Although I was on fire with reading this month, I did not read many good ones. I started off the month strong with one of my top reads of the year, and then it very slowly crept down to the worst books of the year.
Even though it was not the Christmas in July I hoped for in books, I cannot miss sharing with you my thoughts on some fantastic reads and help you avoid a few duds.
Best Book of July
All the Young Men by Ruth Coker Burks
Who does not perk up with the trumpet sounds from the TV signaling the start of CBS Sunday Morning each week? I look forward to learning something new, crying and laughing with my cup of tea on the sofa to start my Sundays. One touching story I saw in 2020 was the story “All her Sons: The Cemetery Angels,” which was replayed on CBS Sunday Morning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hzeUPRSmN20.
The original version can be viewed here:
The story is about Ruth Coker Burks, who, in her twenties, got wrapped into taking care of a man dying of AIDS in the same hospital as her friend she was visiting at the time. The man had no family or friends that would visit him. The hospital staff only stayed when necessary, as they were scared of contracting the disease. So Burks took it upon herself to comfort the man in his last days.
Burks had access to a family cemetery, where she secretly buried the man. Word soon gets out, and Burks falls into a care-taking role for several gay men in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Little Rock and the surrounding areas.
At the time (the mid-1980s), the AIDS crisis becomes widespread, and attitudes about the disease were discriminatory, especially in Hot Springs.
This story left a lasting impression on me, and I think of it often. So, I was thrilled when one of the members of my book club recommended the book written by Burks for a summer read. I dove right into the book, and I do not remember putting it down until I finished reading it.
The book was the best-expanded version of the CBS story someone could write. I believe it was so good because it was written truthfully and from the heart. Burks did not care what other people thought. Instead, she lived as her faith taught her, living her life every day with love, compassion and caring for the marginalized. Burks cares for others first, knowing in her heart her needs will be met despite her sacrifices.
Although her circumstances are incredibly stressful, Burks throws in a reasonable amount of humor to cope. She writes about the challenges in her daily life while taking care of the dying. You feel as if you are in the story with her, caring for her friends in their last days.
Simply retelling a fantastic story is enough to make a memorable book. For example, in one touching moment Burks writes about her daughter Allison’s ninth birthday,
“Allison turned nine surrounded by the love of these men singing “Happy Birthday” to her. I stepped back to see her in the light of those nine candles and pretended to fuss with the camera so nobody would see my eyes welling. With their help, she blew out the candles. I looked at them all smiling and made my own wish.”
You can read more about Burks and how to purchase her book on her website at https://ruthcokerburks.com/
Honorable Mention for July
The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond the Limits by Tommy Caldwell
There are at least five reasons why you would read “The Push” by Tommy Caldwell:
1. You know who Tommy Caldwell is.
2. You love rock climbing.
3. You have seen the movie “The Dawn Wall” and want to learn more.
4. You are determined to read any New York Times best-selling book.
5. You picked it up at a book sale and were interested in the cover art.
Yes, “The Push” has a limited audience, but you will love this book if you relate to any of the above reasons. Maybe I should give it more credit, considering it is a New York Times bestseller.
This memoir chronicles Caldwell’s life, beginning with his early challenging years. The book ends with him becoming the first person to free climb the Dawn Wall, which is part of Yosemite Valley’s El Capitan.
Two things that impressed me most about this book: 1) The story itself and 2) Caldwell’s writing.
Caldwell writes concisely but does not leave a detail out in the stories he shares. This book could have easily been a retelling of someone’s exciting adventures. Still, Caldwell does a great job of tying events together and leading you into the next story. Caldwell takes ordinary memoir writing to the next level. He pulls together the memories that make him and leads each story into the next exciting moment, so you never get lost.
Caldwell opens a window into his feelings at each stage of his life. I specifically remember two times I had to stop reading to catch my breath. And, these moments had nothing to do with Caldwell putting his life at risk with climbing.
“The Dawn Wall” is one of my favorite movies, but I was even more blown away by the book, which is the basis of “The Push.” I was very impressed with this book and highly recommend it. You can read more about the book and learn how to purchase it from his website at: http://www.tommycaldwell.com/
Worst Book of July
If you have read any of my monthly reading recaps, you know I do not like naming a “worst” book. But this month, I’m going to tell you so you do not make the mistake I did and get fooled by the story’s premise. My worst book of July is:
The Twenty-Ninth Day by Alex Messenger
This book is Messenger’s account of being attacked by a grizzly bear during a canoe trip in northern Canada. Too bad the book mainly covers the 600-mile canoe trip and not the actual attack. Although a book’s pace should naturally pick up with a dramatic event such as a bear attack, it did not stay there long enough for me to take in the drama. I felt the actual attack was over in just a few reading moments, compared to the amount of description given to the canoe trip.
This book is up for several awards, and I can see Messenger’s gift for describing scenes. But overall, I found this short book too lengthy and dreary.
Honorable Mention for Worst Book in July
The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean
Oh, I really was looking forward to this book. I have had “The Orchid Thief” on my book list for some time. However, I was really disappointed that no matter how good Susan Orlean is at writing narrative non-fiction, the storyline was boring.
I really admire Orlean’s writing style and her ability to dive into a story with both feet. Still, even the best character and scene descriptions could not pull me out of the boring world of the orchid trade.
Other Books for July: Some Good, Some Bad
Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri
Expect the unexpected reading journey in Lahiri’s book, “Whereabouts.” Originally written in Italian, Lahiri translates this book into English and keeps a simple yet profound and poetic writing style.
At first read, this is a simple story without a storyline. But have a few friends read this at the same time, and you will end up having a great and deep discussion on word choice and themes. It is a short book that you may not want to give away after reading it one time. It is worth a few reads to understand the purpose and style.
Tracking the Wild Coomba: The Life of Legendary Skier Doug Coombs by Robert Cocuzzo
This book definitely fits its title. The author, Robert Cocuzzo, is one of the lead characters as he unravels the story behind the death of Doug Coombs, a legendary backcountry skier who spent most of his skiing career in Jackson, Wyoming, Alaska and La Grave, France.
Cocuzzo is the ultimate journalist, putting himself in the same spots as Coombs so he could report an honest account of Coombs life. Cocuzzo should be so proud he went to such great lengths to write his story and leave a legacy for Coombs’ family, friends and fans.
I wouldn’t say this is the most interesting read if you are not an avid skier.
Lyrics for Rock Stars: Stories by Heather Mateus Sappenfield
I picked this book up in the local author section at the Bookworm of Edwards (https://www.bookwormofedwards.com/) in Edwards, Colorado. This book contains a series of short stories centered around life in Colorado.
Each story uniquely presents characters in different settings, but all relate to life in Colorado. You can definitely tell by reading this collection. Sappenfield spent numerous hours refining the stories before publication. Each story does a fantastic job of unraveling scenes and characters well. Still, in the end, the majority of the stories did not come to a distinct conclusion. Although I don’t mind a hanging finish at times, several of these types of endings left me wanting more story development.
Actually, I was more fascinated with the author than the book. Just because I found this book in the local author section, it certainly did not mean the author acted on a small scale. Heather Mateus Sappenfield is so on the extreme end of the bell curve. I absolutely was blown away and felt pretty inadequate after reading her biography on Goodreads. I will be putting a full-length novel of hers on my list for future reads.
You can learn more about Sappenfield on her website at: https://heathermateussappenfield.com/ – 53e0a616-ab55-42ad-9cc0-6d800ddef788
“Verity” by Colleen Hoover
How could I give an average rating to a book I read straight through? The storyline captured me, and the mystery enveloped me. This romantic thriller’s pace will also keep you reading from beginning to end without stopping.
This book hooked me until about halfway through, when gory, R-rated details overcame my stomach. I could not handle the author’s writing when she details the actions and thoughts of one of the characters. I enjoy movies that take me right to the edge of acceptable for a moment, but this book took it too far for my tastes.
I was out of my comfort zone with this one.
Denali’s Howl: The Deadliest Climbing Disaster on America’s Wildest Peak by Andy Hall
“Denali’s Howl” was another book I read this month with an attractive preview, but in the end, the book fell flat.
In 1967, two groups of men came together under the leadership of Joe Wilcox to climb Mt. McKinley/Denali. Unfortunately, seven of the twelve men died during the climb due to bad weather, becoming the worst climbing disaster in American history.
The author lived in Mount McKinley when he was young, and his father was the park’s superintendent during the disaster. The book lays out the facts of the tragedy, the history of the mountain and historic climbs on Denali. However, the book is so fact-forward, the reader loses the drama of the actual event.
Even though the climb took place in the past, and Hall based his story on historical accounts, I believe Hall could have created more drama to bring the story to life. However, I did enjoy the descriptions of each of the men on the expedition. It is always fascinating how personality traits build climbing teams and can also derail them.
If you are interested in learning more about this climb, I suggest reading this article in the Daily Mail, which sums up the climb perfectly and contains pictures of the climbers.
If you are an avid alpine climber, you will find this story more relevant and exciting.
If you would like me to review your book, or you have any comments on the books I’ve reviewed, please comment on this post or email me. I would love to hear from you.