Books

Books Read in April 2017

I read eight books in April (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 36.

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

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

Highly Recommended

1) The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, Anu Partanen

Description: Partanen (a Finnish journalist, now a naturalized American citizen) compares and contrasts life in the U.S. with life in the Nordic region, focusing on four key relationships — parents and children, men and women, employees and employers, and government and citizens. She debunks criticism that Nordic countries are socialist “nanny states,” revealing that it is Americans who are far more enmeshed in unhealthy dependencies than we realize. Offering insights, advice, and solutions, Partanen makes an argument that we can rebuild our society, rekindle our optimism, and restore true freedom to our relationships and lives.

Anu doesn’t glorify the Nordic region, but she makes a convincing argument that the services available to its citizens should be available to Americans as well. She has experienced both worlds, growing up and later working in Finland, until she moved to the U.S. in 2008 (unsurprisingly, she found our confusing, cumbersome, and expensive health care system the largest obstacle to navigate).

I assumed, like many people, that having so many benefits available to Nordic citizens must mean they pay most of their salary in taxes. Not so, says Anu. While her tax rate was slightly higher in Finland, it covered a vast array of services – schooling (including university), maternity leave, unemployment benefits, and, of course, health insurance – and with a lot less bureaucracy.

Students in Finland score impressive rankings on international achievement tests, largely due to how they’ve set up their school system. On the flip side, America’s system of funding public schools through property taxes leads to huge disparities in resources, with schools in wealthy areas being the clear winners. This is not the case in Finland.

I found myself wondering how feasible it would be to make similar changes in the U.S., since we have many, many more people than Finland. Honestly, it seems way outside the realm of possibility, with the way we have things set up right now. Anu addresses this question a bit, suggesting it could be implemented on the state level first.

While there are many things she’d like to see improved upon in America, Anu speaks highly of our country and its people, saying Americans “are the most helpful, energetic, and supportive people I’ve ever met.”

I found an article Anu published last year called The Fog of Living Abroad, where she writes about transitioning to writing in English after she moved to the U.S. to live. Even though she’d studied English since she was a young child and could speak the language fluently, writing is entirely different.

Recommended

2) The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley, Eric Weiner

Description: Weiner, an acclaimed travel writer, sets out to examine the connection between our surroundings and our most innovative ideas. He explores the history of places, like Vienna of 1900, Renaissance Florence, ancient Athens, and Silicon Valley, to show how certain urban settings are conducive to ingenuity. With his trademark humor, he walks the same paths as the geniuses who flourished in these settings to see if the spirit of what inspired figures like Socrates, Michelangelo, and Leonardo remains.

Weiner does this thing where he identifies a question he’d like to answer, chooses appropriate places around the globe and spends time there, interviewing people and hanging out while he explores possible answers. This is his third book, and while they all follow the same formula the questions are completely different.

Here, Weiner focuses on cities that had a high number of geniuses in different points in time (like Athens, Hangzhou, and Vienna), and tries to identify what the conditions may have been to make this possible. It’s a question I was never curious about, but he has the ability to make it entertaining.

3) Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, Lee Smith

Description: Set deep in the mountains of Virginia, the Grundy of Lee’s youth was a place of coal miners, tent revivals, mountain music, and her daddy’s dimestore. Even when she was sent off to college to earn some “culture,” she understood the richest culture she might ever know was the one she was driving away from. Lee’s essays are crushingly honest and superbly entertaining. She has created both a moving personal portrait and a testament to embracing one’s heritage. It’s also an inspiring story of the birth of a writer and a poignant look at a way of life that has all but vanished.

I’d never heard of Lee Smith (or read any of her 12 novels), until I came across this collection of essays while browsing available ebooks on my library’s website. The essays cover a wide range of topics (growing up with a father who suffered from bipolar disorder, and a mother who had depression and anxiety; losing her 33-year-old son from complications with schizophrenia), but all of them relate to her upbringing in a small town in Virginia. I enjoyed every single one.

4) Getting Real: A Memoir, Gretchen Carlson

Description: Celebrity news anchorwoman Gretchen Carlson shares her inspiring story and offers important takeaways about what it means to strive for and find success. She takes readers from her Minnesota childhood, where she became a violin prodigy, through college at Stanford and her in-the-trenches years as a cub reporter on local television stations before becoming a national news reporter.

