Books

Books Read in November 2019

I read 11 books in November (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 147.

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

Recommended

1) Long Way Home: A Memoir, Cameron Douglas

Description: Cameron is born into wealth, privilege, and comfort. His father is a superstar, his mother a beautiful socialite, his grandfather a legend. On the surface, his life seems golden. But by the age of 30, he has taken a hellish dive: he’s become a drug addict, thief, and convicted drug dealer. Cameron gives a raw and unstintingly honest recounting of his harrowing and, in the end, inspiring life story.

This isn’t the type of book I normally pick up (and if it wasn’t written by Michael Douglas’ son, I likely wouldn’t have), but I’m glad I did. Cameron is a very honest writer, sometimes to the point where you want to shake your head at him — or drop your jaw in horror. In addition to his drug use from a young age, and later selling drugs to finance his habit, he was involved in a lot of fights (from childhood all the way through prison).

He’s pretty matter of fact in his retelling of growing up amongst famous people (when he mentions his stepmother, it’s a reference to “my stepmother, Catherine” — not “Catherine Zeta Jones”).

Cameron was in the juvenile justice system as a teenager and went to rehab many times. It took a long time before he decided he was ready to give up drugs.

The book was longer than I expected (400 pages, although I listened to it on audio). A large portion was a detailed experience of his stint in prison, which I did wish was a little shorter, but I found value in it.

You can read a recent article about Cameron in the New York Times here, and I really enjoyed this ABC News / Diane Sawyer interview with Cameron and Michael Douglas here.

2) Good Husbandry: Growing Food, Love and Family on Essex Farm, Kristin Kimball

Description: Kimball describes the delicious highs and sometimes excruciating lows of life on Essex Farm — a 500-acre farm that produces a full diet for a community of 250 people.

Kristin also authored the memoir The Dirty Life, which recounts her first years on the farm and getting married to her now-husband. Here, she reveals what happened over the next five years at Essex Farm. I like how she disclosed the true ups and downs of farm life. While she loves the hard work and productivity, and especially the bounty of food in their kitchen, she’s straightforward about how they are pretty much always working, rarely/never take vacations (especially not the entire family, because at least one of them has to be at home), and will never be rich (or even have any retirement savings to count on).

She also talks candidly about difficulties in her marriage, especially after she birthed two girls and their relationship went from being one where they mostly worked together, to them taking on diametrically separate roles (farm work for her husband and domestic duties for her). There was a period of a few years where she often considered what it would be like to leave, and while she ultimately decided to stick it out (and things did get better once her kids got older and didn’t rely on her for all their needs anymore), you could tell how much this bothered her. I appreciate how honest she was about this part of her life.

3) She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

Description: From the Pulitzer-prize winning reporters who broke the news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and abuse for the New York Times, this is the thrilling untold story of their investigation and its consequences for the #MeToo movement.

Most of this book is about how Kantor and Twohey broke the Harvey Weinstein story: how it came about, the intimidation and threats, and what happened after. I knew a lot of the story, but I hadn’t heard all of it. What really stood out was how thorough and careful they were to get the details right. The last few chapters cover what happened with Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings.

4) If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie, Christopher Ingraham

Description: This is the story of Ingraham’s decision to uproot his life and move his family to Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, population 1,400 — the community he made famous as “the worst place to live in America” in a story he wrote for the Washington Post. In Red Lake County, Ingraham experiences the intensity of small-town gossip, suffers through winters with temperatures dropping to 40 below zero, and unearths some truths about small-town life that the coastal media usually miss.

This is interesting: Ingraham writes an article in the Post where he mentions Red Lake County, Minnesota is at the very bottom of a ranking for “most desirable places to live in America.” There’s an uproar from county residents, so Ingraham decides to travel to this county and discovers all kinds of great things about it. Not long after, disgruntled by their long DC-area commutes and high cost of living, he and his wife decide to move to this county.

The only thing I want to call out here is Ingraham received permission from his employer to work remotely, so he was able to exchange his long commute for NO commute. (If he hadn’t been approved to work remotely, he never would have moved to this rural area jobless.) I like how he contrasts rural versus suburban living, and midwest versus east coast living, while also noting all the things we have in common.

Additional articles of interest: 1) His experience after three months of being a Minnesota resident. 2) Discovering what it’s like to endure winter temperatures at/below negative 40 degrees. 3) An excerpt from his book, where he talks about the sugar beet harvest (apparently sugar beets are huge and white and not at all like regular beets you buy in a grocery store).

5) The Witches Are Coming, Lindy West

Description: In essays that span many topics, whether it be the notion since the earliest moments of the #MeToo movement that feminism has gone too far, or the insistence that holding someone accountable for his actions amounts to a “witch hunt,” The Witches are Coming exposes the lies that many have chosen to believe and the often unexpected figures who have furthered them.

I enjoyed some essays more than others, but I kept coming across powerful paragraphs and exquisite sentences that reminded me of how clever she is. (I do remember liking her memoir, Shrill, better — which was made into a series on Hulu, and will be coming back for a second season. I barely watch TV, and don’t have Hulu, so I haven’t seen it). The New York Times has published two excerpts from Lindy’s book, here and here.

6) Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, Novella Carpenter

Description: Carpenter loves cities — the culture, the crowds, the energy. At the same time, she can’t shake the fact that she is the daughter of two back-to-the-land hippies who taught her to love nature and eat vegetables. Drawn to backyard self-sufficiency, Carpenter decided it was possible to have it both ways: a homegrown vegetable plot as well as museums, bars, and concerts. When she moved to a ramshackle house in inner city Oakland and discovered an abandoned lot next door, she pictured heirloom tomatoes, a beehive, and a chicken coop. For anyone who has ever grown herbs on their windowsill or tomatoes on their fire escape, Carpenter’s story will capture your heart.

I tend to enjoy books about offbeat farmers, like those who engage in urban farming or city slickers who abandon their urban ways and take up rural farming. I liked this one, too. Carpenter moved to a sketchy area in Oakland back in 2005, immediately taking over a vacant lot next door to her rental. She ended up farming the lot for 10 years. This involved not just veggies and fruit, but also beekeeping, and raising chickens for eggs and rabbits for meat. And even a pair of pigs! (Which her neighbors were unhappy about due to the stench, but she got a tremendous amount of meat — and knowledge — from the experience.)

At the end of the book, she mentions that changes were coming; she knew she’d have to pack up and move soon (a Whole Foods opened a few blocks away and the vacant lot went up for sale), but I’m not sure what happened after that. I’d be interested to know.

7) One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular, Abigail Pogrebin

Description: Pogrebin is a mother, a New Yorker, a writer, a daughter, and a wife, but the role that has most defined her is that of identical twin. Here she weaves her quest to understand how genetics shape us into a memoir of her own twinship.

I’m not a twin, but I enjoyed this view into the author’s personal experience, plus her in-depth look at other sets of twins, what kind of research is taking place on twins, and twin experts.

8) Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan, Frank Ahrens

When Ahrens, a middle-aged bachelor and 18-year veteran at the Washington Post, fell in love with a diplomat, his life changed dramatically. Following his new bride to her first appointment in Seoul, South Korea, Frank began a corporate career, becoming director of global communications at Hyundai Motors. Filled with unique insights, he sheds light on a culture few Westerners know.

This is a fascinating glimpse into South Korean work life and how it differs from the United States. Ahrens covers topics like the ubiquity of heavy drinking, karaoke, and Korean history and modern culture. I learned that most South Korean citizens have one of three last names. At times he talks too much about the specifics of his job at Hyundai (he must have REALLY been into the cars they were producing to write about them in such detail), but it’s definitely worth reading.

9) The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam, Dana Sachs

Description: Sachs takes readers on a voyage to a country most Americans think about only in terms of war. She reveals how she settled in with Tung and his wife Huong in Hanoi and made a place for herself in “enemy” territory. With vivid descriptions of the community—the noodle stalls and roaring motorcycles, the vestiges of French colonialism, and the encroachment of glittering high-rises—Sachs explores the tenuous balance between the traditions of old Vietnam and a country in the throes of modernization.

This was recommended by a co-worker when I told her I like memoirs about women who move abroad. The episodes in this book took place several decades ago, but I’m sure much of it would hold up today.

Dana was intrigued by Vietnam on her first brief visit, and ended up returning twice more to spend long chunks of time in the country. She was able to get long-term visas specifically to study the language, and lived with a local family. She even fell in love with a Vietnamese man for a short time, so there’s a section of the book dedicated to her falling for a very poor, uneducated motorbike mechanic — and the inevitable pulling away once she realizes their cultures are just too different to make it work.

Okay

10) A Trip to the Beach: Living on Island Time in the Caribbean, Melinda Blanchard

Description: This is the story of a trip to the beach that never ends. It’s about a husband and wife who escape civilization to build a small restaurant on an island paradise — and discover that even paradise has its pitfalls. It’s about the maddening, exhausting, outlandish complications of trying to live the simple life — and the joy that comes when you somehow pull it off.

I was interested to read how this couple opened a restaurant on an island from scratch, but not so much the other stuff (the husband building a sailboat, extended conversations with locals, and a too-long section about the hurricane that hit Anguilla in 1995 and destroyed their restaurant after its first year).

11) French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, Richard Goodman

Description: Goodman saw an ad for a stone house for rent in a small village in southern France, and just like that, he left New York City. This is a love story between a man and his garden. It’s about plowing, planting, watering, and tending. It’s about cabbage, tomatoes, parsley, and eggplant. Most of all, it’s about the growing friendship between an American outsider and a close-knit community of French farmers.

This was a quick read. The publishing details say it’s 203 pages, but it seemed shorter. It was also written in 1991, which made it appear a bit dated.

Books

Books Read in October 2019

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.

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.

Okay

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.

Not Recommended

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.

Books

Books Read in September 2019

I read 13 books in September (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 118.

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

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

Recommended

1) On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, Emily Guendelsberger

Description: The eye-opening story of a college-educated young professional who finds work in the automated and time-starved world of hourly labor. She explores the lengths that half of Americans will go to in order to make a living, offering not only a better understanding of the modern workplace, but also surprising solutions to make work more humane for millions of Americans.

I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America when it was released over 15 years ago, which explores a similar story line — a middle-class woman taking on various low-wage jobs to see what they’re like (and reporting back from a sociological perspective). Emily’s story is different in that she’d lost her job as a journalist, so while she wouldn’t stay in low-wage jobs forever, she actually did need the income at the time she was working these jobs.

She explains what working at these jobs is like (an Amazon fulfillment center, a call center, and a McDonald’s), while acknowledging she can’t fully understand because she wasn’t tied to staying at those jobs. While she was broke at the time, she had a college degree, a car, a credit card, and a low-interest mortgage with her husband. When things got tough, she would say to herself, “I get to leave. I get to leave.” And obviously there are a lot of people out there who don’t have that luxury.

Emily wrote an article for Vox about fast-food worker burnout, and you can find an excerpt from her book here.

2) The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, Mark Sundeen

Description: An in-depth and compelling account of diverse Americans living off the grid.

