I read nine books in November (two were audiobooks), which brings my 2016 total to 98.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, Elizabeth Vargas
Description: Vargas discusses growing up with anxiety — which began at the age of six when her father served in Vietnam — and how she dealt with this anxiety as she came of age, to eventually turning to alcohol for relief. She tells of how she found herself living in denial, about the extent of her addiction and keeping her dependency a secret. She addresses her time in rehab, her first year of sobriety, and the guilt she felt as a working mother who had never found the right balance.
I’ve read better recovering-alcoholic memoirs, but this one tends to stand out due to the notoriety of the author. I’ve seen Vargas on television many times over the years, but (likely due to not watching much TV anymore) I didn’t know about her struggle with alcoholism before I read this book review.
Vargas focuses more on her anxiety and the drinking itself rather than trying to chronicle her entire life (she talks a bit about her childhood, then skips from arriving at college to being hungover on the morning of September 11, which occurred decades later).
She compares her early relationship with alcohol to a romance (which reminded me of Drinking: A Love Story). She shares how she experienced anxiety before appearing on camera, and had several panic attacks on air (which reminded me of the 10% Happier guy, who turned to meditation to combat his anxiety — Vargas was later introduced to meditation in rehab and calls it a “key part of my recovery”).
It was tough to read about her multiple stints in rehab, since you’re rooting for her every time to finally get her life together. She’s been sober now for a few years, and admits she received some backlash about writing a book while still so early in her recovery. I’m sure there are many people (including myself) who hopes she makes it.
2) The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood, Belle Boggs
Description: When Boggs learns she might never be able to conceive, she searches the world around her for signs she is not alone. She explores many aspects of fertility and reports complex stories of couples who adopted domestically and from overseas, LGBT couples considering assisted reproduction and surrogacy, and women and men reflecting on childless or child-free lives. Boggs deftly distills her time of waiting into an expansive contemplation of fertility, choice, and the many possible roads to making a life and making a family.
I found the author very likable and her story compelling. It took Belle five years of trying to conceive before she and her husband were successful via in vitro fertilization (IVF). Along with sharing her personal experience, she reports on various forms of ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology), same-sex couples, surrogacy, and adoption.
There was also frank talk on the associated costs of these procedures (often so high they’re unattainable for many people, and usually not covered by insurance), and the business of cost-share plans.
Description: Kathryn is an elite triathlete, former professional figure skater, and starving artist. Just as her personal and professional dreams begin to crumble in the summer of 2006, ESPN stakes her to a dream: Take two years to make the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing. This is the heroic, hilarious account of Bertine’s exertions in the realms of triathlon, pentathlon, handball, track cycling, road cycling, rowing, open water swimming, racewalking, and — fasten your seatbelts — luge.
What an incredible effort, and what an amazing journey. While I enjoyed reading about Kathryn’s forays into potential Olympic sports, the intensity really increased when she decided to concentrate on road cycling. She proved that someone undertaking a challenge like this has to have an immense amount of drive.
It wasn’t just the physical exertion of 350-mile-a-week training rides and back-to-back races with high caliber competition, but also the mental fortitude needed to take care of all the behind the scenes tasks: not knowing for months whether she’d even be allowed to take part in the races she needed, dealing with jet lag, exhaustion, and language barriers. She makes too many corny jokes, but I looked past those since I was so impressed with everything else.
4) Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver
Description: Kingsolver and her family sweep readers along on their journey away from the industrial food pipeline to a rural life in which they vow to buy only food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. Their search yields surprising discoveries about turkey sex life and overly zealous zucchini plants, en route to a food culture that’s better for the neighborhood and also better on the table.
This book is a mix of Kingsolver’s eating-local story, with additions to each chapter by her husband and then-teenage daughter (I could have done without those; I preferred Kingsolver’s story on its own). Along with describing her garden and how she fed her family, she covers wider topics like government food policies, the dissolution of small family farms, organics, and GMOs. She raised her own chickens and turkeys, gathered morel mushrooms, purchased from local farmers’ markets, and refrained from buying exotic fruits (like bananas). This is an interesting look at months of scarcity and abundance, based on what is/isn’t growing at a particular time.
