Books

Books Read in November 2016

I read nine books in November (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 98.

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

vargas

Recommended

1) Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, Elizabeth Vargas

Description: Vargas discusses growing up with anxiety — which began at the age of six when her father served in Vietnam — and how she dealt with this anxiety as she came of age, to eventually turning to alcohol for relief. She tells of how she found herself living in denial, about the extent of her addiction and keeping her dependency a secret. She addresses her time in rehab, her first year of sobriety, and the guilt she felt as a working mother who had never found the right balance.

I’ve read better recovering-alcoholic memoirs, but this one tends to stand out due to the notoriety of the author. I’ve seen Vargas on television many times over the years, but (likely due to not watching much TV anymore) I didn’t know about her struggle with alcoholism before I read this book review.

Vargas focuses more on her anxiety and the drinking itself rather than trying to chronicle her entire life (she talks a bit about her childhood, then skips from arriving at college to being hungover on the morning of September 11, which occurred decades later).

She compares her early relationship with alcohol to a romance (which reminded me of Drinking: A Love Story). She shares how she experienced anxiety before appearing on camera, and had several panic attacks on air (which reminded me of the 10% Happier guy, who turned to meditation to combat his anxiety — Vargas was later introduced to meditation in rehab and calls it a “key part of my recovery”).

It was tough to read about her multiple stints in rehab, since you’re rooting for her every time to finally get her life together. She’s been sober now for a few years, and admits she received some backlash about writing a book while still so early in her recovery. I’m sure there are many people (including myself) who hopes she makes it.

2) The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, Belle Boggs

Description: When Boggs learns she might never be able to conceive, she searches the world around her for signs she is not alone. She explores many aspects of fertility and reports complex stories of couples who adopted domestically and from overseas, LGBT couples considering assisted reproduction and surrogacy, and women and men reflecting on childless or child-free lives. Boggs deftly distills her time of waiting into an expansive contemplation of fertility, choice, and the many possible roads to making a life and making a family.

I found the author very likable and her story compelling. It took Belle five years of trying to conceive before she and her husband were successful via in vitro fertilization (IVF). Along with sharing her personal experience, she reports on various forms of ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology), same-sex couples, surrogacy, and adoption.

There was also frank talk on the associated costs of these procedures (often so high they’re unattainable for many people, and usually not covered by insurance), and the business of cost-share plans.

3) As Good As Gold: 1 Woman, 9 Sports, 10 Countries, and a 2-Year Quest to Make the Summer Olympics, Kathryn Bertine

Description: Kathryn is an elite triathlete, former professional figure skater, and starving artist. Just as her personal and professional dreams begin to crumble in the summer of 2006, ESPN stakes her to a dream: Take two years to make the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. This is the heroic, hilarious account of Bertine’s exertions in the realms of triathlon, pentathlon, handball, track cycling, road cycling, rowing, open water swimming, racewalking, and — fasten your seatbelts — luge.

What an incredible effort, and what an amazing journey. While I enjoyed reading about Kathryn’s forays into potential Olympic sports, the intensity really increased when she decided to concentrate on road cycling. She proved that someone undertaking a challenge like this has to have an immense amount of drive.

It wasn’t just the physical exertion of 350-mile-a-week training rides and back-to-back races with high caliber competition, but also the mental fortitude needed to take care of all the behind the scenes tasks: not knowing for months whether she’d even be allowed to take part in the races she needed, dealing with jet lag, exhaustion, and language barriers. She makes too many corny jokes, but I looked past those since I was so impressed with everything else.

4) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver

Description: Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along on their journey away from the industrial food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. Their search yields surprising discoveries about turkey sex life and overly zealous zucchini plants, en route to a food culture that’s better for the neighborhood and also better on the table.

This book is a mix of Kingsolver’s eating-local story, with additions to each chapter by her husband and then-teenage daughter (I could have done without those; I preferred Kingsolver’s story on its own). Along with describing her garden and how she fed her family, she covers wider topics like government food policies, the dissolution of small family farms, organics, and GMOs. She raised her own chickens and turkeys, gathered morel mushrooms, purchased from local farmers’ markets, and refrained from buying exotic fruits (like bananas). This is an interesting look at months of scarcity and abundance, based on what is/isn’t growing at a particular time.

5) The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom

Description: Orphaned at 7 years old, Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family. Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare and lives are put at risk.

This is the only work of fiction I read this month. I didn’t love the character of Lavinia. I would have preferred her to be feistier and less submissive, but as a female growing up in the late 1700/early 1800s, that was likely a common occurrence. I did like the story itself though, especially once it got past the halfway point. I’m glad I chose the audiobook because the different character voices enhanced the experience.

Okay

6) Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte

Description: In a country that consumes and then casts off more and more, what actually happens to the things we throw away? Science writer Elizabeth Royte leads us on a wild adventure that begins once our trash hits the bottom of the can. By showing us what happens to the things we’ve “disposed of,” Royte reminds us that our decisions about consumption and waste have a very real impact — and that unless we undertake radical change, the garbage we create will always be with us.

I was impressed by Royte’s efforts, but after getting a third of the way through the book, the subject matter just got old. I found the early sections interesting (landfills, composting, and some of the recycling stuff), but the details on paper, metal, and technology recycling were more difficult to get through. I will say though, reading about the massive amount of trash that gets thrown away every day makes me proud of the steps I’ve taken this year to reduce the amount of garbage I produce.

7) In CHEAP We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, Lauren Weber

Description: In this lively treatise on the virtues of being cheap, Weber explores provocative questions about Americans’ conflicted relationship with consumption and frugality. Why do we ridicule people who save money? Where’s the boundary between thrift and miserliness? Is thrift a virtue or a vice during a recession? She offers a colorful ride through the history of frugality in the United States, while also exploring contemporary expressions and dilemmas of thrift.

I was hoping to like this more than I did since I’m all about living the thrifty life, but the book mostly focused on the historical aspects of thrift in America over the past few centuries (one recurring theme is that people tend to exhibit thrift during times of war and economic downturns, then return to their regular consumption patterns as soon as they’re able). It was hard to feel engaged; I would have liked to see more of a focus on modern habits.

Not Recommended

8) Forward: A Memoir, Abby Wambach

Description: Abby has always pushed the limits of what is possible. At age seven she was put on the boys’ soccer team. At age thirty-five she became the highest goal scorer—male or female—in the history of soccer. Called “badass” by President Obama, Abby has become a fierce advocate for women’s rights and equal opportunity. However, her professional success often masked an inner struggle to reconcile the various parts of herself: ferocious competitor, daughter, leader, wife.

Abby is a revered former soccer player with many accomplishments, but I didn’t find her very likable. She tended to be dedicated to her sport only when forced to by deadlines (drinking and partying whenever she could get away with it), and as she got older, the alcohol — and later prescription drug — abuse just got worse. She says multiple times that she wanted to excel in her sport with the minimum amount of effort possible.

She writes about the DUI she received earlier this year, and how she gave up all intoxicants over the summer, but since all that happened less than six months ago I don’t consider her a credible source for responsible living quite yet.

As for how the book is written, I didn’t like how she included the full text of emails and text conversations with friends. I found these boring, and they could have easily been condensed.

On the bright side, she didn’t focus on the rules of soccer or in-depth details of games, which would have gone over my head since I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of soccer at a time.

Apparently she’s a pretty good public speaker, so I would probably like her better in person than I did by reading her memoir.

9) My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, Chelsea Handler

Description: In this collection of true-life stories, actress and comedian Chelsea Handler recounts her time spent in the social trenches with that wild, strange, irresistible, and often gratifying beast: the one-night stand.

I’m embarrassed to include this because, well, look at the title. I listened to it on audiobook because all the others I wanted weren’t available at the time. It wasn’t very long so I didn’t abandon it, and there were several humorous moments, but in the future I’ll continue to stick with my no-comedian reading preference. (Unfortunate, because I do enjoy following Chelsea on social media and I occasionally watch her show on Netflix.)

Books

Books Read in October 2016

I read eight books in October (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 89.

