July Reading Recap

playpleasureartfriendshipcuriositylove

I read more than usual in July, thanks to a week’s vacation. I am lucky to have a fantastic used bookstore in my town so I went in to stock up for my trip. I couldn’t find anything on my reading list, so I checked for yet-unread titles by my favorite authors. That’s how I found The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I cannot deny that I am a shameless fangirl for Elizabeth Gilbert. Say what you like about Eat Pray Love; it was one of the first audiobooks I ever listened to and I loved it! Her book about creativity, Big Magic, lives on my bedside table. So I had high hopes for Signature of All Things—maybe too high, alas. On the positive side, I found the main character—a large, lonely, plant-loving woman who is preoccupied with sex but never gets any—highly relatable. I mean, we’re practically twins. Also, the book is written in Gilbert’s warm, funny style, and features one of her favorite (and my favorite) themes: the intersection of earthly and divine. On the negative side, it might be a little too long. After an exciting start, it drags a bit in the middle; it might get tedious if you do not love Elizabeth Gilbert with your whole heart. But I do. So for me, it was a satisfying read anyway. I really enjoyed the historical context, too, and I think about it often.

While I was at the used book store, carrying my big, hardcover Signature of All Things, I thought, “This doesn’t seem like poolside reading. Maybe I should look for something light.” Lo and behold, I found a book called Something Light, so I had to buy it. It’s an old book, published in 1960, and the first few lines promised interesting wit and perspective. Apparently the author, Margery Sharp, was prolific and popular throughout the mid twentieth century. She wrote The Rescuers, which was made into a Disney animated film in 1977–coincidentally, the first film I remember seeing in a movie theater. Something Light was indeed light, full of clever prose and funny observations, along with some pretty outdated views, per its publication date. It’s a predictable story about a woman determined to catch a husband, so adjust your expectations accordingly.  Still, it was a fun, if silly, read.

The cast-off book shelf at my office yielded the best read of the month: Eventide by Ken Haruf. I only picked it up because it was free and the title rang a vague bell in my memory. A peek inside revealed that Haruf writes without using quotation marks. I confess that this technique stresses me out because I need the structure of punctuation to keep my ADHD brain focused, so I almost rejected this one. I’m so glad I didn’t. This slice-of-life novel about a rural Colorado town is full of characters so dear, you’ll want to hug the book to your chest and tuck it into bed at night. It’s the second in a series so if you’re interested, start with the first book, Plainsong. I’ll read it with you.

I choose audiobooks according to their commute value: I need something that will take my mind off the L.A. traffic, but not so riveting that I plow into the car in front of me. My July audiobook, Something in the Water, fit the bill perfectly. A reviewer described the main character of this thriller as “too stupid to live,” and I’m afraid that was a spot-on description. You know in a horror movie, when you shout at the screen, “DON’T GO OUTSIDE!!” and the idiot characters still go outside? This book was full of those moments. Also, you can see the big plot twist coming a mile away. I kinda liked it anyway. I kept listening, anxious to hear how the author would tie it all up. Also, I usually hate when authors read their own audiobooks (unless it’s a memoir, like Eat Pray Love.) I didn’t realize that this author, Catherine Steadman, is a well-known British actress.  Her outstanding performance imbued the book with greater presence and drama than I would have, had I read it with my own eyeballs. She made the main character sound a lot smarter than her “too stupid to live” choices.

I also tried an audiobook called The Weight of Ink, which tells the story of modern day historians exploring a discovery of 300-year-old letters written by members of a community of Jews in London around the time of Shakespeare. I thought the premise was fascinating, but I gave the audiobook three hours of my life and still couldn’t get into it. It may have been the terribly dull performance, which featured the worst attempt at an American accent I have ever heard. I really wanted to learn about 16th century Jews in London, but I finally gave up. That book was twenty-two hours long; I couldn’t sit through 19 more hours of it.

For a much shorter glimpse of cross-cultural human interaction, try this beautiful short story about a group of tenants in a dumpy apartment building and what happens when they are given notice to vacate. I struggle with fiction writing, but this well-crafted story makes me want to try harder.

