I read 14 books in January (five were audiobooks).
I think I set a personal record for the number of books I started but decided not to finish this month:
- Me, Elton John
I tried both the audio and ebook versions and couldn’t get into either one. I imagine it gets more exciting but maybe I also need to be a bigger Elton John fan.
- The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom
This is supposed to be a great book (the Washington Post said it’s one of the Best Books of 2019) but I just did not care for all the family background details. I couldn’t get past the first few chapters.
- This Is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Medical Resident, Adam Kay
This was written as a series of diary entries (I generally dislike books written in the form of diary entries).
- A Bite-Sized History of France: Gastronomic Tales of Revolution, War, and Enlightenment, Stéphane Henaut & Jeni Mitchell
- Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, Annalee Newitz
- In the Dream House: A Memoir, Carmen Maria Machado
- Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann
- The Way Home: Tales from a Life Without Technology, Mark Boyle
- Formation: A Woman’s Memoir of Stepping Out of Line, Ryan Leigh Dostie
- Ordinary Girls: A Memoir, Jaquira Díaz
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, Adam Minter
Description: Sooner or later, all of us are faced with things we no longer need or want. But when we drop off items at a local donation center, where do they go? Journalist Adam Minter takes us on an adventure into the often-hidden, multibillion-dollar industry of reuse: from thrift stores in the American Southwest to vintage shops in Tokyo, flea markets in Southeast Asia to used-goods enterprises in Ghana, and more.
I was intrigued by this book and zipped through it. I don’t bring a lot of things into my home, but reading this book made me realize I can do more to cut down on my waste. In the beginning of the book, Minter visits homes that are being cleaned out (either because someone has died or because the residents are downsizing). He then moves to the thrift store industry and explores the path your belongings might take: from the donation process, to being put out on the floor for sale, then going to an outlet center, and then either being packed for shipment overseas or a landfill. (He kept remarking over all the bowling balls he’d see headed to a landfill, so let this be a cautionary tale to those looking to buy one. Check your local thrift store first!)
Minter talks a lot about clothes, which is understandable given how big the industry is, and explains why it’s good to always donate clothing even if the items are torn or stained. If your clothes can’t be worn by anyone else, those textiles can be made into rags that benefit many industries (from restaurants, to hospitals, to auto shops). Thirty percent of the textiles recovered for recycling in the U.S. are converted to wiping rags.
I learned that more than half the apparel that arrives at Goodwill remains unsold (I knew it was a lot but I didn’t know the percentage). Some of it is sent to foreign countries in huge bales, but those recipients have standards and refuse what they can tell is substandard quality.
The final chapters focus on steps which can be taken to reverse the crisis of low quality goods (thrift stores aren’t fans of Ikea particleboard furniture; it usually goes directly to a landfill) and what can be done to ensure that more items flow to the boisterous secondhand economy.
2) Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, Ronan Farrow
Description: This is the untold story of the exotic tactics of surveillance and intimidation deployed by wealthy and connected men to threaten journalists, evade accountability, and silence victims of abuse – and it’s the story of the women who risked everything to expose the truth and spark a global movement.
What stood out to me is the lengths guilty people (and those who are afraid to stand up to them, or who are getting paid by them) will go to in order to protect themselves and continue performing their dastardly deeds. Harvey Weinstein is beyond despicable. Kudos to Farrow for not giving up on his reporting, even when NBC decided to kill his well-reported story and he had to go to another outlet to get published. In addition to Weinstein, he addresses Trump and Matt Lauer’s sexual misconduct.
3) The Book of Eating: Adventures in Professional Gluttony, Adam Platt
Description: A hilarious and irreverent memoir of a globe-trotting life lived meal-to-meal by an influential and respected food critic.
I’ve read other food critic memoirs and enjoyed this one as well. Adam’s younger brother is the actor Oliver Platt (I didn’t recognize the name but recognized the face once I looked him up). Their father was a diplomat so they lived in several Asian countries growing up, giving them lots of opportunity for the food experimentation that built their eclectic eating habits.
In addition to how he got into food reporting, Adam addresses his multiple efforts to lose weight over the years, given how much he has to ingest in one sitting while reviewing a restaurant. He also talks about the switch from the old style format of long, well-researched restaurant reviews to quick blog style updates with the rise of the internet and social media. You can read an excerpt from his book here.
