Books

Books Read in December 2019

I read nine books in December (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 156.

This is my highest annual book total since I started keeping track in 2003.

I used to publish my book lists in full at the end of each year, but I started posting monthly (with mini reviews) in January 2015.

Seventeen years of book totals are listed below. They start off completely normal in 2003, go off the rails a bit in 2006 (that’s the year I was living in California and had a 90-minute one-way bus commute to work), and returned to elevated levels in 2015.

2003: 41
2004: 42
2005: 45
2006: 110
2007: 31
2008: 34
2009: 25
2010: 47
2011: 27
2012: 66
2013: 42
2014: 53
2015: 137
2016: 105
2017: 112
2018: 94
2019: 156

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2019 Book Stats:

Nonfiction vs. fiction: I read one fiction book this year (City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert).

Female vs. male: 71% of the books I read in 2019 were written by female authors.

Minority vs. non-minority: 15% of the books I read this year were written by minority authors (writers of color, LGBTQ, and underrepresented religious groups). This is similar to 2017 (14%) but not as good as last year (31%).

Audiobooks vs. ebooks/physical books: Similar to what I said above. This year audiobooks comprised 38% of my reading total (similar to 2017 at 34%), but not as hefty as last year (almost 45%).

Out of 156 books, here’s the breakdown of how I rated them:

  • Highly Recommended: 1 book
  • Recommended: 105 books
  • Okay: 42 books
  • Not Recommended: 8 books

This means I’d recommend 68% of the books I read this year to others. Last year the percentage was 63%, while in 2017 it was only 60%. I hope 2020’s percentage is even better.

Here are my top five books of 2019:

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The December list

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

Recommended

1) Permanent Record, Edward Snowden

Description: Snowden, the man who risked everything to expose the US government’s system of mass surveillance, reveals for the first time the story of his life, including how he helped to build that system and what motivated him to try to bring it down.

I’d heard of Snowden but hadn’t thought about him for years. I didn’t read a lot about his story (or anything about his background) when he became known in 2013, so I was going into this book pretty blind. What I took from his story was that he did what he did because he was convinced he was doing the right thing.

Six years later, he’s still living in Moscow, unable to travel outside Russia since the U.S. canceled his passport. I was intrigued enough by the book that I also watched the documentary Citizenfour, which I was able to watch in its entirely for free online.

2) Life Undercover: Coming of Age in the C.I.A., Amaryllis Fox

Description: Fox spent a decade with the spy agency after being recruited at age 21, and recounts her years living undercover, chasing terrorists, and infiltrating their networks.

I liked this book because Amaryllis’ story takes us from childhood, to how she was recruited by the C.I.A, what the job was like at various stages of her career, the pros and cons of living the clandestine life, and ultimately her decision to retire and move on to something else.

There’s a good book excerpt here and an article about her in the New York Times here.

3) A Song for You: My Life with Whitney Houston, Robyn Crawford

Description: After decades of silence, Robyn Crawford, close friend, collaborator, and confidante of Whitney Houston, shares her story.

Growing up, I knew Houston as someone with an amazing voice who occasionally acted in movies, accompanied by whispers of drug use and domestic abuse. I wasn’t a super fan, but I enjoyed learning more about her life. Robyn and Whitney met as teenagers, and Robyn not only became a trusted assistant who traveled around the world with her, but they lived together in the same house for many years.

Robyn doesn’t mince words when it comes to her thoughts on the lying, cheating, abusive Bobby Brown, and how Whitney’s relationship with him ultimately led to Robyn’s resignation in 2000 (after spending two decades together). Here are five things Robyn disclosed about Whitney in her book.

4) Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, John E. Douglas

Description: He has hunted some of the most notorious and sadistic criminals of our time. He has confronted, interviewed, and researched dozens of serial killers and assassins, including Charles Manson, Richard Speck, John Wayne Gacy, and James Earl Ray. He is Special Agent John Douglas, the man who ushered in a new age in behavioral science and criminal profiling. Retired after 25 years of service, Douglas can finally tell his unique and compelling story.