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

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

love

Highly Recommended

1) Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton

Description: Just when Glennon started to feel like she had it all figured out—three happy children, a doting spouse, and a writing career so successful that her first book catapulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—her husband revealed his infidelity and she was forced to realize that nothing was as it seemed. A recovering alcoholic and bulimic, Glennon found that rock bottom was a familiar place. In the midst of crisis, she knew to hold on to what she discovered in recovery: that her deepest pain has always held within it an invitation to a richer life.

Glennon has had many struggles in life. She grew up hating herself. She was bulimic and had a stay in a mental hospital in high school. She battled addiction to drugs and alcohol before she became pregnant with her son and quit cold turkey. She’s had health problems that left her in bed for extended periods of time. Throughout the book she refers to the persona she showed the world for most of her life (as opposed to her real self) as her “representative.”

This is an incredibly honest book. Even though I don’t relate to most of her experiences, reading about someone’s life when they’re being so open and raw is incredibly compelling. Plus, she’s just a really good writer.

This is a bit of a spoiler, but Glennon made the announcement on her blog before this book was published (I heard about it before I read the book). Several years ago, she and her husband faced a huge challenge in their marriage when he confessed to infidelity, she forgave him, they worked through it. A few months ago, she announced that while she still loves and respects him, she’s decided to get a divorce. (The post is excellent; highly recommended to read.) This didn’t change my opinion of the book at all; in fact, it enhanced it.

Also, for those who care about such things: Glennon is religious, and god-talk increases as the book nears the end, but I didn’t find the inclusion hugely overwhelming like it can be with other authors.

2) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance

Description: From a former Marine and Yale Law School graduate, this is a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town that offers a broad, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, Vance’s book is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Clever title, powerful writing. This is a great, straightforward, honest look at poor white people from someone who grew up in an extremely unstable childhood. (Admittedly, it’s a bit disconcerting to see the word “hillbilly” utilized so often when it’s generally used as a pejorative term.) Vance still identifies as a hillbilly today, even after graduating from law school, moving to San Francisco, and obtaining the elusive upward social mobility that so many people he grew up with never did.

Vance shares his theories for why poor white people are not reaching their potential (there are often no expectations or encouragement to achieve anything better; not working is often due to laziness rather than a lack of job options; unstable families and rampant drug/alcohol abuse lead to future generations doing the same). He could have ended up like so many who came before him, but there were people along the way that were able to influence and change his course.

Recommended

3) Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe

Description: A century of auto-centric culture and city planning has left most of the country with public transportation that is underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. Grescoe explores the ascendance of straphangers — the growing number of people who rely on public transportation to go about their daily lives. On a journey that takes him around the world, Grescoe profiles public transportation in the U.S. and abroad, highlighting people and ideas that may help undo the damage that car-centric planning has done to our cities and create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation (and better city living) for all.

Grescoe has lived in cities his entire adult life and while he does have a driver’s license, he has never owned an automobile. In this book, he takes a look at various metropolitan areas and their approach to transportation — from the good (Copenhagen, NYC, Paris) to the bad (Los Angeles, Phoenix). I found the information fascinating. I had no idea, for example, that Moscow’s gorgeous metro stations put those in other cities to shame.

Grescoe also covers up-and-coming cities which have made great strides with public transportation but still have room for improvement, and how unfortunate it is that North America has been outpaced so dramatically by European and Asian companies in respect to their high speed rail.

4) Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck

Description: Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. He’s boiled it down to one key factor: walkability. The very idea of a modern metropolis evokes visions of bustling sidewalks, vital mass transit, and a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly urban core. But in the typical American city, the car is still king and downtown is a place that’s easy to drive to but often not worth arriving at. Making walkability happen is relatively easy and cheap; seeing exactly what needs to be done is the trick.

It may seem strange that I enjoy books on cities, walkability, and public transportation (I’m not a city planner or anything in that capacity), but find myself interested in how cities work more efficiently in many ways than suburbs. (Did you know that people who live in urban areas have much lower carbon footprints than people in rural and suburban areas? Another very good book on this topic is Green Metropolis, which I read earlier this year.)

The author, Jeff Speck, lived in DC at the time he wrote this book, where he built an insanely cool house and lived without a car with his wife and two children.

I would call this book a call to arms for walkability. It also makes me want to move back to a city immediately, which happens every time I read a book like this. There’s a reason Millennials are flocking to urban areas and choosing to live without cars. There are options available to make the choice easy (trains, trams, and buses; bicycle lanes and bike shares; vehicle shares like Car2Go and ZipCar; and on-call services like Uber and Lyft). Cars are expensive, rapidly depreciating assets that cost not only our pocketbooks but also our health – more time spent driving means less time getting around on foot.

5) Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow, Tara Austen Weaver

Description: Peeling paint, stained floors, vined-over windows, a neglected and wild garden—Tara can’t get the Seattle real estate listing out of her head. Any sane person would have seen the abandoned property for what it was: a ramshackle half-acre filled with dead grass, blackberry vines, and trouble. But Tara sees potential and promise—not only for the edible bounty the garden could yield for her family, but for the personal renewal she and her mother might reap along the way.

The idea of a garden bursting with vegetables and flowers, fruit trees and berry bushes, is enticing. But the amount of work involved? Off-putting. That’s why more people don’t do it. Weaver’s space sounds amazing, but she’s very honest in this book about the many, many hours she spent working there, to the detriment of her own paid work and social activities she missed out on. The work never ends — once planted, a garden needs to be watered and weeded, invasive grasses pulled, food harvested, insects repelled. I liked how she related working in the garden with her relationship to her family and the strange circumstances of her childhood.

6) Born with Teeth: A Memoir, Kate Mulgrew

Description: At age 22, just as her career was taking off, Mulgrew became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Having already signed the adoption papers, she was allowed only a fleeting glimpse of her child. As her star continued to rise, her life became increasingly demanding and fulfilling. Through it all, Mulgrew remained haunted by the loss of her daughter, until, two decades later, she found the courage to face the past and step into the most challenging role of her life, both on and off screen. We know Kate Mulgrew for the strong women she’s played–Captain Janeway on Star Trek; the tough-as-nails “Red” on Orange is the New Black. Now, we meet the most inspiring and memorable character of all: herself.

I didn’t know very much about Kate Mulgrew before listening to this audiobook (it was read by the author, which was a great choice). I saw an interview with her earlier this year where the book was mentioned, which is how it got on my radar. In the interview, she talked about having a baby in her early 20s, giving the girl up for adoption, and reuniting later in life. That experience is a recurring theme in her book, but there’s a lot more: her family and childhood, how she became an actress, romantic relationships, being mugged and raped by a stranger, and dealing with the long hours on Star Trek: Voyager when she became the first female captain.

Okay

7) Girl in the Dark: A Memoir of a Life Without Light, Anna Lyndsey

Description: Anna was young, ambitious, and worked hard; she had just bought an apartment; she was falling in love. Then what started as a mild intolerance to certain kinds of artificial light developed into a severe sensitivity to all light. Now, at the worst times, Anna is forced to spend months on end in a blacked-out room, where she loses herself in books and elaborate word games in an attempt to ward off despair. One day Anna had an ordinary life, and then the unthinkable happened.

I started out liking this book, but it didn’t keep me entertained as it went on. Lyndsey describes how her life changed as she gradually became sensitive to all forms of light, and how she found ways to entertain herself while sitting in a dark room (audiobooks, phone calls, mind and memory games). On the less-entertaining side, she decided to include a number of her recurring dreams (few people find dreams interesting except the person experiencing them), as well as detailed descriptions of the mind games she made up.

I was curious about the author, so before I finished the book I discovered she published it under a pseudonym and there are experts who question the severity of her symptoms. This is a great article from the New Yorker, written by a man who visited her in person in her home.

8) The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman

Description: In this memoir of the AIDS years (1981–1996), Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism. Schulman takes us back to her Lower East Side with vivid memories of her avant-garde queer friends, and dramatically recreating the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a political insider. Interweaving personal reminiscence with cogent analysis, Schulman details her experience as a witness to the loss of a generation’s imagination and the consequences of that loss.

I came across a new book club in Buffalo which plans to concentrate on the topic of gentrification. This was the first selection. It isn’t something I would have chosen to read on my own — I do like books about cities and how they work, but gentrification in particular hasn’t been on my radar. I wasn’t enthralled by this book, and there were quite a few sections I found boring, but I did learn more than I ever knew about the AIDS crisis in NYC in the ’80s and ’90s.

