In the spirit of helping other parents create picture-perfect reading memories, I’ve gathered seven compelling reads. Here’s why these four novels and three memoirs are worth the time.
1. The Year We Turned Forty by Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke
Now that my 40th year is six years behind me, the premise of The Year We Turned Forty is intriguing. With the help of a magician, three best friends return to the year 2005 to relive their pivotal 40th year with a choice to stay or go back to age 50 at year’s end. While this is indeed a light page-turner, the struggle to not make the same mistakes twice rings true and the ending isn’t easily guessable.
2. Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years by Catherine Newman
Catherine Newman’s parenting essays have made me nod and weep ever since my youngest was a baby. (Mine are now 14 and 11, hers 15 and 12.) And so it’s no surprise that her latest essay collection, Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years, connected neurons in my brain responsible for pleasure and tear production.
Newman transforms the horrific act of de-lousing hair into cherished bonding minutes: “You simply cannot gaze at your child’s scalp without remembering the endless days of babes in arms: nursing babies, napping babies, rocking babies … Infestation is not the key to happiness, but it wasn’t without its pleasures.” Um, how the hell did Newman know that I often happily reminisce about picking nits from my girls’ heads while we watched “Land Before Time” TV shows? I sobbed while reading the last chapter — “One day your baby will be turning 12” — which coincided with my eighth-grader’s graduation.
3. The Dinner Party by Brenda Janowitz
Summer often means visiting family. Tuck The Dinner Party in your suitcase for a few chuckles at a fictional family’s relatable conflicts.
Matriarch Sylvia throws a Passover seder and her youngest daughter brings home a new boyfriend and his parents, all from the legendary Rothschild family (bankers, winery owners and Romaine lettuce producers). I slowly savored the drama that unfolded throughout.
This is Janowitz’s sixth novel, and she knows how to create a storyline that holds the reader in with twists and detours. What’s even more remarkable are the thoughts running through each character’s head, which makes me wonder, what every person is really thinking about while they make polite conversation with me.
4. Falling: A Daughter, a Father and a Journey Back by Elisha Cooper
Elisha Cooper’s memoir seems too sad for this luminous season: It covers a father’s coming to terms with his young daughter’s cancer. But I was captivated by this father’s viewpoint, which includes his push to teach his two daughters to fearlessly climb trees, an examination of living an extremely privileged life and an in-depth exploration of his rage at what he cannot control. A particularly memorable scene finds the author punching the sports car of the man who nearly hits him during a winter bike ride through New York City.
Cooper is a children’s book artist and author and it’s a joy to read about his creative process and meet-up with famed illustrator Maurice Sendak. Mostly, though, I relished the beautiful scenery of Cooper’s sentences on parenting: “Our love makes us care for them, and they in turn shape us. So maybe raising children is not a meal with parents as cooks. Maybe we’re all one olive grove, everyone growing everyone.”
5. Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
I’m betting even Jane Austen would laugh out loud at this book. Of course, first Austen would need to understand our culture’s current obsession with bootcamp-style workouts and be brought up to speed on IVF.
Honestly, who doesn’t need a beach read that involves magazine editor Liz suggesting hate sex after a long-distance run with the dashing neurosurgeon she isn’t dating? While I’m loathe to give all the juicy plot twists away, here’s a peek: Yoga instructor Jane falls for a new-in-town doctor who was a contestant on a reality TV dating show, Eligible, Mary is earning her third online master’s degree and Kitty and Lydia partake in CrossFit classes and go Paleo. Enough said. Go read and chortle now!
6. Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen
It’s not easy to make my favorite fiction book list as I’m a fast consumer of this genre, but I’ve added Miller’s Valley to my sacred catalogue.
Main character Mimi Miller tells the story of her life from the 1960s to the present in flood-prone Miller’s Valley, logging her changing feelings about the government officials who aim to turn their land into a reservoir. There’s a subtleness to this emotional, small-town family tale. The few sentences that spell out truths are quote-worthy and overpoweringly authentic.
Quindlen paints the full scope of a life here, from Mimi’s 11-year-old beliefs to the full-circle wisdom she understands as a parent to her adult children. It’s wrenching to read about her beloved brother’s life after Vietnam while the lifelong struggle between Mimi’s mother and her agoraphobic sister is both hilarious and achingly real.
This is a book you’ll recommend to your mother, your best friend and that new mom who just moved in next door to you.
7. The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod
I read The Telling last because I couldn’t understand how a memoir about childhood sexual abuse could be readable or even enjoyable. Not only could I not put this book down, it was a pleasure to see inside Zolbrod’s mind, which looks at the ramifications of her abuse from multiple angles.
Her emotions are complicated: “Though I didn’t necessarily view the molestation as a dramatic or totalizing experience, it’s never sat right with me.” She carefully untangles the “tangled mass of yarn” and this unraveling is never boring, even as she digs into the complex history of sexual assault legislation in our country.
As both a parent and a daughter, I appreciate her close look at being a mother who was abused starting at age 4 and how she talks with her parents about the abuse. Equally captivating were her musings about her own sexual development, including hanging out in a Philadelphia strip club and hitchhiking across the country with her boyfriend. Zolbrod infuses this memoir with her vast intelligence, a willingness to look at contradictions and a deep love for her family of origin.