Chicago Tribune (Sunday)

Must reads

I must read 38 books before Labor Day and I’m already behind. Here’s my list: Mostly shorter must-reads for summer 2021

- Christophe­r Borrelli

According to the rotation of the Earth, tilt of the poles and placement of the sun, we are ending the first official week of summer, which means one thing: I need to finish this Andrew McCarthy memoir fast. That way I can get started on “Wings of the Dove,” which being Henry James might take a chunk of time and crowd out the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and that book about sailing around the world I keep trying to finish. This is what the summer solstice means to me: Since midnight Friday, Memorial Day Weekend, I have read at least 20 books. More or less 20. By this point, around 20. My summer reading, for as long as I can remember, has followed the rigid schedule of the universe.

I know this sounds obsessive at best, and bonkers at worse.

I hesitate to continue here.

But let me explain: For the past 30 years, every summer, without fail, through pandemics and college and children and jobs and moves, I have drawn up a summer reading list too long to ever actually get through completely — then, I have tried to get through it completely. It’s my thing. You have yours. This is mine. So the routine matters: As Memorial Weekend approaches, I compile a list of what I want to read from Memorial Day Weekend to Labor Day. To do this, I scour memory, my bookshelve­s, my Amazon cart, publisher catalogs. I jot down my final list on a bookmark saved from Mitchell’s Book Corner on Nantucket, which once had a bookmark with only a small logo, leaving room for lists. (The design has since changed, but anticipati­ng the change, I stockpiled.)

Finally, Memorial Day Weekend until 11:59 p.m. Labor Day, I see how much of the list I can read. Which means, reading in bed, in dead of night, before sunrise, when I’d rather watch TV, on the toilet, in the drive-thru at Dunkin’. I read in a chair at the front of the house, in the park, waiting for takeout, on planes, boats. For years I was so hardcore I refused to soften the heavy lift with audiobooks, but now I add a handful every summer.

Why do this?

For long I was an aspiration­al reader, the kind of kid who brought home from the library the maximum number of titles allowed at one time, then only

got through a couple. I never got a summer reading list from a teacher, and I rarely ventured much beyond Stephen King. I wished for a routine of reading. So, one summer, luffing with boredom through an internship, knowing I would have to read much more in college, I simply started. I made a list of a dozen books. Over the years that doubled, then quadrupled.

Am I spoiling a pleasant pastime now?

Maybe. What was a casual annual hike inevitably turns into a scramble up K2. When I mentioned all this about a dozen years ago in this newspaper, I thought getting it out would release me of the habit of being so strict, but since then, I’ve only doubled down.

On the other hand, the challenge itself has brought order and comfort when I needed both, and beyond the books themselves, I now have several decades of summertime milestones. My bookmark lists of summers past read like transports now: I picture cabins in Maine and humid nights lost in Joseph Mitchell. I remember waiting for a AAA tow on I-80, hoping they take longer so I could make it through this last chapter. I recall the summer my grandfathe­r died, when I burrowed myself into a Dean Martin biography; I recall the summer I fit mini Lydia Davis stories between innings at a White Sox game.

Last summer, the lost pandemic summer, I read many longer books, and with a bit less to fill the downtime, I finished 60 by Labor Day. Plus, without a couple of hours a day on the CTA, I added a new tradition to the old tradition: I began driving to the lakefront each morning long before dawn and reading for an hour or so. I still do it. It’s helped. This summer, anticipati­ng the reopening of life again, the list is punchier, full of shorter novels, collection­s of stories and essays, a little poetry and a few superhero comics.

Also, Stephen King. Always Stephen King. Should you attempt anything like this, finding the proper mix — high and low, short and long, bestsellin­g and obscure — matters. Don’t fly from Charles Dickens to Toni Morrison without a stop at something snappier. Think comics, poetry, 120-page noir — you’ll need the momentum.

Having said this, what follows are a bunch of smart new titles (and a few arriving soon) that should satisfy summer reading vibes. Pick one from each category, consider the proper mix — and that’s a good 10 weeks of comfort right there. Just don’t go nuts.

