So many people tell me that they don’t have time to read. Well, I don’t have time to pee, and I do that. I’m kidding: I understand the dilemma. Reading is often portrayed as an immersive experience, one that you can’t do without a full-fledged commitment of an event-free day and a deck chair.
Well, would-be reader, I’d say that is wrong. I read in five minute increments wherever I go, and you can too with these riveting books easily broken into small, digestible and delicious chunks.
1. Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, I Am, I Am, I Am, is perfect in so many ways.
Among those ways is how suitable it is for those who only have time to read in truncated chunks like commutes or carpool lines: The book is written in a series of 17 short stories about near-death experiences she has had over the course of her life.
From the book’s very first gripping tale of a hike, I found myself riveted by how well she marries well-crafted prose with fascinating experiences. With the strength of her fierce prose, O’Farrell takes the reader with her along the course of her life, whether it is in a near-miss on a mountain hike or submerged beneath a riptide in a deep, night-darkened sea.
The memoir jumps all over O’Farrell’s life non-sequentially, much like how a parent’s mind leapfrogs all over the place in the middle of the night. In choosing to have her stories not be recounted in linear time, O’Farrell makes the implicit case that experience is not valuable due to its proximity to the present, but rather due to its proximity to the roots of who we are as people.
Who we are is determined by where we have been and what we take away from those experiences. From childhood encephalitis to near-drowning to miscarriage to birth, we are a jumbled aggregate of feelings, longings, and fear.
That jumble takes fullest and particularly rich form in her chapter “Daughter,” in which she recounts the experience of an unexpected pregnancy turned into a daughter with a long list of allergies several of which could trigger lethal anaphylaxis. As she writes about the effects of living with a child with a life-threatening condition, parental readers will feel their very heartbeat synchronize with O’Farrell’s:
Your lives are conducted with a constant background hum of potential peril. You begin to experience the world differently. You may no longer go for a walk and see a garden, a playground, a farm full of goat kids. You must always be tabulating and assessing risk: that pollinating silver birch, those food wrappers in the rubbish bin, those flowering nut trees, those gamboling dogs, shedding their dander and fur into the air.
Her masterful choice of the second person to reel you into her life and her love leaves you — no pun intended in a book about near-death — breathless.
2. Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces by Dawn Davies is similar to O’Farrell in that it is a collection of easily-readable, hard-to-put-down essays, but radically different in that it is a more humorous and fiercely honest collection.
I’ll cut to the chase and say that this is one of the best books I have ever read. I can’t say it better than the reviewer who wrote on Goodreads, “This is the first book I have read that both wrenches your gut with heartbreak and makes you laugh out loud at the humor at the same time.” It’s that marriage of pain and humor that Davies makes perfectly in her prose.
Davies tells the story of her itinerant life, moving from place to place as a child, and her tales of finding love and creating a new blended family. She does so with flagrant, fierce honesty, and that honesty resonates with truth and purpose. As she watches her children swimming at night and takes pictures of them, she writes:
And as you click two simple photos, paper fossils that will one day remind you how they once walked the Earth, you realize you have taken everything for granted. Your time with them. Their brief speck of time as children, the soft faces that turn to you as if you are the sun, the fact that time seems to move so slowly when in fact, it is whipping past you at one thousand miles per hour and why you haven’t flown off into space is beyond your comprehension. They will never stay yours, for they weren’t yours to begin with.
What a beautiful kick in the face that is.
3. Mrs. by Caitlin Macy is a book, in contrast to the others, a wild and crazy ride through the wild and crazy world of Manhattan schools, parents and students.
I have always been fascinated by this world in the anthropological vein of Wednesday Martin’s Park Avenue Primates: In a world with so much ambition and so much wealth, what could go wrong? A lot, as it turns out.
This novel follows an independent woman as she navigates her way through this world from the vantage point of smart, detached-and-yet-inextricably-involved outsider. She has a front row seat — and even, semi-unintentionally, a role — in the downfall of a prominent beautiful socialite mother and her Manhattan family. If you liked Big Little Lies, either the book or the show, you will read this and immediately start casting parts in your head (Jessica Chastain, have your people call my people, please).
4. Only Child by Rhiannon Navin is a book pretty much the antithesis of a light read.
It’s an emotionally gripping, riveting read that will seize you and not let go. It’s written from the point of view of a 6-year-old survivor of a school shooting, which initially I worried that I would find cloying. Instead, after getting past some of my issues with language used (“would a 6-year-old really say that in that way?”), it was a relief of sorts to read things through a child’s viewpoint.
After all, personally, I am in a mom’s head basically 24/7, so the opportunity to see things through a child’s eyes was the equivalent of shaking the kaleidoscope and getting a new sight in exchange. It was a gift, as a parent, to be able to see these events that preoccupy me daily through the eyes (even if fiction) of a child.
It was also truly enlightening to get back in touch with ideas and ideals of forgiveness through childhood innocence. Kids have feelings, we remember as we read this book, that may not be nuanced in the way ours are, but have their own nuances and permutations and unexpected elements just the same.
5. The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg is more of an on-the-go snack for those who might be intimidated by a more immersive and emotional read.
This novel is a comparatively quick read, and is upbeat about second chances at happiness. Arthur is a widower who meets a troubled teenager, Maddy, at the cemetery, and strikes up a completely appropriate friendship with her (I know, I am among the more cynical and that struck me as suspect too, but my suspicions were unfounded).
The nosy neighbor Lucille, right out of Central Casting, provides a great triangulation to the relationship. Each person grows unexpectedly from encountering the others. I’m going to go with a food analogy and say that this book is a sweet rather than savory snack. I’m not making the case that this book will change your life — but, like those M&Ms carefully hidden in bags of trail mix, it will make you happy. And sometimes, that’s enough.