July started out slow in the reading department. I had a lag in the middle when I was reading a lot of magazines because I wasn’t into my book. I was doing a lot of work reading this month too. Some of those books were good and some less so. But in any case, though there are fewer novels on this list than there should be, there’s one very very long book on here too that I’d meant to tackle for a while. Here are reports on what I made it through this month.
I’m a Stranger Here Myself, by Bill Bryson
In the 1990s, Bill Bryson moved back to the US after 20 years in the UK. These columns for a British newspaper describing life in America are short and funny and hence very readable.
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
I re-read this book every few years. Woolf’s masterpiece, while ostensibly about a family’s summer vacation on the Isle of Skye, is really about so much more: life, art, and the human capacity for change. I’ve always loved the image of Mrs. Ramsay standing in the doorway of her dinner party, watching the scene fade into the past. All time passes.
Blue Nights, by Joan Didion
I read this after reading The Year of Magical Thinking last month. A follow-on to Didion’s memoir of losing her husband, this book is about Didion’s daughter’s death less than 2 years later. Didion writes in restrained prose of young Quintana Roo’s strange life, privileged in many ways (flying on private planes, meeting movie stars), but constantly overshadowed by Quintana’s anxiety about being adopted, an anxiety that might have later contributed to alcoholism and her ill health. While it seems a bit crass to be talking about which grief-fueled book is “better,” I probably preferred The Year of Magical Thinking, which addresses sudden changes in life. If anyone else has read both, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
I like Didion’s prose style, so I picked up this book of her essays on California. Alternately entertaining, stark, and poignant, it captures the drugs, and violence, and strangeness of the place in the 1960s.
The Mother Tongue, by Bill Bryson
This is Bryson’s examination of the English language. I appreciate his trying to make a scholarly topic (changes in language over time, how we got so many strange words) into something humorous and readable. I hadn’t really pondered why there are so many lingering exceptions (most plurals have an “s” on the end, but then there are bizarre ones like “children”). Or that Shakespeare invented so many words. But I got a bit bogged down in this book, which was a big reason I was having trouble reading in the middle of the month for a while.
The Four Tendencies, by Gretchen Rubin
Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and Better Than Before, is back with her discussion of how people respond to inner and outer expectations. I got an advance copy of this book, and enjoyed the insights. I will write more about it when it officially comes out in September (readers of this blog will be able to amuse themselves by picking out which anonymous anecdote in the book comes from me).
Havamal, by Odin (perhaps)
My husband and I have an ongoing joke that someone should write a business book on the wisdom of Havamal, which is an Old Norse poem. It actually does have some interesting advice for living, which is filtered through the fact that it is about life in Scandinavia in the year 1200 or so. A few favorites that make sense now:
“The unwise man is awake all night
And ponders everything over;
When morning comes he is weary in mind
And all is a burden as ever.”
“Keep not the mead cup but drink thy measure.
Speak needful words or none.”
“Brief is wealth, as the winking of an eye
Most faithless ever of friends.”
Then there are others about what to do with your sword when your enemy comes near your cattle. Perhaps those must be read more metaphorically these days.
Entrepreneurial You, by Dorie Clark
The author of Stand Out returns with a book on how to monetize your expertise. This is a very practical read for anyone figuring out how to market her side hustle or full-time entrepreneurial venture. This was another advance copy, and I’ll write more about this book when it comes out this fall.
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
I had read Our Souls at Night, and quite enjoyed that, so I picked up this earlier book by Haruf about life in Holt, Colorado, in the mid-century. I found it harder to read — bleaker, even more violent at times. I may read some more Haruf novels, but I also think I might take a bit of a break before I do.
Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson
So my July list is padded by the fact that I read three parables in one day last week. Johnson’s very very famous book on how people deal with change was the first. It is what it is; I wrote last week on trying to understand what the book tapped into as a cultural phenomenon.
The Go-Giver, by Bob Burg, and John David Mann
The second of the three parables. This one was far better written than Who Moved My Cheese?, with an engaging tale of a young man who learns business secrets from a master. The idea is about being more unselfish in business; generally, people who try to make other people successful, and think about what is important to other people, wind up with tremendous influence. I suspect this (as most business parables are) was written for a male audience, because plenty of women wind up guilty of the opposite: putting other people’s interests first to the detriment of their own. But still, a fun read for this genre.
That’s Not How We Do It Here!, by John Kotter, and Holger Rathgeber
Parable number three of three. The authors use the story of a colony of meerkats to describe how to foster an entrepreneurial spirit within a large organization. My personal take is that the ideas are interesting on their own, and I wish this had been illustrated with actual stories from within large corporations, rather than meerkats. I couldn’t help but skim through big chunks of the meerkats’ tales.
Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin
I wasn’t sure I’d make it through this epic Lincoln biography by the end of July, but I did! This book consumed the entire last week of the month, but I happily read it and kept trying to find more time to read it (as a good book has a way of making happen). After all those business parables, I needed a change of pace, and this did the job: a discussion of leadership illustrated by a real leader facing real issues, and showing immense character while doing so. Abraham Lincoln dealt with change quite well; he didn’t ask for the South to leave the Union, but when they did, he reacted as he needed to without wailing about who moved his cheese. He was brilliant at thinking about what other people wanted, which allowed him to build a cabinet of his formal rivals, and even people who’d insulted him deeply, eventually making most of them his friends for life. He allowed for entrepreneurialism within the grand federal bureaucracy; the U.S. military, postal service, revenue collection system, etc. were transformed to be sleeker, more efficient, and more responsive during this time. I can dream about a world in which anyone buying business parables in bulk for their organizations would have bought this book instead, and organized employee book clubs to support people as they made it through all 750 pages, but oh well. I guess we need to live in the world as it is.
In other news: I ran a 7:34 mile on the treadmill today, which is a new PR for me. It did not feel great, but it did not leave me flat on the ground after, so I suspect I could go faster. I guess I am always wary of changing running in my mind from something that feels good, to something that does not. But it’s good to occasionally show myself that I am not as slow as I think I am.