Books Read June-August.

Books June-Sept

“Alice & Oliver” a novel by Charles Bock

There she was, Alice Culvert, a little taller than most, her figure fuller than she would have liked.

Looking back it is interesting that the novel starts with her physical looks, and the mundane concerns so many women have about their bodies. Those concerns are swiftly replaced by literal life and death concerns with Alice’s sudden cancer diagnosis. Her life as a fashion designer, wife and new mother morphs into life as a patient fighting for her life. We get an intimate look at a marriage and what it means to vow to stay together in sickness and in health. Flaws that every marriage has are magnified under such duress. We are also offered a realistic look into our feeble healthcare system as Oliver struggles to handle not only the day-today care of their infant, Doe, but the monetary costs of a life threatening illness as he navigates the insurance labyrinth.

A passage I love:

She raised her head from the stretcher; snow stung her cheeks. For long moments she almost believed some peculiar form of magic was indeed waiting for her. Alice could not help herself: she extended her tongue.


“The Bright Hour- A Memoir of Living and Dying” by Nina Riggs

The call comes when John is away at a conference in New Orleans.

Yes, I read this memoir about cancer and a marriage right after reading the novel about cancer and a marriage. Not on purpose. Got a little freaked out that the Universe was trying to tell me something. Prepare me for something.

Nina Riggs is a poet, wife and mother who is diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer at the age of 37. It all started with one small spot. Within a year, she was terminal. Through her poet’s eye and mind, she is able to look carefully within and around her to describe what it is like to live “with death in the room.” She calls on writers she has loved over the years to help her make sense of this new, brief yet full world she is now living in. She manages to make us laugh as she becomes determined to find the perfect couch to leave behind for her family and to laugh and cry as she reveals conversations with her husband and sons. It is a breathtaking book that calls on us all to live each moment fully no matter how close death is standing next to us. Because, really, we never truly now how close it may be.

A passage I love that breaks my heart:

Around 4 a.m. I feel his hand on my back. “I’m so afraid I can’t breathe,” he whispers.

“I know,” I say, scootching a little toward him but still facing away, “So am I.”


“The Vacationers” a novel by Emma Straub

Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar.

I meant to take this on vacation with me back in May because reading about a vacation on vacation sounded fun. But then I forgot to pack it. It all worked out though because reading this book felt like a vacation in itself as she described the lush scenery, the scrumptious food.

The Posts, Franny and Jim, are on a two-week trip to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. Their daughter, Sylvia who has just graduated high school is looking to lose her virginity before heading off to college. Their son Bobby comes with his older girlfriend who is a fitness buff and rubs Franny the wrong way. Franny’s best friend, Charles has come with his husband. Everyone’s problems has followed them to this beautiful vacation spot. As a food writer, Franny throws herself into feeding her family and friends all while a seething resentment lurks just beneath the surface. Over the course of 14 days, things that are hidden are revealed and things that should be revealed stay hidden. A funny, touching glimpse into the messiness of family and friendship.

A sentence that made me laugh out loud:

Like most things, sex got better with age until one hit a certain plateau, and then it was like breakfast, unlikely to change unless one ran out of milk and was forced to improvise.


“The Accomplished Guest” stories by Ann Beattie

“There’s no copyright on titles,” he said. ”It wouldn’t be a good idea, probably, to call something Death of a Salesman, but you could do it.”

I remember reading her first collection, “Distortions” and had no idea it had been published 40 years ago. When I was first learning to write, I would read her stories, each one seeming like its own little master class in the form.

These feel the same way. Entering a short story by Ann Beattie is to enter a world fully formed. In this collection people wander in and out of each other’s lives as guests, as hosts, as visitors. The settings will be familiar to Beattie fans: strewn up and down the east Coast from Maine to Key West. Spanning events from birthdays to anniversaries, all explore reunions with people we used to know and the people we all used to be.

A sentence I love for its sensuality:

He broke off a bit of bread and breathed in its yeasty aroma; he pushed the point of his knife into some sunflower-yellow butter, well tempered, and smeared it over the bread’s pocked surface.


“Morningstar- Growing Up with Books” by Ann Hood

When I was four years old, for reasons no one in my family could explain, I picked up my older brother Skip’s reading book and read it.

I love reading about how books have influenced lives, especially when it’s the life of a writer I adore like Ann Hood. She takes us on a journey through her life via the books that wormed their way into her psyche, helping to form the woman she became. We learn about the books of her teen years from The Bell Jar to Marhjorie Mornigstar. We learn what books stoked her political fire and which led her to want to travel the world. It’s a beautiful tribute to books, to reading and how they can change—or even save—our lives.

