50 book recommendations from a picky reader


I am a picky reader.

I have no stomach for graphic violence, and no patience for what passes as “romance” in modern literature.  I don’t want to read about people or characters that I can’t admire.  When I am pregnant or postpartum (i.e., the past five years of my life) I have a hard time reading anything that’s very sad.  For the most part, I avoid fiction that’s too predictable*, but it also can’t be too deep for me to understand when I’m sleep-deprived.

With all these restrictions, though, somehow I’ve managed to read a couple hundred books over the past five years.  For this list, I’ve whittled it down to 50 books that I would absolutely recommend.  As I worked on this list, some titles made me smile as if I’d met up with an old friend.  These books kept me (somewhat) sane during those hard early days of motherhood, and continue to give me respite from thinking about diapers and temper tantrums and the terrible twos.  I hope they will bring you joy too!

(*We all have a weakness, right?  Mine is Beverly Lewis.  Pete calls them “Amish romance novels.”  I regret nothing.)

Light Reading (great for reading during midnight nursing sessions)

  1. Beverly Lewis – Abram’s Daughters series, Home to Hickory Hollow series, etc. – again, these are my weakness.  Very predictable, not very deep, but extremely sweet, and it’s fun to learn about Amish culture while I’m reading.
  2. Jan Karon – Father Tim novels: At Home in Mitford, A Light in the Window, etc. – also somewhat predictable, but full of fun, kind characters.
  3. Alexander McCall Smith – No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, Sunday Philosophy Club series.  Great, non-gory mysteries with protagonists (Precious Ramotswe, Isabel Dalhousie) that I really like.
  4.  John Grisham … almost anything by John Grisham.  I love his legal thrillers as well as his more recent non-legal novels like A Painted House and Playing for Pizza.
  5. All Creatures Great and Small and other James Herriot books – adventures of an English country vet
  6.  Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson – the life of an orphan girl in Southern California after the Mexican-American War.
  7. The Martian by Andy Weir – about an astronaut stranded on Mars and the attempts to rescue him.
  8. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple – a quirky mother-daughter relationship, and the daughter’s search when her mother goes missing.

Good Literature (a little, or a lot, deeper than the above list)

  1. Anything by Ann Patchett … Patchett is one of my favorite discoveries of the past five years.  I think Bel Canto was my favorite, but these are all wonderful.
    1. State of Wonder – a pharmacologist travels to Brazil in search of her former professor, who was sent there by the drug company to research a miracle drug in the jungle.
    2. Patron Saint of Liars – a pregnant woman goes to a home for unwed mothers, but takes a different path than the other girls there.
    3. Bel Canto – politicians, executives, and an opera singer are all taken hostage at a birthday party, and are held hostage for several months.  The novel delves into the relationships formed between the party guests and their captors.
    4. Run – a widowed Boston politician and his college-age sons are thrown together with a disadvantaged young girl when her mother saves one of the sons from a car accident and is herself hospitalized.
    5. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage – a collection of personal essays.  My favorite was about an RV road trip.
  2. Anything by Anne Tyler; the list below barely scratches the surface.  Tyler is extremely prolific, and although her novels share some similarities (they are almost always about families living in Baltimore, the characters are usually working through some restlessness or dissatisfaction with life), they are all worth reading.  Just maybe not all in a row 🙂
    1. A Spool of Blue Thread – Red & Abby, parents of four grown children, worry over their black sheep Denny; then Denny, his brother Stem, and Stem’s family all move back into Red & Abby’s house when Red has a heart attack and Abby begins to forget things.
    2. Back When We Were Grownups – Rebecca is a professional party-thrower, a widow, a stepmother to three girls, and a mother to one.  She wakes up one day and wonders how she became the person she is, and whether this is really her true self.
    3. Ladder of Years – a mother & grandmother who feels unappreciated walks out on her family during a beach vacation and invents a new life and identity for herself in a nearby town.
    4. Digging to America – two very different families who adopted Korean daughters at the same time share an uneasy friendship as the children grow older.
  3. Hannah Coulter and the other Port William novels by Wendell Berry – stories set in fictional Port William, Kentucky, spanning from the 1880s through modern times, and exploring the relationship and responsibility people have to one another and to the community where they live.
  4. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – follows a Baptist missionary to the Congo along with his wife and four daughters.
  5. Wives and Daughters and North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell – classic English novels; Jane Austen fans take note.
  6. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh – a Catholic classic; I did not get into this the first time I tried it, but got hooked the second time.  Follows an aristocratic Catholic family from the 1920s through World War II.
  7. Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks – historical fiction about the first Native American student at Harvard.
  8. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri – the life of an Indian couple who immigrate to Boston, and their son’s struggle between Indian and American culture.
  9. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – the story of two friends, John and Owen, growing up in New Hampshire in the 50s and 60s.  Owen is involved in an accident that kills John’s mother, and he comes to believe that he is “God’s instrument.”   This is not  a theologically sound book, but it’s a fascinating and riveting one.  *One or two extremely crude scenes made me almost give this book up, but if you skim over them I think it is still worth reading.
  10. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer – a young boy whose father died on September 11th finds a key in his late father’s closet and searches all over New York to figure out what it unlocks.
  11. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – about a butler working for an English Lord in the 30s.  Explores the butler’s relationship with the housekeeper, his dedication to his work, and his employer’s position in international affairs leading up to World War II.
  12. Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf – about two elderly neighbors, both widowed, who come together in a unique kind of friendship.
  13. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger – a family headed by a father who can perform miracles goes in search of the oldest son, who is a fugitive after being tried for manslaughter.  The miracles make he book rather fantastical, but the father’s character is beautiful.
  14. The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey – a modern retelling of Jane Eyre – really well done, a credit to the original.
  15. Gilead, Home, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson – I read these out of order, which doesn’t really matter, but they are a set, and Gilead is technically first: elderly pastor John Ames, dying of a heart condition, writes letters to his young son.  Home, the second novel, was the first I read and is my favorite; it follows Ames’ best friend Boughton, also a pastor, and two of his adult children who come home to care for him.  Lila is about Ames’ wife, whom he married late in life.
  16. Come Rack! Come Rope! by Robert Hugh Benson – an interesting look into persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England.
  17. The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht – I think I read this when I was pretty sleep-deprived, and a lot o it went over my head.  When I saw the title I remembered that I read it, was intrigued by it, and enjoyed it, but I honestly couldn’t remember the plot 😉  Here’s a summary from the author (from Wikipedia): “It’s a family saga that takes place in a fictionalized province of the Balkans. It’s about a female narrator and her relationship to her grandfather, who’s a doctor. It’s a saga about doctors and their relationships to death throughout all these wars in the Balkans.”  I’ll have to goback and read it again 😉
  18. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner – an absolute jewel of a book.  The story of two married couples – one rich and one poor, one professionally successful and one not – who become lifelong friends.

