Books I Can’t Stop Recommending

Since I’ve started posting more on social media about my reading life, I’ve had a lot of people ask me for book recommendations. Although I have read a lot of books this year, I find myself recommending the same few books over and over, so I thought I would share them with you now.

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Category: Quirky/Unusual/Different from other things you’ve read

  1. Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I have written briefly about WYGB before because I reread it in June (for my third or fourth time), but I wanted to give a little more details here.

Semple is a super interesting writer. She wrote for Arrested Development, which is a show well-known for witty one-liners, hilarious banter, and tons of inside jokes. WYGB delivers on all of these accounts.Bernadette herself is a quirky, misunderstood, slightly-crazy mom who goes missing, and her daughter Bee is putting together pieces to find out where she went. The style of this novel is unique: the story is told through a compilation of emails, memos, newspaper clippings, and flyers. I have heard that the style is off-putting to some readers, but I loved it. When I chose this book for my book club in July, the discussion turned into a read-aloud of all of our favorite parts of the book. It was my dream come true.

Memorable quote: “This is why you must love life: one day you’re offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you’re using the word calve as a verb.”

2. The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

The ridiculous title was the first thing that appealed to me. I read the author interview at the back and learned that his inspiration for this novel was a conversation with  friend where they started thinking back on all that a person would have seen if he had lived through the past 100 years. The story follows Allan, a man who climbs out of the window in his nursing home on the morning of his 100th birthday and embarks on an accidental adventure. The story switches between his current flight and his past escapades. Jonassan cleverly crafts Allan’s life story to include interactions with most major political figures and world events that show up between 1905-2005, from building the first atom bomb to engaging  in a drinking battle with Harry Truman on the night that Roosevelt was shot. The story is obviously far-fetched, but it is very clever and fun and full of dry wit. The book is translated from Swedish, but I think it keeps its humor really well.

Example quote: “Never try to out-drink a Swede, unless you happen to be a Finn or at least a Russian.” or “Allan thought it sounded unnecessary for the people in the seventeenth century to kill each other. If they had only been a little patient they would all have died in the end anyway.”

Category: Suspense/Thriller

3. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Lindsey had talked about Rebecca for years, and after I read it, I totally understood why. It is an awesome thriller that is gripping to the end, but it doesn’t have the graphic or scary details that often come with the genre. Rebecca tells the story of a young woman who marries a widower and goes back with him to the home he used to share with his late wife, Rebecca. The new wife (you never learn her name, although she is the narrator of the whole novel) tries to adjust to life in Rebecca’s shadow, but the longer she spends in the house, the more she realizes that things are not what they seem. Who exactly was Rebecca, and what happened to her all those years ago?

4. The Chief Inspector Gamache books by Louise Penny (Book one is called Still Life)

I have gushed about Louise Penny before, and I’m sure this won’t be my last time. There is something about this series that I can’t get enough of! Penny has created a wonderful cast of characters who play in each of these murder mysteries. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is thoughtful, kind, perceptive, and wise, and he is very good at his job as head of homicide. His character is what makes the series so wonderful. These books are murder mysteries, but they are so much more about the characters and their lives and about human nature and relationships than they are about graphic details of murders. Some of the books have a little bit of weird mysticism thrown in, and they all have some language (one of two of the characters in particular), but overall they are really great if you enjoy a good mystery!

Category: Funny

5. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (and Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I love a good celebrity memoir, and this one is my favorite. Mindy is hilarious and down to earth and surprisingly insightful. I remember thinking, “YES! Why does no one else talk about how weird/dumb/ridiculous _______ is?!” In Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, Mindy discusses the awkwardness of growing up, making friends, chasing dreams, and feeling left out, but she does it all in a way that shows that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. Also, she gives some great behind-the-scenes details from The Office, which is always very fun to read. There is some language and adult content, but this book is way less shocking and gritty than a few other celebrity memoirs I’ve read. I liked this first book better than her second, Why Not Me?, but that one is fun if you want more Mindy. This is my go-to book when someone says they need an easy book to get back into reading. It is a quick, easy, fun read!

Example quote: “All women love Colin Firth: Mr. Darcy, Mark Darcy, George VI—at this point he could play the Craigslist Killer and people would be like, ‘Oh my God, the Craigslist Killer has the most boyish smile!”

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My Life-Changingest Book of 2016

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it is true. This has been a book that I have thought about, underlined, re-read, quoted, and refused to put away because I keep needing to reference something. Technically, this book didn’t even belong to me; Lindsey got it as a birthday present on our family vacation and I picked it up first. She agreed to let me borrow it for the drive home since we were going to be seeing each other again a few days later, but after reading a few chapters I texted her that I was sorry, but there was no way I was returning it. I just had to buy her a new copy. The book: The Kitchen Counter Cooking School by Kathleen Flinn.

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The premise of the book is simple: a professionally trained chef takes 10 self-described “bad home cooks” and teaches them basic cooking lessons. These women (the one man in the class dropped out before the first lesson) range in age, race, life-stage, and income, but the all feel equally incompetent in the kitchen.

Flinn starts her project by doing a “What Not to Wear” style pantry and fridge evaluation of each volunteer and notices some common issues like food waste, fear of under-cooking meat, reliance on hyper-processed boxed foods, and general self-consciousness about cooking. All of these women want to provide healthy, cheap, delicious meals for their families, but they are overwhelmed and don’t where to start. Flinn hosts lessons that cover basic cooking techniques like roasting a whole chicken, adding a “flavor kiss” to veggies to keep them exciting, baking homemade bread, mixing salad dressings, salvaging leftovers, and so much more. Each lesson is simple, but revolutionary to these women. Flinn also takes some of the pressure out of home cooking. She constantly encourages them to take risks–even if they fail, it’s just one meal, not the end of the world! They feel empowered and equipped to tackle the should-be-simple task of home cooking.

Now I would not consider myself a bad cook. I make meals for myself and Reggie most nights of the week, and I feel pretty comfortable trying new recipes. But this book has given my cooking new life. I regularly fight falling into a slump  cooking-wise, and this book was a right-book, right-time kind of thing. After reading it, I was re-energized to try some basic but really fun things in my kitchen. In the past few weeks I have made several whole chickens (plus chicken stock from the leftover bones), fresh bread, and mayo. I visited the farmers market and found some really great, local fruits and veggies that have added a little excitement and variety to our days. So far everything as turned out pretty good, which makes me more confident and excited to keep trying new things.

Reading The Kitchen Counter Cooking School made the necessary task of daily food preparation seem like a fun, and not overwhelming task, and if you are anything like me, that is always a good thing!

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My first batch of homemade bread!

Vacation Reading: Yours, Mine, and Ours

We went on an extended-family vacation a few weeks ago, which gave Les and I a rare but wonderful opportunity: reading together!

This meant Leslie reading out loud to me while I drove one of the vans on the way to Missouri. She timed it perfectly so that we read the final paragraphs of These Happy Golden Years as we literally pulled into the parking lot of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Mansfield.

Once we arrived at our final destination (NOT Laura’s house, sadly), we settled in to reading our own books in close proximity and then trading them back and forth as we finished.

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One of the first nights we were all together we celebrated all of our summer birthdays. Leslie and I were showered with books and book-themed gifts. (Does our family love us, or what?)

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Finally, it meant Leslie stealing one of the books that I had gotten for my birthday to read on her drive home. Just yesterday she told me that she was just going to ship me another copy from Amazon because she wasn’t going to give my original one back!

I was going to post a a detailed Vacation Reads summary, but Leslie covered almost all of my titles with her June recap! (See aforementioned book swapping.) SO…I’ll keep it simple.

Still Life by Louise Penny

I’ve never claimed to be into murder mysteries, but I’m making a happy exception for this series. These plots are interesting without being icky; much more about human nature and relationships than about the grisly details of a character’s untimely demise. Still Life is book 1 and I’ve heard the series just gets better from here!

