Books Read in February 2019

I read 13 books in February (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2019 total to 30.

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

Highly Recommended

1) Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love, Dani Shapiro

Description: This is a book about secrets — secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history.

Dani has written four memoirs in addition to this one, all of which I’ve read and enjoyed. Since I love memoirs and she’s now written five of them – all of which I’d recommend – she’s definitely at the top of my list of favorite authors.

I actually wasn’t sure in advance if I’d like this one as much, due to the subject matter. While I may not have been able to relate to her exact experience, she has this impeccable way of drawing you in and making you feel fully invested. Dani is a terrific writer (she’s taught the craft of memoir in many workshops and classes over the years), and she knows what she’s doing, which make her books a pleasure to read.

I took quite a few notes while I was reading, but I’m not going to reference them here because I don’t want to give anything away. I do remember that I kept stopping and re-reading parts of the book because I immediately wanted to experience the words again. They were that powerful and poignant.

These are Dani’s previous memoirs, starting with most recent:

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
Devotion: A Memoir
Slow Motion: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy


2) The Library Book, Susan Orlean

Description: In April 1986, a fire in the Los Angeles Public Library was disastrous: it reached 2000 degrees and burned for more than seven hours. By the time it was extinguished, it had consumed 400,000 books and damaged 700,000 more. Investigators descended on the scene, but more than thirty years later, the mystery remains: Did someone purposefully set fire to the library? And if so, who?

Maybe I’m just used to long titles on nonfiction books, but I feel like this one could use a better description for its contents than “The Library Book.” Other than that complaint, this book is very good. Orlean focuses on the 1986 fire in the main Los Angeles library, on all the destruction, and the presumed arsonist.

Interspersed with the history of the fire are stories about people who work at the library (from directors to photo digitizers), historical reasons why people have burned books (wars, religion, arson), L.A.’s early librarians and how they expanded the system, and issues with the proliferation of homeless people who appear at libraries every day. It may sound a bit dry but it was actually quite fascinating. I listened to it on audio and Orlean reads it herself.

This article will give you a good overview, and includes a short video of Orlean walking through the modern-day L.A. library and talking about various aspects of her book.

3) The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family, Liza Mundy

Description: Within a generation, more households will be supported by women than by men. Mundy takes us to the exciting frontier of this new economic order: she shows us why this flip is inevitable, what painful adjustments will have to be made along the way, and how both men and women will feel surprisingly liberated in the end.

I’ve never made a higher salary than my spouse (other than times I’ve been employed when he isn’t), but I know a number of women who outearn their husbands and I was interested to learn more about those dynamics.

Mundy covered reasons why women are starting to overtake their partners’ salaries (a big reason is that females now outnumber males in college degree programs, along with the gradual lifting of discriminatory gender practices, accelerated by the millions of jobs lost during the Great Recession), and she also looked at how relationships are changing as women increase their earnings.

She talks about the fact that women don’t always like being the breadwinner (sometimes it’s due to a husband losing his job), and can resent not having the flexibility to stay at home or work part-time. There are also those who love the arrangement, with high-achieving women happy to have their partner managing the children and household so they can concentrate on their work lives.

Mundy covers much more than this. I liked this book, and it’ll be interesting to see how society changes and adapts in response.

4) The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life, Doug Bock Clark

Description: On a remote island in the Savu Sea live the Lamalerans: a tribe of 1,500 hunter-gatherers who are the world’s last subsistence whalers. Award-winning journalist Clark, one of a handful of Westerners who speak the Lamaleran language, lived with the tribe across three years, and he brings their world and their people to vivid life in this gripping story of a vanishing culture.

Lamalerans “are among the small and ever-dwindling number of hunter-gatherer societies remaining in existence, and the only one to survive by whaling.” While other societies kill whales for sustenance, the Lamalerans are “the world’s last true subsistence whalers.”

I found the day-to-day lives of the Lamalerans intriguing, as well as the relentless encroachment of modernity on their remote society, but I was less interested in the descriptions of “the ways of the ancestors” and their beliefs and ceremonies. I think anthropological nerds would love this — the author never appears in the book as a character; it’s all about the people and situations he encounters.

5) She Wants It: Desire, Power, and Toppling the Patriarchy, Jill Soloway

Description: In this poignant memoir of personal transformation, Soloway takes us on a patriarchy-toppling emotional and professional journey. This intense metamorphosis challenges the status quo and reflects the shifting power dynamics that continue to shape our collective worldview.

When Jill was in her mid-40s, her father came out as transgender. She then created and produced Transparent, a show on Amazon about a man coming out as trans. I’ve never seen the show and it was hard to keep the characters straight when she talked about her coworkers and story lines, but otherwise, I found this book enjoyable.

Jill discusses how she divorced her husband and became a lesbian, and later started identifying as non-binary. She also talks about being involved in the #TimesUp movement, and what happened after she found out one of the stars of her show was accused of sexual harassment.

6) The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, Virginia Sole-Smith

Description: Food is supposed to sustain and nourish us. But for too many of us, food now feels dangerous. We parse every bite we eat as good or bad, and judge our own worth accordingly. When her newborn daughter stopped eating after a medical crisis, Virginia spent two years teaching her how to feel safe around food again — and in the process, realized just how many of us are struggling to do the same thing.

This is a good look at the wide variety of ways we obsess over food: clean eating, orthorexia, detoxing (the author refers to the eco/alternative-food movement as the “mass marketing of disordered eating”). There are also discussions on pregnancy/breastfeeding nutrition, food insecurity due to poverty, and bariatric surgery.

I didn’t learn anything new or earth shattering, but it’s a good overview for those who haven’t already done a lot of reading on the subject.

7) Out of Line: A Life of Playing with Fire, Barbara Lynch

Description: This is Lynch’s remarkable process of self-invention, including her encounters with colorful characters of the food world, and vividly evokes the magic of creation in the kitchen. It is also a love letter to South Boston and its vanishing culture, governed by Irish Catholic mothers and its own code of honor.

Barbara grew up in South Boston (Southie), with a dead father and a mother who was too distracted by her large brood of kids to pay attention. She regularly stole things she needed, didn’t graduate from high school, and exaggerated her early experience in order to get jobs at restaurants. Despite all that, she rose from her humble beginnings to become the owner of a Boston restaurant empire.

There were problems with this book: for instance, whoever edited it should lose their job. I’ve never seen so many words missing from sentences before – just missing entirely, where it was very obvious. After one or two omissions, it was like, “Huh.” After a dozen or more, it became a bit annoying. The pacing of the book also seemed a little stilted, especially as I got closer to the end.

However, I liked the rags-to-riches aspect, and her stubbornness and drive. Overlooking the negatives, I still enjoyed the story.

8) Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, Stephanie Land

Description: This is Land’s memoir about working as a maid, a beautiful and gritty exploration of poverty in America. In it, she explores the underbelly of upper-middle class America and the reality of what it’s like to be in service to them.

I struggled with how to categorize this. It’s one of those books that feels important to read but you might not love the subject matter. I found myself judging some of the author’s choices, mostly the ones that involved (what I saw as) bad money decisions she made while poor. I realize I’m viewing her choices as a result of my own knowledge about using and saving money, while she didn’t have that. I also realized, when I found myself judging some of her actions, these are my biases coming out and it’s helpful to look at and confront them.

The author, in turn, comes across as judgmental toward the people she worked for, usually because they had things she wanted but couldn’t afford. She also very much disliked not being acknowledged by the homeowners in some way, like those who never asked her name.

Parts of the book were entertaining to read, like the habits (often quite gross) of people whose houses she cleaned. Others parts were more difficult, like when she laments how lonely she was most of the time, doing most of the work of raising her daughter on her own, and how she feared she wasn’t being as good of a mother as her daughter deserved. Ultimately though, she was taking college courses while working as a (very low-paid) maid, and now she’s doing better.

I felt like the book needed an epilogue. The book ends with her in a slightly-better position but it doesn’t address her slow rise out of extreme poverty or how she got where she is today. A few pages at the end would have been a nice wrap-up.

9) To Shake the Sleeping Self: A Journey from Oregon to Patagonia, and a Quest for a Life with No Regret, Jedidiah Jenkins

Description: On the eve of turning thirty, Jenkins quit his job and spent the next 16 months cycling from Oregon to Patagonia. As he traverses cities, mountains, and inner boundaries, Jenkins grapples with the questions of what it means to be an adult, his struggle to reconcile his sexual identity with his conservative Christian upbringing, and his belief in travel as a way to “wake us up” to life back home.

