Books Read in September 2015

I read nine books in September, which brings my 2015 total to 99. (Only one away from 100! So close!)

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

Highly Recommended


1) Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer

Description: Jonathan spent much of his teenage and college years oscillating between omnivore and vegetarian. But on the brink of fatherhood — facing the prospect of having to make dietary choices on a child’s behalf — his casual questioning took on an urgency. His quest for answers ultimately required him to visit factory farms in the middle of the night, dissect the emotional ingredients of meals from his childhood, and probe some of his most primal instincts about right and wrong.

After I finished reading this in e-book form, I immediately went to the library and checked out a physical copy for Paul. When he saw the title, he said, “I can’t read this. It will make me sad!” To which I responded, “Well, that’s exactly why you need to read it.”

Most people eat meat because they know very little (or nothing) about where it comes from. If you’re a meat-eater, the least you can do is educate yourself about how it arrives on your plate.

This guy is a very good writer and the book is incredibly powerful. There was nothing dense or boring about it. I even found myself wishing it was longer because I wanted to hear more of what he had to say.

Read this book. I wish I’d done so sooner.


2) The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People, Dan Buettner

Description: In this groundbreaking book, Buettner reveals how to transform your health using smart eating and lifestyle habits gleaned from new research on the diets, eating habits, and lifestyle practices of the communities he’s identified as “Blue Zones”—those places with the world’s longest-lived, and thus healthiest, people, including locations such as Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

I’m a big fan of this book — I wrote an entire post about it.

3) Veganist, Kathy Freston

Description: Kathy wasn’t born a vegan. The bestselling author and renowned wellness expert grew up on chicken-fried steak and cheesy grits, and loved nothing more than BBQ ribs and vanilla milkshakes. Not until her thirties did she embrace the lifestyle of a veganist — someone who eats a plant-based diet not just for their own personal well-being, but for the whole web of benefits it brings to our ecosystem and beyond.

I feel like Freston repeats herself a bit too much, but she presents a lot of good information in a nonthreatening, conversational way. She makes a compelling argument for veganism, but I couldn’t help remembering how I felt when I read books about the Paleo eating plan – those arguments were very persuasive, too. Everyone thinks their particular healthy-eating plan is the right one. That being said, I’m moving away from my previous meat-heavy diet so reading about the advantages of a veggie-heavy plan is helpful.

4) The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo

Description: Japanese cleaning consultant Kondo takes tidying to a whole new level, promising that if you properly simplify and organize your home once, you’ll never have to do it again. Most methods advocate a room-by-room or little-by-little approach, which doom you to pick away at your piles of stuff forever. The KonMari Method, with its revolutionary category-by-category system, leads to lasting results.

I didn’t read this because I need to declutter – I’m satisfied with my current level of minimalism – but Kondo’s methods have been discussed a lot and I was interested to read it for myself. It turns out I already knew most of what she was going to say (the blog posts I read in advance were apparently very thorough), but I would definitely recommend this book to people who want to start the decluttering process.

I don’t agree with all of her recommendations (I’m never going to thank my clothes, or verbally greet my house when I arrive home), but the general principles are sound. I especially liked her focus on massive purging rather than organizing. That way of thinking is becoming more commonplace but there’s still a long way to go.

5) A House in Fez: Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco, Suzanna Clarke

Description: When Suzanna and her husband bought a dilapidated house in Fez, their friends thought they were mad. Located in a maze of donkey-trod alleyways, the house was beautiful but in desperate need of repair. While neither spoke Arabic, they were determined to restore the building to its original splendor using traditional craftsmen and handmade materials. So began the remarkable experience that veered between frustration, hilarity, and moments of pure exhilaration.

I’ve read a number of books about people who built or restored houses in countries like France, Spain, and Mexico, but this is the first one I’ve read about Morocco. It doesn’t appeal to me as a place I’d like to live, but the insight into life there is worth reading.

6) The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

Description: Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother and is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

I picked this up because I saw it won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It’s a good story, but it went on waaaaaaaay longer than it needed to (771 pages!). A lot could have been cut out and it wouldn’t have affected the story at all.

As I’ve said in the past, I really don’t like books written from a child (or teenager’s) perspective, and I’d say at least half this book was about Theo’s childhood (I assumed that wouldn’t be case; if I’d known in advance I probably wouldn’t have read it). There’s a lot of talk of drug use and general bad behavior, so even though Theo is originally a sympathetic character he becomes substantially less so as the story goes on.


7) The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton

Description: This 1913 novel tells the story of Undine Spragg, a Midwestern girl who attempts to ascend in New York City society.

I read this book due to my friend Jaclyn’s reading challenge. Unfortunately, I really didn’t care for it. It’s not bad enough to fall into the “Not Recommended” category, but it was impossible to like it when I didn’t care for ANY of the characters — they all annoyed me in one way or another. Although it seems silly to say this, the main character was such an awful person I wanted the story to be over so I could stop giving her more attention than she deserved.

8) Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight, M.E. Thomas

Description: Thomas takes readers on a journey into the mind of a sociopath, revealing what makes them tick and what that means for the rest of humanity. Drawn from Thomas’ own experiences; her popular blog,; and current and historical scientific literature, it reveals just how different – and yet often very similar – sociopaths are from the rest of the world.

A sociopathic Mormon? That isn’t what I expected. I guess sociopaths really are everywhere.

This book was interesting in certain aspects, but the (anonymous) author’s high level of egoism was extremely off-putting after the first chapter. It was like yes, I get it. You have an elevated view of yourself and you don’t feel remorse. You are good at your job as an attorney and you think your personality helps you succeed. I learned more about sociopathy than I knew before, but the author’s writing style quickly became annoying.

Not Recommended

9) The Tao of Martha: My Year of LIVING, or Why I’m Never Getting All That Glitter Off of the Dog, Jen Lancaster

Description: To smooth her admittedly rough edges, Jen is going to live her life according to the advice of Martha Stewart. By immersing herself in Martha’s media empire, Jen will embark on a yearlong quest to take herself, her house, and her husband to the next level.

I usually enjoy memoirs written by people who challenge themselves in some way, whether that means moving to a foreign country, learning a new skill, or making every recipe in a cookbook over the course of a year (à la Julie and Julia). That’s what I was looking for in this book, but I wasn’t impressed.

Following Martha’s advice (and actually learning something from it) was an afterthought in Lancaster’s story. She didn’t specify measurable goals in advance, her efforts through the year were lackluster, and she spent way too much time talking about her pets (of which I had absolutely no interest, and again, related in no way to her Martha experiment).

This book was disappointing – the subject matter could have been interesting, but the author didn’t deliver.


Eating the Blue Zones

After reading an article in the New York Times — My Dinner With Longevity Expert Dan Buettner (No Kale Required) — I immediately put in a library request for the author’s book.

blue zones

You should know I’m not a fan of diet books. There are too many. Whether someone eats paleo or vegan, has no food allergies or requires gluten-free fare, or like most people they fall somewhere in between, it’s my belief that real food is the answer for everyone. Most (if not all) of the food we eat should be minimally processed, and if you buy something from a box or can, you should recognize the ingredients.

I like The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People because it’s not a “here’s how to lose weight” diet. The food recommendations are based on what centenarians – people who live to be 100 years old or more – eat. Attempting to discover how they live so long, National Geographic researchers focused on the five places in the world with the highest number of centenarians: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

I found this book at the right time because I’ve been looking for…I don’t know…something else. I’ve done the paleo thing off and on for years (I’ve completed three Whole30s since 2012), but that way of eating never felt sustainable for the long term. I’ve been eating a lot of meat, and I got to the point where I felt like I was eating too much of it.

