Books

Books Read in July 2017

I read 11 books in July (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 73.

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

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

Highly Recommended

1) Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay

Description: From the author of “Bad Feminist,” a long-awaited memoir about her struggles with weight and childhood traumas.

Roxane’s story is powerful and deeply personal, but she is quick to point out that she’s not special or especially strong; what happened to her was horrific but worse things happen to men and women every day. She does acknowledge, with many years of hindsight, that she was wrong to keep her assault a secret for 25 years, and had she sought help she likely wouldn’t be in the situation she is now with her weight.

One factor which had never occurred to me was how she goes to great lengths to make sure venues and restaurants can accommodate her size. She searches in advance for photos of a restaurant’s interior to see if the chairs look large enough. She’s been stuck (literally) too many times in too-small chairs that leave bruises on her hips and thighs.

She hits many weight-related topics: the problem with reality shows that focus on quick weight loss; how she longs for nice clothes in her size, but even when she finds them they languish in her closet while she continues to wear denim and dark shirts; her parents telling her that her weight is a “family problem.” The chapter where she talks about googling the boy (now grown man) responsible for her assault was particularly moving.

You can read an excerpt here, and I enjoyed this review and this review.

Recommended

2) Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, Megan Kimble

Description: Megan was living in a small apartment without a garden plot to her name, but she cared about where food came from, how it was made, and what it did to her body — so she decided to go an entire year without eating processed foods. This is the narrative of Megan’s extraordinary year, in which she milled wheat, extracted salt from the sea, milked a goat, slaughtered a sheep, and more — all while earning an income that fell well below the federal poverty line.

I liked this book a lot; Megan is a good writer. She uses vivid details which make it easy to picture what she’s describing. I like that she incorporated a lot of research into her year of eating unprocessed foods (but not so much that the reading was dry), along with sharing her personal experiences — it was a good mix.

Megan makes eating unprocessed seem doable, and even fun (or at least it can be fun to read about, if you’re not motivated to do the same). No matter where you fall on the processed/unprocessed spectrum, Megan’s experience will make you question your current habits, which is always a good thing. If you want to know more, this is a piece Megan wrote for the Washington Post.

Okay

3) Nevertheless: A Memoir, Alec Baldwin

Description: Baldwin introduces us to the Long Island child who felt burdened by his family’s financial strains and his parents’ unhappy marriage; the Washington, DC, college student gearing up for a career in politics; the young soap actor learning from giants of the theatre; the addict drawn to drugs and alcohol; the husband and father who acknowledges his failings and battles to overcome them; and the consummate professional for whom the work is everything.

I thought I would like this more than I did, but Alec’s story didn’t draw me in. I did listen to this on audio though, and Alec has a nice voice, so that was a plus.

He talks about his childhood, the loss of his father, how he got involved in acting, and his early roles in theater and movies. I thought that would be more entertaining, but he focuses a lot on the directors and producers (more so than his fellow stars), and I didn’t recognize a lot of the names, so I just didn’t really care.

He does go into his relationship and marriage to Kim Basinger, and also the infamous voicemail he left for his daughter Ireland back in 2007. For someone who was made out to be a monster in the press, it was refreshing to read his perspective.

Two things I enjoyed: 1) every single night since Ireland was born (21 years and counting) he’s either lit a candle – or a match, if that’s all he has – to thank God for his daughter; 2) he’s been involved in political advocacy for many decades, none of which has been for personal gain.

4) Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), Mindy Kaling

Description: Mindy has lived many lives: the obedient child of immigrant professionals, a timid chubster afraid of her own bike, a Ben Affleck-impersonating Off-Broadway performer and playwright, and, finally, a comedy writer and actress. She invites readers on a tour of her life and her unscientific observations on romance, friendship, and Hollywood.

This memoir is far from deep, and I found the structure to be a bit scattered (Mindy jumps between subjects at random, even within the same chapter). However, I listened to it on audio, which is read by the author, so if you’re looking for something mindless and sufficiently entertaining to listen to, this will do the trick.

5) Why Not Me?: A Memoir, Mindy Kaling

Description: Kaling shares her ongoing journey to find contentment and excitement in her adult life, whether it’s falling in love at work, seeking new friendships in lonely places, attempting to be the first person in history to lose weight without any behavior modification whatsoever, or most important, believing that you have a place in Hollywood when you’re constantly reminded that no one looks like you.

Just like with Mindy’s first book, there were certain essays I enjoyed while others were “let’s skim this as quickly as possible” dumb. Examples of essays I hated: 1) fake emails she might have sent in an alternate life as a high school Latin teacher; 2) the speech she gave to Harvard Law School graduates; 3) things she worries about when she wakes up at 4am.

6) No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage, Then I Tried To Make It Better, Elizabeth Weil

Description: Weil believes you don’t get married in a white dress, in front of all your future in-laws and ex-boyfriends but gradually, over time, through all the road rage incidents, good and bad dinners, and all the small moments you never expected to happen. Weil examines the major universal marriage issues—sex, money, mental health, in-laws, children—through recounting her own hilarious, messy, and sometimes difficult relationship.

This book was shorter than I expected (the hardback was only 174 pages), and I wanted some things to be more fleshed out while other topics she focused on were poorly chosen. I thought it was interesting that she started out by telling us how fantastic her marriage is, but as the chapters unfold it becomes clear that they’ve had more issues than she initially disclosed. At the end, I felt like I didn’t learn much and it didn’t seem like she did either.

7) Talking as Fast as I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between, Lauren Graham

Description: In this collection of personal essays, the beloved star of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood reveals stories about life, love, and working as a woman in Hollywood.

Graham has a chatty, breezy way of speaking (I listened to this on audio), but the commentary mainly flowed in one ear and out the other – I made barely any notes on it. The book isn’t bad, but I’ve never watched Gilmore Girls or Parenthood (which she spent a lot of time talking about), so I had no recognition of – or interest in – the characters or plotlines.

8) WTF: What the French?!, Olivier Magny

Description: In France, the simple act of eating bread is an exercise in creative problem solving and attempting to spell requires a degree of masochism. In this book, Magny reveals the France only the French know. From the latest trends in baby names, to the religiously observed division of church and state, prepare yourself for an insider’s look at French culture that is surprising, insightful, and chock full of bons mots.

This book is a bunch of short chapters on a wide variety of topics. I would have liked for certain chapters to be longer, but that was balanced by drier subjects which were also short (like taxes, government bureaucracy, and how high-ranking officials get and keep their jobs). I listened to this on audio, and it was nice to hear the narrator switch back and forth between English and French.

9) Priestdaddy: A Memoir, Patricia Lockwood

Description: Lockwood interweaves emblematic moments from her childhood and adolescence with scenes that chronicle the eight-month adventure she and her husband had in her parents’ household after a decade of living on their own. She details her education of a seminarian who is also living at the rectory, and tries to explain Catholicism to her husband, who is mystified by its bloodthirstiness and arcane laws. She pivots from the raunchy to the sublime, from the comic to the deeply serious, exploring issues of belief, belonging, and personhood.

Patricia grew up in a household with oddball parents, one of which was a Catholic priest (married Catholic priests are rare, but it happens sometimes when men start off in another religious denomination and later convert to Catholicism).

Her “priest daddy” is a strange character (definitely makes you question the mental health of other priests as well), but I felt like this book focused more on Patricia – how messed up she is due to her childhood, and her relationship with her mother – than it does on her father. Her father is just a side character, and I was left wondering why we didn’t get more details.

My biggest problem was that I didn’t like Patricia’s writing style. She’s received attention for her poetry, she’s received attention for this book…so obviously not everyone shares my opinion. I found a number of chapters simply boring, and I disliked that she seemed proud of never holding down a “real job.” She preferred to be a broke writer, relying on her husband’s low income – and for the purposes of this book in particular, she’d rather move in with her parents for nine months while her husband was unable to work – instead of getting a job to pay the bills. It’s nice that her book-writing gamble seems to have worked out for her.

10) Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path, Erin Loechner

Description: Before turning 30, Erin had built a fan base of women worldwide and was praised for her authentic voice and effortless style. The New York Times applauded her, her friends and church admired her, and her husband and baby adored her. So why did she feel so lost? Erin turned away from fast and fame and frenzy. Through a series of steep climbs — her husband’s brain tumor, bankruptcy, family loss, and public criticism — Erin learns just how much strength it takes to surrender it all, and to veer right into grace.

I’ve read Erin’s blog off and on over the years. It’s always been hit or miss with me; I really like some of her posts but a majority of them I could do without.

Erin employs a cerebral tone in her writing that I find grating, which I noticed in her book as well (even more so in the second half). She does this thing where she asks a bunch of questions in a row, followed by a lot of short sentences. I have no interest in knowing which questions are running through her brain all the time; I want stories and observations.

She interjects religion in here, too, with the inclusion of Bible verses. If a book is going to have religious undertones I prefer for there to be an indication in the description so I can decide if I want to read it or not (I looked at some reviews on Goodreads after I finished the book and I’m not the only person who feels this way).

11) Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America, Linda Tirado

Description: Americans have certain ideas of what it means to be poor. Tirado takes these preconceived notions and smashes them to bits. She articulates not only what it is to be working poor, but what poverty is truly like. Tirado discusses how she went from lower-middle class, to sometimes middle class, to poor and everything in between, and in doing so reveals why “poor people don’t always behave the way middle-class America thinks they should.”

On one hand, I think this book could introduce a valuable perspective on poverty, especially to people who have never experienced poverty firsthand. However, it’s really difficult to read a book (or in this case, listen to a book, since I had it on audio) that is one long, unending stream of complaints. I kept thinking there must be more constructive ways to share one’s experience than the approach Linda took.

It doesn’t help that she portrays herself in an unlikeable manner, constantly justifying her right to be a smoker and admitting that she’s been fired multiple times due to her temper. The final chapter was the worst – a rant against rich people and all the things they do to piss her off. I understand where her anger comes from, but the way she chose to put it out there is really hurting her cause.

Books

Books Read in June 2017

I read thirteen books in June (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 62.

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

Recommended

1) An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir, Ariel Leve

Description: A beautiful, startling, and candid memoir about growing up without boundaries, in which Ariel recalls the turbulent time she endured as the only child of an unstable poet for a mother and a beloved but largely absent father, and explores the consequences of a psychologically harrowing childhood as she seeks refuge from the past and recovers what was lost.

This is a very well done “dysfunctional mother” memoir. Ariel put up with a lot as a kid, which makes me realize how normal and sane my childhood was in comparison.

