Books

Books Read in May 2019

I read 13 books in May (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 70.

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

  • Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown. My husband read and enjoyed this book. I’m sure it’s good, but when I started reading it, I realized it wouldn’t have much to teach me. My life is already pared down. I don’t need to be convinced to say no to things I don’t want to do.

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

Recommended

1) The Valedictorian of Being Dead: The True Story of Dying Ten Times to Live, Heather B. Armstrong

Description: For years, Armstrong has alluded to her struggle with depression on her website, dooce. But in 2016, she found herself in a depression she couldn’t shake, an episode darker and longer than anything she had previously experienced. She had never felt so discouraged by the thought of waking up in the morning, and it threatened to destroy her life. So, for the sake of herself and her family, Armstrong decided to risk it all by participating in an experimental clinical trial involving a chemically induced coma approximating brain death.

Heather is a popular long-time blogger; I’ve read her website since the early 2000s. (You know you’ve read a blogger for a long time when she initially didn’t have kids and now her oldest daughter is in high school). Heather has a distinct writing style that can be annoying at times – I’m thinking in particular of her penchant for emphasizing words using all capital letters, or harping on one thing over and over because she finds it funny (to me, repetition breeds annoyance).

She includes some of those annoying writing traits in this book. There are several instances of writing in all caps (I have a feeling she was held in check by her editor), and as the title of the book indicates, she uses the word valedictorian a lot. The first few times are funny; after that, I wanted to punch something whenever I saw it.

Having said that, this book is good. Being a long-time reader of her blog, I discovered things I didn’t know about the dissolution of her marriage and the animosity she still holds toward her ex-husband (which is obvious based on the multiple negative mentions of him throughout the book). As for the mental illness theme, she’s always been honest about her struggles with depression and anxiety, but she goes into much more detail here. I think this will resonate with a lot of people who have experienced the same (even though her particular treatment was quite abnormal).

You can read an in-depth profile of Heather, her background, and the book here.

2) Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, Ruth Reichl

Description: When Condé Nast offered Ruth Reichl the top position at America’s oldest epicurean magazine, she declined. She was a writer, not a manager, and had no inclination to be anyone’s boss. And yet Reichl had been reading Gourmet since she was eight; it had inspired her career. How could she say no? This is a personal journey of a woman coming to terms with being in charge and making a mark, following a passion and holding on to her dreams–even when she ends up in a place she never expected to be.

I’d read several of Ruth’s books before this one. I knew she’d been editor-in-chief of the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, but if asked, I would have sworn the magazine folded 3-5 years ago. Apparently it happened in 2009, so this is yet another example of time passing way too fast.

This is an enjoyable read. Ruth is extremely likable, especially her tales of how unsuspecting and naïve she was about everything in the beginning. She had no experience running a magazine (she’d never even had her own assistant before), so everything was brand new. She talks about various personalities, opulent parties, hirings and firings, and how she shut down the magazine after the September 11 terrorist attacks and used the Gourmet test kitchens to prepare large batches of food for rescue workers.

In this article, she talks about “reluctantly embracing Condé Nast’s luxury lifestyle, learning to be a boss, and struggling to save an ultimately doomed magazine.”

3) Life Will Be the Death of Me, Chelsea Handler

Description: In the fall of 2016, Handler daydreams about what life will be like with a woman in the White House. And then Trump happens. In a torpor of despair, she decides she’s had enough of the privileged bubble she’s lived in and that it’s time to make some changes, both in her personal life and in the world at large.

I became a Chelsea fan a few years ago when she made a docuseries for Netflix, and later hosted two seasons of a talk show. I was disappointed when she ended the show to focus on other pursuits, but there was a good reason (after the outcome of the last presidential election, she wanted to stop living in a “big vapid bubble” and help women and people of color get elected).

Chelsea is happily child-free, which I love, but she talks a lot about her dogs (past and present), which I could have done without – but it wasn’t horrible.

