Books

Books Read in June 2019

I read seven books in June (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 77. (This is my lowest monthly total so far this year, and the first month in single digits. I was out of town at a work conference for over a week and then had some vacation time in Buffalo. Unlike people who read more when they’re out of town, I read more when I’m settled in my normal routine.)

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

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

Recommended

1) The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees, Meredith May

Description: Bees became a guiding force in May’s life, teaching her about family and community, loyalty, and survival. Part memoir, part beekeeping odyssey, this is an unforgettable story about finding home in the most unusual of places, and how a tiny, little-understood insect could save a life.

This is both a sad and sweet story. May was basically abandoned by her mentally ill mother (even though they lived in the same house) and raised by her grandparents. In his heyday, her grandfather took care of over 100 hives which produced more than 500 gallons of honey per year.

May learned about bees from him, and even though she took a long hiatus from beekeeping when she went off to college and got a job, she took up urban beekeeping later in life. This is a good article about May and her book.

2) How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, Alexander Chee

Description: This is Chee’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend.

I had never heard of Alexander Chee before reading this book (he’s written several novels prior to this work of nonfiction). I didn’t pick it up at first because I was taking the title literally — and I don’t want to write an autobiographical novel. But I saw the book recommended in several places, so I went back and read the description again — and realized it’s a memoir in essays, which I’ve become fond of.

I really enjoyed this book, especially the final essay where he talks about the financial difficulty of making a living as a writer (if you’re not already upper middle class or have a partner who can supplement your income). He refers to spending decades of his life as a writer as “income destruction,” and indeed, spent years working as a waiter to make ends meet.

3) All That You Leave Behind: A Memoir, Erin Lee Carr

Description: An acclaimed documentary filmmaker comes to terms with her larger-than-life father, the late New York Times journalist David Carr, in this fierce memoir of love, addiction, and family.

I struggled with how to rate this one, because there were things I didn’t like (how she included excerpts from emails and chat sessions — I’ve always found those references are best when condensed). There’s also a lot of privilege here in how she ended up in her current line of work, because her father worked in media and had many contacts to pave her way, and she likely wouldn’t be where she is today without those contacts. She does acknowledge that, at least.

I decided to recommend it because I didn’t find myself dreading it when I opened it, which happens sometimes with books I’m just trying to get through. Here’s an excerpt from the book.

Okay

4) Code Name: Lise – The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy, Larry Loftis

Description: The true story of Odette Sansom, the British woman who became WWII’s most highly decorated spy.

This was obviously a very brave woman, but I expected the book to be about her activities as a spy. Instead, it was more about her capture, and how she spent years in various prisons, and what she endured while incarcerated.

5) Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, Keith O’Brien

Description: The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s — and won.

Like I said in the review above — these ladies were extremely brave to do what they did. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, flying meant taking your life into your hands. They never knew when something would go wrong, and many pilots died or were injured. It was tough to read about the excessive sexism they endured, and all the entrenched notions of what women should do and what they were physically capable of. But they did it anyway, and their actions and struggles made a difference.

6) What Matters Most: The Get Your Shit Together Guide to Wills, Money, Insurance, and Life’s “What-ifs”, Chanel Reynolds

Description: Founder of the website “Get Your Shit Together” blends personal story and advice in this guide to getting your affairs in order — from wills and advance directives to insurance, finances, and relationships — before the unthinkable happens.

There are some good tips in here about being prepared before a personal disaster, but a lot of it was too simplistic for my needs — and also, I wasn’t prepared for a super-detailed grief memoir.

7) Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over, Nell Painter

Description: How are women, and artists, “seen” and judged by their age, race, and looks? And how does this seeing change, depending upon what is asked of the viewer? What does it mean when someone states (as one teacher does) that “you will never be an Artist” — who defines “an Artist,” and all that goes with such an identity, and how are these ideas tied to our shared conceptions of beauty, value, and difference?

This book is meant for those who are more into art (and art history, and the plight of the modern artist) than I am. There were a lot of details in here that just weren’t interesting to me. What I did like is her pluck, and reading about her experience as an older black woman amongst mainly younger white students. Nell entered art school in her 60s, first as an undergraduate, then she went on to get her MFA, after a distinguished career as a history professor and author of multiple books. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Books

Books Read in May 2019

I read 13 books in May (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 70.

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

  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown. My husband read and enjoyed this book. I’m sure it’s good, but when I started reading it, I realized it wouldn’t have much to teach me. My life is already pared down. I don’t need to be convinced to say no to things I don’t want to do.

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

Recommended

1) The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live, Heather B. Armstrong

Description: For years, Armstrong has alluded to her struggle with depression on her website, dooce. But in 2016, she found herself in a depression she couldn’t shake, an episode darker and longer than anything she had previously experienced. She had never felt so discouraged by the thought of waking up in the morning, and it threatened to destroy her life. So, for the sake of herself and her family, Armstrong decided to risk it all by participating in an experimental clinical trial involving a chemically induced coma approximating brain death.

Heather is a popular long-time blogger; I’ve read her website since the early 2000s. (You know you’ve read a blogger for a long time when she initially didn’t have kids and now her oldest daughter is in high school). Heather has a distinct writing style that can be annoying at times – I’m thinking in particular of her penchant for emphasizing words using all capital letters, or harping on one thing over and over because she finds it funny (to me, repetition breeds annoyance).

She includes some of those annoying writing traits in this book. There are several instances of writing in all caps (I have a feeling she was held in check by her editor), and as the title of the book indicates, she uses the word valedictorian a lot. The first few times are funny; after that, I wanted to punch something whenever I saw it.

Having said that, this book is good. Being a long-time reader of her blog, I discovered things I didn’t know about the dissolution of her marriage and the animosity she still holds toward her ex-husband (which is obvious based on the multiple negative mentions of him throughout the book). As for the mental illness theme, she’s always been honest about her struggles with depression and anxiety, but she goes into much more detail here. I think this will resonate with a lot of people who have experienced the same (even though her particular treatment was quite abnormal).

You can read an in-depth profile of Heather, her background, and the book here.

2) Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, Ruth Reichl

Description: When Condé Nast offered Ruth Reichl the top position at America’s oldest epicurean magazine, she declined. She was a writer, not a manager, and had no inclination to be anyone’s boss. And yet Reichl had been reading Gourmet since she was eight; it had inspired her career. How could she say no? This is a personal journey of a woman coming to terms with being in charge and making a mark, following a passion and holding on to her dreams–even when she ends up in a place she never expected to be.

I’d read several of Ruth’s books before this one. I knew she’d been editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, but if asked, I would have sworn the magazine folded 3-5 years ago. Apparently it happened in 2009, so this is yet another example of time passing way too fast.

This is an enjoyable read. Ruth is extremely likable, especially her tales of how unsuspecting and naïve she was about everything in the beginning. She had no experience running a magazine (she’d never even had her own assistant before), so everything was brand new. She talks about various personalities, opulent parties, hirings and firings, and how she shut down the magazine after the September 11 terrorist attacks and used the Gourmet test kitchens to prepare large batches of food for rescue workers.

In this article, she talks about “reluctantly embracing Condé Nast’s luxury lifestyle, learning to be a boss, and struggling to save an ultimately doomed magazine.”

3) Life Will Be the Death of Me, Chelsea Handler

Description: In the fall of 2016, Handler daydreams about what life will be like with a woman in the White House. And then Trump happens. In a torpor of despair, she decides she’s had enough of the privileged bubble she’s lived in and that it’s time to make some changes, both in her personal life and in the world at large.

I became a Chelsea fan a few years ago when she made a docuseries for Netflix, and later hosted two seasons of a talk show. I was disappointed when she ended the show to focus on other pursuits, but there was a good reason (after the outcome of the last presidential election, she wanted to stop living in a “big vapid bubble” and help women and people of color get elected).

Chelsea is happily child-free, which I love, but she talks a lot about her dogs (past and present), which I could have done without – but it wasn’t horrible.

Most of the book is about her seeing a psychiatrist for the first time and focusing on therapy. She’s been through some heavy things in her life and she’s brutally honest about her shortcomings. She admits to being spoiled and feeling useless in a lot of ways, but both were things she was there to work on.

I purposefully wanted to listen to the book on audio, and I’m glad I did. There are multiple times where her voice shakes with emotion when she talks, or you can tell she’s crying as she reads, and it makes the listening experience so much more memorable. I’m glad they left that in rather than having her re-do it.

4) Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, Elizabeth Renzetti

Description: Drawing upon her decades of reporting on feminist issues, this is a book about feminism’s crossroads. From Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign to the quest for equal pay, from the lessons we can learn from old ladies to the future of feminism in a turbulent world, Renzetti takes a pointed, witty look at how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go.

Renzetti writes from a Canadian feminist perspective, and you know exactly what you’re in for by the third page: “I have no creed in this world — no religion, no ideology — except feminism. It is an essential part of my being.”

I liked many of the essays, especially the ones in the beginning. She does include several open letters to her kids (which I hate), and even one to her younger self, but I tried not to hold those against her.

5) The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, Vince Beiser

Description: The gripping story of the most important overlooked commodity in the world and the crucial role it plays in our lives.

I had no idea that sand is used to make so many things. Or that there’s a difference between desert sand and beach sand. (Apparently there is a very big difference!) We are, of course, running out of usable sand because nobody has figured out a way to make desert sand work for our needs yet.