Ariel’s mother was a well-known poet in her day (she isn’t named in the book but a google search provides the answer), with famous writer friends. She was verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive. She walked around naked. She’d sometimes talk on the phone so long that she would pee herself, rather than place the caller on hold to go to the bathroom. She would host parties during the week which kept her daughter awake long past her bedtime. She made constant promises that she had no intention of keeping.

She took part in the feminist movement but would get distraught when boyfriends left her (even just for the night), grabbing onto their calves and screaming at them not to leave. Ariel says her mother never spent an entire day alone with her during her childhood, instead leaving her in the care of various nannies.

For more information: Jon Ronson profiled Ariel for this article after the book came out, and it includes an interview with Ariel’s mother.

2) Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick

Description: Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen, Anna was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.” Here she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.

I resisted reading this book at first because I didn’t know much about Anna Kendrick, but it was a fun read. Anna started out as a theater actress as a kid, and gradually started doing films once she moved to Los Angeles in her late teens. I’ve only seen one or two movies she’s been in, but her recollections from sets she’s worked on were entertaining to read all the same.

Anna is likable and relatable because she’s self-deprecating, and she talks a lot about how she’s felt like an outsider and a fraud most of her life. In a later section, she gives behind-the-scenes observations on photo shoots, press junkets, print interviews, and attending awards shows (which apparently is not glamorous, especially the never-ending struggle to keep your dress from wrinkling).

3) Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste, Bianca Bosker

Description: Professional journalist and amateur drinker Bianca Bosker didn’t know much about wine—until she discovered an alternate universe where taste reigns supreme, a world of elite sommeliers who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of flavor. Astounded by their fervor and seemingly superhuman sensory powers, she set out to uncover what drove their obsession, and whether she, too, could become a “cork dork.”

Just the kind of book I like: a woman who immerses herself in a subject and tells us all about it. Bianca wrote articles about tech before she made the switch to wine, and it’s amazing to see how much time must be dedicated to this pursuit if you want to be good at it. You really have to love it; there’s no other way to motivate yourself to spend so much time focusing on one subject. Imagine spending most of your free time studying obscure facts on flash cards.

Bianca finds a mentor, joins multiple blind tasting groups, and attends sommelier competitions. She works in a wine cellar for a few months, and later shadows a sommelier at a fancy restaurant to see what their job is like. She also explores the science of taste, and investigates how wine quality is judged, or if it’s even really possible to do so.

In reviews I read elsewhere, I’ve seen valid criticism that Bianca is making assumptions about the wine industry, and people who work as sommeliers, based on characters she met mostly in NYC over the course of a year. She doesn’t always portray them in the best light, like when she says sommeliers are often trying to talk you into buying the most expensive wine possible and that many of them are functional alcoholics. However, her goal was to become a certified sommelier herself, so obviously she finds merit in the profession.

4) I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids, Jen Kirkman

Description: As a woman of a certain age who has no desire to start a family, Jen often finds herself confronted about her decision to be childfree by choice. She offers honest and hilarious responses to questions like “Who will take care of you when you get old?” (Servants!) and a peek into the psyche — and weird and wonderful life — of a woman who has always marched to the beat of a different drummer and is pretty sure she’s not gonna change her mind, but thanks for your concern.

This is Kirkman’s first book. I also read her second book this month (see below).

Kirkman describes multiple situations she’s found herself in as a childfree person where she hasn’t felt like her wishes are heard or respected. As a childfree person myself, these scenarios are always interesting to me, but I don’t entirely relate because – at least up to this point in my life – I’ve never felt hounded by anyone for not having kids. Kirkman has been brought to tears and made to feel bad about her desire not to procreate, while I haven’t. It made me wonder, since she’s a comedian and obviously comfortable talking in front of people, why she engaged with the asshole ladies who made her feel bad, rather than shutting it down.

I think this book would be valuable for women with kids to read as well, if only to highlight the many things you shouldn’t say to your childfree friend.

Here’s a quote I liked: “Can we all admit that the sound of a kid squealing, even if it’s with joy, sounds like squealing? I can angrily press the button on an air horn or I can press the button on an air horn with a sense of carefree fun and either way it sounds like an air horn.”

4) I Know What I’m Doing — and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction, Jen Kirkman

Description: Jen offers up all the gory details of a life permanently in progress. She talks about making unusual or unpopular life decisions because you don’t necessarily want for yourself what everyone else seems to think you should. It’s about renting when everyone says you should own, dating around when everyone thinks you should settle down, and traveling alone when everyone pities you for going to Paris without a man.

I listened to this one on audiobook, which enhanced the experience (Kirkman reads it). I like her outlook on life. She went through an amicable divorce with her husband when she realized they weren’t happy together; she reiterates her childfree stance, saying she knew from a young age that she didn’t want kids and has never wavered; she’s happy living alone and traveling for her work as a comedian. She seems like a cool person (I’d pay to see her perform in a comedy show if she came to town).

About her job as a traveling comedian, she says, “I’m not in it for fame and fortune. It’s the other ‘F’ word: Freedom. I don’t want a boss. I don’t want to work for a major corporation. I don’t want to sit at a desk.”

6) How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, Jancee Dunn

Description: Dunn tackles the last taboo subject of parenthood: the startling, white-hot fury that mothers often have for their mates. After having her baby, she found she was doing virtually all the household chores, even though she and her husband worked equal hours. She asked herself: How did I become the ‘expert’ at changing a diaper? Dunn plunges into the latest relationship research, solicits the counsel of the country’s most renowned couples’ and sex therapists, and canvasses fellow parents. As Dunn and her husband discover, adding a demanding new person to your relationship means you have to reevaluate (and rebuild) your marriage.

As I do not have children, this book may seem like an odd choice. But it’s a memoir, not a how-to book, and I found value in the methods she took to heal her marriage. She goes into great detail about their therapy sessions, interviews a lot of experts, and comes back with tips on everything from how to divide household chores, to how to resolve various issues like finances and clutter – which are helpful for parents and childfree couples alike.

And yes, books like these are a good way to make childfree people feel better about their status. (Jancee shares a statistic that 67% of couples see their marital satisfaction plummet after having a baby.) As I was reading, I kept thinking to myself, “Look at all this crap I don’t have to put up with!” When I was wavering about whether or not to have a child two years ago, one of the factors in the “no” category was I didn’t want to resent my husband for doing less baby-work than I was doing. No babies = way less resentment and disagreements. (Just speaking for myself here, of course.)

7) Live Fast, Die Hot, Jenny Mollen

Description: Jenny Mollen is a writer and actress living in New York. Until recently, her life was exciting, a little eccentric, and impulsive. Then she had a son, Sid, and overnight, Jenny was forced to grow up: to be responsible, to brush her hair, to listen to her voicemail.

I hate the title of this book, but I found the essays entertaining. I hadn’t heard of Jenny Mollen until she appeared on Chelsea Handler’s Netflix show last year, when she was in a series of recurring segments with her husband, Jason Biggs. I started following her on Instagram a few months ago, and finally decided to check out her book. She is completely neurotic in a way that I can’t relate to, but her escapades amused me.

8) One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays, Scaachi Koul

Description: Koul shares all the fears, outrages, and mortifying moments of her life, whether it’s a shopping trip gone awry; overcoming her fear of flying while vacationing halfway around the world; or navigating the fears and anxieties of her parents. There are also pointed observations about life as a woman of color: where every aspect of her appearance is open for critique, derision, or outright scorn; where strict gender rules bind in both Western and Indian cultures, leaving little room for a woman not solely focused on marriage and children to have a career (and a life) for herself.

Scaachi’s only in her mid-20s, but there were some good essays in here. I liked that it’s written from the perspective of a female minority (her parents are from India and immigrated to Canada). She discusses the confusion of being considered “brown” in a country with a white majority, but when she visits India, she’s considered fair because of how light her skin is in comparison to others. She also writes about having excessive body hair, and the measures she’s had to take from a young age to keep it under control. Here’s a good review from the Washington Post.

Okay

9) The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer

Description: Amy mines her past for stories about her teenage years, her family, and relationships, sharing the experiences that have shaped who she is — a woman with the courage to bare her soul to stand up for what she believes in, all while making us laugh.

I was torn with how to rate this book. I settled on Okay because I didn’t care for a number of essays and certain phrases she’d use would annoy me…but I did finish this book liking Amy a lot more than I did before I started. I didn’t read this book as a rabid fan because I’ve never seen her movies or watched her TV show; most of my exposure to her has been press she’s done online and a few minutes of a comedy special I caught on TV one night.

She does have some strong essays, like how she started in the business and gradually worked her way up. There are heartwarming stories about her dad and his struggle with MS, and the situation that caused her to pull away from her mother. She also talks about a domestic violence situation she was in, and how hard it was to extricate herself (they even reunited for a time before she left him for good).

I just wish she’d focused more on those things rather than including an open letter to her vagina, and sharing boring diary entries from her childhood and teen years. (Note: nobody cares about your old diary entries but you. That’s why I’ve thrown all of mine in the trash.)

10) Fiction Ruined My Family: A Memoir, Jeanne Darst

Description: Growing up in an old St. Louis family, Jeanne grew up hearing stories of past grandeur. The message she internalized: While things might be tight for us right now, it’s only temporary. Soon her father would sell the Great American Novel and reclaim the family’s former glory, but he wrote one novel, then another, which didn’t find publishers. This, combined with her mother’s alcoholism, lead to financial disaster and divorce. As Jeanne becomes an adult, she is horrified to discover she’s not only a drinker like her mother, but a writer like her father. For many years, she embraces both activities. Ultimately, she sets out to discover whether a person can have the writing without the ruin, and whether it’s possible to be both sober and creative.

This is one of those memoirs I couldn’t get into because I didn’t like the main character. Jeanne didn’t have an easy childhood, with a distant, alcoholic mother and a writer-father who talked about writing more than he practiced writing. Jeanne started drinking at a young age, and there are many examples of how that affected her life. She lost me for good about halfway through, when she decided to share an extensive tale about the time she contracted vaginal crabs and ended up infecting her sister because they slept on the same mattress while living at their mom’s house.

I didn’t want to read any more after that, but I powered through to the end, enduring more bad-drunk stories like how she cheated on her rich live-in boyfriend and moved into a studio apartment without a bathroom. The worst part is, when she decided to get sober, I still didn’t warm up to her. Isn’t this the part of the book where your newfound sobriety is supposed to redeem your past sins and make you a better, likable person?

