Don't melt your brain

Zombies, foreign policy and teenage boys: 10 summer reads not written by Nicholas Sparks or Dan Brown

I'm not sure where the idea came from that books read during the summer should be fluffy fare, but I'm guessing it's from the same school of yahoo marketing that pushes Coors Light as if it's not just dirty-shoe water and Subway like it's a good place to “eat fresh.”

Despite the abundance of less-than-challenging titles during the warmer-weather months, there's still good stuff out there for everyone, whether tastes lean toward a post-apocalyptic America populated by werewolves, struggles of working-class teenage boys, the nature of female sexuality or the last three decades of tumult in American society.

Perhaps none of that sounds very light or fun, but what's the point of going boating if you can't smoke a cigarette off the stern and look depressed (a.k.a. literary)? Feeling pensive and tragic on your beach towel is just the thing to balance out the beach-volleyball scene from Top Gun that's getting re-enacted next to you. Again.

For those looking to acquire a little gravitas along with their suntans this summer, the following are SN&R's 10 recently or soon-to-be-released nonfluffy reading picks guaranteed to not make you dumber.

You've seen enough of America's backside; what does the underbelly look like?

You Only Get Letters From Jail by Jodi Angel

The most important reason to pick up You Only Get Letters From Jail (Tin House, $14.95) is because it is a stunning collection portraying adolescents as they navigate the knife-edge of adulthood, the world around them brutal and indifferent. Four more good reasons: 1. As a UC Davis alumnus, Jodi Angel can sort of be claimed as a local. 2. What a title, right? 3. Her first short-story collection, The History of Vegas, was named one of the best books of 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle. 4. Tin House is one of the most influential and respected independent presses around. The collection isn’t out until July 16, but Time Tested Books (1114 21st Street) will be hosting a free reading with Angel on Monday, July 8, at 8 p.m., where you’ll have a chance to nab it early. (D.D.)

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer

A foreign-policy writer for The New Yorker for the past decade, George Packer brings his sweeping narrative style and comprehensive journalistic skill together to create a work The New York Times book critic Dwight Garner calls “something close to a nonfiction masterpiece.” Packer spends a good deal of The Unwinding (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) profiling “ordinary” American citizens, but also tech moguls in Silicon Valley, Jay-Z and Newt Gingrich, which makes for a pointed contrast. The book is sobering, to say the least—a piecework depicting what’s been maimed and sometimes destroyed in pursuit of both personal power and influence on a global scale. But if Packer takes you to the bottom, it’s with the intention to incite a desire to not let the country flounder. (D.D.)

You would like to read beyond the confines of American culture and will do so right after you finish those last four Oreos

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

Beat the summer heat by enveloping yourself in the leaden gray skies of Colum McCann's Irish homeland. With his latest novel, McCann fans can expect more of his trademark sprawling scope that spans continents, generations, history and the Atlantic Ocean. TransAtlantic (Random House, $27) interweaves an opening triptych of novellas about historical figures—Frederick Douglass, Sen. George Mitchell and the first British pilots to complete a transatlantic flight—with shorter stories of fictional women. Other novels might only deploy these characters as background color, but TransAtlantic treats them as the warp and woof of history. (C.D.)

Let the Water Hold Me Down by Michael Spurgeon

Michael Spurgeon's debut novel Let the Water Hold Me Down, the first title from American River College’s Ad Lumen Press ($16), tells the story of Hank Singer in the wake an accident (for which he feels responsible) that killed his family. Singer is talked into going to Chiapas, Mexico, by his best friend, the son of a powerful Mexican family. But when war breaks out among the indigenous population and the state, Singer’s life is threatened to come undone yet again. The book won’t be out until July 1, but put it on your radar—there are few more polite-but-pointed exit strategies for getting out of a boring conversation at a barbecue than pulling out a book titled Let the Water Hold Me Down. (D.D.)

You're a rational human being and know that werewolves and zombies are totally fake. Of course they are. But just in case …

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy

I'm of the opinion that listening to an audio book usually does your imagination a slight disservice, but Red Moon (Grand Central Publishing, $25.99) is an exception: Benjamin Percy, who reads his own work for the audio version, sounds the way you might imagine the Almighty (or maybe Thor) to sound if he were hairy and bearded and takes whiskey with his whiskey. Anyway, whether you listen to it or read it, Red Moon works the reader’s notion of genre in all the best ways. Set in a world where werewolves live among nonlycans, the novel functions deeply on an allegorical level, issuing a complex portrait of a struggle for civil rights and mankind’s tendency toward violence. (D.D.)

World War Z by Max Brooks

Based on the book written in 2006, the movie trailer for World War Z (Broadway Books, $9.99) shows pretty-faced Brad Pitt, machine gun in tow, running from zombies, Fabio hair blowing in the wind. Word to the wise: Read the book first (recently rereleased with one of those awful movie-tie-in covers). The movie places Pitt in the present action of the zombie wars, which makes for a solid action film, while Brooks’ version happens 10 years post-zombie war, compiling firsthand survivor accounts into a documentary-style novel. Brooks’ commentary on government ineptitude and humanity’s struggle to survive has been a revelation in the zombie genre, focusing a critical eye on the state of the world after a ravaging attack of cannibalistic monsters. (J.R.)

Your “friend” has a yacht, and he's taking you out on it next week

Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks

Bookstores consistently stock tear-jerking lady books with stories of women losing loved ones, finding long-lost loved ones, or (my favorite) watching their younger sisters get married while the independent heroine wastes away into spinsterhood because she focused on her career. Bypass titles like Watching Birdie and Love Finds a Way (these are completely made-up titles, by the way). Opt instead for Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend (St. Martin’s Griffin, $14.99), a patient book just waiting for the right reader. Memoirs follows Budo, the imaginary friend of autistic, 8-year-old Max, who has to use everything within his imaginary power to save Max from a compromising situation. (J.R.)

You have no idea what women want

What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire by Daniel Bergner

If you're having a tough time finding a summer fling, just and give up and read this book instead. Daniel Bergner delivers an unflinching review of the current science behind female sexual desire. Bergner debunks monogamy myths and reveals unexpected truths about the animal drives underlying human desire. Even if sexology journalism doesn't top your usual beach-reading list, What Do Women Want? (Ecco, $25.99) deserves strategically conspicuous placement on your nightstand. (C.D.)

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan's third novel The Engagements (Knopf, $26.95) spans 100 years and follows four different relationships as they explore the modern notion of marriage and America’s obsession with diamond rings. The novel opens in 1947 with copywriter Frances Gerety, who pens the line “A diamond is forever” for De Beers Diamond Jewellers; for those of you already suffering from Mad Men withdrawals, the opening section is sure to please. As for the rest of the novel, Sullivan has a romantic streak, which might be a good thing if you read anything on the rest of this list. (D.D.)

You're tired of all this literary pretension and would just like a page-turner, already

Joyland by Stephen King

Carnies. Murder. Ghosts. Stephen King. Could there be a better recipe for summer reading? King gets back to his creepy roots with a new coming-of-age tale that follows Devin, a virgin investigating a murder at the amusement park where he works. King writes two ways: incredibly long, in 18 parts, or in short, novella-length stories. Joyland (Hard Case Crime, $12.95) is doable at 288 pages, and won’t take the entire summer to read. And after years of writing about people getting into car accidents, being stuck under domes and death by cellphone, it’s nice to see King back to his old spooky self. Think Stand By Me (adapted from King’s novella The Body), but with carnies. (J.R.)