Books read in May 2019

I’m still on my non-fiction kick right now, though with summer travel coming up, maybe I’ll tackle an ambitious novel. I’m always a fan of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s summer reading guide. Currently, I’m working through Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, by Wilfred M. McClay. It’s a broad survey of American history, and pretty readable, so possibly good for, say, an 11th grader trying to get an overview of history before diving into a class focused on specific periods. Some of the media about it has billed it as the “anti-Howard Zinn” version of American history, but so far (I’m two-thirds in) he doesn’t have too much of an axe to grind one way or the other. His perspective seems to be that people are flawed, and flawed people through history do some good things, some bad things, and some things that might have seemed like the best choice at the time given the circumstances. I’m only in the Hoover administration now, though, so I won’t finish before June!

Here’s what I finished in May:

The Library Book, by Susan Orlean

A number of blog readers mentioned this as a favorite, so I downloaded it while stuck on stage during a dress rehearsal for Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. I enjoyed this tale of the great Los Angeles library fire in the 1980s, and the troubled young man who might have started the fire, but maybe didn’t. Orlean spends a lot of real estate talking about the roles libraries serve in society — roles that continue to be vast whether people read books or not.

Cribsheet, by Emily Oster

Sarah and I interviewed Oster for an upcoming episode of Best of Both Worlds, so I wanted to be sure to read her book. As an economist, Oster likes to look through the data on parenting to see what actually matters and what doesn’t. As you can imagine, much advice turns out to be based on nothing, or the headlines on studies massively oversell what has actually been found. The best evidence seems to be that…by the time you’re reading parenting books…it really doesn’t matter that much. Your kids will be fine.

The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner

I loved this children’s book when I read it a great many years ago (as a kid). I remembered the resourcefulness of the runaway kids making a home out of a box car, and using their ingenuity to get enough food to make feasts. I still enjoyed it on this re-read, though I was a bit surprised at how quickly the plot resolved. I would have liked to dwell in the boxcar a bit more, but oh well.

The Way We Eat Now, by Bee Wilson

A lot has been written about how people’s diets have changed over the years, and the rise of junk food and what it does to people’s health. Wilson’s book is an overview of this, and while it’s readable enough, I didn’t think it said too much that hasn’t been said in other books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

My Father Left my Ireland, by Michael Brendan Dougherty

I’ve met Dougherty a few times, but I didn’t know much about his personal history. This is his memoir of growing up as the son of a single mom in New Jersey. His father, who was raising a family in Ireland, was distant for much of his childhood, though he later learned that this was a more complicated story that was as much about how much access his mother was willing to give as it was about his father’s seeming lack of desire to see him. My favorite parts of this book were about Dougherty wondering how to be a father himself, and about his reconciliation with his father, and about his relationship with his mother. While close, their relationship always featured some guilt; he felt like his existence had probably ruined her life. Dougherty blends all this with his tales of Irish history, and the uprisings in the early part of the 20th century. While interesting, I wish he’d slimmed the history part, and talked more about himself, as the personal history is far stronger. Then again, in person he’s a humorous and self-effacing guy, so maybe he felt strange just writing about himself!

How to Raise Successful People, by Esther Wojcicki

I had mixed feelings about this book by Esther Wojcicki, a longtime high school journalism teacher in Palo Alto. The parenting advice is perfectly good: Kids need to learn independence, it helps to be kind, and kids are their own people, not extensions of you. As a former student journalist myself, I also loved the insights into how her high school has run its publications over the years! My issue is that a lot of the publicity about this book looked like this headline: “I raised two CEOs and a doctor — these are my secrets to parenting successful children.” Wojcicki is the mother of Susan, CEO of YouTube, Anne, CEO of 23andMe, and Janet, a medical researcher at UCSF. So the click-bait headlines are about how your kids will “turn out” if you follow her advice: they’ll be in high-status careers! And yet one of the main points of her book is that parents shouldn’t push their own professional desires for high-status careers on their kids. Indeed, she has a whole section about a student of hers whose parents forced her to be a doctor, and eventually she quit. I found this disparity between the marketing and the actual advice quite disconcerting. I think there might be an interesting angle on nurturing ambition in girls, specifically, since Wojcicki herself grew up in a rather misogynistic home. How, practically, can people break extended family patterns? But that’s not the main thrust of the book.

Wail Till Next Year, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Goodwin’s memoir of growing up as a Brooklyn Dodgers fan is a great read. She artfully recreates the idyllic world of her 1950s childhood, where the kids played in the street, she knew the corner butcher, and despite her mother’s ill health, her tight-knit community made everything fine (a friend’s mother always hosted a joint birthday party for Goodwin and her daughter, so Goodwin’s mother wouldn’t have to do it). The Dodgers were also a source of magic, often disappointing their fans, but then finally in the late 1950s, winning the World Series… and then it all ended. The Dodgers went to CA. Various forces undermined the closeness of Goodwin’s 1950s neighborhood, and soon that world disappeared. This is a book of magic and loss. And baseball! I think I’ll start working through Goodwin’s other work, as I really enjoyed this and Team of Rivals (her Lincoln biography).

