Let’s call Summer Book Bingo, from Seattle Arts & Lectures and Seattle Public Library, what it is: a wonderful excuse to dive into some summer reading. Have we ever deserved a summer of good reading more than this year?
Download your Book Bingo card here, and start filling it out. Completing a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line qualifies you for a drawing for a gift card to a local indie bookstore; a full card qualifies you for a drawing for three grand prizes, including a Seattle Arts & Lectures subscription. Cards are accepted through 6 p.m. Sept. 7; for more information on the rules, see spl.org or lectures.org.
To help you get started, here are eight books I’ve recently read and enjoyed, all of which fit into one (or more) bingo categories. Most are new, or new in paperback; one is older than I am. Every one of them had me turning pages late at night, or delaying dinner so as to sneak in a little more reading time.
Here’s to a season of comfortable chairs, summer breezes, reading glasses (and brimming drink glasses) and happily filled-out bingo cards.
“We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration” by Frank Abe and Tamiko Nimura, with artwork by Ross Ishikawa and Matt Sasaki
Category: Graphic Novel or Comic / Activism or Social Justice / Asian American or Pacific Island Author
This handsome local book, from the Wing Luke Museum and Seattle indie publisher Chin Music Press, tells three remarkable stories that too many of us have never heard. Japanese Americans Jim Akutsu, Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Mitsuye Endo all, in different ways, resisted the forced incarceration and questioning of their citizenship by the U.S. government during World War II; each of their stories defines bravery. And telling them in the graphic novel format adds immediacy — we see faces, hear pauses, place ourselves in the moment. Artists Ishikawa and Sasaki have two very different styles — one with simple lines and thoughtful color; one more impressionistic, in dramatic black-and-white. Both of which beautifully serve their stories, particularly in a devastating moment late in the book when the pages literally turn dark.
I learned something on every page of this book, which includes the text of many actual letters and documents from that time. It leaves you simultaneously furious, questioning ideas of loyalty and citizenship — “To me, citizenship is nothing to be shifted back and forth at government’s will,” says Akutsu at his trial — and deeply moved. May all of us learn, and share, these stories.
“The Best of Everything” by Rona Jaffe
Category: Recommended by a Friend / Beach Read
I’m going to assume that “friend” here can mean the kind you haven’t met, but whose taste you know and respect: New Yorker writer Rachel Syme, one of my favorite follows on Twitter, recommended this 1958 novel earlier this spring. “The Best of Everything” takes place in a just-pre-“Mad Men”-era New York, following five young women who work in the publishing industry. All have dreams of an exciting life in the big city; all face a future filled with casual sexual harassment, a glass ceiling that didn’t have a name, dates accustomed to taking what they want, and drunkenly dangerous office Christmas parties.
The book is a time capsule, but a poignant one: Jaffe’s women come to life both through vivid description (Gregg, a would-be actress, has “long straight blond hair, not the stringy kind, but the sort that swayed all in one piece when she moved quickly”) and open hearts. You find yourself aching for April when she throws herself at an unworthy man, or cheering as Barbara vows to not let an angry executive — whose advance she has just rebuffed — take her job away. “The Best of Everything” made me think of Mary McCarthy’s “The Group,” but predates that book by several years. Long before #MeToo, this book spoke out; its voice still rings out clearly today.
“Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” by Patrick Radden Keefe
Category: Seattle Arts & Lectures Speaker
New Yorker journalist Keefe’s nonfiction (“Say Anything: A True Story of Murder and Mayhem in Northern Ireland”) reads like the most fascinating and artful of novels — full of details that you’d think a fiction writer made up. This book is, at heart, a fascinating, infuriating portrait of evil: a look behind the tragic curtain of the opioid epidemic, shining a light on the family who made a fortune from their company’s showpiece drug OxyContin.
The Sackler saga began with three sons born to an immigrant family in prewar Brooklyn; their father struggled financially, but vowed to leave his sons his good name. The brothers thrived in pharmaceutical marketing (Richard Sackler was the mastermind behind Valium, initially pitched as a harmless happiness pill) and lived in staggering wealth: lavish homes, a parade of newer and younger wives, names plastered on museum wings. Eventually, the family business launched OxyContin in the mid-1990s, with a massive marketing push (claiming the drug was nonaddictive) aimed at getting doctors to prescribe it.
Keefe fits a mountain of detail on every page; from the Sacklers’ lives-of-the-rich-and-famous existence (watch for an effective cameo by Courtney Love) to the mechanics of opioids to what can only be described as a devastating absence of humanity. Two Sacklers who appeared at a 2020 congressional hearing about the family’s role in the opioid epidemic “seemed incapable of comprehending their own role in the story,” Keefe wrote, “and impervious to any genuine moral epiphany.”
“The Plot” by Jean Hanff Korelitz
We read books for many reasons, but sometimes we just want to get lost in a great plot — and Korelitz, author of “You Should Have Known” (recently made into the HBO series “The Undoing”), here delivers a psychological thriller so wickedly delicious it should be served with ice cream. Jake Finch Bonner’s first novel made a modest splash, but he’s now miserably teaching writing and wondering if his next book will even be published. When an obnoxious student shares his own brilliant plot idea, Jake is intrigued and envious — and, when he hears years later that the student has died without publishing his book, wonders who would even know if he lifted the idea. Turns out — oops — that somebody does.
