I read 29 books in September and October (24 were audiobooks), which brings my 2021 total to 134.
1) But You Seemed So Happy: A Marriage, in Pieces and Bits, Kimberly Harrington
Description: In this memoir-in-essays, Harrington explores and confronts marriage, divorce, and the ways love, loss, and longing shape a life. It’s about getting older and repeatedly dying on the hill of being wiser, only to discover you were never all that dumb to begin with. It’s an intimate biography of a marriage, from its heady, idealistic, and easy beginnings, to it slowly coming apart, and finally to its evolution into something completely unexpected.
Even if you’ve never been married, or if you’re married but have never contemplated divorce, there is value to be found in this book. Some people, like Harrington, are such good writers that it’s easy to relate to them because of the way they describe their lives.
I also like how she structured the book: short essays, long essays, some humorous, some serious.
Sometimes I want books to be shorter so I can be done with them; I wished this one was longer.
Here are two excerpts from the book: a humor piece called How to Be Married (in 16 Simple and Completely F*cking Unrealistic Steps) and Can a Good-Enough Marriage Make for a Great Divorce?, where she writes about how continuing to share a home with her ex (and their two teenagers) has resulted in a true partnership.
2) Ladyparts: A Memoir, Deborah Copaken
Description: This is Copaken’s irreverent inventory of both the female body and the body politic of womanhood in America. With her journalist’s eye, novelist’s heart, and performer’s sense of timing, she provides a frontline account of one woman brought to her knees by divorce, solo motherhood, lack of healthcare, unaffordable childcare, shady landlords, her father’s death, college tuitions, sexual harassment, corporate indifference, ageism, sexism, and just plain old bad luck.
3) Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love, Nina Renata Aron
Description: A scorching memoir of a love affair with a drug addict, weaving personal reckoning with psychology and history to understand the nature of addiction, codependency, and our appetite for obsessive love.
Aron’s deeply personal memoir is sometimes difficult to read, but her writing is stunning and full of poignant sentences. Here’s an example near the beginning of the book, when she describes her boyfriend taking drugs at her house: “He usually goes to the bathroom to do it, and I can often hear him humming innocuously from behind the door, sometimes whistling, sounding carefree and maybe a little excited, like he’s Mr. Rogers buttoning his cardigan and donning his loafers, readying himself for a wholesome adventure.”
Aron wrote this article, which addresses some of the topics in her book: What It’s Like To Have An Unhealthy Obsession With Love.
4) Sometimes I Trip On How Happy We Could Be, Nichole Perkins
Description: Examining pop culture’s impact on her life, Perkins takes readers on a rollicking trip through the last twenty years of music, media, and the internet from the perspective of one southern Black woman. She explores her experience with mental illness, how her role as a mistress led her to certain internet message boards, and what it means to figure out desire and sexuality in a world where marriage is the only acceptable goal for women.
5) Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, Sarah Sentilles
Description: Sarah and her husband decide to adopt via the foster care system. After years of starts and stops, a phone call finally comes: a newborn baby girl, Coco. Sarah chronicles what it means to mother — in this case, not just a vulnerable infant, but the birth mother who loves her, too.
I didn’t know the outcome of this book in advance, so I won’t give anything away (there’s a review of the book in the NY Times, but it contains spoilers, so beware). I read Sentilles’ previous memoir, Breaking Up With God: A Love Story, in 2012.
6) The Boys: A Memoir of Hollywood and Family, Ron & Clint Howard
Description: Happy Days, The Andy Griffith Show, Gentle Ben—these shows captivated millions of TV viewers in the ’60s and ’70s. Join award-winning filmmaker Ron Howard and actor Clint Howard as they share their unusual family story of navigating and surviving life as sibling child actors.
The audiobook is voiced by the brothers, and they go back and forth while telling their story, sometimes a paragraph at a time. I love that Ron has been with his wife, Cheryl, since he was 17 and they’ve now been married for 46 years.
