Books

Books Read in April 2018

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

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

Highly Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay

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

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

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

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

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

5) Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books

Books Read in March 2018

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay

5) Brave, Rose McGowan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books

Books Read in February 2018

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

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

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

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

Highly Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay

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

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

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

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

6) The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae

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

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

Books

Books Read in January 2018

I read nine books in January (four were audiobooks).

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

Highly Recommended

1) Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Jessica Bruder

Description: From the beet fields of North Dakota, to the National Forest campgrounds of California, to Amazon’s CamperForce program in Texas, employers have discovered a new, low-cost labor pool made up largely of transient older Americans. Finding that social security comes up short, often underwater on mortgages, these invisible casualties of the Great Recession have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in late-model RVs, travel trailers, and vans, forming a growing community of nomads: migrant laborers who call themselves “workampers.”

I’ve long had a fascination with people who live in RVs and vans. I know it doesn’t appeal to a lot of people, but it’s something I could see myself doing for a period of time.

Of course (and this is what Bruder emphasizes), there’s a difference between doing this as a lifestyle choice and doing it because you can’t afford a typical mortgage. There’s a difference between someone tootling around in a luxury RV while someone else lives in a converted 12-passenger van.

I knew the mobile lifestyle was gaining popularity, but I wasn’t aware it had become such a phenomenon. I also wasn’t aware that the reason for the increase is largely blamed on the 2008 financial crisis, when lots of older people lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from their investment accounts, and/or lost their homes. It’s also people who didn’t save enough for retirement (if they saved anything), and those who did have money but turned to this lifestyle after a divorce decimated their savings.

Since these people can’t afford to retire, they often live off small social security checks and low-paid hourly jobs. National parks often hire mobile workers for seasonal work, and also Amazon warehouses (Amazon specifically recruits mobile workers, referring to them as CamperForce).

Bruder does a terrific job reporting from the front lines of this movement. She immersed herself in the nomad life over a period of years, including taking short stints at an Amazon warehouse and a sugar beet harvest (she makes sure to emphasize how lucky she was to be able to quit when the going got tough, which many others don’t have the option to do). She interviewed many full-time nomads, delving into how they ended up on the road and what their lives are like.

Bruder also emphasized that while this life is often difficult (more so for those on a limited budget, especially when things go wrong, like their rig breaking down), many of them get so attached to the lifestyle that they say they wouldn’t return to living in a house or apartment if given the choice. There’s a social element to being a nomad, and many of them band together to help each other out when someone is sick or injured, or in need of a vehicle repair or upgrade. They have fun and more importantly, they have freedom.

This piece that Bruder wrote for Wired is excellent, and here’s another one in The Guardian.

Recommended

2) The Book of Separation: A Memoir, Tova Mirvis

Description: Born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, Tova committed herself to observing the rules and rituals prescribed by this way of life. But over the years, her doubts became noisier than her faith, and at age 40 she could no longer breathe in what had become a suffocating existence. Even though it would mean the loss of her friends, her community, and possibly her family, Tova decides to leave her husband and her faith and strike out on her own to discover what she does believe and who she really is.

Tova was married for 17 years and had three children when she told her husband she wanted a divorce. More than that, this book is about growing up in the Orthodox faith, marrying Orthodox, and feeling pressured to stay exactly the same for the rest of her life. Tova decided to break away.

Here’s a piece from Tova in the New York Times which includes excerpts from the book.

3) The Last Black Unicorn, Tiffany Haddish

Description: From Tiffany Haddish, stand-up comedian, actress, and breakout star of the movie Girls Trip, comes this hysterical, edgy, and unflinching collection of (extremely) personal essays, as fearless as the author herself.

Haddish went through a lot before she became a comedian and actress: an abusive and negligent mother, foster care, working as a pimp (yes, really), and a succession of bad boyfriends (one of them bought her a car which she later found out had a tracking device on it).

Although she’s quick to say that she overlooked a lot of warning signs (and against the advice of friends), she married a man who ended up being possessive and physically abusive. She referred to him only as Ex-Husband, so I wasn’t surprised when she divorced him, but I was surprised when she decided to marry him again (and then divorce him again two years later). I know so many women have gone through that back-and-forth with their significant others, but it’s still tough to read.

On the bright side, the book is funny! I listened to it on audio, which I recommend as Haddish’s narration really brings a lot to the experience.

4) Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny, Holly Madison

Description: At 21, small-town Oregon girl Holly Cullen became Holly Madison, Hugh Hefner’s number one girlfriend. The fairy-tale life inside the Playboy Mansion (which included A-list celebrity parties and starring in a reality show) quickly devolved into an oppressive routine of strict rules and manipulation that nearly drove Holly to take her own life. This is her account of her time inside the Mansion: the drugs, abuse, infamous parties, and also her chronicle of healing and hope.

I had heard about this book but wasn’t planning to read it until I came across this article after Hugh Hefner’s death. Reading some of the accusations Madison made left me curious about what really went on during her seven-year stay in the Playboy mansion.

Madison covers the competition and in-fighting between the girls (encouraged by Hefner, who thrived on drama), including mean-girl hazing antics that rapidly affected her self-esteem. She resented the ditzy label; Hef would refuse to talk about current events or politics with her, only his male friends.

Madison was largely unhappy living at the mansion but couldn’t find an easy way out (having a 9pm curfew every night didn’t help). Things turned around when she, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson (Hefner’s current girlfriends) were cast in a reality show called The Girls Next Door. It was an unexpected hit and they starred in the show for five seasons.

(Unexpected news: the show was initially billed as being about Hefner, and the girlfriends were told anyone could replace them. The powers-that-be used that excuse to not pay them anything for starring in season one of the show. Can you imagine? It wasn’t until season two, when producers could tell viewers were tuning in to see these particular stars, that they started to receive a paycheck.)