Sand is used for roads, concrete, and fracking. It’s used to make glass, and expensive electronics. It’s brought into beach towns (at great expense) to refill what is lost by erosion. And because it is becoming scarce, there is an illegal sand mining trade.

6) Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, Jennifer Wright

Description: A humorous book about history’s worst plagues — from cholera, to leprosy, to polio — and the heroes who fought them.

I wasn’t sure I’d like this, but it was a lot better than I expected. Wright covers a list of diseases that you definitely do not want to get (and luckily, most have been eradicated). I liked how she used humor to tell the stories, bringing levity to an otherwise deep subject.

7) Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers, Dr. David Perlmutter

Description: Renowned neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, blows the lid off a finding that’s been buried in medical literature for far too long: carbs are destroying your brain. Even so-called healthy carbs like whole grains can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, decreased libido, and much more.

The first edition of this book was published in 2013; I read the updated 2018 version. I’ve been eating low-gluten for years, and lower-carb since last fall, so Dr. Perlmutter’s recommendations aren’t far off from what I’m already doing. Except he does advocate for super low carb, like keto-low, 20-30 net carbs/day (which I don’t do).

He has a lot of compelling research. He states that modern grains and gluten, as well as an overabundance of carbs, cause dementia and worsen brain disorders like ADHD and depression. I’m sure another book would tell me the opposite (because health experts like to contradict each other), but it’s certainly food for thought. The rising numbers of dementia and Alzheimer’s are scary.

8) Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of “The View,” Ramin Setoodeh

Description: Based on interviews with nearly every host and unprecedented access, award-winning journalist Setoodeh takes you backstage where the stars really spoke their minds.

This gossipy book is not something I usually go for, but I listened to it on audio and it was a decent way to entertain myself as I walked back and forth to work and chopped veggies in my kitchen. I’ve watched The View in years past and knew a bit about the early drama, and of course there have been a number of hirings and firings.

I appreciated that the author interviews many of the people involved (so it wasn’t something pieced together without their knowledge or permission), and they had the opportunity to introduce new information.

This is a good article about The View’s new relevancy in The New York Times.

Okay

9) Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, Valerie Jarrett

Description: From her work ensuring equality for women and girls, advancing civil rights, and improving the lives of working families, to the real stories behind some of the most stirring moments of the Obama presidency, Jarrett shares her forthright, optimistic perspective on the importance of leadership and the responsibilities of citizenship in the 21st century.

Valerie is a very accomplished woman, but I was a bit bored with her book. It didn’t help that I’d already read Michelle Obama’s (much better) book about her husband’s election; I wasn’t interested in having it recapped once again. I did learn about Valerie’s background and how she came to be so close to the Obama family, but a lot of the other stuff – including her tales from the White House – didn’t entertain me.

10) Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, Claire Dederer

Description: Claire is a married mother of two when she finds herself despondent and, simultaneously, suffering through an erotic reawakening. This memoir shifts between her experience as a middle-aged mom and herself as a teenager — when she last experienced life with heightened sensitivity and longing. Dederer exposes herself utterly, and in doing so captures something universal about the experience of being a woman, a daughter, a wife.

The premise sounded interesting, but I found myself looking for more and not getting it. Claire talks about her promiscuous ways as a teenager and young adult, and she explores some of the reasons this may have come about. After hitting her mid-40s and being in a long marriage, she admits to a recurring interest in her former bad-girl ways.

Things were all well and good, but then she introduced an open letter to Roman Polanski (and, oh god, there was even an Open Letter Part 2 later in the book). And then things turned positively wacky. One chapter was a list of common places she visited in Seattle as a teen, with a brief description of what she did there. There was a chapter on her younger self as a scientific case study, written in the third person. She really lost me when she used the alphabet in one chapter to highlight moments from her life – A is for this, B is for that. I didn’t appreciate feeling like I was in a children’s book. I read the memoir through to the end, but I was supremely disinterested in the off-the-wall writing experiments.

Here’s an article about her published in the Guardian last year.

11) No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir, Ani DiFranco

Description: DiFranco recounts her early life from a place of hard-won wisdom, combining personal expression, the power of music, feminism, political activism, storytelling, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and much more into an inspiring whole.

I’m not an Ani fan (I couldn’t tell you a single song of hers), but since I lived in her hometown of Buffalo, NY for four years (also my husband’s hometown), I’ve heard her name quite a bit. I’ve also been to several events at Babeville.

The book is okay; I learned a lot about her. She had some wild times growing up, and her tenacity to make it as a folk musician (while staying true to her roots) is admirable. She goes off on some rambling tangents though. Read more about Ani in this Vulture article.

12) Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, Stephanie Rosenbloom

Description: This is divided into four parts, each set in a different city, in a different season, in a single year. The destinations — Paris, Istanbul, Florence, New York — are all pedestrian-friendly, allowing travelers to slow down and appreciate casual pleasures. Each section spotlights a different theme associated with the joys and benefits of time alone and how it can enable people to enrich their lives.

I haven’t taken a solo trip in a very long time, but it’s been on my mind lately. Solitude is good for us. Rosenbloom addresses a number of topics, including dining solo, how to savor experiences, and the advantages of visiting places like museums on your own (studies have shown you get more out of the art that way). One of the four cities she focuses on is NYC (where she lives), and I thought including the staycation idea (and paying attention to being a tourist where you live) was a nice touch.

On the downside, while I liked her ruminations on solo travel, some of the things she specifically experienced in those cities (and lingered on) weren’t all that interesting to me. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

13) Don’t Stop Believin’, Olivia Newton-John

Description: Legendary musician, actress, activist, and icon Olivia Newton-John reveals her life story — from her unforgettable rise to fame in the classic musical Grease, to her passionate advocacy for health and wellness in light of her battles with cancer.

Yet another example of someone I’d heard of because they are famous but didn’t know much about. This is a lighthearted read. I didn’t love it. She does talk about the making of Grease and Xanadu, so if those films appeal to you, you might enjoy the book more than I did.

Books

Books Read in April 2019

I read 14 books in April (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 57.

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

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

Recommended

1) No Happy Endings: A Memoir, Nora McInerny

Description: Life has a million different ways to kick you in the chops. For Nora, it was losing her husband, her father, and her unborn second child in one catastrophic year. This is a book for people living life after life has fallen apart. It’s a book for people who know that they’re moving forward, not moving on. It’s a book for people who know life isn’t always happy, but it isn’t the end: there will be unimaginable joy and incomprehensible tragedy.

I read and enjoyed Nora’s first book, and I liked this one as well. My sister Elissa started listening to the audiobook and recommended it to me while I had the ebook version on hold.

Nora is very open and real. I appreciate those qualities in a memoirist. She talks about the immense pain of her first husband’s death, dating as a widow, and the adorable love story of meeting and falling in love with her current husband. There are also random essays about growing up in (and later leaving) Catholicism, and how she came to identify as a feminist.

I hate essays/chapters/books/articles written as “A letter to my [insert person here].” Nora wrote four of these essays (one for each of her biological children, and one for each of her stepchildren), so I hated those immensely, but luckily they were short.

My favorite quote from the book, as she wrote about the fear of choosing the freelance writing life but doing it anyway: “A world where we receive zero criticism is a world where we are not contributing, where we are living at the very baseline of our abilities.”

Here’s a good article on Nora and her new book from the Washington Post.

2) Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out, Jason Rezaian

Description: In July 2014, this Washington Post Tehran bureau chief was arrested by Iranian police, accused of spying for America. The charges were absurd. Rezaian’s reporting was a mix of human interest stories and political analysis. Initially, Rezaian thought the whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding, but soon realized it was much more dire as it became an 18-month prison stint with impossibly high diplomatic stakes, as his release became a part of the Iran nuclear deal.

I was worried there would only be so much for Jason to say about his 18 months of captivity in an Iranian prison, but I stayed interested throughout (I listened to the audiobook, which he reads himself, and he’s a good reader in addition to being a good writer). He was afforded certain privileges that other prisoners often don’t have (private visits with his wife and mother, the ability to buy food from outside), and he was never physically tortured, but he noted that the long-term effects of isolation and lack of access to information was very tough emotionally.

3) Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet, Will Hunt

Description: An investigation of the subterranean landscape, from sacred caves and derelict subway stations to nuclear bunkers and ancient underground cities—an exploration of the history, science, architecture, and mythology of the worlds beneath our feet. This is both a personal exploration of Hunt’s obsession and a wide-lensed study of how we are all connected to the underground, how caves and other dark hollows have frightened and enchanted, repelled and captivated, us through the ages.

I was intrigued by Hunt’s underground explorations. I’ve never done anything like this myself, but I see the appeal. I enjoyed the chapters on New York City and Paris tunnels the most, but the others are good, too (and include things like mines and caves). You can read an excerpt about the three days he spent beneath Paris here.

4) True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray, James Renner

Description: In 2011, Renner began researching the strange disappearance of Maura Murray, a University of Massachusetts student who went missing after wrecking her car in rural New Hampshire in 2004. Over the course of his investigation, he uncovered numerous important and shocking new clues about what may have happened to Murray but also found himself in increasingly dangerous situations with little regard for his own well-being. As his quest to find Murray deepened, the case started taking a toll on his personal life, which began to spiral out of control. The result is an absorbing dual investigation of the complicated story of the All-American girl who went missing and Renner’s own equally complicated true-crime addiction.

