Books

Books Read in October 2016

I read eight books in October (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 89.

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

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

love

Highly Recommended

1) Love Warrior, Glennon Doyle Melton

Description: Just when Glennon started to feel like she had it all figured out—three happy children, a doting spouse, and a writing career so successful that her first book catapulted to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—her husband revealed his infidelity and she was forced to realize that nothing was as it seemed. A recovering alcoholic and bulimic, Glennon found that rock bottom was a familiar place. In the midst of crisis, she knew to hold on to what she discovered in recovery: that her deepest pain has always held within it an invitation to a richer life.

Glennon has had many struggles in life. She grew up hating herself. She was bulimic and had a stay in a mental hospital in high school. She battled addiction to drugs and alcohol before she became pregnant with her son and quit cold turkey. She’s had health problems that left her in bed for extended periods of time. Throughout the book she refers to the persona she showed the world for most of her life (as opposed to her real self) as her “representative.”

This is an incredibly honest book. Even though I don’t relate to most of her experiences, reading about someone’s life when they’re being so open and raw is incredibly compelling. Plus, she’s just a really good writer.

This is a bit of a spoiler, but Glennon made the announcement on her blog before this book was published (I heard about it before I read the book). Several years ago, she and her husband faced a huge challenge in their marriage when he confessed to infidelity, she forgave him, they worked through it. A few months ago, she announced that while she still loves and respects him, she’s decided to get a divorce. (The post is excellent; highly recommended to read.) This didn’t change my opinion of the book at all; in fact, it enhanced it.

Also, for those who care about such things: Glennon is religious, and god-talk increases as the book nears the end, but I didn’t find the inclusion hugely overwhelming like it can be with other authors.

2) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance

Description: From a former Marine and Yale Law School graduate, this is a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town that offers a broad, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, Vance’s book is a fascinating consideration of class, culture, and the American dream.

Clever title, powerful writing. This is a great, straightforward, honest look at poor white people from someone who grew up in an extremely unstable childhood. (Admittedly, it’s a bit disconcerting to see the word “hillbilly” utilized so often when it’s generally used as a pejorative term.) Vance still identifies as a hillbilly today, even after graduating from law school, moving to San Francisco, and obtaining the elusive upward social mobility that so many people he grew up with never did.

Vance shares his theories for why poor white people are not reaching their potential (there are often no expectations or encouragement to achieve anything better; not working is often due to laziness rather than a lack of job options; unstable families and rampant drug/alcohol abuse lead to future generations doing the same). He could have ended up like so many who came before him, but there were people along the way that were able to influence and change his course.

Recommended

3) Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe

Description: A century of auto-centric culture and city planning has left most of the country with public transportation that is underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. Grescoe explores the ascendance of straphangers — the growing number of people who rely on public transportation to go about their daily lives. On a journey that takes him around the world, Grescoe profiles public transportation in the U.S. and abroad, highlighting people and ideas that may help undo the damage that car-centric planning has done to our cities and create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation (and better city living) for all.

Grescoe has lived in cities his entire adult life and while he does have a driver’s license, he has never owned an automobile. In this book, he takes a look at various metropolitan areas and their approach to transportation — from the good (Copenhagen, NYC, Paris) to the bad (Los Angeles, Phoenix). I found the information fascinating. I had no idea, for example, that Moscow’s gorgeous metro stations put those in other cities to shame.

Grescoe also covers up-and-coming cities which have made great strides with public transportation but still have room for improvement, and how unfortunate it is that North America has been outpaced so dramatically by European and Asian companies in respect to their high speed rail.

4) Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, Jeff Speck

Description: Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. He’s boiled it down to one key factor: walkability. The very idea of a modern metropolis evokes visions of bustling sidewalks, vital mass transit, and a vibrant, pedestrian-friendly urban core. But in the typical American city, the car is still king and downtown is a place that’s easy to drive to but often not worth arriving at. Making walkability happen is relatively easy and cheap; seeing exactly what needs to be done is the trick.

It may seem strange that I enjoy books on cities, walkability, and public transportation (I’m not a city planner or anything in that capacity), but find myself interested in how cities work more efficiently in many ways than suburbs. (Did you know that people who live in urban areas have much lower carbon footprints than people in rural and suburban areas? Another very good book on this topic is Green Metropolis, which I read earlier this year.)

The author, Jeff Speck, lived in DC at the time he wrote this book, where he built an insanely cool house and lived without a car with his wife and two children.

