At least the roadsides hadn't been sprayed: the grass and weeds and berry bushes had grown tall, though not tall enough to hide a van. There were goldenrod and milkweed, with the pods burst open, and dangling branches of bright, poisonous fruit. (From“Five Points”)Lindsey Crittenden was the next to respond to my email. “A few I’ve recently admired & enjoyed include The Door by Magda Szabo (novel), What Comes Next and How to Like It by Abigail Thomas (memoir), and The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (novel),” she emailed. Crittenden writes fiction, but has also published a memoir about prayer. She adds that as “Lenten reading” she enjoyed Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory. Crittenden also keeps a list of the books she reads. Ethan Watters called Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones, a “fantastic book.” Like Ethan, Quinones is both a journalist I respect and a friend, so I’m happy to give his sober book a plug. Rachel Howard recommends Rachel Cusk’s Outline, a book she said she “never wanted to end.” Here’s a review she wrote for the Grotto newsletter: Outline is ... a novel about a woman writer who goes to Greece during a very hot summer to teach a writing conference, and ends up listening to—and relaying to the reader—the life stories of random people she encounters, starting with the thrice-divorced Greek millionaire she meets on the plane. The narrator’s spare retelling of these autobiographies—rendered almost without dialogue—quickly becomes an examination of the way we construct, come to believe in, and often become trapped within, our self-made life narratives. Bonus for the working writer: the book becomes a revelatory meditation on story itself. “Reality might be described as the eternal equipoise of positive and negative, but in this story the two poles had become dissociated and ascribed separate, warring identities,” the narrator reflects on the Greek playboy’s life tale. Despite the layers of investigation in Outline, there’s nothing “meta” about the experience of reading it. Every paragraph offers a startlingly articulated truth, or re-electrifies an old cliché. Absorbing. “It’s not new, but I'd have to give a major shout-out to Justin Torres’ We The Animals,” wrote Lizette Wanzer. “Slender but impressive debut novel—superb, atmospheric writing.” Julia Scheeres (left), a journalist and author, recommended H is for Hawk, which the Grotto Book Club read last fall, with much enthusiasm. H is for Hawk was also on the list of John Engell, a novelist and lit professor at San Jose State. (He's made a career of keeping track of must-read books.) John also mentioned the following books, which he read in the last few months, each of which, he said, was “excellent”: King of Cuba by Cristina Garcia Beer Money by Frances Stroh Spain in Our Hearts by Adam Hochschild The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri Cracking India by Bapsi Sidhwa Sidhwa's book was published over 20 years ago, which goes to a point that Lizetter Wanzer’s selection underscores: Why rely on conventional lists? Even if you are lucky enough to have a summer vacation, it can be hard to carve out the time to read you deserve. So make sure you’re reading something good.
***If you’d like to write books as well as read them, and you live in the Bay Area, you could also spend your summer hours boning up on the craft with a class at The Grotto.