I read nine books in January (four were audiobooks).
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not 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.
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.
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.