Books

Books Read in February 2016

I read 10 books in February (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 20.

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

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

Ronson

Highly Recommended

1) So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

Description: The shamed are people like us, people who made a joke on social media that came out badly or made a mistake at work. Once the transgression is revealed, collective outrage ensues and the next thing they know, they’re being torn apart by an angry mob, demonized, sometimes even fired from their job. A great renaissance of public shaming is sweeping our land. Justice has been democratized. We are mercilessly finding people’s faults. We are defining the boundaries of normality by ruining the lives of those outside it. We are using shame as a form of social control.

Confession: I heard about this book months and months ago but didn’t think I would like it. I’ve never been publicly shamed, so why would I want to read about what happens if that fate were to befall me? What is the author going to do, tell me how to avoid it?

When my husband expressed interest in reading the book, I checked out a physical copy for him and borrowed an electronic copy for myself. Once I started it, I flew through it.

The book’s title is catchy but also a little misleading. It turns out my assumptions were wrong. I should have known better, because I’ve read three other books by this author and always enjoyed them (The Psychopath Test, Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare at Goats).

Ronson is the kind of person who chooses a subject but beats all around the bush looking at that subject from multiple angles that a regular person (like myself) would never think about. He also makes observations like this: “I think our natural disposition as humans is to plod along until we get old and stop.”

And if you’re like me, you’ll find yourself googling people he talked about in the book to see where they are now.

Recommended

2) Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir, Wednesday Martin, PhD

Description: When Martin first arrives on New York City’s Upper East Side, she’s clueless about the right addresses, the right wardrobe, and the right schools, and she’s taken aback by the glamorous women around her. She feels unwelcome until she begins to look at her new niche through the lens of her academic background in anthropology. As she analyzes the tribe’s mating and migration patterns, childrearing practices, bonding rites, etc, she finds it easier to fit in and even enjoy her new life. Then one day, her world is turned upside down, and she finds out there’s much more to the women she’s secretly been calling Manhattan Geishas.

I’ve always had an interest in social research (I was a Sociology major in college), so I liked how the author looked at her Upper East Side neighborhood from an anthropological perspective. Rather than just being an observer, she fully participated in community norms — like buying a very pricey apartment, going through the extensive preschool application and interview process, and procuring a Birkin bag (which generally cost around $10k).

In the author’s words: “I learned that motherhood was another island upon the island of Manhattan, and that Upper East Side mothers were, in fact, a tribe apart. Theirs was a secret society of sorts, governed by rules, rituals, uniforms, and migration patterns that were entirely new to me, and subtended by beliefs, ambitions, and cultural practices I had never dreamed existed.”

3) How to Grow Up: A Memoir, Michelle Tea

Description: As an aspiring writer in San Francisco, Michelle lived in a communal house; she drank, smoked, snorted anything she got her hands on; she toiled for the minimum wage; and she dated men and women, sometimes both at once. But between hangovers and dead-end jobs, she scrawled in notebooks and organized dive bar poetry readings, working to make her literary dreams real. She proves the road less traveled may be a difficult one, but if you embrace life’s uncertainty and dust yourself off after every screw up, slowly but surely you just might make it to adulthood.

It took Michelle a long time to get her shit together, but she’s made extraordinary leaps in her life since she gave up drugs and alcohol in her early thirties. Aside from one scene that almost made me vomit (it involved the presence of maggots in a fridge), I very much enjoyed reading about her adventures in dating before she found her current partner, getting her first solo apartment after living with roommates for many years, learning how to have a healthy relationship with money, and her decision not to go to college, among many other things.

4) Tales from the Back Row: An Outsider’s View from Inside the Fashion Industry, Amy Odell

Description: Cosmopolitan.com editor Amy Odell takes readers behind the scenes of New York’s hottest fashion shows to meet influential models, designers, celebrities, editors, and photographers. This is a keenly observed collection of personal essays about what it’s like to be a young woman working in the fashion industry.

