Books read in January

Quite the mix this month. Here’s what made it off the shelf (or onto the Kindle) in January:

Braving the Wilderness, by Brené Brown

I’ve seen Brown speak, and I know she has tons of raving fans, so I thought I’d check out her new book. Braving the Wilderness is about staying true to oneself while simultaneously being willing to engage with people who think differently. The combination holds the promise of reviving civility in modern life. I am all about reviving civility, and being authentic, but I didn’t necessarily think there was a whole lot of new ground plowed here. Then again, I think Brown’s fans really just enjoy her style and voice, no matter what she’s saying, so I’m curious what other people who’ve read it think.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

I read Sourdough last fall, and quite enjoyed it. Mr Penumbra was Sloan’s debut novel. A young man takes a job at a bookstore that turns out to be full of puzzles. With a crew of San Francisco types from central casting (yes, the Google employee enjoys rock climbing), he uses technology to solve the mysteries of an old secret society. Type faces are involved. And museum archives. A fun read, especially for a plane flight back from San Francisco (which is when I read it).

Be the Parent, Please, by Naomi Schaefer Riley

Like Anya Kamenetz (who did a Q&A for this blog this week), Riley, a journalist, was looking for answers for her own parenting and screen time dilemmas. She comes to slightly different answers than Kamenetz, and is slightly more negative about what screens enable, especially for older children (one obvious example: sexually explicit pictures used to be much more difficult to get developed, let alone share broadly. What would you do, tape it to billboards around the school?) She also believes that parents should man up (hence the “be the parent” title) about screens and younger kids. A lot of screen stuff isn’t that helpful, and some might be harmful. Riley is always entertaining to read, and I am sympathetic to some ideas, namely that modern parents worry way too much about their kids being bored. People also take their kids places that parents in other generations would not have attempted. Like a sibling’s 4-hour swim meet. That said, I can afford generous sitter coverage, which is why I don’t have a 3-year-old on the sidelines of stuff. I have no interest in chiding other parents who don’t have the same options. I also think that if screen time were so pervasively negative, we’d see a lot more systematic problems. But with teen pregnancy rates and violent crime rates way down, it’s not clear that the kids are in such bad shape.

The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery

This was a random pick off the shelf in a San Francisco airport bookstore. Montgomery, a veteran nature writer, decided to dive deep into the world of octopuses.* These highly intelligent creatures are completely different from humans (the evolutionary split happened long before, say, chimpanzees), yet can seem to interact across the species line. This book was also intriguing for its insights into the operations of a large aquarium (Montgomery was a frequent visitor at the New England Aquarium in Boston, and got to know a series of octopuses that lived there). I found this book quite compelling, to the point of quoting random octopus trivia at people for the next week after reading it.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Lapido Manyika

Mutual acquaintances put me in touch with Manyika, so I was excited to read her novel. Dr. Morayo Da Silva, a 75-year-old Nigerian woman living in San Francisco, goes about her daily life in the city, recounting people and memories, until an accident raises the question of what parts of her life she will she be able to maintain. There are some similarities to Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, though many differences too, and since I read this shortly after returning from San Francisco, I enjoyed the descriptions of the city, and its cast of characters.

When, by Dan Pink

I wrote a bit about this book earlier this month. Pink examines the science of timing, and argues that we systematically consider “when” questions less important than “what” questions, even though when we do things often matters a great deal for health, safety, and happiness.

Winter, by Ali Smith

I had read Autumn, the first book in Smith’s four-part series, so Winter was next. There were nice touches: the short chapters shifted in and out of characters, and around time, which gave the novel a sense of urgency. Lux — the young woman that the main character hires to accompany him home for Christmas — is a delightful surprise. But I can’t say I loved either this or Autumn. I guess I’ll be in for Spring and Summer just for a sense of completion. And maybe sheer familiarity will make this series grow on me.

Grocery, by Michael Ruhlman

Anne Bogel suggested I read Ruhlman when I was a guest on What Should I Read Next. Ruhlman, whose love of grocery stores stems from his father’s obsession with them, spent much time studying the operations of Heinen’s, a high-end (but smallish) chain based in Ohio. I marvel at grocery stores too, though some of the points Ruhlman belabors aren’t really all that insightful. Margins are small in a business that sells commodity products. Imagine that! One also gets the sense that he really wanted to write Michael Pollan’s books, but Michael Pollan did that. So he cites them a lot, and then preaches about the evils of sugar and breakfast cereal. There were great moments — the opening of a Heinen’s in downtown Cleveland was well chronicled and triumphant — but I realized in reading this that Grocery is  the sort of non-fiction I used to read a lot of, but that I’ve been trying to read a bit less of as I aim to read more fiction. And so, it was on to the next book…

