I read thirteen books in June (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 62.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) An Abbreviated Life: A Memoir, Ariel Leve
Description: A beautiful, startling, and candid memoir about growing up without boundaries, in which Ariel recalls the turbulent time she endured as the only child of an unstable poet for a mother and a beloved but largely absent father, and explores the consequences of a psychologically harrowing childhood as she seeks refuge from the past and recovers what was lost.
This is a very well done “dysfunctional mother” memoir. Ariel put up with a lot as a kid, which makes me realize how normal and sane my childhood was in comparison.
Ariel’s mother was a well-known poet in her day (she isn’t named in the book but a google search provides the answer), with famous writer friends. She was verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive. She walked around naked. She’d sometimes talk on the phone so long that she would pee herself, rather than place the caller on hold to go to the bathroom. She would host parties during the week which kept her daughter awake long past her bedtime. She made constant promises that she had no intention of keeping.
She took part in the feminist movement but would get distraught when boyfriends left her (even just for the night), grabbing onto their calves and screaming at them not to leave. Ariel says her mother never spent an entire day alone with her during her childhood, instead leaving her in the care of various nannies.
For more information: Jon Ronson profiled Ariel for this article after the book came out, and it includes an interview with Ariel’s mother.
2) Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick
Description: Even before she made a name for herself on the silver screen, Anna was unusually small, weird, and “10 percent defiant.” Here she invites readers inside her brain, sharing extraordinary and charmingly ordinary stories with candor and winningly wry observations.
I resisted reading this book at first because I didn’t know much about Anna Kendrick, but it was a fun read. Anna started out as a theater actress as a kid, and gradually started doing films once she moved to Los Angeles in her late teens. I’ve only seen one or two movies she’s been in, but her recollections from sets she’s worked on were entertaining to read all the same.
Anna is likable and relatable because she’s self-deprecating, and she talks a lot about how she’s felt like an outsider and a fraud most of her life. In a later section, she gives behind-the-scenes observations on photo shoots, press junkets, print interviews, and attending awards shows (which apparently is not glamorous, especially the never-ending struggle to keep your dress from wrinkling).
Description: Professional journalist and amateur drinker Bianca Bosker didn’t know much about wine—until she discovered an alternate universe where taste reigns supreme, a world of elite sommeliers who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of flavor. Astounded by their fervor and seemingly superhuman sensory powers, she set out to uncover what drove their obsession, and whether she, too, could become a “cork dork.”
Just the kind of book I like: a woman who immerses herself in a subject and tells us all about it. Bianca wrote articles about tech before she made the switch to wine, and it’s amazing to see how much time must be dedicated to this pursuit if you want to be good at it. You really have to love it; there’s no other way to motivate yourself to spend so much time focusing on one subject. Imagine spending most of your free time studying obscure facts on flash cards.
Bianca finds a mentor, joins multiple blind tasting groups, and attends sommelier competitions. She works in a wine cellar for a few months, and later shadows a sommelier at a fancy restaurant to see what their job is like. She also explores the science of taste, and investigates how wine quality is judged, or if it’s even really possible to do so.
In reviews I read elsewhere, I’ve seen valid criticism that Bianca is making assumptions about the wine industry, and people who work as sommeliers, based on characters she met mostly in NYC over the course of a year. She doesn’t always portray them in the best light, like when she says sommeliers are often trying to talk you into buying the most expensive wine possible and that many of them are functional alcoholics. However, her goal was to become a certified sommelier herself, so obviously she finds merit in the profession.
Description: As a woman of a certain age who has no desire to start a family, Jen often finds herself confronted about her decision to be childfree by choice. She offers honest and hilarious responses to questions like “Who will take care of you when you get old?” (Servants!) and a peek into the psyche — and weird and wonderful life — of a woman who has always marched to the beat of a different drummer and is pretty sure she’s not gonna change her mind, but thanks for your concern.
This is Kirkman’s first book. I also read her second book this month (see below).
Kirkman describes multiple situations she’s found herself in as a childfree person where she hasn’t felt like her wishes are heard or respected. As a childfree person myself, these scenarios are always interesting to me, but I don’t entirely relate because – at least up to this point in my life – I’ve never felt hounded by anyone for not having kids. Kirkman has been brought to tears and made to feel bad about her desire not to procreate, while I haven’t. It made me wonder, since she’s a comedian and obviously comfortable talking in front of people, why she engaged with the asshole ladies who made her feel bad, rather than shutting it down.
I think this book would be valuable for women with kids to read as well, if only to highlight the many things you shouldn’t say to your childfree friend.
