Best Fiction For Every Kind Of Summer Day

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In the popular imagination, summer means "vacation" in much the same way that fall means foliage, winter means snow, and spring means Administrative Professionals' Day. But let's not kid ourselves: There's more to summer than sun, sand and cocoa butter. Many of us, in fact, will manage to squeeze in only a few days of quality lazing by pool, lake or sea. Any responsible list of suggested summer reading must acknowledge this grim truth.

Here, then, is a list of books for the whole of your summer. Although this selection includes books that are nominally classified in various genres (mystery, science fiction, humor, graphic novel), these are not frothy, forgettable reads. You'll find suggestions for days that are lazy, hazy and/or crazy, as well as for Days that are, respectively, Memorial, Father's, Independence and Labor.

For Memorial Day: From The Case Files Of Franz Kafka, Private Dick

'The Manual of Detection'
The Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry, Penguin Press, Hardcover, 278 pages, List Price: $25.95

Kick off the summer with The Manual of Detection, a hard-boiled detective novel that features a decidedly soft-boiled detective. Charles Unwin, lowly clerk for Inspector Travis Sivart, the city's greatest gumshoe, receives a sudden, unwanted promotion when Sivart disappears. Armed only with the titular manual for private investigators, the feckless Unwin must search for clues in a labyrinthine world of palindromic wordplay (Travis Sivart, geddit?) and dream logic.

Author Jedediah Berry breathes a cloud of existential dread over the proceedings, tossing in nods to Kafka, Philip K. Dick and Borges among the plot's hairpin turns. The author's quirks — narcoleptic secretaries, cringe-worthy puns (viz., a nightclub called The Cat and Tonic) — mount quickly. And because it's a book about a book, it's not surprising when things start going all metafictional. But this debut novel is a fascinating, intricately crafted puzzle that's a lot of fun to solve.

For Father's Day: A Novel Good Enough To Make You Care About Rich New York Lawyers

'The Family Man'
The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Hardcover, 305 pages, List Price: $25

Elinor Lipman's 10th book finds her at the top of her singular game. As her protagonist Henry Archer — retired attorney, gay man, owner of a well-appointed Upper West Side mansionette — sets about locating his long-lost stepdaughter and enmeshing himself in her chaotic world, Lipman's comic touch remains light but never slight. She writes dialogue that sizzles with playful, effortless wit — but even at its breeziest, The Family Man finds time to fully imagine its characters and linger over the unspoken cues that pass between them.

True, the stakes here aren't particularly high, and the answers to the novel's big questions — Will rich, lonely Henry find love? Will his attractive, talented stepdaughter succeed in her unorthodox quest for fame? — are evident from page one. But Lipman's an accomplished stylist who makes you hunger to find them out for yourself.

For Independence Day: A Story Of The Fireworks That Changed American Thought

'Woodsburner'
Woodsburner, by John Pipkin, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, Hardcover, 370 pages, List Price: $24.95

True fact: One year before he built his cabin on Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau accidentally scorched 300 acres of the Concord woods. In Woodsburner, John Pipkin's lyrical debut novel, Pipkin re-creates the events of that day from the perspective of Thoreau and several other Concord residents — an opium-addicted preacher, a pompous bookseller and, in some of the novel's most flat-out beautiful passages, a love-starved Norwegian farmhand — who will see their lives irrevocably changed by the fire.

Pipkin's characters are full of convincing contradictions: His Thoreau, for example, spends the day vacillating between guilt over the accident and defiantly rationalizing his incautious actions. The author has some thoughtful things to say about the notion of American freedom, and the conflagration that serves as Woodsburner's central metaphor allows him to say them in language that is at once vividly precise and richly allusive.

For Your Beach Vacation: Whee! A Post-Apocalyptic Dialectic On Human Consciousness!

'Genesis'
Genesis, by Bernard Beckett, Hardcover, 150 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $20

At some point in the future, an island nation seals itself off from the outside world to survive a mysterious plague. New Zealand writer Bernard Beckett builds this slim yet satisfyingly cerebral novella around one hopeful scholar's entrance exam to the mysterious Academy that has governed all aspects of life on this island for generations. Given that it's written as an extended Socratic dialogue on the nature of artificial intelligence, there's every reason to expect Genesis to be a bloodless read, full of feathery abstractions.

Yet Beckett lends sci-fi's perennial question — What makes us human? — a textured, three-dimensional emotional resonance. Yes, there are plenty of Big Ideas here, but they're folded into a gratifyingly soulful tale that barrels along to a boldly imaginative finish. If Asimov were less of a gear head or Tobias Wolff wrote more about robots, you'd end up with something that'd look a lot like this clever little book.

For Labor Day: Wry Tales Of Love And Loss For Summer's Bittersweet End

Check out a graphic-novel excerpt of Cecil and Jordan in New York.

'Cecil and Jordan in New York'
Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories, by Gabrielle Bell, Drawn and Quarterly, Hardcover, 195 pages, List Price: $19.95

The short stories in cartoonist Gabrielle Bell's collection Cecil and Jordan in New York vary widely in tone and format, but they share Bell's deadpan humor and unerring sense for the inner lives of wounded characters. In some of her best stories, like "Year of the Arowana," she makes use of less-than-reliable narrators to set up an intriguing tension between the words we read and the events she illustrates.

Whether she's capturing a wistful childhood memory ("Summer Camp"), exploring complex romantic entanglements ("Felix," the collection's most accomplished story) or just riffing (as in the funny, dreamlike "My Affliction"), Bell's strong narrative voice ensures that her impulse for introspection never descends into navel-gazing. She's not afraid to allow a touch of the fantastic to creep into her work, as in the collection's mordant, sweetly surreal title story, which was adapted by Michel Gondry for the recently released art house film Tokyo!.

Books Featured In This Story

The Manual of Detection

by Jedediah Berry

Hardcover, 278 pages | purchase

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The Manual of Detection
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Cecil and Jordan in New York

by Gabrielle Bell

Hardcover, 148 pages | purchase

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Cecil and Jordan in New York
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The Family Man

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Elinor Lipman

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Woodsburner'

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Woodsburner'
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Genesis

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