I read nine books in August (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 74.
These are the books I started reading this month but decided not to finish:
- Lust & Wonder: A Memoir, Augusten Burroughs
- How to Catch a Frog: And Other Stories of Family, Love, Dysfunction, Survival, and DIY, Heather Ross
- The Quarter-Acre Farm: How I Kept the Patio, Lost the Lawn, and Fed My Family for a Year, Spring Warren
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Love, Loss, and What We Ate, Padma Lakshmi
Description: Long before Padma ever stepped onto a television set, she learned that how we eat is an extension of how we love, how we comfort, and how we forge a sense of home. Shuttling between continents as a child, she lived a life of dislocation that would become habit as an adult, never quite at home in the world. This is an account of her journey from her grandmother’s kitchen in South India, ruled by ferocious and unforgettable women, to the judges’ table of Top Chef and beyond.
Not knowing very much about Padma in advance, I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. She goes into her marriage and divorce to Salman Rushdie, a painful struggle with endometriosis, her childhood growing up in India and America, behind the scenes working as a host on Top Chef, and all the gossip surrounding the birth of her daughter.
2) Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart, William Alexander
Description: Alexander is more than a Francophile – he wants to be French. There’s one small obstacle: he doesn’t speak the language. Alexander travels to France, where mistranslations send him off in all sorts of wrong directions and he nearly drowns in an immersion class in Provence. Alexander reports on the riotous workings of the Académie française, the 400-year-old institution charged with keeping the language pure; explores the science of human communication, and learns why it’s harder for 50-year-olds to learn a second language than it is for 5-year-olds.
Why is it more entertaining to read about someone else learning a language rather than learning a language ourselves? Reading a book doesn’t require a serious time investment, of course, nor does it require study or memorization. You skim the lines until you’re done, then go on to something else. If learning a language was as fun as reading a book, I’d speak tons of languages by now.
I really enjoyed this book, and applauded Alexander’s desire to learn French in his late 50s. In addition to spending hundreds of hours in study, attending a language conference, and enrolling in a 2-week immersion school in France, he addresses a wide range of topics: linguistics, the absurdity of trying to learn masculine/feminine nouns, all the inconsistencies of French, and the difficulty of trying to become fluent after a certain age.
Description: Years after writing a best-selling memoir, Don went into a funk and spent months sleeping in and avoiding his publisher. One story had ended, and Don was unsure how to start another. He gets rescued by two movie producers who want to make a movie based on his memoir. When they start fictionalizing Don’s life for film, the real-life Don starts a journey to edit his actual life into a better story. This book details that journey and challenges readers to reconsider what they strive for in life. It shows how to get a second chance at life the first time around.
I find this book hard to describe. I was disappointed with the first half, but by the second half I was starting to see why so many people liked it. I wasn’t happy with the religious undertone, though — it wasn’t overt, but I like to know in advance if someone will be giving God the glory in their writing so I can decide if I want to read it or not.
My consensus on this book: Don makes a lot of good points. I liked his assertion that we’re all living our individual stories and it’s up to us to make an interesting life. That’s a very valuable perspective to keep in mind. However, I didn’t really care for his matter-of-fact writing style, so that kept me from enjoying the book as much as I could have if someone else wrote it.
4) The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House, Kate Andersen Brower
Description: America’s First Families are unknowable in many ways. No one has insight into their true character like the people who serve their meals and make their beds every day. Full of stories and details by turns dramatic, humorous, and heartwarming, Brower reveals daily life in the White House as it is really lived through the voices of the maids, butlers, cooks, florists, doormen, engineers, and others who tend to the needs of the President and First Family.
This is an informative peek into a world that many people don’t get to see. There are many behind-the-scenes stories related to what it was like to work at the White House during major events like the Kennedy assassination, Nixon’s resignation, the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and September 11. What stands out is how dedicated the employees are to their jobs — like putting up with long working hours without complaint, and maintaining a high level of confidentiality — and how many of them spend their entire careers there (Brower gives multiple examples of jobs that end up being passed along to children or other family members).
5) Terrible Virtue: A Novel, Ellen Feldman
Description: This is about one of the most fascinating and influential figures of the 20th century: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood—an indomitable woman who, more than any other, and at great personal cost, shaped the sexual landscape we inhabit today. Trained as a nurse, she fought for social justice beside labor organizers, anarchists, socialists, and other progressives, eventually channeling her energy to one singular cause: legalizing contraception.
