Books Read in March 2017

I read 11 books in March (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2017 total to 28.

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

Highly Recommended

1) Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah

Description: Trevor’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. He was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could steal him away. This is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist.

Trevor had a fascinating upbringing. He literally had to be hidden as a young kid because he was “born a crime” – he had a white father and a black mother when it was against the law for races to mix. He found it hard to make friends because he didn’t fit in with any group: he was too white for the blacks and too black for the whites.

He was quite naughty as a kid, constantly testing boundaries. This book follows his life from birth through early 20s, so it falls short of explaining how he went from South Africa to host of The Daily Show. Maybe he’ll cover that journey in a later memoir.


2) The Underground Railroad: A Novel, Colson Whitehead

Description: Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia when she and Caesar decide to escape. In Whitehead’s conception, the Underground Railroad is no metaphor — engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. As Whitehead re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day.

I recommend this book but I didn’t like the ending.

If you’ve read the book already, these are the questions I had (may contain spoilers). 1) Wasn’t it way too obvious that the ending had to involve Ridgeway?; and 2) Why wouldn’t Cora have recognized Homer before everything went to hell? She saw a young boy wink at her but didn’t register who it was? Seeing him would have tipped her off and everyone would have had plenty of time to disperse before the bad guys showed up. So yeah, that pissed me off. The author should have left out the whole winking part.

3) Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, Sarah Lohman

Description: The U.S. boasts a culturally and ethnically diverse population which makes for a continually changing culinary landscape. But a young historical gastronomist named Sarah Lohman discovered that American food is united by eight flavors: black pepper, vanilla, curry powder, chili powder, soy sauce, garlic, MSG, and Sriracha. Lohman sets out to explore how these influential ingredients made their way to the American table.

I liked this book more than I thought I would, which is always nice. It made me think about common household ingredients in an entirely new way (well, MSG isn’t a common ingredient – indeed, it is often vilified – but the author has some intriguing arguments for why MSG isn’t bad for you and how opinions about certain ingredients change over time). She incorporates interesting tidbits and personal anecdotes to tie everything together.

Fun facts: 1) 96% of the world’s supply of vanillin is artificially produced, due to the laborious process involved in harvesting the real thing; 2) The use of garlic in cooking was maligned for many years, mostly because imported spices were viewed as superior.

4) Running Away to Home: Our Family’s Journey to Croatia in Search of Who We Are, Where We Came From, and What Really Matters, Jennifer Wilson

Description: Jen and Jim had always dreamed of taking a family sabbatical in another country, so they decided to travel to the Croatian mountain village of Mrkopalj, the land of Jennifer’s ancestors. It was a village that seemed hermetically sealed for the last 100 years, with a population of 800 residents and a herd of sheep milling around the post office. As the family struggled to stay sane (and warm), what they found was much deeper and bigger than themselves.

I knew nothing about Croatia before reading this book, so I’m glad Wilson included both historical context and information about what the country is like today. I also liked that she lived in a rural area in Croatia during the time the book took place, surrounded mostly by people who’d been there their whole lives. It’s a different vibe than going to a city where you tend to encounter people from all over the world.

Wilson took her husband and kids to the town of Mrkopalj, which is where her great-grandparents lived before they immigrated to America. She spent time researching her genealogical roots, locating distant cousins, meeting a wide variety of townspeople, and learning what life was like back when her ancestors lived there.

5) Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim, Sabeeha Rehman

Description: Beginning with an account of her arranged marriage, Rehman undercuts stereotypes and offers a refreshing view of an American life through Muslim eyes. She recounts an immigrant’s daily struggles balancing assimilation with preserving heritage, overcoming religious barriers from within and distortions of Islam from without, and confronting issues of raising her children as Muslims.

Sabeeha came to the U.S. with her husband in the early 1970s from Pakistan; he was training to be a doctor and they had an arranged marriage. She goes into all the rituals and traditions involved with a Pakistani arranged marriage (and later juxtaposes how that process has evolved and modernized over time). She also talks about her assimilation and how so many things in the U.S. were shocking to her, like clothing choices, public displays of affection, and men and women living together before marriage.

She also talks about being a Muslim, but I liked that her religious identity changed over time: when she first moved to the U.S., she and her husband rarely prayed, went to services, or observed holidays like Ramadan. Nobody else they knew was dedicated to it, so it was easy to let it slip. Later, once she had kids, she became more involved. She and her husband often had to create Muslim communities from scratch because what they wanted didn’t exist.

Sabeeha went to graduate school and worked her way up as an executive in hospital administration. In a wide variety of ways, she has stood up for women’s rights for many years and challenged assumptions about how a Muslim woman should act and dress.

I liked this book a lot, and the topic is especially timely in our current political climate.

6) The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World, Eric Weiner

Description: Weiner spent a decade as a foreign correspondent reporting from discontented locales like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. Unhappy people living in profoundly unstable states, he notes, inspire pathos and make for good copy, but not for good karma. So Weiner undertook a year’s research to travel the globe, looking for the “unheralded happy places.” The result is this book, equal parts laugh-out-loud funny and philosophical, a journey into both the definition of and the destination for true contentment.

This type of book, where someone travels to all sorts of countries to answer a question, really appeals to me. I enjoyed Weiner’s explorations and his commentary. Along with the happiest countries in the world, he also visited Moldova, which ranks at the bottom of the happiness scale (and he was eager to leave). He doesn’t end up with any blockbuster insights (which I didn’t expect anyway), but I enjoyed it all the same.


