Category Archives: Books

Life updates, spring 2018

It occurred to me the other day that I have not updated my blog in MONTHS. I realized that I should probably remedy the situation, but I quailed at the idea of writing some long book review or deep-thoughts post on, like, LIFE, man. So, I decided instead to do a little bullet-point post of stuff that’s been happening with me lately. (This is not unprecedented; when I first started this blog in 2012, I used to write short little posts about inconsequential nonsense all the time. Here is one on a hilariously named brand of South African crackers. And here is one on — no kidding — all of the chores and errands I had to do one day). Anyway! Here are a few things that have been going on in my life:

  • I’ve decided to get off my duff and attend a fiction workshop this summer. I’ll be attending the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop in Ohio in June. This means I’ll be spending a week sleeping in a dorm room on an extra-long twin bed, away from my kids and Al, a prospect which is both exhilarating and anxiety-producing. Hopefully I’ll come away from the week feeling inspired and having generated a whole lotta new fiction. More updates to come!
  • Since reading Back Sense, I’ve tried to stay physically active, but have struggled to find a workout that doesn’t jack up my back while giving me endorphins. (Pilates on the Reformer is great for the core, but it can be kind of tedious). Finally, in December I found Barre3, which combines elements of yoga, Pilates, aerobics, and ballet barre and is hard but fun. I much prefer it to other barre-based workouts I’ve tried in the past (looking at you, The Barre Method). And, bonus, the studio here in Old Town offers childcare! I have been going three times a week and I’m feeling strong. Plus, it gives me an excuse to wear cute grip socks.
  • In podcasting news, Whine & Roses is kaput, since Previously.TV decided to drop their coverage of all Bachelor-related shows (*single tear*). But since Whine & Roses met its untimely end, I’ve been a guest on both Extra Hot Great (discussing the Netflix dramedy Everything Sucks, among other TV things) and The Blotter Presents (discussing the classic, 2004 true crime documentary The Staircase), so check me out!
  • I’ve started keeping track of my reading. I read a lot (30-90 minutes a day, sometimes more, never less) and I wanted a record of what I’ve read so that I can look back and remember, if not, say, specific plot points or characters, the general idea of each book. Here’s a photo of my reading log, which shows that I’ve read 16 books since January 7, which comes out to roughly one book a week. At this rate, I’ll finish more than 50 books this year, and without this log, I won’t stand a chance at remembering all of them, let alone writing about them. (NB: I used to write a lot more fiction book reviews on my blog but I felt as if I was shouting into the void. But even if I never write another review again, at least I’ll have my own record of what I read).

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  • After reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Catherine Price’s How To Break Up With Your Phone, I’ve been working hard to change my relationship both with my phone and the internet in general. In practice, this has meant deleting all social media apps from my phone (painful at first, liberating later) and spending way less time looking at social media sites on my computer. I’ve found that stepping away from Twitter and Facebook has lessened my interest in them; in other words, as long as I stay away, I find it easy to maintain my distance. But it’s SO easy to slip back and let them waste my time. I’m trying to find a balance between NEVER going on social media sites and spending hours mindlessly scrolling. Meanwhile, I was such an Instagram fiend and find it so addictive that I have deleted it off my phone and must re-download and sign in every time I want to use it. It may sound like a needlessly baroque way of controlling my social media usage, but it works.
  • I learned to crochet! Not much to say about it except that I’m proud to add another yarncraft to my arsenal. When the grid goes down, I’ll have no idea how to grow food or find clean water, but I’ll be warm as hell. Maybe I’ll knit (or even crochet, now!) myself a post-apocalyptic lean-to.

That’s it. You’re all caught up with my life. Byeeee!

Paradigm shifting books, part 2: Deep Work, by Cal Newport

You won’t see many people talking about Cal Newport’s book Deep Work on Twitter or Facebook. That’s because Newport advocates giving up social media to focus more deeply on things that matter: work, in-person human relationships, fulfilling hobbies. Giving up social media is just one of many practical, albeit wrenchingly difficult, suggestions that Newport makes in his book, which purports the value of deep work, defined as “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pus your cognitive capabilities to the limit.”

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I picked up Deep Work at the end of 2017. At that time, I been reflecting for months on my increasing discomfort with my relationship to my smartphone. I didn’t like the feeling that my phone was an appendage of my body, something that could not be left behind. I didn’t like catching myself mindlessly flipping through various social media and news apps, refreshing my email, reading articles on the phone’s tiny internet browser. I didn’t like being someone who couldn’t be alone without her phone. I had survived just fine for 27 years before getting my first smartphone; why had I become so dependent on it? Something needed to change.

I was immediately hooked by the premise of Deep Work: that uninterrupted, focused, challenging work is valuable in any sort of “knowledge work” profession. (As a writer, I think my profession qualifies). In other words, being able to work deeply will make you better at what you do. Most intriguingly, the book provides practical tips for cultivating the practice of deep work in one’s own professional life.

