FEBRUARY 2016 | Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by Cal Newport
VERDICT: Coming soon.
June 2015 | Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
VERDICT: This is the book I most frequently hear about when it comes to writing. Everyone seems to recommend it, for good reason. When I first read it, I couldn’t put it down. It’s entirely neurotic and utterly confessional, and as a result, it’s encouraging and confidence building, even beyond just writing. Lamott shares the intimate details of her writing process, along with her doubts, internal dialogue, and insecurities. It’s funny too. The humor and honesty is what stood out most for me during my first reading a year or two ago. When I picked it up again recently, I came away with something else entirely. I came away with actionable tactics — ways to convince and cajole myself into actually putting pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. Sometimes that’s everything.
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
May 2015 | We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
VERDICT: I loved this super short book based on her popular TED talk. It makes a compelling argument from her unique perspective — American and Nigerian — that we can do better. We should do better. I’ve never read any of her fiction, but now I will. I’m a feminist full stop, without any qualifying adjectives.
Today, we live in a vastly different world. The person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, more creative, more innovative. And there are no hormones for those attributes. A man is as likely as a woman to be intelligent, innovative, creative. We have evolved. But our ideas of gender have not involved very much.
Culture does not make people. People make culture.
APRIL 2014 | The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
VERDICT: I loved this book. I’d call it a cross between literary nonfiction and memoir, but don’t confuse that with the type of confessional memoir that makes the lists of best beach reads. It’s nothing like that. It’s not light and beachy at all. It deals with some tough topics and could be called an extended contemplation on change, whether you’re seeking the change or having it thrust upon you, as Solnit did. This was my first introduction to Solnit’s writing and her distinctive style. From the form of the table of contents, it becomes apparent that this isn’t going to be a typical memoir. Her writing style is like being privy to the inner thoughts of your smartest, most intellectual friend, including what may occasionally seem like digressions and ramblings, but which somehow, always comes full circle with surprising ease. She covers a huge amount of ground and draws incredible connections among seeming unrelated things — apricots, loss, Alzheimers the arctic, the color white, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, leprosy, place, and the self. Worth a read if any of these topics speak to you, and you’re willing to work a little for it.
[Places] give us continuity, something to return to, and offer a familiarity that allows some portion of our own lives to remain connected and coherent. They give us expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness. And distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.
The bigness of the world is redemption.
In movies and novels people change suddenly and permanently, which is convenient and dramatic but not much like life, where you gain distance on something, relapse, resolve, try again, and move along in stops, starts, and stutters. Change is mostly slow. In my life, there had been transformative events, and I’d had a few sudden illuminations and crises, crossed a rubicon or two, but mostly I’d had the incremental.
JANUARY 2014 | Women, Food, and Desire: Embrace Your Cravings, Make Peace with Food, Reclaim Your Body by Alexandra Jamieson
This habit — and it is a habit — of caving into our cravings before we’ve examined them has left us all feeling heavy, tired, lonely, and stuck at some time or another in our lives.
DECEMBER 2014 | The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious – and Perplexing – City, by David Lebovitz
VERDICT: I found The Sweet Life in Paris very entertaining. It’s a light, easy read about Paris, food, life as an expat, and French culture, which makes it perfect for a evening reading before bed or for toting along on vacation. Sometimes saying a book is light and easy means it’s only that and nothing more. That’s not the case here. If you follow his blog, you know that Lebovitz is a funny and gifted writer, and a pro. After spending years at Chez Panisse and writing cookbooks, he knows food. Along the way, I learned a little about French culture, found a couple spots to visit on my next trip to Paris, and dogeared some recipe pages to make in the future.
Once I learned the rules and got past the inevitable emotional bumps and bruises that an outsider anywhere must endure, I became a regular fixture in my neighborhood: l’Américain and chef pâtissier. (I’m pretty certain the first distinction wouldn’t have worked out quite so well if I hadn’t had the benefit of the second.)
DECEMBER 2014 | Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
VERDICT: I really enjoyed Wild. I’ve heard a lot of critiques of it since then… Why do people need to leave the world to find themselves? Most people, including most women, can’t just pick up and leave their lives. I think those critiques miss the point. This is one woman’s story. Her life was a mess, and she absolutely needed to leave it to find another way. Not entirely dissimilar to Eat, Pray, Love. Memoir is always a bit self-indulgent and in danger of being interpreted by naysayers as whiney, but the good ones are also honesty and brave in the retelling. I found that to be true of Wild. I’m not sure I’d have been so brave along the Pacific Crest Trail all alone.
It was a deal I’d made with myself months before and the only thing that allowed me to hike alone. I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked. Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.
NOVEMBER 2014 | This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett
VERDICT: Unless you’re a huge fan of Patchett, I’d probably skip it. Some of the essays were enjoyable, but others far less so, including the titled essay, of which I had high hopes. If you’re a writer, I would just buy her essay called The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life (available as a Kindle Single). It was my favorite essay in the collection.
Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.