Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2021

While today has a definite summer feel, there were some decidedly fall-ish days (mornings, especially) when we were up north last week. In fact, there were a few times when I needed to put on a sweater!

It's coming. . . 
A change in the seasons.
(The fall equinox is on Wednesday - the 22nd - this year.)


And you know what that means?
It means its time to share my Top Five summer reads with you!

(The book links below will take you to published reviews of each book.)


First up, I've got Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I've had this book on my to-read list for quite a while, and I'm so happy that I finally took the plunge and dove in earlier this summer. Because this one, friends, is truly a book to savor! This smart and savvy collection of essays brings a bit of everything: nature, ecology, science, storytelling, indigenous wisdom and spirituality, history, the environment. It is engaging to read, informative -- but not overly technical, with beautiful writing that strikes a perfect balance between science and poetry. This book is a gift: Life affirming; possibly life changing. I loved it!


Then, I've got The Five Wounds by Kirstin Valdez Quade. This book has all the ingredients for a truly enjoyable read: a compelling storyline, excellent pacing, a setting that you can walk right into, and believable characters with heart -- oh . . . and flaws. (Lots of flaws.) The author does a brilliant job balancing the big hearts and deep souls of her characters . . . complete with all of their delusions and all of their (many) bad decisions. This is a rich story of redemption -- tenderly told and definitely worth reading!


Next, I've got one that's a little . . . tougher, a little darker. In What Strange Paradise, author Omar El Akkad invites us to witness the world refugee crisis through the eyes of children. This short, impactful novel is tender and brutal, hopeful and horrifying. The writing - spare and precise - is so effective and the story so compelling I couldn’t put it down; couldn’t get it out of my head. This book cracked my heart wide open.


Then, I have one that I finally got around to reading . . . The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich. (This one kept coming up in my library holds last year . . . when I didn't have the "reading capacity" to get to it. Sometimes it works that way with library holds.) Anyway. I'm so glad I finally had a chance to get to it. Y'know, every time I read a book by Louise Erdrich, I think . . . THAT’s my favorite. Every time. So now that I’ve recently finished The Night Watchman, well . . . you can guess where my loyalties currently lie. Erdrich is such a gifted storyteller. Her characters are wonderfully drawn and her settings are so vivid that it always feels like you just walk right into her stories. She weaves a kind of magic with her words. It’s all so good -- and definitely worth my wait.



And, last, I bring you a two-fer, both re-reads for me: My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. I decided to re-read both books sequentially in anticipation of Strout's newest novel, Oh, William! (which continues the series), coming out next month. I am a total fangirl when it comes to Elizabeth Strout. I have read every book she's written, and many of them more than once. No one does love and tension in familial relationships quite like Elizabeth Strout. She is simply a master . . . at putting together a series of "snapshots" or little vignettes to tell stories that go so much deeper than the words on the page. I love her spare writing style, the intimate connections present in her stories, the delicate family dynamics she highlights, and mostly just . . . the human-ness she writes into her characters. She breathes life into what might seem to be bleak settings and lonely people. She really does show us that, indeed . . . Anything is Possible! (And now I can't wait for Oh, William!)


How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of Summer reading?


If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2021

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2021

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019


A Different Kind of Summer Reading Challenge

When I was a little girl, I loved going to the library in the summertime. (I actually loved going anytime, but I especially loved it in the summertime when I had days and days of uninterrupted hours ahead of me for reading.) My mom would take my sister and I every week, and we'd peruse the stacks . . . each of us piling back into the car with the maximum number of books we were allowed to check out.

That stack of books was like heaven to me! So many possibilities. . . 

Kym and Diane

I still love that summer-reading-going-to-the-library feeling. I read differently in the summer than I do during the rest of the year. Generally, I read lighter fare during the summer (not so much knife-twisting in the heart). More mysteries. Memoirs and "beach reads." Usually some big ol' brick of a storytelling epic. I love it . . . the freedom of just reading whatever happens to strike my fancy at the moment. (That's actually how I read, generally, all the time. But in the summer it feels different . . . MORE somehow.) 