Centenarians in the five Blue Zones don’t eat a lot of meat. Research has shown that it’s not vegans or meat eaters who live the longest, but pescetarians – those who mostly abstain from meat but add in seafood once in a while.

After discussing the Blue Zones research with Paul, we decided to make a joint effort to follow the guidelines (I cook pretty much all of our meals, so I wanted to make sure he was okay with the change). Luckily, I already enjoy most of the food that the Blue Zones recommends (except raw tomatoes…I’m 35 years old and I still won’t consume tomatoes unless they’re cooked). We just need to eat more of it, focusing on vegetables and beans instead of meat.

Some of the food I buy is organic, but I’m not militant about it. I’m just happy if I’m eating broccoli, carrots, and apples instead of Cool Ranch Doritos, no matter where they came from. (I haven’t actually consumed any Cool Ranch Doritos in the past fifteen years.) Paul and I actually prefer plain tortilla chips, but we’ve agreed to no longer keep them in the house since we tend to gravitate toward those for a snack instead of healthier options.

Unlike the rigid Whole30 – which has good reasons for being rigid – our new approach will be more flexible. If we eat at someone’s house and they’re serving something we don’t normally eat, like beef or chicken, we won’t turn it down (even centenarians in the Blue Zones eat small amounts of meat occasionally, in addition to seafood). However, you always have permission to turn down things you are opposed to consuming, like dessert if you abstain from sugar. Or Cool Ranch Doritos. Please don’t eat those.

Around the time I started reading the book, I heard from a neighbor that many people on the street we live on are members of the Porter Farms CSA, and they have a long-established delivery schedule in our area. I had put off joining a CSA because I thought the pick-up locations might be inconvenient, but what’s easier than fetching my CSA delivery just a few doors down from my house?

This particular CSA was halfway through its 20-week growing season before I joined, but at least I’ll have it for the next 10 weeks. One motivation for joining – other than the convenience of a recurring organic food delivery – is knowing it would force me to consume foods I never (or rarely) purchase myself.

That was certainly the case with my first delivery, which included a watermelon with yellow flesh, and peppers I’d never cooked with before (cubanelle, poblano).

Porter Farms CSA

Our second delivery included such things as bok choy (which I love but had never cooked with before), and kohlrabi (which was completely new to me).

And of course we get a lot of raw tomatoes. Four different types! I core and freeze them so I can use them for soups. I use canned tomatoes in soups quite often, so the addition of a raw tomato or two shouldn’t be recognizable.

Of course there are other aspects to becoming a centenarian than just the foods you eat, and the book addresses those factors as well, like meaningful relationships with others and regular exercise (especially long walks – I loved when Buettner pointed out that none of the centenarians are CrossFit athletes and they’ve likely never belonged to a gym).

These are the ten food guidelines spelled out in the Blue Zones recommendations:

1) Plant Slant: 95% of the food you eat should come from a plant or plant product. Favor beans, greens, yams and sweet potatoes, fruits, nuts, and seeds. The best longevity foods are leafy greens such as spinach, kale, beet and turnip tops, chard, and collards.

2) Retreat from meat: Consume meat no more than twice a week, sized no more than two ounces cooked. Avoid processed meats like hot dogs, luncheon meats, sausages, and bacon.

3) Fish is fine: Eat up to three ounces of fish daily.

4) Diminish dairy: This includes cow’s milk, cheese, cream, and butter.

5) Occasional eggs: No more than three per week.

6) Daily dose of beans: Eat at least half a cup of cooked beans daily.

7) Slash sugar: Consume no more than seven added teaspoons per day.

8) Snack on nuts: Eat two handfuls of nuts per day.

9) Sour on bread: Replace common bread with sourdough or 100% whole wheat bread. (Note: I still plan to eat gluten-free all/most of the time, so I won’t be adopting this one.)

10) Go whole: Eat foods that are recognizable for what they are.

Could you eat like centenarians in the Blue Zones do?


Books Read in August 2015

I read 12 books in August, which brings my 2015 total to 90.

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



1) Gringos in Paradise: An American Couple Builds Their Retirement Dream House in a Seaside Village in Mexico, Barry Golson

Description: In 2004, Golson wrote an article about Mexican hot spots for retirees longing for a lifestyle they couldn’t afford in the United States. A year later, he and his wife Thia were taking part in the growing trend of retiring abroad. They sold their Manhattan apartment and moved to the surfing and fishing village of Sayulita on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Golson details the year he and Thia spent settling into their new life and planning and building their dream home. They engaged a Mexican architect, builder, and landscape designer who not only built their home but also changed their lives; encountered uproariously odd bureaucracy; and ultimately experienced a lifetime’s worth of education about the challenges and advantages of living in Mexico.

I really liked this book – it was entertaining and I enjoyed Golson’s perspective into how gringos interact with the locals (both positively and negatively), but I found his story to be a cautionary tale of what I would NOT do.

When Golson and his wife move to Sayulita, they decide to buy some land, build a brand new house from scratch (complete with pool and extensive landscaping), and outfit it with brand new Mexican-crafted furniture, dishes, decor, etc. While prices in Mexico are less expensive than in the U.S., by the end of the book (spoiler alert) Golson and his wife have spent pretty much all of their retirement savings and have to return to the U.S. to make more money…so they can afford to return to their house in Mexico.

This does not seem like the preferred scenario. If I was retiring in Mexico and needed to live on a fixed income in order to make it work, I’d rent. Golson and his wife appeared perfectly content renting a place while their house was being built, and freely admitted to all the headaches and fighting the house-building drama brought to their relationship. Was it worth it? He doesn’t say, but I know I’d rather be retired, doing whatever I want with my days, instead of owning a home in another country that I can’t afford to live in.

2) On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, Tony Cohan

Description: When novelist Cohan and his artist wife visited central Mexico one winter they fell under the spell of a place where the pace of life is leisurely, the cobblestone streets and sun-splashed plazas are enchanting, and the sights and sounds of daily fiestas fill the air. Awakened to needs they didn’t know they had, they returned to California, sold their house, and cast off for a new life in San Miguel de Allende. This is Cohan’s memoir of how he and his wife absorb the town’s sensual ambiance, eventually find and refurbish a crumbling 250-year-old house, and become entwined in the endless drama of Mexican life.

Barry Golson (the author of the book mentioned above) credits Tony Cohan as his inspiration, but I liked Golson’s book better. This one is worth reading, though.

3) The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All, Don Wallace

Description: Shortly after Don and Mindy Wallace move to Manhattan to jump-start their writing careers, they learn of a house for sale in a village they once visited on a tiny French island off the Brittany coast. Desperate for a life change, the Wallaces bravely (and impulsively) buy it almost sight unseen. What they find when they arrive is a ruin, and it isn’t long before their lives begin to resemble it—with hilarious and heartwarming results.

Don and his wife were super persistent – they experienced quite a bit of sweat, tears, and consternation before everything worked itself out. (Due to a lack of funds, it took EIGHT YEARS before their French summer house was renovated adequately enough to spend the night in it.)

As a woman who likes to picture herself in someone else’s shoes, I wish this had been written from a female perspective – whenever Don mentioned his wife, I found myself wondering what she was thinking at the time – but it’s definitely worth reading if you like this subject as much as I do.

4) I’ll Never Be French: Living in a Small Village in Brittany, Mark Greenside

Description: When Greenside – a native New Yorker living in California, political lefty, writer, and lifelong skeptic – is dragged by his girlfriend to a tiny village in Brittany at the westernmost edge of France, his life begins to change. With enormous affection for the Bretons, Greenside tells how he makes a life for himself in a country where he doesn’t speak the language or know how things are done.

