Books Read in January 2016

I tried to cut back on my reading…and I still managed to consume 10 books in January (two were audiobooks).

As a new addition to this round-up, I’ve decided to list the books I started reading this month but decided not to finish. In January, those books were:

  • Girl Waits With Gun (This came off as too YA for me. I wasn’t interested.)
  • The Martian (I watched the movie instead. I could handle two hours and twenty minutes.)

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


Highly Recommended

1) A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout

Description: As a child, Amanda escaped a violent household by paging through issues of National Geographic and imagining herself visiting exotic locales. She later backpacked through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, and India; emboldened by each adventure, she went on to Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan. In war-ridden Afghanistan and Iraq she carved out a fledgling career as a television reporter. Then, in August 2008, she traveled to Somalia. On her fourth day, she was abducted by a group of masked men along a dusty road. Held hostage for 460 days, Amanda survives on memory—every lush detail of the world she experienced in her life before captivity—and on strategy, fortitude, and hope.

I liked this a lot more than I thought I would. How engaging can a story be when someone is held captive (often in a tiny, dark room) for over a year? As it turns out, she had a lot to say. There was also a daring escape (and recapture), rape, and torture. I was never bored with the story, and the description of the author’s life prior to being kidnapped was a good buildup to what happened later.


2) If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, Carla Power

Description: This is Power’s eye-opening story of how she and longtime friend Sheikh Mohammad Akram Nadwi found a way to confront ugly stereotypes and persistent misperceptions that were cleaving their communities. Their friendship — between a secular American and a madrasa-trained sheik — had always seemed unlikely, but now they were frustrated and bewildered by the battles being fought in their names. Both knew a close look at the Quran would reveal a faith that preached peace and not mass murder; respect for women and not oppression. And so they embarked on a yearlong journey through the controversial text.

I had limited knowledge of Islam, Muslims, and the Quran before reading this book (and no desire to learn more), but the premise sounded interesting. I’m very glad I picked it up. What I appreciated most was how the (secular) author exposed and demolished religious stereotypes. (Muslims aren’t bad people, or prone to terrorism, any more so than Christians are.) She was very good at making what could have been a dry subject interesting.

3) Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach

Description: Why is crunchy food so appealing? Why is it so hard to find words for flavors and smells? Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you? Did it kill Elvis? We meet scientists who tackle the questions no one else thinks of―or has the courage to ask. We go on location to a pet-food taste-test lab, a fecal transplant, and into a live stomach to observe the fate of a meal.

What I like about Roach is she presents science-related topics in a way that a non-sciencey person like myself can understand. Each chapter was on a different subject, some of which I liked better than others (I was more interested in the chapters on humans than the ones which focused on rodents and insects). Overall a good read, though.

4) Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, David K. Randall

Description: Randall explores the research that is investigating those dark hours which make up nearly a third of our lives. Taking readers from military battlefields to children’s bedrooms, we learn that sleep isn’t as simple as it seems. Do women sleep differently than men? If you happen to kill someone while you are sleepwalking, does that count as murder? This is a tour of the often odd, sometimes disturbing, and always fascinating things that go on in the peculiar world of sleep.

I don’t have trouble sleeping but there’s a lot of interesting information to learn about the science of sleep. It’s all high-level, too, no in-depth science stuff if you’re not into that type of thing. Randall addresses topics such as: is it better to sleep in the same bed with your partner or not (answer: not); how to get your young child to go to sleep; what happens when people sleepwalk; alternatives to using sleeping pills; and if the firmness of your mattress really matters.

5) Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, Rich Roll

Description: One evening in October 2006, the night before he was to turn 40, Rich experienced a chilling glimpse of his future. Nearly fifty pounds overweight and unable to climb stairs without stopping, he could see where his current sedentary lifestyle was taking him. Plunging into a new way of eating that made processed foods off-limits and prioritized plant nutrition, vowing to train daily, Rich morphed—in a matter of months—from out-of-shape midlifer to endurance machine. When Rich left the house one morning to embark on a light jog and found himself running a near marathon, he knew he had to scale up his goals.

Sometimes you need to read a book about something you’ll absolutely never do (compete in ultramarathons) because it provides inspiration for you to do more in your much-less-exciting daily life. Rich’s success is all the more impressive due to his history with alcoholism and commitment to a vegan diet.