Personally, I didn’t need to be sold on the benefits of deep work. I know from experience that the kind of writing I produce when I am focused and quiet, with no distractions, is superior than the work I do when I indulge my tendency to click on a BuzzFeed listicle at the first whiff of boredom or difficulty. Nonetheless, I found the evidence Newport has compiled in favor of deep work to be compelling. In particular, in a section titled “A Neurological Argument for Depth,” Newport cites science writer Winifred Gallagher, who studied “the role that attention — that is, what we choose to focus on and what we choose to ignore — plays in defining the quality of our life.” Her conclusion? “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love — is the sum of what you focus on.” Newport applies this theory to deep work, noting that deep work itself is meaningful, so “if you spend enough time in this state, your mind will understand your world as rich in meaning and importance.” Not only that, but if you’re concentrating on work that matters, you’ll pay less attention to the “many smaller and less pleasant things that unavoidably and persistently populate our lives.” (There are so many of these little gnats in my own life, and I’ve found they’re much easier to ignore when I’m not, say, opening Twitter and letting them fly up my nose.)

The second half of the book provides practical, actionable habits to build a practice of deep work. As I read, I turned down so many pages of the book that it would be difficult to summarize the tips that I found most groundbreaking. Let’s focus, then, on the most radical — and yet simplest — advice that Newport offers: quit social media. He suggests banning yourself from social media services for thirty days, without fanfare. Just quit cold turkey. Then, when the thirty days are up, ask yourself two questions: “1) Would the last thirty days have been notably better if I had been able to use this service?” and “2) Did people care that I wasn’t using this service?” If the answer is “no” to both questions, quit the service. If the answer is “yes,” go back to the service. Simple! Easy, though? No way.

I didn’t go the cold turkey route, as Newport advocates. Instead, I took Twitter and Facebook off my phone. This made a huge difference. I quickly realized that I don’t miss Facebook at all, although I really did miss Twitter. But I didn’t miss it enough to put it back on my phone, because I was checking it too often during the day and it was distracting me from more important things, such as giving my kids my full attention or digging into a tough revision of my manuscript. (My next challenge will be tackling my Instagram usage. Starting tomorrow (Ash Wednesday), I’ll be deleting Instagram off my phone. Something tells me I’ll be re-adding it first thing Easter morning, but we shall see!)

My biggest takeaway from Deep Work has been creating a work environment for myself that is as free from distraction as possible. When I sit down to write, I minimize the internet and do not allow myself to open it AT ALL (not even for research purposes) for at least an hour. I put my phone more than an arm’s length away, face-down. (I would put my phone into airplane mode, except that I am responsible for two tiny children and need to be available should my children’s caretakers need to get in touch with me while I’m working.) I do not get up for snacks or water or coffee. I just work. And it is really hard. The first day I sat down to do deep work, all jazzed from reading the book, I was shocked at how often I tried to open the internet while I should have been writing. I would work for five minutes or so, come to something challenging, and immediately seek to distract myself with the internet. I had no idea that I was so distractible! It was a rude awakening. The good news is, after about a month of practicing daily deep work, I no longer long to open the internet every five minutes. There is still an itch for distraction when the going gets tough, but I know to resist it. Overall, I’m working more efficiently and producing better results.

Everyone who feels even the slightest niggle of doubt about her ability to focus deeply should pick up this book. The advice is straightforward and practical, even though it can be difficult, at first, to execute. I have benefited immensely from focusing more on the things that matter and less on the crap that doesn’t, and I won’t be going back.

Paradigm shifting books, part 1: Back Sense, by Ronald D. Siegel, Michael H. Urdang, and Douglas R. Johnson

To kick off 2018, I will be writing a series of posts about books that have radically shifted the way I look at the world. A forewarning: this post will contain a personal (and long) story of my struggle with back pain. 

I don’t remember ever thinking about my back until I injured it. As a high school cross-country and track runner, I’d been sidelined by all manner of leg and ankle injuries, including a stress fracture in my femur, but had never once had an issue with my back. And then, in the summer of 2010, I started having back pain. I’d joined a gym that provided free personal training sessions, and my trainer was intent on having me do CrossFit exercises, including Olympic weightlifting moves like deadlifts and snatches. One day, I was doing deadlifts when I started to feel a persistent ache in my lower back. I alerted the trainer, but he told me to keep going. So I did. A week later, I moved to Brazil for a six-month stint in my law firm’s São Paulo office, and found myself consumed by lower back pain. What started off as constant achiness in my lower back soon spread to my pelvis, and I worried that I had some sort of reproductive system ailment, like endometriosis. I made an appointment with a rheumatologist and, after several MRIs, it was determined that I didn’t have endometriosis: I had a herniated disk in my lower back, between the L4 and L5 vertebrae.

The day I found out that something was structurally wrong with my back was the day I started thinking of myself as a person with a Bad Back. And, in keeping with my expectations, my back has been a source of pain, both physical and psychological, ever since. In the seven and a half years since my initial diagnosis of a herniated disk, I’ve had ups and downs with my back pain. There have been long stretches of relative painlessness, in which I’ve been able to run, swim, bike, and practice yoga. But there have also been periods when I’ve had to curtail some of my activity because of pain. But until this past year, I was always able to remain active, even if I couldn’t do all of the things I wanted to do, like run longer distances or bend myself into certain poses in yoga.

