I read (mostly listened to) 26 books in May and June (22 were audiobooks), which brings my 2021 total to 75.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) Sitting Pretty: The View from My Ordinary Resilient Disabled Body, Rebekah Taussig
Description: A memoir-in-essays from disability advocate Rebekah Taussig, processing a lifetime of memories to paint a beautiful, nuanced portrait of a body that looks and moves differently than most. Growing up as a paralyzed girl during the 90s and early 2000s, Taussig only saw disability depicted as something monstrous, inspirational, or angelic. None of this felt right, and as she got older, she longed for more stories that allowed disability to be complex and ordinary, uncomfortable and fine, painful and fulfilling.
Taussig does an amazing job portraying what it’s like to be disabled, how some people are overly sympathetic, how difficult it can be to navigate life in a wheelchair (even though she’s very good at it, and no, she likely doesn’t need your help), and what it’s like to be in relationships with non-disabled partners.
2) Every Day Is a Gift: A Memoir, Tammy Duckworth
Description: This is the incredible story of Illinois senator and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth and what inspired her to follow the path that made her who she is today.
Duckworth’s story is riveting. I often find memoirs written by politicians to be dry, but not this one (it turns out she didn’t become a politician until she was in her 40s). Tammy had a very interesting childhood and then, of course, goes into how she lost multiple limbs in Iraq.
3) Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Roxane Gay
Description: A searingly honest memoir of food, weight, self-image, and learning how to feed your hunger while taking care of yourself.
This was a re-read for me, and I still highly recommend it — no matter your gender, race, or size.
4) Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing: Essays, Lauren Hough
Description: As an adult, Lauren has had many identities: an airman in the U.S. Air Force, a cable guy, a bouncer at a gay club. As a child, however, she had none. Growing up as a member of the infamous cult The Children of God, Hough had her own self robbed from her. Razor-sharp, profoundly brave, and often very funny, these essays interrogate our notions of ecstasy, queerness, and what it means to live freely.
Lauren grew up in a cult and struggled with poverty as an adult. She lived in the DC area for years, and I recognized some of the places she talked about. A few years ago she wrote this essay about her 10-year experience as a “cable guy,” which was included in the book.
5) Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, Suleika Jaouad
Description: A memoir of illness and recovery that traces one young woman’s journey from diagnosis to remission and, ultimately, a road trip of healing and self-discovery.
Jaouad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia in her early 20s. She underwent many forms of treatment over the next 3.5 years, including long stints in the hospital. Once in remission, she decided to go on a solo road trip to visit people who had reached out to her and fostered connection during her treatment.
6) Blow Your House Down: A Story of Family, Feminism and Treason, Gina Frangello
Description: Frangello spent her early adulthood trying to outrun a youth marked by poverty and violence. Now a long-married wife and devoted mother, the better life she carefully built is emotionally upended by the death of her closest friend. Soon, Frangello is caught up in a recklessly passionate affair, leading a double life while continuing to project the image of the perfect family. When her secrets are finally uncovered, both her home and her identity will implode, testing the limits of desire, responsibility, love, and forgiveness.
Frangello blew up her marriage by embarking on a long-term affair in the aftermath of the loss of her best friend. She acknowledges multiple instances where she could have handled things better, not only with her husband, but with her daughters. I liked her honesty and how she didn’t hesitate to share things other people might have kept hidden. You can read an excerpt here.
7) Finding Freedom: A Cook’s Story – Remaking a Life from Scratch, Erin French
Description: Long before her restaurant became a world dining destination, Erin roamed barefoot on a farm, a teenager falling in love with food while working the line at her dad’s diner, and a young woman finding her calling as a chef at her restaurant tucked into a 19th century mill. Erin shares the real person behind the “girl from Freedom,” and the not-so-picture-perfect struggles that have taken every ounce of her strength to overcome.
Erin has an interesting story, but I don’t think she adequately conveyed why it is that her restaurant is so popular (the kind of popular where she’s booked months/seasons in advance). There’s a profile of her in the Washington Post here.
