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Every year, the BookPage editors must once again ask the question: What, exactly, does “summer reading” even mean? Here are our definitions, in literary form.

The Season

I devour lighthearted, escapist romances and mysteries during the summer. Basically, if it can hold my attention despite all the distractions of a packed pool or a sunny park, it’s going in my tote bag. However, to keep my brain from snapping in half when I inevitably turn to more challenging books in the fall, I also make sure to reach for a few weightier yet still seasonably appropriate titles. Kristen Richardson’s history of the debutante is my gold standard. Impeccably researched but unabashedly glam and gossipy, The Season describes gorgeous gowns and high society queen bees with the same inquisitive rigor it applies to unpacking the intersections of race and class. In its various permutations, the debutante tradition encapsulates cultural ideas about femininity and its value; depending on the context, it can be regressive or liberating, stifling or affirming. (The chapter on African American debutante balls alone is worth the price of admission.) Make this your afternoon poolside read, and you’ll be the most interesting person at dinner later that night.

—Savanna, Associate Editor

Deacon King Kong

When my yard is alive with bugs and birds, when they’re screaming and singing and zipping through the trees, I want a book that crackles with that kind of electricity, like Deacon King Kong. Set in 1969 Brooklyn, James McBride’s seventh novel opens in the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing projects where, in broad daylight, a 71-year-old alcoholic church deacon known as Sportcoat shoots the ear off a 19-year-old drug dealer. That seemingly gritty opening leads into an affectionate village novel that follows a multitude of characters, including congregants of the Five Ends Baptist Church, a lovelorn police officer and an Italian mobster known as the Elephant. As readers learn the truth about Sportcoat’s actions, they also follow foibles and treasure hunts and slapstick party scenes. No one’s the “bad guy,” not even the mob bosses or dirty cops. The dialogue is some of the best you’ll ever read, and many scenes are gut-bustingly funny. Summer is a joy, and so is this book.

—Cat, Deputy Editor

Group

I am not a great lover of summertime. The heat, the dirt, the bugs—all of it sends me indoors with a glass of lemonade. This makes a book like Group by Christie Tate my perfect summer read. I tore through this book on vacation last year, using every moment alone in the empty, air-conditioned house to fly through a few more chapters while everyone else was outside. Tate’s memoir of the years she spent in an unconventional group therapy setting ranges from salacious to vulnerable to truly touching. All she has to do, her new therapist tells her, is show up to these group sessions and be honest—about everything. Sexuality, food, relationships, family, death—everything. As Tate slowly opens up to her fellow group members, she builds real friendships for the first time and learns to defuse the shame and low self-worth that had kept her from making authentic connections during her first 26 years. Perfect for a weekend trip or plane ride, this book’s got heart, hope and enough juicy confessions to keep you turning the pages at lightning speed.

—Christy, Associate Editor

All That She Carried

Whether I’m traveling across the world on a plane or installed under an umbrella on the beach, summer adventures inspire me to decenter screens and their attendant distractions. This means I have the capacity to focus on books that reward a reader’s careful attention, like Tiya Miles’ National Book Award-winning All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake. Miles, a historian and MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient, uses a single artifact—a simple cotton sack given to a 9-year-old child named Ashley by her mother when Ashley was sold to a different plantation—to offer insight into the often undocumented lives of Black women. As she traces the journey of Ashley’s sack from its origins in 1850s South Carolina through the Great Migration and to its eventual discovery at a Nashville flea market, Miles honors the strength of family ties and finds creative ways to fill gaps in the historical record. This book will make you both think and feel, providing a reading experience to remember.

—Trisha, Publisher

The Diviners

There is nothing I want more in the summer than a big honking series. (Especially if it’s complete. No cliffhanger endings for me!) I want to dive into a fictional world for as long as possible before coming up for air, and Libba Bray’s quartet of novels about supernaturally gifted teens solving mysteries in New York City during the Roaring ’20s fits the bill to a T. The series opener is replete with positutely delicious period vernacular and horrors both imagined (a murderous ghost resurrecting himself with body parts carved from his victims) and all too real (“color lines” at jazz clubs where Black Americans perform on stage but aren’t allowed to enter as customers). The Diviners is exactly the sort of tale I love to stay up into the wee hours of hot summer nights reading—which is good, because in Bray's talented hands, some scenes are so terrifying that I wouldn't be able to turn off the lights anyway.

—Stephanie, Associate Editor

Any book can be a beach read if you put your mind to it.