Korelitz, who’s based in New York but set a portion of the story in Seattle (watch for clever cameos from Seattle Arts & Lectures, Benaroya Hall and Elliott Bay Book Co.), writes hilariously — and no doubt accurately — about the writing program in which Jake teaches. And she expertly wrangles her book’s tricky double-barreled plot, as the novel itself and the novel-within-the-novel (whose plot is only revealed to us in slow, deliberate doses) merge and the pages start turning as if blown by a gale force. When it was over, too soon, I just wanted to start again and see how she’d done it; it’s that good.
“It’s Not All Downhill From Here” by Terry McMillan
Category: Beach Reads / Black Joy
It’s been a while since I’ve read a Terry McMillan book; my last one might have been “Waiting to Exhale” in the early ’90s. But I picked this one up to read for my Seattle Times Book Club, and found it a pleasure to enter McMillan’s world again. Loretha, a Los Angeles woman in her late 60s, has a full, rich and complicated life: a sweet husband, a chatty and loving circle of friends, a troubled daughter, a small business empire, a doctor who’s warning her about diabetes and a complex web of extended family. But a sudden tragedy changes things, early in the book, and she needs to figure out a new way of living.
Narrated by the instantly lovable and very human Loretha (she’s constantly announcing that she’s going to start eating better … soon), “It’s Not All Downhill From Here” feels like time spent with friends. McMillan has a way of making the reader part of a warm circle, of weaving good life advice (reminding us to take care of our mental and physical health) in with her gently funny scenarios. I’m calling this one a beach read because there’s something sunny and comforting about reading it; you’re left, like Loretha, feeling better and determined to “do everything I can to slide into home so I leave gold dust behind me.”
“Hamnet” by Maggie O’Farrell
Category: On Your Shelf
My mother lent me this book a while ago and for some reason I hadn’t gotten around to it, despite hearing that it won last year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. What was I waiting for? Irish novelist O’Farrell takes as her subject a shadowy name in history: Hamnet Shakespeare — son of the playwright — who died in the summer of 1596, aged just 11. That sentence is virtually everything known about the boy, but here he comes to life, in prose as vivid and colorful as that penned by Hamnet’s father long ago.
“Hamnet” unfolds in two perfectly coiled strands: that awful summer day when first Hamnet’s twin Judith and then her brother became stricken with plague, and some years earlier, as the children’s mother Agnes meets a young Latin tutor, becomes pregnant, marries and experiences motherhood. The tutor, whose name we are never told, is distracted from his work by dreams of theater — he looks at trees and thinks of painted scenery — and soon is off to seek his fortune in London.
This book has at its center the loss of a child, and as such it’s devastatingly sad; brave, strong Agnes only breaks when Judith, herself barely recovered, asks of her twin, “Will he never come back?” But, as with all great plays, “Hamnet” has a final act that’s incandescent, reminding us how art can come from pain, how work for a writer can be a “safe place to stow his mind,” how something forever lost can still be held close. On its surface it’s a book about death; at its beautiful, beating heart, “Hamnet” is a book about love.
“Dial A for Aunties” by Jesse Q. Sutanto
Category: Recommended by Library Staff / Peak Picks / Made You Laugh
Looking for a light, quick read that’ll charm your socks off? Look no further than this delightful debut, in which a young California woman has to deal with an inconvenient corpse (talk about a bad first date) with the help of her mother and a bevy of meddlesome but resourceful aunties. Can you possibly resist a book that includes this sentence?: “Trust Ma to take pride in my etiquette when I’ve just shown her my date, who I’ve killed, in the trunk of my car.”
Give in, accept that you’ll want to read the whole book without stopping, and cheer the news that a sequel is coming, as is a Netflix adaptation. In a touching author’s note, Sutanto acknowledges that her older characters “speak the sort of broken English my parents’ generation does” (her grandparents moved from China to Indonesia in the 1920s) and that she hopes the book “gives you a little peek into the fierce love with which my family raised us and protects us to this day.” Like I said, irresistible.
“Impostor Syndrome” by Kathy Wang
Category: Asian American or Pacific Islander Author
Wang’s first novel, “Family Trust,” was the story of a Chinese American family in Silicon Valley and the complicated ties that bound them; I was intrigued to hear that her follow-up was something else entirely: a spy saga. “Impostor Syndrome” has two women at its center: sleek Julia Lerner, an undercover Russian agent who heads up the American social media empire Tangerine, and smart tech worker Alice Lu, who discovers suspicious activity on a server. From there, it’s a ticktock; you can picture the smooth Hollywood thriller this book might make. (No, I haven’t heard about the movie rights being sold. Yet.)
While the details of “Impostor Syndrome” sometimes seem a bit far-fetched, it’s nonetheless great fun to read, and Alice makes an appealingly intrepid heroine, both brilliant and relatable. (I love how, after logging off “God Mode” in the company’s shadowy back end, she then browses The Gap for pajamas.) And Wang, herself a former tech worker, writes with tart wisdom of that world. No large tech company, Julia notes wryly, ever supports more than one high-profile female executive at a time — “it was as if too many might suck up all the oxygen, causing the entity to collapse in on itself like a dying star.”