I read 15 books in December, which brings my 2015 total to 137.
December was a difficult reading month for me. I started at least eight (!) books I didn’t finish (and those are the ones I remember; I think there may have been one or two more). To be fair, some of them were checked out from the library simply because they happened to be available — this happens more often with e-books and audiobooks because the selection isn’t as wide, so I end up checking them out just to have something to read, and then I don’t finish them. I do have a number of e-books on hold that I’m looking forward to.
For 2016, will I set a goal to read more books than I did this year? No. I feel no desire to surpass this number unless it ends up working out that way on its own. If I find something else to take up my time, that’s perfectly okay with me. I’ll always be reading; it just may not be as much as this colossal year.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem
Description: Steinem had an itinerant childhood. When she was a young girl, her father would pack the family in the car and drive cross-country searching for adventure and trying to make a living. The seeds were planted: Gloria realized that growing up didn’t have to mean settling down. And so began a lifetime of travel, of activism and leadership, of listening to people whose voices and ideas would inspire change and revolution.
I knew who Steinem was but I’d never read a book about her, or written by her, before this one. Other than the chapter on politics, I liked it a lot. What an impressive, hard working woman.
2) Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, Shonda Rhimes
Description: She’s the creator and producer of some of the most groundbreaking shows on TV: Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder. This memoir chronicles Shonda’s life before and after her Year of Yes, where she forced herself out of the house and onto the stage, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live; giving a Dartmouth commencement speech; when she learned to say yes to her health; yes to play; when she learned to explore, empower, applaud, and love her truest self.
I recommend this book because it’s a fun read, but certain parts of it bugged me. In three separate chapters, Shonda recaps the ENTIRE text of speeches she gave — which just seems lazy. It’s comparable to a blogger getting a book deal and lifting too much text directly from their blog, rather than coming up with new material.
I also expected Shonda’s Year of Yes to be more specific, rather than doing things like “saying yes to losing weight” and “saying yes to accepting compliments rather than constantly deflecting them.” She’s an entertaining writer though, and I got through the book quickly.
Here’s what she said about her life before starting the Year of Yes: “The years and years of saying no were, for me, a quiet way to let go. A silent means of giving up. An easy withdrawal from the world, from light, from life. Saying no was a way to disappear. Saying no was my own slow form of suicide.”
3) French Twist: An American Mom’s Experiment in Parisian Parenting, Catherine Crawford
Description: Short of shipping her daughters off to Paris for invaluable early-life lessons, Crawford did the next best thing: she brought French-style parenting to Brooklyn. In the process, she discovered her kids could actually hold a thought silently for two minutes without interrupting adult conversation, and that she didn’t need to buy out half the toy store to make their birthdays special. While combining the best attributes of the approach français with what she saw as American qualities worth preserving, Crawford found a way to save her household and her sanity.
I’m not a parent, but I like to read about the French and their child-rearing methods (I also enjoyed Bringing Up Bébé). The author makes the point that the French are, of course, not perfect in their methods — she doesn’t believe in spanking her kids, for instance — but there are many things we can learn, and she sees a big difference in her two girls’ behavior when she does.
4) Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn
Description: Twenty-something, suit-clad, and upwardly mobile, Joshua thought he had everything anyone could ever want. Until he didn’t anymore. In the pursuit of looking for something more substantial than compulsory consumption, he jettisoned most of his material possessions, paid off loads of crippling debt, and walked away from his six-figure career. This is a story of what happened when one man decided to let go of everything and begin living more deliberately.
I’ve been reading The Minimalists for years — I really admire them (check out their recent post on Minimalist Gift-Giving for the holidays). They both gave up six-figure jobs to live more meaningfully and encourage others to simplify their lives. The book repeats a lot of what I already knew about them (having read their blog for so long), but I definitely encourage others to pick it up.
5) Bastards: A Memoir, Mary Anna King
Description: In the early 1980s, Mary Hall is growing up in poverty in Camden, New Jersey, with her older brother and parents who, in her words, were “great at making babies, but not so great at holding on to them.” After her father leaves the family, she is raised among a commune of mothers in a low-income housing complex. Then, no longer able to care for the only daughter she has left at home, Mary’s mother sends her to Oklahoma to live with her maternal grandparents, who have also been raising her younger sister. When Mary is legally adopted by her grandparents, the result is a family story like no other.
