Books Read in January 2017

I read nine books in January (one was an audiobook).

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

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


1) A Life in Parts, Bryan Cranston

Description: In his memoir, Cranston maps his zigzag journey from abandoned son to beloved star by recalling the many odd parts he’s played. He chronicles his evolution on camera, from soap opera player, to legendary character actor, to star. Cranston also dives deep into the details of his greatest role, explaining how he searched inward for the personal darkness that would help him create one of the most memorable performances ever captured on screen: Walter White, chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin.

What stood out to me about Cranston’s story is that he really hustled to get where he is today. He had an interesting life even before he made it big — for instance, when he was in his 20s, he and his brother spent two years riding their motorcycles around the U.S., sleeping in churches, parks, and homeless shelters, and taking odd jobs to support their lifestyle. When he decided he wanted to act, he was very dedicated in pursuing his goal. He sought it out; he didn’t wait for opportunities to come to him.

In addition to tales of his turbulent childhood and a former girlfriend who turned into a stalker, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes info related to his six seasons on Breaking Bad

I listened to this on audiobook, and I really liked that Cranston reads it himself. It wouldn’t have been nearly as compelling otherwise.

2) Hungry Heart: Adventures in Life, Love, and Writing, Jennifer Weiner

Description: No subject is off-limits in this collection of essays: sex, weight, envy, money, and her estranged father’s death. From lonely adolescence to modern childbirth, Jennifer goes there with the wit and candor that have endeared her to readers all over the world.

Weiner is a well-known chick-lit author. While I’ve never read any of her fiction, when I heard about her memoir I put it on hold at the library.

I almost deleted my hold when I heard that Weiner thought her memoir should have been chosen for Oprah’s book club rather than Glennon Doyle Melton’s Love Warrior (which I read last October, and rated as Highly Recommended). Apparently Weiner did retract her complaint and blame it on impulsiveness and hurt feelings, but still…who does that?

I’m glad I read Weiner’s memoir because it is very good. She does come across as braggy sometimes (after she obtains her literary fame and riches), but I thought her essays were well done. She writes about her second book being turned into a movie, undergoing weight loss surgery after she gained a lot of weight while pregnant, the terrible secrets she uncovered after her estranged father died of a drug overdose, and (warning!) a graphic description of a 10-week miscarriage at age 45.

I liked her openness, and applaud her unwavering support for feminist and democratic causes throughout her life.

3) Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame, Mara Wilson

Description: Mara has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex, to losing her mother at a young age, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity.

I liked the first half of this book better than the second half, but most of it is worth reading (minus a few essays, like the one on the first boy who broke her heart as a teenager, and her experience with show choir in high school). Mara is seven years younger than me so I remember her as “that little kid in those movies” (Mrs. Doubtfire, Matilda, Miracle on 34th Street), but she had an interesting life and I liked her perspective as a smarter-than-usual, nerdy, dark kid.

I liked her essays on: being told how “cute” she was as a child, and how that affected her as she got older; an open letter to Matilda, the title character she played in a movie; her mother’s death when Mara was eight years old; her history of anxiety / OCD / not thinking she’s good enough; and a blog post she wrote after Robin Williams committed suicide.

If you don’t read the book, this is a good article from Vanity Fair.

4) When in French: Love in a Second Language, Lauren Collins

Description: This is about the lengths we go for love, as well as an exploration across culture and history into how we learn languages. Collins grapples with the complexities of the French language, wrestling with the very nature of French identity and society—which, it turns out, is a far cry from life back home in North Carolina. Plumbing the depths of humanity’s many forms of language, Collins describes the frustrations, embarrassments, surprises, and, finally, joys of learning — and living in — French.

This is a book about learning the French language, but it’s mostly set in Geneva, Switzerland (a city the author finds boring, elitist, and expensive), where her husband is located for work. I liked that it’s not a typical memoir. While she relays stories about speaking French with her husband, how she ended up where she is, and adventures in language-learning class, she also delves into various translation and language topics. It was a nice mix.

5) The Sound of Gravel: A Memoir, Ruth Wariner

Description: Growing up in rural Mexico, where authorities turned a blind eye to the practices of her polygamist community, Ruth lives in a ramshackle house without indoor plumbing or electricity. In need of government assistance, Ruth and her siblings are carted back and forth between Mexico and the United States, where her mother collects welfare and her stepfather works a variety of odd jobs. As Ruth begins to doubt her family’s beliefs, she struggles to balance her fierce love for her siblings with her determination to forge a better life for herself.

What a way to grow up. When the book opens, Ruth is one of five kids. Her mother keeps getting pregnant, and each time I’m like…six! Seven! Eight! That has to be the last one. But no. This woman gives birth to ten kids before the book ends, with three of them mentally and/or developmentally disabled. Ruth endures a tumultuous childhood: sexual abuse by her stepfather, poverty, and constant moving. It all comes to a head when a horrifying experience involving several family members is the catalyst that causes her to leave the community for good.

6) Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, Mary Roach

Description: This book tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries — panic, exhaustion, heat, noise — and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

I’ve read many of Mary Roach’s previous books (with great titles such as Gulp, Stiff, Bonk, and Spook). I wasn’t sure I’d like this one since it focuses on military science, but she has a great ability to take a mundane topic and bring forth all the fascinating and abnormal aspects you’ve never thought to question. Examples: genital reconstruction for soldiers involved in bomb blasts, hearing loss in soldiers and why they deny having a problem, why it’s so difficult to repel shark attacks, the science of sweat, and the use of medical maggots (yes, really).

7) Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, Elizabeth Greenwood

Description: Is it still possible to fake your own death in the 21st century? With six figures of student loan debt, Greenwood was tempted to find out. This is an investigation into our all-too-human desire to escape from the lives we lead, and the men and women desperate enough to lose their identities—and their families—to begin again.

This is an interesting look at people who have chosen to fake their own deaths, and also the people who are paid to seek them out (typically employed by life insurance companies). This is not a how-to manual, but Greenwood does uncover tips and tricks along the way. People who are thinking of faking their deaths should read this — not as a primer, but as a cautionary tale.


8) Future Sex, Emily Witt

Description: Witt captures the experiences of going to bars alone, online dating, and hooking up with strangers. She observes the subcultures she encounters with a wry sense of humor, capturing them in all of their strangeness, ridiculousness, and beauty. The result is an open-minded account of the contemporary pursuit of connection and pleasure, and an inspiring new model of female sexuality — open, forgiving, and unafraid.

I started out thinking the author was too prudish to write a book about sex, but she loosened up a bit later on. Still, she seemed to shy away from many of her subjects, her perspective largely comes off as clinical, and some of the people and situations she chose to focus on (internet dating, web cams) just weren’t all that interesting. A chapter on her experience at Burning Man was pretty good, and there’s one on reproduction where she acknowledges she’d like to have a baby, but probably won’t due to the logistics as a single woman being too great.

9) The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

Description: English nurse Lib Wright is brought to a small Irish village to observe what appears to be a miracle — a girl said to have survived without food for months — and soon finds herself fighting to save the child’s life.

This is a story about a young Irish girl who claims to have survived for four months on no food, told from the perspective of a nurse brought in to observe her and make sure she’s not cheating. The ending surprised me, which was nice, but I found most of the plot tedious. How compelling can a story be when it centers on visiting a dying girl’s home every day?

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