I read seven books in September (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 81.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, Lindy West
Description: From a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body and even bigger opinions; to her public war with stand-up comedians over rape jokes; to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value; to her accidental activism and never-ending battle with Internet trolls, Lindy boldly shares how to survive in a world where not all stories are created equal and not all bodies are treated with equal respect, and how to weather hatred, loneliness, harassment, and loss — and walk away laughing.
This is a series of essays, and while I liked some more than others, I did enjoy all of them (which is more than I can say for other essay collections; I’ve been avoiding them since I usually rate them so poorly).
She talks openly about how she came to identify as a feminist, her abortion, middle class white woman privilege, and fat acceptance.
“People go on and on about boobs and butts and teeny waists, but the clavicle is the true benchmark of female desirability. It is a fetish item. Without visible clavicles you might as well be a meatloaf in the sexual marketplace.”
West played an instrumental role in calling out male comedians about their use of rape jokes, and has endured a lot of vitriol through social media (not just insults, but death threats).
I’d recommend this book to any woman.
2) Sex Object: A Memoir, Jessica Valenti
Description: Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Now she explores the toll that sexism takes, from the every day to the existential, along with the painful, funny, embarrassing, and sometimes illegal moments that shaped her growing up in New York City. She also reveals a much shakier inner life than the confident persona she has cultivated as one of the most recognizable feminists of her generation.
The title is provocative and attention grabbing, but luckily, so is the writing (with a bright yellow cover and big capital letters, it was something I attempted to hide while reading in public). I’ve read Valenti before (her last book, Why Have Kids?, was great and she has a recurring column in the Guardian); I always find her to be relatable and informative.
This book is mostly about the pervasive sexism she’s dealt with in her life, including unwanted comments and advances that started at a young age, and her own sex life (which she discusses in a refreshingly matter of fact way).
3) Overbooked: The Exploding Business of Travel and Tourism, Elizabeth Becker
Description: The largest global business in the world today is tourism. Employing one out of twelve people in the world and producing $6.5 trillion of the world’s economy, it is the main source of income for many countries. Becker describes the dimensions of this industry and its huge effect on the world economy, the environment, and our culture.
This is one of those books where I found myself sharing interesting quotes with my husband. Extensively researched over a period of five years, Becker covers a wide range of topics — from the most popular tourist destination in the world (France), countries that encourage tourism to the detriment of their own citizens (Cambodia), the problems with those massive cruise ships, African safaris, ecotourism in places like Costa Rica, and why the United States lost out on the tourism explosion of the past few decades.
4) A Spear of Summer Grass, Deanna Raybourn
Description: The daughter of a scandalous mother, Delilah Drummond is already notorious, even amongst Paris society. After her latest scandal, Delilah is exiled to Kenya and her favorite stepfather’s savannah manor house until gossip subsides. Amidst the wonders and dangers of Africa, Delilah awakes to a land out of all proportion: extremes of heat, darkness, beauty, and joy that cut to her very heart.
When I turn to fiction, I like when it focuses on a place and time period I’m not familiar with. In this case it’s Africa in the 1920s. I liked how Raybourn described Kenya — she was colorful but also succinct (I tend not to like in-depth nature descriptions). The story moved along well and the ending wrapped everything up nicely without being overdone. There’s a chance this book could be adapted into a movie, which would be interesting to see.
Description: Transportation dominates our daily existence. Thousands of miles are embedded in everything we do and touch. We live in a door-to-door universe that works so well most Americans are scarcely aware of it. And yet, in the one highly visible part of the transportation world—the part we drive—we suffer grinding commutes, a violent death every fifteen minutes, a dire injury every twelve seconds, and crumbling infrastructure. Humes explores the hidden and costly wonders of our buy-it-now, get-it-today world of transportation, revealing the surprising truths, mounting challenges, and logistical magic behind every trip we take and every click we make.
Humes looks at a wide range of transportation options from an environmental standpoint, including those we think about regularly (our own cars), mostly just read about (the potential for self-driving cars), and likely think little about (the huge number of container ships traversing the oceans each day).
He also goes in-depth into several products, like coffee and aluminum, which are very different, but alike in that they both cover thousands of miles (often criss-crossing back and forth across the globe) before reaching their final destination. I learned a lot; it can be very helpful to know what kind of footprint the items you consume are producing.
Description: The fearless memoir of a young forensic pathologist’s rookie season as a NYC medical examiner, and the cases (hair-raising, heartbreaking and impossibly complex) that shaped her as a physician. Judy takes readers behind the police tape of some of the most harrowing deaths in the city, including a firsthand account of the events of September 11, the subsequent anthrax bio-terrorism attack, and the disastrous crash of American Airlines flight 587.
The day-to-day life of a medical examiner is intense. Since I’ve always worked at a desk, it’s hard to imagine a day job where someone cuts up dead bodies all day. Many of her cases are routine, but she described a bunch of her more interesting cases. (Warning: some descriptions could be gory, so don’t read this book if you’re squeamish. Yes, she does include maggots.) She also talks about her involvement with body identification after the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, a process that took a full eight months.
7) What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
Description: An intimate look at writing, running, and the incredible way they intersect. While training for the NYC marathon would be enough for most people, Murakami decided to write about it as well. The result is a memoir about his intertwined obsessions with running and writing, full of vivid memories and insights, including the eureka moment when he decided to become a writer.
I’m not a runner, and I may have liked this book better if I was. I enjoyed Murakami’s ruminations and insight into his personal life, but there was a bit too much about his running and triathlon training regimens for my taste.
I did think it was interesting that he’s been running for decades, but he didn’t start until he became a writer in his early 30s (he figured he needed a way to stay in shape since he was spending so much time at a desk). Murakami said he wouldn’t be the same writer if he hadn’t taken up running and embraced the dual discipline of doing both activities almost every day.