I read thirteen books in May (three were audiobooks), which brings my 2017 total to 49.
Wow, thirteen is a lot! Three of them were pretty short (just at or under 200 pages), which helped with the speedy reading.
These are the books I started reading in May but decided not to finish:
- Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott
- Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, Eric Weiner — I own a nice hardback copy of this book, and it’s actually the second time I tried to read it (the first time I got about halfway through before I abandoned it). This time, I finished the first chapter but found myself dreading the second, so I decided to give it up for good. I generally like religious-faith memoirs, and I’ve enjoyed Weiner’s other two books, but this one didn’t do it for me.
I rank my books with these categories: Highly Recommended, Recommended, Okay, and Not Recommended.
1) The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, Douglas Preston
Description: In 2012, Preston boarded a plane carrying the machine that would change everything: lidar, a highly advanced, classified technology that could map the terrain under the densest rainforest canopy. In an unexplored valley ringed by steep mountains, that flight revealed the unmistakable image of a sprawling metropolis, evidence of not just an undiscovered city but a lost civilization. Venturing into this wilderness to confirm the discovery, Preston and the team battled torrential rains, disease-carrying insects, and deadly snakes. But it wasn’t until they returned that tragedy struck: Preston and others found they had contracted a horrifying, sometimes lethal, and incurable disease.
As I was reading this, I kept thinking it seemed like fiction because everything was so fantastical and unbelievable. A lost city in the remote Honduran jungle, overgrown and untouched for centuries? So much of the world has been explored, these discoveries don’t happen very often anymore. (If you’d like to know more, this Washington Post article was the reason I put the book on hold at the library.)
After all the jungle adventure (including encountering numerous poisonous snakes), Preston returns home and later discovers he’s contracted a parasitic flesh-eating disease. He goes into detail about leishmaniasis, warning people not to look at pictures online (I didn’t but my husband did – I’ve never heard him react to something with such horror before).
Luckily Preston was able to seek treatment from the NIH and his disease went into remission, but it’s one of those things that often reappears (and indeed, as he wrote the book’s final chapters he admitted to the discovery of a new lesion). The treatment itself is both very expensive and very unpleasant; there are a ton of negative side effects and some people have to discontinue treatment because they’re being negatively impacted in other ways (kidney function is often an issue).
The scariest part about leishmaniasis is that, while it’s mostly limited to hot, tropical regions right now, scientists predict that due to global warming, the disease’s hosts (sandflies) will gradually migrate to more populated areas – including the United States (there have already been several instances of the disease in the U.S., including people who had not traveled outside the country).
2) The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum
Description: This is a series of original essays looking at sentimentality and manufactured emotion in American life. The essays take on serious subjects, such as the death of a parent, the decision not to have a child, and Meghan’s own near death from a freak illness, as well as lighter topics like the love of dogs, the proper appreciation of Joni Mitchell, the tedium of foodie culture, the definition of “romance,” and much more.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever rated a book of essays as Highly Recommended before. With the exception of one essay on Joni Mitchell that I could have done without, I thought all the others were excellent.
A theme of these essays is speaking the truth. Daum doesn’t shy away from speaking her true thoughts, even when she recognizes they might not portray her in the most positive light. (Nothing she said made me look down on her. Just because she wasn’t sad over the death of a close family member, for instance, doesn’t mean she’s a horrible person. She just wasn’t afraid to say it.)
There were many things I identified with, like how she values long-term contentment over short-term happiness. For her, this means staying within her comfort zone and doing things she’s good at and already knows she enjoys, rather than forcing herself to try new things she’s not interested in. This is another thing that is sometimes looked down upon by others – an unwillingness to try something new because you don’t think you’ll be any good at it (or like it), so any effort will be a waste of your time.
She wrote other things that had me nodding along, including her thoughts on her childfree life. Daum first wrote about the subject in this book, and she later edited a collection of essays by other writers that I read last year and very much enjoyed. (It was called: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids.)
While Daum is glad she made the decision to remain childfree, she admits she and her husband feel sad sometimes. But why exactly do they feel sad?
