Friday Faves: What I Read This Summer

When my kids were young enough to come to the beach with me every day, but old enough to get themselves to the pool or spend the day trying to sell friendship bracelets up by the cabanas at our club, I’d squeeze in a lot of reading. I’d sit in a circle on the beach with my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law, and after we’d finish talking about funny things the kids did or our latest concerns about what the kids were watching or eating (we were young mothers, of course), we’d pull our books or newspapers out of our beach bags and quietly read alongside each other in the sand.

A few times, we all headed to the family cabin in the Poconos, and I am being very generous with the term “cabin.” It was pretty rustic — think outhouse and no running water — and had been furnished with the hand-me-downs of extremely frugal people. The kitchenware was mismatched and the stacks of bedding kept in a trunk in the living room had been worn thin with use. But despite its lack of creature comforts, the cabin sat a short distance from a lake that we’d ride our bikes around at dusk in search of beavers building dams and once, a mama bear and her cubs crossed the road right in front of the cluster of cousins that had zoomed ahead of the grownups. We’d drive over to the falls and slide down the rushing water into the cold dark pool below and eat a picnic of sandwiches and chips perched on the flat rocks overlooking the water flowing downstream. But in between adventures, we’d make our way out to the porch looking out over fields of foxgloves and teepees the kids had fashioned out of long tree branches, and settle in to read. With no TV to watch and still in that blissful era before iPhones and Instagram, the kids would pull out the latest Harry Potter of Captain Underpants and join us in the shade. 

Nowadays when I go to the beach, there’s a lot more talking than reading and I’m as guilty as the next guy of looking at my phone and falling down long and twisty Internet holes. So, it was nice this Labor Day to sit quietly with my older two kids (so far, the biggest of my readers) under the beach umbrella and read for most of the afternoon. It helped that both my daughter and I were finishing books that we were loving and couldn’t put down. That’s how I felt about (almost) all of the books I read this summer: they kept me coming back and I was sorry for (most) of them to end. Which, to me, is all you can ask for of a book.

Less (Andrew Sean Greer): It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction this year and was what I had been (reluctantly) finishing up on the beach on Labor Day and I cannot recommend it enough, especially if you are turning 50. I think Arthur Less’s story will resonate with anyone of us who has lived a life. Less is a struggling novelist who decides to avoid his former lover’s pending nuptials by accepting a series of invitations (teach a course, be up for an award, celebrate somebody else’s 50th) that set him traveling across the globe. Here’s my favorite exchange.

Less smiles. “My birthday is in one week.”

“Strange to be almost fifty, no? I feel like I just understood how to be young.”

“Yes! It’s like the last day in a foreign country. You finally figure out where to get coffee, and drinks, and a good steak. And then you have to leave. And you won’t ever be back.”

AUDIO: My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh): A lot of times I will listen to the audio version of a book and become convinced that simply reading it would never have been as good (that was my experience with Lincoln in the Bardo, for sure). Such is the case with this story of a 20-something woman living in Manhattan during the summer of 2000 who decides to escape the sorrow in her life by spending a year asleep. Enter the wackiest, prescription writing NYC shrink and whiny best friend, and the narrator does a terrific job giving each character a distinct voice and personality. The final line of the book is everything. Haunted me for weeks.

Pachinko (Min Jin Lee): It took me until about two-thirds of the way through this generational saga set in Japan, which focuses on its Korean refugees beginning in the 1930s, that Pachinko wasn’t the name of a major character in the book. “When are we going to meet her?” I kept wondering as I looked at the illustration of the woman on the paperback’s front cover (it is not a spoiler to tell you that pachinko is a Japanese pinball game). Loved learning about the splitting of Korea and how kind of horrible the Japanese were to them when they fled their country and how displaced the Koreans were in their new home. Good insight into what it must feel like for all those refugees wandering around the globe, forced from their homes and unwanted in other countries. Hard to imagine.

The Woman in the Window (A.J. Finn): Fast. Fun. In the “Gone Girl” vein of unreliable narrators. Made me glad that for all the red wine I drink, I steer clear of prescription meds. It makes you see things. Maybe.

Calypso (David Sedaris): What can I say? I’ve loved Sedaris since I heard him on NPR reading his “Santaland Diaries,” when I pulled into my driveway and then sat, laughing as he threatened to have some mouthy kid — waiting on-line to see Santa — killed, until the end. This new collection of essays seems to have more of a thread running through the pieces than his other books, which I really liked. It kept a lot of the stories in context. One of the most alarming is the tale of a lipoma he had removed from his back and what he did with it. Strange and hilarious. The piece about his sister, Tiffany’s, suicide remains heartbreaking, no matter how many times I read it.

