Usually around this time of year I write an essay about the stack of books I can’t wait to read this summer. Titles that make me long for a lengthy plane ride or a lazy afternoon when I can dive into the pages and disappear for a while. And while there are many new novels that I am eager to read–Benediction by Kent Haruf, who wrote Plainsong, one of my all time favorites; Life After Life by the brilliant Kate Atkinson; and And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini who authored the powerful tomes The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns–I am more excited about the books I’ve already read so far this year. So instead of waiting for December to share my favorite titles, I created a list of my best reading experiences from the past six months to help you build your own summer stack of books. Without further ado:
Novels that Lit Fireworks in My Brain
At the beginning of the year, I received an email from my friend Mary who loves books as much as I do. She wrote, “I just finished Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. It was recommended to me and I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. It is a smart, funny, well-written account of one Seattle family’s dramatic plot-twisting exploits. The wit had me falling on my knees in laughter–a kind of wonky literary escapism.” Despite Mary’s enthusiastic recommendation, I too hesitated to be swept up by the hype surrounding Semple’s second novel. But how can you pass up “wonky literary escapism?” I’m glad I didn’t because I too loved Where’d You Go Bernadette. It was cleverly constructed, and delightfully unpredictable to the very last page.
Speaking of clever construction, I adored the book Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. I especially loved her characters–Lincoln, the narrator, and Beth and Jennifer who readers meet through the funny and painfully honest emails they exchange at work. Rowell is a talented writer who creates dialog that flows so easily you feel like you could join the conversation. I didn’t want Attachments to end, and I look forward to reading Rowell’s newest novel, Eleanor & Park, which has already received glowing reviews.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan has been described as “a meeting of modern technology and medieval mystery.” This freshman novel received some good press after being picked as one of Amazon Best Books of the Month, but I was still skeptical. The word most often used by reviewers in reference to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is “quirky.” Quirky, in literature as in life, can go either way–really good or really bad–but I decided to give Sloan and his Mr. Penumbra a chance when I spied a copy at our local library. And I’m glad I did. To the word quirky, I would add interesting, charming, and smart. Sloan is a writer to watch, and I’m excited to see what he comes up with next.
Gil Adamson’s Outlander is one of those books that sat on my to-read shelf for years. When I finally picked it up this past winter, I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long. Adamson is a beautiful and intelligent writer. Outlander begins in darkness–the main character who may or may not be mentally ill is being chased through the mountains by her brothers-in-law after she killed her husband. But as Adamson deftly leads the reader forward, it becomes apparent that light is at the center of this tale.
Liane Moriarty wrote a whole novel centered on the question that has entered most people’s head at one time or another: What would my past selves think if they could see me now? This is the premise of Moriarty’s third novel, What Alice Forgot. When Alice faints and bumps her head during a spin class at the gym, she loses all memory of the past ten years of her life. She thinks she’s newly married and pregnant with her first child, but quickly learns that she now has three children, is in the process of divorcing her husband, and has a whole life she never imagined for herself. The underlying message of this funny yet poignant romp is: Can you go back in time and reclaim some of who you used to be?
Me Before You by British author Jo Jo Moyes has been described as a love story, but it is so much more than that. This well-told story has multiple layers and raises a number of issues that have no easy solutions. I’ve read several memoirs describing life as a paraplegic–The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Joni, The Other Side of the Mountain–but none of these gave me such a clear sense of exactly how challenging that condition is as Moyes’ novel. Moyes doesn’t pull any punches. Her characters behave as people do in real life–defensively when insecure, unkindly when in pain, and awkwardly despite good intentions. And at the heart of it all is the love story.
Adventure Memoirs that Made Me Laugh Aloud
The funniest book I ever read was A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. That is, until I read my husband’s copy of Momentum Is Your Friend by Joe Kurmaskie. I’d bought him Kurmaskie’s book for Christmas. As a cyclist and father, I thought he would be interested in Kurmaskie’s cross-country biking adventure with his two young sons. After he devoured the story in a few sittings, laughing all the way through, I claimed Momentum Is Your Friend for myself to see if it really was all that funny. It is. Kurmaskie is not only a superior athlete (he cycled from Portland, Oregon to Washington D.C. on a fully loaded bike pulling his seven-year-old on a tagalong that was attached to a trailer that held more gear and his five-year-old son), but he is also a superior father (every two hours they stopped to run around and eat snacks) and a hilarious writer. His stream-of-consciousness descriptions of their boy adventures are a refreshing delight.
Similarly, I thoroughly enjoyed prize-winning journalist Mark Obmascik’s outdoor adventure book Halfway to Heaven. After being asked by his preteen son to climb a mountain, Obmascik, a Colorado native, was bitten by the Fourteener Bug. Although self-described as middle-aged, overweight, and out of shape, Obmascik began a quest to climb all of Colorado’s 14,000 foot peaks in a single year. His story is in turn funny and inspiring. While I was not moved to strap everything onto a bike and pedal my way across the country after finishing Kurmaskie’s tome, my husband and I have made some plans to conquer a couple of the local Fourteeners in our neck of the woods thanks to Obmascik. We figure if he can do it, so can we.
And I’d like to make one more suggestion. I encourage you to be as thoughtful about how you acquire what you read and in what form as you are about what titles you choose. When acquiring books, I ask you to consider these options first: your local independent book seller–either new or used–or your local library. Let’s not realize how uniquely valuable and vital both of these resources are until after they’re gone. And on a similar note, electronic books are handy–or so I’ve heard–but there is nothing like holding the real thing in your hands. Nothing like flipping to the back to study the author’s photo after reading a particularly well-crafted turn of phrase or the satisfaction of seeing a bookmark holding your place right in the thick of the action. Besides, books don’t mind bumping around in the bottom of your bag or being subjected to a little sand and water. And you don’t have to take them out of your carryon when you go through security. Technology is great, but not necessarily better. Join those of us dedicated to saving the real thing, and buy a book today.