I am somewhat surprised by the number of books I read this month. A few of these were quite long, though others were short, so I guess it evens out! Here’s what I got through in June:
(PS. Do you want more book recommendations? Check out my ready-made TBR lists for ambitious readers here!)
Also, this may be my last blog post for a while. I’m on vacation the week of July 4th.
Annals of the Former World, by John McPhee
This Pulitzer Prize winning work of non-fiction is really five books in one. Over the years, McPhee wrote several shorter works on the geology along the I-80 corridor through the U.S. This brings them all together in one place, and celebrates the various characters who give their lives to the study of rocks. We get Wyoming pioneers, California earthquakes, and the history of plate tectonics. McPhee’s droll sense of humor shines through like quartz in a road cut. My favorite part was when he noted that the list of authors on scientific articles can sometimes tell us about their personal lives. One fascinating Anita Epstein wrote a paper with two gentleman, a Mr. Epstein (her husband) and a Mr. Harris. By the next published article, she had become Anita Harris, still writing with Mr. Epstein and Mr. Harris. I’m trying to picture what exactly happened in the course of that study! In print, this book is about 700 pages. I read it on my Kindle, and it was a bit disconcerting to see the counter saying I had 15 hours to go, but it was a good read.
Giving Good Weight, by John McPhee
Another compilation of shorter works by McPhee. The title piece refers to his adventures working in a farmer’s market in NYC for a while. He learned to know exactly how many tomatoes would make 3 lbs (at 3 lbs for a dollar). This book also covers pinball, a river in Maine, and an attempt, in New Jersey, to build an offshore nuclear power plant.
Memories of Old Jack, by Wendell Berry
I think I have just about exhausted the Port William saga, but I hadn’t read this title yet. Jack looks back, on his final day of life, at the world that has changed around him. He had a rough time of it, partly because of his own personality, but he never admitted defeat.
Lila, by Marilynne Robinson
A follow-up to Robinson’s Gilead, this book traces the life of Lila, who appears in Gilead and marries the preacher. Her life on the road was rough, and her adjustment to a normal existence quite difficult, but she perseveres. I didn’t really like this one as much as Gilead, though it was still a good, lyrical read.
Reach Out, by Molly Beck
This book will be out this fall; I read an advance copy. Beck describes how she built an amazing network through simply reaching out to one person per day, and how readers can do the same. I went back through my inbox and discovered that I was Beck’s “reach out” one day back in 2013 when I retweeted a link to a blog post of hers. She wrote to thank me for it. It’s a very simple concept, but very powerful too.
One of Ours, by Willa Cather
Cather’s World War I novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I feel like that was something of a lifetime achievement award, though, as I don’t think it’s her best work. Claude, a Nebraska farm boy, lives a life devoid of meaning. His family is suspicious of higher education. He marries a local girl who turns out to be so cold and passionless she refuses to sleep with him on their wedding night. But Claude finds his purpose as an officer directing his soldiers against fierce German action in the trenches. Parts move slowly, though the battle scenes at the end rip along and leave quite an impression. Maybe that’s what the Pulitzer committee was reacting to. Apparently a lot of the higher brow critics really hated this book because it portrayed war as an improvement for some young men’s lives. Cather doesn’t downplay the horrors, but she doesn’t really follow the literary party line either.
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion
I’d seen many references to Didion’s memoir of losing her husband the year her daughter was also very sick, so I finally got around to reading it. It moved swiftly, and was a detached enough exploration of grief that I found it fascinating. I was surprised by some of the same geography and time that Didion and I shared in NY. She writes of sitting with her daughter by the koi pond in the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine. I lived nearby and I used to bring my kids there all the time. It turns out we share a birthday, and she wrote of that day in 2003 being snowy. I remember that snowstorm on my (our) birthday. It turned out that was her last birthday with her husband, who died suddenly later that month. It was my first birthday with my husband — which gave me quite a memento mori moment as of course some December will be our last together as well. I may try some of Didion’s fiction, as I quite liked her tone in this, so if anyone has Didion fiction recommendations, please let me know.
The Good News About Bad Behavior, by Katherine Reynolds Lewis
This book will be out next year. Katherine and I are accountability partners and this is a project she’s been working on for a long time. While this is in theory a how-to book about parenting and discipline, it’s surprisingly narrative, with fascinating scenes of kids and families in crisis, and how they try to solve those crises. Definitely a lot of food for thought in here about how to help kids learn to discipline themselves.
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf
I read this one as a Modern Mrs. Darcy recommendation. It was a swift read, but definitely one that makes the reader think. Two older neighbors who’ve lost their spouses decide to start a relationship that begins as a chaste desire for companionship, but turns into something more. It drives their adult children crazy, and the ending made me quite sad as a testament to how some unhappy people cannot bear to see others be happy. I will probably check out more of the author’s work.
The Voyage Out, by Virginia Woolf
After commenter Gwen mentioned this in the abandoned books post, I decided to give it a shot. Woolf’s first book at times shows her inexperience, but at other times shows her brilliance (without giving too much away, she makes the wry point that one person’s death, while tragic to the people around that person, to the next layer removed of individuals is often less tragic than how your potatoes were cooked — ah, humanity). A young woman travels with her extended family from the UK to the Amazon, and learns much about life and about herself along the way. A word of warning: this book is pretty long, and moves slowly until the end (kind of like Cather’s One of Ours). If I weren’t so into Virginia Woolf’s writing, I probably would not have finished this one. But it did remind me that it’s probably time to read To the Lighthouse again!
The Kickass Single Mom, by Emma Johnson
Another advance copy (it’s out in October!). I have watched my friend Emma go from a very dark place of finding herself divorced and broke while pregnant with her second child (it’s a long story) to deciding that she would figure out a way to build a rich life on her own. Her blog, Wealthy Single Mommy, has done fantastically well, and this book describes how to counter society’s narratives that single moms are doomed to poverty, a loveless life, and criminal children. She’s no-nonsense (she’s actually not a big fan of child support — though recognizing it was a feminist victory a generation ago), funny, and frank — especially about her sex life! Whoa!