I read 13 books in June (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 55.
I finished a ton of books this month, but in my defense, I’d started at least four of them in May — which means I finished all four in the first few days of June. (I’m usually reading multiple books at any given time: at least one ebook, one physical book, and one audiobook.)
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister
Description: The phenomenon of the single woman in America is not a new one. Historically, when women were given options beyond early heterosexual marriage, the results were massive social change—temperance, abolition, secondary education, and more. This is a remarkable portrait of contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the single American woman.
I thought I’d read enough about single ladies (what an awesome bunch!) over the years, so I didn’t intend to read this book until I came across this review. I’m glad I did. Even though there was a lot of information I already knew, there was a lot of new material as well.
Although this should be common knowledge by now, the author did a good job of showing how being single as an adult for an extended period of time is now mainstream, and that it’s preferable to delay serious relationships and/or marriage until you’ve been through many life experiences on your own. Like me, the author was single for a long time before she decided to marry (she got married at age 35, I was 33-and-a-half).
I like how she touched on the history of notable single women (those who paved the way for mass acceptance today), the prevalence of single women living in cities, and examples of strong female friendship.
2) New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, William Powers
Description: Burned-out after years of doing development work around the world, Powers spent a season in a 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin off the grid in North Carolina, as recounted in his award-winning memoir Twelve by Twelve. Could he live a similarly minimalist life in New York City? To find out, Powers and his wife jettisoned 80% of their stuff and moved into a 350-square-foot “micro-apartment” in Greenwich Village. Downshifting to a two-day workweek, Powers explores the viability of Slow Food and Slow Money, technology fasts and urban sanctuaries. Discovering a colorful cast of New Yorkers attempting to resist the culture of Total Work, Powers offers an inspiring exploration for anyone trying to make urban life more people- and planet-friendly.
I read and enjoyed Twelve-by-Twelve in May, and this one was no different. This book takes Powers from a tiny house in rural NC to a tiny studio apartment in NYC. Instead of long walks on country roads, through forests, and sitting by a creek for hours at a time, Powers spends time listening to musicians in a park, on the roof deck of his apartment building, and sitting by a river. I think this book can be more relatable to people interested in slowing down, since it takes place in a major city rather than in the woods. Through it all, he explores topics related to living slow, and asks himself questions about how he wants to lead his life now and in the future.
3) Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein
Description: With casual hookups and campus rape relentlessly in the news, parents can be forgiven for feeling anxious about their young daughters. They’re also fearful about opening up a dialog. Not Orenstein. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times best-selling author of books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein spoke to psychologists, academics, and other experts in the field (and yes, 70 young women), to offer an in-depth picture of girls and sex today.
This is a book every parent with a preteen-ish daughter should read. It’s extremely unfortunate there is so much misinformation and ambiguity around girls and sexuality. I certainly wish I had been better informed around that age. Topics include how expectations of oral sex and hooking up have changed in the past few decades, and the prevalence of campus rape and sexual assault, among others, with many disturbing statistics.
This book wasn’t all that relatable for me personally (as someone who is married with no children), but it is something I’d want to read if I had a preteen daughter. If that ever happens, hopefully I won’t need to read this book again because things will have changed for the better by then.
4) Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart, Jennifer Barclay
Description: One winter, after her love life falls apart, Jennifer decides to spend a month on a tiny, wild Greek island. It’s a chance to find another kind of contentment, one that comes from holding an octopus in your hands. She decides to stay longer, but just when everything is falling into place again, the strangest thing happens…
If I come across a memoir about a woman leaving her home country to live somewhere foreign, I’ll pretty much always put it on my reading list. I’ve been like this for many years; I can’t see this interest ever changing.
From the description, I thought this book might be a little too romance-oriented, but I was glad to see it wasn’t that way at all. In fact, there’s a twist to the relationship which was hinted at during the story, but still, the way it turned out surprised me. There is also very little mention of bees and honey in the story, so if you’re a bee enthusiast, don’t let the title fool you (I didn’t care; I just thought I’d point it out).
5) Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate), Amy Thomas
Description: This is a personal and moveable feast that’s a treasure map for anyone who loves fresh cupcakes and fine chocolate, New York and Paris, and life in general. It’s about how the search for happiness can be as fleeting as a sliver of cheesecake and about how the life you’re meant to live doesn’t always taste like the one you envisioned.
Amy worked in advertising in NYC when she got an opportunity to join the Louis Vuitton account in Paris. A longtime Francophile, of course she jumped at the chance. Her experience starts off feeling magical and exciting, later devolves into loneliness and depression, but she manages to bring it back around and enjoy her stay (and even extend her contract; she ends up living in Paris almost two years). Along the way, her committed sweet tooth leads her to the best desserts in the city. (I even made note of a few locations, just in case I end up back there one day — it’s been almost twelve years since I visited in 2004.)
6) Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, Bill McKibben
Description: With the Arctic melting, the Midwest in drought, and Hurricane Irene scouring the Atlantic, McKibben recognized action was needed if solutions were to be found. Some of those would come at the local level, where he joins forces with a Vermont beekeeper raising his hives as part of the growing trend toward local food. Other solutions would come from a much larger fight against the fossil-fuel industry as a whole. This is McKibben’s account of these two necessary and mutually reinforcing sides of the global climate fight — from the center of the maelstrom and from the growing hive of small-scale local answers.
This is the first book I’ve read of McKibben’s, but I liked it a lot. It was interesting to read about his environmental activism and all the time he spends on the cause, including the time he got hundreds of people to call attention to the Keystone pipeline fight by getting arrested while protesting in front of the White House. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of reading about his far-reaching activism-related travels with the very local aspect of honey production in his home state of Vermont.
7) Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Sarah Hepola
Description: For Sarah, drinking felt like freedom, part of her birthright as a strong, enlightened 21st-century woman. But there was a price. She often blacked out, waking up with a blank space where four hours should have been. Mornings became detective work on her own life. Publicly, she covered her shame with self-deprecating jokes, and her career flourished, but as the blackouts accumulated, she could no longer avoid a sinking truth: the fuel she thought she needed was draining her spirit instead. This is the story of a woman stumbling into a new kind of adventure — the sober life she never wanted.
I’ve read other books written by reformed alcoholics, but this is a particularly good one. Sarah is not much older than I am and I’ve read some of her online writing over the years. In addition to describing how she became an alcoholic and what her worst years were like, she also focused a lot on what happened after she became sober (for instance, she couldn’t write for the first six months because she was so used to writing while drinking). Her writing style is very relatable — honestly, I just really liked the way she puts sentences together, the words she chooses. She talked a bit too much about her beloved cat, but I was able to look past that annoyance.
8) Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans
Description: Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals — church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Centered around seven sacraments, Rachel’s quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.
I greatly enjoyed the author’s honesty because, for someone pretty well-known in the Christian community, she has a lot to say about her struggles with belief. She’s expressed cynicism many times in the pews, left churches when they didn’t fit with her values, and spent many Sundays at home, sleeping late and watching TV.
I particularly liked this quote:
I didn’t want to put my church story in print because…I still don’t know the ending. I am in the adolescence of my faith. There have been slammed doors and rolled eyes and defiant declarations of “I hate you!” hurled at every person or organization that represents the institutionalized church. I am angry and petulant, hopeful and naive. […] Church books are written by people with a plan and ten steps, not by Christians just hanging on by their fingernails.
One part that stood out to me was when Evans expressed how distraught she was when World Vision, an organization she’d personally worked with, had to backtrack on their decision to allow gays and lesbians to serve as employees in their organization because tens of thousands of kids were dropped by church-going parishioners in mass protests. (What a despicable case of misguided priorities. That’s the only way they could think of to show their displeasure?)
What I didn’t like were the inclusion of chapters that were essentially mini sermons. Evans’ personal story is worth reading though, so if you don’t like being preached to, you can skip the Bible lessons entirely and not miss out on anything.