I had this on my to-read list for months and kept bypassing it for something else. I shouldn’t have waited so long because I really enjoyed it. I’m not always a huge fan of true-crime reporting, so I was probably drawn to this because he included a lot of personal details – it wasn’t just straight reporting about someone else.

I checked out his website after I finished the book and learned he’ll be speaking in DC on June 13 (it’s the same night as a large event at work, but I registered anyway and will cross my fingers that I can make it). His talk is described as “a mix of humor and frightening stories from the world of true crime” and he will share “his theories about how true crime became so popular and what it says about us all.”

5) I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, Michelle McNamara

Description: A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer — the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade — from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

This was another book I avoided because I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Apparently I like true crime more than I thought (but only if the author inserts personal information throughout – I don’t want a strict retelling of a story that the author isn’t personally involved in). Some of you may remember that the author, Michelle McNamara, passed away while writing this book and it had to be completed after her death (she was married to comedian Patton Oswalt). I also remember hearing that they identified the Golden State Killer after her death, but I made sure to save that reading until after I finished the book.

This isn’t a spoiler because it was in the news last year: the killer was caught in 2018, two years after Michelle’s death.

6) The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster, Sarah Krasnostein

Description: Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humor shine in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy.

Krasnostein tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male in Australia and overcame incredible odds to get where she is today. We learn about her background, which is interspersed with tales of the types of homes and people that a trauma cleaning business deals with (extreme hoarding, mental illness, clean-ups after deaths have occurred, etc).

In the trauma-cleaning examples, Krasnostein is an observer rather than a cleaner, but she expertly makes you feel like you’re right there in the room – sometimes using descriptions that make you wish you weren’t.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

7) I Miss You When I Blink: Essays, Mary Laura Philpott

Description: This acclaimed essayist and bookseller presents a charmingly relatable and wise memoir-in-essays about what happened after she checked off all the boxes on her successful life’s to-do list and realized she might need to reinvent the list—and herself.

This was a series of short essays (I found myself wishing some of them were longer, but that’s a good problem to have). I liked when she wrote about her craving for silence (she is married with two children), and while she daydreamed of moving into a separate apartment all her own, she found the quiet she needed when she did a weeks-long housesitting stint in a different city. She covered other topics that I found myself relating to as well.

Also, as someone who reads a lot of nonfiction (and has subsequently seen a lot of subtitles), I enjoyed Mary Laura’s essay on choosing a subtitle for her book.

8) The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, Melinda Gates

Description: For the last twenty years, Melinda Gates has been on a mission to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, one thing has become increasingly clear: If you want to lift a society up, you need to stop keeping women down.

The organization I work for is focused on global gender equity, so this subject matter is on point. I listened to it on audio, which Melinda reads herself. She comes across as very approachable; I liked her stories about stepping into the role of reluctant spokesperson for her charitable foundation and gradually becoming more comfortable with a leadership role. She shares stories of people she’s met all over the world and how they’ve deeply affected her. She talks about her struggles with the Catholicism of her youth versus being a strong advocate for family planning and contraception.

I liked the chapter on gender equity in particular. She admits it didn’t used to be a focus for her foundation (they thought the term itself would put people off) — until they realized all of their goals hinged on it.

She addresses U.S.-based gender issues as well, like women in the workforce, and her struggles with working at Microsoft in the early days when it was a brash working environment.

9) Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, Sara Zaske

Description: When Zaske moved from Oregon to Berlin with her husband and toddler, she knew the transition would be multi-layered, adding parenting and then the birth of another child into the mix. Through her own family’s experiences as well as interviews with other parents, teachers, and experts, Zaske shares the many unexpected parenting lessons she learned from living in Germany.

This may seem like a curious book for a childfree person to read, but I love memoirs, and I love reading about women’s experiences living in foreign countries. While this book focused on the differences in raising children in Germany versus the United States, there was a lot of personal information about the author’s cross-cultural experiences living as a German expat, and how the family dealt with returning to the U.S. after six years. (Unsurprising, I previously enjoyed Bringing Up Bebe, a book written by an American expat in France.)

10) Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need, Grant Sabatier

Description: This is a step-by-step path to make more money in less time, so you have more time for the things you love. It challenges the accepted narrative of spending decades working a traditional 9 to 5 job, pinching pennies, and finally earning the right to retirement at age 65, and instead offers readers an alternative: forget everything you’ve ever learned about money so that you can actually live the life you want.

Grant’s story is impressive in that he went from basically zero dollars in the bank to over $1 million in five years. That’s one extremely motivated individual! He has some recommendations for lucrative side hustles so other people can follow in his footsteps, but none of them were ones I’m personally interested in undertaking (I have a goal of financial independence as well, but I’m willing to take a slower approach to it). Not all of his tips are ones I would follow (checking my investment accounts every day? No, thank you), but there’s a lot of good information in here.

11) On Being 40(ish), Multiple Authors

Description: Turning forty is a poignant doorway between youth and…what comes after; a crossroads to reflect on the roads taken and not, and the paths yet before you. The decade that follows is ripe for nostalgia, inspiration, wisdom, and personal growth. In this collection, fifteen writers explore this rich phase in essays that are profound and moving.

I will turn 40 next year so of course I put this book on hold as soon as I heard about it. Some of the contributors are authors I’ve previously read and know I like – Meghan Daum, Kate Bolick, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Sloane Crosley.

I will say, I put this book in the Recommended category because the essays I liked, I really liked and would recommend them to others. There were some essays I did not like (or just felt like they didn’t belong because they weren’t at all centered on the 40-ish theme), but that’s pretty common in anthologies like this.

My favorite essay was Meghan Daum’s, which is the first essay in the book, and lucky you – it’s available to read in its entirely right here.

12) Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, Lori Gottlieb

Description: From a New York Times best-selling author, psychotherapist, and national advice columnist, a thought-provoking and surprising book that takes us behind the scenes of a therapist’s world — where her patients are looking for answers (and so is she).

I’ve never read a book where a therapist talked not only about working as a therapist, but about her own experience being a patient in therapy. I found myself more interested in her personal story (rather than the stories of the patients she highlighted), but I could see the value in including both. She’s obviously dedicated to her field, and I enjoyed the life stories she shared — like attempting (and quitting) the medical field, and conceiving her son with the help of a sperm donor.

Okay

13) The Scarlett Letters: My Secret Year of Men in an L.A. Dungeon, Jenny Nordbak

Description: Nordbak takes us to a place that few have seen, but millions have fantasized about, revealing how she transformed herself from a beautiful USC grad into an elite professional dominatrix.

This is a voyeuristic look at an experience not many people have (or at least don’t admit to having). I enjoyed this glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, although it reminded me of a similar book I read on the subject back in 2010 (Whip Smart by Melissa Febos). The writing itself isn’t great though, and I got bored with the details of her personal life, which is why I downgraded it to the Okay category.

14) WOLFPACK: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game, Abby Wambach

Description: Based on her viral commencement speech to Barnard College’s graduates, two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA World Cup champion Abby Wambach delivers her empowering rally cry for women to unleash their individual power, unite with their pack, and emerge victorious together.

This is very short. It’s basically a bunch of platitudes, though she tries to spin them to sound new and different. I feel bad about disliking this book because I like Abby and I think she’d be an awesome person to hang out with — but it didn’t do anything for me.

Books

Books Read in March 2019

I read 13 books in March (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 43.

These are the books 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) Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, Gemma Hartley

Description: From the journalist who ignited a national conversation on emotional labor, comes a bold dive into the unpaid, invisible work women have shouldered for too long — and an impassioned vision for creating a better future.

I put this book on hold immediately after coming across the author’s popular article on Harper’s Bazaar. I’d never thought about emotional labor this way before. Sure, I’d noticed that most women take on a majority of the emotional labor in heterosexual relationships, but I didn’t know there was a term for it. Hartley says many women reached out to her after the article was published, and I’m not surprised. She wasn’t the first person to point out this phenomenon, and she didn’t coin the term “emotional labor,” but sometimes an article/book comes out at the right time or is read by the right people in order to make it a bigger thing.

I liked how Hartley made strides to change the emotional labor dynamic in her decade-plus marriage. She also admits that getting to a point where emotional labor is shared by a couple doesn’t mean all of the changes take place with the male partner — there were issues of her own she had to address, like feeling a need for everything to be done perfectly, and to her exact specifications.

There’s a lot here and I found myself taking notes. It would make a good choice for a book club, as it would garner great discussion. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

2) The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, Tommy Tomlinson

Description: Tomlinson chronicles his lifelong battle with weight and hits the road to meet other members of the plus-sized tribe in an attempt to understand how, as a nation, we got to this point. From buying a FitBit and setting exercise goals to contemplating the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, Tomlinson brings us along on a candid and sometimes brutal look at the everyday experience of being constantly aware of your size.

I’ve long had an interest in books and articles about weight, usually written by people on opposite ends of the size spectrum – those who are either too big or too small.

I really liked this book, but it was hard to read. Tomlinson is a very readable author; he doesn’t hold back; he’s raw. It may seem strange to say this, but as someone who doesn’t crave food the way he does, it’s tough to read about someone who can’t say no. He goes in-depth into his history with (and admitted addiction to) fast food, and all the lies he’s told over the years so people wouldn’t think he was consuming so much of it. There is excruciating detail about the fatty, greasy, salty, and sweet foods he loves so much.