6) Negroland: A Memoir, Margo Jefferson

Description: Born in upper-crust black Chicago, Margo has spent most of her life among the colored aristocracy, the colored elite, the blue-vein society. Since the nineteenth century they have stood apart, these inhabitants of Negroland, “a small region of Negro America where residents were sheltered by a certain amount of privilege and plenty.” Reckoning with the strictures and demands of Negroland at crucial historical moments—the civil rights movement, the dawn of feminism, the fallacy of postracial America—Jefferson charts the twists and turns of a life informed by psychological and moral contradictions.

There was a lot to like about this book, and I would have rated it as Recommended until I got to the second half. I found her childhood more interesting than the grown-up years. Plus, the entire format of the book was strange (the addition of poetry and literature quotes, random interludes that didn’t seem to fit — there’s one in particular about the book Little Women that comes to mind). There were also many descriptions of her role and performance in various plays.

I did like where she talked about growing up in an upper-middle class black family and attending mostly-white schools. It was interesting to get that perspective.

She refers to upper-class blacks as the “third race” (to differentiate between whites and other black people). Here’s a quote: “We were the third race. We cared for our people — we loved our people — but we refused to be held back by the lower element. We did not love white people, we did not care for most of them, but we envied them and sometimes we feared and hated them. Our daily practice was suspicion, caution at the very least. Preemptive disdain.”

7) Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, Michael Gibney

Description: This is an immersive, adrenaline-fueled run that offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the food service industry, allowing readers to briefly inhabit the hidden world behind the kitchen doors, in real time. This account provides regular diners and food enthusiasts alike a detailed insider’s perspective, while offering fledgling professional cooks an honest picture of what the future holds, ultimately giving voice to the hard work and dedication around which chefs have built their careers.

A day in the life of a sous chef, where he breaks down his role and aspirations, and lists other staff positions in the restaurant and what those people do, and gives long, involved descriptions of the food they make and how the various cuts of fish are prepared (because seafood is his specialty). Verdict: Meh. This book would be helpful if you’re considering going into this line of work and want in-depth knowledge of how a fancy New York kitchen works. For someone who has already read plenty of books about the inner workings of restaurant kitchens (as I have), there’s nothing new to learn.

8) Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, Kate Christensen

Description: Christensen’s story takes us from her unorthodox childhood in 1960s Berkeley (as the daughter of a legal activist who ruled the house with his fists) to her success as a PEN/Faulkner Award-winning author. Hungry not just for food, but for love and a sense of belonging, Christensen writes honestly about her struggle to find the contentment she always yearned for.

While reading this book, I found myself asking, “Why should I care about this woman?” She wasn’t entirely uninteresting, but there was never a point where I thought, “Ah, yes, THIS is why she felt the need to tell her story.” The most interesting aspect was near the end when she divorced her husband and met a man 19 years(!) her junior. From what I could find online, they’re still together seven years later.

9) Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jamie Ford

Description: Henry Lee is a Chinese-American in Seattle who, in 1986, has just lost his wife to cancer. After Henry hears that the belongings of Japanese immigrants interned during WWII have been found in the basement of the Panama Hotel, the narrative shuffles between 1986 and the 1940s in a story that chronicles the loss of old age and the bewilderment of youth. Henry recalls the difficulties of life in America during WWII, when he and his Japanese-American friend, Keiko, wandered through wartime Seattle. Forty years later, in the hotel’s dusty basement, Henry begins looking for signs of Keiko’s family’s belongings and for a long-lost object whose value he cannot begin to measure.

This was mildly entertaining but the story felt predictable. I was also disappointed with the ending. I felt like the author was building up to a big Henry & Keiko reunion, but the book ended prematurely and left big questions unanswered. What had Keiko done in the decades since she and Henry parted? Did she know why she stopped receiving letters from him? Was that her in the crowd the day Henry proposed to Ethel?

Not Recommended

10) Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay: And Other Things I Had to Learn as a New Mom, Stefanie Wilder-Taylor

Description: In short essays, Stefanie delivers the straight dirt on parenting, tackling everything from Mommy & Me classes to attachment parenting. She combines practical tips with humor and honesty, assuring women they can be good mothers and responsibly make their own choices.

My opinion can be summed up in two words: Not amused. I appreciate that she encourages moms not to make themselves crazy with all the options out there (Mommy & Me classes, stroller choices, pediatricians), and how she makes fun of overly-doting moms who don’t have a life apart from their child(ren). However, she can barely write two paragraphs without trying to inject her version of humor, which quickly became grating and annoying. I looked her up and discovered she’s written more books since this one came out, so it appears other people find her funnier than I do.

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