Today is the Fall Equinox, that magical day when summer . . . turns into fall. I’m always reminded of this wonderful Ann Patchett quote:
“To say it was a beautiful day would not begin to explain it. It was that day when the end of summer intersects perfectly with the start of fall.”
— Ann Patchett
I’m feeling better (thanks for all your well-wishes, by the way; I’ll be back to full-strength blogging next week). My garden is making it’s pivot to the new season. And the Fall Equinox has arrived, and that means . . . it’s time for me to share my Top Five Books of summer with you. Each quarter, right around the solstice or equinox, I think back on the books I read during the previous 3 months, and I choose my top five.
Here goes: my Top Five Books from this past summer (the link listed for each book will take you to a published review of the book):
First up, I’ve got The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen. (This one won The Pulitzer this year, by the way.) Hands down, this is one of the best books I’ve read . . . all year. I just loved this novel that combines history, philosophy, fiction, and laugh-out-loud humor. The Netanyahus is witty, funny, and absolutely engaging. It is so . . . smart. Clever-smart. Perfectly paced. What impressed me most is Cohen’s ability to balance the serious and the comic, which is quite astounding. I read several reviews that called the book “pretentious.” I didn’t find it pretentious, though. Yes, I needed to look up a few words along the way, and I definitely needed to catch up on some history mid-read, but I didn’t find that a shortcoming of the book (more a shortcoming of my own education, actually). Anyway, not pretentious. Just good. Really, really good. (I gave this one 5 stars.)
Next, I’ve got The Colony by Audrey Magee. True confession: I picked up this book expecting to love it, and anticipating to be WOWed (based on the reactions of other readers I know and respect). And, for the most part, I was impressed. But not WOWed. And I didn’t love it. I very much appreciated the author’s unique and highly effective approach to the colonization and appropriation themes, especially when interwoven with “news bulletin reports” of actual 1979 killings at the start of The Troubles. I liked the lyrical writing and ease of movement between inner and outer voice. But I also found the book surprisingly slow at the start, repetitive toward the ending, and the slightest bit tedious. Still. A worthy read. It does what it set out to do . . . quite brilliantly. It is a book that “rearranged” me as a reader, but I never felt quite as connected as I had hoped to. It’s one of those books that will stay with me for a long time. (I can’t really believe it didn’t make the Booker short list, but there you go.) (I gave this one 4.5 stars, which I rounded up to 5. And that shows you that I don’t have to love a book to appreciate it.)
Then . . . there’s The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell. I’ve been waiting to crack this one open since I first heard about it (a year ago?). I loved O’Farrell’s last novel, Hamnet, and couldn’t wait to see what she’d do with a daughter of the Medici family of Renaissance Italy. I was not disappointed. The Marriage Portrait is an engrossing and compelling story with beautiful writing, authentic characters, and a wondrous sense of time and place. O’Farrell’s writing creates a stunning visual picture of what life was like in Renaissance Italy, and especially for a daughter of a Duke/a bride of a Duke. It’s a very visual, sensual read filled with rich detail. Themes of captivity, independence, defiance, deceit, and exploitation reveal how crushing life was in the mid-sixteenth century – for everyone, but especially for women. (I gave this one 4.5 stars, and rounded up to 5. It’s not Hamnet, but it’s close.)
Next, I’ve got Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. (You may remember that last spring, I included Otsuka’s newest novel, The Swimmers, in my Top Five Books list. She’s a new addition to my author-I-will-always-read category.) Anyway. I read a review of The Buddha in the Attic that compared it to a “muffled scream.” And . . . I think that’s an apt description. Reading the author’s spare, rhythmic, very precise prose was, for me, much like riding in a river of voices. It was powerful, perhaps even more powerful because it was so . . . communal. While each line of the chorus had a unique voice, together those voices joined in a communal scream. For a while, in the middle of the book, I found myself tiring of the pace, the repetition, the lack of a “main character” to focus on. And then I realized . . . that was the point! The experience of this communal group – faceless, nearly nameless – was universal, no matter the individual story. This is a poignant, powerful, spare little novel. Not at all comfortable to read, yet it surely swept me away. (I gave this one 5 stars.)
Finally, I’m including A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman in my Top Five. I have arrived late to the Sarah Winman party, only recently discovering her writing when I picked up Still Life, randomly, at the library last fall. I was afraid to sample her back list, worried that her earlier work might not live up to my (now) very high hopes. And I’m just going to say that I did have some regrets when I first picked up A Year of Marvellous Ways . . . because it was a tough go for the first couple of chapters, and I didn’t like it much. But then, it all came together in that (ahem) marvelous way that Sarah Winman has. The writing is really lovely – lyrical, and rather like poetry. The characters are fascinating and quirky – and linked by some kind of magic (kind of like in Still Life, if you enjoyed that). The setting is atmospheric, dreamy, and well . . . because I can’t think of how else to describe it . . . magical. After the first third of the book, I was completely captivated. While I liked Still Life more, I ended up loving A Year With Marvellous Ways, too. A book about caring for each other with love and kindness . . . who doesn’t need more of that in their life? (I gave this book 4.5 stars, and rounded up to 5.)
How about you?
What books would make it to your Top Five Books of Summer list?
If you want to see what I’m reading now, or check out my recent reviews on Goodreads, just check out the sidebar here on my blog. You can find me here on Goodreads. And you can read my past Top Five lists by clicking the links below (for now, these links will whisk you back to Stepping Away From the Edge):