Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. Some books were provided to me for review purposes.
Happy summer! How is your reading going? I’m reading (and listening) to so much right now, and I love it. I think I might have underestimated myself a teeny bit on my reading goal for the year. I’d hoped to read 35 books this year, and with the last book I finished I hit 35! Crazy. My new reading strategies are really making an impact in how much I’m able to read and, most importantly, enjoy. A few weeks ago I signed up for a free trial to Audible . Normally I’m not one to pay for books, but I really love the convenience of having something to listen to on my phone or the iPad. My library offers a similar service for free, but the selection isn’t the greatest. I’ll let you know how I feel about Audible after I’ve used it a few more times.
What’s really been surprising to me is how much non-fiction I read. Maybe the books are shorter, maybe I skim more, or maybe I just have a heart for non-fiction. Whatever it is, I read more of it than fiction this time around, and they were some of the books I loved best.
Now, on to the books!
The Vacationers by Emma Straub
This was a fun, light read, perfect for summer. The Posts are headed to Mallorca, Spain for a two week vacation. Franny and Jim are looking to escape New York and a marriage that may be irreparably damaged. Their daughter, Sylvia, is hoping the trip will mark the beginning of a new, more independent life away from her parents and her high school days. They fill their vacation home with other guests: son Bobby, his much older girlfriend, Carmen, Franny’s oldest friend, Charles, and his husband, Lawrence. Everyone can be on their best manners for a few days, but it’s not long before close quarters and too much sun bring out the worst in everyone. Other reviewers couldn’t stand the characters in this book, but they didn’t bother me. Perhaps I was just so thoroughly enjoying the escape, if only in my mind, back to sunny Spain. It’s not a deep read, but it’s entertaining and a good choice for the pool or the beach.
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
This was my neighborhood book club selection last month, and hoo boy, did people either like it or hate it (no one loved it, thanks to a disturbing scene between a teenager and a dog)! Set in the early 80s in rural Montana, this debut novel from Smith Henderson is a gritty and in-your-face look at the life of a social worker. Pete Snow struggles in his own personal life. Estranged from his father, wary of his no-good brother, and failing in his own marriage and fatherhood, he tries to help the troubled kids of Tenmile. As he deals with a particularly difficult case, he comes across Benjamin Pearl. Living off the land and off the grid with his paranoid survivalist father, Jeremiah, he captures Pete’s attention and draws him in. How can he help this boy? What happened to Pearl’s wife and other children? Henderson doesn’t hold back, and some scenes are very difficult to get through. In our discussion, we also agreed that there were so many words we’d never heard of before, and had to look up. I didn’t love it, but I’m glad I read it. The story was unlike any other I’d read, and the writing style was unique. It definitely made for a lively book club discussion!
Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall
Nine-year-old Starla has finally done it – something so bad that she knows Mamie will send her to reform school for sure. And so on the afternoon of July 4th, she sets off on foot from Mississippi to find her momma in Nashville. She’s sure that her momma, who left years earlier for stardom in Music City, will save her from her strict grandmother. She dreams of reuniting with her momma in her big mansion, surely filled with horses. But Nashville is a lot farther than she thought, and it’s hot in Mississippi in July, and so she accepts a ride from Eula. Making her way to Nashville with Eula is no easy trip, and it opens Starla’s young eyes to the differences between her privileged white life and that of Eula’s as a Southern black women in sixties. Together, through setbacks and tragedies, Starla and Eula help each other and make each other stronger. I listened to this book, and despite its dark undertones, found it delightful. With Starla’s pluck and Eula’s motherhen stubbornness, I rooted for them from beginning to end. (I just found out that the author is from, and still lives, in my hometown – who knew?! Her newest book, The Flying Circus, will be released on July 7.)
Motherland by Maria Hummel
I hesitated to read this one after reading this on the jacket: ” … a historical novel of singular depth and dexterity that intimately examines the life of one German family during World War II.” It was the “historical” and World War II” that got me, as they’re not my topics of choice in late June. I can be a real stickler when it comes to my To Be Read list, though, and Motherland was next in line. I’m so glad I can be a weirdo about the list, because I really enjoyed this one. Okay, maybe “enjoyed” isn’t the best choice of words, considering the subject matter. The story was so unlike any other that I’ve read that take place with Germany and World War II as the setting, and it gave me great appreciation for the author. Hummel is able to craft a story which the reader becomes completely invested in, without more than a few words about the Jews. It’s not a denial of this horrible part of Germany’s history, but a look into how it was possible for the average German family to know little of what was going on around them, so engulfed were they in their own wartime struggle for survival.