Look Alive Out There (Sloane Crosley): More collections of essays and maybe funnier than Sedaris, I am completely obsessed with Crosley and have wasted way too many hours stalking her online and reading everything she’s written. To wit: “Around this time, I began dating a younger and emotionally unavailable man who was completely wrong for me in every way but anatomically. So I fell for him.”

Gilead (Marilynne Robinson): The exact opposite of every book listed above, this slow contemplation of life and religion — written as a letter by a man at the end of his to his son — is no page turner. But it’s a beautifully written exploration of the relationship between fathers and sons and the inner workings of an Iowa preacher nearing death. Heavy.

Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie): Don’t be imposed by its size, this is a compelling, but dense, story of a Nigerian woman’s experience moving to the United States and a lot of comparisons between Black Americans and Black Non Americans (her labels). There’s also love and tons of humor. Plenty of the book is also set in Nigeria, which I loved getting a glimpse into and am fascinated by black hair politics and how long it takes to create those elaborate braids you see some black women wearing. I fell down such a deep Internet hole investigating the author and have watched both her Ted Talks (“We Should All Be Feminists” and “The Danger of the Single Story”) multiple times and find her utterly charming and sassy. I was so obsessed with her, I even Googled how to pronounce her name.

Would love to know what YOU read this summer and what you’re planning to read this fall! If you are like me and have a book-buying problem ( I have SO many piled up next to my bed rn), I highly suggest (if you are local) that you use River Road Books as your official pusher to get your next reading fix (the only compensation I receive from them for that plug is great conversation when I go in to browse). 

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Friday Faves: Things I’m Obsessed With This Week

Friends, I know. I am a terrible pen pal. Honestly, this is probably why I don’t have any friends from grammar school. I’m just not great at staying in touch.

But I’m trying to turn over a new leaf.  I’m going to attempt to lift this blog from the hot and humid ashes of New Jersey in July on a little more regular basis. I’m hoping this doesn’t go the way of my knitting career or the time I thought I’d learn to speak Italian. Let’s just say, I remain monolingual.

So while I’m figuring out how to tell you about my second child moving out of the house recently or the surgery I had on my old lady foot, I thought I’d share a few things I am ob-sessed with lately. Here they are in absolutely no particular order:

  • Melissa Clark’s new cookbook, Dinner: Changing the Game. Historically, I’ve stopped actually cooking dinner — like, chopping or roasting — by this time in July. Usually by this point of summers past, we’re eating a lot of hamburgers or takeout. And I can’t tell you the last time I bought a cookbook and back in the day, I used to buy a lot of them. But with the interweb, I find there’s no need to pay for something when you can get it for free online. But this book is worth it and full of tons of great dinner ideas. So far we’ve made both the Harissa Chicken (you can get harissa at Trader Joe’s) and Sausage and Cauliflower (with cumin and Turkish pepper — which you can get at World Market) twice, but my 20yo has gone through and marked about a dozen other recipes with post it notes.
  • Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid. I’m on a reading roll and in under three days gobbled this slim novel that weaves a little magical realism with the story of a city under siege and the plight of refugees.
  • Broken Open, by Elizabeth Lesser. This is literally (okay, not literally) the Bible for figuring out how to make lemonade out of the lemons that life throws your way. I read it 8 or 9 years ago when my marriage was falling apart yet for some reason, it resonates even more now. The quote from Anais Nin in the book’s prelude says it all: “And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
  • This Ted Talk video. 
  • This New Yorker cartoon.
  • Selina Meyer. I’ve been watching Season 5 of Veep and during each episode, think, “I need to write down some of these lines.” The things they say are off-the-charts hilarious and vulgar. But neither pen nor paper was required to remember this beauty, which I’ve used already on numerous occasions (if you don’t like cursing, please do not click).

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My Summer Reading List


This is totally not what’s happening in my bedroom. That would be weird.

I have a grotesque number of books stacked around my bedroom. Like, I hesitate even taking a picture of the situation, lest you think I am a total nut.

There are young adult books that my daughter has recommended, like Rainbow Rowell’s “Attachments.” Some novels lent by my friend and fellow writer including Ann Pachett’s “The Patron Saint of Liars” and the new Sue Monk Kidd book from another reader friend. There are books on writing screenplays and memoirs and just writing in general, a few by Dani Shapiro (who I actually have been reading lately). Something called “Yoga and the Quest for True Self” that I will probably never get around to and of course, self help books galore – like “The Five Love Languages,” that sounded like a really good idea at the time I ordered it off Amazon late one one night. And then there’s “Middlemarch.” Fucking Middlemarch. It’s like always there, all 853 pages of it, just mocking me since I started reading it on a sailboat in the middle of the Aegean last August. Reminding me of all that I’ve yet to have accomplished.

