Books

Books Read in January 2019

I read 17 books in January (five were audiobooks). Holy hell. It’s been a long time since I’ve read so many books in a month. There are reasons: Some of them I started in late December and finished in early January. There was cold weather, several holidays, and a snow day off work. Also, quite a few of these were not very long books. I don’t often pick up super-thick books, but there were more shorter books this month than I usually read (around 200 pages or less).

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

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

Recommended

1) Give a Girl a Knife: A Memoir, Amy Thielen

Description: A food memoir chronicling one cook’s journey from her rural Midwestern hometown to the intoxicating world of New York City fine dining and back again in search of her culinary roots.

I really enjoyed this: Amy’s childhood, how she met her husband, their move from rural Minnesota to New York (so she could become a cook and he could focus on his art), and all the food descriptions. And then their eventual return to Minnesota, which is where they live today. Amy had a show on the Food Network and published a cookbook, but I didn’t know about her before discovering this memoir. She’s very likable, and the book is well-written. I think you’d like it, too.

2) My Misspent Youth: Essays, Meghan Daum

Description: Daum is one of the most celebrated nonfiction writers of her generation, widely recognized for the fresh, provocative approach with which she unearths hidden fault lines in the American landscape.

I’ve enjoyed all of Meghan Daum’s nonfiction. In fact, I rated her book The Unspeakable as one of my Top Five of 2017.

Until this month, the only one I hadn’t read was a book of essays she published in 2001 (which was re-released in 2015). It came to my attention again when I saw my friend Siel mention it on Instagram not long ago.

I do like Meghan’s newer books better, but this one is worth reading. Even though the essays were written almost twenty years ago (there are a few dated mentions, like America Online), they hold up. The title essay is based on this popular article she wrote for the New Yorker, but I also enjoyed the essays on her hatred of carpets, her hatred of dolls (yeah, I guess there’s a bit of an opinionated theme here), her infatuation with Jewish men, and growing up as a mediocre oboe player with musician parents.

3) The Incomplete Book of Running, Peter Sagal

Description: Sagal, the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” and a popular columnist for Runner’s World, shares his insightful and entertaining look at life and running that explores the transformative power of the sport.

Some of the books I read motivate me to take action – at least while I’m reading them. I’ve read several books written by runners, and those authors love the sport so much, and talk it up to such an extent, that it really makes me want to become a runner. At least until I get to the end of the book and move on to something else. (I am also this way when I read books about writing. I am so motivated to start typing up that book I’ve said for years I’m going to write. But then I get to the end and immediately lose momentum.)

So yes, I liked this book. He had advice for current runners, but also gave motivation to aspiring runners, and was honest about how running sometimes really sucks.

The only thing I didn’t care for was the constant mentions of his tough divorce. I realize this was taking up a lot of his headspace, but it seemed like too much (especially since he wasn’t necessarily giving new details whenever he brought it up; it seemed like he was just reminding us that it happened and he was bothered by it).

4) Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, Liza Mundy

Description: Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy, more than 10,000 women served as codebreakers during World War II. They moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied.

These women were super impressive. They broke codes that were not only extremely complex, but written in languages they didn’t know. It took a lot of diligence and patience — some codes were so complex, they took years to break. And all of this happened without the assistance of computers. I had no idea of how widespread this was: thousands of women were recruited from colleges to move to Washington, DC (of course most of them were encouraged/forced to leave once their male counterparts returned from the war, but we know that already).

5) Lush: A Memoir, Kerry Cohen

Description: This is a gripping memoir that examines Kerry’s struggle with alcohol, a struggle that a rising number of middle-aged women are facing today as alcohol dependency amongst females drastically increases.

Cohen acknowledges that her story is not particularly special: “I have an unremarkable story…It’s a story about how I reached midlife, looked around, and thought, Really? This is how things turned out? Hit with the reality that so little of what I had imagined would come to be — as a mother, a wife, a woman — I started to drink, and then I started to drink way too much.”

This isn’t a story of someone with a huge problem who had to give up drinking entirely; it’s someone who became an alcohol abuser but ended up being able to moderate her intake again, instead of giving it up entirely. While that may not sound all that interesting, the way she puts everything together — and especially the way she makes her life seem relatable, because I dare say more women are alcohol abusers than need Alcoholics Anonymous / complete sobriety — makes this worth reading and recommending.