Just like the owners of The French House (mentioned above), this guy purchased a house outside the U.S. when he had hardly any money to his name. What is up with these people?? At least it worked out for both of them. Lighthearted, amusing read.

5) An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude, Ann Vanderhoof

Description: Who hasn’t fantasized about quitting their job, saying goodbye to the rat race, and escaping to some exotic destination in search of sun, sand, and a different way of life? In the mid1990s, Ann and Steve were driven, forty-something professionals desperate for a break from their deadline-dominated, career-defined lives. So they rented out their house, moved onto a 42-foot sailboat, and set sail for the Caribbean on a two-year voyage of culinary and cultural discovery.

While I have no desire to sail a boat around the Caribbean for two years (just take me to another country and leave me there, please), Vanderhoof makes it seem appealing. I was especially jealous of her access to a plethora of cheap and abundant tropical fruit – hence the reference to an “embarrassment of mangoes” in the book’s title.

My favorite lines are near the end of the book when Ann admits her return home was bittersweet: “I know the last two years have to end, but I can’t bear the thought. I don’t want to just sink complacently back into our old existence. I’ve seen too clearly there’s more to life than that.”

6) The Heavy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Diet, Dara-Lynn Weiss

Description: When a doctor pronounced Weiss’s daughter obese at age seven, she knew she had to take action. But how could a woman with her own food and body issues successfully parent a little girl around the issue of obesity?

I remember reading about Weiss when her original article (which was published before she wrote this book) came out in Vogue. I never understood the resulting hostility and controversy – if your kid is overweight, shouldn’t you take action? Sure, Weiss’ methods aren’t what everyone would choose (she allowed processed food, fake sugar, and diet soda to stay within her daughter’s daily caloric needs) but everyone handles weight loss efforts differently.

While Weiss does come across as neurotic in more than one situation when a food decision is required, she also does a good job outlining the challenges involved in helping a young child lose weight in a country that doesn’t make it easy to do so.

7) We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride

Description: An immigrant boy whose family is struggling to assimilate. A middle-aged housewife coping with an imploding marriage and a troubled son. A social worker at home in the darker corners of Las Vegas. A wounded soldier recovering from an injury he can’t remember getting. By the time we realize how these voices will connect, the impossible has already happened, and the lives of people from different backgrounds and experiences collide in a stunning coincidence.

It was hard for me to pinpoint what I liked best about this story, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Definitely worth reading.

8) The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, Amanda Ripley

Description: Nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims? Will our upbringing, our gender, our personality – anything we’ve ever learned, thought, or dreamed of – ultimately matter?

Ripley is good at taking a potentially dry subject and turning it into an entertaining read. I went looking for more of her books after I read and enjoyed The Smartest Kids in the World earlier this year.


9) Pretty, Jillian Lauren

Description: Bebe is an ex-everything: ex-stripper, ex-Christian, ex-drug addict, ex-pretty girl. It’s been one year since the car accident that killed her boyfriend left her scarred and shaken. Flanked by an eccentric posse of friends, she is serving out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house while trying to finish cosmetology school. Amid the rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails of Los Angeles, Bebe looks for something to believe in before something knocks her off course again.

It pains me to put this in the Okay category, but it appears I like Jillian’s memoirs more so than her fiction.

10) Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, Rosemary Mahoney

Description: Rosemary was determined to take a solo trip down the Egyptian Nile in a small boat, even though civil unrest and vexing local traditions conspired to create obstacles every step of the way. Egyptian women don’t row on the Nile, and tourists aren’t allowed to for safety’s sake. She endures extreme heat during the day, a terror of crocodiles while alone in her boat at night, while confronting deeply held beliefs and finding connections to past chroniclers of the Nile.

I liked the idea of this book, and I’m impressed with what Rosemary accomplished, but I found myself rushing to get through the second half. I liked reading about what she was physically doing more so than the extensive history lessons and exhaustive descriptions of the scenery.

11) Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink

Description: Physician and reporter Fink reconstructs five days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive during Hurricane Katrina. After the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

While this was a well-written, thoroughly researched book, and it was a subject I didn’t previously know anything about, I would have preferred to read an article rather than an entire book. I didn’t care for the extensive back story of the hospital’s history, or the overly-detailed bios of the main characters.

12) Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World, Leigh Ann Henion

Description: Heartfelt and awe inspiring, this is a moving tale of physical grandeur and emotional transformation, a journey around the world that ultimately explores the depths of the human heart. A journalist and young mother, Henion combines her own conflicted but joyful experiences as a parent with a panoramic tour of the world’s most extraordinary natural wonders.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I love that Henion traveled all over the place, seeking out the wonders of natural phenomena rather than just visiting the same old tourist sites. I’ve never been a fan of nature writing though, so I guess I found the descriptions of what she saw a bit boring. I’d prefer to see those things in person (or look at a photo) rather than try to picture it from someone else’s written recollection.

I did like her assertions that having a small child at home shouldn’t stop you from traveling without them, and that – unlike what many people think – travelers aren’t some special breed of adventurer and they’re not necessarily any more privileged/wealthy than anyone else. If you really want to go somewhere, you’ll make it happen no matter what.


Books Read in July 2015

I read 10 books in July, which brings my 2015 total to 78.

I read a few more books this month than I did in May and June, but I also had a larger number in the “Okay” category, which was disappointing.

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



1) Everything You Ever Wanted, Jillian Lauren

Description: In her younger years, Jillian was a college dropout, a drug addict, and a concubine in the Prince of Brunei’s harem, an experience she immortalized in her bestselling memoir, Some Girls. In her 30s, Jillian’s most radical act was learning the steadying power of love when she and her rock star husband adopt an Ethiopian child with special needs. After Jillian loses a close friend to drugs, she herself is saved by her fierce love for her son as she fights to make him—and herself—feel safe and at home in the world.

I really enjoy Jillian’s writing. I read her first memoir (mentioned in the description above) last year, and even though this book was completely different – she’s gone from young international concubine to a married lady in her 30s – her personality and unique tone of voice continue to shine through. I follow Jillian on Instagram, where she regularly posts photos of her son Tariku, and it was really cool to learn how he became a part of their family.

2) Picnic in Provence: A Memoir with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard

Description: Ten years ago, Elizabeth followed a handsome Frenchman to a love nest in the heart of Paris. Now with a baby on the way, the couple takes a trip to the tiny Provencal village of Céreste. In less time than it takes to flip a crepe, Elizabeth and Gwendal decide to move to the French countryside. There they discover a land of blue skies, lavender fields and peaches that taste like sunshine. Seduced by the local ingredients, they begin a new adventure as culinary entrepreneurs, starting their own artisanal ice cream shop and experimenting with flavors like saffron, sheep’s milk yogurt and fruity olive oil.

I’m a sucker for a good story about an American who moves to France (I’ve read quite a few). I especially like reading about the differences between living in the U.S. versus France – differences in personalities, worldview, daily life – which Bard does a great job of describing.

This book starts out a little too perfect and sunshiney (“We own an apartment in Paris and now we’re packing up to move to a centuries-old house in Provence!”), but reality soon sets in and the story becomes easier to relate to. Bard feels guilty because she’s not happy all the time (she worries she may end up like her father, who was bipolar), and she also struggles to connect with her young son.

Another interesting aspect of the story: all the effort Bard and her husband put into research and development before opening an artisanal ice cream shop in their Provencal village. When I checked online, not only is their shop thriving, they’ve also opened a location in Paris since her book was published. I know where I’m going if I ever make it back to France!

3) Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, Geraldine Brooks

Description: When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, housemaid Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community.

Very good book, but watch out for descriptions of gross plague-related things if you’re squeamish. I almost put this in the Highly Recommended category, but I got impatient with certain aspects of the story so I downgraded it. I liked the last third of the book best. It didn’t end at all like I expected, which was a nice surprise.

4) Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond

Description: Almond details why, after 40 years as a fan, he can no longer watch the game he still loves. Using a synthesis of memoir, reportage, and cultural critique, he asks a series of provocative questions, including: Does our addiction to football foster a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia? What does it mean that our society has transmuted the intuitive physical joys of childhood into a billion-dollar industry? How did a sport that causes brain damage become such an important emblem for our institutions of higher learning?

You don’t have to know anything about football (I don’t) in order to follow this book. I actually checked it out from the library for my husband, but once I picked it up and started reading I didn’t want to put it down. I liked Almond’s description of how he went from football super-fan to critic, and while I felt some of his arguments were stronger than others, I learned many things I didn’t know before:

  • Whereas white males live to 78 years and African-American males live to approximately 70 years…professional football players in both the United States and Canada have life expectancies in the mid to late 50s. (Pg 38)
  • The NFL – unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball – was tax-exempt throughout most of its history. (This only changed a few months ago, after the book was published.) (Pg 81)
  • Forty-five percent of Division 1 [college] football players never graduate. (Pg 125)


5) Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin

Description: Rubin’s follow-up to her happiness books is all about habits: how we make them, why we break them, and how we can improve them. That may not strike you as poolside fare, but the chatty writing, illuminating insights, and story-driven narrative make this guidebook anything but dry and boring – it’s also packed with relatable tales from Rubin’s life, which are easy to apply to your own.

I’m not a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin’s books. While she seems like a nice person and I enjoy the personal anecdotes she includes, her topics come off as very common-sense to me and I don’t get a lot out of them. This is not a shot at Gretchen; in fact, it’s the opposite – I think I would like her a lot in real life. I just don’t get much from her books because I’m like, “Well, yeah, that’s obvious…”

I felt the same with this book. Some of her research into habit forming was interesting, and I recognized myself in some of her descriptions (I’m a Questioner, and an Abstainer, and I never reward myself for following through with a habit), but there were no grand epiphanies and I didn’t take away anything actionable which will affect my life. (Here’s my friend Jaclyn’s review – she goes into much more detail than I just did.)

6) Bel Canto, Ann Patchett

Description: In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. Alas, in the opening sequence, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.

The day-to-day happenings inside a house where people are being held hostage (and mostly bored out of their minds) just wasn’t interesting to me. Also, the epilogue seemed like an afterthought; the story would have been better without it.

7) The Good Girl, Mary Kubica

Description: One night, Mia enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn’t show, she leaves with an enigmatic stranger. At first Colin seems like a safe one-night stand, but following him home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia’s life. When Colin decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota instead of delivering her to his employers, Mia’s mother, Eve, and detective Gabe will stop at nothing to find them. But no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family’s world to shatter.

I liked how the chapters switch between characters and also between time periods. Even though the author tells the story from both before and after the kidnapping occurred, it wasn’t difficult to keep things straight. As for the story itself, I was underwhelmed, and I didn’t find the twist at the end all that believable.

8) Day Four, Sarah Lotz

Description: Hundreds of pleasure-seekers stream aboard a cruise ship for five days of fun in the Caribbean. On the fourth day, disaster strikes: smoke roils out of the engine room and the ship is stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. Soon supplies run low, a virus plagues the ship, and there are rumors the cabins on the lower decks are haunted. Irritation escalates to panic, the crew loses control, factions form, and violent chaos erupts. When at last the ship is spotted drifting off the coast of Key West, the world’s press reports it empty. But the gloomy headlines may be covering up an even more disturbing reality.

I had high hopes for this story since I rated Lotz’s first book as Highly Recommended just a few months ago. This one was not nearly as good. Scenes that were supposed to come off as freaky or scary were anticlimactic. (I don’t normally like thrillers and wouldn’t have picked this up if I hadn’t liked The Three so much.)

9) Neverhome, Laird Hunt

Description: Because she was strong and her husband was not, Ash Thompson disguises herself as a man and goes off to fight in the Civil War in his place. This novel shines light on the hundreds of women who chose to fight in secret rather than stay home.

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in years. Ever since I bought a Fitbit I’ve been walking much more than I did in the past, and I was getting bored on my long walks. Music wasn’t cutting it, so I borrowed this mp3 from the library. It was read by Mary Stuart Masterson and her accent made the character come alive, but the story itself wasn’t great. If I had been reading a physical copy of the book I wouldn’t have finished it.

10) Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart, Lisa Rogak

Description: Since his arrival at The Daily Show in 1999, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media.

This was the second audiobook I listened to in July. I like Stewart, and I really like that he’s a public guy with a very private life. The story, however, wasn’t all that interesting. I need to do some research and pick some better audiobooks for August.

BlogHer, Minimalism

Why I Am a Minimalist

There’s something you should know about me: I consider minimalism to be a big part of my life.

I’m not the kind of minimalist who counts her possessions, but I’m aware of how much I own, and I regularly go through my belongings to get rid of stuff I no longer use or want.

Some people refer to this as simple living, due to minimalism’s reputation for stark white walls or people who live out of backpacks. I like the word minimalism, so I’m sticking with it.

I have definitely not mastered the process: I’ve held onto certain items way longer than I should have, just in case I might need them someday. I’ve started challenging this way of thinking though, and over the past few weeks I’ve made an effort to identify and get rid of stuff I rarely (or never) utilize.

The Minimalists have a recommendation for the just-in-case scenario: if the item you’re not sure you should give away costs less than $20 to replace, you should get rid of it. Odds are you won’t need it again, so if you do have to replace one or two things in the future in order to discard a bunch of stuff right now, it’s worth it. (Another thing to keep in mind: if you give something away that you rarely use and find you need it again later, you could very likely borrow it from a friend rather than buying a new one.)

One of the items I recently donated was a cupcake carrier which could transport up to 24 cupcakes at a time (I used to take them to family gatherings and friends’ parties on a regular basis). I haven’t made cupcakes in over three years, since before I went gluten-free. There was no need for this contraption to take up valuable kitchen cabinet space if I couldn’t fathom when I’d use it again. Out it went.

(This is my collection of recently-donated items. The cupcake carrier is in the the lower left.)

I’m also much less likely to hold onto sentimental items. A few years ago I took all the photos I owned, scanned them to my computer, and threw away the physical copies. I don’t keep ticket stubs or other paraphernalia from events I attend; an entry in my calendar is sufficient to remember it.

I’m not completely unsentimental, though. I do own items which don’t serve an immediate purpose (several stuffed animals from childhood, high school yearbooks, mementos from foreign travel). Since these items don’t take up a lot of room and I have space to store them, I’m okay with holding onto a few keepsakes. If I need to get rid of them someday (like if I decide to drastically downsize my possessions and move to a foreign country), I would do so in a heartbeat.

I feel like I’ve been editing my possessions for years, but obviously I’ve had things coming in or I wouldn’t have anything left to get rid of. For example, I purchased a number of items from estate sales last year when my husband and I thought we might purchase this really cool old house which needed a ton of renovation. (We ended up purchasing a move-in ready house instead, which was half the square footage of the first, and may I just say…thank god. What a waste of space the larger house would have been for two people.)

I kept some of the estate sale items I bought, but the rest of them were donated (not the best use of my money, but at least none of it cost very much). I’ve since vowed to be more vigilant about what comes into our house, whether it’s something we purchase, or offered to us for free.

