Recommended books: Summer 2017

Reading time: About 4 minutes

Looking for some recommended books in time for summer reading? Here’s my semi-annual roundup of books I’ve read 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 27 books I’ve enjoyed so far this year. Yes, I really do read more than a book a week! I give you this list close to the summer solstice, to help you with plans for your own summer reading. 

Please note I don’t generally read mystery/thrillers, 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. Kauffman, Rebecca. (Pictured above.) Another Place You’ve Never Been. The best fiction I’ve read this year is presented as a series of interconnected short stories about a couple of cousins throughout their lives. The author reminded me a little of Alice Munro with her focus on straightforward language and fully formed characters.
  2. Oates, Joyce Carol. A Book of American Martyrs. The story of an abortion doctor who is killed by a religious right-to-life advocate, the book may be offensive to some (on either side of the abortion divide) but I found it to be deeply fascinating. Neither side is spared in this thoughtful, nuanced account. Warning: the book is very long.
  3. Lawson, Mary. Road Ends. It took me awhile to get into this story about life in a large, troubled family in Northern Ontario but once I was absorbed I couldn’t let go. It was so riveting I read it in a single day, beside a pool with a drink in hand.
  4. Tremain, Rose. The Gustav Sonata. Well-written piece of historical fiction set in Switzerland, largely during the Second World War (the end wraps up in more contemporary times). The novel tells the story of a young boy’s efforts to deal with his cold and distant mother who has been emotionally paralyzed her husband’s efforts to assist the Jews.
  5. Ohlin, Alix. Inside. I picked up this novel from a shelf in a condo while we were on vacation. Initially, I feared it was chick lit but, in the end, was surprised and delighted to discover the insight and fine writing concealed in this story of four complex characters in present day Montreal.
  6. Gowdy, Barbara. Little Sister. Literary fiction about a woman who inhabits the body of a stranger as she tries to come to terms with the death of her sister, for which she has always felt responsible.
  7. Fuller, Claire. Swimming Lessons. Some promising writing and an engaging plot — about a mother who has disappeared. But the ending utterly failed to move me.
  8. Korelitz, Jean Hanff. The Devil & Webster. Interesting story about a student protest gone wrong and the perils of political correctness but the author lost control at the end and the book fell apart.
  9. Bergen, David. The Case of Lena S. I spent years looking fruitlessly for this novel and finally found it this spring in a second-hand bookstore on a remote island. Exceptionally well-written novel but the coming-of-age plot was too slight for the effort.
  10. Witchel, Alex. The Spare Wife. Produced by a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, the book reminded me of The Devil Wears Prada. Not great writing. Not a meaningful plot. But engaging enough in a read-on-the-beach kind of way.
  11. Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. There is nothing ‘little’ about this 720-page book. Large and heavy enough to be a brick or a doorstop, I estimate it to be 340,000 words. In some ways, I found the story of four classmates from a small Massachusetts college very moving but it was too long by at least 35% And while small pockets of the writing were deeply moving and beautiful, much of it was more like typing. (To my surprise, the book was short-listed for the Man Booker prize.)
  12. Payton, Brian. The Wind is Not a River. This Second-World-War love story — set in Japanese-occupied Alaska —starts off promisingly but ends up a bit too predictably.
  13. Malouf, David. Remembering Babylon. A rather old fashioned book telling the story of a European teen who had been abandoned at sea and then raised by Aboriginals in Australia. Uncharacteristically for me, I found it more interesting at the end than at the beginning but it was terribly overwritten.
  14. Bydlowska, Jowita. Guy. Story of a misogynist man, and his comeuppance, this book is also unbelievably lewd. Not quite my cup of tea although the writing was competent.
  15. Grose, Jessica. Soulmates. Some decent writing at the service of a painfully thin story, about a high-powered female lawyer whose no-good husband dumps her and then ends up being murdered. 

Not recommended 

  1. Banner, A.J. The Twilight Wife.
  2. Bennett, Brit. The Mothers: A novel.
  3. Lapena, Shari. The Couple Next Door.
  4. Levy, Deborah. Hot Milk.
  5. Palka, Kurt. The Piano Maker. 

NON-FICTION (in order of preference) 

  1. Stevens, Nell. Bleaker House. A deeply engaging book about the perils of devoting your entire life to writing on an island where you are the only person. I bought the novel after reading an excerpt in my daily newspaper and the book exceeded my already high expectations. Stevens has a great ear and eye for metaphor.
  2. Ericsson, Anders. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. I am grateful for Ericsson’s conclusions — that talent is irrelevant and what counts is hard work — and think that his research has huge implications for writers in particular. (Malcolm Gladwell misinterprets many of Ericsson’s findings. Read this book to learn the real deal.)
  3. Toobin, Jeffrey. American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst. I was in high school when Patty Hearst — granddaughter of the newspaper baron William Randall Hearst — was kidnapped. So, I’d had a vague but longtime familiarity with the story. But the book comes to life when the author reaches the courtroom trial.
  4. Faludi, Susan. In the Darkroom. The author’s father had sex-change surgery when he was in his late 70s and this book explores that dramatic change. Perhaps surprisingly, I found the writing a bit dry.
  5. Bellos, David. Is that a Fish in Your Ear?: Translation and the Meaning of Everything. I have friends who are translators and David Bellos gave me a whole new appreciation for their work art. This book will appeal to anyone interested in words, language and culture.
  6. Levitt, Steven & Dubner, Stephen. Think Like a Freak. These writers have found a gravy train that they’re just unwilling to climb off of. Found much of the book a bit trite and it failed to offer the advice they’d promised on how to retrain your brain. But I give these negative comments despite being a huge fan of their podcast, Freakonomics.

Not recommended 

  1. Breus, Michael. The Power of When.

My video podcast last week addressed the question of how to organize your research. If you have a question about writing you’d like me to address, be sure to send it to me by email,  Twitter or Skype and I’ll try to answer it in the podcast.

What books do YOU recommend for summer reading? 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 30/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Writing to Learn by William Zinsser. 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.