There were three stories in this book of people living off the land, in completely different ways: a couple in rural Missouri who live without electricity or cars; urban farmers in Detroit who sell their produce at small markets; and an older couple near Missoula who have been organic farmers for over three decades. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the stories, and the personalities of the people who live different lives from most other Americans.

Read a profile of Greg Willerer, the urban farmer in Detroit, here.

3) Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French, John von Sothen

Description: After falling for a French waitress he met in New York, von Sothen moved to Paris. But 15 years in, he’s ready to admit Paris is mostly a fantasy. In this collection of essays, von Sothen walks us through real life in Paris–not only myth-busting our Parisian daydreams but also revealing the inimitable and too often invisible pleasures of family life abroad.

I’ve read many books about Americans living in France, and I’ve enjoyed them all. This one is great because it’s not a short-term adventure for the author; he’s lived as a local for over 15 years and raised two children. His essays cover things like taking long vacations (and having to plan many months in advance since most French people go on vacation at the same time), and learning the language (he can make himself understood, but he says he speaks French like Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks English…with a noticeable accent).

In this article, von Sothen says: “We tend to hold France to this unattainable standard of taste and sophistication and well mannered living, when in fact, if you live here (or anywhere) on a day to day basis, you eventually take the rose colored glasses off and appreciate your surroundings for different reasons based on a new set of criteria.”

There’s also a good review in the Washington Post here.

4) Bitcoin Billionaires: A True Story of Genius, Betrayal, and Redemption, Ben Mezrich

Description: This is the story of brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss’ redemption and revenge in the wake of their epic legal battle with Facebook, their big bet on crypto-currency, and its dazzling pay-off. On November 26, 2017, the Winklevoss brothers became the first bitcoin billionaires. Here’s the story of how they got there.

I’ve read other books by this author and enjoyed them. I don’t follow bitcoin news so I had no idea the Winklevoss twins were involved to this degree. You don’t need any prior (or current) interest in bitcoin to enjoy this book. Here’s an article on why Mezrich decided to write the book and how the Winklevoss brothers’ bitcoin investment came about.

5) Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir, Kwame Onwuachi

Description: By the time he was 27, Onwuachi had launched his own catering company with $20,000 that he made selling candy on the subway, and opened—and closed—one of the most talked about restaurants in America. In this inspiring memoir about the intersection of race, fame, and food, he shares the remarkable story of his culinary coming-of-age.

Onwuachi grew up in the Bronx and spent a few years living with his grandfather in Nigeria as an adolescent. He was involved in gang activity, and sold drugs. Despite all that (and with the influence of his mother, who worked as a caterer for many years), he started his own catering company at a young age. At one point, he was attending the Culinary Institute of America on weekdays, working at a restaurant on weeknights, and running his catering company on the weekends.

From there, he worked in the kitchens of renowned restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, where he writes about experiencing racism, and competed on Top Chef. His involvement in a traveling cooking competition led to an offer to open a restaurant in DC (now closed). Currently he’s the executive chef at Kith/Kin, also located in DC.

6) Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business, Matt Lee and Ted Lee

Description: Brothers Matt and Ted take on the competitive, wild world of high-end catering, exposing the secrets of a food business few home cooks or restaurant chefs ever experience. You’ll never attend a party—or entertain on your own—in the same way.

When you attend a catered event, you probably don’t think about all the preparation that went into serving your food. I enjoyed this view that two brothers, Matt and Ted Lee, took behind the scenes. They worked in catering for several years while writing and researching this book, and also delved into the history of catering and tales of who does it best. The New York Times reviewed the book here.

7) This Will Only Hurt a Little, Busy Philipps

Description: A refreshingly honest memoir by the beloved comedic actress known for her roles on Freaks and Geeks, Dawson’s Creek, and Cougar Town. Philipps is the rare entertainer whose arsenal of talents as an actress is equally matched by her storytelling ability, sense of humor, and sharp observations about life, love, and motherhood. Her conversational writing reminds us what we love about her on screens large and small.

I didn’t know much about Busy, but I decided to read her book after coming across this article. I listened to it on audio, which she reads herself. She covers a wide range of subjects, from her childhood, to how she broke into acting, to becoming good friends with Michelle Williams, and how she reacted to Heath Ledger’s death. Also, of course, meeting her husband and the birth of her two daughters. (She named her girls Birdie and Cricket. You’ve gotta have some balls to name your kids Birdie and Cricket.)

8) American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century, Maureen Callahan

Description: Names of notorious serial killers are usually well-known. But most people have never heard of Israel Keyes, one of the most ambitious and terrifying serial killers in modern history. When journalist Callahan heard about Keyes in 2012, she was captivated by how a killer of this magnitude could go undetected by law enforcement for over a decade. And so began a project that consumed her for years—uncovering the true story behind how the FBI ultimately caught Keyes, and trying to understand what it means for a killer like Keyes to exist.

I had never heard of Israel Keyes, which was highlighted in this book – he was a serial killer but he doesn’t have big-name notoriety. The first half covers how he was caught, and the second half goes into his background and the confessions or clues he gave for other cases he was involved in. Keyes said he killed around a dozen people but law enforcement thinks there were more. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

9) Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, Jenni Ferrari-Adler (Editor)

Description: In this essay collection, 26 food writers like Nora Ephron, Laurie Colwin, Jami Attenberg, Ann Patchett, and M.F.K. Fisher invite readers into their kitchens to reflect on the secret meals and recipes for one person that they relish when no one else is looking.

I liked this anthology on the topic of eating alone. (An anthology was a good approach; reading an entire book about one person eating alone would be overkill.) Some contributors wrote about weird food habits, while others discussed dining alone in restaurants. It’s pretty common for people to consume the same foods repetitively when eating solo; several of them ate the same dinner every single day for months at a time. Here’s a good quote from one of the early essays:

“Eating as a simple means of ending hunger is one of the great liberties of being alone. […] It is a pleasure to not have to take anyone else’s tastes into account. […] The very thought of maintaining high standards meal after meal is exhausting. It discounts all the peanut butter that is available in the world.”

Okay

10) Running Home: A Memoir, Katie Arnold

Description: Arnold, a former Outside magazine writer, tells her story—of fathers and daughters, grief and renewal, adventure and obsession, and the power of running to change your life.

I can’t fully recommend this book because I didn’t like the first half very much. It was largely about her parents’ divorce when she was a young child and how that affected her, interspersed with her dad’s illness and death as an old man and her extensive grief. She’d been involved in athletic pursuits for a while, but decided to run her first ultramarathon (50 kilometers) after her father died. Since then she’s run more of them, and last year she ran (and won) her first 100-mile ultramarathon race.

11) Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino

Description: This is an unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives. In each essay, Jia writes about the cultural prisms that have shaped her: the rise of the nightmare social internet; the American scammer as millennial hero; the literary heroine’s journey from brave to blank to bitter; the mandate that everything, including our bodies, should always be getting more efficient and beautiful until we die.

These essays were cleverly and scholarly written, but they weren’t for me. I liked several of them, but that’s not enough to make the Recommended list. The New York Times reviewed the book here and you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Not Recommended

12) A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming, Kerri Rawson

Description: In 2005, Rawson discovered her father was the notorious serial killer known as BTK, a name he’d given himself that described the horrific way he committed his crimes: bind, torture, kill. As news of his capture spread, Wichita celebrated the end of a 31-year nightmare. But for Rawson, another was just beginning. The man who had been a loving father, a devoted husband, church president, Boy Scout leader, and a public servant had been using their family as a cover for his heinous crimes since before she was born.

A book on this topic (written by the daughter of a serial killer) has potential, but I came away disappointed. There’s too much boring information (she spent at least three chapters describing a multi-day hike / camping trip she took with her father as a teenager – they were ill prepared and could have died by natural causes, but it did nothing to advance the actual story).

She also includes letters between her and Dad the Serial Killer after he was sent to prison (the letters were boring), and there is way too much about the author’s personal faith/religious beliefs. The religion aspect wasn’t adequately disclosed in the book description, and I’m always annoyed when it’s sprung on me. I had no desire to get preached to by this woman.

13) The 5 AM Club: Own Your Morning. Elevate Your Life, Robin Sharma

Description: Sharma introduced The 5am Club concept over twenty years ago, based on a revolutionary morning routine that has helped his clients maximize their productivity, activate their best health and bulletproof their serenity in this age of overwhelming complexity.

Do not read this book. It’s horrid. My brain was telling me to give up on it the entire time I was reading it. I pushed through and read it quickly, waiting for the wisdom. Here’s the thing: I don’t discount the value of waking up early. I’m a morning person, and I am interested in getting up earlier so I can institute some good habits into my day.

However, the tips for starting a personal morning practice could have been summed up in a short article. There is no need to read the entire book, especially when the format (a billionaire guru imparting his wisdom to a man and a woman) is so awful. The writing is extremely cheesy and I felt less intelligent for having read it.

Books

Books Read in August 2019

I read 14 books in August (seven were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 105.

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

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

Recommended

1) What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, E. Jean Carroll

Description: When Carroll (possibly the liveliest woman in the world and author of the “Ask E. Jean” advice column in Elle Magazine) realized her 8 million readers and question-writers all seemed to have one thing in common — problems caused by men — she hit the road. Crisscrossing the country, E. Jean stopped in every town named after a woman between Eden, Vermont and Tallulah, Louisiana to ask women the crucial question: What Do We Need Men For?

Carroll’s story got a bit of attention when this article was published around the time her book was released, but it didn’t receive nearly as much attention as it deserved. (Spoiler: She accuses our current president of sexual assault.) Some of the bad guys she’s encountered over her life are really appalling. The article is important and I encourage you to read it.

The book is also good, but it’s written in kind of a silly / flippant way (she blames it on being a cheerleader for many years and her decades-long history as an advice columnist at Ask E. Jean). The Washington Post reviewed the book here.

2) The Big Fat Surprise: A Nutritional Investigation, Nina Teicholz

Description: Teicholz explains why the Mediterranean Diet is not the healthiest, and how we might be replacing trans fats with something even worse. This startling history demonstrates how nutrition science has gotten it so wrong: how overzealous researchers, through a combination of ego, bias, and premature institutional consensus, have allowed dangerous misrepresentations to become dietary dogma.

I’ve read other books over the years that argue we should all be eating a low-carb diet and why our current eating habits cause health issues and obesity. So not all of the information in this book was new to me, and it could get science-y at times (just my personal opinion, as a non-science background person)…but I also thought it was excellent and I learned some new information. Especially when Teicholz explained how our current nutritional recommendations came about, and the immense amount of resistance there is to changing those recommendations, even when faced with new data. She did an immense amount of research over a 10-year time period to write this book, and her dedication shows.

3) The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, Michael Finkel

Description: Many people dream of escaping modern life, but most will never act on it. This is the remarkable true story of a man who lived alone in the woods of Maine for 27 years, making this dream a reality–not out of anger at the world, but simply because he preferred to live on his own.

