I spent a significant portion of every summer before the age of 16 camped out at the library, my parents too cheap or broke or unaware of activities like ACTUAL summer camp to send me anywhere else. We only had one room with air conditioning at our house in south Texas, and do you know what libraries have? Blessed, blessed cold air. They are also full of books, which are free to read.
I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction during those days—can we talk about how Piers Anthony’s fucked up books were my introduction to sex???—and still try to get my fill in, so the start of summer always feels like the right time for me to catch up on what I’ve missed in genre fiction. These novels (the best of them, at least) are less of an opportunity to escape than a way to examine the world in which we live from an oblique angle—think Octavia Butler, or Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, a novel that, now that I mention it, I definitely want to reread this summer. Fantasy and sci-fi are all about possibilities—future utopias, dystopias, alternative worlds—so to balance it out, I’m planning on adding a hefty dose of feminist history to the mix too, which in its own way is also about what’s possible; one nominally about the past, one nominally about the future, both of which can help us explore what could be envisioned for the present.
Recently, I picked up Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, which was published last August, on the recommendation of the same friend who told me to read A Song of Ice and Fire years ago, and it didn’t disappoint. The story is extremely my jam—a young orphaned woman who is an accomplished thief! Magic is real but also tech-based! It’s part of a planned trilogy and the follow-up, Shorefall, won’t appear until January 2020, so after I finished Foundryside I immediately downloaded—for free through my library, thank you NYPL and Libby—Bennett’s earlier Divine Cities trilogy, which also didn’t disappoint and, in a rarity for the genre, flips some of the tired scripts when it comes to race and gender. I’ve had my fantasy queen N.K. Jemisin’s book of short stories, How Long ’Til Black Future Month?, on hold at the library for what has felt like months. I just checked my Libby app and I should get it in two weeks, so expect me to disappear for a couple of days in the beginning of July.
A science fiction series that I unfortunately cannot recommend is Pierce Brown’s Red Rising novels, which came onto my radar this month when I saw that the fifth book, Dark Age, is coming out at the end of July. I’m not sure how I missed it when the first book came out in 2014—it immediately became a bestseller and outlets like BuzzFeed wrote glowing profiles of Brown that praised him as the next superstar in the vein of Suzanne Collins. He’s since expanded the initial trilogy to include an additional three books, all of which tell the tale of Darrow, a teenager who soon gets caught up in an epic war to destroy the foundations of the Society, a fascist world(s) order that has spread throughout the solar system and instituted a rigid hierarchy based on colors that correspond to the role people are to play in the Society, with a group of humans called the Golds at the top.
I read the first two while on a reporting trip recently, and all I have to say is, DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT READ THESE BOOKS UNLESS THE IDEA OF A WILDLY MELODRAMATIC FASHY SPACE OPERA INSPIRED BY ANCIENT ROME AND GREECE FOR WHATEVER FUCKED UP REASON APPEALS TO YOU. While I’m sure the author would say that his books are the opposite of an endorsement of fascist rule, he writes a little too glowingly at times of the ideas underpinning Gold rule. And if I want to read a good book about a young boy who is lifted up as his people’s savior against his will, I’ll just reread Ender’s Game for the millionth time, thank you very much.
Of books that have come out this year or will come out soon, I’ve been waiting for the perfect time to read Ocean Vuong’s first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which I suspect will be when I have an entire week off so I can gulp it down in one day and then spend the rest of the week recovering from being emotionally shattered. Also on my nightstand (or loaded up on my Kindle) right now: American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, which sounds like a fun beach read (a thriller about a black woman who’s a spy!) that stretches beyond the usual boundaries of the spy novel; Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe, a writer I love whose examination of our cultural obsession with true crime stories could not be more timely; and former Jezebel editor Jia Tolentino’s book of essays, Trick Mirror, which holy shit I cannot wait to read!!!
And since we seem to be in a cycle of reexamining the politics and legacy of second wave feminists, I’ve committed this summer to making my way through some of the era’s most seminal texts, many of which I’ve never read in their entirety—Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, The Female Eunuch by (ugh) Germaine Greer, Dworkin’s Woman Hating and the recently released collection of her writing, Last Days at Hot Slit, that kicked off a flurry of essays about her ideas and the radical feminist movement as a whole. So much of what these women did and what they wrote and what they thought has been refracted and distorted over the decades; what better way to cut through all of the crap (including quite a bit of their own) than to read what they actually wrote?