“Were we sad because we lacked some essential element of lifetime partnership, such as a child or agreement about wanting or not wanting one? Were we sad because life is just sad sometimes – maybe even a lot of the time? Or perhaps it wasn’t even sadness we were feeling but, simply, the dull ache of aging? Maybe children don’t save their parents from this ache as much as distract from it. And maybe creating a diversion from aging turns out to be the whole point of parenting.”
3) Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, Meghan Daum
Description: After an itinerant suburban childhood and countless moves as an adult from New York City to Lincoln, Nebraska; from the Midwest to the West Coast and back, Daum was living in Los Angeles, single and in her mid-30s, devoting obscene amounts of time to the pursuit of buying a house. She found what she wanted near the height of the real estate bubble, depleting her savings to buy a 900-sq-ft bungalow. From her mother’s decorating manias to her own hidden room dreams, Daum explores the perils and pleasures of believing that only a house can make you whole.
I heard about this book a few years back, but didn’t think I’d like it. Well, I was wrong. This book was written by Meghan Daum, the same author who wrote The Unspeakables (see #2 above, which I rated as highly recommended). I looked it up once I was done with the first book and checked it out of the library right away. While I didn’t like it quite as much as The Unspeakables, it was still very good. As I should have assumed, it’s not just about the houses she’s lived in; it’s a memoir about her life and what was going on to put her in those various locations.
Daum admits that buying a house is often about other factors, not necessarily that you really want to own a home. When she almost purchased a house in Nebraska (luckily she realized her mistake shortly before the sale went through), she mused, “[I realized] I didn’t want to buy a house; I wanted to shop for a house.”
Related: I wasn’t at the level of house-buying lust in which Daum found herself, but 2.5 years ago my husband and I bought a house and afterward, I realized homeownership isn’t as great as I thought it would be.
4) Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World, Kirsten Gillibrand
Description: Gillibrand is the tough-love older sister and cheerleader every woman needs. She explains why ambition is not a dirty word, failure is a gift, listening is the most effective tool, and the debate over women “having it all” is absurd at best and demeaning at worst. In her sharp, honest, and refreshingly relatable voice, she dares us all to tap into our inner strength, find personal fulfillment, and speak up for what we believe in.
I’ve heard a bit about Kirsten Gillibrand over the years (she’s a senator in New York state, where I live), but I’m glad I took the time to listen to her audiobook. She reads it herself, and I will note that she has a very youthful voice – if I didn’t know better, I would have assumed she was in her 20s.
The book has a good mix of personal stories, like how her interest in public service led to her quitting her law firm job and becoming a Representative, and later a Senator; how she juggled those new responsibilities with raising two young boys; and how she’s struggled with her weight over the years, receiving more than her fair share of unsolicited feedback from male co-workers. She also discusses issues she’s passionate about, bills she’s successfully passed, winning tough elections, and the importance of strong female role models and female empowerment.
Kirsten comes across as extremely dedicated to her job, while at the same time relatable because she’s not afraid to swear – both in person and in her book (she even drops a few F-bombs).
5) Cake Time: A Novel-in-Stories, Siel Ju
Description: Cake Time’s young female protagonist keeps making slippery choices. In “How Not to Have an Abortion,” the teenaged narrator looks for a ride from the clinic between AP exams. In “Easy Target,” the now-college-grad agrees to go to a swingers party with a handsome stranger. A decade later, in “Glow,” she’s confronted by the disturbing and thrilling fact of her lover’s secret daughter. Ultimately, this novel-in-stories grapples with urgent, timeless questions: why intelligent girls make terrible choices, where to negotiate a private self in an increasingly public world, and how to love madly without losing a sense of self.
Disclaimer: The author of this book is a Los Angeles-based friend of mine who I met years ago when I was writing for BlogHer and attended four BlogHer conferences in a row. At the last conference we attended (New York City in 2010), we were spirited to a Nintendo-sponsored event in a bicycle cart wheeled by a lady dressed in a Mario costume. It was quite a sight to behold, all those Marios pedaling down the streets of NYC.