I’d heard about the Hermit, but hadn’t read much about him before I came across this audiobook (it was written by the same author who published a popular GQ article in 2014 — which turned out to be their most-read story of all time). I wasn’t sure if I’d like the book, but it was much more interesting than I thought it would be.

4) Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, Amber Scorah

Description: A riveting memoir of losing faith and finding freedom while a covert missionary in one of the world’s most restrictive countries.

This “leaving my cult-like religion” book was made more interesting by the fact that most of it is set in China (Scorah moved to China with her then-husband as Jehovah’s Witness missionaries). Even though she had to be secretive because what she was doing was against the law, she had more freedom in her daily life than she’d had in Canada, and found herself questioning the life she was leading. She goes into some of the cultural aspects of living as a foreigner in China, which I particularly enjoyed. The book was featured in the New York Times here.

5) The Man Who Quit Money, Mark Sundeen

Description: In 2000, Daniel Suelo left his life savings — all $30 of it — in a phone booth. He has lived without money ever since. Suelo doesn’t pay taxes, or accept food stamps or welfare. He lives in caves in the Utah canyonlands, foraging wild foods and gourmet discards. He no longer carries an I.D., yet he manages to fulfill not only his basic human needs but the universal desires for companionship, purpose, and spiritual engagement.

What does it take for someone to stop using and accepting money? You’ll find out. Suelo is interesting because, while he lives alone in a cave in the desert, he’s not a hermit. You’ll learn about Suelo’s background and what led him to eschew money. The author of the book includes tales of his own alternative lifestyle and other people who have done similar things.

6) Childfree by Choice: The Movement Redefining Family and Creating a New Age of Independence, Amy Blackstone

Description: From Dr. Blackstone comes a definitive investigation into the history and current growing movement of adults choosing to forgo parenthood: what it means for our society, economy, environment, perceived gender roles, and legacies, and how understanding and supporting all types of families can lead to positive outcomes for parents, non-parents, and children alike.

This is a very thorough book on the topic of being childfree (I’m pretty well-read on this topic so I’d heard most of the information already). I encourage both women and men to read this, whether they are childfree or not (I read certain books about motherhood because I find them interesting, even though I don’t want that life for myself).

7) In Pain: A Bioethicist’s Personal Struggle with Opioids, Travis Rieder

Description: A bioethicist’s eloquent and riveting memoir of opioid dependence and withdrawal—a harrowing personal reckoning and clarion call for change not only for government but medicine itself, revealing the lack of crucial resources and structures to handle this insidious nationwide epidemic.

Rieder became dependent on opioids after a horrific motorcycle accident left him with a severely mangled foot that necessitated multiple surgeries. It was an interesting and powerful perspective because of his background in medical ethics. Rieder’s self-induced drug tapering protocol left him with horrific withdrawal symptoms, and none of his doctors were able to provide him with any help (other than a recommendation to go back on the meds if the withdrawal symptoms became too unbearable). Rieder argues there should be more emphasis on giving opioid patients an exit strategy so they can successfully taper off their meds and reduce the risk of full-blown addiction.

8) Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery, Christie Aschwanden

Description: In recent years, recovery has become a sports and fitness buzzword. Anyone who works out or competes at any level is bombarded with the latest recovery products and services: from drinks and shakes to compression sleeves, foam rollers, electrical muscle stimulators, and sleep trackers. Aschwanden, an acclaimed science writer, takes readers on an entertaining and enlightening tour through this strange world.

I’m not (nor have ever been) an athlete, so I have no particular interest in the subject of athletic recovery. But as we know, there are plenty of subjects we don’t know anything about, and they end up being more interesting than you could have expected. That was the case with this book. I liked how Aschwanden researched a wide variety of recovery methods, from the rise of sports drinks, bars, and other potions, to whether you really need to ice your sore muscles, to trying out float tanks and infrared saunas to see what all the fuss is about. As she says, “The research on most recovery modalities is thin and incomplete,” but she does concede that if it makes you feel better (even if it’s a placebo effect), it could still be helpful.

9) I’ll Be There for You: The One about Friends, Kelsey Miller

Description: This definitive retrospective of Friends incorporates interviews, history and behind-the-scenes anecdotes to offer a critical analysis of how a sitcom about six twentysomethings changed television forever.

I watched Friends, but I’ve never been a super fan. I don’t watch reruns of the show and I’m sure I missed quite a few episodes during its 10-year run (especially the later years). However, I put it on my future-to-read list when my friend Jaclyn posted about it earlier this year, and I enjoyed reading about the show’s background: everything from how the actors got hired and how some of the more well-known episodes came about, to more problematic issues like the lack of racial diversity and homophobic jokes.

10) The Naked Truth: A Memoir, Leslie Morgan

Description: Leslie was a mom turning fifty, reeling from divorce and determined to reclaim her life. In a radical break with convention, she dedicates a year to searching for five new lovers, reclaiming the rapture absent in a life of minivans and mom jeans—and finding a profound new sense of self-worth.

Morgan stayed with her emotionally and physically distant husband much longer than she should have. This tale of reclaiming her sexuality was entertaining.

Okay

11) The Salt Path: A Memoir, Raynor Winn

Description: Just days after Raynor learns that her husband of 32 years is terminally ill, their home and livelihood is taken away. With nothing left and little time, they make the impulsive decision to walk the 630 miles of the sea-swept South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset. They have almost no money for food or shelter and must carry only the essentials on their backs as they live wild in the ancient landscape of cliffs, sea, and sky.

I liked Raynor’s unconventional decision to go on a long walk when she lost her house, but the story became repetitive after a while. They were on an extremely tight budget, so there was a lot about their limited diet (largely noodles and rice), and they seemed envious of the people they came across (those who were able to afford normal meals and stay in hotels, whereas our couple slept in a tent every night). Also, nature and landscape descriptions don’t appeal to me (I do realize that some of it is inevitable when you’re writing a book about walking all day).

This is a nice interview with the author from last December which talks about her reasons for going on the hike and what happened afterward.

12) Serious Eater: A Food Lover’s Perilous Quest for Pizza and Redemption, Ed Levine

Description: Ed Levine, James Beard Award-winning founder of Serious Eats, finally tells the mouthwatering and heartstopping story of building — and almost losing — one of the most acclaimed and beloved food sites in the world.

Other than sharing some information about his childhood in the beginning, the book seemed to largely focus on trying to raise money to start the Serious Eats website, the monumental task of keeping it going over the years, and how he was constantly having to ask friends, family, and other investors for additional funds. I would have been more interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the running of the website itself, the people involved, what kind of material was popular, etc.

13) High Achiever: The Incredible True Story of One Addict’s Double Life, Tiffany Jenkins

Description: When word got out that Tiffany was withdrawing from opiates on the floor of a jail cell, people in her town were shocked. Not because of the twenty felonies she’d committed, or the nature of her crimes, but because her boyfriend was a Deputy Sheriff, and his friends were the ones who’d arrested her. This memoir spans Tiffany’s life as an opioid addict, her 120 days in a Florida jail, and her eventual recovery.

There was a lot of drama in this book. Even if every word is true and happened in the exact order she describes, it comes across as exaggerated and farfetched. She decided to write the flashback scenes as if she were talking to her therapist, and apparently all of her therapists listened with rapt attention and purposefully lengthened her sessions because they just couldn’t get enough of what she was telling them. That got annoying. Watch this clip of her appearance on the Today Show instead.

14) I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, Elinor Lipman

Description: In her two decades of writing, Lipman has populated her fiction with characters so real that we feel like they’re old friends. Now she shares an even more intimate world with us — her own — in essays that offer a candid, charming take on modern life. Looking back and forging ahead, she considers the subjects that matter most: childhood and condiments, long marriage and solo living, career and politics.

This book was pretty short, and the author voices the audiobook. The essays themselves were short as well, so it was difficult to get into one story before it ended and another began. The essay I found most interesting was the one about when she started dating again in her early 60s after her husband of multiple decades passed away.

Books

Books Read in July 2019

I read 14 books in July (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 91.

I started reading this book in July but decided not to finish:

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

Recommended

1) Men We Reaped: A Memoir, Jesmyn Ward

Description: In five years, Ward lost five men in her life — to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Ward ask the question: why? As she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships.

This is a book I’ve been aware of for years, and I knew it came highly rated, but never picked it up. July ended up being the time! Descriptions I’d read made it seem like her going back and forth between talking about her childhood, to the men she’d lost, and back, might seem confusing. But it wasn’t at all. It’s a good, solid story of growing up poor and black in Mississippi and Louisiana, and her enduring connection to the area.

2) The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, Mallory O’Meara

Description: O’Meara uncovers the life and work of Milicent Patrick—one of Disney’s first female animators and the only woman in history to create one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters. A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, this book establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed.

O’Meara is a monster-movie producer who became obsessed with researching the story of Milicent Patrick, a woman credited with creating The Creature (from The Creature in the Black Lagoon) in the 1950s. After that film she was never publicly heard from again, and O’Meara wanted to know what happened to her. Her writing style is conversational, readable, and decidedly not dry, so the story flew by. Her love of monster movies and respect for Milicent is palpable.

3) The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention, Meredith Maran

Description: A post-divorce memoir, this is one woman’s story of starting over at 60 in youth-obsessed, beauty-obsessed Hollywood. After the death of her best friend, the loss of her life’s savings, and the collapse of her once-happy marriage, Maran leaves her San Francisco freelance writer’s life for a 9-to-5 job in Los Angeles. Determined to rebuild not only her savings but herself while relishing the joys of life in a new city, Maran writes of what it means to be a woman of a certain age in our time.

It’s not difficult to find a memoir about female reinvention, but it’s more rare to find one written by a woman over sixty. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Maran is honest and open, and it was fun to read about her transition from being married to a woman in Oakland to living solo in Los Angeles. I liked how she went from being uncomfortable living in L.A. to feeling like she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Also, the description of the tiny hillside cottage she buys after selling her Oakland house makes me supremely jealous. I found the book after reading this article (which I also recommend).

4) City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret, City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

It’s July and I read my first fiction book of the year! I like Elizabeth Gilbert, and I’ve read one of her previous fictional books, so I decided to listen to this one as an audiobook. Gilbert doesn’t read it herself, but that ended up being preferable because the narrator could do different accents and differentiate between character voices.

As I always do when I read fiction, I kept wishing the story was real, but otherwise it kept me sufficiently entertained. The New York Times wrote about the book here.

5) I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering, Janelle Hanchett

Description: From the creator of the “Renegade Mothering” blog, Hanchett’s memoir chronicles her tumultuous journey from young motherhood, to abysmal addiction, and a recovery she never imagined possible.

It can be difficult to read this kind of book because it doesn’t put the author in the best light. (Her children didn’t live with her for years because of her struggles with drugs and alcohol; she put herself in dangerous situations; she relapsed multiple times.) She knows this, and admitted how hard it can be to live with her past. She’s been sober now since 2009.

