Books

Books Read in November 2019

I read 11 books in November (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 147.

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

Recommended

1) Long Way Home: A Memoir, Cameron Douglas

Description: Cameron is born into wealth, privilege, and comfort. His father is a superstar, his mother a beautiful socialite, his grandfather a legend. On the surface, his life seems golden. But by the age of 30, he has taken a hellish dive: he’s become a drug addict, thief, and convicted drug dealer. Cameron gives a raw and unstintingly honest recounting of his harrowing and, in the end, inspiring life story.

This isn’t the type of book I normally pick up (and if it wasn’t written by Michael Douglas’ son, I likely wouldn’t have), but I’m glad I did. Cameron is a very honest writer, sometimes to the point where you want to shake your head at him — or drop your jaw in horror. In addition to his drug use from a young age, and later selling drugs to finance his habit, he was involved in a lot of fights (from childhood all the way through prison).

He’s pretty matter of fact in his retelling of growing up amongst famous people (when he mentions his stepmother, it’s a reference to “my stepmother, Catherine” — not “Catherine Zeta Jones”).

Cameron was in the juvenile justice system as a teenager and went to rehab many times. It took a long time before he decided he was ready to give up drugs.

The book was longer than I expected (400 pages, although I listened to it on audio). A large portion was a detailed experience of his stint in prison, which I did wish was a little shorter, but I found value in it.

You can read a recent article about Cameron in the New York Times here, and I really enjoyed this ABC News / Diane Sawyer interview with Cameron and Michael Douglas here.

2) Good Husbandry: Growing Food, Love and Family on Essex Farm, Kristin Kimball

Description: Kimball describes the delicious highs and sometimes excruciating lows of life on Essex Farm — a 500-acre farm that produces a full diet for a community of 250 people.

Kristin also authored the memoir The Dirty Life, which recounts her first years on the farm and getting married to her now-husband. Here, she reveals what happened over the next five years at Essex Farm. I like how she disclosed the true ups and downs of farm life. While she loves the hard work and productivity, and especially the bounty of food in their kitchen, she’s straightforward about how they are pretty much always working, rarely/never take vacations (especially not the entire family, because at least one of them has to be at home), and will never be rich (or even have any retirement savings to count on).

She also talks candidly about difficulties in her marriage, especially after she birthed two girls and their relationship went from being one where they mostly worked together, to them taking on diametrically separate roles (farm work for her husband and domestic duties for her). There was a period of a few years where she often considered what it would be like to leave, and while she ultimately decided to stick it out (and things did get better once her kids got older and didn’t rely on her for all their needs anymore), you could tell how much this bothered her. I appreciate how honest she was about this part of her life.

3) She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement, Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey

Description: From the Pulitzer-prize winning reporters who broke the news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and abuse for the New York Times, this is the thrilling untold story of their investigation and its consequences for the #MeToo movement.

Most of this book is about how Kantor and Twohey broke the Harvey Weinstein story: how it came about, the intimidation and threats, and what happened after. I knew a lot of the story, but I hadn’t heard all of it. What really stood out was how thorough and careful they were to get the details right. The last few chapters cover what happened with Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings.

4) If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie, Christopher Ingraham

Description: This is the story of Ingraham’s decision to uproot his life and move his family to Red Lake Falls, Minnesota, population 1,400 — the community he made famous as “the worst place to live in America” in a story he wrote for the Washington Post. In Red Lake County, Ingraham experiences the intensity of small-town gossip, suffers through winters with temperatures dropping to 40 below zero, and unearths some truths about small-town life that the coastal media usually miss.

This is interesting: Ingraham writes an article in the Post where he mentions Red Lake County, Minnesota is at the very bottom of a ranking for “most desirable places to live in America.” There’s an uproar from county residents, so Ingraham decides to travel to this county and discovers all kinds of great things about it. Not long after, disgruntled by their long DC-area commutes and high cost of living, he and his wife decide to move to this county.

The only thing I want to call out here is Ingraham received permission from his employer to work remotely, so he was able to exchange his long commute for NO commute. (If he hadn’t been approved to work remotely, he never would have moved to this rural area jobless.) I like how he contrasts rural versus suburban living, and midwest versus east coast living, while also noting all the things we have in common.

Additional articles of interest: 1) His experience after three months of being a Minnesota resident. 2) Discovering what it’s like to endure winter temperatures at/below negative 40 degrees. 3) An excerpt from his book, where he talks about the sugar beet harvest (apparently sugar beets are huge and white and not at all like regular beets you buy in a grocery store).

5) The Witches Are Coming, Lindy West

Description: In essays that span many topics, whether it be the notion since the earliest moments of the #MeToo movement that feminism has gone too far, or the insistence that holding someone accountable for his actions amounts to a “witch hunt,” The Witches are Coming exposes the lies that many have chosen to believe and the often unexpected figures who have furthered them.

