Books

Books Read in April 2020

I read 13 books in April (eight were audiobooks), which brings my 2020 total to 47.

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

Recommended

1) This Is Big: How the Founder of Weight Watchers Changed the World (and Me), Marisa Meltzer

Description: Meltzer began her first diet at the age of five. Nearly four decades later, she comes across an obituary for Jean Nidetch, the housewife who founded Weight Watchers in 1963. Weaving Jean’s incredible story as weight loss maven and pathbreaking entrepreneur with her own journey through Weight Watchers, Meltzer chronicles the deep parallels and enduring frustrations in each woman’s decades-long efforts to lose weight and keep it off.

I’m attracted to all types of books about weight, written by people who are too large, too small, or just right (but feel a compulsion to remain that way).

Marisa is self-assured in many ways, but not when it comes to her weight. She disagrees that it’s possible (at least for her) to adopt body positivity or body neutrality. I like how the book goes back and forth from her story to that of Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch. Marisa does it really well, and her observations are spot-on.

I looked up Marisa before reading her book and found a lot of articles to share:

If you want to read excerpts from the book, you can find them here, here, and here.

There are interviews/Q&As with Marisa in the Post, the Times (the Times also did a review), and in the Daily Beast.

I also read some of her past articles. I liked How I Learned to Stop Hating My Body, Are Diets the Enemy of Feminism?, and this profile she wrote about Jean Nidetch before she started writing her book.

2) Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, Eliese Colette Goldbach

Description: Working in a steel mill was never Goldbach’s dream. Fresh out of college, eager to leave behind her conservative hometown, she found herself applying for a job — her only shot at financial security in an economically devastated and forgotten part of America. Goldbach brings us inside the belly of the mill and takes a look at her Rust Belt childhood, struggling to reconcile her desire to leave without turning her back on the people she’s come to love.

I never would have read this if it was written by a man working in a steel mill. The presence of women (and their observations) in this type of environment is rare enough that it stands out. Eliese was valedictorian in high school, ran track, craved culture, and earned a college degree. Yet even with all that, she ended up working in a steel mill for three years. I really enjoyed hearing how it happened and learning about her experiences. There’s a nice overview of the book (and interview with the author) here.

3) Hill Women: Finding Family and a Way Forward in the Appalachian Mountains, Cassie Chambers

Description: Nestled in the Appalachian mountains, Owsley County is one of the poorest counties in both Kentucky and the country. After rising from poverty to earn two Ivy League degrees, an Appalachian lawyer pays tribute to the strong “hill women” who raised and inspired her, and whose values have the potential to rejuvenate a struggling region.

Cassie was able to escape the life of her ancestors because she got an education. Not just any education, but an undergraduate degree from Yale and a law degree from Harvard. After all that, she returned to Kentucky to represent people who couldn’t afford her services (especially female survivors of domestic violence) for free. She’s impressive and I enjoyed her story.

4) The Problem with Everything: My Journey Through the New Culture Wars, Meghan Daum

Description: Daum examines our country’s most intractable problems with honesty instead of outrage. With passion, humor, and most importantly nuance, she tries to make sense of the current landscape — from Trump’s presidency to the #MeToo movement and beyond. In the process, she wades into the waters of identity politics and intersectionality, the gender wage gap, and tests a theory about the divide between Gen Xers and millennials.

Daum has written some of my favorite books of essays. I’ve wanted to read this book since it was released last fall but none of the libraries where I have a membership carry it. I signed up for a free trial month of Scribd and was able to listen to the audiobook that way. I must admit I liked Daum’s previous books better, but this one is worth reading/listening to.

Learn about how writing a book about the Trump era devoured her life, and read excerpts from the book here and here.

5) What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, Mona Hanna-Attisha

Description: Dr. Hanna-Attisha, with a team of researchers, parents, friends, and community leaders, discovered that the children of Flint, Michigan, were being exposed to lead in their tap water — and then battled her government amid a brutal backlash to expose that truth to the world. Paced like a scientific thriller, she reveals how austerity policies, broken democracy, and bureaucratic indifference placed an entire city at risk.

I avoided this book for months because I thought it would be dry, but I was impressed. Dr. Mona writes in an accessible way. Of course you’ve heard about the water issue in Flint; Dr. Mona was the one who led the charge to make people pay attention.

6) Wine Girl: The Obstacles, Humiliations, and Triumphs of America’s Youngest Sommelier, Victoria James

Description: A memoir from the country’s youngest sommelier, tracing her path through the glamorous but famously toxic restaurant world.

Victoria became the youngest sommelier at a Michelin-starred restaurant at age 21. I liked her backstory — she comes from a scrappy, decidedly not-privileged background and developed an interest in wine when she became a bartender.

She had a rough childhood but rose through the ranks of low-wage worker to sommelier relatively quickly. She wasn’t just a young female sommelier, she entered and won multiple wine competitions. Of course, she also experienced rampant sexual harassment from co-workers and guests. You can read more about the book here.

7) The Unexpected Spy: From the CIA to the FBI, My Secret Life Taking Down Some of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorists, Tracy Walder

Description: This is the story of a young woman who went straight from her college sorority to the CIA, where she hunted terrorists and WMDs, and later did a stint in the FBI. Catching the bad guys wasn’t a problem in the FBI, but rampant sexism was. Walder left the FBI to teach young women, encouraging them to find a place in the FBI, CIA, State Department, or the Senate — and thus change the world.

