A Summer Reading List for Wretched Assholes Who Prefer to Wallow in Someone Else’s Misery

June 24, 2016 | 6 books mentioned 15 4 min read


By some secret law of lists, “summer reads” often settle on books that are light and fluffy and happy. Like a marshmallow, they are usually too sticky and sweet for my taste. What about a list for us wretched assholes who prefer to spend the summer wallowing in a someone’s else’s misery?

On holiday, I cut myself off from my regular writing regime to focus on the people I’m with — I understand this is called “relaxing.” As my real life is relatively drama free, this means I have dangerous spare capacity to obsess over…what? While a happy book might distract me temporarily, it’s far easier to become completely consumed by an epic novel full of anguish.

Over the years, I have a developed specific criteria for the books that I want to read over the summer:

–The novel must have a high page count, a minimum of 500 but preferably cresting at 800. This is crucial, because I want to have something that I can sink into for a good number of days in a row.

–I’ll want to read in 75- to 100-page chunks at a time, because this is precisely how long I need to hide from other human beings on any given day.

–I have to be dying to get back to the story. The urgency must be genuine — this helps make my pleas for reading time feel authentically desperate.

–And most importantly, the plot should involve hardship, anxiety, and a certain level of suffering; these hold my occasional bouts of existential dread at bay.

So, like a marshmallow caught on fire, please enjoy the burnt crust of my epic summer reads:

cover A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

This book is a complete kick in the ass. It’s beautiful, big, and full of empathy. Every single one of your 21 senses will be plunged into the social chaos of India in the mid-1970s. From slums and squalor come friendships, and, in comparison, how could you dare feel intolerant of your own family?

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Jason Diamond recently tweeted the last paragraph from a 1992 profile on Donna Tartt. “Look at these goldfinches…Goldfinches are the greatest little birds, because they build their nests in the spring, a long time after all the other birds do. They’re the last to settle down…” If you haven’t read The Goldfinch, please understand that in this quote Tartt gives a pitch-perfect plot synopsis of the nearly 800-page novel she would go on to write some 21 years later. This is an author who deserves your undivided attention. If you worry that small birds sound twee, rest assured the section of this book that takes place in Las Vegas will sort you out.

coverFall on Your Knees by Anne-Marie McDonald

It was sometime in 1997 that I started to figure out how the world might work. I credit this book with helping me grow up that much faster. It’s devastating and terrible, and funny, a wicked combination.

Adam McKay: If you are listening, before writing the script for the Theranos film could you read this book first? I ask for the dose of empathy that can make an ambitious character feel real:

Everything in New York is a photograph. All the things that are supposed to be dirty or rough or unrefined are the most beautiful things. Garbage cans at the ends of alleyways look like they’ve been up all night talking with each other. Doorways with peeling paint look like the wise lines around an old feller’s eyes. I stop and stare but can’t stay because men always think I’m selling something. Or worse, giving something away. I wish I could be invisible. Or at least I wish I didn’t look like someone they want to look at. They stop being part of the picture, they get up from their chess game and come out of the frame at me, blocking my view.

coverA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The only problem with categorizing Yanagihara’s novel as a summer read is that it is hard to read and, on occasion, you might have to take a break. If you do, don’t carry the book around with you! Your cousin will see the cover and feel confused and ask what it is about. And if you tell him, he will then ask, “Why would you read something like that?” Don’t answer. Head back to the hammock and keep reading. You’re on holiday, after all.

coverThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, recently gave Barack Obama a copy of Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road. It’s set in WWI and in the wilds of Northern Ontario and is a great book, but his more recent The Orenda is the book that earns a place on this list. A decent page count, murders, torture plagues, a cut off pinky, and you are good to go.

A House For Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Some people say this isn’t Naipaul’s best novel and they are wrong. This is Naipaul’s best novel. It follows the path of a man to middle age as he searches for autonomy — a house to call his own. This resonates, especially when on holiday. If you wrote as beautifully as Naipaul, you could buy your own house. Or cottage? Or rent a hotel room on the other coast…

coverBarkskins by Annie Proulx

If this list sticks in any way, your summer read is Barkskins. Enjoy the burn.

Image Credit: Flickr/Ray Bodden.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her novel The Last Neanderthal is published by Little, Brown and Co., was recently featured in The New York Times, and is a national bestseller in Canada. Her writing has appeared in the Lenny Letter, The New York Times, Salon, and The Globe and Mail. Follow her @clairecameron or read more at www.claire-cameron.com.


  1. Little Life is the most hollow, emotionally-manipulative book ever written. Goldfinch is proof positive of the laziness of editors these days: poorly written, hundreds of pages too long, with an ending reminiscent of the tortuous end of Atlas Shrugged. The Orenda, however, is the bee’s knees.