I enjoyed some essays more than others, but I kept coming across powerful paragraphs and exquisite sentences that reminded me of how clever she is. (I do remember liking her memoir, Shrill, better — which was made into a series on Hulu, and will be coming back for a second season. I barely watch TV, and don’t have Hulu, so I haven’t seen it). The New York Times has published two excerpts from Lindy’s book, here and here.

6) Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer, Novella Carpenter

Description: Carpenter loves cities — the culture, the crowds, the energy. At the same time, she can’t shake the fact that she is the daughter of two back-to-the-land hippies who taught her to love nature and eat vegetables. Drawn to backyard self-sufficiency, Carpenter decided it was possible to have it both ways: a homegrown vegetable plot as well as museums, bars, and concerts. When she moved to a ramshackle house in inner city Oakland and discovered an abandoned lot next door, she pictured heirloom tomatoes, a beehive, and a chicken coop. For anyone who has ever grown herbs on their windowsill or tomatoes on their fire escape, Carpenter’s story will capture your heart.

I tend to enjoy books about offbeat farmers, like those who engage in urban farming or city slickers who abandon their urban ways and take up rural farming. I liked this one, too. Carpenter moved to a sketchy area in Oakland back in 2005, immediately taking over a vacant lot next door to her rental. She ended up farming the lot for 10 years. This involved not just veggies and fruit, but also beekeeping, and raising chickens for eggs and rabbits for meat. And even a pair of pigs! (Which her neighbors were unhappy about due to the stench, but she got a tremendous amount of meat — and knowledge — from the experience.)

At the end of the book, she mentions that changes were coming; she knew she’d have to pack up and move soon (a Whole Foods opened a few blocks away and the vacant lot went up for sale), but I’m not sure what happened after that. I’d be interested to know.

7) One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned About Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular, Abigail Pogrebin

Description: Pogrebin is a mother, a New Yorker, a writer, a daughter, and a wife, but the role that has most defined her is that of identical twin. Here she weaves her quest to understand how genetics shape us into a memoir of her own twinship.

I’m not a twin, but I enjoyed this view into the author’s personal experience, plus her in-depth look at other sets of twins, what kind of research is taking place on twins, and twin experts.

8) Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis, and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan, Frank Ahrens

When Ahrens, a middle-aged bachelor and 18-year veteran at the Washington Post, fell in love with a diplomat, his life changed dramatically. Following his new bride to her first appointment in Seoul, South Korea, Frank began a corporate career, becoming director of global communications at Hyundai Motors. Filled with unique insights, he sheds light on a culture few Westerners know.

This is a fascinating glimpse into South Korean work life and how it differs from the United States. Ahrens covers topics like the ubiquity of heavy drinking, karaoke, and Korean history and modern culture. I learned that most South Korean citizens have one of three last names. At times he talks too much about the specifics of his job at Hyundai (he must have REALLY been into the cars they were producing to write about them in such detail), but it’s definitely worth reading.

9) The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam, Dana Sachs

Description: Sachs takes readers on a voyage to a country most Americans think about only in terms of war. She reveals how she settled in with Tung and his wife Huong in Hanoi and made a place for herself in “enemy” territory. With vivid descriptions of the community—the noodle stalls and roaring motorcycles, the vestiges of French colonialism, and the encroachment of glittering high-rises—Sachs explores the tenuous balance between the traditions of old Vietnam and a country in the throes of modernization.

This was recommended by a co-worker when I told her I like memoirs about women who move abroad. The episodes in this book took place several decades ago, but I’m sure much of it would hold up today.

Dana was intrigued by Vietnam on her first brief visit, and ended up returning twice more to spend long chunks of time in the country. She was able to get long-term visas specifically to study the language, and lived with a local family. She even fell in love with a Vietnamese man for a short time, so there’s a section of the book dedicated to her falling for a very poor, uneducated motorbike mechanic — and the inevitable pulling away once she realizes their cultures are just too different to make it work.

Okay

10) A Trip to the Beach: Living on Island Time in the Caribbean, Melinda Blanchard

Description: This is the story of a trip to the beach that never ends. It’s about a husband and wife who escape civilization to build a small restaurant on an island paradise — and discover that even paradise has its pitfalls. It’s about the maddening, exhausting, outlandish complications of trying to live the simple life — and the joy that comes when you somehow pull it off.

I was interested to read how this couple opened a restaurant on an island from scratch, but not so much the other stuff (the husband building a sailboat, extended conversations with locals, and a too-long section about the hurricane that hit Anguilla in 1995 and destroyed their restaurant after its first year).

11) French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France, Richard Goodman

Description: Goodman saw an ad for a stone house for rent in a small village in southern France, and just like that, he left New York City. This is a love story between a man and his garden. It’s about plowing, planting, watering, and tending. It’s about cabbage, tomatoes, parsley, and eggplant. Most of all, it’s about the growing friendship between an American outsider and a close-knit community of French farmers.

This was a quick read. The publishing details say it’s 203 pages, but it seemed shorter. It was also written in 1991, which made it appear a bit dated.

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