Nothing makes me happier than offering books suggestions to other rabid readers. While reading recommendations are of course entirely subjective, as a literary agent I not only read nonstop because I love books (duh) , but also because I kind of have to be aware of what is selling and what is popular. So here are a few books that have got me thinking this summer. I’ve chosen a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, and memoir — all are books I want others to read for the purpose of being able to discuss them. To get you through the rest of your summer, here are my curated suggestions, eight in all (you can do two books a week, right?) Please weigh in, for me and others: what are you reading? What’s in the pile on your nightstand, on reserve at your library or in your Kindle queue?
1. The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. This novel won last year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and if you think a suspense novel whose protagonist is a North Korean soldier is not for you, you would be like me until I finally picked it up and didn’t put it down until I finished it three days later. This book is astounding in its reporting, surprising in its narration, and infused with a sort of magical realism (which normally I do not go for). I cannot recommend this enough — all I want to do is talk about this book.
2. The Good House by Ann Leary. Set in a fictional town on Boston’s north shore, this novel follows realtor Hildy Goode’s high highs and low lows, as she sells antique homes in her sleepy town, with its history of both witches and lobstermen, to the hedge fund transplantees who flock to its idyllic setting. Though her grown daughters forced her to rehab two years earlier, Hildy is supposedly happy living her “sober” life, which includes just one or two glasses of wine per night — no more blackouts. This novel full of both affairs and true love, a layered sense of place, and a narrator whose relationship to alcohol is captivatingly complex.
3. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. Can a widowed veteran find love with a Pakistani store clerk 10 years his junior in a sleepy English village? And does this premise sound too twee to bear? Please trust me that it’s not: this novel has not just an immensely warm love story at its core, but it is far from unpredictable and streaked with humor and witty insight (including the authors depiction of the village’s boorish American visitors!) I recommend this novel to everyone — it is not only a wonderful read for its premise, but the writing is lovely. You’ll think about this book for weeks after you finish.
4. The Robert B. Parker “Spenser” mysteries. You may remember the 80s TV series starring the late Robert Ulrich. You don’t? Good, then you can form your own image of Spenser (spelled with an “s”, after the English poet, of course), the ex-boxer, private eye who can not only cook and knock back single-malts but has an inner compass so principled that you cannot help but fall a little in love with him yourself. I discovered these mysteries in my teens, well before I had ever even visited Boston, but Parker infuses his novels with such precise details of Boston that I felt as if I sort of already knew the city when I moved here a decade ago. (Locke Ober restaurant? Ah yes, that’s where Spenser had steak lunches with this police contacts. Linnaean Street in Cambridge? That is where his girlfriend Susan Silverman lived…) I was devastated when Parker died a few years ago – no more Spenser. These are intelligent mysteries — well written, laced with references to Shakespeare and Auden, and firmly set in Boston, which is now my home too. (As an aside, are you watching the new Showtime series “Ray Donovan”? He kind of reminds me of Spenser. And thus I think Liv Schreiber should star in a remake of a Spenser series or movie!)
5. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. You know what? Just read it. I was prepared to dislike Sandberg and everything she had to say about professional women and motherhood and my most hated phrase, “juggling”. But I came away from the book refreshed and inspired and devoted to the profession I love and the family I love. Whether you have children or not, or work or don’t or are a woman or a man, Sandberg is brave enough to write truthfully about what are, actually, the issues women in the workplace face (for example, women by and large do not negotiate salaries. I will never do that again!). For a long time — too long — I attributed the angst I felt about being a working mother to the duality of “working vs. not working”. When, in fact, the angst I feel is not that I feel guilty over not spending time with my children, but rather that I actually do love to work and it’s just difficult. And it’s OK to admit that it is difficult. Sandberg emboldened me to clarify this, and inspired me to make changes that fit my personal situation. I’m serious — just read it.
6. ReWork: Change the Way You Work Forever by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. I’ve never considered myself a reader of “business books”, but one of my clients, a business writer, recommended this book as a wonderful model of what a business book should be — and she was right. Each chapter just takes a page, and is thus easily digestible by a busy reader. And it inspires everyone to think of themselves as a business owner or entrepreneur, whether or not you work for yourself or within a large organization. I rethought my relationships with my clients, my colleagues, and my superiors and, just as Sandberg’s book reset my personal relationship with my profession, this book reset and reinvigorated the way I approach my job as a professional interacting with clients and striving to create the best product possible.
7. My Beloved World by Sonya Sotomayor. Sotomayor is, as you probably know, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice. This book is not about her jurisprudence but, rather, the journey she made from a poor, diabetic child in the Bronx to Princeton and then Yale Law and then to judge. The book reads like a novel, full of challenges and well developed characters. It’s amazing how one teacher can make a difference in the life of such a child and what doors education can open.
8. Looking for Palestine by Najla Said. Najla Said grew up in the Upper West Side home of one of the century’s most respected intellectuals, her late father, the Columbia Professor and Middle Eastern scholar and theorist Edward Said. Najla’s childhood was full of professors, summer camps, and tony private schools, but without really knowing it, this straddling of two cultures — her preppy New York life and her Palestinean and Lebanese roots — took their toll on her emotionally and physically. September 11, 2001 caused her to rethink her dual identities and to, finally, choose one. This is a brave and funny book and gives its readers and understanding of the modern Middle-Eastern American — like Najla, someone we probably all know but in all likelihood probably don’t truly understand.