Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Best Books of 2018

In past years, I’ve done a Reading Year In Review as my last post of the year, including my standout reads from the last 12 months. This year, I’m adding a Best Books of 2018 post, because everyone else is doing one. (It’s always important to do what everyone else is doing, right?) 

Ok, here goes: my favorite 8 books of 2018 and why I liked them. These weren’t necessarily my favorites as I was reading them, but with time to reflect, they are the ones that I found the most moving and beautifully written, and which have stayed with me over the months. I’ve linked to my original reviews for each title.

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson is my #1 read of the year. Poignant, with spare writing and insights about being a woman, family and parenting, this book was a recent read and well worth it.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld. I’ll read anything she writes, but every page of this collection of stories was enjoyable. Memorable characters, believable situations. I want to re-read this one. 

Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen. If the purpose of a memoir is to let the world know who you really are, then this one succeeded in spades. It’s long and sometimes meandering but hey, it’s Bruce, so it’s ok.

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. The first 3/4 of this book was very slow, but the final quarter made up for it. Heartbreaking, deeply moving and a story that has stayed with me for months.

Waiting For Eden by Elliot Ackerman. Don’t let the subject matter – a severely wounded soldier lying in a coma while his conflicted wife waits for his condition to change – drive you away. This short novel raises a number of ethical questions and is a good reminder of the constant danger our soldiers face.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Theres’s a reason this book is all over everyone else’s top 2018 reads. It’s a small story about a love triangle that says big things about the state of race in America. So well written and beautifully constructed.

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman. This one was a sleeper. I liked it fine when I read it, but the main character has really stayed with me and in retrospect I think this was a pretty good book. It’s sad and lonely and atmospheric, and at the same time it’s totally believable.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I re-read my favorite book from 2017 and loved it just as much. I’ll shut up now.

RAY & JOAN by Lisa Napoli

Ray Kroc is best – if erroneously – known as the founder of McDonald’s. He didn’t actually start the company – the first McDonald’s was owned by two brothers in San Bernardino, CA – but Ray did develop the franchise model that turned McDonald’s into one of the world’s biggest brands, making himself a billionaire in the process. Ray’s third wife, Joan, to whom he was married when he died, gave away the billions of dollars in wealth that her husband created, and she is the subject of Lisa Napoli’s 2016 book, Ray & Joan.

The first half of Ray & Joan covers the history of the McDonald’s chain, including its dusty inception, and the early, lean years of Ray’s ownership of the company. A salesman at heart, he made many missteps along the way to success, each of which is covered in the book. Joan, meanwhile, was a young wife and mother when Ray laid eyes on her in a Minnesota nightclub, playing piano and singing. She stole his heart, and while it would be many years before they were together, he never forgot about her. Ray and Joan were fiery, opinionated people who fought often but were drawn together by a passion that survived three marriages to other people.

By the time the Krocs finally got together for good in 1969, Ray was already very wealthy. The causes that he chose to support were determined by his conservative political views, and Joan often felt limited in her ability to direct her husband’s philanthropy. She tolerated his purchase of the San Diego Padres and took a limited interest in his funding of business schools and various health causes.

But as Ray’s health declined, and after his death in 1984, Joan began to take charge of the family fortune and kicked off what turned into a spectacular – and indiosyncratic – philanthropic career. Her first pet cause was addiction, fueled by her frustration with Ray’s lifelong drinking, and she sought out doctors and institutions who would study the disease and provide resources to other who suffered from it. From there, she moved to nuclear disarmament and end of life hospice support and a host of other causes that caught her attention. 

The most interesting aspect of Ray & Joan is Napoli’s coverage of what prompted Joan to give money away.  She was famously private, and hated being solicited or asked for money. When she gave, she almost always did it anonymously, in large part to prevent others from approaching her looking for a similar donation. She’d see someone on the news doing something that impressed her, and the next day a check would arrive from Joan. At the end of her life, she concentrated her giving on two recipients: NPR and the Salvation Army, though the enormous gifts she left both organizations upon her death came with strings and instructions that made them almost as burdensome (especially in the case of the Salvation Army) as they were lifesaving.