There were some things that annoyed me about this book. For instance, Jed is a gay Christian, and there was more religious talk than I expected or wanted to read (there’s an especially long conversation he recounts as he’s hiking with some friends to Machu Picchu).

I also disliked his lack of preparation. He was over 30 years old when he embarked on this trip, he knew for over three years in advance that it would be happening, yet he did almost zero prep. There was no physical training, no research into what he needed to take with him, no bicycle maintenance classes, or Spanish practice.

I did like Jed’s adventure, and the honesty with which he wrote about it. He was up front about the negatives, like the obvious physical difficulties, and all the times he felt annoyed, scared, bored, and lonely. He almost gave up a couple of times, but instead he’d hitchhike certain sections, or take 10 days off to visit family in the U.S. over Christmas (in his defense, that was the only time he returned to the U.S. during his 16-month bike ride).

Also, the way he described some of the locations he visited really made me want to see them for myself. (I have no desire to do the long bike rides in-between though.)


10) The Truths We Hold: An American Journey, Kamala Harris

Description: From one of America’s inspiring political leaders, a book about the core truths that unite us, and the long struggle to discern what those truths are and how best to act upon them, in her own life and across the life of our country.

I agree with Kamala’s politics, but I couldn’t rate this as Recommended because the book reads like one long campaign ad. She covers her fight for fairness in the criminal justice system, her battle with the banks during the mortgage crisis, kids being ripped from their parents at the border, our nation’s rampant opioid use, etc. Someone who is interested in her position on various subjects would find value in this.

I was looking for more personal anecdotes – like we got in Michelle Obama’s fabulous memoir – but there weren’t many of those details to be found. She covered her entire childhood, college, and early working career in Chapter 1. She also mentions meeting and marrying her husband, and her mother getting cancer, but she doesn’t dwell on either topic, instead using them as a springboard to discuss her fight for marriage equality and her thoughts on universal healthcare.

11) North of Normal: A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family, and How I Survived Both, Cea Sunrise Person

Description: In the late 1960s, Cea’s family left a comfortable existence in California to live off the land in the Canadian wilderness. Led by Cea’s grandfather Dick, they lived a pot-smoking, free-loving, clothing-optional life under a canvas tipi without running water, electricity, or heat for the bitter winters.

Cea had…quite an interesting childhood. Her mother got pregnant with her at age 16, and she grew up around constant adult nudity, pot smoking, mental illness, and financial instability. There was more emphasis on telling the tales of her childhood; from adolescence through adulthood, the story becomes choppy.

12) Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman

Description: This collection of essays recounts a lifelong love affair with books and language. For Fadiman, as for many passionate readers, the books she loves have become chapters in her own life story.

This is a quick read – 18 essays in just over 150 pages. A few essays were more enjoyable than others, but even though they focused on books and reading, I didn’t love it. Possibly this was because I don’t have a need to collect physical books like some book lovers do (the author and her husband own thousands of titles between them). For me, I’m content to read and move on.

13) Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York, Multiple Authors

Description: Featuring contributions from such luminaries as Elizabeth Gilbert, Susan Orlean, Nick Flynn, Adelle Waldman, Phillip Lopate, Owen King, Amy Sohn, and many others, this collection of essays is a must-have for every lover of New York, regardless of whether or not you call the Big Apple home.

There weren’t many essays that I considered to be particularly noteworthy or exceptional, but it did make me want to move to New York City. Ha!


Books Read in January 2019

I read 17 books in January (five were audiobooks). Holy hell. It’s been a long time since I’ve read so many books in a month. There are reasons: Some of them I started in late December and finished in early January. There was cold weather, several holidays, and a snow day off work. Also, quite a few of these were not very long books. I don’t often pick up super-thick books, but there were more shorter books this month than I usually read (around 200 pages or less).

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

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


1) Give a Girl a Knife: A Memoir, Amy Thielen

Description: A food memoir chronicling one cook’s journey from her rural Midwestern hometown to the intoxicating world of New York City fine dining and back again in search of her culinary roots.

I really enjoyed this: Amy’s childhood, how she met her husband, their move from rural Minnesota to New York (so she could become a cook and he could focus on his art), and all the food descriptions. And then their eventual return to Minnesota, which is where they live today. Amy had a show on the Food Network and published a cookbook, but I didn’t know about her before discovering this memoir. She’s very likable, and the book is well-written. I think you’d like it, too.

2) My Misspent Youth: Essays, Meghan Daum

Description: Daum is one of the most celebrated nonfiction writers of her generation, widely recognized for the fresh, provocative approach with which she unearths hidden fault lines in the American landscape.

I’ve enjoyed all of Meghan Daum’s nonfiction. In fact, I rated her book The Unspeakable as one of my Top Five of 2017.

Until this month, the only one I hadn’t read was a book of essays she published in 2001 (which was re-released in 2015). It came to my attention again when I saw my friend Siel mention it on Instagram not long ago.

I do like Meghan’s newer books better, but this one is worth reading. Even though the essays were written almost twenty years ago (there are a few dated mentions, like America Online), they hold up. The title essay is based on this popular article she wrote for the New Yorker, but I also enjoyed the essays on her hatred of carpets, her hatred of dolls (yeah, I guess there’s a bit of an opinionated theme here), her infatuation with Jewish men, and growing up as a mediocre oboe player with musician parents.

3) The Incomplete Book of Running, Peter Sagal

Description: Sagal, the host of NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me” and a popular columnist for Runner’s World, shares his insightful and entertaining look at life and running that explores the transformative power of the sport.

Some of the books I read motivate me to take action – at least while I’m reading them. I’ve read several books written by runners, and those authors love the sport so much, and talk it up to such an extent, that it really makes me want to become a runner. At least until I get to the end of the book and move on to something else. (I am also this way when I read books about writing. I am so motivated to start typing up that book I’ve said for years I’m going to write. But then I get to the end and immediately lose momentum.)

So yes, I liked this book. He had advice for current runners, but also gave motivation to aspiring runners, and was honest about how running sometimes really sucks.

The only thing I didn’t care for was the constant mentions of his tough divorce. I realize this was taking up a lot of his headspace, but it seemed like too much (especially since he wasn’t necessarily giving new details whenever he brought it up; it seemed like he was just reminding us that it happened and he was bothered by it).

4) Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II, Liza Mundy

Description: Recruited by the U.S. Army and Navy, more than 10,000 women served as codebreakers during World War II. They moved to Washington and learned the meticulous work of code-breaking. Their efforts shortened the war, saved countless lives, and gave them access to careers previously denied.

These women were super impressive. They broke codes that were not only extremely complex, but written in languages they didn’t know. It took a lot of diligence and patience — some codes were so complex, they took years to break. And all of this happened without the assistance of computers. I had no idea of how widespread this was: thousands of women were recruited from colleges to move to Washington, DC (of course most of them were encouraged/forced to leave once their male counterparts returned from the war, but we know that already).

5) Lush: A Memoir, Kerry Cohen

Description: This is a gripping memoir that examines Kerry’s struggle with alcohol, a struggle that a rising number of middle-aged women are facing today as alcohol dependency amongst females drastically increases.

Cohen acknowledges that her story is not particularly special: “I have an unremarkable story…It’s a story about how I reached midlife, looked around, and thought, Really? This is how things turned out? Hit with the reality that so little of what I had imagined would come to be — as a mother, a wife, a woman — I started to drink, and then I started to drink way too much.”

This isn’t a story of someone with a huge problem who had to give up drinking entirely; it’s someone who became an alcohol abuser but ended up being able to moderate her intake again, instead of giving it up entirely. While that may not sound all that interesting, the way she puts everything together — and especially the way she makes her life seem relatable, because I dare say more women are alcohol abusers than need Alcoholics Anonymous / complete sobriety — makes this worth reading and recommending.

6) The Greatest Love Story Ever Told: An Oral History, Megan Mullally & Nick Offerman

Description: Eighteen years after meeting on the set of a play, Megan and Nick are still in love and have decided to reveal the philosophical mountains they have conquered and the lessons they have learned.

I listened to this on audio. It’s entertaining, and I recommend it, but I probably wouldn’t like the physical version as much. Most of this book is a back-and-forth conversation between Megan and Nick, which is funny to listen to but would probably annoy me if I was reading it. You do miss out on some physical photos in the audio version, although they make up for it at the end with the addition of an audio-only bonus chapter.

