I read 14 books in April (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 57.
These are the books I started reading in April but decided not to finish:
- Don’t Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff
- Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, Deborah Feldman
- The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After, Julie Yip-Williams
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) No Happy Endings: A Memoir, Nora McInerny
Description: Life has a million different ways to kick you in the chops. For Nora, it was losing her husband, her father, and her unborn second child in one catastrophic year. This is a book for people living life after life has fallen apart. It’s a book for people who know that they’re moving forward, not moving on. It’s a book for people who know life isn’t always happy, but it isn’t the end: there will be unimaginable joy and incomprehensible tragedy.
I read and enjoyed Nora’s first book, and I liked this one as well. My sister Elissa started listening to the audiobook and recommended it to me while I had the ebook version on hold.
Nora is very open and real. I appreciate those qualities in a memoirist. She talks about the immense pain of her first husband’s death, dating as a widow, and the adorable love story of meeting and falling in love with her current husband. There are also random essays about growing up in (and later leaving) Catholicism, and how she came to identify as a feminist.
I hate essays/chapters/books/articles written as “A letter to my [insert person here].” Nora wrote four of these essays (one for each of her biological children, and one for each of her stepchildren), so I hated those immensely, but luckily they were short.
My favorite quote from the book, as she wrote about the fear of choosing the freelance writing life but doing it anyway: “A world where we receive zero criticism is a world where we are not contributing, where we are living at the very baseline of our abilities.”
Here’s a good article on Nora and her new book from the Washington Post.
Description: In July 2014, this Washington Post Tehran bureau chief was arrested by Iranian police, accused of spying for America. The charges were absurd. Rezaian’s reporting was a mix of human interest stories and political analysis. Initially, Rezaian thought the whole thing was a terrible misunderstanding, but soon realized it was much more dire as it became an 18-month prison stint with impossibly high diplomatic stakes, as his release became a part of the Iran nuclear deal.
I was worried there would only be so much for Jason to say about his 18 months of captivity in an Iranian prison, but I stayed interested throughout (I listened to the audiobook, which he reads himself, and he’s a good reader in addition to being a good writer). He was afforded certain privileges that other prisoners often don’t have (private visits with his wife and mother, the ability to buy food from outside), and he was never physically tortured, but he noted that the long-term effects of isolation and lack of access to information was very tough emotionally.
Description: An investigation of the subterranean landscape, from sacred caves and derelict subway stations to nuclear bunkers and ancient underground cities—an exploration of the history, science, architecture, and mythology of the worlds beneath our feet. This is both a personal exploration of Hunt’s obsession and a wide-lensed study of how we are all connected to the underground, how caves and other dark hollows have frightened and enchanted, repelled and captivated, us through the ages.
I was intrigued by Hunt’s underground explorations. I’ve never done anything like this myself, but I see the appeal. I enjoyed the chapters on New York City and Paris tunnels the most, but the others are good, too (and include things like mines and caves). You can read an excerpt about the three days he spent beneath Paris here.
Description: In 2011, Renner began researching the strange disappearance of Maura Murray, a University of Massachusetts student who went missing after wrecking her car in rural New Hampshire in 2004. Over the course of his investigation, he uncovered numerous important and shocking new clues about what may have happened to Murray but also found himself in increasingly dangerous situations with little regard for his own well-being. As his quest to find Murray deepened, the case started taking a toll on his personal life, which began to spiral out of control. The result is an absorbing dual investigation of the complicated story of the All-American girl who went missing and Renner’s own equally complicated true-crime addiction.
I had this on my to-read list for months and kept bypassing it for something else. I shouldn’t have waited so long because I really enjoyed it. I’m not always a huge fan of true-crime reporting, so I was probably drawn to this because he included a lot of personal details – it wasn’t just straight reporting about someone else.
I checked out his website after I finished the book and learned he’ll be speaking in DC on June 13 (it’s the same night as a large event at work, but I registered anyway and will cross my fingers that I can make it). His talk is described as “a mix of humor and frightening stories from the world of true crime” and he will share “his theories about how true crime became so popular and what it says about us all.”
5) I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer, Michelle McNamara
Description: A masterful true crime account of the Golden State Killer — the elusive serial rapist turned murderer who terrorized California for over a decade — from Michelle McNamara, the gifted journalist who died tragically while investigating the case.
This was another book I avoided because I wasn’t sure I’d like it. Apparently I like true crime more than I thought (but only if the author inserts personal information throughout – I don’t want a strict retelling of a story that the author isn’t personally involved in). Some of you may remember that the author, Michelle McNamara, passed away while writing this book and it had to be completed after her death (she was married to comedian Patton Oswalt). I also remember hearing that they identified the Golden State Killer after her death, but I made sure to save that reading until after I finished the book.
This isn’t a spoiler because it was in the news last year: the killer was caught in 2018, two years after Michelle’s death.
Description: Sandra Pankhurst founded her trauma cleaning business to help people whose emotional scars are written on their houses. From the forgotten flat of a drug addict to the infested home of a hoarder, Sandra enters properties and lives at the same time. But few of the people she looks after know anything of the complexity of Sandra’s own life. Raised in an uncaring home, Sandra’s miraculous gift for warmth and humor shine in the face of unspeakable personal tragedy.
Krasnostein tells the story of Sandra Pankhurst, who was born male in Australia and overcame incredible odds to get where she is today. We learn about her background, which is interspersed with tales of the types of homes and people that a trauma cleaning business deals with (extreme hoarding, mental illness, clean-ups after deaths have occurred, etc).
In the trauma-cleaning examples, Krasnostein is an observer rather than a cleaner, but she expertly makes you feel like you’re right there in the room – sometimes using descriptions that make you wish you weren’t.
