The best books to read in the waiting room

Alex Witchel Author Of All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments
By Alex Witchel

Who am I?

I am the oldest of four children and was always close to my mom. She was a trailblazer, earning her doctorate in educational psychology in 1963 and teaching at the college level. In her early 70’s her memory started to falter, and she lived with dementia for 10 years before she died. I was a reporter at The New York Times and had published three books by that point. My fourth became All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia. With Refreshments. I spent years in doctors’ and hospital’s waiting rooms and these are some of the books that helped make that time not only tolerable but sometimes, even joyful. 

I wrote...

All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments

By Alex Witchel,

Book cover of All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother's Dementia. With Refreshments

What is my book about?

Just past seventy, Alex Witchel’s smart, adoring, ultracapable mother began to exhibit undeniable signs of dementia. Her smart, adoring, ultracapable daughter reacted as she’d been raised: If something was broken, they would fix it. But as medical reality undid that hope, and her mother continued the torturous process of disappearing in plain sight, Witchel retreated to the kitchen, trying to reclaim her mother at the stove by cooking the comforting foods of her childhood: “Is there any contract tighter than a family recipe?”

Reproducing the perfect meatloaf was no panacea, but it helped Witchel come to terms with her predicament, the growing phenomenon of “ambiguous loss.” She was inspired to turn her experience into this frank, bittersweet, and surprisingly funny account that offers true balm for an increasingly familiar form of heartbreak.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission

The books I picked & why


By Colm Toίbίn,

Book cover of Brooklyn

Why did I love this book?

The story of Eilis, a young woman who immigrates from her small town in Ireland to Brooklyn, is deceptively simple. And you, possibly new to the waiting room, sitting outside the chamber in which your beloved parent is undergoing a CT scan or MRI, feel a perhaps unwelcome kinship with Eilis: You are in a scary new country of your own. In New York, Eilis falls in love though she is forced to return home following a family tragedy. Of course, there’s no place like home to bring out the worst in people. Toibin writes with restraint and grace about longing and belonging, and his often ambivalent, always imperfect, characters make for excellent company. 

By Colm Toίbίn,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Brooklyn as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Colm Toibin's Brooklyn is a devastating story of love, loss and one woman's terrible choice between duty and personal freedom. The book that inspired the major motion picture starring Saoirse Ronan.

It is Ireland in the early 1950s and for Eilis Lacey, as for so many young Irish girls, opportunities are scarce. So when her sister arranges for her to emigrate to New York, Eilis knows she must go, leaving behind her family and her home for the first time.

Arriving in a crowded lodging house in Brooklyn, Eilis can only be reminded of what she has sacrificed. She is…

A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir

By Norris Church Mailer,

Book cover of A Ticket to the Circus: A Memoir

Why did I love this book?

Norris Church Mailer, a former pickle factory worker from Arkansas where she grew up in poverty, became the sixth and last wife of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Norman Mailer. Here, she tells the stories of their 33-year marriage which included his five ex-wives and her seven stepchildren. Norris came to the marriage with a son, had another son with Mailer, and while being a wife and mother to nine, she published two novels, endured Mailer’s countless affairs and generally egregious behavior, and did it all with a big old Southern-girl smile on her gorgeous face. As you sit in the waiting room, marvel at how much of life is a mess, and marvel even more at how love can make people, even you, endure more than you ever imagined. 

By Norris Church Mailer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Ticket to the Circus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this revealing memoir, told with southern charm and wit, Norris Church Mailer depicts the full evolution of her colorful life—from her childhood in a small Arkansas town all the way through her intense thirty-three-year marriage with Norman Mailer and his heartbreaking death. She met Norman by chance while in her early twenties and they fell in love in one night. Theirs was a marriage full of friendship, betrayal, doubts, understanding, challenges, and deep, complicated, lifelong passion. The couple’s New York parties were legendary, and their social circle included such luminaries as Jacqueline Kennedy, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. Complete…

Book cover of Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

Why did I love this book?