6) The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History, Megan Mullally & Nick Offerman

Description: Eighteen years after meeting on the set of a play, Megan and Nick are still in love and have decided to reveal the philosophical mountains they have conquered and the lessons they have learned.

I listened to this on audio. It’s entertaining, and I recommend it, but I probably wouldn’t like the physical version as much. Most of this book is a back-and-forth conversation between Megan and Nick, which is funny to listen to but would probably annoy me if I was reading it. You do miss out on some physical photos in the audio version, although they make up for it at the end with the addition of an audio-only bonus chapter.

Another minor complaint is that Nick repeats some of the info from his book, Paddle Your Own Canoe. I probably wouldn’t have noticed so much if it weren’t for the fact that I just listened to that book last month.

Topics include how they met, their very different childhoods, religious views, thoughts on kids (they tried for a while but weren’t successful, then were ultimately glad they ended up child-free — it reminded me of my situation, which was pretty cool).

7) And the Heart Says Whatever, Emily Gould

Description: Gould talks about becoming an adult in New York City in the first decade of the 21st century, alongside bartenders, bounty hunters, bloggers, bohemians, socialites, and bankers. At once a road map of what not to do and a document of what’s possible, this book heralds the arrival of a writer who decodes the new challenges of our post-private lives, and the age-old intricacies of the human heart.

Over ten years ago, Emily Gould made a name for herself as a prolific blogger (12 posts a day) for Gawker.com, and in 2008 she wrote a long essay about her life as a blogger for The New York Times Magazine. Emily’s life hasn’t been without controversy, but her memoir focuses on formative events in her life instead of all the drama (which I liked). I was iffy on the first few essays but they got better as the book progressed.

8) Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More, Erin Boyle

Description: Filled with personal essays, projects, and helpful advice on how to be inventive and resourceful in a tight space, Simple Matters shows that living simply is about making do with less and ending up with more: more free time, more time with loved ones, more savings, and more things of beauty.

I always enjoy reading Erin’s blog, which I’ve followed for years, and her book was no different. She writes beautifully about simplicity, a topic dear to my heart, so I knew I would like the subject matter. Her experience is concentrated on paring down while living in a very small space, but her tips could work for anyone looking for guidance on simplifying their home.

9) The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life, Hana Schank & Elizabeth Wallace

Description: As they faced fraught decisions about their lives, journalists Schank and Wallace found themselves wondering about the women they’d graduated alongside. What happened to these women who seemed set to reap the rewards of second-wave feminism? Where did their ambition lead them? They tracked them down and, over several hundred hours of interviews, gathered and mapped data about real women’s lives that has been missing from our conversations about women and the workplace.

I feel like this book is better suited for younger women (like fresh out of college), but there’s some good information here. There’s a lot of discussion about children, which is understandable since a majority of women have children at some point in their lives, but it’s not applicable to me (they do cover childfree women, but not as in-depth).

10) The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, Joanna Scutts

Description: You’ve met the extra woman: she’s sophisticated, she lives comfortably alone, and she pursues her passions. A delicious cocktail of cultural history and literary biography, The Extra Woman transports us to the turbulent and transformative years between suffrage and the sixties, when, thanks to the glamorous grit of one Marjorie Hillis, single women boldly claimed and enjoyed their independence.

According to the author, Hillis’ book was “much more than a treasure trove of vintage style tips: It was a beacon of social change and a precursor to the feminist revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s.”

Women had been living alone before Marjorie Hillis wrote about it; she was just the first to celebrate it and bring the practice into the mainstream. The book sold a lot of copies for its time and was seen as a “cultural phenomenon.” In addition to describing Marjorie’s life and her subsequent books, this book also featured other influential women from that era, like Irma Rombauer (of Joy of Cooking fame). It’s an interesting look at life in New York City in the 1930s.

Okay

11) Love with a Chance of Drowning, Torre DeRoche

Description: Torre isn’t looking for love, but a chance encounter in a bar sparks a connection with a soulful Argentinian man who unexpectedly sweeps her off her feet. The problem? He’s just about to voyage around the world on his small sailboat, and Torre is terrified of deep water. However, Torre determines that to keep the man of her dreams, she must embark on the voyage of her nightmares, so she waves goodbye to dry land and braces for a life-changing journey that’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying.