Summer Potboiler

Cynthia Pelayo’s wonderfull­y eerie “Children of Chicago” (Agora, $26), an ode to Humboldt Park and fairy tales and crime novels and Chicago’s Latinx community, has ambition to spare: It tells of a Pied Piper luring children to their deaths, but lands somewhere between Sara Paretsky and folklore. Speaking of smart takes on old stuff: “The Final Girl Support Group” (Berkley, $26, July) is welcomingl­y slight, high-concept horror about a support group of massacre survivors being hunted by a killer eager to finish the job.

Summer Road Trip

“Republic of Detours: How the New Deal Paid Broke Writers to Rediscover America” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $30) gives the Depression-era Federal Writers Project the surprising, deep history it needed: Here was a government plan to put writers to work constructi­ng no less than a field guide to every corner of the country. Chicago, one of its largest offices, churned out, among many others, pieces on Illinois humor and histories of Clark Street. Meanwhile, further off the grid, “How Iceland Changed the World: The Big History of a Small Island” (Penguin,

$17), one fascinatin­g page after another, argues for the country as a true hub of history.

Summer Pioneers A big smile of a book:

“I Have Always Been Me” (Topple/Little A, $24.95, July) by Precious Brady-Davis, a Hyde Park trans advocate (and former assistant director of diversity recruitmen­t at Columbia College), is a blunt, often revealing memoir of someone finding comfort in themselves, without the tinkling piano of self-help cheese to flatten the charm. Sure to be a summer breakout. Just as confident: “The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic” (FSG, $18, July) by Chicago-based Jessica Hopper (a former Tribune contributo­r), a vastly expanded version of her disappoint­ingly slim 2015 collection. If you haven’t read music criticism since your subscripti­on to Rolling Stone expired in 1994, here’s a fine starting point.

Summer Trouble

“Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter — Then, Now and Forever” (Avery, $24), by linguist John McWhorter, goes there. He offers a rich (expletive) considerat­ion of the uses and meanings and histories of every other word that seems to come out of mouths lately. You know who would have loved it? Richard Nixon, who’s own naughty mouth, blind spots and pathetic unraveling gets a renewed intimacy in Michael Dobbs’ surprising­ly riveting “King Richard: Nixon and Watergate — An American Tragedy” (Knopf, $32.50). Like a great curse word, you have heard it endlessly, but told through a fresh voice, it’s as fun as it is lurid.

Summer Pastime

The thoughtful baseball book of summer:

“Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball” (Flatiron, $29.99). Author Luke Epplin, an Illinois native, chronicles the 1948 World Series champion Cleveland Indians through a pair of prescient lenses: the promotiona­l legend of Chicagoan (and later White Sox owner) Bill Veeck Jr. and the integratio­n (after the debut of Jackie Robinson) of Black players, including Satchel Paige and Larry Doby. It reads like a kind of play-by-play prequel of baseball’s future.

Summer Epics

I like one enormous kitchen-sink novel each summer, and here are two contenders: Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Dubois” (Harper, $28.99, July) and “Great Circle” (Knopf, $28.95) by Maggie Shipstead. The latter, a lot of fun, swooping from shipwrecke­d infants to contempora­ry Hollywood, lost planes to Antarctic

detours, is that rare treat — a female-led adventure tale that swings for the literary fences and mostly succeeds. “Love Songs,” nearly 800 pages, is no less ambitious, a generation­al portrait of a single Black family across centuries, from the earliest colonial slavery to university.

Summer Remix

Have a lot of plans this summer? Don’t want to commit to book-length anything? “The Penguin Book of the Modern American Short Story”

(Penguin, $28) is a necessary, contempora­ry snapshot of arguably the most important voices in literature this very moment, and it’s a pretty smart argument: Selections stretch from the early ’70s (Ursula K. Le Guin, Jamaica Kincaid) to the past few years (Ted Chiang, Lauren Groff ), giving a familiar canon a jolt of pop (Stephen King), immigratio­n (Adichie) and a lot of Chicago (Stuart Dybek, George Saunders, Sandra Cisneros). To wrap his (eventually cornerston­e) trilogy of the history of American essay writing, Phillip Lopate returns with “The Contempora­ry American Essay” (Anchor, $18, August), a similar canon-cleanser, including Aleksandar Hemon, Eula Biss, Rebecca Solnit and more.

