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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.

Following her gorgeous story collection, the National Book Award finalist Sabrina & Corina, Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s first novel opens with a scene of fairy-tale resonance: An abandoned infant of unknown parentage is taken in and raised by a village elder. From that moment on, Woman of Light retains a mythic quality while following the stories of five generations of an Indigenous North American family, from their origins, border crossings, accomplishments and traumas to their descendants’ confrontation and acceptance of their family history.

In 1930s Denver, young Luz Lopez is a launderer who was taught to read tea leaves by her mother. Luz’s brother, Diego, is a snake charmer who works in a factory, and together they live with their aunt Marie Josie. But after Diego is attacked for dating a white woman, he must leave town. Soon after, the visions that have haunted Luz since her childhood return in full force, spelling out the harsh experiences of her ancestors as they navigated the lands between Mexico and Colorado.

Though Luz’s visions drag her back in time to stories from her family’s past, Woman of Light is grounded in Luz’s present. We are immersed in the closeness of the Lopez family, the joyful plans for cousin Lizette’s wedding and Luz’s growing intimacy with childhood friend David Tikas, son of the neighborhood grocer. David hires Luz to be the secretary of his new law office, and the young lawyer’s commitment to progressive causes offers Luz a framework to better understand the racial hostilities and anti-labor movement that plague her community.

Denver plays a starring role in Woman of Light, from the church-sponsored carnivals to the Greek market and the Opportunity School where Luz takes typing classes. The setting provides a rich, multicultural perspective of the American West, and while Fajardo-Anstine underscores the systemic racism in U.S. history (the threat of the Klu Klux Klan is ever present), she never does so at the expense of her characters’ resilience and hope.

Woman of Light is truly absorbing as it chronicles one woman’s journey to claim her own life in the land occupied by her family for generations.

Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s debut novel retains a mythic quality while following a woman's journey to claim her own life in the land occupied by her family for generations.

Post-World War II London was a grim place, despite the Brits’ nominal victory: The skies seemed forever gray, rationing made life difficult, and rubble from the London Blitz needed to be cleared away. Still, some things persevered, like the monarchy and even quirky little bookstores. One such bookshop is the setting for Natalie Jenner’s captivating second novel, Bloomsbury Girls.

Something else that survived the war was unrepentant male chauvinism. It’s in just about every move made by Herbert Dutton, general manager of the century-old Bloomsbury Books. It is the reason Evie Stone is working at Bloomsbury Books instead of at Cambridge University, despite being one of the first women to earn a degree from that institution. It’s why Grace Perkins, Herbert’s secretary, has to rush home to make tea for her lousy layabout of a husband, and it’s what’s driving Vivien Lowry, who works in the store’s fiction department, out of her mind with rage.

Fortunately, the bookstore owner is a genuinely kind man despite his lofty status as an earl, and the head of the store’s science and naturalism department, Ash Ramaswamy, has a gentle demeanor as well. However, Ash is from India, so his mildness might be a defense mechanism against English racism, which is just as bad as English sexism. Ash and Evie strike up a sweet relationship, but in this world, men make the decisions, and women, as Evie says, “abide ’em.”

Until they don’t.

Jenner boldly mixes real history with her fictional creations, and readers who enjoy the “nonfiction novel” genre will find pleasure in parsing facts from embellishments. In particular, Evie’s great passion for cataloging books leads her to the rediscovery of one of the rarest books in the world, a science fiction novel titled The Mummy! This real-life prescient work was published in 1827 by 17-year-old Jane Webb, who went on to write more anodyne books on gardening. The Mummy! might be the way out for the downtrodden women of Bloomsbury Books. It might even be a vehicle for revenge.

Jenner, the bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society, draws readers into her tale with a genial, matter-of-fact style that’s exactly what’s expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore. Each chapter begins with one of Herbert’s many ridiculous rules, most of which are broken over the course of the book. But Bloomsbury Girls’ surface coziness puts the tumult of its characters in relief, giving the novel unexpected depth and complexity.

Natalie Jenner's captivating Bloomsbury Girls has a genial, matter-of-fact style that's exactly what's expected for a novel about a humble London bookstore.

The story in Chris Bohjalian’s The Lioness is straightforward: Beloved movie star Katie Barstow hosts an all-expenses-paid photo safari to Kenya with her new husband, David Hill; her brother, Billy Stepanov; Billy’s pregnant wife, Margie; and their friends, including the actors Terrance Dutton and Carmen Tedesco, and Carmen’s husband, Felix Demeter. Shortly after they arrive, the group and their guides are kidnapped. As they soon winkle out, their captors are Russian with noms de guerre taken from American astronauts.

