It’s time for me to face reality: summer is over and fall is well underway. Here in Wyoming, the aspens have already exploded in a yellow glory and shed their leaves, and the raging wind makes each cold day feel about ten degrees colder.
If you read my recent monthly recap post, then you already know that this summer was full of reading for me (and by summer I mean the end of August and all of September, when I actually had time to pick up some books). I’ve been meaning to share my summer reading list for a while now, but I kept putting it off so I could finish the book that I was on, and then before I knew it I was knee deep in another one. Now that fall is impossible to ignore, however, I can’t put it off any longer.
This post is full of all of the books that I read during the summer of 2019 – some I could barely finish, while others I completely adored. I hope you enjoy, and let me know in the comments what your thoughts are on the same titles.
Where the Crawdads Sing // Delia Owens
Delia Owens completely swept me off of my feet with Where the Crawdads Sing. This book tells the story of Kya, the “Marsh Girl” who dwells away from civilization along the shore in North Carolina after her family abandoned her as a young girl. Growing up isolated from the nearby town due to fear and prejudice, Kya finds a family in the overgrowth of the marsh, relying on the gulls and shells for companionship. The book follows her as she grows up and navigates love and life on her own. What really made this book stand out for me were the depths of emotion that can be found within its pages; the loneliness that Kya feels as she raises herself; the connection with nature that she develops over time; and the anger, attraction, fear, and attachment that develop after her interactions with two men in particular.
Kya grows from a wily young girl evading the truant officer to a independent force of nature that embodies the very marsh that took her in when everyone else deserted her. Reading about Kya’s life in the marsh and the beauty that she finds in nature would have made for an incredible book alone in my opinion, but Where the Crawdads Sing has a murder-mystery element that had me bitting my nails and staying up late at night to read more and more. This book has it all, and I truly cannot recommend it enough.
Americanah // Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah is the story of two Nigerians, Ifemelu and Obinze, who were inseparable in Africa, but fell out of touch when Ifemelu moves to America. After living in the states for many years, Ifemelu starts to miss Nigeria and feels it drawing her back in. She decides to return home, and reaches out to her old flame Obinze, who is now successful, married, and a father.
I enjoyed reading Americanah because there is so much complexity within the 600 pages. Adichie deals with issues of race – specifically by comparing African-Americans with American-Africans – immigration, identity, and love. By going back and forth between Ifemelu and Obinze’s lives, Adichie paints an excellent picture of how different their experiences were; Ifemelu was able to move to America, while Obinze stayed in London as an illegal immigrant for a while before returning to Nigeria. The number of themes and ideas that clashed and came together made it hard for me to blaze through this book; I often had to stop and digest it for a minute before diving back in. That being said, I’m glad I finally got around to reading a book by Chimamanda, who had been on my radar for some time now, especially after the success of Americanah.
Late in the Day // Tessa Hadley
As soon as I picked up Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day I knew right off the bat that I wouldn’t enjoy it; the author’s refusal to use quotation marks was an offense that I simply couldn’t get over. I pushed on with the book nevertheless, and while I managed to finish it over the course of two days it was begrudgingly so. Late in the Day is centered around a tight-knit group of two couples – Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zach – and explores the relationships that form between the four of them over the years. The book starts when Christine is informed of Zach’s death, and the entire dynamic of the group is tested. Hadley floats between present sorrow and idealized memories of the glory days, and besides the occasional divergence into the lives of the children, the story doesn’t stray away from the four main characters.
I enjoyed reading about the quirks of each individual that made up the foursome, but at times I couldn’t lose myself in Hadley’s novel because it was too contrived; her effort to make the characters sophisticated came across as too forced. The pretentious ramblings and the self-absorbed drama were almost as ridiculous as the characters themselves, and that coupled with the fact that the story never deviated from the four adults created an air of importance that didn’t sit well with me.