11) I’m Down: A Memoir, Mishna Wolff

Description: Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black. “He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esque sweater, gold chains and a Kangol. You couldn’t tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried,” writes Wolff. And so from early childhood on, her father began his crusade to make his white daughter Down. Unfortunately, Mishna didn’t quite fit in with the neighborhood kids, and when she was suddenly sent to a rich white school, she found she was “too black” to fit in with her white classmates.

I listened to this on audiobook. I didn’t love the story, but the narrator (who is also the author) does a good job voicing the various characters. I felt like that was one of the best parts, so if you decide to read a physical copy, it may not be worth it.

Not Recommended

12) The Late Bloomer’s Revolution: A Memoir, Amy Cohen

Description: In quick succession, Amy lost her job writing sitcoms, her boyfriend, and her mom, after a long bout with cancer. Not exactly the stuff humor thrives on. But filtered through Amy’s worldview, there’s comedy in the most unexpected places. Cohen recounts her (seemingly) never-ending search for love, her evolving relationship with her widowed dad, and her own almost unintentional growth as she stumbles through life.

I found this story annoying. There was way too much about her parents and the end of a romantic relationship which she obsessed over for years. It didn’t help that I listened to the audiobook (which was read by the author), and she habitually did that thing where she put an upward inflection at the end of sentences so her statements sounded like questions.

13) Attempting Normal, Marc Maron

Description: From standup to television to his popular podcast, Marc has always been a genuine original, a disarmingly honest, intensely smart, brutally open comic who finds wisdom in the strangest places. This is his story of the winding, potholed road from madness and obsession and failure to something like normal, the thrillingly comic journey of a sympathetic f***up who’s trying really hard to do better without making a bigger mess.

Maron hosts an incredibly popular podcast (he’s even interviewed President Obama), and he’s worked as a comedian for many years, but I didn’t enjoy this book at all. He admits to being emotionally abusive to his ex-wife, and he says he was wrong and he’s a much better person now, but then he describes getting into screaming matches with his current girlfriend.

I also feel like this book is geared more toward men who like to read about masturbation and the hiring of prostitutes (at least Maron feels guilt about that and says he’s done it twice but wouldn’t do it again, but the fact remains…he did it). I was thoroughly unimpressed.

Books

Books Read in May 2017

I read thirteen books in May (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 49.

Wow, thirteen is a lot! Three of them were pretty short (just at or under 200 pages), which helped with the speedy reading.

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

  • Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott
  • Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, Eric Weiner — I own a nice hardback copy of this book, and it’s actually the second time I tried to read it (the first time I got about halfway through before I abandoned it). This time, I finished the first chapter but found myself dreading the second, so I decided to give it up for good. I generally like religious-faith memoirs, and I’ve enjoyed Weiner’s other two books, but this one didn’t do it for me.

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

Highly Recommended

1) The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, Douglas Preston

Description: In 2012, Preston boarded a plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, evidence of not just an undiscovered city but a lost civilization. Venturing into this wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, disease-carrying insects, and deadly snakes. But it wasn’t until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted a horrifying, sometimes lethal, and incurable disease.

As I was reading this, I kept thinking it seemed like fiction because everything was so fantastical and unbelievable. A lost city in the remote Honduran jungle, overgrown and untouched for centuries? So much of the world has been explored, these discoveries don’t happen very often anymore. (If you’d like to know more, this Washington Post article was the reason I put the book on hold at the library.)

After all the jungle adventure (including encountering numerous poisonous snakes), Preston returns home and later discovers he’s contracted a parasitic flesh-eating disease. He goes into detail about leishmaniasis, warning people not to look at pictures online (I didn’t but my husband did – I’ve never heard him react to something with such horror before).

Luckily Preston was able to seek treatment from the NIH and his disease went into remission, but it’s one of those things that often reappears (and indeed, as he wrote the book’s final chapters he admitted to the discovery of a new lesion). The treatment itself is both very expensive and very unpleasant; there are a ton of negative side effects and some people have to discontinue treatment because they’re being negatively impacted in other ways (kidney function is often an issue).

The scariest part about leishmaniasis is that, while it’s mostly limited to hot, tropical regions right now, scientists predict that due to global warming, the disease’s hosts (sandflies) will gradually migrate to more populated areas – including the United States (there have already been several instances of the disease in the U.S., including people who had not traveled outside the country).

2) The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum

Description: This is a series of original essays looking at sentimentality and manufactured emotion in American life. The essays take on serious subjects, such as the death of a parent, the decision not to have a child, and Meghan’s own near death from a freak illness, as well as lighter topics like the love of dogs, the proper appreciation of Joni Mitchell, the tedium of foodie culture, the definition of “romance,” and much more.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever rated a book of essays as Highly Recommended before. With the exception of one essay on Joni Mitchell that I could have done without, I thought all the others were excellent.

A theme of these essays is speaking the truth. Daum doesn’t shy away from speaking her true thoughts, even when she recognizes they might not portray her in the most positive light. (Nothing she said made me look down on her. Just because she wasn’t sad over the death of a close family member, for instance, doesn’t mean she’s a horrible person. She just wasn’t afraid to say it.)

There were many things I identified with, like how she values long-term contentment over short-term happiness. For her, this means staying within her comfort zone and doing things she’s good at and already knows she enjoys, rather than forcing herself to try new things she’s not interested in. This is another thing that is sometimes looked down upon by others – an unwillingness to try something new because you don’t think you’ll be any good at it (or like it), so any effort will be a waste of your time.

She wrote other things that had me nodding along, including her thoughts on her childfree life. Daum first wrote about the subject in this book, and she later edited a collection of essays by other writers that I read last year and very much enjoyed. (It was called: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.)

While Daum is glad she made the decision to remain childfree, she admits she and her husband feel sad sometimes. But why exactly do they feel sad?

“Were we sad because we lacked some essential element of lifetime partnership, such as a child or agreement about wanting or not wanting one? Were we sad because life is just sad sometimes – maybe even a lot of the time? Or perhaps it wasn’t even sadness we were feeling but, simply, the dull ache of aging? Maybe children don’t save their parents from this ache as much as distract from it. And maybe creating a diversion from aging turns out to be the whole point of parenting.”

Recommended

3) Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, Meghan Daum

Description: After an itinerant suburban childhood and countless moves as an adult from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska; from the Midwest to the West Coast and back, Daum was living in Los Angeles, single and in her mid-30s, devoting obscene amounts of time to the pursuit of buying a house. She found what she wanted near the height of the real estate bubble, depleting her savings to buy a 900-sq-ft bungalow. From her mother’s decorating manias to her own hidden room dreams, Daum explores the perils and pleasures of believing that only a house can make you whole.

I heard about this book a few years back, but didn’t think I’d like it. Well, I was wrong. This book was written by Meghan Daum, the same author who wrote The Unspeakables (see #2 above, which I rated as highly recommended). I looked it up once I was done with the first book and checked it out of the library right away. While I didn’t like it quite as much as The Unspeakables, it was still very good. As I should have assumed, it’s not just about the houses she’s lived in; it’s a memoir about her life and what was going on to put her in those various locations.

Daum admits that buying a house is often about other factors, not necessarily that you really want to own a home. When she almost purchased a house in Nebraska (luckily she realized her mistake shortly before the sale went through), she mused, “[I realized] I didn’t want to buy a house; I wanted to shop for a house.”

Related: I wasn’t at the level of house-buying lust in which Daum found herself, but 2.5 years ago my husband and I bought a house and afterward, I realized homeownership isn’t as great as I thought it would be.

4) Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World, Kirsten Gillibrand

Description: Gillibrand is the tough-love older sister and cheerleader every woman needs. She explains why ambition is not a dirty word, failure is a gift, listening is the most effective tool, and the debate over women “having it all” is absurd at best and demeaning at worst. In her sharp, honest, and refreshingly relatable voice, she dares us all to tap into our inner strength, find personal fulfillment, and speak up for what we believe in.

I’ve heard a bit about Kirsten Gillibrand over the years (she’s a senator in New York state, where I live), but I’m glad I took the time to listen to her audiobook. She reads it herself, and I will note that she has a very youthful voice – if I didn’t know better, I would have assumed she was in her 20s.

The book has a good mix of personal stories, like how her interest in public service led to her quitting her law firm job and becoming a Representative, and later a Senator; how she juggled those new responsibilities with raising two young boys; and how she’s struggled with her weight over the years, receiving more than her fair share of unsolicited feedback from male co-workers. She also discusses issues she’s passionate about, bills she’s successfully passed, winning tough elections, and the importance of strong female role models and female empowerment.

Kirsten comes across as extremely dedicated to her job, while at the same time relatable because she’s not afraid to swear – both in person and in her book (she even drops a few F-bombs).

5) Cake Time: A Novel-in-Stories, Siel Ju

Description: Cake Time’s young female protagonist keeps making slippery choices. In “How Not to Have an Abortion,” the teenaged narrator looks for a ride from the clinic between AP exams. In “Easy Target,” the now-college-grad agrees to go to a swingers party with a handsome stranger. A decade later, in “Glow,” she’s confronted by the disturbing and thrilling fact of her lover’s secret daughter. Ultimately, this novel-in-stories grapples with urgent, timeless questions: why intelligent girls make terrible choices, where to negotiate a private self in an increasingly public world, and how to love madly without losing a sense of self.

Disclaimer: The author of this book is a Los Angeles-based friend of mine who I met years ago when I was writing for BlogHer and attended four BlogHer conferences in a row. At the last conference we attended (New York City in 2010), we were spirited to a Nintendo-sponsored event in a bicycle cart wheeled by a lady dressed in a Mario costume. It was quite a sight to behold, all those Marios pedaling down the streets of NYC.

Mario!

Since I am primarily a nonfiction/memoir reader, this “fiction in stories” isn’t something I would have thought to pick up, with its sweet title and (pink) cover art. Well, let me tell you…this book is the opposite of sweet (I mean that in a good way). It’s gritty. In hindsight, although it was unexpected, I found the juxtaposition clever.

There were clever turns of phrase that had me going back and rereading them several times because they were so very good. This is how the narrator describes her roommate: “[S]he hid behind a scrim of mousy hair and soft chub, which gave her the sodden air of someone who’d found a tenuous contentment on Paxil.” (I never would have thought to describe someone this way, which is why I adore it.)

One warning: there’s a lot of sex in this book. The book description mentions sex, but I wasn’t expecting as much of it as there was (and the amount of detail that was included). It didn’t bother me, but since I don’t read romance novels (and no, I never read any of the 50 Shades of Gray books), this was the most sex I can recall reading about in…I don’t remember how long. So just a warning there in case that matters to you.

6) Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House, Alyssa Mastromonaco

Description: Alyssa worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, long before his run for president. This is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a “White House official” is supposed to look like.

I liked reading about how Alyssa rose through the ranks to become Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (she was the youngest woman to hold that position). She shares some entertaining stories, makes fun of herself, and comes across as someone you’d like to hang out with. The final chapter was about the life and death of her beloved cat, which I didn’t think fit with the rest of the book, but the rest of it is worth reading.

7) Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters, Anne Kreamer

Description: Kreamer considered herself a youthful 49 until a photo stopped her in her tracks. In one unguarded moment she saw herself for what she really was — a middle-aged woman with her hair dyed much too harshly. She set out for herself a program to let her hair become its true color, and along the way discovered her true self.

When Kreamer decided to stop coloring her hair, I like that she treated it as a research project (including conducting a nationwide survey). She’s honest about her hesitations and insecurities, acknowledging the large percentage of women who cover their gray because they don’t want to appear older. She investigates online dating as a woman with gray hair, applying for jobs (she’s a former executive turned freelance writer), age discrimination in the workplace, and the topic of cosmetic surgery.

She also worked with three image consultants, expecting them to immediately tell her to color her gray hair, but she was surprised to find all of them said it set her apart and they didn’t recommend she change it.

Kreamer published this book ten years ago, but you’ll be glad to know (after writing this book and becoming a gray-hair ambassador) she’s still gray today.

8) All Better Now: My Life as the Thank-God-She-Got-Hit-by-a-Car Girl, Emily Wing Smith

Description: All her life, Emily has felt different from other kids. Between therapist visits, uncontrollable bursts of anger, and episodes of dizziness and loss of coordination, things have always felt not right. For years, her only escape was through the stories she’d craft about herself and the world around her. But it isn’t until a near-fatal accident when she’s 12 that Emily discovers the truth: a grapefruit sized benign brain tumor at the base of her skull. Smith’s memoir chronicles her struggles with both mental and physical disabilities during her childhood, the devastating accident that may have saved her life, and the means by which she coped with it all: writing.

This is a crazy story: a girl has headaches basically every day growing up, along with behavioral issues. Her parents take her to see therapists, but no mention is made of them exploring the reason for her persistent headaches. When she’s hit by a car and sustains a head injury, doctors find a large tumor at the base of her skull. The tumor is removed but things don’t suddenly get better – how could it, when her brain was readjusting to fit the space once taken up by a tumor? She finds it hard to concentrate in school, and she develops a tremor in her right hand.

Things get better for Emily over time, but the story opens with her acknowledgement that every day when she wakes up, she can tell pretty quickly if it’s going to be a good day, an okay day, or a bad day. The book was a quick read due to having very short chapters…I’d finish one, and notice the next one was short so I’d read one more, and on and from there.

Okay

9) You’ll Grow Out of It: A Memoir, Jessi Klein

Description: As both a tomboy and a late bloomer, comedian Jessi Klein grew up feeling more like an outsider than a participant in the rites of modern femininity. Klein offers a relentlessly funny yet poignant take on a variety of topics she has experienced along her strange journey to womanhood and beyond.

These essays were more enjoyable than other humor writers I’ve read, but I feel like I didn’t get much out of it. Some of the essays were good (I preferred the ones near the end of the book), but to get there you had to wade through explanations of why she hates taking baths, and how she attended her sister’s wedding at Disney World and attempted to take one of the Disney characters back to her hotel room (unsuccessful).

10) With or Without You: A Memoir, Domenica Ruta

Description: Domenica grew up in a working-class town north of Boston, in a trash-filled house on a dead-end road. Her mother, Kathi, was a drug addict and sometime dealer whose life swung between welfare and riches. And yet Kathi managed, despite the chaos she created, to instill in her daughter the idea that art—via a classic film or a classical education—could transcend this life of undying grudges, self-inflicted misfortune, and the crooked moral code that Kathi and her cohorts lived by. As Domenica grew older, though, she fled town only to become ensnared by the demons of addiction.

I didn’t make notes as I was reading this book, which I normally do so it’s easier to write the review when I’m done. I just wasn’t finding a lot to make note of: Domenica had a messed-up childhood, she became an alcoholic, years later she got sober. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a number of addiction memoirs that I liked better, this one didn’t stand out to me.

11) Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, Beth Kephart

Description: Writing memoir is a deeply personal undertaking. As an author of five memoirs, Kephart has been both blessed and bruised by the genre. Here, she thinks out loud about the form — on how it gets made, on what it means to make it, on the searing language of truth, and on the thin line between remembering and imagining.

This book covers a wide range of topics, and there were parts I liked, but all in all it didn’t draw me in. When I’ve read other books on writing, I’d find myself jotting down sentences I wanted to remember, but I didn’t do that here. Kephart also used a lot of examples of other people’s works to illustrate her memoir-writing tips, and I realize why she did it, but I thought there were too many.

At the end of the book, she includes a long list of memoirs that have influenced her, and I did make note of the ones I haven’t read, so I’m looking forward to exploring some new memoir options.

12) Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg

Description: With insight, humor, and practicality, Goldberg inspires writers and would-be writers to take the leap into writing skillfully and creatively. She offers suggestions, encouragement, and solid advice on many aspects of the writer’s craft.

This is a classic book on writing (originally published in 1986), but just like book #11 above, it didn’t speak to me. Plus, her thoughts and advice are supposed to hold true for all types of writing, but she talks a lot about poetry, which I have zero interest in.

Not Recommended

13) Baby Steps: Having the Child I Always Wanted (Just Not as I Expected), Elisabeth Rohm

Description: When Elisabeth started blogging about her family for People.com, she had no idea how many women would respond to her stories about struggling with infertility. Now the actress best known for her role on Law and Order shares what she hasn’t yet: the full story of how in-vitro fertilization allowed her to have a child, how talking about infertility helped her cope with it, and how her desire for a baby taught her about herself and made her into the woman she was meant to be.

I thought this book might be relevant to a topic I discussed not long ago. But…blah. No. I think what bothered me most were her alternative facts. She writes that women under 40 have an IVF success rate of 70-80%, which is easily disproved with a simple google search. She also didn’t appear to grasp how fertility cycles work, writing that she and her partner tried to make a baby by going on vacation for a week and getting it on a lot, then she immediately came home and took a pregnancy test, which was negative. (If I could insert an emoji here, it would be rolling its eyes.)

Other things that bothered me: 1) The title makes you think it’s about infertility and IVF, but I found most of it to be Elisabeth’s personal memoir (early life and how she became an actress), and how crushed she was over her mother’s death. 2) The writing was too precious, too “rah-rah, you can do this!”

One nice thing is that she calls out the large number of women in Hollywood who have likely used fertility treatment to birth their babies but haven’t said anything about it (there are a lot of women in their late 30s through mid 40s with young children, including twins). She hypothesizes that this admission might make the actresses seem older, and women in Hollywood will do anything to appear youthful. Elisabeth calls it out because she wants to remove the stigma.

Childfree

I’m 37 and I Can’t Have a Baby

Two years ago, I published one of my most popular posts: I’m 35 and I Don’t Know If I Want a Baby. People still leave (awesome, in-depth) comments on it, so I’ve decided it’s time for a follow-up.

Shortly after writing that post, my husband and I decided to go for it. We knew we didn’t want a big family (as in, two kids would be too many for us), but one child seemed doable.

After trying unsuccessfully for over a year to get pregnant, we both went to doctors to get checked out. Test results uncovered a fertility issue we hadn’t known about.

Receiving definitive test results was a relief. There is a diagnosed issue. I’d rather know about it than wonder every month why it hasn’t happened yet. There is no more ambiguity.

A fertility specialist told us getting pregnant naturally isn’t impossible, but the odds are very low. The odds are so low, I asked my husband to stop saying “If we have a baby,” because if we decide not to pursue an alternative method I’ve accepted it will not happen.

*****

I questioned for many years whether I wanted a child or not, so I’m sure that helped me receive the news as readily as I did. I know it’s not the same for women who’ve known they wanted a child from a young age, or have pined for success for many years.

If you were to ask me how I feel today, I’d say I’m a little bit sad, but I am mostly resigned.

I’ve known about this for months now, so it is not fresh. It has sunk in and I’ve accepted it. I am disappointed but not devastated.

Family and friends have told me this situation seems unfair. We would make stable and loving parents. That may be so, but infertility happens to potential good and bad parents alike. We are not special. Just because we would make good parents doesn’t mean we deserve the opportunity more than anyone else.

I have moved on to thinking how my future will be different, now that I know my husband and I will likely remain a two-person family.

*****

We could choose to undergo infertility treatment, but we’ve been told the only procedure with any reasonable chance of working would be IVF.

I know people who have been successful with IVF, and I know people who have gone through multiple rounds unsuccessfully. I’m not going to list my personal reasons here; rest assured this topic has been extensively researched and well thought out. My husband and I have had long conversations about it. I know what my options are and I choose to decline.

*****

Adoption has made many families very happy. I recognize it is an option for us, and I’ve done some research (domestic and foster care), but that’s as far as I’ve taken it. I have a good idea of what’s involved and it doesn’t seem appealing.

While I don’t plan to change my mind about infertility treatment, I could possibly change my mind about adoption. It’s not something I want to pursue right now, but we may decide to revisit it down the road.

*****

If I was going to have a baby, I wanted it to be easy.

You know what I mean: positive pregnancy test, expanding belly, morning sickness, maternity clothes, checkups, mood swings, purchasing a crib and stroller, healthy baby. That kind of easy.

I realize pregnancy is not easy, but it seems a heck of a lot better than going through infertility treatment before you can even start with the whole pregnancy business. It’s also more appealing than all the red tape, stress, and potential despondency involved with adoption.

*****

In the meantime, we live our lives, we get a lot of uninterrupted sleep, and we do things like take spontaneous weekend trips to Toronto (complete with wind-blown hair) just because we can.

Paul and Zan in Toronto

*****

These are some books I’ve read over the past few years that I found helpful:

Books

Books Read in April 2017

I read eight books in April (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 36.

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

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

Highly Recommended

1) The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, Anu Partanen

Description: Partanen (a Finnish journalist, now a naturalized American citizen) compares and contrasts life in the U.S. with life in the Nordic region, focusing on four key relationships — parents and children, men and women, employees and employers, and government and citizens. She debunks criticism that Nordic countries are socialist “nanny states,” revealing that it is Americans who are far more enmeshed in unhealthy dependencies than we realize. Offering insights, advice, and solutions, Partanen makes an argument that we can rebuild our society, rekindle our optimism, and restore true freedom to our relationships and lives.

