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Summer Reads

Members of Style’s editorial staff take stock of their summer reading lists.

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According to a Pew Research report last year, a quarter of American adults just say no to books. The same study found that our amount of reading was directly related to education level and wealth, and that those who do read are doing so in increasingly different ways, such as via e-books or smartphones.

Leisure reading is also at an all-time low, according to the latest American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found losses across all age levels and higher losses among men. Surprisingly, the major culprit was not the internet or cellphones, but television. In 2017, the average American spent nearly three hours each day glued to the tube and that number is rising. There's just so much to binge watch these days while simultaneously checking our phones to see what other people are doing.

Call us old fashioned at Style, but we still think reading books is a joy and an important way to engage your mind, requiring as it does the use of your own imagination, ability to think critically and sometimes just to marvel in someone else's thoughts. It's also been shown to reduce stress and improve communication skills, for those whose official religion is best described as self-improvement.
Since many folks traditionally catch up on leisure reading in August while on vacation, members of our editorial staff have compiled a list of books they've recently read, are currently reading, or plan to read soon. You know, in the spirit of inspiring an old-fashioned book read (or listen).

Laura Ingles, Lifestyles Editor and Staff Writer

Recently read: "Naturally Tan" by Tan France (St. Martin's Press)

All the members of the Fab Five on Netflix's "Queer Eye" are national treasures, but the introverted style guru who loves an "I told you so" and never fails to deliver the perfect one-liner holds a special place in my heart. The chronicle of Tan France's life is poignant, thoughtful and at times laugh-out-loud-in-public funny, while maintaining that everyday humanness that makes a well-crafted memoir so enjoyable. I inhaled the audio version over just a couple days, which I can't recommend more enthusiastically — he narrates it himself, creating the experience of hearing a story directly from a close personal friend. The stories themselves are compelling on their own, and hearing them in his voice adds a whole new level of connection with him as a writer. Though to be fair, I could listen to that man read aloud from a refrigerator manual and still be enraptured.

Currently reading: "Little Bee" by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster)

This is by far the best book I've obtained from a Little Free Library — you know, those adorable mailbox-looking structures with signs that say "Take a book, share a book." Originally published in the U.K. in 2008, Chris Cleave's second novel made it to the U.S. in 2009 and somehow never crossed my radar until 10 years later. I've been engrossed since the first page, not just because the plot itself is so captivating — a Nigerian refugee and a British widow are reunited years after an unlikely encounter — but because the charming, melodious language in the alternating chapters narrated by the asylum seeker feel almost like poetry. It's a haunting, unapologetically raw and stunningly relevant story, and I'm intentionally slowing down for the last few chapters because I'm not ready for it to end.

Excited to read: "The Turn of the Key" by Ruth Ware (Gallery/Scout Press)

Thriller novels were never my thing until recently. Thanks to British author Ruth Ware, 2019 is shaping up to be the year of the murder mystery for me. Her 2016 novel, "The Woman in Cabin 10," was probably the first mystery I'd read since my childhood "Nancy Drew" days. Upon finishing it, I promptly added her other three books to my to-read list. All four novels feature mostly likeable, slightly neurotic young female protagonists with questionable narration reliability who find themselves trapped in dangerous, frightening situations. Full disclosure: Many reviewers accuse Ware's plot twists and end revelations of being too predictable. Perhaps I'm just inept at solving fictional mysteries, but I never see it coming, and I'm equal parts horrified and delighted every time. Ware is one of those writers who churns out a new book every year like clockwork, and I'm itching to get my hands on "The Turn of the Key," available on Aug. 6.

Brent Baldwin, Editor-in-chief

Recently read: "There There" by Tommy Orange (Vintage)

It's exceedingly rare to come across a debut novel where the writer's voice already feels fully formed, but this is one of those books. Expertly told and devastating in its insights, the interwoven story of "There There" involves an interconnected group of Native Americans mostly living in modern-day Oakland, California, each of them dealing with questions of identity while making their way to a big powwow in the city. The young author shifts voices like a seasoned pro, using his gritty characters' lives to explore heavy themes from life in America today, as well as his fellow Native Americans' feelings of simultaneously belonging and unbelonging — like a great Motown song that "asks you to carry sadness and heartbreak, but dance while doing so." Read the prologue's righteous opening volley and you might not put the 300-page book down for a couple days.

Currently reading: "I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer" by Michelle McNamara (Harper)

I'm late on this one, but have heard nothing but good things about this intense and addictive true crime novel from last year. Sadly, the author, whose intelligence and passion make up the fierce heart of the book, passed away suddenly before it was published. In May of last year, Style ran an interview with journalist Billy Jensen who helped finish it. A New York Times bestseller, the book has became something of a singular work in the genre, all the more interesting considering DNA evidence was used to arrest a 72-year old former police officer last year. Side note: McNamara's widower, comedian Patton Oswalt, will be coming to the Carpenter Theatre on Sept. 12.

