I read 10 books in July, which brings my 2015 total to 78.
I read a few more books this month than I did in May and June, but I also had a larger number in the “Okay” category, which was disappointing.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Everything You Ever Wanted, Jillian Lauren
Description: In her younger years, Jillian was a college dropout, a drug addict, and a concubine in the Prince of Brunei’s harem, an experience she immortalized in her bestselling memoir, Some Girls. In her 30s, Jillian’s most radical act was learning the steadying power of love when she and her rock star husband adopt an Ethiopian child with special needs. After Jillian loses a close friend to drugs, she herself is saved by her fierce love for her son as she fights to make him—and herself—feel safe and at home in the world.
I really enjoy Jillian’s writing. I read her first memoir (mentioned in the description above) last year, and even though this book was completely different – she’s gone from young international concubine to a married lady in her 30s – her personality and unique tone of voice continue to shine through. I follow Jillian on Instagram, where she regularly posts photos of her son Tariku, and it was really cool to learn how he became a part of their family.
2) Picnic in Provence: A Memoir with Recipes, Elizabeth Bard
Description: Ten years ago, Elizabeth followed a handsome Frenchman to a love nest in the heart of Paris. Now with a baby on the way, the couple takes a trip to the tiny Provencal village of Céreste. In less time than it takes to flip a crepe, Elizabeth and Gwendal decide to move to the French countryside. There they discover a land of blue skies, lavender fields and peaches that taste like sunshine. Seduced by the local ingredients, they begin a new adventure as culinary entrepreneurs, starting their own artisanal ice cream shop and experimenting with flavors like saffron, sheep’s milk yogurt and fruity olive oil.
I’m a sucker for a good story about an American who moves to France (I’ve read quite a few). I especially like reading about the differences between living in the U.S. versus France – differences in personalities, worldview, daily life – which Bard does a great job of describing.
This book starts out a little too perfect and sunshiney (“We own an apartment in Paris and now we’re packing up to move to a centuries-old house in Provence!”), but reality soon sets in and the story becomes easier to relate to. Bard feels guilty because she’s not happy all the time (she worries she may end up like her father, who was bipolar), and she also struggles to connect with her young son.
Another interesting aspect of the story: all the effort Bard and her husband put into research and development before opening an artisanal ice cream shop in their Provencal village. When I checked online, not only is their shop thriving, they’ve also opened a location in Paris since her book was published. I know where I’m going if I ever make it back to France!
3) Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, Geraldine Brooks
Description: When an infected bolt of cloth carries plague from London to an isolated village, housemaid Anna Frith emerges as an unlikely heroine and healer. Through Anna’s eyes we follow the fateful year of 1666, as she and her fellow villagers confront the spread of disease and superstition. As death reaches into every household and villagers turn from prayers to murderous witch-hunting, Anna must find the strength to confront the disintegration of her community.
Very good book, but watch out for descriptions of gross plague-related things if you’re squeamish. I almost put this in the Highly Recommended category, but I got impatient with certain aspects of the story so I downgraded it. I liked the last third of the book best. It didn’t end at all like I expected, which was a nice surprise.
4) Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond
Description: Almond details why, after 40 years as a fan, he can no longer watch the game he still loves. Using a synthesis of memoir, reportage, and cultural critique, he asks a series of provocative questions, including: Does our addiction to football foster a tolerance for violence, greed, racism, and homophobia? What does it mean that our society has transmuted the intuitive physical joys of childhood into a billion-dollar industry? How did a sport that causes brain damage become such an important emblem for our institutions of higher learning?
You don’t have to know anything about football (I don’t) in order to follow this book. I actually checked it out from the library for my husband, but once I picked it up and started reading I didn’t want to put it down. I liked Almond’s description of how he went from football super-fan to critic, and while I felt some of his arguments were stronger than others, I learned many things I didn’t know before:
- Whereas white males live to 78 years and African-American males live to approximately 70 years…professional football players in both the United States and Canada have life expectancies in the mid to late 50s. (Pg 38)
- The NFL – unlike the NBA and Major League Baseball – was tax-exempt throughout most of its history. (This only changed a few months ago, after the book was published.) (Pg 81)
- Forty-five percent of Division 1 [college] football players never graduate. (Pg 125)
5) Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, Gretchen Rubin
Description: Rubin’s follow-up to her happiness books is all about habits: how we make them, why we break them, and how we can improve them. That may not strike you as poolside fare, but the chatty writing, illuminating insights, and story-driven narrative make this guidebook anything but dry and boring – it’s also packed with relatable tales from Rubin’s life, which are easy to apply to your own.
