I read 18 books in October (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 136.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Inside Out: A Memoir, Demi Moore
Description: Famed American actress Demi Moore tells her own story in an intimate and emotionally-charged memoir.
It’s interesting to read about someone you’ve known about for decades, but previously only knew what they were willing to disclose in TV or magazine interviews. Moore had a very unstable childhood, was raped at age 15 by an older man, and moved out of her mother’s house for good at age 16. She’s had issues with substance abuse and felt self conscious about her body. She writes about her iconic Vanity Fair photo, and her relationships with Bruce Willis, Ashton Kutcher, and her three daughters. She was interviewed recently in the New York Times, in advance of the publication of her book.
2) Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World, Jeff Gordinier
Description: This is not only the hunger for food, but for risk, for reinvention, for creative breakthroughs, and for connection. Gordinier happened into a fateful meeting with Danish chef René Redzepi, whose restaurant, Noma, has been called the best in the world. Redzepi was at the top of his game but wanted to tear it all down, to shutter his restaurant and set out for new places and flavors. This is the story of the subsequent four years of globe-trotting culinary adventure, with Gordinier joining Redzepi on his travels.
A journalist embarks on a multi-year reporting adventure. I didn’t make a lot of notes as I was reading, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. For the curious, this is what it’s like to eat at Noma, Redzepi’s restaurant in Copenhagen.
3) Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner, Lily Raff McCaulou
Description: McCaulou was raised as a gun-fearing environmentalist and animal lover, so she never imagined she’d pick up a gun and learn to hunt. Her perspective shifted when she began spending weekends fly-fishing, and weekdays interviewing hunters for her articles, realizing many of them were more thoughtful about animals and the environment than she was. So she embarked upon the project of learning to hunt from square one. From attending a Hunter Safety course designed for children, to field dressing an elk and serving it for dinner, she explores the sport of hunting and all it entails, and tackles the big questions surrounding one of the most misunderstood American practices and pastimes.
This subject matter is new to me, which I liked. It’s interesting how McCaulou was so nervous in the beginning (she was scared to even hold a gun, much less shoot anything), but she still wanted to go through with learning to hunt. She gradually expanded her skills over the years, starting with clay pigeons (where she admits the idea of killing something terrifies her), moving on to live birds, and eventually concludes the book with shooting an elk.
Along the way, she attends a Hunter Safety course (every other attendee was a minor, while she was in her mid-20s at the time), and talks about how cooking, preparing, and eating wild game made her more aware of everything else she was eating – from meat wrapped in plastic at the grocery store, to produce that wasn’t in season or was flown in from far away.
4) How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together, Dan Kois
Description: The Kois family goes in search of other places on the map that might offer them the chance to live away from home — but closer together. Over a year the family lands in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and small-town Kansas. The goal? To get out of their rut of busyness and distractedness and see how other families live outside the East Coast parenting bubble.
I love that Dan and his wife were adventurous enough to put their regular lives on hold and take their daughters on a year-long trip. I also appreciate how honest he was in his retelling, especially when he talked about one of his daughters not being on board with their location decisions (she appeared generally unhappy most of the time; he once described her attitude as a “low simmer of rage”). Both of his girls did a lot of whining, which he wrote about so convincingly that just reading about it annoyed ME. (Especially with hiking. His girls complained incessantly about hiking.) I know these parents love their kids, but I’m positive they would’ve had a much better time on this trip if their kids weren’t in the picture.
I also liked his honesty at the end, when he admits his family hasn’t made any big changes since returning from the trip – he describes any changes as “modest.” They are more aware of the wider world and are better travelers, but they’re back living in the same house in the same town as before (Arlington, VA). I appreciated this because it shows most people go back to their normal lives after an adventure, and he didn’t try to exaggerate what they got out of it. You can read about how he learned to cycle like a Dutchman here, and there’s an excerpt about his time in New Zealand here.
5) Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, Kristen Iversen
Description: This is a haunting work of narrative nonfiction about a young woman growing up in a small Colorado town close to Rocky Flats, a secret nuclear weapons plant once designated “the most contaminated site in America.” It’s the story of a childhood and adolescence in the shadow of the Cold War, in a landscape at once startlingly beautiful and—unknown to those who lived there—tainted with invisible yet deadly particles of plutonium.
