Can you believe we’re halfway through 2021? Neither can I! And I’m never one to waste a good milestone, so I use the year’s midpoint to think about my goals — what is working, what isn’t, and how I might adjust for the second half of the year.
Speaking of goals, I fear I’m a bit too predictable. On the last day of June I asked Sergio how many books he thought I had read this year thus far and he hit it exactly — 90!
“HOW DID YOU DO THAT?” I asked, shocked.
“I know you,” he said, slyly. “I married you.”
That he did.
Now that the haze of yesterday (fried chicken, homemade cobbler, puzzles, and someone down the street deciding that 2:30am was the best time to set off fireworks) has faded, it’s time for me to get my act together and tell you about the best of the 15 books that I read in June.
I had a lot of false starts in June — I started several books and within 50–100 pages realized that it was a bit of a lost cause. When I glance over at my nightstand-tall stack of books to read I can summon the courage to put the book into my donate pile. As you might imagine, the efficient part of myself really doesn’t like to stop books once started, but as I was reflecting on the books I’ve finished, I realize that I no longer slog through things because I have to finish them anymore.
Thus with further ado, my favorites from June…
A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts (Therese Anne Fowler): Fowler’s historical fiction is really the best sort of historical fiction — written about real women with enough research and facts, but with character development, sharp dialogue, and settings that make the story come alive! This book follows Alva (nee Smith) Vanderbilt, a young woman who, at the outset of the novel, must marry well before her family goes broke (her mother has died, her father is an invalid, and she has three sisters). With the help of a friend she manages to catch the eye of WK Vanderbilt and is thrust into a world of the richest of the rich in late 1800s New York. I appreciated the details about the fashions and customs of the times, but also the how we get to know Alva as she balances who she was with who she has become. The book was easy to read while being well-written. Highly recommend!
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie): Oh my goodness, this book was a bit of a surprise! Oftentimes I struggle to figure who is the killer in Christie mysteries, but this one was *very* surprising (but in a good way). This centers around a rich man named Roger Ackroyd who is discovered dead in his study after hosting a dinner and reading a mysterious letter, which is never found. With Inspector Hercule Poirot we continue to examine the suspects until we finally learn what has happened to Mr. Ackroyd!
Night Over Water (Ken Follett): I’m a huge Follett fan (but you probably knew that by now) and this book held up on a second read just as well as it did the first. This is a story of a real airliner, the PanAm Super Clipper, a very luxurious airliner that landed on water. As World War II breaks out in Europe, the plane is filled with people fleeing the Continent for America, each with their own reasons. Very early on in the book we learn of a nefarious plot of sabotage and as the reader you spend the rest of the book trying to work it out (I was wrong, as I tend to be). There is danger, action, and romance — all the necessary elements for a great speed-read!
Long Bright River (Liz Moore): I really enjoyed this book — a bit of family drama, a bit of crime, and a bit of mystery made for a very engaging read. This book centers around sisters Kacey and Mickey, the former an addict and the latter a police officer; we know that they are estranged but we don’t know why. The book alternates between the past and the present day (so tricky but so effective) and little by little we learn about the challenging lives these sisters have had and what has pulled them apart. What’s worse is that there is a serial killer that seems to be operating on Mickey’s beat — and because Kacey is missing, Mickey is filled with dread. For a book that moved along this quickly I thought the character development was quite good — as one of the supporting characters asserts, we are all good and bad both.
A Piece of the World (Christina Baker Kline):
I grew up playing the piano with Christina’s World hanging over my piano, so when I heard about this book, which is a fictionalized story of the woman in Wyeth’s painting, I was incredibly intrigued. It’s loosely based on a true story of the relationship between Christina and Andrew Wyeth (Andy) when he meets her on her family’s Maine farm. While the story jumps around across more than 50 years, it’s easy to follow because there is a strong sense of place and a small cast of characters. This book made me excited to see what else Christina Baker Kline has written!
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Italo Calvino): A gift from my friend Shane many years ago, this remains one of the most creative books I’ve ever read — definitely a must-read for book nerds! Calvino plays with the novel in such an interesting way, alternating chapters of a main story (where you, The Reader, play a starring role) with the first chapters of different books (all part of the plot). It is a bit disorienting at times and certainly meta, so my sense is you’ll love it or hate it — but if you’re open to something different, why not try this book?
People We Meet on Vacation (Emily Henry): This book was a pleasant surprise and a great book for an actual vacation. It started a little too social-media influencer for me, so I worried that it would be all about selfies and fancy hotels. But, to my pleasant surprise, the story really did focus on the complex relationship between friends Poppy and Alex, who met as college freshmen and build a friendship over more than a decade. Henry uses that sneaky device of jumping between past and present, which really makes the book fly along. It is an easy read that doesn’t take too much thought, and those sort of “snack” books are fun now and again, and this is a good one.
The Body: A Guide for Occupants (Bill Bryson): I have to admit that I enjoyed this book far, far more than expected! I’m generally interested in books about the body and health, but they tend to be either too dumbed-down/not based in fact, or long, dry, and dull. Luckily Bryson has a well-researched book filled with history, fact, and current practice, but the chapters about different parts of the body are relatively short, which keeps the book moving, and witty and fun. This is *not* a book to deep dive on any one system (and it deals with physical health, not mental health — my one complaint!) but there are plenty of resources in case one wants to go deeper. If you are curious to learn more about the body, read this book!
Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life (Christie Tate): This book was a little wild and raucous, a little sad, and certainly in-your-face. Though I’ve greatly benefitted from individual therapy I have never been in a group therapy setting so I was curious to see how it worked for the author — what happened and if might be a good fit for me. The book was not written with any grounding in any therapeutic methodologies,, but instead was Tate’s story as she attends various groups for several years and how she addresses her issues with her body image, intimacy, and relationships. I had not expected the stories to be so… graphic — or that you share *everything* with your group (and I mean EVERYTHING). So I reframed this book to be less about the method of Group Therapy but instead a very funny and touching memoir of one woman’s experience. Not for the prudish.
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Alex Kotlowitz): This book broke my heart because it highlighted the human toll behind the numbers of gun violence in parts of Chicago, and in telling the stories Kotlowitz breaks down stereotypes about the stories that we hear in media. In fact, many victims are ordinary people going about their lives who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In many of the stories it’s impossible not to get a sinking feeling as it progresses, knowing that it is likely to go completely wrong. These portraits of Chicago residents were deeply immersive, though the book does not talk about solutions (which has made me curious to learn more in that regard).
All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot): I have read some of Herriot’s books for children, but this was my first foray into his stories about his veterinary practice. The book is a series of episodes in Herriot’s first two years of practice along with a more senior vet, Sigfriend, his younger brother, and a whole cast of interesting Yorkshire characters, from farmers to lords and ladies and a special love interest. I feel like I know more about calving and pig castration than I would ever need to know, but the book feels a bit like a travelogue and it was quite charming. This was a great book to read at the end of the day to wind down, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Herriot’s memoirs (this is the first of four).
So, there you have it — June done and dusted and on to July! I hope you find a relaxing hammock for your summer reading adventures!