Books

Books Read in July 2018

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

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

Highly Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books

Books Read in June 2018

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

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

Highly Recommended

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

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Unwifeable: A Memoir, Mandy Stadtmiller

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

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

Okay

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

Books

Books Read in May 2018

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

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

Highly Recommended

1) Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

3) Look Alive Out There: Essays, Sloane Crosley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay

5) I’m Just a Person, Tig Notaro

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

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

Books

Books Read in April 2018

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

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

Highly Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay

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

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

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

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

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

5) Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books

Books Read in March 2018

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay

5) Brave, Rose McGowan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books

Books Read in February 2018

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

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

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

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

Highly Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay

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

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

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

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

6) The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, Issa Rae

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

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

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.