Wednesday, August 31, 2016

My Summer Reading List (& Books You Should Read Next)


Not being a teacher anymore has been as glorious for my reading life as I'd hoped it would be, and if you're on the lookout for a few great new reads, me not being a teacher anymore will be glorious for you, too, because I'm here to recommend a whole lotta fabulous books today! These are all books that I've read completely over the past few months, and I hope that if you're on the lookout for something new, you'll find something to pique your interest.

If You're Looking for a Gripping Historical Fiction Novel...

I've been on a huge WWII kick lately, perhaps partially because that's the type of novel I myself am writing, or maybe it's just because it seems that every other book coming out nowadays is set during the 1940's. Either way, these are definitely worth a look:

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale is a story of two sisters--one a mother, one a lifelong rebel--who have grown apart from the time their mother died and who, amid the horrors of the World War coming to France, must each find where she belongs and what she is willing to sacrifice in order to defend what she feels is right and honorable.

Although parts of this didn't seem emotionally fleshed out enough, this was a captivating read with an ending that I loved, which more than compensated for the few sections I felt were lacking in emotional weight.


Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

This book also deals with WWII and people struggling to do their part in the war effort, except this one is set mostly in London and toggles between pages of gut-wrenching prose and passages of brave (but cynical) humor. The book weaves together the lives of four young adults, largely focusing on one in particular, who is a girl coming from great privilege but who wants to set out and embrace a different set of ideals.

Cleave has an unusual writing voice, which often made for some delightful paragraphs that just begged to be read aloud. Occasionally though, his play on syntax and scarcity in his word choice sometimes made it necessary to read some of the passages several times in order to glean their full meaning. If you're looking for a happy book, this is not your pick, but the ending does at least end on a hopeful--if not happy--note.

(Fair warning: both these WWII books grapple with heavy, dark themes, along with some disturbing sections of violence and tragedy. If I remember correctly, the Cleave title also had some strong language in parts.)

If You're Looking for a Book That Expertly Plays with Structure...

Although the conventional format for telling a story obviously must work, it's refreshing sometimes to pick up something that's a little outside of the box. These books would definitely fit that bill:

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

This is actually the first book I've read where the whole story is told through poems, and I found that not only did the structure make it easy to fly through the whole book in about 24 hours, but that the story was well-told and memorable, despite containing about a fourth of the words that most narratives do.

Inside Out & Back Again starts off by introducing you to the 9-year-old narrator Ha, whose family must flee Saigon and seek a better life elsewhere as refugees. This is a beautiful story of strength during hardship and of family unity, and I would LOVE to teach this someday (if I ever decide to go back to teaching middle school). This would be an awesome book to read aloud with a tween.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

 I'd lost count of how many people had recommended this to me before I actually picked it up, but I'm glad I finally took their advice! This novel is set on an island called Guernsey located in the English Channel, and it's based on true events that happened during WWII, where most of the parents made the decision to send their children away while the island was being occupied by Germany. (Interestingly enough, that same piece of history also came up in Everyone Brave is Forgiven).

The unusual thing about the structure of this novel is that the whole thing is told through letters between a group of citizens in Guernsey, who call themselves The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, and a reporter who becomes so fascinated by the history she receives from their stories that she decides to write a novel about it.

There were many things I loved about this book--the likeable characters, the moments of laugh-out-loud humor, the ending--but perhaps one of my favorite things was actually hearing about how the whole novel came together in the first place. (Oh, and I totally looked up Guernsey on the Internet because the descriptions of it throughout the book were so stunning.) Definitely worth a read! I'm only sorry I didn't pick this one up sooner.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

While this book won't win any award for its writing style, I found this novel accessible and fun and a delightful little "snack" of a book that I was able to devour in all of about two days.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is the story of a man who has been made older and grouchier than his years due to personal loss, and he is left barely hanging on to his career as a bookshop owner and to his ties to life in general. Just when he's sure he has nothing left to live for, an unexpected arrival at the bookstore turns his whole world upside down, and he is inevitably changed forever.

The structure on this is unusual because at the beginning of each section, A.J. Fikry (the bookshop owner) has written a "review" of a famous short story or work that serves as a preview of that section. For book lovers (especially those who love classic works and quaint bookshops), this is light reading at its best.

If You're Looking to Reinvent Yourself (or Maybe Just Your Cooking)...

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I did a partial review of this book in this blog post, but just in case you missed it, Big Magic is basically a book that gives you permission to live the creative life you've always dreamed of living, along with giving you helpful frames of reference along the way of what to do when you feel stuck or what happens when you're willing to just go for your dreams.