When Madison finally left the Playboy mansion, she was able to find a level of success on her own terms: she went on Dancing with the Stars, starred in her own reality series (Holly’s World), and headlined a burlesque show in Las Vegas (Peepshow) for four years.

The book does come across as gossipy at times, with a bit of snark aimed at people who have crossed her. For the most part though, Holly is relatable as a quiet, introverted woman who found herself in a most unexpected environment.

5) Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give: Essays, Ada Calhoun

Description: We hear plenty about whether or not to get married, but much less about what it takes to stay married. Here, Calhoun presents an unflinching but also loving portrait of her own marriage, opening a conversation about the institution as it truly is: not the happy ending of a love story or a relic doomed by high divorce rates, but the beginning of a challenging new chapter of which “the first twenty years are the hardest.” Calhoun’s essays explore modern coupledom for a nuanced discussion of infidelity, existential anxiety, and the many obstacles to staying together.

These essays were inspired by Calhoun’s popular New York Times article. In the book, Calhoun likens her advice for staying married to the same no-nonsense advice you’d give someone trying to lose weight. Instead of eat less and exercise more, the secret to staying married is “Be nice. Don’t leave. That’s all.” In other words, if you want to stay married, you just don’t get divorced.

I agree with this review from The Guardian: “Calhoun provides a funny (but not flip), smart (but not smug) take on the institution of marriage. Weaving intimate moments from her own married life with frank insight from experts, clergy, and friends, she upends expectations of total marital bliss to present a realistic—but ultimately optimistic—portrait of what marriage is really like.”

6) We’re Going to Need More Wine: Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True, Gabrielle Union

Description: In this collection of essays, Union tells stories about power, color, gender, feminism, and fame. Union tackles a range of experiences, including bullying, beauty standards, and competition between women in Hollywood, coping with crushes, puberty, and the divorce of her parents.

Gabrielle effortlessly switches from funny to serious. Tales of growing up in a majority-white town in California are juxtaposed with spending summers in Omaha with her black family (feeling like an outsider in each location). There’s a silly story about a girl in high school who hated her guts and repeatedly threatened to beat her ass, then she shares the tale of being raped by a stranger while working at a shoe store. It’s been over twenty years since then, but she still won’t go into a bank to withdraw cash (chance of robbery) or sit with her back to the entrance while eating at a restaurant.

She addresses colorism (black people judging the color of their skin, with lighter skin always being the clear winner), and how that judgment has affected her as a non-light skinned black woman. There is also a discussion of hair, and how she’s done everything from using relaxers, to weaves, to wigs. She’s honest about the drama of being married to her first husband, and going through IVF later in life (and suffering through 8+ miscarriages).

7) Pancakes in Paris: Living the American Dream in France, Craig Carlson

Description: Carlson was the last person anyone would expect to open an American diner in Paris. He came from humble beginnings in a working-class town in Connecticut, had never worked in a restaurant, and didn’t know anything about starting a brand-new business. But from his first visit to Paris, Craig knew he had found the city of his dreams, although one thing was still missing — the good ol’ American breakfast he loved so much.

A film producer/screenwriter decides to open an American-style diner in Paris. Spoiler: it’s still open today, and now there are two locations in the city.

But wow, what an immense effort to get from idea to reality. What struck me was this guy’s dedication. You really have to want something badly in order to go through what he did (finding investors, French bureaucracy, the intricacy of employees and labor laws in France).

Carlson had zero experience running a restaurant or setting up a business. It took years from the time he dreamed of opening a diner in Paris before it came to fruition. He had no money of his own to speak of; as a struggling single screenwriter he worked temp jobs to stay afloat (and had loads of student debt from attending film school). Reading this book was a good example of why I’m not an entrepreneur.

8) Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats, Maryn McKenna

Description: In this eye-opening exposé, acclaimed health journalist and National Geographic contributor McKenna documents how antibiotics transformed chicken from local delicacy to industrial commodity—and human health threat—uncovering the ways we can make America’s favorite meat safer again.

I read this book for a DC EcoWomen book club that meets in February. I wouldn’t have read it if it wasn’t for the book club, since I already don’t eat chicken and didn’t need more convincing (my husband and I haven’t eaten meat since September 2015, but we do eat seafood).

This isn’t an argument against eating chicken so much as an argument against rampant antibiotic use, which is disturbing. The book delved a bit too much into the science for my liking (it made my eyes glaze over after a while), but it was obviously well researched. If you’re interested in the subject or just feel like it’s something you should know more about, I would recommend it. For a casual reader, you may think it’s too science-y, like I did.

Okay

9) Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, Michael Wolff

Description: With extraordinary access to the West Wing, Wolff reveals what happened behind-the-scenes in the first nine months of the most controversial presidency of our time.

I put this book on hold after reading some of the hype about it. I expected to be on hold for a long time, but I have digital accounts at several libraries, and they ordered so many copies that my audiobook hold became available after just a few days.

I can’t really be a good judge about whether to recommend this book or not. I couldn’t stand it, but that’s because I can only read so much about Trump and his team before I need to move on to something else. I had to force my way through it.

I also feel like, for people who know Trump’s character and followed his antics before/during/after his election, most or all of the information in this book won’t be a surprise to you. It just puts the craziness all in one place.

Books

Looking Back at the Books I Read in 2017

This may be the first time I’ve compiled any stats on my reading preferences, but a few things jumped out in my 2017 reading list. It turns out I’m pretty consistent with the type of books I pick up.

I have an overwhelming preference for memoirs and general nonfiction. Out of the 112 books I read in 2017, only five were fiction. I read one in January, two in February, one in March, one in May. No fiction at all in the last seven months of the year.

Most of the books I read are written by women. Out of 112 books, only nineteen were written by men. That means 83% of the books I read in 2017 were written by female authors.

I don’t read enough minority authors. I felt like I made more of an effort than usual, but my total is pretty dismal in that regard. Only sixteen (or 14%) of the books I read in 2017 were written by minorities.