Anu doesn’t glorify the Nordic region, but she makes a convincing argument that the services available to its citizens should be available to Americans as well. She has experienced both worlds, growing up and later working in Finland, until she moved to the U.S. in 2008 (unsurprisingly, she found our confusing, cumbersome, and expensive health care system the largest obstacle to navigate).

I assumed, like many people, that having so many benefits available to Nordic citizens must mean they pay most of their salary in taxes. Not so, says Anu. While her tax rate was slightly higher in Finland, it covered a vast array of services – schooling (including university), maternity leave, unemployment benefits, and, of course, health insurance – and with a lot less bureaucracy.

Students in Finland score impressive rankings on international achievement tests, largely due to how they’ve set up their school system. On the flip side, America’s system of funding public schools through property taxes leads to huge disparities in resources, with schools in wealthy areas being the clear winners. This is not the case in Finland.

I found myself wondering how feasible it would be to make similar changes in the U.S., since we have many, many more people than Finland. Honestly, it seems way outside the realm of possibility, with the way we have things set up right now. Anu addresses this question a bit, suggesting it could be implemented on the state level first.

While there are many things she’d like to see improved upon in America, Anu speaks highly of our country and its people, saying Americans “are the most helpful, energetic, and supportive people I’ve ever met.”

I found an article Anu published last year called The Fog of Living Abroad, where she writes about transitioning to writing in English after she moved to the U.S. to live. Even though she’d studied English since she was a young child and could speak the language fluently, writing is entirely different.

Recommended

2) The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, Eric Weiner

Description: Weiner, an acclaimed travel writer, sets out to examine the connection between our surroundings and our most innovative ideas. He explores the history of places, like Vienna of 1900, Renaissance Florence, ancient Athens, and Silicon Valley, to show how certain urban settings are conducive to ingenuity. With his trademark humor, he walks the same paths as the geniuses who flourished in these settings to see if the spirit of what inspired figures like Socrates, Michelangelo, and Leonardo remains.

Weiner does this thing where he identifies a question he’d like to answer, chooses appropriate places around the globe and spends time there, interviewing people and hanging out while he explores possible answers. This is his third book, and while they all follow the same formula the questions are completely different.

Here, Weiner focuses on cities that had a high number of geniuses in different points in time (like Athens, Hangzhou, and Vienna), and tries to identify what the conditions may have been to make this possible. It’s a question I was never curious about, but he has the ability to make it entertaining.

3) Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, Lee Smith

Description: Set deep in the mountains of Virginia, the Grundy of Lee’s youth was a place of coal miners, tent revivals, mountain music, and her daddy’s dimestore. Even when she was sent off to college to earn some “culture,” she understood the richest culture she might ever know was the one she was driving away from. Lee’s essays are crushingly honest and superbly entertaining. She has created both a moving personal portrait and a testament to embracing one’s heritage. It’s also an inspiring story of the birth of a writer and a poignant look at a way of life that has all but vanished.

I’d never heard of Lee Smith (or read any of her 12 novels), until I came across this collection of essays while browsing available ebooks on my library’s website. The essays cover a wide range of topics (growing up with a father who suffered from bipolar disorder, and a mother who had depression and anxiety; losing her 33-year-old son from complications with schizophrenia), but all of them relate to her upbringing in a small town in Virginia. I enjoyed every single one.

4) Getting Real: A Memoir, Gretchen Carlson

Description: Celebrity news anchorwoman Gretchen Carlson shares her inspiring story and offers important takeaways about what it means to strive for and find success. She takes readers from her Minnesota childhood, where she became a violin prodigy, through college at Stanford and her in-the-trenches years as a cub reporter on local television stations before becoming a national news reporter.

I listened to this on audiobook, which Gretchen reads herself. Other than thinking she has an overly-perky voice at times, I enjoyed it. I didn’t know she was trained as a classical violinist, and played for many years. She played the violin in the talent portion of the Miss America pageant in 1989, which she won (I looked up the video of her performance – it’s here, if you want to watch it).

Gretchen is an impressive lady with a lot of drive, and it was interesting to hear how she went from violin prodigy, to Miss America, to working as a reporter for local TV stations, then later to CBS and FOX News.

This book was published in 2015, so it doesn’t address her sexual harassment case against Roger Ailes. On the contrary, she speaks highly of him several times, calling him “the most accessible boss I’ve ever worked for.” It makes me wonder if she really wanted to include him in her book, or if she felt obligated to because she was writing it while still employed by FOX.

5) Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-changing Egg Farm–from Scratch, Lucie B. Amundsen

Description: How a Midwestern family with no agricultural experience went from a few backyard chickens to a full-fledged farm — and discovered why local chicks are better. With an unexpected passion for this dubious enterprise, Amundsen shares a messy, wry, and educational story of the unforeseen payoffs (and frequent pitfalls) of one couple’s ag adventure — and many, many hours spent wrangling chickens.

I’ve read a number of books written by people without any (or barely any) farm experience who decide to take to the land. I find the tales interesting, even though it’s not something I’d ever want to do myself. I just like reading about people who drastically change their lives.

Things appear to have worked out for Lucie and her husband, but the process was really rough when they started out. I didn’t like how Lucie’s husband decreed he was going to start this business even though she was vehemently against it. Changing your family’s lives in such a drastic way should have the buy-in of both adults. At one point, Lucie wrote, “Jason was now a farmer, and I was a married single parent.”

Having said that, Lucie’s recollections of building a pasture-raised egg business was entertaining, and her commitment to sourcing locally is commendable. I learned about the process of small scale egg washing, and what happened when they entered a national small-business contest and almost won.

Okay

6) Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport

Description: Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive economy. A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, Newport takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories and no-nonsense advice.

I’ve read a number of reviewers who said this book changed their lives. I enjoyed the introduction and Part 2, which is the section with the helpful information and tips. I had to downgrade my rating of this book to “Okay” because I found Part 1 (the philosophy behind the notion of “deep work”) boring. How can I fully recommend a book if I wish half of it had been cut out?

Newport makes a compelling argument that we live very distracted lives, and it’s only through regular periods of deep focus that results emerge. Newport rarely works past 530pm or on weekends, yet he’s written multiple books, published numerous academic papers, and maintains a full-time job as a professor.

7) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

Description: Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

This book contains a lot of good information, and I liked how Kolbert traveled around and experienced her topics firsthand, but I did get bogged down in all the science at times. I listened to it on audiobook, which isn’t ideal for this genre because I tend to ingest science more easily if I can read it, rather than hearing it spoken out loud.

Not Recommended

8) I Hate Everyone, Except You, Clinton Kelly

Description: Television personality Clinton Kelly pens a collection of essays about his often-embarrassing journey from awkward kid to slightly less awkward adult.

I didn’t expect this to be humor writing, which (as regular readers may recall) I generally do not like. I occasionally watched What Not to Wear back in the day, so I was hoping there would be more emphasis on his time on that show, but other than a single chapter (written in the form of a letter to a fan), that was pretty much it.

Kelly focuses on stories from his childhood and 20s in NYC, like how he would rent p0rn from a video store with a friend, and that one time he went on a scary ride at a water park and farted water afterward (see, I told you — not funny). I likely would have abandoned the book if the essays weren’t so short; even when I was rolling my eyes about something I knew it wouldn’t last long.

Books

Books Read in March 2017

I read 11 books in March (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2017 total to 28.

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

Highly Recommended

1) Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah

Description: Trevor’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. He was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could steal him away. This is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist.

Trevor had a fascinating upbringing. He literally had to be hidden as a young kid because he was “born a crime” – he had a white father and a black mother when it was against the law for races to mix. He found it hard to make friends because he didn’t fit in with any group: he was too white for the blacks and too black for the whites.

He was quite naughty as a kid, constantly testing boundaries. This book follows his life from birth through early 20s, so it falls short of explaining how he went from South Africa to host of The Daily Show. Maybe he’ll cover that journey in a later memoir.

Recommended

2) The Underground Railroad: A Novel, Colson Whitehead

Description: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia when she and Caesar decide to escape. In Whitehead’s conception, the Underground Railroad is no metaphor — engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. As Whitehead re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.

I recommend this book but I didn’t like the ending.

If you’ve read the book already, these are the questions I had (may contain spoilers). 1) Wasn’t it way too obvious that the ending had to involve Ridgeway?; and 2) Why wouldn’t Cora have recognized Homer before everything went to hell? She saw a young boy wink at her but didn’t register who it was? Seeing him would have tipped her off and everyone would have had plenty of time to disperse before the bad guys showed up. So yeah, that pissed me off. The author should have left out the whole winking part.

3) Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Sarah Lohman

Description: The U.S. boasts a culturally and ethnically diverse population which makes for a continually changing culinary landscape. But a young historical gastronomist named Sarah Lohman discovered that American food is united by eight flavors: black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. Lohman sets out to explore how these influential ingredients made their way to the American table.

I liked this book more than I thought I would, which is always nice. It made me think about common household ingredients in an entirely new way (well, MSG isn’t a common ingredient – indeed, it is often vilified – but the author has some intriguing arguments for why MSG isn’t bad for you and how opinions about certain ingredients change over time). She incorporates interesting tidbits and personal anecdotes to tie everything together.

Fun facts: 1) 96% of the world’s supply of vanillin is artificially produced, due to the laborious process involved in harvesting the real thing; 2) The use of garlic in cooking was maligned for many years, mostly because imported spices were viewed as superior.

4) Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters, Jennifer Wilson

Description: Jen and Jim had always dreamed of taking a family sabbatical in another country, so they decided to travel to the Croatian mountain village of Mrkopalj, the land of Jennifer’s ancestors. It was a village that seemed hermetically sealed for the last 100 years, with a population of 800 residents and a herd of sheep milling around the post office. As the family struggled to stay sane (and warm), what they found was much deeper and bigger than themselves.

I knew nothing about Croatia before reading this book, so I’m glad Wilson included both historical context and information about what the country is like today. I also liked that she lived in a rural area in Croatia during the time the book took place, surrounded mostly by people who’d been there their whole lives. It’s a different vibe than going to a city where you tend to encounter people from all over the world.

Wilson took her husband and kids to the town of Mrkopalj, which is where her great-grandparents lived before they immigrated to America. She spent time researching her genealogical roots, locating distant cousins, meeting a wide variety of townspeople, and learning what life was like back when her ancestors lived there.

5) Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim, Sabeeha Rehman

Description: Beginning with an account of her arranged marriage, Rehman undercuts stereotypes and offers a refreshing view of an American life through Muslim eyes. She recounts an immigrant’s daily struggles balancing assimilation with preserving heritage, overcoming religious barriers from within and distortions of Islam from without, and confronting issues of raising her children as Muslims.

Sabeeha came to the U.S. with her husband in the early 1970s from Pakistan; he was training to be a doctor and they had an arranged marriage. She goes into all the rituals and traditions involved with a Pakistani arranged marriage (and later juxtaposes how that process has evolved and modernized over time). She also talks about her assimilation and how so many things in the U.S. were shocking to her, like clothing choices, public displays of affection, and men and women living together before marriage.

She also talks about being a Muslim, but I liked that her religious identity changed over time: when she first moved to the U.S., she and her husband rarely prayed, went to services, or observed holidays like Ramadan. Nobody else they knew was dedicated to it, so it was easy to let it slip. Later, once she had kids, she became more involved. She and her husband often had to create Muslim communities from scratch because what they wanted didn’t exist.

Sabeeha went to graduate school and worked her way up as an executive in hospital administration. In a wide variety of ways, she has stood up for women’s rights for many years and challenged assumptions about how a Muslim woman should act and dress.

I liked this book a lot, and the topic is especially timely in our current political climate.

6) The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner

Description: Weiner spent a decade as a foreign correspondent reporting from discontented locales like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. Unhappy people living in profoundly unstable states, he notes, inspire pathos and make for good copy, but not for good karma. So Weiner undertook a year’s research to travel the globe, looking for the “unheralded happy places.” The result is this book, equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and philosophical, a journey into both the definition of and the destination for true contentment.

This type of book, where someone travels to all sorts of countries to answer a question, really appeals to me. I enjoyed Weiner’s explorations and his commentary. Along with the happiest countries in the world, he also visited Moldova, which ranks at the bottom of the happiness scale (and he was eager to leave). He doesn’t end up with any blockbuster insights (which I didn’t expect anyway), but I enjoyed it all the same.

Okay

7) This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, Melody Warnick

Description: The average restless American will move 11.7 times in a lifetime. For Warnick, it was move #6, from Austin, TX, to Blacksburg, VA, that threatened to unhinge her. In the lonely aftermath of unpacking, she wondered: Aren’t we supposed to put down roots at some point? How does the place we live become the place we want to stay? This time, she had an epiphany. Rather than hold her breath and hope this new town would be her family’s perfect fit, she would figure out how to fall in love with it — no matter what.

I was looking forward to this book (after reading great reviews here and here) but it didn’t fulfill my expectations. Warnick did a good job with the research, looking into what makes cities and towns desirable places to live, how people become “place attached,” and highlighting people around the country who have made efforts to bring attention to where they live (often making their location enjoyable for many more people in the process).

My major complaint is one I’ve made with other books, when I feel the author has made a halfhearted effort when it comes to executing her own suggestions. Warnick made goals for herself that she didn’t fulfill; for instance, she went to town leaders to suggest hosting their town’s first Chalk Fest, only to chicken out and basically hand out boxes of chalk at an existing event instead. (I felt the same way about A Year of No Sugar…for someone who was supposed to be eating NO sugar, there were a fair amount of modifications to the rules. If you say you’re not going to eat any sugar, don’t eat any sugar.)

However, although I found Warnick’s efforts halfhearted, they did appear to result in her becoming more place-attached, since at the end her husband brings up the idea of leaving and for the first time she can remember, she wanted to stay put.

I don’t think her suggestions for learning to love your city are bad, I just didn’t learn anything new from them. I guess I’ve lived in enough places that I know what to do when I move somewhere new, but maybe her suggestions would work better for someone else.

8) Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North, Blair Braverman

Description: Blair fell in love with the North at an early age: by the time she was 19, she had left her home in California, moved to Norway to learn how to drive sled dogs, and worked as a tour guide on a glacier in Alaska. Determined to make a life for herself in the North, she slowly developed the strength and resilience the landscape demanded of her. Blair captures the triumphs and the perils of the journey to self-discovery and independence in a landscape that is as beautiful as it is unforgiving.

I liked this glimpse into various Arctic areas of the world, the people who live there, and a different way of life — including dog sledding! — but some of the scenes were just plain weird. (It wasn’t the culture that was weird; just the particular scenes and people the author chose to highlight.)

I also liked that Blair talks about her relationship with a man who is transgender (transitioned from female to male). It wasn’t included in the book’s description, so it’s introduced as matter-of-fact, which was even better. Their relationship was woven into the rest of the story and it was taken for granted that it belonged there — no advance warning needed.

9) The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes

Description: Taubes delves into Americans’ history with sugar: its uses as a preservative, as an additive in cigarettes, the contemporary overuse of high-fructose corn syrup. He explains what research has shown about our addiction to sweets. He clarifies the arguments against sugar, corrects misconceptions about the relationship between sugar and weight loss; and provides the perspective necessary to make informed decisions about sugar as individuals and as a society.

This is well researched and thorough, but I’d read a lot of the information before so it didn’t seem all that new or interesting. I slogged through, but I already agree with the author’s premise and didn’t need to be convinced: Sugar is the dietary trigger of obesity and diabetes, and associated diseases like heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and even dementia. In addition to the science of why sugar is bad for us, there’s a lot on the history of sugar and its meteoric rise in popularity.

If you don’t want to read the book, this New York Times article was written by Taubes and inspired his longer version.

10) The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, Joshua Becker

Description: Joshua Becker helps you: recognize the life-giving benefits of owning less; realize how all the stuff you own is keeping you from pursuing your dreams; craft a personal, practical approach to decluttering your home and life; experience the joys of generosity; and learn why the best part of minimalism isn’t a clean house, it’s a full life.

I’m rating this book as Okay because I didn’t get anything new from it, but that’s because I’ve been practicing, living, researching, and reading about minimalism for years. However, I do think this would be a great resource for someone new to the concept. It’s what I would have wanted to read when I first discovered minimalism, and I’d recommend it to others who are just starting out.

11) Better Than New: Lessons I’ve Learned from Saving Old Homes (and How They Saved Me), Nicole Curtis

Description: For the past 20 years, Curtis has worked tirelessly to restore historical houses, often revitalizing neighborhoods in the process. She’s drawn millions of fans to her television show, Rehab Addict, where they follow the seemingly lost cause of turning a run-down building into a beautifully restored home. With her signature honesty and energy, Curtis writes about a project every reader will find compelling: how she rehabbed herself.

I’ve only seen Nicole’s show a few times. To be honest, I stopped watching because I found her voice annoying and I was tired of the low-cut tank tops she wore to do construction work. One of those complaints was addressed in the book when Nicole admits she can’t watch her own show because she hates hearing her voice.

I do admire her drive as an obviously successful, entrepreneurial woman. She never sits still for long and she’s had to prove herself over and over in a heavily male-dominated profession. I also like that she focuses on restoring old homes, retaining as many original details as possible.

Books

Books Read in February 2017

I read eight books in February (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 17.

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

Highly Recommended

1) Settle for More, Megyn Kelly

Description: Kelly reflects on the values and experiences that have shaped her — from growing up in a family that rejected the “trophies for everyone” mentality, to her father’s sudden death while she was in high school. She goes behind-the-scenes of her career, sharing the stories and struggles that landed her in the anchor chair of cable’s #1 news show. Speaking candidly about her decision to “settle for more” — a motto she credits as having dramatically transformed her life at home and at work — Kelly discusses how she abandoned a thriving legal career to follow her journalism dreams.

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book so much, but…it surprised me.

To be fair, I assumed I wouldn’t like it because Megyn was a Fox News anchor for many years, and I’m not a Fox News watcher. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t read this positive review on The Book Wheel.

I don’t rate books as Highly Recommended unless I feel like I got a lot out of it, and/or the story inspired me in some way. In a nutshell: Megyn didn’t come from a family of means, as a kid she was bullied in school, as a teenager she lost her father, but through an immense amount of drive and hard work, she excelled in law school and pursued a lucrative career as an attorney. It wasn’t until she burned out in her job in her early 30s that she considered switching to journalism (at the time, she wondered if she was too old to change careers).

I was happy to learn that politically, she considers herself an Independent. While I’m sure she said many things on TV over the years that I wouldn’t agree with, she doesn’t vilify one political party over another.

What I really respected is how vocal she is about speaking up for women. While she doesn’t consider herself a feminist – something other people have decried and which she addresses in the book – I didn’t hate her explanation as much as I expected to. Among other things, she finds the word feminist “exclusionary and alienating” and says “feminism has become associated, de facto, with liberal politics.” She prefers to support women without putting a label on it.

Megyn comes across as fearless on the air (did you see this clip where she challenged Newt Gingrich a few months back?) but she admits to a certain amount of vulnerability. She says it can be difficult for her to reach out to people, or put herself out there in new social situations.

In the last third book of the book, she addresses her long-standing conflict with Trump (which was a completely one-sided conflict since she never responded in kind, after he took offense to one of her on-air debate questions and proceeded to speak negatively about her, relentlessly, on TV and on his Twitter account, for many months). I’d heard about some of it but didn’t realize the full extent until I read this book. She says that Trump’s anger toward her was seen by some of his followers as a “call to action,” and she received an immense amount of negative feedback from those followers — in addition to calling her unprintable names, she received so many death threats that Fox had to hire security guards.

Megyn doesn’t say who she voted for during the last presidential election, but even though she publicly patched things up with Trump, he’s obviously not someone she respects. She calls him “a master at manipulating the media.”

There’s a lot of stuff I haven’t mentioned (like her involvement in Roger Ailes’ sexual harassment case, and personal stuff like how she met her current husband and how being a mom has changed her). You’ll have to read it for yourself. I think you’ll like it.

2) Homegoing: A Novel, Yaa Gyasi

Description: We begin with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Homegoing traces generations of family as their destinies lead them through two continents and 300 years of history, each life indelibly drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

This is one of the best fictional books I’ve read in a long time. I learned a lot about the African slave trade; how they were captured, held, shipped, and sold. The capturing usually happened at the hands of their fellow countrymen, motivated by tribal warfare but mostly by monetary greed.

I liked how the book covered a wide range of characters over a long period of time. There was continuity and flashbacks to previous generations, so it wasn’t difficult to follow. My only complaint is that sometimes a chapter didn’t seem long enough and I wanted to know more of a particular person’s story, but I suppose that’s a good problem to have.

