Posts tagged with nonfiction:
I didn’t expect to read many books this year. There was no particular reason for this outlook—just a general feeling I had last January. I was a little pessimistic. I set a goal of 50. And then I surprised myself! I read over 70. Some were Kindle Singles (is that cheating?), but I included them anyway.
This turned out to be a good year for reading. I had multiple moments where I thought I would never be able to top my last read and then the next book would blow me away. There are a few books that I know will go down as all-time, life-changing favorites for me.
2013 as a whole was not my favorite year, but I will look back fondly on the very excellent books that came into my life in the past twelve months.
The Best Books:
Best Fiction: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Best Nonfiction: Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
Best Memoir: Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala
Best Parenting Book: Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon
Best Short Read: Murder in the Yoga Store by Peter Ross Range
And here are the rest:
- Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
- Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
- Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
- Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
- All That Is by James Salter
- Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
- Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality by John Schwartz
- Joyland by Stephen King
- Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
- 236 Pounds of Class Vice President by Jason Mulgrew
- Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
- Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes
- Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
- The Attacking Ocean by Brian Fagan
- Expecting Better by Emily Oster
- True Refuge by Tara Brach
- The Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
- Guns by Stephen King
- Half a Life by Darin Strauss
- A Certain Chemistry by Mil Millington
- Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture by Daniel Radosh
- Lay the Favorite by Beth Raymer
- One Nation Under Stress: The Trouble with Stress as an Idea by Dana Becker
- The Scientists by Marco Roth
- Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum
- Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden
- Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington
- Hell-Bent: Obsession, Pain, and the Search for Something Like Transcendence in Competitive Yoga by Benjamin Lorr
- The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber
- Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) by Wendy Plump
- Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Melton
- This Town by Mark Leibovich
- The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
- The Astor Orphan by Alexandra Aldrich
- The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
- Shorecliff by Ursula DeYoung
- The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison
- She Left Me the Gun by Emma Brockes
- Lanced: The Shaming of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh
- The Sinking of the Bounty by Matthew Shaer
- The Ice Princess by Camilla Lackberg
- The Preacher by Camilla Lackberg
- Descent by David Guterson
- Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood by Anne Enright
- Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer
- Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi
- Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight
- Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld
- French Kids Eat Everything by Karen Le Billon
- Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
- The Circle by Dave Eggers
- Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn
- No One Could Have Guessed the Weather by Anne-Marie Casey
- She Matters by Susanna Sonnenberg
- Minimalist Parenting by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest
- The Good Father by Noah Hawley
- Poser by Claire Dederer
- Friendkeeping by Julie Klam
- The Mothers by Jennifer Gilmore
- Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
- Anonymous Sources by Mary Louise Kelly
- Drinking and Tweeting by Brandi Glanville
- This Book is Overdue by Marilyn Johnson
- The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
- The Broken Places by Ace Atkins
- Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail by Caitlin Kelly
- Jujitsu Rabbi and the Godless Blonde by Rebecca Dana
- Straight Flush by Ben Mezrich
- My Foot is Too Big for the Glass Slipper by Gabrielle Reece
What are your best and worst books of the year?
She Matters by Susanna Sonnenberg
Sonnenberg is a good writer, linking together stories of her female friendships from childhood to the present day. She describes her friends lushly and her interactions with them on the page do seem true to life. The book is not compelling—it’s hard to make essays like this into a larger picture for the reader…but she tries. The momentum wasn’t there for me, but I didn’t NOT enjoy reading it. It’s very intimate and occasionally raw. Her descriptions of friendships breaking down or sputtering to a stop are usually not flattering to her or the friend or both. (I wonder what they think of this book.) Sonnenberg, to her credit, owns her neediness (something that comes through a lot) and her occasionally harsh treatment of friends. I didn’t find her unlikable, but I didn’t get very invested in her or her story either. If you like memoirs about friendship(s), you’d probably enjoy this book. Otherwise? Life is too short for a meh book.
Descent by David Guterson
This short, inexpensive ($3) Kindle Single is worth reading. Guterson sinks into severe depression after 9/11 and explores each facet of the journey: from the trigger, to the initial suspicions, to suicidal thoughts, to therapy and medication. He’s a fantastic writer. Depression is always described in the same cliches: dark cloud, withdrawal, loss of interest. Finally! Someone has found a way to really discuss depression and how it feels. It was an emotional thing for me to read. I caught myself thinking “thank you for describing that so well” pretty often.
Minimalist Parenting by Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest
I’m not going to say there wasn’t the occasional valuable tidbit in this book, but it’s basically a book-length #FIRSTWORLDPARENTINGPROBLEMS. The advice is trite (“take time for yourself” OKAY DUH YEP) and so privilege-y that I didn’t make it all the way through. Parenting books are mostly the worst, so I’ve been lucky to read a streak of really good ones up until now.
Read any of these?
