Summer Reading in Review

Here’s a confession: When I was s a child, summer was always the time I read the most–in a chaise by the nearby community pool or on the dirty, lovely beaches of the nearby Jersey shore. Now, though, as an adult, I find my summers are often packed with less relaxing travel and odd working hours and time spent on patios with friends, such that it’s usually November by the time I get my reading groove back each year. And on top of that, the past two years, my reading has been particularly packed with a very particular type of book–science-related narrative nonfiction–as I looked for guides and secrets in my attempts to structure and restructure my manuscript.

But not this summer. Even though my teaching schedule has been packed (writing class at GW, ESL classes at GMU, and SAT-prep classes at Curie Learning), the past few months have been surprisingly fruitful in terms of reading for me. I’m starting a new writing project, and I wanted to be free of directly related outside influence up on it, so I let myself read absolutely anything that struck me. Below is a brief review/recommendation/anti-recommendation of each book on my (quite random) summer reading list:

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
As will be the case with most of these books, you’ve probably heard of this, perhaps read it, and definitely have seen it recommended. I read it in a day, hungrily. It’s eery and beautifully written.

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger
Bangladeshi girl meets American boy on the internet, moves to U.S. to marry him, faces cultural and personal trials. Unlike the rest of the world, I never read Freudenberger’s break out short story collection, Lucky Girls. (I know, I know. It’s on my list.) This novel, while not my favorite book of the summer, was genuinely engrossing, and I found myself up past my bedtime, particularly taken with the main character, Amina.

All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know about Getting and Spending by Laura Vanderkam
This book is, of course, not particularly literary, but I had to add it to this list because it really was a great read, and the first book in a long time that actually made me evaluate my life (well, my spending life, mostly, but other areas as well) in a significant way. Since reading it, I have actually been spending money and thinking about money differently. I highly recommend, particularly if you, like me, agonize over what things are “legitimate” to spend your money on, and which aren’t.

The Financial Lives of Poets by Jess Walter
This book, though “light” in a lot of ways, was very readable, and did a lot with plot and character that I think is to be admired. I enjoyed it.

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami
While I still really enjoyed sections of this book, I had been really eagerly awaiting a weekend trip during which I planned to read it, and the book just didn’t live up to my expectations. I really like Murakami, but I felt–can this be said about a book by him?–bored through about half of the book.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
I know everyone was nuts for her years ago, but upon reading her book Prep, I thought Curtis Sittenfeld was just all right. This book, though, was absolutely fantastic. Great characters, great pacing, and–of course-it’s said to be loosely based upon Laura Bush, who I find to be kind of a fascinating/tragic figure. It was the first book in ages that has had me on a “read this!” recommendation rampage.

The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld
I wasn’t kidding about Sittenfeld. I’m crazy for her, and this book, despite its terrible title, was also a fun read.

Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Why do I do this to myself? I listened to this on CD, rather than reading it, but in case you’re wondering: Yes, it will still make you want to jump off a bridge in a different medium. It’s gorgeous and tragic and exhausting, just as I knew it would be.

Girl on the Couch: Life, Love, and Confessions of a Normal Neurotic by Lorna Martin
Two very sad thumbs down. Down because it was boring the narrator/writer was not particularly likable or engaging or introspective, despite the fact the it was a book about psychotherapy. Sad because I don’t really know/like any Scottish writers, and I was disappointed to find that this was still the case after finishing this Scot’s book.

I Don’t Care About Your Band by Julie Klausner
I’m considering boycotting the otherwise wonderful blog that recommended this book to me. Sadly, the first forty pages felt very unoriginal to me–to the point that I did not continue reading.

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl
Although I have a particular interest in the ideas of memory, truth, memoir, and storytelling, I think this book, particularly with its circuitous structure, would appeal to most readers. It’s particularly lovely in its repetition and self examination.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Everyone and their brother has recommended this book, so I won’t spend too much time with a detailed review, but yes, you should read it. Really.

Drop Dead Healthy by A.J. Jacobs
Jacobs has his schtick–he’s really the king of stunt creative nonfiction–and I usually enjoy his books (particularly My Year of Living Biblically and The Know It All), so I’m not sure if I had just hit my maximum schtick intake level, or if this book was, in fact, simply less engaging than his others. Eh, it didn’t thrill me. But on the up side, this book did prompt me to get my amazing treadmill desk!

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett
This was a re-read situation for me. I have been teaching Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face in my GW class on Truth and Memory in Creative Nonfiction, and this piece, written (to much controversy after Grealy’s death) by her best friend, the well known Ann Patchett, is often read as a companion piece. I read it years ago when it was first published and really disliked it, particularly as it was pitted against Grealy’s book, which I adored. Recently, however, I had a conversation with a colleague who claimed that the book is one of her favorites, and I began to wonder if my age when I first read Truth and Beauty might have had something to do with my judgement of it (I was about 23). While I still see major flaws with the book, I felt differently this time around. Very much worth the (re) read.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Hardbach
Although I am only about halfway through this book, it’s so delightful that I wanted to mention it, lest I let it slip my mind in another couple of months when I post a new round of mini-reviews. It’s about baseball, but not. About a small college, but not. About characters of all ages who are interesting and troubled and funny. It’s a first novel, too, which blows my mind.


That about does it. Happy fall teaching and reading!

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