I don’t know very much about the fashion industry and only have accidental knowledge of clothing trends (if I see a random article online), but I did like this book. The author is down-to-earth and smart, and while she writes about fashion she doesn’t try too hard. She writes about things like interviewing for a position at Vogue with Anna Wintour (she didn’t get it, and is thankful later because the pressure to dress up every day in that environment would have been overwhelming) and being backstage at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. Entertaining read.

Okay

5) I Don’t Have a Happy Place: Cheerful Stories of Despondency and Gloom, Kim Korson

Description: Kim has an exquisite talent for negativity. It is only after half a lifetime of finding kernels of unhappiness where others find joy that she begins to wonder if she is even capable of experiencing happiness. This fresh-yet-dark voice is sure to make you laugh, nod your head in recognition, and ultimately understand what it truly means to be unhappy. Always.

As someone with a melancholy personality, I looked forward to this memoir. I was quite disappointed the book did not deliver as advertised until the last two chapters. Every once in a while she’d stick in a sentence about all the depression in her family, or seeing a glass as “less than half empty.”

I wanted tales of despondency and gloom, as the title promised! Instead she focused on the growing-up years of a kid who wasn’t popular, felt like she didn’t fit in, and in early adulthood couldn’t find a job she liked (doesn’t that hold true for most people)?

Those last two chapters? Worth reading. Everything else? I would skip it. Here are two quotes I liked (from pages 253 and 254, respectively):

“People say happiness is a choice, but I think that’s just what happy people say when they go out together to be happy. I don’t really care for going out.”

“I’ve spent most of my years thinking I was just in a bad mood. I was actually in a bad mood for twenty-nine years before it occurred to me that was an awfully long time to be cranky.”

6) The Invisible Girls: A Memoir, Sarah Thebarge

Description: After nearly dying of breast cancer in her twenties, Sarah fled her successful career, her Ivy League education, and a failed relationship, and moved nearly 3,000 miles from the east coast to Portland, Oregon, hoping to quietly pick up the pieces of her broken life. Instead, a chance encounter on a train with a family of Somali refugees swept her into an adventure that changed all of their lives.

This woman overcame incredible odds — breast cancer at a young age, recurrences, multiple surgeries, chemo and radiation, and her boyfriend breaking up with her when he couldn’t handle the pressure. Her history, and how she came to befriend a Somali family, made an interesting read. There were more religious aspects than I expected, but it wasn’t overwhelming (and she was questioning her faith a lot of the time). I looked up her blog and enjoyed this recent post about her work with Compassion International and how successful she’s been with getting people to sponsor needy kids.

7) Shanghai Girls, Lisa See

Description: In 1937 Shanghai, 21-year-old Pearl Chin and her younger sister May are having the time of their lives. Both are beautiful, modern, and carefree—until the day their father tells them he has gambled away their wealth. To repay his debts, he must sell the girls as wives to suitors who have traveled from Los Angeles to find Chinese brides. As Japanese bombs fall on their city, Pearl and May set out on the journey of a lifetime, from the Chinese countryside to the shores of America. Along the way they make terrible sacrifices, face impossible choices, and confront a life-changing secret, but through it all they hold fast to who they are.

I fully intended to rate this book as Recommended until I got to end. Can I PLEASE read some fiction that doesn’t leave a major plot point up in the air? I don’t need every fiction book to wrap up everything in a perfect little bow, but the twist at the end of this one just made me mad. The author could have left the twist out completely and the book would have fine.

8) Running Like a Girl: Notes on Learning to Run, Alexandra Heminsley

Description: When Alexandra decided to take up running, she had hopes for a blissful runner’s high and immediate physical transformation. She hit the streets and failed spectacularly. She tells the story of getting beyond the brutal part, how she made running a part of her life, and reaps the rewards: not just obvious things like weight loss, health, and glowing skin; but self-confidence and immeasurable daily pleasure.

I feel like the author glossed over the whole “starting out as a beginner” part. Her first run was horrible and humbling (which is to be expected), but a page later she was running six miles at a stretch. I don’t know about you guys, but that never happened for me. I’ve tried to take up running various times over the years (I’m currently in non-running mode), and my problem is feeling like I’m never making any progress. I would have liked to hear more details about how she got from that horrible first run to running multiple miles at a time.

