Out East (John Glynn) — There was some good writing in this coming-of-age memoir about a shared summer house in Long Island. I liked reading about the author’s close relationship with his family. However, the scenes set in the Montauk rental house and nearby bars were boring and repetitive. I didn’t care about what cocktails Ashley and Shane drank in June, and I was even less interested in these people and their partying escapades in July and August. If you like reality TV about self-absorbed twentysomethings, you’ll like this book.
The Lost Girls of Paris (Pam Jenoff) — I thought this was a pretty terrible book –poorly written, with undeveloped characters and a ridiculous plot that hinges on unbelievable events and coincidences. Also, the novel is rife with factual errors. All that aside, I was glad I read it because it led me to spend hours researching the brave young British women who risked everything to serve as couriers and radio operators in France just before D-Day.
A World Without “Whom” (Emmy J. Favilla) — The author of this book is the copy editor at Buzzfeed, and maybe that tells you all you need to know. Her main point is that language is always changing and evolving, and that our approach to grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage should be flexible. In the beginning of a chapter called “Language is Alive”, Favilla says: “If you prefer your grammar rules packaged neatly . . . you may be moved to tears — and possibly violence — as you attempt to get through these pages none piece.” That’s me. I don’t want a world without “whom”.
All That You Leave Behind (Erin Lee Carr) — Erin Lee Carr’s memoir about her relationship with her father, journalist David Carr, rubbed me the wrong way. Carr does a great job bringing her father to life, including dozens of emails and texts he wrote to her. However, I found both father and daughter to be self-absorbed and unlikable.
Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (Lori Gottlieb) — When an unexpected crisis sends therapist Lori Gottlieb into a depression, she seeks the help of another therapist to reassemble the pieces of her life. With humor and compassion, Gottlieb weaves her story with the stories of several patients she’s treating, including an insufferably egotistical Hollywood producer, a lonely elderly woman who’s planning to commit suicide on her next birthday, a newlywed recently diagnosed with a terminal illness, and a millennial who can’t seem to form meaningful relationships. Although it’s nonfiction, this book has twists that will keep you turning the pages. You’ll root for Gottlieb and for her patients — even that obnoxious producer, who has a backstory that will bring tears to your eyes.
The Unwinding of the Miracle (Julie Yip-Williams) — I must be a masochist because I can’t seem to stop reading memoirs written by people who are dying: The Bright Hour, When Breath Becomes Air, and now The Unwinding of the Miracle. Each one is more heartbreaking — and yet more inspiring — than the last. Born blind in Vietnam, Julie Yip-Williams barely survived childhood; her family tried to euthanize her because of her disability. So it truly is a miracle that she escaped Vietnam in a leaky boat, received surgery in the United States that allowed her to see, graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School, married, and had a family. Her book, based on a blog she started when she was diagnosed with cancer, is a beautifully written account of a life well lived.
The Storm on Our Shores (Mark Obmascik) — Probably, most readers don’t know much about the only World War II battle fought in North American — the Battle of Attu, which took place in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska in 1943. This well-researched account personalizes history by focusing on two soldiers — a Japanese medic named Paul Tatsuguchi, educated in America and drafted into the Imperial Army, and an American coal mine, Dick Laird who killed him — and found his diary. Versions of the diary were distributed to American soldiers. Many questions are left unanswered at the end of this book, which I suppose is inevitable because this is real history, not historical fiction; still, I felt the author could have spent more time addressing some of the moral controversy raised by the diary.
The Island of Sea Women (Lisa See) — The best part of this book was learning about a culture that I had no idea even existed — the lives of haenyeo (female divers who can hold their breath for up to three minutes and earn their living by harvesting animals and plants from the ocean) and their matrifocal community of Jeju Island, off the coast of South Korea. Beginning during the Japanese colonial period in the 1930s and moving through decades of rapid change, The Island of Sea Women tells the story of the friendship between Mi-Ja, the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, and Young-Sook, the daughter of the diving collective’s leader.
I Miss You When I Blink (Mary Laura Philpott) — One review anointed Mary Laura Philpott as a successor to Jean Kerr, Nora Ephron, and Laurie Colwin. Not quite . . . but this book of linked essays about what to do when you have everything you ever wanted but you still want more is a gem.
Nanaville (Anna Quindlen) — How could I not love this book? Anna Quindlen is one of my favorite authors AND I recently became a grandmother. This is going to be my go-to gift for all the new grandmothers in my life. That said, I don’t think you need to be a grandmother to enjoy Nanaville; if you’ve had a beloved grandparent in your life, that’s enough.
The Only Woman in the Room (Marie Benedict) — Before I read this book, I was vaguely aware of Hedy Lamarr as a World War II-era movie star. Marie Benedict’s biographical novel shows that she was much more than that — first, the Jewish wife of a highly ranked Nazi who escaped from him and from Austria, and later the inventor of a groundbreaking communication system. The writing style is a bit plodding, but the story itself is fascinating.
Southern Lady Code (Helen Ellis) — This northern lady really enjoyed Helen Ellis’s collection of sharp and snappy essays, Despite the title, they’re not all about being Southern. And anyway, how can you not adore a writer whose idea of a fun evening is to invite her girlfriends over to drink wine and put together a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of “a spooky owl in mid-flight”? I just want to know how I can get on Helen’s guest list. If you like David Sedaris, you’ll love Helen Ellis.
Save Me the Plums (Ruth Reichl) — I loved every page of Ruth Reichl’s behind-the-scenes look at at her career as editor of Gourmet magazine. At a time when print magazines are becoming an endangered species, Reichl’s love letter to Gourmet — and her talented colleagues — is particularly poignant.
