Books

Books Read in July 2019

I read 14 books in July (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 91.

I started reading this book in July but decided not to finish:

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

Recommended

1) Men We Reaped: A Memoir, Jesmyn Ward

Description: In five years, Ward lost five men in her life — to drugs, accidents, suicide, and the bad luck that can follow people who live in poverty, particularly black men. Dealing with these losses, one after another, made Ward ask the question: why? As she began to write about the experience of living through all the dying, she realized the truth. Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from, because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships.

This is a book I’ve been aware of for years, and I knew it came highly rated, but never picked it up. July ended up being the time! Descriptions I’d read made it seem like her going back and forth between talking about her childhood, to the men she’d lost, and back, might seem confusing. But it wasn’t at all. It’s a good, solid story of growing up poor and black in Mississippi and Louisiana, and her enduring connection to the area.

2) The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, Mallory O’Meara

Description: O’Meara uncovers the life and work of Milicent Patrick—one of Disney’s first female animators and the only woman in history to create one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters. A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, this book establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed.

O’Meara is a monster-movie producer who became obsessed with researching the story of Milicent Patrick, a woman credited with creating The Creature (from The Creature in the Black Lagoon) in the 1950s. After that film she was never publicly heard from again, and O’Meara wanted to know what happened to her. Her writing style is conversational, readable, and decidedly not dry, so the story flew by. Her love of monster movies and respect for Milicent is palpable.

3) The New Old Me: My Late-Life Reinvention, Meredith Maran

Description: A post-divorce memoir, this is one woman’s story of starting over at 60 in youth-obsessed, beauty-obsessed Hollywood. After the death of her best friend, the loss of her life’s savings, and the collapse of her once-happy marriage, Maran leaves her San Francisco freelance writer’s life for a 9-to-5 job in Los Angeles. Determined to rebuild not only her savings but herself while relishing the joys of life in a new city, Maran writes of what it means to be a woman of a certain age in our time.

It’s not difficult to find a memoir about female reinvention, but it’s more rare to find one written by a woman over sixty. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Maran is honest and open, and it was fun to read about her transition from being married to a woman in Oakland to living solo in Los Angeles. I liked how she went from being uncomfortable living in L.A. to feeling like she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Also, the description of the tiny hillside cottage she buys after selling her Oakland house makes me supremely jealous. I found the book after reading this article (which I also recommend).

4) City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Gilbert returns to fiction with a unique love story set in the New York City theater world during the 1940s. Told from the perspective of an older woman as she looks back on her youth with both pleasure and regret, City of Girls explores themes of female sexuality and promiscuity, as well as the idiosyncrasies of true love.

It’s July and I read my first fiction book of the year! I like Elizabeth Gilbert, and I’ve read one of her previous fictional books, so I decided to listen to this one as an audiobook. Gilbert doesn’t read it herself, but that ended up being preferable because the narrator could do different accents and differentiate between character voices.

As I always do when I read fiction, I kept wishing the story was real, but otherwise it kept me sufficiently entertained. The New York Times wrote about the book here.

5) I’m Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering, Janelle Hanchett

Description: From the creator of the “Renegade Mothering” blog, Hanchett’s memoir chronicles her tumultuous journey from young motherhood, to abysmal addiction, and a recovery she never imagined possible.

It can be difficult to read this kind of book because it doesn’t put the author in the best light. (Her children didn’t live with her for years because of her struggles with drugs and alcohol; she put herself in dangerous situations; she relapsed multiple times.) She knows this, and admitted how hard it can be to live with her past. She’s been sober now since 2009.

I had never read Janelle’s blog, but when I checked it out I found several interesting posts right away. For the short version of her story with alcohol and drug abuse, read this post from 2014. More recently, she announced that she and her family are moving to the Netherlands (because life is short! I love it!), and she wrote this post when they were ten days out from move day.

I started following her on Instagram, and I’ve enjoyed her updates on living life with the Dutch. I spent a semester in Amsterdam when I was in college, and I’ve returned to the country several times and always love it.

6) For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors, Laura Esther Wolfson

Description: Wolfson’s literary debut draws on years of immersion in the Russian and French languages; struggles to gain a basic understanding of Judaism, its history, and her place in it; and her search for a form to hold the stories that emerge from what she has lived, observed, overheard, and misremembered.

I wasn’t sure what I’d think about this collection of essays, but I was intrigued. Laura has led an interesting life: deciding to study Russian, marrying (and later divorcing) a man who spoke Russian, becoming a translator of Russian and, later, French. She writes about pursuing her Jewish heritage later in life, as her parents were secular Jews.

I also enjoyed her essays about her relationships (two marriages and two divorces, her thoughts about being single, and why she didn’t have kids – she wanted them but her first husband didn’t, and by the time she could start trying for them she was diagnosed with a degenerative lung condition). You can read an excerpt from her book here.

7) From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, Tembi Locke

Description: It was love at first sight when Tembi met Saro on a street in Florence. There was just one problem: Saro’s traditional Sicilian family did not approve of him marrying a black American woman. This is a poignant and transporting cross-cultural love story set against the lush backdrop of the Sicilian countryside, where one woman discovers the healing powers of food, family, and unexpected grace in her darkest hour.