Hamilton’s memoir recalls her turbulent family history, her sexual ambiguity, her love of Italy, and more unexpectedly, her Italian mother-in-law, who nurtured her passion for cooking. It doesn’t hurt that outside the kitchen, Hamilton earned her M.F.A in fiction writing from the University of Michigan and can write about the devastating fallout from her parents’ divorce with the same acuity and poetry she deploys about cooking an egg. In the waiting room, where her galloping curiosity and generosity of spirit suffuse you, be reminded that there is a whole world out there, and that past this unhappy day, there remain a million choices of how to be alive in it. 

By Gabrielle Hamilton,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Blood, Bones & Butter as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Magnificent' Anthony Bourdain

A sharply crafted and unflinchingly honest memoir. This is a rollicking, passionate story of food, purpose and family.

Blood, Bones & Butter follows the chef Gabrielle Hamilton's extraordinary journey through the places she has inhabited over the years: the rural kitchen of her childhood, where her adored mother stood over the six-burner with wooden spoon in hand; the kitchens of France, Greece, and Turkey, where she was often fed by complete strangers and learned the essence of hospitality; and the kitchen of her beloved Italian mother-in-law, who serves as the link between Hamilton's idyllic past and her…

Book cover of The Long-Winded Lady: Notes from the New Yorker

Why did I love this book?

“I saw a little boy on the street today, and he cried so eloquently that I will never forget him.” Maeve Brennan wrote for the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section as ‘The Long-Winded Lady’ from 1954 to 1968. She roamed the city’s streets, bars, and restaurants, eyes wide open, weaving stories of vivid emotional detail from the most seemingly mundane moments. None of these are too long – in the waiting room concentration can be fleeting – but each sketch engages. Her story of the crying boy ends this way: “He might have been the last bird in the world, except that if he had been the last bird there would have been no one to hear him.”

By Maeve Brennan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Long-Winded Lady as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“Of all the incomparable stable of journalists who wrote for The New Yorker during its glory days in the Fifties and Sixties,” writes The Independent, “the most distinctive was Irish-born Maeve Brennan.” From 1954 to 1981, Maeve Brennan wrote for The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column under the pen name “The Long-Winded Lady.” Her unforgettable sketches—prose snapshots of life in small restaurants, cheap hotels, and crowded streets of Times Square and the Village—together form a timeless, bittersweet tribute to what she called the “most reckless, most ambitious, most confused, most comical, the saddest and coldest and most human…

Book cover of Stuffed: Adventures of a Restaurant Family

Why did I love this book?

“My family struck me as larger than life, bigger than news,” Volk once said. This memoir imbues her relatives’ stories with all the wonder and glamour children confer on the mere mortals who raise us. In the waiting room, you may still feel that way about the person inside. Volk’s family ran restaurants in New York City – her grandfather owned 14 – and four generations lived within five blocks of each other. The details of their clothes, their couches, and their craziness (Uncle Al had an affair with Aunt Lil for 11 years then refused to marry her because she wasn’t a virgin), hark back to those Sundays forever ago when families chose to visit each other on their only day off. Reading this feels like home. 

By Patricia Volk,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stuffed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'We were a restaurant family, four generations in a six-block radius. When you opened our fridge, food fell on your feet.' Three generations of Patricia Volk's family have been in the restaurant business. Her hallway was the colour of ball-park mustard, the living room was cocoa and the floor was like Genoa salami. At Morgen's, the famous restaurant in the garment district which her grandfather started and which her father ran, she was the princess. Waiters winked at her and twirled her napkin up high before draping it on her lap and when she wanted a hamburger, her grandfather would…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in New York State, New York City, and private investigators?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about New York State, New York City, and private investigators.

New York State Explore 608 books about New York State
New York City Explore 837 books about New York City
Private Investigators Explore 237 books about private investigators

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Climbing the Mango Trees, What Did You Eat Yesterday? 1, and The Ninth Hour if you like this list.