I embraced audiobooks. I listened to 38 of them in 2017, which is 34% of the total.

I have high standards. If I like a book and would recommend it to others, more often than not I rate it with three out of five stars on Goodreads. I don’t see a three-star rating as negative; per the Goodreads guidelines, it means “I liked it.”

Even when I rate a book as Highly Recommended on my blog, most of the time I rank it with four stars on Goodreads. A book really has to blow me away to deserve five stars.

Out of 112 books, here’s the breakdown of how I rated them on the blog:

  • Highly Recommended: 5
  • Recommended: 62
  • Okay: 40
  • Not Recommended: 5

I can’t choose one favorite book of the year, but these are the five I rated as Highly Recommended:

In 2018, I expect to read: more of the same. I will never stop devouring memoirs because I love them. Female authors will continue to be the majority because that’s who I connect with. I will insert my earbuds and keep listening to new audiobooks. The only thing I’d like to change is to increase my percentage of minority authors.

Will you be switching up anything with your reading habits in 2018?

Books

Books Read in December 2017

I read nine books in December (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 112.

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

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

Recommended

1) It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying Is Cool Too), Nora McInerny Purmort

Description: When Nora’s boyfriend Aaron was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer, they got engaged on his hospital bed and had a baby boy while he was on chemo. The obituary they wrote during Aaron’s hospice care touched the nation. Nora puts a fresh twist on the subjects of mortality and resilience: What does it actually mean to live your “one wild and precious life” to the fullest? How can a joyful marriage contain more sickness than health?

I put off reading this book for a long time because I thought it would be depressing, but Nora introduces the subject of grief in a new and interesting way. Some parts were really sad, but there were more funny moments than low ones. She also includes essays on her family, childhood, insecurities, and an “anthropological visit” to an Insane Clown Posse concert.

I think the name of this book is unfortunate, and the description didn’t draw me in, but I’m really glad I read it. As soon as I started reading the first essay, I knew I would like it. This article is a good overview of the circumstances in Nora’s life that led to her writing a book.

2) L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, David Lebovitz

Description: Bestselling author and world-renowned chef David Lebovitz continues to mine the rich subject of his evolving expat life in Paris, using his perplexing experiences in apartment renovation as a launching point for stories about French culture, food, and what it means to revamp one’s life.

I don’t consider myself a Francophile, but I do love nonfiction books about living in France. This one mixes things up a bit because Lebovitz, after living in Paris and loving his life for ten years, decides to buy (and renovate) his own apartment. The process turns into a nightmare, taking way longer than expected and costing an astronomical amount of money.

If this book was fiction, I would have tossed it aside as being unbelievable. The things that happened during the course of his renovation were simply unfathomable. This article talks a bit about the book and includes an excerpt.

3) Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir, Amy Tan

Description: Bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan reveals herself in a way she never has before, delving into her childhood, adolescence, family history, beginnings as a writer, and professional life. Tan is at her most intimate in revealing the truths and inspirations that underlie her extraordinary fiction.

I’ve read a number of Tan’s fictional books, so I knew I wanted to read her memoir. I enjoyed discovering things about her, like how she listens to music when she writes (but not anything that includes singing, since it’s too distracting), and that it takes years for her to write a book. The biggest themes involve growing up with Chinese immigrant parents, the expectations they held for her, and how that influenced her life (and self-esteem) for many years. Her mother was especially difficult, prone to mood swings and constant threats of suicide.

I could have done without her inclusion of random journal entries and interludes, but those were short and easy to bypass. The essays themselves are worth reading.

4) Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, Katy Tur

Description: This is the darkly comic, fascinatingly bizarre, and often scary story of how America sent a former reality show host to the White House. It’s also the story of what it was like for Tur to be there as it happened, inside a no-rules world where reporters were spat on, demeaned, and discredited. Tur was a foreign correspondent who came home to her most foreign story of all.

Katy Tur is the reporter you heard the most about when Trump was on the campaign trail, like when he mocked her for stumbling during an interview, and when he called her out by name at his campaign rallies (ultimately causing her to receive death threats from rabid fans and fear for her safety).

I listened to this on audio, and she has a good voice for it (unsurprising, since she’s a television reporter), but I actually found it annoying sometimes because she talked in “reporter voice” (you know, the tone anchors and reporters use on TV that’s different from how everyone else talks). It was easier to look past when I listened to it for long periods of time, but it definitely stood out.

The book goes back and forth from reporting on (the absurdity of) the campaign, to what happened on election day. We learn what she was thinking at the time certain events occurred. Throughout, she seems to express surprise that Trump won the election after all his shenanigans and everything that came out about his past. (You’re not the only one, Katy.) Here’s an interview with her.

Okay

5) Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, Lauren Elkin

Description: Part cultural meander, part memoir, Elkin takes us on a distinctly cosmopolitan jaunt that begins in New York, where she grew up, and transports us to Paris via Venice, Tokyo, and London, all cities in which she’s lived. Elkin creates a mosaic of what urban settings have meant to women, charting through literature, art, history, and film the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes fraught relationship that women have with the metropolis.

The author’s definition of flâneuse: “one who wanders aimlessly; an idler; a dawdling observer, usually found in cities.” In other words, a woman who finds pleasure in walking for exploration’s sake, not because she has a destination or objective.

I like that notion very much (and I’m inspired to do more of it!), but I didn’t love this entire book. I liked the parts where Elkin talks about her personal experiences, but she also chose to highlight female authors who have written about particular cities. I didn’t care about those people at all. If Elkin had made this book solely about her, I would have liked it much better.

6) A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages, Kristin Chenoweth

Description: At four foot eleven, Kristin is an immense talent in a petite but powerful package. Here, Kristin shares her journey from Oklahoma beauty queen to Broadway leading lady (she starred as Galinda the Good Witch in the musical “Wicked”). Through a combination of talent and hard work, Kristin took Broadway by storm. But of course, into every storm, the occasional drizzle of disaster must fall.