A woman has seven children and ends up giving six of them up for adoption. What. The. Hell. The kids find each other again later in life, and it’s both heartwarming and sad, but it was hard for me to get past the mother’s actions. She wasn’t on drugs, she wasn’t mentally handicapped. She was just lazy with her birth control. God, I wanted to slap her.
6) Opting In: Having a Child Without Losing Yourself, Amy Richards
Description: Richards addresses the anxiety over parenting that women face today, in a mix of memoir, interviews, historical analysis, and feminist insight. She covers everything from the truth about our biological clocks and the trends toward extending fertility, to parenting with nature and nurturing in mind, to our relationship with our own mothers, to what feminism’s relationship to motherhood is and always has been.
This book gave me some things to think about that I hadn’t considered before. I liked how the author shares her thoughts and worldview without judging other women’s choices.
7) Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath, Ted Koppel
Description: Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before. With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.
I put this book on hold at the library after watching an interview with Koppel on CBS Sunday Morning. Although my pantry likely holds more items than someone who doesn’t cook at home regularly, I don’t buy food with the intention of stockpiling for a future doomsday. We don’t own a generator, or a grill, or any other way to heat food (unless you count a book of matches and some brush in our backyard we could set on fire), which means many of our perishables — quinoa, rice, bags of dried beans — wouldn’t do us any good without some way to prepare them.
If millions of people are without power for weeks or even months, that would be a big deal. Some people would have the resources to go somewhere the power still works, but many others wouldn’t. There would be rioting and looting. It would get ugly. Like Koppel, I do believe this scenario is a possibility and I’m also quite certain the government is not prepared to handle a disaster of this scale.
This book was helpful because I started thinking about ways I could be just a bit more prepared in case of an emergency. Other than that though, I didn’t find Koppel’s writing all that interesting. He does a lot of interviews (power company owners and operators, cybersecurity specialists) and most of them agree something could happen to our power grid, but nobody is taking ownership. I felt like a lot of the book was a repeat of that message, over and over.
8) One Second After, William Forstchen
Description: This is a story which can be all too terrifyingly real…a story in which one man struggles to save his family and his small North Carolina town after America loses a war. A war that will send America back to the Dark Ages. A war based upon a weapon, an Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP). A weapon that may already be in the hands of our enemies. This has been cited on the floor of Congress as a book all Americans should read, a realistic look at a weapon and its awesome power to destroy the entire United States, literally within one second.
I recommend this book if you want to know what life could be like if everyone loses electricity (basically, it would be really scary, and a bunch of people would die), but I can’t recommend it if you want a well-written story. I didn’t like the author’s writing style, I found the narration to be stilted, and most of the conversations (huge chunks of the book) took place around conference tables.
Also, I got the impression that the author wrote with a male audience in mind — he was fond of mentioning how “cute” he found this female or that (seriously, it was a lot). And if he referred to his dogs as “those fools” one more time, I was ready to throw the book across the room. Which would have been unfortunate since it was an e-book I was reading on my phone.
9) Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
Description: This is the story of Calliope Stephanides and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of l967, before they move out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan. To understand why Calliope is not like other girls, she has to uncover a guilty family secret and the astonishing genetic history that turns Callie into Cal.
I almost gave up on this several times, but I kept going back to it because the book got such great reviews (I hate when I do that). The tale of a hermaphrodite who doesn’t realize he’s a boy until age fourteen? I wanted it to be fascinating — and some parts of it were, but not enough. I found myself getting impatient with many aspects of the story.
10) Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally, Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon
Description: Alisa and J.B. began to research the origins of the items which stocked the shelves of their local supermarket. They were shocked to discover that a typical ingredient in a North American meal travels roughly the distance between Boulder, Colorado, and New York City before it reaches the plate. They were trying to live more lightly on the planet; meanwhile, their diet was producing greenhouse gases and smog at an unparalleled rate. So they decided on an experiment: For one year they would eat only food produced within 100 miles of their Vancouver home.
I’m a sucker for books about year-long challenges. I’ve thought about doing one myself but I haven’t identified anything that I think would be worth doing for so long. I liked the idea of this book, and it was certainly challenging for the authors, but it annoys me when people give themselves so many exemptions from their rules.