4) Toil & Trouble: A Memoir, Augusten Burroughs
Description: For as long as Burroughs could remember, he knew things he shouldn’t have known. He manifested things that shouldn’t have come to pass. And he told exactly no one about this, save one person: his mother. This is a chronicle of one man’s journey to understand himself, to reconcile the powers he can wield with things with which he is helpless.
I started reading the ebook version but quickly decided it would be better on audio, so I switched — and I was right. Augusten reads it himself and the experience wouldn’t be the same otherwise.
Augusten has known he was a witch since he was a child (he is descended from witches, according to his mother), but didn’t tell anyone except family until he was an adult. He has funny stories about his abilities, and also writes about his long-time partner and their move from a small NYC apartment to a rambling old house in rural Connecticut.
5) Columbine, Dave Cullen
Description: What really happened on April 20, 1999? The horror left an indelible stamp on the American psyche, but most of what we know is wrong. Cullen was one of the first reporters on scene and spent ten years on this book. He draws on mountains of evidence, insight from the world’s leading forensic psychologists, and the killers’ own words and drawings. Cullen paints raw portraits of two polar opposite killers, which contrast starkly with the flashes of resilience and redemption among the survivors.
I listened to this on audio, and understandably, the sections retelling the event itself can be difficult to listen to — I think listening was worse than reading it because the narrator’s tone is so insistent (short, urgent, staccato sentences) and could make my heart race. The book was incredibly well researched and I learned a lot about the Columbine massacre that I didn’t know before. (This book was published over 10 years ago and I had to wait on hold at the library to check out the audiobook, so obviously the story is still relevant.)
Cullen does a deep-dive into the killers’ childhood backgrounds and family situations, including past delinquencies and excerpts from journal entries. He debunked myths about the killers’ motives and other widely held beliefs, and goes into what happened in the years following the attack.
6) Uncanny Valley: A Memoir, Anna Wiener
Description: In her mid 20s, Wiener—stuck, broke, and looking for meaning in her work–left a job in book publishing for the promise of the new digital economy. She moved from New York to San Francisco, where she landed at a big-data startup in the heart of the Silicon Valley bubble. This is a first-person glimpse into high-flying, reckless startup culture at a time of unchecked ambition, unregulated surveillance, wild fortune, and accelerating political power.
An interesting look at transitioning to working in the tech world while San Francisco was undergoing seismic changes. Wiener was a non-tech technology worker (she worked in customer support), but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t well paid. My favorite line of the book: “My own psychic burden was that I could command a six-figure salary, yet I did not know how to do anything.” The author is interviewed in the Guardian here.
Description: Entrepreneur Jesse Itzler will try almost anything: his life is about being bold and risky. So when he felt himself drifting on autopilot, he hired a rather unconventional trainer to live with him for a month — an accomplished Navy SEAL widely considered to be “the toughest man on the planet.”
First off: Itzler is being trained by a SEAL but he’s not in SEAL-like training. SEAL training is incredibly intense and takes up many hours a day — but Itzler maintains his regular work schedule throughout. Exercises involve running, body weight exercises, and gym workouts, rather than anything tactical (there aren’t even any water activities).
That being said, this story about a very rich white man (he’d made his own money even before he married the billionaire founder of Spanx) was more entertaining than I thought it would be. I’ve often enjoyed stories about people who shake up their lives by undertaking a challenge, and this was definitely a challenge — albeit one that a normal person would never be able to afford. His SEAL trainer not only lived with him in his Manhattan apartment, but traveled with him to multiple locations in their month together.
Interestingly (and I didn’t know this before I started listening to the audiobook), while Itzler refers to his trainer as SEAL throughout in the book, it turns out the SEAL in question was David Goggins (whose book I just read last month). Goggins seems much more hardcore in this book (in that Itzler doesn’t portray him as a very friendly guy to be around) than the way he comes across in his own book.
Description: As Stone navigates a quirky subculture populated by brilliant eccentrics, he pulls back the curtain on a community shrouded in secrecy, fueled by obsession and brilliance, and organized around one overriding need: to prove one’s worth by deceiving others. Investigating some of the lesser-known corners of psychology, neuroscience, physics, history, and even crime, all through the lens of trickery and illusion, Stone arrives at a host of startling revelations about how the mind works.