The lowest of my low points, however, started last year when I was pregnant with Ewan. At 34 weeks pregnant, I sprained my sacroiliac joint (the joint connecting the sacrum with the pelvis) and for the last six weeks of the pregnancy, could not easily walk or climb stairs. The pain was searing, almost electric, unlike any backache I’d had before. I couldn’t pick up Lucia or do any physical activity. It was really, really hard. After I gave birth, the sharp pain went away and I was able to resume running and swimming. But then, in the spring of 2017, the pain started up again and I decided to seek the advice of medical professionals.

After many MRIs and x-rays, it was determined that I had seven (SEVEN) bulging disks in my back and neck, plus spondylolisthesis (a “slipped” vertebra), plus scoliosis. In other words, the experts told me, my back was fundamentally messed up and I might not be able to fix it. One physical therapist listened to my diagnoses, glanced at my MRI report, and told me that we could try to fix the issue through physical therapy, but it was likely I’d need to get surgery. And, she added, if I got surgery, I’d probably need to keep getting surgeries since they wouldn’t permanently eradicate my pain. I sought advice from three different physical therapists, a chiropractor, an orthopedic surgeon, and a physiatrist. They all had different, confusing advice. Some told me not to bend forward. Others told me not to bend backward. Several told me to avoid picking up or carrying my children. Some told me to swim. Others told me that swimming could severely injure me.

I tried everything to get better. I got a cortisone shot in my lower spine. I went to physical therapy twice a week. I bought back braces and ice packs. Nothing helped. In fact, things got worse. By the summer, I’d started to have traveling paresthesia: my arms and legs would go numb and tingly and I’d become lightheaded. It was frightening. Sometimes it would be my right leg and left arm, other times my left arm and right foot, or both arms, or both legs. My chiropractor became concerned that I might have multiple sclerosis, and ordered MRIs of my brain, cervical spine, thoracic spine, and lumbar spine. I spent three hours in an enclosed MRI machine, wondering if I would eventually end up in a wheelchair.

As it turns out, I didn’t have MS, or anything noticeably wrong with my nervous system or brain. A neurologist and an infectious disease doctor both gave me a clean bill of health. But I still felt awful.

I was so miserable, Al and my parents gently encouraged me to seek therapy. On my first session with my therapist, she handed me the book Back Sense and asked if I’d be open to trying it. I said sure — I had nothing to lose — and read it in one day. As soon as I read it, my pain started to lessen and my entire attitude shifted. A few months later, I am free of all neurological symptoms and can do many physical activities that I was sure I’d never be able to do again.

The premise of Back Sense is simple: what you think is causing your back pain is probably not causing your back pain. That is, most of the “structural” issues that people with Bad Backs are told are to blame for their pain are not actually the culprit. The real culprit is stress. In a certain type of person (and I am one of them), stress manifests as tense muscles in the back. The more stressed you become, the tenser the back muscles become, and the greater your pain. The way that you alleviate the pain is to practice mindfulness. You might still have some back pain, the authors point out, but that’s okay. Some muscle soreness in the back is normal and tolerable, and is not to be feared. And, most importantly, you must remain physically active. Inactivity will only make your pain worse.

I was initially resistant as I read Back Sense. I was convinced that its premise could not apply to my situation, given all of the many and competing structural issues I had in my back. However, the authors handily provide an index that lists many back conditions and explains why each is probably not to blame for back pain. This index includes bulging disks and spondylolisthesis. The authors point out that 60% of people with no back pain whatsoever have a disk abnormality (such as a bulge). I found this incredibly eye-opening. If there are so many people out there walking around with my exact condition and no pain, something else must be going on.

The more I thought about the mind-body connection, and how I was dealing with (or not dealing with) stress, the more things started to make sense to me. Months after reading the book and resuming my physical activity (and my normal life), I can look back on my low point this summer and see that almost all of the anguish I was experiencing was psychosomatic. It was real pain, and was actually happening in my body. But most of it was caused by my brain, not by any structural abnormality in my back. The most telling thing, to me, is that the horrible neurological symptoms I was experiencing — tingly, numb arms and legs and spells of lightheadedness — went away entirely and have not returned since I started cognitive behavioral therapy and read this book.

I highly recommend Back Sense to anyone with chronic back pain who is feeling hopeless. It is truly a paradigm shifting book, in that I now see my back — and thus myself — in an entirely new light. I no longer think of myself as someone with a Bad Back. I think of myself as someone who occasionally experiences back pain (and that’s okay). If you’re thinking that this book won’t apply to you and your specific back issues, it might not — but it probably will.

(One caveat: the authors do not address one spinal issue that I do have, which is sacroiliac (“SI”) joint dysfunction. This injury is very common in pregnant and postpartum women, and SI joint sprains, in particular, are very common among women in their second (or later) pregnancy. My non-alarmist physical therapist told me that the SI joint stays loose for up to two years after giving birth. When I’m having a bad back day, I’m now able to tell whether it’s generalized lower back achiness (which indicates muscle tension caused by stress) or localized pain in my SI joint. Even though the book does not address this particular injury, its framework has allowed me to take my SI joint twinges on board and not panic about them. Some back discomfort, I remind myself, is normal. My back is tough. This will be okay.)