Another minor complaint is that Nick repeats some of the info from his book, Paddle Your Own Canoe. I probably wouldn’t have noticed so much if it weren’t for the fact that I just listened to that book last month.

Topics include how they met, their very different childhoods, religious views, thoughts on kids (they tried for a while but weren’t successful, then were ultimately glad they ended up child-free — it reminded me of my situation, which was pretty cool).

7) And the Heart Says Whatever, Emily Gould

Description: Gould talks about becoming an adult in New York City in the first decade of the 21st century, alongside bartenders, bounty hunters, bloggers, bohemians, socialites, and bankers. At once a road map of what not to do and a document of what’s possible, this book heralds the arrival of a writer who decodes the new challenges of our post-private lives, and the age-old intricacies of the human heart.

Over ten years ago, Emily Gould made a name for herself as a prolific blogger (12 posts a day) for, and in 2008 she wrote a long essay about her life as a blogger for The New York Times Magazine. Emily’s life hasn’t been without controversy, but her memoir focuses on formative events in her life instead of all the drama (which I liked). I was iffy on the first few essays but they got better as the book progressed.

8) Simple Matters: Living with Less and Ending Up with More, Erin Boyle

Description: Filled with personal essays, projects, and helpful advice on how to be inventive and resourceful in a tight space, Simple Matters shows that living simply is about making do with less and ending up with more: more free time, more time with loved ones, more savings, and more things of beauty.

I always enjoy reading Erin’s blog, which I’ve followed for years, and her book was no different. She writes beautifully about simplicity, a topic dear to my heart, so I knew I would like the subject matter. Her experience is concentrated on paring down while living in a very small space, but her tips could work for anyone looking for guidance on simplifying their home.

9) The Ambition Decisions: What Women Know About Work, Family, and the Path to Building a Life, Hana Schank & Elizabeth Wallace

Description: As they faced fraught decisions about their lives, journalists Schank and Wallace found themselves wondering about the women they’d graduated alongside. What happened to these women who seemed set to reap the rewards of second-wave feminism? Where did their ambition lead them? They tracked them down and, over several hundred hours of interviews, gathered and mapped data about real women’s lives that has been missing from our conversations about women and the workplace.

I feel like this book is better suited for younger women (like fresh out of college), but there’s some good information here. There’s a lot of discussion about children, which is understandable since a majority of women have children at some point in their lives, but it’s not applicable to me (they do cover childfree women, but not as in-depth).

10) The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It, Joanna Scutts

Description: You’ve met the extra woman: she’s sophisticated, she lives comfortably alone, and she pursues her passions. A delicious cocktail of cultural history and literary biography, The Extra Woman transports us to the turbulent and transformative years between suffrage and the sixties, when, thanks to the glamorous grit of one Marjorie Hillis, single women boldly claimed and enjoyed their independence.

According to the author, Hillis’ book was “much more than a treasure trove of vintage style tips: It was a beacon of social change and a precursor to the feminist revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s.”

Women had been living alone before Marjorie Hillis wrote about it; she was just the first to celebrate it and bring the practice into the mainstream. The book sold a lot of copies for its time and was seen as a “cultural phenomenon.” In addition to describing Marjorie’s life and her subsequent books, this book also featured other influential women from that era, like Irma Rombauer (of Joy of Cooking fame). It’s an interesting look at life in New York City in the 1930s.


11) Love with a Chance of Drowning, Torre DeRoche

Description: Torre isn’t looking for love, but a chance encounter in a bar sparks a connection with a soulful Argentinian man who unexpectedly sweeps her off her feet. The problem? He’s just about to voyage around the world on his small sailboat, and Torre is terrified of deep water. However, Torre determines that to keep the man of her dreams, she must embark on the voyage of her nightmares, so she waves goodbye to dry land and braces for a life-changing journey that’s as exhilarating as it is terrifying.

I generally like memoirs about adventurous women, but this one just seemed silly. Also, I kept thinking there was way too much conversation, and there were a series of misadventures with her klutzy, hard-headed partner that made me wonder how she could have agreed to go out on the ocean with him. She wrote another book after this one (which I read in 2017) that I liked better.

12) I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, Maggie O’Farrell

Description: This is O’Farrell’s astonishing memoir of the near-death experiences that have punctuated and defined her life. Seventeen discrete encounters at different ages, in different locations, reveal a whole life in a series of tense, visceral snapshots.

This wasn’t bad, but when every essay is about a near-death experience that you know the author makes it through alive, it becomes repetitive after a while. One of the longest chapters was about a miscarriage, and it seemed like something she just really wanted to write about in detail because it was a stretch to consider it a life-threatening event. One of the more interesting anecdotes came at the very end when she described how her daughter has extreme allergies that threaten her life every single day (and indeed, has come close to dying herself on multiple occasions).

13) Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen

Description: In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, 18-year-old Susanna was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years in the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Eh. I only picked this up because I’m thinking of joining a book club and this is their February pick. (Whether I actually join them or not remains to be seen — I found the book club on but I don’t know a single person in the group. It’s difficult for me to psych myself up to join a group where I don’t know a soul. But I’ve read the book, just in case!)

This book is short (the hardback I checked out from the library was only 168 pages), and has short chapters, which always encourages me to read faster. I got through it in just a few hours one Sunday morning. It’s not bad, but it’s not as good as I would have expected, since there was a movie based on it. The book may have been revolutionary for its time, but there are much better memoirs available nowadays.

Don’t worry, Kaysen agrees with me. This article was written last year, 25 years after the book came out. She said she felt her book “was a failure and that she probably should’ve written a better one.”

Not Recommended

14) Like Brothers, Mark & Jay Duplass

Description: Whether producing, writing, directing, or acting, the Duplass brothers have made their mark in the world of independent film and television on the strength of their quirky and empathetic approach to storytelling. Now Mark and Jay take readers on a tour of their lifelong partnership told in essays that share the secrets of their success, the joys and frustrations of intimate collaboration, and the lessons they’ve learned the hard way.

I assumed this book about two brothers who became wildly successful would be an interesting read. I assumed wrong. To be more specific, the sections about their lives and how they made it in show biz were okay (it was also nice to see how close the brothers have been since they were small children), but I hated the filler – the sections they included to bulk up the page count. The filler included such things as their “top 10 films,” an apology letter to a former college roommate, and this really boring thing where they’d pick a random person in an airport and then go back-and-forth making up a story about this person. They did this not once, but several times. WHO DOES THIS AND WHO CARES?

I listened to this on audio, and I would have abandoned it except I was waiting for a few others I had on hold to become available, so I listened to this in the meantime. (I did skip over some of the more egregiously asinine parts.)

15) My Squirrel Days, Ellie Kemper

Description: Comedian and star of “The Office” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Ellie Kemper delivers a refreshing collection of essays.

I should have known I wouldn’t like this because of the dumb title. I read this as quickly as possible to minimize the pain of how much I disliked it. I’ve read some books written by funny ladies that I liked, but I did not like this particular funny lady’s book.

16) Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey, A.J. Jacobs

Description: The idea was deceptively simple: Jacobs decided to thank every single person involved in producing his morning cup of coffee. The resulting journey takes him across the globe and reveals secrets about how gratitude can make us all happier, more generous, and more connected.

I’ve read several of AJ’s books and I liked them all better than this one. I didn’t find this one to be nearly as fleshed-out (or as entertaining) as his previous books. It seemed like the people he was thanking – obscure people, like those who make the plastic bags that keep coffee beans fresh during shipping – became a numbers game (“How many people can I thank??!!!”) instead of exploring the subject in depth.

17) The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography, Deborah Levy

Description: This book explores the subtle erasure of women’s names, spaces, and stories in the modern everyday. Levy critiques the roles that society assigns to us, and reflects on the politics of breaking with the usual gendered rituals.

I was surprised — a lot of people on Goodreads rated this book very highly. I’ve seen much better books not ranked nearly as high as this one (and over 1,000 people have rated it).

I just didn’t get it. There was nothing that pulled me in. I thought it jumped around, and she wasn’t saying anything that made me relate to her or her situation, which is what I look for in memoirs.

On the bright side, it’s a slim book and only took me a few hours to read, so the misery didn’t last long.


Looking Back at the Books I Read in 2018

This is the second time I’ve compiled stats on my reading preferences (see 2017 here). As with last year, I’m pretty consistent with the type of books I pick up.

