Books Read in August 2015

I read 12 books in August, which brings my 2015 total to 90.

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



1) Gringos in Paradise: An American Couple Builds Their Retirement Dream House in a Seaside Village in Mexico, Barry Golson

Description: In 2004, Golson wrote an article about Mexican hot spots for retirees longing for a lifestyle they couldn’t afford in the United States. A year later, he and his wife Thia were taking part in the growing trend of retiring abroad. They sold their Manhattan apartment and moved to the surfing and fishing village of Sayulita on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Golson details the year he and Thia spent settling into their new life and planning and building their dream home. They engaged a Mexican architect, builder, and landscape designer who not only built their home but also changed their lives; encountered uproariously odd bureaucracy; and ultimately experienced a lifetime’s worth of education about the challenges and advantages of living in Mexico.

I really liked this book – it was entertaining and I enjoyed Golson’s perspective into how gringos interact with the locals (both positively and negatively), but I found his story to be a cautionary tale of what I would NOT do.

When Golson and his wife move to Sayulita, they decide to buy some land, build a brand new house from scratch (complete with pool and extensive landscaping), and outfit it with brand new Mexican-crafted furniture, dishes, decor, etc. While prices in Mexico are less expensive than in the U.S., by the end of the book (spoiler alert) Golson and his wife have spent pretty much all of their retirement savings and have to return to the U.S. to make more money…so they can afford to return to their house in Mexico.

This does not seem like the preferred scenario. If I was retiring in Mexico and needed to live on a fixed income in order to make it work, I’d rent. Golson and his wife appeared perfectly content renting a place while their house was being built, and freely admitted to all the headaches and fighting the house-building drama brought to their relationship. Was it worth it? He doesn’t say, but I know I’d rather be retired, doing whatever I want with my days, instead of owning a home in another country that I can’t afford to live in.

2) On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, Tony Cohan

Description: When novelist Cohan and his artist wife visited central Mexico one winter they fell under the spell of a place where the pace of life is leisurely, the cobblestone streets and sun-splashed plazas are enchanting, and the sights and sounds of daily fiestas fill the air. Awakened to needs they didn’t know they had, they returned to California, sold their house, and cast off for a new life in San Miguel de Allende. This is Cohan’s memoir of how he and his wife absorb the town’s sensual ambiance, eventually find and refurbish a crumbling 250-year-old house, and become entwined in the endless drama of Mexican life.

Barry Golson (the author of the book mentioned above) credits Tony Cohan as his inspiration, but I liked Golson’s book better. This one is worth reading, though.

3) The French House: An American Family, a Ruined Maison, and the Village That Restored Them All, Don Wallace

Description: Shortly after Don and Mindy Wallace move to Manhattan to jump-start their writing careers, they learn of a house for sale in a village they once visited on a tiny French island off the Brittany coast. Desperate for a life change, the Wallaces bravely (and impulsively) buy it almost sight unseen. What they find when they arrive is a ruin, and it isn’t long before their lives begin to resemble it—with hilarious and heartwarming results.

Don and his wife were super persistent – they experienced quite a bit of sweat, tears, and consternation before everything worked itself out. (Due to a lack of funds, it took EIGHT YEARS before their French summer house was renovated adequately enough to spend the night in it.)

As a woman who likes to picture herself in someone else’s shoes, I wish this had been written from a female perspective – whenever Don mentioned his wife, I found myself wondering what she was thinking at the time – but it’s definitely worth reading if you like this subject as much as I do.

4) I’ll Never Be French: Living in a Small Village in Brittany, Mark Greenside

Description: When Greenside – a native New Yorker living in California, political lefty, writer, and lifelong skeptic – is dragged by his girlfriend to a tiny village in Brittany at the westernmost edge of France, his life begins to change. With enormous affection for the Bretons, Greenside tells how he makes a life for himself in a country where he doesn’t speak the language or know how things are done.

Just like the owners of The French House (mentioned above), this guy purchased a house outside the U.S. when he had hardly any money to his name. What is up with these people?? At least it worked out for both of them. Lighthearted, amusing read.

5) An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude, Ann Vanderhoof

Description: Who hasn’t fantasized about quitting their job, saying goodbye to the rat race, and escaping to some exotic destination in search of sun, sand, and a different way of life? In the mid1990s, Ann and Steve were driven, forty-something professionals desperate for a break from their deadline-dominated, career-defined lives. So they rented out their house, moved onto a 42-foot sailboat, and set sail for the Caribbean on a two-year voyage of culinary and cultural discovery.

While I have no desire to sail a boat around the Caribbean for two years (just take me to another country and leave me there, please), Vanderhoof makes it seem appealing. I was especially jealous of her access to a plethora of cheap and abundant tropical fruit – hence the reference to an “embarrassment of mangoes” in the book’s title.

My favorite lines are near the end of the book when Ann admits her return home was bittersweet: “I know the last two years have to end, but I can’t bear the thought. I don’t want to just sink complacently back into our old existence. I’ve seen too clearly there’s more to life than that.”

