Not Another Book List

7 September 2022

Photo by Sam Lion on

Anyone can create a list of outstanding books to read. If you want bestsellers, promising new writers, or classics to revisit, there’s a list for that. If I throw together another one, is anyone even looking? With that in mind, the following is not a list. These are not suggestions. You’ve heard enough of those. Read on if book recommendations bore you.

The Prize-Winning Novel makes every literary list. When they come out, publishers promote them as the latest gift from a living god. That’s what they are. They are worth revisiting, revealing more of themselves on a second or third read. Google Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, or Toni Morrison (sadly deceased).

The Debut Novel has a special buzz. The publisher loads the cover with rave reviews from notable writers and critics. “… best debut this year,” they might say, or “… destined to join To Kill A Mockingbird as a modern classic.” The products of aggressive searches for the next big thing, they may feel a little forced. But they are inclusive, reflecting the Own Voices and young talents whose bold fresh stories move the conversation forward. Read Jonathan Escoffery’s If I Survive You, reviewed here. Look for Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang and Zadie Smith’s debut from 2000, White Teeth.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

The Old Standby is like Saturday jeans. These books are worth their inch on the bookshelf. When it’s time to take stock, face facts, and lighten the load for the moving truck, these old friends always make the cut. Have you read John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces? Try Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.

A Bestseller moves a gazillion copies, gets made into a massive movie franchise, making the writer rich and famous. These things are fun. They are called “un-put-down-able.” Other euphemisms include “beach reads,” “lighter fare,” and “guilty pleasures.” Good ones don’t come along often, and the inevitable sequels are nearly always second rate. Not much staying power, either. The top titles of 2012 were Fifty Shades of Gray and The Hunger Games. Thoughtful reads to return to for deeper insight? Or (maybe more than) slightly embarrassing?

Vintage Children’s Books are a minefield. Old titles often contain language and images that reflect the norms and assumptions of earlier generations. Feared for stirring up charged memories and reinforcing negative stereotypes, they are also a reservoir of our history and heritage. We can now show ugly attitudes for what they are (destructive, short-sighted, and immoral) and further the important progress underway in our children’s generation. I don’t recommend these books, but when you find one, be brave. See if there’s more to learn from having a tough talk with a young person than lobbying the library to remove it from the shelves.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

Most readers have a to-read list long enough to roll right out the front door. If you’re a glutton for punishment, check back here from time to time for more thoughts on books to read (or avoid). Follow my blog for updates on recent stories, book reviews, and articles. And enjoy your day.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on

June Reads

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
― Albert Camus

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on

The Moonflower Vine by Jetta Carleton

Truly great summer reads are hard to find. Many novels make for difficult beach reading while light-hearted rom coms are all too predictable. The Moonflower Vine is neither a heavy saga nor a flighty poolside diversion. It’s just right for summer afternoons, wherever you like to spend them, and leaves a lasting impression.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

With years of painstaking research, Truman Capote made In Cold Blood his life’s work. Though he is known for many other books and stories, this shocking true crime drama is his masterpiece. Adapted to film and often mis-shelved as fiction in bookstores, audiences love the chills Capote evokes as he unravels this gruesome tale. Keep it close by in case the A/C gives out.

Naked by David Sedaris

In this collection of nonfiction essays, David Sedaris gives a full dose of his humor and pragmatism. He finds meaning and hilarity everywhere, sharing what he sees, who he meets, and how it all goes wrong. And sometimes, right. Naked is a book with heart and a perfect fit for most carry-on luggage.

Country Wisdom & Know-How: A Practical Guide to Living Off the Land by M. John Storey

Summer is a time for growing things. Even city-dwellers can appreciate the practical tips for making the most of summer produce. Full of recipes and rules of thumb, Country Wisdom & Know-How is an antidote to your standard summer vacation. Because anyone can buy an icy cold beer. But M. John Storey can show you how to make one.

Children’s Shelf

Alexander and the Magic Mouse by Martha Sanders and Philippe Fix (Illustrator)

The Old Lady lives with her animal friends in a house on top of the hill. They overlook the river below and the town beyond, playing games to pass the time and drinking tea with yak’s butter. A rainstorm threatens to flood the river and wash away the town. It will be up to The Old Lady and her companions to warn the townspeople and save the day.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on

May Reads

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
― C.S. Lewis

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

A young man lives from the 16th century to the 20th, contained by a house as big as a village and transformed by time. With the feel of a great gothic novel, Orlando is among Woolf’s last works. It is accomplished, flawless, and deeply moving.