Kristin is cute, but if someone were to ask me if they should read this, I’d caveat that a fan would get more out of it than I did. I’d definitely recommend the audio version if so, which is what I had. The story comes alive through her telling of it, and she giggles while reading her own words, which was the same thing I liked about David Spade’s memoir.

7) The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, Florence Williams

Description: For centuries, poets and philosophers extolled the benefits of a walk in the woods. Williams set out to uncover the science behind nature’s positive effects on the brain, demonstrating that our connection to nature is much more important to our cognition than we think, and even small amounts of exposure to the living world can improve our creativity and enhance our mood.

I found this book to be very thorough and well researched, and I loved the theme (that proximity to / time spent in nature is advantageous for pretty much everyone). However, it’s one of those subjects I would’ve been happy reading a long article about, rather than an entire book. I just wasn’t interested in all the nitty-gritty research and topics she covered. Here’s an interview with her in the Washington Post from earlier this year.

8) Thanks, Obama: My Hopey, Changey White House Years, David Litt

Description: After graduating from college in 2008, he went straight to the Obama campaign. In 2011, he became one of the youngest White House speechwriters in history. Until leaving the White House in 2016, he wrote on topics from healthcare to climate change to criminal justice reform.

I enjoyed some of the insider knowledge but I just couldn’t stay interested. It was a struggle to finish. (There was one funny anecdote that stands out. Litt wrote the script for Obama’s 90th birthday tribute to Betty White and the description of the filming process – Litt’s first substantive interaction with President Obama – was entertaining. It inspired me to look up the finished video and watch it again.)

9) Here’s the Deal: Don’t Touch Me, Howie Mandel

Description: Mandel is one of the most recognizable names in entertainment, but there are aspects of his personal and professional life he’s never talked about publicly. Years ago, Mandel told the world about his germophobia. Then he started discussing his adult ADHD. Now, for the first time, he reveals the details of his struggle with these challenging disorders. He speaks candidly about the ways his condition has affected his personal life–as a son, husband, and father of three.

This is a quick read. I thought it would be interesting to hear about his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how it affects his life, but he addresses that subject pretty quickly, then goes on to detail the many outrageous practical jokes he’s played over the years. I wasn’t impressed with his admitted disregard for people’s feelings in pursuit of a laugh.

Books

Books Read in November 2017

I read seven books in November (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 103.

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

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

Recommended

1) Unqualified: Love and Relationship Advice From a Celebrity Who Just Wants to Help, Anna Faris

Description: This comic memoir features Anna’s candid stories of love lost and won — including being “the short girl” in elementary school, finding and keeping female friends, and dealing with the pressures of the entertainment industry. This book reveals Anna’s unique take on how to master the bizarre, chaotic, and ultimately rewarding world of love.

I heard about this book when Anna and her husband (Chris Pratt) were in the news for announcing their divorce. Releasing a book on relationships right before getting divorced? Don’t worry, it still works. It’s filled with amusing anecdotes and entertaining stories about her life.

2) Jackie’s Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family, Kathy McKeon

Description: An endearing coming-of-age memoir by a young woman who spent thirteen years as Jackie Kennedy’s personal assistant and occasional nanny — and the lessons about life and love she learned from the glamorous first lady.

I liked this better than I thought I would. Kathy was a live-in personal assistant for Jackie Kennedy for over seven years, and continued to work for her when she moved out to get married. There were all kinds of details, like the particular challenges of caring for Jackie’s extensive wardrobe, and carving X’s on the soles of Jackie’s shoes to prevent her from slipping on marble floors.

Kathy paints a picture of a kind and generous woman but also one who demanded loyalty and hard work. In Kathy’s words: “[T]here wasn’t such a thing as ‘my’ time in her world, just her time bestowed on me when it best suited her. I had long ago lost count of the number of weekends off that had been appropriated without apology or compensation.”

The book covers tales from Caroline and John Jr.’s childhoods, family scandals, Jackie’s unexpected marriage to Aristotle Onassis, and later, the deaths of Jackie and John Jr.

3) At Home in the World: Reflections on Belonging While Wandering the Globe, Tsh Oxenreider

Description: In her late 30s and a mom to three kids under age ten, Tsh and her husband decided to spend a rather ordinary nine months in an extraordinary way: traveling the corners of the earth to see the places they’d always wanted to explore. This book chronicles their global journey from China to Thailand to Australia, Sri Lanka, Uganda, France, Croatia, and beyond, as they fill their days with train schedules, world-schooling the kids, and working from anywhere.

I read and enjoyed one of Tsh’s past books (Notes from a Blue Bike). I liked this one too, but it was less relatable since she was traveling around the world with three children – which I would never, ever do. I liked reading about the family’s downsizing process and how little they took with them (one backpack per person), and how even that was sometimes too much (like schlepping cold-weather clothing around when you spend a majority of your time in hot climates).

She is also realistic about the challenges of traveling with such a large group, especially when three of the five travelers are under the age of ten. While they saw and experienced a lot of exciting things, there were a lot of negatives: jet lag, unfamiliar foods, not being able to speak the native language, a constant feeling of discomfort. Their favorite locations ended up being the ones where they spent the most time (weeks instead of days) because they had time to settle in and enjoy their new surroundings.

4) How to Make a French Family: A Memoir of Love, Food, and Faux Pas, Samantha Verant

Description: When Samantha is given a second chance at love at the age of forty, she moves to southwestern France, thinking she’s prepared for her new role in life as an instant American wife and stepmom. It turns out, though, that making a French family takes more than just good intentions and a quick lesson in croissant-baking.