I know many of you look forward to Mary's fun and most excellent Summer Book Bingo challenge each year. Although I don't participate in Book Bingo myself, I love to watch from the sidelines -- seeing you put together your cards, plan out your summer reading, and then calling BINGO all summer long. I prefer to think of myself as . . . your cheerleader . . . as you fill up your Bingo cards. (You can read all about Mary's bingo challenge - and print out your card - on Mary's blog here.) Mary has a great set of simple rules for Book Bingo, basically reminding everyone that it's just for fun -- that participants get to choose their own level of "challenge" and determine the relevance of book-to-square, for example. She has developed a Bingo card generator filled with 88 different book categories -- so there really is something for everyone in these cards. Do go check it out! It's fun to participate -- AND it's fun to watch from the sidelines, too.

In the spirit of summer reading, coupled with my post from yesterday about arbitrary rules, I thought it might very . . . cheerleader-y . . . for me to challenge you to think about your own arbitrary rules for reading before you launch into summer reading or the Book Bingo challenge. (Because reading . . .  is an area FRAUGHT with arbitrary rules.) For example, I don't know how many people have looked at me with horror . . . when they find out I sometimes read the endings first, before finishing a book. But . . . it's really just an arbitrary rule that you must read books in a linear fashion, with never-any-peeking at the ending. There are no Book Police! Unless we're reading for some formal or work-related purpose, we're reading for pleasure. For the joy in the words or the story or the characters. Other than trying to fill your Bingo card, reading is not a competition or a contest. We're just readers. Reading for enjoyment.

So I offer this challenge to you as you plan out your summer reading: Think about any arbitrary reading rules you may be harboring (and I'll bet you have some). Do you force yourself to finish any book you begin? How do you feel about skimming? Do you think that reading only "counts" if you're reading words-on-a-page (rather than having them read to you in an audiobook)? Are you an I-can-read-only-one-book-at-a-time reader? There are so many arbitrary rules we come up with for ourselves! Think about what yours might be. And let them go!

Gretchen Rubin, who regularly advocates for more reading as a strategy in her pursuit of happiness, has put together a few tips for adding more reading to your life. I think they're excellent, and worth sharing.

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It's nearly time for summer reading, friends!
Get your Bingo card ready.
Or not.
Identify - and challenge - your own arbitrary reading rules.

And let's savor those big stacks of heavenly books, filled with possibility!

Throwing Caution To The Wind

Read With Us

Generally speaking, I'm cautious when it comes to recommending books to other people. I actually don't do it very often, and only if I really, really understand someone else's reading tastes and can match my recommendation to what they may enjoy.

I mean, I'm notorious among people who know me . . . for liking books others don't find appealing. You see, I'm a big fan of the gritty, messy, "hard" books. The ones with ambigous endings. Or books that feature characters without names. Or books with weird punctuation. I tend to appreciate authors that stab you in the heart, and then twist the knife around a bit. Sometimes more than a bit. That kind of thing. (Although I absolutely draw the line at books where animals die or come to harm.)  

So I've learned to be careful about making recommendations.
Because not everyone likes that kind of book.
I often say . . . I loved it. Your mileage may vary.
And people generally get what I'm saying.

Our most recent Read With Us pick . . . 


ummm . . . well. It might fit into that category of books I'm cautious about recommending. It's gritty, and definitely messy. Some people might say it's "hard," (but I'd just say it's life.) The ending is kinda-sorta ambiguous (spoiler alert: everything is not tied into a pretty bow, neat as you please, by the final page). All the characters do have names, and the author uses standard punctuation -- but there is a lot of dialect (which can be somewhat challenging until you get the hang of it). And, yeah. The author definitely stabs you in the heart and twists it around - real good - a few times.

I loved it.
Your mileage may vary.
But I'm going to throw caution to the wind . . . and recommend it to you anyway.
I really do hope you'll pick up a copy and give it a try!

Because Shuggie Bain . . . is definitely a book worth reading. The writing is brilliant, the story compelling. It's completely "readable" . . . despite the dark subject matter. And that . . . is a testament to the mastery of author Douglas Stuart. He writes so tenderly about hurt and damaged people who are just trying to make their way in a world that isn’t helping them at all. You'll care about his characters so much and so deeply, despite their ugliness and all their flaws. It's Powerful Stuff, I tell you.