The title – full body burden – is a term the Department of Energy uses to indicate the “permissible lifetime accumulation of radiation in the body.”
I had never heard of a nuclear plant at Rocky Flats – which is exactly the author’s point. I’m glad this book was part memoir; an entire book about the factory and its people wouldn’t have been as interesting to me – instead, it’s interspersed with Kristen’s experience growing up near the plutonium factory, and her family dynamics. Even when she was in college, she was ignorant of the truth of what happened there, what the factory was producing (local residents hypothesized they were making cleaning supplies), and the extent of the pollution.
6) God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America, Lyz Lenz
Description: In the wake of the 2016 election, Lenz watched as her country and her marriage were torn apart by the competing forces of faith and politics. A mother of two, a Christian, and a lifelong resident of middle America, Lenz was bewildered by the pain and loss around her — the empty churches and the broken hearts. What was happening to faith in the heartland?
Lenz looks at the reasons why rural churches are losing parishioners, among many other themes related to modern-day faith in the Midwest. There are also some memoir aspects as she discusses her personal history with churches and how her beliefs (or lack thereof) resulted in a divorce from her husband.
You can read an excerpt from the book here, and I’m also linking to two articles she’s written that I enjoyed. One is how her divorce coincided with the explosion of the #MeToo movement, and in the second she says now that she’s no longer married, she’s never making dinner for a man again.
7) How Cycling Can Save the World, Peter Walker
Description: Walker takes readers on a tour of cities like Copenhagen and Utrecht, where everyday cycling has taken root, demonstrating cycling’s proven effect on reducing smog and obesity, and improving quality of life and mental health. Interviews with public figures provide case studies on how it can be done, and prove that you can make a big change with just a few cycling lanes and a paradigm shift.
My husband was very excited to see me reading a book about cycling because he would love for me to bike with him more often. We used to bike together regularly when we lived in Buffalo, but it’s dropped off since we moved back to DC. The honest trust is, I’m just not comfortable riding on busy streets (and there are lots of busy streets where I live, miles of them before hitting any protected trails). I felt vindicated while reading this book, because the author acknowledges that men ride bikes more than women, and when asked, women cite safety as their biggest concern. We don’t have the protected bike lane infrastructure that countries like the Netherlands do (I loved riding with my friends in the Netherlands last September, because it felt leisurely and safe – and in addition to the protected bike lanes, there was strength in numbers).
I love bikes. I love that people ride them. I think people should use them as a viable transportation option more often. If I lived farther from work than I do, and it was easier for me to bike than to take Metro, I would utilize a bike more often. But I live less than a mile from my workplace, so I walk. And if given the choice to take a long walk on a weekend or bike on a busy street, right now I’m choosing to walk.
Walker covers a lot more in his book – like how bikes are more social (and less expensive, and less polluting) than driving cars, arguments for/against wearing helmets, and why so many drivers feel antipathy toward cyclists. I like how he went from an asthmatic, nonathletic kid to working as a bike messenger. Now he writes for The Guardian and he’s a long-time bike advocate.
8) How to Cook Like a Man: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession, Daniel Duane
Description: When Daniel became a father, this surfer and climber found himself trapped at home with no clue how to contribute. Inept at so many domestic tasks, and less than eager to change diapers, he took on dinner duty. He had a few tricks: pasta, stir-fry…well, actually, those were his only two tricks. But he had a biographical anomaly: Chef Alice Waters had been his preschool teacher. So he cracked one of her Chez Panisse cookbooks and cooked his way through it. And so it went with all seven of her other cookbooks, then on to those of other famous chefs — thousands of recipes in all, amounting to an epic eight-year cooking journey.
There were things that annoyed me about this book (Duane acted extremely selfishly in a lot of ways, even though he does admit in hindsight that he was wrong). But I do like a good food memoir, so I enjoyed his tales of how he went from knowing how to assemble only two meals (burritos and pasta, over and over and over) to cooking his way through multiple cookbooks and learning a ton of new skills.
