Summer’s on its way, and with it comes — theoretically — more time to read. I know, I know … some of you like to go outside in the summertime. But reading, may I point out, a) causes no injuries, b) gives you no sunburn (unless you’re reading outside, of course), c) requires no special equipment, d) attracts no crowds, and e) gets you out of the potentially smoky summer air. And if you like your summer activities to have a bit of sportslike competition involved, behold: 2019 Summer Book Bingo, presented by Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts & Lectures.
How do you play? Get yourself a bingo card — download one here or at spl.org or pick one up at any branch of Seattle Public Library. Study the categories, and get reading, filling the card out (enter title and author in the square) as you go. If you score a bingo — a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line of five — you can enter a drawing for a gift card for a local independent bookstore. If you fill out the entire card, you can win one of three grand prizes: tickets to all of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ 2019-20 events.
To be eligible for prizes, submit your card by 6 p.m. Sept. 3, either by dropping it off at a library branch, mailing it in (to Seattle Arts & Lectures, 340 15th Ave. E., Suite 301, Seattle, WA 98112), or posting a photo of your completed card with the hashtag #BookBingoNW2019 on Facebook (@SeattlePublicLibrary, @SeattleArtsAndLectures), Twitter (@SPLBuzz, @SeaArtsLectures), or Instagram (@SeattlePublicLibrary, @seattleartsandlectures).
Need recommendations to get you started on filling out your bingo card? Here are books that have been on my nightstand — and, too often, kept me up late — in recent days.
“Big Sky” by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown, $28; publication date June 25). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “true crime or crime fiction,” “you couldn’t put it down”
After a pause for a remarkable trio of wartime novels (“Life After Life,” “A God in Ruins,” and “Transcription”), the great Atkinson has returned to crime fiction and her well-beloved detective, Jackson Brodie. You could read this without knowledge of the previous Brodie novels, but “Big Sky” does contain several poignant callbacks to the earlier books — and hey, what’s summer for if not to fall in love with a new detective? “Big Sky” is the fifth in the Brodie series, and it’s one of the darkest: Jackson, relocated to a quiet Yorkshire town, is quietly running his private detective agency (he tries not to call it that, though — “Too Chandleresque. It raised people’s expectations.”) when he becomes aware of a sinister network of sex trafficking. Atkinson masterfully juggles Brodie’s consciousness with that of numerous other characters, including a trophy wife with a secret, a dogged pair of female cops, and a teen boy struggling to come to terms with the loss of his mother. You flit in and out of their various viewpoints, but Brodie’s — warmhearted, weary, haunted by loss — always feels like coming home. (Not that he would like this book; we learn here that he likes his crime fiction to be “cheerfully unrealistic,” though he hardly reads much anymore: “Life was too short and Netflix was too good.”) I read this book in a delicious late-night rush; I suspect many of you will too.
“Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss” by Rajeev Balasubramanyam (Dial Press, $27). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “by an author of color”
Every summer reading list should include an author of whom you’ve never heard, so here was my wild card: Balasubramanyam, a British writer and meditation practitioner who’s won several awards for his fiction. I plucked “Professor Chandra Follows His Bliss” from my pile because it started off with an intriguing premise — what happens when everyone (colleagues, family, media, bookies) believes that you’re going to win the Nobel Prize, and you don’t? For Cambridge professor P.R. Chandrasekhar, it marks the beginning of a quest that takes him around the world, trying to find connection with his family (particularly his estranged daughter) and spiritual peace. And while the novel at times gets a little too talky, it’s never less than charming: Balasubramanyam is a writer of wit (I loved a description of how a colleague pronounces Chandra’s name “as if embarking upon the word ‘chandelier’ before losing his train of thought”) and wisdom. It’s quite moving as Chandra ponders the prize he will never win, of the hope that is now absent from his life: “He was like a greyhound after the race has ended, forever longing for that phantom rabbit now vanished from the horizon.”
“Queenie” by Candice Carty-Williams (Scout Press, $26). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “published when author was under 35,” “by an author of color”
“A black Bridget Jones” is the easy way to describe this debut novel about the adventures of Queenie Jenkins, a contemporary British Jamaican woman in her 20s with a loyal circle of friends, a job that isn’t always compelling, and a penchant for finding the wrong men. And Carty-Williams finds plenty of wit here — the group texts between Queenie and her pals are utterly believable in their cut-to-the-chase banter, and I loved Queenie’s family’s two unofficial mottoes: “Food Is Love” and “Have You Put On Weight?” But the tone here overall is more poignant: Life isn’t exactly lighthearted for Queenie, who works in an office full of “white not-quite-liberals whose opinions, like their money, had been inherited,” and who’s crushed by her boyfriend’s rejection in the book’s early pages. Ultimately Queenie, like Bridget, needs to learn to love herself in the face of a world that doesn’t automatically love her back, and it feels like a triumph when, by book’s end, she begins to get there. “We aren’t here for an easy ride,” she tells her young cousin, of life as a black woman. “You’re going to have to work hard to carve out your own identity, but you can do it.”
