Whether it's on the beach blanket or the porch swing—or, for those with little or no vacation time, the commuter train—summertime provides a kind of natural blank slate. Maybe it's because all your favorite shows are in reruns and the summer movies leave you cold, but suddenly you feel you have time to embark upon all that reading you've been planning to do since Christmas. Accordingly, now is when all the magazines and newspapers come out with their lists of the summer's best books. How could The Root not join them?
Ours is a bit different, though; we're not limiting our list to the newest of the new, the brand-spanking blockbuster hard-covers published in the past two months that promise (or at least hope) to be best sellers. We've opened it up to books published in the last couple of years, including several new in paperback (the better to hold in one hand while fanning oneself with the other).
And we're not focusing on best sellers, though some of these books might be (and others ought to be). Instead, these are some of the books we think will fill that summertime headspace with ideas and images to propel you through the months ahead. Some are as light as a June breeze, others as intense as a July thunderstorm, but we hope you'll find among them a few you can throw into your weekend bag as you head to wherever your summer takes you.
The Untelling , Tayari Jones (336 pages, Grand Central Publishing, $19.99) Jones' second novel showcases her talent for telling lyrical, well-observed stories of women facing difficult choices.
Them , Nathan McCall (352 pages, Atria, $25) Who knew the suburbs would be the setting for the next great racial conflicts? Um, everyone? McCall, author of the prize-winning Makes Me Wanna Holler, takes aim at middle-class racial mores.
Pleasure , Eric Jerome Dickey (449, Dutton, $24.95) Okay, so you say you want a beach book? A really, goofy, sexy, mindless kind of book to throw into your bag, read while lounging, use to hold down the corner of your towel when you're done? Look no further than this tale of a New Age-y woman on an epic sexual odyssey.
Slumberland , Paul Beatty (256 pages, Bloomsbury, $24.99) In this new novel by the author of White Boy Shuffle, a musical mystery sends one DJ Darky to late '80s Berlin. This book has serious buzz.
Say You’re One of Them , Uwem Akpan (368 pages, Little, Brown and Company, $23.99) This debut story collection by a Jesuit priest from Nigeria shows us cultural collisions from all over Africa, many times featuring children and serves as a powerful counter-argument to those who would see the continent as homogenous, tragic or irredeemable.
Wrack & Ruin , Don Lee (336 pages, W.W. Norton, $23.95) A funny, mysterious romp featuring a multicultural cast of characters, a crop of Brussels sprouts and some killer weed.
New England White , Stephen Carter (640 pages, Vintage, $14.95) This follow-up to Carter's The Emperor of Ocean Park inhabits the same black upper-crust milieu, making it a legal/academic thriller perfect for poolside page-turning.
Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting , Meredith Norton (224 pages, Viking, $24.95) Rarely is a memoir of illness this funny, and rarer still is the story told of a black woman with breast cancer (despite black women bearing a great risk of contracting the disease). Norton's debut makes one hope for more work, focusing on her healthy, post-cancer life.
Ralph Ellison: A Biography , Arnold Rampersad (704 pages, Vintage Paperback, $17.95) In this masterful life story of one of black America's best writers, Stanford don Rampersad brings to bear all his lit-crit brilliance and an enormous sensitivity toward his often irascible subject.
Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II , Douglas A. Blackmon (480 pages, Doubleday, $29.95)If both David Levering Lewis and Charles Ogletree tell you, in their blurbs, that something should be "required reading," you better take notice. Yeah, it's not a beach book (unless you're trying to attract the attention of any wandering black Harvard law students while cooling off at Walden Pond), but if you take American history seriously, this is one you can't ignore.
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present , Harriet M. Washington (528 pages, Harlem Moon, $15.95)Another book to outrage, not comfort, but it's a history nobody can afford to forget, especially if this year's election continues to touch on race and memory (and health care).
All Things Must Fight to Live, Bryan Mealer (320 pages, Bloomsbury, $24.99) Mealer, an AP reporter based in Kinshasa, has produced a stunning picture of Congo, a country of great beauty that has endured more than a decade of Africa's most destructive war.
…And the winners are…
The history of the Pulitzer Prize is illustrious, it is grand, and it is very, very white. This year's winners in fiction and poetry are both brilliant, young and of color. Each has produced a book not just for this summer's reading list, but for your lifetime list.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (352 pages, Riverhead, $24.95) An exhilarating, hilarious, heartbreaking tale of a Dominican "ghetto nerd" making his way through.
Native Guard, Natasha Tretheway (64 pages, Houghton Mifflin, $22) The poet confronts history, both personal and public, and the whole tangled universe that is The South.
Kate Tuttle is a writer and editor outside Boston.