This was surprisingly enjoyable. It has a magic theme, but he goes off on other random topics that I also found interesting. He attends various magic schools and meets with a bunch of magicians in an attempt to increase his skills, and by the end of the book he’s created his own card trick that fools everyone he demonstrates it to. There’s a good review in the New York Times here.
9) The Bitch Is Back: Older, Wiser, and (Getting) Happier, Cathi Hanauer (editor)
More than a decade after the bestselling anthology The Bitch in the House spoke up loud and clear for a generation of young women, nine of the original contributors are back—along with sixteen captivating new voices—sharing their ruminations from an older, stronger, and wiser perspective about love, sex, work, family, independence, body image, health, and aging.
I didn’t read the first anthology, but this one was intriguing since I’m getting up there in age myself. There was a wide variety of stories, which I liked, from the decision to have a baby as a single woman, plastic surgery, divorce, lesbian relationships, and religion.
10) Life Without a Recipe: A Memoir, Diana Abu-Jaber
Description: Caught between cultures and lavished with contradictory advice from both sides of her family, Diana spent years learning how to ignore others’ well-intentioned prescriptions. This is Diana’s celebration of journeying without a map, of learning to ignore the script and improvise, of escaping family and making family on one’s own terms.
The book description doesn’t do a good job telling what the story is about. Diana marries three times (the first two happened when she was very young and making impulsive decisions). She decided she wanted a baby with her third husband, but by that time she was too old to have one naturally. By the time they researched and went through the adoption process, she didn’t become a mother until she was in her late 40s. Her daughter was horribly fussy. Her beloved father died from a rare form of leukemia. Random! But interesting enough.
Description: From simple money saving tips to life changing financial strategies, the cheapskates next door know that the key to financial freedom and enjoying life more is not how much you earn, but how much you spend.
I didn’t come away with any new frugal tips (I either already do them or don’t plan to do them), but this book could be helpful for others who want to frugalize (my word, not his) their lives. I liked when he talked about how frugality is about happiness, not deprivation. Many people think buying less and consuming less is a huge hardship, but it’s actually about being happy with what you already have. He also notes that frugal people who don’t buy very much are better environmentalists: we’re not out there buying pricey eco-friendly products — we’re buying less of everything.
12) Full Circle: From Hollywood to Real Life and Back Again, Andrea Barber
Description: She grew up in front of the world on the beloved sitcom Full House, but then Barber abruptly left Hollywood. Why did she leave and what did she do for twenty years before returning to television? This is her memoir of fame, heartache, resilience — and the reboot of a lifetime.
For those who are wondering what happened to Kimmy Gibbler after she left Full House, here you go. I must admit I was more interested in reading about her early career and experiences on Full House / Fuller House. Her life in-between was less interesting to me, which was why I downgraded the ranking — college, mothering two kids (which inexplicably included a story about taking them on an unruly trip to Target, and a gross story about one of them getting sick), a tough divorce from her husband, and throughout it all, an extremely prevalent case of anxiety and depression.
Description: What would happen if a shy introvert lived like a gregarious extrovert for one year? If she knowingly and willingly put herself in perilous social situations that she’d normally avoid at all costs? Jessica is going to find out.
As a fellow introvert, I recognized and identified with Jessica, and I liked how she showed that normal experiences we would normally shrink from (attending networking events where you don’t know anybody) can get better with exposure.
However, I almost gave up on this near the beginning and later wished I had. Reading about someone talking to random strangers, taking improv classes, and subjecting herself to public speaking just wasn’t interesting to me — plus, the concept reminded me of several books I’ve already read (The Year of Yes and My Year with Eleanor).
14) The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
Description: In this collection of short essays, Dillard illuminates the dedication, absurdity, and daring that characterize the existence of a writer.
I liked the parts where she talks about the writing life, and the various places she’s written: an isolated cabin with an insufficient stove, a small locked carrel in a library (she had a key to the library and could let herself in after hours), a one-room log cabin on a beach. But I found her writing style a bit too studious for the subject matter, and she often went off describing things that I didn’t find relevant. The final chapter was largely about a stunt pilot.
A good article based on the book talks about the three phases that every writer encounters.