It helps that I don’t enjoy shopping. I never did a formal shopping ban – I had no reason to – but the amount of stuff I buy has markedly decreased over the years. Browsing clothing racks fills me with dread rather than anticipation. I rarely buy anything for myself, other than groceries, toiletry items, and household needs. While I do purchase certain things in bulk (toilet paper, hand soap, recurring food items), it’s always something I know we’ll use up, and buying a large supply means I won’t have to seek it out again for a while.

I really, really like not owning a lot of stuff. I’m not weighed down by my possessions. I’m not constantly hunting for new items to acquire. Although there have been times I’ve waffled over whether to keep something, once I’ve sold or given it away I’ve never felt a moment of regret. Once out of sight, it’s completely out of mind.

If my husband and I were asked to pack up next week and move thousands of miles away, we could do so with very little headache and drastically fewer boxes than many others in our situation (a child-free, middle-class, mid-30s couple who own a home).

Minimalism can also be applied to mental clutter – reducing stress and not overextending yourself. As an introvert, I’ve adopted strategies which are conducive to maintaining a minimalist approach in my daily life: My full-time job as an admin keeps stressful situations at bay 95% of the time. I don’t pack my schedule full of events. I don’t feel guilty refusing a request if I don’t want to do something. I read a lot of books.

For me, a minimalist lifestyle is about freedom. My husband and I would prefer to quit our full-time office jobs before reaching what most people consider a normal retirement age. The less stuff we buy, the more money we’ll have to contribute to our investment accounts.

It’s my hope that minimalism – along with our commitment to frugality – will help us meet our ultimate goal of financial independence. Obtaining financial independence will let us choose how we spend our time, pursue a wider range of hobbies and experiences, and provide more flexibility on where we live and how often we travel, instead of being chained to our current 5-day-a-week work schedule (and in my husband’s case, regular 10-12 hour workdays).

You may not focus on minimalism as much as I do, but I encourage everyone to think about what they own and honestly assess what is taking up too much space. I have a feeling you won’t regret it.

[This post is also published on BlogHer]


Books Read in June 2015

I read 8 books in June, which brings my 2015 total to 68.

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

Highly Recommended


1) The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd

Description: Hetty “Handful” Grimke, a slave in early 19th century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls of the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women. The story is set in motion on Sarah’s 11th birthday, when she is given ownership of Handful, who is to be her handmaid. We follow their journeys over the next 35 years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.

Excellent, excellent book. Loosely based on a true story (I could easily spot the differences with a cursory Wikipedia search), it received a lot of great reviews when it came out, and rightly so. I liked how the perspective switched back and forth between the two main characters, and also how it didn’t linger for too long on one time period.


2) Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth About Parenting and Happiness, Jessica Valenti

Description: If parenting is making Americans unhappy, if it’s impossible to have it all, if people don’t have the economic, social, or political structures needed to support parenting, then why do it? Valenti explores controversial questions through on-the-ground reporting, new research, and her own unique experiences as a mom. She moves beyond the black and white mommy wars over natural parenting, discipline, and work-life balance to explore a more nuanced reality: one filled with ambivalence, joy, guilt, and exhaustion.

I read this on the recommendation of River City Reading. I thought it was very good, but if you’re looking for a book on a similar subject, I liked this one better.

I particularly agreed with the chapter where the author says being a mother is not the most important – or the hardest – job in the world. In her words: “Telling women…that motherhood is the most valuable job in the world is not just a patronizing pat on the head. [I]t’s a way to placate overworked moms without giving them the social and political support they actually need to make their lives better.”

3) 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works, Dan Harris

Description: Nightline anchor Dan Harris embarks on an unexpected, hilarious, and deeply skeptical odyssey through the strange worlds of spirituality and self-help, and discovers a way to get happier that is truly achievable.

I liked the author’s skepticism because I, too, am a skeptical person. Dan talks about his meetings with Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle (after reading their books and doing extensive research), and explains why he never found them to be completely believable or trustworthy. It wasn’t until Dan discovered meditation that he noticed a real difference in his attitude, and subsequently the way he lived his life. Interesting and informative read.

4) Where All Light Tends To Go, David Joy

Description: The area surrounding Cashiers, North Carolina is home to all kinds of people, but the world Jacob McNeely lives in is crueler than most. His father runs a meth ring, with local authorities on the dime to turn a blind eye to his dealings. Having dropped out of high school, Jacob has been working for his father for years, all on the promise that his payday will come eventually. The only joy he finds comes from reuniting with Maggie, his first love, a girl clearly bound for bigger and better things. Jacob is resigned to playing the cards dealt to him, but when a fatal mistake changes everything, he’s faced with a choice: stay and appease his father, or leave the mountains with the girl he loves.

This book is well-written, a page turner, but it was difficult to read about a teenage male so negatively affected by his upbringing and surroundings. Even though I grew up in a rural area, my life wasn’t anything like this – I never felt like I didn’t have an option to leave (and indeed, I left home as soon as I graduated from high school).

I didn’t like the subject matter, and I thought the guy made a ton of stupid decisions, but sometimes you have to read stuff that makes you uncomfortable in order to educate yourself about how other people live.

5) The Bullet, Mary Louise Kelly

Description: Caroline is beautiful, intelligent, a professor of French literature. But in a split second, everything she’s known is proved to be a lie. A single bullet, gracefully tapered at one end, is found lodged at the base of her skull. Caroline is stunned. It makes no sense: she has never been shot. She has no entry wound. No scar. Then, over the course of one awful evening, she learns the truth: that she was adopted when she was three years old, after her real parents were murdered. Caroline was there the night they were attacked. She was wounded too, a gunshot to the neck. Surgeons had stitched up the traumatized little girl, with the bullet still there, nestled deep among vital nerves and blood vessels. That was 34 years ago. Now, Caroline has to find the truth of her past.

I found multiple parts of this book to be far-fetched: 1) that someone would go to such lengths to avenge her birth parents’ death when she’d learned of their existence mere weeks before; 2) the way she ended up obtaining a gun; 3) the reason she temporarily left the U.S. The story was entertaining though, so I’ll give it a thumbs-up.

6) Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

Description: A Chinese-American family lives in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.

Unlike many books I’ve read recently, I wasn’t able to guess how this story would turn out (there were several surprises I didn’t foresee). Very well written; held my attention throughout; sad in parts but with a hopeful ending.


7) How to Be an American Housewife, Margaret Dilloway

Description: When Shoko decided to marry an American GI and leave Japan, she had her parents’ blessing and her brother’s scorn. Shoko also brought with her a secret she would need to keep her entire life. Half a century later, Shoko’s plans to return to Japan and reconcile with her brother are derailed by illness. In her place, she sends her grown American daughter, Sue, a divorced single mother whose own life isn’t what she hoped for. As Sue takes in Japan, with all its beauty and contradictions, she discovers another side to her mother and returns to America unexpectedly changed.

This was a nice story, but it felt like the conflict and angst wrapped itself up a bit TOO perfectly at the end.

Not Recommended

8) Find Me, Laura van den Berg

Description: Joy spends her days working the graveyard shift at a grocery store and nursing an addiction to cough syrup, an attempt to suppress her troubled past. But when a deadly sickness sweeps the country, Joy seems to have an advantage: she is immune. Her immunity gains her admittance to a hospital in rural Kansas, but when the hospital’s fragile order breaks down, Joy breaks free on a journey to Florida. She believes she can find her birth mother there, the woman who abandoned her as a child. On the road in a devastated America, she encounters mysterious companions, cities turned strange, and one very eerie house.

