Books

Books Read in July-Aug 2021

I read 30 books in July and August (23 were audiobooks), which brings my 2021 total to 105.

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

Recommended

1) Somebody’s Daughter: A Memoir, Ashley C. Ford

Description: This is the story of a childhood defined by the ever looming absence of Ford’s incarcerated father and the path we must take to both honor and overcome our origins.

I was aware of Ford via social media before reading her book; she’s a very good writer. Read more about the book (and an interview with Ford) here.

2) Nowhere Girl: A Memoir of a Fugitive Childhood, Cheryl Diamond

Description: What if the people you love most are not who you thought they were? Cheryl’s memoir begins when she is four and her family is in India, but in a few years they will be Jewish and Cheryl’s name will be Crystal. By the time she turns nine, she’s had at least six assumed identities and has lived on five continents. As she grows older, things get darker and her identity is burned again and again, leaving her with no past, and her family begins to unravel.

This story would seem unbelievable if it was presented as fiction, so the fact that this is nonfiction is especially wild.

3) Thanks for Waiting: The Joy (and Weirdness) of Being a Late Bloomer, Doree Shafrir

Description: Shafrir spent much of her 20s and 30s feeling out of sync with her peers. She was an intern at 29, met her husband in her late 30s, and became a first-time mom at 41. She explores the enormous pressures we feel, especially as women, to hit particular milestones at certain times and how we can redefine what it means to be a late bloomer.

Shafrir’s writing is completely relatable, and so is her experience of being a late bloomer. There’s nothing wrong with not following a timeline of what you (or others) think you should accomplish by a certain age. Read an excerpt here.

4) From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way, Jesse Thistle

Description: In this memoir, Thistle (once a high school dropout and now a rising Indigenous scholar) chronicles his life on the streets and how he overcame trauma and addiction to discover the truth about who he is.

It’s difficult reading about Jesse’s rough childhood and life of crime and drugs, but — as the title suggests — he redeems himself in the end.

5) The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom on the Rails in the American West, Carrot Quinn

Description: The unforgettable story of a woman who leaves behind her hardscrabble childhood in Alaska to travel the country via freight train–a beautiful memoir about forgiveness, self-discovery, and the redemptive power of nature.

Quinn grew up very poor, with a mentally ill mother. She talks a lot about her train-riding adventures before she circles back and explains how and why she started riding the rails in the first place. Read an excerpt here.

6) Amateur Hour: Motherhood in Essays and Swear Words, Kimberly Harrington

Description: With accessibility and wit, Harrington captures the emotions around parenthood in artful and earnest ways, highlighting this time in the middle — midlife, the middle years of childhood, and how women are stuck in the middle of so much.

I find a lot to relate to with Kimberly (minus the fact that I don’t have kids); I’ve been following her on Twitter and Instagram for a while, and I also enjoy her Substack newsletter. I’m really looking forward to her second book (to be released on Oct 5), which I pre-ordered on Kindle — believe me when I tell you that it is rare for me to buy a book, because I love the library, and I’m thrifty, and I read a LOT of books. However, based on how much I appreciate her writing, I wanted to make a small gesture to support her efforts.

7) A Quantum Life: My Unlikely Journey from the Street to the Stars, Hakeem Oluseyi

Description: In this inspiring coming-of-age memoir, a NASA astrophysicist narrates his improbable journey from an impoverished childhood, to a young adulthood mired in drugs and crime, to the nation’s top physics PhD program at Stanford.

Oluseyi (formerly known as James Plummer, Jr.) has an incredible story. As brilliant as he was as a child, he had little support and there were many times he could have gone (and stayed) down a bad path.

8) Mergers and Acquisitions: Or, Everything I Know about Love I Learned on the Wedding Pages, Cate Doty

Description: Cate’s memoir takes readers inside the weddings section of the New York Times — the good, bad, and just plain weird — through the eyes of a young reporter just as she’s falling in love herself.

I’d never thought about the NY Times wedding announcements being a full time job, but apparently there’s a lot of interviewing and fact checking that goes on behind the scenes. Doty also addresses the selection process for those announcements (those who are most likely to get chosen), and calls out the lack of diversity (at least when she was in that department; I’m not sure if it’s gotten better since then).

9) The Woman They Could Not Silence: One Woman, Her Incredible Fight for Freedom, and the Men Who Tried to Make Her Disappear, Kate Moore

Description: In 1860, Elizabeth Packard’s husband of 21 years felt threatened by his wife’s intellect and independence. In retaliation, he had her committed to an insane asylum. There, Elizabeth learned she wasn’t the only sane woman confined to the institution—many women told the same story of being committed not because they needed medical treatment, but to keep them in line. Elizabeth discovered that the merit of losing everything is that she had nothing to lose.

The story of Elizabeth Packard is appalling and maddening. Like her earlier book, Radium Girls, Moore writes about women being treated badly before they had the legal right / social acceptance to stand up for themselves.