While not a memoir, author Douglas Stuart did draw upon his own experience as a queer boy growing up in Glasgow with a single mother who struggled with addiction in writing the novel (his first, by the way). NPR's Scott Simon did an excellent interview with Douglas Stuart in November 2020, just days before Shuggie Bain won the Man Booker prize. It's worth a listen -- and at only 6 minutes long, it's quick and easy, too. (Plus, Douglas Stuart's accent is absolutely charming.)

Speaking of accents . . . Much of the book is written in Glaswegian dialect (also known as Glasgow patter) (and I'm not making that up). It doesn't make it impossible to read or understand the book -- I had no trouble getting the meaning through context, but this little Glaswegian Dictionary would have been a helpful reference. I started out reading the hardback version of the book, but before long, I found I really wanted to hear the voices and the dialect, so I grabbed the audiobook version and alternated between reading with my eyes and my ears. I highly recommend this approach, as it added depth to my reading experience.

Although our turnaround time from announcement to discussion is a bit shorter than usual for this book, you've still got plenty of time to read along. We'll be posting our blog book discussion questions on Tuesday, June 8 -- and then we'll be hosting another Zoom book discussion later that same evening at 7:00 pm Eastern time. (I know that makes it early if you're in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, but Bonny, Carole, and I all live in Eastern time -- and we turn into pumpkins if it gets to be too late.) I hope you can make plans to join us for the Zoom. We've had a couple of great discussions now. It's a lot of fun to get together and talk books with blog friends. 

I do hope you'll join us!

I highly recommend this one. . . 
I really do.


Sometimes Mondays . . . Are Full of Hope

Last year, there were many times when I felt short on . . .


But you already know this. It was a frequent blog topic for me . . . my search for hope. I'm feeling ever-so-slightly better these days. Things look a little brighter to me, at least. So I haven't felt quite the need to write about it as much lately. 

But I'm still always on the lookout, y'know? 
And I found some to share with you.

It's a book.


And I think a lot of you might really like it!

When I first started reading this new novel by Jane Smiley, I was skeptical. Talking animals? Really? Although I adored talking animals in books as a child, they just don’t have the same appeal for me now that I’m a grown up. (Besides, there’s always that nagging worry that something bad will happen to the animals. And I can’t bear that.*) But I swallowed hard and plunged in --  suspending my disbelief -- and I quickly fell head over heels for Paras, Frida, Raoul, Kurt, Nancy, and Sid.

Turns out that Perestroika in Paris is actually . . . Charlotte’s Web for grown ups (except it won't make you cry).

This delightful and utterly charming novel is uplifting, lighthearted -- and just plain fun! It was refreshing to read a story where the motivations of all the characters are pure (both animals and humans - because there are humans in it, too) -- just what you’d wish for in the real world. A story of friendship, freedom, love, and loyalty, this book was a balm for my soul -- a bright spot in these dark times.

It gave me hope! 
And maybe it will give you some, too.


Here's to a good week for all of us -- full of lightheared fun, pure motivations, and good books that give us hope!


*(Spoiler alert: Nothing bad happens to these animals!)



Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2020

The fall equinox is not until next week, but it sure feels like fall around here! It's cool . . . and the clouds are just different now. Although the leaves aren't really turning yet, it won't be long. It's time for me to wrap up my summer reading with with a Top Five books list.

In the summer, I tend to slow my reading down just a little bit. I have more outdoor things going on that distract me in the summer, for sure. But my reading tastes also change in the summer, when I tend to read more classics . . . or long epics . . . short story collections . . . and lots of poetry. 

Looking back over the last 3 months of reading, I've put together my Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2020 list:


First up . . . Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell, pushing Apeirogon out of first place for my favorite book of the year. This one really just blew me away. I can think of no better words to describe this incredible book than these (from Washington Post book reviewer Ron Charles): “through the alchemy of her [author Maggie O'Farrell's] own vision, she has created a moving story about the way loss viciously recalibrates a marriage.” I was intrigued and entranced and, finally, totally in awe of this book. Hamnet is a powerful testament to love and marriage -- and grief. The writing is beautiful. The entire premise so inspired! This one will haunt me for a long, long time.

(Hamnet was awarded the Women's Prize for Fiction last week.)