I have an overwhelming preference for memoirs and other nonfiction. Out of the 94 books I read in 2018, only two were fiction (Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, both of which I rated as Okay). I read five fiction books in 2017.

Most of the books I read are written by women. Out of 94 books, only 18 were written by men. That means 81% of the books I read in 2018 were written by female authors. (The percentage was actually higher in 2017, when 83% of the books I read were written by women.)

I increased the number of minority authors I read this year, which was one of my goals. I went from reading only 14% minority authors in 2017 to reading 31% minority authors in 2018. (I include writers of color, LGBTQ, and underrepresented religious groups in the minority category.)

I listened to even more audiobooks this year. In 2017, 34% of my total was in audio format, while this year it was almost 45%.

Out of 94 books, here’s the breakdown of how I rated them:

  • Highly Recommended: 9
  • Recommended: 50
  • Okay: 30
  • Not Recommended: 5

In 2018, 63% of the books I read were rated as either Highly Recommended or Recommended, while the previous year was only 60%. I’m glad to see that percentage climbing!

Here are my top five books of 2018:

Do your reading habits look anything like mine?


Books Read in December 2018

I read thirteen books in December (three were audiobooks), which is the most I’ve read in a single month this year. This brings my 2018 total to 94.

This is 19 books less than what I read in 2017, but I am completely fine with that. I started a new job back in March, and it’s the best job I’ve had in my over-20 years of working. It also keeps me busier than I’ve ever been at a job, but it’s nice not to watch the clock all day, wondering when it’s time to go home.

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

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

Highly Recommended

1) Becoming: A Memoir, Michelle Obama

Description: Obama chronicles the experiences that have shaped her — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago to her years as an executive balancing the demands of motherhood and work, to her time spent at the world’s most famous address. With honesty and wit, she describes her triumphs and her disappointments, both public and private, telling her full story as she has lived it — in her own words and on her own terms.

I listened to this on audio and was disappointed when it ended, which is the mark of a good book. Michelle starts with her childhood and delves into her schooling and early working years. She talks about meeting Barack, of course, and how great their relationship has been over the years. At the same time, she shared the annoying things he does, how he often wasn’t home once he decided to enter politics, and how this led them to seek marriage counseling at one point.

She wasn’t initially supportive of him running for president; she thought he should be more prudent and understandably, after having a great career of her own, she had issues with “being known as someone’s wife.” She writes of his election campaign, the inauguration, and life as the first black First Lady.


2) Killing It: An Education, Camas Davis

Description: This is Davis’ unexpected journey from magazine editor to butcher. It’s a story that takes her from a stint in rural France (where deep artisanal craft and whole-animal gastronomy thrive despite the rise of mass-scale agribusiness), back to a Portland in the throes of a food revolution, where she attempts to translate this old-world craft and way of life into a new world setting. Along the way, Davis learns what it really means to pursue the real thing and dedicate your life to it.

This is a great story. I have no desire to become a butcher, but I love (and have for a long time) reading about women who decide to completely change their lives. Camas was a writer and magazine editor by trade, but when she lost her job, she decided to study butchery in France. That, in turn, led her to found the Portland Meat Collective. Also, her description of what life was like in rural France made me want to go there immediately.

This is a good article in Vogue, and this is a short video that explains what she does.

3) Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Description: Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame—she has only tried to make the world a little better and a little freer. But nearly a half-century into her career, something funny happened to the octogenarian: she won the internet.

We all know (or hopefully you know) that RBG is a badass. She’s been fighting on behalf of women (and gender discrimination in general) for a very long time. This book delves into some of the legal battles she’s best known for and includes anecdotes about her personal life. I liked hearing that, due to an aversion to cooking, she made her last meal way back in 1980 (the year I was born).

I liked this quote on why she supports abortion rights: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”

I’ve seen RBG’s documentary, which was fantastic, and I also look forward to seeing the movie based on her life when it comes out next year (the screenplay was written by her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, and Ruth makes a cameo).

4) The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander

Description: Alexander finds herself at an existential crossroads after the sudden death of her husband. As she reflects on the beauty of her married life, the trauma resulting from her husband’s death, and the solace found in caring for her two teenage sons, Alexander universalizes a very personal quest for meaning in the wake of loss.

Extremely sad but also beautifully written. She had a deep relationship with her husband that not a lot of married people have.

5) Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World, Scott Harrison

Description: Harrison recounts the twists and turns that built charity: water into one of the most trusted and admired nonprofits in the world. Renowned for its 100% donation model, bold storytelling, imaginative branding, and radical commitment to transparency, charity: water has disrupted how social entrepreneurs work while inspiring millions of people to join its mission of bringing clean water to everyone on the planet within our lifetime.

A club-promoting party guy decides to put that life aside and do something useful for mankind. There’s a bit of “going back to the religion of his childhood” aspect to this story, but luckily he doesn’t dwell on the particulars of that too much (and he’s adamant that his nonprofit, charity: water, is not religion-based). He started off volunteering with Mercy Ships, and later decided to start his own organization focused on bringing clean water to those who don’t have it, or those who have to walk a long time to reach it (in underprivileged countries, a task which predominantly falls on females). Scott has an energetic voice, so it was enjoyable to listen to on audio.

6) What If This Were Enough?: Essays, Heather Havrilesky

Description: By the acclaimed critic, memoirist, and advice columnist behind the popular “Ask Polly,” an impassioned collection tackling our obsession with self-improvement and urging readers to embrace the imperfections of the everyday.

I’ve become a fan of reading nonfiction essay collections over the past few years. I like how this one encourages readers not to seek validation in things that don’t matter. Heather uses examples like the Disney establishment, the 50 Shades of Gray book trilogy, articles on Buzzfeed that feature a bunch of nothing, and television shows like Entourage. She also called out the foodie movement as “gross overconsumption.”

I’m far from enlightened, but I don’t need to be told to avoid the examples she gave — they’ve never interested me in the first place. Here is an excerpted essay from the book, and here is a popular piece she wrote for the New York Times a few months back.

7) All You Can Ever Know: A Memoir, Nicole Chung

Description: Chung was born premature, placed for adoption by her Korean parents, and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town. From early childhood, she heard the story of her adoption as a comforting myth. She believed that her biological parents had made the ultimate sacrifice in the hopes of giving her a better life. But as she grew up — facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see — she wondered if the story she’d been told was the whole truth.

I liked this so much in the beginning that I expected to rate it as Highly Recommended. The second half (after she reached out to her birth family for the first time) fell a bit flat – a lot of it seemed repetitive (in terms of the questions and issues she was struggling with) and it just wasn’t as interesting. However, it’s still a decent story, and I feel like it would be especially interesting to someone who was adopted as a child, or who is thinking about adopting a child of a different ethnic background.

8) My Twenty-Five Years in Provence: Reflections on Then and Now, Peter Mayle

Description: Mayle, champion of all things Provence, here in a final volume of all new writing, offers vivid recollections from his 25 years in the south of France — lessons learned, culinary delights enjoyed, and changes observed.

I’ve read a few of Mayle’s earlier books about his move from England to Provence, France. I’ve always had a soft spot for books about the French life — this one doesn’t offer anything new, but it was still an enjoyable read.

9) Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living, Nick Offerman

Description: Growing a perfect moustache, grilling red meat, wooing a woman—who better to deliver this tutelage than the charming Nick Offerman? Combining his trademark comic voice and very real expertise in woodworking, this book features tales from Offerman’s childhood in small-town Minooka, Illinois to his theater days in Chicago, and his beginnings as a carpenter/actor.

There are certain books I enjoy on audio that I don’t think I’d like nearly as much if I read the physical version — this is one of them. Hearing Offerman read his book makes it much more entertaining. (He’s also very funny in person. I saw him perform a live show at the Warner Theater in DC in early 2013.)

Thanks to Jaclyn for the recommendation! She listened to the book on audio as well, which is what persuaded me to add it to my list.


10) Kitchen Yarns: Notes on Life, Love, and Food, Ann Hood

Description: Hood tracks her lifelong journey in the kitchen with twenty-seven heartfelt essays, each accompanied by a recipe.

This was a quick read with short chapters. I liked the conversational tone and the stories about her memories of food. My peeve with it is that Ann repeated certain facts over and over throughout the essays like we’d never heard them before. (For instance: One of her daughters died as a five-year-old. That’s horrible and I’m sure it impacted her life in a big way, but I don’t need it brought up every-other chapter like I’ve never heard it before.)