At one point, he explores the question, “Who would I be if I weren’t fat?” At the same time I was reading this book, I came across this article, written by an obese woman who asks the very same question. Both wonder how their lives could have turned out if they had made different choices.

You can read an excerpt from Tomlinson’s book here.

3) Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE, Phil Knight

Description: In this memoir, Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight shares the inside story of the company’s early days as an intrepid start-up and its evolution into one of the world’s most iconic, game-changing, and profitable brands.

This isn’t a book I would have thought to pick up, but I saw a glowing recommendation on Everyday Reading last year and made note of it.

I had absolutely no idea how Nike started, and as the blogger above noted, it’s way more interesting than one might expect. What struck me was the level of dedication it took to keep the company going, especially in the first decade. It really was a long, slow, gradual process that started with Phil selling sneakers from the trunk of his car while working a regular full time job as an accountant. If two non-sporty people recommend a book about the creation of a sneaker company, it’s probably worth your time.

4) American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, Shane Bauer

Description: In 2014, Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. In short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of Mother Jones magazine.

Bauer intersperses his experience of working undercover in a medium-security, rural private prison in Louisiana with the history of mass incarceration over the past few centuries. He covers convict leasing (and subsequent high death rates), and moves forward to more modern practices. It’s interesting that he found himself reacting to inmates in ways he would never act toward people in normal life, but of course he was faced with situations he’d never found himself in before.

5) You All Grow Up and Leave Me: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession, Piper Weiss

Description: Piper was 14 when her middle-aged tennis coach, Gary Wilensky, one of New York City’s most prestigious private instructors, killed himself after a failed attempt to kidnap one of his teenage students. In the aftermath, authorities discovered that this well-known figure among the Upper East Side tennis crowd was actually a frightening child predator who had built a secret torture chamber in his secluded rental in the Adirondacks. Now, 20 years later, Piper examines the event as both a teenage eyewitness and a dispassionate investigative reporter.

This book is part memoir, part true-crime. Weiss is a good writer and the story is intriguing. She was an insecure teenager when the incident occurred and seems to imply that she never got over not being Gary’s “favorite,” so there’s a thread of obsession that runs through the story as well.

Read an interview with Weiss in Vanity Fair here.

6) The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, Tessa Fontaine

Description: A story for anyone who has ever imagined running away with the circus, wanted to be someone else, or wanted a loved one to live forever, this is ultimately about death-defying acts of all kinds.

Tessa did something not many people do: she joined a sideshow. (One reason it’s not very common is because World of Wonders, the show she joined, is the very last touring American sideshow.) She explains the difficulty in keeping the show afloat – they always seem to be operating on the brink of bankruptcy. Everyone in the show sleeps on a tiny bunk in the back of a semi truck (or if you’re especially unlucky, a cot on the main stage), and works very long hours for low pay. Tessa said her newbie pay was $275/week, but it didn’t go much higher for those who had worked for the show for years.

It’s definitely not a glamorous life, but for the amount of time they perform in front of crowds, they pull off the illusion of glitz and intrigue. Watch a video here, where Tessa demonstrates her fire-eating skills.

7) The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, Kirk Wallace Johnson

Description: The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man’s years-long, worldwide investigation, this is a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man’s destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.

I was wary of how interesting this story would be (feathers, really?), but I’m glad I put it on my “maybe” list and came back to it when I needed an audiobook. It was much better than I expected.

Who would have thought exotic and rare feathers were so popular? I certainly didn’t. Long-ago explorers spent years collecting them from distant countries (sometimes decimating entire bird species in the process) and rich ladies would pay a lot of money for those feathers to be attached to their hats and other accessories. While that practice has ended, rare feathers are popular today with fly fishermen, to be used in tying flies. And of course when something is rare and can fetch a high price, illegal activity inevitably follows.

8) Everyday Millionaires: How Ordinary People Built Extraordinary Wealth – And How You Can Too, Chris Hogan

Description: Hogan destroys millionaire myths that are keeping everyday people from achieving financial independence. His research team surveyed over 10,000 U.S, millionaires, discovering how these high-net-worth people reached their financial status. And the formula might surprise you.

I didn’t really learn anything new from this book (I’ve been interested in the topic of financial independence for years, so I’ve done quite a bit of reading on it already). I do think it’s a good introduction for someone who has just realized saving this kind of money is possible, with some basic advice on how to get there.

I liked that he’s very much against borrowing money for student loans, advocating that college-bound people start with community college and save money to complete their degree at an affordable four-year university. The only type of debt he likes is mortgage debt, and he recommends paying off one’s mortgage as quickly as possible (he strongly advises getting a 15-year loan instead of the typical 30-year loan). He doesn’t touch the debate of whether it’s better to be a homeowner versus a renter though, and having been both of those, I do recognize and appreciate the merits of being a renter.

He does repeat himself quite a bit, which got annoying at times, but I realize why he was doing it. His main advice is basic, but it works: Start saving as early as possible to take advantage of compounding interest. Keep saving (at least 15% of your income, but ideally as much as you can), and eventually, you can be a millionaire.

Okay

9) A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America’s Secret Desert, Karen Piper

Description: A poignant and fearlessly honest look at growing up on one of the most secretive weapons installations on earth, by a young woman who came of age with missiles.

I had high hopes for this book (I mean, growing up on a missile base in the middle of nowhere…how cool is that?), but it was disappointing. It’s mostly about the author growing up in a religious household, and then her life after moving off the base for college, and all the years thereafter. I didn’t find her personal story all that interesting, whereas learning about how a missile base runs (and being introduced to other people who choose that line of work) sounds much more entertaining.

10) Interior States: Essays, Meghan O’Gieblyn

Description: A collection that centers around two core issues of American identity: faith, in general and the specific forms Christianity takes in particular; and the challenges of living in the Midwest when culture is felt to be elsewhere.

Meghan is a strong writer and some of these essays were really good. The problem was, it wasn’t all memoir — some of the essays were personal, but others weren’t. All of the essays were reprinted from other publications (instead of being written specifically for this book). Two of the essays were book reviews, written for the Los Angeles Review of Books…no, thank you.

Meghan grew up in an Evangelical household, like I did, and was homeschooled for most of her life, which is true for me as well. She went on to do a few years at a religious college before she transferred elsewhere, which luckily I didn’t have to experience. I especially liked the first essay of the book, and the one where she talks about the contemporary Christian music scene of the 1990s (which I also knew quite well, since I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything “secular” back then).

She’s a very good writer so I hate to rank the book so low, but I just didn’t enjoy the essays that were non-memoir. I wish she’d written a book that was all about her.

11) Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution, Amber Tamblyn

Description: A passionate manifesto with personal stories, anecdotes, and opinions from the front lines of modern American womanhood from actor, filmmaker, and activist Amber Tamblyn.

I’ve heard Amber’s name mentioned over the past few years in relation to her involvement in various feminist causes, including the #TimesUp movement. I appreciate her passion and enjoyed some of her stories, but overall I didn’t love it. It was more of a rallying cry than a memoir.

12) Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy, Michael Tucker

Description: Actor Michael Tucker and his wife, actress Jill Eikenberry, were vacationing in Italy when they happened upon a small 350-year-old cottage in the Umbrian countryside. It was love at first sight, and the couple purchased the house without testing the water pressure or checking for signs of termites. Shedding the vestiges of their American life, Michael and Jill endeavored to learn the language, understand the nuances of Italian culture, and build a home in this new chapter of their lives.

This is a perfectly nice book, but compared to other memoirs I’ve read about people living in foreign countries, it’s a very light read. Nothing ever seems to go wrong (except for worrying about finances because these two actors no longer get acting work as much as they used to), and they found a fellow expat who took care of paying their bills and dealing with their Italian home renovations when they were out of the country. However, they visit some fun places, have a lot of fun with their friends, and eat a lot of great food. It’ll make you want to be there.

Also, apparently I’ve read this book before but didn’t realize it until I went to record it in Goodreads — I marked it as read in June 2008. I’ve kept meticulous records of books I’ve read since at least 2002…minus the years of 2006-2008. I either wasn’t reading very much during those years and only recorded them in Goodreads, or I lost my records. I honestly don’t remember. All I know is, I have a document that lists all the books I read from 2002-2005, and starting in 2009 I’ve kept a separate Google Spreadsheet for each calendar year.

Not Recommended

13) So Here’s the Thing: Notes on Growing Up, Getting Older, and Trusting Your Gut, Alyssa Mastromonaco

Description: A frank book of reflections, essays, and interviews on topics important to young women, ranging from politics and career to motherhood, sisterhood, and making and sustaining relationships of all kinds in the age of social media.

I rated Alyssa’s first memoir as Recommended in May 2017, but this one was not at all what I expected. This new book is part memoir, part self help. Since I hate pretty much all self help / advice books, I’m not surprised that I disliked this one so strongly. I’m an adult; I don’t need to be warned about the dangers of social media (eye roll). I only got through it because it was a quick read.

Books

Books Read in February 2019

I read 13 books in February (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 30.

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

Highly Recommended

1) Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, Dani Shapiro

Description: This is a book about secrets — secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history.

Dani has written four memoirs in addition to this one, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed. Since I love memoirs and she’s now written five of them – all of which I’d recommend – she’s definitely at the top of my list of favorite authors.