Next . . . Deacon King Kong by James McBride. Energy, vitality, and heart come together perfectly in this tight package of a book, where fates collide, everything connects, and it is all so very satisfying in the end. Absolutely packed with richly-drawn characters and a strong sense of place, this book transports readers to 1969 Brooklyn. Humor, agony, resilience -- and a really great vibe. Deacon King Kong is a delightful read any way you look at it.


Next up . . . The Door by Magda Szabó, translated from Hungarian by Len Rix. This is a fabulous book -- originally written in 1987, but not translated to English until decades later. This book is one of those that will rattle around in my head for quite a while. The story - about an aspiring writer and her hired housekeeper - sounds rather basic, but from the opening paragraphs, you know you’re in for something of a ride. Slowly, the author unravels details about the housekeeper and her history. . . and before you know it, you’re lost in intricate layers of just fabulous storytelling. What I was left with . . . was an intense character study of two women, drawn together over decades and life circumstances. The Door is beautifully written, and the translation makes it sing.


Now we have a re-read . . . Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout. I originally read this when it was first published -- way back in 1998. I thought it was brilliant then -- and it set me off on a path of total Elizabeth Strout fandom. I was reminded of Amy and Isabelle when I read Olive, Again in late 2019 . . . when Isabelle shows up as a background character in Olive’s life. (Strout is amazingly skilled at dropping characters in and out of storylines and even whole novels.) I decided then that I needed to re-read Amy and Isabelle! Still brilliant, over 20 years later. Compelling. Strong characters (both major and minor). And a story with heart.


Lastly we have my near-constant summer companion . . . The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel.

There is no question that this is an incredible novel; an incredible feat for the author (and the reader, actually). But, oh my. Reading this one takes A Commitment! I loved the first 2 books in this trilogy, and was really looking forward to this one -- the third and final installment. Hilary Mantel absolutely does not disappoint. She brings Thomas Cromwell to LIFE. It's fascinating. Entirely believable. And . . . ungodly long. Still. I really enjoyed this cherry-on-top of a great trilogy. (Thanks, Hilary Mantel. You set the standard for historical fiction with this trilogy.) (And ruined me for reading any other historical fiction, probably forever.)


How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of summer reading?


If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019



Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020

Saturday is the summer solstice . . . so it's time for me to wrap up my spring reading with a Top Five books list.

I read a lot during the last 3 months! I had made a serendipitous pick-up at my library the day before it closed for the pandemic, so I had a fresh stack of 7 books to read. Plus there were audiobook downloads and ebook loans and books from my own library to keep me occupied. Truly an embarrassment of riches!

Here we go . . . with the Top Five: Best of My Spring Reading 2020 list:


I was reading this extraordinary book, Aperiogon by Colum McCann, just as the pandemic shutdowns were beginning. This book will stay with me forever! Not because of my timing (although I will probably always have a link in my brain between this book and the world falling apart all around me) but because it may be the best book I've ever read. It is a brilliant, layered portrait of friendship, grief, and moving forward under the most challenging of circumstances. It is . . . moving, powerful, poignant -- and unlike any other book I have read.  I highly, highly recommend this one (and especially the audiobook version, where it is a special treat to hear it read by the author).


I have read most of Anne Enright's books over the years, but somehow missed reading her 2007 Man Booker Prize winning entry The Gathering. It may not have been the best book to read during the early days of the pandemic, but there it was . . . in my library pile. The Gathering is a beautiful book of characters and feelings, and probably won’t appeal to those craving action. That said, it is a gorgeous and very precise look at the workings of one woman’s mind loosed by tragedy and reflection; a redemption story of family love and memory, beautifully written and tenderly told. I recommend this one especially for readers who enjoy contemporary Irish literature.


The Far Field by new author Madhuri Vijay was another book in my pandemic library pile. I really enjoyed this one -- a beautiful and compelling read about good intentions gone bad. It builds slowly . . . until, suddenly, you realize you just can’t put it down. The writing is lovely -- clean and crisp, with wonderful descriptions of the setting; the characters are well-developed and believable. I’ll look forward to more books from this new author. Highly recommended.