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
7) I Miss You When I Blink: Essays, Mary Laura Philpott
Description: This acclaimed essayist and bookseller presents a charmingly relatable and wise memoir-in-essays about what happened after she checked off all the boxes on her successful life’s to-do list and realized she might need to reinvent the list—and herself.
This was a series of short essays (I found myself wishing some of them were longer, but that’s a good problem to have). I liked when she wrote about her craving for silence (she is married with two children), and while she daydreamed of moving into a separate apartment all her own, she found the quiet she needed when she did a weeks-long housesitting stint in a different city. She covered other topics that I found myself relating to as well.
Also, as someone who reads a lot of nonfiction (and has subsequently seen a lot of subtitles), I enjoyed Mary Laura’s essay on choosing a subtitle for her book.
8) The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, Melinda Gates
Description: For the last twenty years, Melinda Gates has been on a mission to find solutions for people with the most urgent needs, wherever they live. Throughout this journey, one thing has become increasingly clear: If you want to lift a society up, you need to stop keeping women down.
The organization I work for is focused on global gender equity, so this subject matter is on point. I listened to it on audio, which Melinda reads herself. She comes across as very approachable; I liked her stories about stepping into the role of reluctant spokesperson for her charitable foundation and gradually becoming more comfortable with a leadership role. She shares stories of people she’s met all over the world and how they’ve deeply affected her. She talks about her struggles with the Catholicism of her youth versus being a strong advocate for family planning and contraception.
I liked the chapter on gender equity in particular. She admits it didn’t used to be a focus for her foundation (they thought the term itself would put people off) — until they realized all of their goals hinged on it.
She addresses U.S.-based gender issues as well, like women in the workforce, and her struggles with working at Microsoft in the early days when it was a brash working environment.
Description: When Zaske moved from Oregon to Berlin with her husband and toddler, she knew the transition would be multi-layered, adding parenting and then the birth of another child into the mix. Through her own family’s experiences as well as interviews with other parents, teachers, and experts, Zaske shares the many unexpected parenting lessons she learned from living in Germany.
This may seem like a curious book for a childfree person to read, but I love memoirs, and I love reading about women’s experiences living in foreign countries. While this book focused on the differences in raising children in Germany versus the United States, there was a lot of personal information about the author’s cross-cultural experiences living as a German expat, and how the family dealt with returning to the U.S. after six years. (Unsurprising, I previously enjoyed Bringing Up Bebe, a book written by an American expat in France.)
10) Financial Freedom: A Proven Path to All the Money You Will Ever Need, Grant Sabatier
Description: This is a step-by-step path to make more money in less time, so you have more time for the things you love. It challenges the accepted narrative of spending decades working a traditional 9 to 5 job, pinching pennies, and finally earning the right to retirement at age 65, and instead offers readers an alternative: forget everything you’ve ever learned about money so that you can actually live the life you want.
Grant’s story is impressive in that he went from basically zero dollars in the bank to over $1 million in five years. That’s one extremely motivated individual! He has some recommendations for lucrative side hustles so other people can follow in his footsteps, but none of them were ones I’m personally interested in undertaking (I have a goal of financial independence as well, but I’m willing to take a slower approach to it). Not all of his tips are ones I would follow (checking my investment accounts every day? No, thank you), but there’s a lot of good information in here.
11) On Being 40(ish), Multiple Authors
Description: Turning forty is a poignant doorway between youth and…what comes after; a crossroads to reflect on the roads taken and not, and the paths yet before you. The decade that follows is ripe for nostalgia, inspiration, wisdom, and personal growth. In this collection, fifteen writers explore this rich phase in essays that are profound and moving.
I will turn 40 next year so of course I put this book on hold as soon as I heard about it. Some of the contributors are authors I’ve previously read and know I like – Meghan Daum, Kate Bolick, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Sloane Crosley.
I will say, I put this book in the Recommended category because the essays I liked, I really liked and would recommend them to others. There were some essays I did not like (or just felt like they didn’t belong because they weren’t at all centered on the 40-ish theme), but that’s pretty common in anthologies like this.
My favorite essay was Meghan Daum’s, which is the first essay in the book, and lucky you – it’s available to read in its entirely right here.
Description: From a New York Times best-selling author, psychotherapist, and national advice columnist, a thought-provoking and surprising book that takes us behind the scenes of a therapist’s world — where her patients are looking for answers (and so is she).
I’ve never read a book where a therapist talked not only about working as a therapist, but about her own experience being a patient in therapy. I found myself more interested in her personal story (rather than the stories of the patients she highlighted), but I could see the value in including both. She’s obviously dedicated to her field, and I enjoyed the life stories she shared — like attempting (and quitting) the medical field, and conceiving her son with the help of a sperm donor.
13) The Scarlett Letters: My Secret Year of Men in an L.A. Dungeon, Jenny Nordbak
Description: Nordbak takes us to a place that few have seen, but millions have fantasized about, revealing how she transformed herself from a beautiful USC grad into an elite professional dominatrix.
This is a voyeuristic look at an experience not many people have (or at least don’t admit to having). I enjoyed this glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes, although it reminded me of a similar book I read on the subject back in 2010 (Whip Smart by Melissa Febos). The writing itself isn’t great though, and I got bored with the details of her personal life, which is why I downgraded it to the Okay category.
14) WOLFPACK: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game, Abby Wambach
Description: Based on her viral commencement speech to Barnard College’s graduates, two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA World Cup champion Abby Wambach delivers her empowering rally cry for women to unleash their individual power, unite with their pack, and emerge victorious together.
This is very short. It’s basically a bunch of platitudes, though she tries to spin them to sound new and different. I feel bad about disliking this book because I like Abby and I think she’d be an awesome person to hang out with — but it didn’t do anything for me.