A sentence I love for reading my own heart:

But not to me—no, I understood that I would always buy books, that I was a reader and a writer and that to be surrounded by books would always bring me comfort.


“Walks with Men” fiction by Ann Beattie

In 1980, in New York, I met a man who promised me he’d change my life, if only I’d let him.

I came across this slim volume of fiction nestled in the used books stacks of a local bookstore. An Ann Beattie book I hadn’t read yet? Sold!

I guess, technically, this would be considered a novella. But it really seems to exist outside of a genre. It echoes Beattie’s own trajectory as a successful young woman arriving in New York City, ready to be a writer and all that entails.

No sooner has Jane, a valedictorian from Harvard, arrived in the city when she strikes up an odd yet intense deal/relationship with Neil, a writer 20 years older than her. He promises to tell her anything at all, as long as it is unattributed and that nobody knows about their relationship. Having been in a secret relationship myself at one point, I wanted to scream, No, run. Don’t do it. Of course, Jane doesn’t run. She stays and Neil proceeds to educate her by laying out rules from wearing only raincoats made in England to having sex in an airplane bathroom. His certainty about everything both seduces and repels Jane. When his certainty is found to be a mask for his deceptions, Jane must decide who she is and who she wants to be.

A sentence I love for surprising me:

Sailors know how to train their eyes on the horizon to avoid seasickness. When you’re landlocked in New York City, look at the farthest curb, which, in its own way, is the horizon line.


“Night” by Elie Wiesel

They called him Moshe the Beadle, as though he had never had a surname in his life.

I’ve had this book on my shelves for over twenty years. I remember Oprah mentioned it on her show and I went out and bought but could never quite bring myself to sit down and actually read it. Well, with everything going on in our country right now and in the world, it felt imperative that I read it.

After reading it, it feels imperative that we all read it.

As a young Jewish boy, Wiesel and his family are rounded up and carted off to concentration camps. What horrified me was how even as it was happening, they didn’t really believe it was happening. They believed that somebody would stop it. That it wouldn’t be allowed to go so far. Perhaps the idea of such unadulterated evil is too hard for the human mind to process.

It was hard for me to process as I read it. It’s a first hand account of what it was like to be targeted based on your religion, deemed less than by others who sought to erase your very existence.

I read every word.

We should all read every word.

And heed every word.

Before it’s too late.

A passage that haunts me:

Night. No one prayed, so that the night would pass quickly. The stars were only sparks of the fire which devoured us. Should that fire die out one day, there would be nothing left in the sky but dead stars, dead eyes.



Books read July – December.

July - Dec. books

“The Residence- Inside the Private World of The White House” by Kate Andersen Brower

As a long-time fan of “The West Wing” as well as being intrigued by behind-the-scenes peeks at life, I found this book fascinating.

Covering administrations from the Kennedy’s to the Obama’s, we are given a glimpse into the people who make the White House run so efficiently. They try to blend into the background, but are often on the frontlines of major events in our history from assassinations to 9/11.

We learn which first families were a little stand-offish to who was more relaxed and joked with the staff. We learn how the staff felt about being a part of the White House and what it meant to them and their families.

It is just a fascinating report on a part of our politics and history that is often overlooked.

“another day” a YA novel by David Levithan

I watch his car as it pulls into the parking lot.

Levithan mesmerized me with his first novel about “A” who wakes up in the body of different young adult every day. This novel picks up from there but with a twist. In the first novel “every day,” A inhabits the body of Justin. In doing so, A spends a beautiful day with Justin’s girlfriend Rhiannon. For the first time, A can’t leave one of his lives behind him.

“Another Day” picks up with the story of Rhiannon, who had this beautiful day with her boyfriend that was totally out of character for them. He was attentive and sensitive and made her feel truly seen and heard for the first time. The next day, their relationship is back to its usual status of her trying to anticipate his moods and not annoy him in any way.

Then a stranger shows up and tells her that the Justin she spent the day with wasn’t Justin at all.

This is a beautiful story of love and seeing beyond the way we look to deep within to who we actually are.

Sentences I love: “My life changes all the time, but books don’t change. My reading of them changes—I can bring new things to them each time. But the words are familiar words. The world is a place you’ve been before, and it welcomes you back.”

“The Heart Goes Last” a novel by Margaret Atwood

Sleeping in the car is cramped.

Only Atwood could weave together an economic and social collapse, prison, Elvis and Marilyn impersonators and sex robots and come out with a captivating novel that shines a light on society today. Stan and Charmaine are living out of their car after losing their jobs and their house, leaving them vulnerable to gangs and violence. They see a commercial for a community that seems to offer everything they are lacking: financial security, physical safety, food and housing. They sign on to participate in the Positron Project which requires them to live in the prison every other month, sharing their house with their “alternates.” When their lives begin to intersect with their alternates (which is forbidden) they are flung into territory where their safety and lives are put at risk. If something seems top good to be true, there is inevitably a price to pay.

