• Riley Morsman

Filling Up: A Season of Input & My Summer Reads

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

I have something to confess: I did not write a single thing this summer.

Nada. Nothing. Not even a poem!

Of course I wrote some things in my head (no pause button for that when you're a writer at heart), but I happily pushed my writing aside and let the last few months be exactly what I needed them to be: input.

As many will affirm, it's easy to feel burnt out during/after a creative writing graduate program, and I definitely felt this after Year 1 in my MFA program. I was so excited and pleased about the writing I'd accomplished during the past two semester and to work on revising, submitting, and creating new pieces... but I also really needed a breather.

And so, this summer, I filled myself up. I got a summer job with Parks & Rec watering and weeding flower beds at all the parks around the city, and I listened to audiobooks GALORE while doing so. And now, I can happily say that I am brimming with ideas and readiness for the academic year ahead.

I'm excited to see what writing lies ahead of me, but until then, I wanted to share the lengthy list of books I was able to read this summer and what I thought about them. And if you like hearing my thoughts and want more book recs in your life, you should make an account on Goodreads and follow my account! Almost every single book I read this summer, I actually listened to via audiobook (three cheers for Overdrive and the public library), which is a really delightful experience that I highly recommend!

Without further ado, my summer reading list (in the order that I read them):

1. Knock-Off Monarch by Crystal Stone

I started off the summer finally getting to fully read through the wonderful poetry collection written by a colleague of mine and published in December 2018. In addition to Crystal being a wonderful person and friend, she also happens to write stunning poetry. In this collection in particular, I especially appreciated the way the poems weave handfuls of seemingly unrelated images, tastes, and sounds into profound and beautiful stories. A brilliant collection, indeed! Do yourself a favor and get a copy to read for yourself!

2. The Giver by Lois Lowry

I don't reread books often (there's too many other books to read for the first time, it's hard to justify it!), but sometimes when it's been long enough, I just can't say no. I read The Giver for the first time in middle school and decided to fall in love with the little novel all over again this summer. So worth it. Such an amazing story with profound and compelling truth. Now I need to put the sequel on my TBR list, too!

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

This is absolutely one of my favorite reads of the summer. In fact, I loved it so much that I bought it for both my father-in-law and my own dad for Father's Day (both of whom grew up in Oklahoma). This book is an incredible example of nonfiction that is built with diligent research and strung together with expert artfulness. It shines a light on a dark part of recent history that deserves to be told and is just a BRIEF look into one of the many ways the American government has inflicted suffering upon Native Americans through manipulation and force.

4. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I've had this book on my TBR list for a while now, since it was one of the bestselling books in 2014. While I did enjoy the read, it wasn't as good as I'd hoped. Doerr creates really charming characters (Marie-Laure and Werner are lovely antagonists who capture the beauty of childlike curiosity and goodness) and brilliantly interweaves through time. However, I thought the ending dragged on and felt a bit meaningless compared to the rest of the book. When it comes to WW2 historical fiction, there are many other books that easily make the top of my list (such as The Book Thief by Markus Zusak or The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne).

5. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

First of all, I would like to say that I really enjoyed listening to the audiobook production of this, which was read by the author. But more importantly, the book itself was enlightening, compelling, and important. Through Stevenson's own experiences as a lawyer, he tells an often untold story about the criminal justice system, and his keen storytelling definitely increased my compassion for the incarcerated. A must-read nonfiction, in my opinion!

6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

This book has admittedly sat on my DNF list for many years, though not due to uninteresting content, but rather a lack of commitment in myself as a young reader (forgive me, Madeleine L'Engle! I am not worthy of your words!). Regardless, I am now thrilled to say that this wonderful story (in its entirety) holds my adoration. After all, who couldn't fall in love with sweet Meg and Charles Wallace? Can't wait to get more L'Engle on my bookshelves.

7. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

Another nonfiction read that has made my list of favorites! Though the writing does not quite have the level of beauty and lyric that I admire in memoirs such as The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Educated by Tara Westover, this book is still a wonderful look into an American culture too often misunderstood. I was especially intrigued by the way Vance unpacks his childhood trauma using psychological studies and personal observation, all in order to better understand his own experience, the experiences of members of his family, and the experiences of other white working-class individuals like him. His final conclusions and call to action (both for himself and the reader) were moving and inspiring.

8.The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence That Points Toward God by Lee Strobel

This is one of those books that I urge you not to judge by its cover (sorry Zondervan, but it really is atrocious). But despite its tacky marketing, I enjoyed this book so much that I couldn't shut up about it... Just ask my husband! I've never really been "science-minded," but it was thrilling to learn about different theories behind the origin of life and the science (or lack thereof) behind those theories. Evolution, Darwinism, cosmology, physics, astronomy, biochemistry... it's all there, and it's all extremely intriguing.

9. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I don't believe an explanation for Bonhoeffer's brilliance or wisdom is needed because seriously. Wow. I've been meaning to read his biography by Eric Metaxas, and this lovely little read (only 122 pages!) motivates me to do so sooner. And with that, I'll just leave you with a quote: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.”

10. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is a writer I have greatly admired ever since reading her collection of essays This is the Story of a Happy Marriage in my first creative writing workshop in college. It was also quite interesting to read this novel after learning about its funny backstory mentioned in Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic (a must-read for any creative!). Anyways, this novel was a decent read. I did mostly enjoy the unique characters and plot. There were twists and turns and even surprises, which I always appreciate. I wasn't the biggest fan of the ending (which can easily ruin a book for me), and overall it was a bit mediocre in my opinion. But entertaining, nonetheless.

11-13. The Gilead Series by Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home, and Lila)

Gilead is one of my husband's favorite books, so I was happy to finally read it (along with the other two books in the series). What's so fun about these books is that they can be read in any order, since they are really not so much a "series" in the chronological sense, but more of a "collection" in which overlapping stories are told from various characters' perspectives. As many readers will attest, Robinson is an exquisite writer who easily allows her readers to be charmed by the settings and characters she creates. Plus, how could I say no to reading a series set in Iowa while I'm living in Iowa?! (Note: The order in which I read the books was Gilead, then Lila, and then Home.)

14. Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski

I have just two things I would like to say about this book. First: this is the Sex-Ed I never had (and should have). Second: if you are a female, I strongly suggest that you read this book and that you do so as soon as possible. Seriously, I learned so much in reading this book, and Nagoski writes it in such a helpful and compelling manner. If you're able to, I also recommend listening to the audiobook version of this because it is read by the author and she does a fantastic job.

15. Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World by Max Lucado

Goodness gracious, did I need to read this book! Surprisingly, even though he has written nearly 100 books, I have never read anything by Lucado before. And though his writing wasn't overly impressive through a creative lens (an unfortunate reality for most Christian Nonfiction), his content was outstanding. This is a book that I will undoubtedly come back to throughout the years due to its timeless wisdom and the fact that anxiety is a thief that comes to kill and destroy on a much too regular basis. Not to mention that it's a nice, light read! Only 240 pages.

16. Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

"This is memory."

What a beautiful portrayal of memory, growing up, and friendship packed into this sweet, little novel. If you haven't read anything by Jacqueline Woodson before, I highly recommend that you change that ASAP. Though I dearly loved this book (another short one... only 177 pages!), my favorite by Woodson is definitely still Brown Girl Dreaming. Can't wait to get my hands on more of her books!

17. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Another book that has been on my TBR for quite some time that I finally got the chance to read! I really enjoyed this book and the raw look it gives into reservation life for Native Americans today. It doesn't focus on pain (or even joy), but on REALITY, which necessarily includes both. It reminds me a lot of "Smoke Signals," which makes sense seeing as Sherman Alexie wrote the screenplay for that film. Definitely one of my favorite novels of the summer. Looking forward to reading Alexie's collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven as well!

18. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I definitely started tearing up a few times while listening to the audiobook of this at work. Gosh — what a beautiful build of emotion and character rapport! I also came home and tried to convince my husband that we need to go on a backpacking trip... Oops. Anyways, a lovely piece of nonfiction with brilliant interweaving of time, and gotta love those literary epigraphs. Really enjoyed the read and would happily recommend, though not one of my top nonfiction reads for the summer.

19. The Library Book by Susan Orlean

This nonfiction book does a wonderful job with balancing the back and forth telling of the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library alongside both the library's history and the author's interactions and research with the present-day library. I especially enjoyed the little moments that emphasized the glory of books, reading, and (necessarily) the library, as well as the fervent promotion of them. A must-read for any book-lover, and arguably a must-read for all in order to appreciate and understand the changing role of public libraries in our society.

20-21. The Little House Series by Laura Ingalls Wilder (Books 1 & 2: Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie)

I can't believe a Kansas girl like me never read any of these books in my youth, but I'm glad to have read a few of them now! Laura is truly such an incredible character: feisty and curious and full of the beautiful pureness that can only be found in childhood.

22. The Real Mary: Why Protestant Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus by Scot McKnight

For the second year in a row, I served for a week as a "storyteller" for a Christian summer camp for middle-school students. This summer's story was about Mary, the mother of Jesus. While this book unfortunately fell into the aforementioned camp of Christian Nonfiction that lacks quality writing craft, it did have some powerful insights and was a great tool for me in my preparation for my week at camp (which, by the way, is called Youthfront and is a wonderful organization doing incredible things in the Kansas City area).

23-24. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien (Books 2 & 3: The Two Towers and The Return of the King)

Before you gasp in horror, let me just start by saying, I KNOW. I was a pitiable fool for waiting until now to read LOTR for the first time. Yes... the first time. Last summer, I read The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring, and then I was interrupted by the chaos of the academic year. But I have finally finished, and IT WAS GLORIOUS. There is no need for me to explain any further. Tolkien. Wow. Yes.

25. Watership Down by Richard Adams

The perfect read to end the summer. This book is a classic for a reason! I especially loved reading the introduction by the author and learning of how this book originated as a story Adams told to his daughters on a long road trip. I hope to read it aloud to my own children one day. It is nuanced and wonderful enough for adults, but it is still graspable for children. And I love that.

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