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Best Beach Reads 2023: What AU’s Lit Department Is Reading

AU’s Literature faculty share the books they are reading this summer

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Are you getting your summer reading list in order, looking for great books to pack in your suitcase or beach bag? If so, you are in good company. American University's Department of Literature faculty share some of the books they are reading over summer break.

You Don’t Belong Here by Jonathan Harper (Harper’s first novel) is about a queer man who visits a small town for a writing retreat, but somehow can’t leave once he runs into an old friend. I love a story that explores the darkness in seemingly idealistic places and complicated relationships over time. Harper and I both attended AU’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative writing 15 years ago, and it’s thrilling to see similar themes he wrote about back then come to fruition in a full-length novel.

—Amanda Choutka

A book I revisit, and one that I tend to think not enough people have read, is Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist. Before the Pulitzers and National Book Awards, this debut novel, a work of speculative fiction, centers around Lila Mae Watson, an upstart elevator inspector trained in the ways of "intuitive" rather than empirical — the rival school of thought — elevator inspection. Her being called to examine a case of "free fall" — an instance of complete plummet with no failsafe, which should be impossible with modern elevator mechanisms — leads to the unboxing of other mysteries that could shake the foundation of the entire discipline. Service industry noir with flourishes of the philosophical, it is a brilliant and humorous book that might make you forget to come off the beach.

—Kyle G. Dargan

The first book I'm planning to read this summer is Victor LaValle's Lone Women. LaValle is on the short list of contemporary writers whose books I read without even looking at the reviews. He uses elements of fantasy, science fiction, and horror in delightful combinations to think about the history and experience of race in America, and he's a natural storyteller. So let's hope this book lives up to the hype I have created for it!

—Erik Dussere

I've been reading Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy — set in Great Britain during WWI — which looks at what was then called Shell Shock and which we now understand as PTSD. Reading the second book in the series The Eye in the Door, which illuminates British war paranoia and how it scapegoated pacifists and queer folks. I'm finding it helpful — in these dark times — to read and see how others got through dark times. 

—Stephanie Grant 

I've just now finished Happily, by Sabrina Orah Mark, and it's been a revelation! Her essays are both funny and deeply moving, and the way she braids in fairy tales is simply magical. One of my favorite books now! 

—Hannah Grieco

I'm enjoying Rebecca Mackai's novel: I have Some Questions for You. It's a cold case murder story, but it's also a critique of the public fascination with the murders of young and attractive white women. It has interesting things to say about cancel culture, too. And it's about podcasting, which is a medium of storytelling I love.

—Kelly Joyner

I just started Hua Hsu's memoir Stay True, because I love music writing and because Stephanie Grant has been telling me all semester that's it's the best book she's read this year. I'm also looking forward to reading fantasy-horror writer Victor LaValle's new novel Lone Women, because since Erik Dussere talked me into reading The Changeling, I read pretty much everything LaValle publishes.

—David Pike

Right now, I’m reading The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow. Don’t be put off by its heft: Graeber and Wengrow write with clarity and, at times, beauty as they undo so many of the assumptions many of us have been taught about humanity’s early stages. This is one of those books where, literally, you’re going to learn something fascinating on at least every other page. 

—Adam Tamashasky

Jess Walter’s latest short-story collection, Angel of Rome, is full of compelling characters and lovely writing. And in every story, he demonstrates such humane compassion for his characters; I found the stories moving and uplifting. 

—Lacey Wootton

For More Ideas

Looking for even more books? Professor Marianne Noble is teaching a LIT 121 course called Beach Reads, and she shares the reading list here. The first four titles are required reading (including the award-winning Take My Hand, recently published by Associate Professor Dolen Perkins-Valdez). 

  • Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl 
  • Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow 
  • Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing 
  • Dolen Perkins Valdez, Take My Hand 
  • Ali, Tariq, The Book of Saladin 
  • Alvarez, Julia, In the Time of the Butterflies 
  • Atwood, Margaret, The Handmaid’s Tale 
  • Butler, Octavia, Kindred 
  • Butler, Octavia, Parable of the Sower 
  • Chabon, Michael, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay 
  • Dewitt, Helen, Lightning Rods 
  • Diaz, Junot, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 
  • Doerr, Anthony, All the Light We Cannot See 
  • Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad 
  • Evaristo, Bernardine, Girl, Woman, Other 
  • Finn, A.J., The Woman in the Window 
  • Hamid, Mohsin. East West 
  • Jackson, Shirly, The Haunting of Hill House 
  • Lee, Chang Rae, A Gesture Life 
  • Naylor, Gloria, Mama Day 
  • Powers, Richard, The Overstory 
  • Simonson, Helen, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand 
  • Tartt, Donna, The Goldfinch 
  • Tartt, Donna, The Secret History 
  • Walter, Jess, Beautiful Ruins 
  • Whitehead, Colson, Underground Railroad 
  • Winters, Ben, Underground Airlines