An American woman meets a Frenchman at the age of nineteen, they have a connection, but distance pulls them apart. They reconnect twenty years later; the man is now a widower with two children. They get married and the new wife moves to France. But not to exciting Paris…rural France. This story is about the stress of culture shock and battling a newfound lack of confidence, coupled with not knowing the language very well. These difficulties and assorted family drama helped keep the book from seeming too saccharine.

Okay

5) This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare, Gabourey Sidibe

Description: Gabourey skyrocketed to fame in 2009 when she played the leading role in the acclaimed movie “Precious.” Here she shares a one-of-a-kind life story and her unconventional rise to fame as a movie star.

I forget where I heard about this book. I only know Gabourey from Precious, but apparently she’s been on a few television series as well. In these essays, she addresses her childhood (including a cab-driving father from Senegal who wasn’t very nice, and a mother who made a living singing in the subway for tips), her interesting name, her weight (and eventual bariatric surgery), and a stint working for a phone-sex company before she landed a very unexpected movie role. She also talks about her struggle with bulimia and depression, but in general the tone of this book is comedic and upbeat.

6) Unstoppable: My Life So Far, Maria Sharapova

Description: In 2004, in a stunning upset against the two-time defending champion Serena Williams, 17-year-old Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon, becoming an overnight sensation. Out of virtual anonymity, she launched herself onto the international stage. Years later, she came up against the toughest challenge yet: during the 2016 Australian Open, she was charged by the ITF with taking the banned substance meldonium.

I enjoyed the first half of this book better than the second. It was interesting to read how her father brought them over from Russia – when she was six years old – with only $700 in his pocket, and how they persevered in the beginning through tenacity and sheer good luck. (Neither of them spoke English!)

I didn’t like her matter-of-fact tone (this may have been exacerbated by how she read it, as I listened to it on audio), and there was a lot of, uh…descriptions of tennis games. I know, this should be expected! But I’m not a tennis player or watcher, so I didn’t understand the terms she used, or the scoring, or many of the names she referenced (other than obvious ones like Serena Williams).

7) How to Fall in Love with Anyone: A Memoir in Essays, Mandy Len Catron

Description: In a series of essays that take a closer look at what it means to love someone, be loved, and how we present our love to the world, Catron deconstructs her own personal canon of love stories. She delves all the way back to 1944, when her grandparents first met in a coal mining town in Appalachia, to her own dating life as a professor in Vancouver, drawing insights from her fascinating research into the universal psychology, biology, history, and literature of love.

Mandy shares her personal love history, along with stories from her family. There are also opinion essays, like the Cinderella fantasy, and the impact of the movie Pretty Woman.

Books

Books Read in October 2017

I read seven books in October (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 96.

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

Highly Recommended

1) What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton

Description: For the first time, Clinton reveals what she was thinking and feeling during one of the most controversial and unpredictable presidential elections in history. Now free from the constraints of running, Clinton takes you inside the intense personal experience of becoming the first woman nominated for president by a major party in an election marked by rage, sexism, exhilarating highs and infuriating lows, stranger-than-fiction twists, Russian interference, and an opponent who broke all the rules.

I voted for Hillary last November, and I’ve long respected her history of service and activism, but this book made me like her even more. I sought out the audiobook because I wanted to hear her read it, and I’m glad I did.

I listened to a portion of this audiobook while sitting at my dining room table, writing postcards to encourage registered-Democrat voters in Virginia to get out and vote on Nov 7. (When a friend told me about the 100 Postcard Challenge, I immediately signed up. I was born and raised in Virginia, and lived in the state for more years than I’ve lived elsewhere. I’m not the type to knock on doors, but postcards I can do.)

I appreciated Clinton’s honesty. She speaks candidly about how she felt in multiple difficult situations, leading up the election and also its aftermath (like attending the inauguration as a guest instead of being the honoree).

She has biting words for Trump: she addresses his demeanor, his inability to stay on topic during debates, how incomprehensible it was to lose the election to someone with his history of sexism and misogyny. She refers to him as an “unqualified bully,” among other things.

During the town hall-style debate where Trump memorably loomed over her while she spoke, Clinton said all she wanted to do was turn around and say, “Back up, you creep.” She chose to ignore him but later wished she had spoken up. I wish she’d said something at the time, too, and I bet a lot of other women feel the same.

She includes personal details, like her relationship with Bill, and how she buys him gifts when she’s on the road and calls him every night before bed. She calls him her “partner and champion,” and says he never once asked her to put her career on hold for his, even when he was President. They’ve weathered their storms through the years and emerged strong.

There are also lighthearted details, with examples of life on the campaign trail, what her team did to pass the time, what kind of food they liked to eat, and people they met along the way.

Closer to the end of the book, she talks about why she lost the election (but not the popular vote…may we never forget the popular vote). Of course she talks about THE EMAILS. I started typing out a long paragraph about the idiocy of people focusing on THE EMAILS but ultimately deleted it; I agree when she said, “It was a dumb mistake but an even dumber scandal.”

Oh my goodness, there are so many other things: Her thoughts on how Bernie Sanders handled himself during the primaries. Her stance on guns. There’s also a section on Russian hacking and their interference in the election, which, as we know, has not been fully resolved, so it’ll be interesting (and likely devastating) to see how all that plays out.

I found myself wishing that some of the non-Hillary fans I know would read this book and see if it changes their opinion. She isn’t perfect – she freely admits to things she wishes she’d handled differently – but neither is she a villain.

This book is both heartbreaking and inspiring. It was difficult to read certain parts (I was close to tears when she read something she’d planned to include in her acceptance speech after the election; it’s about her mother and it’s so very beautiful). But if you want to be inspired to step up your activism and support causes that advance women, this is the reading material for you.

Recommended

2) Born Bright: A Young Girl’s Journey from Nothing to Something in America, C. Nicole Mason

Description: Born in the 1970s in Los Angeles, Mason was raised by a beautiful but volatile16-year-old single mother. Early on, she learned to navigate between an unpredictable home life and school where she excelled. While showing us her path out of poverty, Mason examines the conditions that make it nearly impossible to escape and exposes the presumption harbored by many—that the poor don’t help themselves enough.

