Books read in May

Another month, another round-up! I am in the midst of reading John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World, which is epic (700 plus pages). After many days, I am only about 64% in, according to my Kindle’s counter. Still, I finished a lot of other books this month. Below is a list of what I tackled since the last post on this topic. Also, some exciting news: my reading guide is coming out soon! More on that later, but the gist is that I constructed some “To Be Read” lists of books for ambitious readers to read in sequence. These lists deal with various concepts (“Place” or “Small towns,” etc). When one always knows what to read next — and I promise, everything on these lists is highly readable — it becomes easy to spend more time reading!

Anyway, on to what I read this month.

Best. State. Ever, by Dave Barry

The Pulitzer Prize winning humorist defends his adopted home state. An extremely funny look at roadside attractions, retirement communities, psychics, and other Florida weirdness.

Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon

This was a bestseller, with various statements about the artistic life, illustrated with Kleon’s drawings. I read later that this started as a speech, and a slide presentation, and I kind of think those are the mediums it was best for. If you are looking for creative motivation, I would recommend starting with something like The War of Art, or The Creative Habit, instead.

Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway

A very strange novel, in which a young couple’s marriage quickly goes to hell. Not my favorite Hemingway book, though there’s a meta story here of whether drafts are the real thing of a story, and given that this was a draft published after Hemingway died, who knows what he would have thought of this.

The Road to Little Dribbling, by Bill Bryson

I had not read much Bill Bryson prior to this, and this month I read three of his titles. I started with this discussion of modern Britain, which I suppose was personally important to Bryson because a) he lives there and b) a previous book on the UK, Notes From A Small Island, helped make a name for him. It was entertaining, though now that I’ve read more of him, I’d say it’s not his best work. Instead, start with the other two titles I read this month (summarized below).

In a Sunburned Country, by Bill Bryson

Bryson takes on Australia. Few non-Australians have explored this country that is both simultaneously familiar and strange. Fascinating facts, not too much preaching (despite what Australia probably deserves on the aboriginal question), much making fun of himself too.

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson

Some readers had told me if I liked Wendell Berry (which I did!) I’d like Marilynne Robinson too. I decided to read her best known books in the order written. Housekeeping is about two young sisters in a small, northwest town, who are cared for by an eccentric aunt. Strange and spare, this is a risky first novel, but a very good one too (especially as one realizes that Ruthie, the narrator, is not entirely sane herself!)

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson

Bryson’s take on the Appalachian Trail. He doesn’t manage to hike all the way from Georgia to Maine, but he certainly makes the scenery come alive. This made me want to get back out hiking and have some off-the-road adventures.

The Autobiography of Ben Franklin

While primarily a memoir, this book is as much self-help as history. Franklin examines what worked in his life, and what didn’t (his “errors”) with advice for any young kin reading his story on what they can learn from all this.

Poor Richard’s Almanac, by Ben Franklin

For about a dozen years, Franklin published an almanac under the pen name of Richard Saunders. His opening letters are surprisingly funny, keeping the same joke running from year to year. Then the aphorisms are what they are, but some are worth making into those quote cards people put on Instagram and Pinterest.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree, by Eric Barker

Eric Barker’s look at the research on success, and what works and doesn’t work. Check out his Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog for more on the fun of social science.

How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie

I have read this book several times before, but as part of my reading list creation, I decided to read it again to see if I wanted to include it (spoiler alert: I didn’t). While the advice is generally smart — smile, use people’s names, ask questions, be effusive with your praise because no one actually listens to criticism — I am always a little wary of how thin the line runs between influencing people and being downright manipulative. If you’ve never read it, it’s worth a quick read just to see what the fuss is about (it remains one of the best-selling self-help books of all time).

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Robinson wrote this decades after Housekeeping, and you can see her maturation as a writer in the interim. Much more religious than Housekeeping, and with a much more positive view of life, too, this is a lovely read. Rev. John Ames serves the town of Gilead, Iowa, and has become a father very late in life. This book is supposedly the letter he writes to his son as he is dying, and winds up becoming testament to his final lesson: you never really know what anyone else is going through.

One Writer’s Beginnings, by Eudora Welty

Welty describes her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, and how she learned to become aware of the literature of the world around her. A short but fascinating read, especially if you are a fan of Welty’s fiction. (I read Death of a Traveling Salesman, the short story that launched her onto the literary scene, right afterwards).

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll

I may have read this in the past, or had it read to me, but I don’t remember. So after yet another “rabbit hole” reference, I decided to read it. Clever at times, and at other times just strange, I felt this was more interesting to see where various cultural references originated as Alice dreams herself into a strange upside down world, and then dreams herself back out again.

Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

The next book in the Alice sequence. While the story in Wonderland itself is not that great, this book is redeemed by its well known poems: Jabberwocky, for instance, and the lovely acrostic poem that ends it, with its whimsical, nostalgic look at childhood. “Life, what is it, but a dream?”