Speaking of trying harder, this essay about sabotaging your writing really hit home for me. The author is the same age as me and her description of her life—prioritizing family, making a career in marketing, trying to convince yourself that the childhood dream of writing really doesn’t matter anymore—wow, could it be any closer to home? Read it if you’ve been procrastinating on your dream of writing for publication.

Finally, this thought-provoking essay about work and how society values it really resonated with me. It also gave me this concise list of things (beyond money and status) that make life worth living: play, pleasure, art, friendship, curiosity and love.

Hope you enjoy your last month of summer, and let me know what you’re reading!

PS: This post contains affiliate links, which means if you click through and buy one of these books on Amazon, I’ll get a teensy weensy commission which will not affect the price you pay for the book. 

June Recap: Books, Podcast, & Digital Community

Backyard reading with a drink and a dog

One of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken, of so many of my favorite things: a margarita, a good book, a summer evening in my backyard, and my dog, Murphy.

I’m in a fight with my writing. We aren’t really speaking at the moment. Since I have no output, I thought I’d share my intake instead. If you’re like me, you’re shocked that we’re already halfway through July, so you won’t mind that this recap of things I read and listened to in June is a little late.

I’d been waiting for Andrew Sean Greer’s Less to come out in paperback since I heard Ann Patchett recommend it in an interview she gave last fall. At her bookstore in Nashville, Patchett is often asked for recommendations for smart fiction that isn’t sad. That is key criteria for me, too. I don’t want depressing books! Since then, I’ve heard many others rave about Less…not to mention that it won the Pulitzer for fiction.

It was worth the wait.  Less is hilarious, but also tender and insightful and so very relatable. Greer dances on the sweet side of bittersweet in this novel about a writer past his prime who travels the world to run away from a heartbreak that he’d rather not acknowledge. I was charmed by the romance, but I was floored by the writing and absolutely skewered by Greer’s observations on getting older and feeling like an outsider. It didn’t hurt too much, though, because I laughed through the whole book.

One interesting note: I’m a huge fan of audiobooks but in this case, because I anticipated that I’d want to see the writing with my own eyeballs, I chose to read the book instead of listening to it. Then, my dear friend said the audio version was fantastic, so I bought that, too. I started to listen right after I began reading. It’s the only time I’ve ever tried to consume a book both ways at once. For me, the audiobook was a no-go. As I expected, I did want to linger over certain phrases and passages at my own pace. Also, I found the performance to be a bit too sardonic. While the book certainly pokes a great deal of fun at main character Arthur Less, it’s balanced with an earnestness that makes Arthur a rich character and not a joke. I found that the performance on the audiobook did not convey that balance, and it didn’t seem quite fair to Arthur.

Speaking of audiobooks, in June I also re-listened to one of my favorite audiobooks ever: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. If you haven’t read it, get a copy ASAP. It’s a fantastic book. If you have read it, listen to it too! The performance by Cathleen McCarron is perfect. I can’t believe it didn’t win an Audie. I could listen to that book a hundred times and never get tired of McCarron’s dry, Scottish delivery of this delightful main character and her funny, sad, suspenseful, heartwarming story.

I’m too cheap to buy more than one audiobook a month so I fill in the gaps with podcasts. My current favorite is Happier with Gretchen Ruben. Like her books, the podcast is about habits, human nature and how to be happier. She and her sister, Liz Craft, share tips and hacks to make life easier and happier, along with anecdotes from their own lives and input from their audience. The episodes are about 45 minutes, the perfect length for my commute! They’re light and fun, and they’re also helpful.

I need all the help I can get. One of the best investments I ever made was to join Jennifer Louden’s online community, The Writer’s Oasis.  It’s a website full of resources for writers, both on the craft and practice of writing. Each week, Louden records a session that is something between mediation, inspiration and writing practice. I don’t know how to describe it—she softens you up, delivers something soothing and uplifting, and asks you to focus your intentions for the week ahead. There’s something very, very good about those weekly recordings. They’re worth more than therapy to me. They help me get my head on straight. If you’re a creative sort—not necessarily a writer; lots of artists and other creatives participate, too—check out The Writer’s Oasis. It’s both inspiring and grounding.

I’d love to hear what you’re enjoying this summer—post a comment and let me know.