7) The Great Peace: A Memoir, Mena Suvari
Description: This is a harrowing, heartbreaking coming-of-age story set in Hollywood, in which award-winning actor Mena Suvari lost herself to sex, drugs, and bad relationships even as blockbuster movies made her famous.
I hadn’t thought about Suvari in years, but we’re close in age and I remember her from several popular movies in the late 90s / early 2000s (American Beauty, American Pie). Read more here.
8) You Got Anything Stronger?: Stories, Gabrielle Union
Description: In the years since actor/producer Union released her first memoir-in-essays, her life has continued to make headlines. She had her daughter by a surrogate; her husband retired from the NBA; she spoke out against Hollywood racism; and she supported her teenage stepdaughter as she came out as transgender.
I enjoyed these essays: one goes into detail about her long journey to get pregnant (including multiple rounds of IVP and at least nine miscarriages), and the ultimate decision to use a surrogate. She also talks about her husband (and their nine-year age difference), and her transgender stepchild. Read the NY Times review here.
9) Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe
Description: The Sackler name adorns the walls of many storied institutions: Harvard, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Oxford, the Louvre. They are one of the richest families in the world, known for their lavish donations to the arts and sciences. The source of the family fortune was vague until it emerged that the Sacklers were responsible for making and marketing OxyContin, a blockbuster painkiller that was a catalyst for the opioid crisis.
I thought I would find this dry, especially since it’s pretty long, but it was much better than expected.
10) House of Sticks: A Memoir, Ly Tran
Description: An intimate coming-of-age memoir recounting a young girl’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to Ridgewood, Queens, and her struggle to find her voice amid clashing cultural expectations.
Many parts of Tran’s book were tough to read — she arrived in NYC as a Vietnamese immigrant at three years old, her family lived in poverty, she had horrible eyesight and her father wouldn’t let her get glasses, it took her a long time to get help for her depression, and she lost her college scholarship because she stopped going to classes. But you’re rooting for her the entire time and I sped through the book because I was eager to see what happened.
11) Made in China: A Memoir of Love and Labor, Anna Qu
Description: A young girl forced to work in a Queens sweatshop calls child services on her mother in this powerful debut memoir about labor and self-worth that traces a Chinese immigrant’s journey to an American future.
This book is similar to the one above in that Qu was an immigrant to America, spent part of her childhood working in sweatshop-like conditions, and sometimes had a difficult home life — also, both of them lived in New York City. There are enough differences to keep it interesting though, and I enjoyed both books.
12) Beautiful Country: A Memoir, Qian Julie Wang
Description: In Chinese, the word for America (Mei Guo) translates directly to “beautiful country.” Yet when 7-year-old Qian arrives in New York City in 1994 full of curiosity, she is overwhelmed by crushing fear and scarcity. In China, Qian’s parents were professors; in America, her family is “illegal” and will require all the determination and small joys they can muster to survive.
Qian’s parents were both professors in China; when they moved to America as undocumented immigrants, they had to work in sweatshop jobs. Qian was seven at the time and wrote a lot about how hungry she was during those early years. More here.
13) Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, Amanda Montell
Description: Montell analyzes the social science of cult influence: how cultish groups from Jonestown and Scientology to SoulCycle and social media gurus use language as the ultimate form of power.
In addition to religious cults, Montell covers topics like fitness “cults” and MLMs. For more information, read Montell’s article: LuLaRoe isn’t just a scam–its a cult.
14) The Quiet Zone: Unraveling the Mystery of a Town Suspended in Silence, Stephen Kurczy
Description: Deep in the Appalachian Mountains lies the last truly quiet town in America. Green Bank, West Virginia, is a place at once futuristic and old-fashioned: It’s home to the Green Bank Observatory, where astronomers search the depths of the universe using the latest technology, while schoolchildren go without WiFi or iPads. With a ban on all devices emanating radio frequencies that might interfere with the observatory’s telescopes, Quiet Zone residents live a life free from constant digital connectivity.
