Summer is the only time of the year that I feel like the entire world agrees with my taste in books… at least novels. From a very young age I have required that novels be mostly of the “feel good” variety because like is hard enough. But they also have to provoke some deeper insight because life is short. Most of the year, my husband’s style of books seem to rule the stacks: dark, brooding, serial killers hunted by miserable cops with ghost wives. Or, alternatively, my mothers favorite: murder mystery novels about miserable and complicated families in Britain.
But in the Summer? Watch out! It’s time for the feel good, coming of age, adventure stories!
Uprooted by Naomi Novik
I have pretty clear guidelines for books. I need them to be designated as “feel good” (because life is hard enough), and be well written. I like female characters and, when possible, it should involve some previously unrealized potential that bursts on the scene and saves the day. Rarely does this formula work as well as it does in Uprooted.
In fact, this formula, though firmly in place, takes a back seat to deep exploration and realizations about connection. Sometimes, we learn, our unrealized potential is about providing strength to others. Or even, as the main character of this breathtaking novel reveals, feeding the magic of others and creating miracles together.
Part of me wanted to be dissatisfied: where’s feminism?! Where’s the individualism? I’m an American, dang it! Where’s the part where she’s revered for her own contributions? But the story is relentless in its message. Her contribution is about healing by lending strength. It’s about seeing the truth, and then providing the light. It’s about feeling out what others need and then lending them her considerable power. Does she accomplish things on her own? Yes – like a bad*ss. Her deep connection gives her great wisdom and an uncanny ability to prioritize.
It changed me, as only a subversive “feel good” novel can. It puts words to what every good coach and therapist already knows: there is magic in deep connection, healing in being seen, and life altering potential in collaboration.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
My children have always been concerned about what happens when we die. They were born into a family in the throes of loss. My husband’s mother died just before we got married, my father died when my son was only a baby, and my husband’s father died when my older daughter was just 5. These kids grappled with the jarring impact of death from the beginning, and they had questions. This took a lot of conversation as their little brains processed that death was permanent, truly sad, natural, and inevitable.
The flow of loss eventually stilled and our lives returned to it’s new normal. Though David and I still grappled with the loss of our parents, the kids were able to let some of that loss go.
Until last year when we had a double run of loss with our cats. Socrates had been with us for more than a decade when he got sick and died. It felt like a gentle, sad reminder that life is fragile and time is limited.
Then we got Bear, an enormous Maine Coon cat who joined our family just after his fourth birthday. We got Bear in August and he was an immediate hit. He was bigger than a small dog and was sweet and companionable. We were besotted. And then he got sick. And sicker. And he died in January, just 5 months after we got him.
The questions about death were back.
I learned a lot about my own beliefs while I tried to surface and simplify them to answer these questions.
My topline belief about death,and what happens when we die?
I do not know.
I don’t think we can know. When I was younger, I felt sure that we just died and that was it. Our matter discontinued, but our soul? What soul?
And yet, as I age and know myself better, ideas of soul stories and past lives or at least universal consciousness, feel closer to the truth.
This book, the Midnight Library, somehow put meat on the bones of these ideas. The story is less about death and more about cultivating a will to live, but it feels like an examination of how our soul journey ties together lives that otherwise bear little resemblance to each other. I recommend it, as it calmed and soothed the part of me that pines for those I’ve lost.
(Plus, it’s just really well written, funny, and riveting.)
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
During the pandemic, I decided I would start to read fiction again. I got a reading app called Sribd, where you can read all the books you want. (ALL. THE. BOOKS. YOU. WANT)
Previously, I would finish a book even if it was terrible. But these, days, because life is short and books are abundant, if I don’t like something in the first few chapters, I won’t finish it.
I’ve become the judge and jury: if I’m not interested right away, you’re done.
This book, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, came after two or three books had received my harshest punishment…I didn’t even SAVE them in the app. I was ready to go back and give up and re-read Thinking Fast and Slow.
And then…Mr. Penumbra.
The imagery of this book really got under my skin. I’ve told countless people about this (imaginary) bookstore.
It’s a tower: twenty feet wide, circular, and 3 stories high.
It’s basically like Rapunzel’s tower, filled with bookshelves. To get books you have to climb up these super high ladders, and then hang by one hand to pluck a book off the shelf that is three feet away. Or so we’re told.
Also, I love stories that start when everything has already fallen apart, and the person is just surviving…going through the motions. Clay, our hero, lost his job and nothing is popping up to take its place.
I think we’ve all had the experience of something ending when we didn’t want it to. We couldn’t imagine what could be on the other side of this chasm of nothingness, despair, heartbreak, emptiness, shame and embarrassment.
“Well,” we said, “I guess this is what life is now.”
And yet, if we (like Clay) go out into the world, we could be amazed and delighted that the world is full of people doing interesting things…and we can join them.
The moral is clear and captivating: if you put yourself out there, the world will show up in richness around you, just like in Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Sourdough: A Novel by Robin Sloan
Sourdough: A Novel, is written by the same author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan. It has similar themes about the relationship between technology and humankind, and how we can continue to have worthwhile lives in the presence of technology. It’s about someone who finds themselves in a new community and discovers what they really care about.
In Mr. Penumbra’s, our hero was at a crossroads. In Sourdough, our heroine starts the book at a pinnacle. She’d gotten a very impressive job, doing very impressive work; she was exactly where she wanted to be.
She was doing something amazing and was widely admired. And she was deeply unhappy.
When you finally get what you want and you don’t like it… that is incredibly painful. It’s so surprising and difficult to make sense of that it’s really easy to deny the truth. “I’m so happy,” you say, as you cry yourself to sleep.
The main character in sourdough begins the book at the point where she is starting to realize that she’s miserable. One night she just can’t sleep in her office again so she goes home to a house with no food. She orders food from a restaurant that has left their pamphlet under her door.
Spicy soup and sourdough bread.
It’s so delicious that she orders it again the next night. And then the next night. And every night for the next 3 weeks. She becomes friendly with the brothers who are responsible for the delicious food delivery- the chef who answess the phone and makes the soup and bread, and the delivery man who cheerly declares her their “Number one eater!”
She begins to return home from work on time so she can eat. It gives her a small taste of a life outside of work. Tragically, a few weeks into this reprieve, the owner tells her they are returning to their home country. But before they leave, they give her a gift: their sourdough starter.
It’s the process of figuring out what to do with a starter (beginning with the basics: what is a starter?), meeting new people, and engaging in new experiences – like making a bread oven in her backyard and auditioning for a farmers market – the world fills in around her. Friends emerge. Fun occurs. Intrigue develops! As she explores an entirely new world, she finds whole new passions… and discovers that there’s room for her old passions as well.
There is something so satisfying about a feel good book. You can relax, because you know that it’s all going to work out in the end… and you can have some great insights along the way.
If you have a favorite feel good book, please send it my way! I’d love to hear your recommendations.