I had never read Janelle’s blog, but when I checked it out I found several interesting posts right away. For the short version of her story with alcohol and drug abuse, read this post from 2014. More recently, she announced that she and her family are moving to the Netherlands (because life is short! I love it!), and she wrote this post when they were ten days out from move day.

I started following her on Instagram, and I’ve enjoyed her updates on living life with the Dutch. I spent a semester in Amsterdam when I was in college, and I’ve returned to the country several times and always love it.

6) For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, Laura Esther Wolfson

Description: Wolfson’s literary debut draws on years of immersion in the Russian and French languages; struggles to gain a basic understanding of Judaism, its history, and her place in it; and her search for a form to hold the stories that emerge from what she has lived, observed, overheard, and misremembered.

I wasn’t sure what I’d think about this collection of essays, but I was intrigued. Laura has led an interesting life: deciding to study Russian, marrying (and later divorcing) a man who spoke Russian, becoming a translator of Russian and, later, French. She writes about pursuing her Jewish heritage later in life, as her parents were secular Jews.

I also enjoyed her essays about her relationships (two marriages and two divorces, her thoughts about being single, and why she didn’t have kids – she wanted them but her first husband didn’t, and by the time she could start trying for them she was diagnosed with a degenerative lung condition). You can read an excerpt from her book here.

7) From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, Tembi Locke

Description: It was love at first sight when Tembi met Saro on a street in Florence. There was just one problem: Saro’s traditional Sicilian family did not approve of him marrying a black American woman. This is a poignant and transporting cross-cultural love story set against the lush backdrop of the Sicilian countryside, where one woman discovers the healing powers of food, family, and unexpected grace in her darkest hour.

I wasn’t familiar with the actress Tembi Locke, but she has a long list of acting credits so it’s possible I’ve seen her work. She writes about her relationship with her husband, dealing with his sickness and eventual death, life as a widow and single mother, and how their love story impacted her life.

8) Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood, Andrew Rannells

Description: From the star of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon and HBO’s Girls, the heartfelt and hilarious coming-of-age memoir of a Midwestern boy surviving bad auditions, bad relationships, and some really bad highlights as he chases his dreams in New York City.

I didn’t know anything about Andrew before reading this book, but the story of a gay teen, newly out of the closet, who moves from Omaha to NYC, was unexpectedly entertaining. His stories range from childhood through late 20s, and include what he went through to make it to Broadway.

9) How to Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir, Kate Mulgrew

Description: In this honest and examined memoir about returning to Iowa to care for her ailing parents, the star of “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Orange is the New Black” takes us on a journey of loss, betrayal, and the transcendent nature of a daughter’s love for her parents.

I read Kate’s first book, Born With Teeth, three years ago. This one focuses on her parents, her relationship with them and her siblings, stories from her childhood, her father’s sudden death, and her mother’s long, drawn-out death from Alzheimer’s.

10) Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Description: A memoir of reinvention after a stroke at age thirty-three. Lee illuminates the connection between memory and identity in an honest and truly funny manner, utterly devoid of self-pity. And as she recovers, she begins to realize that this unexpected and devastating event has provided a catalyst for coming to terms with her true self.

Christine suffered a stroke at age 33, and the repercussions affected her for years. They still affect her, but she’s able to manage it better. She says the recovery lasted at least two years. She would sleep twenty hours a day, she was a different person, she had angry outbursts or she was weeping, and worst of all was the memory loss. In the beginning she couldn’t remember anything that had happened just 15 minutes before.

She mentions how heartbroken she was when her husband of 18 years left her, years after the stroke when they’d just had a child together, but she doesn’t go into a lot of detail. She gives more details about the relationship in this article, which is the one I came across which then led me to her book. The article does give a positive spin, though: “I didn’t know it at the time, but letting go of an unhappy coupling, even if presented with sudden cruelty, was an opportunity for innovation.”

11) Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way, Tanja Hester

Description: A practical action guide for financial independence and early retirement from the popular “Our Next Life” blogger. Tanja walks you through envisioning your dream life, accounting for variables such as health care and children, protecting yourself from recessions and future unknowns, and achieving a purpose-filled early retirement, semi-retirement, or career intermission with completely doable, non-penny-pinching steps.

Not all of the information here was relevant to me, but some of it was, and I’ve found that’s the best one can hope for in a finance-related book. I’ve been reading Tanja’s blog for years, way before she retired in December 2017 at age 38. I appreciate her writing, and her guidance, and the fact that she and her husband are proudly child-free. The New York Times reviewed the book here.

12) Howard Stern Comes Again, Howard Stern

Description: Over his unrivaled four-decade career in radio, Stern has interviewed thousands of personalities—discussing sex, relationships, money, fame, spirituality, and success with the boldest of bold-faced names. But which interviews are his favorites? It’s one of the questions he gets asked most frequently, and now he delivers his answer.

This is a long book – over 500 pages. It’s mainly a collection of his favorite interviews, but he did write an introduction, and a description for each interview, as well as some essays in between. Some interviews are longer, while some are just a few paragraphs.

He talks about how the last book he wrote was over twenty years ago, and he doesn’t recommend anyone read his two previous books. He’s no longer the same shock jock we knew decades ago. (If he was, I would have had no interest in reading this book.) He said he doesn’t own any of his previous books and there are many past interviews he cringes over and he wishes he could re-do.

He and his current wife (they’ve been married over ten years) are involved in animal welfare issues and he’s a pescetarian. Like this Washington Post proclaims, Meet the New Howard Stern.

13) Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World, Isabel Gillies

Description: When we talk about being cozy, most of us think of a favorite sweater or a cup of tea on a rainy day. But to Gillies, coziness goes beyond mere objects. To be truly cozy, she argues, means learning to identify the innermost truth of yourself and carrying it into the world, no matter your environment.

I make myself cozy every day by lying on my couch with a blanket and reading a book. It’s my spot. I don’t have children and I rarely need to make dinner after work (I make most of my meals on the weekend), so I have hours to myself every evening between the time I get off work and go to sleep. I liked how Gillies talks about the things she finds cozy, how they’re different for everyone, and gives suggestions for finding coziness even in uncomfortable situations (like hospital visits). Apparently coziness is all around – you just have to know where to look for it.

Okay

14) Be With Me Always: Essays, Randon Billings Noble

Description: In a way, all good essays are about the things that haunt us until we have somehow embraced or understood them. Here, Noble considers the ways she has been haunted—by a near-death experience, a book she can’t stop reading, a past lover who shadows her thoughts—in essays both pleasant and bitter.

I wanted to like this book because I’ve been devouring essays recently. I enjoyed some of them, but others were just…strange.

Books

Books Read in June 2019

I read seven books in June (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 77. (This is my lowest monthly total so far this year, and the first month in single digits. I was out of town at a work conference for over a week and then had some vacation time in Buffalo. Unlike people who read more when they’re out of town, I read more when I’m settled in my normal routine.)

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

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

Recommended

1) The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees, Meredith May

Description: Bees became a guiding force in May’s life, teaching her about family and community, loyalty, and survival. Part memoir, part beekeeping odyssey, this is an unforgettable story about finding home in the most unusual of places, and how a tiny, little-understood insect could save a life.

This is both a sad and sweet story. May was basically abandoned by her mentally ill mother (even though they lived in the same house) and raised by her grandparents. In his heyday, her grandfather took care of over 100 hives which produced more than 500 gallons of honey per year.

May learned about bees from him, and even though she took a long hiatus from beekeeping when she went off to college and got a job, she took up urban beekeeping later in life. This is a good article about May and her book.

2) How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, Alexander Chee

Description: This is Chee’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend.

I had never heard of Alexander Chee before reading this book (he’s written several novels prior to this work of nonfiction). I didn’t pick it up at first because I was taking the title literally — and I don’t want to write an autobiographical novel. But I saw the book recommended in several places, so I went back and read the description again — and realized it’s a memoir in essays, which I’ve become fond of.

I really enjoyed this book, especially the final essay where he talks about the financial difficulty of making a living as a writer (if you’re not already upper middle class or have a partner who can supplement your income). He refers to spending decades of his life as a writer as “income destruction,” and indeed, spent years working as a waiter to make ends meet.

3) All That You Leave Behind: A Memoir, Erin Lee Carr

Description: An acclaimed documentary filmmaker comes to terms with her larger-than-life father, the late New York Times journalist David Carr, in this fierce memoir of love, addiction, and family.

I struggled with how to rate this one, because there were things I didn’t like (how she included excerpts from emails and chat sessions — I’ve always found those references are best when condensed). There’s also a lot of privilege here in how she ended up in her current line of work, because her father worked in media and had many contacts to pave her way, and she likely wouldn’t be where she is today without those contacts. She does acknowledge that, at least.

I decided to recommend it because I didn’t find myself dreading it when I opened it, which happens sometimes with books I’m just trying to get through. Here’s an excerpt from the book.

Okay

4) Code Name: Lise – The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy, Larry Loftis

Description: The true story of Odette Sansom, the British woman who became WWII’s most highly decorated spy.

This was obviously a very brave woman, but I expected the book to be about her activities as a spy. Instead, it was more about her capture, and how she spent years in various prisons, and what she endured while incarcerated.

5) Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, Keith O’Brien

Description: The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s — and won.

Like I said in the review above — these ladies were extremely brave to do what they did. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, flying meant taking your life into your hands. They never knew when something would go wrong, and many pilots died or were injured. It was tough to read about the excessive sexism they endured, and all the entrenched notions of what women should do and what they were physically capable of. But they did it anyway, and their actions and struggles made a difference.

6) What Matters Most: The Get Your Shit Together Guide to Wills, Money, Insurance, and Life’s “What-ifs”, Chanel Reynolds

Description: Founder of the website “Get Your Shit Together” blends personal story and advice in this guide to getting your affairs in order — from wills and advance directives to insurance, finances, and relationships — before the unthinkable happens.

There are some good tips in here about being prepared before a personal disaster, but a lot of it was too simplistic for my needs — and also, I wasn’t prepared for a super-detailed grief memoir.

7) Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over, Nell Painter

Description: How are women, and artists, “seen” and judged by their age, race, and looks? And how does this seeing change, depending upon what is asked of the viewer? What does it mean when someone states (as one teacher does) that “you will never be an Artist” — who defines “an Artist,” and all that goes with such an identity, and how are these ideas tied to our shared conceptions of beauty, value, and difference?

This book is meant for those who are more into art (and art history, and the plight of the modern artist) than I am. There were a lot of details in here that just weren’t interesting to me. What I did like is her pluck, and reading about her experience as an older black woman amongst mainly younger white students. Nell entered art school in her 60s, first as an undergraduate, then she went on to get her MFA, after a distinguished career as a history professor and author of multiple books. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Books

Books Read in May 2019

I read 13 books in May (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 70.

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

  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown. My husband read and enjoyed this book. I’m sure it’s good, but when I started reading it, I realized it wouldn’t have much to teach me. My life is already pared down. I don’t need to be convinced to say no to things I don’t want to do.