In this instance, the authors said they would only eat foods acquired from a 100-mile radius from their home. However, they didn’t have to follow that rule if they were invited to a friend’s house, or if they went to a restaurant for a work meeting. They also didn’t have to follow the rule if they were traveling — which they did quite a lot.
(You may recall my annoyance with Year of No Sugar for the same reason. Too many exemptions. If you’re going to do something for a year, then do it. Don’t half-ass it.)
11) The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey, Rinker Buck
Description: An epic account of traveling the length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way—in a covered wagon with a team of mules, an audacious journey that hasn’t been attempted in a century. Traveling from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, over the course of four months, Buck is accompanied by three cantankerous mules and his boisterous brother Nick. Along the way, they dodge thunderstorms in Nebraska, chase runaway mules across the Wyoming plains, scout more than 500 miles of nearly vanished trail on foot, cross the Rockies, and make desperate 50-mile forced marches for water.
I have a lot of admiration for what these two men did, but I wasn’t as entertained by it as I wanted to be (I started the book in early November and had to renew it several times before I finished it…I kept finding other things I wanted to read more). Oregon Trail history buffs would likely love it, as they intersperse their adventures with a bunch of trail history.
I did like the author’s reason for going on his journey: “The trail was my inebriate against depression, my hedge against boredom with life.” I fully approve of that.
12) The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
Description: The circus arrives without warning and is only open at night. Within the canvas tents is a unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. Behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose. Despite themselves, they tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands. True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved hang in the balance.
I almost abandoned this book several times because there was too much fantasy, which I’m not a fan of. (Magic is considered fantasy, right?) I stuck with it though, and gradually the characters started to make sense and I found myself more interested in the outcome.
My biggest complaint: it was sometimes difficult to keep the dates straight — the story jumps back and forth in time a lot. I listened to the audiobook so I couldn’t just flip pages around to orient myself like I could have with a physical book.
13) Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Jeanette Winterson
Description: This is a memoir about a life’s work to find happiness. It’s a book full of stories: about a girl locked out of her home, sitting on the doorstep all night; about a religious zealot disguised as a mother who has two sets of false teeth and a revolver in the dresser, waiting for Armageddon; about growing up in an north England industrial town now changed beyond recognition; about the Universe as Cosmic Dustbin. It is the story of how a painful past, which Winterson thought she had written over and repainted, rose to haunt her later in life, sending her on a journey into madness and out again.
This is the memoir of someone who had a difficult upbringing but grew up to become a successful author. I found certain sections engaging, but other parts rambled and it was difficult to stay interested.
14) Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing, Reba Riley
Description: Reba’s 29th year was a terrible time to undertake a spiritual quest. But when untreatable chronic illness forced her to her knees on her birthday, Reba realized that even if she couldn’t fix her body, she might be able to heal her injured spirit. And so began a yearlong journey to recover from her whopping case of Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome by visiting thirty religions before her thirtieth birthday.
I’ve read quite a few books about religion (especially people who had it and later lost it), but I ended up liking the idea of this book more than the execution. Reba chose to visit 30 religions before her 30th birthday, but it was just too many. Randomly dropping into a church service doesn’t mean you’ve actually experienced it.
She also has an overly-cutesy writing style, which annoyed me (there were multiple references to her made-up word, “Godiverse”). During one particular church service, she made the mistake of saying she “threw up a little in my mouth.” (It was not due to sickness; it was because she wanted to express her disgust over something that happened.) That phrase is one of my biggest pet peeves and happened early in the book, so I was biased against her pretty much from the start.
15) Happily Ali After: And Other Fairly True Tales, Ali Wentworth
Description: Moved by a particularly inspirational tweet one day, Ali resolves to live by the pithy maxims she discovers in her feeds. What begins as a sort of self-help project quickly turns into something far grander as the tweets she once viewed with irony become filled with increasing metaphysical importance. It’s not long before Ali expands her self-improvement quest to include parenting, relationship, fitness, and dieting advice. The results are painfully clear: when it comes to self-help, sometimes you should leave it to the professionals.
Not that it really matters, but I felt like this book wasn’t as advertised. Some of the early chapters start out with inspirational quotes, but there is nothing but a passing mention of Twitter, and after the first section the quotes disappear completely. Ali is humorous, so that’s fine, but I did like her first memoir better than this one.