 

 

Book round-up: pregnancy, birth, baby-care, and parenting

A friend who is expecting her first baby recently asked me for recommendations on my favorite pregnancy, birth, and parenting books, and, to my surprise, I found myself brimming with suggestions. I used to tell people (proudly) that I didn’t read parenting books — but I see now that this is not actually true. What’s more accurate is that I read parenting books selectively. I’m sure it’ll shock everyone to learn that there is a lot of noise out there around pregnancy, birth, and parenting, and one must be in tune with ones own values and aspirations as a parent in order to tune out the large quantity of nonsense. And boy, there is a LOT of nonsense and gimmicks and fear-mongering out there. So, with my own parenting values guiding the way, here is my short list of favorite books on pregnancy, birth, baby care, and parenting.

PREGNANCY AND BIRTH

Great With Child: Letters to a Young Mother, by Beth Ann Fennelly: This slim, beautifully written book is a collection of letters that poet/writer Fennelly wrote to a young friend pregnant with her first child. Fennelly shares her observations about pregnancy and motherhood and the challenges (and joys) of balancing being a mother, wife, and writer. I found the passages about finding balance in one’s work and home life to be particularly resonant. I leant this book to our former babysitter when she got pregnant and she told me she found it reassuring and sweet.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, by Ina May Gaskin: This is a must-read for anyone considering having an unmedicated childbirth. Gaskin, considered one of the mothers of modern American midwifery, has written an essential guide on what happens during birth and how the process can be made easier and more comfortable for women without the aid of medical intervention. In a society in which medicalized birth is considered the default option, I think it’s important for women to understand the natural, physiological and mental processes involved in childbirth so that they can make informed decisions about how they want to give birth. The book is also full of empowering (if somewhat hippy-dippy, woo-woo) birth stories from the Farm Midwifery Center in Tennessee. I read this book before I had Lucia and then read it again recently to psych myself up for childbirth. I especially love the reassuring birth stories, as airy-fairy as some of them are, and the photos of real women and babies.

INFANT CARE (SLEEPING, EATING, ETC.)

The Sleepeasy Solution, by Jennifer Waldburger and Jill Spivack: We had to sleep-train our dear Lucia at six months of age because she was THE WORST SLEEPER EVER, no exaggeration. We eventually hired a sleep consultant (Annika Brindley in DC), and the method she used with us closely resembled The Sleepeasy Solution (although Lucia ended up being a tough case who required THREE FULL WEEKS of training, with many tweaks to the system, before she stopped screaming every night at bedtime, so the book alone would not have been enough for us). This book is a good starting place for those looking for answers to common infant sleep conundrums. It is a “cry it out” method, which I understand makes many new parents nervous, but when you’re desperate and the “gentle” sleep learning methods are not penetrating with your willful, spirited, STUBBORN-ASS baby, sometimes you gotta pull out the big guns. I have referred back to this book many times as Lucia has hit little bumps in the sleep road. It is a sensible and loving approach and not draconian, but yes, it does involve some crying.

The Happiest Baby on The Block, by Harvey Karp: I didn’t actually read Karp’s book, but a friend leant us the DVD, which sums up his “five S” approach for soothing infants, and we found it really helpful for calming Lucia when she was very little. These methods are especially helpful for getting an infant to calm down in the early months before sleep training is appropriate.

The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, by Lisa Barrangou: I reviewed this book on this very blog and still stand by it as an excellent, straightforward method to introducing solids to baby. At 21.5 months, Lucia is a very good eater (although her palate for vegetables is pretty much limited to broccoli and spinach, but it could be worse, right?) and I suspect a lot of that comes from being exposed to many different healthy foods (in puree form) as an infant.

French Kids Eat Everything, by Karen Le Billion: Le Billion is an American married to a Frenchman who is raising her children in small-town France. When they first moved to France from the U.S., Le Billon’s kids were picky eaters, but by immersing them in French food culture, she was able to expand their palates, cut down on mindless snacking, and initiate a ritual of sit-down family meals. I enjoyed this book (which is a combination of memoir, instruction manual, and cookbook) and found the insights into the French perspective on food and mealtimes inspiring. However, I didn’t take all of Le Billon’s recommendations onboard, because not everything that works in France would be appropriate or even desirable for the U.S. For example, French children are only given one snack a day, period. No exceptions. Le Billion describes the nasty stares she got from other parents when she brought fruit to a school event, outside of the apportioned snack time. This rigidity is not realistic or, I think, necessary for raising kids who eat healthy, balanced meals. Lucia, for instance, gets two snacks a day. I don’t let her graze between meals because I want her to eat heartily at mealtimes. But sometimes she gets a snack at a random time and it’s not the end of the world. Also, the French have a very different perspective on breastfeeding (they’re not super into it past the first few months), they eat really long, late-running dinners, they eschew eating the same food twice in a week, and they have very good systems in place to support all of this. So, take Le Billon’s recommendations with a grain of sel and implement what works for you and your family.