Duane is married to the writer Elizabeth Weil, who wrote a popular New York Times article in 2009 called Married (Happily) With Issues, and later published a book on the subject (which I’ve read) called No Cheating, No Dying.
9) Feminasty: The Complicated Woman’s Guide to Surviving the Patriarchy Without Drinking Herself to Death, Erin Gibson
Description: Whether it’s shaming women for having their periods, allowing them into STEM fields but never treating them like they truly belong, or dictating strict rules for how they should dress in every situation, Erin breaks down the organized chaos of old fashioned sexism, intentional and otherwise, that systemically keeps women down.
I’m generally not a huge fan of comedic essays – and she does go a bit overboard at times – but the subject matter is important and I appreciate how forthright she is. The essay on why she decided to have a double mastectomy (before Angelina Jolie did it) after receiving the results of her breast cancer genetic screening was especially interesting.
10) Quit Like a Millionaire: No Gimmicks, Luck, or Trust Fund Required, Kristy Shen & Bryce Leung
Description: Shen retired with a million dollars at the age of 31, and she did it without hitting a home run on the stock market or investing in hot real estate. Learn how to cut down on spending without decreasing your quality of life, build a million-dollar portfolio, fortify your investments to survive bear markets, and use the 4% rule and the Yield Shield—so you can quit the rat race forever.
If you don’t know already: If you get a decent-paying job when you’re young, and save more than the average person, you can stop working way earlier than the normal retirement time frame and live off your investments. And you don’t need a trust fund to do it. Kristy and Bryce are one of the couples who figured this out – they retired in their early 30s – and give advice for how you can achieve it, too.
Kristy grew up very poor (like digging in medical waste in China poor). She’s very big into choosing a college degree that will actually make money (which makes sense – the more money you make and save at an younger age, the less you have to make later in life), rather than choosing a degree because it’s appealing to you. As she says: “One of the biggest lies we’ve been told is that following our passion is the key.” And yes, I’ve often wished I went to school for something less general than an undergraduate sociology degree.
There are lots of other topics – pick this up if you want to know how to retire early. You can read Kristy and Bryce’s blog here and The Guardian published an article on how they became millionaires and retired at age 31.
11) At Home in France: Tales of an American and Her House Abroad, Ann Barry
Description: Barry was a single woman, working and living in New York, when she fell in love with a charming house in southwestern France. Even though she knew it was the stuff of fantasy, even though she knew she would rarely be able to spend more than four weeks a year there, she was hooked. This memoir traces Barry’s adventures as she follows her dream of living in the French countryside.
I always rush to pick up books about Americans living in other countries, especially France. This one was a bit disappointing, but mainly because I wanted more details than she was able to give. She bought a house in France and went back and forth for years, but she was only able to visit twice a year for a few weeks, so she was far from being fully immersed in the culture. Sadly, when I searched for her name, I discovered she died from cancer in 1996, shortly before this book was published.
12) When Life Gives You Pears: The Healing Power of Family, Faith, and Funny People, Jeannie Gaffigan
Description: Gaffigan, writer/director/producer and wife of bestselling author/comedian Jim Gaffigan, writes with humor and heart about the pear-sized brain tumor she had removed, the toll it took on her enormous family, and the priceless lessons she learned along the way.
I can see how the story would be inspiring to those in a similar situation: dealing with a major medical situation, or dealing with an illness while having a bunch of kids (Jeannie has five), or dealing with an illness with a very supportive comedian spouse. She kind of apologies for the discussions on her Catholic faith for those who don’t want to hear faith talk, which I appreciated – this is probably the only time I’ve seen this happen – but it was still too much for me. (At least I was adequately warned since the word “faith” appears in the title.)
13) The Disaster Diaries: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse, Sam Sheridan
Description: Sheridan has been an amateur boxer, mixed martial arts fighter, professional wilderness firefighter, EMT, sailor, and cowboy. If he isn’t ready for the apocalypse, we’re all in a lot of trouble. Despite an arsenal of skills that would put most of us to shame, he was beset with nightmares with apocalyptic images. Unable to quiet his mind, Sam decided to face his fears head-on, embarking on a quest to gain as many skills as possible that might come in handy should the world as we know it end.