She Left Me the Gun by Emma Brockes
A beautiful memoir by a talented writer. Every page was thoughtfully and skillfully written. After Brockes’ mother Paula dies, Brockes starts to investigate the mysteries of Paula’s childhood. Why did Paula leave South Africa for London? What is the story of her relationship to her father and her siblings? Brockes’ father warns her before she leaves for South Africa that she might discover things she wish she hadn’t found out. There is much in this book about the complexities of family relationships and the fragile fault lines that separate relatives in the wake of tragedy, but there is also an abundance of information about South Africa and its history. It occasionally reads like a travel memoir…which I guess it sort of is. The descriptions of the book call it suspenseful. I wouldn’t call it suspenseful. The high drama of the cover art and the title hide the quieter truth of the story—that this is basically a love letter to her mother.
Have you read it?
Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum
I was wary of trying to read a 245 page book entirely about someone’s obsession with real estate and finding the perfect home. (How can you sustain my interest over 245 pages with JUST THAT PREMISE?) But Daum is smart, funny and a good writer and the pages flew by.
I think this was an important book for me to read. It came along at a time that I often feel like I’m floating in the wake of a large boat, aimlessly spinning around, watching the boat sail off into the distance. My concept of what “home” means is in that boat…and it’s getting further and further away from me. (A scarier thought—maybe the boat never even existed.)
Anyway, enough crazy metaphors. A home and a house are not the same thing. We all know that. But they become intertwined, the concepts of both spilling onto each other, until we think that our house won’t feel like a home until the bathroom is remodeled or the kitchen counters are replaced. Sometimes this goes a step further: we won’t have a real home until we are in a real house (that we own). Or further: we won’t be a real family in a real home until we are in a real house (that we own). I blame Pinterest. (I’m sort of kidding, sort of not.)
Daum illustrates so well this feeling of "my life will really start when my home is X." She doesn’t ever mention Pinterest, but the book is several years old now. I wonder what she thinks of it. In the pre-Pinterest days of yore, when Daum is searching for a house, she makes good use of Zillow, MLS, realtor.com and several other websites. She is single-mindedly obsessed with creating the perfect living space from the time she moves from New York City and relocates to Lincoln, Nebraska (yep). Later she migrates further west to LA. The book is more entertaining than I expected, but it’s thought-provoking too—sometimes hitting too close to home (no pun intended). I find myself laying awake staring at our ceiling thinking about the different ways our life could change if we spontaneously moved. Maybe then we’d find the perfect house, and voila! Then our lives could really start. Other times I relish our home, imperfect though it is, because it has held so many happy memories and does fit our lives as they are today. Daum’s writing brings all these questions to the surface. What is it about our generation and our living space? Why are we so obsessed?
There was one paragraph that really struck a chord with me:
"For so long, maybe all my life, I thought only a house could make you whole. I thought I was nothing without an interesting address. I thought I was only as good as my color scheme, my drawer pulls, my floors. I can’t say I don’t still often have those thoughts. But if there’s anything that now separates me from the person who haphazardly signed all those inspection reports back in 2004, it’s the knowledge that a house can be as fragile as life itself. […] But a house is an inherently limited entity. It can’t do everything, or even most things. I cannot give you a personality. It cannot bring you love. […] I’m beginning to see that there’s more to life than moving. For instance, just being alive."
Have you read this book?
There is so much hubbub about this book right now. I was really interested to read it and before I started it, I read a few news articles and some of the dozens of 1-star reviews on Amazon. It turns out people are really upset with Oster primarily for the chapter on drinking alcohol during pregnancy. There are other reasons people are poo-pooing the book too—like the fact that she hardly interviewed any medical professionals about the topics she covered and instead relied almost entirely on her reading and interpretation of medical studies conducted over the past century or so. This article, for example, takes issue with the fact that Oster (who holds a PhD in Economics) is reaching beyond her professional realm and looking to interpret highly complex medical studies. It also criticizes her “subtle and tricky biases,” namely that Oster felt patronized by her OB from the first visit.
Well, I read the book. And you know what? It’s not really that scandalous. The portions about alcohol are getting the most attention (she found that up to 1 drink a day in the second and third trimesters and a couple of drinks a week in the first is a “comfortable” amount—a statement that will obviously make waves). But, the other sections of the book contain information that probably won’t be that surprising if you’ve read a large number of modern pregnancy books or you had a progressive OB or midwife practice during your pregnancy.
Let me pump the brakes for a second here, though. Overall, I want to state how refreshing it was to read a book about pregnancy that examined all facets (from natural childbirth to epidurals to deli meats to inductions) without coming from a place of obvious bias. I found that unlike the Daily Beast article I cited above, I thought Oster wrote the book from a mostly detached, facts-based place. There was no preaching tone or demanding instruction (“you must do this!”). She establishes herself as someone who likes to have as many facts as possible at her disposal before making a decision and nothing in the book convinced me otherwise. The research and studies she used to draw conclusions are cited incessantly throughout and she is careful to note when there is not enough research to draw any meaningful conclusion. Is she irresponsible? Making bad recommendations? Endangering women or fetuses? I really don’t think so.