Summer Stage

You know what’s really good you probably didn’t think was really good? This new Andrew McCarthy memoir, “Brat: An ’80s Story” (Grand Central, $28). It’s a tight, melancholy stumble through an ambivalent young actor’s rise and fade, with a bit of dirt, but the perfect kind — the small, self-incriminat­ing kind. His admittedly star-crossed foray on Broadway is a blip beside the legacy found in the lively “Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created ‘Sunday in the Park With George’ ” (FSG, $40, August), a fresh take on oral history from collaborat­or James Lapine, who skips the typical cultural excavation for a series of casual conversati­ons with everyone involved. For a more straight-ahead showbiz bio: “From the Streets of Shaolin: The Wu-Tang Saga” (Hachette, $30, July) is the best sort, a deeply researched and sourced history of a cultural institutio­n, paying smart attention to context — Afrofuturi­sm, martial arts, etc.

Summer Festival

Music autobiogra­phy — with exceptions (Dylan, Springstee­n, that recent Talib Kweli memoir) — is often a slog. The best tend to be the least obvious. Bobby Rush’s “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya: My American Blues Story” (Hachette, $29) recounts the rise of the Chicago blues scene with the warm detail — he played blues by night, sold hot dogs in the Loop by day — of an old pro finally slowing. Likewise, Sinead O’Connor’s “Rememberin­gs” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28) pauses where you least expect: Her rise is blown past in favor of a harrowing childhood, then a breakdown that finds her living in, uh, Waukegan. I know. It’s enough to drive you to the understand­ing arms of “Stories to Tell” (Simon & Schuster, $27) by Highland Park hit master Richard Marx, which, as promised, has good stories, some OK stories, and many stories about finding mentors in the least obvious artists — Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Luther Vandross ...

Summer Dives

John Edgar Wideman’s “You Made Me Love You: Selected Stories, 1981-2018” (Scribner, $30) and Library of America’s “Collected Stories” (LOA, $45) of Donald Barthelme arrive in the right season. Say you don’t want to spend too long with any one author this summer. Both are masters of the short story, overlooked outside literary circles. And both nail their fragile worlds inside a handful of pages, recalling the rumination of Faulkner (Wideman) and wordplay of Pynchon (Barthelme) — and every bit their equals.

Summer Jobs

You’ll hear “The Other Black Girl” (Atria, $27) by Zakiya Dalila Harris is an “edgier ‘Devil Wears Prada’ ” or horror or a thriller, but really it’s breezy satire with sting: A young Black woman joins a publishing house that prides itself on diversity, only to find herself pitted against the Other Black Girl working there. Speaking of satiric publishing-world thrillers, the new novel by the never-boring Francine Prose, cheekily titled “The Vixen” (Harper, $25.99), is a McCarthy-era mystery about a young editor charged with handling a cheap, tawdry, historyres­haping of the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg trial.

Summer Doldrums

Six months into 2021, the raft of new books on Trump-era America feels a little bit like taxes — probably necessary, definitely inevitable, but still, ewww . Here are a couple shining a direction forward. “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made” (Random House, $28) by former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes does what the country itself didn’t do enough: consider the decline of democracy and the rise of nationalis­m. It’s also a travel memoir, a nicely observed account of how the Trump years looked from outside. “Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal” (FSG, $27) by The Atlantic’s George Packer is more like several years of op-eds condensed, with something to energize and irritate everyone. Think political pamphlet, albeit with a clear-eyed portrait of American character — ugly and promising.

Summer Love

There’s still a lot of year left. I haven’t read everything, of course. But here are two I can’t shake:

“Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch” (FSG, $27, July) tells the story of a German widow swept up in the 15th century witch trials with a modern eye for absurdity and a wry feel for how the choices of individual­s steer history.

“Nightbitch” (Doubleday, $25.95, July) — the Kafkaesque debut of Rachel Yoder, a native of Appalachia­n Ohio — finds a fresh way to address the unease of motherhood and upsetting of ambitions. She brings a hint of werewolf to the story of a woman who slowly suspects she’s a canine.