8) Crying in H Mart: A Memoir, Michelle Zauner
Description: Zauner tells of growing up the only Asian American kid at her school in Eugene, Oregon; struggling with her mother’s high expectations; a painful adolescence; and treasured months spent in her grandmother’s apartment in Seoul. As she grew up, her Korean-ness began to feel ever more distant. It was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer, when Michelle was 25, that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her.
9) How to Be a Woman, Caitlin Moran
Description: Moran puts a new face on feminism, cutting to the heart of women’s issues today. Moran’s debut was an instant runaway bestseller in England as well as an Amazon UK Top Ten book of the year; it is a bona fide cultural phenomenon.
This was a re-read; I first read it in 2012. Apparently I rated it as “Okay” the first time around, but I updated my ranking on Goodreads and I’m listing it here as “Recommended.” With some of these recent re-reads, my assumption is that I like the subject matter better now due to being older.
I also liked this article Moran wrote last year; she said she re-reads this book every few years and “marvels at what I got wrong.”
10) More Than a Woman, Caitlin Moran
Description: The author of the international bestseller How to Be a Woman returns with another manifesto in which she reflects on parenting, middle-age, marriage, existential crises—and, of course, feminism.
This is Moran’s more recent book, but having just re-read her first (see immediately above), I enjoyed the first one more. There are a few strong essays here (of course I liked the non-humorous essays best), like when she wrote about her teenage daughter developing an eating disorder and the process of undergoing treatment. There’s a good interview with Moran here.
11) Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen That Works, Barry Estabrook
Description: Estabrook test drives the most popular diets of our time, investigating the diet gurus, contradictory advice, and science behind the programs to reveal how we should–and shouldn’t–be dieting.
After many years of being 40 pounds overweight and never having tried a diet, Estabrook decided to try a bunch of them. He would lose weight on every diet and then gain it all back. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that he doesn’t advocate for any particular diet in the end, but he’s lost a bit of weight by making some changes to his eating habits.
12) The Ugly Cry: A Memoir, Danielle Henderson
Description: Danielle was raised Black and weird by her grandparents in a mostly white neighborhood in upstate New York. Under the tutelage of her unapologetic grandmother, she learned she had the strength and smarts to save herself: her grandmother gifting her a faith in her own capabilities that the world would not have most Black girls believe.
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
13) We Have Always Been Here: A Queer Muslim Memoir, Samra Habib
Description: When her family came to Canada as Pakistani refugees, Samra, an Ahmadi Muslim, encountered a host of challenges: bullies, racism, the threat of poverty, and an arranged marriage. The men in her life wanted to police her, the women in her life had only shown her the example of pious obedience, and her body was a problem to be solved. So begins an exploration of faith, art, love, and queer sexuality, a journey that takes her to the far reaches of the globe to uncover a truth that was within her all along.
Even though her family had moved to Canada, her parents betrothed Samra to her first cousin when she was 13 years old. At 16 years old, she had to marry him. Luckily she was still in high school and not allowed to live with him (they never had sex), and before she graduated she stood up for herself and insisted on a divorce.
Samra wrote for the Guardian about rejoining Islam in her 30s, as part of an inclusive community that welcomes queer Muslims.
14) Sunshine Girl: An Unexpected Life, Julianna Margulies
Description: Filled with intimate stories and revelatory moments, Margulies deftly chronicles her life and her work.
Margulies had a sometimes difficult childhood and erratic mother; she moved around quite a bit as a kid (including France and England). She also covers her time on ER and The Good Wife, and how she became a mother later in life.
15) Yearbook, Seth Rogen
Description: A collection of essays about growing up Jewish, becoming a stand-up comedian at a young age, and his relationship with drugs (especially marijuana).
I recommend the audio version, which Seth reads. Other actors voice the supporting parts (which is abnormal), but after you get used to it, it works. Read more here.
16) Broken Horses: A Memoir, Brandi Carlile
Description: The critically acclaimed singer-songwriter, producer, and six-time Grammy winner opens up about a life shaped by music in this candid, heartfelt, and intimate story.
I don’t think I would recognize any of Carlile’s songs if I heard one, but I recognized her name and her book is interesting. I listened to it on audio, and I disliked that she sings a song to end every chapter (and there’s over an hour of music at the end as well). Song quality isn’t great on audiobooks (it’s not just her, I’ve noticed this with other songs included in audiobooks; I always skip past them).