I didn’t like this book. The story (and the writing itself) was weird. The first half was mildly entertaining, but about halfway through (once Joy escaped from the hospital), I kept wishing I was done with it so I could move on to something else.

About Me

Thoughts on Turning 35

Two weeks ago, I turned 35. Getting older has never bothered me (at least not yet…let’s have this discussion again when I’m 40), but I admit that when I was younger, 35 seemed very far away.

I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time. I graduated high school just a few days after my 17th birthday, then moved an hour away from home.

High School Graduation, June 1997
(Graduating from high school, June 1997. I’m the one with the normal-colored hair.)

I have a nephew who will turn 18 in August – he was born the summer I turned 17 – and it stuns me to think that at his age I had already lived away from home for a year, completed my freshman year of college while living off-campus with friends, all while working as a hostess at the Olive Garden to pay for rent and other expenditures.

When my mom was the age I am now, I was 10 years old and she already had four of her five kids. I’ve thought about that a lot, especially recently as I try to decide if I want a child of my own. How very different my life has been from my mother’s.

Age 10 with embarrassing glasses
(I wore these huge, embarrassing glasses when I was 10 years old)

I don’t have a high-profile job; I’ve never been interested in making a big effort with my career. But I am proud of how well I took care of myself from a young age, what I’ve accomplished, and the big life decisions I’ve made, from age 17 to this present moment.

I’ve made two health-related changes in my life recently. I decided to cut out most sugar from my diet; not just for a month while doing a Whole30, but in everyday life. Why? I realized the more sugar I eat, the more I want it – and I don’t want to want it. I haven’t consumed any sugar since June 13, which was the last day of my 35th birthday vacation to Newport Beach and Las Vegas.

I use a bit of honey in several recurring dinner recipes (which comes out to a miniscule amount per serving), I eat some dried fruit (raisins and prunes), and I consume a glass of wine on occasion (several times a month), but my goal is to avoid as much sugar as I can.

The second health-related change is a renewed focus on walking, an activity which has greatly increased since I purchased a Fitbit Charge HR (this is not a sponsored post).

Fitbit Charge HR

I hate spending money on myself (just ask my husband), so it took a long time for me to buy an activity tracker. I needed the motivation, though – the length of time I spend walking outdoors decreases exponentially during the super cold/snowy Buffalo winters, and I was having trouble motivating myself to get back in the habit since the weather has warmed up.

I’m only on Day 5 with the Fitbit, but I’m really enjoying it so far. I’ve surpassed my 10,000-step goal every day and I’d like to continue doing so for as long as I can. (Nice surprise: I discovered I was getting more steps at my desk-based job than I thought, and that’s before I started making an extra effort to hit my daily step goal.)

I have other, larger goals that I want to accomplish over the next five years, but you’ll have to stick around to see how those play out.

[From the archives: This is the post I wrote about turning 30.]

BlogHer, Body Image

I Conquered My Eating Disorder

[This is cross-posted at BlogHer.]


I know exactly when I became consumed with my weight. In 2001, at age 21, I had major surgery on my back (corrective surgery for scoliosis). I knew I’d be laid up in bed for weeks, with limited mobility for months afterward. At the time I was a normal weight and BMI, but this was the first time in my life I starting paying attention to calories.

I cut the amount of calories I was eating, lost some weight, and decided to keep going. In my mind, gaining any weight back once I’d lost it meant I was weak, a failure. Although I wasn’t following a drastic plan, at 1200-1500 calories per day I wasn’t eating enough to sustain my activity level. At my lowest weight in 2002, I was down 35 pounds from where I’d started the year before.

Hoover Dam
(Me at the Hoover Dam in 2002)

There were all kinds of consequences. I became a vegetarian, and remained so for over five years. I told people it was due to reading books like John Robbins’ Diet For a New America, but in reality, it’s easier to refuse food if you can’t eat most of what you’re offered.

For years, a normal dinner was brown rice with a mound of frozen veggies I’d nuke in the microwave and cover with a low-cal butter-flavored powder. Often I would forego the calories from the rice and just eat the veggies.

I weighed myself every single morning. I was never bulimic, but I did take laxatives on days I felt I had overindulged. I lost so much weight that I would only get my period a few times a year.

(Me in Laughlin, NV in 2002)

I had bruises on my hipbones on a regular basis; since they jutted out so far, I forgot how much room was required to clear an obstacle and I would bang them on a piece of furniture or door frame.

I didn’t date…at all…from 2001 through 2007 (age 21 until shortly before I turned 27). I know this isn’t the case for all females with disordered eating, but for me it was easier to be single than deal with questions or judgment. A boyfriend will want you to go out to dinner and eat normal food, not frozen veggies and low-cal microwave dinners.

Conquering an eating disorder isn’t something you can do by snapping your fingers or simply wishing it away, but there are two moments that stand out to me as “defining” during my time of healing.

The first is when I joined a gym in 2007, and my boyfriend at the time taught me how to lift weights. For the first time, and long after the relationship ended, I felt comfortable in a weight room. Redirecting my efforts to being strong instead of skinny was my impetus to return to a healthy weight.

The second moment was reading Portia DiRossi’s memoir, Unbearable Lightness, in 2010. I’ve read a number of books about eating disorders over the years, but hers impacted me the most. I had returned to a healthy weight by this point, but I was still overly aware of how many calories I was consuming every day and occasionally taking laxatives. I saw an interview with Portia shortly thereafter (while she was doing press for her book), and something she said has stuck with me ever since: “My eating disorder was the biggest waste of time of my life.”

While her words may seem obvious – of course eating disorders are a waste of time – they had a huge impact on me at the time. It wasn’t until then that I fully realized what I had missed out on, the life opportunities I had considered but discarded, the result of an obsession with something that only hurt me (physically, emotionally) and my relationships.

When faced with how much time and energy I had wasted obsessing about my food intake, I knew I couldn’t let it happen again. I was finally able to admit that my eating disorder was the biggest factor in not taking advantage of opportunities I considered in my mid-20s. I spent a college semester abroad in Amsterdam, and it had such an impact on me that for years I dreamed of living in another country again. I spent a lot of time researching moves to various foreign countries to teach English but never went through with it. My food obsessions still had too much of a hold. I wondered, would I be able to stick to my meal plan in a country that doesn’t tell me how many calories I’m consuming? It makes me sick to think I let these thoughts hold me back.

My recovery wasn’t quick or linear, but since 2007 I’ve never returned to a calorie-restricting diet. I spent too many years counting calories; I will never do so again. I focus instead on eating foods that won’t harm me. In the past I never cared how many unpronounceable ingredients were in my prepared foods, or how much artificial sugar I consumed, as long as it was low calorie.

Me at Aunt Jeanne's art show
(Me at my aunt’s art show in Toronto, 2014)

Today, I make a majority of my meals at home. I started eating mostly gluten-free in 2012 after I was diagnosed with an autoimmune thyroid disorder. I’ve completed three Whole30s and try to stick to a Paleo eating plan as much as possible.

Sometimes I wonder if my disordered eating history makes it easier for me to follow these strict meal plans, or if perhaps I gravitate toward them. I’ve found that abstaining from certain foods is easier for me than trying to moderate them, and I am very good at abstaining from foods I’ve told myself I can’t have.

All I know for sure is that eating this way makes me feel much better than I did in the past, and that’s what is most important.

Do you consider yourself healed from an eating disorder?


Books Read in May 2015

I read 8 books in May, which brings my 2015 total to 60.