Walker was an “unexpected” spy because she was a sorority girl who talked to a CIA recruiter at an on-campus job fair while wearing flip flops. But she certainly wasn’t ditzy; she loved history, politics, and current events, and originally planned to be a teacher.

One thing I found interesting was how very non-secretive her recruitment process was. I’ve read other books and accounts where potential recruits were expressly forbidden to tell anyone they were applying to the CIA — but maybe that rule was instituted more recently than Walder’s recruitment in the late 1990s. (In addition to many of her sorority sisters finding out she had applied, her acceptance letter arrived in the mail — also at the sorority house — with “CIA” stamped in big letters on the envelope.)

Walder was involved in a number of interesting overseas missions before she decided to put a future family first and transfer to the FBI so she could be based in the U.S. There’s a good profile of Walder here, including an update on what she does now that she’s no longer in the CIA (or FBI).

8) House Lessons: Renovating a Life, Erica Bauermeister

Description: Bauermeister renovates a trash-filled house in eccentric Port Townsend, Washington, and in the process takes readers on a journey to discover the ways our spaces subliminally affect us. A personal exploration of the psychology of architecture, as well as a loving tribute to the connections we forge with the homes we care for and live in, this book is designed for anyone who’s ever fallen head over heels for a house.

You really have to fall head-over-heels for a house to undertake all the work this family did. The house was filled with trash when they bought it, the foundation needed to be repaired, the roof was rotten — and on top of all that, they lived in Seattle, so they drove back and forth for every visit (the trip took several hours each way and involved a ferry ride). They used their retirement fund to pay for the renovations (yikes!).

After the renovations were complete, they didn’t move in until years later (they rented it out instead) since their kids were settled in school in Seattle. They’ve been living in the house for a while now though, and appear to be happy. There’s an excerpt from the book here, along with some before/after photos of the house.

9) More Myself: A Journey, Alicia Keys

Description: As a celebrated musician, Keys has enraptured the nation with her heartfelt lyrics, vocal range, and piano compositions. Yet away from the spotlight, she has grappled with private heartache. Alicia’s journey is revealed not only through her own candid recounting, but through vivid recollections from those who have walked alongside her — from her girlhood in Hell’s Kitchen to the process of self-discovery she’s still navigating.

Alicia covers her background, absent father, early fame, and her relationship with her husband. Interspersed throughout are recollections from people she’s close to — her mother and husband, but also Oprah, Bono, and Michelle Obama. I listened to the audiobook so I can confirm each celebrity voiced their part. This was a fun look at someone I didn’t previously know a lot about.

I enjoyed this interview with Alicia on CBS Sunday morning (7 minutes).

10) The Mother of Black Hollywood: A Memoir, Jenifer Lewis

Description: Lewis describes a road to fame made treacherous by dysfunction and undiagnosed mental illness. From her first taste of applause at five years old to landing on Broadway and ultimately achieving success in movies, television, and global concert halls, Lewis reveals her outrageous life story with humor, a few regrets, and unbridled joy.

I didn’t know anything about Jenifer Lewis before listening to her audiobook, but she’s played many roles in Hollywood. She started out on Broadway (she landed a gig on Broadway just 11 days after graduating from college). She’s had a lot of success over the years (her only non-creative job was a short stint working at a fast food restaurant when she was a teenager), but she also suffered from bipolar disorder and sex addiction.

Lewis has a big ego and a theatrical voice that makes her audiobook entertaining. I’m sure I enjoyed it more than if I was reading her on the page. The Washington Post profiled her here.

Okay

11) Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them, Adrienne Raphel

Description: An immersive exploration of the crossword puzzle and its fascinating history.

I’m not a crossword fan (it’s safe to say I’ve never completed an entire crossword in my life), but I enjoy random, in-depth explorations into a niche subject. I’d never really considered how popular this game is. Raphel goes into the origin of the crossword, and takes us to an annual championship that attracts puzzle solvers from around the world. I’m rating the book as Okay because some of the subject matter was obscure or uninteresting to me.

12) Wow, No Thank You: Essays, Samantha Irby

Description: A collection about aging, marriage, settling down with step-children in white, small-town America, health food and skincare obsessions, money trouble, and the real story of glamorous Hollywood life.

I started this book because I thought I needed something lighthearted, but even though I enjoyed Irby’s last book, I couldn’t get into this one. There were a few essays I liked, but more that I didn’t.

But maybe don’t take my word for it, since she received a rave review in the New York Times. You can read excerpts from the book here, here, and here.

13) Dottir: My Journey to Becoming a Two-Time CrossFit Games Champion, Katrin Davidsdottir

Description: This is the memoir of two-time consecutive CrossFit Games Champion Katrin Davidsdottir. As one of only two women in history to have won the title of “Fittest Woman on Earth” twice, she knows all about the importance of mental and physical strength.

I liked the beginning but it got a repetitive after a while. Large sections of the book contain very detailed recaps of the Crossfit competitions Katrin has been involved in.

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