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

Recommended

1) The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live, Heather B. Armstrong

Description: For years, Armstrong has alluded to her struggle with depression on her website, dooce. But in 2016, she found herself in a depression she couldn’t shake, an episode darker and longer than anything she had previously experienced. She had never felt so discouraged by the thought of waking up in the morning, and it threatened to destroy her life. So, for the sake of herself and her family, Armstrong decided to risk it all by participating in an experimental clinical trial involving a chemically induced coma approximating brain death.

Heather is a popular long-time blogger; I’ve read her website since the early 2000s. (You know you’ve read a blogger for a long time when she initially didn’t have kids and now her oldest daughter is in high school). Heather has a distinct writing style that can be annoying at times – I’m thinking in particular of her penchant for emphasizing words using all capital letters, or harping on one thing over and over because she finds it funny (to me, repetition breeds annoyance).

She includes some of those annoying writing traits in this book. There are several instances of writing in all caps (I have a feeling she was held in check by her editor), and as the title of the book indicates, she uses the word valedictorian a lot. The first few times are funny; after that, I wanted to punch something whenever I saw it.

Having said that, this book is good. Being a long-time reader of her blog, I discovered things I didn’t know about the dissolution of her marriage and the animosity she still holds toward her ex-husband (which is obvious based on the multiple negative mentions of him throughout the book). As for the mental illness theme, she’s always been honest about her struggles with depression and anxiety, but she goes into much more detail here. I think this will resonate with a lot of people who have experienced the same (even though her particular treatment was quite abnormal).

You can read an in-depth profile of Heather, her background, and the book here.

2) Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, Ruth Reichl

Description: When Condé Nast offered Ruth Reichl the top position at America’s oldest epicurean magazine, she declined. She was a writer, not a manager, and had no inclination to be anyone’s boss. And yet Reichl had been reading Gourmet since she was eight; it had inspired her career. How could she say no? This is a personal journey of a woman coming to terms with being in charge and making a mark, following a passion and holding on to her dreams–even when she ends up in a place she never expected to be.

I’d read several of Ruth’s books before this one. I knew she’d been editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, but if asked, I would have sworn the magazine folded 3-5 years ago. Apparently it happened in 2009, so this is yet another example of time passing way too fast.

This is an enjoyable read. Ruth is extremely likable, especially her tales of how unsuspecting and naïve she was about everything in the beginning. She had no experience running a magazine (she’d never even had her own assistant before), so everything was brand new. She talks about various personalities, opulent parties, hirings and firings, and how she shut down the magazine after the September 11 terrorist attacks and used the Gourmet test kitchens to prepare large batches of food for rescue workers.

In this article, she talks about “reluctantly embracing Condé Nast’s luxury lifestyle, learning to be a boss, and struggling to save an ultimately doomed magazine.”

3) Life Will Be the Death of Me, Chelsea Handler

Description: In the fall of 2016, Handler daydreams about what life will be like with a woman in the White House. And then Trump happens. In a torpor of despair, she decides she’s had enough of the privileged bubble she’s lived in and that it’s time to make some changes, both in her personal life and in the world at large.

I became a Chelsea fan a few years ago when she made a docuseries for Netflix, and later hosted two seasons of a talk show. I was disappointed when she ended the show to focus on other pursuits, but there was a good reason (after the outcome of the last presidential election, she wanted to stop living in a “big vapid bubble” and help women and people of color get elected).

Chelsea is happily child-free, which I love, but she talks a lot about her dogs (past and present), which I could have done without – but it wasn’t horrible.

Most of the book is about her seeing a psychiatrist for the first time and focusing on therapy. She’s been through some heavy things in her life and she’s brutally honest about her shortcomings. She admits to being spoiled and feeling useless in a lot of ways, but both were things she was there to work on.

I purposefully wanted to listen to the book on audio, and I’m glad I did. There are multiple times where her voice shakes with emotion when she talks, or you can tell she’s crying as she reads, and it makes the listening experience so much more memorable. I’m glad they left that in rather than having her re-do it.

4) Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, Elizabeth Renzetti

Description: Drawing upon her decades of reporting on feminist issues, this is a book about feminism’s crossroads. From Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign to the quest for equal pay, from the lessons we can learn from old ladies to the future of feminism in a turbulent world, Renzetti takes a pointed, witty look at how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go.

Renzetti writes from a Canadian feminist perspective, and you know exactly what you’re in for by the third page: “I have no creed in this world — no religion, no ideology — except feminism. It is an essential part of my being.”

I liked many of the essays, especially the ones in the beginning. She does include several open letters to her kids (which I hate), and even one to her younger self, but I tried not to hold those against her.

5) The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, Vince Beiser

Description: The gripping story of the most important overlooked commodity in the world and the crucial role it plays in our lives.

I had no idea that sand is used to make so many things. Or that there’s a difference between desert sand and beach sand. (Apparently there is a very big difference!) We are, of course, running out of usable sand because nobody has figured out a way to make desert sand work for our needs yet.

Sand is used for roads, concrete, and fracking. It’s used to make glass, and expensive electronics. It’s brought into beach towns (at great expense) to refill what is lost by erosion. And because it is becoming scarce, there is an illegal sand mining trade.

6) Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, Jennifer Wright

Description: A humorous book about history’s worst plagues — from cholera, to leprosy, to polio — and the heroes who fought them.

I wasn’t sure I’d like this, but it was a lot better than I expected. Wright covers a list of diseases that you definitely do not want to get (and luckily, most have been eradicated). I liked how she used humor to tell the stories, bringing levity to an otherwise deep subject.

7) Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers, Dr. David Perlmutter

Description: Renowned neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, blows the lid off a finding that’s been buried in medical literature for far too long: carbs are destroying your brain. Even so-called healthy carbs like whole grains can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, decreased libido, and much more.

The first edition of this book was published in 2013; I read the updated 2018 version. I’ve been eating low-gluten for years, and lower-carb since last fall, so Dr. Perlmutter’s recommendations aren’t far off from what I’m already doing. Except he does advocate for super low carb, like keto-low, 20-30 net carbs/day (which I don’t do).

He has a lot of compelling research. He states that modern grains and gluten, as well as an overabundance of carbs, cause dementia and worsen brain disorders like ADHD and depression. I’m sure another book would tell me the opposite (because health experts like to contradict each other), but it’s certainly food for thought. The rising numbers of dementia and Alzheimer’s are scary.

8) Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of “The View,” Ramin Setoodeh

Description: Based on interviews with nearly every host and unprecedented access, award-winning journalist Setoodeh takes you backstage where the stars really spoke their minds.

This gossipy book is not something I usually go for, but I listened to it on audio and it was a decent way to entertain myself as I walked back and forth to work and chopped veggies in my kitchen. I’ve watched The View in years past and knew a bit about the early drama, and of course there have been a number of hirings and firings.

I appreciated that the author interviews many of the people involved (so it wasn’t something pieced together without their knowledge or permission), and they had the opportunity to introduce new information.

This is a good article about The View’s new relevancy in The New York Times.

Okay

9) Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, Valerie Jarrett

Description: From her work ensuring equality for women and girls, advancing civil rights, and improving the lives of working families, to the real stories behind some of the most stirring moments of the Obama presidency, Jarrett shares her forthright, optimistic perspective on the importance of leadership and the responsibilities of citizenship in the 21st century.

Valerie is a very accomplished woman, but I was a bit bored with her book. It didn’t help that I’d already read Michelle Obama’s (much better) book about her husband’s election; I wasn’t interested in having it recapped once again. I did learn about Valerie’s background and how she came to be so close to the Obama family, but a lot of the other stuff – including her tales from the White House – didn’t entertain me.

10) Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, Claire Dederer

Description: Claire is a married mother of two when she finds herself despondent and, simultaneously, suffering through an erotic reawakening. This memoir shifts between her experience as a middle-aged mom and herself as a teenager — when she last experienced life with heightened sensitivity and longing. Dederer exposes herself utterly, and in doing so captures something universal about the experience of being a woman, a daughter, a wife.

The premise sounded interesting, but I found myself looking for more and not getting it. Claire talks about her promiscuous ways as a teenager and young adult, and she explores some of the reasons this may have come about. After hitting her mid-40s and being in a long marriage, she admits to a recurring interest in her former bad-girl ways.

Things were all well and good, but then she introduced an open letter to Roman Polanski (and, oh god, there was even an Open Letter Part 2 later in the book). And then things turned positively wacky. One chapter was a list of common places she visited in Seattle as a teen, with a brief description of what she did there. There was a chapter on her younger self as a scientific case study, written in the third person. She really lost me when she used the alphabet in one chapter to highlight moments from her life – A is for this, B is for that. I didn’t appreciate feeling like I was in a children’s book. I read the memoir through to the end, but I was supremely disinterested in the off-the-wall writing experiments.

Here’s an article about her published in the Guardian last year.

11) No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir, Ani DiFranco

Description: DiFranco recounts her early life from a place of hard-won wisdom, combining personal expression, the power of music, feminism, political activism, storytelling, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and much more into an inspiring whole.

I’m not an Ani fan (I couldn’t tell you a single song of hers), but since I lived in her hometown of Buffalo, NY for four years (also my husband’s hometown), I’ve heard her name quite a bit. I’ve also been to several events at Babeville.

The book is okay; I learned a lot about her. She had some wild times growing up, and her tenacity to make it as a folk musician (while staying true to her roots) is admirable. She goes off on some rambling tangents though. Read more about Ani in this Vulture article.

12) Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, Stephanie Rosenbloom

Description: This is divided into four parts, each set in a different city, in a different season, in a single year. The destinations — Paris, Istanbul, Florence, New York — are all pedestrian-friendly, allowing travelers to slow down and appreciate casual pleasures. Each section spotlights a different theme associated with the joys and benefits of time alone and how it can enable people to enrich their lives.

I haven’t taken a solo trip in a very long time, but it’s been on my mind lately. Solitude is good for us. Rosenbloom addresses a number of topics, including dining solo, how to savor experiences, and the advantages of visiting places like museums on your own (studies have shown you get more out of the art that way). One of the four cities she focuses on is NYC (where she lives), and I thought including the staycation idea (and paying attention to being a tourist where you live) was a nice touch.

On the downside, while I liked her ruminations on solo travel, some of the things she specifically experienced in those cities (and lingered on) weren’t all that interesting to me. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

13) Don’t Stop Believin’, Olivia Newton-John

Description: Legendary musician, actress, activist, and icon Olivia Newton-John reveals her life story — from her unforgettable rise to fame in the classic musical Grease, to her passionate advocacy for health and wellness in light of her battles with cancer.

Yet another example of someone I’d heard of because they are famous but didn’t know much about. This is a lighthearted read. I didn’t love it. She does talk about the making of Grease and Xanadu, so if those films appeal to you, you might enjoy the book more than I did.

Books

Books Read in April 2019

I read 14 books in April (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 57.

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

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

Recommended

1) No Happy Endings: A Memoir, Nora McInerny

Description: Life has a million different ways to kick you in the chops. For Nora, it was losing her husband, her father, and her unborn second child in one catastrophic year. This is a book for people living life after life has fallen apart. It’s a book for people who know that they’re moving forward, not moving on. It’s a book for people who know life isn’t always happy, but it isn’t the end: there will be unimaginable joy and incomprehensible tragedy.