Mason details her troubled upbringing: being born to a 15-year-old mother; her father going to jail for selling drugs; her stepfather’s sexual abuse; food insecurity. She attended many different schools while growing up, and became the first in her family to graduate high school.

Even though she escaped poverty and obtained a PhD, Mason refutes the belief that this is possible for everyone, arguing that the systems we have in place make this kind of advancement very difficult.

3) A Fighting Chance, Elizabeth Warren

Description: As a child in small-town Oklahoma, Warren yearned to go to college and become an elementary school teacher—an ambitious goal, given her family’s modest means. Early marriage and motherhood seemed to put that dream out of reach, but 15 years later she was a distinguished law professor with a deep understanding of why people go bankrupt. Then came the phone call that changed her life: could she come to Washington, DC to help advise Congress on rewriting the bankruptcy laws? Thus began an impolite education into the bare-knuckled, often dysfunctional ways of Washington.

I didn’t know anything about Elizabeth Warren until she campaigned for Hillary Clinton last year. This book introduced me to a lot more, and unsurprisingly, she’s a very impressive woman. She married young, got pregnant early, and became a homemaker. But she decided to get a law degree and soon after graduation became a law professor, ultimately working at Harvard years later.

I learned a bunch of details I didn’t know about the 2007 financial crisis and the bankruptcy legislation she worked on. There’s also a chapter about her decision to run for Senator of Massachusetts against long odds (and her ultimate victory).

4) Bonjour Kale: A Memoir of Paris, Love, and Recipes, Kristen Beddard

Description: Unable to find “le chou kale” anywhere upon moving to Paris with her new husband, and despite not really speaking French, Kristen launched a crusade to single-handedly bring kale to the country of croissants and cheese.

This is another (but still enjoyable) memoir about a non-French speaking American lady who moves to France with her French-speaking husband. I’ve read a fair number of these but I’ve liked them all. This one is a little different due to the author’s focus on kale. I don’t understand loving one vegetable so much (I like kale just fine, but if I’d moved to France and it wasn’t there, I would have just eaten something else). She is (spoiler!) ultimately successful in her quest to reintroduce the green veggie to France (which is apparently a cabbage…who knew?).

Luckily the entire book isn’t about kale, and throughout, she addresses the typical actions involved in learning a new culture, like difficulties fitting in and attempting to learn French.

5) Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman, Anne Helen Petersen

Description: You know the type: the woman who won’t shut up, who’s too brazen, too opinionated — too much. She’s the unruly woman, and she embodies one of the most provocative and powerful forms of womanhood today. Here, Petersen uses the lens of “unruliness” to explore the ascension of pop culture powerhouses like Lena Dunham, Nicki Minaj, and Kim Kardashian, exploring why the public loves to love (and hate) these controversial figures.

We all know women who have had labels applied to them, deserved or not. Petersen explores some of these labels in-depth and offers insights into why these women are seen that way.

6) Around the Way Girl: A Memoir, Taraji P. Henson

Description: From Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Taraji P. Henson, comes an inspiring and funny book about family, friends, and the hustle required to make it from DC to Hollywood. Taraji reflects on the world-class instruction she received at Howard University and the pitfalls that come with being a black actress.

I think the first time I become aware of Taraji’s name was when she starred in the movie Hidden Figures (although I haven’t seen it yet), but I realized I’ve probably seen the actress in a few other things and just didn’t know her name. I’m glad I chose the audio version, since Taraji reads it herself and is quite theatrical and enthusiastic with her narration. (She does a great imitation of her dad’s voice.)

It was interesting to hear how she was mostly raised by a single mother in poverty-stricken southeast DC, so she really had to hustle to reach her level of fame. Taraji always had a lot of energy and attitude, and was extremely motivated to make a career in acting, so having a baby during her junior year of college didn’t stop her momentum at all. When she moved to Los Angeles in her mid-20s, she moved as a single mother with a toddler son and made it work. Quite impressive.

Okay

7) American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, Monica Hesse

Description: The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn’t stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America.

What would possess a couple in rural Virginia to burn down over 70 buildings? That’s the question Hesse attempts to answer.

This was a bit hard to follow on audio (there were a lot of names, and I find it easier to follow names if I’m physically reading them rather than hearing them spoken). I wish I could say the story is worth it, and parts of it were entertaining, but the ending fell flat so that sealed the deal with not being put in the “Recommended” category.

Buffalo, Life

I Moved Back to Washington, DC

I planned to write this post months ago, way in advance of our move. When I know I have a lot to say, the thought of starting feels overwhelming. But now the event has happened and it’s time to give everyone an explanation.

My husband and I left Buffalo at the end of August and returned to Washington, DC. We lived in DC before we moved to Buffalo four years ago, and it’s where we decided to return.

I was really excited to move to Buffalo in 2013. We planned the move for over a year before we actually did it. I armed myself with research, read a ton of articles, and made lists of places I wanted to see and events I wanted to attend. I even started a separate blog dedicated to Buffalo (defunct for several years now).

Given all that, I’m sure some people will wonder why we decided to sell our house and leave Buffalo behind. I could revisit the long list of pros and cons we made during our “should we go or should we stay?” conversations, but one factor stood out above all others: Community.

We missed our community in DC.

We didn’t expect to immediately find the same number of close connections in Buffalo that we had in our former city, but neither did we expect it to be as difficult as it turned out to be.

To be fair, we met a lot of very nice people. Some were brand new to both of us and others were friends of Paul’s from his younger years. All of these interactions were enjoyable. The problem was, we never felt like those interactions resulted in close relationships.