I actually wasn’t sure in advance if I’d like this one as much, due to the subject matter. While I may not have been able to relate to her exact experience, she has this impeccable way of drawing you in and making you feel fully invested. Dani is a terrific writer (she’s taught the craft of memoir in many workshops and classes over the years), and she knows what she’s doing, which make her books a pleasure to read.

I took quite a few notes while I was reading, but I’m not going to reference them here because I don’t want to give anything away. I do remember that I kept stopping and re-reading parts of the book because I immediately wanted to experience the words again. They were that powerful and poignant.

These are Dani’s previous memoirs, starting with most recent:

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
Devotion: A Memoir
Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy

Recommended

2) The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Description: In April 1986, a fire in the Los Angeles Public Library was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library? And if so, who?

Maybe I’m just used to long titles on nonfiction books, but I feel like this one could use a better description for its contents than “The Library Book.” Other than that complaint, this book is very good. Orlean focuses on the 1986 fire in the main Los Angeles library, on all the destruction, and the presumed arsonist.

Interspersed with the history of the fire are stories about people who work at the library (from directors to photo digitizers), historical reasons why people have burned books (wars, religion, arson), L.A.’s early librarians and how they expanded the system, and issues with the proliferation of homeless people who appear at libraries every day. It may sound a bit dry but it was actually quite fascinating. I listened to it on audio and Orlean reads it herself.

This article will give you a good overview, and includes a short video of Orlean walking through the modern-day L.A. library and talking about various aspects of her book.

3) The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, Liza Mundy

Description: Within a generation, more households will be supported by women than by men. Mundy takes us to the exciting frontier of this new economic order: she shows us why this flip is inevitable, what painful adjustments will have to be made along the way, and how both men and women will feel surprisingly liberated in the end.

I’ve never made a higher salary than my spouse (other than times I’ve been employed when he isn’t), but I know a number of women who outearn their husbands and I was interested to learn more about those dynamics.

Mundy covered reasons why women are starting to overtake their partners’ salaries (a big reason is that females now outnumber males in college degree programs, along with the gradual lifting of discriminatory gender practices, accelerated by the millions of jobs lost during the Great Recession), and she also looked at how relationships are changing as women increase their earnings.

She talks about the fact that women don’t always like being the breadwinner (sometimes it’s due to a husband losing his job), and can resent not having the flexibility to stay at home or work part-time. There are also those who love the arrangement, with high-achieving women happy to have their partner managing the children and household so they can concentrate on their work lives.

Mundy covers much more than this. I liked this book, and it’ll be interesting to see how society changes and adapts in response.

4) The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life, Doug Bock Clark

Description: On a remote island in the Savu Sea live the Lamalerans: a tribe of 1,500 hunter-gatherers who are the world’s last subsistence whalers. Award-winning journalist Clark, one of a handful of Westerners who speak the Lamaleran language, lived with the tribe across three years, and he brings their world and their people to vivid life in this gripping story of a vanishing culture.

Lamalerans “are among the small and ever-dwindling number of hunter-gatherer societies remaining in existence, and the only one to survive by whaling.” While other societies kill whales for sustenance, the Lamalerans are “the world’s last true subsistence whalers.”

I found the day-to-day lives of the Lamalerans intriguing, as well as the relentless encroachment of modernity on their remote society, but I was less interested in the descriptions of “the ways of the ancestors” and their beliefs and ceremonies. I think anthropological nerds would love this — the author never appears in the book as a character; it’s all about the people and situations he encounters.

5) She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, Jill Soloway

Description: In this poignant memoir of personal transformation, Soloway takes us on a patriarchy-toppling emotional and professional journey. This intense metamorphosis challenges the status quo and reflects the shifting power dynamics that continue to shape our collective worldview.

When Jill was in her mid-40s, her father came out as transgender. She then created and produced Transparent, a show on Amazon about a man coming out as trans. I’ve never seen the show and it was hard to keep the characters straight when she talked about her coworkers and story lines, but otherwise, I found this book enjoyable.

Jill discusses how she divorced her husband and became a lesbian, and later started identifying as non-binary. She also talks about being involved in the #TimesUp movement, and what happened after she found out one of the stars of her show was accused of sexual harassment.

6) The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, Virginia Sole-Smith

Description: Food is supposed to sustain and nourish us. But for too many of us, food now feels dangerous. We parse every bite we eat as good or bad, and judge our own worth accordingly. When her newborn daughter stopped eating after a medical crisis, Virginia spent two years teaching her how to feel safe around food again — and in the process, realized just how many of us are struggling to do the same thing.

This is a good look at the wide variety of ways we obsess over food: clean eating, orthorexia, detoxing (the author refers to the eco/alternative-food movement as the “mass marketing of disordered eating”). There are also discussions on pregnancy/breastfeeding nutrition, food insecurity due to poverty, and bariatric surgery.

I didn’t learn anything new or earth shattering, but it’s a good overview for those who haven’t already done a lot of reading on the subject.

7) Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, Barbara Lynch

Description: This is Lynch’s remarkable process of self-invention, including her encounters with colorful characters of the food world, and vividly evokes the magic of creation in the kitchen. It is also a love letter to South Boston and its vanishing culture, governed by Irish Catholic mothers and its own code of honor.

Barbara grew up in South Boston (Southie), with a dead father and a mother who was too distracted by her large brood of kids to pay attention. She regularly stole things she needed, didn’t graduate from high school, and exaggerated her early experience in order to get jobs at restaurants. Despite all that, she rose from her humble beginnings to become the owner of a Boston restaurant empire.

There were problems with this book: for instance, whoever edited it should lose their job. I’ve never seen so many words missing from sentences before – just missing entirely, where it was very obvious. After one or two omissions, it was like, “Huh.” After a dozen or more, it became a bit annoying. The pacing of the book also seemed a little stilted, especially as I got closer to the end.

However, I liked the rags-to-riches aspect, and her stubbornness and drive. Overlooking the negatives, I still enjoyed the story.

8) Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Stephanie Land

Description: This is Land’s memoir about working as a maid, a beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America. In it, she explores the underbelly of upper-middle class America and the reality of what it’s like to be in service to them.

I struggled with how to categorize this. It’s one of those books that feels important to read but you might not love the subject matter. I found myself judging some of the author’s choices, mostly the ones that involved (what I saw as) bad money decisions she made while poor. I realize I’m viewing her choices as a result of my own knowledge about using and saving money, while she didn’t have that. I also realized, when I found myself judging some of her actions, these are my biases coming out and it’s helpful to look at and confront them.

The author, in turn, comes across as judgmental toward the people she worked for, usually because they had things she wanted but couldn’t afford. She also very much disliked not being acknowledged by the homeowners in some way, like those who never asked her name.

Parts of the book were entertaining to read, like the habits (often quite gross) of people whose houses she cleaned. Others parts were more difficult, like when she laments how lonely she was most of the time, doing most of the work of raising her daughter on her own, and how she feared she wasn’t being as good of a mother as her daughter deserved. Ultimately though, she was taking college courses while working as a (very low-paid) maid, and now she’s doing better.

I felt like the book needed an epilogue. The book ends with her in a slightly-better position but it doesn’t address her slow rise out of extreme poverty or how she got where she is today. A few pages at the end would have been a nice wrap-up.

9) To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret, Jedidiah Jenkins

Description: On the eve of turning thirty, Jenkins quit his job and spent the next 16 months cycling from Oregon to Patagonia. As he traverses cities, mountains, and inner boundaries, Jenkins grapples with the questions of what it means to be an adult, his struggle to reconcile his sexual identity with his conservative Christian upbringing, and his belief in travel as a way to “wake us up” to life back home.

There were some things that annoyed me about this book. For instance, Jed is a gay Christian, and there was more religious talk than I expected or wanted to read (there’s an especially long conversation he recounts as he’s hiking with some friends to Machu Picchu).

I also disliked his lack of preparation. He was over 30 years old when he embarked on this trip, he knew for over three years in advance that it would be happening, yet he did almost zero prep. There was no physical training, no research into what he needed to take with him, no bicycle maintenance classes, or Spanish practice.

I did like Jed’s adventure, and the honesty with which he wrote about it. He was up front about the negatives, like the obvious physical difficulties, and all the times he felt annoyed, scared, bored, and lonely. He almost gave up a couple of times, but instead he’d hitchhike certain sections, or take 10 days off to visit family in the U.S. over Christmas (in his defense, that was the only time he returned to the U.S. during his 16-month bike ride).

Also, the way he described some of the locations he visited really made me want to see them for myself. (I have no desire to do the long bike rides in-between though.)

Okay

10) The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala Harris

Description: From one of America’s inspiring political leaders, a book about the core truths that unite us, and the long struggle to discern what those truths are and how best to act upon them, in her own life and across the life of our country.

I agree with Kamala’s politics, but I couldn’t rate this as Recommended because the book reads like one long campaign ad. She covers her fight for fairness in the criminal justice system, her battle with the banks during the mortgage crisis, kids being ripped from their parents at the border, our nation’s rampant opioid use, etc. Someone who is interested in her position on various subjects would find value in this.

I was looking for more personal anecdotes – like we got in Michelle Obama’s fabulous memoir – but there weren’t many of those details to be found. She covered her entire childhood, college, and early working career in Chapter 1. She also mentions meeting and marrying her husband, and her mother getting cancer, but she doesn’t dwell on either topic, instead using them as a springboard to discuss her fight for marriage equality and her thoughts on universal healthcare.