My Kindle is also not immune to the log jam of unfinished and never opened reads. “The Husband’s Secret” lost me once we found out what his secret was and I only read a few of the short stories, I am ashamed to say, in George Saunder’s “Tenth of December.” I never even started Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” or Elissa Schappell’s “Blueprints for Building Better Girls.” Then there’s Pete Hamills’ “A Drinking Life,” Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra” and the third installment of “The Game of Thrones” series I never got around to, probably because I’m so busy watching it unfold on my television. But don’t worry, all three Fifty Shades of Grey books were quickly and thoroughly read because they are the literary equivalent of eating a bag of Doritos in one sitting. Great at the time and thoroughly addictive but in retrospect, kinda unhealthy.

Anyway, not to get all ambitious, but I think this summer is the summer I start getting through all of the reading material I actually spent money on. I mean, if you tallied the costs of all the unread books both physical and digital I have purchased, it’s got to add up to at the very least, a really nice pair of shoes (which is another item I probably own more of than I really need).

So, as part of my plan to spend my afternoons this summer accompanying my little guy to the beach so he can Boogie board his heart out in the cold Atlantic surf with his little buddies, I would like to spend my time reading stuff I already own. Maybe with, like, one exception.

So, I think my top five books to start will be:

  1. “The Patron Saint of Liars,” by Ann Patchett
  2. “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou (book club selection)
  3. “Tenth of December,” George Saunders
  4. “The Outlander,” Diana Gabaldon (okay, I’m buying this because I’m hot to try the series and love that sci-fi stuff)
  5. “Middlemarch,” George Eliot (because everybody seems to love it and if I can read “War and Peace” I can get through this, dammit)

What have I read lately?  Well, I just finished the recently-released novel “Bittersweet” the other night, which got amazing reviews in Entertainment Weekly and People but left me sort of cold. I was hoping for more of a shocker at the end after the whole build up throughout the novel that, according to Amazon, “exposes the gothic underbelly of an idyllic world of privilege and an outsider’s hunger to belong.”

I finished Julia Fierro’s “Cutting Teeth” last week, which was a fun skewering of a Brooklyn play group that goes off to spend the weekend at a Hamptons beach house and plenty of hipster angst ensures. It’s the perfect smart beach read and kind of made me glad I had teens and not toddlers to deal with nowadays.

What about you? Do you feel bad about all of your unread books or are you better at reading what you already own (maybe that’s my problem, that I always want what I don’t already have)?

And don’t forget to let all of us know what’s on your summer reading list for all of those good people that don’t have already have a queue of books lined up next to their bed or in a cloud somewhere.

Happy reading!

what are you reading this summer?

IMG_2590I am a reader. It’s just always something that I’ve done to stay busy ever since my mom handed me Babar to get me out of her hair when I was a kid.

Over the years, the amount I’ve read has ebbed and flowed – I don’t think I finished one book between like 1992-1998 when my older kids were small – but it’s always something I’ve come back to. By the time I had my fourth child in 2002, I spent late nights nursing him while reading Mrs. Dalloway and The Hours. Cheery.

And while I cut my teeth on Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele and The Thornbirds (oh, Father Ralph), I have gotten a little choosier as I’ve aged about what I spend my time reading.

Not that I’m all Don DeLillo and Proust now, but I recently tried to get into the new Dan Brown and found myself annoyed that the hero, Robert Langdon, was immediately – and obviously – paired with some gorgeous, yet brilliant, young doctor. Haven’t we already gone down that road? It just seemed formulaic.

Any time you open a book, you’re gambling with your time. Even though Entertainment Weekly, Oprah or someone in your book club raved about it, you might have thought Possession was unbearable. I know I did, and I’d like those hours I spent trying to slog through all those poems back.

I choose a lot of what I read based on reviews in maybe People or The New York Times. I see four stars and think, “That’s for me.” That’s how I found The Lovely Bones and Gone Girl and more recently, The Good House (my mom had sent me an article about the author and I felt an affinity for the picture of her lying on her bed with her laptop).

So imagine my disappointment when I realized the current book I’m reading, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, which garnered a wonderful review in the Times by Michiko Kakutani, is cleverly cloaked soft porn involving teenagers. Like, keep your hands to yourself, kids.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m all about porn — and frisky teenagers, for that matter. I devoured the Twilight series and Fifty Shades of Gray in days. Those trilogies were the equivalent of, say, plowing through a fresh box of Cheez-Its and quickly finding yourself scraping the salty bits off the bottom of the bag. Delicious.

Call me a prude, but there is way too much back arching, throbbing and moaning between teenagers than I could handle. And, really, if I want to read something about first love, I’d prefer to snuggle up with The Fault in Our Stars or Eleanor & Park. Even Judy Blume’s Forever, from what I recall, seemed more tame (but how many times did I reference page 86 back-in-the-day?)

So, I’m on the hunt for better. I want to find my next Gone Girl or This Is How You Lose Her to kick off beach season.

So tell me, what are you reading this summer? My Kindle is charged and ready for downloading.