Friends, a confession: I read some books this summer.
The bad news is that I forgot to start dinner, I never noticed when the baby ate cat food, and I forced all four children to endure 90 minutes of daily “quiet time.”
The good news is that I have so many books to tell you about. Let’s talk books, again, shall we?
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Summer, for me, was over the top in every way. Heat, humidity, rain, noise, activity, zucchini. Just Over The Top. I survived by reading novels.
One of my favorites was Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel by Maria Semple.
After reading the first few pages, my expectations were not high. The storytelling is unconventional. Rather than a seamless narrative, you’ll find fragments of communication: emails, texts, letters, newspaper clippings, etc. I worried the book would be some sort of postmodern experiment, more taken with its construction than the story it tells. I have nothing against experiments (Joyce’s Ulysses is one of my favorite books), but, this summer, I wanted something thoughtful and enjoyable.
If Semple’s book is an experiment, it succeeds beautifully. Yes, the form is unusual, but it turns out to be integral to a story that is deeply, warmly human. This is a fun, funny novel, but it makes a serious point: first impressions, even second impressions, might give us entirely flawed ideas about other people.
I loved the hope inherent in this story. I loved knowing that even villains might turn out to be lovable.
Hovering over me was the Chihuly chandelier. Chihulys are the pigeons of Seattle. They’re everywhere and even if they don’t get in your way, you can’t help but build up a kind of antipathy toward them. – Maria Semple
Over the summer, I spent more time gardening than reading, a first for me. Of course, when I wasn’t gardening I was often reading about gardening. I’d read this memoir years ago, but when I found it on the shelf of my local used bookstore, I was happy to read it again.
William Alexander’s The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden is funny, self-deprecating, and surprisingly informative. Reading about battles with garden pests and plagues should be discouraging, but Alexander’s honesty (and his recipes!) allow us to see just how rewarding life in the garden can be, whether we’re winning those battles or not.
With the kitchen garden established, I decided – in an act of horticultural hubris perhaps not seen since, well, since Yahweh designed the Garden of Eden – to Build a Meadow. – William Alexander
This new book by award-winning memoirist Beth Kephart was one of my great finds of the summer: Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir. If you have even the tiniest dream to write memoir (or even a blog post based on personal experience) this book will be your Bible. It is inspiring, it is instructive, and it is beautifully written.
I think this book deserves a much wider audience than only writers and writers-in-the-making, however. First, Kephart offers lists of must-read memoirs. Some were familiar to me, but many were not. Her descriptions of what makes each memoir valuable would make this book worth its purchase price even if that’s all it offered. But it offers a great deal more.
This is a book to wake us up to our own lives. This is a book to reveal the treasure that is our own experience. This is a book to help us shape the stories that must be shared.
If all your memoir does is deliver story – no sediments, no tidewater, no ambiguity – readers have no reason to return. If you cannot embrace the messy tug of yourself, the inescapable contradictions, the ugly and the lovely, then you are not ready yet. If you can’t make room for us, then please don’t expect us to start making room for you. – Beth Kephart
And you? Read any good books this summer?