Recommended

3) The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country, Helen Russell

Description: When she was given the opportunity of a new life in rural Jutland, journalist and archetypal Londoner Helen Russell discovered a startling statistic: the happiest place on earth isn’t Disneyland, but Denmark, a land often thought of by foreigners as consisting entirely of long dark winters, cured herring, Lego and pastries. What is the secret to their success? Are happy Danes born, or made? Helen decides there is only one way to find out: she will give herself a year, trying to uncover the formula for Danish happiness.

I love memoirs written by women who move to a new country, and this one is especially great because she interviewed a bunch of Danes (in a wide variety of fields) about why they consistently rate themselves as so darn happy.

Unfortunately, some of the big reasons Danes are so happy aren’t easily transferable to other countries: free and/or greatly subsidized healthcare and education (from preschool through college), generous maternity and paternity leave, and an average 34-hour workweek.

Other things Danes value: environmentalism (Denmark gets 30% of its electricity from wind), beautiful design (they are willing to spend more to have beautiful, quality items in their homes), and hygge, a concept which has received some recent attention.

On the flip side, Danes have a high rate of antidepressant and tobacco use, and studies show they’re the heaviest drinkers in Europe.

Okay

4) The Nightingale, Kristin Hannah

Description: Hannah captures the panorama of WWII and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. She tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France.

I read some glowing reviews of this book but I didn’t love it. I felt like certain things were put in just for shock value, and I didn’t feel invested in the characters at all (a young girl getting shot, a Nazi being murdered).

5) Still Points North: Surviving the World’s Greatest Alaskan Childhood, Leigh Newman

Description: Growing up in Alaska, Leigh spent her time hiking glaciers and flying in a single-prop plane. But her life split in two when her parents divorced, requiring her to spend summers on the tundra with her “Great Alaskan” father and the school year in Baltimore with her mother. Leigh reveals how a child torn between two homes becomes a woman who both fears and idealizes connection, how a need for independence can morph into isolation, and how even the most guarded heart can still long for understanding.

I didn’t like the first third of the book as much as the rest, although I realized she had to tell us about her childhood in order to show us how it affected her as an adult. While I didn’t love the book, it was a good example of how living a dual life as a kid (in rural Alaska and urban Baltimore), and dealing with weird parents, can really mess someone up. The story of her relationship with her husband — how they met, became a couple, got married, sort-of-separated, and reunited — was quite…something. I spent most of my time reading this book thinking, “This author is really screwed up.”

6) In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, Diane Guerrero

Description: Guerrero, television actress from “Orange is the New Black” and “Jane the Virgin,” was just 14 on the day her parents were arrested and deported. Born in the U.S., Guerrero was able to remain and continue her education, depending on the kindness of family friends who took her in and helped her build a life without the support system of her family. This is the story of one woman’s resilience in the face of the nightmarish struggles of undocumented residents in this country.

Diane’s experience of surviving her parents’ deportation is moving, but I would have been content reading an article about it rather than the full-length version. I’d heard about the book for months but didn’t think it was something I’d be interested in — I should have gone with my gut. I put it on my list after Jaclyn recommended it, saying “I cried throughout most of the book – what a powerful story.” (Just goes to show that two voracious readers — we both read over 100 books last year! — often prefer to read entirely different things.)

7) Melissa Explains It All: Tales from My Abnormally Normal Life, Melissa Joan Hart

Description: Melissa tells the frank and funny behind-the-scenes stories from her extraordinary past and her refreshingly normal present. She explains all that she’s learned along the way, and reveals herself as the approachable, hilarious girl-next-door her fans always thought she’d be.

I knew who Melissa Joan Hart was, but I didn’t know anything about her. I didn’t watch Clarissa Explains It All or Sabrina the Teenage Witch, the two shows she’s most known for (although to her credit, she’s appeared in a bunch of commercials, plays, TV shows, and movies). In addition to telling her story, she talks about famous people she’s known and worked with over the years (like her high school friend Tara Reid), and making out with Ryan Reynolds and Jerry O’Connell.

I listened to this on audiobook, and Hart reads it herself, which is always a plus. I think I would have liked it better if I recognized the names of the coworkers on her shows that she talked about and popular episode details she described. If you’re already a fan of Hart, you’d likely enjoy this book.

8) Girl at the End of the World: My Escape from Fundamentalism in Search of Faith with a Future, Elizabeth Esther

Description: Elizabeth grew up in love with Jesus but in fear of daily spankings (to “break her will”). Trained in her family-run church to confess sins real and imagined, she knew her parents loved her and God probably hated her. Not until she was grown and married did she find the courage to attempt the unthinkable — leave. Readers will recognize critical questions facing every believer: When is spiritual zeal a gift, and when is it a trap? What happens when a pastor holds unchecked sway over his followers?

This is a quick read. Esther’s religious upbringing was definitely worse than mine; I don’t have nearly as many emotional scars. I feel like she left out a lot of information (like her parents’ reaction to her deciding to leave the church — I have a feeling it was worse than she let on, but she didn’t go into details because they have a good relationship today). I also found the dialogue stilted and unnatural.

Random Friday

Random Friday, Ver. 121

I own a number of Buffalo-related items, based on the fact that I, well, live in Buffalo. This hangs in my cubicle at work, and this guy is on my fireplace mantel, and there are a number of items on my walls at home, as well as a wooden Buffalo-shaped cutting board on my dining table.

The newest addition to my collection is a print by Modern Map Art. They’ve introduced a number of map prints for various cities, Buffalo being one, and they’re available in a variety of sizes and colors (I chose blue and yellow). The colors are deep and rich, the lines are crisp, and it looks exactly as it appears online. Now I just need a frame.

(Disclosure: I received a complimentary print in exchange for my review.)

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My father-in-law offered to repaint our house number, which was badly in need of attention. It’s something I would have gone out and bought brand new, because even though I’m thrifty, I’m also lazy when it comes to home projects (yet another reason why I shouldn’t own a house). The before-and-after is quite dramatic and I’m very happy with it. Now when I have strangers come by to pick up all the items I’ve been selling/giving away on Craigslist the past few months, it’s much easier for them to identify the correct house.

House number

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Watching:
Paul and I decided to check out an episode of Leah Remini’s documentary series on Scientology, and ended up watching four of the nine episodes in one night. I watched this documentary just a few months ago, and I’ve read several books on the subject (to clarify, I’ve read books about people escaping Scientology, not the propaganda they put out in an attempt to recruit new members).

Here are some very good books I recommend:

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Favorite Links:

What Else? (The danger of posting link round-ups when there are more important things you should be writing about.) “I still love reading — and writing — “link round-ups” from time to time. … There’s nothing “wrong” with scouring the Internet for cool resources and compiling them into a fun list. … However with a capital H…What else do you want to say to the world? What are the life experiences that have shaped your identity, and that have taught you the greatest lessons? … Most importantly: How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?”

A Few Thoughts on Abortion. “I fiercely believe that medical decisions are the domain of a person and their doctor. I am pro-choice, a political stance that became firmer when I became a mother. I have never aborted a pregnancy, but the safety and legality of abortion have impacted my family in a positive way.”

Doomsday Prep for the Super Rich. “Survivalism, the practice of preparing for a crackup of civilization, tends to evoke a certain picture: the woodsman in the tinfoil hat, the hysteric with the hoard of beans, the religious doomsayer. But in recent years survivalism has expanded to more affluent quarters, taking root in Silicon Valley and New York City, among technology executives, hedge-fund managers, and others in their economic cohort.”

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From the Archives:

Two years ago: Confession: I Borrowed Library Books Without Checking Them Out. “I was around 10 years old when I removed books from the library without checking them out. Why would I do that? (Spoiler: I always returned them.)”

Seven years ago: Snowed-in. Three feet of snow fell in Washington, DC and the entire region shut down for a week.

Eight years ago: Indoor Rock Climbing: Don’t Look Down. The first and only time I’ve been rock climbing.

Nine years ago: Reclaiming Spinster. “I love when women proclaim loud and proud that they’re fine with being single. This doesn’t mean they wouldn’t be just as happy with a partner; it’s that they don’t require the presence of someone else to lead a happy, fulfilling life.”

Books

Books Read in January 2017

I read nine books in January (one was an audiobook).

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

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

Recommended

1) A Life in Parts, Bryan Cranston

Description: In his memoir, Cranston maps his zigzag journey from abandoned son to beloved star by recalling the many odd parts he’s played. He chronicles his evolution on camera, from soap opera player, to legendary character actor, to star. Cranston also dives deep into the details of his greatest role, explaining how he searched inward for the personal darkness that would help him create one of the most memorable performances ever captured on screen: Walter White, chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.

What stood out to me about Cranston’s story is that he really hustled to get where he is today. He had an interesting life even before he made it big — for instance, when he was in his 20s, he and his brother spent two years riding their motorcycles around the U.S., sleeping in churches, parks, and homeless shelters, and taking odd jobs to support their lifestyle. When he decided he wanted to act, he was very dedicated in pursuing his goal. He sought it out; he didn’t wait for opportunities to come to him.

In addition to tales of his turbulent childhood and a former girlfriend who turned into a stalker, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes info related to his six seasons on Breaking Bad

I listened to this on audiobook, and I really liked that Cranston reads it himself. It wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling otherwise.

2) Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, Jennifer Weiner

Description: No subject is off-limits in this collection of essays: sex, weight, envy, money, and her estranged father’s death. From lonely adolescence to modern childbirth, Jennifer goes there with the wit and candor that have endeared her to readers all over the world.

Weiner is a well-known chick-lit author. While I’ve never read any of her fiction, when I heard about her memoir I put it on hold at the library.

I almost deleted my hold when I heard that Weiner thought her memoir should have been chosen for Oprah’s book club rather than Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior (which I read last October, and rated as Highly Recommended). Apparently Weiner did retract her complaint and blame it on impulsiveness and hurt feelings, but still…who does that?

I’m glad I read Weiner’s memoir because it is very good. She does come across as braggy sometimes (after she obtains her literary fame and riches), but I thought her essays were well done. She writes about her second book being turned into a movie, undergoing weight loss surgery after she gained a lot of weight while pregnant, the terrible secrets she uncovered after her estranged father died of a drug overdose, and (warning!) a graphic description of a 10-week miscarriage at age 45.

I liked her openness, and applaud her unwavering support for feminist and democratic causes throughout her life.

3) Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, Mara Wilson

Description: Mara has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex, to losing her mother at a young age, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity.

