Book Reviews: September and October ’19

I decided to make my book section of the blog a monthly feature, that way I can dive a bit more deeply into the books I’m reading. My first post on the books I’ve been reading covered the whole summer and I figure if I check in more frequently I can really shine a light on books that I absolutely loved. To catch myself up, I’m covering September and October in this post. I’ll just cover one month at a time moving forward.

I’ve fully embraced the fall weather by spending a LOT of time curled up under blankets on my couch or in bed with a good book. Reading a book while enjoying a cup of tea is one of my favorite creature comforts. Let’s jump into what I’ve been reading lately!

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Bella Figura: How to Live, Love, and Eat the Italian Way by Kamin Mohammadi. (Autobiography/Travel, 2018). This easy read followed the life of Kamin Mohammadi, a woman in her 30s who was let go from her fast-paced job in the London publishing world and has a chance to stay at a friends’ apartment in Italy for one year to write and find her creative self. She ends up experiencing the slower and more thoughtful pace of life of Italy and finds her own sense of happiness through this process. The book is divided into one chapter per month for the 12 months of her time in Italy. I loved how each chapter begins by listing a sensory experience – such as the smell or sights of the month, the seasonal flavors, and an Italian word to describe the month or theme of the chapter. Each chapter also closes with a few short recipes. Plot-wise, I found the book a bit problematic as it really presented a sexist view of women as beautiful objects and Italian men as hapless flirts and womanizers. I believe that Kamin spent time in Italy in the 1990s or early 2000s, but the book was only published last year – so it seems a bit dated in that sense. I did enjoy the recipes and how well Kamin paints a sensory portrait and the sounds, smells and flavors of Italian culture.

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Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times by Paul Born. (Non-fiction/Sociology, 2014). This short read is a non-fiction, sociological perspective on how society has become increasingly isolated, lonely and independent in the past century despite the fact that we are digitally more connected than ever and that humans crave community. I don’t know how applicable this topic is to the general public, but with my work in community development, this topic resonates with me deeply. Paul Born was a keynote speaker at a conference I attended this summer and attendees all received a copy of this book. Paul works at an organization in Canada called the Tamarack Institute that works to eradicate poverty by building more inclusive communities and changing policy to reduce inequities. His theory is somewhat anti the American ethos of ‘pulling yourself up by the bootstraps’ with a belief that poverty is often the result of poor policy, not poor work ethic or bad luck. Paul shares insights from his membership in a Canadian Mennonite community and how our desire to be a part of community can either lead to stronger blocks, neighborhoods, schools, faith based communities, workplaces, etc. – or divide us and entrench us in separate fear-based communities. This book gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I take care of the people around me and how I can be a good neighbor and citizen.

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The Whisper Man by Alex North. (Thriller/Mystery, 2019). This was one of our book club reads this fall and while thriller/horror is not my genre of choice, this was a hard book to put down. I finished almost the entire 355 page book on a four hour plane ride, to give you a sense of how captivating it is. The Whisper Man follows a father and son who move to a small town after a sudden and tragic death of the wife and mother of the family. While both father and son hope that the new home will offer a fresh start for them, they’ve moved into a community with a dark history of young boys being kidnapped and later murdered by a haunting man who whispers outside the boys’ windows. This book was TERRIFYING, but wasn’t just sheer horror. It offered fantastic insights into broken families, families dealing with trauma, the difficulty of fitting in as a child and the challenges of being a parent who is overwhelmed by parenting alone after a spouse’s death.

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Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee. (Contemporary/Fiction, 2019). Wow, this book is easily one of my favorite reads of 2019. This novel follows the separate, but permanently intertwined lives of two immigrant sisters, Miranda and Lucia. Miranda is the Type A, over achieving, perfectly organized and coifed older sister. Lucia is headstrong, creative, a free spirit and is dealing with the devastating impacts of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Lucia’s battle with accepting her diagnosis of mental illness drives the family apart, but Miranda continually is drawn back to her sister’s side, despite the deep division that Lucia’s illness causes between them. This book was heart-wrenching as you felt so deeply for both sisters. I liked that there wasn’t a hero in this story, it exposed both sisters as humans struggling to accept the realities of living with mental illness on one-hand, and the free will and autonomy that individuals have, even if those decisions are not the ones that the same ones that they would make.

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The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan. (Non-fiction/Science, 2018). This is a book that has been recommended to me by professional colleagues since it was published and it had been lingering on my Goodread’s To Read list for more than a year. I saw a copy on sale at my local library (they sell off inexpensive copies of books where they have duplicates every now and then) for $2.00 and figured I’d finally get around to reading it! This book was captivating and hard to put down, despite the fact that it’s a history and science read. It explains in a non-scientist fashion the history of the opening of the Great Lakes to international exploration and freight and the devastating impacts that invasive species and pollution have had on habitats, native species, the fishing and tourism industries and put at risk the largest freshwater source on the planet. Even if you don’t live near the Great Lakes, this book is a fascinating read about humans’ historic and perpetual efforts to wrangle nature to our whim, and how we never seem to learn our lesson.

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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. (Historical Fiction, 2019). This was our book club read for October and was difficult to read. The story follows African American teenager Elwood Curtis, who is caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and is sentenced to a Jim Crow-era reform school in Florida, the Nickel Academy. The school has a notorious reputation for physical and sexual abuse of the residents and the corruption has rotted the institution to its core. Elwood is an intelligent, aspirational young man who grew up without parents in his life, instead raised by his strict grandmother. He is completely unprepared for life in an institution of corruption, corporal punishment and such blind cruelty toward others for one’s self preservation. The book is based on stories from survivors from an actual reform school in Florida, the Dozier School for Boys. NPR covered some of the horrors uncovered at this now shuttered school in this article in 2012. This book is hard to read, but I think, important to read. It is such a common tripe to blame the mistreatment of African American men on their ‘poor choices’ or ‘lack of work ethic’. It probably makes us feel better to think that the mistreatment of fellow humans is somehow justified. Despite this being a fictional read, you cannot read it and think that the horrifying levels of human cruelty could be justified for anyone. We have so much history to come to terms with in this country.

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It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy At Work by Jason Fried. (Business/Non-Fiction, 2018). This was our work book club fall read. (Yes, I started a book club at work because I took a DNA test and turns out, I’m 100% that nerd). It’s a small group and it’s a new venture, but we get together once per quarter and read a book about work life balance, work efficiency or leadership. I’m hoping that it can spur conversation on organizational culture changes and encourage better practices. This book is written by one of Basecamp’s founders, Jason Fried, and highlights in an easy to read format the beliefs at the core of their organization. It basically knocks the “hustle and grind” mentality to the ground and applauds organizations (like Basecamp) that are intentional in creating a culture of ‘calm’. Their organization advocates for fewer distractions (like not leaving email or chat open at all times), encouraging people to say no, giving generous amounts of time off, endorsing employee health and wellbeing by paying for CSA shares and not having pointless meetings or ever having meetings in groups larger than three people. Many of the points of this book would be difficult to apply to working in the public sector, but it was refreshing to see that segments of the private sector are prioritizing their employees’ mental health and wellbeing.

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