“City of Girls” by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books, $28; publication date June 4). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “you couldn’t put it down,” “a SAL speaker” (October 2015)
Though Gilbert is best known for her massively best-selling (and Julie Roberts movie-ing) memoir “Eat Pray Love,” I’m a bigger fan of her fiction. “The Signature of All Things,” a few years ago, was a glorious novel of adventure, love and botany set mostly in the 19th century. Now comes “City of Girls,” taking place in more recent but still distant history: New York in the early 1940s, where Vivian Morris — “nineteen years old and an idiot” — arrives, fresh from being kicked out of Vassar College, to stay with her very theatrical Aunt Peg, who owns the Lily Playhouse. Words cannot express how voraciously I devoured this book’s first half, which follows Vivian’s immersion into a hard-partying life among showgirls, her sexual awakening, and her budding career as a costume designer — all set against a jazzy, bustling backdrop of vintage Manhattan, a place full of stories that Vivian drank “like spring water.” The second half, as the tale grows darker and more reflective, feels less energetic, but it matters little; this master storyteller had drawn me in. The descriptions along the way — of outfits, of drinks, of faces — are delicious, and the smart, snappy dialogue races along like a screwball movie. “There are subtleties, my dear,” a wise woman tells Vivian, who’s wondering about the truth behind someone’s marriage. “You will discover as you get older that there’s practically nothing but subtleties.” (Gilbert will speak at the Moore Theatre at 7 p.m. Saturday, June 15; tickets are $35.50 and include a copy of the book. Details: elliottbaybook.com, 800-982-2787)
“Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe” by Evan James (Atria Books, $26). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “set in the Northwest,” “set in summer”
James, who’s originally from Seattle and now based in New York, set his debut novel in a familiar place: a posh enclave on Bainbridge Island, where the eccentric Widdicombe family is spending the summer in Willowbrook, their new island home. This is the sort of comedy of manners in which you expect everyone to have a British accent, and for Jeeves to perhaps be lurking in the background. Instead, we have the very American Frank and Carol Widdicombe, their dramatic only child Christopher (who performs, in a supermarket, “his first performance art project, ‘Son’”), and various hangers-on including a harried personal assistant and a self-help guru houseguest with wildly tousled hair, “as though the effort of becoming enlightened in the particular pop-psychological fashion of the time had left her disheveled, almost postcoital.” While James writes at an arch distance from his characters, he nonetheless has a clear fondness for them — and for the setting, which a despairing Christopher dismisses as “like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting!” It’s good summer fun, full of sentences that please in their absurd rhythms, such as: “In that fine transit through July, Willowbrook saw heartache, anguish, sorrow, redecorating.”
“Miracle Creek” by Angie Kim (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “by an author of color,” “book about disability”
I’m always fascinated by first-time novelists who’ve had established careers doing something else, and particularly those who can let that career flavor their fiction. Kim is a former trial lawyer who here crafts a fascinating courtroom drama/literary novel, and you sense her confidence in these pages. She knows exactly what a courtroom feels and sounds like: the performance of being a witness; the rhythm of a brisk, deadly series of questions; the way a rapped gavel can linger in a charged silence. At the novel’s center is a hyperbaric oxygen chamber — it’s a blue-painted vessel, looking like a miniature submarine — that a Korean immigrant couple, Pak and Young Woo, operate in their rural Virginia backyard. A mother brings her autistic son there daily, hoping that the oxygen doses might change him — but in the book’s early pages we learn that something terrible happened in that chamber, and that the mother is on trial for her son’s death. Kim combines a taut whodunit with vivid observations on the immigrant experience (“it was inevitable,” Pak muses, “for immigrants to become child versions of themselves, stripped of their verbal fluency and, with it, a layer of their competence and maturity”), parenting a child with disabilities, and the often thwarted dreams that come with both.
