Books

Books Read in December 2018

I read thirteen books in December (three were audiobooks), which is the most I’ve read in a single month this year. This brings my 2018 total to 94.

This is 19 books less than what I read in 2017, but I am completely fine with that. I started a new job back in March, and it’s the best job I’ve had in my over-20 years of working. It also keeps me busier than I’ve ever been at a job, but it’s nice not to watch the clock all day, wondering when it’s time to go home.

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

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

Highly Recommended

1) Becoming: A Memoir, Michelle Obama

Description: Obama chronicles the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With honesty and wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms.

I listened to this on audio and was disappointed when it ended, which is the mark of a good book. Michelle starts with her childhood and delves into her schooling and early working years. She talks about meeting Barack, of course, and how great their relationship has been over the years. At the same time, she shared the annoying things he does, how he often wasn’t home once he decided to enter politics, and how this led them to seek marriage counseling at one point.

She wasn’t initially supportive of him running for president; she thought he should be more prudent and understandably, after having a great career of her own, she had issues with “being known as someone’s wife.” She writes of his election campaign, the inauguration, and life as the first black First Lady.

Recommended

2) Killing It: An Education, Camas Davis

Description: This is Davis’ unexpected journey from magazine editor to butcher. It’s a story that takes her from a stint in rural France (where deep artisanal craft and whole-animal gastronomy thrive despite the rise of mass-scale agribusiness), back to a Portland in the throes of a food revolution, where she attempts to translate this old-world craft and way of life into a new world setting. Along the way, Davis learns what it really means to pursue the real thing and dedicate your life to it.

This is a great story. I have no desire to become a butcher, but I love (and have for a long time) reading about women who decide to completely change their lives. Camas was a writer and magazine editor by trade, but when she lost her job, she decided to study butchery in France. That, in turn, led her to found the Portland Meat Collective. Also, her description of what life was like in rural France made me want to go there immediately.

This is a good article in Vogue, and this is a short video that explains what she does.

3) Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Description: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame—she has only tried to make the world a little better and a little freer. But nearly a half-century into her career, something funny happened to the octogenarian: she won the internet.

We all know (or hopefully you know) that RBG is a badass. She’s been fighting on behalf of women (and gender discrimination in general) for a very long time. This book delves into some of the legal battles she’s best known for and includes anecdotes about her personal life. I liked hearing that, due to an aversion to cooking, she made her last meal way back in 1980 (the year I was born).

I liked this quote on why she supports abortion rights: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

I’ve seen RBG’s documentary, which was fantastic, and I also look forward to seeing the movie based on her life when it comes out next year (the screenplay was written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, and Ruth makes a cameo).

4) The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander

Description: Alexander finds herself at an existential crossroads after the sudden death of her husband. As she reflects on the beauty of her married life, the trauma resulting from her husband’s death, and the solace found in caring for her two teenage sons, Alexander universalizes a very personal quest for meaning in the wake of loss.

Extremely sad but also beautifully written. She had a deep relationship with her husband that not a lot of married people have.

5) Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World, Scott Harrison

Description: Harrison recounts the twists and turns that built charity: water into one of the most trusted and admired nonprofits in the world. Renowned for its 100% donation model, bold storytelling, imaginative branding, and radical commitment to transparency, charity: water has disrupted how social entrepreneurs work while inspiring millions of people to join its mission of bringing clean water to everyone on the planet within our lifetime.

A club-promoting party guy decides to put that life aside and do something useful for mankind. There’s a bit of “going back to the religion of his childhood” aspect to this story, but luckily he doesn’t dwell on the particulars of that too much (and he’s adamant that his nonprofit, charity: water, is not religion-based). He started off volunteering with Mercy Ships, and later decided to start his own organization focused on bringing clean water to those who don’t have it, or those who have to walk a long time to reach it (in underprivileged countries, a task which predominantly falls on females). Scott has an energetic voice, so it was enjoyable to listen to on audio.

6) What If This Were Enough?: Essays, Heather Havrilesky

Description: By the acclaimed critic, memoirist, and advice columnist behind the popular “Ask Polly,” an impassioned collection tackling our obsession with self-improvement and urging readers to embrace the imperfections of the everyday.

I’ve become a fan of reading nonfiction essay collections over the past few years. I like how this one encourages readers not to seek validation in things that don’t matter. Heather uses examples like the Disney establishment, the 50 Shades of Gray book trilogy, articles on Buzzfeed that feature a bunch of nothing, and television shows like Entourage. She also called out the foodie movement as “gross overconsumption.”