To prepare for an apocalypse, Sheridan started doing things like learning how to jumpstart cars so he’d be able to utilize that skill in a doomsday situation. He also took a class on defensive driving maneuvers (which was too detailed for me, in terms of differences between the cars). He went through several weeks of hands-on wilderness skills (like learning how to make a fire from scratch, set traps, make a bow and arrow, and create a primitive shelter), desert survival, knife fighting, and even addressed the mental health aspect of traumatic events. Even though these items sound interesting, I liked the idea of this book more so than the execution. I probably would have liked it better if it was written by a woman.
Also, each chapter included a section where he walked through a fictional apocalypse scenario. I read nonfiction for a reason, so I largely hated this intrusion.
14) French by Heart: An American Family’s Adventures in La Belle France, Rebecca S. Ramsey
Description: This is the story of a family from South Carolina pulling up stakes and finding a new home in Clermont-Ferrand, a city four hours south of Paris — known more for its factories and car dealerships than for its location in the Auvergne, a lush heartland dotted with crumbling castles and sunflower fields. The Ramseys are not jet-setters; they’re a regular family with rambunctious kids. Their lives quickly go from covered-dish suppers to smoky dinner parties with heated polemics, from being surrounded by Southern hospitality to receiving funny looks if the children play in the yard without shoes.
Ramsey spends most of this book talking about the nosy old French woman who lived across the street. She learned some French and successfully lived in France for four years with her three kids, but I wanted more than her prim stories could provide.
15) Dear Girls: Intimate Tales, Untold Secrets, and Advice for Living Your Best Life, Ali Wong
Description: Wong’s heartfelt and hilarious letters to her daughters, covering everything they need to know in life — like the unpleasant details of dating, how to be a working mom in a male-dominated profession, and how she trapped their dad.
I’m not a huge fan of books by comedians, and I also don’t like books written in the form of letters. This one wasn’t too bad (Wong leans more toward gross-out comedy than cheesy comedy, and she doesn’t go overboard with the theme of talking directly to her daughters), but I’d still have to put this in the Okay category.
16) Miss Ex-Yugoslavia: A Memoir, Sofija Stefanovic
Description: A funny, dark, and tender memoir about the immigrant experience and life as a perpetual fish-out-of-water during the Yugoslavian Wars, from a Serbian-Australian storyteller.
Sofija writes about her experience moving from Belgrade to Melbourne. She was one of the lucky ones — her father worked in the computer industry and was able to obtain an Australian work visa, while others who fled the country had to do so as refugees.
17) Volcanoes, Palm Trees, and Privilege: Essays on Hawai’i, Liz Prato
Description: These essays explore what it means to be a white tourist in a seemingly paradisiacal land that has been formed, and largely destroyed, by white outsiders. Hawaiian history, pop culture, and contemporary affairs are woven with personal narrative in fifteen essays that examine how the touristic ideal of Hawai’i came to be.
I learned a lot more about Hawaii, its people, and customs, than I knew before, but I wasn’t rushing to pick it up.
18) The 37th Parallel: The Secret Truth Behind America’s UFO Highway, Ben Mezrich
Description: A real-life mix of The X-Files and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, this is the fascinating true story of a computer programmer who tracks paranormal events in remote areas of the western United States and is drawn deeper and deeper into a mysterious conspiracy.
This was written by the author of Bitcoin Billionaires, which I read last month. Even though I have no particular interest in UFOs, I thought I might like this since I found the bitcoin book interesting (although I have no interest in cryptocurrency), but this one isn’t nearly as entertaining. There was a lot of jumping back and forth between locations and dates, which got confusing when listening to it as an audiobook, and unfortunately (as we know with UFO research), there weren’t any concrete results.
I was also annoyed by the main character, Chuck Zukowski, because they kept talking about how his wife had to work two jobs to cover their household expenses while he was mostly free to pursue (and spend quite a bit of time and money on) his unpaid UFO research. He was followed by SUVs with government license plates and investigated a lot of unexplained animal mutilations, but nothing ever came of it.