Spoiler: The description of the book is incorrect, because Kurczy, a journalist who embedded himself in Green Bank, learned that many people within the Quiet Zone have wifi in their homes — there are too many of them now to enforce. Everyone there owns a cell phone (except Kurczy, a millennial who hasn’t owned a cell phone in over a decade). In Green Bank, Kurczy explores racist groups, hippies, and electrosensitive people who move to the area to get away from excess technology. You can read more about people who live in the Quiet Zone here.
15) A Widow’s Story: A Memoir, Joyce Carol Oates
Description: Oates’ memoir about the unexpected death of Raymond Smith, her husband of 46 years, and its wrenching, surprising aftermath.
Oates chronicles the range of emotions she experienced after the death of her husband, including suicidal thoughts. I wasn’t aware that Oates never had children, nor did she want them. She doesn’t go into detail about it, except in a few fleeting sentences where she mentions getting their first mortgage in the 1960s and the loan officer wouldn’t count her salary because he knew she’d start having kids soon and would leave the workforce. Her response: “But we’re not planning to have a baby.” (They still didn’t count her salary.) I wish she’d expanded more on her childfree life, but maybe she did that in another book.
Another point of interest, which she does bring up on numerous occasions: her husband of almost five decades (who made his living as an editor) did not read her books! That’s hard for me to grasp, and it must have felt the same to her or she wouldn’t have mentioned it as much as she did.
Description: Award-winning entertainer Jamie Foxx shares the story of being raised by his no-nonsense grandmother, the glamour and pitfalls of life in Hollywood, and the lessons he took from both worlds to raise his two daughters.
This is decent — I’m sure I rated it higher because I listened to the audiobook, which he reads.
17) Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina, Georgina Pazcoguin
Description: Award-winning New York City Ballet soloist Pazcoguin gives readers a tour of the real world of elite ballet—the gritty, hilarious, and sometimes shocking truth you don’t see from the orchestra circle.
This was a good backstage look at the life of a long-time ballerina. She talks about the racism she’s experienced as a biracial woman, as well as smaller things, like why she got liposuction on her thighs but encourages other people to love themselves the way they are. Read more about Georgina and her book here.
18) Everything I Have Is Yours: A Marriage, Eleanor Henderson
Description: A turbulent romance meets harrowing medical mystery — this is the story of the author’s 20-year marriage defined by her husband’s chronic illness, and a testament to the endurance of love.
All I have to say is: Henderson is a better person than I am.
Description: With her events company, Gilbert has worked with Fortune 500 companies, media giants, and celebrities. Yet few of her clients or colleagues have known, until now, that Gilbert is not only a self-made success, she’s also a survivor.
I had no idea going into this book that Gilbert suffered a brutal attack at age 22 — she was followed while leaving the subway; the man stabbed her multiple times with a screwdriver (he was later convicted of attempted murder and sent to prison to serve a 27-year sentence). She wrote a bit about the incident for Marie Claire when this book was published in 2012. She also details highs and lows from her event-planning business, and the story of how she and her husband got together (spoiler: they’re now divorced).
Description: A look at the history of some of the foods we know and love. Is Italian olive oil really Italian? Why are we drawn to foods that can hurt us, like hot peppers? Far from being a classic American dish, is apple pie actually…English?
There were some interesting facts but I wasn’t particularly drawn into this.
21) Hooked: How Crafting Saved My Life, Sutton Foster
Description: From the Tony Award winner and star of TV’s Younger, stories and reflections about how crafting has kept her sane while navigating the highs and lows of family, love, and show business.
I wasn’t aware of Foster before listening to this audiobook — I often become aware of new memoirs because they pop up in my library’s new electronic nonfiction section. Luckily this book is more about Foster’s career than crafting in particular, and any details about crafting are in an optional PDF that I didn’t look at.
22) Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Kate Bowler
Description: A divinity professor and young mother with a Stage IV cancer diagnosis explores the pain and joy of living without certainty.