May was my lowest reading month so far this year. I blame it on my habit of starting books but not finishing them — I’m one of those people who have no qualms about putting a book down if it doesn’t reel me in. Sometimes I’ll be just a few pages in, other times I’ll get through a third of a book or more.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended. All of my books were in the two middle categories this month.



1) Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, Caitlin Doughty

Description: Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.

One doesn’t expect a 23-year-old female to seek out a job at a crematory, but that’s exactly what Caitlin did. I thought her reasons for doing so were interesting, and she remains in the business (today she’s a mortician in Los Angeles and a YouTube personality known for advocating death acceptance and the reform of Western funeral industry practices). I already didn’t like the idea of being embalmed when I die, so reading her explanation of the process and why she’s against it solidified my view.

2) The Bookseller, Cynthia Swanson

Description: The Bookseller follows a woman in the 1960s who must reconcile her reality with the tantalizing alternate world of her dreams. Convinced these dreams are simply due to her overactive imagination, Kitty enjoys her nighttime forays into this alternate world. But with each visit, the more irresistibly real the other life becomes. Can she choose which life she wants? If so, what is the cost? As the lines between her worlds begin to blur, Kitty must figure out what is real and what is imagined.

I must admit I was skeptical about how this whole dream life was going to work itself out, but I didn’t expect the twist and I thought the ending was well done.

3) Dark Places, Gillian Flynn

Description: Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” She survived and famously testified that her 15-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, the Kill Club–a secret society obsessed with notorious crimes–locates Libby and pumps her for details, hoping to discover proof which may free Ben. Libby hopes to turn a profit off her tragic history: She’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club–for a fee. As Libby’s search is underway, she finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer.

A friend recently read and recommended this book, saying she liked it better than the author’s more widely-known GONE GIRL. I agree.

4) Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, Suki Kim

Description: Kim, a native of South Korea who emigrated to the U.S. with her parents at age 13, visited North Korea several times between 2008 and 2011 before getting hired to teach English at Pyongyang University in 2011. At the time, it was the only operating university in the country – all other college students were doing forced labor. To get the job, Kim posed as a Christian missionary and hid her notes and experience as a journalist. During her six months of teaching, Kim built cautious relationships with her students and tried to give them glimpses of the world outside of North Korea, but may not have been able to get through the brainwashing the regime conducts on a daily basis.

I’ve read a few books on North Korea and I always find myself both fascinated and horrified. If you don’t know much about this country, I’d encourage you to read more. Suki had an interesting perspective, living there for months at a time and experiencing much of the same restrictions and monitoring that citizens do.

5) The Big Tiny: A Built-It Myself Memoir, Dee Williams

Description: Deciding to build an 84-sq-foot house—on her own, from the ground up—was just the beginning of building a new life. Williams can now list everything she owns on a sheet of paper, her monthly housekeeping bills amount to about $8, and it takes her approximately 10 minutes to clean the entire house. It’s left her with more time to spend with family and friends, and given her freedom to head out for adventure at a moment’s notice, or watch the clouds and sunset while drinking a beer on her (tiny) front porch. Part how-to, part memoir, this is a meditation on the benefits of slowing down, scaling back, and appreciating the truly important things in life.

I’m a big fan of minimalism and enjoy learning about people who drastically downsize their possessions. While the size of this house is smaller than I’d want (she doesn’t have a shower, running water, or a refrigerator), it’s nice to see someone living so far outside the norm and loving it.


6) The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber

Description: Peter, a devoted man of faith, is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hungry for Peter’s teachings—his Bible is their “book of strange new things.” But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.

Even though the description said Peter would journey to a galaxy far away, I wasn’t picturing aliens when I read he would be ministering to a native population. Well, aliens it is! Human-like aliens with hands and feet but abnormal heads, just like you’d imagine. I’m normally not a science fiction fan so if I’d known about the aliens in advance, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up.

I had a hard time deciding on a rating for this book but ultimately decided on Okay instead of Recommended. It took me almost the entire month of May to finish; I kept getting distracted by other books and this one was long at over 500 pages (it was longer than it needed to be, in my opinion). It wasn’t a bad story though, and I can see why others might like it. Don’t dismiss it if you don’t mind aliens.

7) Yes Please, Amy Poehler

Description: A varied collection of stories, lists, poetry, photographs, mantras and advice, with chapters like “Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend,” “Plain Girl Versus the Demon” and “The Robots Will Kill Us All,” YES PLEASE will make you think as much as it will make you laugh. Honest, personal, real, righteous, and full of words to live by.

This book was entertaining at times, but overall I couldn’t put it in the Recommended category. I’ve never been a fan of books written by comedians; I’m difficult to amuse when people are trying to be funny in print. I did enjoy the parts where Amy talked about her life (childhood, rise to fame, people she’s worked with), multiple examples of bitchy behavior, and her openness about past drug use.

8) The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, Keija Parssinen

Description: In Port Sabine, TX, all eyes are on Mercy Louis, star of the championship girls’ basketball team. At the periphery of Mercy’s world floats team manager Illa Stark; like the rest of the town, Illa is spellbound by Mercy’s beauty and talent. The last day of school brings a disturbing discovery, and as summer unfolds and the police investigate, every girl becomes a suspect. When Mercy collapses on the opening night of the season, her grandmother prophesies that she is only the first to fall, and soon other girls are afflicted by the mysterious condition, sending the town into a tailspin and bringing Illa and Mercy together in an unexpected way.

The “disturbing discovery” is a central theme of the book, but I feel like readers don’t get a good explanation for it, and the author glosses over why all these girls develop this “mysterious condition” (never giving a reason for why it started or how they find themselves cured at the end).


Books Read in April 2015

I read 15 books in April, which brings my 2015 total to 52. Once I read two more books, I will have officially surpassed my reading total from all of 2014.

I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended. While I didn’t have any in the top category this month, I rated all of the books I read as Recommended except one. That’s a pretty good month of reading!


Selfish Shallow

1) Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, Meghan Daum

Description: One of the main topics of cultural conversation during the last decade was the supposed “fertility crisis,” and whether modern women could figure out a way to have it all — a successful, demanding career and the required 2.3 children — before their biological clock stopped ticking. Now conversation has turned to whether it’s necessary to have it all or whether children are really a requirement for a fulfilling life. The idea that some women and men prefer not to have children is often met with sharp criticism and incredulity by the public and mainstream media. In this collection of essays, 16 acclaimed writers explain why they have chosen to eschew parenthood.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I liked this book, based on having written this post: I’m 35 and I Don’t Know If I Want a Baby. There are a lot of different perspectives in this book, all of which were interesting. I think a lot of women would enjoy this book, even if you know for sure you want a baby one day, or if you already have them.

2) All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior

Description: Thousands of books have examined the effects of parents on their children. But almost none have thought to ask: What are the effects of children on their parents? Award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior analyzes the many ways children reshape their parents’ lives, whether it’s their marriages, their jobs, their habits, their hobbies, their friendships, or their internal senses of self.

Are you trying to decide if you want to have a kid or not? Are you certain you want one but still need to know what to expect? This book does a great job of covering the bases. The author has a child and talks about the joy kids can bring, but she also takes a very down to earth look at the inevitability of stress, parental guilt, pressures and time commitment of extracurricular activities, and clashes between couples. I found myself bookmarking passages to reference later.

3) The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

Description: The girl on the train is Rachel, who commutes into London and back each day, rolling past the backyard of a happy-looking couple she names Jess and Jason. Then one day Rachel sees “Jess” kissing another man. The day after that, Jess goes missing. The story is told from three character’s perspectives: Rachel, who mourns the loss of her former life with the help of canned gin and tonics; Megan (aka Jess); and Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s wife, who happens to be Jess/Megan’s neighbor. Rachel’s voyeuristic yearning for the seemingly idyllic life of Jess and Jason lures her closer and closer to the investigation into Jess/Megan’s disappearance, and closer to a deeper understanding of who she really is. And who she isn’t.

