I read 15 books in April, which brings my 2015 total to 52. Once I read two more books, I will have officially surpassed my reading total from all of 2014.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended. While I didn’t have any in the top category this month, I rated all of the books I read as Recommended except one. That’s a pretty good month of reading!
Description: One of the main topics of cultural conversation during the last decade was the supposed “fertility crisis,” and whether modern women could figure out a way to have it all — a successful, demanding career and the required 2.3 children — before their biological clock stopped ticking. Now conversation has turned to whether it’s necessary to have it all or whether children are really a requirement for a fulfilling life. The idea that some women and men prefer not to have children is often met with sharp criticism and incredulity by the public and mainstream media. In this collection of essays, 16 acclaimed writers explain why they have chosen to eschew parenthood.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I liked this book, based on having written this post: I’m 35 and I Don’t Know If I Want a Baby. There are a lot of different perspectives in this book, all of which were interesting. I think a lot of women would enjoy this book, even if you know for sure you want a baby one day, or if you already have them.
2) All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenting, Jennifer Senior
Description: Thousands of books have examined the effects of parents on their children. But almost none have thought to ask: What are the effects of children on their parents? Award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior analyzes the many ways children reshape their parents’ lives, whether it’s their marriages, their jobs, their habits, their hobbies, their friendships, or their internal senses of self.
Are you trying to decide if you want to have a kid or not? Are you certain you want one but still need to know what to expect? This book does a great job of covering the bases. The author has a child and talks about the joy kids can bring, but she also takes a very down to earth look at the inevitability of stress, parental guilt, pressures and time commitment of extracurricular activities, and clashes between couples. I found myself bookmarking passages to reference later.
3) The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
Description: The girl on the train is Rachel, who commutes into London and back each day, rolling past the backyard of a happy-looking couple she names Jess and Jason. Then one day Rachel sees “Jess” kissing another man. The day after that, Jess goes missing. The story is told from three character’s perspectives: Rachel, who mourns the loss of her former life with the help of canned gin and tonics; Megan (aka Jess); and Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s wife, who happens to be Jess/Megan’s neighbor. Rachel’s voyeuristic yearning for the seemingly idyllic life of Jess and Jason lures her closer and closer to the investigation into Jess/Megan’s disappearance, and closer to a deeper understanding of who she really is. And who she isn’t.
This book started off a little slow. I found myself wondering why I should care about this woman who was riding a train and looking out the window. A few chapters in, I realized the author did a great job of releasing information in a gradual build-up so we understand the back story and why it’s important. You know the perpetrator will end up being one of the characters in the story (so the ending wasn’t all that surprising to me), but the author introduced enough suspense and doubt to make it interesting.
4) My Sunshine Away, M.O. Walsh
Description: This story unfolds in a Baton Rouge neighborhood best known for cookouts on sweltering summer afternoons, cauldrons of spicy crawfish, and passionate football fandom. But in the summer of 1989, when 15-year-old Lindy Simpson–free spirit, track star, and belle of the block–experiences a horrible crime late one evening near her home, it becomes apparent that this idyllic stretch of Southern suburbia has a dark side.
While this book has a young narrator (not my favorite), he’s looking back from an adult perspective, which I don’t mind as much. (It was the same situation with The Age of Miracles, which I read last month. That book had a young narrator but there was more of an adult view on what was happening.)
In Chapter 28, the author took an amusing nonfiction detour – the rest of the story is fiction – to discuss some of the historical relations between Baton Rouge (where the book is set) and New Orleans (located 60 miles away). It was a departure from the story line, but it was interesting information.
5) Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum
Description: Anna, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband and three young children in a suburb of Zurich. Though she leads a comfortable life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs. But Anna can’t easily extract herself. When she wants to end the affairs, tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.
I recognized myself in Anna (minus her compulsive affairs, of course). I have a tendency toward boredom and melancholy, and it’s difficult for me to reach out to people and make new friends easily.
I liked how I’d be innocently reading along and Anna would say or think something entirely unexpected. I disliked the conversations with her psychoanalyst which were sprinkled throughout; there could have been less of those. I liked how the book raised a lot of questions and feelings; it would make a good book club selection. I disliked the ending.
6) Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness, Sasha Martin
Description: Over the course of 195 weeks, food writer and blogger Sasha Martin set out to cook a meal from every country in the world. As cooking unlocked the memories of her rough-and-tumble childhood and the loss and heartbreak that came with it, Martin became more determined to find peace and elevate her life through the prism of food and world cultures.
Although the author got a book deal due to her quest to cook foods from every country in the world, I appreciated that most of the book was about her earlier life. She talked about her childhood a great deal (a period of time which was quite unusual), and how she ended up in Oklahoma – she didn’t start writing about her cooking adventures until she was about three quarters of the way through the book. I had never read her blog before picking up this book, but I’ve been poking around some and plan to read more (and maybe try some of her international recipes).
7) Florence Gordon, Brian Morton
Description: Meet Florence Gordon: blunt, brilliant, cantankerous and passionate, feminist icon to young women, invisible to almost everyone else. At 75, Florence has earned her right to set down the burdens of family and work and shape her legacy at long last. But just as she is beginning to write her long-deferred memoir, her son Daniel returns to New York from Seattle with his wife and daughter, and they embroil Florence in their dramas, clouding the clarity of her days and threatening her well-defended solitude.
