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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.

Jody Rosen’s Two Wheels Good: The History and Mystery of the Bicycle is not an “early conception to modern-day racing and e-bikes” type of history book. How could it be? For Rosen, the bicycle is “the realization of a wish as ancient as the dream of flight.”

The history here emerges from the edges of the byways that Rosen follows in pursuit of his next ride. In one chapter, he manages to humiliate himself in front of the dazzling trick cyclist Danny MacAskill while on a mountain bike ride in Scotland, which leads to a brief, engaging history of stunt bicycling. In another chapter, Rosen writes about going to Bhutan to participate in a one-day, 166.5-mile road race, reputed to be the most difficult bike race in the world. He does not finish and does not, as he had hoped, meet Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country’s fourth “dragon king,” who abdicated the throne in part to pursue his interest in mountain biking.

What develops out of these entertaining chapters is a story of the bicycle as a great disrupter. It was pedaless in its earliest form, like an adult-size Strider. In the 1700s, it became the plaything of dandies such as foppish Prince George of England, who offended the earthbound populace just as some lycra-clad weekend bike warriors do today. Later bicycles were decried by cart drivers and horse riders for disrupting the flow of traffic—but by World War I, bicycles were replacing horse cavalry in some battles. National bicycle organizations led the movement to grade and pave the roads motorists now believe are for their exclusive use. During the pandemic, stationary bikes “merged the old-fashioned act of bicycling with that quintessential twenty-first-century experience: staring at a screen.”

Bicycles also gave women greater freedom. One amusing chapter quotes 1890s newspaper editorials about the immorality and—gasp—implicit sexuality of bike riding. Girls and young women could pedal on their own, by themselves, away from the surveilling gazes of parents and community. Worse, they left their dresses behind and wore pantaloons!

In a chapter about his own bicycling experiences, Rosen says he’s not a gear head. “To this day, I can barely patch an inner tube,” he writes. But he is crazy about bicycles—“If the pedals turn, I’ll ride it”—and that love shines through in these pages. In fact, it glows so brightly that even a confirmed nonrider may give in to the urge to make her next grocery run on an e-bike.

Jody Rosen’s love of bikes shines through in this amusing, unconventional history of the bicycle as a great cultural disrupter.

It is essentially a fact that Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time. Almost everyone in the world knows her name—even people who don’t otherwise watch any sports at all. But another famous female tennis player came before Serena whose name was just as well known but now has all but disappeared from the popular consciousness. Robert Weintraub’s The Divine Miss Marble: A Life of Tennis, Fame, and Mystery details this woman’s story and reawakens her legacy.

Alice Marble was the product of a poor California gold rush family, making her rise to tennis stardom something of a shock to the wealthy elite who most often played the sport. But Marble’s winning game was only part of her worldwide appeal. Weintraub details Marble’s rise to tennis success alongside her rise to stardom as a Hollywood socialite darling. Close friends with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Marble rubbed elbows with some of the world’s most famous and influential people, including Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These relationships not only led her to become an author, writing her own books and contributing to the Wonder Woman comics, but also to a stint as a WWII spy—or, at least, that’s what Marble claimed.

Weintraub’s fascinating portrayal of one of America’s very first athletic starlets asks as many questions as it answers. Marble’s secretive life was part of her charm, but her glamorous encounters and exciting experiences seem almost too good to be true. In addition to investigating these wild tales, Weintraub solidifies Alice Marble as one of the most important figures in tennis history. Later becoming coach to Billie Jean King and an activist for the desegregation of tennis, Marble’s influence can still be felt, even as her name remains largely unrecognized. The Divine Miss Marble seeks to rectify that disparity, drawing attention to one of tennis’s greatest players and, most importantly, telling a good story.

It is essentially a fact that Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time. Almost everyone in the world knows her name—even people who don’t otherwise watch any sports at all. But another famous female tennis player came before Serena whose name was just as well known but now has all but […]

Norwich, Vermont, population circa 3,000, has sent contestants to the Olympics almost every year since 1984, cheering on three gold medalists in the Winter Olympics in the same span of years that the entire country of Spain has produced two. When New York Times writer Karen Crouse discovered this gem of a New England town, she had to ask: How do they do it?

In Norwich, Crouse captures the soul of a town with a 110-year-old general store that pretty well lives up to its motto: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.” She talks to Olympians like moguls champion Hannah Kearney, middle-distance runner Andrew Wheating and snowboarder Kevin Pearce, but surprisingly few of the conversations are about winning or losing; they’re always about the people who made a difference in these Olympians lives.