I think much of the criticism of this book is mostly coming from the Pregnant Women Need to Listen To Their Doctors First and Foremost place. What isn’t being mentioned in these critiques is that a lot of pregnant women don’t listen/trust/obey their doctors wholesale anymore. If they hear something they don’t like, they switch providers until they get the answer they were looking for. If they feel uncomfortable with their level of care, they’ll look for someone who can provide the care they need. They crowdsource medical questions on Babycenter. They google things like “mucus plug” and “lower back cramps” trying to figure out if they’re in labor or close to labor or can do anything to speed up their labor. They take childbirth classes their provider may or may not be aware of them taking. They write birth plans based on templates they saw on Pinterest and they may or may not discuss them with their provider before heading to the hospital or birth center. Whether you believe this trend toward a more medically-detached pregnant woman is a positive or a negative thing, IT IS A THING.
So, to look at Oster’s book and declare it dangerous or irresponsible is patently ignoring the fact that women have done and continue to do exactly what Oster did on a smaller scale. If Oster is irresponsible, then so is every mom blogger who has ever spoken with confidence to thousands (millions?) of readers about something on the medical spectrum. You get my point.
I think Oster’s book is a fantastic way to prompt questions with an OB or midwife. That’s the bottom line, and also one she makes clear several times over. It may annoy your care provider, but if going to an appointment armed with intelligent, thoughtful questions about topics that will affect you and your baby is something that annoys your care provider, well—that’s something else entirely, isn’t it? Since everyone from hospitals to a large number of medical doctors treat pregnancy as a medical condition, are we surprised that pregnant women often look to independent research? Most people diagnosed with any sort of medical condition will do some amount of research on their own. Depending on your point of view, this may seem to be a good thing or not. But in my opinion, women reading about pregnancy-related items and then clarifying with a care provider about whether something could be personally beneficial (or not) certainly doesn’t strike me as an irresponsible, dangerous move.
As far as Oster’s individual points are concerned: I think that if reasonably intelligent women read this book, then Oster’s research will—at the most—just give them a push to do things they were already considering or will further entrench them in a previously-held belief. If you read Oster’s book and say, “Hey! Great. I was already going to have one glass of wine per week during this pregnancy and this research shows that is okay,” or if you say, “Well, interesting research, but I’m still not comfortable with drinking alcohol during pregnancy,” then I think you would be having the mature, grown-up person reaction to this book.
Personally, I’m all for women being given more information rather than less about pregnancy and birth-related decision-making. Here are some things from the book I found really interesting or eye-opening or funny:
- "It’s not that complicated: drink like a European adult, not like a fraternity brother."
- "Don’t worry too much about sushi and raw eggs—they might carry bacteria, but these bacteria are no worse when you are pregnant than when you are not."
- The chapter on weight gain is especially interesting. Oster found that the amount of weight you gain while pregnant is less important than the weight you are when you become pregnant (in terms of being overweight or obese). “At a weight gain of 30 pounds we’d expect 10 percent of women to have very small babies and 5 percent to have very large babies. At a weight gain of 40 pounds, these figures are 7 percent and 11 percent. Yes, there is an increase in very large babies, but there is a decrease in very small ones. But because a very small baby is worse in terms of complications, is this maybe actually better? In order to really make the right recommendation [for weight gain], we need to think about what recommendation does the best job limiting the actual complications. And in this particular case, that might well be an argument for increasing the recommended weight gain, at least by a few pounds.”
- In terms of measuring amniotic fluid, “the deepest-vertical-pocket measure is much better. It captures the same number of truly problematic situations but is much better at not identifying cases where there is nothing wrong. It leads to fewer inductions and fewer C-sections.”
- For babies that have fallen asleep during a non-stress test (in which baby’s heart rate is monitored for a set amount of time to look at the baby’s heart rate in relation to its movement), clapping is a more proven method of getting them to wake up and move around than having mom eat or drink something sugary. (I sat through two non-stress tests in which Isobel fell asleep and they had me drinking this nasty sugary concoction to try and get her to move around. It didn’t work.)
- Nipple stimulation seems to be the MOST effective method of self-inducing labor. Oster looked at a study of full-term women that recorded whether they had gone into labor 3 days later. “Of the breast stimulation group, 37 percent were in labor by 3 days, versus only 6 percent of those without breast stimulation!”
- One review article Oster looked at found that women who underwent continuous fetal monitoring in the hospital were 1.6 times as likely to have a C-section.
- Oster found that oft-quoted caffeine limits for pregnant women seem to be somewhat low based on many studies she looked at. Her findings are that 3-4 cups of coffee per day are okay.
- The chapter on miscarriage has some eye-opening statistics that I hadn’t read before.
Have you read this book? Will you read it?