I read nine books in July (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 50.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil
Description: Clemantine was six when her parents began to speak in whispers and when neighbors began to disappear. In 1994, she and her 15-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety — perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey — to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality.
This is a terrifically powerful memoir, written by Clemantine, a woman who was six years old when her parents sent her away to avoid the Rwandan genocide. She had a tough journey (she lived in seven countries before arriving in the United Station as a refugee at age twelve), but she was helped by a number of caring people and ultimately received an amazing education, met Oprah, and became a champion for the unprivileged and disadvantaged.
Throughout the book, she juxtaposes her years in the United States with the suffering and uncertainty she experienced as a refugee in Africa.
2) Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, Manal al-Sharif
Description: A ferociously intimate memoir by a devout woman from a modest family in Saudi Arabia who became the unexpected leader of a courageous movement to support women’s right to drive.
Manal had a tough upbringing in Saudi Arabia: barely allowed to leave home except to go to school, physically abused at home and at school. She also endured female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation.
On the bright side, she was encouraged to get an education, and when she graduated from college with a degree in computer science she fought tooth and nail for a placement at a highly respected company. She learned to drive a car while on a work assignment in the United States.
Manal’s advocacy work shines through in this book, as she slowly becomes an outspoken activist for women’s rights. The public face of her work starts when she’s jailed for “driving while female;” interestingly, there was no official law outlawing female drivers, it was illegal by custom only. I liked this book better than I thought I would and wish I’d read it sooner.
3) I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown
Description: Brown’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age 7, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools, organizations, and churches, she writes, “I had to learn what it means to love blackness,” a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker, and expert who helps organizations practice genuine inclusion.
This is the kind of book you might not love but realize it’s important to read anyway. Some books are supposed to be tough, and make you think (I found myself reading certain paragraphs multiple times to fully take in their meaning).
I had to check myself because sometimes I’d read the things she said and think to myself, “Surely it’s not that bad,” or “Surely she’s exaggerating, or taking things personally, or being too sensitive.” But that’s exactly the problem, and that’s what she’s trying to show us. I’ve been seeking out books like this and will continue to do so.
4) Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, Various Authors
Description: Edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, this anthology of first-person essays tackles rape, assault, and harassment head-on.
This is sometimes tough to read, but it’s important. Rape and sexual assault are more prevalent than most people think, and it takes a lot of different forms.
5) The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure, Shoba Narayan
Description: This book immerses us in the culture, customs, myths, religion, sights, and sounds of a city in which the 21st century and the ancient past coexist like nowhere else in the world. It’s a true story of bridging divides, of understanding other ways of looking at the world, and of human connections and animal connections, and it’s an irresistible adventure of two strong women and the animals they love.
Narayan moved home to India after spending 20 years in the United States, where she started buying milk from a woman who sold it fresh from her cows’ udders (the cows were literally milked in front of waiting customers). I didn’t know if I’d enjoy a book about cows in India, but Narayan made it entertaining.
She discusses the way cows are revered (but they often roam free and can cause headaches on busy roads). They’re used to bless new homes, and their urine is often used medicinally. She also describes the process of buying a cow to gift to her milk-lady. This is an interesting look at what cows mean to Indian culture.
6) Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert
Description: Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity.
This was a re-read for me, which I rarely do. I needed an audiobook (all of my other choices were on hold at the library) so I picked this one up again. The first time I read this book, it was a physical copy, so I enjoyed having Elizabeth Gilbert read it to me this time. She has a great voice. I’m usually not a fan of self-help books, which I guess this kind of / sort of falls under, but I think of this one more as inspiration.
7) Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women, Marianne Monson
Description: These are the stories of twelve women who heard the call to settle the west and traveled from all points of the globe to begin their journey. These are gripping miniature dramas of good-hearted women, selfless providers, courageous immigrants and migrants, and women with skills too innumerable to list. One became a stagecoach driver, disguised as a man. One became a frontier doctor. One was a Gold Rush hotel and restaurant entrepreneur. Many were crusaders for social justice and women’s rights.
Bad-ass women should always be celebrated, but especially those who overcame tremendous odds in order to succeed. These twelve profiles of women in the pioneer era will make you second guess your modern-day obstacles.
Description: A razor-sharp polemic which offers an entirely new understanding of our bodies, ourselves, and our place in the universe, Ehrenreich describes how we over-prepare and worry way too much about what is inevitable. One by one, she topples the shibboleths that guide our attempts to live a long, healthy life — from the importance of preventive medical screenings to the concepts of wellness and mindfulness, from dietary fads to fitness culture.
It’s an interesting premise: Ehrenreich argues that our regular checkups and medical interventions can create more harm than good. She says certain interventions could make a condition worse (breast biopsies can spread “bad” cells to areas they might not otherwise have gone) or are simply unnecessary (she questions the need to treat old men with prostrate cancer when the disorder is unlikely to kill them before they would have died naturally of old age).
I don’t see a widespread uprising against the medical establishment, but it might give some people food for thought. I rated this as Okay because she tended to get science-y and my mind wanders when I have to read about things like amoebas and microphages.
9) Growing Up Fisher: Musings, Memories, and Misadventures, Joely Fisher
Description: Growing up in an iconic Hollywood Dynasty, Joely Fisher knew a show business career was her destiny. The product of world-famous crooner Eddie Fisher and ’60s sex kitten Connie Stevens, she struggled with her identity on the way to a decades-long career as an acclaimed actress, singer, and director. Fisher invites readers into the intimate world of her career and family with this memoir filled with candid stories about her life, and how the loss of her unlikely hero, sister Carrie Fisher, ignited the writer in her.
This is not a great book – it jumps all over the place, sometimes from sentence to sentence. She’s also an egregious over-user of ellipses. It’s a fun look at the way Joely grew up though, with famous parents and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as a half-sister.