Most of the book is about her seeing a psychiatrist for the first time and focusing on therapy. She’s been through some heavy things in her life and she’s brutally honest about her shortcomings. She admits to being spoiled and feeling useless in a lot of ways, but both were things she was there to work on.

I purposefully wanted to listen to the book on audio, and I’m glad I did. There are multiple times where her voice shakes with emotion when she talks, or you can tell she’s crying as she reads, and it makes the listening experience so much more memorable. I’m glad they left that in rather than having her re-do it.

4) Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls, Elizabeth Renzetti

Description: Drawing upon her decades of reporting on feminist issues, this is a book about feminism’s crossroads. From Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign to the quest for equal pay, from the lessons we can learn from old ladies to the future of feminism in a turbulent world, Renzetti takes a pointed, witty look at how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go.

Renzetti writes from a Canadian feminist perspective, and you know exactly what you’re in for by the third page: “I have no creed in this world — no religion, no ideology — except feminism. It is an essential part of my being.”

I liked many of the essays, especially the ones in the beginning. She does include several open letters to her kids (which I hate), and even one to her younger self, but I tried not to hold those against her.

5) The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization, Vince Beiser

Description: The gripping story of the most important overlooked commodity in the world and the crucial role it plays in our lives.

I had no idea that sand is used to make so many things. Or that there’s a difference between desert sand and beach sand. (Apparently there is a very big difference!) We are, of course, running out of usable sand because nobody has figured out a way to make desert sand work for our needs yet.

Sand is used for roads, concrete, and fracking. It’s used to make glass, and expensive electronics. It’s brought into beach towns (at great expense) to refill what is lost by erosion. And because it is becoming scarce, there is an illegal sand mining trade.

6) Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, Jennifer Wright

Description: A humorous book about history’s worst plagues — from cholera, to leprosy, to polio — and the heroes who fought them.

I wasn’t sure I’d like this, but it was a lot better than I expected. Wright covers a list of diseases that you definitely do not want to get (and luckily, most have been eradicated). I liked how she used humor to tell the stories, bringing levity to an otherwise deep subject.

7) Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers, Dr. David Perlmutter

Description: Renowned neurologist David Perlmutter, MD, blows the lid off a finding that’s been buried in medical literature for far too long: carbs are destroying your brain. Even so-called healthy carbs like whole grains can cause dementia, ADHD, anxiety, chronic headaches, depression, decreased libido, and much more.

The first edition of this book was published in 2013; I read the updated 2018 version. I’ve been eating low-gluten for years, and lower-carb since last fall, so Dr. Perlmutter’s recommendations aren’t far off from what I’m already doing. Except he does advocate for super low carb, like keto-low, 20-30 net carbs/day (which I don’t do).

He has a lot of compelling research. He states that modern grains and gluten, as well as an overabundance of carbs, cause dementia and worsen brain disorders like ADHD and depression. I’m sure another book would tell me the opposite (because health experts like to contradict each other), but it’s certainly food for thought. The rising numbers of dementia and Alzheimer’s are scary.

8) Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of “The View,” Ramin Setoodeh

Description: Based on interviews with nearly every host and unprecedented access, award-winning journalist Setoodeh takes you backstage where the stars really spoke their minds.

This gossipy book is not something I usually go for, but I listened to it on audio and it was a decent way to entertain myself as I walked back and forth to work and chopped veggies in my kitchen. I’ve watched The View in years past and knew a bit about the early drama, and of course there have been a number of hirings and firings.

I appreciated that the author interviews many of the people involved (so it wasn’t something pieced together without their knowledge or permission), and they had the opportunity to introduce new information.

This is a good article about The View’s new relevancy in The New York Times.