The author’s view is that after people died from AIDS, their rent-controlled apartments were taken over by mostly homogeneous white people who could afford the higher rents, which brought on a wave of gentrification that wiped out diversity in neighborhoods, ethnicities, and cultures.

Books

Books Read in September 2016

I read seven books in September (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 81.

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

shrill

Highly Recommended

1) Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West

Description: From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle with Internet trolls, Lindy boldly shares how to survive in a world where not all stories are created equal and not all bodies are treated with equal respect, and how to weather hatred, loneliness, harassment, and loss — and walk away laughing.

This is a series of essays, and while I liked some more than others, I did enjoy all of them (which is more than I can say for other essay collections; I’ve been avoiding them since I usually rate them so poorly).

She talks openly about how she came to identify as a feminist, her abortion, middle class white woman privilege, and fat acceptance.

“People go on and on about boobs and butts and teeny waists, but the clavicle is the true benchmark of female desirability. It is a fetish item. Without visible clavicles you might as well be a meatloaf in the sexual marketplace.”

West played an instrumental role in calling out male comedians about their use of rape jokes, and has endured a lot of vitriol through social media (not just insults, but death threats).

I’d recommend this book to any woman.

Recommended

2) Sex Object: A Memoir, Jessica Valenti

Description: Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Now she explores the toll that sexism takes, from the every day to the existential, along with the painful, funny, embarrassing, and sometimes illegal moments that shaped her growing up in New York City. She also reveals a much shakier inner life than the confident persona she has cultivated as one of the most recognizable feminists of her generation.

The title is provocative and attention grabbing, but luckily, so is the writing (with a bright yellow cover and big capital letters, it was something I attempted to hide while reading in public). I’ve read Valenti before (her last book, Why Have Kids?, was great and she has a recurring column in the Guardian); I always find her to be relatable and informative.

This book is mostly about the pervasive sexism she’s dealt with in her life, including unwanted comments and advances that started at a young age, and her own sex life (which she discusses in a refreshingly matter of fact way).

3) Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, Elizabeth Becker

Description: The largest global business in the world today is tourism. Employing one out of twelve people in the world and producing $6.5 trillion of the world’s economy, it is the main source of income for many countries. Becker describes the dimensions of this industry and its huge effect on the world economy, the environment, and our culture.

This is one of those books where I found myself sharing interesting quotes with my husband. Extensively researched over a period of five years, Becker covers a wide range of topics — from the most popular tourist destination in the world (France), countries that encourage tourism to the detriment of their own citizens (Cambodia), the problems with those massive cruise ships, African safaris, ecotourism in places like Costa Rica, and why the United States lost out on the tourism explosion of the past few decades.

4) A Spear of Summer Grass, Deanna Raybourn

Description: The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. After her latest scandal, Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides. Amidst the wonders and dangers of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty, and joy that cut to her very heart.

When I turn to fiction, I like when it focuses on a place and time period I’m not familiar with. In this case it’s Africa in the 1920s. I liked how Raybourn described Kenya — she was colorful but also succinct (I tend not to like in-depth nature descriptions). The story moved along well and the ending wrapped everything up nicely without being overdone. There’s a chance this book could be adapted into a movie, which would be interesting to see.

5) Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation, Edward Humes

Description: Transportation dominates our daily existence. Thousands of miles are embedded in everything we do and touch. We live in a door-to-door universe that works so well most Americans are scarcely aware of it. And yet, in the one highly visible part of the transportation world—the part we drive—we suffer grinding commutes, a violent death every fifteen minutes, a dire injury every twelve seconds, and crumbling infrastructure. Humes explores the hidden and costly wonders of our buy-it-now, get-it-today world of transportation, revealing the surprising truths, mounting challenges, and logistical magic behind every trip we take and every click we make.

Humes looks at a wide range of transportation options from an environmental standpoint, including those we think about regularly (our own cars), mostly just read about (the potential for self-driving cars), and likely think little about (the huge number of container ships traversing the oceans each day).

He also goes in-depth into several products, like coffee and aluminum, which are very different, but alike in that they both cover thousands of miles (often criss-crossing back and forth across the globe) before reaching their final destination. I learned a lot; it can be very helpful to know what kind of footprint the items you consume are producing.

6) Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, Judy Melinek

Description: The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s rookie season as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases (hair-raising, heartbreaking and impossibly complex) that shaped her as a physician. Judy takes readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the city, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.

The day-to-day life of a medical examiner is intense. Since I’ve always worked at a desk, it’s hard to imagine a day job where someone cuts up dead bodies all day. Many of her cases are routine, but she described a bunch of her more interesting cases. (Warning: some descriptions could be gory, so don’t read this book if you’re squeamish. Yes, she does include maggots.) She also talks about her involvement with body identification after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, a process that took a full eight months.

Okay

7) What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami

Description: An intimate look at writing, running, and the incredible way they intersect. While training for the NYC marathon would be enough for most people, Murakami decided to write about it as well. The result is a memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid memories and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer.

I’m not a runner, and I may have liked this book better if I was. I enjoyed Murakami’s ruminations and insight into his personal life, but there was a bit too much about his running and triathlon training regimens for my taste.

I did think it was interesting that he’s been running for decades, but he didn’t start until he became a writer in his early 30s (he figured he needed a way to stay in shape since he was spending so much time at a desk). Murakami said he wouldn’t be the same writer if he hadn’t taken up running and embraced the dual discipline of doing both activities almost every day.

Blog

14-Year Blog Anniversary

I don’t acknowledge every blog anniversary but I felt a desire to do so this year. On September 1, 2002 – over fourteen years ago – I published my first post.

Many times in the past, I’ve raved that blogging introduced me to people who later became beloved in-person friends. People I never would have met if it wasn’t for the internet.

In 2016, I feel like it’s not nearly as common to find new friends through blogging, but that could be related more to my age (I’m 36 now instead of 22) and stage of life rather than a fundamental change in the blogging world.

What has changed: In years past, I used to write about any little thing that crossed my mind. I don’t do that anymore. That’s what social media is for. I try to save blog posts for more substantive updates.

Instead of recapping my weekend or throwing up a random picture or two, I try to write about topics that are weighing on my mind (I’m 35 and I Don’t Know If I Want a Baby), obstacles I’ve overcome (I Conquered My Eating Disorder), questions I wrestle with (Why I’m Having Second Thoughts About Homeownership), how I live my life (Why I Am a Minimalist), and even the type of vehicle I drive (Why I Drive An Ugly Car).

I’m not the first long-time blogger to point out the blogging community has changed. People who used to comment on blog posts now comment on social media links instead, or they don’t comment at all. I’m used to this, and I’m guilty of it myself. I try to leave comments periodically on blogs of people I’m close to, or if a stranger’s post especially moves me. Otherwise I don’t bother.

These days I only publish a new post a couple of times a month, but there have been times I’ve posted every single day in a month. I successfully completed NaBloPoMo in November 2006 (I wonder how many people still remember what that is?), and I posted every day during my first Whole30 in 2012.

One thing hasn’t changed over the past fourteen years: I’m still a dedicated blog reader. Even when I don’t write anything myself, I keep up with my subscriptions (originally with Google Reader, now Feedly). My subscriptions change over time, based on my level of interest in a particular subject.

Several years ago, I went through and edited a bunch of old posts on this site, and deleted quite a few as well (although many still remain that I would cringe over if I saw them). I was sad but not surprised to notice that a majority of bloggers I used to link to and interact with have either taken down their sites completely or not updated in years.

Although my posting frequency has gone up and down over the years, I’ve never considered deleting my blog entirely. I need this website to be here whenever I’m ready for it.

I have good intentions of returning to regular blogging, but I’ve had good intentions for a long time. I have lists of ideas for posts that I jot down when inspired but rarely return to flesh them out.

When I think about blogging, I’m plagued with the question of whether it’s worth the effort. Ten years ago, or even six years ago, my answer would have been an unequivocal yes. But some of the posts I’ve written in recent years – the long, in-depth ones – take many hours to write. Sometimes I’ll get a flood of views and comments, sometimes not.

Either way, after a day or two the subject is largely forgotten. Everyone moves on, and before you know it, those words live on a random web page, rarely visited or acknowledged. Either you keep going and write something brand new…or you don’t. I choose to keep going (albeit at a much slower pace), but I can understand why others have opted out.

Books

Books Read in August 2016

I read nine books in August (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 74.

These are the books I started reading this month but decided not to finish:

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

padma

Recommended

1) Love, Loss, and What We Ate, Padma Lakshmi

Description: Long before Padma ever stepped onto a television set, she learned that how we eat is an extension of how we love, how we comfort, and how we forge a sense of home. Shuttling between continents as a child, she lived a life of dislocation that would become habit as an adult, never quite at home in the world. This is an account of her journey from her grandmother’s kitchen in South India, ruled by ferocious and unforgettable women, to the judges’ table of Top Chef and beyond.

Not knowing very much about Padma in advance, I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. She goes into her marriage and divorce to Salman Rushdie, a painful struggle with endometriosis, her childhood growing up in India and America, behind the scenes working as a host on Top Chef, and all the gossip surrounding the birth of her daughter.

2) Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart, William Alexander

Description: Alexander is more than a Francophile – he wants to be French. There’s one small obstacle: he doesn’t speak the language. Alexander travels to France, where mistranslations send him off in all sorts of wrong directions and he nearly drowns in an immersion class in Provence. Alexander reports on the riotous workings of the Académie française, the 400-year-old institution charged with keeping the language pure; explores the science of human communication, and learns why it’s harder for 50-year-olds to learn a second language than it is for 5-year-olds.

Why is it more entertaining to read about someone else learning a language rather than learning a language ourselves? Reading a book doesn’t require a serious time investment, of course, nor does it require study or memorization. You skim the lines until you’re done, then go on to something else. If learning a language was as fun as reading a book, I’d speak tons of languages by now.

I really enjoyed this book, and applauded Alexander’s desire to learn French in his late 50s. In addition to spending hundreds of hours in study, attending a language conference, and enrolling in a 2-week immersion school in France, he addresses a wide range of topics: linguistics, the absurdity of trying to learn masculine/feminine nouns, all the inconsistencies of French, and the difficulty of trying to become fluent after a certain age.

3) A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, Donald Miller

Description: Years after writing a best-selling memoir, Don went into a funk and spent months sleeping in and avoiding his publisher. One story had ended, and Don was unsure how to start another. He gets rescued by two movie producers who want to make a movie based on his memoir. When they start fictionalizing Don’s life for film, the real-life Don starts a journey to edit his actual life into a better story. This book details that journey and challenges readers to reconsider what they strive for in life. It shows how to get a second chance at life the first time around.

I find this book hard to describe. I was disappointed with the first half, but by the second half I was starting to see why so many people liked it. I wasn’t happy with the religious undertone, though — it wasn’t overt, but I like to know in advance if someone will be giving God the glory in their writing so I can decide if I want to read it or not.

My consensus on this book: Don makes a lot of good points. I liked his assertion that we’re all living our individual stories and it’s up to us to make an interesting life. That’s a very valuable perspective to keep in mind. However, I didn’t really care for his matter-of-fact writing style, so that kept me from enjoying the book as much as I could have if someone else wrote it.

4) The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, Kate Andersen Brower

Description: America’s First Families are unknowable in many ways. No one has insight into their true character like the people who serve their meals and make their beds every day. Full of stories and details by turns dramatic, humorous, and heartwarming, Brower reveals daily life in the White House as it is really lived through the voices of the maids, butlers, cooks, florists, doormen, engineers, and others who tend to the needs of the President and First Family.

This is an informative peek into a world that many people don’t get to see. There are many behind-the-scenes stories related to what it was like to work at the White House during major events like the Kennedy assassination, Nixon’s resignation, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and September 11. What stands out is how dedicated the employees are to their jobs — like putting up with long working hours without complaint, and maintaining a high level of confidentiality — and how many of them spend their entire careers there (Brower gives multiple examples of jobs that end up being passed along to children or other family members).

5) Terrible Virtue: A Novel, Ellen Feldman

Description: This is about one of the most fascinating and influential figures of the 20th century: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood—an indomitable woman who, more than any other, and at great personal cost, shaped the sexual landscape we inhabit today. Trained as a nurse, she fought for social justice beside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists, and other progressives, eventually channeling her energy to one singular cause: legalizing contraception.

This is a novel but the story is based on a real woman. It’s an interesting format, written in first person (Margaret speaking), but the author includes all these little asides from other characters in the story where they refute or clarify Margaret’s version of events. Often these asides are openly derogatory and accusing.

I get the impression that Margaret did a lot of good — and from her first-person account she had a high opinion of herself and her accomplishments — but the story also told of her limitations and failures (she fell short as a mother, she was promiscuous and regularly cheated on her husband).

This early quote from the book demonstrates that Margaret saw herself as different from other women of her era: “Sometimes I thought about how much easier life would be if I were like the other women on the street, child obsessed, husband dutiful, house and garden proud.”

Okay

6) Lab Girl, Hope Jahren

Description: Jahren writes about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.

In relaying the events of her life, the author’s story got more tolerable as her age and maturity increased, but I found the description of her early years just plain…weird. There are multiple examples to illustrate this, including when she took a group of grad students to a monkey jungle in Florida and camped outside the entrance in tents, and the (way too long) retelling of a van accident on a snowy road while on her way to a conference. She later admits to being diagnosed with manic depression and goes on medication.

I do appreciate her background as a female scientist, and how she’s had to fight harder to get where she is than males generally do. Here’s what she said about her experience with sexism:

“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”

7) The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Arianna Huffington

Description: According to Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post, we are in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis. This has profound consequences – on our health, our job performance, our relationships, and our happiness. What is needed is nothing short of a sleep revolution. Only by renewing our relationship with sleep can we take back control of our lives.

I might have liked this book better if I had trouble sleeping, but I don’t. I’m generally asleep within 10 minutes of going to bed, sometimes much less. While electronics are discouraged before sleep, I can read a book on my phone up until I turn out the lights with no problem. Some of the research was interesting, but I’d heard most of the get-to-sleep tips before.

I listened to this on audiobook, which was a mistake — I didn’t like the narrator at all. They chose a woman who has a thick accent similar to Arianna Huffington’s (while that makes sense in a way, it was extremely distracting; I sometimes had to pay more attention to how she was pronouncing words than what she was trying to get across). If you read this book, I’d recommend not doing so via audio.

8) Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, Jenna Woginrich

Description: In a world of mass-produced food and computer-centric desk jobs, it’s easy to overlook the simple pleasures of eating homegrown vegetables, raising animals naturally and humanely, and wearing hand-sewn clothing. Inspired by her growing admiration for small farmers, Jenna decided to take great control of her life — what she ate, what she wore, and how she spent her free time.

This isn’t a straight memoir, as it has more instructions and tips sprinkled in than I was expecting. She goes into creating her first outdoor garden, raising backyard chickens, attempting to make some of her own clothes, and the joys of antiquing rather than buying new.

I liked that with everything she did, she started small and manageable, but there was a lot of stuff she did that I’m not interested in learning myself (training dogs to be pack animals, putting up a bee hive, raising angora rabbits and using their fur to knit a sweater).

Not Recommended

9) Mud Season: How One Woman’s Dream of Moving to Vermont, Raising Children, Chickens and Sheep, and Running the Old Country Store Pretty Much Led to One Calamity After Another, Ellen Stimson

Description: After a getaway in rural Vermont, Stimson and her family decide to move there. This book chronicles Stimson’s transition from city life to rickety farmhouse. When she decides she wants to own and operate the old-fashioned village store in idyllic Dorset (pop. 2,036), one of the oldest continually-operating country stores in the U.S., she learns the hard way that “improvements” are not always welcomed warmly by folks who like things just fine the way they’d always been.

I wanted to put this book in the “Okay” category, but when I got to the end I really wished I hadn’t wasted my time reading it. I thought the premise was cool — a family moves to Vermont and buys an old general store — but they made obvious mistake after glaringly-obvious mistake. I’m not going to give examples because recounting them just makes me mad.

In the beginning, Stimson admits to exaggerating, so basically I assumed everything off-the-wall that happened was mostly (or completely) made up. Random shit kept happening, and most of it wasn’t explained with any kind of resolution. On top of all that, she thinks she’s funnier than she is so she kept inserting not-funny antidotes and eyerolling one-liners.

It’s not surprising that the business fails miserably and they lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. I didn’t feel sorry for her because it was 100% her fault.

Books

Books Read in July 2016

I read 10 books in July (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 65.

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

corset

Recommended

1) Victorian Secrets: What a Corset Taught Me about the Past, the Present, and Myself, Sarah A. Chrisman

Description: On Sarah’s 29th birthday, her husband presented her with a corset. Although she had been in love with the Victorian era all her life, she had specifically asked her husband not to buy her a corset. Sarah explains how a garment from the past led to a change in not only the way she viewed herself, but also the ways she understood the major differences between the cultures of 21st-century and 19th-century America. The desire to delve further into the Victorian lifestyle provided new insight into issues of body image and how women, past and present, have seen and continue to see themselves.

Who knew wearing a corset could bring such a sense of empowerment? Sarah’s corset-wearing started gradually, but within a short period of time she was wearing it 24 hours a day (yes, even to bed). Wearing a corset changes the shape of your waist, so wearing it at night ensures she stays at her preferred shape. Within a few months, she had to buy a new corset because the first one was too big.

I liked that Sarah started doing this (and as far as I know, continues to do it today, eight years later) simply because she wanted to. She loves the Victorian era; wearing a corset ensures she has the body shape of a Victorian-era woman and can fit into the style of dress that was popular back then. She endures a lot of questions about this choice, and sometimes verbal abuse, as well as unwanted physical touch (when people reach out to grab her waist without permission).

On the negative side, she did tend to come off as judgmental toward people who dress in cheaply made, reproduction Victorian-era costumes (especially those made of polyester). She expressed disdain for the prevalence of people who use orthodontics to straighten their teeth, but she later admitted to feeling self conscious about her own crooked teeth. When she broke her foot, she refused to take any painkillers, comparing doctors in the Emergency Room to drug pushers of the 19th century.

I learned a lot about the history of corsets and their (undeserved) negative reputation. She debunked some myths, like the one about women removing their bottom two ribs in order to make their waists smaller. I also liked when she scoffed at the depiction of corsets in the movie Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett O’Hara grasps a bed post while being laced into her corset. Sarah said: “Tying the laces of a corset, like tying any variety of thin cord into a slipknot, requires a bit of dexterity, but no exertion, and it is really best to leave the furnishings out of it. Groping an article of furniture and adopting the breathing patterns of someone in the early stages of foreplay is no more necessary in order to tie a corset than it is to engage in such activity to tie one’s shoes.”

2) This Victorian Life: Modern Adventures in Nineteenth-Century Culture, Cooking, Fashion, and Technology, Sarah A. Chrisman

Description: In her first book, Chrisman recalled the first year she spent wearing a Victorian corset 24/7. Now Chrisman picks up where she left off, documenting her complete shift into living as though she were in the 19th century. From Victorian beauty regimes to 19th-century bicycles, custard recipes to taxidermy experiments, oil lamps to an ice box, the more immersed she became in the late Victorian era, the more aware she grew of its legacies permeating the 21st century.

This book is a follow-up to the one above, taking Sarah from Victorian-era corset wearing to embracing many more aspects of life from that time period. She and her husband move into an 1889 Victorian fixer-upper and start collecting as many period pieces as they can on their limited household budget.

The house has electric lights, but they exclusively use oil lamps unless they have company. Neither of them has ever owned a cell phone. Sarah sews her clothes by hand, even after acknowledging that sewing machines were used in the Victorian era (she just prefers to do it that way, even if a dress takes a year to make). She even made her own mattress to fit an irregularly-shaped bed (it involved buying massive amounts of cotton balls and feathers). She washes her hair using castile bar soap.

I wouldn’t want to live this way but I’m very interested in people who choose to live outside the norm. You really have to love something a LOT to go as in-depth as they have. Someone should make a documentary about these people.

3) Paris Letters, Janice Macleod

Description: “How much money does it take to change your life?” Unfulfilled at her job, Janice doodled this question at her desk. Then she decided to make it a challenge. With a little math and a lot of determination, she saved up enough to buy two years of freedom in Europe. But she had only been in Paris for a few days when she met a handsome butcher—and never went home again.

This is a fun tale of a woman in her mid-30s who realizes she can save enough money to buy herself a few years of freedom from her job. I enjoyed reading about how she gradually downsized her life, paid off all her debt, and sold everything she owned except the essentials (all of which fit in a single suitcase). She expected to stay in Europe for a few months, but ended up staying much longer when she met a man and later married him. Happily, she was able to change her life enough to never return to that advertising job.

4) A Pig in Provence: Good Food and Simple Pleasures in the South of France, Georgeanna Brennan

Description: Thirty years ago, James Beard Award-winning author Brennan set out to realize the dream of a peaceful, rural existence in Provence. She and her husband bought a small farmhouse, goats, and pigs. Filled with local color, this evocative and passionate memoir describes her life cooking and living in the Provenal tradition.

I’ve read several books about Americans who move to Provence, but I don’t get tired of them. Brennan raised goats and sold goat milk cheese, hunted for wild mushrooms (a popular activity in that area, both for private consumption and selling for a profit), and participated in many local activities, celebrations, and festivals. Although many of Provence’s food rituals have changed over the years, it’s cool to see that so many of them remain intact.

5) 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, William Alexander

Description: Alexander is determined to bake the perfect loaf of bread from scratch. And because he is nothing if not thorough, he really means from scratch: growing, harvesting, winnowing, threshing, and milling his own wheat. An original take on the 6,000-year-old staple of life, Alexander explores the nature of obsession, the meditative quality of ritual, and the mysterious instinct that makes all of us respond to the aroma of baking bread.

This is another book in the vein of a year-long challenge, which I’m a sucker for. Alexander’s sense of humor doesn’t appeal to me, but I was able to look past his occasional bad jokes since the story was entertaining and informative. He’s written two other books (Flirting with French and The $64 Tomato), which are both on my future reading list.

6) Four Seasons in Rome: On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World, Anthony Doerr

Description: Doerr has received many awards, including the Rome Prize, which came with a stipend and a writing studio in Rome for a year. This book describes Doerr’s adventures in one of the most enchanting cities in the world as he visits piazzas, temples, and ancient cisterns. He attends the vigil of a dying Pope John Paul II and takes his twin boys to the Pantheon. He and his family are embraced by the butchers, grocers, and bakers of the neighborhood, whose clamor of stories is as compelling as the city itself.

For a book on the smaller side, it took me a long time to finish this (I checked it out months ago, read a few chapters, then had to return it when my nine-week library hold expired). Once I finally settled in though, I enjoyed it. Doerr has an almost mesmerizing way with words — which explains the popularity of his 2014 novel, All the Light We Cannot See, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He admitted to not getting any substantive novel-writing work done during his international fellowship, but he could be forgiven based on the amount of time it took to wrangle his young twin sons.

7) A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Description: After growing up in the most food-obsessed city in the world, Cheryl left home at age 18 for America—proof of the rebelliousness of daughters born in the Year of the Tiger. But as a 30-something fashion writer in New York, she felt the Singaporean dishes of her childhood calling her back. Cheryl learned to infuse her New York lifestyle with the rich lessons of the Singaporean kitchen, ultimately reconnecting with her family and herself.

I did it again. For the second time (that I know of), I finished a book that I thought I’d never read before and when I went to record it, I realized I’d already read it. I read it four years ago, but still…this does not bode well for my memory skills.

Luckily, re-reading this book wasn’t a waste of time. I enjoyed Tan’s tale of going from a non-cook to spending many hours in the kitchens of family and friends, learning how to make meals from her Singaporean childhood (along with so much more — she also teachers herself how to bake bread).

8) Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben

Description: Our old familiar globe is changing in ways no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different: Eaarth. McKibben argues our hope depends on scaling back—on building the kind of societies and economies that can hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the type of community that will allow us to weather trouble on an unprecedented scale.

I’ve been on an environmental-reading kick lately. I liked this one because McKibben focuses on smaller scale changes. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you know about the far-reaching problems with global warming, but his thoughts on community building and living locally provide some hope. I did like Oil and Honey better than this one, though.

9) The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs, Elaine Sciolino

Description: Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, invites us on a tour of her favorite Parisian street as she celebrates the neighborhood’s rich history and vibrant lives. While many cities suffer from the leveling effects of globalization, the rue des Martyrs maintains its distinct allure. Sciolino reveals the charms and idiosyncrasies of this street and its longtime residents, making Paris come alive in all its unique majesty.

I didn’t know this in advance, but the author was born in Buffalo and attended Canisius College (the same college my husband attended). There are multiple references to her Buffalo childhood in this Paris-centered book, which was pretty cool. As for the rest of it, you could be forgiven for assuming a book about a Parisian street wouldn’t be interesting, but she makes it so — there is history, and drama, vendors coming and going, and a way of life that is different from what we experience in America.

Okay

10) Only in Spain: A Foot-Stomping, Firecracker of a Memoir about Food, Flamenco, and Falling in Love, Nellie Bennett

Description: One day, Nellie falls in love with flamenco in a Sydney dance studio. Tired of her boring retail job and longing to get closer to the authentic experience, she packs her dance shoes and travels to Seville, Spain. What Nellie didn’t realize is that flamenco is not just a dance; it’s a way of life.

As much as I enjoy memoirs written by women who live abroad, this one was a little cheesy. It took place when the author was in her early 20s, and I’m at an age now where I prefer to read about ladies who are a little more mature.

Books

Books Read in June 2016

I read 13 books in June (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 55.

I finished a ton of books this month, but in my defense, I’d started at least four of them in May — which means I finished all four in the first few days of June. (I’m usually reading multiple books at any given time: at least one ebook, one physical book, and one audiobook.)

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

single

Recommended

1) All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, Rebecca Traister

Description: The phenomenon of the single woman in America is not a new one. Historically, when women were given options beyond early heterosexual marriage, the results were massive social change—temperance, abolition, secondary education, and more. This is a remarkable portrait of contemporary American life and how we got here, through the lens of the single American woman.

I thought I’d read enough about single ladies (what an awesome bunch!) over the years, so I didn’t intend to read this book until I came across this review. I’m glad I did. Even though there was a lot of information I already knew, there was a lot of new material as well.

Although this should be common knowledge by now, the author did a good job of showing how being single as an adult for an extended period of time is now mainstream, and that it’s preferable to delay serious relationships and/or marriage until you’ve been through many life experiences on your own. Like me, the author was single for a long time before she decided to marry (she got married at age 35, I was 33-and-a-half).

I like how she touched on the history of notable single women (those who paved the way for mass acceptance today), the prevalence of single women living in cities, and examples of strong female friendship.

2) New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City, William Powers

Description: Burned-out after years of doing development work around the world, Powers spent a season in a 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin off the grid in North Carolina, as recounted in his award-winning memoir Twelve by Twelve. Could he live a similarly minimalist life in New York City? To find out, Powers and his wife jettisoned 80% of their stuff and moved into a 350-square-foot “micro-apartment” in Greenwich Village. Downshifting to a two-day workweek, Powers explores the viability of Slow Food and Slow Money, technology fasts and urban sanctuaries. Discovering a colorful cast of New Yorkers attempting to resist the culture of Total Work, Powers offers an inspiring exploration for anyone trying to make urban life more people- and planet-friendly.

I read and enjoyed Twelve-by-Twelve in May, and this one was no different. This book takes Powers from a tiny house in rural NC to a tiny studio apartment in NYC. Instead of long walks on country roads, through forests, and sitting by a creek for hours at a time, Powers spends time listening to musicians in a park, on the roof deck of his apartment building, and sitting by a river. I think this book can be more relatable to people interested in slowing down, since it takes place in a major city rather than in the woods. Through it all, he explores topics related to living slow, and asks himself questions about how he wants to lead his life now and in the future.

3) Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape, Peggy Orenstein

Description: With casual hookups and campus rape relentlessly in the news, parents can be forgiven for feeling anxious about their young daughters. They’re also fearful about opening up a dialog. Not Orenstein. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times best-selling author of books like Cinderella Ate My Daughter, Orenstein spoke to psychologists, academics, and other experts in the field (and yes, 70 young women), to offer an in-depth picture of girls and sex today.

This is a book every parent with a preteen-ish daughter should read. It’s extremely unfortunate there is so much misinformation and ambiguity around girls and sexuality. I certainly wish I had been better informed around that age. Topics include how expectations of oral sex and hooking up have changed in the past few decades, and the prevalence of campus rape and sexual assault, among others, with many disturbing statistics.

This book wasn’t all that relatable for me personally (as someone who is married with no children), but it is something I’d want to read if I had a preteen daughter. If that ever happens, hopefully I won’t need to read this book again because things will have changed for the better by then.

4) Falling in Honey: How a Tiny Greek Island Stole My Heart, Jennifer Barclay

Description: One winter, after her love life falls apart, Jennifer decides to spend a month on a tiny, wild Greek island. It’s a chance to find another kind of contentment, one that comes from holding an octopus in your hands. She decides to stay longer, but just when everything is falling into place again, the strangest thing happens…

If I come across a memoir about a woman leaving her home country to live somewhere foreign, I’ll pretty much always put it on my reading list. I’ve been like this for many years; I can’t see this interest ever changing.

From the description, I thought this book might be a little too romance-oriented, but I was glad to see it wasn’t that way at all. In fact, there’s a twist to the relationship which was hinted at during the story, but still, the way it turned out surprised me. There is also very little mention of bees and honey in the story, so if you’re a bee enthusiast, don’t let the title fool you (I didn’t care; I just thought I’d point it out).

5) Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light (and Dark Chocolate), Amy Thomas

Description: This is a personal and moveable feast that’s a treasure map for anyone who loves fresh cupcakes and fine chocolate, New York and Paris, and life in general. It’s about how the search for happiness can be as fleeting as a sliver of cheesecake and about how the life you’re meant to live doesn’t always taste like the one you envisioned.

Amy worked in advertising in NYC when she got an opportunity to join the Louis Vuitton account in Paris. A longtime Francophile, of course she jumped at the chance. Her experience starts off feeling magical and exciting, later devolves into loneliness and depression, but she manages to bring it back around and enjoy her stay (and even extend her contract; she ends up living in Paris almost two years). Along the way, her committed sweet tooth leads her to the best desserts in the city. (I even made note of a few locations, just in case I end up back there one day — it’s been almost twelve years since I visited in 2004.)

6) Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, Bill McKibben

Description: With the Arctic melting, the Midwest in drought, and Hurricane Irene scouring the Atlantic, McKibben recognized action was needed if solutions were to be found. Some of those would come at the local level, where he joins forces with a Vermont beekeeper raising his hives as part of the growing trend toward local food. Other solutions would come from a much larger fight against the fossil-fuel industry as a whole. This is McKibben’s account of these two necessary and mutually reinforcing sides of the global climate fight — from the center of the maelstrom and from the growing hive of small-scale local answers.

This is the first book I’ve read of McKibben’s, but I liked it a lot. It was interesting to read about his environmental activism and all the time he spends on the cause, including the time he got hundreds of people to call attention to the Keystone pipeline fight by getting arrested while protesting in front of the White House. I also enjoyed the juxtaposition of reading about his far-reaching activism-related travels with the very local aspect of honey production in his home state of Vermont.

7) Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, Sarah Hepola

Description: For Sarah, drinking felt like freedom, part of her birthright as a strong, enlightened 21st-century woman. But there was a price. She often blacked out, waking up with a blank space where four hours should have been. Mornings became detective work on her own life. Publicly, she covered her shame with self-deprecating jokes, and her career flourished, but as the blackouts accumulated, she could no longer avoid a sinking truth: the fuel she thought she needed was draining her spirit instead. This is the story of a woman stumbling into a new kind of adventure — the sober life she never wanted.

I’ve read other books written by reformed alcoholics, but this is a particularly good one. Sarah is not much older than I am and I’ve read some of her online writing over the years. In addition to describing how she became an alcoholic and what her worst years were like, she also focused a lot on what happened after she became sober (for instance, she couldn’t write for the first six months because she was so used to writing while drinking). Her writing style is very relatable — honestly, I just really liked the way she puts sentences together, the words she chooses. She talked a bit too much about her beloved cat, but I was able to look past that annoyance.

8) Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, Rachel Held Evans

Description: Like millions of her millennial peers, Rachel didn’t want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals — church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Centered around seven sacraments, Rachel’s quest takes readers through a liturgical year with stories about baptism, communion, confirmation, confession, marriage, vocation, and death that are funny, heartbreaking, and sharply honest.

I greatly enjoyed the author’s honesty because, for someone pretty well-known in the Christian community, she has a lot to say about her struggles with belief. She’s expressed cynicism many times in the pews, left churches when they didn’t fit with her values, and spent many Sundays at home, sleeping late and watching TV.

I particularly liked this quote:

I didn’t want to put my church story in print because…I still don’t know the ending. I am in the adolescence of my faith. There have been slammed doors and rolled eyes and defiant declarations of “I hate you!” hurled at every person or organization that represents the institutionalized church. I am angry and petulant, hopeful and naive. […] Church books are written by people with a plan and ten steps, not by Christians just hanging on by their fingernails.

One part that stood out to me was when Evans expressed how distraught she was when World Vision, an organization she’d personally worked with, had to backtrack on their decision to allow gays and lesbians to serve as employees in their organization because tens of thousands of kids were dropped by church-going parishioners in mass protests. (What a despicable case of misguided priorities. That’s the only way they could think of to show their displeasure?)

What I didn’t like were the inclusion of chapters that were essentially mini sermons. Evans’ personal story is worth reading though, so if you don’t like being preached to, you can skip the Bible lessons entirely and not miss out on anything.

9) When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, Addie Zierman

Description: Evangelical poster child Addie wore three bracelets asking what Jesus would do. She also led two Bible studies and listened exclusively to Christian music. She was on fire for God and unaware that the flame was dwindling—until it burned out. Addie chronicles her journey through church culture and first love, and her entrance—unprepared and angry—into marriage. When she drops out of church and very nearly her marriage as well, it is on a sea of tequila and depression. She isn’t sure if she’ll ever go back.

I was brought up similarly to Addie and recognized a lot of her references (Bible stories told with paper characters on felt boards, Awana, Amy Grant going mainstream, WWJD), although she was definitely more “on fire” with her faith than I ever was.

I didn’t mean to read two books (this one and the one mentioned above) related to the evangelical faith this month, but that’s the way the library hold process works sometimes. If I were to compare the two, I’d say I related to Addie’s story, enjoyed her conversational tone, and appreciated that she didn’t come across as preachy. With Rachel in Searching for Sunday, I was mesmerized by her words, and appreciated how raw and honest she was about her struggles with faith and how she still struggles day to day.

Okay

10) In Other Words, Jhumpa Lahiri

Description: Lahiri was first captivated by the Italian during a trip to Florence after college. Although she studied the language for many years afterward, true mastery eluded her. In 2012, seeking full immersion, she decided to move to Rome with her family, for “a trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world. This book investigates the process of learning to express oneself in another language, and describes the journey of a writer seeking a new voice.

There were some things I liked about this book and others I didn’t. I thought it was really interesting that she wrote this book entirely in Italian and had someone else translate it into English — understandably, she didn’t want to tempt herself into changing any of the words later (in other words, doing massive edits in her stronger language and making it “better”).

I didn’t like that so much of her writing came across with an ethereal tone (I’m not sure if that’s the exact word I’m looking for, but it’s the first that came to mind so I’m sticking with it). There was also a fictional dream sequence near the end that I didn’t understand and didn’t seem to fit.

I did enjoy when Lahiri talked about how she became multilingual (her original language is Bengali, then English when she moved to the U.S. as a young girl, and finally Italian when she picked it up at age 25), and how she’s never felt like she fit in 100% with any of these languages/cultures.

11) Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-planting Tribe, Charlotte Gill

Description: Gill spent twenty years working as a tree planter in the forests of Canada. She offers up a slice of tree-planting life in all of its soggy, gritty exuberance, while questioning the ability of conifer plantations to replace original forests that evolved over millennia into complex ecosystems. She looks at logging’s environmental impact and its boom-and-bust history, and touches on the versatility of wood, from which we have devised countless creations as diverse as textiles and airplane parts.

Trees are amazing, but I don’t have a particular interest in the life of tree planters (people who are hired to plant seedlings after a massive logging operation concludes). I picked this up because it was written by a woman, so in that aspect it was informative, since females are not common in that field. It’s not a bad book — it won a number of nonfiction awards — but there’s too much detail of the evolution of trees and history of logging, and way more description of nature than I care for (I’d rather experience nature myself; not read about it).

12) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein

Description: Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. She meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies.

Naomi is a committed environmental activist, and I respect her for that. This book is packed full of information she’s collected over the years, some of which I’d heard of, some of which surprised me (like how certain large nonprofits who are committed to protecting the environment have taken money from fossil fuel companies). However, I wouldn’t have tackled this book if I’d known it was 576 pages (I listened to the audiobook, and I didn’t look up the length in advance). It was just too long. I worked on it over the past few months, listening to other audiobooks in-between because I’d get tired of this one and needed a break.

13) Karma Gone Bad: How I Learned to Love Mangos, Bollywood and Water Buffalo, Jenny Feldon

Description: When Jenny’s consultant husband is sent to manage a project in India for two years, she finds herself in water buffalo traffic jams. She struggles to fight depression, bitterness, and anger as her sense of self and her marriage began to unravel. And it was all India’s fault…right?

I think this woman was trying to be humorous, telling us about her overprivileged reactions and hijinks when she was sent to India against her will, but her helplessness was infuriating. (I also rolled my eyes when she described herself as “far from a feminist.”) Predictably, she redeems herself near the end, coming to terms with her situation by finding a yoga class, hiring household help, and volunteering at an orphanage. It’s too bad she spends so much of the book being insufferable.

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 119

I was hit by a car last month. I was crossing an intersection on foot (in a crosswalk, at a green light), and was struck by a vehicle making a left turn across my lane of traffic.

I experienced a number of bumps and bruises, but the worst injury was to the left side of my head (the impact knocked me to the ground and I hit my head on the asphalt). It’s been over four weeks since the accident and I still have a lump on my head underneath my bangs. Most noticeably, the trauma of the head injury caused a black eye, which is much better but not completely gone.

Head Injury

Black Eye

The experience was quite disconcerting, and even though I wasn’t in the wrong, I’ve been a bit over-careful while crossing the street since then (for instance, waiting for drivers to fully stop and acknowledge my existence before I proceed).

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A new activity in my life that makes me happy is cycling. I bought a bike in 2008 when I lived in Alexandria, VA and rode regularly for a while, but the habit died off when I moved into DC in 2010 and then to Buffalo in 2013. I told Paul he needed to get a bike so we could ride together, so we picked up a used Cannondale for him at a local bicycle shop.

He embraced the cycling habit right away and we’ve been on our bikes most Saturdays and Sundays for the past few months. Paul is great with maps and navigating, so he plans our routes for us in advance. We’ve explored a bunch of trails already and it’s been a really fun way to experience the area (we travel much slower than a car, but a lot faster than we would on foot).

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Currently Reading: All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, by Rebecca Traister

Currently Watching: Mostly documentaries, like Lisa Ling’s This is Life, GasLand, and Chasing Ice.

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Favorite Links:

I Love the Victorian Era. So I Decided to Live In It. This is amazing! How had I never heard about this woman, or her books, before last week? I don’t want to take her lead and live in a recreated Victorian era, but I love that she and her husband enjoy it so much and go to such efforts for authenticity. (They use a period-appropriate icebox instead of an electric refrigerator, which they stock with block ice and empty melted water from the drip tray 1-2 times a day. There’s a wind-up mechanical clock in their parlor, and she writes in her diary using an antique fountain pen that she fills with liquid ink using an eyedropper.) She’s written two memoirs, both of which my library owns, so expect to see them pop up soon in my monthly reading roundup.

Quitting Your Job To Travel Isn’t Brave. It’s Lucky. This post is spot-on. I get annoyed with travel writers who proclaim that everyone can do what they do. No, everybody cannot — or should not — do what you do. Even if you’re single and childless, it’s irresponsible to quit your job to travel if you have debts to pay off. Fulfill your obligations first. And when you’re debt free and everything is lined up for your departure, don’t forget you’re lucky to be taking advantage of this opportunity. Unless you’re traveling to a war zone or something similar, traveling is not brave.

The Patronizing Questions We Ask Women Who Write. “Let me say this: I am embarrassed and worried all the time, and that is why I am a writer. You do not need to bring up hypothetical consequences of my work as if in an effort to trap me, to surprise me, to make me turn red and throw my laptop in a river. I go through all of that every damn day, in the hour or so it takes me to work myself up to open a Word document.”

When It’s Time to Detach Yourself From Your Things. Do you have a collection, or something else you’re particularly attached to? J. Money discusses his coin collection, but his thoughts can be applied to pretty much anything.

Hoarding is a Serious Disorder and It’s Only Getting Worse in the United States. This reminds me of the book on hoarding I read a few months ago.

If You Are What You Eat, America Is Allrecipes. “The nation’s most popular recipe site reveals the enormous gap between foodie culture and what people actually cook.”

Are Farmers Markets Really as Expensive as Everyone Says? “The prices of the goods you buy at the farmers market are a lot more complicated than the numbers on the placards read—and those numbers shouldn’t be the only thing we take into consideration.”

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From the Archives:

One year ago: I Conquered My Eating Disorder. “My recovery wasn’t quick or linear, but since 2007 I’ve never returned to a calorie-restricting diet. I spent too many years counting calories; I will never do so again. I focus instead on eating foods that won’t harm me. In the past I never cared how many unpronounceable ingredients were in my prepared foods, or how much artificial sugar I consumed, as long as it was low calorie.”

Six years ago: A Farewell of Sorts. After writing weekly posts for BlogHer for three years, I decided to quit. Here’s why.

Seven years ago: Marriage? I Could Take It or Leave It. This was written a year before I met Paul.

Eight years ago: Nobody Asked Me If I Was Okay. The day I almost passed out on the Metro.

About Me

Turning 36

Today I am 36 years old.

When I turned six in 1986, I had just finished kindergarten at Buckingham County Primary School in Buckingham, Virginia. I had one older sister and one younger sister; my two brothers had not yet been born.

When I turned 16 in 1996, it was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. My mom left my dad a few months later and a great life upheaval began, which in some ways continues to affect my life today.

When I turned 26 in 2006, I had been living in southern California for a year and was preparing to return to the east coast. I had taken the GRE and considered applying to several graduate programs, but couldn’t find anything I loved enough. I ended up moving to DC that fall, where I stayed for the next seven years.

On the surface, my life is very similar to last June when I turned 35: I have the same job, own the same car, live in the same house. I still read a lot, and try to live as minimally as possible.

Some things have changed in the past year: I have two additional nephews (which makes five total). I became a pescetarian (my husband and I eat entirely vegetarian at home but occasionally consume seafood in restaurant/social settings). I joined a CSA last summer and renewed our membership this year, so our veggie consumption rises pretty dramatically when those deliveries arrive. I bought a compost bin and plan to set it up in the backyard (I’ve been composting since last summer but previously took all the waste material to my in-laws’ house – their bin is getting full so we’re starting our own).

I wouldn’t say I have any grand goals for the next year, nor have I made a new list of things I’d like to accomplish. I’d like to take a vacation outside the United States, as I haven’t traveled internationally since 2010. (Well, I’ve been to Canada. But that doesn’t really count, because I live in Buffalo, which means I can leave my house and cross the Canadian border in about 15 minutes.)

Also, I know I talk all the time about getting rid of stuff in my house, but there is always more I could do. My goal is to be able to look at my possessions and say, “I only own things that I need or love.” I’ve come a really long way, but I’m not quite there yet.

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Books

Books Read in May 2016

I read 5 books in May (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2016 total to 42.

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

  • Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City, Russell Shorto
    I lived in Amsterdam for five months in 2004 while I did a college semester abroad, and I’ve held a soft spot for the city ever since. The American-born author started out talking about his personal experience living in Amsterdam, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but then he delved into stuff that happened back in the 1500s and 1600s and I was like, “Ahhhh! Too much dense history!” So I stopped reading it. But it does make me want to explore books about the Netherlands that maybe aren’t so history-focused.

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

twelve

Recommended

1) Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream, William Powers

Description: Why would a successful American physician choose to live in a 12-by-12-foot cabin without running water or electricity? To find out, writer and activist Powers visited Dr. Jackie Benton in rural North Carolina. A creek gurgled through Benton’s permaculture farm, and she stroked honeybees’ wings as she shared her philosophy of living on a planet in crisis. Powers, just back from a decade of international aid work, accepted Benton’s offer to stay at the cabin for a season while she traveled. There, he befriended her eclectic neighbors — organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers — and discovered a sustainable but imperiled way of life.

There aren’t many people who want to spend so much time in solitude — at least not in a tiny house without the comforts of electricity and running water. Powers would spend hours upon hours walking through the woods or sitting by a creek. He had visitors and sometimes spent time with neighbors, but he was by himself a majority of his stay.

You’d think that wouldn’t leave a lot to write about, but you would be wrong. Now I’m interested to read his followup book, New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City (where he sets out to live a similarly minimalist life in the heart of New York City instead of rural North Carolina). Since I just finished reading Green Metropolis, I know it’s possible.

2) Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, Samuel I. Schwartz

Description: In this clear and erudite presentation of the principles of smart transportation and sustainable urban planning—from the simplest cobblestoned street to the brave new world of driverless cars and trains—Schwartz combines rigorous historical scholarship with the personal and entertaining recollections of a man who has spent more than 40 years working on planning intelligent transit networks in New York City. Street Smart is a book for everyone who wants to know more about the who, what, when, where, and why of human mobility.

I enjoy reading about smart cities and what kinds of things cities are doing to make their locations more desirable as places to walk and cycle. There are huge environmental and health benefits to limiting automobile use.

3) Witches of America, Alex Mar

Description: Mar explores Paganism and the occult, from its roots in 1950s England to its current American mecca in the Bay Area; from a gathering of more than a thousand witches in the Illinois woods to the New Orleans branch of one of the world’s most influential magical societies. She takes part in dozens of rituals, some vast and some intimate, alongside all sorts of people. Throughout, she asks the central question: Why do we choose to believe in anything at all?

I’m not interested in witchcraft on a personal basis, but reading about other people’s level of involvement was pretty eye-opening. The author, a self-described “overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion” immersed herself in the subject for years — the original purpose was to make a documentary, which she did, but she continued exploring the occult for years afterward and gives a good overview of the branches she came into contact with. (Apparently there are a lot of branches, more than I ever would have guessed.)

4) Alligator Candy: A Memoir, David Kushner

Description: David grew up in the early 1970s in the Florida suburbs. One morning in 1973, David’s older brother Jon biked through the forest to the convenience store for candy, and never returned. Every life has a defining moment, a single act that charts the course we take and determines who we become. For Kushner, it was Jon’s murder—a tragedy that shocked his family and the community at large. Decades later, David found himself unsatisfied with his own memories and decided to revisit the episode a different way: through the eyes of a reporter. His investigation brought him back to the places and people he once knew and slowly made him realize just how much his past had affected his present.

When you’re only four years old when your brother is murdered, it makes sense you wouldn’t remember many details of what happened. Kushner conducts interviews and extensive research to recreate the story in a very personal, interesting, and heartfelt way.

Okay

5) Paris: A Love Story, Kati Marton

Description: In this honest and candid memoir, award-winning journalist and author Kati Marton narrates an impassioned and romantic story of love, loss, and life after loss. At every stage of her life, Marton finds beauty and excitement in Paris.

This was a nice story but not one I was particularly interested in. I couldn’t help feeling animosity toward her when she admitted to cheating on both of her husbands (news anchor Peter Jennings and ambassador Richard Holbrooke). Even though it was a small part of the story and both men apparently forgave her, I don’t like reading about infidelity, or watching movies where it’s a theme. If she had chosen not to share it, I wouldn’t have rated the book any higher, but I would have thought more of her as a person.