A Thousand Splendid Suns // Khaled Hosseini
I initially started reading A Thousand Splendid Suns when my coworker Evann let me borrow her copy from the library, and I was so hooked that I returned it for her when she was done and checked it out for myself. Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, follows up his hit novel with another story that takes place in Afghanistan, only this time the story revolves around two women as opposed to two boys. I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I cried while reading this book – sometimes out of sadness, other times out of genuine love for the characters.
The book starts with Mariam, a young bastard child who lives with her mother on the outskirts of town and only ever sees her father on Thursdays when he comes to visit. Mariam completely adores her father, and she longs to meet his legitimate children. One day she ventures into town – something her mother warned her to never do – and learns that her father’s love for her only exists in the shadows of the city. After being ignored by him and spending the night waiting outside his house, Mariam returns home and learns that her mother killed herself at the thought of her daughter having left. Instead of taking her in and raising her as one of his own (which she is), Mariam’s father devises a plan to marry her off in order to be rid of her. The story then follows Laila, a beautiful girl who grows up in a (somewhat) loving home. Laila is best friends with a boy named Tariq, and as time goes on and they both grow up their love for one another grows. As the turmoil in Afghanistan grows, Laila’s parents are killed by a rocket attack, and she is forced to marry in order to live a decent life in the city. This is where Mariam and Laila come together, as they’re both married to a man named Rasheed.
A Thousand Splendid Suns does an excellent job of shining a light on the horrible injustices and treatment women receive behind closed doors and as a result of twisted politics. The only salvation that women have in those situations is within themselves or with other women, which is evident in the relationship that blossoms between Mariam and Laila. Like I mentioned earlier, this book made me cry countless times, but in a way that made me so incredibly grateful to have picked it up.
The Woman Warrior // Maxine Hong Kingston
I reread this feminist classic over the summer because it was available in the library. The last time I picked it up was during my Women in Literature class at FSU, so it brought back a lot of memories and made me miss the many hours I spent discussing books with people way smarter than me. Maxine recounts how difficult it was for her to grow up as a Chinese-American in California. Her five-part novel weaves between myth, Maxine’s life, and the lives of other women around her, and it addresses issues of immigration, discrimination, violence towards women and from women, and identity.
When I first read this book for school it was difficult for me to push through the parts that didn’t seem to be connected to the overall story. Even though it’s been some time since I’ve thought about this book, the fact that I could remember the big picture made it a lot easier to appreciate each part for what it was. The Woman Warrior can feel like a struggle at times, but trust me when I say it is well worth the effort.
The Girl on the Train // Paula Hawkins
I was drawn to Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train because I read reviews that it was “the next Gone Girl” and I couldn’t resist checking it out. The first time I got the book from the library I returned it after only reading a few chapters; I wasn’t a fan of the way it read like a diary, and I was quickly bored and annoyed with the main character. Weeks later I gave it another try because I had nothing else to read and it was available, and I’m glad that I did. The book is centered around Rachel, a woman who takes the train into London everyday and makes up stories about the people she watches out of the window. One day she witnesses something that shatters the illusion that she has created, and when a woman goes missing Rachel’s knowledge draws her in and makes her part of the search.
The characters are frustratingly in the dark for the majority of the book in a way that made me want to grab them and yell at them that they’re missing something, even though I was equally uninformed. Having an unreliable narrator like Rachel was definitely infuriating at times, and the other characters are equally unlikable, which is mainly why I couldn’t get through it the first time. That being said, The Girl on the Train really becomes interesting a little over halfway in when the drama really unfolds, and at that point I had a hard time putting it down simply because I had to know what happened. If you’re looking for a book with the intelligent writing, powerful female roles, complex characters, and rich detail of Gone Girl then don’t get your hopes up, but if you want a quick read with a bit of mystery then this might be the book for you.
