Recommended books: summer 2015

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

Looking for some recommended books in time for summer holidays? Here’s my roundup based on my reading so far this year. 

I aim to read 52 books every year and my habit is to post the names of them for you, twice a year. I do it once in June to give you ideas for summer reading and again in late November to help you with your gift book-buying plans.

Here is a list of the 29 books I’ve read so far this year and detailed descriptions of the ones I enjoyed most. Yes, I really do read at least a book a week.

I name the books I really liked in the “recommended” parts of the list. Books I didn’t enjoy (remember: reading is personal) I’ve placed in the “other” list. Please note I don’t generally read mystery/thrillers, sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes just don’t run in those directions.  

I know this won’t seem very summer-y, but I’m starting with non-fiction because the very best books I read this year most assuredly fell into that category.

RECOMMENDED NON-FICTION in order of preference

  1. Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. I know, this book sounds like a real downer: a reflection on end-of-life care, written by a surgeon. But it’s a graceful, uplifting work that gives practical, concrete advice as we all progress towards the ends of our lives. More important, it does it in the most charming and thoughtful way possible. Brilliantly written by a doctor who is also New Yorker staff writer (and photographed, by Aubrey Calo, above).
  2. Baumeister, Roy & Tierney, John. Willpower. Self-control is a subject of particular importance to writers and this is the book presents the hard science on how to resist temptation. Baumeister is the worldwide expert on willpower and Tierney is a New York Times science writer. This book was so interesting and useful I plan to re-read it in about a year.
  3. Thompson, Clive. Smarter Than You Think. Subtitled: How Technology is Changing our Lives for the Better, this engagingly written book offers some intelligent reflections on how computers are making our lives better. Spoiler alert: The author presents a compelling argument for the value of computer games. (He even convinced me and I have no interest in such games.)
  4. Brown, Daniel James. The Boys in the Boat. This is the dazzling story of the University of Washington rowing team that won the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Even though I knew the ending, I found the book totally gripping in a can’t-put-this-down kind of way. (Great beach read.)
  5. Gildiner, Catherine. Coming Ashore. Psychologist Gildiner knows how to write a charming memoir and has now done so three times (and she’s not even 70, yet!) This one isn’t as good as her first, Too Close to the Falls, but it’s still very engaging. Gildiner has an uncanny ability to rub shoulders with celebrities: Marilyn Munroe, Jimi Hendrix and Bill Clinton all crossed her path.
  6. Bauby, Jean-Dominique. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Following my own early-in-life strokes I’ve had a particular fascination with neurological incidents. That said, the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby hit a bit too close to home. He was the editor-in-chief of French Elle Magazine and only 44 when he suffered a rare kind of stroke to the brainstem. Almost completely paralyzed, he had to tell his own story by blinking his eyes. I’d resisted the book for years but found it was not quite as grim as I’d expected. Some superb writing at the service of a tragic tale.
  7. Kondo, Marie. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Marie Kondo is a celebrity in Japan where she’s made a name for herself as a professional organizer. I really enjoyed this book even though parts of it are deeply weird (she encourages clients to “thank” their objects before getting rid of them.) Her penchant for anthropomorphizing is quite astonishing. But I agree with her credo that, “There is nothing more annoying than papers. They will never spark joy, no matter how carefully you keep them.”
  8. Brockmeier, Kevin. A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip. This interesting and unusual memoir reads more like a novel than a work of non-fiction. The author indulges in a bit of what I perceive to be “magic realism.” Still it has some of the most achingly beautiful, insightful writing I’ve ever read about teenagedom.
  9. Lewis, Michael. Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. Author of the bestselling book Moneyball, Lewis writes about numbers the way chefs write about food. In this work he looks at the way the US stock market is rigged for the benefit of insiders. Suddenly, I’m worried about what High Frequency Trading (HFT) has done to my retirement funds. Yikes!
  10. Pistorius, Martin. Ghost Boy. Memoir of a young man afflicted with a strange neurological disorder affecting him as a child, leaving him unable to speak. It should have been way better written, but the content of the story is riveting.
  11. Fuller, Alexandra. Leaving Before the Rains Come. Interesting but unevenly written memoir about a British ex-pat raised in Zambia who eventually marries and escapes to the US. Parts of it are very funny and charming but the author doesn’t keep her narrative arc clear and uses no foreshadowing. I much preferred her earlier book, Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight. 

Other Non-Fiction: 

  1. Rosenblatt, Roger. Making Toast.
  2. Borrie, Cathie. The Long Hello.
  3. Pick, Alison. Between Gods.

RECOMMENDED FICTION in order of preference 

  1. Kent, Hannah. Burial Rites. This superbly written piece of historical fiction explores the last execution in Iceland near the turn of the last century. The evocative characters — and the cold, hard landscape — are based on a compelling real-life murder mystery.
  2. Wagamese, Richard. Medicine Walk. Forthright and yet lyrical this fine piece of First Nations fiction tells the story of a young man summoned by his father to accompany him while he’s dying. Beautifully written.
  3. Chang, Lan Samantha. All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost. I read this book a few years ago and decided to re-read it to see if I liked it as much. The plot — about the life of a poet and tenured professor — is not particularly gripping but the writing is just as amazing as I’d remembered it to be.
  4. McEwan, Ian. The Child in Time. This story — of a children’s book author whose daughter is kidnapped — was Ian McEwan’s third novel, back in 1987. Although some of his inexperience shows in this “early” book, it’s very readable and well crafted.
  5. Kertes, Joseph. The Afterlife of Stars. Uneven but interesting story about a family that escapes Hungary for Canada following the 1956 revolution. The book is described as fiction but the author — currently the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College in Toronto — also escaped Hungary in ’56.
  6. Salinger, J.D. Franny & Zooey. These two interrelated stories, about a fictional New-York-based family, were originally published in the New Yorker. More interesting in the beginning than the end, and seriously dated, they nevertheless capture certain elements of the wealthy class in the 1950s.
  7. MacIntyre, Linden. Punishment. Pretty good story — about a former prison guard forced to deal with a tragic, small-town death. Not as spellbinding as MacIntyre’s earlier book, The Bishop’s Man, though.
  8. Hawkins, Paula. The Girl on the Train. A psychological thriller about a woman who is murdered. Careful writing keeps the reader guessing until the end. A little bit like Gone Girl. Great beach read.
  9. Ferris, Joshua. The Unamed. The author can really write but I’m not convinced he knows how to manage plot. This story of a man who develops a life-threatening compulsion to walk at times seems as tedious as having to walk from Vancouver to Vail.
  10. Faulks, Sebastian. Birdsong. Had been expecting great things from this famous 1993 World War I novel but left disappointed. When not fixated on war, it was a bit of a bodice ripper. The author’s research on life in the trenches was excellent (and that alone made it worth reading) but his characters came off as both thin and unbelievable.

Other fiction: 

  1. Faulks, Sebastian. A Possible Life.
  2. Diamant, Anita. The Boston Girl.
  3. Hood, Ann. The Obituary Writer.
  4. Reid, Raziel. When Everything Feels Like the Movies.
  5. Straub, Emma. The Vacationers.

You can now see book lists from previous years on my Best Of page. Just go here and scroll down to the header “Books I’ve Read.”

The next session for my Get It Done program, starting in July, has filled up before the deadline. If you are writing a book or a thesis, consider applying now for the October session. If you’d like a no-charge 15-minute appointment to discuss your possible interest, please email me at daphne (at) publicationcoach (dot) com.

What books have you really enjoyed this year? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section of my blog. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by June 30/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller. To enter, please go to my blog (and scroll to the end for the “comments” section.)