7) This Is Where You Belong: The Art and Science of Loving the Place You Live, Melody Warnick

Description: The average restless American will move 11.7 times in a lifetime. For Warnick, it was move #6, from Austin, TX, to Blacksburg, VA, that threatened to unhinge her. In the lonely aftermath of unpacking, she wondered: Aren’t we supposed to put down roots at some point? How does the place we live become the place we want to stay? This time, she had an epiphany. Rather than hold her breath and hope this new town would be her family’s perfect fit, she would figure out how to fall in love with it — no matter what.

I was looking forward to this book (after reading great reviews here and here) but it didn’t fulfill my expectations. Warnick did a good job with the research, looking into what makes cities and towns desirable places to live, how people become “place attached,” and highlighting people around the country who have made efforts to bring attention to where they live (often making their location enjoyable for many more people in the process).

My major complaint is one I’ve made with other books, when I feel the author has made a halfhearted effort when it comes to executing her own suggestions. Warnick made goals for herself that she didn’t fulfill; for instance, she went to town leaders to suggest hosting their town’s first Chalk Fest, only to chicken out and basically hand out boxes of chalk at an existing event instead. (I felt the same way about A Year of No Sugar…for someone who was supposed to be eating NO sugar, there were a fair amount of modifications to the rules. If you say you’re not going to eat any sugar, don’t eat any sugar.)

However, although I found Warnick’s efforts halfhearted, they did appear to result in her becoming more place-attached, since at the end her husband brings up the idea of leaving and for the first time she can remember, she wanted to stay put.

I don’t think her suggestions for learning to love your city are bad, I just didn’t learn anything new from them. I guess I’ve lived in enough places that I know what to do when I move somewhere new, but maybe her suggestions would work better for someone else.

8) Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube: Chasing Fear and Finding Home in the Great White North, Blair Braverman

Description: Blair fell in love with the North at an early age: by the time she was 19, she had left her home in California, moved to Norway to learn how to drive sled dogs, and worked as a tour guide on a glacier in Alaska. Determined to make a life for herself in the North, she slowly developed the strength and resilience the landscape demanded of her. Blair captures the triumphs and the perils of the journey to self-discovery and independence in a landscape that is as beautiful as it is unforgiving.

I liked this glimpse into various Arctic areas of the world, the people who live there, and a different way of life — including dog sledding! — but some of the scenes were just plain weird. (It wasn’t the culture that was weird; just the particular scenes and people the author chose to highlight.)

I also liked that Blair talks about her relationship with a man who is transgender (transitioned from female to male). It wasn’t included in the book’s description, so it’s introduced as matter-of-fact, which was even better. Their relationship was woven into the rest of the story and it was taken for granted that it belonged there — no advance warning needed.

9) The Case Against Sugar, Gary Taubes

Description: Taubes delves into Americans’ history with sugar: its uses as a preservative, as an additive in cigarettes, the contemporary overuse of high-fructose corn syrup. He explains what research has shown about our addiction to sweets. He clarifies the arguments against sugar, corrects misconceptions about the relationship between sugar and weight loss; and provides the perspective necessary to make informed decisions about sugar as individuals and as a society.

This is well researched and thorough, but I’d read a lot of the information before so it didn’t seem all that new or interesting. I slogged through, but I already agree with the author’s premise and didn’t need to be convinced: Sugar is the dietary trigger of obesity and diabetes, and associated diseases like heart disease, hypertension, cancer, and even dementia. In addition to the science of why sugar is bad for us, there’s a lot on the history of sugar and its meteoric rise in popularity.

If you don’t want to read the book, this New York Times article was written by Taubes and inspired his longer version.

10) The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, Joshua Becker

Description: Joshua Becker helps you: recognize the life-giving benefits of owning less; realize how all the stuff you own is keeping you from pursuing your dreams; craft a personal, practical approach to decluttering your home and life; experience the joys of generosity; and learn why the best part of minimalism isn’t a clean house, it’s a full life.

I’m rating this book as Okay because I didn’t get anything new from it, but that’s because I’ve been practicing, living, researching, and reading about minimalism for years. However, I do think this would be a great resource for someone new to the concept. It’s what I would have wanted to read when I first discovered minimalism, and I’d recommend it to others who are just starting out.

11) Better Than New: Lessons I’ve Learned from Saving Old Homes (and How They Saved Me), Nicole Curtis

Description: For the past 20 years, Curtis has worked tirelessly to restore historical houses, often revitalizing neighborhoods in the process. She’s drawn millions of fans to her television show, Rehab Addict, where they follow the seemingly lost cause of turning a run-down building into a beautifully restored home. With her signature honesty and energy, Curtis writes about a project every reader will find compelling: how she rehabbed herself.

I’ve only seen Nicole’s show a few times. To be honest, I stopped watching because I found her voice annoying and I was tired of the low-cut tank tops she wore to do construction work. One of those complaints was addressed in the book when Nicole admits she can’t watch her own show because she hates hearing her voice.

I do admire her drive as an obviously successful, entrepreneurial woman. She never sits still for long and she’s had to prove herself over and over in a heavily male-dominated profession. I also like that she focuses on restoring old homes, retaining as many original details as possible.

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