Books Read in December 2016

I read seven books in December (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2016 total to 105.

This wasn’t a great reading month, with five out of seven books not categorized as recommended. On the bright side, I did accomplish the goal I set last year of reading less books in 2016 than I did in 2015. I still broke the three-figure mark though!

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


1) Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, Margot Lee Shetterly

Description: Before John Glenn orbited the earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of female mathematicians known as “human computers” used pencils, slide rules, and adding machines to calculate numbers that would launch rockets and astronauts into space. Among these were a group of exceptionally talented African American women, some of the brightest minds of their generation. Starting in World War II and moving through to the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Space Race, this book follows the interwoven accounts of four African American women who participated in some of NASA’s greatest successes.

I had never heard of the black female “computers” in the days of NACA and early NASA formation. What struck me most about this book was its prominent focus on segregation. Segregation was rampant in the 1940s and 1950s, which is when most of the story took place: in housing, neighborhoods, schooling, restrooms, and the type of jobs black women were able to get (and when they did get jobs, how they were usually paid less than their white counterparts). Some of it I knew, or realized I must have read about years ago, but it certainly wasn’t something I’d thought about in a very long time.

This book takes place in my home state of Virginia, where I lived for more years than any other. I didn’t realize Virginia held on to their segregation policies way longer than other states did, a fight mostly centered on their very public renunciation of integrated schools (apparently Virginia paid prospective black students who wanted to attend graduate school in their state to choose a school in another state). The author said it very well: “Virginia’s legacy as the birthplace of humanity’s first step into the heavens [a reference to NASA] would have to compete with the notoriety it was gaining as the country’s most intransigent foe of integrated schools.”

2) Off Balance: A Memoir, Dominique Moceanu

Description: An unflinchingly honest memoir from an Olympic gold medalist that reveals the often dark underbelly of Olympic gymnastics as only an insider can — and the secrets she learned about the past that nearly tore apart her family.

I didn’t know anything about this book before I came across it on my library’s list of available e-books, but I enjoyed it. I remember watching Dominique and the rest of the Magnificent Seven on TV when they won gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She’s only a year younger than I am, and it was interesting to see what went on behind the scenes, including Dominique’s background with an overbearing, controlling father and being coached by Bela and Marta Karolyi, who ruled with intimidation and fear.


3) The Magnolia Story, Joanna & Chip Gaines

Description: This is the first book from Chip and Joanna, stars of HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” which offers their fans a detailed look at their life together. From the very first renovation project they tackled, to the project that nearly cost them everything, from the childhood memories that shaped them, to the twists and turns that led them to the life they share on the farm today.

This is definitely not an example of great writing — I’d say only fans of their show would enjoy this book — but it’s a quick, easy read (Joanna wrote most of it with Chip’s comments interspersed throughout). I’ve seen Fixer Upper a handful of times, so it was mildly entertaining to learn how they arrived where they are. It was also nice to read about their obvious love and admiration for each other, even after being married for many years and having four kids.

One negative thing that stood out was Chip’s history of recklessness. Don’t get me wrong — he seems like a gregarious, super friendly guy — but there’s no possible way I could have put up with what Joanna did. He purchased multiple houses over the years without telling her (he even bought a houseboat once “as a surprise,” sight unseen, which turned out to be a complete wreck), and moved them from house to house even when she told him she didn’t want to go.

Joanna says in hindsight that she understands why he did it, and she enjoyed the experience of decorating and fixing up ugly houses, but still…didn’t Chip think she deserved to be part of the decision making? That really rubbed me the wrong way.

My impression: Joanna is okay with Chip’s actions because it all happened to work out, and their TV show and various businesses are extremely successful. If Chip’s recklessness had landed them in bankruptcy court, I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t be nearly as accepting.

4) Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home, Jessica Fechtor

Description: At 28, Jessica was happily immersed in graduate school and her young marriage. Then she went for a run and an aneurysm burst in her brain. She lost her sense of smell, the sight in her left eye, and nearly died. Jessica’s journey to recovery began in the kitchen as soon as she was able to stand at the stovetop and stir. There, she drew strength from the restorative power of cooking and baking.

This woman had a crazy time when an aneurysm unexpectedly burst in her brain: multiple surgeries, an extensive recovery, loss of sight in her left eye. I was rooting for her to get better but her story didn’t pull me in enough to recommend it to others.

5) First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, Bee Wilson

Description: Wilson draws on the latest research from food psychologists and neuroscientists to reveal that our food habits are shaped by a host of factors: family and culture, memory and gender, hunger and love. She introduces us to people who can only eat foods of a certain color, and researchers who have pioneered new ways to persuade children to try new vegetables. An exploration of the surprising origins of our tastes, Wilson shows us how we can change our palates to lead healthier, happier lives.

Ho hum. I listened to this on audio, and I liked some parts but mostly found myself wishing it was over. The part I found most interesting was the section on how to get picky kids to eat a wider variety of foods (a topic which doesn’t even apply to me as a childfree person).

6) Crossing the River: A Life in Brazil, Amy Ragsdale

Description: Overwhelmed with her fast-paced lifestyle, Amy moved with her husband and two teenagers to a small town in northeastern Brazil, where she hoped they would learn the value of a slower life. Spending a year in this culturally rich but economically poor region, Amy and her family learn to fundamentally connect with their neighbors across language and customs.

This sounds like something I’d want to do — whisk my kid off to a foreign country for a non-typical childhood experience. Amy was honest about the challenges; they didn’t always like it and often wished they could pack up early, but they stuck it out and ended up being glad they did. I liked reading about their daily life in rural Brazil, but some portions bored me (like the long section devoted to their summer travels in the Amazon).

7) Wild by Nature: From Siberia to Australia, Three Years Alone in the Wilderness on Foot, Sarah Marquis

Description: Sarah survived the Mafia, drug dealers, thieves on horseback who harassed her tent every night for weeks, temperatures from subzero to scorching, life-threatening wildlife, a dengue fever delirium in the Laos jungle, tropic ringworm in northern Thailand, dehydration, and a life-threatening abscess. This is a story of adventure, human ingenuity, persistence, and resilience that shows firsthand what it is to adventure as a woman in the most dangerous of circumstance, what it is to be truly alone in the wild, and why someone would challenge themselves with an expedition others would call crazy.

A Swiss adventurer and explorer, from 2010 to 2013 Sarah walked over 10,000 miles from Siberia to the Gobi Desert, into China, Laos, Thailand, and then across Australia. Along the way, she carried a large pack on her back and pushed/pulled a cart filled with over 100 pounds of gear to sustain her when there was no way to refill her supplies. I was in awe of her quest, but there were things I disliked as well: like how she overused exclamation points, and how she glossed over several stories that deserved more explanation. If you’re interested in learning more without reading the book, this New York Times article on her was very good.

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  • Reply Leah December 30, 2016 at 7:30 pm

    I think Joanna’s “okay” with this because of their religion. They’re fairly conservative. They don’t talk much about it, but I get the sense that their religion teaches that men make the ultimate decisions. Not my thing, but I suppose it has worked out okay for them.

    I like the show — they do a really good job with the houses they do — but am not the hugest fan of them.

    I am *really* excited to see the movie based on Hidden Figures.

    • Reply Zandria January 2, 2017 at 9:55 am

      That’s the exact impression I got as well (agreeing with her husband instead of pushing back, due to the nature of their religion). It’s the same way my mom was with my dad when I was growing up. I’ve enjoyed watching their show as well, but yes, certain aspects of their relationship rub me the wrong way.

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