In her new book of autobiographical essays, Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and Other Explosives (7 hours), Mary Laura Philpott writes with gusto and pathos about navigating two extremes: practicing for what will never happen and postponing the inevitable. From removing turtles from her doorstep to dealing with middle-of-the-night emergencies, from controlling cholesterol to shopping for cashmere, Philpott assembles a trustworthy menagerie of lessons for daily life.

Philpott reads her own audiobook with a Southern lilt, at times laughing or on the verge of tears, and she builds an easy connection with her reader as she details a variety of struggles and triumphs. When she describes coming to terms with being identified as “mom” in public, she is as real and reassuring as the best kind of parent.

Written as the author's oldest child was getting ready to venture off to college, Bomb Shelter offers hope for a better future.

Read more: Mary Laura Philpott discusses her favorite bookstores, real or imagined.

Author Mary Laura Philpott reads her own audiobook with a Southern lilt, at times laughing or on the verge of tears.

Climate change is now ingrained in our daily lives. Newscasts almost always have a climate-related segment, whether it's about a new science report on the status of the world's temperatures or about natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes and droughts. Most of today's children will not know what life was like before the world began to change so drastically, but for now, many still remember the world as it used to be.

There are a huge number of books on the scientific aspects of global warming, from pleading calls to action to sustainability guidebooks. But what about essays and memoirs from everyday people? Stories about how climate change is personally affecting us and about its emotional impact on our lives? In their new book, The World As We Knew It: Dispatches From a Changing Climate, editors Amy Brady (executive director of Orion) and Tajja Isen (editor of Catapult magazine and author of Some of My Best Friends) have pulled together a diverse, impactful set of essays that explore the climate crisis from these more intimate angles. Kim Stanley Robinson, Melissa Febos, Lacy M. Johnson, Omar El Akkad and 15 other writers from around the world share how familiar landscapes are becoming unrecognizable and how the rhythms of their daily lives are being forever altered.

Each author brings a unique style and focus to their topic, with prose that is in varying degrees lyrical, reflective and urgent. Some relay extreme weather events, such as Mary Annaïse Heglar in “After the Storm,” about the blatant systemic racism that emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “Structural racism and inequality collide with fearsome extreme weather to reveal the grotesque unnaturalness of disaster,” she writes. This concept is continued in Rachel Riederer's “Walking on Water,” which covers the displacement of people, usually people of color, that's happening more and more as sea levels rise.

It's not only deadly weather events that are highlighted in The World As We Knew It. Chronicling the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, “How Do You Live With Displacement” by author Emily Raboteau discusses the parallels between COVID and climate change. In “Leap,” journalist Meera Subramanian writes wistfully about how the nature she loves most keeps changing, especially as ticks carrying Lyme disease keep multiplying in the Northeast as temperatures and carbon dioxide levels climb.

As Subramanian writes in her essay, “We used to be a story in nature. Now we are the story.” This statement reverberates throughout all the essays in The World As We Knew It, providing one example after another of the ways climate change has affected every region of the Earth. It is a warning that commands the full attention of every reader.

The 19 lyrical, reflective and urgent essays in The World As We Knew It command the full attention of every reader.

Margaret Atwood, the prolific Booker Prize-winning author best known for her novel The Handmaid's Tale, was selected in 2014 as the first author to include a piece of fiction in the Future Library Project. This undertaking collects previously unreleased works from 100 authors, one each year until 2114, at which point the pieces will be published.

In one of the 50-plus essays included in Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional Pieces, 2004 to 2021 (19 hours), Atwood writes, “How strange it is to think of my own voice . . . suddenly being awakened after a hundred years.” But Atwood shouldn't worry about how her voice will be received a century from now. As evidenced by the huge cast for the audiobook of Burning Questions, appreciation for Atwood's literary contributions is far-reaching. With such support, it's unlikely her words will ever be silenced.

Atwood narrates the introduction of her audiobook, and 36 other people read her essays, including actor Ann Dowd (who plays Aunt Lydia in the Hulu adaption of “The Handmaid's Tale”), editor Lee Boudreaux, journalists Robyn Doolittle and Yasmine Hassan, and authors Naomi Alderman, Esi Edugyan and Omar El Akkad. While it is a bit odd to hear the occasional male reader giving voice to one of Atwood's essays, her thought-provoking observations and sense of humor are unmistakable. Whether she is ruminating on climate change, women's issues, the zombie apocalypse or Ebenezer Scrooge, or paying tribute to authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Alice Munro, her insights will encourage readers to return to these essays again and again. As Atwood writes, “Have a listen. Confront the urgent questions. Feel the chill.”