10) My Life, My Love, My Legacy, Coretta Scott King

Description: The life story of Coretta Scott King—wife of Martin Luther King Jr., founder of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, and singular twentieth-century American civil rights activist.

In addition to writing about life before, during, and after her famous husband, King writes about being an early feminist, the things she couldn’t do (or wasn’t invited to do) because she was a woman, and the times she stood up for herself anyway. She delves into her involvement with the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, her involvement in politics, and years-long lobbying efforts to get MLK’s birthday designated a holiday.

11) Turning Pointe: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet from Itself, Chloe Angyal

Description: A reckoning with one of our most beloved art forms, whose past and present are shaped by gender, racial, and class inequities—and a look inside the fight for its future.

Learn more about the book in this excerpt, where Angyal lays out the ways that white supremacy is embedded in ballet’s most basic foundations. In other articles, she says “fitness” is still code for rail-thin dancers, and asks Where Are All the Women Ballet Choreographers?

12) In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules, Karen Karbo

Description: From Frida Kahlo and Elizabeth Taylor to Nora Ephron, Carrie Fisher, and Lena Dunham, an exploration of what we can learn from the imperfect and extraordinary legacies of 29 iconic women who forged their own unique paths in the world.

I enjoyed this — each section was just long enough to impart interesting information but didn’t go on too long.

13) Paris Times Eight: Finding Myself in the City of Dreams, Deirdre Kelly

Description: Kelly’s eight visits to Paris showed her that while some parts of the city remain constant, her life is always evolving. More than just a beautiful and romantic backdrop for her self-discovery, Paris itself contributes to that discovery, emerging as a principal character in Kelly’s life, an influence that inspires, guides, and teaches as she ages.

From her first visit as an unpaid au pair, to bringing her own children to the city many years later, Kelly recounts her visits to Paris and how they affected her life.

Didn’t like: There were unnecessary descriptions about several people she knew being overweight; she referred to one as “fleshy” and the term appeared to serve no other purpose than the two of them not getting along at the time.

14) Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live—and How Their Wealth Harms Us All, Michael Mechanic

Description: Mechanic dives into the lives of the extremely rich, showing the fascinating, otherworldly realm they inhabit—and the insidious ways this realm harms us all.

Mechanic shows that being extremely rich isn’t as easy as one would assume.

15) The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love With Me, Keah Brown

Description: From a disability rights advocate and creator of the #DisabledAndCute viral campaign, a thoughtful and inspiring collection of essays exploring what it means to be black and disabled in a mostly able-bodied white America.

Keah writes about her inability to find romantic love and the jealousy she felt toward her (non-disabled) twin sister for many years. (Keah’s sister’s name is…Leah). She also goes into her history of depression and suicidal thoughts. There was a bit too much pop culture discussion of TV shows and such that I didn’t care about.

Keah published this article in the New York Times last year: Disabled People Love Clothes Too.

16) Sex Object: A Memoir, Jessica Valenti

Description: Valenti has been leading the national conversation on gender and politics for over a decade. Here she explores the toll that sexism takes, from the everyday to the existential.

I read this for the first time in June 2016 and listened to it this time around on audio.

17) The Babysitter: My Summers with a Serial Killer, Liza Rodman & Jennifer Jordan

Description: A chilling true story—part memoir, part crime investigation—about a little girl longing for love and how she found friendship with her charismatic babysitter…who was also a vicious serial killer.

Rodman’s personal story is juxtaposed with the killer’s and shows how and when their lives intersected. She didn’t learn her babysitter was a serial killer until she was an adult.

18) The Secret History of Home Economics: How Trailblazing Women Harnessed the Power of Home and Changed the Way We Live, Danielle Dreilinger

Description: The term “home economics” may conjure traumatic memories of lopsided hand-sewn pillows or sunken muffins. But common conception obscures the story of the revolutionary science of better living. The field exploded opportunities for women in the twentieth century by reducing domestic work and providing jobs as professors, engineers, chemists, and businesspeople, and it has something to teach us today.

This is way more than I ever knew about how home economics started, became popular, and gradually declined over time. I’m glad the author called out it’s white-centric focus when the industry was starting out, including how people of influence in the early 1900s embraced eugenics. Today, some people are calling for a return to / greater emphasis on home ec (with a different focus than before — for example, no more teaching kids to sew if they don’t want to learn).

19) Cheese, Wine, and Bread: Discovering the Magic of Fermentation in England, Italy, and France, Katie Quinn

Description: In this full-color tour of France, England, and Italy, Quinn shares the stories and science behind everyone’s fermented favorites. Quinn spent months as an apprentice with some of Europe’s most acclaimed experts to study the art and science of fermentation. Visiting grain fields, vineyards, and dairies, she explains the process of each craft and introduces the people behind them.

If anyone remembers that my pet peeve is people reading recipes out loud in an audiobook, you will understand my relief when I learned that all the recipes in this book were included in a “PDF enhancement.” Quinn dwelled a bit too much on science and history of cheese, wine, and bread for my liking, but it was decent enough to listen to. The other downside (only applicable to the audio version): Quinn reads her book in a VERY enthusiastic voice, and this enthusiasm does not let up The. Entire. Time.

