Books

Books Read in September 2019

I read 13 books in September (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 118.

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

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

Recommended

1) On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, Emily Guendelsberger

Description: The eye-opening story of a college-educated young professional who finds work in the automated and time-starved world of hourly labor. She explores the lengths that half of Americans will go to in order to make a living, offering not only a better understanding of the modern workplace, but also surprising solutions to make work more humane for millions of Americans.

I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America when it was released over 15 years ago, which explores a similar story line — a middle-class woman taking on various low-wage jobs to see what they’re like (and reporting back from a sociological perspective). Emily’s story is different in that she’d lost her job as a journalist, so while she wouldn’t stay in low-wage jobs forever, she actually did need the income at the time she was working these jobs.

She explains what working at these jobs is like (an Amazon fulfillment center, a call center, and a McDonald’s), while acknowledging she can’t fully understand because she wasn’t tied to staying at those jobs. While she was broke at the time, she had a college degree, a car, a credit card, and a low-interest mortgage with her husband. When things got tough, she would say to herself, “I get to leave. I get to leave.” And obviously there are a lot of people out there who don’t have that luxury.

Emily wrote an article for Vox about fast-food worker burnout, and you can find an excerpt from her book here.

2) The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, Mark Sundeen

Description: An in-depth and compelling account of diverse Americans living off the grid.

There were three stories in this book of people living off the land, in completely different ways: a couple in rural Missouri who live without electricity or cars; urban farmers in Detroit who sell their produce at small markets; and an older couple near Missoula who have been organic farmers for over three decades. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the stories, and the personalities of the people who live different lives from most other Americans.

Read a profile of Greg Willerer, the urban farmer in Detroit, here.

3) Monsieur Mediocre: One American Learns the High Art of Being Everyday French, John von Sothen

Description: After falling for a French waitress he met in New York, von Sothen moved to Paris. But 15 years in, he’s ready to admit Paris is mostly a fantasy. In this collection of essays, von Sothen walks us through real life in Paris–not only myth-busting our Parisian daydreams but also revealing the inimitable and too often invisible pleasures of family life abroad.

I’ve read many books about Americans living in France, and I’ve enjoyed them all. This one is great because it’s not a short-term adventure for the author; he’s lived as a local for over 15 years and raised two children. His essays cover things like taking long vacations (and having to plan many months in advance since most French people go on vacation at the same time), and learning the language (he can make himself understood, but he says he speaks French like Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks English…with a noticeable accent).

In this article, von Sothen says: “We tend to hold France to this unattainable standard of taste and sophistication and well mannered living, when in fact, if you live here (or anywhere) on a day to day basis, you eventually take the rose colored glasses off and appreciate your surroundings for different reasons based on a new set of criteria.”

There’s also a good review in the Washington Post here.

4) Bitcoin Billionaires: A True Story of Genius, Betrayal, and Redemption, Ben Mezrich

Description: This is the story of brothers Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss’ redemption and revenge in the wake of their epic legal battle with Facebook, their big bet on crypto-currency, and its dazzling pay-off. On November 26, 2017, the Winklevoss brothers became the first bitcoin billionaires. Here’s the story of how they got there.

I’ve read other books by this author and enjoyed them. I don’t follow bitcoin news so I had no idea the Winklevoss twins were involved to this degree. You don’t need any prior (or current) interest in bitcoin to enjoy this book. Here’s an article on why Mezrich decided to write the book and how the Winklevoss brothers’ bitcoin investment came about.

5) Notes from a Young Black Chef: A Memoir, Kwame Onwuachi

Description: By the time he was 27, Onwuachi had launched his own catering company with $20,000 that he made selling candy on the subway, and opened—and closed—one of the most talked about restaurants in America. In this inspiring memoir about the intersection of race, fame, and food, he shares the remarkable story of his culinary coming-of-age.

Onwuachi grew up in the Bronx and spent a few years living with his grandfather in Nigeria as an adolescent. He was involved in gang activity, and sold drugs. Despite all that (and with the influence of his mother, who worked as a caterer for many years), he started his own catering company at a young age. At one point, he was attending the Culinary Institute of America on weekdays, working at a restaurant on weeknights, and running his catering company on the weekends.

From there, he worked in the kitchens of renowned restaurants Per Se and Eleven Madison Park, where he writes about experiencing racism, and competed on Top Chef. His involvement in a traveling cooking competition led to an offer to open a restaurant in DC (now closed). Currently he’s the executive chef at Kith/Kin, also located in DC.

6) Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business, Matt Lee and Ted Lee

Description: Brothers Matt and Ted take on the competitive, wild world of high-end catering, exposing the secrets of a food business few home cooks or restaurant chefs ever experience. You’ll never attend a party—or entertain on your own—in the same way.

When you attend a catered event, you probably don’t think about all the preparation that went into serving your food. I enjoyed this view that two brothers, Matt and Ted Lee, took behind the scenes. They worked in catering for several years while writing and researching this book, and also delved into the history of catering and tales of who does it best. The New York Times reviewed the book here.

7) This Will Only Hurt a Little, Busy Philipps

Description: A refreshingly honest memoir by the beloved comedic actress known for her roles on Freaks and Geeks, Dawson’s Creek, and Cougar Town. Philipps is the rare entertainer whose arsenal of talents as an actress is equally matched by her storytelling ability, sense of humor, and sharp observations about life, love, and motherhood. Her conversational writing reminds us what we love about her on screens large and small.