Read our starred review of the print edition of Burning Questions.

As evidenced by the huge cast for the audiobook of Burning Questions, appreciation for Margaret Atwood’s literary contributions is far-reaching, and with such support, it’s unlikely her words will ever be silenced.

As a mother of three, I can attest that parenting often feels like it comes at you fast: the meals and snacks, bedtimes and books, laundry and more laundry; the hat-straightening, screen time-monitoring, play date-booking and chore-reminding whirlwind of it all. That’s why it’s fantastic when someone thoughtful manages to hit pause on the relentless motion and reflect on what it all means. In Raising Raffi: The First Five Years, Keith Gessen does just that.

Covering everything from the surprises of a home birth to the days of desperately reading parenting manuals through a sleep-deprived haze, Gessen’s essays are at once intensely specific (he lives in New York, is the son of Russian immigrants and works as a literary writer and editor) and deeply relatable (even to me, a woman who lives in a suburb in the Midwest). For instance, he writes that fatherhood opened up heretofore unexamined aspects of his personality. Why, he wondered, did he want to speak to Raffi in Russian, even though all of their relatives are able to speak English? It is a mystery, more of a gut instinct than a bilingual regimen, that prompts his wife (the novelist Emily Gould) to nickname him “Bear Dad.” Throughout Raising Raffi, Gessen’s profound ambivalence over his Russian heritage feels pressing, heartfelt, sad and real. He also writes about the COVID-19 pandemic with a clarity that parents who have been raising young children during the last few years will appreciate and remember.

Gessen’s book raises the big questions: Who am I as a parent? What exactly am I passing down to my kids? And can I even really control what I pass down to them? Gessen’s essay about sports, for example, gently probes the pros and cons of getting Raffi to play hockey, eventually folding back and looking at itself as Gessen realizes that his own attachment to hockey wasn’t the best thing for him. Other essays, like his one on picture books, demonstrate the deep, abiding connection one can feel with a child through repeatedly reading poetry and stories.

This book is thoughtful, companionable, funny and memorable. Readers will return to it again and again—and will hope, like I do, that Gessen publishes a follow-up about Raffi’s next five years.

In his companionable, funny, memorable memoir, Keith Gessen hits pause on the relentless motion of parenthood and reflects on what it all means.

The ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic have left us with many lingering questions: How long can a virus live? Why weren’t we better prepared to handle the virus? How long will vaccines keep us safe from the virus and its variants? How can we distribute vaccines and other medical interventions equitably to protect and save human lives? What kinds of robust public health policies do we need in place to help us mitigate the effects of widespread outbreaks in the future? Scientist Joseph Osmundson answers these and other questions in his luminous and stunning Virology: Essays for the Living, the Dead, and the Small Things in Between.

As Osmundson dives into the intricacies of science and medicine, he also takes time to consider the emotional toll of gauging health risks. In a world full of viruses—and especially in light of the most recent pandemic—we will always face the risk of infection, he says. He thus challenges readers to “reframe the very notion of risk, of fear” since “the more we all minimize risk, the less there is to fear.” Though perhaps eschewing this fear is easier said than done since, as he writes, “there are 250 million viruses in every 0.001 liters of ocean water, and so 7,393,387,354, more than 7 billion viruses, in 1 single fluid ounce, a mouthful.” Moreover, all viruses are so different from one another that what we learn about HIV or Ebola, for example, may not help us understand or diminish the effects of coronaviruses.

As a queer person, Osmundson candidly shares the moments he has calculated the risk of contracting HIV while having sex. At the same time, Osmundson points out that being queer provides him and others with a “legacy and a history of care even in the face of systemic oppression.” Queer people, he observes, have been “training for this moment—to sacrifice, in the face of a virus, to care for one another.”

Despite the ubiquity of viruses and their variety, Osmundson illustrates that humans and viruses evolve together. Recognizing this provides hope for all of us, he insists, especially through the development of vaccines. In addition, we can learn from our responses to HIV and COVID-19 and find the paths we need to follow for more robust public health: research into each virus, development of drugs and vaccines, community-led vaccination and health programs, and universal healthcare.

A collection that weaves together the raggedness of the personal with the chaos of the political, Virology will take its place next to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journal as a model for cultural criticism. Sparkling prose, glittering insights, lucid thinking and accessible writing about sometimes difficult topics makes Virology a must-read. It’s one of the best science and medicine books of the year.

Sparkling prose, glittering insights, lucid thinking and accessible writing about difficult viruses make Virology one of the best science books of the year.

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