20) A Runner’s High: My Life in Motion, Dean Karnazes

Description: Karnazes, a bestselling author and ultramarathoning legend, has pushed his body and mind to inconceivable limits, from running in the shoe-melting heat of Death Valley to the lung freezing cold of the South Pole. He’s raced and competed across the globe and once ran 50 marathons, in 50 states, in 50 consecutive days.

I read Karnazes’ book Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner back in 2005. In this book, he describes more recent ultramarathons, and understandably focuses on the fact that he is now older and slower (he’s currently in his late 50s).

21) My Remarkable Journey: A Memoir, Katherine Johnson

Description: The woman at the heart of the New York Times bestseller and Oscar-winning film “Hidden Figures” tells the story of her life, including what it took to work at NASA, help land the first man on the moon, and live through a century of turmoil and change.

Extraordinary woman. Her story also includes the history of what was happening with race relations in the United States at that time.

22) Home Made: A Story of Grief, Groceries, Showing Up–and What We Make When We Make Dinner, Liz Hauck

Description: A woman honors her father’s legacy by teaching a cooking class in a home for youth in state care–a powerful memoir about the small acts of showing up that transform our lives and how making food can make community.

I didn’t like how Hauck recreated so many of the dinner conversations (which took place almost 20 years ago); it would have been nice to see less conversation and more about her personal life. But she did a good thing with her volunteer experience, and hopefully the boys she made dinner with had a positive experience and remembered it years later. You can read a review here, and in this article, Hauck wrote about processing grief by showing up and serving others.

23) Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man, Emmanuel Acho

Description: Acho takes on the questions, large and small, insensitive and taboo, many white Americans are afraid to ask—yet which everyone needs the answers to, now more than ever.

I read this for book club. It’s important content, but it would be more valuable for someone who hasn’t already read about these terms/issues (the content is similar to books we’ve read from other authors).

Okay

24) Did I Say That Out Loud?: Midlife Indignities and How to Survive Them, Kristin van Ogtrop

Description: A funny and insightful take on the indignities of middle age and how to weather them with grace—from the former editor-in-chief of Real Simple.

Too much humor that didn’t resonate with me. I thought the strongest essay was the one about her time in magazines and working at Real Simple for over a decade. You can read an excerpt here.

25) Trejo: My Life of Crime, Redemption, and Hollywood, Danny Trejo

Description: The full, fascinating, and inspirational true story of Trejo’s journey from crime, prison, addiction, and loss to unexpected fame as Hollywood’s favorite bad guy with a heart of gold.

Trejo spent years in prison; later he got off drugs and helped others with substance abuse. In his 30s, he started working as an extra in movies and gradually obtained bigger roles over time.

I listened to this on audio, and one complaint is that the audio didn’t sound good. The rhythm was jerky, and even when I increased the speed to the highest level (2x), it was too slow.

26) Stray: A Memoir, Stephanie Danler

Description: After selling her first novel, Danler knew she should be happy. Instead, she found herself driven to face the difficult past she’d left behind a decade ago. After years in New York City she’s pulled home to southern California, haunted by questions of legacy and trauma. Here she works toward answers, uncovering hard truths about her parents and herself as she explores whether it’s possible to change the course of her history.

This jumped around a fair bit and I found it difficult to concentrate on.

27) Reborn in the USA: An Englishman’s Love Letter to His Chosen Home, Roger Bennett

Description: Longtime culture and soccer commentator Roger Bennett traces the origins of his love affair with America, and how he went from a Jewish boy in 1980’s Liverpool to become the quintessential Englishman in New York.

I’d never heard of Bennett before reading this book, but his tales of growing up in Liverpool and attending a private boy’s school (while lusting after America) were entertaining enough.

28) This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan

Description: Pollan dives deep into three plant drugs — opium, caffeine, and mescaline — and throws the fundamental strangeness, and arbitrariness, of our thinking about them into sharp relief.

Pollan is a good (and well-known) writer, I just wasn’t very interested in the subject matter.

Not Recommended

29) A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Rachel Held Evans

Description: Strong-willed and independent, Evans couldn’t sew a button on a blouse before she embarked on a radical life experiment–a year of biblical womanhood. Intrigued by the traditionalist resurgence that led many of her friends to abandon their careers to assume traditional gender roles in the home, Evans decides to try it for herself, vowing to take all of the Bible’s instructions for women as literally as possible for a year.

I wanted to like this because I liked Evans in this book — she said that even though she was evangelical, she votes for democrats, believes in evolution, and doesn’t think people different from her go to hell — but I just didn’t. (FYI, Evans passed away in 2019.) It had too many in-depth Bible lessons, which felt like she was trying to pad things out because she didn’t have enough interesting day-to-day stuff to report about her year-long experiment.

30) Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light: Essays, Helen Ellis

Description: A collection of essays on friendship among grown-ass women.

I’ve given up on other books this author wrote in the past, but I kept going with this one because it was short.

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