It’s fine to remind your audience of things they might forget; you just shouldn’t word it as brand new information when your readers are likely to have read the entire book. It’s not the type of book you’d be likely to skip around and read.

11) Every Day I’m Hustling, Vivica A. Fox

Description: Vivica has created a lasting career on her own, through sheer DIY hustle. She provides start-today strategies for success in business and “been there” lessons in love, buttressed with stories from early family life through today.

This is one of those books I pick up when everything else I’d rather read is on hold at the library. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not the type of book I gravitate toward. I ended up learning a lot about her relationship with rapper 50 Cent (it was the longest chapter in the book), which was entertaining, but the rest of it wasn’t memorable.

12) So Sad Today: Personal Essays, Melissa Broder

Description: In the fall of 2012, Broder went through a harrowing cycle of panic attacks and dread that wouldn’t abate for months. So she began @sosadtoday, an anonymous Twitter feed that allowed her to express her darkest feelings. Here, she delves deeper into the existential themes she explores on Twitter, grappling with sex, death, love low self-esteem, and addiction.

I tend to like memoir in the form of essays, but this one isn’t a winner. As a warning, she’s pretty explicit in the way she details her sexual exploits and open marriage. The openness doesn’t bother me; the essays just aren’t very good. There were several that I found interesting or entertaining, but I wouldn’t recommend this overall.

Not Recommended

13) I Might Regret This: Essays, Drawings, Vulnerabilities, and Other Stuff, Abbi Jacobson

Description: When Abbi announced that she planned to drive across the country alone, she was met with lots of questions and opinions. But Abbi had always found comfort in solitude, and needed space to step back and hit the reset button. On her way to Los Angeles, she mulled over the big questions: What do I really want? What is the worst possible scenario in which I could run into my ex? How has the decision to wear my shirts tucked in been pivotal in my adulthood?

Abbi is the co-creator and co-star of the Comedy Central series Broad City. I’ve never seen the show, but when has that ever stopped me from reading a memoir written by a woman? Unfortunately, this one gets bumped to the bottom category because it contains quite a bit of filler that was not at all entertaining. For example: she shared some thoughts that may have entered her brain when she couldn’t sleep. Even worse, she couldn’t stop with writing just one chapter; there were multiple chapters like that. (This is just as bad as someone writing about their dreams. Nobody cares about your dreams and nobody cares what you’re thinking when you’re trying to go to sleep.)


Books Read in November 2018

I read eight books in November (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2018 total to 81.

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


1) Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, Sarah Smarsh

Description: During Sarah’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the 1980s and 1990s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. By telling the story of her life and the lives of the people she loves, she challenges us to look more closely at the class divide in our country and examine the myths about people thought to be less because they earn less.

This story (on escaping the cycle of rural poverty) is excellent, and worth reading. The only thing I didn’t like was that the author writes as if she’s talking to her unborn daughter (the one she chose not to have because she didn’t want to end up a teenage parent like her mother and grandmother before her). It threw me off, and I thought the book would have been better without it.

2) In Pieces, Sally Field

Description: Field brings readers behind-the-scenes for not only the highs and lows of her star-studded early career in Hollywood, but deep into the truth of her lifelong relationships. Powerful and unforgettable, this is an inspiring and important account of life as a woman in the second half of the twentieth century.

Everyone knows Sally Field, but the details of her life surprised me. She didn’t have friends as a kid; she was sexually abused by her stepfather; she had a then-illegal abortion at age 17; she battled depression and binge eating. She talks openly about her relationship with the controlling Burt Reynolds. She also addresses her shortcomings as a mother and romantic partner. A heartfelt and interesting page-turner.

3) Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, Heather Harpham

Description: A page-turning love story that follows a one-of-a-kind family through twists of fate that require nearly unimaginable choices.

This is a great story. I forced myself not to look up details on the author while I was reading her book because I honestly couldn’t guess how the ending was going to turn out. Would her daughter live? Would the relationship with the child’s father last? It kept me guessing and I liked that.

4) The New Farm: Our Ten Years on the Front Lines of the Good Food Revolution, Brent Preston

Description: The inspiring story of a family that quit the rat race and left the city to live out their ideals on an organic farm, and ended up building a model for a new kind of agriculture.

As much as I love urban living, I’ve always been interested in people who leave it behind and take up farming. (No, I could never do it. I don’t have nearly enough energy.)

5) All the Money in the World: What the Happiest People Know about Getting and Spending, Laura Vanderkam

Description: How happy would you be if you had all the money in the world? The universal lament about money is that there is never enough. We spend endless hours obsessing over our budgets and investments, trying to figure out ways to stretch every dollar. Vanderkam shows how each of us can figure out better ways to use what we have to build the lives we want.

This was a rare re-read for me because I had the physical book on my shelf and wanted to donate it, but I remembered liking it when I first picked it up years ago. So I read it again before dropping it off at a thrift store. The messages had less of an impact this time around because I read about financial topics pretty often, but it’s still a good book. Definitely recommended for those looking to make thrifty changes in their lives.


6) Proud: My Fight for an Unlikely American Dream, Ibtihaj Muhammad

Description: Growing up in New Jersey as the only African American Muslim at school, Ibtihaj always had to find her own way. When she discovered fencing, a sport traditionally reserved for the wealthy, she had to defy expectations and make a place for herself in a sport she grew to love.

This woman seems great and she’s extremely inspiring and hard working, but it’s just not good writing. Too simplistic and too many exclamation points.

7) Jell-O Girls: A Family History, Allie Rowbottom

Description: A gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune, this is a family history, a feminist history, and a story of motherhood, love and loss.

This was fine but could have been better. I thought the premise sounded interesting, but there was too much focus on a family “curse,” which came across as cheesy.

Not Recommended

8) Black Klansman: Race, Hate, and the Undercover Investigation of a Lifetime, Ron Stallworth

Description: In 1978 the community of Colorado Springs experienced a growth of Ku Klux Klan (KKK) membership. One man, Police Detective Ron Stallworth, dared to challenge their effort and thwart attempts to take over the city. He launched an undercover investigation into the Klan, gained membership into the organization, briefly served as Duke’s bodyguard, and was eventually asked to be the leader of the Colorado Springs chapter. The irony of this investigation was that Stallworth is…a black man.

I’ve heard the movie is worth watching (I haven’t seen it), but skip the book. The writing is awful. I only plowed through it because the book isn’t very long.


Books Read in October 2018

I read seven books in October (four were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 73.

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


1) Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living, Elizabeth Willard Thames

Description: This is the story of how a personal finance blogger abandoned a successful career in the city and embraced frugality to create a more meaningful, purpose-driven life, and retire to a homestead in the Vermont woods at age 32 with her husband and daughter. While not everyone wants to live in the woods or quit their jobs, many of us want to have more control over our time and money and lead more meaningful, simplified lives.

I’ve been reading the Frugalwoods blog since the beginning, back when Liz and Nate lived in Cambridge and didn’t have any kids and were saving a large percentage of their income so they could retire early. I’ve always enjoyed the blog, even though (as a city dweller) I don’t relate to it as much now that they’ve achieved their goal and moved to rural Vermont. I do like how their attempts at homesteading come with a fair amount of self-deprecation and a big learning curve, proving that it’s difficult to get everything right from the very beginning.

If you’ve read the blog, the book includes quite a bit of information you’ll already know: how they set up their first home using Craigslist and abandoned items; their soda stream hack; how Liz stopped wearing makeup and got her husband to start cutting her hair; how she stopped paying for pricey yoga classes by working in the studio; how her husband biked to work every day, even in the dead of winter; how they’re renting out their Cambridge home while living on their homestead in Vermont; and fighting the baby industrial complex.

The book did contain some new information (mainly about Liz’s early years, relationship and marriage to Nate, her early and continual dissatisfaction with her job). There were also new details about their years living in Washington, DC when she was in grad school (which was free because she purposefully sought out a job working at the university). I must admit that as a DC resident, I didn’t particularly appreciate her low opinion of living here — once they decided to move, she noted they were “done with the grubby slickness of DC.” I’m of the opinion that a city is what you make of it. They may have met a lot of grubby, slick people while they lived here but I happen to know many, many people who don’t fit that description.

My favorite Frugalwoods posts are the ones that show being super frugal isn’t a hardship, it’s simply a life choice. My husband and I aren’t at the Frugalwoods level of frugal living (I’ve been asking him for years to cancel our cable TV service), but I do feel a kinship with them because we’ve adopted many of the same money-saving habits and also have a goal to retire early.

