Books

Books Read in May 2020

I read 12 books in May (eight were audiobooks), which brings my 2020 total to 59.

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

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

Recommended

1) Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker

Description: The heartrending story of a midcentury American family with twelve children, six of them diagnosed with schizophrenia, that became science’s great hope in the quest to understand the disease.

I liked this more than I thought I would. Twelve children! Six of them with schizophrenia! It’s wild. I listened to it on audio and the time passed quickly.

2) Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, Mark O’Connell

Description: O’Connell is consumed by worst-case scenarios, and as the father of two young children, he finds them increasingly urgent — so he decides to cross the globe in pursuit of answers. In doing so, he comes to a resolution, while offering readers a unique window into our contemporary imagination.

I don’t dwell on apocalyptic scenarios, but I find survival bunkers and prepping interesting. He explores those subjects in the book, and visits places like New Zealand (“a favored retreat of billionaires banking on civilization’s collapse”) and Chernobyl, the site of a nuclear disaster. Although the timing of the book’s publication may have been unintentional, Outside magazine called it the perfect pandemic read.

3) In Pursuit of Disobedient Women: A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away, Dionne Searcey

Description: When a New York Times reporter uproots her family to become the newspaper’s West Africa bureau chief, she manages her new role as breadwinner while finding women cleverly navigating extraordinary circumstances in a forgotten place for much of the Western world.

A look at how a mom with three young kids becomes the breadwinner after moving her family to Senegal and traveling around West Africa. Her husband comes across as a dick for a while (he agreed to put his career on hold so the family could pursue this opportunity, then proceeded to complain about it all the time), but he gets a bit better after he’s had a chance to settle in. You can read a review of the book in the Times.

4) I Don’t Want to Die Poor: Essays, Michael Arceneaux

Description: Arceneaux has never shied away from discussing his struggles with debt, but here he reveals the extent to which it has an impact on every facet of his life—how he dates; how he seeks medical care (or is unable to); how he wrestles with whether he should have chosen a more financially secure path; and finally, how he has dealt with his “dream” turning into an ongoing nightmare as he realizes one bad decision could unravel all that he’s earned.

Arceneaux writes powerfully about debt (making the point that a teenager often doesn’t know what they’re getting into when they sign up for those loans), and how their repayment has drastically impacted his life. There’s also an essay about his bulimic tendencies, and why, in his mid-30s, he’s never had a boyfriend. You can read an excerpt from the book here.

5) Compton Cowboys: The New Generation of Cowboys in America’s Urban Heartland, Walter Thompson-Hernandez

Description: A New York Times reporter tells the compelling story of the Compton Cowboys, a group of African-American men and women who defy stereotypes and continue the proud, centuries-old tradition of black cowboys in the heart of one of America’s most notorious cities.

Walter didn’t just research the cowboys; he took a leave of absence from his job to immerse himself in their lives. He was intrigued by them because he grew up nearby and would see them riding down the street on their horses.

The cowboys make it their life’s work to teach “young kids in South Central LA about the possibilities and power of healing through horsemanship.” You can read more about the Compton Cowboys here.

6) Dirt: Adventures, with Family, in the Kitchens of Lyon, Looking for the Origins of French Cooking, Bill Buford

Description: From the author of the widely acclaimed Heat, this is a highly obsessive account of the author’s adventures — this time, in the world of French haute cuisine. Baffled by the language, but convinced that he can master the art of French cooking (or at least get to the bottom of why it is so revered) he begins what becomes a five-year odyssey.

Buford likes to immerse himself in his cooking adventures. He, along with his wife and twin sons, expected to live in France for nine months, but they ended up staying almost five years. He took some cooking school classes and worked in a restaurant, while his wife did most of the work raising their sons. His experiences were interesting but I could have done without some of the nitty-gritty history he liked to get into. You can read an excerpt here.

7) Always Home: A Daughter’s Recipes and Stories, Fanny Singer

Description: A culinary memoir about growing up as the daughter of revered chef and restaurateur Alice Waters: a story of food, family, and the need for beauty in all aspects of life.