I didn’t know much about Busy, but I decided to read her book after coming across this article. I listened to it on audio, which she reads herself. She covers a wide range of subjects, from her childhood, to how she broke into acting, to becoming good friends with Michelle Williams, and how she reacted to Heath Ledger’s death. Also, of course, meeting her husband and the birth of her two daughters. (She named her girls Birdie and Cricket. You’ve gotta have some balls to name your kids Birdie and Cricket.)

8) American Predator: The Hunt for the Most Meticulous Serial Killer of the 21st Century, Maureen Callahan

Description: Names of notorious serial killers are usually well-known. But most people have never heard of Israel Keyes, one of the most ambitious and terrifying serial killers in modern history. When journalist Callahan heard about Keyes in 2012, she was captivated by how a killer of this magnitude could go undetected by law enforcement for over a decade. And so began a project that consumed her for years—uncovering the true story behind how the FBI ultimately caught Keyes, and trying to understand what it means for a killer like Keyes to exist.

I had never heard of Israel Keyes, which was highlighted in this book – he was a serial killer but he doesn’t have big-name notoriety. The first half covers how he was caught, and the second half goes into his background and the confessions or clues he gave for other cases he was involved in. Keyes said he killed around a dozen people but law enforcement thinks there were more. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

9) Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, Jenni Ferrari-Adler (Editor)

Description: In this essay collection, 26 food writers like Nora Ephron, Laurie Colwin, Jami Attenberg, Ann Patchett, and M.F.K. Fisher invite readers into their kitchens to reflect on the secret meals and recipes for one person that they relish when no one else is looking.

I liked this anthology on the topic of eating alone. (An anthology was a good approach; reading an entire book about one person eating alone would be overkill.) Some contributors wrote about weird food habits, while others discussed dining alone in restaurants. It’s pretty common for people to consume the same foods repetitively when eating solo; several of them ate the same dinner every single day for months at a time. Here’s a good quote from one of the early essays:

“Eating as a simple means of ending hunger is one of the great liberties of being alone. […] It is a pleasure to not have to take anyone else’s tastes into account. […] The very thought of maintaining high standards meal after meal is exhausting. It discounts all the peanut butter that is available in the world.”

Okay

10) Running Home: A Memoir, Katie Arnold

Description: Arnold, a former Outside magazine writer, tells her story—of fathers and daughters, grief and renewal, adventure and obsession, and the power of running to change your life.

I can’t fully recommend this book because I didn’t like the first half very much. It was largely about her parents’ divorce when she was a young child and how that affected her, interspersed with her dad’s illness and death as an old man and her extensive grief. She’d been involved in athletic pursuits for a while, but decided to run her first ultramarathon (50 kilometers) after her father died. Since then she’s run more of them, and last year she ran (and won) her first 100-mile ultramarathon race.

11) Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino

Description: This is an unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives. In each essay, Jia writes about the cultural prisms that have shaped her: the rise of the nightmare social internet; the American scammer as millennial hero; the literary heroine’s journey from brave to blank to bitter; the mandate that everything, including our bodies, should always be getting more efficient and beautiful until we die.

These essays were cleverly and scholarly written, but they weren’t for me. I liked several of them, but that’s not enough to make the Recommended list. The New York Times reviewed the book here and you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Not Recommended

12) A Serial Killer’s Daughter: My Story of Faith, Love, and Overcoming, Kerri Rawson

Description: In 2005, Rawson discovered her father was the notorious serial killer known as BTK, a name he’d given himself that described the horrific way he committed his crimes: bind, torture, kill. As news of his capture spread, Wichita celebrated the end of a 31-year nightmare. But for Rawson, another was just beginning. The man who had been a loving father, a devoted husband, church president, Boy Scout leader, and a public servant had been using their family as a cover for his heinous crimes since before she was born.

A book on this topic (written by the daughter of a serial killer) has potential, but I came away disappointed. There’s too much boring information (she spent at least three chapters describing a multi-day hike / camping trip she took with her father as a teenager – they were ill prepared and could have died by natural causes, but it did nothing to advance the actual story).

She also includes letters between her and Dad the Serial Killer after he was sent to prison (the letters were boring), and there is way too much about the author’s personal faith/religious beliefs. The religion aspect wasn’t adequately disclosed in the book description, and I’m always annoyed when it’s sprung on me. I had no desire to get preached to by this woman.

13) The 5 AM Club: Own Your Morning. Elevate Your Life, Robin Sharma

Description: Sharma introduced The 5am Club concept over twenty years ago, based on a revolutionary morning routine that has helped his clients maximize their productivity, activate their best health and bulletproof their serenity in this age of overwhelming complexity.

Do not read this book. It’s horrid. My brain was telling me to give up on it the entire time I was reading it. I pushed through and read it quickly, waiting for the wisdom. Here’s the thing: I don’t discount the value of waking up early. I’m a morning person, and I am interested in getting up earlier so I can institute some good habits into my day.

However, the tips for starting a personal morning practice could have been summed up in a short article. There is no need to read the entire book, especially when the format (a billionaire guru imparting his wisdom to a man and a woman) is so awful. The writing is extremely cheesy and I felt less intelligent for having read it.

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