Recommendation: read the book, check out the blog (especially the archives). I’d be surprised if it doesn’t inspire you to make at least a few changes in the way you spend.

2) My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor

Description: The first Latinx and third woman appointed to the US Supreme Court, Sotomayor became an instant American icon. Here she recounts her life from a Bronx housing project to the federal bench, a journey that offers an inspiring testament to her own extraordinary determination and the power of believing in oneself.

What a cool memoir. I didn’t know that Sonia got married young, later divorced, and has never remarried. She’s also never had kids (she puts part of the blame on the Type 1 diabetes she’s had since she was a young kid, but admits that her dedication to become a lawyer — and now a Supreme Court justice — has not been conducive to having them either). I enjoyed reading about her independence and moxie.

3) No One Tells You This: A Memoir, Glynnis MacNicol

Description: Over the course of her 40th year, Glynnis embarks on a journey of self-discovery that contradicts everything she’d been led to expect. Through the trials of family illness and turmoil, and the thrills of far-flung travel, she is forced to wrestle with her biggest hopes and fears about love, death, sex, friendship, and loneliness. In doing so, she discovers that holding the power to determine her own fate requires a resilience and courage that no one talks about, and is more rewarding than anyone imagines.

When Glynnis turned 40, she said: “I knew I could be alone, but what if I gave myself permission to prefer it?” This memoir touches on many of the issues faced by a single woman turning 40, and the inevitable questions that arise about what she wants out of life. She also describes watching her mother struggle with Parkinson’s and dementia.

4) Calypso, David Sedaris

Description: Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality. Much of the comedy here is born out of that vertiginous moment when your own body betrays you and you realize that the story of your life is made up of more past than future. This is beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumor joke.

I’ve read Sedaris’ previous memoirs so I knew I’d like this one. I don’t find his humor laugh-out-loud funny, but his books are enjoyable enough. One of his sisters committed suicide in 2013, and he touches on that subject with a bit of his trademark dark humor. I love that he’s been with his partner, Hugh, for over 30 years, as well as his reasons for not getting married.

5) I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, Anne Bogel

Description: For so many people, reading isn’t just a hobby or a way to pass the time–it’s a lifestyle. Our books shape us, define us, enchant us, and even infuriate us. Here, Bogel leads readers to remember the book that first hooked them, the place where they first fell in love with reading, and all of the moments afterward that helped make them the reader they are today.

I’ve read Anne’s blog for several years, but most of the time I skim it unless she’s talking about nonfiction (a majority of her book recommendations are fiction).

This book is likable and relatable for bookworms. Those who don’t consider themselves big readers probably won’t feel the same. I consider myself a big reader and there were parts of this book that I didn’t relate to — especially when she wrote about the need to own physical books and organize them in a personal home collection. I used to collect books but at this point I own less than a dozen (and those were all given to me; I never buy them). It is possible to be a bookworm and also a minimalist; I highly recommend checking out e-books and audiobooks from the library for free.


6) Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg

Description: An examination of the most significant demographic shift since the baby boom — the sharp increase in the number of people who live alone –that offers surprising insights on the benefits of this epochal change. Drawing on over 300 interviews with men and women of all ages and every class who live alone, he reaches a startling conclusion: In a world of ubiquitous media and hyperconnectivity, this way of life helps us discover ourselves and appreciate the pleasure of good company.

There’s a lot of good information here, especially in the strong refutation that living alone equates to being lonely (it can with some people, of course, but a majority of people living alone are doing so because they choose to). However, there were more dry statistics than I expected, and multiple chapters focusing on single seniors, which is understandable but I didn’t find as compelling to read about.

7) The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store, Cait Flanders

Description: Cait documents her life for 12 months during which she bought only consumables: groceries, toiletries, gas for her car. Along the way, she challenged herself to consume less of many other things. She decluttered her apartment and got rid of 70% of her belongings; learned how to fix things rather than throw them away; researched the zero waste movement; and completed a television ban. At every stage, she learned that the less she consumed, the more fulfilled she felt.

I halfheartedly read Cait’s blog for a few years (she’s since stopped blogging). I assumed in advance I would rate this book as “Okay,” and I got what I expected. I was wondering how she’d fill an entire book with a year-long shopping ban, and the answer is: there’s a lot of filler that I didn’t care about.

For example, a few months into her shopping ban, her parents decided to get divorced. Cait became deeply depressed, could barely leave her bed, and cried all the time. I’m sure she had a tough time and I have sympathy for that, but it’s not what I cared to read about in a book that I thought was supposed to be about paring down her life. There are also exhaustive details about what she saw and experienced on a road trip, and a long back-and-forth about whether she should quit her job and become a freelancer.


I Reclaimed My Maiden Name After 4 Years of Marriage

Earlier this year, after four years and four months of marriage, I changed my last name back to my maiden name. The name that appears on my birth certificate is my legal name once again.

It should be obvious since it took me so long to write this post, but no, I have not separated from my husband. I just wanted my name back.

I’ve wanted to do this for years, but the timing lined up when I decided to leave one job and start another. I wanted my new colleagues to know me by my maiden name.

Not everyone agreed with my decision (my divorced parents expressed mutual dissatisfaction with my choice). Whereas my mother-in-law — someone I expected to be opposed because I would no longer share the same last name as her son — was fully supportive. She even joked about changing her last name after 40 years of marriage because she prefers her maiden name, too.

Friends have expressed surprise — even audible gasps — at the news, but everyone seems to get it once I launch into my explanation.

The only person I consulted in advance was my husband. Everyone else found out after the fact; I didn’t ask for advice or solicit opinions.

Paul was not thrilled with the idea initially, and I get that. If the situation were reversed and he had changed his last name to mine, then changed it back four years later, my feelings would be hurt. But I like to think if he had good reasons for doing so, I would understand and support him. That’s what happened in this situation. It’s been almost six months since I reverted back to my maiden name and he’s gotten used to it. I told him I wasn’t changing my name because I was trying to distance myself from him, and our relationship is exactly the same as it was before.

What’s the biggest reason I decided to reclaim my maiden name?

For my entire adult life, whenever I’ve come across an article written by a woman keeping her maiden name, I’ve read it with interest. Whenever a friend gets married and decides to keep her last name, I cheer a decision that to this day, only about 20% of women make. (Around 80% of females change their names when they get married.) Since I support these women so wholeheartedly, I knew I needed to rejoin their ranks.

Why did I change my name in the first place?

I got caught up in the whole marriage thing. It’s the only explanation I’ve got, because Paul never put any pressure on me either way. Changing my last name was never a given like it is for many others; I knew I’d have to give it serious consideration. I really struggled with the decision in 2013, and ended up making the decision to change my name on the spur of the moment, the day we went to get our marriage license.

I knew pretty soon that my new name didn’t feel right, but I went through with the name-change process anyway: social security, bank, credit card, driver’s license, passport. But as the years passed, my married name still felt foreign, and, well…I wanted my old name back. It’s really as simple as that.

If you want to change back to your maiden name (outside of marriage or divorce, in which case you only need to produce your marriage/divorce certificate to make a change to your name), you must fill out a name change application at a courthouse and appear before a judge. At least that’s the way it works in Washington, DC, where I live.

I filled out the application, paid a nominal fee (about $60), and about four weeks later I received my approval. I had to replace my driver’s license, passport, NEXUS card, etc, but in total the process cost less than $300.

I am 100% happy with my decision. I wish I’d never changed my name in the first place — it would have saved me a lot of time and trouble — but now that I have it back I know I’ll keep it forever.

Interested in reading more? Here are some articles I found helpful:

Cosmopolitan: In the Age of the Internet, Changing Your Name When You Marry Is a Terrible Idea

Changing your name means a loss of a life-long identity. It’s a loss that comes at a substantial cost. It upholds a social norm that puts significant pressure on other women. And it’s something in a more egalitarian world, women wouldn’t do.

Salon: Ten Years Into My Marriage, I Took Back My Maiden Name

XO Jane: After 9 Months of Marriage, I Want My Maiden Name Back

A Practical Wedding: I Changed My Name When I Got Married and Then I Changed It Back

Huffington Post: Why I’m Returning to My Maiden Name

Elle: Why I Went Back to Using My Maiden Name Even Though I’m Still Married

Mama Mia: “I want my name back,” writes Kellie Connolly (now Sloane)

MM LaFleur: I Changed My Name When I Got Married—and Now I’m Changing It Back


Books Read in September 2018

I read seven books in September (one was an audiobook), which brings my 2018 total to 66.