I read and enjoyed Nora’s first book, and I liked this one as well. My sister Elissa started listening to the audiobook and recommended it to me while I had the ebook version on hold.

Nora is very open and real. I appreciate those qualities in a memoirist. She talks about the immense pain of her first husband’s death, dating as a widow, and the adorable love story of meeting and falling in love with her current husband. There are also random essays about growing up in (and later leaving) Catholicism, and how she came to identify as a feminist.

I hate essays/chapters/books/articles written as “A letter to my [insert person here].” Nora wrote four of these essays (one for each of her biological children, and one for each of her stepchildren), so I hated those immensely, but luckily they were short.

My favorite quote from the book, as she wrote about the fear of choosing the freelance writing life but doing it anyway: “A world where we receive zero criticism is a world where we are not contributing, where we are living at the very baseline of our abilities.”

Here’s a good article on Nora and her new book from the Washington Post.

2) Prisoner: My 544 Days in an Iranian Prison—Solitary Confinement, a Sham Trial, High-Stakes Diplomacy, and the Extraordinary Efforts It Took to Get Me Out, Jason Rezaian

Description: In July 2014, this Washington Post Tehran bureau chief was arrested by Iranian police, accused of spying for America. The charges were absurd. Rezaian’s reporting was a mix of human interest stories and political analysis. Initially, Rezaian thought the whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding, but soon realized it was much more dire as it became an 18-month prison stint with impossibly high diplomatic stakes, as his release became a part of the Iran nuclear deal.

I was worried there would only be so much for Jason to say about his 18 months of captivity in an Iranian prison, but I stayed interested throughout (I listened to the audiobook, which he reads himself, and he’s a good reader in addition to being a good writer). He was afforded certain privileges that other prisoners often don’t have (private visits with his wife and mother, the ability to buy food from outside), and he was never physically tortured, but he noted that the long-term effects of isolation and lack of access to information was very tough emotionally.

3) Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet, Will Hunt

Description: An investigation of the subterranean landscape, from sacred caves and derelict subway stations to nuclear bunkers and ancient underground cities—an exploration of the history, science, architecture, and mythology of the worlds beneath our feet. This is both a personal exploration of Hunt’s obsession and a wide-lensed study of how we are all connected to the underground, how caves and other dark hollows have frightened and enchanted, repelled and captivated, us through the ages.

I was intrigued by Hunt’s underground explorations. I’ve never done anything like this myself, but I see the appeal. I enjoyed the chapters on New York City and Paris tunnels the most, but the others are good, too (and include things like mines and caves). You can read an excerpt about the three days he spent beneath Paris here.

4) True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray, James Renner

Description: In 2011, Renner began researching the strange disappearance of Maura Murray, a University of Massachusetts student who went missing after wrecking her car in rural New Hampshire in 2004. Over the course of his investigation, he uncovered numerous important and shocking new clues about what may have happened to Murray but also found himself in increasingly dangerous situations with little regard for his own well-being. As his quest to find Murray deepened, the case started taking a toll on his personal life, which began to spiral out of control. The result is an absorbing dual investigation of the complicated story of the All-American girl who went missing and Renner’s own equally complicated true-crime addiction.

I had this on my to-read list for months and kept bypassing it for something else. I shouldn’t have waited so long because I really enjoyed it. I’m not always a huge fan of true-crime reporting, so I was probably drawn to this because he included a lot of personal details – it wasn’t just straight reporting about someone else.

I checked out his website after I finished the book and learned he’ll be speaking in DC on June 13 (it’s the same night as a large event at work, but I registered anyway and will cross my fingers that I can make it). His talk is described as “a mix of humor and frightening stories from the world of true crime” and he will share “his theories about how true crime became so popular and what it says about us all.”

5) I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, Michelle McNamara

Description: A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer — the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade — from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.

This was another book I avoided because I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Apparently I like true crime more than I thought (but only if the author inserts personal information throughout – I don’t want a strict retelling of a story that the author isn’t personally involved in). Some of you may remember that the author, Michelle McNamara, passed away while writing this book and it had to be completed after her death (she was married to comedian Patton Oswalt). I also remember hearing that they identified the Golden State Killer after her death, but I made sure to save that reading until after I finished the book.

This isn’t a spoiler because it was in the news last year: the killer was caught in 2018, two years after Michelle’s death.

6) The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster, Sarah Krasnostein

Description: Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humor shine in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy.

Krasnostein tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male in Australia and overcame incredible odds to get where she is today. We learn about her background, which is interspersed with tales of the types of homes and people that a trauma cleaning business deals with (extreme hoarding, mental illness, clean-ups after deaths have occurred, etc).

In the trauma-cleaning examples, Krasnostein is an observer rather than a cleaner, but she expertly makes you feel like you’re right there in the room – sometimes using descriptions that make you wish you weren’t.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

7) I Miss You When I Blink: Essays, Mary Laura Philpott

Description: This acclaimed essayist and bookseller presents a charmingly relatable and wise memoir-in-essays about what happened after she checked off all the boxes on her successful life’s to-do list and realized she might need to reinvent the list—and herself.

This was a series of short essays (I found myself wishing some of them were longer, but that’s a good problem to have). I liked when she wrote about her craving for silence (she is married with two children), and while she daydreamed of moving into a separate apartment all her own, she found the quiet she needed when she did a weeks-long housesitting stint in a different city. She covered other topics that I found myself relating to as well.

Also, as someone who reads a lot of nonfiction (and has subsequently seen a lot of subtitles), I enjoyed Mary Laura’s essay on choosing a subtitle for her book.

8) The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, Melinda Gates

Description: For the last twenty years, Melinda Gates has been on a mission to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, one thing has become increasingly clear: If you want to lift a society up, you need to stop keeping women down.

The organization I work for is focused on global gender equity, so this subject matter is on point. I listened to it on audio, which Melinda reads herself. She comes across as very approachable; I liked her stories about stepping into the role of reluctant spokesperson for her charitable foundation and gradually becoming more comfortable with a leadership role. She shares stories of people she’s met all over the world and how they’ve deeply affected her. She talks about her struggles with the Catholicism of her youth versus being a strong advocate for family planning and contraception.

I liked the chapter on gender equity in particular. She admits it didn’t used to be a focus for her foundation (they thought the term itself would put people off) — until they realized all of their goals hinged on it.

She addresses U.S.-based gender issues as well, like women in the workforce, and her struggles with working at Microsoft in the early days when it was a brash working environment.

9) Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, Sara Zaske

Description: When Zaske moved from Oregon to Berlin with her husband and toddler, she knew the transition would be multi-layered, adding parenting and then the birth of another child into the mix. Through her own family’s experiences as well as interviews with other parents, teachers, and experts, Zaske shares the many unexpected parenting lessons she learned from living in Germany.

This may seem like a curious book for a childfree person to read, but I love memoirs, and I love reading about women’s experiences living in foreign countries. While this book focused on the differences in raising children in Germany versus the United States, there was a lot of personal information about the author’s cross-cultural experiences living as a German expat, and how the family dealt with returning to the U.S. after six years. (Unsurprising, I previously enjoyed Bringing Up Bebe, a book written by an American expat in France.)

10) Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need, Grant Sabatier

Description: This is a step-by-step path to make more money in less time, so you have more time for the things you love. It challenges the accepted narrative of spending decades working a traditional 9 to 5 job, pinching pennies, and finally earning the right to retirement at age 65, and instead offers readers an alternative: forget everything you’ve ever learned about money so that you can actually live the life you want.

Grant’s story is impressive in that he went from basically zero dollars in the bank to over $1 million in five years. That’s one extremely motivated individual! He has some recommendations for lucrative side hustles so other people can follow in his footsteps, but none of them were ones I’m personally interested in undertaking (I have a goal of financial independence as well, but I’m willing to take a slower approach to it). Not all of his tips are ones I would follow (checking my investment accounts every day? No, thank you), but there’s a lot of good information in here.

11) On Being 40(ish), Multiple Authors

Description: Turning forty is a poignant doorway between youth and…what comes after; a crossroads to reflect on the roads taken and not, and the paths yet before you. The decade that follows is ripe for nostalgia, inspiration, wisdom, and personal growth. In this collection, fifteen writers explore this rich phase in essays that are profound and moving.

I will turn 40 next year so of course I put this book on hold as soon as I heard about it. Some of the contributors are authors I’ve previously read and know I like – Meghan Daum, Kate Bolick, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Sloane Crosley.

I will say, I put this book in the Recommended category because the essays I liked, I really liked and would recommend them to others. There were some essays I did not like (or just felt like they didn’t belong because they weren’t at all centered on the 40-ish theme), but that’s pretty common in anthologies like this.

My favorite essay was Meghan Daum’s, which is the first essay in the book, and lucky you – it’s available to read in its entirely right here.

12) Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, HER Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, Lori Gottlieb

Description: From a New York Times best-selling author, psychotherapist, and national advice columnist, a thought-provoking and surprising book that takes us behind the scenes of a therapist’s world — where her patients are looking for answers (and so is she).

I’ve never read a book where a therapist talked not only about working as a therapist, but about her own experience being a patient in therapy. I found myself more interested in her personal story (rather than the stories of the patients she highlighted), but I could see the value in including both. She’s obviously dedicated to her field, and I enjoyed the life stories she shared — like attempting (and quitting) the medical field, and conceiving her son with the help of a sperm donor.

Okay

13) The Scarlett Letters: My Secret Year of Men in an L.A. Dungeon, Jenny Nordbak

Description: Nordbak takes us to a place that few have seen, but millions have fantasized about, revealing how she transformed herself from a beautiful USC grad into an elite professional dominatrix.

This is a voyeuristic look at an experience not many people have (or at least don’t admit to having). I enjoyed this glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, although it reminded me of a similar book I read on the subject back in 2010 (Whip Smart by Melissa Febos). The writing itself isn’t great though, and I got bored with the details of her personal life, which is why I downgraded it to the Okay category.

14) WOLFPACK: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game, Abby Wambach

Description: Based on her viral commencement speech to Barnard College’s graduates, two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA World Cup champion Abby Wambach delivers her empowering rally cry for women to unleash their individual power, unite with their pack, and emerge victorious together.

This is very short. It’s basically a bunch of platitudes, though she tries to spin them to sound new and different. I feel bad about disliking this book because I like Abby and I think she’d be an awesome person to hang out with — but it didn’t do anything for me.

Books

Books Read in March 2019

I read 13 books in March (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 43.

These are the books 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) Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward, Gemma Hartley

Description: From the journalist who ignited a national conversation on emotional labor, comes a bold dive into the unpaid, invisible work women have shouldered for too long — and an impassioned vision for creating a better future.

I put this book on hold immediately after coming across the author’s popular article on Harper’s Bazaar. I’d never thought about emotional labor this way before. Sure, I’d noticed that most women take on a majority of the emotional labor in heterosexual relationships, but I didn’t know there was a term for it. Hartley says many women reached out to her after the article was published, and I’m not surprised. She wasn’t the first person to point out this phenomenon, and she didn’t coin the term “emotional labor,” but sometimes an article/book comes out at the right time or is read by the right people in order to make it a bigger thing.

I liked how Hartley made strides to change the emotional labor dynamic in her decade-plus marriage. She also admits that getting to a point where emotional labor is shared by a couple doesn’t mean all of the changes take place with the male partner — there were issues of her own she had to address, like feeling a need for everything to be done perfectly, and to her exact specifications.

There’s a lot here and I found myself taking notes. It would make a good choice for a book club, as it would garner great discussion. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

2) The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, Tommy Tomlinson

Description: Tomlinson chronicles his lifelong battle with weight and hits the road to meet other members of the plus-sized tribe in an attempt to understand how, as a nation, we got to this point. From buying a FitBit and setting exercise goals to contemplating the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas, Tomlinson brings us along on a candid and sometimes brutal look at the everyday experience of being constantly aware of your size.

I’ve long had an interest in books and articles about weight, usually written by people on opposite ends of the size spectrum – those who are either too big or too small.

I really liked this book, but it was hard to read. Tomlinson is a very readable author; he doesn’t hold back; he’s raw. It may seem strange to say this, but as someone who doesn’t crave food the way he does, it’s tough to read about someone who can’t say no. He goes in-depth into his history with (and admitted addiction to) fast food, and all the lies he’s told over the years so people wouldn’t think he was consuming so much of it. There is excruciating detail about the fatty, greasy, salty, and sweet foods he loves so much.

At one point, he explores the question, “Who would I be if I weren’t fat?” At the same time I was reading this book, I came across this article, written by an obese woman who asks the very same question. Both wonder how their lives could have turned out if they had made different choices.

You can read an excerpt from Tomlinson’s book here.

3) Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE, Phil Knight

Description: In this memoir, Nike founder and CEO Phil Knight shares the inside story of the company’s early days as an intrepid start-up and its evolution into one of the world’s most iconic, game-changing, and profitable brands.

This isn’t a book I would have thought to pick up, but I saw a glowing recommendation on Everyday Reading last year and made note of it.

I had absolutely no idea how Nike started, and as the blogger above noted, it’s way more interesting than one might expect. What struck me was the level of dedication it took to keep the company going, especially in the first decade. It really was a long, slow, gradual process that started with Phil selling sneakers from the trunk of his car while working a regular full time job as an accountant. If two non-sporty people recommend a book about the creation of a sneaker company, it’s probably worth your time.

4) American Prison: A Reporter’s Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment, Shane Bauer

Description: In 2014, Bauer was hired for $9 an hour to work as an entry-level prison guard. An award-winning investigative journalist, he used his real name; there was no meaningful background check. Four months later, his employment came to an abrupt end. In short order he wrote an exposé about his experiences that won a National Magazine Award and became the most-read feature in the history of Mother Jones magazine.

Bauer intersperses his experience of working undercover in a medium-security, rural private prison in Louisiana with the history of mass incarceration over the past few centuries. He covers convict leasing (and subsequent high death rates), and moves forward to more modern practices. It’s interesting that he found himself reacting to inmates in ways he would never act toward people in normal life, but of course he was faced with situations he’d never found himself in before.

5) You All Grow Up and Leave Me: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession, Piper Weiss

Description: Piper was 14 when her middle-aged tennis coach, Gary Wilensky, one of New York City’s most prestigious private instructors, killed himself after a failed attempt to kidnap one of his teenage students. In the aftermath, authorities discovered that this well-known figure among the Upper East Side tennis crowd was actually a frightening child predator who had built a secret torture chamber in his secluded rental in the Adirondacks. Now, 20 years later, Piper examines the event as both a teenage eyewitness and a dispassionate investigative reporter.

This book is part memoir, part true-crime. Weiss is a good writer and the story is intriguing. She was an insecure teenager when the incident occurred and seems to imply that she never got over not being Gary’s “favorite,” so there’s a thread of obsession that runs through the story as well.

Read an interview with Weiss in Vanity Fair here.

6) The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts, Tessa Fontaine

Description: A story for anyone who has ever imagined running away with the circus, wanted to be someone else, or wanted a loved one to live forever, this is ultimately about death-defying acts of all kinds.

Tessa did something not many people do: she joined a sideshow. (One reason it’s not very common is because World of Wonders, the show she joined, is the very last touring American sideshow.) She explains the difficulty in keeping the show afloat – they always seem to be operating on the brink of bankruptcy. Everyone in the show sleeps on a tiny bunk in the back of a semi truck (or if you’re especially unlucky, a cot on the main stage), and works very long hours for low pay. Tessa said her newbie pay was $275/week, but it didn’t go much higher for those who had worked for the show for years.

It’s definitely not a glamorous life, but for the amount of time they perform in front of crowds, they pull off the illusion of glitz and intrigue. Watch a video here, where Tessa demonstrates her fire-eating skills.

7) The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, Kirk Wallace Johnson

Description: The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, and one man’s years-long, worldwide investigation, this is a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man’s destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.

I was wary of how interesting this story would be (feathers, really?), but I’m glad I put it on my “maybe” list and came back to it when I needed an audiobook. It was much better than I expected.

Who would have thought exotic and rare feathers were so popular? I certainly didn’t. Long-ago explorers spent years collecting them from distant countries (sometimes decimating entire bird species in the process) and rich ladies would pay a lot of money for those feathers to be attached to their hats and other accessories. While that practice has ended, rare feathers are popular today with fly fishermen, to be used in tying flies. And of course when something is rare and can fetch a high price, illegal activity inevitably follows.

8) Everyday Millionaires: How Ordinary People Built Extraordinary Wealth – And How You Can Too, Chris Hogan

Description: Hogan destroys millionaire myths that are keeping everyday people from achieving financial independence. His research team surveyed over 10,000 U.S, millionaires, discovering how these high-net-worth people reached their financial status. And the formula might surprise you.

I didn’t really learn anything new from this book (I’ve been interested in the topic of financial independence for years, so I’ve done quite a bit of reading on it already). I do think it’s a good introduction for someone who has just realized saving this kind of money is possible, with some basic advice on how to get there.

I liked that he’s very much against borrowing money for student loans, advocating that college-bound people start with community college and save money to complete their degree at an affordable four-year university. The only type of debt he likes is mortgage debt, and he recommends paying off one’s mortgage as quickly as possible (he strongly advises getting a 15-year loan instead of the typical 30-year loan). He doesn’t touch the debate of whether it’s better to be a homeowner versus a renter though, and having been both of those, I do recognize and appreciate the merits of being a renter.

He does repeat himself quite a bit, which got annoying at times, but I realize why he was doing it. His main advice is basic, but it works: Start saving as early as possible to take advantage of compounding interest. Keep saving (at least 15% of your income, but ideally as much as you can), and eventually, you can be a millionaire.

Okay

9) A Girl’s Guide to Missiles: Growing Up in America’s Secret Desert, Karen Piper

Description: A poignant and fearlessly honest look at growing up on one of the most secretive weapons installations on earth, by a young woman who came of age with missiles.

I had high hopes for this book (I mean, growing up on a missile base in the middle of nowhere…how cool is that?), but it was disappointing. It’s mostly about the author growing up in a religious household, and then her life after moving off the base for college, and all the years thereafter. I didn’t find her personal story all that interesting, whereas learning about how a missile base runs (and being introduced to other people who choose that line of work) sounds much more entertaining.

10) Interior States: Essays, Meghan O’Gieblyn

Description: A collection that centers around two core issues of American identity: faith, in general and the specific forms Christianity takes in particular; and the challenges of living in the Midwest when culture is felt to be elsewhere.

Meghan is a strong writer and some of these essays were really good. The problem was, it wasn’t all memoir — some of the essays were personal, but others weren’t. All of the essays were reprinted from other publications (instead of being written specifically for this book). Two of the essays were book reviews, written for the Los Angeles Review of Books…no, thank you.

Meghan grew up in an Evangelical household, like I did, and was homeschooled for most of her life, which is true for me as well. She went on to do a few years at a religious college before she transferred elsewhere, which luckily I didn’t have to experience. I especially liked the first essay of the book, and the one where she talks about the contemporary Christian music scene of the 1990s (which I also knew quite well, since I wasn’t allowed to listen to anything “secular” back then).

She’s a very good writer so I hate to rank the book so low, but I just didn’t enjoy the essays that were non-memoir. I wish she’d written a book that was all about her.

11) Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution, Amber Tamblyn

Description: A passionate manifesto with personal stories, anecdotes, and opinions from the front lines of modern American womanhood from actor, filmmaker, and activist Amber Tamblyn.

I’ve heard Amber’s name mentioned over the past few years in relation to her involvement in various feminist causes, including the #TimesUp movement. I appreciate her passion and enjoyed some of her stories, but overall I didn’t love it. It was more of a rallying cry than a memoir.

12) Living in a Foreign Language: A Memoir of Food, Wine, and Love in Italy, Michael Tucker

Description: Actor Michael Tucker and his wife, actress Jill Eikenberry, were vacationing in Italy when they happened upon a small 350-year-old cottage in the Umbrian countryside. It was love at first sight, and the couple purchased the house without testing the water pressure or checking for signs of termites. Shedding the vestiges of their American life, Michael and Jill endeavored to learn the language, understand the nuances of Italian culture, and build a home in this new chapter of their lives.

This is a perfectly nice book, but compared to other memoirs I’ve read about people living in foreign countries, it’s a very light read. Nothing ever seems to go wrong (except for worrying about finances because these two actors no longer get acting work as much as they used to), and they found a fellow expat who took care of paying their bills and dealing with their Italian home renovations when they were out of the country. However, they visit some fun places, have a lot of fun with their friends, and eat a lot of great food. It’ll make you want to be there.

Also, apparently I’ve read this book before but didn’t realize it until I went to record it in Goodreads — I marked it as read in June 2008. I’ve kept meticulous records of books I’ve read since at least 2002…minus the years of 2006-2008. I either wasn’t reading very much during those years and only recorded them in Goodreads, or I lost my records. I honestly don’t remember. All I know is, I have a document that lists all the books I read from 2002-2005, and starting in 2009 I’ve kept a separate Google Spreadsheet for each calendar year.

Not Recommended

13) So Here’s the Thing: Notes on Growing Up, Getting Older, and Trusting Your Gut, Alyssa Mastromonaco

Description: A frank book of reflections, essays, and interviews on topics important to young women, ranging from politics and career to motherhood, sisterhood, and making and sustaining relationships of all kinds in the age of social media.

I rated Alyssa’s first memoir as Recommended in May 2017, but this one was not at all what I expected. This new book is part memoir, part self help. Since I hate pretty much all self help / advice books, I’m not surprised that I disliked this one so strongly. I’m an adult; I don’t need to be warned about the dangers of social media (eye roll). I only got through it because it was a quick read.

Books

Books Read in February 2019

I read 13 books in February (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 30.

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

Highly Recommended

1) Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, Dani Shapiro

Description: This is a book about secrets — secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history.

Dani has written four memoirs in addition to this one, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed. Since I love memoirs and she’s now written five of them – all of which I’d recommend – she’s definitely at the top of my list of favorite authors.

I actually wasn’t sure in advance if I’d like this one as much, due to the subject matter. While I may not have been able to relate to her exact experience, she has this impeccable way of drawing you in and making you feel fully invested. Dani is a terrific writer (she’s taught the craft of memoir in many workshops and classes over the years), and she knows what she’s doing, which make her books a pleasure to read.

I took quite a few notes while I was reading, but I’m not going to reference them here because I don’t want to give anything away. I do remember that I kept stopping and re-reading parts of the book because I immediately wanted to experience the words again. They were that powerful and poignant.

These are Dani’s previous memoirs, starting with most recent:

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
Devotion: A Memoir
Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy

Recommended

2) The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Description: In April 1986, a fire in the Los Angeles Public Library was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library? And if so, who?

Maybe I’m just used to long titles on nonfiction books, but I feel like this one could use a better description for its contents than “The Library Book.” Other than that complaint, this book is very good. Orlean focuses on the 1986 fire in the main Los Angeles library, on all the destruction, and the presumed arsonist.

Interspersed with the history of the fire are stories about people who work at the library (from directors to photo digitizers), historical reasons why people have burned books (wars, religion, arson), L.A.’s early librarians and how they expanded the system, and issues with the proliferation of homeless people who appear at libraries every day. It may sound a bit dry but it was actually quite fascinating. I listened to it on audio and Orlean reads it herself.

This article will give you a good overview, and includes a short video of Orlean walking through the modern-day L.A. library and talking about various aspects of her book.

3) The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, Liza Mundy

Description: Within a generation, more households will be supported by women than by men. Mundy takes us to the exciting frontier of this new economic order: she shows us why this flip is inevitable, what painful adjustments will have to be made along the way, and how both men and women will feel surprisingly liberated in the end.

I’ve never made a higher salary than my spouse (other than times I’ve been employed when he isn’t), but I know a number of women who outearn their husbands and I was interested to learn more about those dynamics.

Mundy covered reasons why women are starting to overtake their partners’ salaries (a big reason is that females now outnumber males in college degree programs, along with the gradual lifting of discriminatory gender practices, accelerated by the millions of jobs lost during the Great Recession), and she also looked at how relationships are changing as women increase their earnings.

She talks about the fact that women don’t always like being the breadwinner (sometimes it’s due to a husband losing his job), and can resent not having the flexibility to stay at home or work part-time. There are also those who love the arrangement, with high-achieving women happy to have their partner managing the children and household so they can concentrate on their work lives.

Mundy covers much more than this. I liked this book, and it’ll be interesting to see how society changes and adapts in response.

4) The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life, Doug Bock Clark

Description: On a remote island in the Savu Sea live the Lamalerans: a tribe of 1,500 hunter-gatherers who are the world’s last subsistence whalers. Award-winning journalist Clark, one of a handful of Westerners who speak the Lamaleran language, lived with the tribe across three years, and he brings their world and their people to vivid life in this gripping story of a vanishing culture.

Lamalerans “are among the small and ever-dwindling number of hunter-gatherer societies remaining in existence, and the only one to survive by whaling.” While other societies kill whales for sustenance, the Lamalerans are “the world’s last true subsistence whalers.”

I found the day-to-day lives of the Lamalerans intriguing, as well as the relentless encroachment of modernity on their remote society, but I was less interested in the descriptions of “the ways of the ancestors” and their beliefs and ceremonies. I think anthropological nerds would love this — the author never appears in the book as a character; it’s all about the people and situations he encounters.

5) She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, Jill Soloway

Description: In this poignant memoir of personal transformation, Soloway takes us on a patriarchy-toppling emotional and professional journey. This intense metamorphosis challenges the status quo and reflects the shifting power dynamics that continue to shape our collective worldview.

When Jill was in her mid-40s, her father came out as transgender. She then created and produced Transparent, a show on Amazon about a man coming out as trans. I’ve never seen the show and it was hard to keep the characters straight when she talked about her coworkers and story lines, but otherwise, I found this book enjoyable.

Jill discusses how she divorced her husband and became a lesbian, and later started identifying as non-binary. She also talks about being involved in the #TimesUp movement, and what happened after she found out one of the stars of her show was accused of sexual harassment.

6) The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, Virginia Sole-Smith

Description: Food is supposed to sustain and nourish us. But for too many of us, food now feels dangerous. We parse every bite we eat as good or bad, and judge our own worth accordingly. When her newborn daughter stopped eating after a medical crisis, Virginia spent two years teaching her how to feel safe around food again — and in the process, realized just how many of us are struggling to do the same thing.

This is a good look at the wide variety of ways we obsess over food: clean eating, orthorexia, detoxing (the author refers to the eco/alternative-food movement as the “mass marketing of disordered eating”). There are also discussions on pregnancy/breastfeeding nutrition, food insecurity due to poverty, and bariatric surgery.

I didn’t learn anything new or earth shattering, but it’s a good overview for those who haven’t already done a lot of reading on the subject.

7) Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, Barbara Lynch

Description: This is Lynch’s remarkable process of self-invention, including her encounters with colorful characters of the food world, and vividly evokes the magic of creation in the kitchen. It is also a love letter to South Boston and its vanishing culture, governed by Irish Catholic mothers and its own code of honor.

Barbara grew up in South Boston (Southie), with a dead father and a mother who was too distracted by her large brood of kids to pay attention. She regularly stole things she needed, didn’t graduate from high school, and exaggerated her early experience in order to get jobs at restaurants. Despite all that, she rose from her humble beginnings to become the owner of a Boston restaurant empire.

There were problems with this book: for instance, whoever edited it should lose their job. I’ve never seen so many words missing from sentences before – just missing entirely, where it was very obvious. After one or two omissions, it was like, “Huh.” After a dozen or more, it became a bit annoying. The pacing of the book also seemed a little stilted, especially as I got closer to the end.

However, I liked the rags-to-riches aspect, and her stubbornness and drive. Overlooking the negatives, I still enjoyed the story.

8) Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Stephanie Land

Description: This is Land’s memoir about working as a maid, a beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America. In it, she explores the underbelly of upper-middle class America and the reality of what it’s like to be in service to them.

I struggled with how to categorize this. It’s one of those books that feels important to read but you might not love the subject matter. I found myself judging some of the author’s choices, mostly the ones that involved (what I saw as) bad money decisions she made while poor. I realize I’m viewing her choices as a result of my own knowledge about using and saving money, while she didn’t have that. I also realized, when I found myself judging some of her actions, these are my biases coming out and it’s helpful to look at and confront them.

The author, in turn, comes across as judgmental toward the people she worked for, usually because they had things she wanted but couldn’t afford. She also very much disliked not being acknowledged by the homeowners in some way, like those who never asked her name.

Parts of the book were entertaining to read, like the habits (often quite gross) of people whose houses she cleaned. Others parts were more difficult, like when she laments how lonely she was most of the time, doing most of the work of raising her daughter on her own, and how she feared she wasn’t being as good of a mother as her daughter deserved. Ultimately though, she was taking college courses while working as a (very low-paid) maid, and now she’s doing better.

I felt like the book needed an epilogue. The book ends with her in a slightly-better position but it doesn’t address her slow rise out of extreme poverty or how she got where she is today. A few pages at the end would have been a nice wrap-up.

9) To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret, Jedidiah Jenkins

Description: On the eve of turning thirty, Jenkins quit his job and spent the next 16 months cycling from Oregon to Patagonia. As he traverses cities, mountains, and inner boundaries, Jenkins grapples with the questions of what it means to be an adult, his struggle to reconcile his sexual identity with his conservative Christian upbringing, and his belief in travel as a way to “wake us up” to life back home.

There were some things that annoyed me about this book. For instance, Jed is a gay Christian, and there was more religious talk than I expected or wanted to read (there’s an especially long conversation he recounts as he’s hiking with some friends to Machu Picchu).

I also disliked his lack of preparation. He was over 30 years old when he embarked on this trip, he knew for over three years in advance that it would be happening, yet he did almost zero prep. There was no physical training, no research into what he needed to take with him, no bicycle maintenance classes, or Spanish practice.

I did like Jed’s adventure, and the honesty with which he wrote about it. He was up front about the negatives, like the obvious physical difficulties, and all the times he felt annoyed, scared, bored, and lonely. He almost gave up a couple of times, but instead he’d hitchhike certain sections, or take 10 days off to visit family in the U.S. over Christmas (in his defense, that was the only time he returned to the U.S. during his 16-month bike ride).

Also, the way he described some of the locations he visited really made me want to see them for myself. (I have no desire to do the long bike rides in-between though.)

Okay

10) The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala Harris

Description: From one of America’s inspiring political leaders, a book about the core truths that unite us, and the long struggle to discern what those truths are and how best to act upon them, in her own life and across the life of our country.

I agree with Kamala’s politics, but I couldn’t rate this as Recommended because the book reads like one long campaign ad. She covers her fight for fairness in the criminal justice system, her battle with the banks during the mortgage crisis, kids being ripped from their parents at the border, our nation’s rampant opioid use, etc. Someone who is interested in her position on various subjects would find value in this.

I was looking for more personal anecdotes – like we got in Michelle Obama’s fabulous memoir – but there weren’t many of those details to be found. She covered her entire childhood, college, and early working career in Chapter 1. She also mentions meeting and marrying her husband, and her mother getting cancer, but she doesn’t dwell on either topic, instead using them as a springboard to discuss her fight for marriage equality and her thoughts on universal healthcare.

11) North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both, Cea Sunrise Person

Description: In the late 1960s, Cea’s family left a comfortable existence in California to live off the land in the Canadian wilderness. Led by Cea’s grandfather Dick, they lived a pot-smoking, free-loving, clothing-optional life under a canvas tipi without running water, electricity, or heat for the bitter winters.

Cea had…quite an interesting childhood. Her mother got pregnant with her at age 16, and she grew up around constant adult nudity, pot smoking, mental illness, and financial instability. There was more emphasis on telling the tales of her childhood; from adolescence through adulthood, the story becomes choppy.

12) Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman

Description: This collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story.

This is a quick read – 18 essays in just over 150 pages. A few essays were more enjoyable than others, but even though they focused on books and reading, I didn’t love it. Possibly this was because I don’t have a need to collect physical books like some book lovers do (the author and her husband own thousands of titles between them). For me, I’m content to read and move on.

13) Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York, Multiple Authors

Description: Featuring contributions from such luminaries as Elizabeth Gilbert, Susan Orlean, Nick Flynn, Adelle Waldman, Phillip Lopate, Owen King, Amy Sohn, and many others, this collection of essays is a must-have for every lover of New York, regardless of whether or not you call the Big Apple home.

There weren’t many essays that I considered to be particularly noteworthy or exceptional, but it did make me want to move to New York City. Ha!