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice // Terry Tempest Williams
This book has been on my radar for years now, but I never got around to reading it until I saw it for sale in the Boulder Book Store. When Terry Tempest Williams’ mother died of cancer, she left behind entire shelves of journals for her daughter to finally open up and read. To Terry’s surprise, all of the beautiful journals that her mother refused to let her read until after her death were all full of blank pages. This sparks When Women Were Birds, which is Williams’ way of processing what it means to have a voice.
I absolutely loved this tiny little book. At first it was hard to wrap my head around Williams’ style for this book, especially since it’s so unlike her other work that I’ve read in the past. When Women Were Birds has an experimental narrative quality to it and is far from linear, which can be hard for some readers to get through. I thought the poetic feeling of the book was exactly what I needed, however, after reading so many novels over the summer. This book made me think about life, identity, and voice during every moment of my day, and it is full of quotes that struck a chord with me. One in particular stayed on my mind for a long time: “if if ever there was a truth without a shadow, it would be this: that we as women exist in direct sunlight only. When women were birds, we knew otherwise.”
Buy this book, soak it all up, and then come back to talk to me about it. Please and thank you.
Relativity // Antonia Hayes
Relativity is Antonia Hayes’ debut novel, and it’s a quirky book that revolves around an exceptionally smart twelve-year-old boy named Ethan and his separated parents. Ethan has been lovingly raised by his mom Claire in Sydney, Australia, but when an old injury resurfaces his physicist father is pulled back into their lives.
The one thing that bothered me about Relativity – but is exactly why other people like it so much – is the fact that Hayes was too reliant on the themes that are present in the book. As the name implies, physics and science are the backbone of the novel, and I got the impression that Hayes didn’t feel comfortable straying away from the safety of a central motif. Every analogy, conversation, and description had something to do with science, which got very old very fast. I love when authors use imagery to convey emotion, but the space-talk was so overused that I couldn’t appreciate it by the end of the book. I also couldn’t get behind the magical realism elements that are present in the first half of the book due to Ethan’s vivid imagination and unique intelligence, and I was thoroughly relieved when his ability to “see physics” is explained away towards the end as part of the head trauma he sustained as an infant.
That being said, Relativity is a quick and easy read that has a decent story and interesting characters. I struggled to get through it for the aforementioned reasons, but I can still recognize Hayes’ talent as a new writer. One sentence in particular almost ruined the book for me though: “he found her fragility beautiful.” My poor feminist heart crumbled to pieces with that sentence, and I don’t think I’ve fully recovered since.
City of Girls // Elizabeth Gilbert
I’ve tried to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s books in the past – specifically her non-fiction work – and I couldn’t quite get into them; now that I’ve finally gotten around to delving into her fiction, I’m upset that it took me this long to appreciate her as an author. City of Girls might be up there on my list of all time favorite books, and that’s saying something.
The story is told through the voice of an older Vivian Morris as she recounts her life for the daughter of a man who was significant to her, although as readers we don’t know why until the end. Vivian starts her story when she is nineteen years old and is shipped off to live with her Aunt Peg in New York City after she drops out of college. Peg owns an old mess of a theater called the Lily Playhouse, and it is there that Vivian discovers her love of theater, dancing, drinking, sex, and sewing. I found it refreshing to read a book that paid so much attention to all of the female characters, while only giving certain men the spotlight; when Vivian is describing the man who took her virginity she is simply unable to remember what he looks like, because his was the type of face that you forgot even when you were looking right at it. Meanwhile, the women in the novel are richly described and set on a pedestal for Vivian. I also loved watching Vivian mature and face reality for what it is – the story is set in the 1940s during World War II, a fact that took the main character far too long to take seriously.
The moments when ninety-six year old Vivian makes comments in the parenthesis for her audience are the parts that had me literally laughing out loud in the locker room at work, although her sense of humor and authenticity shines through during the entire book as well and made it hard to get through a page without stopping to show my coworkers the line that had me cracking up. Gilbert was able to completely transport me to NYC in the 40s, and the characters that she developed were so real and fabulous that I truly felt for their troubles and celebrated their victories. City of Girls is a wonderful book through and through, and I know I’ll purchase a copy of my own soon for a permanent spot on my bookshelf.