I debated leaving this book, Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, off my Top Five list . . . because it is a re-read for me. But then I decided I liked it too much to leave it off! Last fall I read The Topeka School . . . which reminded me how much I love Ben Lerner’s writing. I decided then that I would re-read his Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04 over the summer, just to immerse myself in Lerner’s words again. (I guess you could say that Ben Lerner is my literary “crush” . . .) I was a bit apprehensive about re-reading. Frequently I regret re-reading books I really loved the first time around because they just don’t stand up to the test of time for me. Not to worry, though. I enjoyed Leaving the Atocha Station as much (maybe even more) with a second read. I highly recommend this one, knowing that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. But for my friends who appreciate words and how they can be formed (more than plot) . . . well, this is a book for them!


And now I have the series of books that got me through the pandemic spring: all four installments of the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowlings). While they aren't perfect, they are certainly entertaining! I was surprised and delighted with the series -- perfect for my mood during the early pandemic, stay-at-home days. I enjoyed the developing characters of Cormoran and Robin, and found the murder storyline to be entertaining and engaging. Excellent storytelling -- and I especially enjoyed the  fabulous narration by Robert Glenister. I'm ready for a break from these books now (until a new installment comes out later this summer), but I highly recommend them for your summer reading. (Note: These are not "cozy" mysteries. If you're squeamish, there is some gruesomeness and gore. . .)


How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of spring reading?


If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my other Top Five lists by clicking the links below:

Top Five: Best of My Winter Reading 2020

Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading 2019

Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading 2019


A Look Back . . . at the Words I Read in 2019

Goodreads sure makes it easy to review your reading for the year!

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In 2019, I read 80 books. Just under 26,600 pages.  Slightly more than 2018.  Which is all meaningless information, actually.  But interesting all the same. Most of the books I read in 2019 came from my local library.  I read fewer audiobooks this year than usual (and I have no explanation for that) (although I'm afraid that it might be that I watched more TV).  A few of the books I read in 2019 were . . . pretty mediocre.  But most were quite decent and very worth reading.  (My average rating was 3.9.)  I wrote a review for every book I read.

After all those books and all those pages, here are the books that really stand out for me this year -- a list of my Most Memorable Reads of 2019 (not all these books were 5-star reads for me, but they were memorable all the same):

First, the book that changed my thinking more than any other book this year.  White Fragility is not an easy read -- but it is an important one.  It's good to shake up the way you look at the world sometimes, y'know?!  I think about this book every day.  Highly recommended.

White fragility

Then, there's the book that changed my digital habits in a life-shifting way: Digital Minimalism.  Sure, I still Google useless facts too often, and I scroll through Instagram a bit more often than I really want to, but generally . . . I'm much more aware of how and when I use technology, and I feel far less tethered to my phone.  

Digital minimalism

I started the year with Milkman . . . and I'm still in awe of it.  The story was powerful, and the storytelling structure was unique.  I loved the fresh voice and perspective of the novel's narrator.  While it's probably not a book for everyone, if you like something a bit different and you're in the mood for something to chew on, give this one a try.


I always have a hard time choosing just one favorite book of the year, but if pressed . . . I'd probably tell you it was The Topeka School.  Again, probably not a book for everyone.  It's brilliant -- but challenging.  And so worth the effort. 

Topeka school

Then there's The Heart's Invisible Furies.  Epic, funny, poignant, and so full of heart it just . . . bursts!  (I talked Tom into reading this one after me, so I had a chance to listen to/talk through the best parts all over again as he read.)  If you like sprawling epics that will rip your heart out while making you laugh, this one is for you!

Heart's invisible furies

Oh, Lanny!  You stole my heart.  This quick, little read was such a magical treat!  


I read Red at the Bone right at the end of the year - almost my last book of 2019.  There is so much packed into this short book -- great characters, compelling story, unique storytelling style. This is one you won't want to miss!  

Red at the bone

And then there's Just Mercy -- the first book we read together, which will always make it special to me!  Y'know, it's pretty . . . risky . . . to try something new.  Like a bloggy book group.  So it was heartening that so many of you responded positively to this new (and evolving) idea, and that you . . . read with us!  Our first book was an interesting look at the criminal justice system - and particularly at death row inmates - in the US.  Not an easy read, but an important one.

Just mercy


What to look for from me (reading-wise) in 2020? 

