Summer Reads for Former Recess Rebels As kids we preferred indoor recess to the playground hullabaloo. As adults we're film dorks, comic book geeks and indie-music nerds. We do not, as a general rule, jet-ski. This is what we'll be reading as we try to avoid the sun.

Summer Reads for Former Recess Rebels

A detail from Mouse Guard, David Petersen's graphic-novel epic about valiant medieval mice. David Petersen hide caption

toggle caption
David Petersen

Recommended Reading:

Click here for a printable list of our summer 2007 book roundups.

Face it: Summer's not for everyone.

Remember recess? Summer's a lot like recess. Most kids I knew couldn't wait to get out and start jumping ropes and dodging balls in the blazing sun. But there were those of us (unathletic types mostly, pale of skin and soft of belly) who'd gaze out through the classroom windows just before noon, scanning the horizon for thunderclouds.

Because indoor recess — say it soft and it's almost like praying — meant sitting quietly at your desk and reading. There was none of the pressure, implicit from teachers and explicit from classmates, to leap, climb or hurl projectiles.

Kids like us, as you might expect, grew up to resent summer and all it entails, because it's basically outdoor recess. For three months. And my people, we own no shirts boasting wicking technology; we do not, as a general rule, jet-ski. Our adult interests are those best pursued in the cool, dark places of the world: We are film dorks, comic-book geeks, fantasy-lit fans, indie-music nerds.

So when summer comes, we leave the frothy beach books to those who frequent the frothy beach, seeking out spikier, more esoteric pleasures instead. Our summer books are books you can sink your teeth into — and that sometimes bite back.

American History, on Shuffle-Repeat

Jamestown: A Novel by Matthew Sharpe, hardcover, 320 pages

Matthew Sharpe's Jamestown isn't historical fiction, it's a brilliant, bloody and blisteringly comic chronicle of the near future. After civilization's collapse, an armored bus full of refugees makes the harrowing journey from Manhattan to the wilds of Virginia to start over.

As Sharpe's narrative careens forward, his characters find themselves unwittingly replicating the historical founding of Jamestown, in great gore-flecked detail (read an excerpt). Told from multiple perspectives — you'll linger over the chapters voiced by Sharpe's mordantly wise end-of-days Pocahontas — Jamestown is a brave and exhilarating book.

A Bracingly Unpredictable Voice

'No One Belongs Here More Than You'
No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July, hardcover, 224 pages

Miranda July's language is spare and beautiful, and her characters present themselves to the reader so gently it's as if they whisper. In these stories, July uses that intimacy, and a dryly eccentric sense of humor, to take us to places that legitimately surprise (read an excerpt).

In one tale, a woman hears a stranger creeping up the stairs outside her bedroom door. That story doesn't end in any way you'll foresee — none of July's stories do — but the twist has nothing to do with plot and everything to do with a smart writer who's willing to take risks. July knows exactly what short stories can do, and in this ambitious debut, she wastes no time doing it.

A Newly Unearthed Patch of Middle Earth

'Children of Hurin'
Children of Hurin by J. R. R. Tolkien, hardcover, 320 pages

A new Tolkien book has been published, and elf-loving geeks around the world are dutifully abuzz. Like The Silmarillion (ask your I.T. guy), The Children of Húrin is set in the Elder Days of Middle Earth (read: it's a prequel). Scraps of the story have appeared before, in a book called Unfinished Tales; this time around, Tolkien's son has done what he can to finish the tale. He's succeeded: Freed of dense, labyrinthine annotations, The Children of Húrin reads like classic Tolkien. (Which is to say it reads like Beowulf, only tweedier. Check out an excerpt.) Still, anyone conversant enough with Tolkien's world to pick a Sindar Elf out of a line-up of Noldor Elves, and who has no trouble figuring out how Morgoth is related to Melkor (trick question! Morgoth is Melkor!) will eat this up.

Fiction Without Filters

Userlands: New Fiction Writers from the Blogging Underground edited by Dennis Cooper, paperback, 362 pages
Userlands anthologizes hard-edged contemporary fiction from writers who are finding their voices on the Internet. I say "are finding" rather than "have found" because the sense of experimentation and discovery that permeates each page is what makes this collection of new voices so intriguing.

You won't find many of the conventions of contemporary literary fiction here — these stories are discursive, deliberately elliptical things — but there's plenty of arresting prose. The pieces selected by writer Dennis Cooper share his blunt, unromantic approach to sex (whether gay, straight or, ahem, other) as well as his use of violence. Read Cooper's introduction, then try an excerpt, and you'll see: Userlands offers an unflinching look at promising talent in the raw.

An Enlightening Take on Darkness

Tin House: Evil by Francine Prose, Nick Flynn, Chris Adrian, Josip Novakovich, paperback, 224 pages

The quarterly literary magazine Tin House consistently features deft, thoughtful and adventurous work. The Spring 2007 issue (read an excerpt) takes evil as its theme; in fiction, essays, book reviews and poetry, writers explore everything from the truly diabolical (Rwanda) to the kind of mundane malevolence that lurks in the everyday (an inside-the-Beltway cocktail party). A collection of short essays on The Turn of the Screw, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and other classics of Wicked Lit is a standout. It's dark reading, yes, but never grim or humorless, and that's a real achievement. Plus, there's a recipe for moonshine.

In Defense of Music Snobbery

'Perfect From Now On'
Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Music Saved My Life by John Sellers, hardcover, 224 pages

John Sellers is an obsessive fan of indie-rock music, and his memoir Perfect From Now On is the bildungsroman of a hyperliterate music snob. But this is music snobbery at its most cheerily self-mocking, written in a highly charged style that goes down easy. (read an excerpt) Sellers dissects his mania via chatty footnotes, exhaustive lists ("Top Five Songs That I Am Most Annoyed By In All The World") and detailed appendices, including a handy multi-variable equation for figuring out just exactly how much your favorite band does, or does not, rock. Example: "If the band members have costumes, - 10 points, unless that band is Kiss (in which case, + 75.)"

Come On, Baby, We're Going to the Rock Show

'The Show I'll Never Forget'
The Show I'll Never Forget: 50 Writers Relive Their Most Memorable Concertgoing Experience edited by Sean Manning, paperback, 359 pages

Editor Sean Manning asked a diverse assortment of writers to recollect the most memorable live-music show they ever attended. Note: That's "most memorable," not "best," and therein lies the fun of The Show I'll Never Forget, a loving tribute to en masse Bic-flicking. Through the (sometimes suspiciously bloodshot) eyes of writers like Rick Moody, Luc Sante, Heidi Julavitz and Susan Straight, we see performers on the cusp of greatness, performers long past their prime, and performers who never made it big but should have. (Read Moody's essay.) Whether the shows in question took place in huge arenas or in living rooms, they are presented here in heartfelt, and at times heartbreaking, prose.

Let Us Now Praise Wacky Neighbors

'Television Without Pity'
Television Without Pity: 752 Things We Love to Hate (and Hate to Love) About TV by Tara Ariano and Sarah D. Bunting, paperback, 320 pages

The smartest and snarkiest website about TV has some of the smartest, snarkiest — and just plain most skillful — writers around. The site's two founders have penned this lovingly acerbic compendium of television's most cringeworthy elements (David Hasselhoff crops up in six different entries), all in TWOP's distinctive loose, conversational and unfailingly funny style. The encyclopedic format ("Price is Right, The, Sucky Pricing Skills of Contestants On") invites skimming, but the sharply written prose rewards lingering. The entry "News, Crappy Local" — a virtuoso accomplishment of barely throttled rage directed at the sorry state of the 11 o'clock news — is alone worth the cover price. (Read an excerpt.)

Gorgeous, Sweeping, Inch-High Adventure

'Mouse Guard'
Mouse Guard Volume One: Fall 1152 by David Petersen, hardcover, 192 pages

The first six issues of Mouse Guard, writer/artist David Petersen's epic-in-the-making about medieval intrigue among mice, has just been released in a nifty hardcover edition, and now's the time to get on board. Petersen creates a rich and painstakingly detailed world of anthropomorphized adventure in each panel; the battles are beautifully rendered and thrilling, but you're just as likely to marvel over his depiction of everyday life in a mouse village. (Check out the opening sequence.) If there exists anyone who is unmoved by the sheer, giddy awesomeness that is manifest in a fight scene between a crab and a sword-wielding mouse in a teensy purple cape, I don't want to meet them.

Music is Magic. Literally.

'Phonogram: Rue Britannia'
Phonogram: Rue Britannia by Kieron Gillen and Jamie Mckelvie, paperback, 152 pages

If a piece of music has ever left you dumbstruck, pick up the six-issue comic-book mini-series Phonogram when it's released as a trade paperback in early June. This dark, ruthless fantasy posits a world where pop music is dangerously potent magic with the power to reshape a person's very soul. (Which is to say: a world very like our own.)

It's a richly textured read, teeming with references — you'll be grateful for the glossary of '90s Britpop bands — but the astonishing thing is how little those specific references matter in the end. Phonogram is first and foremost a deeply personal story about music and identity; anyone who's ever overidentified with a band will recognize themselves in its lovingly illustrated pages. (You'll find 11 of them here.)

Profiles in Disarming Cluelessness

'Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life'
Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 1) by Bryan Lee O'Malley, paperback, 168 pages

The titular hero of Bryan Lee O'Malley's odd, freewheeling and utterly charming series of graphic novels is not what you'd call a thinker. But he is effortlessly, albeit nerdily, cool, and his exploits, which O'Malley releases in digest-sized paperbacks about once a year (Volume 4, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, is due in early Fall) will win you over. O'Malley borrows from Japanese manga comics, indie music and video games to string his loopy, off-handedly inventive narrative together, but the book has a voice all its own. (See an example here.) Such is the power of Pilgrim that no one — not even gloomiest, haughtiest hipster-in-a-hoodie — can read his adventures without a goofy smile.

Art Is Long, Lunch Period Is Short

'The Plain Janes'
The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci, illustrated by Jim Rugg, paperback, 176 pages

DC Comics, purveyor of costumed crimefighters, has just launched Minx, a new imprint aimed at teenage girls. Although late to the game (girls have been happily devouring manga by the metric ton for years), this effort to get our kids buying American is off to a promising start with The Plain Janes.

Cecil Castellucci's tale of Jane, a city teen who starts a secret "art gang" upon finding herself exiled to a suburban high school, is hopeful but never saccharine, urbane but never pretentious. The story is filled with unforced insights about the role of art in our lives, and Jim Rugg's understated illustrations let these moments glimmer quietly on the page. Read the first 5 pages.

Books Featured In This Story