The Honey Bus (Meredith May) — You know you’re reading a really good book when the topic is one in which you’ve previously had no interest — but you still can’t put the book down. The topic here is beekeeping and the natural world of honeybees, and it’s absolutely fascinating — both in its own right and as a metaphor used by Meredith May’s beekeeper grandfather to teach her life lessons. Meredith May’s memoir of growing up in a rural area of northern California, near Big Sur, ranks at the top of my list of coming-of-age memoirs.
Inheritance (Dani Shapiro) — If you’re looking for a terrific book club choice, this is it. I recently moderated two discussions about Inheritance, and both were lively and thought-provoking. Dani Shapiro’s personal story of learning that her biological father was a sperm donor, not the loving man who raised her, is an exploration of the search for identity, nature vs. nurture, and what makes a family.
If the Creek Don’t Rise (Leah Weiss) — I had a hard time with the dialect in the beginning of this book but gradually adapted to it. It was supposed to be realistic, but it seemed pretty gothic/unbelievable to me. For one thing, the characters were very simplistic — most were either good or bad. I didn’t love it, which puts me in the minority — the reader reviews are terrific.
Sadie (Courtney Summers) — If you’re an adult reader who’s a bit wary of YA fiction, Sadie is a great place to start. This smart and original thriller, about a missing teenage girl, is also perfect for fans of true crime podcasts. Half the book is narrated by Sadie, the runaway girl, and half is a transcription of a podcast called “The Girls”. It’s an addictive read for both older teenagers and adults.
The Age of Light (Whitney Scharer) — I loved learning about Lee Miller, the 1920s Vogue model who was surrealist Man Ray’s muse in Paris and then become a celebrated photographer, documenting the horrors of World War II. If you enjoyed any of Paula McClain’s novels, especially Love and Ruin (about Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway), you’ll adore this book.
Henry, Himself (Stuart O’Nan) — Henry, Himself is the third in a trilogy about a middle-class Pittsburgh family. In the two earlier books, Wish You Were Here and Emily, Alone, we meet Henry only in retrospect — he has died and his grieving family is trying to move on without him. In this lovely novel, we see Henry and his family through his own eyes. Short, well-titled chapters alternate between the present, when Henry is 75, and the past, starting with his childhood and moving through his service In World War II and his adult years. The novel brims with affection for its main character, an ordinary man wrestling with big questions: What is the meaning of an individual life? What do we leave behind?
The Perfect Liar (Thomas Christopher Greene) — I really liked two of Greene’s earlier books (The Headmaster’s Wife and If I Forget You), so I had high hopes for The Perfect Liar. This one is, unfortunately, a predictable thriller (is that a contradiction in terms?) that strains credibility. The jacket copy says the book has a “shocking climax no one will expect” . . . . I’m pretty sure that most readers will guess exactly what’s going to happen.
On the Come Up (Angie Thomas) — Thomas’s sophomore novel is good, maybe even better than The Hate U Give. Bri, the teenage rapper protagonist, is a great character — imperfect, complicated, and likable, all at once.
Home Fire (Kamila Shamsie) — This novel, a retelling of Antigone, is set in modern-day London and focuses on Muslim immigrants. It’s really well-done, but it left me cold; sort of like a beautiful minimalist room in Architectural Digest.
The River (Peter Heller) — Two Dartmouth students, experienced outdoorsmen, embark on a journey in northern Canada that they intend to be a rugged adventure in the wilderness but that turns out to be a “Deliverance”-style nightmare. It’s a page-turner, to be sure, but this novel is much more than that. For one thing, Heller’s writing is gorgeous; for another, he has created two characters that are as real as any you’ll meet on the page. The last lines of the Denver Post review are “I could not put this book down. It truly was terrifying and unutterably beautiful”, and I couldn’t agree more.
Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Benjamin Dreyer) — I don’t know how many people like me exist, but there must be enough of us word nerds/grammar geeks to justify publishing books like Dreyer’s English. If you were the kind of kid who liked to read the dictionary, you’ll enjoy this book, which is full of humor as well as useful information. I just find it hard to believe there’s a large audience for it, based on the errors I see both online and in print, but if there is — hallelujah!
An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago (Alex Kotlowitz) — In a heartbreaking book that offers no answers, and little hope, Kotlowitz examines the rampant gun violence in Chicago’s most dangerous neighborhoods during the summer of 2013. He brings to life the perpetrators, victims, and their families, demonstrating their shared humanity and the twists of fate that can shape one person into a killer and another into a victim.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz (Heather Morris) — Categorized as a novel, this book is really the true story of a couple, Lale and Gida, who met and fell in love at Auschwitz and then spent their lives together. A few minor details were changed, but the author spent many hours interviewing Lale Sokolov, the “tattooist”, about his experiences in the camp and afterwards. Were some of his and Gida’s actions immoral? Book clubs will find much to discuss.
The Huntress (Kate Quinn) — The best page-turner/World War II novel I’ve read in a long time! Every chapter ends with a cliffhanger — you can’t stop reading. And I was absolutely fascinated with the carefully researched story of the female Soviet pilots, the “Night Witches.”
The Dreamers (Karen Thompson Walker) — I’m generally not drawn to dystopian fiction, or magical realism. If it couldn’t really happen, I lose interest. But there are exceptions to every rule, and The Dreamers is one of them. I couldn’t stop reading this haunting, and yes, dreamy, story of a college town struck by a mysterious flulike illness whose victims fall deeply asleep and experience vivid dreams. This novel, which reminded me of Station Eleven, will stay with me for a long time.