Books

Books Read in October 2018

I read seven books in October (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 73.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

1) Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living, Elizabeth Willard Thames

Description: This is the story of how a personal finance blogger abandoned a successful career in the city and embraced frugality to create a more meaningful, purpose-driven life, and retire to a homestead in the Vermont woods at age 32 with her husband and daughter. While not everyone wants to live in the woods or quit their jobs, many of us want to have more control over our time and money and lead more meaningful, simplified lives.

I’ve been reading the Frugalwoods blog since the beginning, back when Liz and Nate lived in Cambridge and didn’t have any kids and were saving a large percentage of their income so they could retire early. I’ve always enjoyed the blog, even though (as a city dweller) I don’t relate to it as much now that they’ve achieved their goal and moved to rural Vermont. I do like how their attempts at homesteading come with a fair amount of self-deprecation and a big learning curve, proving that it’s difficult to get everything right from the very beginning.

If you’ve read the blog, the book includes quite a bit of information you’ll already know: how they set up their first home using Craigslist and abandoned items; their soda stream hack; how Liz stopped wearing makeup and got her husband to start cutting her hair; how she stopped paying for pricey yoga classes by working in the studio; how her husband biked to work every day, even in the dead of winter; how they’re renting out their Cambridge home while living on their homestead in Vermont; and fighting the baby industrial complex.

The book did contain some new information (mainly about Liz’s early years, relationship and marriage to Nate, her early and continual dissatisfaction with her job). There were also new details about their years living in Washington, DC when she was in grad school (which was free because she purposefully sought out a job working at the university). I must admit that as a DC resident, I didn’t particularly appreciate her low opinion of living here — once they decided to move, she noted they were “done with the grubby slickness of DC.” I’m of the opinion that a city is what you make of it. They may have met a lot of grubby, slick people while they lived here but I happen to know many, many people who don’t fit that description.

My favorite Frugalwoods posts are the ones that show being super frugal isn’t a hardship, it’s simply a life choice. My husband and I aren’t at the Frugalwoods level of frugal living (I’ve been asking him for years to cancel our cable TV service), but I do feel a kinship with them because we’ve adopted many of the same money-saving habits and also have a goal to retire early.

Recommendation: read the book, check out the blog (especially the archives). I’d be surprised if it doesn’t inspire you to make at least a few changes in the way you spend.

2) My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor

Description: The first Latinx and third woman appointed to the US Supreme Court, Sotomayor became an instant American icon. Here she recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, a journey that offers an inspiring testament to her own extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.

What a cool memoir. I didn’t know that Sonia got married young, later divorced, and has never remarried. She’s also never had kids (she puts part of the blame on the Type 1 diabetes she’s had since she was a young kid, but admits that her dedication to become a lawyer — and now a Supreme Court justice — has not been conducive to having them either). I enjoyed reading about her independence and moxie.

3) No One Tells You This: A Memoir, Glynnis MacNicol

Description: Over the course of her 40th year, Glynnis embarks on a journey of self-discovery that contradicts everything she’d been led to expect. Through the trials of family illness and turmoil, and the thrills of far-flung travel, she is forced to wrestle with her biggest hopes and fears about love, death, sex, friendship, and loneliness. In doing so, she discovers that holding the power to determine her own fate requires a resilience and courage that no one talks about, and is more rewarding than anyone imagines.

When Glynnis turned 40, she said: “I knew I could be alone, but what if I gave myself permission to prefer it?” This memoir touches on many of the issues faced by a single woman turning 40, and the inevitable questions that arise about what she wants out of life. She also describes watching her mother struggle with Parkinson’s and dementia.

4) Calypso, David Sedaris

Description: Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality. Much of the comedy here is born out of that vertiginous moment when your own body betrays you and you realize that the story of your life is made up of more past than future. This is beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumor joke.

I’ve read Sedaris’ previous memoirs so I knew I’d like this one. I don’t find his humor laugh-out-loud funny, but his books are enjoyable enough. One of his sisters committed suicide in 2013, and he touches on that subject with a bit of his trademark dark humor. I love that he’s been with his partner, Hugh, for over 30 years, as well as his reasons for not getting married.

5) I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, Anne Bogel

Description: For so many people, reading isn’t just a hobby or a way to pass the time–it’s a lifestyle. Our books shape us, define us, enchant us, and even infuriate us. Here, Bogel leads readers to remember the book that first hooked them, the place where they first fell in love with reading, and all of the moments afterward that helped make them the reader they are today.

I’ve read Anne’s blog for several years, but most of the time I skim it unless she’s talking about nonfiction (a majority of her book recommendations are fiction).

This book is likable and relatable for bookworms. Those who don’t consider themselves big readers probably won’t feel the same. I consider myself a big reader and there were parts of this book that I didn’t relate to — especially when she wrote about the need to own physical books and organize them in a personal home collection. I used to collect books but at this point I own less than a dozen (and those were all given to me; I never buy them). It is possible to be a bookworm and also a minimalist; I highly recommend checking out e-books and audiobooks from the library for free.

Okay

6) Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg

Description: An examination of the most significant demographic shift since the baby boom — the sharp increase in the number of people who live alone –that offers surprising insights on the benefits of this epochal change. Drawing on over 300 interviews with men and women of all ages and every class who live alone, he reaches a startling conclusion: In a world of ubiquitous media and hyperconnectivity, this way of life helps us discover ourselves and appreciate the pleasure of good company.

There’s a lot of good information here, especially in the strong refutation that living alone equates to being lonely (it can with some people, of course, but a majority of people living alone are doing so because they choose to). However, there were more dry statistics than I expected, and multiple chapters focusing on single seniors, which is understandable but I didn’t find as compelling to read about.

7) The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store, Cait Flanders

Description: Cait documents her life for 12 months during which she bought only consumables: groceries, toiletries, gas for her car. Along the way, she challenged herself to consume less of many other things. She decluttered her apartment and got rid of 70% of her belongings; learned how to fix things rather than throw them away; researched the zero waste movement; and completed a television ban. At every stage, she learned that the less she consumed, the more fulfilled she felt.

I halfheartedly read Cait’s blog for a few years (she’s since stopped blogging). I assumed in advance I would rate this book as “Okay,” and I got what I expected. I was wondering how she’d fill an entire book with a year-long shopping ban, and the answer is: there’s a lot of filler that I didn’t care about.

For example, a few months into her shopping ban, her parents decided to get divorced. Cait became deeply depressed, could barely leave her bed, and cried all the time. I’m sure she had a tough time and I have sympathy for that, but it’s not what I cared to read about in a book that I thought was supposed to be about paring down her life. There are also exhaustive details about what she saw and experienced on a road trip, and a long back-and-forth about whether she should quit her job and become a freelancer.

Marriage

I Reclaimed My Maiden Name After 4 Years of Marriage

Earlier this year, after four years and four months of marriage, I changed my last name back to my maiden name. The name that appears on my birth certificate is my legal name once again.