I’m far from enlightened, but I don’t need to be told to avoid the examples she gave — they’ve never interested me in the first place. Here is an excerpted essay from the book, and here is a popular piece she wrote for the New York Times a few months back.

7) All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir, Nicole Chung

Description: Chung was born premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life. But as she grew up — facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see — she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

I liked this so much in the beginning that I expected to rate it as Highly Recommended. The second half (after she reached out to her birth family for the first time) fell a bit flat – a lot of it seemed repetitive (in terms of the questions and issues she was struggling with) and it just wasn’t as interesting. However, it’s still a decent story, and I feel like it would be especially interesting to someone who was adopted as a child, or who is thinking about adopting a child of a different ethnic background.

8) My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now, Peter Mayle

Description: Mayle, champion of all things Provence, here in a final volume of all new writing, offers vivid recollections from his 25 years in the south of France — lessons learned, culinary delights enjoyed, and changes observed.

I’ve read a few of Mayle’s earlier books about his move from England to Provence, France. I’ve always had a soft spot for books about the French life — this one doesn’t offer anything new, but it was still an enjoyable read.

9) Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, Nick Offerman

Description: Growing a perfect moustache, grilling red meat, wooing a woman—who better to deliver this tutelage than the charming Nick Offerman? Combining his trademark comic voice and very real expertise in woodworking, this book features tales from Offerman’s childhood in small-town Minooka, Illinois to his theater days in Chicago, and his beginnings as a carpenter/actor.

There are certain books I enjoy on audio that I don’t think I’d like nearly as much if I read the physical version — this is one of them. Hearing Offerman read his book makes it much more entertaining. (He’s also very funny in person. I saw him perform a live show at the Warner Theater in DC in early 2013.)

Thanks to Jaclyn for the recommendation! She listened to the book on audio as well, which is what persuaded me to add it to my list.

Okay

10) Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food, Ann Hood

Description: Hood tracks her lifelong journey in the kitchen with twenty-seven heartfelt essays, each accompanied by a recipe.

This was a quick read with short chapters. I liked the conversational tone and the stories about her memories of food. My peeve with it is that Ann repeated certain facts over and over throughout the essays like we’d never heard them before. (For instance: One of her daughters died as a five-year-old. That’s horrible and I’m sure it impacted her life in a big way, but I don’t need it brought up every-other chapter like I’ve never heard it before.)

It’s fine to remind your audience of things they might forget; you just shouldn’t word it as brand new information when your readers are likely to have read the entire book. It’s not the type of book you’d be likely to skip around and read.

11) Every Day I’m Hustling, Vivica A. Fox

Description: Vivica has created a lasting career on her own, through sheer DIY hustle. She provides start-today strategies for success in business and “been there” lessons in love, buttressed with stories from early family life through today.

This is one of those books I pick up when everything else I’d rather read is on hold at the library. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not the type of book I gravitate toward. I ended up learning a lot about her relationship with rapper 50 Cent (it was the longest chapter in the book), which was entertaining, but the rest of it wasn’t memorable.

12) So Sad Today: Personal Essays, Melissa Broder

Description: In the fall of 2012, Broder went through a harrowing cycle of panic attacks and dread that wouldn’t abate for months. So she began @sosadtoday, an anonymous Twitter feed that allowed her to express her darkest feelings. Here, she delves deeper into the existential themes she explores on Twitter, grappling with sex, death, love low self-esteem, and addiction.

I tend to like memoir in the form of essays, but this one isn’t a winner. As a warning, she’s pretty explicit in the way she details her sexual exploits and open marriage. The openness doesn’t bother me; the essays just aren’t very good. There were several that I found interesting or entertaining, but I wouldn’t recommend this overall.

Not Recommended

13) I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff, Abbi Jacobson

Description: When Abbi announced that she planned to drive across the country alone, she was met with lots of questions and opinions. But Abbi had always found comfort in solitude, and needed space to step back and hit the reset button. On her way to Los Angeles, she mulled over the big questions: What do I really want? What is the worst possible scenario in which I could run into my ex? How has the decision to wear my shirts tucked in been pivotal in my adulthood?

Abbi is the co-creator and co-star of the Comedy Central series Broad City. I’ve never seen the show, but when has that ever stopped me from reading a memoir written by a woman? Unfortunately, this one gets bumped to the bottom category because it contains quite a bit of filler that was not at all entertaining. For example: she shared some thoughts that may have entered her brain when she couldn’t sleep. Even worse, she couldn’t stop with writing just one chapter; there were multiple chapters like that. (This is just as bad as someone writing about their dreams. Nobody cares about your dreams and nobody cares what you’re thinking when you’re trying to go to sleep.)

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