No summer is complete without an annual reading list from former President Barack Obama. We’re so excited that he’s back again to provide his stellar book recs for summer reading—and we quite agree with his picks. Several of them have appeared in our own most anticipated reading lists throughout the year, so we’ve rounded up a few of our favorites.
Barack Obama Recommends: 6 Notable Picks to Add to Your TBR
Jordyn says: It’s a tall order to compare a book to THE HANDMAID’S TALE, but I’m going to do it. THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD MOTHERS is for fans of THE HANDMAID’S TALE the TV show Westworld, and Naomi Alderman’s THE POWER. It’s for anyone who likes dystopian stories that reflect real issues we’re facing today. This book is so compelling it’s hard to put down, and even harder to stop talking about it. Our main character, Frida, had a very bad day, and as a result is sent to a government facility where the goal is to teach women how to be good mothers. But she soon finds that the standards of the program are incredibly high and the prospect of losing custody of her daughter adds pressure. This exploration of motherhood is so witty and emotional, you won’t be able to put it down.
In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.
Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.
Until Frida has a very bad day.
The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.
Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.
A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.
Emily says: Judging by the cover this will be one sexy, dreamy book. And if it’s anything like Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s previous books, that promise will certainly hold true! Silvia showcases her noir writing skills, while also keeping her Mexico-set historical fiction, in VELVET WAS THE NIGHT. When protests erupt in Mexico City in the 1970s and an art student named Leonora goes missing, Maite sheds her secretary job and dons her amateur detective hat—a hobby that has been well-developed after reading her beloved Secret Romance magazine. Meanwhile, Elvis, an eccentric criminal, searches separately for Leonora. As he uncovers the mystery, he grows to love Maite, twisting his motives all up into a web of danger, secrecy, and adoration.
Sharon says: Admittedly, MOUTH TO MOUTH is one of those books that I knew I wanted to read based on the cover alone. Cover aside, the premise is instantly intriguing: the book’s narrator runs into Jeff Cook, a former classmate of his, at an airport, and summarily Jeff goes on to divulge his entire life story. The narrator and readers are taken on a journey as Jeff recounts how he resuscitated a drowning man at the beach who turned out to be renowned art dealer Francis Arsenault. Jeff explains how he begins to visit Francis’s art gallery and gets taken under his wing, and how he catapults up through the art world. Riveting and sharp, MOUTH TO MOUTH is an engrossing look at the opportunities and events that change and shift lives in drastic fashion.
“An enthralling literary puzzle...This powerful, intoxicating book’s greatest tension is that we have no idea where it is heading.” —The New York Times
A successful art dealer confesses the story of his meteoric rise in this “sleek, swift, and graceful” novel “with unexpectedly sharp teeth” (Lauren Groff, New York Times bestselling author).
In a first-class lounge at JFK airport, our narrator listens as Jeff Cook, a former classmate he only vaguely remembers, shares the uncanny story of his adult life—a life that changed course years before, the moment he resuscitated a drowning man.
Jeff reveals that after that traumatic, galvanizing morning on the beach, he was compelled to learn more about the man whose life he had saved, convinced that their fates were now entwined. But are we agents of our fate—or are we its pawns? Upon discovering that the man is renowned art dealer Francis Arsenault, Jeff begins to surreptitiously visit his Beverly Hills gallery. Although Francis does not seem to recognize him as the man who saved his life, he nevertheless casts his legendary eye on Jeff and sees something worthy. He takes the younger man under his wing, initiating him into his world, where knowledge, taste, and access are currency; a world where value is constantly shifting and calling into question what is real, and what matters. The paths of the two men come together and diverge in dizzying ways until the novel’s staggering ending.
Sly, suspenseful, and engrossing, Mouth to Mouth masterfully blurs the line between opportunity and exploitation, self-respect and self-delusion, fact and fiction—exposing the myriad ways we deceive each other, and ourselves.
Emily says: I read A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD years ago, so I was excited to see a new novel from Jennifer Egan with a similarly fun play with narrative devices, and even including some of the same characters! But while GOON SQUAD covered music, this one imagines a future where you can view anyone’s memories as long as you share your own as well. Using that as the background, Egan explores humanity and art through different perspectives: letter-writing, duets, tweets. I’m hoping this book does the same thing GOON SQUAD did for me: provide a uniquely fun reading experience while also challenging me to interpret its format and the reasoning behind stylistic choices that allow me to connect more closely with the characters.
From one of the most celebrated writers of our time, a literary figure with cult status, a “sibling novel” to her Pulitzer Prize- and NBCC Award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad—an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private.
The Candy House opens with the staggeringly brilliant Bix Bouton, whose company, Mandala, is so successful that he is “one of those tech demi-gods with whom we’re all on a first name basis.” Bix is 40, with four kids, restless, desperate for a new idea, when he stumbles into a conversation group, mostly Columbia professors, one of whom is experimenting with downloading or “externalizing” memory. It’s 2010. Within a decade, Bix’s new technology, “Own Your Unconscious”—that allows you access to every memory you’ve ever had, and to share every memory in exchange for access to the memories of others—has seduced multitudes. But not everyone.
In spellbinding interlocking narratives, Egan spins out the consequences of Own Your Unconscious through the lives of multiple characters whose paths intersect over several decades. Intellectually dazzling, The Candy House is also extraordinarily moving, a testament to the tenacity and transcendence of human longing for real connection, love, family, privacy and redemption. In the world of Egan’s spectacular imagination, there are “counters” who track and exploit desires and there are “eluders,” those who understand the price of taking a bite of the Candy House. Egan introduces these characters in an astonishing array of narrative styles—from omniscient to first person plural to a duet of voices, an epistolary chapter and a chapter of tweets.
If Goon Squad was organized like a concept album, The Candy House incorporates Electronic Dance Music’s more disjunctive approach. The parts are titled: Build, Break, Drop. With an emphasis on gaming, portals, and alternate worlds, its structure also suggests the experience of moving among dimensions in a role-playing game.
The Candy House is a bold, brilliant imagining of a world that is moments away. Egan takes to stunning new heights her “deeply intuitive forays into the darker aspects of our technology-driven, image-saturated culture” (Vogue). The Candy House delivers an absolutely extraordinary combination of fierce, exhilarating intelligence and heart.
Emily says: This reimagining of THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV follows Leo Chao and his three adult sons in their small Wisconsin town. The universally hated owner of the Fine Chao restaurant, Leo is found murdered on the night of the annual family Christmas party. As the murder trial commences, one of Leo’s sons is accused of the crime. We see the prejudices of the small town emerge as the spotlight falls on this Chinese American family, and the struggle within the family as they walk the fine line between pride and shame, grief and relief, and more.
Jana says: You can inherit many things, but choosing who you become is another story. This is a hard lesson to learn for Byron and Benny, estranged brothers who have just lost their mother, Eleanor, but were left a confusing inheritance: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and an eight-hour voice recording detailing her tumultuous life story, which includes hints of yet-to-be-revealed mysteries and the shocking secret of a long-lost baby. The two brothers must work together to repair their own relationship so they can piece together Eleanor’s true history and honor her final requests. Though BLACK CAKE tackles a multitude of heavy issues—resentment, cultural diaspora, abandonment, and racism—it doesn’t feel overwhelming. Instead, it leaves you wanting more of the story and its thoughtful introspection.
Photo credit: Simon & Schuster Canada