I wasn’t familiar with the actress Tembi Locke, but she has a long list of acting credits so it’s possible I’ve seen her work. She writes about her relationship with her husband, dealing with his sickness and eventual death, life as a widow and single mother, and how their love story impacted her life.

8) Too Much Is Not Enough: A Memoir of Fumbling Toward Adulthood, Andrew Rannells

Description: From the star of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon and HBO’s Girls, the heartfelt and hilarious coming-of-age memoir of a Midwestern boy surviving bad auditions, bad relationships, and some really bad highlights as he chases his dreams in New York City.

I didn’t know anything about Andrew before reading this book, but the story of a gay teen, newly out of the closet, who moves from Omaha to NYC, was unexpectedly entertaining. His stories range from childhood through late 20s, and include what he went through to make it to Broadway.

9) How to Forget: A Daughter’s Memoir, Kate Mulgrew

Description: In this honest and examined memoir about returning to Iowa to care for her ailing parents, the star of “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Orange is the New Black” takes us on a journey of loss, betrayal, and the transcendent nature of a daughter’s love for her parents.

I read Kate’s first book, Born With Teeth, three years ago. This one focuses on her parents, her relationship with them and her siblings, stories from her childhood, her father’s sudden death, and her mother’s long, drawn-out death from Alzheimer’s.

10) Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life, Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

Description: A memoir of reinvention after a stroke at age thirty-three. Lee illuminates the connection between memory and identity in an honest and truly funny manner, utterly devoid of self-pity. And as she recovers, she begins to realize that this unexpected and devastating event has provided a catalyst for coming to terms with her true self.

Christine suffered a stroke at age 33, and the repercussions affected her for years. They still affect her, but she’s able to manage it better. She says the recovery lasted at least two years. She would sleep twenty hours a day, she was a different person, she had angry outbursts or she was weeping, and worst of all was the memory loss. In the beginning she couldn’t remember anything that had happened just 15 minutes before.

She mentions how heartbroken she was when her husband of 18 years left her, years after the stroke when they’d just had a child together, but she doesn’t go into a lot of detail. She gives more details about the relationship in this article, which is the one I came across which then led me to her book. The article does give a positive spin, though: “I didn’t know it at the time, but letting go of an unhappy coupling, even if presented with sudden cruelty, was an opportunity for innovation.”

11) Work Optional: Retire Early the Non-Penny-Pinching Way, Tanja Hester

Description: A practical action guide for financial independence and early retirement from the popular “Our Next Life” blogger. Tanja walks you through envisioning your dream life, accounting for variables such as health care and children, protecting yourself from recessions and future unknowns, and achieving a purpose-filled early retirement, semi-retirement, or career intermission with completely doable, non-penny-pinching steps.

Not all of the information here was relevant to me, but some of it was, and I’ve found that’s the best one can hope for in a finance-related book. I’ve been reading Tanja’s blog for years, way before she retired in December 2017 at age 38. I appreciate her writing, and her guidance, and the fact that she and her husband are proudly child-free. The New York Times reviewed the book here.

12) Howard Stern Comes Again, Howard Stern

Description: Over his unrivaled four-decade career in radio, Stern has interviewed thousands of personalities—discussing sex, relationships, money, fame, spirituality, and success with the boldest of bold-faced names. But which interviews are his favorites? It’s one of the questions he gets asked most frequently, and now he delivers his answer.

This is a long book – over 500 pages. It’s mainly a collection of his favorite interviews, but he did write an introduction, and a description for each interview, as well as some essays in between. Some interviews are longer, while some are just a few paragraphs.

He talks about how the last book he wrote was over twenty years ago, and he doesn’t recommend anyone read his two previous books. He’s no longer the same shock jock we knew decades ago. (If he was, I would have had no interest in reading this book.) He said he doesn’t own any of his previous books and there are many past interviews he cringes over and he wishes he could re-do.

He and his current wife (they’ve been married over ten years) are involved in animal welfare issues and he’s a pescetarian. Like this Washington Post proclaims, Meet the New Howard Stern.

13) Cozy: The Art of Arranging Yourself in the World, Isabel Gillies

Description: When we talk about being cozy, most of us think of a favorite sweater or a cup of tea on a rainy day. But to Gillies, coziness goes beyond mere objects. To be truly cozy, she argues, means learning to identify the innermost truth of yourself and carrying it into the world, no matter your environment.

I make myself cozy every day by lying on my couch with a blanket and reading a book. It’s my spot. I don’t have children and I rarely need to make dinner after work (I make most of my meals on the weekend), so I have hours to myself every evening between the time I get off work and go to sleep. I liked how Gillies talks about the things she finds cozy, how they’re different for everyone, and gives suggestions for finding coziness even in uncomfortable situations (like hospital visits). Apparently coziness is all around – you just have to know where to look for it.

Okay

14) Be With Me Always: Essays, Randon Billings Noble

Description: In a way, all good essays are about the things that haunt us until we have somehow embraced or understood them. Here, Noble considers the ways she has been haunted—by a near-death experience, a book she can’t stop reading, a past lover who shadows her thoughts—in essays both pleasant and bitter.

I wanted to like this book because I’ve been devouring essays recently. I enjoyed some of them, but others were just…strange.

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