Napoli had a blank slate to work with, as no one had written about Joan Krok before, despite her enormous legacy. Napoli did a good job of unearthing the psychological roots of Joan’s motivations, and by the end I had a good sense of who Joan was, with all of her complications and contradictions. The book moves along pretty steadily, and it’s fascinating to track the path of Joan’s hundreds of millions of dollars.

I listened to Ray & Joan on audio. It was narrated by the author, and I didn’t love it. Napoli has a chirpy voice and she enunciates VERY clearly, and sometimes that voice just didn’t match the subject matter. She’d be talking about someone dying, or a terrible tragedy, and she was just too upbeat and perky for what she was talking about, like she was reading a children’s book. Also – warning – listening to this book for 9 hours in the car as you drive around will make you crave McDonald’s, and it gets really bad if you’re at all hungry. To date, I’ve resisted the urge, but it was challenging.

i enjoyed Ray & Joan and am glad I finally got to it, as it has been on my shelf for a few years. I recommend the print over the audio.

2018 Holiday Gift Guide For The Readers On Your List

Do you have readers on your holiday shopping list this year? Are you at a loss for what to get them? I’ve pulled together some a holiday gift guide for different types of readers. Hopefully this will keep you from aimlessly wandering the aisles at the bookstore or resorting to the dreaded gift card.

Also, Nicole Bonia and I recorded a 2018 Gift Guide episode for our podcast, The Readerly Report, in which we discuss her recommendations as well as mine. I’ll post the episode here when it’s up.

2018 HOLIDAY GIFT GUIDE FOR READERS

Books for your best friend, so that you can discuss together. (You’ll need to buy two of these: one for you and one for your friend)

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld (reviewed here). These short stories are so honest and realistic that they are crying out to be discussed and affirmed.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill (reviewed here). A breathtaking, yet depressing, look at urban marriage and parenthood. I couldn’t get enough of this one – and I know my best friend couldn’t either. You will laugh and commiserate together. Bonus: it’s short.

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve (reviewed here). I read this one with Nicole, and thankfully I had her to share the tension and suspense with. I absolutely needed to talk about it with someone! Shreve is an expert storyteller and this book did not disappoint.

Books for your friend who needs to take her mind off of something

One Day In December by Josie Silver (reviewed here). It’s romantic and schmaltzy but damn if I couldn’t put this book down for the three days I was reading it. Will Laurie and Jack, who meet one December day when they lock eyes through a bus window, end up together? Ten years after they meet, you’ll get your answer.

One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid (reviewed here).  Another addictive read. Emma and Jesse are soul mates… until his plane goes down in Alaska and he’s never heard from again. Emma grieves and moves on… until Jesse reappears in her life a few years later, after she’s gotten engaged to someone else. Who will she choose?

 

Books for your friend who is always posting alarming stuff 

Red Clocks by Leni Zumas (reviewed here). Imagine a world in which abortion and IVF are illegal and adoption is only permitted by heterosexual couples. Zumas takes four women in different stages of life and explores what it is like to be female in such a world. Bleak indeed.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (reviewed here). This dystopian novel may not take on the things we’re worrying about today – climate change, racial violence, women’s rights – but it’s dark and stressful, and a post-apocalyptic world is a post-apocalyptic world, no matter how we got there. This is an imaginative and moving book.

Books for your friend who only reads literary fiction

Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee (reviewed here): A moving look at the relationship between two sisters, one with mental illness, and how the thread connecting them is strained but never severed.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (reviewed here): A novel about the tragic consequences of our draconian immigration policies.

A Cloud In The Shape Of A Girl by Jean Thompson (review to come): My personal weakness: the story of three generations of women in the Midwest and their inner hopes, loves and disappointments. One of my favorite books of the year.

Books for the non-fiction reader

The Four by Scott Galloway: A look at how Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple became essential to our daily lives. (Warning: I haven’t read this yet but I really want to.)

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou: This story of high stakes fraud and deception by the high-flying startup Theranos has to be the second-most highly reviewed book of 2018! I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about it and have bought it for two people already. (Again, I haven’t read this one.)

