I read 13 books in February (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 30.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, Dani Shapiro
Description: This is a book about secrets — secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history.
Dani has written four memoirs in addition to this one, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed. Since I love memoirs and she’s now written five of them – all of which I’d recommend – she’s definitely at the top of my list of favorite authors.
I actually wasn’t sure in advance if I’d like this one as much, due to the subject matter. While I may not have been able to relate to her exact experience, she has this impeccable way of drawing you in and making you feel fully invested. Dani is a terrific writer (she’s taught the craft of memoir in many workshops and classes over the years), and she knows what she’s doing, which make her books a pleasure to read.
I took quite a few notes while I was reading, but I’m not going to reference them here because I don’t want to give anything away. I do remember that I kept stopping and re-reading parts of the book because I immediately wanted to experience the words again. They were that powerful and poignant.
These are Dani’s previous memoirs, starting with most recent:
2) The Library Book, Susan Orlean
Description: In April 1986, a fire in the Los Angeles Public Library was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library? And if so, who?
Maybe I’m just used to long titles on nonfiction books, but I feel like this one could use a better description for its contents than “The Library Book.” Other than that complaint, this book is very good. Orlean focuses on the 1986 fire in the main Los Angeles library, on all the destruction, and the presumed arsonist.
Interspersed with the history of the fire are stories about people who work at the library (from directors to photo digitizers), historical reasons why people have burned books (wars, religion, arson), L.A.’s early librarians and how they expanded the system, and issues with the proliferation of homeless people who appear at libraries every day. It may sound a bit dry but it was actually quite fascinating. I listened to it on audio and Orlean reads it herself.
This article will give you a good overview, and includes a short video of Orlean walking through the modern-day L.A. library and talking about various aspects of her book.
Description: Within a generation, more households will be supported by women than by men. Mundy takes us to the exciting frontier of this new economic order: she shows us why this flip is inevitable, what painful adjustments will have to be made along the way, and how both men and women will feel surprisingly liberated in the end.
I’ve never made a higher salary than my spouse (other than times I’ve been employed when he isn’t), but I know a number of women who outearn their husbands and I was interested to learn more about those dynamics.
Mundy covered reasons why women are starting to overtake their partners’ salaries (a big reason is that females now outnumber males in college degree programs, along with the gradual lifting of discriminatory gender practices, accelerated by the millions of jobs lost during the Great Recession), and she also looked at how relationships are changing as women increase their earnings.
She talks about the fact that women don’t always like being the breadwinner (sometimes it’s due to a husband losing his job), and can resent not having the flexibility to stay at home or work part-time. There are also those who love the arrangement, with high-achieving women happy to have their partner managing the children and household so they can concentrate on their work lives.
Mundy covers much more than this. I liked this book, and it’ll be interesting to see how society changes and adapts in response.
Description: On a remote island in the Savu Sea live the Lamalerans: a tribe of 1,500 hunter-gatherers who are the world’s last subsistence whalers. Award-winning journalist Clark, one of a handful of Westerners who speak the Lamaleran language, lived with the tribe across three years, and he brings their world and their people to vivid life in this gripping story of a vanishing culture.
Lamalerans “are among the small and ever-dwindling number of hunter-gatherer societies remaining in existence, and the only one to survive by whaling.” While other societies kill whales for sustenance, the Lamalerans are “the world’s last true subsistence whalers.”
I found the day-to-day lives of the Lamalerans intriguing, as well as the relentless encroachment of modernity on their remote society, but I was less interested in the descriptions of “the ways of the ancestors” and their beliefs and ceremonies. I think anthropological nerds would love this — the author never appears in the book as a character; it’s all about the people and situations he encounters.
5) She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, Jill Soloway
Description: In this poignant memoir of personal transformation, Soloway takes us on a patriarchy-toppling emotional and professional journey. This intense metamorphosis challenges the status quo and reflects the shifting power dynamics that continue to shape our collective worldview.
When Jill was in her mid-40s, her father came out as transgender. She then created and produced Transparent, a show on Amazon about a man coming out as trans. I’ve never seen the show and it was hard to keep the characters straight when she talked about her coworkers and story lines, but otherwise, I found this book enjoyable.
Jill discusses how she divorced her husband and became a lesbian, and later started identifying as non-binary. She also talks about being involved in the #TimesUp movement, and what happened after she found out one of the stars of her show was accused of sexual harassment.
6) The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, Virginia Sole-Smith
Description: Food is supposed to sustain and nourish us. But for too many of us, food now feels dangerous. We parse every bite we eat as good or bad, and judge our own worth accordingly. When her newborn daughter stopped eating after a medical crisis, Virginia spent two years teaching her how to feel safe around food again — and in the process, realized just how many of us are struggling to do the same thing.
This is a good look at the wide variety of ways we obsess over food: clean eating, orthorexia, detoxing (the author refers to the eco/alternative-food movement as the “mass marketing of disordered eating”). There are also discussions on pregnancy/breastfeeding nutrition, food insecurity due to poverty, and bariatric surgery.
I didn’t learn anything new or earth shattering, but it’s a good overview for those who haven’t already done a lot of reading on the subject.
7) Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, Barbara Lynch
Description: This is Lynch’s remarkable process of self-invention, including her encounters with colorful characters of the food world, and vividly evokes the magic of creation in the kitchen. It is also a love letter to South Boston and its vanishing culture, governed by Irish Catholic mothers and its own code of honor.