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

A medieval mystery memorably adapted to film in 1986, Eco’s novel immerses readers in history while tantalizing them with the search for clues to identify a monastic murderer. Tense and sometimes spicy, The Name of the Rose leaves a lasting impression.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

An exclusive college campus is the setting for The Secret History, where a dark drama unfolds. We are ushered in by a young student on scholarship, adapting to a place where privilege is taken for granted. As he is drawn into events he never planned for, tensions rise in a pitch perfect novel by a gifted writer.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

When’s the last time you had this much fun reading a book? The movie franchise has milked it dry but whether you loved or hated the films, the novel that started it all is as fresh as ever. Read it on the beach or relaxing in the tub. Guaranteed to make you smile.

Children’s Shelf

Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, illustrated by Marc Simont

Nate is a consummate professional private detective, taking cases for the kids in his neighborhood. In the first installment of this charming series, the 10-year-old sleuth searches high and low until he finds a lost picture for the little girl down the street. Nothing can distract him from solving the case. Except maybe a stack of fresh, hot pancakes. Recipe included.

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on

April Reads

“April 1. This is the day upon which we are reminded of what we are on the other three hundred and sixty-four.”
― Mark Twain

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on

Cooking For Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef by Ian Kelly

A biographical cookbook, Cooking for Kings presents scenes of daily life in royal Regency kitchens from the firing of the coal ovens before dawn to the spinning of breathtaking sugar creations for elaborate feasts. Many recipes are included interspersed with lavish descriptions of palaces and aristocrats. Most seem too ambitious for the home cook but reading them brings to life a world of opulence and indulgence.

Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Brought Them Together by Ron Hall

Hall gives us his story with an open heart. Haunting memories of his traumatic childhood lead him into poverty and despair with no hope of redemption. At this low ebb, the unexpected love of strangers intercedes. Deeply spiritual, Hall’s memoir is fierce in its love and loyalty.

My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia swells my heart. The longing of a boy for the out-of-reach girl he admires threads through a story of hardships and endurance. Constricted by the mores of their times and the difference in their ages, Jim pines for Antonia as they find their separate ways from the farmsteads of rural immigrants to the wider world.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie

A sometimes-banned must read. This book is challenging, not just because it tackles issues and racial and cultural discrimination, but because it is so real, so angry, so heartbroken. Too honest to let us look away, Alexie throws aside any romantic notions we may have about First Nations and forces a conversation about human tragedies too long ignored.

Children’s Shelf

Scuffy the Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton

One of the beloved Little Golden Books series, Scuffy has been a happy childhood memory all my life. Though his adventures take him a little too far from home for a toy tugboat, Scuffy is rescued by the boy who loves him and safely returned to the bathtub. Toot, toot!

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on

Reading Room Recommends

It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

March Reads

The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson

This novel, Jackson’s first, came not long after her collection of short stories, The Lottery & Other Stories. The Road Through the Wall, while not an instant classic, reveals the awakening of Jackson’s voice in fiction. With a cast comprising an entire neighborhood, the book ranges in and out of the households that line Pepper Street. Protagonist, Harriet, lives an adolescence not unlike Jackson’s own growing up. Ambitious in every way, this novel tackles the issues of class and race inequality in Jackson’s day with insights that reach into our own century. Beyond all this, it is an emotional novel with a story of friendship at its heart, perfect for the window seat on a rainy spring day.

Tomorrow Will be Better by Betty Smith

A lesser-known title by the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, this novel fell out of print for decades after its 1948 publication. The story is a layered look at a young woman’s quest to be happy despite a world that seems determined to grind her down. Surrounded by despondent adults and careless friends, Margy Shannon struggles against the undercurrents of urban poverty but nevertheless finds herself in a mismatched marriage to a man she doesn’t understand. Margy’s optimism carries her through, though the reader wonders if she’ll ever find what she seeks.

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson

A fun read with historical insights and a run-down of the most influential inventions of the modern era. With the Industrial Revolution, the door to modern conveniences as we know them opened. The 19th and 20th centuries saw meteoric advances in technology, communications and medicine, which changed our day-to-day lives in ways our ancestors could never have dreamed. Some of the ‘conveniences’ we rely on every day have even deeper relevance, as explored in Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, a great read for lunch hours and bedtime.

Loaves and Fishes by Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was among the founders of the Catholic Worker House, an early 20th century institution designed to address homelessness and poverty. Loaves and Fishes traces the journey of this monumental project from its ideological inception through decades of tireless effort to open shelters, provide meals and offer basic services to the poor. A farm is established to supply the food, volunteers are recruited to cook and serve. An activist, advocate, and proud single mother (when women like her were shamed and humiliated), Dorothy Day gives us a book that remains a road map for those who seek to serve our most vulnerable neighbors.

Children’s Shelf

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

An adventurous story of two boys, their dog, and a search for buried treasure. The excitement rises as the boys dig deeper and deeper. The illustrations make for a fun journey underground and beyond. An easy read for 1st grade and a great story for all ages. Will Sam and Dave find what they seek? And what secrets will the dog uncover along the way?

Follow Jennifer Frost Writes on

Reading Room Recommends

“Why, what’s the matter,

That you have such a February face,

So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?”

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing


My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead by Jeffrey Eugenides (Editor)

This anthology of love stories includes pieces by an array of literary notables. Never trite or tired, Eugenides has selected stories that matter. Romantic tropes and hackneyed language often trivialize love. Not so in this collection. Read it with your bookish Valentine.

The Assignation by Joyce Carol Oates

The Assignation, a 1988 collection of short stories, offers us glimpses of longing. The opening piece, “Flesh,” is just one paragraph long and most of those that follow aren’t much longer. Oates’ lean, sharp prose makes no bones. While the stories are taut with sensual tension, a need for love and acceptance fuels the lust.

Letters of Abelard and Heloise by Peter Bayle

This collection of correspondence between medieval lovers, Héloïse d’Argenteuil (abbess, writer, scholar) and Peter Abelard (philosopher, theologian, logician) isn’t standard Valentine fare. This doomed couple’s romance bloomed in 12th century France and ended in disgrace for both. Heloise bore a son and named him Astralabe. Though she and Abelard were never free to marry, her passionate love letters and his longing replies unite them in eternity.

Valentines by Ted Kooser

These poems are tender and sincere, penned by the Poet Laureate over many years and mailed annually to a long list of Valentines. They feature Kooser’s conversational style, unpretentious and unforced. Short enough to fit on postcards, these gems don’t need many words to describe the many trials of the heart.

Children’s Shelf

Fairy Tales: A Beautiful Collection of Favorite Fairy Tales by Parragon Books (Editor)

A book to share with your little Valentine, Fairy Tales is a bright collection of well-loved stories. Illustrations keep the pages lively and the familiar tales reinforce reading skills while entertaining with stories loved for centuries.

Reading Room Recommends

We spend January 1st walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done…

Ellen Goodman

January Reads

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes

Though these stories were first published nearly 100 years ago, they remain an eye-opening read. Barnes was among the literary glitterati of her day, influencing many writers’ whose names are more familiar than her own. Yet her stories may have kept more relevance than any of them. Treating the subjects of gender identity and conflicted sexuality, Barnes is more topical than ever.

A Rather Haunted Life: A biography of Shirley Jackson by Ruth Franklin

Researched in Shirley Jackson’s private archives, A Rather Haunted Life tells the story of her life with the help of her notebooks, diaries, and letters. Franklin teases out the earliest signs of the writer in Shirley through the journals and love letters she wrote from the age of twelve. Ending in tragedy with Jackson’s premature death, this biography traces the path which led her to write her best and most lasting novels.

The Campout: Recipes to Enjoy by the Fire by Marnie Hanel

My favorite campsite is under six feet of snow but I’m dreaming of summer. Whether you go to the woods with a rucksack and a mountain bike or prefer to pack an outdoor kitchen in your SUV, the recipes and camping lore in this book will inspire your ingenuity. Ever tried to “air boil” an egg on a stick over an open flame? What about baking cinnamon rolls in a Dutch oven while you boil coffee on the campfire? The Campout covers it all.

I Never Had it Made by Jackie Robinson

For baseball fans, Spring Training is just around the corner (global pandemic permitting). Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had it Made, gives more than just the sensations of great baseball moments. It also tracks his personal journey, fraught with withering criticism, pushback from proponents of the status quo, and the ugliest forms of pre-Civil Rights racism. Now, when issues of race equality are under long overdue scrutiny and Robinson has been rightly elevated to hero status, we must re-read his book to remember the human behind the myth.

Children’s Shelf

Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow by Robert D. San Souci

The original hero archer, Robin Hood inhabits Sherwood with his wayward companions, foiling the smug Sherriff of Nottingham once again. Taken from the older ballads of Robin Hood (the bowman is neither the lord of Locksley nor the lover of Maid Marian), San Souci’s Robin triumphs by his quick wits, unparalleled skills, and a satisfactory dose of swashbuckling. Exceptional illustrations by Earl B. Lewis make the story complete.

Reading Room Recommends

1 December 2021

December has the clarity, the simplicity, and the silence you need for the best fresh start of your life.

Vivian Swift

December Reads

A Year In Van Nuys by Sandra Tsing Loh

A writer’s mind can be a crazy place. Sandra Tsing Loh gives a glimpse into her experiences and foibles in a memoir set during one of her many years spent living in Van Nuys, CA. Family life, therapy sessions, and failed diets are among her touchpoints in a story told with humor and pragmatism.

I’m in the Circus by Leah Symmons

An autobiography of just eight pages, this unusual piece combines poetry and prose to describe a deep sense of longing, loneliness, and anger. Uncovered while searching for writers’ memoirs, this short e-book stays with me, its voice returning at odd times to make me wonder about it all over again.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Introduction & Notes by Elizabeth Dalton

This abridgment offers around 100 of the famous tales collected by the Brothers Grimm from the German region of Hessen in the late 19th century. Elizabeth Dalton’s introduction considers the tales from a psychoanalytic point of view and gives context to the stories that follow. A tall order for reading straight through, the Grimm’s tales make a fascinating volume to dip into from time to time on long winter evenings.

Herbal Tea Magic for the Modern Witch: A Practical Guide to Healing Herbs, Tea Leaf Reading, and Botanical Spells by Elsie Wild

Elsie Wild’s book is for bringing practical magic into your life. The brief history section outlining the origins of tea divination and herbalism is the basis for her suggestions and recipes. Truly modern witches may wonder about the efficacy of these spells, but should find it a fun read with ideas for relaxation, meditation, and communion with nature.

Children’s Shelf

The Kids’ Multicultural Art Book: Art & Craft Experiences from Around the World by Alexandra M. Terzian

Discovered during a recent visit to our local library, The Kids’ Multicultural Art Book has given more than I expected from a craft book. Creative ideas, simple materials and cultural context combine into an amazing starting point for dozens of rewarding projects. Our copy (once renewed) is stuffed with sticky notes marking the many ideas my 6-year-old can’t wait to try; never mind that we’ve completed eight adorable crafts already. I anticipate a smile from the librarian when he trots to the desk next week to renew it again.

Reading Room Recommends

29 October 2021

Welcome sweet November, the season of senses and my favorite month.

Gregory F. Lenz

November Reads

Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game by John Thorn

The World Series is underway and this scrupulous look at the origins of baseball shows how far the modern game has come. Beginning with the debate over baseball’s inventor, the intricate investigation into various street games from which it may have descended and other early controversies, this book spans baseball’s long history to keep you going long after the trophy has been lifted this November.

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

In her collection of short stories published in journals around the country, Zhang gives us a raw look at hard times. In an age when stereotypes are being actively broken down on all sides, Sour Heart recalls just why our preconceived notions about one another are inadequate. These stories do more than remind us to re-examine our prejudices. They sweep out the old with the realism and vigor of a young writer coming into her own.

A Literary History of Iowa by Clarence A. Andrews

As an Iowa native profoundly influenced by my home state’s rural beauty, this literary guidebook offers an insight into how other writers have also been affected by the Midwest. Originally published in 1972 (and newly available as an e-book), this hefty tome will appeal most to librarians, Iowans, and Iowan librarians. Nevertheless, I am eager to find out everything I never knew about my Iowan literary heritage.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

With winter coming on, now is the time to cozy up with a good long novel to keep you company. Lonesome Dove is familiar to many, a well-loved western, adapted to the screen in a much-acclaimed 80s mini-series. Its length makes it a companion you can settle in with for a while and the warmth of its writing leaves a lasting impression. Though I expected a genre piece filled with tropes and type characters, I found instead a touching human story rendered with sparse words and expansive vision.

Children’s Shelf

Nine Magic Wishes by Shirley Jackson

This charming story comes from Shirley Jackson, author of many articles on family life, mother of four, and accomplished novelist. Illustrated with quirky, vintage 60s paintings by Lorraine Fox, the tale of a magician who comes to town to grant nine wishes unfurls into a sweet story of everything a kid could ask for.

Reading Room Recommends

17 October 2021

October Reads

Fludd by Hilary Mantel

Next on my reading list, Mantel’s novel (first published in 1989) promises a brooding tale for dark autumn evenings under a cozy quilt. While she has become well known in recent years for her prize-winning trilogy of historical novels following the life of Thomas Cromwell, the Guardian announced in a contemporary review that “Fludd…establishes [Mantel] in the front rank of novelists writing in English today.”

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

A Halloween favorite and the perfect way to get ready for the spookiest season of the year, Jackson’s masterpiece wraps itself around the reader, from its beautifully worded opening lines to its inevitable, tragic ending.

Nobody Knows What They’re Doing: The 10 Secrets All Artists Should Know by Lee Crutchley

A quick read packed with practical advice for fighting self-doubt, getting real about your ambitions, and freeing the artist in you. Steering away from catch phrases and shunning “quick fix” advice, Crutchley encourages his readers to search inside for answers and trust that even bad work is worth making as you find your way; the main thing is to keep working.

Children’s Shelf

Georgie and the Robbers by Robert Bright

Featuring a ghost who’s sweeter than he is spooky, this vintage picture book continues Georgie’s adventures as the little spirit who happily haunts the Whittaker’s attic, a cheerful place cluttered with charming “old things you just couldn’t bear to part with.” Published in 1963, you may have to dig to find this little gem. But it’s worth the trouble for the young at heart.