Your Summer Reading List: Page-Turning Novels Set in Politics, Finance, and Tech
Great travel reads are supposed to be like literary snacks. They’re light, fun, and delicious. And sometimes, we want to read novels that transport us to different time periods and landscapes, completely removing us from our current situations.
But once in awhile, it can be even more fun to read a novel to which we can relate, whether it be the characters remind us of our families—or situations that remind us of our careers, workplaces, and (sometimes confusing, awkward, or downright bizarre) interactions with colleagues and clients.
Thus, here’s a list of page-turners you can bring to the beach or keep you entertained while waiting for that delayed flight at the airport for when you want to get away, but maybe not too far away, from reality. (If you want some beach reads rooted firmly in reality with deeper educational value but still makes for a thrilling read, Fortune recently rounded up eight business books that fit the bill, ranging from covering the downfall of Theranos to the mystery of the world’s most expensive bottle of wine.)
Startup by Doree Shafrir
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: an insufferable young male startup bro—er, entrepreneur—thinks he’s invincible, acts like the greatest businessman of his generation with a natural born talent, and assumes all the women who come into contact with him want to be with him. It might sound repulsive (or at least, the startup bro is), but BuzzFeed senior writer Doree Shafrir takes real world character types who act like caricatures of themselves and manages to pump out a novel that is both witty and incisive about New York’s tech startup culture and the blogs that cover them.
The Glitch by Elisabeth Cohen
For everyone still clicking on those articles asking “Can she have it all?” Elizabeth Cohen’s The Glitch seemingly answers and mocks that question simultaneously. Recommended by my Fortune colleague and senior writer Aaron Pressman, the newly-published satire doubles down in teasing all of the tech exec clichés, from emulating TED talks in everyday speech to scheduling “me time” and multivitamins while also painting a brutally honest portrait about what it means to be a businesswoman and a mother trying to be successful at both in Silicon Valley.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
When it was published in 2010, Gary Shteyngart’s satire about a post-financial crisis New York seemed so dismal—and at parts, neurotic and downright absurd—that it first read more like a dystopian future of America that must be well off in the future. But much like how we now look at alternate versions of America in media (i.e. House of Cards or Scandal), it’s not that hard to imagine anymore. Nowadays, it would be considered more like a surrealistic take in the style of Black Mirror.
While it’s a little tricky to picture the physical technology (simply enough named “Gizmo”) that plays such a central role in the book, the obsession with Gizmos isn’t hard to imagine given how many studies (and even major tech CEOs) have acknowledged how serious our addictions to smartphones, social media, and video games really are. Especially when you consider Tinder, Snapchat, and ratings on delivery apps—or even countries proposing to rate their citizens via social scores.
(Fair warning for New Yorkers: You might also have trouble riding the Staten Island Ferry again.)
A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan
A fan favorite for book lovers and book store lovers. Elisabeth Egan’s protagonist is a working mother going back into the field to work at what can only be considered as a fictional version of Amazon Books. And her new supervisor, presumably only five to 10 younger, thinks the idea of an online bookseller behemoth launching brick-and-mortar stores is an inspired idea with which no one else will be able to compete. Sure, Jan.
If that weren’t eye roll-inducing enough, this manager is a big fan of the most annoying workplace jargon, and she insists that the corporate giant they work for doesn’t hawk products but sells “the future.” We all know someone who has drunk the Kool-Aid and then some, and there isn’t a lot of room for sympathy here, so sometimes it’s enjoyable to have a hammy villain without much harm. (There’s also a tidbit about filing expense reports that just feels personal for anyone who hates this process. So, everyone.)