I heard this book described by someone as being a little "woo woo New-Agey," and I definitely agree with that--there were some parts that were not quite tethered firmly in reality and that kind of made me roll my eyes. But other parts of this were actually really helpful, like where she describes the great paradox of creative living that you must learn to embrace (that your work is of the utmost importance and that your work means nothing at all) and where she shoots down some of the more common myths or stereotypes of the creative life (like the false belief that you must be unhappy or or out of your mind to be a true creative).

I thought I would never pick up a book by Gilbert again (since I loathed her Signature of All Things so much), but I'm not sorry I included this one in my summer reading--it gave me the little push I needed to take some of my own creative pursuits to the next level.

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler

I have already heavily referenced this work in my "Cooking Economically" posts because it is largely what inspired my transition to more intuitive and fiscally responsible cooking (rather than just buying whatever looked good at the moment and letting a lot of it go to waste).

This book combines poetic prose about the power of food with downright practical tips on how to use everything from onion tops to overcooked rice to the dregs of the salad dressing jar. While this book isn't the kind of book you'll want to sit down and devour in an afternoon, it IS probably one of the most valuable books I've ever read when it came to cutting down our grocery bill and helping me to cook based on what I had, not just based on whatever recipe I'd happened to look up.

A must read for anyone hoping to take the departure from only cooking based on recipes to the more exciting world of making up your own.


The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn

Having loved to cook myself for so many years, I figured that this story of a woman inviting random strangers who knew nothing about cooking into her home to teach them all the basics they'd need in order to become fearless home cooks would just be a fun memoir-type book. What I didn't expect was how much I would take away from it as a home cook.

Each chapter covers one of the classes she taught to her students (like knife skills or how to make soup), and while she includes anecdotes about the class itself (and the lives of her students), she also includes generous amounts of cooking knowledge gleaned from her studies at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, as well as just general tips on how to reduce the amount of food you waste and increase flavor in healthy ways.

For me, this book was the perfect combination between diverting memoir and practical self-help, and I fully intend to purchase this to have as a reference guide.
 
If You're Wanting to Make Your Own Problems Seem a Little Smaller... 

The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

Upon being introduced to the Plumb family in the beginning of this novel, it is immediately apparent that there is a seriously messed-up family dynamic at play here. Basically, this book follows the four Plumb siblings as they deal with the complete and utter fallout that happens when their oldest brother lands himself in a heap of trouble that essentially drains them all of the inheritance they'd each been desperately counting on to save them from their problems.

Although many of the characters in this book are distinctly unlikable, this novel reads like a well-written juicy gossip feature, which makes it pretty hard to put down. And by the end, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn't end up hating most of the characters after all.

(Fair warning: although this book has a fabulously entertaining storyline and is written well, I can't in good faith recommend it without warning you that it uses a pretty generous smattering of strong language throughout, as well as contains a few pretty explicit scenes of a sexual nature. Consider yourself warned.)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton is a middle-aged woman who, on the surface, seems to have it all--she is married with two daughters whom she adores and managed to pull herself out of a life of poverty to live comfortably in New York City. Then an operation that was supposed to be simple and straightforward goes slightly wrong, and she ends up having to stay in the hospital for 9 weeks.

Unexpectedly, her mother, who she hasn't spoken to in years, comes to keep her company, and they end up tentatively connecting over gossip about folks in her hometown and lighthearted stories from her mother's past. Although they still can't seem to talk openly about all the big things between them, this 9-week period becomes a reminder to Lucy that her mother loves her in the only way that she knows how, and that life, in all of its complexity, is truly a gift.

Although there isn't much that actually happens in this story (so if you can't handle a slow plot, stay away), this was a gorgeously written exploration of the complicated relationship that connects mothers and daughters forever.

If You're in the Mood for Memoir...

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

I had several blog readers recommend this one to me the last time I did a summary of what I'd been reading lately, and I've got to say, I'm glad I've got readers who have such great taste!

The Glass Castle is the story of the childhood of Jeannette Walls, which could only be called unconventional at best and neglectful at worst. Despite having very hands-off parents who largely pursued their own interests, their nomadic lifestyle and fierce independence produced in Walls the drive and desperation she needed to succeed at her dream of attending college in New York.