11) North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both, Cea Sunrise Person

Description: In the late 1960s, Cea’s family left a comfortable existence in California to live off the land in the Canadian wilderness. Led by Cea’s grandfather Dick, they lived a pot-smoking, free-loving, clothing-optional life under a canvas tipi without running water, electricity, or heat for the bitter winters.

Cea had…quite an interesting childhood. Her mother got pregnant with her at age 16, and she grew up around constant adult nudity, pot smoking, mental illness, and financial instability. There was more emphasis on telling the tales of her childhood; from adolescence through adulthood, the story becomes choppy.

12) Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman

Description: This collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story.

This is a quick read – 18 essays in just over 150 pages. A few essays were more enjoyable than others, but even though they focused on books and reading, I didn’t love it. Possibly this was because I don’t have a need to collect physical books like some book lovers do (the author and her husband own thousands of titles between them). For me, I’m content to read and move on.

13) Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York, Multiple Authors

Description: Featuring contributions from such luminaries as Elizabeth Gilbert, Susan Orlean, Nick Flynn, Adelle Waldman, Phillip Lopate, Owen King, Amy Sohn, and many others, this collection of essays is a must-have for every lover of New York, regardless of whether or not you call the Big Apple home.

There weren’t many essays that I considered to be particularly noteworthy or exceptional, but it did make me want to move to New York City. Ha!

Books

Books Read in January 2019

I read 17 books in January (five were audiobooks). Holy hell. It’s been a long time since I’ve read so many books in a month. There are reasons: Some of them I started in late December and finished in early January. There was cold weather, several holidays, and a snow day off work. Also, quite a few of these were not very long books. I don’t often pick up super-thick books, but there were more shorter books this month than I usually read (around 200 pages or less).

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

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

Recommended

1) Give a Girl a Knife: A Memoir, Amy Thielen

Description: A food memoir chronicling one cook’s journey from her rural Midwestern hometown to the intoxicating world of New York City fine dining and back again in search of her culinary roots.

I really enjoyed this: Amy’s childhood, how she met her husband, their move from rural Minnesota to New York (so she could become a cook and he could focus on his art), and all the food descriptions. And then their eventual return to Minnesota, which is where they live today. Amy had a show on the Food Network and published a cookbook, but I didn’t know about her before discovering this memoir. She’s very likable, and the book is well-written. I think you’d like it, too.

2) My Misspent Youth: Essays, Meghan Daum

Description: Daum is one of the most celebrated nonfiction writers of her generation, widely recognized for the fresh, provocative approach with which she unearths hidden fault lines in the American landscape.

I’ve enjoyed all of Meghan Daum’s nonfiction. In fact, I rated her book The Unspeakable as one of my Top Five of 2017.

Until this month, the only one I hadn’t read was a book of essays she published in 2001 (which was re-released in 2015). It came to my attention again when I saw my friend Siel mention it on Instagram not long ago.

I do like Meghan’s newer books better, but this one is worth reading. Even though the essays were written almost twenty years ago (there are a few dated mentions, like America Online), they hold up. The title essay is based on this popular article she wrote for the New Yorker, but I also enjoyed the essays on her hatred of carpets, her hatred of dolls (yeah, I guess there’s a bit of an opinionated theme here), her infatuation with Jewish men, and growing up as a mediocre oboe player with musician parents.

3) The Incomplete Book of Running, Peter Sagal

Description: Sagal, the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” and a popular columnist for Runner’s World, shares his insightful and entertaining look at life and running that explores the transformative power of the sport.

Some of the books I read motivate me to take action – at least while I’m reading them. I’ve read several books written by runners, and those authors love the sport so much, and talk it up to such an extent, that it really makes me want to become a runner. At least until I get to the end of the book and move on to something else. (I am also this way when I read books about writing. I am so motivated to start typing up that book I’ve said for years I’m going to write. But then I get to the end and immediately lose momentum.)

So yes, I liked this book. He had advice for current runners, but also gave motivation to aspiring runners, and was honest about how running sometimes really sucks.

The only thing I didn’t care for was the constant mentions of his tough divorce. I realize this was taking up a lot of his headspace, but it seemed like too much (especially since he wasn’t necessarily giving new details whenever he brought it up; it seemed like he was just reminding us that it happened and he was bothered by it).

4) Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, Liza Mundy

Description: Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy, more than 10,000 women served as codebreakers during World War II. They moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied.

These women were super impressive. They broke codes that were not only extremely complex, but written in languages they didn’t know. It took a lot of diligence and patience — some codes were so complex, they took years to break. And all of this happened without the assistance of computers. I had no idea of how widespread this was: thousands of women were recruited from colleges to move to Washington, DC (of course most of them were encouraged/forced to leave once their male counterparts returned from the war, but we know that already).

5) Lush: A Memoir, Kerry Cohen

Description: This is a gripping memoir that examines Kerry’s struggle with alcohol, a struggle that a rising number of middle-aged women are facing today as alcohol dependency amongst females drastically increases.

Cohen acknowledges that her story is not particularly special: “I have an unremarkable story…It’s a story about how I reached midlife, looked around, and thought, Really? This is how things turned out? Hit with the reality that so little of what I had imagined would come to be — as a mother, a wife, a woman — I started to drink, and then I started to drink way too much.”

This isn’t a story of someone with a huge problem who had to give up drinking entirely; it’s someone who became an alcohol abuser but ended up being able to moderate her intake again, instead of giving it up entirely. While that may not sound all that interesting, the way she puts everything together — and especially the way she makes her life seem relatable, because I dare say more women are alcohol abusers than need Alcoholics Anonymous / complete sobriety — makes this worth reading and recommending.

6) The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History, Megan Mullally & Nick Offerman

Description: Eighteen years after meeting on the set of a play, Megan and Nick are still in love and have decided to reveal the philosophical mountains they have conquered and the lessons they have learned.

I listened to this on audio. It’s entertaining, and I recommend it, but I probably wouldn’t like the physical version as much. Most of this book is a back-and-forth conversation between Megan and Nick, which is funny to listen to but would probably annoy me if I was reading it. You do miss out on some physical photos in the audio version, although they make up for it at the end with the addition of an audio-only bonus chapter.

Another minor complaint is that Nick repeats some of the info from his book, Paddle Your Own Canoe. I probably wouldn’t have noticed so much if it weren’t for the fact that I just listened to that book last month.

Topics include how they met, their very different childhoods, religious views, thoughts on kids (they tried for a while but weren’t successful, then were ultimately glad they ended up child-free — it reminded me of my situation, which was pretty cool).

7) And the Heart Says Whatever, Emily Gould

Description: Gould talks about becoming an adult in New York City in the first decade of the 21st century, alongside bartenders, bounty hunters, bloggers, bohemians, socialites, and bankers. At once a road map of what not to do and a document of what’s possible, this book heralds the arrival of a writer who decodes the new challenges of our post-private lives, and the age-old intricacies of the human heart.

Over ten years ago, Emily Gould made a name for herself as a prolific blogger (12 posts a day) for Gawker.com, and in 2008 she wrote a long essay about her life as a blogger for The New York Times Magazine. Emily’s life hasn’t been without controversy, but her memoir focuses on formative events in her life instead of all the drama (which I liked). I was iffy on the first few essays but they got better as the book progressed.

8) Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More, Erin Boyle

Description: Filled with personal essays, projects, and helpful advice on how to be inventive and resourceful in a tight space, Simple Matters shows that living simply is about making do with less and ending up with more: more free time, more time with loved ones, more savings, and more things of beauty.

I always enjoy reading Erin’s blog, which I’ve followed for years, and her book was no different. She writes beautifully about simplicity, a topic dear to my heart, so I knew I would like the subject matter. Her experience is concentrated on paring down while living in a very small space, but her tips could work for anyone looking for guidance on simplifying their home.

9) The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life, Hana Schank & Elizabeth Wallace

Description: As they faced fraught decisions about their lives, journalists Schank and Wallace found themselves wondering about the women they’d graduated alongside. What happened to these women who seemed set to reap the rewards of second-wave feminism? Where did their ambition lead them? They tracked them down and, over several hundred hours of interviews, gathered and mapped data about real women’s lives that has been missing from our conversations about women and the workplace.

I feel like this book is better suited for younger women (like fresh out of college), but there’s some good information here. There’s a lot of discussion about children, which is understandable since a majority of women have children at some point in their lives, but it’s not applicable to me (they do cover childfree women, but not as in-depth).

10) The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, Joanna Scutts

Description: You’ve met the extra woman: she’s sophisticated, she lives comfortably alone, and she pursues her passions. A delicious cocktail of cultural history and literary biography, The Extra Woman transports us to the turbulent and transformative years between suffrage and the sixties, when, thanks to the glamorous grit of one Marjorie Hillis, single women boldly claimed and enjoyed their independence.

According to the author, Hillis’ book was “much more than a treasure trove of vintage style tips: It was a beacon of social change and a precursor to the feminist revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s.”

Women had been living alone before Marjorie Hillis wrote about it; she was just the first to celebrate it and bring the practice into the mainstream. The book sold a lot of copies for its time and was seen as a “cultural phenomenon.” In addition to describing Marjorie’s life and her subsequent books, this book also featured other influential women from that era, like Irma Rombauer (of Joy of Cooking fame). It’s an interesting look at life in New York City in the 1930s.