Summer Couples

You know what I would watch? A buddy movie starring Seth Rogen and Salman Rushdie. Judging from their very good new essay collection­s — Rogen’s “Yearbook” (Crown, $28) and Rushdie’s “Languages of Truth: Essays 20032020” (Random House, $28) — they share a talent for cutting artifice, never settling into irony so much as welcoming the randomness of life. Rushdie swings, as you expect, from Russian gentry to Linda Evangelist­a seamlessly, but Rogen, whose storytelli­ng talents feel revelatory here, writes about a deteriorat­ing meeting with Tom Cruise, the pain of Jewish summer camp and the difficulty of firing someone older than himself, with such kindness

and clarity. The book’s a surprising gem.

Summer Anguish

Kate Summerscal­e unfolds the delicious details of an infamous British scam in “The Haunting of Alma Fielding” (Penguin, $28) so masterfull­y the first half plays like a ghost story while the second half becomes what it always was — the clever ruse of a faceless housewife inches from tragedy. Apocryphal as it sounds, I read this in one sitting. Closer to home: “What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl” (Norton, $26.95) is a new reminder of how completely the true crime genre is owned and flourishin­g through female authors. An 18-year-old vanishes in Cedar Rapids in 1970, and decades later, Katherine Dykstra, on a tip from her mother-in-law, picks up a case ignored for decades. It’s memoir sifted through institutio­nal neglect and sexism.

Summer in Translatio­n

It feels as wrong to call “The Woman in the Purple Skirt” (Penguin, $23) by Japanese favorite Natsuko Imamura a psychologi­cal thriller as it feels odd to call “Migratory Birds” (Transit, $15.95) a book-length series of essays on migration. The former tells an unsettling story of obsession that you never see coming exactly (to say more would ruin it), while the later, from the fine Mexican writer Mariana Oliver, is more like a history as travelogue, with brief pieces on language and home and exile. For someone more familiar: “First Person Singular” (Knopf, $28) is a tight eight story-primer on Haruki Murakami, hitting his usual subjects (nostalgia, culture, lovesickne­ss) with predictabl­e unpredicta­bility.

Summer Self-Care

Here’s a new approach to American exceptiona­lism: “Americanon: An Unexpected U.S. History in Thirteen Bestsellin­g Books” (Dutton, $28) is a cheerful stroll through who we are and claim to be, as seen from the how-to books we’ve bought by the millions, from “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” to “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Each chapter is a cultural dive into a “secular bible” and the often performati­ve results. “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” (HMH, $24) could have been just a graphic novel on the peaks and valleys of fitness fads. But Alison Bechdel (“Fun Home”) transcends her own premise in consistent­ly surprising ways, veering from history to memoir, broadening into a rumination on the impatient tap-tap-tapping of mortality. In other words, it’s a hoot.

Summer Blockbuste­rs

Ah, novels so familiar, they not only sell themselves, you can see the movie trailer before you’re finished with the first chapters. Which is not always a bad thing. “Billy Summers” (Scribner, $30, August), Stephen King’s latest inevitable summer smash, is like his last several books: far more accomplish­ed, propulsive and surprising than you would expect from a long-winded master 60-odd bestseller­s into a nearly 50-year run. Yet a not-very-compelling premise here — hit man with scruples takes one last job — bends into classic summer noir. No vampires, though. No sharks in “Falling” (Avid, $28, July), either. “This is ‘Jaws’ at 35,000 feet,” blurbs Don Winslow. Yes, the concept is high, and a film is coming. Author T.J. Newman, former flight attendant (and musical theater alum at Illinois Wesleyan University), wrote throughout layovers and red eyes, and once you know this, the premise is kind of alarming: A pilot’s family is kidnapped, and he’s given a single demand: Crash the plane, kill the passengers or the family dies.

And that’s why I’m driving this summer.

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 ?? ERIN HOOLEY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE ?? Books for summer reading, including Cynthia Pelayo’s “Children of Chicago.”
ERIN HOOLEY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE Books for summer reading, including Cynthia Pelayo’s “Children of Chicago.”
 ?? ERIN HOOLEY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE ?? Books for summer reading, along Lake Michigan on June 17.
ERIN HOOLEY/CHICAGO TRIBUNE Books for summer reading, along Lake Michigan on June 17.

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