It should be obvious since it took me so long to write this post, but no, I have not separated from my husband. I just wanted my name back.

I’ve wanted to do this for years, but the timing lined up when I decided to leave one job and start another. I wanted my new colleagues to know me by my maiden name.

Not everyone agreed with my decision (my divorced parents expressed mutual dissatisfaction with my choice). Whereas my mother-in-law — someone I expected to be opposed because I would no longer share the same last name as her son — was fully supportive. She even joked about changing her last name after 40 years of marriage because she prefers her maiden name, too.

Friends have expressed surprise — even audible gasps — at the news, but everyone seems to get it once I launch into my explanation.

The only person I consulted in advance was my husband. Everyone else found out after the fact; I didn’t ask for advice or solicit opinions.

Paul was not thrilled with the idea initially, and I get that. If the situation were reversed and he had changed his last name to mine, then changed it back four years later, my feelings would be hurt. But I like to think if he had good reasons for doing so, I would understand and support him. That’s what happened in this situation. It’s been almost six months since I reverted back to my maiden name and he’s gotten used to it. I told him I wasn’t changing my name because I was trying to distance myself from him, and our relationship is exactly the same as it was before.

What’s the biggest reason I decided to reclaim my maiden name?

For my entire adult life, whenever I’ve come across an article written by a woman keeping her maiden name, I’ve read it with interest. Whenever a friend gets married and decides to keep her last name, I cheer a decision that to this day, only about 20% of women make. (Around 80% of females change their names when they get married.) Since I support these women so wholeheartedly, I knew I needed to rejoin their ranks.

Why did I change my name in the first place?

I got caught up in the whole marriage thing. It’s the only explanation I’ve got, because Paul never put any pressure on me either way. Changing my last name was never a given like it is for many others; I knew I’d have to give it serious consideration. I really struggled with the decision in 2013, and ended up making the decision to change my name on the spur of the moment, the day we went to get our marriage license.

I knew pretty soon that my new name didn’t feel right, but I went through with the name-change process anyway: social security, bank, credit card, driver’s license, passport. But as the years passed, my married name still felt foreign, and, well…I wanted my old name back. It’s really as simple as that.

If you want to change back to your maiden name (outside of marriage or divorce, in which case you only need to produce your marriage/divorce certificate to make a change to your name), you must fill out a name change application at a courthouse and appear before a judge. At least that’s the way it works in Washington, DC, where I live.

I filled out the application, paid a nominal fee (about $60), and about four weeks later I received my approval. I had to replace my driver’s license, passport, NEXUS card, etc, but in total the process cost less than $300.

I am 100% happy with my decision. I wish I’d never changed my name in the first place — it would have saved me a lot of time and trouble — but now that I have it back I know I’ll keep it forever.

Interested in reading more? Here are some articles I found helpful:

Cosmopolitan: In the Age of the Internet, Changing Your Name When You Marry Is a Terrible Idea

Changing your name means a loss of a life-long identity. It’s a loss that comes at a substantial cost. It upholds a social norm that puts significant pressure on other women. And it’s something in a more egalitarian world, women wouldn’t do.

Salon: Ten Years Into My Marriage, I Took Back My Maiden Name

XO Jane: After 9 Months of Marriage, I Want My Maiden Name Back

A Practical Wedding: I Changed My Name When I Got Married and Then I Changed It Back

Huffington Post: Why I’m Returning to My Maiden Name

Elle: Why I Went Back to Using My Maiden Name Even Though I’m Still Married

Mama Mia: “I want my name back,” writes Kellie Connolly (now Sloane)

MM LaFleur: I Changed My Name When I Got Married—and Now I’m Changing It Back

Books

Books Read in September 2018

I read seven books in September (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2018 total to 66.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

1) The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore

Description: Moore illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

This book was super interesting but also appalling. I had no idea the commercial use of radium was so widespread in the early 1900s, nor that many women who worked with it developed radium poisoning. The sickness took many forms and in every single one of those cases, the companies fought not to be held accountable.

A common malady of women who dipped radium-laced paintbrushes in their lips to keep the bristles pointed? It led to their teeth falling out, the bones in their mouth and jaw slowly eaten away by the radium, and even pieces of their jaw being exposed and falling apart. In others, the radium landed in other parts of the body, a myriad of health problems that stymied doctors and dentists, and often led to painful deaths.

This book illustrates the lengths companies will take to avoid paying compensation, and highlights the women involved, showing how their fight to hold the radium companies accountable led to better labor laws in the United States.

Okay

2) From the Corner of the Oval: A Memoir, Beck Dorey-Stein

Description: In 2012, Beck was just scraping by in DC when a posting on Craigslist landed her, improbably, in the Oval Office as one of Barack Obama’s stenographers. The ultimate DC outsider, she joined the elite team who accompanied the president wherever he went, recorder and mic in hand.

There were parts of this book I enjoyed, like learning the role of a White House stenographer. Although it’s a pretty simple job, it gives that person a lot of access to high-level officials and government staff. What I didn’t like was the major story arc being Beck’s love life, and her infatuation with her on again / off again sex buddy. If the book had focused more on her job and the travel she got to do, I would have enjoyed it much more.

3) Small Fry: A Memoir, Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Description: This is a poignant story of a childhood spent between two imperfect but extraordinary homes. Scrappy, wise, and funny, young Lisa is an unforgettable guide through her parents’ fascinating and disparate worlds.

I learned some interesting tidbits about Lisa’s life growing up with Steve Jobs as a father, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it.

4) Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team, Tim Lewis

Description: This is the true story of four men determined to rebuild the hopes of a broken nation. In a land desperate for heroes, they confront impossible odds as they struggle to put an upstart cycling team on the map — and find redemption in the eyes of the world.

I have a recent interest in Rwanda because I’m traveling there for work in November. (Surprise! Let’s see how many people notice this tidbit hidden in the middle of a standard book review post.)

I’ve read genocide-related books about Rwanda over the years, and this book covers some of that history, but the bigger emphasis is on how they got a cycling program off the ground. Some parts were inspiring, but I struggled to stay interested in other sections. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it because I think few people would be interested in a book that highlights biking in an African country.

5) Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel, Maria Semple

Description: A novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

You guys know I’m not a big fiction reader, so this probably seems out of character. I actually read this book because my friend Jaclyn has a book club and this was the September selection. But then I didn’t get to attend the meeting because it took place two days before I left the country for a two-week European vacation and I was crazy busy at work. Whomp.

Jaclyn loves this book and has read it multiples times. In her opinion, “It reads as a light, whimsical and slightly ridiculous book, but the more you sit with it, the more you find in it.” If you enjoy light fictional reads, please take her advice and read the book.

For those who read mostly nonfiction, you would probably rate it as Okay, as I’m doing now. I found myself getting impatient with parts of the book I found silly, or that didn’t appear to move the narrative along.