Here’s a quote I liked: “Can we all admit that the sound of a kid squealing, even if it’s with joy, sounds like squealing? I can angrily press the button on an air horn or I can press the button on an air horn with a sense of carefree fun and either way it sounds like an air horn.”
Description: Jen offers up all the gory details of a life permanently in progress. She talks about making unusual or unpopular life decisions because you don’t necessarily want for yourself what everyone else seems to think you should. It’s about renting when everyone says you should own, dating around when everyone thinks you should settle down, and traveling alone when everyone pities you for going to Paris without a man.
I listened to this one on audiobook, which enhanced the experience (Kirkman reads it). I like her outlook on life. She went through an amicable divorce with her husband when she realized they weren’t happy together; she reiterates her childfree stance, saying she knew from a young age that she didn’t want kids and has never wavered; she’s happy living alone and traveling for her work as a comedian. She seems like a cool person (I’d pay to see her perform in a comedy show if she came to town).
About her job as a traveling comedian, she says, “I’m not in it for fame and fortune. It’s the other ‘F’ word: Freedom. I don’t want a boss. I don’t want to work for a major corporation. I don’t want to sit at a desk.”
6) How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, Jancee Dunn
Description: Dunn tackles the last taboo subject of parenthood: the startling, white-hot fury that mothers often have for their mates. After having her baby, she found she was doing virtually all the household chores, even though she and her husband worked equal hours. She asked herself: How did I become the ‘expert’ at changing a diaper? Dunn plunges into the latest relationship research, solicits the counsel of the country’s most renowned couples’ and sex therapists, and canvasses fellow parents. As Dunn and her husband discover, adding a demanding new person to your relationship means you have to reevaluate (and rebuild) your marriage.
As I do not have children, this book may seem like an odd choice. But it’s a memoir, not a how-to book, and I found value in the methods she took to heal her marriage. She goes into great detail about their therapy sessions, interviews a lot of experts, and comes back with tips on everything from how to divide household chores, to how to resolve various issues like finances and clutter – which are helpful for parents and childfree couples alike.
And yes, books like these are a good way to make childfree people feel better about their status. (Jancee shares a statistic that 67% of couples see their marital satisfaction plummet after having a baby.) As I was reading, I kept thinking to myself, “Look at all this crap I don’t have to put up with!” When I was wavering about whether or not to have a child two years ago, one of the factors in the “no” category was I didn’t want to resent my husband for doing less baby-work than I was doing. No babies = way less resentment and disagreements. (Just speaking for myself here, of course.)
7) Live Fast, Die Hot, Jenny Mollen
Description: Jenny Mollen is a writer and actress living in New York. Until recently, her life was exciting, a little eccentric, and impulsive. Then she had a son, Sid, and overnight, Jenny was forced to grow up: to be responsible, to brush her hair, to listen to her voicemail.
I hate the title of this book, but I found the essays entertaining. I hadn’t heard of Jenny Mollen until she appeared on Chelsea Handler’s Netflix show last year, when she was in a series of recurring segments with her husband, Jason Biggs. I started following her on Instagram a few months ago, and finally decided to check out her book. She is completely neurotic in a way that I can’t relate to, but her escapades amused me.
8) One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays, Scaachi Koul
Description: Koul shares all the fears, outrages, and mortifying moments of her life, whether it’s a shopping trip gone awry; overcoming her fear of flying while vacationing halfway around the world; or navigating the fears and anxieties of her parents. There are also pointed observations about life as a woman of color: where every aspect of her appearance is open for critique, derision, or outright scorn; where strict gender rules bind in both Western and Indian cultures, leaving little room for a woman not solely focused on marriage and children to have a career (and a life) for herself.
Scaachi’s only in her mid-20s, but there were some good essays in here. I liked that it’s written from the perspective of a female minority (her parents are from India and immigrated to Canada). She discusses the confusion of being considered “brown” in a country with a white majority, but when she visits India, she’s considered fair because of how light her skin is in comparison to others. She also writes about having excessive body hair, and the measures she’s had to take from a young age to keep it under control. Here’s a good review from the Washington Post.
9) The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo, Amy Schumer
Description: Amy mines her past for stories about her teenage years, her family, and relationships, sharing the experiences that have shaped who she is — a woman with the courage to bare her soul to stand up for what she believes in, all while making us laugh.
