academia, Anna Quindlen, ballet, chick lit, epistolary, Joan Didion, memoir, mystery, Richard Russo, Salman Rushdie, secrets, sex, Shakespearean, Summer Reading, unlikeable protagonist, World War II
Summer is coming and who doesn’t want a couple of good reads to take to the beach or the backyard hammock? Here’s a list of books I’ve read in the relatively recent past, all of which will keep you happy and none of which will embarrass you if someone asks, “What’re you reading?” Everything is available for your tablet, and most should be out in paperback by now. They are in no particular order beyond the way I found them in my iPad. Happy reading!
Astonish Me, by Maggie Shipstead: if you took ballet as a child, this will bring back the smell of the rosin and the pain in your toes. It is the story of a ballerina who doesn’t make the cut, and her son who shows the talent to follow in her thwarted footsteps. Even if you never put on a pointe shoe, anyone in the arts will recognize the backstage dynamics, disappointments, and itinerant lives of these characters.
Seating Arrangements, by Maggie Shipstead: the family is at the shore for a wedding and the father of the bride is in major meltdown, with an inappropriate crush on his daughter’s friend, and a case of insecurity brought on by the house his neighbors are building. Forget everything you’ve heard about the perils of an unlikeable protagonist. This guy is irresistible.
Straight Man, by Richard Russo: Russo is probably my favorite contemporary writer. He writes beautiful, haunting novels like “Empire Falls,” a memoir like “Elsewhere,” and then produces complete insanity like this book. Everything you ever suspected about life in academia comes alive here.
Around the House and In the Garden and Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put on My Pajamas, and Found Happiness, by Dominique Browning: Browning’s heart belongs to her family, home and garden, and she writes with passion and enthusiasm of the joys to be found there. When she was fired from the perfect job running a premier shelter magazine, she sat down and produced “Slow Love.” I loved these books and eagerly await another from her.
The Weird Sisters, by Eleanor Brown: three daughters with Shakespearean names and a bunch of secrets, a father who speaks mostly in Shakespearean verse, and a mother in her final days. All of them and more come together in a delicious stew that is family life in adulthood. I loved it, but it kind of made me glad I’m an only child.
Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home, by James Carville and Mary Matalin: I was prepared to hate this book because, like most Americans, one of its authors makes me crazy. I actually loved it. They alternate chapters and have very different voices. It’s gossipy, pretty wise from both sides (though one ultimately did have me rolling my eyes as usual), and downright interesting. Plus, there is a great house at the center of it.
The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, by Joan Didion: if you’re serious about reading, read these books. You would think that books about deaths of her husband and child would send you into a major depression. Instead, they inspire and give the reader enormous pleasure. Didion is brilliant.
Indiscretion, by Charles Dubow: no summer is complete without a book full of sex, betrayal, and a gorgeous young woman who invades the lives of a major author and his lovely wife. It’s first person POV from a husband caught in a rather awkward tangle. Juicy fun.
Intuition, by Allegra Goodman: I have a fondness for books about smart people doing really stupid things. This is one of them, set in the world of scientific research – and it was fun to enter a world about which I know absolutely nothing. Lots of great characters, often behaving badly to get ahead.
Capital: A Novel, by John Lanchester: set in London on Pepys Road, this capacious novel is set in a neighborhood full of characters from around the world. Everyone has a story, and they come together beautifully to solve the mystery at the heart of the novel. This was one of my favorite books in the last couple of years. It’s nice and long, so it would be great on a plane trip.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson: scary, almost unbelievable at times, and completely mesmerizing. If you have any interest in the inter-war period that lead to World War II, read this. You will feel like you are reading a novel. Alas, you are not.
Beastly Things: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery, by Donna Leon: if you have not yet discovered Donna Leon, lucky you! This is one of a long series set in Venice, Italy. Try to find some of the early books, and then dive in. The books are peopled with a continuing cast you will love, especially Brunetti’s wry and wise wife, Paola. Leon is an American living in Venice, and she knows and loves the city.
The Last Letter from Your Lover, by Jojo Moyes: if you’re going to read chick lit, read good chick lit. Jojo Moyes has written several books, which I just discovered this year. I like her a lot when I’m in the mood for a hopeless love story.
Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, by Anna Quindlen: I read everything she writes. This and “Still Life with Bread Crumbs” are non-fiction, and both are terrific. Check out her novels (though I must say “Every Last One” should be approached with care, as it is great but utterly devastating). I envy you if you are new to Anna Quindlen!
The Divorce Papers, by Susan Rieger: a modern day epistolary novel that incorporates handwritten notes, legal documents, and emails as its young attorney protagonist handles the divorce from hell as she deals with crazy parents and a lousy love life.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir, by Salman Rushdie: erudite, a little whiny, and quite compelling. If you know anything about the nightmare into which Rushdie was plunged, you will probably enjoy this inside view of the world in which he lived during those years. Not surprisingly, it’s beautifully written.
Happy Summer, everyone!
Taking your suggestions to heart, I am in the midst of Indiscretion. It is sunny outside, I should be on a bike ride, and I can’t put his book down!
Dale Robards said:
I’m sorry about the bike ride guilt, but I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to know you are using the list! Enjoy.
And: bikes wait. They’re like laundry.
Finished reading in under 24 hours….
Dale Robards said:
You are a woman after my own heart. Glad you liked it!
I love Anna Quindlen too, and try to restrain myself and read her the way I use pink Himalayan salt… sparingly and only when I can savour it.
Franki Kohler said:
I was first introduced to Doninique Browning’s brilliant writing in her introduction to The Gardener’s Bed-Book by Richardson Wright — and yes, I keep it by my bed. I finished Around the House and in the Garden last night. There are too many great lines to quote them all. The one that rings in my ears is “. . .I couldn’t see how to rinse the tears from the air.” I’m well into Slow Love. Thanks for reminding me about her! I hope she has something new coming soon.
Dale Robards said:
I’m so glad to know you liked Around the House, and have started on Slow Love. I hope she writes more of her “personal story” books. She’s great.