Okay

11) Love with a Chance of Drowning, Torre DeRoche

Description: Torre isn’t looking for love, but a chance encounter in a bar sparks a connection with a soulful Argentinian man who unexpectedly sweeps her off her feet. The problem? He’s just about to voyage around the world on his small sailboat, and Torre is terrified of deep water. However, Torre determines that to keep the man of her dreams, she must embark on the voyage of her nightmares, so she waves goodbye to dry land and braces for a life-changing journey that’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying.

I generally like memoirs about adventurous women, but this one just seemed silly. Also, I kept thinking there was way too much conversation, and there were a series of misadventures with her klutzy, hard-headed partner that made me wonder how she could have agreed to go out on the ocean with him. She wrote another book after this one (which I read in 2017) that I liked better.

12) I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, Maggie O’Farrell

Description: This is O’Farrell’s astonishing memoir of the near-death experiences that have punctuated and defined her life. Seventeen discrete encounters at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots.

This wasn’t bad, but when every essay is about a near-death experience that you know the author makes it through alive, it becomes repetitive after a while. One of the longest chapters was about a miscarriage, and it seemed like something she just really wanted to write about in detail because it was a stretch to consider it a life-threatening event. One of the more interesting anecdotes came at the very end when she described how her daughter has extreme allergies that threaten her life every single day (and indeed, has come close to dying herself on multiple occasions).

13) Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen

Description: In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, 18-year-old Susanna was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years in the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Eh. I only picked this up because I’m thinking of joining a book club and this is their February pick. (Whether I actually join them or not remains to be seen — I found the book club on Meetup.com but I don’t know a single person in the group. It’s difficult for me to psych myself up to join a group where I don’t know a soul. But I’ve read the book, just in case!)

This book is short (the hardback I checked out from the library was only 168 pages), and has short chapters, which always encourages me to read faster. I got through it in just a few hours one Sunday morning. It’s not bad, but it’s not as good as I would have expected, since there was a movie based on it. The book may have been revolutionary for its time, but there are much better memoirs available nowadays.

Don’t worry, Kaysen agrees with me. This article was written last year, 25 years after the book came out. She said she felt her book “was a failure and that she probably should’ve written a better one.”

Not Recommended

14) Like Brothers, Mark & Jay Duplass

Description: Whether producing, writing, directing, or acting, the Duplass brothers have made their mark in the world of independent film and television on the strength of their quirky and empathetic approach to storytelling. Now Mark and Jay take readers on a tour of their lifelong partnership told in essays that share the secrets of their success, the joys and frustrations of intimate collaboration, and the lessons they’ve learned the hard way.

I assumed this book about two brothers who became wildly successful would be an interesting read. I assumed wrong. To be more specific, the sections about their lives and how they made it in show biz were okay (it was also nice to see how close the brothers have been since they were small children), but I hated the filler – the sections they included to bulk up the page count. The filler included such things as their “top 10 films,” an apology letter to a former college roommate, and this really boring thing where they’d pick a random person in an airport and then go back-and-forth making up a story about this person. They did this not once, but several times. WHO DOES THIS AND WHO CARES?

I listened to this on audio, and I would have abandoned it except I was waiting for a few others I had on hold to become available, so I listened to this in the meantime. (I did skip over some of the more egregiously asinine parts.)

15) My Squirrel Days, Ellie Kemper

Description: Comedian and star of “The Office” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Ellie Kemper delivers a refreshing collection of essays.

I should have known I wouldn’t like this because of the dumb title. I read this as quickly as possible to minimize the pain of how much I disliked it. I’ve read some books written by funny ladies that I liked, but I did not like this particular funny lady’s book.

16) Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, A.J. Jacobs

Description: The idea was deceptively simple: Jacobs decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.

I’ve read several of AJ’s books and I liked them all better than this one. I didn’t find this one to be nearly as fleshed-out (or as entertaining) as his previous books. It seemed like the people he was thanking – obscure people, like those who make the plastic bags that keep coffee beans fresh during shipping – became a numbers game (“How many people can I thank??!!!”) instead of exploring the subject in depth.

17) The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, Deborah Levy

Description: This book explores the subtle erasure of women’s names, spaces, and stories in the modern everyday. Levy critiques the roles that society assigns to us, and reflects on the politics of breaking with the usual gendered rituals.

I was surprised — a lot of people on Goodreads rated this book very highly. I’ve seen much better books not ranked nearly as high as this one (and over 1,000 people have rated it).

I just didn’t get it. There was nothing that pulled me in. I thought it jumped around, and she wasn’t saying anything that made me relate to her or her situation, which is what I look for in memoirs.

On the bright side, it’s a slim book and only took me a few hours to read, so the misery didn’t last long.

Books

Looking Back at the Books I Read in 2018

This is the second time I’ve compiled stats on my reading preferences (see 2017 here). As with last year, I’m pretty consistent with the type of books I pick up.

I have an overwhelming preference for memoirs and other nonfiction. Out of the 94 books I read in 2018, only two were fiction (Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, both of which I rated as Okay). I read five fiction books in 2017.

Most of the books I read are written by women. Out of 94 books, only 18 were written by men. That means 81% of the books I read in 2018 were written by female authors. (The percentage was actually higher in 2017, when 83% of the books I read were written by women.)

I increased the number of minority authors I read this year, which was one of my goals. I went from reading only 14% minority authors in 2017 to reading 31% minority authors in 2018. (I include writers of color, LGBTQ, and underrepresented religious groups in the minority category.)

I listened to even more audiobooks this year. In 2017, 34% of my total was in audio format, while this year it was almost 45%.

Out of 94 books, here’s the breakdown of how I rated them:

  • Highly Recommended: 9
  • Recommended: 50
  • Okay: 30
  • Not Recommended: 5

In 2018, 63% of the books I read were rated as either Highly Recommended or Recommended, while the previous year was only 60%. I’m glad to see that percentage climbing!

Here are my top five books of 2018:

Do your reading habits look anything like mine?

Books

Books Read in December 2018

I read thirteen books in December (three were audiobooks), which is the most I’ve read in a single month this year. This brings my 2018 total to 94.

This is 19 books less than what I read in 2017, but I am completely fine with that. I started a new job back in March, and it’s the best job I’ve had in my over-20 years of working. It also keeps me busier than I’ve ever been at a job, but it’s nice not to watch the clock all day, wondering when it’s time to go home.

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

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

Highly Recommended

1) Becoming: A Memoir, Michelle Obama

Description: Obama chronicles the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With honesty and wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms.

I listened to this on audio and was disappointed when it ended, which is the mark of a good book. Michelle starts with her childhood and delves into her schooling and early working years. She talks about meeting Barack, of course, and how great their relationship has been over the years. At the same time, she shared the annoying things he does, how he often wasn’t home once he decided to enter politics, and how this led them to seek marriage counseling at one point.

She wasn’t initially supportive of him running for president; she thought he should be more prudent and understandably, after having a great career of her own, she had issues with “being known as someone’s wife.” She writes of his election campaign, the inauguration, and life as the first black First Lady.

Recommended

2) Killing It: An Education, Camas Davis

Description: This is Davis’ unexpected journey from magazine editor to butcher. It’s a story that takes her from a stint in rural France (where deep artisanal craft and whole-animal gastronomy thrive despite the rise of mass-scale agribusiness), back to a Portland in the throes of a food revolution, where she attempts to translate this old-world craft and way of life into a new world setting. Along the way, Davis learns what it really means to pursue the real thing and dedicate your life to it.

This is a great story. I have no desire to become a butcher, but I love (and have for a long time) reading about women who decide to completely change their lives. Camas was a writer and magazine editor by trade, but when she lost her job, she decided to study butchery in France. That, in turn, led her to found the Portland Meat Collective. Also, her description of what life was like in rural France made me want to go there immediately.

This is a good article in Vogue, and this is a short video that explains what she does.

3) Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Description: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame—she has only tried to make the world a little better and a little freer. But nearly a half-century into her career, something funny happened to the octogenarian: she won the internet.

We all know (or hopefully you know) that RBG is a badass. She’s been fighting on behalf of women (and gender discrimination in general) for a very long time. This book delves into some of the legal battles she’s best known for and includes anecdotes about her personal life. I liked hearing that, due to an aversion to cooking, she made her last meal way back in 1980 (the year I was born).

I liked this quote on why she supports abortion rights: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

I’ve seen RBG’s documentary, which was fantastic, and I also look forward to seeing the movie based on her life when it comes out next year (the screenplay was written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, and Ruth makes a cameo).

4) The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander

Description: Alexander finds herself at an existential crossroads after the sudden death of her husband. As she reflects on the beauty of her married life, the trauma resulting from her husband’s death, and the solace found in caring for her two teenage sons, Alexander universalizes a very personal quest for meaning in the wake of loss.

Extremely sad but also beautifully written. She had a deep relationship with her husband that not a lot of married people have.

5) Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World, Scott Harrison

Description: Harrison recounts the twists and turns that built charity: water into one of the most trusted and admired nonprofits in the world. Renowned for its 100% donation model, bold storytelling, imaginative branding, and radical commitment to transparency, charity: water has disrupted how social entrepreneurs work while inspiring millions of people to join its mission of bringing clean water to everyone on the planet within our lifetime.