Since I am primarily a nonfiction/memoir reader, this “fiction in stories” isn’t something I would have thought to pick up, with its sweet title and (pink) cover art. Well, let me tell you…this book is the opposite of sweet (I mean that in a good way). It’s gritty. In hindsight, although it was unexpected, I found the juxtaposition clever.
There were clever turns of phrase that had me going back and rereading them several times because they were so very good. This is how the narrator describes her roommate: “[S]he hid behind a scrim of mousy hair and soft chub, which gave her the sodden air of someone who’d found a tenuous contentment on Paxil.” (I never would have thought to describe someone this way, which is why I adore it.)
One warning: there’s a lot of sex in this book. The book description mentions sex, but I wasn’t expecting as much of it as there was (and the amount of detail that was included). It didn’t bother me, but since I don’t read romance novels (and no, I never read any of the 50 Shades of Gray books), this was the most sex I can recall reading about in…I don’t remember how long. So just a warning there in case that matters to you.
6) Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House, Alyssa Mastromonaco
Description: Alyssa worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, long before his run for president. This is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a “White House official” is supposed to look like.
I liked reading about how Alyssa rose through the ranks to become Obama’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations (she was the youngest woman to hold that position). She shares some entertaining stories, makes fun of herself, and comes across as someone you’d like to hang out with. The final chapter was about the life and death of her beloved cat, which I didn’t think fit with the rest of the book, but the rest of it is worth reading.
7) Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters, Anne Kreamer
Description: Kreamer considered herself a youthful 49 until a photo stopped her in her tracks. In one unguarded moment she saw herself for what she really was — a middle-aged woman with her hair dyed much too harshly. She set out for herself a program to let her hair become its true color, and along the way discovered her true self.
When Kreamer decided to stop coloring her hair, I like that she treated it as a research project (including conducting a nationwide survey). She’s honest about her hesitations and insecurities, acknowledging the large percentage of women who cover their gray because they don’t want to appear older. She investigates online dating as a woman with gray hair, applying for jobs (she’s a former executive turned freelance writer), age discrimination in the workplace, and the topic of cosmetic surgery.
She also worked with three image consultants, expecting them to immediately tell her to color her gray hair, but she was surprised to find all of them said it set her apart and they didn’t recommend she change it.
Kreamer published this book ten years ago, but you’ll be glad to know (after writing this book and becoming a gray-hair ambassador) she’s still gray today.
8) All Better Now: My Life as the Thank-God-She-Got-Hit-by-a-Car Girl, Emily Wing Smith
Description: All her life, Emily has felt different from other kids. Between therapist visits, uncontrollable bursts of anger, and episodes of dizziness and loss of coordination, things have always felt not right. For years, her only escape was through the stories she’d craft about herself and the world around her. But it isn’t until a near-fatal accident when she’s 12 that Emily discovers the truth: a grapefruit sized benign brain tumor at the base of her skull. Smith’s memoir chronicles her struggles with both mental and physical disabilities during her childhood, the devastating accident that may have saved her life, and the means by which she coped with it all: writing.
This is a crazy story: a girl has headaches basically every day growing up, along with behavioral issues. Her parents take her to see therapists, but no mention is made of them exploring the reason for her persistent headaches. When she’s hit by a car and sustains a head injury, doctors find a large tumor at the base of her skull. The tumor is removed but things don’t suddenly get better – how could it, when her brain was readjusting to fit the space once taken up by a tumor? She finds it hard to concentrate in school, and she develops a tremor in her right hand.
Things get better for Emily over time, but the story opens with her acknowledgement that every day when she wakes up, she can tell pretty quickly if it’s going to be a good day, an okay day, or a bad day. The book was a quick read due to having very short chapters…I’d finish one, and notice the next one was short so I’d read one more, and on and from there.
9) You’ll Grow Out of It: A Memoir, Jessi Klein
Description: As both a tomboy and a late bloomer, comedian Jessi Klein grew up feeling more like an outsider than a participant in the rites of modern femininity. Klein offers a relentlessly funny yet poignant take on a variety of topics she has experienced along her strange journey to womanhood and beyond.