Classic Atwood. Could not put it down.

“Everything I Never Told You” a novel by Celeste Ng

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

What a fantastic first two sentences. They hooked me for sure and led me into the lives of a Chinese American family living in the suburbs of 1970’s Ohio. Lydia is the favored child, the child on which her parents have pinned their unfulfilled hopes and dreams. When Lydia’s body is found in a nearby lake, the equilibrium of the family is dismantled. This is an exquisite exploration of family and all the ways we hide pieces of ourselves from each other while still longing to understand and be understood by those closest to us.

A sentence I love: Those nights, she never fell back asleep again, and the days grew sticky and thick, like syrup.

“The State We’re In” stories by Ann Beattie

The summer school assignment, the fucking fucking summer school third paper of ten, and if you didn’t get at least a C on the first nine, you had to write eleven papers, the fucking teacher wadding up her big fat lips so they looked like a carnation, her lips that she’d use to pout at your inadequacy…

The first sentence continues from there, delving deep into the mind if its teenage protagonist, Jocelyn (around whom the stories center.) She is living with her aunt and uncle for the summer while her mother recuperates. The stories can have a certain edge to them—an edge of dark humor and vulnerability—just as the characters do. These are not stories to be skimmed. These are stories to be read slowly, savored and digested fully.

A sentence I love: On a scale of one to one hundred, she thought she loved him more than an eighty.

“Big Magic- Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Once upon a time, there was a man named Jack Gilbert, who was not related to me—unfortunately for me.

Chances are, you’ve already read this. If you are interested in writing or any kind of creativity, this is the book to read. I gobbled it up the first day it came out.

I started underlining sentences, then passages, then realized I’d pretty much end up underlining the entire book so I just sat back and savored all the juicy morsels that seemed to speak to my soul.

Gilbert has a knack for doing that—speaking directly into the hearts and minds of her readers. Or listeners on TED.

Sure, it’s a book about creativity that can be applied to writing, painting or any other artistic endeavor but it can really be applied to living. Living a life fully and beyond fear. Notice she doesn’t claim to teach you how to live without fear. In fact, Gilbert insists that fear is an essential part of the process:

“Fear and creativity shared a womb, they were born at the same time, and they still share some vital organs. This is why we have to be careful of how we handle our fear—because I’ve noticed that when people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process.”

What I love about this book (and Gilbert in general) is how honest she is. She doesn’t sugar-coat the trials and tribulations. What she does is take you by the hand, look into your eyes and tell you that she’s been there, that she is there now and this is how she deals with whatever is standing in her way and she is more than happy to show you the way.

That right there is what I love most about her—her utter generosity in sharing what she has learned about life, about creativity, persistence, trust—all of it.

A sentence I love: You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.

“Year of Yes- How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and be Your Own Person” by Shonda Rhimes

I’m a liar.

I’m not usually drawn to celebrity memoirs but the title of this and the idea behind it me lured me in. As well as the fact that I just love Shonda Rhimes!

One Thanksgiving, after telling her sister about all the great opportunities she had no intention of accepting and experiencing her sister said, “You say no to everything.”

Those words haunted Rhimes until she finally had admit the truth behind them and decided to say yes to everything for a year.

She takes us through the year, behind the scenes of the yeses, all that she experienced—the good, bad and ugly— as well as hearing about her shows and how much of herself is reflected in the writing of them.

You don’t have to read too far to see that the fast paced dialogue and rhythm of, say a Poppa Pope monologue, comes from Rhimes herself.

I loved hearing about her writing process a bit but mostly I admired how honest she is about her struggles with her weight to social anxiety. And how her year of yes impacted all aspects of her life in ways she never imagined when she first dreamt the idea.

It makes me want to try my own year of yes.

A passage I love:

On Mothers day cards:

“The message is: mothers, you are such wonderful and good people because you make yourselves smaller, because you deny your own needs, because you toil tirelessly in the shadows and no one ever thanks or notices you…this all makes you amazing.


What the hell kind of message is that?

“Better Than before- Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives” by Gretchen Rubin

Better Than before tackles the question: How do we change? One answer—by using habits.

Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home” delves deeply into the psychology and science of why we are able to create habits, and why we aren’t. She helps us discover our tendencies and how they contribute to our habit-creating abilities. She reveals why some things work for others but not for us and helps us discover what exactly will help us create habits that last and enrich our lives. It recently came out in paperback. There is also a journal available to track your habits (something I discovered that I really enjoy!) It’s a great book to start off the new year!

A sentence I love: We can build our habits only on the foundation of our own nature.