Welcome to Observer’s 2021 Summer Arts & Entertainment Preview, your full guide to the best the warmer months have to offer. The finest TV, movies, dance, opera, streaming theater, the visual arts and literature this season await you.
This summer, the world is reopening. For some, it’s marvelous; for others, it’s anxiety inducing. Nevertheless, even if you’re a raging extrovert, you’re out of practice. Pace out your reentry with some reading. Never more so than this past year, books offer me solace and buffer me with comfort. As much as reading offers me a safe retreat, it also cushions me the energy and curiosity to launch myself back into the world. Let it do the same for you. Why just talk about cooking and TV when you meet friends for drinks? Let’s leave small talk in the past. One sure way to reconnect with friends and family is through a book club. This is one meaningful way to preserve your commitment to a new and better normal through important conversations.
After a year of tumult and deeper concern for others, it’s entirely possible to escape while still reading socially conscious books that expand your perspective. One way to indulge in self-care while also supporting independent booksellers: subscription services. Many bookstores offer a curated first edition club. Looking for something more focused? Worker-owned Pilsen Community Books in Chicago offers two unique subscriptions that help you feed your heart and soul while remaining politically engaged. Their “Seeds of Change” subscription offers easily approachable introductions to radical concepts while their “Bread and Roses” program pairs one history or theory book with a fiction, poetry, or drama title on the same subject. This is an ideal gift for someone who, like me, really misses assigned summer reading lists.
I’m also happy to offer this service. What follows is a list of a dozen new titles fresh off the printer. You’ll find rich family sagas you can’t put down as well as slim novels and story collections that you’ll finish in an evening. There’s nonfiction and memoir that’s taut and engaging. Mix things up and preorder and pick up a copy for yourself and someone else then make a date to discuss—no Zoom link or social distance required if you’re vaccinated.
Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford (June 1)
Fans of Glennon Doyle, Oprah and Brené Brown will connect with New York Times, BuzzFeed, and Teen Vogue writer Ashley C. Ford’s heartfelt and searching memoir, Somebody’s Daughter (Flatiron). Throughout her Indiana childhood in the 1990s, Ashley C. Ford longed for her absent father. Although he was alive, he was out of reach. He was serving a twenty-four-year sentence for rape. The facts surrounding his incarceration were concealed from Ford as a young child while her mother struggled to make ends meet and as Ford berated herself for things beyond her control. Ford’s aching and ongoing sense of loss remained constant, as did her belief that she would find in her father the unconditional and non-judgmental love she most desired. This faith is shaken when Ford learns about her father’s crimes. As the truth comes to light, Ford must find in herself the love and confidence she had sought in others while making space to live with trauma in a world far more complicated than one might expect.
How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith (June 1)
In 2017, writer Clint Smith’s hometown New Orleans removed four prominent statues honoring the Confederacy and white supremacy. Although this is indeed a positive step forward which was met with considerable controversy, it’s a drop in the bucket. Hundreds of streets, statues, parks, and schools possess the names of Confederates, slaveholders, and apologists for slavery. In his book How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (Little, Brown), Smith (a staff writer at The Atlantic) asks why these namesakes and monuments continue to exist in spite of their obvious disregard of humanity and history. One reason is because these spaces and tributes have been normalized through white supremacy. In this tremendously researched and fascinating book, Smith examines various sites in the United States (North as well as South) and Dakar, Senegal to uncover forgotten or suppressed histories that reveal the lengths to which we must confront our past in order to be a freer and more just society.
What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl by Katherine Dykstra (June 15)
It wasn’t journalist Katherine Dykstra’s intention to write What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl (W.W. Norton), a true crime book. Although this genre is wildly popular, Dykstra initially resisted what felt like an all too familiar tale of violence against women when her future mother-in-law pressed her to consider a project focusing on the cold case murder of Paula Oberbroeckling in 1970. It was the recognition of certain parallels of confidence and bravado shared between herself and Oberbroeckling that prompted Dykstra to recognize a larger social wound beyond an individual personal tragedy. The investigation Dykstra conducts goes beyond the details of Oberbroeckling’s life to ask larger questions about class, race, gender, respectability norms, and sex. It’s a complicated and crucial book that doesn’t shy away from personal culpability, the mythology of innocence, and the assumptions we cast upon dead girls.
Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke (July 13)
Surprisingly, this graphic novel by the author of Imagine Only Wanting This was in the works long before the pandemic made loneliness a ubiquitous experience. Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness by Kristen Radtke (Pantheon) could have been successfully written as a straightforward nonfiction title. Its mindful study of research centered around biological responses to isolation lands thoughtfully within a personal narrative—both the author’s own stories as well as others. Yet, the structure of a graphic novel creates the space for the reader to mull over one’s own experience with what has rapidly become a critical public health concern. For those who may not otherwise tackle tough topics, graphic novels also provide a more comfortable entry point. Seek You is a moving look at an affliction shared in common but independently endured.
Ghost Forest by Pik-Shuen Fung (July 13)
Pik-Shuen Fung’s slim novel Ghost Forest (One World) offers an idiosyncratic portrait of grief. An unnamed protagonist considers how one lives with loss in a family that never speaks about feelings. Organized in short sections, the book’s fragmented narrative reflects a reckoning with language and society as a woman reflects upon her family’s dislocation from Hong Kong in the 1990s to Vancouver, Canada as well as her father’s early death. Each generation in her family bears the scars of disruption—from the Chinese cultural revolution to immigration. Considering their stories through indirect communication, the unnamed narrator strives to connect and create form for her familial love and devotion in this wistful, episodic, and stirring novel. In its way, the sensations stirred by Ghost Forest echo with the untethered sadness of those who have loved lost ones and have been unable to say goodbye much less mourn them during the pandemic.
Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World by Lisa Wells (July 20)
As a teenager in the mid-1990s, writer Lisa Wells dropped out of high school to save the world. In the decades that followed, in spite of the weariness wrought from the limitations of individual effort, Wells takes heart in the human tendency to tell and make sense of our lives through storytelling. In her book, Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World (FSG) Wells weaves together the stories of various activists and visionaries working on the fringe of society to imagine alternative paths forward in the face of inevitable and catastrophic climate change. Although she preserves a sense of hope for a better world, this blend of reportage, history, philosophy, and memoir is no rosy prescriptive narrative. Rather, Wells notes, “there is a surplus of terror and delusion in the ether, but spare few visions of how you and I, relatively ordinary people, might live otherwise. I believe the future of the world depends on those visions.”
The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers (July 27)
Prepare to be wholly engrossed by The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois by Honoreé Fanonne Jeffers (Harper). For those who may balk at its size (816 pages), recall your ability to binge watch television and replace your remote with this book. For a solid week, I enjoyed losing myself in what felt like a series of interconnected novels. This profound reading experience brought me a deep awareness of intergenerational trauma and triumph. The phenomenal saga tracks a tangled set of ancestors from the genocide of indigenous Americans, American slavery followed by lackluster Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement to the close of the 20th century. Jeffers’s Ailey Pearl Garfield is one of the most fully realized central protagonists and interlocutors that I’ve encountered in fiction. Jeffers celebrates Black women not as saints or saviors, but brilliant survivors who embody joy and genius along with their history.
Fierce Little Thing by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore (July 27)
This summer has no shortage of delicious novels, destined to keep you up too late and impossible to keep to yourself. If what you’re looking for is a smart, suspenseful escape, look no further. Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s Fierce Little Thing (Flatiron) is a propulsive thriller full of rich detail and a story that won’t quit. Saskia was a traumatized twelve-year-old with absent parents and a dead sibling when she was passed along to family friends. As a teenager, she finds her place with four peers and a charismatic leader at a commune called Home. Two decades pass and Saskia has hidden from the world, intentionally isolated from her old friends and their history. Unexpectedly, the past rears its ugly head, threatening to sever the calm she’s carved out for herself. Forced to confront the unspeakable thing they did as teenagers, the former friends must return to Home to bury their shared horror once and for all—if they can.
AFTERPARTIES by Anthony Veasna So (August 3)
Anthony Veasna So was a Syracuse University MFA graduate on the cusp of literary stardom. Given his dynamic voice and celebrated stories published in n+1 and the New Yorker, it came as no surprise that So’s debut collection of stories AFTERPARTIES (Ecco) was sold at auction for an enormous figure. However, So died of unknown causes in San Francisco late in 2020 at the age of 28, leaving behind his partner, parents, and sister. In his wake, one marvels at his unfinished novel and the career could have been, but such speculation should not overshadow this outstanding collection. A first generation Cambodian-American immigrant, So’s stories vacillate between the hysterically absurd and the remarkably tender, revealing an intense emotional depth. With dark humor, So doesn’t shy from tension—a father’s scolding alludes to his escape from the Killing Fields when he shouts, “There were no ice cubes in the genocide!”—that also sheds light on queer and immigrant experiences.
The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray (August 10)
Immediately absorbing and atmospheric, The Human Zoo (Grove), written by PEN/Faulkner award-winner Sabina Murray takes you on a trip with Filipino-American Christina “Ting” Klein who has just landed in Manila. Leaving behind a pending divorce in New York, Ting hopes to research a biography of Timicheg, an indigenous Filipino who toured the United States at the opening of the twentieth century as part of a “human zoo.” In the year since her last visit, an oppressive new president upended expectations, taking power after a shocking election. As the regime grows increasingly repressive, Ting must grapple with the horror she encounters and the fragile aristocratic world of her extended family. Clearly written with President Duterte in mind, Murray vaults the reader into a decadent world facing the stark reality of moral failure.
In the Country Of Others by Leïla Slimani (August 10)
Known for her international bestseller The Perfect Nanny, the feminist French-Moroccan journalist and writer Leïla Slimani draws from her family’s experience to publish the first in what will be a trilogy centered around an interracial family struggling for agency and love in post-World War II France and Morocco. In the Country of Others (Viking) is a strikingly fresh and vivid novel, free of the stale affectation that permeates lesser historical fiction. Mathilde is a tall, proud Frenchwoman who leaves France after the war to join her husband Amine, a Moroccan soldier in the French army. What was a liberating relationship in its first blush in her hometown becomes a strained challenge as Mathilde must contend with isolation, an unforgiving climate, poverty, and the strain of being a foreign wife in Morocco. As conflicts escalate between Moroccans and French colonists, Amine must also reconcile himself with his wife and daughters’ fight for autonomy in this gripping novel whose personal struggles mirror those of Morocco’s fight for independence.
The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You by Maurice Carlos Ruffin (August 17)
The author Maurice Carlos Ruffin wowed readers with his highly acclaimed 2019 satirical novel We Cast a Shadow, a darkly written comedic horror tale set in a near future in an unnamed city in the American South. His scrutiny of race in America remains, but the form of his storytelling has shifted from the novel format to stories. The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You (Random House) is a vibrant story collection grounded in the gritty essence of “the city that care forgot.” In his deeply empathetic and achingly winning follow-up, Ruffin firmly plants his feet in his hometown New Orleans. Flash fiction pieces add to the book’s playful momentum, but it’s Ruffin’s intimate voice that situates the reader face to face with his flawed but resourceful characters, beaten down but never counted out. This glimpse into New Orleans beyond Bourbon Street reminds you how books sometimes offer a deeper experience of a place than passive tourism.