A club-promoting party guy decides to put that life aside and do something useful for mankind. There’s a bit of “going back to the religion of his childhood” aspect to this story, but luckily he doesn’t dwell on the particulars of that too much (and he’s adamant that his nonprofit, charity: water, is not religion-based). He started off volunteering with Mercy Ships, and later decided to start his own organization focused on bringing clean water to those who don’t have it, or those who have to walk a long time to reach it (in underprivileged countries, a task which predominantly falls on females). Scott has an energetic voice, so it was enjoyable to listen to on audio.

6) What If This Were Enough?: Essays, Heather Havrilesky

Description: By the acclaimed critic, memoirist, and advice columnist behind the popular “Ask Polly,” an impassioned collection tackling our obsession with self-improvement and urging readers to embrace the imperfections of the everyday.

I’ve become a fan of reading nonfiction essay collections over the past few years. I like how this one encourages readers not to seek validation in things that don’t matter. Heather uses examples like the Disney establishment, the 50 Shades of Gray book trilogy, articles on Buzzfeed that feature a bunch of nothing, and television shows like Entourage. She also called out the foodie movement as “gross overconsumption.”

I’m far from enlightened, but I don’t need to be told to avoid the examples she gave — they’ve never interested me in the first place. Here is an excerpted essay from the book, and here is a popular piece she wrote for the New York Times a few months back.

7) All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir, Nicole Chung

Description: Chung was born premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life. But as she grew up — facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see — she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

I liked this so much in the beginning that I expected to rate it as Highly Recommended. The second half (after she reached out to her birth family for the first time) fell a bit flat – a lot of it seemed repetitive (in terms of the questions and issues she was struggling with) and it just wasn’t as interesting. However, it’s still a decent story, and I feel like it would be especially interesting to someone who was adopted as a child, or who is thinking about adopting a child of a different ethnic background.

8) My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now, Peter Mayle

Description: Mayle, champion of all things Provence, here in a final volume of all new writing, offers vivid recollections from his 25 years in the south of France — lessons learned, culinary delights enjoyed, and changes observed.

I’ve read a few of Mayle’s earlier books about his move from England to Provence, France. I’ve always had a soft spot for books about the French life — this one doesn’t offer anything new, but it was still an enjoyable read.

9) Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, Nick Offerman

Description: Growing a perfect moustache, grilling red meat, wooing a woman—who better to deliver this tutelage than the charming Nick Offerman? Combining his trademark comic voice and very real expertise in woodworking, this book features tales from Offerman’s childhood in small-town Minooka, Illinois to his theater days in Chicago, and his beginnings as a carpenter/actor.

There are certain books I enjoy on audio that I don’t think I’d like nearly as much if I read the physical version — this is one of them. Hearing Offerman read his book makes it much more entertaining. (He’s also very funny in person. I saw him perform a live show at the Warner Theater in DC in early 2013.)

Thanks to Jaclyn for the recommendation! She listened to the book on audio as well, which is what persuaded me to add it to my list.

Okay

10) Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food, Ann Hood

Description: Hood tracks her lifelong journey in the kitchen with twenty-seven heartfelt essays, each accompanied by a recipe.

This was a quick read with short chapters. I liked the conversational tone and the stories about her memories of food. My peeve with it is that Ann repeated certain facts over and over throughout the essays like we’d never heard them before. (For instance: One of her daughters died as a five-year-old. That’s horrible and I’m sure it impacted her life in a big way, but I don’t need it brought up every-other chapter like I’ve never heard it before.)

It’s fine to remind your audience of things they might forget; you just shouldn’t word it as brand new information when your readers are likely to have read the entire book. It’s not the type of book you’d be likely to skip around and read.

11) Every Day I’m Hustling, Vivica A. Fox

Description: Vivica has created a lasting career on her own, through sheer DIY hustle. She provides start-today strategies for success in business and “been there” lessons in love, buttressed with stories from early family life through today.

This is one of those books I pick up when everything else I’d rather read is on hold at the library. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not the type of book I gravitate toward. I ended up learning a lot about her relationship with rapper 50 Cent (it was the longest chapter in the book), which was entertaining, but the rest of it wasn’t memorable.

12) So Sad Today: Personal Essays, Melissa Broder

Description: In the fall of 2012, Broder went through a harrowing cycle of panic attacks and dread that wouldn’t abate for months. So she began @sosadtoday, an anonymous Twitter feed that allowed her to express her darkest feelings. Here, she delves deeper into the existential themes she explores on Twitter, grappling with sex, death, love low self-esteem, and addiction.

I tend to like memoir in the form of essays, but this one isn’t a winner. As a warning, she’s pretty explicit in the way she details her sexual exploits and open marriage. The openness doesn’t bother me; the essays just aren’t very good. There were several that I found interesting or entertaining, but I wouldn’t recommend this overall.

Not Recommended

13) I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff, Abbi Jacobson

Description: When Abbi announced that she planned to drive across the country alone, she was met with lots of questions and opinions. But Abbi had always found comfort in solitude, and needed space to step back and hit the reset button. On her way to Los Angeles, she mulled over the big questions: What do I really want? What is the worst possible scenario in which I could run into my ex? How has the decision to wear my shirts tucked in been pivotal in my adulthood?

Abbi is the co-creator and co-star of the Comedy Central series Broad City. I’ve never seen the show, but when has that ever stopped me from reading a memoir written by a woman? Unfortunately, this one gets bumped to the bottom category because it contains quite a bit of filler that was not at all entertaining. For example: she shared some thoughts that may have entered her brain when she couldn’t sleep. Even worse, she couldn’t stop with writing just one chapter; there were multiple chapters like that. (This is just as bad as someone writing about their dreams. Nobody cares about your dreams and nobody cares what you’re thinking when you’re trying to go to sleep.)

Books

Books Read in November 2018

I read eight books in November (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2018 total to 81.

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

Recommended

1) Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh

Description: During Sarah’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, she challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

This story (on escaping the cycle of rural poverty) is excellent, and worth reading. The only thing I didn’t like was that the author writes as if she’s talking to her unborn daughter (the one she chose not to have because she didn’t want to end up a teenage parent like her mother and grandmother before her). It threw me off, and I thought the book would have been better without it.

2) In Pieces, Sally Field

Description: Field brings readers behind-the-scenes for not only the highs and lows of her star-studded early career in Hollywood, but deep into the truth of her lifelong relationships. Powerful and unforgettable, this is an inspiring and important account of life as a woman in the second half of the twentieth century.

Everyone knows Sally Field, but the details of her life surprised me. She didn’t have friends as a kid; she was sexually abused by her stepfather; she had a then-illegal abortion at age 17; she battled depression and binge eating. She talks openly about her relationship with the controlling Burt Reynolds. She also addresses her shortcomings as a mother and romantic partner. A heartfelt and interesting page-turner.

3) Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, Heather Harpham

Description: A page-turning love story that follows a one-of-a-kind family through twists of fate that require nearly unimaginable choices.

This is a great story. I forced myself not to look up details on the author while I was reading her book because I honestly couldn’t guess how the ending was going to turn out. Would her daughter live? Would the relationship with the child’s father last? It kept me guessing and I liked that.

4) The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution, Brent Preston

Description: The inspiring story of a family that quit the rat race and left the city to live out their ideals on an organic farm, and ended up building a model for a new kind of agriculture.

As much as I love urban living, I’ve always been interested in people who leave it behind and take up farming. (No, I could never do it. I don’t have nearly enough energy.)

5) All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know about Getting and Spending, Laura Vanderkam

Description: How happy would you be if you had all the money in the world? The universal lament about money is that there is never enough. We spend endless hours obsessing over our budgets and investments, trying to figure out ways to stretch every dollar. Vanderkam shows how each of us can figure out better ways to use what we have to build the lives we want.

This was a rare re-read for me because I had the physical book on my shelf and wanted to donate it, but I remembered liking it when I first picked it up years ago. So I read it again before dropping it off at a thrift store. The messages had less of an impact this time around because I read about financial topics pretty often, but it’s still a good book. Definitely recommended for those looking to make thrifty changes in their lives.

Okay

6) Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, Ibtihaj Muhammad

Description: Growing up in New Jersey as the only African American Muslim at school, Ibtihaj always had to find her own way. When she discovered fencing, a sport traditionally reserved for the wealthy, she had to defy expectations and make a place for herself in a sport she grew to love.

This woman seems great and she’s extremely inspiring and hard working, but it’s just not good writing. Too simplistic and too many exclamation points.

7) Jell-O Girls: A Family History, Allie Rowbottom

Description: A gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune, this is a family history, a feminist history, and a story of motherhood, love and loss.

This was fine but could have been better. I thought the premise sounded interesting, but there was too much focus on a family “curse,” which came across as cheesy.

Not Recommended

8) Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, Ron Stallworth

Description: In 1978 the community of Colorado Springs experienced a growth of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) membership. One man, Police Detective Ron Stallworth, dared to challenge their effort and thwart attempts to take over the city. He launched an undercover investigation into the Klan, gained membership into the organization, briefly served as Duke’s bodyguard, and was eventually asked to be the leader of the Colorado Springs chapter. The irony of this investigation was that Stallworth is…a black man.

I’ve heard the movie is worth watching (I haven’t seen it), but skip the book. The writing is awful. I only plowed through it because the book isn’t very long.

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.