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


1) The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women, Kate Moore

Description: Moore illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

This book was super interesting but also appalling. I had no idea the commercial use of radium was so widespread in the early 1900s, nor that many women who worked with it developed radium poisoning. The sickness took many forms and in every single one of those cases, the companies fought not to be held accountable.

A common malady of women who dipped radium-laced paintbrushes in their lips to keep the bristles pointed? It led to their teeth falling out, the bones in their mouth and jaw slowly eaten away by the radium, and even pieces of their jaw being exposed and falling apart. In others, the radium landed in other parts of the body, a myriad of health problems that stymied doctors and dentists, and often led to painful deaths.

This book illustrates the lengths companies will take to avoid paying compensation, and highlights the women involved, showing how their fight to hold the radium companies accountable led to better labor laws in the United States.


2) From the Corner of the Oval: A Memoir, Beck Dorey-Stein

Description: In 2012, Beck was just scraping by in DC when a posting on Craigslist landed her, improbably, in the Oval Office as one of Barack Obama’s stenographers. The ultimate DC outsider, she joined the elite team who accompanied the president wherever he went, recorder and mic in hand.

There were parts of this book I enjoyed, like learning the role of a White House stenographer. Although it’s a pretty simple job, it gives that person a lot of access to high-level officials and government staff. What I didn’t like was the major story arc being Beck’s love life, and her infatuation with her on again / off again sex buddy. If the book had focused more on her job and the travel she got to do, I would have enjoyed it much more.

3) Small Fry: A Memoir, Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Description: This is a poignant story of a childhood spent between two imperfect but extraordinary homes. Scrappy, wise, and funny, young Lisa is an unforgettable guide through her parents’ fascinating and disparate worlds.

I learned some interesting tidbits about Lisa’s life growing up with Steve Jobs as a father, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it.

4) Land of Second Chances: The Impossible Rise of Rwanda’s Cycling Team, Tim Lewis

Description: This is the true story of four men determined to rebuild the hopes of a broken nation. In a land desperate for heroes, they confront impossible odds as they struggle to put an upstart cycling team on the map — and find redemption in the eyes of the world.

I have a recent interest in Rwanda because I’m traveling there for work in November. (Surprise! Let’s see how many people notice this tidbit hidden in the middle of a standard book review post.)

I’ve read genocide-related books about Rwanda over the years, and this book covers some of that history, but the bigger emphasis is on how they got a cycling program off the ground. Some parts were inspiring, but I struggled to stay interested in other sections. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it because I think few people would be interested in a book that highlights biking in an African country.

5) Where’d You Go, Bernadette: A Novel, Maria Semple

Description: A novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

You guys know I’m not a big fiction reader, so this probably seems out of character. I actually read this book because my friend Jaclyn has a book club and this was the September selection. But then I didn’t get to attend the meeting because it took place two days before I left the country for a two-week European vacation and I was crazy busy at work. Whomp.

Jaclyn loves this book and has read it multiples times. In her opinion, “It reads as a light, whimsical and slightly ridiculous book, but the more you sit with it, the more you find in it.” If you enjoy light fictional reads, please take her advice and read the book.

For those who read mostly nonfiction, you would probably rate it as Okay, as I’m doing now. I found myself getting impatient with parts of the book I found silly, or that didn’t appear to move the narrative along.

When I read fiction, I often find myself thinking, “Why am I bothering to read this if the story isn’t true?” I know those of you who love fiction won’t identify with that.

Not Recommended

6) White Like Her: My Family’s Story of Race and Racial Passing, Gail Lukasik

Description: This is the story of Gail’s mother’s passing as white, Gail’s struggle with the shame of her mother’s choice, and her subsequent journey of self-discovery and redemption.

This started off okay, and I liked some of the parts about the author’s mother, but unfortunately there were exhaustive details on other members of her family that I didn’t care anything about. The author is obviously interested in her genealogy, which makes sense, but I don’t know her and I don’t care.

7) Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, Esther Perel

Description: One of the world’s most respected voices on erotic intelligence, Perel offers a bold new take on intimacy. Here, she invites us to explore the paradoxical union of domesticity and sexual desire.

I could relate to some of the stuff she wrote about, but I didn’t find any useful takeaways.


Books Read in August 2018

I read nine books in August (six were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 59.

I started reading one book in August that I decided not to finish:

  • The Woman in the Window: A Novel, A.J. Finn
    This book was recommended as a great suspenseful read, but I only got 25% of the way through before I gave up on it. I wasn’t interested in this woman’s life, nor her inane conversations. I’m sure (or at least I hope) everything was building up to a great ending, but I just didn’t care enough to find out. Give me a memoir any day.

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


1) Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson

Description: Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillian, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew him into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship — and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.

Fascinating look at the sheer number of people in prison, many of whom were wrongly imprisoned, or not given a fair trial, or given sentences far greater than what the crime deserved. Stevenson and his team have represented these people for many years, and this book cites examples of some of their cases (and both wins and losses).

2) North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, Scott and Jenny Jurek

Description: Scott Jurek is one of the world’s best known ultrarunners. Renowned for his remarkable endurance on a vegan diet, he’s finished first in nearly all of ultrarunning’s elite events in his career. But after two decades, he felt an urgent need to discover something new about himself. He embarked on a unique challenge, one that would force him to grow as a person and as an athlete: breaking the speed record for the Appalachian Trail. This is the story of the 2,189-mile journey that nearly shattered him.

I’ve read several books about people who’ve walked the length of the Appalachian Trail, but this is the first time I read one that focused on setting a speed record. I found it insane that Scott ran 40-50 miles a day until he’d completed the entire trail. Unsurprisingly, his body started breaking down during the last few weeks and he fell into a depression. I felt bad for him because he was attempting a record but the process itself was taking such a toll that he just didn’t care anymore.

3) The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú

Description: Fresh out of college, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive. Plagued by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the whole story.

This isn’t a job I thought I’d have any interest in learning more about, but Francisco was only in the Border Patrol for four years. It goes into some of the things he did and witnessed in the field, but it’s more about how that experience (and subsequent experiences) changed him as a person.

I would have liked the book to end with his thoughts on border security, our political climate, and what his life is like now, but he leaves opinions to the reader rather than giving his own outright. The tone is definitely sobering, not at all uplifting, but I felt it was worth reading.

4) Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: At the end of her bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert fell in love with Felipe, a Brazilian-born man of Australian citizenship who’d been living in Indonesia when they met. Resettling in America, the couple swore eternal fidelity to each other, but also swore to never get legally married. Providence intervened in the form of the U.S. government, which — after detaining Felipe at an American border crossing — gave the couple a choice: they could either get married, or Felipe would never be allowed to enter the country again. Having been effectively sentenced to wed, Gilbert tackled her fears of marriage by delving into this topic completely, trying with all her might to discover through historical research, interviews, and much personal reflection what this stubbornly enduring old institution actually is.

I read this book years ago when Liz Gilbert was still married to “Felipe,” so it was a bit strange to read about her adoration for him now that they’ve been divorced for several years and she entered a relationship with a woman (RIP). Like all her books, though, I enjoyed her commentary (especially the section about her choice to be child-free) and her research and how she puts her thoughts together.

5) Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living, Karen Auvinen

Description: During a difficult time, Karen flees to a primitive cabin in the Rockies to live in solitude as a writer and to embrace all the beauty and brutality nature has to offer. When a fire incinerates every word she has ever written and all of her possessions — except for her beloved dog, her truck, and a few singed artifacts — Karen embarks on a heroic journey to reconcile her desire to be alone with her need for community.

Karen lives a solitary life in the mountains above Boulder, with her dog Elvis and a motley crew of characters from the nearby (small) town. I was worried there would be too much nature writing in this book (I cannot stand nature writing), and while there was some, it wasn’t too much. I enjoyed reading the back story of how she ended up where she is, as well as her daily existence of writing, working multiple jobs to pay bills, tending to the wood stove to heat her house, dealing with bats and mice indoors, and regular visits from bears.


6) There Are No Grown-ups: A Midlife Coming-of-Age Story, Pamela Druckerman

Description: What are the modern forties, and what do we know once we reach them? And why didn’t anyone warn us that we’d get cellulite on our arms? Part frank memoir, part hilarious investigation of daily life, There Are No Grown-Ups diagnoses the in-between decade.