6) The Heavy: A Mother, a Daughter, a Diet, Dara-Lynn Weiss

Description: When a doctor pronounced Weiss’s daughter obese at age seven, she knew she had to take action. But how could a woman with her own food and body issues successfully parent a little girl around the issue of obesity?

I remember reading about Weiss when her original article (which was published before she wrote this book) came out in Vogue. I never understood the resulting hostility and controversy – if your kid is overweight, shouldn’t you take action? Sure, Weiss’ methods aren’t what everyone would choose (she allowed processed food, fake sugar, and diet soda to stay within her daughter’s daily caloric needs) but everyone handles weight loss efforts differently.

While Weiss does come across as neurotic in more than one situation when a food decision is required, she also does a good job outlining the challenges involved in helping a young child lose weight in a country that doesn’t make it easy to do so.

7) We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride

Description: An immigrant boy whose family is struggling to assimilate. A middle-aged housewife coping with an imploding marriage and a troubled son. A social worker at home in the darker corners of Las Vegas. A wounded soldier recovering from an injury he can’t remember getting. By the time we realize how these voices will connect, the impossible has already happened, and the lives of people from different backgrounds and experiences collide in a stunning coincidence.

It was hard for me to pinpoint what I liked best about this story, but I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Definitely worth reading.

8) The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why, Amanda Ripley

Description: Nine out of ten Americans live in places at significant risk of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, terrorism, or other disasters. Some of us will have to make split-second choices to save ourselves and our families. How will we react? What will it feel like? Will we be heroes or victims? Will our upbringing, our gender, our personality – anything we’ve ever learned, thought, or dreamed of – ultimately matter?

Ripley is good at taking a potentially dry subject and turning it into an entertaining read. I went looking for more of her books after I read and enjoyed The Smartest Kids in the World earlier this year.


9) Pretty, Jillian Lauren

Description: Bebe is an ex-everything: ex-stripper, ex-Christian, ex-drug addict, ex-pretty girl. It’s been one year since the car accident that killed her boyfriend left her scarred and shaken. Flanked by an eccentric posse of friends, she is serving out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house while trying to finish cosmetology school. Amid the rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails of Los Angeles, Bebe looks for something to believe in before something knocks her off course again.

It pains me to put this in the Okay category, but it appears I like Jillian’s memoirs more so than her fiction.

10) Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, Rosemary Mahoney

Description: Rosemary was determined to take a solo trip down the Egyptian Nile in a small boat, even though civil unrest and vexing local traditions conspired to create obstacles every step of the way. Egyptian women don’t row on the Nile, and tourists aren’t allowed to for safety’s sake. She endures extreme heat during the day, a terror of crocodiles while alone in her boat at night, while confronting deeply held beliefs and finding connections to past chroniclers of the Nile.

I liked the idea of this book, and I’m impressed with what Rosemary accomplished, but I found myself rushing to get through the second half. I liked reading about what she was physically doing more so than the extensive history lessons and exhaustive descriptions of the scenery.

11) Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, Sheri Fink

Description: Physician and reporter Fink reconstructs five days at Memorial Medical Center and draws the reader into the lives of those who struggled mightily to survive during Hurricane Katrina. After the floodwaters rose, the power failed, and the heat climbed, exhausted caregivers chose to designate certain patients last for rescue. Months later, several health professionals faced criminal allegations that they deliberately injected numerous patients with drugs to hasten their deaths.

While this was a well-written, thoroughly researched book, and it was a subject I didn’t previously know anything about, I would have preferred to read an article rather than an entire book. I didn’t care for the extensive back story of the hospital’s history, or the overly-detailed bios of the main characters.

12) Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World, Leigh Ann Henion

Description: Heartfelt and awe inspiring, this is a moving tale of physical grandeur and emotional transformation, a journey around the world that ultimately explores the depths of the human heart. A journalist and young mother, Henion combines her own conflicted but joyful experiences as a parent with a panoramic tour of the world’s most extraordinary natural wonders.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I love that Henion traveled all over the place, seeking out the wonders of natural phenomena rather than just visiting the same old tourist sites. I’ve never been a fan of nature writing though, so I guess I found the descriptions of what she saw a bit boring. I’d prefer to see those things in person (or look at a photo) rather than try to picture it from someone else’s written recollection.

I did like her assertions that having a small child at home shouldn’t stop you from traveling without them, and that – unlike what many people think – travelers aren’t some special breed of adventurer and they’re not necessarily any more privileged/wealthy than anyone else. If you really want to go somewhere, you’ll make it happen no matter what.

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  • Reply Denise September 3, 2015 at 10:25 pm

    Good list, this month. I’m going to have to check some of these out!

  • Reply Lara Ziobro September 9, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    Impressive on all of the reading! I am going to have to go back through your posts and find some good ones to bundle up with come winter. So many options here I haven’t come across yet, too!

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