The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Plazza

A total change of pace, this novel set in the rapidly changing world of fashion publishing is delightfully larger-than-life. Editor Imogen has paid her dues and risen to the top of her field until she is usurped by her 26-year old former assistant who returns to Glossy magazine with an MBA. Manic catfighting ensues.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I read this a long time ago and liked it okay, but after years of Leslie’s fangirling I decided to give it another try. She was right! I totally loved the snarky tone and the creative narrative structure.

All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull

I was excited to discover that the author of my all-time favorite memoir, Almost French, had written a follow-up companion. It’s always fun to catch up with beloved characters. But honestly, if I hadn’t already had a connection to the characters, I don’t know if this book would have captured my interest. The tone is much more melancholy (the main theme is Turnbull’s struggle with infertility and her longing for a child), and the pacing is inconsistent. For example, a description of a deep-sea dive might go on for pages, but (SPOILER!) the long-awaited baby turns one just a few pages after his birth. The strongest points of this memoir are Sarah’s struggles and successes as a foreign member of a new culture– this time in Tahiti.

 

But enough about me…what have you been reading on your summer vacation?

June Recap

June was a really fun month of reading for me. I started in a little bit of a slump, but once I got going on a couple of these, I just couldn’t stop reading!

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1. Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

The first of a long series of books following Maisie Dobbs, a detective/private investigator/boss lady in the 1920’s. She is smart and totally lovable. This first book has a lot of flashbacks to set up Maisie’s back-story, but I hear that doesn’t continue much through the rest of the series. I really enjoyed Maisie and can’t wait to continue with the series!

2. Ready Player One by Earnest Cline

Full post here. Surprisingly enjoyable dystopian YA nerd novel. Ready Player One takes place in dystopian future America and follows an eighteen year old boy who is trying to win a video game contest for the hope of a better life.

3. Still Life by Louise Penny

Louise Penny’s first Chief Inspector Gamache novel. I read a different Louise Penny book that comes later in the series before I realized that it was a series, so I finally got around to starting at the beginning. I loved it. The crazy characters, the quaint small town, the quiet confidence of Gamache–I can’t wait for my library to get me book 2!

4. Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

True confession: I did not finish this book. I had it on my kindle from the library, and I didn’t know my time would expire so quickly. I really enjoyed the parts that I did read (I highlighted and took screenshots almost every time I read), but I found it hard to pick it up and read for very long. Someday I would like to come back and finish this book, but I probably won’t right now.

5. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Beautiful memoir about Elizabeth Alexander’s husband who passed away suddenly. Alexander is a poet, so her descriptions of her Ficre (her husband) and their life together were really beautiful. Lindsey did a full review of The Light of the World here.

6. Little House on the Prairie, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder

These books are just so classic. I read these three in preparation for our trip to visit Laura and Almanzo’s house in Missouri, and I laughed and cried through them.

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All the heart eyes for Laurmanzo

7. The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes

SO FUN. This might be one of my favorite books that I’ve read this year. It takes place in the fashion world of New York City and follows a seasoned editor-in-chief of Glossy Magazine through a transition into the new world of social media. I loved all of the name-dropping of famous designers and the commentary on the bads (and goods) of our instagram-obsessed culture. It was fun, thought-provoking, and just overall very entertaining. Definitely a great summer read.

8. Lizzy and Jane by Katherine Reay

I really enjoyed this one! It is the story of two sisters (named for the Bennets) who struggle to connect after years of bitterness following their mother’s death. One is a chef, one is a stay-at-home mom battling cancer, but both have some serious emotional baggage to sort through. Even though that sounds heavy, the book is quite lighthearted and full of quotes and conversation about Jane Austen, other classic literature, and food.

9. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Marie Semple

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is one of my favorite books. I reread it this month for my book club (I got to choose the book, so of course I picked this on), and it was just as good on my fourth read. The story is told through a series of memos, emails, flyers, and newspaper clippings, so it is really quirky. I LOVE it.

How to Identify a Classic: The x100 Test

If you’re ever wondering if a book should be considered a “classic,” here is one simple test: read it one hundred times in quick succession and see if you still like it at the end.

I was reminded of the “x100 Test” recently due to Abby (age 5)’s sudden obsession with audio books.  She’s new to listening to chapter books, and I had been excited to get her started on The Boxcar Children, a childhood favorite of mine.  We listened to it from start to finish, and then I gave Abby free rein with the CDs and the player, and she listened to it in almost every waking hour for the next three weeks.  We kept it for a long time past the due date until I finally got a call from the library that our next request, Charlotte’s Web, had arrived and was waiting for us to pick it up.

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I tweeted this toward the end of our time with the Alden kids

Here is the thing: Charlotte’s Web is not even one of my favorites.  But it’s on all the lists as a good first chapter book, “They” say it IS a classic, and Abby was interested in it after watching the movie at church one time. So, I checked it out.

Thirty-plus listens later, I was convinced: Charlotte’s Web is incredible.

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The quality of the audio recording is part of this book’s appeal.  It’s read by E.B. White himself, and he has a voice I could listen to all day: it’s like having a gentle old uncle telling stories from the corner of the living room or the back seat of the car.  But the text of the book itself is exceptional.  Each sentence is like a string of pearls: carefully chosen details, advanced vocabulary, nuanced descriptions, and interesting and clever narration.

I love the story of the Boxcar Children, but every time I listened to a passage, the writing seemed more flat and stale.  I still liked the concept of the four kids on an adventure, but I grew tired of the characters and the details of the plot.

In contrast, I still don’t love the story of Charlotte’s Web.  I don’t like animal stories as a rule, I find Wilbur annoying and emotionally demanding, and I think Fern grows up too quickly in too short a time.  Yet the writing itself is such a pleasure that I happily turn the CD on–again– every time Abby asks.  With every listen, I hear yet another sentence that makes me smile: what perfection! what mastery! what delight!

I’ve lived by the x100 Rule in my adult life without ever really thinking about it.  Back in my pre-baby days when I read a lot more, I had a pretty long list of books that I’d return to once every year or two.  I kept a well-worn copy of The Chosen in my purse and when I’d get stuck at a doctor’s office or a traffic light I would pull it out, open it up at random, and enjoy a few paragraphs or pages.  (In these moments I now read Twitter, which I’m not sure is an improvement in my quality of life.)  The year I taught Julius Caesar, I remember the astonishing way the nuances of the text would leap off the page at me by eighth period, in what was my sixth reading of the day.  (Alas, my assurances to my students that they would understand their assigned passages if they’d just read it six times fell upon deaf ears.)

And every year when a precocious nine-year old (and there was always at least one) would eye my bookshelves on the first day of school and proclaim, “I’ve already read The Sign of the Beaver!“, I’d smile and respond, again, “So have I!  We’ll enjoy reading it again.”

I knew the secret I hoped they’d discover one day: Rather than getting stale, great literature reveals more richness to savor with every re-reading.

Goodness knows I have nothing against mindless reading; it’s most of what I do these days.  But it’s been refreshing to remember how deeply satisfying a great book can be.  I’ve been inspired to return to some of the trusted old friends on my own bookshelf and to be mindful of what kind of words and sentences and stories and characters I permit to occupy my imagination and my mind.  My soul will be stronger for it.

As for Abby, I’m trying to feed her a little more Charlotte and a little less Clifford, because I believe that E.B. White is right: “Children always hang onto things tighter than their parents think they will.”  I want to give her things to hang onto that will be strong enough to hold her up.

 

(P.S.  YES, of course I want to share some of my favorite Charlotte lines with you.  But this post is long enough, so I’m posting them in a separate commonplace)

 

This post was originally published at Running in Circles.