It’s important to know that this all goes down in 1964, a year of not only the Cold War but also the Simba rebellion in the eastern Congo, the Guinea-Bissau War of Independence and various other conflicts around the African continent. It is a terrible time to fly to East Africa to take pictures of wildlife.

Each chapter is narrated by a different person, framed by the narration of a now-elderly member of the group who’s looking back on these events from 2022. While most of the captives show a surprising amount of mettle when faced with a group of criminals who will shoot them as easily as they would a game animal, some readers may wonder whether Katie and her guests are acting as if they are in a movie in which everything depends on outsmarting the latest Bond villain. They seem to have learned survival strategies from somewhere, and why not Hollywood?

Some of the captives discover that escape comes with its own problems, including the scorching sun and a lack of food, water and first aid out on the savanna. There are also dangerous animals, some of which target humans as an easy meal. With a matter-of-fact tone, Bohjalian details death by leopard, hyena and, in one truly satisfying scene, puff adder. When the captives have a moment to catch their breaths, they wonder why they were nabbed in the first place. Of course the kidnappers wanted high-profile targets who’d bring them a nice bit of ransom money—but there’s also a darker reason connected to the Cold War.

Bohjalian traveled to the Serengeti to research this novel in 2020, but his fast-paced tale allows little time for contemplating sunsets through the branches of baobab trees. Instead, The Lioness succeeds in showing how otherwise pampered folks react when faced with the unthinkable.

Chris Bohjalian’s fast-paced tale of a safari gone wrong shows how pampered folks react when faced with the unthinkable.

The undeniable warmth that permeates Kim Michele Richardson’s fiction is rooted in a love for her home state of Kentucky, her characters and, it seems, the art of writing itself. Her narratives are immersive exercises in character development and world building that are wholly capable of enveloping readers, pulling us deeper with each page until we are happily lost.

The Book Woman’s Daughter, Richardson’s companion novel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, does this from the very beginning, whether you’ve read the original novel or not. Through the eyes of Honey Lovett, daughter of legendary blue-skinned “Book Woman” Cussy Mary Carter, Richardson tells a rewarding story of determination and hope set in the Kentucky woods of a bygone era.

In 1953, Honey’s mother and father are imprisoned for miscegenation, and the 16-year-old girl is left to scrape by on her own, running from the law while attempting to build a life for herself with the few resources she has left. She and her trusty mule, Junia, take up Cussy’s former route as a packhorse librarian, and in doing so, Honey not only honors her mother’s legacy but also begins to carve a path for herself through a world that continually pushes women aside. Honey discovers that her community’s thirst for knowledge is vast, often dangerous and full of big questions she’d never expected to ask.

Throughout The Book Woman’s Daughter, Richardson pushes Honey forward into new states of evolution, desire, grit and spirit while constructing a beautiful vision of 1950s Appalachia in all its natural splendor and complicated humanity. Honey starts out as someone who knows where she belongs, but as she begins to encounter setbacks and challenges, her story transforms into a meditation on womanhood, literature, resilience and freedom. It’s a spellbinding tale.

Kim Michele Richardson’s companion novel to The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is immersive from the very beginning.

Literature has always had the power to create realities around itself. Indeed, this ability has been one of fiction’s obsessions over centuries. As different literary devices come in and out of style throughout history, one of them has remained relevant for at least a couple of millennia: the framed narrative. We are all familiar with this form of storytelling, which can be found in works as dissimilar as the Odyssey, the One Thousand and One Nights, the Decameron and Ethan Frome. For expediency’s sake, here’s a made-up example:

The express train had been streaking through the stormy night for hours, which is why it was curious that the man who came into my compartment was shivering and soaked to the bone. He took the seat opposite mine, wiped his face, and, after struggling to light a wet cigarette, started to speak in a whisper that grew louder as he warmed up:

This, of course, is followed by the story that explains how the man came to hop on board a fast-moving train in the middle of the night. But that’s not quite relevant right now. The most important part of this example is that final colon. This is the graphic boundary between two different planes of reality—and what a beautiful coincidence it is that the colon should resemble a hinge! Of course, not all framed narratives feature this punctuation mark (although a lot of them do: Borges, a master of the framed tale, often uses them just like this), but it provides a helpful way of seeing how these two levels interact. On this side of the colon, what passes for the real world; on the other side, the realm of storytelling. 