I generally like memoirs about adventurous women, but this one just seemed silly. Also, I kept thinking there was way too much conversation, and there were a series of misadventures with her klutzy, hard-headed partner that made me wonder how she could have agreed to go out on the ocean with him. She wrote another book after this one (which I read in 2017) that I liked better.

12) I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, Maggie O’Farrell

Description: This is O’Farrell’s astonishing memoir of the near-death experiences that have punctuated and defined her life. Seventeen discrete encounters at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots.

This wasn’t bad, but when every essay is about a near-death experience that you know the author makes it through alive, it becomes repetitive after a while. One of the longest chapters was about a miscarriage, and it seemed like something she just really wanted to write about in detail because it was a stretch to consider it a life-threatening event. One of the more interesting anecdotes came at the very end when she described how her daughter has extreme allergies that threaten her life every single day (and indeed, has come close to dying herself on multiple occasions).

13) Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen

Description: In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, 18-year-old Susanna was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years in the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Eh. I only picked this up because I’m thinking of joining a book club and this is their February pick. (Whether I actually join them or not remains to be seen — I found the book club on Meetup.com but I don’t know a single person in the group. It’s difficult for me to psych myself up to join a group where I don’t know a soul. But I’ve read the book, just in case!)

This book is short (the hardback I checked out from the library was only 168 pages), and has short chapters, which always encourages me to read faster. I got through it in just a few hours one Sunday morning. It’s not bad, but it’s not as good as I would have expected, since there was a movie based on it. The book may have been revolutionary for its time, but there are much better memoirs available nowadays.

Don’t worry, Kaysen agrees with me. This article was written last year, 25 years after the book came out. She said she felt her book “was a failure and that she probably should’ve written a better one.”

Not Recommended

14) Like Brothers, Mark & Jay Duplass

Description: Whether producing, writing, directing, or acting, the Duplass brothers have made their mark in the world of independent film and television on the strength of their quirky and empathetic approach to storytelling. Now Mark and Jay take readers on a tour of their lifelong partnership told in essays that share the secrets of their success, the joys and frustrations of intimate collaboration, and the lessons they’ve learned the hard way.

I assumed this book about two brothers who became wildly successful would be an interesting read. I assumed wrong. To be more specific, the sections about their lives and how they made it in show biz were okay (it was also nice to see how close the brothers have been since they were small children), but I hated the filler – the sections they included to bulk up the page count. The filler included such things as their “top 10 films,” an apology letter to a former college roommate, and this really boring thing where they’d pick a random person in an airport and then go back-and-forth making up a story about this person. They did this not once, but several times. WHO DOES THIS AND WHO CARES?

I listened to this on audio, and I would have abandoned it except I was waiting for a few others I had on hold to become available, so I listened to this in the meantime. (I did skip over some of the more egregiously asinine parts.)

15) My Squirrel Days, Ellie Kemper

Description: Comedian and star of “The Office” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Ellie Kemper delivers a refreshing collection of essays.

I should have known I wouldn’t like this because of the dumb title. I read this as quickly as possible to minimize the pain of how much I disliked it. I’ve read some books written by funny ladies that I liked, but I did not like this particular funny lady’s book.

16) Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, A.J. Jacobs

Description: The idea was deceptively simple: Jacobs decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.

I’ve read several of AJ’s books and I liked them all better than this one. I didn’t find this one to be nearly as fleshed-out (or as entertaining) as his previous books. It seemed like the people he was thanking – obscure people, like those who make the plastic bags that keep coffee beans fresh during shipping – became a numbers game (“How many people can I thank??!!!”) instead of exploring the subject in depth.

17) The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, Deborah Levy

Description: This book explores the subtle erasure of women’s names, spaces, and stories in the modern everyday. Levy critiques the roles that society assigns to us, and reflects on the politics of breaking with the usual gendered rituals.

I was surprised — a lot of people on Goodreads rated this book very highly. I’ve seen much better books not ranked nearly as high as this one (and over 1,000 people have rated it).

I just didn’t get it. There was nothing that pulled me in. I thought it jumped around, and she wasn’t saying anything that made me relate to her or her situation, which is what I look for in memoirs.

On the bright side, it’s a slim book and only took me a few hours to read, so the misery didn’t last long.

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