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Talk of Iowa's 2023 summer book guide for adults

 Summer reading picks: 2023
Photo illustration by Josie Fischels
Summer 2023 reading picks

Looking for the perfect summer read? We asked local experts for their fiction and nonfiction picks.

Fiction


American Mermaid by Julia Langbein

Recommended by Amanda Lepper, co-owner Dog Eared Books in Ames

“Let this book’s gorgeous and unassuming cover draw you into one of the smartest, most hilarious books you’ve ever read. Julia Langbein has crafted a perfect work of meta-fiction — a book within a book, but the line between the two slowly begins to disappear. English teacher Penelope Schleeman has written a best-selling feminist novel about a young paraplegic girl who discovers she’s a mermaid. Hollywood wants to make it a blockbuster, and she moves to L.A. to write the screenplay. As the studio bros begin to warp her story into something decidedly not feminist, Penelope fears the mermaid of her story is reaching through the page into reality to take revenge. This is a novel about teachers, misogyny, the patriarchy (including bad dads, in particular), writing and preserving authenticity. It is so, so smart, toeing the line of the believably absurd. Langbein dazzles with her wholly original, sharply funny voice, making her a must-read author after this homerun fiction debut.”

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Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Recommended by Jan Weismiller, co-owner of Prairie Lights in Iowa City

“This book was written in 1962, out of print for many years and reissued in 2012. During the pandemic, it became something of a cult classic and is currently being adapted for a film. It takes place over the course of a few days on a ranch in California in the run-up to a wedding. Judith, the bride-to-be, is in conflict with Cassandra, her twin sister. It feels very much like JD Salinger could have written it, and it is largely a novel of dialogue between intimates. It is thrilling and unparalleled.”

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Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“An unparalleled novel that not only forces us to examine the brutality of the American carceral system but also our own humanity. In this only-slightly-dystopian novel, prisoners serving long sentences or facing the death penalty can opt out of prison to participate in a program called CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment), a controversial yet highly-profitable televised death-match series (think WWE crossed with ancient Roman gladiators). If prisoners survive three years on “the circuit,” they’re freed. Loretta Thurwar and Hamara “Hurricane Staxxx” Stacker are Chain Gang All-Stars fan favorites; They’re both teammates (serving on the same prison Chain Gang) and lovers. Loretta is only two matches away from freedom, and as she prepares for her ultimate freedom, she focuses on how she can help preserve the humanity of those with whom she’s served and survived. This novel will break you open and, hopefully, forever change your understanding of your fellow man and woman’s innate humanity.”

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Cold People by Tom Rob Smith

Recommended by Tim Budd, buyer at Prairie Lights

Alien ships hover in the skies. Humans have a month to reach the only place on Earth they'll be allowed to live: Antarctica. This speculative novel follows a handful of characters as they try to survive — and evolve — as a species.

"This book requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief but raises some interesting questions about the qualities that make us human. And what happens when we start tinkering with that formula? An entertaining and totally escapist novel from the author of Child 44."

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Commitment: A Novel by Mona Simpson

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“This novel, set in the 1970s, chronicles the lives of single mother, Diana Aziz and her three children. Diane is a deeply charming blue-collar mother who believes she can achieve the American Dream for her children until she is beset by a depression that requires hospitalization. This is a tender, sad story of the fallibility of the healthcare system and the tale of a family that both survives and is undone by a particularly 1970s version of the American Dream. Readers of Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here will recognize her obsessions and feel how she has grown into a larger exploration of them. This is a moving novel — one that stays with you long after you finish it. It will also appeal to readers who loved Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone.

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Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“Australian author Benjamin Stevenson offers a fabulously constructed mystery that’s been described as a cross between Knives Out and Clue. He invites the reader into the inner workings of how a “whodunit” is constructed, while still keeping the wool pulled over your eyes. Ernest Cunningham’s family is gathering at the Ski Lodge Mountain Retreat for a family reunion after Ernest’s brother, Michael, is released from prison. Michael served a three-year term for murdering a man, a crime his own brother, Ernest, reported to the police. But as it turns out, Michael isn’t the only Cunningham to have committed murder — in fact, everyone in the family has killed someone: Ernest, his wife, his brother, his stepsister, his mother, his father, his sister-in-law, his uncle, his stepfather, his aunt. And when someone turns up dead at the ski lodge, everyone is a suspect and everyone is at risk.”

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How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix

Recommended by Tim Budd

Following the death of her parents, Louise returns to her Southern hometown for the funeral, and to help her younger brother get the house ready for the realty market. But the siblings have lots of baggage to sort through — both physical and emotional — and something in the house isn't quite ready to move yet.

"Mr. Hendrix has the amazing ability to have you laughing out loud one moment, then checking the lock on the door the next. A campy page-turner, with moments of real terror, this is the haunted house story turned upside down. Great fun!"

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In the Lives of Puppets by TJ Klune

Recommended by Tim Budd

A retelling of the Pinocchio story, set in the future, except this time, Gio, an android of exceptional intelligence, is the "father" to a human boy, Victor. When Gio is captured and returned to the city he fled decades before, Victor plans a rescue along with the aid of his robot friends.

"TJ Klune's novels keep getting better and better, and this is his finest yet, asking readers to contemplate questions about humanity, artificial intelligence, and how we define family through love. Highly recommended."

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On Earth As It Is On Television by Emily Jane

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“When 14 spaceships appear across the globe over major metropolitan areas, compromising electricity and cell phone service, then abruptly leave, all of humanity is forced to reckon with the existence of extraterrestrial life. It becomes apparent, however, that aliens have lived among us for longer than we’ve known: notable for their love of all our unhealthy habits: bacon, television and disposable plastics. Told from the perspective of several characters whose lives are put on new trajectories by this moment in history, this absurd and, at times, hilarious story offers astute observations about our human behaviors.”

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Pas De Don’tby Chloe Angyal

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“Of all the contemporary romance books published thus far in 2023, this is, by far, our staff’s and readership’s favorite, and it’s from an Iowa-based author to boot! Heather is a principal dancer with the New York Ballet who just got out of an abusive relationship with the star of the company. She’s looking to prove herself as a star in her own right, so she travels to Australia to be a guest artist with the Australian National Ballet. An injured dancer named Marcus is assigned as her tour guide, and from the very first moment they meet, sparks fly. Trouble is, the AND has a strict “pas de don’t” policy — no dating your coworkers. The chemistry between Heather and Marcus is extraordinary and the forbidden romance is perfection.”

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Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club by J. Ryan Stradal

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“Not since Jane Smiley has an author so perfectly and humbly captured an era of Midwestern life. J. Ryan Stradal may call California home these days, but he was born, raised and educated in southern Minnesota. Kitchens of the Great Midwest, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, and, now, Saturday Night at the Lakeside Supper Club celebrate a region shaped by Scandinavian heritage and small-town practicalities. Food and drink and family feature heavily. I like to call Stradal’s storytelling “Midwestern Potluck” — a style and a perspective that mixes an eclectic bunch of people together to celebrate the beauty in the commonplace. Across the span of three generations and one supper club, Stradal can write about all of the human experience — love and want, suffering and good fortune, tradition and finding one’s own path. Betty saw the supper club as her saving grace and reigned at its bar for decades. Her daughter Florence wanted nothing to do with it. Mariel couldn’t love it more, much to her mother’s consternation, and in opposition to Mariel’s husband, Ned’s, big-chain restaurant dynasty. The fate of the supper club is as much a character as it is a backdrop for the moments that will change each of these women’s lives forever.”

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Stella Maris by Cormac Mccarthy

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“Billed as a coda to Cormac McCarthy's much longer novel, The Passenger, Stella Maris can also be read alone and is to many minds the stronger of the two books. It is set in a mental hospital in Black River Falls, Wisconsin in 1972. The novel is told entirely through the transcripts of the protagonist, Alicia Western’s, psychiatric sessions. Western is 20 years old at the time of this breakdown and a mathematical prodigy studying for a doctorate at The University of Chicago. I found McCarthy at his best in this exuberant, darkly funny novel. He is always a joy to read and part of that joy is that he is able to make the reader feel as easily brilliant as he is.”

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The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“Brandon Taylor’s first novel, Real Life was short-listed for The Booker Prize and the story collection that followed received stunning reviews. His new novel is set in Iowa City and follows a group of young friends trying to find their way in the world as we know it in 2023. It is a “town and gown” novel, with characters both blue-collar and academic. They are thoroughly immersed in the moment, whether they are on their way to another life or grappling with how to handle the one they are in. Taylor has been a force in American literature from the moment his first novel was published. He reads deeply and brings a large sense of the history of American Literature to work that is eerily aligned with the zeitgeist.”

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The Strudelhof Steps by Heimito Von Doderer

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

The Strudelhof Steps is an unsurpassed portrait of Vienna in the early 20th century. Long a classic in Austria, it has only recently been translated into English by Vincent Kling. Interweaving two time periods, one just prior to the onset of WWI and another in the mid-1920s when politics were again becoming ominous. This is a strange novel with many characters. A reader must be seduced enough by the prose to endure confusion, but any good reader will be. This novel is both highly experimental and yet has something of the soap opera. It is a novel about the place of memory in our lives — as the characters continually perceive themselves in light of before and after the war. It is also a superb portrait of a city, Vienna, which is perhaps its main character.”

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To 2040 by Jorie Graham

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“This new collection by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Graham, who spent nearly 20 years teaching at The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, feels like her best, most lyric book in a long time. She has long written with an urgent focus on climate change and mortality. The poems in To 2040 are immediate with the innate rhythms of this gifted poet's voice as she grapples with personal illness, fear for a grandchild and the death of a parent. Perception and consciousness have long been her subjects and what may have seemed abstract in her method here feels visceral.”

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The Postcard by Anne Berest

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“Acclaimed French author Anne Berest offers a completely new understanding of what it was to be Jewish before, during, and after the Holocaust. Based on the author’s true story of a postcard sent bearing the names of her grandparents, aunt and uncle — all murdered in concentration camps — Berest has crafted a narrative that is spellbinding and heartbreaking, about family relationships based on trauma and historical and persistent French antisemitism. I am in awe of the research the author and her mother conducted to tell this story.”

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The Wintering Place by Kevin McCarthy

Recommended by Tim Budd

Set in the Dakota Territory in 1867, McCarthy's new novel tells the story of Tom and Michael O'Driscoll, Irish brothers who are on the run from the U.S. Army and the Indian Wars, along with Tom's lover, Sara. Now that the men are wanted for desertion, they just need a place to hole up for the winter.

"This is a thrilling wilderness story where every day (and every encounter with fellow humans) is a matter of survival. A violent and brutal tale for fans of McCarthy; I especially liked the chapters from the journal Tom keeps of their struggles."

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Users by Colin Winnette

Recommended by Tim Budd

Miles works in development for a virtual reality tech company, and when there is an online backlash by users to the company's most popular site, he chooses to handle the crisis by creating a new VR program to distract them — without fully understanding the consequences.

"Anything written by Mr. Winnette is worth reading — the conversations between Miles and his wife are brilliant — and this new novel is a cautionary tale that's both delightfully absurd and menacingly sinister. A novel for the Gen-Xer that blurs the lines between real lives and lives lived online."

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Nonfiction

Banned Books: the World’s Most Controversial Books, Past and Present published by Doring Kindersley

Recommended by Tim Budd

“Beginning with The Decameron in the 1370s and ending with Ai Weiwei's 2021 work 1000 Years of Joys and Sorrows, this little powerhouse of a reference book lists nearly 100 books that have been banned, in one place or another, at one time or another. Pictures of the book's cover are paired with a short essay covering the work, why it was found objectionable and how it stands today.

"Given the sheer number of books being purged from school libraries, this book seems so important and essential for every home library. Eye-opening reading!"

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Bloodbath Nation by Paul Auster, with photographs by Spencer Ostrander

Recommended by Tim Budd

In just five essays, Mr. Auster invites us to have a conversation about gun violence in America. As he leads us through his personal history with guns as well as our nation's, Auster asks us to consider what kind of society we want to live in. And as perfect illustrations to the text, we have Ostrander's haunting photographs of locations throughout our country where shootings have occurred — completely devoid of people.

"I found this book to be a very sobering read, but a necessary one. Read this and then pass it on to someone else. We all should absorb this and then try, as a nation, to find solutions."

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Bottoms Up And The Devil Laughs: A Journey Through the Deep State by Kerry Howley

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“In this riveting account of government surveillance, Kerry Howley researches how The War on Terror has expanded and made possible a horrific underworld of what can only be called spying on private citizens. Howley’s prose is clear as she navigates a web of information and disinformation in which her subjects are ‘imprisoned by their past selves for as long as the internet lives.’ Much of the book follows the story of a young woman with the unlikely name of ‘Reality Winner.’ An underpaid and undertrained ‘intelligence specialist,’ Winner makes a mistake with a secret document and finds herself at the mercy of very invasive forces. Bottoms Up and the Devil Laughs is an eye-opening tale, one that will make you think twice before starting any Google search.”

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Buzzworthy by Jennifer Croll

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“At Dog-Eared Books, we love a hand-crafted cocktail. And there’s no mixologist whose cocktail books we love better than Jennifer Croll’s. A cocktail enthusiast and book-world insider, Croll offers up delicious, fresh and easy-to-replicate recipes that are perfect for poolside sipping or book club gatherings. Her most recent effort, Buzzworthy, honors 50 iconic female writers. Each recipe not only includes easily replicable instructions, gorgeously illustrated depictions of both the cocktail and heroine, but also a beautiful summary of the honored author’s background and work. From genre fiction to poetry, graphic novels, essays and nonfiction, you’re guaranteed to find a cocktail (and books) to satisfy your palate.”

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Ejaculate Responsibly by Gabrielle Stanley Blair

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“A book that should be required reading for every high-school graduate, parent, fertile adult and lawmaker, this manifesto outlines 28 brief arguments for why legislating female bodies is the wrong approach in the reproductive rights battle. As state after state imposes laws that restrict women’s bodily autonomy, it’s never been more important to examine the role both women and men play in unwanted pregnancies. In an easily accessible, funny and direct format, Blair, the religious mother of five children, illuminates the basics of fertility: men are 50 times more fertile than women, yet 90% of the birth control market and 100% of the reproductive rights debate is focused on women. This slim volume packs a convincing punch, opening readers’ eyes to the necessity of placing the responsibility of preventing unwanted pregnancies on men, who are fertile 100% of the time and, in contrast to women and their small window of unpredictable fertility, have control over when and how they ejaculate sperm.”

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Fatherland: A Memoir of War, Conscience and Family Secrets by Burkard Bilger

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“Burkard Bilger has long been admired for his profiles in The New Yorker magazine, and now he has written an intensely personal and researched account of his German grandfather’s history in occupied France during World War II. Bilger grew up in Oklahoma, the son of parents who had been born in Germany in 1935. His mother was a historian, yet she was oddly evasive about her father’s life. When Bilger intercepts a packet of letters, he finds a secret history he needs to investigate. Fatherland is the story of a nearly 10-year quest to uncover the truth about his grandfather’s time in the war. Was he a hero or a villain? What is true about the nature of war and complicity? This is a haunting work of historical investigation.”