I don't have any solid reading goals or plans in mind, and certainly not related to the number of books I plan to read.  I don't think I need to read "more" and I don't think I need to read "harder," so I'll keep to my usual strategy:  paying attention to the major book prizes (the Women's Prize, the Man-Booker, and the National Book Award are my favorites), checking out the recommendations from the New York Times and the New Yorker and other readers I trust, and then . . . well . . . just be open to general inspiration.  

As far as very loose plans, well . . .  this year, I'd like to read something by Virginia Woolf.  (I never have.  I think it's time.)  It's probably time for me to re-read some Jane Austen. (I go on a Jane Austen binge every decade or so. . . ).  I'm interested in a few memoirs right now, and I have a short stack of books on art and creativity that I'd like to tackle this year. 

How about you?  Do you have any reading plans this year?


Read With Us

I invite you to Read With Us!  We're just starting in on Fever by Mary Beth Keane (available for Kindle - $1.99 now).  Be sure to read Carole's promotional/introductory post about the book today.  We'll be discussing Fever throughout the month of February, so you still have plenty of time to join us!



My other highly recommended (5 star) reads this year:

Olive, Again (Elizabeth Strout)
The World That We Knew (Alice Hoffman)
The Dutch House (Ann Patchett)
Grief is the Thing With Feathers (Max Porter)
Disappearing Earth (Julia Phillips)
The Murmur of Bees (Sofía Segovia)
The Nickel Boys (Colson Whitehead)
Women Talking (Miriam Toewes)
The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson)
Inland (Téa Obreht)
Spring (Ali Smith)
The Great Believers (Rebecca Makkai)
Improvements (Jean Silber)

(For my reviews on Goodreads, or to follow along with what I'm reading, see my blog sidebar.)



Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading

With the solstice and the (official) change of seasons coming around next week, it's time for me to share my fall reading Top Five list.  While my reading has certainly slowed down lately (I attribute this to all my movie-watching at this time of year) (and that gift-knitting I said I wasn't going to do), I have read some really excellent books this fall.  Really . . . I think I saved the best for last when it comes to reading in 2019!  

So.  Here we go!  My list . . . Top Five: Best of My Fall Reading


I was reading The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead just as the summer was turning to fall -- and it's still haunting me.  It is powerful, heart-wrenching, compelling and spare. Colson Whitehead provides just enough detail to take you right to the edge . . . and then he lets you fill in the rest of the narrative all on your own. It's just masterful!  If you haven't read this one yet, I recommend putting it on your to-read list in 2020.  (And his description of watching the New York Marathon?  Just WOW.)


I love Ann Patchett novels, so I grabbed The Dutch House from Audible as soon as it came out this fall.  This one is just a great story beautifully told -- about childhood memories and unbreakable sibling bonds, the strength of family and the ties of place and home. It’s about jealousy and grudges and the price of devotion. It is simply marvelous!  I read the audiobook version of this book, which is narrated by Tom Hanks. What a treat! His narration added so much to the story. I recommend this book all the time now -- and especially the audiobook version.


I have a hit-or-miss relationship with Alice Hoffman novels. I loved The Dovekeepers, for example, but have been lukewarm about many of her others. (I think it’s the magical realism. It just doesn’t always work for me.)  But in her latest novel, The World That We Knew, it DOES work! In fact, the entire novel . . . just works, magical realism and all. Hoffman weaves together a beautiful tale of love, sacrifice, family, and faith against the backdrop of the Holocaust and Nazi horrors. The characters are beautifully and lovingly drawn, the language is lovely, the story compelling. The pace never bogs down, the historical facts are well-placed and meaningful, and the magic is . . . well . . . pretty magical. I was captivated!  I highly recommend this one, and especially for readers who enjoy historical fiction . . . with a touch of magic. (And for those who loved The Dovekeepers, for sure.)