9) I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist, Betty Halbreich

Description: In her late eighties, Betty is a true original. She has spent nearly 40 years as the legendary personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman, where she works with socialites, stars, and ordinary women off the street. She has helped many find their true selves through fashion, frank advice, and her own brand of wisdom. But Halbreich’s personal transformation from cosseted young girl to fearless truth teller is the greatest makeover of her career.

I read an article about this woman and found it interesting, so I decided to check out the audiobook. I enjoyed learning about her experience working in the store more so than the history of her childhood and marriage. Not a wonderful book, but I liked her as a person.

Not Recommended

10) My Confection: Odyssey of a Sugar Addict, Lisa Kotin

Description: This is a story of where sugar took a teenage mime when she left home in pursuit of artistic greatness. From the strict macrobiotic house where she is kicked out for smuggling Snickers, to her early days of Overeaters Anonymous meetings, Kotin careens from romantic disasters to caloric catastrophes. Kotin comes out of the (sugar) closet, finding allies who understand, and learns how to live healthfully in spite of her compulsion.

My biggest dislike for this book was that it wasn’t what I expected. I expected it to be in the same vein as Year of No Sugar. I knew this woman was a binge eater; I figured she’d get a grip on her disorder once she realized how evil sugar is and tell us about her process. Instead, the book is about her extreme binging, a dysfunctional family, and her insufferable personality — she was a spoiled brat who took money freely from her parents, totaled her sister’s truck, and tells us way too much about all the sexual encounters she participated in while attempting to feel better about herself.

She refused to eat from fast food restaurants and street vendors because they were “too unhealthy.” Yet there was no limit to how many candy bars and other processed sweets she’d consume.

The achievement of finally giving up sugar is mentioned in the first few pages (preface) and the last few pages of the book. It turns out all I needed to read were these lines in the preface, and I could have skipped the rest: “Maybe one day I’ll be able to eat a cookie. For today, one is too many, a thousand are not enough.”

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4 Comments

  • Reply Anya March 1, 2016 at 7:50 am

    I’ve been running for well over a decade and I didn’t start making progress until I joined a half marathon training program. Next time you get the running bug, I would highly recommend finding a running club. It’s done wonders for my pace, endurance, and mental health.

    Also, as an introvert, I never thought I’d enjoy running in a group but I’ve found it to be very motivating. I love the camaraderie. We come from all walks of life and running brings us together. Definitely the best community I’ve ever found myself a part of.

    • Reply Zandria March 1, 2016 at 7:23 pm

      That is very good advice! I have the same thoughts you did — I’m a huge introvert and I also worry that I’d hold people back (because obviously everyone else would be a better runner than I am…haha!). I’ve heard really good things from people who tried this though…thank you for pointing it out. 🙂

  • Reply Jaclyn March 1, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    Looks like a good month of reading for you! As I said on Instagram, I really want to read So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Another one I have been itching to read is Running Like a Girl – did you get it from the library? I keep searching for it in the online catalog and coming up empty. I wonder if I’m messing up somehow?

    Interesting that you recommended Primates of Park Avenue. I listen to a few bookish podcasts and one of the hosts of a podcast I like tried it but had a very negative reaction to the way the women were objectified, in her view. I had decided not to read it based on her comments, but maybe I’ll give it a second look since you liked it.

    • Reply Zandria March 2, 2016 at 10:34 am

      I checked out Running Like a Girl as an ebook from the DC library….sssshhhhhh! I still have a login there, so I check out a fair number of ebooks from them. (I’m pretty sure my DC library card will be expiring soon, a prospect which makes me extremely sad. They not only have a better ebook selection than Buffalo does, but you can borrow ebooks for 21 days instead of just 14 days.)

      I would agree with your podcast host that many women in Primates of Park Avenue were portrayed negatively, but (especially after reading several articles about the author which were written after the book came out) I took all that with a grain of salt. I’m sure a lot of what she wrote was true (I’ve heard about the preschool applications, helicopter parenting, and Birkin-bag lust many times before), while other parts were surely exaggerated. I found it very entertaining though.

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