CHILD DEVELOPMENT

The Wonder Weeks, by Hetty van de Rijt and Frans Plooij: Dutch researchers van de Rijt and Plooij have mapped out the ten biggest developmental leaps (or “wonder weeks”) that babies go through during the first twenty months of life. Each leap represents a different developmental milestone, which is great, but each one is also accompanied by crying, fussiness, moodiness, clinginess, bad sleep, and other less-than-awesome behavior as your baby’s brain rewires itself. The authors of the book have helpfully developed a free app that uses your baby’s gestational age (due date) to alert you when your child is about to go through one of the leaps, so you get a little warning before your sweet baby (temporarily) morphs into a hissing demon. The app is actually very good at predicting, down to a day or two, when your child will probably hit each leap. I found it reassuring to realize that my baby’s sudden bad mood and constant fussiness was serving a developmental purpose, and was normal and even predictable. More information here.

PARENTING

My parenting guru is Janet Lansbury and I highly recommend all of her books. Lansbury is a proponent of Respectful Parenting, based on the teachings of Magda Gerber, the basic tenets of which Lansbury describes here. Her perspective makes perfect sense to me and I try to implement it every single day with Lucia. In fact, I wish I had discovered Lansbury’s blog, books, and podcast earlier, when L was an infant, because I think her advice would have brought me a lot of comfort and reassurance. But I’m glad I discovered Respectful Parenting when Lucia was still a toddler, because Lansbury’s wisdom on discipline (particularly the idea that we need to be calm, firm leaders who hold boundaries for our children) has been indispensable for me over the last six months or so. I highly, HIGHLY recommend her book No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame.

JUST FOR FUN

Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman: Say what you will about Druckerman, who comes off as somewhat of a nut in this memoir, Bringing Up Bébé is a fascinating, highly entertaining read about an American raising children in France. Again, it’s important to take Druckerman’s advice and observations with a grain of salt and to appreciate the different cultural contexts in which French and American parents operate. But the book is thought-provoking, well written. and fun.

Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads, by Jeannie Hayden and Gary Greenberg: Al and I had a lot of fun paging through this book before Lucia was born. Makes a great gift for any new dad (and does contain practical baby-care advice!).

Book round-up: what I’ve been reading lately

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a good ol’ fashioned book round-up on the blog. To be precise: it’s been eight months. Oops. As usual, I’ve read more books in eight months than can fairly be reviewed in one sitting, so I will sort them into my handy categories of Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. The Great Reads, I think, each deserve a word of explanation.

So, here goes.

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Great Reads

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell: Rowell’s sweet, moving novel about a college freshman (Cath) who loses herself in writing fan-fiction as she struggles with her real-life relationships was un-put-downable. As usual, Rowell continues to produce the only “romance novels” that I can stomach. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review here.

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell: A sort of companion novel to Fangirl, Rowell visits the universe that Fangirl‘s Cath was obsessed with — a Potter-esque school for aspiring magicians — and creates a love story between two of the main characters. Confused? This NPR review may help.

Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson: This collection of short stories is as beautiful and poignant as any of Johnson’s other work. I continue to marvel at his ability to bring to life such an array of rich, believable worlds (North Korea, post-Katrina New Orleans, Palo Alto) with such nuanced, complicated characters. Adam Johnson is such a treasure. Did I mention Fortune Smiles won the National Book Award?

The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan: I never wanted this book, which can fairly be described as the literary equivalent of a rom-com, to end. It follows a pair of Prince William-Kate Middleton analogs (in this case, the fictional Prince Nicholas and his American girlfriend Rebecca Porter) from their meet-cute to their wedding, with lots of juicy drama and intrigue thrown in for good measure. I really felt like I understood the now Duchess Kate’s plight after reading this book. Cocks and Morgan, the geniuses also known as The Fug Girls, make a delightful novel writing team. I recommend The Royal We even to readers, like me, who hate most romance novels and are trepidatious about rom-coms. Read it. Or, just wait for the movie to come out.

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy: I was turned onto this book by a recommendation from (personal hero) David Sedaris, who encouraged all of his Facebook followers to check it out. Leovy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, explores the epidemic of violence among African-Americans, the often toxic relationship between law enforcement and poor communities, and the systemic failure of the criminal justice system to prosecute black murders. Fair warning: Ghettoside is not an easy read, but it is fascinating, and gripping, and important. New York Times review here.

The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sohata: Months after finishing this book, which tells the story of several Indian immigrants struggling to carve out lives in the U.K., and a British-Indian woman whose life intersects with theirs, I cannot stop thinking about it. As soon as this book ended, I experienced that particular kind of mourning you feel when you must say goodbye to characters you really care about. What makes The Year of the Runaways even more remarkable to me is that it is Sohata’s debut novel and he never read a novel until he was eighteen. What?! Guardian review here.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt: This classic came out in 1994, but I never thought to read it until now. Berendt manages to make a true-crime novel read like fiction — and charming, winsome fiction, at that. Despite the fact that this book is about a murder, it made me want to visit Savannah and stroll through its storied gardens.