Hourglass, by Dani Shapiro

I had seen this memoir praised various places, so I picked it up. While quite slim (I finished it in less time than it took to fly from PHL to Indianapolis, thus forcing me to read the inflight magazine for the duration!) it is a powerful love letter to her husband, with all his faults, and a silky meditation on what life turns into when it doesn’t quite turn out the way you’d dreamed. My one quibble is that she sort of glosses over the couple’s precarious financial position, and how they landed in a place with no savings despite seemingly earning a reasonable amount over the years. Her husband sounds amazing and resourceful, but letting your health insurance lapse when you’ve got a teenage son is a bit more than an oops. I may explore some of her fiction now that I have read this.

Now on to June!

In other news: Are you in Philadelphia? I’m keynoting the Be Well Philly “Boot camp” conference, run by Philadelphia magazine, this Saturday. If you’ll be there, please let me know so I can say hi!

Photo: The book pile is growing again. 

15 thoughts on “Books read in May

  1. I’m sure you’ve answered this question before, but do you read physical books or kindle? And do you usually buy vs using the library? I struggle with preferring reading physical books but hate the clutter of owning them, and I get anxious when I have a ‘deadline’ from the library (need to get over that one!)

    1. @SHU- all of the above! I do like physical books, but reading the 700-page one I’m reading now would feel pretty much impossible that way, lugging it everywhere. So it’s on Kindle. I have borrowed books from the library, but my local one doesn’t have the best selection. I go sometimes, but I am often buying. I’ll order the physical book if I know I have a plane trip I want to read it on, or a vacation. If I’m impatient, though, and can’t wait 2 days for Amazon Prime, I’ll get the Kindle version. Also, a lot of classics are free or close to it on Kindle, so for those, that’s the way I go. I read all Kindle books on the Kindle app on my phone, not on an actual Kindle e-reader.

      As for clutter…I do a big book purge every year or two. In the meantime, they stack up.

  2. I picked up 1 Dead in the Attic during a surprise long weekend trip to New Orleans. I have wanted to read it for years and just haven’t. Every store we entered seems to carry it and I took that as a sign. I sat out on our balcony in the early mornings and read while my husband slept in. Nothing like reading a novel set in a particular place and then seeing the exact locations named. While the book is expectantly dark in places, it is ultimately one of hope. Recommended if you haven’t read it.

  3. I always love seeing what you’ve been reading! This is such a great list and I’m very interested in the Eudora Welty book. Have you read more of her fiction? I’m not sure where to dive in after the memoir.

    1. @Kimmie- I think The Optimist’s Daughter is one of her most famous, and it’s pretty accessible. Also short – which is a big plus when you’re deciding if you like a person’s writing 🙂

  4. Marilynne Robinson is an amazing writer. You will love the next two books. So beautiful! I just heard Dani Shapiro speak and I’m anxious to read Hourglass as well. And yours is the third mention of A Walk in the Woods, which means I’m being called to read it. Adding that to the TBR pile.

  5. Also: I have so many friends who are moms (I’m not) who tell me they don’t have time to read, because kids. If you haven’t written an article rebutting this, please do. If you have, point me to it.

    1. @Deb – oh dear. I’m not sure I’ve written a specific article on this, though I feel like I have addressed the mommy martyrdom complex… Where to start? If they have time to talk to you about their lack of time, they probably have time to read! It may not be as much as they like, but it’s still some. Listening to audio books in the car is a good way to start. Or putting the Kindle app on the phone, because then you can turn any phone scrolling time into reading time. It’s also a habit. Consciously reading for 20 minutes after the kids go to bed, instead of zoning out on social media or TV, can up the total pretty quickly. After 20 minutes you can start something else (including chores, or whatever) but if it’s a good book, it’s easy to keep going!

      1. +100 to Kindle time on the phone instead of checking email or social media. I have read SO MUCH MORE this way. Also reading my book instead of crappy magazines at the doctor’s office, hair salon, etc.

    1. @Courtney – I’d say that The Sun Also Rises is a good story, highly readable, and reads like…Hemingway (in the style people know him for). The Old Man and the Sea is short, and is Hemingway at the complete opposite end of his life. So that might be a good one to do too.

  6. I love seeing what other people are reading. You’ve got quite a nice variety here. A suggestion: If you like Bill Bryson, my favorite of his books is I’m a Stranger Here Myself. I thought it was laugh-out-loud funny.

  7. Just yesterday I started listening to the audiobook version of Hourglass (read by Shapiro herself) and am loving it!

  8. I’m glad to see Lewis Carroll’s classics on your list, but I think you may have missed some real gems. The original was my absolute favorite as a child (my great aunt read it to us-I’m sure that helped!). I read it again in my 30’s. I saw very different things: a mockery of the British educational system, mostly, which was focused on rote learning. It’s a rare author who can capture the imagination of a 5 year old AND adults. The fantasy aspects were what I loved so as a child. I still loved those same aspects as an adult. By contrast, I also loved Nancy Drew as a young adult. As an adult, I still enjoy the stories on occasion, but find them far less interesting. They’re not nearly as well written.
    As to the rest of your list, I see a couple I’d like to read, especially the Ben Franklin autobiography. I do love a good autobiog/biog. I’m currently reading a biography of Oswald Chambers. Thanks for your information!

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