In the straightforward style of the sportswriter she is, Crouse weaves town history and sports statistics together with heartfelt conversations with the parents and coaches who support all of the community’s children, not just the best of the best. Readers might expect to hear about highly competitive “tiger” moms and dads with money to burn, but that’s not what Crouse finds. Instead, she uncovers a much more laid-back philosophy: Let kids try a bunch of stuff, celebrate with them when they find activities they enjoy, and love them no matter the outcome. Because “you’re never going to make biscuits out of them kittens,” as one old-timer says. Parents in Norwich are not set on molding their children into what they want them to be, but letting them be everything they can be.

By the time readers finish Crouse’s account, they may shift from wondering how Norwich does it to asking why everybody doesn’t do it this way.

Norwich, Vermont, population 3,000, has sent contestants to the Olympics almost every year since 1984, cheering on three gold medalists in the Winter Olympics in the same span of years that the entire country of Spain has produced two. When New York Times writer Karen Crouse discovered this gem of a New England town, she had to ask: How do they do it?

I may be getting cynical in middle age, but my first thought upon hearing that Tiger Woods was writing a memoir about his triumphant victory at the 1997 Masters was, “How clever! He gets to relive his glory days without having to address the mess that came later in his personal life.”

It’s true that Woods neatly sidesteps the revelations of his serial cheating that became a public spectacle and cast shadows on his storied career. The only mention is on the second-to-last page: “I’ve gone through a lot on and off the course, what with different injuries, changes in the game, and the equipment we use, as well as being married, having kids, and getting publicly divorced. It’s definitely been tough at times.”

To be fair, this book is clearly for fans of golf, not scandals. Woods dives deep into his preparations for and experience at the 1997 Masters. Just 21 at the time, he electrified fans with his decisive win and became a global icon.

At the start of the book, Woods writes compellingly, if briefly, about his childhood as a golf prodigy. Life wasn’t always perfect for the Woods family, who experienced racism after moving to a mostly white city in Southern California. “Some of the residents weren’t happy that a mixed-race family had moved in, and threw things at the house—lemons, limes, rocks,” Woods writes.

Still, Woods remained laser-focused on the sport he loved, dreaming about someday playing at Augusta. He finally did as an amateur, but it was in 1997 that the stars aligned for him. Woods takes readers behind the scenes at the legendary club, writing about the accommodations, his interactions with reporters and other golfers, the African-American staff at the club who snuck out to watch him play and even the types of clubs he chose for major shots throughout the four days.

Capped off by Woods’ reflections on his nagging injuries and what he would change about the course at Augusta, The 1997 Masters: My Story is a vivid and ultimately satisfying read about a singular event in American sports.

This article was originally published in the April 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Woods dives deep into his preparations for and experience at the 1997 Masters. Just 21 at the time, he electrified fans with his decisive win and became a global icon.

In a 20-mile triangle in North Carolina, college basketball is a religion. Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center and North Carolina State’s PNC Arena are the centers of worship, where fans engage in liturgical rituals and basketball coaches are gods.

From 1980—when Duke hired Mike Krzyzewski and N.C. State hired Jim Valvano—until Dean Smith’s retirement in 1997, the religion turned ardently passionate, ecstatic or bitter, depending on each team’s fortunes. In The Legends Club, an enthusiastic and energetic account that reads like a fan’s notes, acclaimed sportswriter John Feinstein tells the electrifying stories of the 25 years when this coaching trio ruled the triangle, regularly meeting one another in the ACC final and almost always advancing deep into the NCAA tourney.

In a season-by-season chronicle, Feinstein brings vividly to life the initial pressures Krzyzewski and Valvano felt from their alumni and their respective colleges to beat Smith at UNC. “I expect them to be good,” Krzyzewski said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t be good, too.” Valvano took his typically humorous approach: “I’ll never outcoach Dean Smith, but maybe I can outlive him.” 

In one of the saddest events in college basketball, the boisterous and big-hearted Valvano died of bone cancer in 1993, 10 years after winning a national championship. Smith died in 2015 after suffering neurological damage following routine surgery. As Krzyzewski muses, “Where once were three . . . now there’s one. . . . [W]hat we became as individuals, but maybe even more as a group, is an amazing story.” And, while Duke, UNC and N.C. State fans might quibble about the details, as they always do, Feinstein faithfully captures a rivalry that will remain a legend in sports.

Editor's note: The review has been updated to correct the date when Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Valvano were hired.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

In a 20-mile triangle in North Carolina, college basketball is a religion. Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina’s Dean Smith Center and North Carolina State’s PNC Arena are the centers of worship, where fans engage in liturgical rituals and basketball coaches are gods.

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