9) When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, Addie Zierman
Description: Evangelical poster child Addie wore three bracelets asking what Jesus would do. She also led two Bible studies and listened exclusively to Christian music. She was on fire for God and unaware that the flame was dwindling—until it burned out. Addie chronicles her journey through church culture and first love, and her entrance—unprepared and angry—into marriage. When she drops out of church and very nearly her marriage as well, it is on a sea of tequila and depression. She isn’t sure if she’ll ever go back.
I was brought up similarly to Addie and recognized a lot of her references (Bible stories told with paper characters on felt boards, Awana, Amy Grant going mainstream, WWJD), although she was definitely more “on fire” with her faith than I ever was.
I didn’t mean to read two books (this one and the one mentioned above) related to the evangelical faith this month, but that’s the way the library hold process works sometimes. If I were to compare the two, I’d say I related to Addie’s story, enjoyed her conversational tone, and appreciated that she didn’t come across as preachy. With Rachel in Searching for Sunday, I was mesmerized by her words, and appreciated how raw and honest she was about her struggles with faith and how she still struggles day to day.
10) In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri
Description: Lahiri was first captivated by the Italian during a trip to Florence after college. Although she studied the language for many years afterward, true mastery eluded her. In 2012, seeking full immersion, she decided to move to Rome with her family, for “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world. This book investigates the process of learning to express oneself in another language, and describes the journey of a writer seeking a new voice.
There were some things I liked about this book and others I didn’t. I thought it was really interesting that she wrote this book entirely in Italian and had someone else translate it into English — understandably, she didn’t want to tempt herself into changing any of the words later (in other words, doing massive edits in her stronger language and making it “better”).
I didn’t like that so much of her writing came across with an ethereal tone (I’m not sure if that’s the exact word I’m looking for, but it’s the first that came to mind so I’m sticking with it). There was also a fictional dream sequence near the end that I didn’t understand and didn’t seem to fit.
I did enjoy when Lahiri talked about how she became multilingual (her original language is Bengali, then English when she moved to the U.S. as a young girl, and finally Italian when she picked it up at age 25), and how she’s never felt like she fit in 100% with any of these languages/cultures.
11) Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-planting Tribe, Charlotte Gill
Description: Gill spent twenty years working as a tree planter in the forests of Canada. She offers up a slice of tree-planting life in all of its soggy, gritty exuberance, while questioning the ability of conifer plantations to replace original forests that evolved over millennia into complex ecosystems. She looks at logging’s environmental impact and its boom-and-bust history, and touches on the versatility of wood, from which we have devised countless creations as diverse as textiles and airplane parts.
Trees are amazing, but I don’t have a particular interest in the life of tree planters (people who are hired to plant seedlings after a massive logging operation concludes). I picked this up because it was written by a woman, so in that aspect it was informative, since females are not common in that field. It’s not a bad book — it won a number of nonfiction awards — but there’s too much detail of the evolution of trees and history of logging, and way more description of nature than I care for (I’d rather experience nature myself; not read about it).
12) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein
Description: Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. She meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies.
Naomi is a committed environmental activist, and I respect her for that. This book is packed full of information she’s collected over the years, some of which I’d heard of, some of which surprised me (like how certain large nonprofits who are committed to protecting the environment have taken money from fossil fuel companies). However, I wouldn’t have tackled this book if I’d known it was 576 pages (I listened to the audiobook, and I didn’t look up the length in advance). It was just too long. I worked on it over the past few months, listening to other audiobooks in-between because I’d get tired of this one and needed a break.
13) Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood and Water Buffalo, Jenny Feldon
Description: When Jenny’s consultant husband is sent to manage a project in India for two years, she finds herself in water buffalo traffic jams. She struggles to fight depression, bitterness, and anger as her sense of self and her marriage began to unravel. And it was all India’s fault…right?
I think this woman was trying to be humorous, telling us about her overprivileged reactions and hijinks when she was sent to India against her will, but her helplessness was infuriating. (I also rolled my eyes when she described herself as “far from a feminist.”) Predictably, she redeems herself near the end, coming to terms with her situation by finding a yoga class, hiring household help, and volunteering at an orphanage. It’s too bad she spends so much of the book being insufferable.