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Books to Read When Your Brain Needs a Workout

Summer’s about to be in full swing, but what if instead of picking up a light beach read, you tackled something like The Odyssey? Hear us out! It’s a season when you’ve likely got a few longer stretches of page-turning time (summer Fridays!), so why not mix in chapters of mind-expanding texts with your heart-stopping thrillers? Bonus: Digging into something dense is also a great icebreaker for that Fourth of July rooftop party. Here are five truly gripping books to get you going.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin


In Ellen Raskin’s children’s classic, the reclusive millionaire Samuel W. Westing dies, leaving behind a cryptic will structured as a game that pairs tenants of a posh apartment building into teams battling it out for his fortune. The odd couples are made up of members of varied generations, classes, and (mysterious) backgrounds, and each gets a different set of barely penetrable clues they must piece together. As the reader, you get all of them—which doesn’t exactly make solving everything easy, but it does make for great fun. Puzzle mysteries are hard to come by, and this may be the most delightful and satisfying one ever written.

The Odyssey by Homer and translated by Emily Wilson


Perhaps you’ve heard of a poem called The Odyssey? Whether you’re already a fan or read it under school-induced duress, Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation reanimates Homer’s work. But this is not a modern retelling: Wilson is primarily concerned with what the original Greek text says and replicating, as best one can, the cadence and rhythm and overall vibe of the oral tradition in which it was written. It’s a magical experience that’s only enhanced by Wilson’s resonant introduction and translator’s note connecting the ancient text to the world we live in today.

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt by Ken Krimstein


“My brain is turned inside out,” cartoonist Ken Krimstein writes in the imagined voice of our heroine, early 1900s political theorist Hannah Arendt. “By tearing away illusions and preconceived notions and contradictions, thinking has become erotic. Electric. Ecstatic.” Krimstein’s sketches of Arendt’s life cram several college courses’ worth of information and political history into an engaging, digestible biography-slash-primer on 20th century philosophy. We get a whirlwind tour of her affair with complicated fellow thinker Martin Heidegger, her friendships with Walter Benjamin and Mary McCarthy, and her migration through Europe and eventually America. The enduring lesson is that no single idea matters more than “love of the world.”

The Vegetarian by Han Kang


Like pimple-popping YouTube videos, this book isn’t for everyone—but if you’re looking to have your brain squeezed like a blackhead, procure a copy of this freaky, original novella ASAP. With clear, sharp sentences and clocking in at fewer than 200 pages, it makes for deceptively easy reading. The plot could almost be summarized by the first sentence: “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.” Han Kang (faithfully translated from Korean by Deborah Smith) proceeds to cast familial and romantic relationships and the complicated requirements of sustaining the body—as well as the self—in stark, startling light. You may read with one hand clapped over your mouth, but don’t worry, the physical reaction comes with a side of intellectual stimulation so strong you’ll wonder if it’s legal.  

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado


If you’re in the market for a lusher, more lyrical—but no less sensational or surprising—entry into body horror and the way it can light your mind on fire, look no further than this stunning short story collection. The influences range from fairy tales (twisted, of course) to ghost stories (the kind that start supernatural and end wherever you hear them) to sci-fi (in the apocalypse, everyone can hear you scream, but no one cares) to Law & Order: SVU (“’It’s not that I hate men,’ the woman says. ‘I’m just terrified of them. And I’m okay with that fear.’”) Each of the stories reflects reality through a funhouse mirror that at first seems warped but then shows you exactly the frightening truth you’ve been struggling to wrap your mind around.