This book was published in 1996, so it’s been around a while. Douglas covers how he got his job with the FBI, and the various postings he had until he ultimately ended up in behavioral science at Quantico. A lot of the book covers high-profile cases he was involved with.

5) Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, Sarah Moss

Description: Novelist Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in an English cathedral city. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, and by a collection of new friends.

I learned a lot about what it’s like to live in Iceland, from the perspective of an outsider. I wouldn’t want to live there but I enjoyed reading about Sarah’s experience. For the first few months, her family couldn’t afford to buy a car so they walked or took buses everywhere (apparently this was strange as Icelanders tend not to walk places and only young people take the bus). She also found the culture to be very insular.

Okay

6) Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail, Caitlin Kelly

Description: One woman’s mid-career misadventures in the absurd world of American retail.

This book gets a low rating on Goodreads (2.6 as of this writing). Normally I don’t read books that are rated so low, but the premise of this one intrigued me. The naysayers are correct in saying that the author isn’t representative of the typical retail worker, but that’s not what bothered me — sometimes it’s helpful to have a view from an outsider looking in.

What bothered me was the repetition — this woman could not stop repeating herself. Certain things would be repeated in almost every chapter, which drives me up a wall. Is the author assuming we’ve forgotten what she wrote from one chapter to the next? It’s either that or extremely substandard editing. It’s unfortunate, because I liked her writing style otherwise.

7) Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years, Julie Andrews

Description: Andrews begins the story with her arrival in Hollywood and her rise to fame in her earliest films. She describes her years in the film industry and unveils her personal story of adjusting to a new and often daunting world, dealing with the demands of unimaginable success, being a new mother, the end of her first marriage, embracing two stepchildren, adopting two more children, and falling in love with the brilliant and mercurial filmmaker Blake Edwards.

Andrews gives a brief recap of her childhood in the introduction, but she wrote about all that in her first memoir, which I haven’t read. Most of this book is about her entry into Hollywood, and details on the films she made: Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, of course, but also others.

I listened to this on audio, and I’m glad Andrews read it because she has a pleasant voice, but I didn’t love this book. There were too many unnecessary details, too much minutiae. A bigger Andrews fan than I am might enjoy it more.

In this excerpt, Andrews looks back on filming the iconic opening sequence of The Sound of Music.

8) Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, David Goggins

Description: For Goggins, childhood was a nightmare of poverty, prejudice, and physical abuse. But through self-discipline, mental toughness, and hard work, he transformed himself from a depressed, overweight young man into a U.S. Armed Forces icon and one of the world’s top endurance athletes. The only man in history to complete elite training as a Navy SEAL, Army Ranger, and Air Force Tactical Air Controller, he went on to set records in numerous endurance events, inspiring Outside magazine to name him “The Fittest (Real) Man in America.”

I picked this up due to the sheer number of people who have rated this book on Goodreads — just under 25,000 when I last checked in mid-December. Goggins overcame a lot to reach his level of personal success and physical achievements. However, I didn’t love his writing style. He’s a testosterone-laden male, and I think his book would appeal to others of the same type (or those who aspire to be that type). That being said, his accomplishments (and his proven ability to push through immense pain, and try over and over again to achieve a goal he didn’t make it through the first time) are definitely impressive.

9) There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids, Linda Åkeson McGurk

Description: In this memoir, a mother sets out to discover if the nature-centric parenting philosophy of her native Scandinavia holds the key to healthier, happier lives for her American children.

It may seem strange that I sometimes read parenting books, but I enjoy reading books like this…as long as the mothers are talking about parenting in foreign locales! I enjoy descriptions of what life is like raising kids in the U.S. versus other countries.

As you can see from this book’s place at the bottom of the list, I wasn’t enamored by this one. It took me longer than usual to get through it. I felt like the author’s argument could be summed up with “Kids need outside time!” It felt like reading the same information over and over.

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