Summer Reading

I’ve been intending for a while to start writing some book reviews for the blog, but hadn’t gotten to it yet.  And now it’s summer, which is always the Season of Reading for me, because in my mind if not reality, summer is still vacation time, which obviously means curling up with a good book on the couch, on the beach, in the car, and so forth.  If you’re casting about for something to read, here are a couple I’ve read recently and highly recommend:

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.  This book is superb, and I don’t say that lightly.     My cousin lent it to me while I was in CA last week, and I was appreciative but resistant.  I didn’t want to read a book about Katrina while on vacation, so I didn’t.  But once I got home, I picked it up and then it was only with reluctance that I put it down over the next few days.

In a nutshell: the true story of a Muslim-American family living in New Orleans in 2005.  The book is told from the perspective of husband and wife Zeitoun and Kathy; it follows them immediately before and after Katrina struck.

Why read it: For a fascinating take and unique perspective on Katrina.  It was very interesting to read about different elements of the disaster (the general chaos, the widespread incompetence, the racism, the impact on evacuated families and those who stayed behind) through a close-up look at this one family.  The Zeitouns are sympathetically and (I think) realistically depicted, and within the first few chapters I felt deeply invested in what happened to them.

What I didn’t expect: First, that this is a suspense story, a quick read, a page turner.  And second, that while it is horrifying (in a “how could this happen in this country?” way, among others), it is not without hope.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.  This book has a structure I’ve never seen before: it’s novel-as-short-stories, or maybe vice versa.  Anyway, it’s a series of vignettes all of which feature the enigmatic namesake Olive, whether as main subject or a side character in someone else’s story.  She is a fascinating and wonderfully well-drawn subject.  I was completely drawn in by Strout’s depictions of Olive, the small Maine town she lives in, and the other people who populate it.

Why I liked it: this book has some of the most beautiful prose writing I’ve seen in years.  It is vivid, compelling, and immensely believable.

Selected Excerpt: “Don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else.”

When not to read it: When you’re looking for a light, fluffy novel.  This one is dessert, but more dark chocolate fudge than lemon meringue.   It’s both moving and weighty.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  If you’ve never read anything by Lamott, do.  You could start with her old essays at Salon, like this one about why she hates Mother’s Day.  She is authentic and wry and wise and so funny.  Bird by Bird is her nonfiction book about writing, and it has some excellent tips on both writing and life.

Good for: creative writers feeling a little stuck and/or wanting ideas, advice and rationale for why to write regardless of whether you’ll ever be published.

Bonus: besides all the inspiration, this book is worth reading for the anecdotes alone, several of which have already become mantras for me.

But: fair warning that a lot of the book is geared toward fiction writers, which I for one am not.  Also, I would have liked more writing prompts (though a chapter on school lunch got me journaling).

Readers, feel free to chime in in the comments with your own summer reading suggestions.


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