To the Bright Edge of the World // Eowyn Ivey
To the Bright Edge of the World is a beautiful patchwork of a story; it is full of narratives, letters, drawings, army reports, and photographs that tell the tale of Allen Forrester as he navigates the previously impassable Wolverine River in order to explore Alaska. Shortly before his expedition starts, Forrester marries Sophie, who is pregnant with their first child when he leaves with his team of men. The book contains passages from Sophie’s journals, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading things from her perspective; her independence and creativity in the face of her husband’s departure is rare for women in that time period.
What really made this book such a good read for me was the element of magical realism that Eowyn Ivey adds to the story by integrating elements of myth and legend. I’m also a sucker for books that celebrate the beauty of wild spaces, which this does in so many ways. To the Bright Edge of the World was another sale purchase from the Boulder Book Store, and I’m so incredibly glad I picked it up.
The Goldfinch // Donna Tartt
I’m not going to lie, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a commitment; at 784 pages, this dense novel took quite some time for me to tear through, and while I was ultimately pleased to have stuck it out there were definitely moments when I wasn’t sure if I could bear to read another paragraph. Theo Decker’s entire world changes when the art museum he is visiting with his mother is the target of a terrorist bombing. In a state of delusion and panic, Theo steals a painting of a goldfinch that his mother was fond of before leaving the museum and returning home. After learning that his mother didn’t survive the bombing, Theo is taken in by a wealthy family friend before bouncing around from place to place when his father crawls out of the woodwork.
The Goldfinch is long and winding in a way that some readers love and others hate, and I can easily see how the rambling prose and eccentric characters would drive people away. I love when authors use a lot of detail to really paint a scene, but at times the painstaking description of Theo’s high philosophizing was just too much to bear. I remember thinking several times that Tartt was being utterly pretentious, but as time went by I got sucked in by the plot and before I knew it the book was over. I also remember crying near the end, and despite not liking the way things wrapped up I couldn’t help but give the book a thumbs up overall. I’m glad I finished it and there were definitely moments that I loved and that made me think, but I’m not sure if I’ll pick up The Goldfinch again anytime soon.
The History of Bees // Maja Lunde
This book was another recommendation from my coworker and friend Evann, who has now become the go-to person I reach out to when I need a new book to read. The History of Bees follows three generations of beekeepers: a biologist in England in 1852, a United States farmer in 2007, and a Chinese pollinator in China in 2098 who has to hand pollinate plants after bees have gone extinct. With the latest campaigns to save the bees – which I am extremely passionate about – this story hit close to home and offers a grim glance into what the world would be like without them.
Lunde ties all three stories and characters together in a beautiful way, and while at times the book was a bit slow, I never wanted to put it down. The characters weren’t nearly as complex or moving as in some of the other books that I’ve read this summer, but I’m still grateful that Lunde was willing to approach such an important subject.
When Breath Becomes Air // Paul Kalanithi
Paul Kalanithi was wrapping up his training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. At only 36 years old, Paul was forced to reconcile with the big questions of life and prepare to say goodbye to his wife and young child. When I started this book I knew it was going to be sad – mainly because how can a book about a man dying of cancer not be sad – but also because my friend Alaina recommended this to me and she told me up front that it would make me cry.
For me the saddest part of the memoir was the part that Paul’s wife wrote after his death. Other than that, each page of the book had a poetic quality to it that made it hard to be sad while reading. His thoughts on life and love are incredibly philosophical, and the way he approaches his death in the face of so much un-lived life was heartbreaking yet inspiring to read about. I don’t want to give too much of the memoir away since it’s so short to begin with, but I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Paul: “human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationships we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete.”
What books did you read this summer? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption.