Recommended books: summer 2016

Reading time: About 5 minutes

Looking for some recommended books in time for summer reading? Here’s my semi-annual roundup of books I’ve read so far this year.  

I aim to read 52 books every 12 months and my habit is to post a complete list of the names of them for you, in June and December. Here is a description of the 25 books I’ve enjoyed so far this year. Yes, I really do read more than a book a week! I give you this list just prior to the summer solstice, to help you with plans for your own summer reading. 

Please note I don’t generally read mystery/thrillers (although there are a few here this time), sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes don’t usually run in those directions.  

FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. Toibin, Colm. Brooklyn. I found the movie, starring Saoirse Ronan, pictured above, to be a little flat for my taste but a friend’s recommendation moved me to pick up the book. Why didn’t I do that in the first place? Toibin’s forceful yet subtle narration — and his superb skills in character development — make this story so much richer on the page than the screen. This story of a shy, contemplative young Irish girl leaving her small town for life in America is sad, moving and gripping all at the same time.
  2. Bezmozgis, David. The Betrayers. This superbly written literary novel also carries a captivating plot – the story of a Soviet Jewish dissident who has become a disgraced Israeli politician. It’s a page-turner of a novel yet exquisitely written, too.
  3. Ng, Celeste. Everything I Never Told You. This achingly complex novel about the death of a troubled teen from a Chinese-American family exquisitely captures the tension between cultures and generations. Well worth reading.
  4. Green, John. Looking For Alaska. In this very fine John Green novel for young adults, Alaska is teenager, not a place. While not quite as lovely as Green’s more famous The Fault In Our Stars, this book, which has won a multitude of prizes, would be a terrific beach read.
  5. Strout, Elizabeth. My Name Is Lucy Barton. Strout tells the story of a young wife and mother who is in the hospital, recovering from an operation. She’s not dying, but her situation is serious enough that her mother —whom she has not seen in many years — arrives to visit. The book has an almost Alice-Munro-like quality. Strout is outstanding at character development although I felt as though the plot escaped her on this one.
  6. Joyce, Rachel. The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. A follow-up to Joyce’s earlier mega-bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, this book is a sequel, following the same plot (a man walking from the south of England to the north to visit a dying friend) from a different character’s perspective. While I don’t normally like O. Henry type endings, where everything is cleverly “wrapped up” at the end, this one made me smile.
  7. McLain, Paula. Circling the Sun. This fictionalized account of the life of aviatrix Beryl Markham is not a finely written as The Paris Wife (a story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson), that made McLain famous. But it’s interesting enough. I just found some of the prose a bit purple.
  8. Huneven, Michelle. Blame. Patsy MacLemoore, a history professor in her late twenties with a Ph.D. from Berkeley, wakes up in jail after an alcoholic blackout. She’s had blackouts before but when she jokingly asks “Did I kill someone?” she’s shocked to learn the answer is yes. A thriller —better written than most — the book explores the nature of good and bad and whether it’s possible to make amends for mistakes.
  9. Haruf, Kent. Our Souls at Night. A sweet story with exceptionally plainspoken, simple writing the book explores the relationship of a small-town Colorado widow and widower. Almost nothing happens — yet everything does — when Addie Moore invites her neighbor Louis Waters to spend the night, simply so they can talk.
  10. Lansens, Lori. The Mountain Story. I have walked many times in the California area where this novel is set: Mt. San Jacinto, which towers over Palm Springs. The story of four people lost on the mountain, it should have been more gripping and interesting than it was. Another book of Lansens’ — The Girls — remains on my lifetime top 100 list. Sadly, this one doesn’t come close to it.
  11. Hoffman, Alice. Blue Diary. A weird blend of chick-lit and murder mystery, this book lacks rich, believable characters. Despite that deficiency, however, it’s obvious that the author is a very fine writer. So sad she wasted her time and talent on this negligible plot.
  12. Hill, Lawrence. The Illegal. Keita Ali is a competitive runner and he runs, illegally, to a neighbouring wealthy nation to escape poverty. I found the subject matter interesting but thought the writing was particularly flat-footed. I had expected more from the author of The Book of Negros, which I loved.
  13. Grady, Wayne. Emancipation Day. Grady is an award-winning translator and, after reading this book, I wished he’d stuck with his original occupation. I found this novel, about black society in Canada during and after the second World War to be clichéd and thoroughly predictable. The writing was also pedestrian.

NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. Sivers, Derek. Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur. Between 1998 and 2008, Sivers started a hobby and then grew it into the big business CD Baby, before selling it for $22 million. This book describes the lessons he learned in a funny and charming way. Absolutely fascinating for anyone who owns a business.
  2. Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto. I love this guy’s writing. So clear, so interesting. This book offers the brief but convincing story as to why the medical world needs to start using checklists — and why others should consider it, too. (Full disclosure: I run my own business with multiple checklists.)
  3. Stanier, Michael Bungay. The Coaching Habit. As a coach for the last 18 years I’ve developed my own views on how to do my job effectively. But Stanier has helped me see my work through a new lens. The book refines the coaching process into ”Seven Essential Questions” and gives each its own chapter. It’s a totally new way to view coaching. Fantastic.
  4. Gallwey, W. Timothy. The Inner Game of Tennis. I first read this 1974 book about 30 years ago. It remains as fresh and relevant today, even if you don’t play tennis, as I don’t. Gallwey focuses not on on technique but on the mindset of becoming good at things. I read his book as an extended metaphor for becoming a better writer. His best tip? What he calls “relaxed concentration” is what will allow you to work at your best.
  5. Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. This beautifully written memoir took me an awfully long time to read. Was the problem that I’m just not that interested in birds? Still, the story of how one woman trained a goshawk (while recovering from the death of her father) allows her to display the finery of her truly remarkable writing skills.
  6. Greenberger, Dennis and Padesky, Christine A. Mind Over Mood. This is a practical and useful guidebook to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, explaining it clearly and actionably. Great worksheets, too. If you need CBT but can’t afford it, be sure to check out this book.
  7. Duhigg, Charles. Smarter, Faster, Better. Dughigg uses his trademark story-telling style to make science and research deeply fascinating. Not quite as successful, in my view, as his earlier book The Power of Habit, but, still, this exploration of the science of productivity is deeply interesting.
  8. Kalanithi, Paul. When Breath Becomes Air. Oh, how I wanted — and expected — to love this book! The arresting story of a 36-year-old neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with fatal lung cancer shortly after marrying and just before finishing his training, the book isn’t quite as engaging as I’d been led to expect. I thought his wife’s writing, in the epilogue, was more interesting and more moving.
  9. Clark, Roy Peter. The Art of X-Ray Reading. Writing teacher Clark works to show how much writers can learn by imitating others. Great concept but the execution of the book fell somewhat short. I think it would be hard to use as a reference or “exercise” book, notwithstanding the presence of lessons at the end of each chapter.
  10. Athill, Diana. Somewhere Towards the End. As an acclaimed British memoirist  and editor of other famous writers (such as Norman Mailer  and V.S. Naipul) Athill has interesting reflections on aging past the mark of 90. I can’t remember who recommended this book to me but I found it simultaneously well written and a bit too twee. On the surface she’s modest enough but, to my egalitarian mind, still overly aware of her lofty position in society.
  11. Volk, Patricia. Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family. There’s nothing I love more than a good memoir. Make it a memoir about food and you should have me hooked. Volk has the family memories — after all, her great-grandfather was the person who introduced pastrami to America in 1888. But while the book had occasional flashes of brilliance, overall it didn’t do it for me. I think it lacked enough of a through-line.
  12. Pittampalli, Al. Read This Before Our Next Meeting. Seth Godin  recommended this very short book in one of his columns. I found it offers an inarguable concept — that traditional meetings are a massive waste of time —but the book seemed a bit too vague and imprecise for me. That said, I liked Pittampalli’s idea of running meetings as brainstorming sessions.

On a separate topic, Thursday is the deadline for applying for my Get It Done program starting July 1 and there is only one spot remaining. Go here if you’re interested in learning more about how to finish your book or thesis faster.

What have been your favourite books of the year so far? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/16 will be put in a draw for a copy of Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, by Dani Shapiro. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.