10 Summer Books That Are Totally Unexpected

by Mary Norris

Summer is a time of need: need for books — books to read on the beach, on the porch, on the train to and from work, on flights to distant places.

I am a traditionalist: I lug around libraries. In the summer, I move a pile of books out to a bungalow in Rockaway and commute to my job in Manhattan. One year, I read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Modern Library edition) on the A train. I had to buy a new woven leather Italian shoulder bag to carry it. I got as far as the fall of Rome and the establishment of Constantinople, four-fifths of the way through the first volume, before the season was over and Gibbon went back on the shelf.

On days off, I like to take my coffee down to the beach in the morning, before the sun heats up and the hipsters come, and read something improving. One year it was Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which is fun in small doses. Another it was the Eldridge Tide and Pilot Book. I almost have the tide figured out (I’m from inland), but when I can’t tell whether it’s coming or going, I’m not too proud to consult the manual.

Some years I pick a writer and devour him in toto: Roth and Nabokov have both given me luxurious long summers. This year I am looking at a pile of books that practically scream VACATION! Some are set in places I’ve visited or would like to visit (Greece, Australia), others among people I’m curious about (carpenters, archeologists, opera singers). What they have in common is that they look like fun.

Nom de Plume by Carmela Cuiraru

Literary gossip of the highest order, this book about pen names — Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot — is perfect for sampling on the beach while considering a pseudonym.

On the Rez by Ian Frazier

Something I’ve been meaning to read for years, this volume floated to the top of a box of books I hauled home from the office. Frazier turns his attentive gaze on the Native Americans who are still among us, on reservations out West and in Washington Heights apartments.

Hammer Head by Nina MacLaughlin

This is the true story of a young woman who apprentices herself to a carpenter. Each chapter is named for a tool: Tape Measure, Saw, Screwdriver. I would love it if someone did this for plumbing.

The Scapegoat by Sophia Nikolaidou, translated by Karen Emmerich

Very few contemporary Greek novels get translated into English, and this one feels like a find. It is based on the murder of the reporter George Polk, for whom the Polk Awards are named.

Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Larson’s history of the sinking of the Lusitania is a classic summer read for a certain kind of catastrophe buff. Not a book to read on a ship, but a good bet for the subway.

Epitaph by Mary Doria Russell

Almost 600 pages about Wyatt Earp and Tombstone and the O.K. Corral? Russell quotes Thucydides on the effort to get it right. Luckily, I like Thucydides and would be pleased to read his history of the Wild West. And if the train gets stuck, I’ll be fine for days.

The Long Prospect by Elizabeth Harrower

This Australian novelist was unknown to me until I read The Watch Tower, the hair-raising tale of two sisters and a marriage that only one of them escapes. I’m saving her for a flight to the West Coast.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

After listening to the audiobook This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, narrated by the author, I realized I’d never read Patchett’s page-turner from 2001 about the opera singer held captive in South America. I’m betting it will hold me captive on the subway.

Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson

The author hankers to be an archeologist and find out all about the lives of those who dig. Johnson has also written about librarians and obituary writers, which suggests to me that she would be encyclopedic company on the beach.

The Boston Raphael by Belinda Rathbone

This book, beautifully published by David R. Godine, is about a career-ending episode in the life of the author’s father, Perry Rathbone, who, as the director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, acquired a painting that he had to give back. Art-world intrigue, with photographs.

Enough lists of books! Let’s read!