Category Archives: summer reading

Summer Reading Recap…just in time for the first day of fall!

 

Back in June, I wrote about the books I hoped to read over the summer, and for the first time ever (I think), I read every one. Usually a few get forgotten or replaced. A lot of my summer reading could be described as “light”–meaning that in the first ten days of summer I think I read five books. Many were page-turning mysteries, and without the pressure of an alarm clock in the morning, I often read well into the night, falling asleep with a book on my face.

I spent a lot of time in the Midwest, visiting family and friends in Ohio, and travelling around the perfection of northern Michigan with dear friends. My problem was finding adorable independent bookstores in every town I went to (Glen Arbor, Traverse City, Petoskey, Harbor Springs) was my limited ability to pack the books into my carry-on to get them home! I think I walked away with 3 new books from northern Michigan. I was able to get out to eastern Long Island to soak up the beach with family for a few days–and being from a family of readers, covered some serious pages oceanside.

Since the fall has (almost) started, I’m ready to jump into a reading life that feels a bit more weighty–there are so many great books that have been published recently. But here are my summer highlights, if you are looking for your next book:

Mysteries: These were mostly escapist reads–none quite living up to my personal standard of Tana French, but enjoyable nonetheless.

The Girls by Emma Cline, My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh, You by Caroline Kepnes, Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, Still Life by Louise Penny, The Lake and the Lost Girl by Jacquelyn Vincenta, The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Memoir: I think I need to add more memoirs to my to-be-read pile, because I have been loving this genre.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui: This graphic novel was an impulse buy from The Strand one night that shares the story of the author’s family’s immigration from Vietnam to the United States. Reading stories like this is so vital to broadening our perspectives and finding common humanity. Definitely worth reading.

I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This by Nadja Spiegelman: I’ve read quite a bit of Spiegelman’s dad’s work (Maus is a graphic novel telling the story of his family during the Holocaust), but knew very little else about him. His daughter’s book was an engaging, thought provoking memoir about the relationship between mothers and daughters–I read it in two days.

Fiction:

Tender by Belinda McKeon, What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty, Bittersweet by Stephanie Danner, Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy, The Seventh Book of Wonders by Julia Baggott

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: I have no idea how I missed this book when it was published in 2010, but it shot to my top ten books of all time and has become the book I most recommend. Set mostly in Ethiopia, it is a story of two twin brothers who grow up in an adopted family of medical professionals. It is about family, about medicine (and access to medical practices), about love, about loss. If you read one book from this list, this should be it.

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce: This book tells the story of an Irish-Italian family from Staten Island from around the time the Verrazano Bridge went up until present day, that is partially centered around the loss of one of the sons, a firefighter, on 9/11. It’s told from the perspective of different members of the family, and just felt so honest and human. I wasn’t ready for it to end. 

Here I Am by Jonathan Safron Foer: More than a decade ago, I read Foer’s first two novels and loved them. He hasn’t written much fiction since (though reading Tree of Codes with a couple friends was amazing), so of course I was excited to read Here I Am, and better yet to read it with 3 friends. It could not be more different than his first two novels, which for me felt full of hope. Cynical is the word that kept coming to mind–which I guess isn’t that rare of a mindset shift from one’s early twenties to early forties? One I hope to avoid, but realistic? It was tough to get through at points, reading about the un-doing of the main character’s family as the oldest son is about the celebrate his bar mitvzah, but really interesting to discuss. He asks a lot of questions about what it means to be Jewish in the United States, after a mid-book plot curve that involves an international incident in Israel.

Summer Reading Conclusions.

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The newest member of the Warren family, Penny.

Sometimes there are summers when you buy a kindle so your reading can easily be packed for your escapes, and sometimes there are summers when reading itself is the escape–that is the story of this one. Embracing NYC summer isn’t my strong suit, unless it’s after sundown, and with my limited travel this year, I think I nerdily broke some personal records for number of books consumed.

I spent most mornings in July on my fire escape drawing and painting and making my way through Natalie Goldberg’s (author of one of the best books on the writing process, Writing Down the Bones) The Great Spring. In this one she writes about the connections between writing and meditation, and how intertwined her practices of each have become over time. The other nonfiction was a bit darker in nature, including Sleeping with the Enemy, (about Coco Chanel’s Nazi ties during World War Two), Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan (fascinating and informative story about the rare autoimmune disease she survived), and Dog Medicine (about how author Julie Barton made it through severe depression with the help of her golden retriever).

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Walking through Kentucky wildflowers with my parents in Louisville.

I read a lot of fiction about modern families (A Blue Spool of Thread, Among the Ten Thousand Things, The Nest, Did You Ever Have a Family) and the one I would most highly recommend is Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett. It is about how a family deals with the depression and severe anxiety of the father and one of the sons. Haslett’s fictional account has roots in his own familial experience and as he tells the story through the voices of the wife and children, a reader gets a thorough picture of how people cope (or not) through incredibly poignant writing with a dose of dark humor.