  2. I am so upset about the leave vote that this whole article actually feels like the most hollow thing ever written, but at least arguing about books is good for distraction. I’m interested to hear what you think of Barkskins.

  3. Have you read it yet? I am ashamed to say I have not read much of AP but Barkskins does sound right up my alley.

    Also, for someone like, er, my friend, who is not well-versed in the implications of the Brexit, can you expand on why you are upset by it? Obviously an economic blow to the EU, but beyond that I just haven’t read enough about it to understand. I mean my friend hasn’t read enough….

    Just for fun I’ll throw out another one that may fit on your list: Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac Of The Dead.

  4. For your friend, a commenter on the FT put it best:

    From a comment in the FT pic.twitter.com/MRKSxWMdlo— Marcus Romer (@MarcusRomer) June 24, 2016

    Yes, Barkskins is brilliant in that I completely submerged. I see Almanac of the Dead is 768 pages–looks like it fits my criteria perfectly, thank you.

  5. Ok I’ll check out Barkskins and you check out AotD and we’ll report back. Silko’s a goddamn genius, wish more people read her.

  6. A Fine Balance is my favorite book of all time. My sister didn’t speak to me for two weeks after reading it because she thought it was cruel that I would recommend such a depressing book.

  7. That might be my fifth criteria: “Depressing enough to make your sister think you are cruel for recommending it.”

  8. Books such as these are so influential to compassion building, whether fiction or not. LOVED A Little Life, even with some perhaps overextended pieces of story. A Fine Balance, Fall 🍂 on your Knees, A House 🏠 for Mr Biswas- all excellent. The Goldfinch, great up to the contrived ending. Obviously gonna need to Read The Orenda and Barkskins!

  9. …i dunno, since I wasted a monumental amount of time on the utterly abominable The Secret History, I give all list giving the vacuuous D. Tartt a very wide berth but something about Barkskins seems promising. i’m of the wholly indefensible persuasion that smtms books should also be judged bz their covers, howelse to make sens of how mouth-watering The Area X -trilogy looks, the seductive minimalism of Zero K’s blued statue, the mysterious pull of Blazing World’s shredded cover?

  10. Thank you Claire Cameron! I so enjoyed reading this. This is one of the best pieces I have ever read on the Millions and it definitely bears my favorite title. I’ve read some of these and have added the rest to my summer reading list. Now I’m off to read the rest of your articles.

  11. I too enjoyed your bandsaw approach to dissecting the truth about summer reads, and what makes a good book generally .

    Please write some negative book reviews. And how do I get your future writing in my email Facebook?

    Singing in your key of asshole, I offer these summer books. They are an expensive chocolate bar with a brutal core of baking chocolate. It was urgent to know how these characters reached their miserable futures.

    The Road. Dystopian is far too gentle a word for this dad/son shitshow. Yes, it is too short. Also. it’s a sausagefest. guysguysguys. But it’s the thing. I was destroyed for two weeks. We hazed new members of our book club with this seed of intensity. I’ve never seen the movie because my mind has painted an ashy Oz and a father’s face that I want to keep.

    Franzen, The Corrections. That bastard masterfully weaves together an internal logic of an outcome that could have been prevented with exactly the amount of kindness and effort we don’t give because we are assholes. He gives us our own grim future and defies us to deny it. Why? Why will your life be better than this? It won’t.

    Personally, I can’t take any more books that dark, because I’m a poser when it comes to being a real asshole. I’m probably more dingbat than asshole. So, for the 85% organic chocolate summer read- gripping, harsh, but not masochistic, I suggest…

    Shantaram. A truly weird fictionalized travelogue where the lead character, locale, and tiniest details are true, and the rest is a ripping tale . The book Paul Theroux would have written if he wasn’t such an Englishman.

    Dirt Music and Breath, Tom Winton. Tim writes in one setting really well. These two books are like siblings. Different story worlds, but related. They are long. the characters are not mollycoddled: they are internally fucked up in refreshing and urgent ways AND their world does them no favors. They are powerful animals in social quicksand.

  12. Summer reading. I remember being 21, sitting in a lawn chair, under a shady tree, hot summer breeze reading Tolstoy for the first time. Such pleasure, almost euphoric.

  13. Uplifting ending aside, THE ROAD satisfies most criteria this list, however it was disqualified for only having 300 pages. I was also destroyed by it for weeks, but read it in little over a day–hard to make a convincing plea to return to a book that I’ve already finished.

  14. Every Man Dies Alone by Fallada, translated by Hoffman. I tore through it because the anxiety it gave me made it hard to breathe. Will some of them die? Will they all die? Surely, there’s no escape from this and they all die and I can just relax because there’s no way…oh wait…oh no…oh….

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