Interesting Nonfiction (please note, for many of these books, I can’t describe them any better than the title already does – so some of them won’t have commentary from me)

  1. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall – an American runner researches a native Mexican tribe renowned for their speed and endurance in running.  Why don’t these runners get injured, and what really is the healthiest way to run?  This book basically sparked the “barefoot running” movement, but it’s also just a great story.
  2. Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea & of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists & Fools Including the Author Who Went in Search of Them by Donovan Hahn
  3. Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American, at Home and Abroad by Firoozeh Dumas – these were lovely.  Somehow Dumas had me laughing at her Iranian relatives without being disrespectful of them at all.
  4. French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters by Karen Le Billon
  5. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver – the author’s family spends a year eating only locally-grown food or food they grew themselves.
  6. First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson – this book was part of my neverending quest to figure out how to feed my children correctly 😉  I got a few good ideas from it.  Well written, more interesting than you’d think.
  7. The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom – one of my favorite books ever, I can’t believe I lived so much of my life before reading it, and I think I’l re-read it (again) soon.  Ten Boom’s family hid Jews from the Nazis, and were imprisoned for it.  Certain scenes and ideas from this book (the train ticket, and thanking God for head lice) stayed in my mind long after reading it.
  8. Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin – I wrote about this before.  It’s an absolutely fascinating account of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the recovery effort.  I never knew much of what happened after the storm; reading this book I learned a ton about New Orleans, and about the politics of trying to bring a city back after such destruction.
  9. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson – a history of how African Americans fled Jim Crow and migrated north, and what happened once they got there.  It’s a tough and sobering read, but worthwhile – I feel like it gave me a starting point for understanding race in America a little better.
  10. Something Other than God by Jennifer Fulwiler – the story of an atheist’s conversion to Catholicism.  Fulwiler used to be one of my favorite bloggers (she has a radio show now instead of a blog) and she’s a smart, funny woman.  I really like conversion stories, and hers is a great one.
  11. The Innocent Man by John Grisham – a nonfiction account of a wrongly accused man on death row.
  12. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer – the story of a disastrous attempt at climbing Mt. Everest.
  13. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – *this is probably the most heartbreaking book on my list.  If you have a hard time with sad books, you may want to skip this one.  It’s a story of people in a desperately poor slum next to the Mumbai airport.  But the author does an excellent job of telling us about the real, complex, resilient human beings who live there.
  14. Only in Naples: Lessons in Food and Famiglia from my Italian Mother-in-Law by Katherine Wilson
  15. $2 A Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn Edin – really educational.  It seems like people in America can’t really be that poor, compared to the poor in other countries, right?  Read this book to learn how poor Americans really can be, and how they get that way.
  16. Breaking Night: A Memoir of Forgiveness, Survival, and My Journey from Homeless to Harvard by Liz Murray
  17. A Disease Called Childhood: Why ADHD Became an American Epidemic by Marilyn Wedge
  18. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters by N.T. Wright
  19. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – Lacks was an African-American cancer patient at Johns Hopkins in 1951.  Cervical cancer cells taken from Lacks were used for research and became the “immortal cell line” known as HeLa.  The book tells Henrietta’s story and asks questions about race, medicine, and consent.
  20. Shadow Divers by Robert Kurston – tells about “wreck divers” who explore shipwrecks on the ocean floor.  One group of divers discovers a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey and spends years searching for identifying information on the boat, and figuring out the history of the boat and its crew.
  21. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming by Rod Dreher – Dreher grew up in small-town Louisiana but left for a life that includes big-city living and travels abroad.  His sister Ruthie stayed behind and worked as a grade-school teacher until her death from cancer.  Dreher asks the question, is it necessarily better to go out and see the world, or would we do better to stay close to home and community?
  22. Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
  23. Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink – this was another fascinating story from Hurricane Katrina, and a detailed exploration of medical ethics in a crisis setting.

Did you notice I actually gave you more than 50 recommendations?  I made the graphic before I finished the blog post.  Oops.  I think I gave you eight or ten bonus recommendations.  Happy reading!!!

(PS – If you read something I’ve recommended to you I would love to hear how you like it!)


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