These essays were more enjoyable than other humor writers I’ve read, but I feel like I didn’t get much out of it. Some of the essays were good (I preferred the ones near the end of the book), but to get there you had to wade through explanations of why she hates taking baths, and how she attended her sister’s wedding at Disney World and attempted to take one of the Disney characters back to her hotel room (unsuccessful).
10) With or Without You: A Memoir, Domenica Ruta
Description: Domenica grew up in a working-class town north of Boston, in a trash-filled house on a dead-end road. Her mother, Kathi, was a drug addict and sometime dealer whose life swung between welfare and riches. And yet Kathi managed, despite the chaos she created, to instill in her daughter the idea that art—via a classic film or a classical education—could transcend this life of undying grudges, self-inflicted misfortune, and the crooked moral code that Kathi and her cohorts lived by. As Domenica grew older, though, she fled town only to become ensnared by the demons of addiction.
I didn’t make notes as I was reading this book, which I normally do so it’s easier to write the review when I’m done. I just wasn’t finding a lot to make note of: Domenica had a messed-up childhood, she became an alcoholic, years later she got sober. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a number of addiction memoirs that I liked better, this one didn’t stand out to me.
11) Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, Beth Kephart
Description: Writing memoir is a deeply personal undertaking. As an author of five memoirs, Kephart has been both blessed and bruised by the genre. Here, she thinks out loud about the form — on how it gets made, on what it means to make it, on the searing language of truth, and on the thin line between remembering and imagining.
This book covers a wide range of topics, and there were parts I liked, but all in all it didn’t draw me in. When I’ve read other books on writing, I’d find myself jotting down sentences I wanted to remember, but I didn’t do that here. Kephart also used a lot of examples of other people’s works to illustrate her memoir-writing tips, and I realize why she did it, but I thought there were too many.
At the end of the book, she includes a long list of memoirs that have influenced her, and I did make note of the ones I haven’t read, so I’m looking forward to exploring some new memoir options.
12) Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg
Description: With insight, humor, and practicality, Goldberg inspires writers and would-be writers to take the leap into writing skillfully and creatively. She offers suggestions, encouragement, and solid advice on many aspects of the writer’s craft.
This is a classic book on writing (originally published in 1986), but just like book #11 above, it didn’t speak to me. Plus, her thoughts and advice are supposed to hold true for all types of writing, but she talks a lot about poetry, which I have zero interest in.
13) Baby Steps: Having the Child I Always Wanted (Just Not as I Expected), Elisabeth Rohm
Description: When Elisabeth started blogging about her family for People.com, she had no idea how many women would respond to her stories about struggling with infertility. Now the actress best known for her role on Law and Order shares what she hasn’t yet: the full story of how in-vitro fertilization allowed her to have a child, how talking about infertility helped her cope with it, and how her desire for a baby taught her about herself and made her into the woman she was meant to be.
I thought this book might be relevant to a topic I discussed not long ago. But…blah. No. I think what bothered me most were her alternative facts. She writes that women under 40 have an IVF success rate of 70-80%, which is easily disproved with a simple google search. She also didn’t appear to grasp how fertility cycles work, writing that she and her partner tried to make a baby by going on vacation for a week and getting it on a lot, then she immediately came home and took a pregnancy test, which was negative. (If I could insert an emoji here, it would be rolling its eyes.)
Other things that bothered me: 1) The title makes you think it’s about infertility and IVF, but I found most of it to be Elisabeth’s personal memoir (early life and how she became an actress), and how crushed she was over her mother’s death. 2) The writing was too precious, too “rah-rah, you can do this!”
One nice thing is that she calls out the large number of women in Hollywood who have likely used fertility treatment to birth their babies but haven’t said anything about it (there are a lot of women in their late 30s through mid 40s with young children, including twins). She hypothesizes that this admission might make the actresses seem older, and women in Hollywood will do anything to appear youthful. Elisabeth calls it out because she wants to remove the stigma.