Many people who live in Buffalo have lived there most or all of their lives. This observation doesn’t apply to every Buffalonian, but in our personal experience, it seemed like most people we met already had enough friends. They were nice to us, and we might hang out once in a while and have a swell time, but with very few exceptions, we weren’t being invited to backyard cookouts or casual dinners.

We spent a lot of Saturday nights hanging out with each other because we didn’t really have anyone with whom we felt close enough to extend an invitation.

I do place some of the blame on myself, because I’m an introvert and it’s difficult for me to invite someone to hang out if I don’t know them very well. I did extend invitations in Buffalo, though (at least in the beginning, for the first few years when I was trying my best to establish a new group of friends). It’s just hard to keep putting yourself out there when the effort isn’t returned.

I went out to lunch several times with two ladies I met through a book club. At one point I suggested another lunch, and over a period of weeks we went back and forth on which date would work. After they rescheduled several times (perfectly understandable), I jokingly said I was stepping back from trying to coordinate the scheduling and they should let me know when a particular date would work for them. The three of us never had lunch again.

There are other examples of ladies I met in person after connecting through social media, and I’d see them solo or we’d go on double dates with our husbands. These outings mainly happened during the first two years after we moved to Buffalo when I was making more of an effort to reach out. But again, I felt like those outings happened because I initiated them. I waited for the invitations to be reciprocated, and when they weren’t, I stopped being the initiator.

I’m not saying these examples had a direct impact on our departure; our decision to leave Buffalo was wrapped up in many different factors. But this lack of inclusion did contribute to the dearth of community I’ve been talking about.

Like I said, there were a few exceptions. I saw Bryana quite a few times, but we drifted apart once her schedule got crazy with work and business school, and then she had a baby last year.

And of course there’s Jaclyn, who I’ve mentioned before. I still find it amusing that the closest friend I made in Buffalo was a fellow DC transplant. We’d meet up and moan about our mutual desire to make more friends, but we both found it extremely difficult to establish deeper connections with people who seemed content to keep our friendships superficial. Jaclyn moved back to DC a year before I did, and I encourage you to read this post she wrote about finding her way home again.

Another factor in feeling part of a community is proximity to family. We had that in Buffalo with my in-laws, who only lived a mile and a half from us once we moved out of the downtown area and bought our house. The four of us spent many hours together, and they were the single biggest factor in whether we stayed in Buffalo or not, as Paul and I both knew we’d feel awful about leaving them behind (we knew they assumed we’d moved to the area for the long term).

On the flip side, my parents, two brothers, two sisters, two brothers-in-law, and five nephews (plus another baby due in November) all live in Virginia. It takes a few hours to drive from DC to my closest relative, but the option is there and in the past I’d regularly leave the city to visit family on weekends and attend special events. I’m especially close with my sisters and it was tough only seeing them twice a year once we moved away.

Here are some additional factors which contributed to us moving back:

  • Before I left DC in 2013, I made a list of pros and cons that is still valid. The funny thing is, I ended up missing the things on the pro-DC list more than I thought I would. It turns out I don’t care so much about the high cost of buying a home in DC now that I’ve been a homeowner in another city and didn’t find it all that great. I’m content being a renter, at least for the foreseeable future.
  • I missed the wealth of public transportation options. In Buffalo, after we bought our house, I started taking the bus to work. While it was convenient, that was mainly because our house was located right off the same main road that my workplace was located on (just five miles north), so I didn’t have any transfers to worry about. What I didn’t like was how bus riding was looked down upon. In smaller cities like Buffalo, the impression seems to be that people only take the bus if they can’t afford to buy a car. It doesn’t compute that maybe I prefer to read a book rather than stare at the road, or that environmental factors play a role, and I was actively doing my part to reduce the impact of driving solo in a car every day. In larger cities, utilizing multiple modes of public transportation is not only accepted, it is commonplace.
  • Paul and I both walk to work now. When we found out our workplaces would be mere blocks from each other (we were both able to transfer with our Buffalo employers, so no job changes!), we decided to look for an apartment within walking distance to both locations. I am loving it. While I appreciate having so many transportation options in this city, it’s even better traveling to work on my own two feet (and being close enough to walk home for lunch as well). Riding the bus in Buffalo, after factoring in the time required to arrive at my stop early enough not to miss said bus, took 35-45 minutes each way. When doubling that for the daily round trip, that’s a not-insubstantial amount of time I’ve regained to do whatever I want. (Another plus: I get to wake up later!)
  • Environmental factors: I’ve become crunchier in my old(er) age. Two years ago (after we bought our house), I read a book called Green Metropolis and I immediately wanted to sell our house and return to an apartment. The author’s argument (that residents of compact urban centers, especially those who reside in apartment/condo buildings, consume less oil, electricity, and water than Americans who live more spread-out) made sense to me. I try my best to live an environmentally friendly life, and two huge factors are where we choose to live and how often we utilize automobiles.
  • Speaking of the car thing: we still own our ugly car. It’s now 15 years old! We couldn’t bring it with us during the move, but Paul will drive it to DC later this week when he returns from a business trip to Buffalo. I did my best to convince him of the merits of a car-free life (in addition to public transportation, we could utilize a car sharing service like Zipcar, or use Uber or Lyft when we need a vehicle to get around). Our old car doesn’t cost very much to own and operate though, so he prefers to keep it, which I’m fine with for now. We’ll reevaluate our options when this car dies and it’s time to make a decision about replacing it (or not).

In the end, our choice to leave Buffalo was never about anything we actively disliked. The city contains numerous amazing destinations and activities; people move there every day and do cool things and start exciting new businesses.

I still follow The Buffalo News and read local blogs. I proudly display Buffalo-themed art. I know I’ll return over and over and eagerly seek out what’s new and what’s changed since my last visit. I will always look back fondly on the four years I spent there.