“We understand the world through stories. Is it that surprising, then, that their texture, slant and tone should condition what we perceive to be true?”

Part of why this is such a successful device has to do with the geography of the text. The frame is quite literally closer to you, the reader, than the story it contains. And it’s this physical closeness to reality (to the person holding the book) that makes the framing story more believable. Meanwhile, the framed story, by virtue of being removed, serves as a tacit reminder of that closeness. (Also, the soaked man’s tale may turn out to be outlandish, but wouldn’t that, by contrast, make the circumstances of the narrator in the compartment even more plausible and believable?) We experience this more acutely in those stories where we forget there was a frame, only to, in the final chapter, return to it. After the soaked man’s account of his adventures, we find ourselves, once again, in the safety of the compartment. The feeling upon returning to the frame—and this is quite telling—can resemble that of waking up from a dream. We are back in “the real world.” In short, framed stories create a gradation of reality. And in this scale, the frame is the closest we can get to the referential world. 

Hernan Diaz
Hernan Diaz

Yet when we read Don Quixote, Frankenstein or Wuthering Heights, we think of the knight-errant fighting windmills, of the creature seeking revenge on its creator, of the mercurial antihero roaming the Yorkshire moors. These are the characters and events that immediately come to mind. However, this is not what these novels are, strictly speaking, about. Don Quixote is about a person reading a translation of an Arabic manuscript. Frankenstein is about a sea captain writing letters to his sister. Wuthering Heights is about a housekeeper talking by the fire as she does her needlework. This is all that happens in these novels—on this side of the colon. The fact that we tend to forget these scenes containing the stories shows how effective these frames are at mimicking “the real thing.” Because it is always there, reality can afford to be taken for granted, disregarded and even forgotten. 

These stories (about the mad knight, the friendless monster, the haunted lover) have severed their ties to the referential world. They are quite literally surrounded by fiction (the tales about the translator, the captain, the servant). Their context is no longer life but literature. This, of course, enhances the verisimilitude and lifelikeness of the novels—because literature is no longer trying to copy anything outside itself.

Framed narratives show us something important about the way in which we understand the world through fiction. If a proper context can be created around a story, it will stand a much better chance of being believed, since the parameters of truthfulness have been established beforehand. The referent for this sort of fiction is another fiction. And it is we, in the end, who have been framed.

Don Quixote is about a person reading a translation of an Arabic manuscript. Frankenstein is about a sea captain writing letters to his sister. Wuthering Heights is about a housekeeper talking by the fire as she does her needlework.”

These were some of the thoughts behind my latest novel, Trust. What is the relationship between literature and reality? To what extent is our everyday life a framed narrative? And what are the stories that frame our quotidian experience? 

I became interested in how many historical accounts regularly reveal themselves to be, at least to some extent, fabrications—narratives distorted for political gain. Still, these fictions have a direct impact on our lives. Although we know that with some regularity they will be questioned, transformed and even debunked, a great part of our identity is defined by these stories. 

Another of these public fictions is money. It’s an all-encompassing illusion with all-too-real effects. There’s nothing material or tangible that links a dollar bill to the value it represents (and in this, money resembles language). Its value is the result of a long series of conventions. It’s make-believe. All money is, at heart, play money. And all of us have gathered, voluntarily or not, around the board.

Trust, then, explores the very material consequences fiction can have. The book is made up of four different “documents”—a novel-within-the novel, two memoirs and a diary—and the reader is enlisted as a textual detective in order to come up with a possible version of the truth behind these stories. Part of this quest will challenge the contracts we enter into when we engage with narratives of any kind—literary, historical, political, financial. More than asking itself how literature imitates life, Trust interrogates how the stories we tell shape the world around them. We understand the world through stories. Is it that surprising, then, that their texture, slant and tone should condition what we perceive to be true? 

I wouldn’t say that Trust, as a whole, is a framed narrative in a traditional sense. But each layer in the novel creates a reality for the others. It’s hard to reveal more without giving too much away. Let’s just say, expanding the little example I made up at the beginning of this essay, that once the soaked man is done with his story, neither his listener nor the reader will be so sure about that train’s destination.

Read our starred review of Trust by Hernan Diaz.

Photos of Hernan Diaz by Pascal Perich.

Pulitzer Prize finalist Hernan Diaz, author of Trust, investigates the joys and mysteries of the framed narrative.

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