Summer is a good time for reading. By the pool, at the lake, on the deck, in the backyard and any number of other places. Here are 7 recommendations that will provide hours of reading enjoyment, as well as greater insight into our world and maybe also what makes you who you are.
Call the Midwife
Shadows of the Workhouse
Farewell to the East End
by Jennifer Worth
Have you watched the British TV series Call the Midwife? It’s based on Jennifer Worth’s memoirs from working as a young midwife in East End London in the 1950s. The well written TV series started with Jennifer’s material, and has since found a life of its own, bravely moving forward into the 1960s.
But before the TV series, there were the books. Books that go in much more depth. The full, engaging story, straight from Jennifer’s pen.
It’s births, joy and hardships. There is a sense of a society and community lost in the name of progress. Yes, we got rid of the visible slums (kind of), but also lost other things: doctors and nurses that make house calls, community, people caring for their neighbors.
The books connect us with the triumph of the human spirit as new life is brought into the world and flourishes, often in the midst of much less than ideal conditions. The people we meet are very real and often flawed.
Jennifer also gives a vivid picture of human conditions that just should not be, anywhere. Like the workhouse system, originally designed to help alleviate poverty that ended up creating lifelong misery for so many affected by it. By the 1950s it was gone, but its effects were still very much felt in many peoples’ lives.
The books are a good reminder of why we need access to adequate healthcare and a safety net that actually helps people and doesn’t demean them or worse yet, destroy them. We are at the end of the day our brother’s and sister’s keeper because we all live in this world together.
by Leo Tolstoy
A Russian classic. One of those books that people talk about, but frequently never even crack open.
Anna Karenina is a panoramic story that follows 3 families: Karenin, Oblonsky and Levin.
One marriage chokes in coldness and blows up spectacularly, the destruction manifested in a scandalous affair.
One marriage navigates its way to recovery after an affair.
One couple discovers love and eventually marries to start their life together.
All set against the grand scenery of St. Petersburg, Moscow and estates in the country, in a nation grappling with change, where most people were still bound to the land in serfdom.
At about 1,000 pages, it will take a few afternoons to read the book. Really, it should take a some time, because there is so much in those pages about life, decisions we make and how those decisions play out.
Tolstoy had deep insight and brings it to life in this book. Dive in. It’s deep, but you’ll like it.
The Lord of the Rings (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, Return of the King)
by J.R.R. Tolkien
I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I heard it read on the radio in the early ’70s. It’s never been far off since. Keep coming back to reread it.
The story of Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Arwen and of course Gandalf is so unique and so universal it appeals to all of us. No wonder, since Tolkien studied the original sagas that have been part of our consciousness since the Vikings or before. It’s the quintessential hero’s journey.
So while Middle Earth is entirely mythical, an invented world, it very much feels like home.
I know people who’ve started and given up in the the first 40 or so pages. It’s a lot about Hobbits and the Shire. Kind of slow. Just keep going. Things soon pick up and from then on, it’s all adventure.
And no, it’s not enough to have watched the movies, even the extended versions. There is so much more to the story, Middle Earth and the characters that you only get from reading the book.
Tolkien’s mastery of language makes it a pleasure to read and this is a book that is truly hard to put down, once you do get into it.
If you haven’t read it ever, now is the time.
If you have read it before, it’s time to revisit. Every time I read it, something new stands out.
Besides, there’s so much we can learn about ourselves as we follow this hero’s journey.
The Bell Jar
by Sylvia Plath
“It was a queer, sultry summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
That’s the opening of The Bell Jar. I read that sentence and I was hooked. Esther Greenwood has her grand summer experience in New York. This should be great, but soon we follow her slipping into darkness and madness to go through 1950s mental hospital treatment.
At the end of the book, she is “patched, retreaded and approved for the road” after psychoanalysis, mental illness, electroshock treatments and all. This will all have helped and she will be released back into the regular world and will be okay. Because she’s dealt with the demons. She is out of the bell jar. You root for Esther to finally make it.
The Bell Jar is fiction and yet quite real, as it rather closely parallels Sylvia Plath’s own experiences dealing with mental illness.
Unfortunately, approved for the road didn’t really mean ready for the road. A month after The Bell Jar was published, Sylvia Plath ended her life in suicide. All the more tragic as the book’s reception on publication was rather lukewarm, but it has since gone on to become a classic.
The great writer and poet that was inside Sylvia was lost to us forever. She left us having put into words a subject that wasn’t talked about in the 1950s or ’60s: mental health.
by Jill Jones
Before we proceed, let me just say it: This has nothing to do with Batman.
It is the story of something bigger and more amazing: The building of the North River Tunnels that still carry all the trains from New Jersey into Manhattan, the Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan and the East River tunnels connecting Manhattan to Long Island.
Around 1900, there were 2 huge railroads competing for traffic to and from New York City: The New York Central Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad.
New York Central had a huge advantage: Its terminal was on Manhattan. For travelers on the Pennsylvania Railroad, the journey began or ended with a ferry ride Manhattan – Jersey City. Not the grandest of ways to enter the greatest city on earth.
The head of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Alexander Cassatt, came up with a scheme so grand, so visionary and so denounced as corporate folly. But it really happened.
How those tunnels and the grand station that went with them, came to be, makes for very interesting reading. It’s the story of determined men at the top, leading this great venture, and it’s the story of thousands of men risking their lives on every shift deep under the Hudson and East Rivers.
Jill Jones takes us along through all the twists and turns in this monumental project with its numerous cliffhangers. At the end, you’ll have a great appreciation for what can be achieved when we work together and focus on the long game. It’s safe to say that Cassatt was not worried about the quarterly stock dividends when he pushed this project forward.
Conquering Gotham is a very fitting tribute to an engineering feat that still carries the day today.
Travel as a Political Act
by Rick Steves
This is not a travel guide book. It’s a big idea book about how we think about travel and how travel experiences can change us when back home.
Rick Steves has traveled Europe (and other parts of the world) since the mid-70s. His TV shows and guided tours have introduced generations of people to the culture and diversity of the “Old World”.
So Rick knows well that travel can be powerful. We get to know other cultures and customs and in that process gain understanding across borders and things that divide us. As Rick puts it: “When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned — our newly acquired broader perspective — to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act.”
Rick has discovered that when we travel, we are changed by our experiences and we see “back home” with new eyes. That in turn allows us to appreciate what we were so used to in fresh ways. Which helps us solve problems at home in ways we hadn’t thought of before. It’s a win-win.
Throughout the book, Rick emphasizes that we are now in a Global Age. Problems half-way around the world are our problems. “We travelers are both America’s ambassadors to the world … and the world’s ambassadors to America.”
The Pelican Brief
by John Grisham
High stakes thriller. Legal, politics, life and death chases. Fast pace. What more could you want in a summer read?
The murder of an aging Supreme Court Justice sets off a chain reaction that shakes Washington to the core. A law student realizes that she may have found the answer everyone is looking for. Things get really hot when word gets out that she carefully detailed the information in a brief. Next she’s running for her life as the scandal blows sky high.
Grisham keeps us on the edge of our seats throughout the book and we wonder who can really be trusted. This is good reading and also a chance to reflect on what people will do for power and money, in fiction and in real life. Yes, this is fiction, but it moves so close to reality.
There you have it: 7 book selections that will keep you reading (and thinking about what you’re reading) for a good chunk of the summer. I hope that some of them will become old friends you’ll return to again and again, just like they are for me.