Now, we've got what turns out to be my favorite book of 2019 . . . The Topeka School by Ben Lerner.  I loved this book -- but it's just not going to be for everyone.  It's a dense and challenging read -- with a great payoff  (if you can get there). It’s a brilliant book – one I can’t stop thinking about AND one I can’t seem to describe either (yet I keep trying). The writing is amazing. The characters have depth. There are shifting timelines and voices – that work. But when I try to tell people about the book, I . . . can’t. It’s a story about a family in late 90s Kansas. It’s a coming of age story. It’s about parallels in time and space. It’s about language. It’s about raising children (boys, in particular) in a culture of toxic masculinity. It’s about debate and forensics. It’s about mental health. It’s about Kansas and what WAS the matter there . . . and how that led us to where we are now. And. It’s just freaking brilliant. That’s all.  (I recommend this for those who enjoyed Lerner's previous novels Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, as Adam Gordon is, once again, the main character.)


This brilliant (but flawed*) book - The Water Dancer, Ta-Nehisi Coates' first novel - took me a very long time to read. Not because it is a slog of a book. (Not really.) And not because it is overly academic in scope, either. (Because it isn’t; not at all.) It simply took me a very long to read because there is so much . . . weight . . . to it. I needed to take my time. I needed to let things simmer.  (I'd say it also took a long time to read because it is . . . too long.  *Characters tend to talk in "essays" - and especially in the middle portion of the book.)  In the end, The Water Dancer is a story of memory as a power to transport. It tells the gut-wrenching truth of family separation and shares the humanity of enslaved people.  I highly recommend this one -- but prepare to spend some time with it.


How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of fall reading?


If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.  And you can read my Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading list here.


Read With Us: Book Discussion Week 1

Welcome . . . to the first ever Read With Us book discussion post!

Read With Us

We're so happy to have you join us as we begin our discussion of Bryan Stevenson's Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.  I'll be focusing our discussion this week on the Introduction and first 5 chapters of the book.  Next Tuesday (Nov 12), Bonny will talk about the middle portion of the book, and then Carole will follow up on Nov 19 with the final section.  On Nov 26, I'll be back to sum up our discussion for you.

Now for a bit of "housekeeping" regarding the discussion and how (we hope) it will work:  Please join the discussion by leaving a comment here on the blog.  I'll be responding to your comments IN the comments, so please do check back once in a while to see how the discussion is going this week.  Feel free to respond to other commenters as well.  We realize that this is not the most ideal discussion format, and that it's somewhat cumbersome and a little awkward --  but it's the most reasonable way we could think of . . . for a beginning step.  

So.  Let's get started, shall we?



If this were an in-person kind of book group, I'd be welcoming you to my house for the discussion.  Since we're meeting via blog instead, let's just set the stage . . . and pretend we're all together.  In my living room.  Relaxed and sitting around my coffee table in front of the fire.  With a plate of homemade brownies and a couple of bottles of wine in easy reach.  After a few sips of wine and some social chit-chat, I'd announce that we were ready to begin . . . 

So.  What did you all think of the book?

Bryan Stevenson, an attorney in Alabama working with poor and underserved clients, provides a personal and sobering look at modern-day injustices in the US criminal justice system.  While the book closely follows the story of Walter McMillian, a man unjustly sentenced to death row for a murder he did not commit, Stevenson also weaves in several other poignant stories about underage and/or mentally ill clients suffering similar injustices.  By telling these heartbreaking stories, Stevenson brings criminal justice statistics to life and makes us care . . . and seethe.

I found this book to be heartbreaking AND hopeful -- and certainly inspiring.  Going into the reading, I already knew the criminal justice system in our country was broken; Just Mercy opened my eyes to just HOW broken it really is. Bryan Stevenson has challenged me to think more openly about what justice means . . . and what mercy looks like. 

(I shared quite a bit of background about the author, Bryan Stevenson, in an earlier post, and Bonny provided a link to his TED Talk, so I don't want to repeat any of that information here.  Please do take a look if you missed either of those posts earlier.)

Here are a few questions rooted in the early chapters of the book, just to get the discussion started:

  1. Just Mercy begins with information about Bryan Stevenson growing up poor in a racially segregated community in Delaware. He remembers his grandmother telling him, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close." How does Stevenson get close to the incarcerated people he is helping? How does getting close to Walter McMillian affect Stevenson’s life? Do you think you can be an effective criminal lawyer without getting close?