When I read fiction, I often find myself thinking, “Why am I bothering to read this if the story isn’t true?” I know those of you who love fiction won’t identify with that.

Not Recommended

6) White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing, Gail Lukasik

Description: This is the story of Gail’s mother’s passing as white, Gail’s struggle with the shame of her mother’s choice, and her subsequent journey of self-discovery and redemption.

This started off okay, and I liked some of the parts about the author’s mother, but unfortunately there were exhaustive details on other members of her family that I didn’t care anything about. The author is obviously interested in her genealogy, which makes sense, but I don’t know her and I don’t care.

7) Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Esther Perel

Description: One of the world’s most respected voices on erotic intelligence, Perel offers a bold new take on intimacy. Here, she invites us to explore the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire.

I could relate to some of the stuff she wrote about, but I didn’t find any useful takeaways.

Books

Books Read in August 2018

I read nine books in August (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 59.

I started reading one book in August that I decided not to finish:

  • The Woman in the Window: A Novel, A.J. Finn
    This book was recommended as a great suspenseful read, but I only got 25% of the way through before I gave up on it. I wasn’t interested in this woman’s life, nor her inane conversations. I’m sure (or at least I hope) everything was building up to a great ending, but I just didn’t care enough to find out. Give me a memoir any day.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

1) Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson

Description: Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew him into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship — and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Fascinating look at the sheer number of people in prison, many of whom were wrongly imprisoned, or not given a fair trial, or given sentences far greater than what the crime deserved. Stevenson and his team have represented these people for many years, and this book cites examples of some of their cases (and both wins and losses).

2) North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, Scott and Jenny Jurek

Description: Scott Jurek is one of the world’s best known ultrarunners. Renowned for his remarkable endurance on a vegan diet, he’s finished first in nearly all of ultrarunning’s elite events in his career. But after two decades, he felt an urgent need to discover something new about himself. He embarked on a unique challenge, one that would force him to grow as a person and as an athlete: breaking the speed record for the Appalachian Trail. This is the story of the 2,189-mile journey that nearly shattered him.

I’ve read several books about people who’ve walked the length of the Appalachian Trail, but this is the first time I read one that focused on setting a speed record. I found it insane that Scott ran 40-50 miles a day until he’d completed the entire trail. Unsurprisingly, his body started breaking down during the last few weeks and he fell into a depression. I felt bad for him because he was attempting a record but the process itself was taking such a toll that he just didn’t care anymore.

3) The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú

Description: Fresh out of college, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Plagued by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the whole story.

This isn’t a job I thought I’d have any interest in learning more about, but Francisco was only in the Border Patrol for four years. It goes into some of the things he did and witnessed in the field, but it’s more about how that experience (and subsequent experiences) changed him as a person.

I would have liked the book to end with his thoughts on border security, our political climate, and what his life is like now, but he leaves opinions to the reader rather than giving his own outright. The tone is definitely sobering, not at all uplifting, but I felt it was worth reading.

4) Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: At the end of her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who’d been living in Indonesia when they met. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but also swore to never get legally married. Providence intervened in the form of the U.S. government, which — after detaining Felipe at an American border crossing — gave the couple a choice: they could either get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again. Having been effectively sentenced to wed, Gilbert tackled her fears of marriage by delving into this topic completely, trying with all her might to discover through historical research, interviews, and much personal reflection what this stubbornly enduring old institution actually is.

I read this book years ago when Liz Gilbert was still married to “Felipe,” so it was a bit strange to read about her adoration for him now that they’ve been divorced for several years and she entered a relationship with a woman (RIP). Like all her books, though, I enjoyed her commentary (especially the section about her choice to be child-free) and her research and how she puts her thoughts together.

5) Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, Karen Auvinen

Description: During a difficult time, Karen flees to a primitive cabin in the Rockies to live in solitude as a writer and to embrace all the beauty and brutality nature has to offer. When a fire incinerates every word she has ever written and all of her possessions — except for her beloved dog, her truck, and a few singed artifacts — Karen embarks on a heroic journey to reconcile her desire to be alone with her need for community.

Karen lives a solitary life in the mountains above Boulder, with her dog Elvis and a motley crew of characters from the nearby (small) town. I was worried there would be too much nature writing in this book (I cannot stand nature writing), and while there was some, it wasn’t too much. I enjoyed reading the back story of how she ended up where she is, as well as her daily existence of writing, working multiple jobs to pay bills, tending to the wood stove to heat her house, dealing with bats and mice indoors, and regular visits from bears.

Okay

6) There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story, Pamela Druckerman

Description: What are the modern forties, and what do we know once we reach them? And why didn’t anyone warn us that we’d get cellulite on our arms? Part frank memoir, part hilarious investigation of daily life, There Are No Grown-Ups diagnoses the in-between decade.

Pamela asks the question, “What is a grown up and when do you start feeling that way?” She then introduces a bunch of scenarios she’s experienced to show how her life has changed since she hit 40. Like many people, it took her a long time to feel like a grown-up, even though she has a husband and three kids. This book is okay, but I didn’t love it. I thought her book on French parenting was better.

7) So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo

Description: Oluo offers a contemporary take on the racial landscape in America, addressing head-on such issues as privilege, police brutality, intersectionality, micro-aggressions, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Perfectly positioned to bridge the gap between people of color and white Americans struggling with race complexities, Oluo answers the questions readers don’t dare ask, and explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans.

I’ve read a number of books this year on the topic of race relations. I’m not sure whether it was the book itself or whether this is the fourth one or so I’ve read, but I felt like I have a bit of fatigue on the subject. I liked Ijeoma’s personal stories but a lot of the book focuses on how-to strategies, which I struggled to stay interested in.

8) The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

Description: From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage — and a life, in good times and bad — that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.

I wasn’t enamored with this book like others have been, but maybe that’s because it’s been a really long time since I’ve lost someone close to me. She talks a lot about her dreams, which I can’t stand. Also there was a lot about her daughter being in a coma before and after her husband died, which I understand was traumatic but I found boring.

9) Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family, Garrard Conley

Description: The son of a Baptist pastor in small town Arkansas, as a young man Garrard was terrified and conflicted about his sexuality. As a 19-year-old college student, he was outed to his parents and forced to make a life-changing decision: either agree to attend a church-supported conversion therapy program that promised to “cure” him of homosexuality; or risk losing family, friends, and the God he had prayed to every day of his life.

I grew up Baptist (same as the author), and I have an awareness of gay conversion programs and how most/many religions see homosexuality as not just wrong, but sinful. I haven’t identified with a religion for a long time and I try not to dwell on other people’s negative beliefs. I felt bad for Garrard and what he had to go through, but I didn’t like reading about it.

Books

Books Read in July 2018

I read nine books in July (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 50.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Highly Recommended

1) The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

Description: Clemantine was six when her parents began to speak in whispers and when neighbors began to disappear. In 1994, she and her 15-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety — perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey — to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality.

This is a terrifically powerful memoir, written by Clemantine, a woman who was six years old when her parents sent her away to avoid the Rwandan genocide. She had a tough journey (she lived in seven countries before arriving in the United Station as a refugee at age twelve), but she was helped by a number of caring people and ultimately received an amazing education, met Oprah, and became a champion for the unprivileged and disadvantaged.

Throughout the book, she juxtaposes her years in the United States with the suffering and uncertainty she experienced as a refugee in Africa.

2) Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, Manal al-Sharif

Description: A ferociously intimate memoir by a devout woman from a modest family in Saudi Arabia who became the unexpected leader of a courageous movement to support women’s right to drive.

Manal had a tough upbringing in Saudi Arabia: barely allowed to leave home except to go to school, physically abused at home and at school. She also endured female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation.

On the bright side, she was encouraged to get an education, and when she graduated from college with a degree in computer science she fought tooth and nail for a placement at a highly respected company. She learned to drive a car while on a work assignment in the United States.

Manal’s advocacy work shines through in this book, as she slowly becomes an outspoken activist for women’s rights. The public face of her work starts when she’s jailed for “driving while female;” interestingly, there was no official law outlawing female drivers, it was illegal by custom only. I liked this book better than I thought I would and wish I’d read it sooner.

Recommended

3) I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown

Description: Brown’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age 7, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools, organizations, and churches, she writes, “I had to learn what it means to love blackness,” a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker, and expert who helps organizations practice genuine inclusion.

This is the kind of book you might not love but realize it’s important to read anyway. Some books are supposed to be tough, and make you think (I found myself reading certain paragraphs multiple times to fully take in their meaning).

I had to check myself because sometimes I’d read the things she said and think to myself, “Surely it’s not that bad,” or “Surely she’s exaggerating, or taking things personally, or being too sensitive.” But that’s exactly the problem, and that’s what she’s trying to show us. I’ve been seeking out books like this and will continue to do so.

4) Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, Various Authors

Description: Edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, this anthology of first-person essays tackles rape, assault, and harassment head-on.

This is sometimes tough to read, but it’s important. Rape and sexual assault are more prevalent than most people think, and it takes a lot of different forms.

5) The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure, Shoba Narayan

Description: This book immerses us in the culture, customs, myths, religion, sights, and sounds of a city in which the 21st century and the ancient past coexist like nowhere else in the world. It’s a true story of bridging divides, of understanding other ways of looking at the world, and of human connections and animal connections, and it’s an irresistible adventure of two strong women and the animals they love.

Narayan moved home to India after spending 20 years in the United States, where she started buying milk from a woman who sold it fresh from her cows’ udders (the cows were literally milked in front of waiting customers). I didn’t know if I’d enjoy a book about cows in India, but Narayan made it entertaining.

She discusses the way cows are revered (but they often roam free and can cause headaches on busy roads). They’re used to bless new homes, and their urine is often used medicinally. She also describes the process of buying a cow to gift to her milk-lady. This is an interesting look at what cows mean to Indian culture.

6) Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity.

This was a re-read for me, which I rarely do. I needed an audiobook (all of my other choices were on hold at the library) so I picked this one up again. The first time I read this book, it was a physical copy, so I enjoyed having Elizabeth Gilbert read it to me this time. She has a great voice. I’m usually not a fan of self-help books, which I guess this kind of / sort of falls under, but I think of this one more as inspiration.

7) Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women, Marianne Monson

Description: These are the stories of twelve women who heard the call to settle the west and traveled from all points of the globe to begin their journey. These are gripping miniature dramas of good-hearted women, selfless providers, courageous immigrants and migrants, and women with skills too innumerable to list. One became a stagecoach driver, disguised as a man. One became a frontier doctor. One was a Gold Rush hotel and restaurant entrepreneur. Many were crusaders for social justice and women’s rights.

Bad-ass women should always be celebrated, but especially those who overcame tremendous odds in order to succeed. These twelve profiles of women in the pioneer era will make you second guess your modern-day obstacles.

Okay

8) Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, Barbara Ehrenreich

Description: A razor-sharp polemic which offers an entirely new understanding of our bodies, ourselves, and our place in the universe, Ehrenreich describes how we over-prepare and worry way too much about what is inevitable. One by one, she topples the shibboleths that guide our attempts to live a long, healthy life — from the importance of preventive medical screenings to the concepts of wellness and mindfulness, from dietary fads to fitness culture.

It’s an interesting premise: Ehrenreich argues that our regular checkups and medical interventions can create more harm than good. She says certain interventions could make a condition worse (breast biopsies can spread “bad” cells to areas they might not otherwise have gone) or are simply unnecessary (she questions the need to treat old men with prostrate cancer when the disorder is unlikely to kill them before they would have died naturally of old age).

I don’t see a widespread uprising against the medical establishment, but it might give some people food for thought. I rated this as Okay because she tended to get science-y and my mind wanders when I have to read about things like amoebas and microphages.

9) Growing Up Fisher: Musings, Memories, and Misadventures, Joely Fisher

Description: Growing up in an iconic Hollywood Dynasty, Joely Fisher knew a show business career was her destiny. The product of world-famous crooner Eddie Fisher and ’60s sex kitten Connie Stevens, she struggled with her identity on the way to a decades-long career as an acclaimed actress, singer, and director. Fisher invites readers into the intimate world of her career and family with this memoir filled with candid stories about her life, and how the loss of her unlikely hero, sister Carrie Fisher, ignited the writer in her.

This is not a great book – it jumps all over the place, sometimes from sentence to sentence. She’s also an egregious over-user of ellipses. It’s a fun look at the way Joely grew up though, with famous parents and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as a half-sister.

Books

Books Read in June 2018

I read seven books in June (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 41.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Highly Recommended

1) Make Trouble: Standing Up, Speaking Out, and Finding the Courage to Lead, Cecile Richards

Description: From Cecile Richards — president of Planned Parenthood, daughter of late Governor Ann Richards, and featured speaker at the Women’s March on Washington — comes a story about learning to lead and make change, based on a lifetime of fighting for women’s rights and social justice.

I love books about strong women. Cecile has been a fighter and self-described troublemaker from a young age. She learned some of it from her parents, and first started participating in protests on her own when she was in college at Brown. She worked as a labor organizer for many years, doing extremely low-paid work.

Cecile volunteered to work on her mother’s gubernatorial campaign while she pregnant with twins. Later she moved to Washington, DC and worked for Nancy Pelosi. She also describes how her job with Planned Parenthood came about, and her experience being President of that organization. Interesting and inspiring.

Recommended

2) Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, Kate Bolick

Description: Whom to marry, and when will it happen — these questions define every woman’s existence. So begins Spinster, a look at the pleasures and possibilities of remaining single. Using her own experiences as a starting point, journalist and cultural critic Kate Bolick invites us into her carefully considered, passionately lived life, weaving together the past and present to examine why­ she (along with over 100 million American women, whose ranks keep growing) remains unmarried.

I started reading this book a few years ago but put it down before finishing. This time around I listened to it on audio and enjoyed it very much. I liked Bolick’s focus on historical women who embodied spinsterhood in one fashion or another, as well as the memoir portion.

3) And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, Meaghan O’Connell

Description: O’Connell always felt totally alienated by the cutesy, sanctimonious, sentimental tone of most writing about motherhood. After getting accidentally pregnant in her twenties, she realized that the book she needed — a brutally honest, agenda-less take on the emotional and existential impact of motherhood — didn’t exist. So she decided to write it herself.

The premise of this book: a woman gets pregnant in her late 20s – it wasn’t on purpose but she’d been thinking about it for years, and she was engaged, so it wasn’t unwelcome. She has a baby and her life is thrown upside down. Motherhood is hard. Surprise! This was annoying to me, because hello, isn’t there enough information out there by now for women to be a bit more prepared for the complexities of childbirth and raising a newborn?

I’m still listing this book as Recommended because Meaghan is a good writer, and even though I was sometimes annoyed by it, I do think it’s a good book for women who are thinking about or preparing to have a baby, or even on the fence about whether they want a child or not.

This is what Meaghan said about her relationship with her husband in the early days of having a new baby: “We felt less like a couple than like co-workers, in service to the same human project.”

4) Unwifeable: A Memoir, Mandy Stadtmiller

Description: Mandy came to Manhattan in 2005, newly divorced, where she proceeded to chronicle her fearless attempts at dating for nearly a decade in the Post, New York magazine, and xoJane. But underneath the glitz and glamour of her new life, there is a darker side. She goes through countless failed high-profile hookups. There are too many nights she can’t remember, and the blind spots start to add up. She begins to realize that falling in love won’t fix her — she needs to fix herself first.

There’s sex, addiction, and offensive language in this book, so if that turns you off, steer clear. Some of the language and conversation come across as stilted at times, but I like memoirs that give me a wide range of perspectives and I found this book pretty entertaining.

Okay

5) This Is Me: Loving the Person You Are Today, Chrissy Metz

Description: An inspirational book about life and its lessons from the Golden Globe and Emmy nominated star of NBC’s This Is Us.

I didn’t love this, but it’ll do the trick if you’re looking for a light, quick read. Chrissy is a likable person, and I listened to the audio version so I think I enjoyed it more because of that. I didn’t like the interludes between chapters that contained life-advice, but those weren’t overly long.

6) Chasing Hillary: Ten Years, Two Presidential Campaigns, and One Intact Glass Ceiling, Amy Chozick

Description: For a decade, Chozick chronicled Hillary Clinton’s pursuit of the presidency. Her front-row seat, initially covering Clinton’s imploding 2008 campaign, and then her assignment to “The Hillary Beat” ahead of the 2016 election, took her to 48 states and set off a nearly 10-years-long journey in which the formative years of her twenties and thirties became – both personally and professionally – intrinsically intertwined to Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

This is a look at life as a reporter on the presidential campaign trail, but there was a lot of minutiae that took some struggling to get through. Also, it seemed like the author’s complaints about Hillary as a candidate often revolved around not being granted access to interview her, or the fact that Hillary threw too many fundraisers courting large donors.

Not Recommended

7) All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft, Geraldine DeRuiter

Description: Some people are meant to travel the globe, unwrap its secrets, and share them with the world. Some people have no sense of direction, are terrified of pigeons, and get motion sickness from tying their shoes. Geraldine is the latter, but she won’t let that stop her. This book chronicles the years Geraldine spent traveling the world after getting laid off from a job she loved.

I really wanted to like this book because I’ve read Geraldine’s blog for years. However, I didn’t care for most of the stories she shared, and on top of that, she decided to end each essay with an overly-sweet moral or life lesson, which felt forced.

She was also way too effusive about her adoration for her husband. She admits that many people who know her in person are sickened by this display of emotion, but really – it was extremely over the top. At some point it stops coming across as intense love and instead looks like she has something to pay her husband back for (like maybe he said, “Hey, I’ll let you come along on all my business trips to exotic places, and you can be a full-time travel blogger, but if you ever write a book one day, you have to make me sound LIKE A GOD.”)

On top of all that: I was really, really over the book once she shared the story of being at a restaurant in Spain – she felt cheated by a server so she decided to pee all over the floor of the bathroom (even while admitting that he likely wasn’t the one who would have to clean up the mess). That was it for me. Luckily the book was a quick read so I sped my way to the end, but I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone else.

Books

Books Read in May 2018

I read five books in May (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 34. My reading numbers are slipping! I started a new job a few months ago and it actually keeps me busy, so I don’t read e-books on my phone all the time like I used to. (This is actually a great turn of events because I really enjoy being busy and having something productive to do all day.)

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Highly Recommended

1) Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover

Description: This is the story of a young girl who, kept out of school by her survivalist family, goes on to earn a PhD from Cambridge University. It is a tale of fierce family loyalty, and of the grief that comes with severing the closest of ties. With acute insight, Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes, and the will to change it.

This is one of those “you have to read it to believe it” books. I started making notes on all the craziness, but there was too much to keep track of. One example: Tara’s father was so against doctors and hospitals, when he crashed a car (with the entire family in it) during a snow storm, despite serious injuries he took everyone home. Tara’s mother’s injury was the worst — a traumatic brain injury, and afterward she suffered from memory loss and horrific migraines.

Tara had no formal education growing up (and very little informal education, unless you count working in her father’s business and around the home — she was actively discouraged from learning information from books) until she entered college at BYU (having self-taught herself enough to pass the ACT). Once she got there though, she realized she had no clue how to study and had never written an essay in her life.

I liked her description of discovering feminism in college. She started with Mary Wollstonecraft and John Stuart Mill, “developing, for the first time, a vocabulary for the uneasiness I’d felt since childhood.” She’d always wanted to be afforded the same options and opportunities that her brothers had access to.

It’s certainly a testament to Tara’s strength and will that she rose above her upbringing to achieve what she did.

Recommended

2) Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, Richard Grant

Description: Grant and his girlfriend were living in a shoebox apartment in New York City when they decided on a whim to buy an old plantation house in the Mississippi Delta. They learn to hunt, grow their own food, and fend off alligators, snakes, and varmints galore. Reporting from all angles as only an outsider can, Grant also delves deeply into the Delta’s lingering racial tensions. Yet even as he observes major structural problems, he encounters many close, loving, and interdependent relationships between black and white families — and good reasons for hope.

I love to read about people uprooting their lives, and this fits the bill — Richard and his girlfriend left a tiny NYC apartment to buy a large house in the remote Mississippi delta. The description of the puny amount of furniture in their newly cavernous home was amusing, although I did have thoughts of “You brought this on yourself” when he talked about their gigantic heating bills and having to limit the heat to one or two rooms because that’s all they could afford.

Richard learns to hunt, battles all kinds of bugs and reptiles, and most importantly, investigates segregation in the deep south and how, in many cases, it’s still alive and well.

On why he wrote the book, Richard said: “Mississippi is the best-kept secret in America. Nowhere else is so poorly understood by outsiders, so unfairly maligned, so surreal and peculiar, so charming and maddening.”

3) Look Alive Out There: Essays, Sloane Crosley

Description: Whether it’s scaling active volcanoes, crashing shivas, playing herself on Gossip Girl, befriending swingers, or staring down the barrel of the fertility gun, Crosley continues to rise to the occasion with unmatchable nerve and electric one-liners. As her subjects become more serious, her essays deliver not just laughs but lasting emotional heft and insight.

I read and enjoyed Sloane’s previous two memoirs, and this one doesn’t disappoint. There are several essays I didn’t enjoy as much, but those were on the shorter side. Even though I never considered freezing my eggs (nor am I interested now), I felt her essay on that experience was particularly interesting.

4) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou

Description: Sent to live with their grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and prejudice. At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her own strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors, will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.

I’m not sure if I’d read this before. If so, it was long enough ago that I didn’t remember it. I listened to it on audio, which Angelou narrates, so that’s a nice touch. It wouldn’t have been the same otherwise, since her voice is so distinctive.

I recommend this because it’s a classic, but there was a bit too much…childhood…for my liking. I know, I probably talk too much about preferring to read books about adults. That’s what I was thinking while listening to the book, though.

Okay

5) I’m Just a Person, Tig Notaro

Description: In the span of four months in 2012, Tig Notaro was hospitalized for an intestinal disease called C. diff, her mother unexpectedly died, she went through a breakup, and then she was diagnosed with bilateral breast cancer. Hit with this devastating barrage, Tig took her grief onstage, breaking new comedic ground. Now Tig takes stock of that no good, very bad year—a difficult yet astonishing period in which tragedy turned into absurdity and despair transformed into joy.

I didn’t know anything about Tig before reading this book. When I looked at reviews on Goodreads, other readers suggested this lack of knowledge was a good thing, as the book largely follows what she’s talked about in her comedy specials. It was all new to me though, so it was…fine.

Books

Books Read in April 2018

I read seven books in April (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 29.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Highly Recommended

1) This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jerkins

Description: Jerkins is only in her 20s, but she has already established herself as a brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling controversial subjects. Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly-white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality.

I thought I might not care for this book because I found the first few essays pretty meh, but the rest kept me engrossed.

There are strong essays about race, like how difficult it can be to date as a black woman and the extreme amount of effort many black women put into their hair (chemical burns on their scalp from relaxing treatments, staying out of pools due to chlorine damage, not working out because sweat can mess up their hair).

Morgan is extremely honest in her writing; she’s open about topics like masturbation and, as my friend Jaclyn put it when she read the book last month “a medical procedure…that I cannot un-read” (it was a medically-necessary labiaplasty — here’s an article the author wrote about it a few years ago). I actually found the topic pretty fascinating. I’d never read anything like it, and you guys know I love nonfiction and writing by women. We need more ladies who will write about previously taboo subjects.

Recommended

2) The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, Jason Fagone

Description: At the height of World War I in 1912, Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the “Adam and Eve” of the NSA, Elizebeth’s story has never been told.

I really enjoyed the first half or two-thirds of this book; less so near the end because there was more talk about war than daily life with the Friedmans, which I preferred to read about. Even though I didn’t like the war stuff as much, I’m glad I was introduced to some of the modern history of codebreaking, and I was very happy to learn about the extensive contributions of Elizebeth Friedman. Even though it was maddening to read about the rampant sexism women put up with in the early-to-mid 1900s, it was nice to cheer on Elizebeth’s contributions (of which there were many).

3) Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg

Description: Ask most women whether they have the right to equality at work and the answer will be a resounding yes, but ask the same women whether they’d feel confident asking for a raise, a promotion, or equal pay, and some reticence creeps in. Sandberg draws on her own experience of working in some of the world’s most successful businesses and looks at what women can do to help themselves, and make small changes in their life that can effect change on a more universal scale.

Yes, the old classic. I didn’t read this back when everyone else was reading it. I guess it didn’t seem relevant to me and my non-executive career path, but I was wrong. It does address some topics I don’t personally relate to, but even those come across in a way that could be applicable to other situations, or at the very least, weren’t boring to read.

It’s good for women to know that even females at Sandberg’s level can feel like a fraud at times, and downplay their achievements so they won’t be disliked.

Okay

4) Just the Funny Parts: And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club, Nell Scovell

Description: For more than 30 years, writer, producer and director Nell Scovell worked behind the scenes of iconic TV shows. This is a fast-paced account of a nerdy girl from New England who fought her way to the top of the highly-competitive, male-dominated entertainment field.

I feel like parts of this book were entertaining and I think some people will like it more than I did, but I found myself trying to get through it so it would be over, not really enjoying her stories. There were a lot of details about individual TV shows she’s contributed to and movies she’s worked on.

I’d like to give kudos to the fact that Nell points out on multiple occasions that people of color are very unrepresented in writers’ rooms. When she started out, it was rare for there to be more than one woman in the writing room, and even more rare for a person of color to be included.

Fun fact: Nell contributed to the smash hit Lean In, which I wasn’t aware of before I’d put both of these books on hold at the library and ended up reading them back to back.

5) Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

Description: Pachinko follows one Korean family through generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. When her lover turns out to be a married man, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history.

My first fiction read of the year. I was hoping to like this, but didn’t enjoy it as much as other people seem to. (And no, it’s not just because it was fiction and I prefer memoirs. I rated Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, as Highly Recommended last year. So there!)

It started off promising, and I liked the way the character development was going, but about halfway through things started to go downhill for me. Especially as the book neared the end, the stories felt rushed, and side characters were introduced that I didn’t care for.

What the book did well was shine a spotlight on the status of long-term immigrants. The story mainly takes place in Japan, where we learn Korean immigrants were long treated as second class citizens. It’s easy to draw a parallel to the status of immigrants today in the United States.

6) Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures, Ben Mezrich

Description: Mezrich takes us on an adventure story from the icy terrain of Siberia to the cutting-edge genetic labs of Harvard University. A group of young scientists, under the guidance of geneticist Dr. George Church, works to make fantasy reality by sequencing the DNA of a frozen woolly mammoth and splicing elements of that sequence into the DNA of a modern elephant. Will they be able to turn the hybrid cells into a functional embryo and bring the extinct creatures to life in our modern world?

This book would have been better if they successfully cloned a wooly mammoth, but you can’t force something that hasn’t happened yet. The lead-up to scientists getting closer to cloning just wasn’t as interesting as I hoped it would be. You can learn more about cloning woolly mammoths in this short article.

7) The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, Emily Nunn

Description: One night, reeling from her brother’s sudden death, a devastating breakup with her fiancé, and eviction from the apartment they shared, Nunn had lost all sense of family, home, and financial security. Heartbroken and unmoored, Emily — an avid cook and professional food writer — poured her heart out on Facebook. The next morning she woke up feeling she’d made a terrible mistake, only to discover she had more friends than she knew, many of whom invited her to come visit and cook with them while she put her life back together. Thus began the Comfort Food Tour.

For the first time ever, I stopped listening to an audiobook because I couldn’t stand how it was being read. The problem with the audio version is that there are quite a few recipes included in the book — not only at the end of chapters, where it’s easier to fast forward through them, but in the middle of chapters.

I almost always skip the recipes when they’re included in a memoir, and even if I don’t, I really can’t think of many things more boring than listening to someone read a recipe to me out loud. I suffered through about half the book, fast-forwarding as best I could to get past the recipes (which was annoying because I generally listen to audiobooks when I’m walking outside), but finally gave up and switched to the ebook version so I could finish it that way.

Books

Books Read in March 2018

I read seven books in March (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 22.

There was one book I started reading in March but decided not to finish:

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Recommended

1) When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors

Description: Raised by a single mother in an impoverished neighborhood in Los Angeles, Patrisse experienced the prejudice and persecution Black Americans endure at the hands of law enforcement. For Patrisse, the most vulnerable people in the country are Black people. Deliberately and ruthlessly targeted by the criminal justice system, Black people are subjected to unjustifiable racial profiling and police brutality. In 2013, when Trayvon Martin’s killer went free, Patrisse’s outrage led her to co-found Black Lives Matter with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi.

This book didn’t leave me riveted, but I felt like it was important to read and understand. Patrisse’s story about her brother’s mental illness, his stints in prison and the way he was mistreated (both physically and emotionally when he was denied proper mental health treatment) was powerful and moving.

The idea for the Black Lives Matter movement started taking shape after Trayvon Martin was murdered and became a force after his killer was exonerated. She covers the birth and growth of the movement and how important it is to keep it going.

2) Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race, Debby Irving

Description: Irving is an emerging voice in the national racial justice community. After a blissfully sheltered, upper-middle-class suburban childhood, she found herself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by the racial divide she observed in nearby Boston. Her career began in a variety of urban performance-art and community-based nonprofits, where she repeatedly found that her best efforts to “help” caused more harm than the good she intended.

Before studying racism in depth, Debby would have vehemently resisted being defined as racist. However, once her eyes were opened to all the ways systemic racism infiltrates our lives, she realizes there were many ways she’d unknowingly been contributing to the status quo. (One of her chapters is called, “Why saying ‘I don’t see race’ is as racist as it gets”). She also explores how her upbringing as a WASP in New England contributed to her worldview.

While a few chapters came across as redundant and/or unnecessary, most of it was informative and eye-opening.

3) The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, Diane Ackerman

Description: Jan and Antonina Zabinski were Polish Christian zookeepers horrified by Nazi racism, who managed to save over 300 people. Ackerman vividly re-creates Antonina’s life, a woman responsible for her own family, the zoo animals, and their “guests”: resistance activists and refugee Jews, many of whom Jan had smuggled from the Warsaw Ghetto. Jan led a cell of saboteurs, and the Zabinski’s young son risked his life carrying food to the guests, while also tending to an eccentric array of creatures in the house. With hidden people having animal names, and pet animals having human names, it’s a small wonder the zoo’s code name became “The House under a Crazy Star.”

I heard about this quite a while back (it was published over 10 years ago), but decided to pick it up when I was searching for something to listen to on audio. It was better than I expected, but also different from what I thought it would be. The book was made into a movie last year and I’d be interested in seeing it.

4) We Are All Shipwrecks: A Memoir, Kelly Grey Carlisle

Description: Kelly always knew her family was different. She knew that most children didn’t live with their grandparents, and their grandparents didn’t own porn stores. What Kelly didn’t know was if she would become part of the dysfunction that surrounded her. Would she end up alone and dead on Hollywood Boulevard like her mother? Kelly goes back to the beginning, to a mother she never knew, a 25-year-old cold case, and two of LA’s most notorious murderers.

This book started off slow for me, but I warmed up to it. There was more of an emphasis on Kelly’s childhood than I expected (from the description, I thought it would be more like half childhood / half exploration as an adult), but the adult portion didn’t start until 84% of the way through (thank you, e-book percentages). Her story is definitely atypical though and it was interesting to read.

Okay

5) Brave, Rose McGowan

Description: Rose McGowan was born in one cult and came of age in another, more visible cult: Hollywood. This is her raw, honest, and poignant memoir/manifesto — a no-holds-barred, pull-no-punches account of the rise of a millennial icon, fearless activist, and unstoppable force for change who is determined to expose the truth about the entertainment industry, dismantle the concept of fame, shine a light on a multibillion-dollar business built on systemic misogyny, and empower people everywhere to wake up and be Brave.

I like Rose McGowan as an artist and activist, but she’s not a very good writer. She has a captivating background (her parents were members of a cult in Italy; she was sent to rehab as a young teen after doing just one hit of acid; she ran away and became homeless for a time). There’s also a chapter on her long-term relationship with goth rocker Marilyn Manson.

This could have been a better book but she has a very abrupt, matter-of-fact writing style and jumps all over the place. If you want the short version, here are 11 big revelations from the memoir published in the Washington Post.

6) Flat Broke with Two Goats: A Memoir of Appalachia, Jennifer McGaha

Description: Just as the Great Recession was easing in some parts of the country, Jennifer experienced an economic crisis of epic proportions. Here she takes readers on a wild adventure from a Cape Cod-style home in the country to a 100-year-old, mice-infested, snake-ridden cabin in a North Carolina holler. With humor and honesty, Jennifer chronicles the joys and difficulties of living close to nature, and in the process she comes to discover the true meaning of home.

Jennifer found herself in a deep financial crisis when the IRS caught up with her self-employed husband for not paying their taxes for years (and he was an accountant!). She acknowledged her role (her husband handled all the bills and she should have insisted on being more involved, etc), but I found the book hard to read. It’s understandable why couples list financial incompatibility as a reason for divorce; if I found out my husband had done something like this and our financial life was in shambles (which would never happen because I am very involved in our monetary affairs), I would find it very hard, if not impossible, to stay married. What a huge slap in the face. The author really struggles with the decision, too, but in the end they stay together.

This book was mostly about unsettling financial matters and raising goats. The author is a good writer but I didn’t find myself fully invested in either subject.

7) Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake: A Memoir of a Woman’s Life, Anna Quindlen

Description: Quindlen uses her own past, present, and future as fodder to examine marriage, friendship, parenting, body image, work, growing older, and more in her signature graceful style.

These are nice essays. I was initially comparing them to the modern essays I read most of the time (written by women half Anna’s age) and judging these as a little too sweet and non-controversial, but she redeems herself later when she delves into topics like losing her Catholicism and not believing in the concepts of heaven and hell. Other topics: too much clutter, the importance of girlfriends, solitude, and aging.

Books

Books Read in February 2018

I read six books in February (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 15.

The reason I only read six books is because I started and discarded seven others. This has to be a record. It’s not uncommon for me to put a book down but apparently I was having trouble finding something I wanted to read this month.

These are the books I started reading in February but decided not to finish:

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.

Highly Recommended

1) Real American: A Memoir, Julie Lythcott-Haims

Description: Lythcott-Haims pulls no punches in her recollections of growing up a biracial black woman in America. She stirringly evokes her personal battle with the low self-esteem that American racism routinely inflicts on people of color. The only child of a marriage between an African-American father and a white British mother, she shows indelibly how so-called “micro” aggressions in addition to blunt force insults can puncture a person’s inner life with a thousand sharp cuts.

This is a powerful story. Julie grew up biracial in a majority-white neighborhood and school system, never feeling like she completely fit in. She admits she didn’t know how to interact with black people, as there weren’t many opportunities to do so. She dated white men, and married one of them at age 24 (you’ll be happy to hear, as I was, that they’re still happily married 30 years later).

The first part of the book follows her childhood, high school, and college years (including a degree from Harvard Law School). The second half deals with her awakening as a black woman.

One example that stands out was when her daughter was born, with skin so light she could pass for white, and after her birth Julie realized she’d been hoping her daughter would be black. She wanted her daughter to look like her because she grew up not looking like her (white, British) mother. Instead it was her son who had dark skin, and when Trayvon Martin was murdered, she knew instinctively that her son (or any black male) could be next.

I didn’t have to wait long at all for the hold on this book. I was glad to have access to it so soon but I wish there was a longer list of holds for it at the library. Hopefully more people will be reading it.

Recommended

2) Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, Scott Kelly

Description: A veteran of four space flights and American record holder for consecutive days spent in space, Kelly has experienced things very few have. Here he describes navigating the extreme challenge of long-term spaceflight: the devastating effects on the body; the isolation from everyone he loves and the comforts of Earth; the pressures of constant close cohabitation; the catastrophic risks of depressurization or colliding with space junk, and the still more haunting threat of being unable to help should tragedy strike at home–an agonizing situation Kelly faced when, on one mission, his twin brother’s wife, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot while he still had two months in space.

I’ve never wanted to be an astronaut, but I heard this book was good and the reviewers were right. Kelly takes us from life on the International Space Station (where he lived for a year), to his rebellious childhood, to his epiphany that he wanted to be an astronaut, and the immense amount of preparation and training that he went through to make it into space.

It was surprisingly fascinating to hear Kelly describe what it’s like to live in zero gravity and some of the things he did (like space walking outside the station to perform routine maintenance and repairs, which required hours of prep time beforehand to lessen the potential for any disasters).

Before I heard about this book, I didn’t realize Scott Kelly is the twin brother of Mark Kelly, the retired astronaut married to Gabrielle Giffords.

3) The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir, Maude Julien

Description: Maude’s parents were fanatics who believed it was their sacred duty to turn her into the ultimate survivor – raising her in isolation, tyrannizing her childhood, and subjecting her to endless drills designed to eliminate weakness. Maude learned to hold an electric fence for minutes without flinching, and to sit perfectly still in a rat-infested cellar all night long. She endured a life without heat, hot water, adequate food, friendship, or affection. But Maude’s parents could not rule her inner life.

It’s difficult to fathom what the author went through growing up, until she was able to escape from her parents at age 18. It would have been less surprising to hear all this was happening in the 1800s or earlier, but this was the late 1950s through mid-1970s. This article contains spoilers, but it’ll give you an idea what the book is about and what Julien went through.

4) Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life, Jenna Bush Hager and Barbara Bush

Description: Born into a political dynasty, Jenna and Barbara Bush grew up in the public eye. As small children, they watched their grandfather become president; just twelve years later they stood by their father’s side when he took the same oath. Here they take readers on a tour behind the scenes, with never-before-told stories about their family, adventures, loves and losses, and the special bond that fulfills them.

I decided to listen to this audiobook (which the authors voice themselves) after I saw Jenna and Barbara interviewed by Chelsea Handler. I wasn’t sure I would like the book at first, and it starts off pretty saccharine (I don’t approve of women in their mid-30s calling their former-President grandfather “Gampy”), but I ended up liking their story more as it went on.

Jenna and Barbara take turns writing sections, starting with childhood, visiting the White House for the first time, the suicide of Barbara’s boyfriend when they were teenagers, the events of 9/11, and reactions to their father’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

Jenna is funny and self-deprecating, and I liked her story about starting out as a teacher and ending up as a correspondent for the Today show. The only downside is she reads her portion of the book in the cadence of a TV reporter, which I found unnatural for an audiobook.

Barbara is a self-proclaimed minimalist (which I appreciated), and she travels a lot for work as the founder of a nonprofit called Global Health Corps. She prides herself on never checking a bag no matter how long the trip. She’s an advocate for Planned Parenthood and voted for Hillary Clinton.

Okay

5) A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal, Jen Waite

Description: Waite realized her loving husband — the father of her infant daughter, her best friend, the love of her life — fit the textbook definition of a psychopath. Waite recounts each heartbreaking discovery, every life-destroying lie, and reveals what happened once the dust settled on her demolished marriage. With a dual-timeline narrative structure, we see Waite’s romance bud, bloom, and wither simultaneously, making the heartbreak and disbelief even more affecting.

When I was looking at reviews for this book on Goodreads, I came across this gem which summed up my thoughts very well: “I feel bad for Ms. Waite in the way I would feel bad if a friend or acquaintance was telling me this story, but I’m a bit stumped as to why it’s book worthy.”

The conversations in this book sound stilted and the writing doesn’t flow very well. This as a cautionary tale and a quick read, but I would say the biggest takeaway is…try not to fall under the spell of a sociopath.

6) The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae

Description: Being an introvert in a world that glorifies cool isn’t easy. But when Rae, the creator of the hit series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” is that introvert, it sure is entertaining. In this debut collection of essays, Rae covers everything from cybersexing in the early days of the Internet to deflecting unsolicited comments on weight gain, from navigating the perils of eating out alone and public displays of affection, to learning to accept yourself — natural hair and all.

I had never heard of Issa Rae before reading this book, but it’s a memoir and written by a minority author, which fits my intent to increase the number of minority authors I read in 2018. There are some entertaining aspects to this book, but it didn’t wow me.