5) The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom
Description: Orphaned at 7 years old, Lavinia arrives on the steps of a tobacco plantation where she is to live and work with the slaves of the kitchen house. Under the care of Belle, the master’s illegitimate daughter, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family. Eventually, Lavinia is accepted into the world of the big house, where the master is absent and the mistress battles opium addiction. Lavinia finds herself perilously straddling two very different worlds. When she is forced to make a choice, loyalties are brought into question, dangerous truths are laid bare and lives are put at risk.
This is the only work of fiction I read this month. I didn’t love the character of Lavinia. I would have preferred her to be feistier and less submissive, but as a female growing up in the late 1700/early 1800s, that was likely a common occurrence. I did like the story itself though, especially once it got past the halfway point. I’m glad I chose the audiobook because the different character voices enhanced the experience.
6) Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte
Description: In a country that consumes and then casts off more and more, what actually happens to the things we throw away? Science writer Elizabeth Royte leads us on a wild adventure that begins once our trash hits the bottom of the can. By showing us what happens to the things we’ve “disposed of,” Royte reminds us that our decisions about consumption and waste have a very real impact — and that unless we undertake radical change, the garbage we create will always be with us.
I was impressed by Royte’s efforts, but after getting a third of the way through the book, the subject matter just got old. I found the early sections interesting (landfills, composting, and some of the recycling stuff), but the details on paper, metal, and technology recycling were more difficult to get through. I will say though, reading about the massive amount of trash that gets thrown away every day makes me proud of the steps I’ve taken this year to reduce the amount of garbage I produce.
7) In CHEAP We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, Lauren Weber
Description: In this lively treatise on the virtues of being cheap, Weber explores provocative questions about Americans’ conflicted relationship with consumption and frugality. Why do we ridicule people who save money? Where’s the boundary between thrift and miserliness? Is thrift a virtue or a vice during a recession? She offers a colorful ride through the history of frugality in the United States, while also exploring contemporary expressions and dilemmas of thrift.
I was hoping to like this more than I did since I’m all about living the thrifty life, but the book mostly focused on the historical aspects of thrift in America over the past few centuries (one recurring theme is that people tend to exhibit thrift during times of war and economic downturns, then return to their regular consumption patterns as soon as they’re able). It was hard to feel engaged; I would have liked to see more of a focus on modern habits.
8) Forward: A Memoir, Abby Wambach
Description: Abby has always pushed the limits of what is possible. At age seven she was put on the boys’ soccer team. At age thirty-five she became the highest goal scorer—male or female—in the history of soccer. Called “badass” by President Obama, Abby has become a fierce advocate for women’s rights and equal opportunity. However, her professional success often masked an inner struggle to reconcile the various parts of herself: ferocious competitor, daughter, leader, wife.
Abby is a revered former soccer player with many accomplishments, but I didn’t find her very likable. She tended to be dedicated to her sport only when forced to by deadlines (drinking and partying whenever she could get away with it), and as she got older, the alcohol — and later prescription drug — abuse just got worse. She says multiple times that she wanted to excel in her sport with the minimum amount of effort possible.
She writes about the DUI she received earlier this year, and how she gave up all intoxicants over the summer, but since all that happened less than six months ago I don’t consider her a credible source for responsible living quite yet.
As for how the book is written, I didn’t like how she included the full text of emails and text conversations with friends. I found these boring, and they could have easily been condensed.
On the bright side, she didn’t focus on the rules of soccer or in-depth details of games, which would have gone over my head since I’ve never watched more than a few minutes of soccer at a time.
Apparently she’s a pretty good public speaker, so I would probably like her better in person than I did by reading her memoir.
9) My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands, Chelsea Handler
Description: In this collection of true-life stories, actress and comedian Chelsea Handler recounts her time spent in the social trenches with that wild, strange, irresistible, and often gratifying beast: the one-night stand.
I’m embarrassed to include this because, well, look at the title. I listened to it on audiobook because all the others I wanted weren’t available at the time. It wasn’t very long so I didn’t abandon it, and there were several humorous moments, but in the future I’ll continue to stick with my no-comedian reading preference. (Unfortunate, because I do enjoy following Chelsea on social media and I occasionally watch her show on Netflix.)