One-Woman Book Club: June and July

Here’s what I always say about a good book recommendation: better late than never, right?

This summer has been off the charts when it comes to reading material. I’ve loved everything I’ve picked up in the past couple months, and I’d go so far as to say one of the books completely changed my life. 

Hope you enjoy!

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers tells the story of a two-week family vacation that takes place on the gorgeous Spanish island of Mallorca.  

The family in question? An older married couple on the brink of divorce, their cynical 18-year-old daughter, their fitness-obsessed son with financial issues, and a couple of their dearest friends in the world. 

The story isn’t a page-turner by any means, but it’s interesting, heartfelt, and relatable. Straub’s writing is succinct and simple, but the images she conveys with her words are sharp and vivid. She has a particular knack for describing food, which I always love to read about. 

Her style of writing reminds me of Richard Linklater’s style of directing (movies like Boyhood, Before Sunrise, and Everybody Wants Some! to name a few). There are no crazy plot twists, no wild storylines, no concrete conclusions, and all the characters resemble people you either know well or have interacted with at some point in your life. 

Basically, both styles portray regular people just living life — learning more about themselves, gaining new perspectives, building relationships, making dumb choices, apologizing, handling their issues, and figuring out how to move on. 

It's a style you either love or find extremely boring, but I think Straub executes it well, and her book is a lovely, fascinating glimpse into the lives of one normal family — problems, triumphs, and all. 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

This is one of those books I heard about for years — it was on the NYT bestseller list, a pick for Oprah’s book club, front and center on the shelves of every bookstore, you name it. 

I finally picked it up at Powell’s in Portland this past spring and got around to reading it in June. 

It’s about an evangelical Baptist preacher named Nathan Price who relocates his wife and four daughters from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in the late ‘50s. The book is told through the perspective of each of the four daughters, as well as their mother, Orleanna, and follows their lives over a span of three decades as they navigate life and loss in post-colonial Africa. 

If that sounds political and intense and historical — you’re right, it is. But the story is so much more than that. It’s about dysfunctional family dynamics, the dangers of religion, struggle, sacrifice, love, loss, strength, resilience, and growing up. 

I can say with certainty that this book now falls into the prestigious category of "Top Five Best Books I’ve Ever Read." It’s one of the most powerful, compelling, beautifully written stories I’ve had the pleasure of diving into. It rocked me to my core and served as an invaluable learning tool for discovering new ways of using language. 

Kingsolver’s language is, in a word, delicious — I had to stop and reread certain paragraphs over and over to savor the richness and innovation of her prose.

I don’t want to say any more about the story because what happens is so unexpectedly gut-wrenching and soul-piercing, but believe me when I say this book is absolutely worth your time. 

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

I’ve been experimenting this year with reading more books by authors I already know, and the process has been so fun. 

I read Modern Lovers after The Vacationers and I’m so pleased I hit them in that order, since I found Modern Lovers to be the stronger story of the two.

The book is about four best friends as they prepare to send their children off to college and enter a new phase in their lives. It’s funny, touching, and, again, super relatable. The characters and perspectives and bits of dialogue are all ones you’d recognize from your own life at some point, which makes it really fun and easy to read. 

Another plus? Straub writes for the modern 21st-century urbanite—her characters go on Facebook, they eat kale-sesame-avocado bowl concoctions, they have gay parents, they talk about divorce, and they accidentally join hippie yoga cults. 

I love how Straub takes her readers on a journey into the homes and minds of very average-seeming individuals, then brings them to life by highlighting their not-too-crazy-but-still-important struggles and fears and concerns. 

Her stories are not life and death epics, but small portraits of the difficulties and heartbreaks daily life dishes up. 

Bottom line: this book was a fun time and I highly recommend it. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I became intrigued by Franzen’s dense, perceptive writing style and complicated characters back in January when I read Purity

I think I might like Freedom even more, which says a lot because Purity totally captivated me.

Freedom is similar in that it’s told from the perspective of a handful of self-absorbed, cynical, deeply flawed characters and focuses on the different, ever-changing dynamics between those characters. 

The story goes back and forth in time and spans a couple decades as it takes you inside the marriage of one seemingly perfect Midwestern couple. 

There’s betrayal, tragedy, politics, personal growth, forgiveness, humor, and a whole lot of selfish behavior to keep it interesting. 

What I love most about Franzen’s writing is the way he depicts moral dilemmas—nothing is ever black and white. His characters, despite dishing out the occasional moral absolutism, dwell in life’s gray zone, which makes them especially fascinating, relatable, and human

Like most of his stuff, it’s a thick book, but the story is gripping all the way through. If you're in the mood for a "serious" (according to the critics), but highly readable piece of contemporary fiction, I can't recommend it enough. 

 

As always, I'm curious to hear your recommendations! Have you read anything great lately? Let me know in the comments!

P.S. Read the rest of my book reviews here

In the Face of Terrorism, Why It's More Important Than Ever to Travel

A lovely painting by Jessica Durrant. Find it here.

I wrote an article yesterday in response to the recent terrorist attacks. Here's a snippet: We have a responsibility now more than ever to know the world intimately and to break down the racial, cultural, and stereotype-based obstacles that stand to divide us.

It's published here if you'd like to read it. The image above is a lovely painting by Jessica Durrant. Find it here.

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.
— Nelson Mandela

A Grace Period (or How to Channel Your Sadness Into Love)

A Grace Period (or How to Channel Your Sadness Into Love)

This past week has me feeling heavy. I’ve felt heavy with the devastating news of recent school shootings in the U.S. and horrific stories of Syrian refugees abroad trying simply to survive. I’ve been struggling to process and understand the loss I see perpetuated on my television screen, on my Facebook newsfeed, in the chatter of colleagues and neighbors.

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