The Best 5 Books I’ve Read This Summer

The Best 5 Books I’ve Read This Summer

My favorite thing to do during the summer (besides eating ice cream, finding a lake to swim in, drinking chilled white wine against a setting sun, etc.) is to “go to bed early,” by which I mean pretend to be tired at 8:30 PM but secretly lay in bed for three hours reading FUN BOOKS. Not professional books. Not academic books. FUN. BOOKS.

“Why do you need like twelve hours of sleep lately?” My husband, who often comes to sleep after I’ve put my book down, wondered aloud the other morning.

Ha. Here are five reasons why…

In the Place of Fallen Leaves, by Tim Pears

I’m cheating on this one since I re-read it at least once every summer. This book is pure gold in how it captures a unique time and place, a summer drought in a small town in 1980s Devon. I don’t often use the word “magic” to describe the caliber of a book’s prose, but that’s the only word that comes to mind when I think of this novel–indeed many of the reviews I read resort to the same verbiage. It is a gentle but moving coming-of-age story as a 13-year-old girl struggles to find meaning with a father who has suffered a brain injury due to alcoholism, dying older relatives, older siblings who are growing up, and all during an unseasonably hot summer in which the time seems to stand still. Despite the difficult themes of the book, the story is ultimately one of quiet, riveting beauty that perfectly captures the achingly languid atmosphere of summer on the verge of adulthood.  

The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu, by Katja Pantzar

This was the first book I read this summer, finishing it in just under a few hours on a long car trip home from a speaking engagement (my husband was driving). It’s becoming a cliche to craft a life principle around some ineffable Scandinavian word or other–and then write a book about it. But there’s something about Pantzar’s work that I like. She is curious, honest about her difficulties and struggles, and has a light-hearted, inviting style. Plus, her passion for cold-water showers is bizarrely contagious. (I still haven’t “warmed up” to the practice, but she just makes me want to be the kind of person who can handle it, you know?) I also identified with this book because Pantzar had moved to Finland from dreary, sun-deprived Canada; her attempts to combat the ills of city living while still remaining in the city gave me a lot to think about.   

An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison

An excellent, perceptive memoir written in literary prose. The author takes us inside her struggle with bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, a journey that is all the more unique given that she is a trained psychologist–and spent the first part of her training unaware (or in denial of?) her illness. The work is particularly insightful when it comes to understanding why people with bipolar often struggle to continue with their medication regimen. The book is uncannily reminiscent of The Center Cannot Hold, psychiatrist Elyn R. Saks’ memoir of having schizophrenia. Both women grew up on the West coast mid-century, both ended up in fields pertaining to mental health before recognizing their own conditions, both suffered terrifying psychosis on the road to recovery, and both have succeeded in part with the support of strong professional and personal relationships. I loved this book for its honesty, its vulnerability, and its stunning sentences.

The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

From bipolar disorder to the pursuit of happiness, I’m realizing now how eclectic my summer reading has been. In any case, although I’m a big fan of Gretchen Rubin, I had put off reading this book for vain reasons: I really can’t stand the font on the cover. 

Once I got over that, I found this book to be an engaging blend of self-improvement, memoir, and Rubin’s typical penchant for researching the crap out of her subject and distilling it down into an elegant, action-oriented framework you wonder how you ever lived without. I loved journeying with her through her year of discovery and self-improvement, particularly the underlying premise that we can become happier by changing ourselves–our satisfaction in life doesn’t have to depend on how or whether other people change. 

The Driest Season, by Meghan Kenny

Another coming-of-age novel from the perspective of a teenage girl. The story starts when Cielle finds her father hanging in the barn, dead. Suspense in the plot is initially driven by the fact that each character knows or believes something slightly different about what happened to him, and only Cielle seems to have the clearest understanding. This novel excels at unpacking the complicated grief that follows in the wake of suicide, particularly in a supportive but at times intrusive farming community in rural Wisconsin. I got to read this book while I was visiting family in Wisconsin, which made the story and its setting all the more poignant. 


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