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King: a Life by Jonathan Eig

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“With the detective mind of a historian and the techniques of a master storyteller, Jonathan Eig makes Martin Luther King Jr. come alive as a complex personality. He retrieves King’s extraordinary gifts, incurable optimism and amazing heroism as a leader without ignoring his frailties, doubts and vulnerabilities. Vividly written and exhaustively researched, King: a Life is the first major biography in decades. Eig gives us a King for our times, one whose demands for racial and economic justice remain as urgent today as they were in his lifetime.”

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Poverty, By America by Matthew Desmond

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“Desmond, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Evicted, reimagines the debate on poverty in America. He asks why the richest country in America has more poverty than any other advanced nation. This book shows how affluent Americans knowingly and unknowingly keep people poor and gives us new ways to think about this morally urgent problem. Building an original and ambitious case for ending poverty, Desmond calls on us all to be ‘poverty abolitionists.’”

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Raw Dog: the Naked Truth About Hot Dogs by Jamie Loftus

Recommended by Tim Budd

During the summer of 2021, comic Jamie Loftus and her boyfriend, along with a dog and cat, drive from LA to Boston to Michigan in search of the best hot dogs in America. Part hot dog history and part travelog, this very funny book will certainly make you think twice before biting into the standard summer cookout food. (Reader's note: R-rated for language and sexual situations.)

"I learned a lot from this book: from the origin stories of hot dogs to how they're actually made to what roadside eatery serves up the best. This is a tickle of a read whether you're on the road or simply in the backyard."

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Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden by Camille Dungy

Recommended by Jan Weismiller

“Poet (and Iowa City native) Camille Dungy has written a beautiful account of her seven-year struggle to diversify her garden in the predominantly white community of Fort Collins, Colorado where she moved with her family in 2013. At that time, the community held restrictions on what residents could and could not plant. The homogenous policies she fought were threatening both the long-term environmental viability of her garden and her deep feelings about the relationship of the peoples of the African Diaspora to the restrictions put on the lands where they live. This is a beautifully written book, the result of a true crusade.”

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The Wager: a Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann

Recommended by Tim Budd and Amanda Lepper

From Tim: An edge-of-your-seat tale from the author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z, Mr. Grann's latest is the story of The Wager, a vessel that left England in 1740 on a mission to sail around South America to the Philippines and intercept a Spanish ship carrying treasure during Britain's war with Spain.

"A book that has maritime adventure, a story of survival AND a courtroom drama all between two covers -- what more could a reader ask? An immensely good read."

From Amanda: “ In The Wager, using astounding primary sources like ship logs and diaries, Grann pieces together the incredible tale of England’s ship, the Wager, presumed lost in the turbulent waters of the Drake Passage in 1740. Nearly two years later, a group of emaciated, nearly dead survivors arrived in Brazil in a boat they’d pieced together from the ship’s remains. England rejoiced until, six months after that, another group of survivors, including the ship’s captain, turned up in Chile, claiming that the first group had mutinied following the shipwreck, arresting their captain and leaving him and his allies to die. This is a harrowing account of their survival and the aftermath of their choices.”

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A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung

Recommended by Amanda Lepper

“In this powerful memoir, Nicole Chung delves into the heart-wrenching experience that so many of us face as adults: watching our own parents’ health decline. In Chung’s case, in the face of her parents’ mounting medical bills, she must also reckon with the sacrifices her parents made for her. While Chung always felt like her family’s financial situation was stable, it’s clear that it never really was, and while she was able to attend college on a scholarship and secure a solid career, she still is not in the best position to meet all of their needs in the way she would like to. Complicating this situation, Chung is a transracial adoptee, her parent’s only child, and is living across the country during a pandemic.”

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Josie Fischels is IPR's Arts & Culture Reporter, with expertise in performance art, visual art and Iowa Life. She's covered local and statewide arts, news and lifestyle features for The Daily Iowan, The Denver Post, NPR and currently for IPR. Fischels is a University of Iowa graduate.
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa