Not Another Book List

7 September 2022

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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.

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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.

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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.

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June Reads

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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!

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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

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.