I liked Florence and her forthright, take-no-nonsense approach to life. Near the beginning of the book, she leaves a surprise party held in her honor because she wants to return home and write. I like the idea that we should do what makes us happiest (within legal reason, of course), rather than constantly trying to please everyone else.
8) When She Woke, Hillary Jordan
Description: This is the story of a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of a not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed—their skin color is genetically altered to match the class of their crimes—and then released back into the population to survive as best they can. Hannah is a Red; her crime is murder. In seeking a path to safety in a hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a path of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith.
I picked up this book after reading Mudbound (written by the same author) last month. I recommend both books but I actually liked this one better. Let’s hope the United States never devolves into this type of ultra-conservative shitshow.
9) The Wives of Los Alamos, TaraShea Nesbit
Description: They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret — including what their husbands were doing at the lab. While the bomb was being invented, babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos gradually transformed into a real community: one that was strained by the words they couldn’t say out loud or in letters, and by the freedom they didn’t have.
I thought this was a really interesting look at the years scientists, physicists, and their families lived in the New Mexico desert while the atomic bomb was being constructed. Scientists were sworn to secrecy, so while the wives made guesses as to what their husbands were doing, nobody knew for sure until the bombs were dropped in Japan in 1945.
Something I didn’t expect was how the author used “we” throughout most of the book (instead of using first or third person), telling the story from multiple perspectives at once rather than focusing on individuals. It worked, it wasn’t confusing, but it was the first book I’ve read which took this approach.
10) Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro
Description: Through a blend of deeply personal stories about what formed her as a writer, tales from other authors, and a searching look at her own creative process, Shapiro offers an elegant guide of hard-won wisdom and advice for staying the course. Offering lessons learned over 20 years of teaching and writing, Shapiro brings her own revealing insights to weave an indispensable almanac for modern writers.
When I read books about writing, they tend to inspire me. They make me want to wake up early and write in the mornings before I leave for work (the period of time I feel most alert, and less likely to get distracted by other things). Then I finish reading the book and never actually make the changes. At least I have nobody to blame but myself, as Dani does a good job of making the point that (good) writing won’t happen unless you make the effort.
In her words: “If you’re waiting for the green light, the go-ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you a writer, you’d better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you’re going to be waiting for a good long while.”
11) Slow Motion: A Memoir, Dani Shapiro
Description: Dani was a young girl from a deeply religious home who became the girlfriend of a famous married attorney–her best friend’s stepfather. The moment Lenny entered her life, everything changed: she dropped out of college, began to drink heavily, and became estranged from her family and friends. But then the phone call came. There had been an accident on a snowy road near her family’s home in New Jersey, and both her parents lay hospitalized in critical condition. At a time when she was barely able to take care of herself, she was faced with the terrifying task of taking care of two people who needed her desperately.
I like Dani’s writing style. I knew once I finished her book Still Writing (listed immediately above this one) that I wanted to read more of her work. This is an incredible story of how your life can turn out totally different from how you expected.
12) Now I See You: A Memoir, Nicole C. Kear
Description: At age 19, Nicole’s biggest concern is choosing a major–until she walks into a doctor’s office and gets a life-changing diagnosis. She is going blind, courtesy of an eye disease called retinitis pigmentosa, and has only a decade or so before Lights Out. Instead of making preparations as the doctor suggests, Kear decides to carpe diem and make the most of the vision she has left. She joins circus school, tears through boyfriends, travels the world, and through all these hi-jinks, she keeps her vision loss a secret.
I like books like this which force me to put myself in someone else’s shoes. Just like when I read Still Alice (about a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s), I started thinking about what life would be like if I contracted a retinal disease which would cause me to go blind.
13) The Magician’s Lie, Greer Macallister
Description: The Amazing Arden is the most famous female illusionist of her day, renowned for her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage. One night in Iowa, with young policeman Virgil Holt watching from the audience, she swaps her trademark saw for a fire ax. Arden’s husband is found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, but when Virgil happens upon the fleeing magician and takes her into custody, she has a very different story to tell—and what she reveals is as unbelievable as it is spellbinding. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free…and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors.
This was a good story, although it wraps up a little too perfectly at the end. (I may have even rolled my eyes…it was cheesy.) I raced through most of the book with interest though, so I’d still recommend it.
14) Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, Nina MacLaughlin
Description: Nina spent her twenties working at a Boston newspaper, sitting behind a desk and staring at a screen. Yearning for more tangible work, she applied for a job she saw on Craigslist (“Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply”) despite being a Classics major who couldn’t tell a Phillips from a flathead screwdriver. She got the job, and tells the rich and entertaining story of becoming a carpenter.
I published this review as a separate blog post when I realized I had more to say than my typical 1-2 paragraphs.
15) Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan
Description: When 24-year-old Susannah woke up alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to move or speak, she had no memory of how she’d gotten there. Days earlier, she was at the beginning of her first serious relationship and a promising career at a major New York newspaper. Now she was labeled violent, psychotic, a flight risk. Susannah tells the astonishing true story of her descent into madness, her family’s inspiring faith, and the lifesaving diagnosis that nearly didn’t happen.
Susannah came down with a rare disorder – one which had only been identified in a few hundred people before she contracted it – and it took weeks of effort for doctors to realize she had it. Since her symptoms could look like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, she makes the point that many people in a similar situation could be misdiagnosed if they don’t have access to the same level of care she did (health insurance, supportive parents).
Interesting story, but I kept thinking it was taking too long to tell. I wish it had been shorter. In fact, if I’d read her original New York Post article in advance (written before she got a book deal), I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to read the entire book.