According to this article, despite her fame “she has lived in the same log cabin dropped into the foothills of the Cascade Mountains for 20 years.”
17) My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, Ben Ryder Howe
Description: A preppy editor bought a deli in Brooklyn with his Korean in-laws; this is about family, culture clash, and the quest for authentic experiences.
Howe worked as an editor at the Paris Review; his wife was a former lawyer. They moved in with his in-laws to save money for a down payment on a house and ended up buying a deli. He doesn’t make the experience sound like something you’d want to emulate…there were issues galore.
Description: Comedian Jen Kirkman delivers a hilarious, candid memoir about marriage, divorce, sex, turning forty, and still not quite having life figured out.
Another re-read; I first read it in 2017 and listened to it on audio this time around. I always enjoy Kirkman’s perspective.
19) Brat: An ’80s Story, Andrew McCarthy
Description: Most people know McCarthy from movie roles in Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Weekend at Bernie’s, and as a charter member of Hollywood’s Brat Pack. That iconic group included Rob Lowe, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, and Demi Moore, and has come to represent both a genre of film and an era of pop culture. Here, McCarthy focuses on that singular moment in time. The result is a revealing look at coming of age in a maelstrom, reckoning with conflicted ambition, innocence, addiction, and masculinity.
This isn’t a long book, but enjoyable enough. There’s a good Washington Post profile here.
20) The Body Papers: A Memoir, Grace Talusan
Description: Born in the Philippines, Talusan moved with her family to a New England suburb in the 1970s. The abuse she suffered as a child affects all her relationships, her mental health, and her relationship with her body. In her 30s, due to cancer, Talusan must decide whether to undergo preventive surgeries to remove her breasts and ovaries. On a fellowship, Talusan and her husband return to the Philippines, where she revisits her family’s ancestral home and tries to reclaim a lost piece of herself.
Talusan had a rough childhood, and as an adult she had preventative breast and ovary removal when she found out she had a cancer gene.
21) Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, Tom Vanderbilt
Description: Inspired by his daughter’s need to know how to do almost everything, Vanderbilt begins a year of learning purely for the sake of learning. He tackles five skills, choosing them for their difficulty to master and their lack of career marketability–chess, singing, surfing, drawing, and juggling. What he doesn’t expect is that the circuitous paths he takes while learning these skills will prove even more satisfying than any knowledge he gains.
I tend to enjoy books about people learning new things and/or undertaking a goal for a certain period of time.
22) The Last Black Unicorn, Tiffany Haddish
Description: Placed in foster care as a teen and struggling to read at a basic level in ninth grade, Haddish found that humor and jokes helped her endure. When offered a choice between counseling or comedy camp, she chose the latter and found her calling. In this book, Haddish recounts her early life straight through to her powerhouse success both on the comedy circuit and in Hollywood.
I read this for the first time over three years ago; this re-read was for my book club. While Haddish’s stories might be shocking to some, I enjoyed her book.
Description: A provocative, humorous, and, at times, heartbreaking collection of essays on what it means to be black, a woman, a mother, and a global citizen in today’s ever-changing world.
Hunt writes from the perspective of an American journalist who has been living and working in London for a decade. In this article, she writes that her race made her stand out in the fashion industry, but she refused to dress to fit in.
24) The Wreckage of My Presence: Essays, Casey Wilson
Description: Essays from actress, comedian, podcaster, and writer Casey Wilson.
I can’t really remember what it was about, so it didn’t leave much of an impression.
25) Not Recommended
Description: The story of Gillies’s efforts to pick herself up after her husband leaves her for another woman — and how she stumbles upon true love.
26) Aftershocks: A Memoir, Nadia Owusu
Description: Owusu grew up all over the world. When her mother abandoned her when she was two years old, the rejection caused her to be confused about her identity. Here she grapples with the fault lines of identity, the meaning of home, black womanhood, and the ripple effects, both personal and generational, of emotional trauma.
I almost gave up on this when I hit a particularly boring stretch, but I persevered.