This audiobook went quickly — even though it has 32 chapters — because the chapters are short and each one contains a recipe at the end. The book is a sweet tribute to Fanny’s mother, Alice Waters, and I liked Fanny’s descriptions of her unconventional life, but my pet peeve is people who read recipes out loud in an audiobook. Sometimes authors choose to do this; other times they’ll include all the recipes at the end. I do not want someone to read me their recipe out loud, especially when it includes items I would never make, like a leg of lamb cooked over a hearth(!), and rose hip jelly. Luckily, since the recipes fell at the end of chapters and not in the middle (which has also happened to me before), I could fast forward to the end of the chapter once she started in on the ingredients list.

You can find an L.A. Times article (along with a short video) here.

8) The Rural Diaries: Love, Livestock, and Big Life Lessons Down on Mischief Farm, Hilarie Burton

Description: Actress Hilarie Burton tells the inspiring story of leaving Hollywood for a radically different kind of life in upstate New York with her husband Jeffrey Dean Morgan—a celebration of community, family, and the value of hard work in small town America.

I tend to like books about urbanites who move to a farm — and even though this is a celebrity in an idealized version of farm life, it’s still fun. Just like the book mentioned above, Hilarie reads some of her recipes out loud (which is unfortunate), but there’s only a few of them this time. There’s an interview with Hilarie (and pics of her farm) here.

9) Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating, Christy Harrison

Description: Reclaim your time, money, health, and happiness from our toxic diet culture with groundbreaking strategies from Harrison — a clinician, registered dietitian, and journalist.

I agree that diet culture steals people’s time — it’s stolen the author’s time, it’s stolen my time. Harrison raises a lot of good points (for example, you shouldn’t bother to diet because the vast majority of people who lose weight will gain it all back), but making good points is different from being able to convince women that the Health At Every Size (HAES) movement will fully catch on. For those who are ready though, this book is a good resource.

Okay

10) I’m Your Huckleberry: A Memoir, Val Kilmer

Description: Legendary actor Val Kilmer shares the stories behind his most beloved roles, reminisces about his star-studded career and love life, and reveals the truth behind his recent health struggles.

I read this Washington Post review before I started listening to the audiobook, so I knew the book wasn’t going to be great. I agree with the author of that review, who said: “Rather than a carefully curated self-portrait, Kilmer offers a scatterbrained journey into his idiosyncratic head space.”

I was initially perturbed that Kilmer wasn’t reading the book himself (it’s a big part of the experience of listening to a celebrity memoir), before I was reminded that Kilmer had throat cancer some years back. (There’s an interview with him on Good Morning America here, if you want to hear what his voice sounds like.)

There are two males who voice his audiobook, along with his long-time friend (and former girlfriend) Mare Winningham. I found Mare’s narration distracting, not because she doesn’t read well, but because she’s a woman reading a book written by a man, which my brain found confusing.

Kilmer wrote about his major roles, but not in a super in-depth way, and talks about famous former girlfriends (like Cher, who he started dating when he was 21 and she was in her mid-30s). He also talked a lot (too much) about his Christian Science faith.

11) Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol, Holly Whitaker

Description: The founder of a female-focused recovery program offers a radical new path to sobriety.

I’m not quitting alcohol, but I do drink less than I used to. I’ve only had a few glasses of wine in the past 2.5 months we’ve been in quarantine. Whitaker is a former heavy drinker who now believes that alcohol is poison for everyone and a tool of the patriarchy; no amount of drinking is safe. It makes you age, it causes breast cancer. She started her own sober recovery program as an alternative to AA.

For someone who needs it (and Whitaker would say that everyone needs it, whether you think you have a problem with alcohol or not), this book could be a good resource. You can read interviews with the author here and here.

12) Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, David Graeber

Description: An argument against the rise of meaningless, unfulfilling jobs, and their consequences.

I know that bullshit jobs exist, but I should have stuck with reading the essay that inspired the book. I didn’t need to read about this subject in so much detail.

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