Good Reads

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

Troublemaker, by Leah Remini

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman

Little Victories, by Jason Gay

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends, by Courtney Robertson

The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, by Jeffrey Toobin

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

The Dark Net, by Jamie Bartlett

Meh Reads

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson

The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson

Bad Reads

Black Eyed Susans, by Julia Heaberlin

The Tastemakers, by David Sax

 

 

Great reads, good reads, meh reads, and bad reads: a book round-up

Since May, which was the last time I posted a book review round-up, I’ve read (or started to read and gave up on — more on that below) almost thirty books. THIRTY. The experience of reading approximately six books a month for the past five months has had some sharp peaks and deep valleys, as you might imagine. Some of the books I read were fantastic, wonderful, absorbing, un-put-downable! Others, however, were real stinkers. Weirdly, it’s the stinkers, rather than the masterpieces, that are sticking with me as I sit down to write this, perhaps because it seems like there were just so many of them, and they were all so disappointing/maddening.

Given the quantity of books I’ve consumed over the past five months, I’ll not be writing reviews of each one. Instead, I’ve divided the books into four rough (and necessarily reductive) categories: Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. Instead of individual book reviews, I will let the categories do the talking. If you’d like any more color on any of these books, drop me a note or a comment here and I’ll tell you what I think.

Now, a brief explanation of my categories:

A Great Read, in my estimation, must possess excellent writing as well as a gripping plot (if fiction) and/or unique perspective/angle on its subject (if non-fiction). The experience of reading a Great Read is one of absorption. You look forward to reading the book, and while you’re reading it, you’re lost in its world. You want to tell people about it. You want others to read it so that you can share the experience of it with someone else. I will vouch for all of the books in my Great Reads category. They are, like I say, great.

Standards are slightly lower for Good Reads. A Good Read must be thoroughly enjoyable, with solid writing and/or a lively enough plot/story to make up for just pretty good writing. A Good Read is a book that you look forward to picking up, but won’t necessarily tell anyone about at a dinner party.

A Meh Read is just okay, either because the plot is sluggish, or the writing is not up to snuff, or both. A Meh Read, however, is not bad enough for you to actually stop reading. Whatever failures of writing or plotting or research they may contain, Meh Reads are not terrible or a waste of time, necessarily. They’re just okay. They’re the reading equivalent of a shrug. They’re meh.

Bad Reads, of course, are actively awful. Most of the books on the Bad Reads list landed there because the writing was so piss poor that I wanted to toss the book into a bonfire and dance around it while muttering dark incantations. As a writer who would gladly saw off an appendage — any appendage! You name it, I’ll saw it! — to have a novel published, it irks me, to put it lightly, that so many books with stupid, crappily constructed plots and lazy, hackneyed writing are getting published and purchased. And from a reader’s perspective, it’s endlessly frustrating that these horrid books are marketed to the unsuspecting public with bait like, “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll love [Shitty Novel That Sucks]!” Here’s the thing: we all liked Gone Girl because it was fast-paced and twisty, with smart observations about male-female relationships, and Gillian Flynn can actually write. Yet somehow, any piece of dross that fancies itself a “psychological thriller” gets compared to Gone Girl, and we, the reading public, keep falling for it. Or, at least, I do, and I consider myself a somewhat discerning reader (although perhaps I shouldn’t give myself so much credit). Three out of the four books on my Bad Reads list are “psychological thrillers” that I was dumb enough to pay good money for. I only managed to get all the way through one of them (The Good Neighbor, which contained shockingly bad writing and enough loose plot threads to knit a winter sweater); the other three I gave up on in order to preserve my own sanity.

Great Reads

Among The Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My Documents, by Alejandro Zambra

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

This Is Not a Love Story, by Judy Brown

Good Reads

Lost at Sea, by Jon Ronson

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Splendid Things We Planned, by Blake Bailey

Hyacinth Girls, by Lauren Frankel

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell

Drink, by Ann Dowsett Johnston

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

Meh Reads

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll

The Ice Twins, by S.K. Tremayne

Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, by Amy Butcher

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox

A Good Killing, by Allison Leotta

In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Bad Reads

The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica

Remember Mia, by Alexandra Burt

The Good Neighbor, by A.J. Banner

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Book review: Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy, by Dinty W. Moore

The back cover copy for Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Writing, Love, and Cannibals promises that this book is a “unique writing guide” to creating personal essays. As someone who likes to write the odd personal essay, I was interested. I was also intrigued by the format: a series of questions asked by “top contemporary essayists” (including Cheryl Strayed and Roxane Gay) and answered by Dinty W. Moore, an actual person and essayist and not, as I had imagined, an animated can of beef stew.

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I first opened Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy expecting, if not inspiration, then at least some solid ideas for kickstarting my next personal essay. But I got bogged down in the book’s preciousness and soon closed it again. What do I mean by “preciousness?” Well, the introduction is written in the second person (eesh) and includes this sentence: “You are a good-looking person whose minor flaws seem to only accentuate your considerable charm.” This winking tone continues throughout the book, much to my chagrin. For example, there is a question answered entirely in a series of cocktail napkin drawings. Some might find this adorable, but for me, the humor wasn’t strong enough to overcome the cutesiness. I’m afraid I’m just not the target audience for this kind of thing.

