Books

Books Read in April 2018

I read seven books in April (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 29.

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

Highly Recommended

1) This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America, Morgan Jerkins

Description: Jerkins is only in her 20s, but she has already established herself as a brutally honest writer who isn’t afraid of tackling controversial subjects. Doubly disenfranchised by race and gender, often deprived of a place within the mostly-white mainstream feminist movement, black women are objectified, silenced, and marginalized with devastating consequences, in ways both obvious and subtle, that are rarely acknowledged in our country’s larger discussion about inequality.

I thought I might not care for this book because I found the first few essays pretty meh, but the rest kept me engrossed.

There are strong essays about race, like how difficult it can be to date as a black woman and the extreme amount of effort many black women put into their hair (chemical burns on their scalp from relaxing treatments, staying out of pools due to chlorine damage, not working out because sweat can mess up their hair).

Morgan is extremely honest in her writing; she’s open about topics like masturbation and, as my friend Jaclyn put it when she read the book last month “a medical procedure…that I cannot un-read” (it was a medically-necessary labiaplasty — here’s an article the author wrote about it a few years ago). I actually found the topic pretty fascinating. I’d never read anything like it, and you guys know I love nonfiction and writing by women. We need more ladies who will write about previously taboo subjects.

Recommended

2) The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, Jason Fagone

Description: At the height of World War I in 1912, Shakespeare expert Elizebeth Smith went to work for an eccentric tycoon on his estate outside Chicago. The tycoon had close ties to the U.S. government, and he soon asked Elizebeth to apply her language skills to an exciting new venture: code-breaking. There she met the man who would become her husband, groundbreaking cryptologist William Friedman. Though she and Friedman are in many ways the “Adam and Eve” of the NSA, Elizebeth’s story has never been told.

I really enjoyed the first half or two-thirds of this book; less so near the end because there was more talk about war than daily life with the Friedmans, which I preferred to read about. Even though I didn’t like the war stuff as much, I’m glad I was introduced to some of the modern history of codebreaking, and I was very happy to learn about the extensive contributions of Elizebeth Friedman. Even though it was maddening to read about the rampant sexism women put up with in the early-to-mid 1900s, it was nice to cheer on Elizebeth’s contributions (of which there were many).

3) Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg

Description: Ask most women whether they have the right to equality at work and the answer will be a resounding yes, but ask the same women whether they’d feel confident asking for a raise, a promotion, or equal pay, and some reticence creeps in. Sandberg draws on her own experience of working in some of the world’s most successful businesses and looks at what women can do to help themselves, and make small changes in their life that can effect change on a more universal scale.

Yes, the old classic. I didn’t read this back when everyone else was reading it. I guess it didn’t seem relevant to me and my non-executive career path, but I was wrong. It does address some topics I don’t personally relate to, but even those come across in a way that could be applicable to other situations, or at the very least, weren’t boring to read.

It’s good for women to know that even females at Sandberg’s level can feel like a fraud at times, and downplay their achievements so they won’t be disliked.

Okay

4) Just the Funny Parts: And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into the Hollywood Boys’ Club, Nell Scovell

Description: For more than 30 years, writer, producer and director Nell Scovell worked behind the scenes of iconic TV shows. This is a fast-paced account of a nerdy girl from New England who fought her way to the top of the highly-competitive, male-dominated entertainment field.

I feel like parts of this book were entertaining and I think some people will like it more than I did, but I found myself trying to get through it so it would be over, not really enjoying her stories. There were a lot of details about individual TV shows she’s contributed to and movies she’s worked on.

I’d like to give kudos to the fact that Nell points out on multiple occasions that people of color are very unrepresented in writers’ rooms. When she started out, it was rare for there to be more than one woman in the writing room, and even more rare for a person of color to be included.

Fun fact: Nell contributed to the smash hit Lean In, which I wasn’t aware of before I’d put both of these books on hold at the library and ended up reading them back to back.

5) Pachinko, Min Jin Lee

Description: Pachinko follows one Korean family through generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. When her lover turns out to be a married man, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan. So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history.

My first fiction read of the year. I was hoping to like this, but didn’t enjoy it as much as other people seem to. (And no, it’s not just because it was fiction and I prefer memoirs. I rated Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, as Highly Recommended last year. So there!)

It started off promising, and I liked the way the character development was going, but about halfway through things started to go downhill for me. Especially as the book neared the end, the stories felt rushed, and side characters were introduced that I didn’t care for.

What the book did well was shine a spotlight on the status of long-term immigrants. The story mainly takes place in Japan, where we learn Korean immigrants were long treated as second class citizens. It’s easy to draw a parallel to the status of immigrants today in the United States.

6) Woolly: The True Story of the Quest to Revive One of History’s Most Iconic Extinct Creatures, Ben Mezrich

Description: Mezrich takes us on an adventure story from the icy terrain of Siberia to the cutting-edge genetic labs of Harvard University. A group of young scientists, under the guidance of geneticist Dr. George Church, works to make fantasy reality by sequencing the DNA of a frozen woolly mammoth and splicing elements of that sequence into the DNA of a modern elephant. Will they be able to turn the hybrid cells into a functional embryo and bring the extinct creatures to life in our modern world?

This book would have been better if they successfully cloned a wooly mammoth, but you can’t force something that hasn’t happened yet. The lead-up to scientists getting closer to cloning just wasn’t as interesting as I hoped it would be. You can learn more about cloning woolly mammoths in this short article.

7) The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart, Emily Nunn

Description: One night, reeling from her brother’s sudden death, a devastating breakup with her fiancé, and eviction from the apartment they shared, Nunn had lost all sense of family, home, and financial security. Heartbroken and unmoored, Emily — an avid cook and professional food writer — poured her heart out on Facebook. The next morning she woke up feeling she’d made a terrible mistake, only to discover she had more friends than she knew, many of whom invited her to come visit and cook with them while she put her life back together. Thus began the Comfort Food Tour.

For the first time ever, I stopped listening to an audiobook because I couldn’t stand how it was being read. The problem with the audio version is that there are quite a few recipes included in the book — not only at the end of chapters, where it’s easier to fast forward through them, but in the middle of chapters.

I almost always skip the recipes when they’re included in a memoir, and even if I don’t, I really can’t think of many things more boring than listening to someone read a recipe to me out loud. I suffered through about half the book, fast-forwarding as best I could to get past the recipes (which was annoying because I generally listen to audiobooks when I’m walking outside), but finally gave up and switched to the ebook version so I could finish it that way.

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