Baltimore City Paper

The City Paper staff's recommended summer reading

David Gessner, "Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth" (Riverhead Books)

A sprawling memoir and charting of one semi-toxic male's evolution as viewed through the oft-derided, but very popular and high-impact sport of ultimate frisbee, "Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth" also ruminates on aging, the creative process, and calming down. And if not exactly selling out, then navigating the uncomfortable ways that the things that you care about a whole lot slip away or just change and why you'd be advised to just get used to that shit and hold onto the parts you can hold onto. It is also, as far as I know, the definitive history of ultimate frisbee—a sport co-created as a lark by the guy who later went on to produce "Lethal Weapon" and "The Matrix"—which went from "a sport few outside of it took seriously," to, well, something that matters to a sizable chunk of people these days. Think of "Ultimate Glory: Frisbee, Obsession, and My Wild Youth" as a mock version of William Finnegan's "Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life," even down to the sunfaded oranges and browns of its cover design, where the tone is scrappier, sillier, and even more stoned, though just as reflective as Finnegan. (Brandon Soderberg)


Joan Didion, "South and West: From A Notebook" (Knopf)

Not some lost Didion work finally resurrected and not exactly an odds-and-sods collection released just to cash-in, "South and West: From A Notebook" gathers and sequences notes from two never-finished '70s pieces and loosely attempts to suggest they have much to say about the present state of the country. And they do, but so much of Didion's writing is predictive (post-election, "A demented and seductive vertical tension was building in the community. . . . The jitters were setting in," from "The White Album" rings through my head on the daily) and the reason to read this is to witness Didion in hang-out mode, mid-thought, before she fully sharpened her observations about a subject to print. So you get quick bursts of ranting observation, touching scenes, some dialogue and, altogether, a sense of what it felt like to be alive and in these places more than what these places were "about." And in its incomplete state, "South and West: From A Notebook" feels very much of the moment, where the vanguard of non-fiction is discursive and fragmentary writing such as Claudia Rankine's "Citizen" and Maggie Nelson's "The Argonauts." My favorite fragment: Didion ponders death by way of a novelty toilet and then buys a Confederate flag beach towel in Biloxi, Mississippi, noting how it got back to California with her and became one of her kids' favorite towels. (Brandon Soderberg)


Margaret Atwood, "The Handmaid's Tale" (McClelland & Stewart)

A story about women enslaved for the purpose of repopulation in an uber-patriarchy of the near future may seem like an awful beach read, and it might be for you. It's taken me months to get through this book—which I neglected to read when it was on the high school reading list but finally picked up in anticipation of the Hulu series adaptation—because it's so painful to digest. Especially now, in the Trump era, this is a dreary, demanding read. You will not have fun; you will not feel relaxed. But, there are reasons to read it now: The aforementioned Hulu series is now streaming and typically it is better to read and then watch; you probably know at least a few people who are reading it or recently read it (again, in anticipation of the show), so you can discuss; and though vacation is supposed to be just that—a time, for those lucky enough to afford it, to shut out the world—sometimes it's healthy to keep one foot on the ground, and the ground right now is looking more and more like the soulless foundation of Gilead. And when you get home and fully return to earth, you'll suffer less of the shock that follows a restful, carefree vacation. Enjoy. (Maura Callahan)

Rebecca Skloot, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" (Crown Publishing Group)

Writer Rebecca Skloot deftly explains the winding path that took cell matter, drawn from Henrietta Lacks' body without her consent at Johns Hopkins here in Baltimore, to laboratories and microscopes all over the world. Skloot, a science writer, makes complicated research processes easy to understand, and gives the injustices the medical community inflicted on Lacks and her family historical context. Many of the patients' rights laws that keep our medical information safe today, Skloot writes, weren't even thought of when Lacks first took ill. Beyond the medical facts, the book also provides a fascinating look at life in and around Baltimore, via Lacks and the generations of her family that followed her—Skloot begins the tale in the 1920s and ends in the early 2000s. She gives the reader a window into what it would have been like in Lacks' day to be poor and black and a medical patient visiting Johns Hopkins, which was established to treat people who wouldn't have been able to access treatment anywhere else. She writes about the conditions that compelled Lacks to move from her tiny slave cabin in Virginia to Turner Station, where factory jobs meant money and a somewhat easier life. She also writes about the irony of all the medical innovations that Lacks' cells helped make possible, all the while Lacks' family members suffered from diseases brought on by hard factory work, poverty, and lack of education—the side effects of systemic racism. (Lisa Snowden-McCray)

Durga Chew-Bose, "Too Much and Not the Mood" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Short stories or essays are always a beach read go-to, but if you choose Durga Chew-Bose's recent collection "Too Much and Not the Mood" be advised that you'll want to reapply your sunscreen at least once before you finish the first essay, "Heart Museum," a thick 90-pager that relays a variety of subjects loosely and directly related to the heart. Throughout this book, Chew-Bose builds up momentum as if running a race, packing each page so full with scenes and descriptions homing in on subtle, tiny, almost-missed moments—the way cooking fish brings her father joy, "those beads of sweat that collect on my nose are entirely my Mama's," the freckles on a lover's back—that you start to forget that just a page or two earlier, she was talking about how she's in love with young Al Pacino, or something about a dead squirrel that either she or her parents or her brother had to deal with years ago. Her stories unfurl in a way that demonstrates her ability to observe and divine meaning from the everyday, how feelings and memories bind us. And though in several places she touches on solitude—in work, in pleasure, in the day-to-day—the resounding echo of the book is how full and fulfilling life can be, if we allow ourselves to look carefully. (Rebekah Kirkman)

Morgan Parker, "There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé" (Tin House Books)

Just past the middle of Morgan Parker's second book of poems is one titled 'What Beyoncé Won't Say on a Shrink's Couch' and it goes: "what if I said I'm tired/ and they heard wrong/ said sing it." Held up as a goddess and beacon of perfection, but at the very same time demonized for looking sexy and making money (especially when her performance approaches the political), Beyoncé's a character for Parker to write and emote through, recasting and reimagining her each time: In one poem she's a capitalist invention, in another a prop for others to build on, she's a perfect body, then a robot, then a black woman who is often, frankly, exhausted as hell. To make sure we're all clear, Parker also imagines a white Beyoncé, who stands in stark contrast, who "Doesn't look the waiter in the eyes/ ordering vegan chicken salad w/ amenities… She performs and the coverage is breezy:/ What rosy cheeks what milky vacancy." These themes of isolation, exaltation, and weariness—along with coping mechanisms of sex, drugs, and baths—appear throughout in a multitude of tones (wry, despondent, comical, bare), no matter if Parker decides to invoke Bey by name or not. We were already looking, so she's drawn us further in, and now we sit with her and bear witness. (Rebekah Kirkman)