The past five weeks since our return have been packed: there have been lots of get-togethers with friends, and a bunch of my Virginia family members drove up to visit over three consecutive weekends in September. I joined a group of eco-minded women and have attended one meeting so far, with more on the agenda. There have been free museums and festivals and wine on our building’s roof deck. My calendar is filling up again and that makes me so happy.

I needed to get back to my people. My community.

National Zoo with Hunter

(Paul and me at the National Zoo last month, with our nephew Hunter.)

Books

Books Read in September 2017

I read six books in September (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 89. There was less reading than usual (on the bright side, I recommend them all!), but that’s because I recently made a big move and my daily life is quite different. More details on that soon.

This is a book I started reading in September but decided not to finish:

  • Girl in the Woods: A Memoir, Aspen Matis
    A girl who walks from Mexico to Canada? Sounds like my kind of story! Except it wasn’t. I listened to about half of this audiobook. I tried to push through so I could place it concretely in the “Not Recommended” category, but I just couldn’t do it. It got worse and worse. Could not finish.

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

Recommended

1) The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Description: Crime, even the darkest acts, can happen to any of us. As Alexandria pores over the facts of convicted murderer Ricky Langley’s case, she finds herself thrust into the complicated narrative of his childhood. By examining the details of Ricky’s case, she is forced to face her own story, to unearth long-buried family secrets, and reckon with a past that colors her view of Ricky’s crime. An intellectual and emotional thriller that is also a different kind of murder mystery, this is a book not only about how the story of one crime was constructed — but about how we grapple with our own personal histories.

This is an in-depth look at a murder case, but rather than simply reporting the facts, Alexandria goes back and forth between the murder case and her personal story. It was a good mix. I listened to this on audio, which I also recommend.

2) The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir, Ariel Levy

Description: When Ariel left for a reporting trip to Mongolia in 2012, she was pregnant, married, and financially secure. A month later, none of that was true. Levy picks you up and hurls you through the story of how she built an unconventional life and then watched it fall apart with astonishing speed. Levy chronicles the adventure and heartbreak of being, in her own words, “a woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.”

Ariel received a lot of attention (and I believe she won some nonfiction awards) for her essay that appeared in the New Yorker four years ago and later led to her book deal. It’s pretty intense.

This book wasn’t what I was expected, but it’s okay to be taken by surprise. I didn’t like all of her life choices and there were things she could have handled differently, but she’s a terrific writer and her observations are worth holding out for.

3) Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, Dani Shapiro

Description: This is an inquiry into how marriage is transformed by time — abraded, strengthened, shaped in miraculous and sometimes terrifying ways. Dani opens the door to her house, her marriage, and her heart, and invites us to witness her own marital reckoning — a reckoning in which she confronts both the life she dreamed of and the life she made, and struggles to reconcile the girl she was with the woman she has become.

This isn’t long; I flew through it pretty quickly. I enjoyed Dani’s three previous nonfiction books so I knew I’d like this one. Like any good memoirist, she is honest and open, which is instrumental to writing something people can relate to.

At the time of writing this book, Dani’s marriage was 18 years old (she’s now at 20 years). I appreciated her perspective on how difficult it’s been for two creative people — basically freelance writers, working from home on a wide variety of projects — to hustle for work. They have no 401k or other retirement savings. Her husband can spend months working on a screenplay which doesn’t get picked up. There are flush years when work pours in, but they end up using any extra money they bring in to sustain them during the lean years.

She also goes into the way a marriage changes over time, and the hard times they’ve had, but there is a focus on being committed for the long haul — despite her concern that one of them hasn’t stepped up to be the “responsible one” (it’s generally preferable if at least one person in a relationship provides stability by funding a retirement account and providing health insurance).

4) Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Barry Estabrook

Description: Tomatoland combines history, legend, passion for taste, and investigative reporting on modern agribusiness and environmental issues into a revealing, controversial look at the tomato, the fruit we love so much that we eat $4 billion-worth annually.

I read a book about the tomato industry, but here’s a fun fact — I can’t stand raw tomatoes and never eat them. (I use diced and crushed canned tomatoes in my cooking all the time; as long as they’re mixed with other ingredients, I’m fine with them.)

This isn’t about taste though (at least not entirely). Estabrook delves deep into many aspects of the industry, focusing heavily on the low-paid, undocumented workers who do the planning, pruning, and harvesting; slave-like living conditions; and pesticide exposure. What surprised me the most was learning that Florida, with its warm climate, does not actually have ideal growing conditions for tomatoes — far from it, actually. Tomatoes are grown in sand, not soil, and nutrients and water are a highly regulated science to get to the desired yield.

I may not buy raw tomatoes, but the conditions in which they reach our grocery stores should be of interest to everyone.

5) The Worrier’s Guide to the End of the World: Love, Loss, and Other Catastrophes — through Italy, India, and Beyond, Torre DeRoche

Description: Torre is at rock bottom following a breakup and her father’s death when she crosses paths with Masha, who is pursuing her dream of walking the world. When Masha invites Torre to join her pilgrimage through Tuscany, Torre straps on a pair of flimsy shoes and gets rambling. But the magical hills of Italy are nothing like the dusty and merciless roads of India where the pair wind up, improvising a pilgrimage in the footsteps of Gandhi along his march to the seaside. Coming face-to-face with their worst fears, they discover the power of friendship to save us from our darkest moments.

I’ve read a number of books over the years about women who go on long walks, and I always find them interesting. I dream of doing the same myself one day.

Several bad things happened to Torre in a short period of time (her father died, a long relationship ended), but she takes a lighthearted approach to her situation and learns some life lessons along the way. I envied her friendship with Masha, her walking partner. Except for a short period of time on their second walk, they had a closeness and easy banter that seemed to make the miles pass quickly.

6) All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, 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.

I read this book two years ago, but sometimes a childfree woman likes to remind herself of the stark realities of raising a child. (Another reason: I needed an audiobook to listen to and this one was available.) You can find my first review here.