I reopened the book and tried to read it straight through. The first question, from essayist Phillip Lopate, is about how to write about ex-girlfriends without coming off as a “chauvinist pig.” Putting aside my own question about whether Lopate’s letter was sent via time portal from the mid-1990s, I found Moore’s response pat (“don’t be a chauvinist pig”) and the accompanying essay boring. Perhaps the problem here is that I am not familiar with Dinty W. Moore’s essay writing, and that to fully appreciate this book, one must be a fan of his work. I’m not sure. But I found myself skimming, and skimming some more, through the rest of the questions and answers.

Some of the questions struck me as so esoteric as to be useless (e.g., what is “the connection between Buddhism and writing?”), at least to my own writing, but others were somewhat more helpful. I enjoyed Moore’s response to Cheryl Strayed’s question about the distinction among the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. I also liked Moore’s “Four Essential Tips for Telling the Truth in Memoir and Securing That Blockbuster Book Deal,” in response to a question from Michael Martone about whether to use one or two spaces after a period. Incidentally, Moore never answers Martone’s question about spacing, but he does discuss the concept of telling the truth and fictionalizing in memoir.

I’m sure that fans of Moore’s work will find this volume entertaining and perhaps even inspiring. But for me, earnest seeker of writing advice, it fell flat.

(Cook) book review: Everyday Detox, by Megan Gilmore

As someone who’s naturally suspicious of the word “detox” outside of the context of recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I was a bit trepidatious when I first received Megan Gilmore’s cookbook, Everyday Detox. I think “detox” — as in, clearing one’s body of “toxins” — is one of those woo-woo concepts that doesn’t actually have any basis in science, and my hackles go up when people talk about “detox diets,” because what does that even mean? But, in paging through Gilmore’s book, I saw that there was a whole chapter devoted to “liquid nourishment,” and, being a smoothie fanatic, I couldn’t resist trying some of her recipes right away, pseudoscience or no! (Also, to be fair, Gilmore explains her “detox” philosophy in the beginning of her book by saying that she’s in favor of consuming fresh, whole foods, rather than packaged foods that are “loaded with preservatives and chemicals,” which is reasonable, and not what I typically associate with the word “detox”).

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A creature of habit, I make almost the exact same smoothie for lunch every day, which I like, but I needed to shake things up (pun very much intended!). I cracked open Everyday Detox and started with the Chocolate Chia Shake, which is gluten free, dairy free, soy free, egg free, and vegan (none of which are dietary requirements for me, but nice to know). This recipe did require a trip to the local fancy grocery store to purchase chia seeds and raw cacao nibs, but, as it turns out, the investment was totally worth it because this sucker was DELICIOUS. Even my mother, a professed hater of dates, liked this shake, and one of its main ingredients is dates. That’s how good it was! Emboldened, I moved on to the Banana Nut Protein Shake, which knocked my socks off. Despite involving several handfuls of spinach and two tablespoons of hemp hearts (?), it was rich and tasty and satisfying. I loved every sip.

I haven’t yet had a chance to try any of the non-liquid recipes in the book. I will admit that the names of some of the dishes have me a little gun-shy (whenever I see a recipe for “rice,” in quotation marks, I get nervous), but given how phenomenal the two recipes I’ve tried so far have been, I think I need to put my skepticism aside and try more of the ideas in Everyday Detox. I’m looking forward to giving the Peppermint Fudge Bars a whirl, and the Salt And Vinegar Brussels Sprouts also sound delicious. Overall, I’d recommend this book for those looking for healthy, fresh meal ideas who aren’t put off by a few hemp hearts here and there.

 

(Baby) book review: The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, by Lisa Barrangou

Being a parent of an infant so often involves navigating through one murky, doubt-filled morass after another, trying to reconcile all of the conflicting advice you’ve received. Everyone — the internet, your pediatrician, your neighbor, your friend, your mom — has a different bit of wisdom to share and it’s often hard to know which way is up when fumbling your way through growth spurts, developmental leaps, teething, and, of course, the introduction of solid foods. Luckily for me, I received Lisa Barrangou’s The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, which takes all of the guesswork out of introducing solid foods to baby.

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Like every new mother, I’d received a mountain of conflicting advice on how and when to introduce solids, what types of solids to introduce first, whether to do baby-led weaning or purees, how to space solids so as to avoid allergic reactions, and so on. I found myself confused, which has pretty much become my default posture in life since Lucia was born. Enter The Amazing Make-Ahead Baby Food Book, which promises to guide you through making three months’ worth of homemade purees in three hours. Hallelujah!

Barrangou is a “former corporate food scientist” with an MS and PhD in food science. Her approach emphasizes whole, unprocessed foods, and starts with introducing fruits and veggies, rather than rice cereal or other grains. I was quickly sold on Barrangou’s bona fides and her approach, since I was reticent to give Lucia processed cereal as a first food and liked the idea of starting her off with vegetables, instead.

The book lays out a wonderfully simple and straightforward strategy for introducing solids that includes selecting a menu of whole foods, preparing a shopping list, creating space to store the foods, shopping, creating a mise en place plan, and preparing the food. Barrangou helpfully includes a list of supplies you need, including silicone ice cube trays, a steamer, a food processor or blender, and freezer bags. The plan she suggests is clear, concise, and sensible, and boy, do I love a good mise en place.