Moby Dick, by Herman Melville

This was on my reading bucket list, so after reading about octopuses, whales were next. It was…something. The short review: Five stars. I am serious. But I am also hesitant to recommend it, in that any prospective reader needs to be tolerant of several things. First, length. People in 1851 didn’t have access to cable. Novels were their cable. Anything written in that era tends to be at least 30 percent longer than necessary. Second: Melville wasn’t a frustrated novelist, he was a frustrated cetologist. There are dozens of discourses on whale taxonomy, anatomy, ship logistics, etc. Their sheer volume puts John McPhee’s set pieces to shame (McPhee lives in an era with cable; see point one). Finally, general opacity. The story will be going along, and then Melville will do a chapter that’s an internal soliloquy for one of the characters. Or some Ishmael memory of encountering a temple of whale bones, which has never been hinted at before. And yet! I loved the randomness, the description of the seas, and Melville’s clear awe of whales and his fondness for the marvelously multicultural crew that hunts them. I mentioned in the friendship episode of Best of Both Worlds that I was looking to join (or form) a very specific sort of book club. Perhaps “enjoys Moby Dick” would be the criteria indicating I was in the right place.

I am not 100 percent sure what I will read next, though A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and All Creatures Great and Small are both candidates. I welcome thoughts on either.

*Nope, not octopi. Octopus is from a Greek root, not a Latin one, so the plural form doesn’t follow the Latin convention. Not that -es is the Greek convention, but it’s a lingual mishmash at this point.

27 thoughts on “Books read in January

  1. Any book that makes you quote random trivia is winner in my books. My latest is the Da Vinci biography by Walter Isaacson. Excellent

  2. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for the first time a few years ago (in my early 30s) and loved it. I haven’t read All Creatures Great & Small.

    I echo your thoughts on Braving the Wilderness & Mr. Penumbra… Always fun to see what you are reading!

  3. Hi Laura, Love your work, but having trouble reading your blog because of a huge orange box covering a large portion of the screen insisting I enter my email. I am on your email list! And yet, I get the subscribe box every time. In fact, it is hard to type this comment because it is large obscured by the “orange box”.

  4. I just put the octopus book on hold at my library! It will do nicely for the Book Riot 2018 Read Harder challenge (“a book about nature.)

  5. I’ve been trying to decide if I want to read Grocery; it’s one of the few Ruhlman nonfiction books I haven’t read. Your assessment made me laugh, and also think I can happily live without reading this one.

    1. @Anne- It sounds like it’s not his best, so maybe I’ll try one of his other titles! But yes, maybe I’m an inner rebel because the more he preached about the evils of breakfast cereals the more I really wanted some cornflakes.

  6. The octopus book sounds great! I’ve added it to my list and am going to recommend it to my husband, who is a huge animal lover and is currently devouring a book on ants.

    Both Brooklyn and All Creatures are wonderful, although I think Brooklyn offers more aspects to think deeply about while All Creatures is more entertaining.

    Also, since I know you’re a runner, have you read My Year of Running Dangerously? I found it to be so engaging and just plain interesting.

  7. I just picked up A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from the library and am so excited to re-read it. It’s probably been…20 years?? I read it when I was a pre-teen (I think..) I am almost done with Commonwealth by Ann Patchet and have really enjoyed it so far. Apologies if you’ve read it…many of my book recommendations these days come from you!

  8. a first – I tied you in # books ready 🙂

    i didn’t love mr penumbra. i am intrigued by the ali smith series even though you didn’t love it! and i just reserved When from the library!

    1. @Laura – lots of different places. If I’m up early with the 3-year-old, I’ll read then while he watches TV. During the day it’s only bits and pieces – if I’ve got 10 minutes before a call I might read (because I know I won’t start anything else of consequence). I read at kid activities: which usually means at least one karate, one gymnastics per week, often more, and then while waiting in the car at swim pick-up. Some evenings I work, and some I don’t. If I’m not working, I can often read for 90 minutes total, albeit interrupted (8-8:30, then I put daughter down, 9-9:45, get boys down, 10-10:15, then I get ready for bed). I fly 2-3 times a month, so that introduces a lot of reading time, even if I do some work on planes. There might be a train trip or two in there as well. Some downtime on weekends… it adds up!

  9. I share your feeling about Brené Brown. After listening to a few of her audio books, my thoughts were (1) wow, that is someone with a LOT of feelings, and (2) that is a person who spends a lot of time managing those feelings. For some of us, life and relationships just don’t involve much drama, and amen for that!

    1. @Kathleen – I have a line in Off the Clock about how I’m not the archetypal self-help narrator who’s hit rock bottom and now wants to share how I (and you, the reader!) can climb up from the muck. My life is just not that interesting. Which is a really, really good thing.

  10. All Creatures Great and Small and other James Herriot books are also great to read out loud. I loved hearing my mom read these to us as kids – the chapters are very short so they’re easily digestible.

  11. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is one of my favorite books. I think it is more interesting to read when you know that the first version of the book was more autobiographical based on Betty Smith’s life, but her publisher returned it to her and said it was too depressing. ATGIB is her second, more fictionalized version.

    It’s fascinating to me to imagine which parts are real and which imagined.

  12. I started Mr Penumbra after reading this post and quite enjoy it! Crisp style and some suspense, set in a bookstore (as far as i’ve read), what’s not to like! Funny fiction, as I normally read non-fiction.

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