"How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence" by Michael Pollan (Penguin Books)

I enjoy anything written by author and journalist Michael Pollan, the thoughtful and generous writer known for his beloved food work. Always game for a challenge, Pollan is known for getting his hands dirty. This one takes the government-propagated hysteria away from psychedelics and shows how they're being used for legitimate therapeutic reasons, such as treating post-traumatic stress disorder or helping terminally ill patients deal with fear of the unknown. As far as reporters and writers, Pollan is tough to beat,even when he's tripping, but I also suggest anything by Roanoke-based writer Beth Macy. Her latest on America's troubles with opiates, "Dopesick," is depressing but important. It's also a finalist for the Library of Virginia's nonfiction award, which will be announced at its 22nd annual literary awards Oct. 19. Plus the journalist-turned-bestselling author Macy is charming and kind in person — and goshdarnit, Richmond loves her.

Excited to Read: "Exhalation: Stories" by Ted Chiang (Knopf)

With all these Navy pilots spotting UFOs lately, it seems like a good summer to teleport back into science fiction. This is a new collection of short stories by one of the country's most acclaimed science fiction writers. The film "Arrival" with Amy Adams was based on his work. Critics compare Chiang's mind-bending style to the likes of Poe, Borges and Kafka. So far what I've read is cerebral and dense, but it's his "Black Mirror"-esque ideas and meditations that are earning loyal fans. Time gates, human memory and free will, artificial and alien intelligence are all explored here — the subject matter providing a nice break from dystopian sci-fi books.

And I'll be balancing it out with the classic dystopian sci-fi novel of the early 20th century that was banned in Russia, "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin (Penguin 20th Century Classics) set in a totalitarian state devoid of passion and creativity. This book had a major influence on George Orwell, Ayn Rand and Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" released a decade later, still considered a prescient work for reasons I won't get into … I'm assuming most people reading this have been online before.

Review copy that just showed up and will preempt everything: "Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties" by Tom O'Neill with Dan Piepenbring (Little, Brown & Co.):

Forget Tarantino's film, journalist O'Neill has been working on this book for 20 years and has found all kind of interesting things, including unreleased documents and new interviews that show legal misconduct. His book may well upend the popular understanding of the Manson murders partly by exploring CIA experimentations with LSD involving Manson (a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles says it's enough to overturn the verdicts). The book was timed to be released on the 50th anniversary of the most famous cult murders in American history. Conspiracy or not, this is what you call beach reading.

Edwin Slipek, Senior Contributing Editor

This year marks the 400th— and tempestuous — anniversary year of the governmental and societal establishment of Africans and Europeans in Virginia in 1619. For me, before we throw out every myth on the altar of political correctness, it is also an occasion to set the record straight: Can the Old Dominion really claim exceptionalism for its part in the founding of the United States? How better to set the record straight than to pit Virginia against colonial Boston? In "The City-State of Boston: the Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630-1865," (Princeton University Press) by Yale history professor Mark Peterson, his 638 wonderful-to-read pages explore pious and penurious Boston's claim to the moral high ground over Virginia's economic embrace of tobacco and slavery. It is a masterful, engaging, and ultimately surprising look at how the whole world, especially the American South, looked during our nation's formative years, when viewed from Beacon Hill.

I heard author Sadie Jones on NPR discussing her new novel, "The Snakes" (Harper), and was intrigued. It opens in contemporary London, where newlyweds Dan, a mixed-race artist, and Bea, a white psychologist, are embarking on an extended sojourn to Burgundy in France where they'll visit her brother, Alex. He is a millennial in recovery from drug addiction that has been set up by his parents in a decrypted chateau-turned inn that has, shall we say, great possibilities. It is soon clear that Bea's and Alex's family became not just super rich from real estate development, but ostentatiously so. The makings of a great summer read, right? But the title should have set off alarms. Snakes, dead and alive, in the hostelry attic are creepy enough, but the unanticipated arrival of the parents triggers a rapid and masterfully described unraveling of, well, most semblances of humanity. Three weeks after mercifully finishing one of the most disturbing books I've ever read — and hardest to put down — I remain seriously queasy.

For those needing a refresher in good writing, look no further than anything by the extraordinary John Updike. Recently at home, I reached for the late author's well illustrated "Just Looking: Essays on Art" (Alfred A. Knopf), published in 1989. From the realism of Vermeer to Richard Estes super-realism, to why Adam and Eve made the nude figure acceptable in medieval art, in each of these short pieces his writing is the literary equivalent of each piece of fine art he describes.

As Donald Trump spews about Baltimore, remember this: It spawned filmmaker John Waters. And the fact that the often offensive producer of "Pink Flamingos" and "Hairspray" both embraces and revels in his hometown's off-color habitués makes Waters OK in my book. None of his characters was more famous than Divine, an obese cross-dresser, who made one of the final, stand-up comic appearances of his life in Richmond at the Pyramid Club, a nightspot on what old-timers remember as the Boulevard. It was in late winter of 1988 and I was among 20 or so expectant attendees. I've been intrigued with Waters from the few times we've met, especially his gracious good manners. A similar sweetness is what some of his stock actors possess, whom I'd met in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the mid-1970s. When I spotted his "Mr. Know-It-All: The Tarnished Wisdom of a Filth Elder" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) on a shelf at Fountain Books, I couldn't resist. Equal parts memoir, etiquette and tell-all, it is as wise as it is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

Maybe Waters should run for president. S