I’m not a huge fan of Gretchen Rubin’s books. While she seems like a nice person and I enjoy the personal anecdotes she includes, her topics come off as very common-sense to me and I don’t get a lot out of them. This is not a shot at Gretchen; in fact, it’s the opposite – I think I would like her a lot in real life. I just don’t get much from her books because I’m like, “Well, yeah, that’s obvious…”
I felt the same with this book. Some of her research into habit forming was interesting, and I recognized myself in some of her descriptions (I’m a Questioner, and an Abstainer, and I never reward myself for following through with a habit), but there were no grand epiphanies and I didn’t take away anything actionable which will affect my life. (Here’s my friend Jaclyn’s review – she goes into much more detail than I just did.)
6) Bel Canto, Ann Patchett
Description: In an unnamed South American country, a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. Alas, in the opening sequence, a ragtag band of 18 terrorists enters the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts. Their quarry is the president, who has unfortunately stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And thus, from the beginning, things go awry.
The day-to-day happenings inside a house where people are being held hostage (and mostly bored out of their minds) just wasn’t interesting to me. Also, the epilogue seemed like an afterthought; the story would have been better without it.
7) The Good Girl, Mary Kubica
Description: One night, Mia enters a bar to meet her on-again, off-again boyfriend. But when he doesn’t show, she leaves with an enigmatic stranger. At first Colin seems like a safe one-night stand, but following him home will turn out to be the worst mistake of Mia’s life. When Colin decides to hide Mia in a secluded cabin in rural Minnesota instead of delivering her to his employers, Mia’s mother, Eve, and detective Gabe will stop at nothing to find them. But no one could have predicted the emotional entanglements that eventually cause this family’s world to shatter.
I liked how the chapters switch between characters and also between time periods. Even though the author tells the story from both before and after the kidnapping occurred, it wasn’t difficult to keep things straight. As for the story itself, I was underwhelmed, and I didn’t find the twist at the end all that believable.
8) Day Four, Sarah Lotz
Description: Hundreds of pleasure-seekers stream aboard a cruise ship for five days of fun in the Caribbean. On the fourth day, disaster strikes: smoke roils out of the engine room and the ship is stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. Soon supplies run low, a virus plagues the ship, and there are rumors the cabins on the lower decks are haunted. Irritation escalates to panic, the crew loses control, factions form, and violent chaos erupts. When at last the ship is spotted drifting off the coast of Key West, the world’s press reports it empty. But the gloomy headlines may be covering up an even more disturbing reality.
I had high hopes for this story since I rated Lotz’s first book as Highly Recommended just a few months ago. This one was not nearly as good. Scenes that were supposed to come off as freaky or scary were anticlimactic. (I don’t normally like thrillers and wouldn’t have picked this up if I hadn’t liked The Three so much.)
9) Neverhome, Laird Hunt
Description: Because she was strong and her husband was not, Ash Thompson disguises herself as a man and goes off to fight in the Civil War in his place. This novel shines light on the hundreds of women who chose to fight in secret rather than stay home.
This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in years. Ever since I bought a Fitbit I’ve been walking much more than I did in the past, and I was getting bored on my long walks. Music wasn’t cutting it, so I borrowed this mp3 from the library. It was read by Mary Stuart Masterson and her accent made the character come alive, but the story itself wasn’t great. If I had been reading a physical copy of the book I wouldn’t have finished it.
10) Angry Optimist: The Life and Times of Jon Stewart, Lisa Rogak
Description: Since his arrival at The Daily Show in 1999, Jon Stewart has become one of the major players in comedy as well as one of the most significant liberal voices in the media.
This was the second audiobook I listened to in July. I like Stewart, and I really like that he’s a public guy with a very private life. The story, however, wasn’t all that interesting. I need to do some research and pick some better audiobooks for August.