What I found the most interesting was that even though her parents had plenty of issues--her dad was an alcoholic, her mother was an artist with little desire to set any kinds of boundaries--and her childhood was fraught with things like winters where they nearly froze or terrible accidents that could have been prevented--this story didn't read as a long string of finger-pointing or blame-slinging; in fact, it reads like a story of acceptance and forgiveness and moving on and thriving despite it all (and maybe even because of it all).

This was definitely a memoir that left me thinking for a long, long time.

The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn

Because I'd loved The Kitchen Counter Cooking School so much, I decided to pick up this book by the same author, except this particular memoir details the story of her time spent in Paris at Le Cordon Bleu, one of the most famous cooking schools in the world.

While this book also contained the now-familiar blend of recipes and practical kitchen advice with personal experience, I did feel that when all was said and done, I much preferred The Kitchen Counter Cooking School to this one. Although this was a fun read (especially for me since I love me a good foodie memoir), there were parts when it seemed a bit slow and where I didn't find myself particularly invested in the outcome of events. However, if you want an insider's peek at what it's like to attend one of the top-rated culinary institutions in the world, you'll probably find this one pretty enjoyable.

If You Want a Good Tearjerker (with a Little Romance Thrown In)...

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes

With the movie for this having come out earlier in the summer, I feel like I'm a bit behind the times. But, considering that I still haven't seen the movie, I figured that I was still good to pick up this bestseller and not have the ending spoiled for me.

Me Before You is the story of a girl who has no idea what she wants to do with her life and who basically has no ambition. When she loses her long-time job at the local cafe, she is forced to take whatever job is offered to her, which means that she ends up as the personal assistant of a depressed quadriplegic who obviously hates her.

Having seen the trailer for the movie well before picking up the book, I had this vision in my mind about what this book would be about, how it would read, and how it would end. Needless to say, I was surprised on all counts. A delightful surprise, with a lot more depth than I was planning for.

These is my Words by Nancy E. Turner

This is another book that several of you well-read blog readers had been recommending for years, and when I heard it come up as somebody's favorite book on my favorite reading podcast, I decided I'd better just see what all the fuss was about.

These is my Words follows Sarah Prine through a 20-year period that covers everything from her family moving West to help settle the Great Frontier to her newfound roles as wife and mother. The book is written as a diary, which Sarah starts when she's just learning to read and write, so grammarians will have to just plow through those first several sections with a hefty dose of chocolate and caffeine handy. But, as Sarah's education improves, so does her writing and her descriptions and her ability to fully paint the canvas of her emotional landscape, and by the end, you feel as if you knew her like a sister, or like you know yourself.

A few thoughts on this one--

First, I loved the characters. I loved how much I cared about what happened to them by the end. I loved that the ending made me cry (because that means that the book was well-written enough to make me emotionally invest in it). Second, I loved how much I could relate to Sarah's honest account of marriage and motherhood---so much of fiction overblows those two things to make the story more intense, but this story (for me, anyway) rang pretty true to many of my own feelings about those two things. However, I will say that this book was often hard for me to read. I found much of it depressing, and I learned pretty quickly not to get too attached to any characters since they could be gone the second I turned the page. While this is a story that was probably very true of the types of hardships that settlers would have regularly faced at the end of the 19th century, I still wouldn't recommend it if you have a hard time with sad books.

That said, I can totally see why many people would rank it among their favorites. I'm definitely not sorry I finally gave it a chance.


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All right, blog readers----it's your turn! What should I read next? (And if you've read any of these titles already, I'd love to hear what you thought!)

4 comments:

  1. I'm excited about a lot of these suggestions! Have you read anything by Jaclyn Moriarty? I think her most popular one is probably The Husband's Secret, but my favorite is What Alice Forgot. All her books are fun and lighthearted, but those two actually have some deeper level questions, which I like. That's all I have to add, because I need to get back into the reading game!

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  2. I have recently read The Nightingale, The Glass Castle, and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and loved them all. I really want to read Me Before You even though I've already seen the movie. Thanks for the recommendations. I'm excited to suggest some of these to my book club!

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  3. I've read five of the books you mentioned and enjoyed all of them, especially The Nightingale and These is My Words. I read Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend, and I enjoyed it. It was about an American couple living on the Galápagos Islands. It spanned most of the woman's life-it started when she was in her teens. I really enjoy historical fiction, especially when it involves stories that are new to me, kind of like Guernsey, a place I knew absolutely nothing about prior to reading the book.

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    1. I've never heard of that one, Ash--I'll have to check that out since I'm a fan of historical fiction as well (obviously, lol). Thanks for the recommendation!

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