I was torn with how to rate this book. I settled on Okay because I didn’t care for a number of essays and certain phrases she’d use would annoy me…but I did finish this book liking Amy a lot more than I did before I started. I didn’t read this book as a rabid fan because I’ve never seen her movies or watched her TV show; most of my exposure to her has been press she’s done online and a few minutes of a comedy special I caught on TV one night.
She does have some strong essays, like how she started in the business and gradually worked her way up. There are heartwarming stories about her dad and his struggle with MS, and the situation that caused her to pull away from her mother. She also talks about a domestic violence situation she was in, and how hard it was to extricate herself (they even reunited for a time before she left him for good).
I just wish she’d focused more on those things rather than including an open letter to her vagina, and sharing boring diary entries from her childhood and teen years. (Note: nobody cares about your old diary entries but you. That’s why I’ve thrown all of mine in the trash.)
10) Fiction Ruined My Family: A Memoir, Jeanne Darst
Description: Growing up in an old St. Louis family, Jeanne grew up hearing stories of past grandeur. The message she internalized: While things might be tight for us right now, it’s only temporary. Soon her father would sell the Great American Novel and reclaim the family’s former glory, but he wrote one novel, then another, which didn’t find publishers. This, combined with her mother’s alcoholism, lead to financial disaster and divorce. As Jeanne becomes an adult, she is horrified to discover she’s not only a drinker like her mother, but a writer like her father. For many years, she embraces both activities. Ultimately, she sets out to discover whether a person can have the writing without the ruin, and whether it’s possible to be both sober and creative.
This is one of those memoirs I couldn’t get into because I didn’t like the main character. Jeanne didn’t have an easy childhood, with a distant, alcoholic mother and a writer-father who talked about writing more than he practiced writing. Jeanne started drinking at a young age, and there are many examples of how that affected her life. She lost me for good about halfway through, when she decided to share an extensive tale about the time she contracted vaginal crabs and ended up infecting her sister because they slept on the same mattress while living at their mom’s house.
I didn’t want to read any more after that, but I powered through to the end, enduring more bad-drunk stories like how she cheated on her rich live-in boyfriend and moved into a studio apartment without a bathroom. The worst part is, when she decided to get sober, I still didn’t warm up to her. Isn’t this the part of the book where your newfound sobriety is supposed to redeem your past sins and make you a better, likable person?
11) I’m Down: A Memoir, Mishna Wolff
Description: Wolff grew up in a poor black neighborhood with her single father, a white man who truly believed he was black. “He strutted around with a short perm, a Cosby-esque sweater, gold chains and a Kangol. You couldn’t tell my father he was white. Believe me, I tried,” writes Wolff. And so from early childhood on, her father began his crusade to make his white daughter Down. Unfortunately, Mishna didn’t quite fit in with the neighborhood kids, and when she was suddenly sent to a rich white school, she found she was “too black” to fit in with her white classmates.
I listened to this on audiobook. I didn’t love the story, but the narrator (who is also the author) does a good job voicing the various characters. I felt like that was one of the best parts, so if you decide to read a physical copy, it may not be worth it.
12) The Late Bloomer’s Revolution: A Memoir, Amy Cohen
Description: In quick succession, Amy lost her job writing sitcoms, her boyfriend, and her mom, after a long bout with cancer. Not exactly the stuff humor thrives on. But filtered through Amy’s worldview, there’s comedy in the most unexpected places. Cohen recounts her (seemingly) never-ending search for love, her evolving relationship with her widowed dad, and her own almost unintentional growth as she stumbles through life.
I found this story annoying. There was way too much about her parents and the end of a romantic relationship which she obsessed over for years. It didn’t help that I listened to the audiobook (which was read by the author), and she habitually did that thing where she put an upward inflection at the end of sentences so her statements sounded like questions.
13) Attempting Normal, Marc Maron
Description: From standup to television to his popular podcast, Marc has always been a genuine original, a disarmingly honest, intensely smart, brutally open comic who finds wisdom in the strangest places. This is his story of the winding, potholed road from madness and obsession and failure to something like normal, the thrillingly comic journey of a sympathetic f***up who’s trying really hard to do better without making a bigger mess.
Maron hosts an incredibly popular podcast (he’s even interviewed President Obama), and he’s worked as a comedian for many years, but I didn’t enjoy this book at all. He admits to being emotionally abusive to his ex-wife, and he says he was wrong and he’s a much better person now, but then he describes getting into screaming matches with his current girlfriend.
I also feel like this book is geared more toward men who like to read about masturbation and the hiring of prostitutes (at least Maron feels guilt about that and says he’s done it twice but wouldn’t do it again, but the fact remains…he did it). I was thoroughly unimpressed.