Mid-year update (+half my book list).
The first of July means the humidity of a North Carolina summer is in full effect, the weeds grow an inch per day, we are all tanned enough to relax a bit on the SPF, and everyone is sufficiently ready for a diversion. For us, that diversion comes in the form of my brother’s wedding the second Saturday of July, followed by one blessed week at the beach. It can’t be here too soon!
I returned to my post at New Year’s to revisit (and remember) my resolutions. I was surprised! I had forgotten them.
- Manage the closets in my house.
- Ditch the phone.
- Do my best to find an agent, or, cause an agent to find me.
- Read, read, read, read. (Nothing new there.)
The closets are coming along. It’s good to be reminded I made that resolution for the second time in two years. I have 6 more months to make good on it. The phone thing is a work in progress, but I have read some helpful and damning articles that reiterate my feelings on the dark side of too much iPhone and screens. This is always going to be a work in progress, as modern times press us toward technology as the pressure of a swift current has the power to carry, but we are trying, trying to put our feet down, grab at the shore, hold onto a stationary root and be present in the tangible world before us. I am deep in the pit of agent-querying, which is a topic for another time when I have more heart and stamina to narrate it. The process can be summed up as mysterious, unsettling, discouraging and long. I read an excerpt from T. Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic,” the excerpt more commonly known as “The Man in the Arena,” which is framed beside my desk, each day.
I’ve been reading a lot this year, and not just any old reading. My reading list, so far, has been so utterly, wholly satisfying — I can’t believe my luck. It is luck, isn’t it? Because so many times I have picked up books, made it halfway to the end on a measure of faith and hope, and come to the conclusion disappointed. It’s not such a horrible thing to be left wanting, but it does seem that there are so many great, perfect, exquisite books in the library of the world, it’s a waste to spend time reading anything which is not.
Below you’ll find the 19 books I’ve read this year, and a short blurb on each. I’ve categorized the books into seasons, which may seem strange, but allow me to explain. These are NOT the seasons in which I read the books, but they’re the seasons I believe I would have best read the books. Classics and intense literary fiction I read in winter. Fast-paced, delightful, plot-driven fiction I read in summer. Warm, generous, lovely fiction I read in fall and spring. I rarely read non-fiction, so it’s peppered throughout. Sometimes I put a book in a season because the book took place in a warm period, or there were instances of snow, and it just has to be dealt with appropriately. The seasonal categorization method might seem useless to many people, obviously a good book is a good book and should be read any time! However, I did this for you, because it’s summer, and I was trying to help you pick books for the beach. You’re welcome.
- Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is a what-if science principled thriller following the idea of multiple universes or realities. Very out-of-the-ordinary for me, but I read it in three days (three days including my children and work). ***
- The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood reminded me of the stories by Fredrik Backman (Ove, Britt-Marie) A warm and funny story about a couple of misfits befriending an elderly woman in the wake of the tragic death of a young boy. ***
- The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson reads like a classic, which was refreshing, reminded me a little of Downton Abbey with a greater focus on the people “outside the manor.” The first half took some commitment, but in the second half I couldn’t stop. ****
- A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is tied for favorite book of 2017 so far. It strikes me as literary genius that Towles could tell a story over thirty or forty years taking place inside the walls of a single hotel and keep us enthralled. Alexander Rostov is one of the most lovable characters I’ve come across. ***** and I wish I could read it again for the first time.
- The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin is a fictional take on the true events in the life of Truman Capote, Babe Paley and their tribe of socialites in the 1960s. All events are true, characterizations are out of Benjamin’s imagination. This book is a peep hole into the way the upper tier lives, and I enjoyed it very much. ****
- Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly is hanging out at the top of the charts, a little bit the way Nightingale did last year. It’s a WW2 drama with the flip narration style of each chapter in the perspective of one of three central women. It’s all about plot driving forward here, and a very raw study of some of the sickening experiments conducted at Ravensbruck concentration camp. The facts presented are likely very accurate, but something about the telling struck me as somewhat sensational. ** for me.
- Columbine by Dave Cullen is a piece of journalistic excellence. This complete 360 degree picture of the tragedy of the massacre at Columbine high school in 1999 is incredibly well-researched and beautifully woven together to give a remarkable picture of the perpetrators, what led them to commit their crimes against the school, the ways the media and police forces failed in a myriad of ways, and small glimpses into the lives of many of the victims. This one is a summer read for me because I couldn’t put it down. *****
- Beartown by Fredrik Backman blew me away. It is unlike any of his previous novels in that it lacks the whimsy and fantastical elements. It’s the story of a back woods hockey town in Sweden and all the intensity that can fill even the most inconsequential of places, which is my favorite kind of tale. Think Friday Night Lights, hockey style. *****
- The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is the other first place book for me this year. Hard to sum up, but think of a sweeping narrative of one man’s exceptional life as a citizen/prisoner of North Korea under Kim Jong Il. ***** (Maybe 6)
- In the Woods by Tana French is a murder mystery! A rare choice for me, but so refreshing. This is part of a series The Dublin Murder Squad, but the books are not sequential. The writing has a literary quality rarely found in mystery/thrillers, which I enjoyed. Takes place in rainy Ireland, thus fall rather than summer. ***
- The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead’s reputation precedes it, but I am personally recommending as well. If the Underground Railroad had really been set on tracks and in boxcars, Whitehead imagines, here is a story of one young woman who braves those subterranean rails. Of all the narratives of the American slavery era, this one hit me the hardest. *****
- The Secret Lives of People in Love by Simon Van Booy is a small collection of short stories. The title is misleading because the stories felt more centered on the idea of the loss and sadness that inevitably surrounds love on this earth. Gorgeous, gorgeous writing and unforgettable images. ***
- My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout was a simple and lean story of a woman and the sum of her life. Bewitching, compelling because of her character. Love anything by E.S. The sequel, or perhaps “sister” novel just came out this summer. ****
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel takes place when the world’s population has dwindled drastically because of a rampant virus that kills the majority of the population. Page-turning, or no-pausing (I listened on audio). Not my favorite type of novel, more like watching a movie than reading a book, but it had great reviews. ***
- Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue is the darling of book lists this year, but I did not care for it. Sort of the wealthy upper class crashing into the lowest class of refugees and immigrants in New York City. Plenty of people loved this book, so don’t take my word for it. **
- Run by Ann Patchett, and anything by Ann Patchett, I recommend with a full heart. An in-depth glimpse into the intricacies of a hodge podge family. I couldn’t put it down. *****
- The Arsonist by Sue Miller was not my favorite Sue Miller book. I have loved each of her others unabashedly, but this one plodded a bit too much. I wish it would have been more about the arsonist! Still, the writing takes my breath away. ***
- Someone by Alice McDermott reminded me of a mix of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and My Brilliant Friend, which makes it just my favorite sort of book, but I can’t rave about it because I didn’t find myself pulling for any of the characters. Great story-telling, though. I enjoyed it. ***
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi is fitting for spring because it is a heart-wrenching book about death and, ultimately, about hope. True story, very short. I dare you to read it through without crying. *****
Some books I’ve got on my night stand include: The Dry by Jane Harper and A Million Junes by Emily Henry.
Happy summer reading to you! Don’t forget to check back in on your New Year’s Resolutions too.