This is a novel but the story is based on a real woman. It’s an interesting format, written in first person (Margaret speaking), but the author includes all these little asides from other characters in the story where they refute or clarify Margaret’s version of events. Often these asides are openly derogatory and accusing.
I get the impression that Margaret did a lot of good — and from her first-person account she had a high opinion of herself and her accomplishments — but the story also told of her limitations and failures (she fell short as a mother, she was promiscuous and regularly cheated on her husband).
This early quote from the book demonstrates that Margaret saw herself as different from other women of her era: “Sometimes I thought about how much easier life would be if I were like the other women on the street, child obsessed, husband dutiful, house and garden proud.”
6) Lab Girl, Hope Jahren
Description: Jahren writes about work, love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together. It is told through stories: about her childhood in rural Minnesota with an uncompromising mother and a father who encouraged hours of play in his classroom’s labs; about how she found a sanctuary in science; and about the inevitable disappointments, but also the triumphs and exhilarating discoveries, of scientific work.
In relaying the events of her life, the author’s story got more tolerable as her age and maturity increased, but I found the description of her early years just plain…weird. There are multiple examples to illustrate this, including when she took a group of grad students to a monkey jungle in Florida and camped outside the entrance in tents, and the (way too long) retelling of a van accident on a snowy road while on her way to a conference. She later admits to being diagnosed with manic depression and goes on medication.
I do appreciate her background as a female scientist, and how she’s had to fight harder to get where she is than males generally do. Here’s what she said about her experience with sexism:
“Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.”
7) The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time, Arianna Huffington
Description: According to Huffington, co-founder and editor in chief of The Huffington Post, we are in the midst of a sleep deprivation crisis. This has profound consequences – on our health, our job performance, our relationships, and our happiness. What is needed is nothing short of a sleep revolution. Only by renewing our relationship with sleep can we take back control of our lives.
I might have liked this book better if I had trouble sleeping, but I don’t. I’m generally asleep within 10 minutes of going to bed, sometimes much less. While electronics are discouraged before sleep, I can read a book on my phone up until I turn out the lights with no problem. Some of the research was interesting, but I’d heard most of the get-to-sleep tips before.
I listened to this on audiobook, which was a mistake — I didn’t like the narrator at all. They chose a woman who has a thick accent similar to Arianna Huffington’s (while that makes sense in a way, it was extremely distracting; I sometimes had to pay more attention to how she was pronouncing words than what she was trying to get across). If you read this book, I’d recommend not doing so via audio.
8) Made from Scratch: Discovering the Pleasures of a Handmade Life, Jenna Woginrich
Description: In a world of mass-produced food and computer-centric desk jobs, it’s easy to overlook the simple pleasures of eating homegrown vegetables, raising animals naturally and humanely, and wearing hand-sewn clothing. Inspired by her growing admiration for small farmers, Jenna decided to take great control of her life — what she ate, what she wore, and how she spent her free time.
This isn’t a straight memoir, as it has more instructions and tips sprinkled in than I was expecting. She goes into creating her first outdoor garden, raising backyard chickens, attempting to make some of her own clothes, and the joys of antiquing rather than buying new.
I liked that with everything she did, she started small and manageable, but there was a lot of stuff she did that I’m not interested in learning myself (training dogs to be pack animals, putting up a bee hive, raising angora rabbits and using their fur to knit a sweater).
Description: After a getaway in rural Vermont, Stimson and her family decide to move there. This book chronicles Stimson’s transition from city life to rickety farmhouse. When she decides she wants to own and operate the old-fashioned village store in idyllic Dorset (pop. 2,036), one of the oldest continually-operating country stores in the U.S., she learns the hard way that “improvements” are not always welcomed warmly by folks who like things just fine the way they’d always been.
I wanted to put this book in the “Okay” category, but when I got to the end I really wished I hadn’t wasted my time reading it. I thought the premise was cool — a family moves to Vermont and buys an old general store — but they made obvious mistake after glaringly-obvious mistake. I’m not going to give examples because recounting them just makes me mad.
In the beginning, Stimson admits to exaggerating, so basically I assumed everything off-the-wall that happened was mostly (or completely) made up. Random shit kept happening, and most of it wasn’t explained with any kind of resolution. On top of all that, she thinks she’s funnier than she is so she kept inserting not-funny antidotes and eyerolling one-liners.
It’s not surprising that the business fails miserably and they lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. I didn’t feel sorry for her because it was 100% her fault.