The truth that stood out to me the most in the majority of the fictional characters I read this summer (who are representative of the majority of people I pass on the street? I don’t know.) is that people are unhappy. But. The thread of hope I found in some of the fiction stories and much of the nonfiction is trying to be truly present in the moment can assuage that reality a bit. Not worrying about what has passed or what may be ahead, not mindlessly scrolling at other people’s 140 characters or pictures, but looking for the beauty in the moment. This is a recurring theme for me–a roller coaster of a theory that I haven’t mastered, but the more I read, the more I want to try.

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A few days with my extended family out east.

My most recommended book, though, is actually a young adult novel: All American Boys. It tells the story in two voices: of a black teenager wrongfully arrested and beaten by a white police officer, and a white teenager who witnessed the event. Both narrators wrestle honestly with questions our nation faces–and with nuance, an art rarely seen in most mainstream media. I tell students books can be mirrors–that help us see ourselves, and books can be windows–that help us see others. Way more than any of the adult-level fiction I read this summer, this book was hands down the most thought provoking and important.

All this to say, I am excited to get back to work in a few days. I can’t wait to talk about All American Boys with my students, and I’m pretty excited to think about reading as more than just an escape, though it was the perfect medicine for this particular summer.

 

Summer Reading Conclusion

There is something about the start of a new school year and the promise of what is to come that feels so energizing, ironically as we begin to get hints of nature slowing down. Two weeks into the school year and the easy days of summer feel distant. In between my book club meeting this week and stopping to browse at BookCourt after dinner last night,  I found myself with a self made fall semester reading syllabus (and a copy of Mindy Kaling’s latest and the much-hyped Fates and Furies). My students got started on making their own blogs this week and one of their assignment options was to write about their summer reading–and I realized I better join them (though this isn’t the only summer reading conclusion to arrive a bit late.)

I wrote last month about my July of nonfiction–it was a beautifully slow month of summer where I soaked in the likes of Rebecca Solnit and Mary Oliver. Last year was one of the more stressful for me, and the power of their words sustained and reinvigorated me. Fiction was an opportunity to escape, and to be honest I think my brain needed a rest. These books all deserve their own post (and a few I hope to still get to), but here are the highlights of my summer fiction, based on the list I made in June:

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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: The favorite child of a Chinese-American family is found drowned in a lake. The narrative that surrounds this incident is beautifully written and the ache and the layers that surround the tension of the book’s title is profound, and leaves the reader thinking so much about what we choose not to say.

The Little Friend by Donna Tartt: I picked this us last fall, wanting to complete my reading of Donna Tartt after The Secret History and The Goldfinch. I knew my school year brain probably couldn’t handle the length and depth of Tartt, so I saved it for summer. The main character is part young Scout Finch, part Harriet the Spy who decides she wants to investigate the death of her brother, who was found hanging in a tree when she was still a baby. While reading this, I understood why it’s many people’s least favorite by Tartt, but I thought her ability to capture late childhood and loss was brilliant.

To Kill a Mockingbird (reread) & Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee: I have so much to say about these books, and I hope to post about them separately. In a nutshell, if you are going to read Watchman, reread Mockingbird first. Remember it wasn’t edited. I think the major tension (especially for a white audience) was that readers want their heroes to stay up on a pedestal, and my slight prodding would question if that is a realistic, or even healthy, way to view anyone. There is a lot to grapple with surrounding Watchman, and at the end of the day, I think it’s worth it.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: I’ve been reading and studying a lot about art lately, and I’ve always loved what the combination of words and pictures can do, whether it’s Shaun Tan, Brian Selznick, Marjane Santrapi, or Chris Van Allsburg. This graphic novel is described by Bechdel as a “tragicomic” and felt so insightful, reflective, and necessary. Interestingly, this summer Duke chose it as a summer reading book and a student protest gained a lot of national traction. In my mind, it should be on a required reading list.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: I absolutely loved Life After Life, which I read on my honeymoon a few years ago. This is a “companion” text that follows the main character’s brother, Teddy. Told in a non-linear narrative, its central plot is on Teddy’s experiences as a pilot in World War Two, but spans his entire life. There is so much it asks the reader to consider about history, time, the weight of memory, empathy, and family–I highly recommend both books.

Happy fall reading!

The July of nonfiction and fire escape porches.

I stumbled across a poem by my hero Mary Oliver yesterday, and it’s an interesting place to begin as I think of my summer, and though it wasn’t in my mind yet, these lines encompass the theme of the past two months:

it is a serious thing /just to be alive /on this fresh morning /in the broken world.

{my people}

{my people}

When I teach reading, I tell students to pay attention to the actions of the characters–that they often speak deeply into what’s really going on or what they really need. I booked a ticket to leave New York City the day after school got out. That is exactly where I was mentally and what I needed. To go home and breathe. And, of course, to laugh, eat grilled food, and drink wine.

