It’s time to build your summer stack: that squatty tower made up of equal parts brain candy, literati buzz, and guilty pleasure. This year’s juiciest offerings feature an African aid-work hustler, a monster in backcountry Alaska, a drifter in Hawaii, a Spaniard obsessed with murder and cheese, and a trio of river rats who risk jail and damnation to become legends of the Grand Canyon.
Start with The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History Through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, by Outside contributing editor Kevin Fedarko (read an excerpt here). In the spring of 1983, snowmelt and rainstorms threatened to blow out Glen Canyon Dam, the concrete plug that harnesses the Colorado River above the Grand Canyon. To ease the pressure, dam engineers sent a raging pulse of water through the Canyon. A trio of grizzled river guides responded like Laird Hamilton to a buoy report: Launch time! Fedarko, a Colorado River boatman himself, crafts a dramatic tale of courage and hubris that encompasses the sweeping history of the Canyon.
An eminence grise of travel writing, Edward Hoagland reminds us that he is also a nimble novelist in Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse. Children follows the transient life of Hickey, an American freelance aid worker who moves food and medicine through battle zones and bandit alleys, offering a vivid window into the continent’s hot spots. About an outlaw militia’s airstrip in the Congo, Hoagland writes, “There are no police or consular officials or coroners: just vultures to do the autopsy and record the fingerprints and dentistry. You’d be recycled into wings.”
For a comic break, turn to Stench of Honolulu, Jack Handey’s adventure novel set in a bizarro slice of paradise, where the narrator goes to escape his creditors. Handey’s burlesque works best in small doses, so take one bite at a time.
Having redefined the road-trip memoir in Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain, Michael Paterniti travels into new territory with The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese. In his quest to find the mejor queso del mundo, Paterniti discovers a Spanish cheesemaker caught up in a clash between the old and new worlds. Wealthy First World foodies beat a path to the poor cheese-maker’s door—destroying him in the process. “When you put something alive in your mouth,” the old master tells Paterniti, “it makes you more alive.” But the arrival of global commerce can suck the life right out of that perfect moment.
Best for last: for those awaiting the next Jon Krakauer–esque classic, look to an Alaskan writer named Tom Kizzia. Pilgrim’s Wilderness: A True Story of Faith and Madness on the Alaska Frontier spins the spellbinding tale of the Papa Pilgrim family, a homespun clan that charmed the Alaskan locals with their old-timey government-hating ways—right up until the day the eldest daughter exposed Papa as an abusive patriarch who terrorized his family. It’s a gripping nonfiction thriller told with masterful clarity, and I’m betting it will be the sleeper hit of the summer. Put it at the top of your stack.