read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I’m so happy I did! While braving dark forces to save her best friend Roger, Lyra Belacqua discovers that there are thousands of parallel universes. As she travels through them she learns about our souls, humanity, good, evil and her unique destiny. The world-building is incredible and Lyra is such an endlessly fascinating protagonist. I know at first glance this feels somewhat off-brand for Staunchly but you know what, Lyra is a young fearless girl underestimated by everyone who fiercely fights for the people she loves and what she thinks is right and fair. She has no problem telling truth to power, and what’s more Staunchly than that? As an added bonus, the villain is also the complicated and delicious Mrs. Coulter who uses dumb men to get what she wants. [ed. note: Staunchly officially endorses any book where men are used as pawns]
Girl in the Rearview Mirror
By Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A compulsive domestic thriller. A serpentine narrative. Sounds stressful. And is. In all the best ways.
Brought to you by Staunchly’s resident Steamy Reads Expert Becca Title
Hello! I'm back with more romance recs!
This has been A Rough Year in so many ways for so many people, me included, so I say take a mental break by diving into a story you know is going to end well. The journey is the destination, as all the “professional driver on closed course” car ads like to remind us.
It is truly an excellent age for romance novels as women's agency takes center stage (even in historicals), a spotlight on the racism within the romance world itself means more authors of color are getting a fair(er) shake at finding readers and hitting it big, and romantic comedy is back with a vengeance.
Last year I shouted out some favorite authoresses: Sarah McLean, Courtney Milan, Victoria Dahl, and Kate Meader. Those recs still stand.
Here are four more with great back catalogs to dive in to:
Lisa Kleypas: Start with the Ravenels series, one of my all-time favorites, charming and funny and set in Victorian (not Regency!) England.
Tessa Dare: Never too dark and always a good laugh. I'm looking forward to The Wallflower Wager out 8/13.
Alisha Rai: I'm excited about her new book, The Right Swipe, out August 3. Her back catalog is on the more emotionally dramatic and/or kinky side so read your blurbs, folks! (Also I did shout out one Alisha Rai book last year so this is sort of cheating but sorry not sorry.)
Alyssa Cole: Start with her Reluctant Royals series, which features a group of friends, all women of color, who somehow each end up hooking up with a literal modern-day prince. The most recent installment is supposed to be the best, but it’s still living in my Kindle’s unread section.
I also haven't had time to dig in to this summer's buzzy Red, White, and Royal Blue by new (and openly bisexual #represent) author, Casey McQuiston, about a romance between the son of a U.S. president and a British prince, or Evvie Drake Starts Over by NPR's Linda Holmes.
Finally, the Bachelor’s vestigial host Chris Harrison has written a romance novel called The Perfect Letter. Please, someone, read it and report back to us all.
Travels with Myself and Another
By Martha Gellhorn
Oh my GOD, nobody is better than Martha. Travels is a book of remarkable essays about the most grueling, insane, and dangerous trips Gellhorn has ever taken — which is saying a lot for a woman who spent the better part of five decades trekking across the world, and who was at the frontlines of 80+ wars. (Not including her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway.) She’s so smart and so tough and has been through so much, without even batting an eye, that she's inevitably going to make you feel dumb for being sad about That Guy one time or whatever, but in a way that's honestly good for you. Read her!!
Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
By Steve Martin
Born Standing Up chronicles Steven Martin’s path to becoming one of the most unique and uplifting comics this nation has ever seen! Biased I know [ed. note: Erin does excellent stand-up], but it’s such a delight to read. It shows so much tenacity, grit, hope and perspective, and functions as an inspiring blueprint for any artist striving to go deeper. It also provides an eerily honest account of what can happen on the other side of success.
The Collected Schizophrenias
By Esme Weijun Wang
It is no small task to write about illness well. Especially an illness that so thoroughly dismantles one’s reality. I avoided Esme's book forever, because a.) too close to home and b.) see aforementioned note, re: how hard it is to write about illness well — but “The Collected Schizophrenias” delivers. Esme examines her experience from the inside out, at turns sounding as medically expert as gracious and poetic, but never afraid to declare the visceral pain and fury that is living with her disorder. I love it.
Sing To It
By Amy Hempel
How someone can have that hair and this mastery of the short story form boggles the mind. Prepare to be boggled.
Another Marvelous Thing
By Laurie Colwin
The life of an affair told through a small book of short stories. I’ve never read a book where extramarital love was treated like this ambivalent but fated thing. The result is quietly devastating. Read in an afternoon and sit with it for a while. Colwin’s writing is supple and home-cooked, baked with patience and wit. It goes down light but it’ll stick to your bones.