I’ll Eat When I’m Dead by Barbara Bourland
Let me tell you, contrary to you might have heard, books about fashion can be both smart and funny. Barbara Bourland’s snarky debut novel manages to tackle the politics of fashion magazines, the pitfalls and pratfalls being a social media influencer, and the true dangers of the pressures put on women for their appearances and the very real threats to their mental and physical health. And yet Bourland walks the line between serious and comedy so deftly that anyone who has read a women’s magazine or caught an episode of America’s Next Top Model will understand the jokes and the lessons without conflict.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
There are many variants on the newcomer-to-New-York story, but the protagonist in Stephanie Danler’s debut novel (which has since been picked up as a series on Starz) seems to have landed in the kitchens of restaurants that operated much like those described in Anthony Bourdain’s groundbreaking and revealing memoir, Kitchen Confidential. And while it is not autobiographical, one has to assume that her main character Tess shares many of the same traits and experiences working at a fine dining establishment heavily reminiscent of Manhattan’s Union Square Café. (The benevolent but distant owner of the restaurant group that owns the fictional restaurant is a dead ringer for Danny Meyer, although the rest of the kooky cast—from the worldly sommelier to too-cool-for-you bartenders to that One Creepy Manager—is filled with character tropes in that they could be anyone.)
Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
Don’t forget the small businesses nor the family businesses. Nothing might be more quintessential than the family-run restaurant. And when there is a family running a business together—with multiple generations, to boot—you know that there is going to be drama involved and everyone is out for a different objective. But Lillian Li’s debut novel not only tugs at your heartstrings with this family, who run a Chinese restaurant in suburban Maryland, but she also bakes in trials and lessons of the culinary and service industries while arranging a complex cast of characters that keep a neighborhood business running.
The Hopefuls by Jennifer Close
A time capsule in literary form from the early Obama years, The Hopefuls offers a droll take on what it’s like to navigate not only a new city—but a city scene that changes dramatically with each administration. There’s also plenty of political scene gossip to digest as well as light mockery of these same staffers who typically end up leaving for the private sector within a few years—often for tech jobs in Silicon Valley or cities seeing an influx of millennials, such as Dallas, as depicted in Jennifer Close’s third novel.
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
We all know that IT monitors our email and whatever other messages we exchange through company networks. And yet we continue to live in a bubble and pretend not to know, probably to maintain our own sanity. But what about the people on the other side? And no, not the NSA, but the IT professionals tasked with these great responsibilities? In true rom-com fashion, mayhem and romance ensue, but it all works out in the end! (And that’s not really a spoiler given when you are looking for a fun summer read, you need things to work out in the end. It’s a tried, tested, and true formula that sells, for better or worse.) Rainbow Rowell has an incredible body of work, with each novel funnier and even more endearing than the last. And yet her debut novel has aged well regardless of our jump from Gchat, to, well, Slack.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Diving into a novel told entirely in epistolary form (meaning letters, emails, phone transcripts, documents, Skype messages, etc.) can be a little daunting. But it’s well worth the experience in Maria Semple’s cackling second work. The titular character’s trials and travails offer a frank insight for what it can be like for a woman with her own career (in this case, she was a successful architect in Los Angeles) to have to pick up and move to another city (Seattle) for her husband’s career. And while her husband might be a TED Talk fanboy and just plain obsessed with working in tech, Bernadette has plenty of her own quirks (some great, others…not so great) to discover as well. And for anyone who works at or around Microsoft, there is plenty of Softie-culture skewering to chew on.
The Circle by Dave Eggers
To this day, after countless books read over the years (my GoodReads account tells an incomplete story), I can identify two books that have scared me the most in how close they hit to home and have the most potential to become real. The first is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. (I don’t have to go into that one right now.)
The second is The Circle. When it was published in 2013, the parallels to Google and Facebook‘s workplace cultures and campuses were obvious. But that was all surface fluff compared to the real story about surveillance and data mining underneath. Keep in mind this was before the revelations about the NSA, and well before the 2016 presidential election, Cambridge Analytica, and the current debate in the public forum and within government chambers around the world about data privacy rights.
In hindsight, it’s easy to describe Dave Eggers’s satire, bordering on thriller, as prescient. But perhaps no one could have predicted how fast all of this would come as close to reality as it has.