This book started off a little slow. I found myself wondering why I should care about this woman who was riding a train and looking out the window. A few chapters in, I realized the author did a great job of releasing information in a gradual build-up so we understand the back story and why it’s important. You know the perpetrator will end up being one of the characters in the story (so the ending wasn’t all that surprising to me), but the author introduced enough suspense and doubt to make it interesting.

4) My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh

Description: This story unfolds in a Baton Rouge neighborhood best known for cookouts on sweltering summer afternoons, cauldrons of spicy crawfish, and passionate football fandom. But in the summer of 1989, when 15-year-old Lindy Simpson–free spirit, track star, and belle of the block–experiences a horrible crime late one evening near her home, it becomes apparent that this idyllic stretch of Southern suburbia has a dark side.

While this book has a young narrator (not my favorite), he’s looking back from an adult perspective, which I don’t mind as much. (It was the same situation with The Age of Miracles, which I read last month. That book had a young narrator but there was more of an adult view on what was happening.)

In Chapter 28, the author took an amusing nonfiction detour – the rest of the story is fiction – to discuss some of the historical relations between Baton Rouge (where the book is set) and New Orleans (located 60 miles away). It was a departure from the story line, but it was interesting information.

5) Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum

Description: Anna, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband and three young children in a suburb of Zurich. Though she leads a comfortable life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs. But Anna can’t easily extract herself. When she wants to end the affairs, tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.

I recognized myself in Anna (minus her compulsive affairs, of course). I have a tendency toward boredom and melancholy, and it’s difficult for me to reach out to people and make new friends easily.

I liked how I’d be innocently reading along and Anna would say or think something entirely unexpected. I disliked the conversations with her psychoanalyst which were sprinkled throughout; there could have been less of those. I liked how the book raised a lot of questions and feelings; it would make a good book club selection. I disliked the ending.

6) Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness, Sasha Martin

Description: Over the course of 195 weeks, food writer and blogger Sasha Martin set out to cook a meal from every country in the world. As cooking unlocked the memories of her rough-and-tumble childhood and the loss and heartbreak that came with it, Martin became more determined to find peace and elevate her life through the prism of food and world cultures.

Although the author got a book deal due to her quest to cook foods from every country in the world, I appreciated that most of the book was about her earlier life. She talked about her childhood a great deal (a period of time which was quite unusual), and how she ended up in Oklahoma – she didn’t start writing about her cooking adventures until she was about three quarters of the way through the book. I had never read her blog before picking up this book, but I’ve been poking around some and plan to read more (and maybe try some of her international recipes).

7) Florence Gordon, Brian Morton

Description: Meet Florence Gordon: blunt, brilliant, cantankerous and passionate, feminist icon to young women, invisible to almost everyone else. At 75, Florence has earned her right to set down the burdens of family and work and shape her legacy at long last. But just as she is beginning to write her long-deferred memoir, her son Daniel returns to New York from Seattle with his wife and daughter, and they embroil Florence in their dramas, clouding the clarity of her days and threatening her well-defended solitude.

I liked Florence and her forthright, take-no-nonsense approach to life. Near the beginning of the book, she leaves a surprise party held in her honor because she wants to return home and write. I like the idea that we should do what makes us happiest (within legal reason, of course), rather than constantly trying to please everyone else.

8) When She Woke, Hillary Jordan

Description: This is the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed—their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes—and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. In seeking a path to safety in a hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.

I picked up this book after reading Mudbound (written by the same author) last month. I recommend both books but I actually liked this one better. Let’s hope the United States never devolves into this type of ultra-conservative shitshow.

9) The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit

Description: They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret — including what their husbands were doing at the lab. While the bomb was being invented, babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos gradually transformed into a real community: one that was strained by the words they couldn’t say out loud or in letters, and by the freedom they didn’t have.

I thought this was a really interesting look at the years scientists, physicists, and their families lived in the New Mexico desert while the atomic bomb was being constructed. Scientists were sworn to secrecy, so while the wives made guesses as to what their husbands were doing, nobody knew for sure until the bombs were dropped in Japan in 1945.

Something I didn’t expect was how the author used “we” throughout most of the book (instead of using first or third person), telling the story from multiple perspectives at once rather than focusing on individuals. It worked, it wasn’t confusing, but it was the first book I’ve read which took this approach.

10) Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro

Description: Through a blend of deeply personal stories about what formed her as a writer, tales from other authors, and a searching look at her own creative process, Shapiro offers an elegant guide of hard-won wisdom and advice for staying the course. Offering lessons learned over 20 years of teaching and writing, Shapiro brings her own revealing insights to weave an indispensable almanac for modern writers.

When I read books about writing, they tend to inspire me. They make me want to wake up early and write in the mornings before I leave for work (the period of time I feel most alert, and less likely to get distracted by other things). Then I finish reading the book and never actually make the changes. At least I have nobody to blame but myself, as Dani does a good job of making the point that (good) writing won’t happen unless you make the effort.

In her words: “If you’re waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you a writer, you’d better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you’re going to be waiting for a good long while.”

11) Slow Motion: A Memoir, Dani Shapiro

Description: Dani was a young girl from a deeply religious home who became the girlfriend of a famous married attorney–her best friend’s stepfather. The moment Lenny entered her life, everything changed: she dropped out of college, began to drink heavily, and became estranged from her family and friends. But then the phone call came. There had been an accident on a snowy road near her family’s home in New Jersey, and both her parents lay hospitalized in critical condition. At a time when she was barely able to take care of herself, she was faced with the terrifying task of taking care of two people who needed her desperately.

I like Dani’s writing style. I knew once I finished her book Still Writing (listed immediately above this one) that I wanted to read more of her work. This is an incredible story of how your life can turn out totally different from how you expected.

12) Now I See You: A Memoir, Nicole C. Kear

Description: At age 19, Nicole’s biggest concern is choosing a major–until she walks into a doctor’s office and gets a life-changing diagnosis. She is going blind, courtesy of an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, and has only a decade or so before Lights Out. Instead of making preparations as the doctor suggests, Kear decides to carpe diem and make the most of the vision she has left. She joins circus school, tears through boyfriends, travels the world, and through all these hi-jinks, she keeps her vision loss a secret.

I like books like this which force me to put myself in someone else’s shoes. Just like when I read Still Alice (about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s), I started thinking about what life would be like if I contracted a retinal disease which would cause me to go blind.

13) The Magician’s Lie, Greer Macallister

Description: The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, but when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free…and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.

This was a good story, although it wraps up a little too perfectly at the end. (I may have even rolled my eyes…it was cheesy.) I raced through most of the book with interest though, so I’d still recommend it.

14) Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin

Description: Nina spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist (“Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply”) despite being a Classics major who couldn’t tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.

I published this review as a separate blog post when I realized I had more to say than my typical 1-2 paragraphs.


15) Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan

Description: When 24-year-old Susannah woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she was at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.

Susannah came down with a rare disorder – one which had only been identified in a few hundred people before she contracted it – and it took weeks of effort for doctors to realize she had it. Since her symptoms could look like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, she makes the point that many people in a similar situation could be misdiagnosed if they don’t have access to the same level of care she did (health insurance, supportive parents).

Interesting story, but I kept thinking it was taking too long to tell. I wish it had been shorter. In fact, if I’d read her original New York Post article in advance (written before she got a book deal), I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to read the entire book.