Between all the buzz about this book on blogs and magazines and my almost fanatical interest in all things organized and tidy, I was beyond excited to read this book. I was thisclose to buying it (which I almost never do without reading a book first), as well as gifting it to someone. I’m so glad I didn’t! It wasn’t at all what I expected. Marie Kondo is a very popular Japanese cleaning consultant (there’s a 3 month wait for her services). In her book, she details the exact way you should go about decluttering and tidying your home. She suggests that you go category-by-category instead of room by room. For example, you would organize all your clothing at once, instead of doing your bedroom, then the kitchen, then the coat closet. There is information in the book that is truly helpful and possibly transformational, such as the order you should tidy in, and how to arrange things in drawers (Check out KonMari folding on YouTube and prepared to be equally awed and worried). Perhaps because it’s translated from Japanese, it’s not a smooth read. Combine that with some, um, unusual suggestions by Kondo about talking to your home and your possessions, and it’s a little hard to take completely seriously. That being said, it’s a very short and easy read, and if you’re at all interested in decluttering and tidying your home, this book could be helpful and will definitely be different from anything else you’ve ever read on the subject.
Dad Is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
I listened to the audio version of this book in the car. I’m not in the car enough to get into long, drawn-out stories, but I think for books like this (humor, short stories or essays) the audio versions are perfect. I’m not sure how this ended up on my To Be Read list, as I don’t really know much about Gaffigan. I’ve never listened to his stand-up stuff. In fact, I had to Google his “Hot Pocket” bit because he referenced it a few times and I’ve never heard it. Gaffigan’s essays reflect mostly on parenthood. He’s definitely qualified to share some stories, as he has five children! I appreciated the fact that he’s pretty clean, mostly because it helps if you’re trying to listen with kids in the car. More than once Eli asked if we could listen to “that guy with all the kids that’s really funny but seems like a not-so-good parent.” (Note to self: educate Eli on the nuances of sarcasm.) If you enjoy essays on parenting young kids, like Jim Gaffigan as a stand-up comedian, or both, you’ll most likely enjoy Dad is Fat.
A couple of years ago, Brené Brown’s book about the courage to be vulnerable and the damage shame can produce in our lives was everywhere. It didn’t seem like a book I’d really want to read, but it was one of those that kept popping up in unexpected places, with people raving about how it had changed their lives. It’s been on my To Be Read list for a long time, and I always bypassed it for something else. And then little icon for this book popped up on the main page of my library’s free audio service. Alrighty then, I’d give it a go. (I listened to the audio version of the book, and for the first time I understood how the reader can make or break an audio book experience. I did not love the reader’s voice for this book, but I found the material so interesting and thought-provoking I powered through.)
I really, really liked this book. In fact, I think I need to re-read a hard copy, as there were so many parts that I bookmarked and wanted to listen to again. You think you know what it means to be vulnerable, but we have been molded to see it negatively, and instead to fit ourselves into personal armor. Did you ever think about the difference between guilt and shame? I didn’t, but Brown’s explanation of how they are two very different things was a lightbulb moment for me, and has changed the way I think about them entirely. And the concept of “minding the gap” – bridging the distance between practiced values (what we actually do, think and feel) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think and feel) – is my new life/parenting mantra. Brown talks about how our feelings of shame and our fear of vulnerability have shaped our experiences in school, the workplace, our marriages and our parenting. It was incredibly eye-opening, and has stayed with me long after.
I pulled this beast of a book off the shelf at the library and let out a heavy sigh. I was ready for something light and fluffy, and instead I was looking at a 576-page book about the horrific experiences of the patients and medical staff at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. But it was next on my list (again with the list order!), and having just finished Daring Greatly, which I had also put off and ended up loving, I went with it. Spoiler alert: it is not light and fluffy, and I did not love it. There were parts of the book that I found myself entranced with the story, but there were many, many other parts that left me skimming and skipping. The legal details and lengthy descriptions of medicines got to be too much. I also felt like the author skipped back and forth in time, as well as repeated events. Most of the time it felt more like I was reading someone’s research notes, which is a shame. The story is incredible and with a different style of writing could have been gripping from start to finish. I want Laura Hillenbrand to rewrite it.
All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior
Ever since this book came out last January, it’s been mentioned and recommended by several different people I admire, and the author is frequently quoted in parenting articles I’ve read (I mentioned it when I wrote about kids and boredom). After reading it, I can see why. The material in the book is probably nothing that will flat out surprise you if you’re a parent yourself, but it is both eye-opening and affirming to see what you experience and feel spelled out for you on the page. More than anything, you feel less alone – other parents and couples struggle with this stuff, too! We’re invested in and have elevated our kids to a standard and preciousness that no other generation has before. We love them more than anything, and yet we find ourselves stressed and exhausted by them every step of the way. The book examines each stage of parenting, from babies to teens, by focusing on a few of the biggest issues parents face during that stage, such as relationship struggles after a baby is born, the division of work in a marriage, the pressure to give your kids an edge in everything, and why parenting teens is such a challenge. Senior is fantastic at backing up the engaging anecdotes of the parents she’s interviewed with research and statistics in a way that supports the story rather than drying it out. If you belong to a book club made up of mostly parents, this would be a fantastic read that would generate some emotional discussion.