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert M. Pirsig

This book, published in 1974, was a huge bestseller in the 1970s, and really speaks to that era. It’s a fictionalized autobiography, whatever that means. Pirsig takes his 11-year-old son, Chris, on a long motorcycle trip, and while doing so, recounts his own history before a mental breakdown, what led to that breakdown, and his philosophy of quality in general. I’d read this book many years ago but didn’t remember too much about it. On this read, I enjoyed the descriptions of Montana, now that I’ve spent some time on those roads. But I found the motorcycle travel narrative far more compelling than the philosophy lessons, which at times felt a little too dorm-room-bull-session. I think about 100 pages less would have been perfect.

What are you reading these days?

10 thoughts on “Books read in May 2019

  1. I’m excited to hear your interview of Emily Oster – I was one of the listeners that suggested her as a guest! I’m on the waitlist for Cribsheet. I loved her pregnancy book, expecting better. I like that she’s not an alarmist and is very even-keeled and pragmatic with her interpretation of advice!

    I read a ton of books in May – 12 – which is probably a record for me. I have always been an avid reader but when I was pregnant I had multiple people tell me that I wouldn’t have time to read after having a child. Turns out they were wrong. I read more than ever! Some of my favorites from this month were Tell Me Three Things (fun YA novel), the latest Louise Penny Inspector Gamache book (loved this series!), Where the Crawdads Sing and Text Me When You Get Home (non-fiction examination of the importance of female friendship).

  2. Just out of curiosity: how many of these books did you read in audiobook format and how many in print/eBook?

    I’m a big fan of reading with both my ears and eyes, and it allows me to get through so many more books than if I only limited myself to my eyes (I read ~35 print format books each year and have never been able to break 40 with the visual format, so I love the boost I get from reading audiobooks too).

    1. @Kenia- I didn’t listen to any – I don’t have too much listening time built into my life (I sometimes have long drives, but not too regularly). But many were in ebook form rather than print, because it’s very easy to get ebooks and take them with me at all times. The Library Book, the Boxcar Children, The Way We Eat Now and How to Raise Successful People were all ebooks.

  3. Just last night I finished re-reading Anna Karenina. The first time I read it – around age 15 or so – it was from a nerdy kid’s desire to read great literature. This time I could enjoy it as a wife, mother, and adult. It’s so much better when viewed through the lens of 20-some years more experience.

    1. Hmm. Reading your comment, I wonder if I might like Anna Karenina better now that I’m in my 40s? I was distinctly unimpressed by it when I was 17. My lasting impression was that someone dies under a train at the start, then there is a lot of self-absorbed, overly dramatic twaddle and then someone dies under a train at the end. I don’t remember much about the main characters- the only character I recall liking in the slightest was Levin.

  4. I haven’t actually heard about Esther Wojcicki’s book, but those publicist headlines would have made me NOT want to pick it up.
    I really don’t like anyone pandering outward status as the sole and most important aspect of success in life.

    1. @Sophie – yep. I know why they wrote those headlines, though – I imagine that “I raised three kind children who contribute to their communities” just doesn’t have the same lure for many people.

  5. I read The Ten Year Nap after hearing about it here, in the comments, I think. I’m surprised I finished it…it felt like it was going nowhere and I still think it didn’t have an actual plot?

  6. I traveled to India for work last year! While there I read Out if India: Select Stories by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. This was a great in-country read as her works have been compared to Jane Austen in style. I started Freedom at Midnight by Collins and Lapierre on the return flight home. This book peaked my interest but was very long. I only got a few chapters in. I set it aside and read others once I was back in the states. It bugged me not to finish so I set it as my May reading goal. Once I picked it up I remembered the interest. This history of the time surrounding India’s independence from British imperialism was fascinating. The real characters like Gandhi and Mountbatten were inspiring. I definitely recommend and learned so much about the history and the area.

  7. I loved The Boxcar Children as a kid, too, and I was disappointed when later books in the series were more about solving mysteries than living in a boxcar 🙂

    I also read Cribsheet this month and really enjoyed it. I am a new mom and although I’m out of the very vulnerable new days of motherhood, I appreciated her tone and presentation of the research, especially with regard to breastfeeding since I struggled with that. I also found some of her comments about her own parenting journey hilarious. Looking forward to hearing her episode of the podcast!

    Other books I read this month: The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit by Michael Finkel, which I found fascinating (it’s also very short, for anyone looking for a quick read). I listened to The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, and would highly recommend it for any fans of young adult lit and dark fairy tales–plus the narration was excellent, for any audiobook fans.

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