10 Must-Read Books for July 2016

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The motliest month of the year, at least in terms of genre and theme, July still proves it’s possible to escape the hell of the “beach read,” that virus of literary culture that spreads to every listicle-making curatorial space on the internet. Why not instead wonder about the contradictions of the unknown universe or nuclear proliferation? Or read a noirish novel about violence in Mexico? Or a deceptively lighthearted one about sexual freedom and cultural tourism in Jamaica? It turns out you can read whatever you want on the beach.

The Unknown Universe: A New Exploration of Time, Space, and Modern Cosmology, Stuart Clark (Pegasus Books, July 1)

I haven’t gone to church regularly since childhood, but for as long as I can remember I’ve reflexively Googled terms like “dark matter” and “Large Hadron Collider” on Sundays. But I’m not guided by some vague wonderment about the future of the universe; I’ve found it’s the tension between the knowable and the unknowable that drives modern cosmology more than anything else. You won’t find a better guide to it all than Stuart Clark’s timely new book.

Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn (Liveright, July 5)

It’s a little bit unfortunate that Dennis-Benn’s debut has been pitched alongside the beach read set, for it’s actually a finely written (and very much enjoyable) novel on a number of themes of social importance, one that deals with cultural tourism in Jamaica, gentrification, and questions of sexual freedom.

How to Set a Fire and Why, Jesse Ball (Pantheon, July 5)

Ball, a subtle deranger of genres, slyly mixes YA and fantasy tropes in this novel about a teenage female arsonist and her deranged life beyond a failing social system.

Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, July 5)

“Without the critics, incoherence,” writes Ozick in this collection that cuts against the grain of current literary trend-making (with respect the canon). By this I mean that Ozick has no problem revising our understanding of 20th century literature and criticism by addressing it directly. Which is to say: why miss her complaints about Franzen and others?

The Transmigration of Bodies, Yuri Herrera, trans. Lisa Dillman (And Other Stories, July 7)

Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World was among the best books of 2015, and it deservingly won this year’s Best Translated Book Award for fiction. It also happens to be a great border novel in an era of newfound walls and borders. Here, Herrera turns to Mexico’s internal violence in this tragic, brilliant “film gris” of contemporary fiction.

Ninety-Nine Stories of God, Joy Williams (Tin House, July 12)

Williams, one of our great short fiction writers — one of our great writers in any genre, really — here imitates the shorter work of Thomas Bernhard with these 99 vignettes on God. The book is a surprising wonder of formal ingenuity and aesthetic variety, and you can read some of it here.

Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett (Riverhead, July 12)

The rare example of an acclaimed debut that foregoes the trappings of everyday form (even its title, you’ll find, suggests a break with realism) Pond instead relocates contemporary literature to a wonderfully drawn human interior, this time of a young woman who lives in a coastal village. Bennett’s funny and sensitive debut is the year’s most original so far.

Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existential Peril in the Nuclear Age, Dan Zak (Blue Rider Press, July 12)

In 2012, three activists — an elderly nun, a house painter, and a Vietnam veteran — broke into the “Fort Knox of Uranium” in Tennessee to protest nuclear proliferation. After spending hours inside, they waited to be arrested. Now, even if this act of protest failed to eliminate the nuclear threat wholesale, its success at spotlighting the contradictions in the fact of nuclear armament is nonpareil. Zak traces the origins of the protest from the perspective of each activist, and, in the process, uncovers the insane contradictions of life in the nuclear age.

The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer (Vintage, July 12)

It’s an enormous anthology of science fiction put together by two of our sharpest purveyors of the genre. Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and H.G. Wells are here, yes, and so is W. E. B. Du Bois, which is to say that this volume is a perfect mix of the classic and the unexpected.

The Storyteller: Tales out of Loneliness, Walter Benjamin (Verso, July 26)

Benjamin was arguably the greatest cultural theorist and critic of the Western 20th century, even if his ideas are so often a matter of debate and interpretation. All the better then to have this collection of his “novellas, fables, histories, aphorisms, parables and riddles,” which gives us access to the rest of his penetrating mind.