To help you prepare for the outdoor reading season, each week we’re sharing a list from a different Booklist editor. —Ed.)
While your body is in repose, whether in a hammock, on a beach, front porch, back deck, or fire escape, your mind roams free. You’re relaxed, and willing to give yourself over to fiction that entrances you. You’re not looking for total mental escape; you are willing to consider serious matters, but you do want to be dazzled and surprised. You want to swoon and laugh. You want to float free of the usual constraints. You want to be transported, and you’re willing to be riled.
Each of the books listed below is a tale of displacement, a fish-out-of-water story as characters find themselves in places strange to them, whether they’ve arrived because of a work assignment, or as an immigrant, whether they’re in exile or enduring some other circumstance beyond their control. For the reader, these are psychologically intricate adventures perfect for engaging the summer-lulled yet still hungry mind and spirit.
Apex Hides the Hurt, by Colson Whitehead
You don’t have to journey to a foreign land to feel out of your element. In Whitehead’s shrewdly hilarious satire, a consultant who comes up with catchy product names yet who himself remains nameless is famous for coming up with the brand name Apex for multiculturally hued Band-Aids. He now finds himself in Winthrop, a small town determined to rename itself. He visits with the last Winthrop, an eccentric descendant of the family that once bankrolled the town with its barbed-wire factory, and Regina, the town’s mayor, who traces her roots to the freed slaves who founded the town and called it Freedom. Whitehead has a field day as he archly considers America’s confused self-image.
American Romantic, by Ward Just
Born to Connecticut wealth, Harry Sanders is a young and promising foreign service officer posted to an unnamed country during the hazy days leading up to the Vietnam War. Just, who knew that world well, describes this fictionalized version, from the roiling city streets to the malevolence of the deep jungle, with molecular particularity and striking allusions to the paintings of Matisse, Vuillard, and Munch. Harry is ambitious, and the instant he sets eyes on beautiful if haunted Sieglinde, envisions her at his side. She tags him as an “American romantic,” as we know there’s trouble ahead. Just’s elegantly structured, worldly wise, and cunningly suspenseful tale of love, politics, and war is profoundly satisfying.
Caramelo, by Sandra Cisneros
A bicultural life can leave a girl feeling alien in either realm, a phenomenon Cisneros explores in her brimming, whirling, funny, and heartbreaking saga about Celaya (or “Lala”) Reyes, who every year travels by car with her family from Chicago to Mexico City, where they still have relatives. This journey expands in Cisneros’ gloriously imaginative and extravagantly detailed novel from the story of one family to a lively history of Mexico and cross-border exchanges. Drawn together by a beautiful striped rebozo, or shawl, Cisneros’ many-faceted tale of the continual quest for home is a book to at once lose and find yourself in.
In the Kingdom of Men, by Kim Barnes
Barnes, herself a survivor of a strict, isolating Pentecostal upbringing, portrays Virginia, called Gin, a tough, fearless Oklahoma girl raised with religious austerity and misogyny. When she becomes pregnant as a teen, honest Mason promptly shelves his college plans, marries her, and goes to work on a Houston oil rig, which leads to their living, in 1970, in a luxurious yet oppressive American oil company enclave in Saudi Arabia. With cosmopolitan characters, lush descriptions, and mounting cultural conflicts and sexual tension, Barnes’ edgy novel balances darkness with keen wit and blazing pleasure to create a veritable Mad Men of the desert.
Love and Obstacles, by Aleksandar Hemon
In this riveting cycle of linked stories-within-stories, Hemon’s wannabe-poet narrator is abruptly introduced to geopolitical sleaze in Kinshasa, where his diplomat father is posted in 1983. Back home in Sarajevo, he runs amok on his first solo journey, then travels to America just before war breaks out and discovers that obstacles to love loom everywhere. A world-class writer of seismic depth, riptide humor, wine-dark language, and unflinching candor, Hemon offers cutting insights in to our unending yearning for connection.
Lulu in Marrakech, by Diane Johnson
Intrigued with the follies of Americans abroad, sly and cunning Johnson sends Lulu Sawyer, a young, intrepid, and clueless American, to post-9/11 Morocco. Ostensibly, Lulu Sawyer has come to Marrakech to visit her British lover, the lordly and enigmatic Ian Drumm. In fact, she is a CIA operative on an intelligence-gathering mission made all but impossible by Islamic restrictions on women’s behavior and Lulu’s spectacular ineptness. Johnson’s delectable tale of West versus East and the eternal battle between the sexes is an elegant political thriller, a diabolical comedy of manners, and a chilling tragedy.