I don’t understand how more than 30,000 people have rated this book on Goodreads. Bowler was diagnosed with cancer, she thought she was going to die, but — spoiler — this book was published in 2018 and as of this writing she’s still living (great!). But the book is short and not all that interesting. Maybe people were intrigued because before her diagnosis, she wrote about the prosperity gospel?
23) Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old, Steven Petrow
Description: Soon after his 50th birthday, Petrow began assembling a list of “things I won’t do when I get old”—mostly a catalog of all the things he thought his then 70-something parents were doing wrong. That list became the basis of this rousing collection of do’s and don’ts, wills and won’ts that is equal parts hilarious, honest, and practical.
This book was okay, but I’m not the demographic for this content quite yet. Petrow wrote this article in the Times in 2017 about his list, and more recently, inspired by this book, Jane Brody wrote about How to Age Gracefully.
24) This Will All Be Over Soon: A Memoir, Cecily Strong
Description: Saturday Night Live cast member Cecily Strong writes about grieving the death of her cousin—and embracing the life-affirming lessons he taught her—amid the coronavirus pandemic.
I shouldn’t have read this book. I knew I didn’t want to read anything Covid-related, and I knew I wouldn’t like someone being super sad about their cousin dying. (She also includes text message exchanges…no! Nobody wants to read your boring text messages!) I listened to it on audio because I recognized the author. You can read a better review in the Times here.
25) Good Apple: Tales of a Southern Evangelical in New York, Elizabeth Passarella
Description: Elizabeth grew up in Memphis in a conservative Republican family with a Christian mom and a Jewish dad. Then she moved to New York…and changed. Sort of. While her politics have tilted to the left, she still puts her faith first—and argues that the two can go hand in hand.
Passarella considers herself both an Evangelical and a Democrat. I didn’t enjoy the god-speak so much, but I did enjoy the essays about living with her husband and three children in a two-bedroom apartment in NYC.
26) The Lady’s Handbook for Her Mysterious Illness, Sarah Ramey
Description: Ramey recounts the decade-long saga of how a seemingly minor illness turned into a prolonged and elusive condition that destroyed her health but that doctors couldn’t diagnose or treat. Worse, as they failed to cure her, they hinted her devastating symptoms were psychological.
Ramey went through a horrible process over many years of feeling immense pain and doctors not being able to figure out what was wrong with her. She underwent many, many tests and treatments that didn’t work. As someone who hasn’t had this issue, I must admit there was a bit too much science and detail, so for me this book was just okay. However, I’d recommend it for someone with chronic, misdiagnosed, and/or mysterious pain.
Description: What is American cuisine? What national menu do we share? What dishes have we chosen, how did they become “American,” and how are they likely to evolve from here? Page answers these questions and more.
I couldn’t think of anything to say about this book; that probably tells you all you need to know.
28) ¡Hola Papi!: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons, John Paul Brammer
Description: From a popular LGBTQ advice columnist and writer, this memoir-in-essays chronicles Brammer’s journey growing up as a queer, mixed-race kid in America’s heartland to becoming the “Chicano Carrie Bradshaw” of his generation.
I didn’t like how the book was formatted as Brammer responding as an advice columnist; I dislike books that consist solely of letters and diary entries. (Luckily it was easy to forget he was writing a “letter” when he was in the middle of an essay, but I still didn’t love it.)
29) Falling Apart in One Piece: One Optimist’s Journey Through the Hell of Divorce, Stacy Morrison
Description: Just when Morrison thought everything in her life had come together, her husband of ten years wanted a divorce. She was left alone with a new house that needed a lot of work, a new baby who needed a lot of attention, and a new job in the high-pressure world of New York magazine publishing.
Do men write about how wrecked they were over their divorce? I assume there must be something out there — not that I care to read about a random man’s divorce pain, but I also don’t care to read about it from a woman. It’s interesting that more women initiate divorces but women write the woe-is-me books.