  2. Walter McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama.  Monroeville is extremely proud of its hometown hero Harper Lee and her book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a Pulitzer Prize winning piece that sees white lawyer Atticus Finch defending African American man Tom Robinson against fabricated rape charges of a white girl in racially divided Maycomb, Alabama. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is likely the most famous 20th century novel dealing with racial injustice, a distrustful legal system, and the evils of stereotyping. What do you have to say to a community that simultaneously wrongfully convicts a man due in large part to their own prejudice, all the while celebrating Harper Lee’s work? Is it ignorance? Naiveté? Indifference? What would you like to tell the community of Monroeville about this startling parallel?

  3. Early in the book, Stevenson describes an incident when he was racially profiled and the police searched his car. He wonders, if there had been drugs in his car and he was arrested, would he have been able to convince his attorney that his car was searched illegally? Stevenson says, “Would a judge believe that I’d done nothing wrong? Would they believe someone who was just like me but happened not to be a lawyer? Someone like me who was unemployed and had a criminal record?”  How does Stevenson’s work shape his understanding of the justice system? Do his experiences make him more or less empathetic to those in the justice system?  Is it surprising that someone whose 86-year-old grandfather was murdered would work so tirelessly against the death penalty?

Please join in the discussion by commenting below.  We're eager to hear what you think!  And if you don't like the questions I've asked, that's okay!  Please feel free to share your thoughts and impressions about the book -- or ask your own questions.  


"My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.  Finally, I've come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment ot the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, adn the respected among us.  The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned."
    ----- Bryan Stevenson


Top Five: Best of My Summer Reading

Recently, Tom and I watched High Fidelity . . . again.  It's one of our favorite movies, and we've watched it many, MANY times over the years.  (There are very few movies I can watch over and over again.  High Fidelity is one of them.  If you haven't seen it - or haven't seen it in a while - I highly recommend it.)  In the movie, the main character - Rob (played by John Cusack) - owns a record store and is working through a recent breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Laura.  Rob summarizes pretty much everything in his life with Top Five lists.

Thus . . . my inspiration for today.  
Top Five:  Best of My Summer Reading


I started my summer reading in a strong way, with Normal People by Sally Rooney.  Now I know this one won't be for everyone, but if you like spare, witty writing and well-done character studies (but . . . not a whole lot of action), this one might be for you.  I loved it, and found it to be heartbreaking and authentic.


Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips is a compelling story told in a unique style -- spreading different characters’ voices and points of view across a 12-month period of time. I very much enjoyed the structure and style of this book – it reads like a brilliant, interconnected short story collection (think There There, Winesburg, OH, Olive Kitteridge, or Reservoir 13).  If you like that kind of structure, this might be a great book for you, too.


During the summer, I tend to pick at least one book to re-read --  AND I also read at least one big, sprawling epic.  Beach Music by Pat Conroy checked both those boxes for me!  I initially read Beach Music back in 1995 when it first came out.  I remember lugging the beast of a hardback around with me when my kids were very young . . . Anyway.  Re-reading it this summer did not disappoint.  I was, once again, moved to tears by this sweeping tale of forgiveness and reconciliation set in Rome and the South Carolina Lowcountry. (And if you haven't read Pat Conroy, you really ought give one of his books a try.)


I really don't know how to describe Lanny by Max Porter . . . except to say it may be one of the most perfect books I've ever read. It's compact, completely unique, creative, mystical and so engaging that I sat and read it in one sitting.  (Which is not that hard to do, as it is pretty short.)  There is just . . . a lot going on under the surface in this one.  If you liked the "experimental" style of Lincoln in the Bardo, you might enjoy Lanny, too.  (And I recommend reading the actual book instead of listening -- because the physical book is a visual treat and adds to to overall effect of the story.)


I just managed to squeak in reading Inland by Téa Obreht over Labor Day weekend, so I ended my summer reading on a high note.  This one was rather a slow burn for me, and it did take a fair amount of attention while reading.  Totally worth it though!  There are two storylines that spiral in seemingly disconnected ways throughout the novel. . . until they DO connect in a most magical way, creating a wholly satisfying ending.  Give it a try (especially if you liked Téa Obreht's previous novel, The Tiger's Wife) -- but you might want to keep a glass of water nearby for sipping-while-reading.

If you want to see what I'm reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog.  You can find me here on Goodreads.


How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five list of summer reading?