Recommended books: Summer 2019

Reading time: Just over 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 July and December. Here is a description of the 26 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 North American summer solstice to help you with plans for your own summer reading. 

I’m starting with non-fiction today, because, generally speaking, I found my reading in this category to be more rewarding this time.

Please note I don’t generally read mysteries, sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes don’t usually run in those directions.   

NON-FICTION (in order of preference) 

1-Keefe, Patrick Radden. Say Nothing. One of the most remarkable pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in the last 40 years. This story of the Irish Republication Army (IRA) is unputdownable and reads like a thriller. All the more unbelieveable for knowing that it was true. Truly a remarkable book by a gifted journalist (pictured above.)

2-Israel, Lee. Can You Ever Forgive Me? This memoir of literary forger Lee Israel is even more delightful than the movie (of the same name) starring Melissa McCarthy – witty, charming and very clever. Just don’t buy the Kindle version! Many chapters begin with photographs of (forged) letters and there is no way to enlarge them enough to make them readable.

3-Barr, Damian. Maggie & Me. A funny and deeply sad memoir about a young man who grew up in hardscrabble poverty in small-town Scotland during the late 1970s. (The Maggie of the title is Margaret Thatcher.) I’m always won over by a good memoir and this is an especially fine one.

4-Gottlieb, Lori. Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. Interesting book showing a therapist dealing with her own problems (a potential husband who dumped her) via therapy herself. Remarkably candid and often funny.

5- O’Farrell, Maggie. I am. I am. I am. Great memoir of near-death experiences, without the usual woo woo intimations of that phrase. She has an especially adept hand with figurative language.

6-Orlean, Susan. The Library Book. I found Orlean’s writing style wildly uneven. There is a terrific beginning, and a remarkable description of the biggest library fire in US history, but then there are also many simplistic and almost amateur descriptions, of the “she had dark brown hair and black eyes,” variety. Still, it’s a fascinating story and now I’m desperate to get to the LA library.

7-McCracken, Elizabeth. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. McCracken is a remarkably gifted writer. I did not love this book quite as much as her novel The Giant’s House (see fiction list, below), but she was able to take a heartbreaking incident — the stillbirth of her child — and turn it into a moving and insightful record.

8-Hampl, Patricia. The Art of the Wasted Day. Interesting book, with exquisite figurative language. The title is evocative but also somewhat misleading; it’s more about exploring than wasting time.  I found her writing style both compelling and a little frustrating: she has a great poetic voice but she seemed to lose control of her timeline.

9-Walker, Matthew. Why We Sleep. Much more scientific than I’d expected but the author has a terrific writing style. I like the way he’s able to use metaphorical language to explain his points about the value of sleep. I’m sleeping more carefully, as a result.

10-Shapiro, Danni. Inheritance. Fascinating story, about the author’s late-in-life discovery that she was conceived by artificial insemination. Still, I find Shapiro to be relentlessly self-obsessed.

11-Garner, Helen. This House of Grief. The book offers a gripping account of a famous Australian murder trial in the early 2000s, where father Robert Farquharson was accused of drowning his three children. I found the story fascinating although some of Garner’s writing style left me unimpressed.

12-Rubin, Gretchen. Better than Before. Fascinating exploration of habits. I found this book much more interesting (and useful) than her earlier book, The Happiness Project.

FICTION (in order of preference) 

13-McCracken, Elizabeth. The Giant’s House. Truly remarkable book with a crazily original plot (a librarian in her mid-20s falls in love with a young patron who suffers from gigantism) and spectacular figurative language. I read this book early in the year but it was one of the best novels I’ve read in the last decade.

14-Boyne, John. A History of Loneliness. Sensitive and well told story of an Irish priest who is caught up in the sex abuse scandal through no bad behaviour of his own. Or was his silence crime enough?

15-Makkai, Rebecca. The Great Believers. This widely praised novel — about the early years of the AIDS epidemic — didn’t hold the same appeal for me until I was at the halfway point. I found some of her writing to be quite pedestrian but she has a huge emotional intelligence and a strong understanding of human nature. By the time I’d finished, I knew that I’d read a compelling story.

16-Choi, Susan. Trust Exercise. Considered by critics as a kind of a #metoo novel, this story about students at a highly competitive performing arts high school in the US does a good job of illustrating the power of teachers (and directors) over students, and teenage longing. I found the second section of this three-part novel to be the most gripping and the final one to be slightly disappointing. (I don’t want to offer any spoilers, so no more news, I’m afraid!)

17-Moran, Caitlin. How to Build a Girl. Very funny and wry book about how a 14-year-old trains herself to become a rock critic. Warning: it’s quite crude in spots and won’t be to everyone’s taste.

18-Lester, Jem. Shtum. This first novel — drawn from the author’s own life experience of raising an autistic child — displays considerable sensitivity, honesty and warmth. A bad news/good news story that doesn’t feel fake or saccharine.

19-Lipman, Elinor. Good Riddance. A romantic comedy — about a woman named Daphne! — that is fun and lightweight. (Good beach read.) Although the Washington post describes Lipman as “an Austen-like stylist” I felt this book didn’t quite live up to Lipman’s previous (spectacular) efforts, Then She Found Me and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift.

20-Obreht, Téa.  The Tiger’s Wife. I don’t typically like magic realism but something about this book captured my interest and attention. Really well written story about a young doctor whose grandfather (also a doctor) has recently died.

21-Letts, Elizabeth. Finding Dorothy. Written as fiction but based on the truth, this novel tells the story of Frank Baum (author of the Wizard of Oz) and his wife, Maud. Plot was engaging but I found the writing to be weak.

22-Jewell, Lisa. Watching You. This suspense novel set in Bristol, England struck me as only moderately interesting although many others (including The New York Times) raved about it.

23-Mackintosh, Sophie. The Water Cure. Somehow, I found myself reading a form of Sci-Fi even though I would never have deliberately chosen such a genre. I did not appreciate the story — about three sisters on an isolated island, raised to fear men — which I found bleak and dystopic, even though I deeply appreciated the writer’s beautiful figurative language.

24-Chaney, JoAnn. As Long As We Both Shall Live. Is Matt a grieving husband or a murderer? I wasn’t as thrilled with this thriller as The New York Times was.

25-Simonds, Merilyn. Refuge. I found this story — about a 96-year-old woman remembering the threads of her life — to be somewhat disappointing and confusing.  I mention it here primarily to highlight Simonds’ much earlier and far more masterful book, The Convict Lover, which you should definitely read.

Not recommended

26-Martin, Andrew. Early Work: A Novel.

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What books have you read so far this year that you can recommend? I’m really eager to know! 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 30/19 will be put in a draw for a copy of the non-fiction book The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!