I read quite a bit this month, partly because many of the books were short. (Another short book? Juliet’s School of Possibilities! If you haven’t checked it out yet, please do!) Here’s my list; in the comments please let me know what you’re reading these days.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs
Jacobs’ 1961 classic argues passionately against the urban planners of her day, who destroyed thriving neighborhoods in the name of progress. Her ideas about what makes a street safe — namely, eyes at all times, which requires mixed residential/commercial use and short blocks — seem intuitively correct and will have you looking at urban streets differently.
The Remix, by Lindsey Pollak
This book, which will be out in May, gives realistic and cheerful advice for managing five generations in the workplace. Key insights: everyone (not just Millennials) wants feedback, and mentoring can go in all age directions.
Outer Order, Inner Calm, by Gretchen Rubin
Rubin (best known for The Happiness Project) offers pithy insights into why clearing clutter can improve people’s moods. She suggests numerous rules for dealing with stuff, such as that everything looks better on a tray. Keep an empty shelf somewhere as a testament to space; also keep a junk drawer for things without an obvious home. Every room should have an element of surprise or whimsy.
Walkable City, by Jeff Speck
I read this on a plane flight to California and it made the time pass quickly, which was good, since I was newly recovered from a stomach bug and really wanted the flight to be over. Speck argues that when people can walk around a city, then the city is healthy. It’s a proxy for all sorts of good things, and when people can’t walk, it’s a proxy for many bad things. His criticisms of traffic engineers and star architects are particularly endearing. This is a good book to read in concert with Jacobs’ book (I’d read Jacobs first, since Speck is influenced by her).
The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr
I’m not much of a memoir reader, and I haven’t read Karr’s memoirs (e.g. The Liars’ Club), but I’m always interested in craft-of-writing books, so I gave this one a read. I appreciated her thoughts on what makes a memoir work. You don’t have to tell the admissable-in-court truth, but you can’t be trying to actively deceive. You can’t cast yourself as the flawless hero, tempting as that might be. If you don’t change and grow, it isn’t a story.
Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
Karr references this memoir in her book, and this month I decided to follow my whimsy with reading. Nabokov grew up wealthy in Russia before escaping with his family during the Soviet revolution. This book is a lyrical, whimsical recounting of a lost world, complete with butterflies. A lot of butterflies. There are some strange aspects of this memoir from a normal-human-being perspective. The brother Nabokov grew up most closely with died in a concentration camp during World War II, a fact that gets one line, while the butterflies seem to get chapters. There is little of Lolita’s (or Pnin’s) humor, but the prose is evocative as Nabokov keeps trying to find his way in new worlds.
A Mathematician’s Apology, by G.H. Hardy
Karr also mentioned Hardy’s memoir in her book, and so I decided to check this one out. I wouldn’t say it’s really memoir; it’s more a short treatise against the idea that mathematics needs to be useful. Instead, Hardy writes that math should be understood as art, beautiful for its own sake alone. Looking back on his life, he sees that he has worked on beautiful things, and his work will influence others and that is enough.
I’m Fine and Neither Are You, by Camille Pagán
Penelope Ruiz-Kar is stumbling along in suburban two-kid existence when tragedy reveals an Instagram-famous friend’s life to be a total work of fiction. Ruiz-Kar decides to embark on a course of radical honesty with her husband to avoid the same fate, but is honesty a good idea or is it going to drive them apart? As with memoir, I don’t read much in the genre of contemporary women’s fiction. So I was a little concerned at the beginning with a few 40-year-old-mom cliches (albeit, I might add, with the twist of featuring an Indian/Puerto Rican mom-as-breadwinner family). But as soon as the hook happens (and it happens soon) you’re in and cheering for all to work out.
A sociology/world affairs book I’m reviewing for a publication. More on that when it’s published!
Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov
I’d read Lolita years ago, but that’s the only Nabokov I’d read until Speak, Memory. So, following my reading whimsy, I decided to pick up Pnin. Timofey Pnin, a professor of Russian studies at a midwestern University, stumbles through life, making various messes, but also endearing himself to a handful of oddball characters, until academic conspiracies he doesn’t understand become his undoing. As satire of university life (and presumably, of Nabokov’s own Russian immigrant experience) it’s fairly sharp. And short! So if you’re looking for a place to start with Nabokov, this has a lot going for it.
The Cook, by Maylis de Kerangal
An unnamed narrator tells the story of Mauro, a young chef, and his education in restaurants. The writing (translated from French) is beautifully descriptive, though short enough that you wonder why the author didn’t decide to go deeper. De Kerangal has a great ability to conjure up the sounds and bustle of a hot kitchen, and the sheer fatigue of running a business that must stay open until the last lingering diner leaves.
Putting Joy into Practice, by Phoebe Farag Mikhail
Joy isn’t just about yellow flowers on your desk (nice as those are). In this deeply religious book, Mikhail argues that real joy stems from seven spiritual practices borrowed from the early church, such as visiting the sick, practicing hospitality, praying the hours, singing as a group, and so forth. I don’t know much about Coptic Christianity, so I was intrigued to learn about some of the mystical aspects of it as Egyptian-born Mikhail writes about her family’s practices.
The Myth of the Nice Girl, by Fran Hauser
I met Hauser recently, and she was kind enough to give me advice on angel investing, so I wanted to check out her book. Hauser is the quintessential “nice girl” and, if you believe titles such as Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, this is a problem. But Hauser argues that empathy is a huge career skill, and if you can combine this and a natural tendency toward relationship building with certain boundaries (to avoid being a push-over) you can succeed just fine. Her own lengthy corporate career at Ernst & Young, Coke, and Time Inc. provides evidence of this.
The Home Edit, by Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin
Some eye candy to round out the month. Shearer and Teplin are known for their Instagram photos of organized-by-the-rainbow pantries. This book features more such shots, plus instructions on how to achieve the look. Parts were snarky and funny, though I absolutely detested the list on how to get rid of kids’ things without them knowing. Great lesson there, you can’t trust mom. With that page ripped out, I could recommend this book. With it in there, well, I guess the truth is most people don’t buy a photo-heavy book like this to actually read it.
What did you read this month? And what should I tackle next?
Photo: Snapped March 31st in Washington DC – cherry blossoms!