I would call this book a call to arms for walkability. It also makes me want to move back to a city immediately, which happens every time I read a book like this. There’s a reason Millennials are flocking to urban areas and choosing to live without cars. There are options available to make the choice easy (trains, trams, and buses; bicycle lanes and bike shares; vehicle shares like Car2Go and ZipCar; and on-call services like Uber and Lyft). Cars are expensive, rapidly depreciating assets that cost not only our pocketbooks but also our health – more time spent driving means less time getting around on foot.

5) Orchard House: How a Neglected Garden Taught One Family to Grow, Tara Austen Weaver

Description: Peeling paint, stained floors, vined-over windows, a neglected and wild garden—Tara can’t get the Seattle real estate listing out of her head. Any sane person would have seen the abandoned property for what it was: a ramshackle half-acre filled with dead grass, blackberry vines, and trouble. But Tara sees potential and promise—not only for the edible bounty the garden could yield for her family, but for the personal renewal she and her mother might reap along the way.

The idea of a garden bursting with vegetables and flowers, fruit trees and berry bushes, is enticing. But the amount of work involved? Off-putting. That’s why more people don’t do it. Weaver’s space sounds amazing, but she’s very honest in this book about the many, many hours she spent working there, to the detriment of her own paid work and social activities she missed out on. The work never ends — once planted, a garden needs to be watered and weeded, invasive grasses pulled, food harvested, insects repelled. I liked how she related working in the garden with her relationship to her family and the strange circumstances of her childhood.

6) Born with Teeth: A Memoir, Kate Mulgrew

Description: At age 22, just as her career was taking off, Mulgrew became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. Having already signed the adoption papers, she was allowed only a fleeting glimpse of her child. As her star continued to rise, her life became increasingly demanding and fulfilling. Through it all, Mulgrew remained haunted by the loss of her daughter, until, two decades later, she found the courage to face the past and step into the most challenging role of her life, both on and off screen. We know Kate Mulgrew for the strong women she’s played–Captain Janeway on Star Trek; the tough-as-nails “Red” on Orange is the New Black. Now, we meet the most inspiring and memorable character of all: herself.

I didn’t know very much about Kate Mulgrew before listening to this audiobook (it was read by the author, which was a great choice). I saw an interview with her earlier this year where the book was mentioned, which is how it got on my radar. In the interview, she talked about having a baby in her early 20s, giving the girl up for adoption, and reuniting later in life. That experience is a recurring theme in her book, but there’s a lot more: her family and childhood, how she became an actress, romantic relationships, being mugged and raped by a stranger, and dealing with the long hours on Star Trek: Voyager when she became the first female captain.

Okay

7) Girl in the Dark: A Memoir of a Life Without Light, Anna Lyndsey

Description: Anna was young, ambitious, and worked hard; she had just bought an apartment; she was falling in love. Then what started as a mild intolerance to certain kinds of artificial light developed into a severe sensitivity to all light. Now, at the worst times, Anna is forced to spend months on end in a blacked-out room, where she loses herself in books and elaborate word games in an attempt to ward off despair. One day Anna had an ordinary life, and then the unthinkable happened.

I started out liking this book, but it didn’t keep me entertained as it went on. Lyndsey describes how her life changed as she gradually became sensitive to all forms of light, and how she found ways to entertain herself while sitting in a dark room (audiobooks, phone calls, mind and memory games). On the less-entertaining side, she decided to include a number of her recurring dreams (few people find dreams interesting except the person experiencing them), as well as detailed descriptions of the mind games she made up.

I was curious about the author, so before I finished the book I discovered she published it under a pseudonym and there are experts who question the severity of her symptoms. This is a great article from the New Yorker, written by a man who visited her in person in her home.

8) The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, Sarah Schulman

Description: In this memoir of the AIDS years (1981–1996), Schulman recalls how much of the rebellious queer culture, cheap rents, and a vibrant downtown arts movement vanished almost overnight to be replaced by gay conservative spokespeople and mainstream consumerism. Schulman takes us back to her Lower East Side with vivid memories of her avant-garde queer friends, and dramatically recreating the early years of the AIDS crisis as experienced by a political insider. Interweaving personal reminiscence with cogent analysis, Schulman details her experience as a witness to the loss of a generation’s imagination and the consequences of that loss.

I came across a new book club in Buffalo which plans to concentrate on the topic of gentrification. This was the first selection. It isn’t something I would have chosen to read on my own — I do like books about cities and how they work, but gentrification in particular hasn’t been on my radar. I wasn’t enthralled by this book, and there were quite a few sections I found boring, but I did learn more than I ever knew about the AIDS crisis in NYC in the ’80s and ’90s.

The author’s view is that after people died from AIDS, their rent-controlled apartments were taken over by mostly homogeneous white people who could afford the higher rents, which brought on a wave of gentrification that wiped out diversity in neighborhoods, ethnicities, and cultures.

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