July-August 2023 Book Marks
What a crazy summer in the northeast. Heat, monsoon rains, water in the basement, coming through the walls at 3:30 AM because the ground was so saturated it had nowhere else to go.
On July 4th weekend, my sisters and I held a memorial service for my mother, and then, three weeks later, we gathered to celebrate our daughter’s wedding here in the Adirondack mountains. Grief and joy, love and loss. The end of one life and the beginning of a couple’s journey to build their own together.
This is the wonderfully circuitous stuff that life is made of and, exhausting as it has been at times, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
While I’ve been unable to read at my usual pace this summer, I’d planned ahead, knowing there would be many personal demands. So, if you’re looking for a good tale to take you away, hopefully there’s something for every reader on this list.
My wish for you is that you’re having the summer of your dreams. Or at least kicking back and slowing the pace at times.
The Covenant of Water by Abraham Verghese
This sweeping novel, from the best-selling author of “Cutting for Stone,” takes in three generations of an Indian family from 1900 to 1977. Each generation has been touched by something called “The Condition,” a curse where water is a dangerous substance, harming or drowning people randomly in each generation. As this books winds like a river through love and loss, the backdrop of British-ruled India, the Partition and independence, it is about so much more than family. Each character is finely drawn, embedded and woven into the others like a tapestry. Read as a parable, there are so many lessons in the passage of time, the miracle of medicine and faith, tragedies and fates, that it is almost impossible to describe the breadth and brilliance of this book. I didn’t want it to end and thought about it long after I closed the last page.
The Invisible Hour by Alice Hoffman
Hoffman continually delivers fiction laced with magic, history and character development that keeps you engaged. Returning to the evocative New England landscape of the Berkshires, this novel is about the stories women tell and how they can save us. When Ivy becomes pregnant at college, the father turns his back, and her parents threaten to send her away to have the baby. She ends up in an oppressive cult in Western Massachusetts and marries the cult leader. When her baby Mia is born, the rules of the cult deem that she “belongs to the community.” Books and the outside world are considered evil, but Mia finds her way to the library where she reads The Scarlett Letter and learns how reading can (literally) transport you to other worlds. I won’t say any more, but that’s the magic part that Hoffman does so well.
California Golden by Melanie Benjamin
Based on the real-life experiences of female surfers in the 1960’s, Benjamin has mined the endless summer, wave obsessed, highly sexist and racist world of surfing that took place during the “Gidget” years as they gave way to the drug and cult crazed 60’s and the Vietnam war. Carol Donnelly is a legendary female surfer in a man’s world, at a time when women were expected to be housewives. When she becomes pregnant, she marries her boyfriend Bob, ending the unconventional life she had hoped to lead. Bob is sent to fight in WW2 and Carol finds a way to include her two daughters, Mindy and Ginger, in her bohemian beach life. When Bob returns, she takes a solo surfing safari to Hawaii, where she earns fame and finds herself. As the girls grow up, their lives diverge, one becoming a surfer and actress as the other, Ginger, falls into a life of drugs as the girlfriend of a violent drug dealer. The story follows each of the women and then circles back to cinch them all together for an ending that finds redemption in an imperfect world.
Halcyon by Elliot Ackerman
It’s so hard to describe this fantastical but sometimes historic novel that requires the suspension of disbelief in all the right ways. The story opens in 2004, with Al Gore entering his second term as the announcement is made that science has discovered a cure for death. The protagonist, Martin, is living in a guest house of a well-known lawyer, writing a book and licking his wounds after a divorce. When he discovers that his landlord is in on the “secret,” the books takes some wonderful turns and plunges into rabbit holes on how we view history. The author takes us back to how one bullet in the Civil War changed the course of the country and he follows the through line along to the toppling of monuments less than a decade ago. This book is a smart, engrossing read.
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Losing your mother at an early age is a fundamental wound. This wonderfully layered and heartfelt memoir cuts to the pain of that experience as it explores the complex relationship between a daughter trying to find and define herself as she becomes an adult. Born to a Korean mother and an American father, Zauner is judgmental of so many things about her mother’s choices and the way she lives her life. What connects them, while she is alive and after her death, is their relationship to food and all of the incredible Korean dishes her mother cooks for every occasion. Food is love in this story and some of the descriptions made my mouth water. The beautiful arc of this memoir is how she comes to love and appreciate her mother as the heart and soul of the family. When she visits her Korean relatives to learn more about her mother’s life, she moves closer to healing as she takes the stage (literally as a touring musician) of her own life and follows her dream.
Everything, Nothing, Someone by Alice Carriere
Daughter of renowned artist Jennifer Bartlett and charismatic European actor father, Mathieu Carriere, Alice lives in a giant house in Greenwich Village mostly parented by the household help. Her remote mother gives her entrance into an adult world, with a series of luminaries coming in and out of the house, but her loneliness as an only child is amplified by her self-absorbed and neglectful parents. Her father’s weirdly sexual attentions and references are confusing as her mother turns her recovered memories of sexual trauma into expensive art. But as Alice enters adolescence, she begins to experience a dissociative disorder that erases her sense of self as she descends into cutting and ends up institutionalized. Ricocheting between night clubs, encounters with older men, the music scene and other self-destructive behaviors, she finally must confront the stories she’s been told as her mother descends into Alzheimers and she becomes her caregiver. Written with gallows humor and insight, this is an intensely personal book about love, even in the face of extreme dysfunction, and the ability for all of us to come through the hard things and seek to heal.
Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent
Strap in for this one. Reminiscent of Emma Donahuge’s “the Room” this book starts with a neuro-diverse woman Sally Donoghue who has just incinerated her father in the barn because he’s told her he “wants to be taken out with the trash.” Sally’s mental limitations have come from an extraordinary traumatic background that is hard to imagine. Her mother was abducted at age 11 by a man and kept chained in a room for years, where she gave birth to two children. Finally rescued, Sally is adopted by her therapist couple after her mother commits suicide. But the backstory of her evil pedophile father, the brother she can’t remember she has and a mysterious relative who surfaces to connect with her, bring to life a story about family, ties, trauma and how we can finally break the cycle of abuse. You can’t turn away from this book and I had to put it down at night so I didn’t scare myself.
Her, Too by Bonnie Kistler
High-flying lawyer Kelly McCann has made her reputation defending men accused of rape. And her detractors, including her own stepdaughter, think of her as a traitor to women. When she wins an acquittal for a high-profile scientist, who discovered the cause of Alzheimers, she should be at the top of her game. And then the unthinkable happens as she herself is sexually assaulted. That’s the moment Kelly turns the tables and decides to not just seek justice, but revenge, mobilizing some of the very victims she crushed in court. If you are looking for a book to keep you turning pages, this is it.
Before All is Said and Done – Practical Life on Living and Dying Well by Pat Miles and Suzanne Watson
None of us are going to avoid the end of life, and yet most of us in Western culture avoid the topic of death and dying. Talking about our own mortality is not instinctual and we lack the language to have a healthy conversation around the topic. When a loved one dies, there are numerous emotional, practical and legal issues that can arise, and being prepared for this can simplify an already fraught time, compounded by grief. The book opens with the loss of author Pat Mile’s husband “Bucky” after a short but fatal illness. As she says, they were prepared for life, but not for death. What she learned forms the basis of this very practical and readable book, which covers everything from how to handle the shock and loss to how to navigate a blended family if you re-marry. This is a book for every human and includes some compelling stories of others.
*These are books I genuinely love and am thrilled to recommend to my friends. These are Bookshop.org affiliate links, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I get a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. Alternately, if you prefer to rent books at your local library or buy from your local bookstore, I very much support that!