Lev Grossman, TIME book critic: I think of you as a pretty highbrow reader. I’m hoping you’ll tell me you have some guilty pleasures.
Radhika Jones, TIME executive editor: My policy is to feel guilty about nothing I read. But I definitely have some nonhighbrow pleasures for summer. I keep a stash of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse mysteries at the beach, and I usually reread one or two each summer. I try to let enough time pass that I forget who did it.
LG: Thank God! I knew you must have a secret vice. If I looked in your bag right now, what books would I find?
RJ: Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl! On your recommendation! Also a banana. What’s in your bag?
LG: Pretzels. Also a copy of Dearie, Bob Spitz’s biography of Julia Child. It’s a revelation. Her whole life was shaped by the fact that she was 6-foot-3. Right now she’s a spy — first in Washington, then Ceylon, then China. Presumably at some point she’ll get to Paris and start cooking, but I’m not in a hurry.
RJ: You’re reminding me of my other summer reading pleasure: cookbooks. I just bought Alice Waters’ classic vegetable cookbook and a new one by Ian Knauer called The Farm, which has great summer recipes. I read them before bed. Is that weird?
LG: You must have delicious, locally sourced dreams. You reread all of Dickens last year. Are you reading more classics?
RJ: I’m always trying to fill in gaps. This spring I discovered Willa Cather. I read The Song of the Lark and Death Comes for the Archbishop, and now I’m going to read Lucy Gayheart. Cather’s prose has the great summer-read quality of making you want to travel. The way she writes about the Southwest is so gorgeous — she really captures the light. At least, I think she does. I need to go there and confirm it. What about you? Any classics this summer?
LG: Most of my pleasures this summer are guilty ones. I am rereading Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, which I love, though it has some of the worst sex writing in English. Maybe I should pair it with Fifty Shades of Grey.
RJ: Have you read Fifty Shades? Are you going to?
LG: I’m curious. And I hate myself for being curious. The two forces are perfectly balanced. For now I’m reading Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace, by Kate Summerscale, which is about one of the first divorce cases in England. The grounds were adultery, and there are a lot of overheated diary entries. Though I don’t think anybody ever actually has sex. It was, of course, the Victorian period.
RJ: You only think they weren’t having sex! Have you ever read Victorian porn? It’s insane. Relentless and quite dirty and really long, because, you know, they wrote long in the 19th century. I’m cultivating a theory, by the way, that the divorce plot is actually a more useful tool for understanding fiction, Victorian and onward, than the marriage plot. Maybe I should look at Mrs. Robinson.
LG: It’s brilliant. Summerscale is a historian who writes like a novelist. A good novelist. By the way, I think you’ve given Jeffrey Eugenides his sequel to The Marriage Plot right there.
RJ: I’ll discuss terms with his agent. Speaking of sequels, the book I really need to read this summer is Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, because I missed it when it came out, and now she’s written a follow-up, Bring Up the Bodies.
LG: I loved Wolf Hall. It’s one of those rare hyped novels where the hype is actually true. And I’m not even interested in English history. I’m probably the only reader who was actually in suspense not knowing what would happen to this Henry VIII character. What about science fiction? I’m guessing you don’t go there.
RJ: I delegate it. Mostly to you! I’ve had good experiences with science fiction, but they’re very limited. If I were to dip my toe in this summer, what should I read?
LG: I’m going to say Charles Stross, The Apocalypse Codex, about a branch of the British secret service tasked with staving off a Lovecraftian Armageddon. Smart, literate, funny. And Stross has a computer-science degree, so he actually understands how computers work. So there are no scenes where a computer virus brings down an orbiting satellite.
RJ: I’m feeling the summer start to come together. History from Hilary Mantel, sci-fi from Stross, dinner from Alice Waters. Comfort rereading from Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. I’m a few hundred pages in. It will be written on my tombstone that I reread A Suitable Boy 25 times and have no regrets.
LG: Good God. What sort of comfort does A Suitable Boy provide on the 25th read? Though I’ve probably been through Brideshead that many times.
RJ: It’s such a complete world. I find I’m able to disappear into it. And aside from the marriage plot, there’s a lot of history in it. It takes place in postindependence India, and the characters have that combination of energy and trauma that goes along with newly won freedom. That collective “Now what?” I love that.
LG: Probably there’s no Lovecraftian Armageddon though. All right, I have to do some last-minute plugs: Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette: think The Royal Tenenbaums in Seattle. Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross: the team of oddball spies who kept D-Day a secret. Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness: true crime about the disappearance of an American woman who worked at a Tokyo hostess bar. Tana French, Broken Harbour: hard-boiled mystery in Dublin.
RJ: Two plugs from me! Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins, because if you’re not going to Italy this summer, you should at least get to go to a novel set (partly) in Italy, with movie stars and cave paintings. And if you’re excited about the Olympics, Nicola Keegan’s Swimming, a lovely debut that came out three years ago, about a champion American swimmer, the female equivalent of Michael Phelps.
LG: It’s going to be a good summer. It just won’t be long enough.