The book leaves nothing to chance, explaining clearly how to prepare each food with helpful charts and recipes. It also goes over which foods to limit or avoid (e.g., honey, cow’s milk, high acid fruits, etc.), which to buy organic (the so-called “dirty dozen”), when to introduce solids, in which order to introduce foods, how to ensure diversity of flavors and textures, how to avoid choking, what to look out for in terms of allergies and sensitivities, safe food prep practices, and flavor combos. I love how idiot-proof this book is.

The best part of the book, in my opinion, is the sample three-month menu of meals for baby, which sets out a simple yet diversified menu to follow, starting with pureed sweet potatoes and progressing to such exotic combos as avocado, mango, and black beans. Barrangou says you can follow her sample menu exactly or you can create your own based on the vast array of whole foods set out in the book. I decided to follow her sample menu and started, as suggested, with sweet potatoes.

Big fan of sweet potatoes

Big fan of sweet potatoes

I introduced sweet potatoes to Lucia at five months old, and she LOVED the experience. She gobbled up the sweet potatoes and then, a few days later, sweet peas with relish! Unfortunately, her guts were not as enthused and she had some pretty gnarly stomach distress for about a week after starting solids, so I decided to hold off until her six month birthday to try again. Luckily, I already have a whole bag of frozen sweet potato cubes in the freezer, ready to go, and armed with Barrangou’s book, it’ll be easy to prepare several months’ worth of food some afternoon over this coming week.

Yum.

Yum.

If it’s not clear, I think this book is absolutely fantastic and I’d recommend it heartily to any parent who’s looking for a healthy, easy, no-nonsense way to introduce whole foods to a baby. As a bonus, the book is gorgeous and the photographs make me want to puree myself up some bananas and go to town.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Book review Tuesday: Better Than Before, by Gretchen Rubin

The more I read by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, the more I begin to suspect that she and I would really get along. As far as I can tell, we have extremely similar personalities and preferences. Also, we’re both former lawyers who became writers. In fact, when I was first considering jumping ship from my law firm and starting a writing career, I sent Rubin an email asking for her advice, and she very kindly responded with a warm, encouraging note. So, I like Gretchen Rubin, even though I don’t know her personally — and I always enjoy her writing, including her newest book, Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

Rubin’s latest book focuses on habits, asking how we form successful habits, what makes us stick with them, which habits are worth pursuing, and so on. I find the question of habits quite interesting because I am someone who’s fairly consistent with certain habits (for example: getting daily exercise) but struggle to form other, lasting habits (e.g., keeping a budget). So I read this book with interest and really enjoyed it.

Rubin has a real gift for coming up with useful personality taxonomies, and this book introduces what Rubin refers to as “The Four Tendencies.” In order to make and stick with a habit, she says, one must identify which of four personality tendencies one has. The four tendencies, described on Rubin’s website, are Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. As Rubin puts it:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations 
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense 
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

This was an easy one for me: I’m an Upholder, through and through (just like Rubin). Also, like Rubin, I was surprised to learn that Upholders are in the minority. Apparently, responding pretty much equally to both inner and outer expectations (that is, getting up for a run because you told yourself you’d do it AND/OR getting up for a run because you told a friend you’d meet them in the park) is not a common personality attribute. Alastair is most definitely a Questioner. He only does something if there’s a sound justification for it; he hates arbitrary rules. He and I have had the same argument about why our bed needs to be made countless times. Al thinks making the bed is pointless, since you’re just going to get into it and mess up the sheets again at bedtime. I think making the bed makes the room feel neater and consequently makes my life feel less chaotic. Also, I’d hasten to add, adults just make their damn beds. Anyway. Knowing one’s Tendency is the first step, Rubin says, to understanding how to form effective habits. You need to know yourself and what kind of expectations to which you respond best in order to set a plan for yourself that will work.

Once you’ve identified your Tendency, you can tackle what Rubin refers to as the four “pillars of habits:” monitoring, foundation, scheduling, and accountability. As an Upholder, I think I can actually take some of these pillars of habits too far. For example, I can go a bit overboard with monitoring. Just this week I stopped using my phone to obsessively track Lucia’s sleeping, eating, and diaper output, because, I finally realized, it was making me crazy. I’m the type of person who loves data. Staring at numbers gives me the illusion of control. I figure if I can study the record of Lucia’s sleep patterns for the last three months of her life, I can crack the code to baby sleep and win at parenting forever. It took me this long to realize that babies don’t work like that, and I was driving myself nuts tracking every second of napping, every poopy diaper, every drop of milk consumed. But I do understand that monitoring, when exercised responsibly, is useful for habit formation; for example, I try to keep track of what I eat and the amount of exercise I get on another app on my phone, and it helps keep me accountable to my commitment to eat healthfully (most of the time).

Having established the pillars of habit formation, Rubin then dives into the nitty gritty of establishing and maintaining habits. One comes away from this book feeling that one can now take on the world, new habits firmly in place (or, at least, the manageable beginnings of new habits in place). As always, Rubin’s take is practical, relatable, and full of interesting anecdotes. I came away from this book feeling motivated to tackle some of the habits I want to introduce into my own life. Recommended!

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.