Barbara grew up in South Boston (Southie), with a dead father and a mother who was too distracted by her large brood of kids to pay attention. She regularly stole things she needed, didn’t graduate from high school, and exaggerated her early experience in order to get jobs at restaurants. Despite all that, she rose from her humble beginnings to become the owner of a Boston restaurant empire.
There were problems with this book: for instance, whoever edited it should lose their job. I’ve never seen so many words missing from sentences before – just missing entirely, where it was very obvious. After one or two omissions, it was like, “Huh.” After a dozen or more, it became a bit annoying. The pacing of the book also seemed a little stilted, especially as I got closer to the end.
However, I liked the rags-to-riches aspect, and her stubbornness and drive. Overlooking the negatives, I still enjoyed the story.
8) Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Stephanie Land
Description: This is Land’s memoir about working as a maid, a beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America. In it, she explores the underbelly of upper-middle class America and the reality of what it’s like to be in service to them.
I struggled with how to categorize this. It’s one of those books that feels important to read but you might not love the subject matter. I found myself judging some of the author’s choices, mostly the ones that involved (what I saw as) bad money decisions she made while poor. I realize I’m viewing her choices as a result of my own knowledge about using and saving money, while she didn’t have that. I also realized, when I found myself judging some of her actions, these are my biases coming out and it’s helpful to look at and confront them.
The author, in turn, comes across as judgmental toward the people she worked for, usually because they had things she wanted but couldn’t afford. She also very much disliked not being acknowledged by the homeowners in some way, like those who never asked her name.
Parts of the book were entertaining to read, like the habits (often quite gross) of people whose houses she cleaned. Others parts were more difficult, like when she laments how lonely she was most of the time, doing most of the work of raising her daughter on her own, and how she feared she wasn’t being as good of a mother as her daughter deserved. Ultimately though, she was taking college courses while working as a (very low-paid) maid, and now she’s doing better.
I felt like the book needed an epilogue. The book ends with her in a slightly-better position but it doesn’t address her slow rise out of extreme poverty or how she got where she is today. A few pages at the end would have been a nice wrap-up.
Description: On the eve of turning thirty, Jenkins quit his job and spent the next 16 months cycling from Oregon to Patagonia. As he traverses cities, mountains, and inner boundaries, Jenkins grapples with the questions of what it means to be an adult, his struggle to reconcile his sexual identity with his conservative Christian upbringing, and his belief in travel as a way to “wake us up” to life back home.
There were some things that annoyed me about this book. For instance, Jed is a gay Christian, and there was more religious talk than I expected or wanted to read (there’s an especially long conversation he recounts as he’s hiking with some friends to Machu Picchu).
I also disliked his lack of preparation. He was over 30 years old when he embarked on this trip, he knew for over three years in advance that it would be happening, yet he did almost zero prep. There was no physical training, no research into what he needed to take with him, no bicycle maintenance classes, or Spanish practice.
I did like Jed’s adventure, and the honesty with which he wrote about it. He was up front about the negatives, like the obvious physical difficulties, and all the times he felt annoyed, scared, bored, and lonely. He almost gave up a couple of times, but instead he’d hitchhike certain sections, or take 10 days off to visit family in the U.S. over Christmas (in his defense, that was the only time he returned to the U.S. during his 16-month bike ride).
Also, the way he described some of the locations he visited really made me want to see them for myself. (I have no desire to do the long bike rides in-between though.)
10) The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala Harris
Description: From one of America’s inspiring political leaders, a book about the core truths that unite us, and the long struggle to discern what those truths are and how best to act upon them, in her own life and across the life of our country.
I agree with Kamala’s politics, but I couldn’t rate this as Recommended because the book reads like one long campaign ad. She covers her fight for fairness in the criminal justice system, her battle with the banks during the mortgage crisis, kids being ripped from their parents at the border, our nation’s rampant opioid use, etc. Someone who is interested in her position on various subjects would find value in this.
I was looking for more personal anecdotes – like we got in Michelle Obama’s fabulous memoir – but there weren’t many of those details to be found. She covered her entire childhood, college, and early working career in Chapter 1. She also mentions meeting and marrying her husband, and her mother getting cancer, but she doesn’t dwell on either topic, instead using them as a springboard to discuss her fight for marriage equality and her thoughts on universal healthcare.
11) North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both, Cea Sunrise Person
Description: In the late 1960s, Cea’s family left a comfortable existence in California to live off the land in the Canadian wilderness. Led by Cea’s grandfather Dick, they lived a pot-smoking, free-loving, clothing-optional life under a canvas tipi without running water, electricity, or heat for the bitter winters.
Cea had…quite an interesting childhood. Her mother got pregnant with her at age 16, and she grew up around constant adult nudity, pot smoking, mental illness, and financial instability. There was more emphasis on telling the tales of her childhood; from adolescence through adulthood, the story becomes choppy.
12) Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
Description: This collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story.
This is a quick read – 18 essays in just over 150 pages. A few essays were more enjoyable than others, but even though they focused on books and reading, I didn’t love it. Possibly this was because I don’t have a need to collect physical books like some book lovers do (the author and her husband own thousands of titles between them). For me, I’m content to read and move on.
13) Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York, Multiple Authors
Description: Featuring contributions from such luminaries as Elizabeth Gilbert, Susan Orlean, Nick Flynn, Adelle Waldman, Phillip Lopate, Owen King, Amy Sohn, and many others, this collection of essays is a must-have for every lover of New York, regardless of whether or not you call the Big Apple home.
There weren’t many essays that I considered to be particularly noteworthy or exceptional, but it did make me want to move to New York City. Ha!