The 52 New Foods Challenge by Jennifer Tyler
After reading French Kids Eat Everything, I was feeling inspired to push our food boundaries a bit. I spied this on the library new book shelf and thought it had potential. It’s an interesting book. The first part of the book allows Tyler to tell the story of how picky eating took root (as it did for most of us in this battle) in the toddler years. The author succumbs for awhile, until she can’t stand another day of beige meals. In her effort to get them out of their rut and to get her kids to play along, she comes up with a challenge. They’d try one new food each week, and she’d let her kids pick what it was. She developed a game (with points) to motivate her kids to try new things. The book then becomes a cookbook, divided by season. The author suggests foods for each season, taking into account local growing seasons, and provides a few recipes for each food.
While I’m not down with the game (let’s be honest – too much effort on my part and the tween would not be into it), I did find the seasonal lists of foods to try to be valuable. I like the idea of just adding one new thing in a week – totally doable and less likely to make the kids fear what might show up on the dinner table on any given night. I didn’t make much use out of the recipes, as I find it just as easy to look in my own cookbook collection or peruse Pinterest, but if I owned the book I would certainly make use of them.
Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, And A Dream by H.G. Bissinger
This was my selection for the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge for A Book in a Genre I Don’t Typically Read. As much as I love watching football, I don’t read books about football or sports in general. So many people rave about the TV series that was based on this book that I thought I’d give it a try. Written fifteen years ago, the book is still engaging and relevant. I found myself completely invested in the coaches and players from the small, hard-scrabble town of Odessa, Texas. I could feel myself sitting in the stands, willing the Permian Panthers to win. I didn’t grow up in a place where high school football was up there with God and family, but Bissinger’s writing opened my eyes to that world, warts and all.
I know what you’re thinking … another non-fiction parenting book?! Yes, but trust me – they’re game-changers. As much as we try to emphasize our philosophy on living debt-free and share our own past financial struggles with others, Mike and I still find it difficult to talk about money in meaningful ways with our kids beyond the budget. While I don’t want them to go through what we did, I also don’t want them to grow up fearful or stingy with money. What’s a good balance, especially when you’ve been blessed with more than enough? And how do we have those conversations with our kids about materialism, giving, saving and spending? Lieber covers it all and more, in a thoughtful and helpful way. You’ll come away feeling better equipped to prepare your kids for life beyond your wallet, and it will definitely open up your eyes to new ways to think about kids and money.
Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast
I adore Roz Chast’s cartoons for the New Yorker. In this memoir of dealing with her aging parents, she uses her craft to illustrate a story that is both hilarious and heart-breaking. As an only child raised by parents in New York City, Roz faces many challenges as her parents become increasingly unable to live on their own without danger to themselves or others. An unhappy childhood left Roz ambivalent about her feelings and responsibilities, and as she takes us on the journey of her parents’ decline we realize how frustrating and confusing the world of elder care is. It’s all of this, and yet I found myself laughing out loud page after page … and then crying a few pages later. Pretty impressive for a book of cartoons.
After going from never reading about football, I’ve managed to read three books about football since January. Go figure. I put this memoir from former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson on my list after he was mentioned in Stefan Fatsis’ book A Few Seconds of Panic (Nate and Stefan trained together during Fatsis’ time with the Broncos). Nate shares his life in the NFL, from his improbable entry into the league, his European playing days, his 6 seasons with the Broncos, to the difficult decision to walk away. Jackson is open and brutally honest, helping the reader to understand how you can love a game but hate the process. He also sheds light on how difficult it can be, despite the dangers and agonizing injuries that will plague players long after they’re done playing, for a player to walk away from the NFL. It’s definitely given me pause, wondering what my part is in all of this, and how my love for the game plays a role in what these men are willing to do to their bodies and brains.
Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg
This was a book I picked to read aloud to Eli because *I* liked the idea of it. As I flipped through it in the library I wasn’t so sure he’d go for it. In the end, he really liked it and I thought it was just okay. I should clarify, it’s just okay as a read aloud. I really should do a separate post on great read alouds, because not all books lend themselves well to being read aloud. It doesn’t mean they’re not good books, though. Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie opens up with young Eleanor having a very bad August, “as bad as pickle juice on a cookie.” Her beloved babysitter since she was a baby has moved, her best friend is out of town, and a new school year looms ahead. The book is short, with lots of pictures, and written in prose. There are a few more books in the series, so I’ll definitely get them for Eli to read to himself.
The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies
Eli and I read this book in preparation for his participation in Lemonade Day. I wasn’t expecting much more than a lighthearted read on having a lemonade stand, but was pleasantly surprised to find more depth to the book. Through the story of Evan and Jessie, a brother and sister struggling to sort out their newly complicated sibling relationship, kids learn about feelings, friendship, family, and money. While I would place it right in the middle of what makes a good read-aloud (not great, but not fantastic, either), it’s a worthy read for kids ages 8 and up.
How’s 2015 been for your reading so far? What have you loved? Please share, I always love to add more to my list!