“Lady in the Lake” by Laura Lippman (William Morrow, $26.99; publication date July 23). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “true crime or crime fiction,” “you couldn’t put it down”
OK, I realize I’m being a little unfair in picking this one, as it won’t be published for another two months. But Lippman (whose sizzling “Sunburn” was one of my favorites last year) is so very good at what she does, making it impossible for me to resist pouncing on this 1960s-era noir the minute the advance review copy hit my desk. (Seattle Public Library, anticipating a rush, is ordering 226 copies; get on the waiting list now.) “Lady in the Lake” — whose title is both Raymond Chandler homage and reference to a central character, a young woman found dead in a Baltimore park fountain — has at its center Maddie Schwartz, who has left her comfortable, boring marriage in search of excitement. She’s dreaming of a career as a crime journalist, in which she solves the mystery of Cleo Sherwood, the dead woman. But these two voices (yes, Cleo speaks) are just part of this book’s rich chorus: Lippman, with a how-does-she-pull-this-off bravura, alternates their chapters with others told in voices of more than a dozen peripheral characters — a jewelry-store clerk, a black patrolman into whose arms Maddie readily slides, a world-weary columnist, a Baltimore Orioles player, a child. All play a role in the story, however small; all chime together to create a movie-bright picture of a time, a place, a crime, and a dreamer. And Lippman, who began her career at The Baltimore Sun, is especially vivid in the newspaper scenes. “Filthy and loud. So many newspapers, piled everywhere,” is Maddie’s first impression upon entering a 1966-era newsroom. “People shouting, typewriters clacking, a bell ringing somewhere. And so many men.”
“Save Me the Plums” by Ruth Reichl (Random House, $27). Bingo categories: “DIY (gardening, cooking, crafting, etc.),” “you couldn’t put it down,” “recommended by a librarian” (a Seattle Public Library Peak Pick!)
Sometimes, in one’s reading life, one only wants dessert, and what could be better dessert than Reichl’s gossipy, food-laden account of her decade spent as editor of Gourmet magazine? Reichl, former restaurant critic for The New York Times (should you need more dessert, read her delightful memoir of those years, “Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise”), took over the post in 1999, when the magazine industry was booming. The offer alone was mouthwatering: six times her NYT salary, a car and driver, a clothing allowance, international travel. As always, Reichl writes with a best-pal intimacy, and it’s great fun to tag along with her to meetings, test kitchens and posh restaurant tables. Along the way, Reichl’s young son becomes a “food explorer,” some literary celebrities stroll through (the late David Foster Wallace loved to argue about punctuation), and a few tasty-sounding recipes are sprinkled in. And she recalls spearheading an effort to feed the firefighters at the World Trade Center on 9/11, in a chapter poignantly called “Why We Cook.” “It wasn’t much; it was a bowl of chili,” Reichl wrote. “But when the man looked up and said, ‘Thank you for this taste of home,’ I looked around at the dust and smoke and chaos and began to cry.”
“Normal People” by Sally Rooney (Hogarth, $26). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “published when author was under 35”
Irish author Rooney’s “Conversations With Friends” was rapturously received in 2017; now she’s back with her second novel, which follows two people — Connell and Marianne — from high school and university and young adulthood. They are separated by class (his single mother is her family’s house cleaner) and by expectations, but perpetually connected by something that’s more than friendship but doesn’t seem as conventional as love. Early on, their connection is mostly sex and entirely a secret, one that Connell carries around “like something large and hot, like an overfull tray of hot drinks that he has to carry everywhere and never spill.” Later, as their paths in life crisscross like vines, they help each other through darker times: she struggles with self-worth and damaging partners; he feels more comfortable with fiction than people. Rooney, in coolly beautiful prose, effortlessly puts us inside Connell and Marianne’s heads; it’s not so much that we meet them as we become them. And she perfectly captures that delicious sense of being at home with a person, as in this description of their conversations: “At times he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters, improvising their discussions so adeptly and in such perfect synchronization that it surprises them both. She tosses herself gracefully into the air, and each time, without knowing how he’s going to do it, he catches her.”
“The Electric Hotel” by Dominic Smith (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27; publication date June 4). Bingo categories: “fiction,” “you couldn’t put it down”
Smith’s wondrous new novel (previous books include “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos”) is about the silvery, everyday magic of filmmaking; taking us into a past when the camera’s work was still a miracle, and writing about it with a palpable rapture: “The illusion was to make it all feel alive and unfolding now, to feel as causally connected as the flowing branches of a river, when in fact it was sixteen lies per second, the slipstream of frames that caused the human eye to imagine perpetual motion.” “The Electric Hotel” blends the fictional — French silent-film maverick Claude Ballard and his sultry screen muse, Sabine Montrose — with fact, weaving in names from film history like the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison to tell a story mostly set in the early days of filmmaking, taking us through the making of a silent drama set in a strangely Gothic, remote hotel, and how it changed the lives of those who were involved in it. Smith, who’s from Australia but now lives in Seattle, writes with an old-world elegance; you get lost in these pages like you do in a great movie, not wanting the lights to come up. (Smith will speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 5, at Third Place Books in Ravenna, and will show a few silent-film clips as well. Information: thirdplacebooks.com, 206-525-2347)