I liked the first half of this book better than the second half, but most of it is worth reading (minus a few essays, like the one on the first boy who broke her heart as a teenager, and her experience with show choir in high school). Mara is seven years younger than me so I remember her as “that little kid in those movies” (Mrs. Doubtfire, Matilda, Miracle on 34th Street), but she had an interesting life and I liked her perspective as a smarter-than-usual, nerdy, dark kid.

I liked her essays on: being told how “cute” she was as a child, and how that affected her as she got older; an open letter to Matilda, the title character she played in a movie; her mother’s death when Mara was eight years old; her history of anxiety / OCD / not thinking she’s good enough; and a blog post she wrote after Robin Williams committed suicide.

If you don’t read the book, this is a good article from Vanity Fair.

4) When in French: Love in a Second Language, Lauren Collins

Description: This is about the lengths we go for love, as well as an exploration across culture and history into how we learn languages. Collins grapples with the complexities of the French language, wrestling with the very nature of French identity and society—which, it turns out, is a far cry from life back home in North Carolina. Plumbing the depths of humanity’s many forms of language, Collins describes the frustrations, embarrassments, surprises, and, finally, joys of learning — and living in — French.

This is a book about learning the French language, but it’s mostly set in Geneva, Switzerland (a city the author finds boring, elitist, and expensive), where her husband is located for work. I liked that it’s not a typical memoir. While she relays stories about speaking French with her husband, how she ended up where she is, and adventures in language-learning class, she also delves into various translation and language topics. It was a nice mix.

5) The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir, Ruth Wariner

Description: Growing up in rural Mexico, where authorities turned a blind eye to the practices of her polygamist community, Ruth lives in a ramshackle house without indoor plumbing or electricity. In need of government assistance, Ruth and her siblings are carted back and forth between Mexico and the United States, where her mother collects welfare and her stepfather works a variety of odd jobs. As Ruth begins to doubt her family’s beliefs, she struggles to balance her fierce love for her siblings with her determination to forge a better life for herself.

What a way to grow up. When the book opens, Ruth is one of five kids. Her mother keeps getting pregnant, and each time I’m like…six! Seven! Eight! That has to be the last one. But no. This woman gives birth to ten kids before the book ends, with three of them mentally and/or developmentally disabled. Ruth endures a tumultuous childhood: sexual abuse by her stepfather, poverty, and constant moving. It all comes to a head when a horrifying experience involving several family members is the catalyst that causes her to leave the community for good.

6) Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach

Description: This book tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries — panic, exhaustion, heat, noise — and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

I’ve read many of Mary Roach’s previous books (with great titles such as Gulp, Stiff, Bonk, and Spook). I wasn’t sure I’d like this one since it focuses on military science, but she has a great ability to take a mundane topic and bring forth all the fascinating and abnormal aspects you’ve never thought to question. Examples: genital reconstruction for soldiers involved in bomb blasts, hearing loss in soldiers and why they deny having a problem, why it’s so difficult to repel shark attacks, the science of sweat, and the use of medical maggots (yes, really).

7) Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, Elizabeth Greenwood

Description: Is it still possible to fake your own death in the 21st century? With six figures of student loan debt, Greenwood was tempted to find out. This is an investigation into our all-too-human desire to escape from the lives we lead, and the men and women desperate enough to lose their identities—and their families—to begin again.

This is an interesting look at people who have chosen to fake their own deaths, and also the people who are paid to seek them out (typically employed by life insurance companies). This is not a how-to manual, but Greenwood does uncover tips and tricks along the way. People who are thinking of faking their deaths should read this — not as a primer, but as a cautionary tale.

Okay

8) Future Sex, Emily Witt

Description: Witt captures the experiences of going to bars alone, online dating, and hooking up with strangers. She observes the subcultures she encounters with a wry sense of humor, capturing them in all of their strangeness, ridiculousness, and beauty. The result is an open-minded account of the contemporary pursuit of connection and pleasure, and an inspiring new model of female sexuality — open, forgiving, and unafraid.

I started out thinking the author was too prudish to write a book about sex, but she loosened up a bit later on. Still, she seemed to shy away from many of her subjects, her perspective largely comes off as clinical, and some of the people and situations she chose to focus on (internet dating, web cams) just weren’t all that interesting. A chapter on her experience at Burning Man was pretty good, and there’s one on reproduction where she acknowledges she’d like to have a baby, but probably won’t due to the logistics as a single woman being too great.

9) The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

Description: English nurse Lib Wright is brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle — a girl said to have survived without food for months — and soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

This is a story about a young Irish girl who claims to have survived for four months on no food, told from the perspective of a nurse brought in to observe her and make sure she’s not cheating. The ending surprised me, which was nice, but I found most of the plot tedious. How compelling can a story be when it centers on visiting a dying girl’s home every day?

Life

2016 Year in Review

Rather than list all the major activities that happened in 2016 (as I did in 2015 and 2014), I thought I’d concentrate on three things that will stand out most when I look back at this year.

1) The departure of a friend:

I didn’t write about this when it happened, but in hindsight, I’m glad I waited because I have more perspective on it now. I want to talk about a friend moving away, and the difficulty of making new friends as an adult.

In July, after living in Buffalo for three years, my friend Jaclyn and her family decided to return to Washington, DC. Jaclyn and I met via the internet, as so many do, but our similarities bound us together and made our friendship unique.

I moved to Buffalo in July 2013 from Washington, DC. Jaclyn moved to Buffalo – also from DC – a month later, in August 2013. We didn’t know each other before we moved here; Jaclyn did a Google search looking for Buffalo bloggers and came across my site. She reached out, and we had our first meeting in early September 2013 at SPoT Coffee in the Elmwood Village.

Sometimes a few months would pass where we didn’t see each other, but we met up pretty consistently (sometimes solo, sometimes in group situations with our husbands and her two kids). She was very good about including me and Paul in her family’s fair-weather hiking plans; there are several locations we visited with them that we might not have made it to otherwise. In the last few months before she left, Jaclyn and I would meet for weekly lunchtime walks when we had a break from work.

I spent a full day at her house on a Saturday last January, providing childcare and packing boxes, as she prepared to sell her house and move into temporary housing before they solidified their move back to DC. I met her parents on multiple occasions. I attended two of her daughter’s birthday parties. I cuddled her youngest son when he was just a few weeks old.

Zan and baby

The sticking point is this: Even as we enjoyed each other’s company, Jaclyn and I lamented on multiple occasions that we found it difficult to make other friends in Buffalo.

I’ve met some folks here who are very nice; I’ve been to their homes; met up at restaurants. These relationships just haven’t progressed to actual closeness. Most people are fine interacting a few times a year or less, or greeting you with a hug if you happen to run into each other at an event. Others drop away entirely. You follow each other’s social media feeds but never receive any in-person invites.

I’ve noticed that most people I’ve come into contact with are from here. They’ve lived in Buffalo their entire lives, or most of their lives, and they have enough friends. When they throw a get-together, they don’t think to include you because they already have enough attendees. Valuable weekend hours are set aside for people they’re already close to.

Whenever I tell people how difficult it’s been to make friends in Buffalo, I make sure to acknowledge my part: I’m an introvert. It’s always been hard for me to initiate conversations and invitations. However, if someone extends an invitation, I’m all about it. I realize this aspect of my personality has not helped in the making-friends endeavor, and if I was better about reaching out to people, I’d probably have better luck.

So yes, the closest friend I made after moving to Buffalo was a fellow DC transplant. And then she left.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad Jaclyn left. She was unhappy here, she had good reasons for leaving, and she doesn’t regret her decision. I applaud her bravery – she made multiple drastic changes in her life in the span of three short years. Many people would never do what she did; they contemplate taking action but remain where they are because it’s easier.

I haven’t quite decided what to do about this. It feels like my only option, living where I do, is to force myself past my discomfort and extend more invitations to people I already know and like, in the hope that one day I’ll have seen them enough to achieve that ever-elusive closeness.

In the meantime, I travel back to DC twice a year, and while I’m there I squeeze in as many visits with friends as I possibly can. It’s not uncommon for me to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner plans in a single day. Each of these visits feels like a sigh of relief. I can finally take part in real conversation and unburden myself of all the information I’ve been waiting to share, rather than engaging in the typical superficial “How are you? How was your weekend?” monotony where you know the person doesn’t really care to hear the answer.

2) Biking:

Bikes ended up being a surprisingly big theme of 2016, which I mentioned halfway through the year. From April through October, Paul and I rode almost every Saturday and Sunday, usually for 1.5-2 hours each time.

Our typical ride was 15-20 miles. We sometimes did less and sometimes did more, but the one time we took a wrong turn and added unexpected mileage to an already-long trip (giving us a grand total of 24.5 miles), I was quite grumpy. I’m happy with my 20-miles-or-less rides and don’t see myself becoming a long-distance cyclist anytime soon.

We even rented bikes when we visited Toronto for a long weekend in early October, something we’d never done before. Rental bikes are heavier and more difficult to maneuver, but it was still a fun way to see the city – we covered more ground than walking, and we saw more sights than if we’d taken public transportation.

Paul was the 2016 cycling-distance winner at 32 miles. On a day off from work, he did a round-trip ride from our house to Niagara Falls (16 miles each way). I was both jealous (what a cool ride!) and relieved that he did it without me (because there’s no way I could have lasted 32 miles unless we took a long break in-between).

Paul at Niagara Falls

Another positive side effect of biking is we’ve inspired my father-in-law to take it up. He purchased a bike around the time he retired in September, and he’s really taken to it. He actually goes out more than we do now that it’s gotten cold.

3) A new person in the house:

In July, my youngest brother (13 years younger than me) moved into our home. He’s been living with us now for almost six months.

He’d spent his entire life in central Virginia (where I’m from) until last summer and needed a change of scenery. We’re giving him a rent-free place to stay while he works, pays back some debt, and decides what his next step is going to be.

As with any new situation, there have been pros and cons. On the positive side, my brother is very intelligent and holds different views than we do on a lot of things, so when he decides to hold forth on a certain topic, it ends up being interesting even if we don’t agree with him. His presence has shaken up our normal routines. It’s nice to see him holding down a job and making plans for the future. Occasionally I get a hug.

On the negative side, he’s a 23-year-old male. He cleans things if we specifically ask him, but nothing more, so we often end up with extra work. His room is a disaster. I buy and prepare more food. We’ve had to get used to another person in the house, not knowing when he’s coming in or out. Because of our age difference, I sometimes feel more like a mom than a sister. And he recently broke one particular house rule that made me so angry I almost kicked him out.

This situation won’t last forever. I hope when he leaves, he looks back on his Buffalo experience as a positive one.