I listened to this on audiobook, which Gretchen reads herself. Other than thinking she has an overly-perky voice at times, I enjoyed it. I didn’t know she was trained as a classical violinist, and played for many years. She played the violin in the talent portion of the Miss America pageant in 1989, which she won (I looked up the video of her performance – it’s here, if you want to watch it).

Gretchen is an impressive lady with a lot of drive, and it was interesting to hear how she went from violin prodigy, to Miss America, to working as a reporter for local TV stations, then later to CBS and FOX News.

This book was published in 2015, so it doesn’t address her sexual harassment case against Roger Ailes. On the contrary, she speaks highly of him several times, calling him “the most accessible boss I’ve ever worked for.” It makes me wonder if she really wanted to include him in her book, or if she felt obligated to because she was writing it while still employed by FOX.

5) Locally Laid: How We Built a Plucky, Industry-changing Egg Farm–from Scratch, Lucie B. Amundsen

Description: How a Midwestern family with no agricultural experience went from a few backyard chickens to a full-fledged farm — and discovered why local chicks are better. With an unexpected passion for this dubious enterprise, Amundsen shares a messy, wry, and educational story of the unforeseen payoffs (and frequent pitfalls) of one couple’s ag adventure — and many, many hours spent wrangling chickens.

I’ve read a number of books written by people without any (or barely any) farm experience who decide to take to the land. I find the tales interesting, even though it’s not something I’d ever want to do myself. I just like reading about people who drastically change their lives.

Things appear to have worked out for Lucie and her husband, but the process was really rough when they started out. I didn’t like how Lucie’s husband decreed he was going to start this business even though she was vehemently against it. Changing your family’s lives in such a drastic way should have the buy-in of both adults. At one point, Lucie wrote, “Jason was now a farmer, and I was a married single parent.”

Having said that, Lucie’s recollections of building a pasture-raised egg business was entertaining, and her commitment to sourcing locally is commendable. I learned about the process of small scale egg washing, and what happened when they entered a national small-business contest and almost won.

Okay

6) Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport

Description: Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive economy. A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, Newport takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories and no-nonsense advice.

I’ve read a number of reviewers who said this book changed their lives. I enjoyed the introduction and Part 2, which is the section with the helpful information and tips. I had to downgrade my rating of this book to “Okay” because I found Part 1 (the philosophy behind the notion of “deep work”) boring. How can I fully recommend a book if I wish half of it had been cut out?

Newport makes a compelling argument that we live very distracted lives, and it’s only through regular periods of deep focus that results emerge. Newport rarely works past 530pm or on weekends, yet he’s written multiple books, published numerous academic papers, and maintains a full-time job as a professor.

7) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

Description: Over the last half-billion years, there have been five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us.

This book contains a lot of good information, and I liked how Kolbert traveled around and experienced her topics firsthand, but I did get bogged down in all the science at times. I listened to it on audiobook, which isn’t ideal for this genre because I tend to ingest science more easily if I can read it, rather than hearing it spoken out loud.

Not Recommended

8) I Hate Everyone, Except You, Clinton Kelly

Description: Television personality Clinton Kelly pens a collection of essays about his often-embarrassing journey from awkward kid to slightly less awkward adult.

I didn’t expect this to be humor writing, which (as regular readers may recall) I generally do not like. I occasionally watched What Not to Wear back in the day, so I was hoping there would be more emphasis on his time on that show, but other than a single chapter (written in the form of a letter to a fan), that was pretty much it.

Kelly focuses on stories from his childhood and 20s in NYC, like how he would rent p0rn from a video store with a friend, and that one time he went on a scary ride at a water park and farted water afterward (see, I told you — not funny). I likely would have abandoned the book if the essays weren’t so short; even when I was rolling my eyes about something I knew it wouldn’t last long.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Lara May 1, 2017 at 11:46 am

    Seeing your monthly rundown always makes me want to get back to tackling my own “to read” list. You always have such a good list with some interesting ones that haven’t crossed my radar yet!

    • Reply Zandria May 2, 2017 at 6:14 pm

      I’m so glad to hear that! I often find book recommendations in random places (sometimes just by browsing my library websites’s e-book section), so if I can help someone out by highlighting books they haven’t heard of yet, that makes me feel really good. I hope you’re able to do more tackling of that to-read list soon!

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