 

In July I realized that sometimes simply reading to escape is necessary–I disappeared into more than a dozen books and didn’t write about a single one. In a more physical sense, after spending ten days on my parents’ porch, I felt trapped just thinking about my Brooklyn apartment and its lack of one, so I threw caution {the potential $125 fine} to the wind and turned our fire escape into a porch. This mainly involved taking a beach chair out the kitchen window, staring down squirrels, ignoring the jackhammers in the front of the building, and breathing through my mouth to avoid the sour dishwashing air from the restaurant below. BUT. It was outdoor space and I happily spent almost every morning reading nonfiction on it: Long Life by Mary Oliver, The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits, The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit, and Looking at Mindfulness by Christophe Andre.

{my "porch"}

{my “porch”}

The threads I began to see in these books was the value of pausing to create meaning from the world around me. I often pause to create meaning from the books I’m reading, but it was like I needed the fiction to remain an escape and to start reflecting on, interpreting, and being more. So, I unintentionally took a writing sabbatical and found myself joining my husband in making art on our coffee table, pursuing meditation, and learning how to play chess (and, let’s be real, watching Major Crimes and two seasons of The Americans). I got to the beach and to the woods with a dear friend. I wandered the city with Daniel.

Interestingly, on one of my last July mornings on the porch (August brought a week intensive class at Columbia, traveling, and now beginning to think about the school year), I found myself looking at the vine-y plants that migrated from the fence below, up the walls of my building and around the fire escape and saw that in order to climb, they shoot out these tiny arms which wrap themselves around anything nearby. I realized that my time in July was just that: reaching for the truths to sustain my spirit. Here are some of the ones that stayed with me:

“Where have these moments of reflection gone in our modern lives? Certainly not to the radio or television that we turn on as soon as we get home, or the screens that enslave us. Rather than being ways of ‘taking our minds off things,’ these actions, particularly when they become reflexes, stop our minds being rooted–the exact opposite of what reflection is all about.” (Looking at Mindfulness, page 93)

“We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.” (The Faraway Nearby, page 4)

[The earth’s] intonations are our best tonics, if we would take them. For the universe is full of radiant suggestion. For whatever reason, the heart cannot separate the world’s appearance and actions from morality and valor, and the power of every idea is intensified, if not actually created, by its expression in substance. Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” (Long Life, page 25)

It always seems to comes back to Mary Oliver: that though the world is broken, it is certainly beautiful. And there is meaning to be made.

Summer Reading Conclusion

Watercoloring on the beach in Montauk.

Watercoloring on the beach in Montauk.

I’ve written about it before, but one of the best parts of my job is that there is a beginning and an end to each year: a built-in opportunity to reflect, refresh, revise.  The summer season is truly a gift.  Most summers I have some kind of writing project to work on, but this year I decided I wanted to continue the line of thinking that began last fall and throw myself into something that felt artistic, deadline-less, like play.  I spent most of my July mornings reading through art books and working on drawing and watercolors, rereading Henry Nouwen’s With Open Hands and Mary Oliver’s poetry.  Less writing happened this summer, but it was one of creative freedom and cultivation.  I found myself at the ocean every weekend and breathed deeply.  My family drove in from Kentucky and we were able to spend some glorious days at the beach out in the Hamptons with my uncle, aunt, and cousins.

Family reading time.

Family reading time.

August weekends were mostly spent traveling to celebrate weddings and see family and old friends in the midwest.  The weeks were suddenly filled with less art and more work as I started preparing for a new summer school program I helped run, and to get ready to have a full time co-teacher and plan for some changes in our curriculum.  I love my job, so it was engaging and enriching as I dreamed about growing kids into stronger readers and writers, but some of the summer magic slipped away under the piles of binders and stacks of young adult short stories.  I kept reading, but alas, have not written (or painted) much this August.  But what I’ve learned is that there is a season for everything–and I am ready to embrace the fall and the ways it makes me feel alive. But first, here’s the rundown of what I did read this summer–in typical fashion, I covered a lot of the fiction from my original summer reading plan, but not the nonfiction (links are there where applicable and super short descriptions).

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (a quick, delightful read for the nerdy set)

Someone by Alice McDermott (a poetic, yet unromantic, sketch of an “ordinary” woman’s life)

Transatlantic by Colum McCann (the first half was difficult to get through, the second half, magical and especially moving for me)

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper (a darkly comedic family story, soon to be starring the likes of Jason Bateman and Tina Fey)

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver (beautiful and thought provoking…a full post coming soon)

Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman (solid summer mystery)

The Charm School by Nelson DeMille (an interesting companion to watching The Americans, though with an underdeveloped female main character)

Yonahlosse Riding Camp for Girls by Sheri Fink (historical coming-of-age, though I felt lukewarm about it)

How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer (quirky, slightly underdeveloped but entertaining love story that walks the line between astronomy and astrology)

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki (my favorite book of the summer)

The Summer Book by Tove Janssen (on my parent’s porch, and as always)

A few weeks ago my mother-in-law sent me a picture of the earliest trees near her house in Ohio that were beginning to have a touch of autumn on them.  It was the perfect reminder that each year in late August I mourn the loss of summer, yet enjoy the pull of fall and the promise of its color and crispness. May September bring you good books, hot drinks, hooded sweatshirts, and the perfect soundtrack.