Okay

9) Finding My Voice: My Journey to the West Wing and the Path Forward, Valerie Jarrett

Description: From her work ensuring equality for women and girls, advancing civil rights, and improving the lives of working families, to the real stories behind some of the most stirring moments of the Obama presidency, Jarrett shares her forthright, optimistic perspective on the importance of leadership and the responsibilities of citizenship in the 21st century.

Valerie is a very accomplished woman, but I was a bit bored with her book. It didn’t help that I’d already read Michelle Obama’s (much better) book about her husband’s election; I wasn’t interested in having it recapped once again. I did learn about Valerie’s background and how she came to be so close to the Obama family, but a lot of the other stuff – including her tales from the White House – didn’t entertain me.

10) Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning, Claire Dederer

Description: Claire is a married mother of two when she finds herself despondent and, simultaneously, suffering through an erotic reawakening. This memoir shifts between her experience as a middle-aged mom and herself as a teenager — when she last experienced life with heightened sensitivity and longing. Dederer exposes herself utterly, and in doing so captures something universal about the experience of being a woman, a daughter, a wife.

The premise sounded interesting, but I found myself looking for more and not getting it. Claire talks about her promiscuous ways as a teenager and young adult, and she explores some of the reasons this may have come about. After hitting her mid-40s and being in a long marriage, she admits to a recurring interest in her former bad-girl ways.

Things were all well and good, but then she introduced an open letter to Roman Polanski (and, oh god, there was even an Open Letter Part 2 later in the book). And then things turned positively wacky. One chapter was a list of common places she visited in Seattle as a teen, with a brief description of what she did there. There was a chapter on her younger self as a scientific case study, written in the third person. She really lost me when she used the alphabet in one chapter to highlight moments from her life – A is for this, B is for that. I didn’t appreciate feeling like I was in a children’s book. I read the memoir through to the end, but I was supremely disinterested in the off-the-wall writing experiments.

Here’s an article about her published in the Guardian last year.

11) No Walls and the Recurring Dream: A Memoir, Ani DiFranco

Description: DiFranco recounts her early life from a place of hard-won wisdom, combining personal expression, the power of music, feminism, political activism, storytelling, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and much more into an inspiring whole.

I’m not an Ani fan (I couldn’t tell you a single song of hers), but since I lived in her hometown of Buffalo, NY for four years (also my husband’s hometown), I’ve heard her name quite a bit. I’ve also been to several events at Babeville.

The book is okay; I learned a lot about her. She had some wild times growing up, and her tenacity to make it as a folk musician (while staying true to her roots) is admirable. She goes off on some rambling tangents though. Read more about Ani in this Vulture article.

12) Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude, Stephanie Rosenbloom

Description: This is divided into four parts, each set in a different city, in a different season, in a single year. The destinations — Paris, Istanbul, Florence, New York — are all pedestrian-friendly, allowing travelers to slow down and appreciate casual pleasures. Each section spotlights a different theme associated with the joys and benefits of time alone and how it can enable people to enrich their lives.

I haven’t taken a solo trip in a very long time, but it’s been on my mind lately. Solitude is good for us. Rosenbloom addresses a number of topics, including dining solo, how to savor experiences, and the advantages of visiting places like museums on your own (studies have shown you get more out of the art that way). One of the four cities she focuses on is NYC (where she lives), and I thought including the staycation idea (and paying attention to being a tourist where you live) was a nice touch.

On the downside, while I liked her ruminations on solo travel, some of the things she specifically experienced in those cities (and lingered on) weren’t all that interesting to me. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

13) Don’t Stop Believin’, Olivia Newton-John

Description: Legendary musician, actress, activist, and icon Olivia Newton-John reveals her life story — from her unforgettable rise to fame in the classic musical Grease, to her passionate advocacy for health and wellness in light of her battles with cancer.

Yet another example of someone I’d heard of because they are famous but didn’t know much about. This is a lighthearted read. I didn’t love it. She does talk about the making of Grease and Xanadu, so if those films appeal to you, you might enjoy the book more than I did.

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