Pamela asks the question, “What is a grown up and when do you start feeling that way?” She then introduces a bunch of scenarios she’s experienced to show how her life has changed since she hit 40. Like many people, it took her a long time to feel like a grown-up, even though she has a husband and three kids. This book is okay, but I didn’t love it. I thought her book on French parenting was better.

7) So You Want to Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo

Description: Oluo offers a contemporary take on the racial landscape in America, addressing head-on such issues as privilege, police brutality, intersectionality, micro-aggressions, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Perfectly positioned to bridge the gap between people of color and white Americans struggling with race complexities, Oluo answers the questions readers don’t dare ask, and explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans.

I’ve read a number of books this year on the topic of race relations. I’m not sure whether it was the book itself or whether this is the fourth one or so I’ve read, but I felt like I have a bit of fatigue on the subject. I liked Ijeoma’s personal stories but a lot of the book focuses on how-to strategies, which I struggled to stay interested in.

8) The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion

Description: From one of America’s iconic writers, a stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Didion explores an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage — and a life, in good times and bad — that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child.

I wasn’t enamored with this book like others have been, but maybe that’s because it’s been a really long time since I’ve lost someone close to me. She talks a lot about her dreams, which I can’t stand. Also there was a lot about her daughter being in a coma before and after her husband died, which I understand was traumatic but I found boring.

9) Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family, Garrard Conley

Description: The son of a Baptist pastor in small town Arkansas, as a young man Garrard was terrified and conflicted about his sexuality. As a 19-year-old college student, he was outed to his parents and forced to make a life-changing decision: either agree to attend a church-supported conversion therapy program that promised to “cure” him of homosexuality; or risk losing family, friends, and the God he had prayed to every day of his life.

I grew up Baptist (same as the author), and I have an awareness of gay conversion programs and how most/many religions see homosexuality as not just wrong, but sinful. I haven’t identified with a religion for a long time and I try not to dwell on other people’s negative beliefs. I felt bad for Garrard and what he had to go through, but I didn’t like reading about it.


Books Read in July 2018

I read nine books in July (five were audiobooks), which brings my 2018 total to 50.

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

Highly Recommended

1) The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After, Clemantine Wamariya & Elizabeth Weil

Description: Clemantine was six when her parents began to speak in whispers and when neighbors began to disappear. In 1994, she and her 15-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years wandering through seven African countries, searching for safety — perpetually hungry, imprisoned and abused, enduring and escaping refugee camps, finding unexpected kindness, witnessing inhuman cruelty. When Clemantine was twelve, she and her sister were granted asylum in the United States, where she embarked on another journey — to excavate her past and, after years of being made to feel less than human, claim her individuality.

This is a terrifically powerful memoir, written by Clemantine, a woman who was six years old when her parents sent her away to avoid the Rwandan genocide. She had a tough journey (she lived in seven countries before arriving in the United Station as a refugee at age twelve), but she was helped by a number of caring people and ultimately received an amazing education, met Oprah, and became a champion for the unprivileged and disadvantaged.

Throughout the book, she juxtaposes her years in the United States with the suffering and uncertainty she experienced as a refugee in Africa.

2) Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman’s Awakening, Manal al-Sharif

Description: A ferociously intimate memoir by a devout woman from a modest family in Saudi Arabia who became the unexpected leader of a courageous movement to support women’s right to drive.

Manal had a tough upbringing in Saudi Arabia: barely allowed to leave home except to go to school, physically abused at home and at school. She also endured female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation.

On the bright side, she was encouraged to get an education, and when she graduated from college with a degree in computer science she fought tooth and nail for a placement at a highly respected company. She learned to drive a car while on a work assignment in the United States.

Manal’s advocacy work shines through in this book, as she slowly becomes an outspoken activist for women’s rights. The public face of her work starts when she’s jailed for “driving while female;” interestingly, there was no official law outlawing female drivers, it was illegal by custom only. I liked this book better than I thought I would and wish I’d read it sooner.


3) I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown

Description: Brown’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age 7, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools, organizations, and churches, she writes, “I had to learn what it means to love blackness,” a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker, and expert who helps organizations practice genuine inclusion.

This is the kind of book you might not love but realize it’s important to read anyway. Some books are supposed to be tough, and make you think (I found myself reading certain paragraphs multiple times to fully take in their meaning).

I had to check myself because sometimes I’d read the things she said and think to myself, “Surely it’s not that bad,” or “Surely she’s exaggerating, or taking things personally, or being too sensitive.” But that’s exactly the problem, and that’s what she’s trying to show us. I’ve been seeking out books like this and will continue to do so.

4) Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, Various Authors

Description: Edited and with an introduction by Roxane Gay, this anthology of first-person essays tackles rape, assault, and harassment head-on.

This is sometimes tough to read, but it’s important. Rape and sexual assault are more prevalent than most people think, and it takes a lot of different forms.

5) The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure, Shoba Narayan

Description: This book immerses us in the culture, customs, myths, religion, sights, and sounds of a city in which the 21st century and the ancient past coexist like nowhere else in the world. It’s a true story of bridging divides, of understanding other ways of looking at the world, and of human connections and animal connections, and it’s an irresistible adventure of two strong women and the animals they love.

Narayan moved home to India after spending 20 years in the United States, where she started buying milk from a woman who sold it fresh from her cows’ udders (the cows were literally milked in front of waiting customers). I didn’t know if I’d enjoy a book about cows in India, but Narayan made it entertaining.

She discusses the way cows are revered (but they often roam free and can cause headaches on busy roads). They’re used to bless new homes, and their urine is often used medicinally. She also describes the process of buying a cow to gift to her milk-lady. This is an interesting look at what cows mean to Indian culture.

6) Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert

Description: Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity.

This was a re-read for me, which I rarely do. I needed an audiobook (all of my other choices were on hold at the library) so I picked this one up again. The first time I read this book, it was a physical copy, so I enjoyed having Elizabeth Gilbert read it to me this time. She has a great voice. I’m usually not a fan of self-help books, which I guess this kind of / sort of falls under, but I think of this one more as inspiration.

7) Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women, Marianne Monson

Description: These are the stories of twelve women who heard the call to settle the west and traveled from all points of the globe to begin their journey. These are gripping miniature dramas of good-hearted women, selfless providers, courageous immigrants and migrants, and women with skills too innumerable to list. One became a stagecoach driver, disguised as a man. One became a frontier doctor. One was a Gold Rush hotel and restaurant entrepreneur. Many were crusaders for social justice and women’s rights.

Bad-ass women should always be celebrated, but especially those who overcame tremendous odds in order to succeed. These twelve profiles of women in the pioneer era will make you second guess your modern-day obstacles.


8) Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer, Barbara Ehrenreich

Description: A razor-sharp polemic which offers an entirely new understanding of our bodies, ourselves, and our place in the universe, Ehrenreich describes how we over-prepare and worry way too much about what is inevitable. One by one, she topples the shibboleths that guide our attempts to live a long, healthy life — from the importance of preventive medical screenings to the concepts of wellness and mindfulness, from dietary fads to fitness culture.

It’s an interesting premise: Ehrenreich argues that our regular checkups and medical interventions can create more harm than good. She says certain interventions could make a condition worse (breast biopsies can spread “bad” cells to areas they might not otherwise have gone) or are simply unnecessary (she questions the need to treat old men with prostrate cancer when the disorder is unlikely to kill them before they would have died naturally of old age).

I don’t see a widespread uprising against the medical establishment, but it might give some people food for thought. I rated this as Okay because she tended to get science-y and my mind wanders when I have to read about things like amoebas and microphages.

9) Growing Up Fisher: Musings, Memories, and Misadventures, Joely Fisher

Description: Growing up in an iconic Hollywood Dynasty, Joely Fisher knew a show business career was her destiny. The product of world-famous crooner Eddie Fisher and ’60s sex kitten Connie Stevens, she struggled with her identity on the way to a decades-long career as an acclaimed actress, singer, and director. Fisher invites readers into the intimate world of her career and family with this memoir filled with candid stories about her life, and how the loss of her unlikely hero, sister Carrie Fisher, ignited the writer in her.

This is not a great book – it jumps all over the place, sometimes from sentence to sentence. She’s also an egregious over-user of ellipses. It’s a fun look at the way Joely grew up though, with famous parents and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) as a half-sister.