I read seven books in June (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 77. (This is my lowest monthly total so far this year, and the first month in single digits. I was out of town at a work conference for over a week and then had some vacation time in Buffalo. Unlike people who read more when they’re out of town, I read more when I’m settled in my normal routine.)
These are the books I started reading in June but decided not to finish:
- The Trial of Lizzie Borden, Cara Robertson
- At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson
- Fifty Things That Aren’t My Fault: Essays from the Grown-up Years, Cathy Guisewite. This book was written by the author of the long-running “Cathy” comic strip. I would recommend reading this article instead, which talks about Cathy as a feminist paradox.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) The Honey Bus: A Memoir of Loss, Courage and a Girl Saved by Bees, Meredith May
Description: Bees became a guiding force in May’s life, teaching her about family and community, loyalty, and survival. Part memoir, part beekeeping odyssey, this is an unforgettable story about finding home in the most unusual of places, and how a tiny, little-understood insect could save a life.
This is both a sad and sweet story. May was basically abandoned by her mentally ill mother (even though they lived in the same house) and raised by her grandparents. In his heyday, her grandfather took care of over 100 hives which produced more than 500 gallons of honey per year.
May learned about bees from him, and even though she took a long hiatus from beekeeping when she went off to college and got a job, she took up urban beekeeping later in life. This is a good article about May and her book.
2) How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, Alexander Chee
Description: This is Chee’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, a lover, and a friend.
I had never heard of Alexander Chee before reading this book (he’s written several novels prior to this work of nonfiction). I didn’t pick it up at first because I was taking the title literally — and I don’t want to write an autobiographical novel. But I saw the book recommended in several places, so I went back and read the description again — and realized it’s a memoir in essays, which I’ve become fond of.
I really enjoyed this book, especially the final essay where he talks about the financial difficulty of making a living as a writer (if you’re not already upper middle class or have a partner who can supplement your income). He refers to spending decades of his life as a writer as “income destruction,” and indeed, spent years working as a waiter to make ends meet.
3) All That You Leave Behind: A Memoir, Erin Lee Carr
Description: An acclaimed documentary filmmaker comes to terms with her larger-than-life father, the late New York Times journalist David Carr, in this fierce memoir of love, addiction, and family.
I struggled with how to rate this one, because there were things I didn’t like (how she included excerpts from emails and chat sessions — I’ve always found those references are best when condensed). There’s also a lot of privilege here in how she ended up in her current line of work, because her father worked in media and had many contacts to pave her way, and she likely wouldn’t be where she is today without those contacts. She does acknowledge that, at least.
I decided to recommend it because I didn’t find myself dreading it when I opened it, which happens sometimes with books I’m just trying to get through. Here’s an excerpt from the book.
Description: The true story of Odette Sansom, the British woman who became WWII’s most highly decorated spy.
This was obviously a very brave woman, but I expected the book to be about her activities as a spy. Instead, it was more about her capture, and how she spent years in various prisons, and what she endured while incarcerated.
Description: The untold story of five women who fought to compete against men in the high-stakes national air races of the 1920s and 1930s — and won.
Like I said in the review above — these ladies were extremely brave to do what they did. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, flying meant taking your life into your hands. They never knew when something would go wrong, and many pilots died or were injured. It was tough to read about the excessive sexism they endured, and all the entrenched notions of what women should do and what they were physically capable of. But they did it anyway, and their actions and struggles made a difference.
Description: Founder of the website “Get Your Shit Together” blends personal story and advice in this guide to getting your affairs in order — from wills and advance directives to insurance, finances, and relationships — before the unthinkable happens.
There are some good tips in here about being prepared before a personal disaster, but a lot of it was too simplistic for my needs — and also, I wasn’t prepared for a super-detailed grief memoir.
7) Old in Art School: A Memoir of Starting Over, Nell Painter
Description: How are women, and artists, “seen” and judged by their age, race, and looks? And how does this seeing change, depending upon what is asked of the viewer? What does it mean when someone states (as one teacher does) that “you will never be an Artist” — who defines “an Artist,” and all that goes with such an identity, and how are these ideas tied to our shared conceptions of beauty, value, and difference?
This book is meant for those who are more into art (and art history, and the plight of the modern artist) than I am. There were a lot of details in here that just weren’t interesting to me. What I did like is her pluck, and reading about her experience as an older black woman amongst mainly younger white students. Nell entered art school in her 60s, first as an undergraduate, then she went on to get her MFA, after a distinguished career as a history professor and author of multiple books. You can read an excerpt from the book here.