 

Audiobooks for Anglophiles

For some reason the majority of the audiobooks I’ve listened to this year were set in England with British narrators. Don’t be a knob – get these clever recordings for your friend who couldn’t turn off the last two royal weddings:

One Day In December by Josie Silver (reviewed here)

Mary B. by Katherine Chen (reviewed here)

Still Me by Jojo Moyes (reviewed here)

 

 

Books For Anyone

Becoming by Michelle Obama: OK, I haven’t read this one yet, but I plan to soon, and how could it be anything other than amazing? It is the fastest-selling book of 2018.

Kitchens Of The Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (reviewed here and here): Yes, I know. I’m annoying about this book. Just buy it – whoever it is for will love it.

ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW by Nicole Chung

It’s Non-Fiction November, folks! So I read some non-fiction.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung is a deeply personal memoir about the Korean-American author’s life as an adopted daughter. Born to Korean-American parents in 1980s Seattle, Nicole was given up as a premature baby and adopted by a white couple from a small town in Oregon. She grew up as the only Asian in her whole town, suffering teasing and bullying by those around her who couldn’t accept her being different. As a result, she was shy and insecure, constantly trying to fit in.

When Nicole got to college and was surrounded by other Asians, she started to think more about her identity and what it meant to be Korean. After a few years, she decided to pursue a search for her birth family. When she initially learned that her parents were alive – but not living together – and that she had two sisters, her reticence about hurting her parents and her fear of rejection were both overpowered by her intense curiosity about her birth parents and her roots as a Korean girl. All You Can Ever Know is a detailed, emotional and very clearly written memoir about the experience of tracking down her birth family and what their reunion was like.

I liked All You Can Ever Know a lot. I appreciated the insights into her unique circumstances, including her interactions difficult birth mother and formal, academic father. Chung is so honest and forthright that it’s hard not to get emotionally involved with her story and feel affected by what happened to her. The book is a good look at adoption from the point of the adoptee, with all of the conflicting emotions and identity questions that it raises.

I listened to All You Can Ever Know on audio. It was narrated by Janet Song, who did a decent job with it. Song’s precise, clear delivery mirrored Chung’s writing style, and it was easy to follow. I was surprised that it wasn’t narrated by the author, which I think would have been very powerful. Ultimately, I felt a bit of a remove from the content, knowing that it wasn’t the author herself that I was listening to. I wonder if it was just too personal for Chung, and that she didn’t want her own voice out there talking about her parents and her feelings.

All You Can Ever Know is a short and satisfying read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in adoption, particularly trans-racial adoption.

I AM, I AM, I AM by Maggie O’Farrell

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell is an exquisite collection of essays about 17 brushes with death by the Irish author Maggie O’Farrell. From the medical – a c-section gone wrong, a brain infection – to near-drownings while on vacation and narrowly escaped violence at the hands of others, O’Farrell has faced a lot of physical adversity and danger over the course of her life. A life lived on the razor edge of death made O’Farrell less, rather than more, risk-adverse, pushing her to embrace mortality, almost daring it to stop her as she sought out adventures and experiences, often ill-advised, that her body may not have been able to handle.

Some chapters are more successful than others; the chapter about an AIDS test ends rather vaguely, for example, and detracts slightly from the overall collection. But there are others in which danger is so clearly present that I found myself rattled and anxious, even knowing, of course, that O’Farrell is alive and well. How frequently have we all been in situations where our safety was in grave danger, most likely without even knowing it? Life is a daily, ongoing miracle that we so often take for granted and think about only fleetingly, yet many of us could likely fill 17 chapters with our own harrowing brushes with disaster. I finished this book feeling grateful and lucky.

I enjoyed I Am, I Am, I Am quite a bit as I read it, but my feelings about it changed when I got to the last chapter, which is about O’Farrell’s daughter. Without spoiling the book, it wasn’t until that last chapter, when risk and worry were upended and transposed, that I really understood why O’Farrell wrote it: her ever-present, unwavering and never lessening fear and vigilance caused by her daughter’s auto-immune disorder. As a parent, I found this chapter the most harrowing of all.

I Am, I Am, I Am is definitely worth a read. If you’ve read any of O’Farrell’s novels (see here for reviews of Instructions For A Heatwave and The Vanishing Act Of Esme Lennox), then you know already what a beautiful writer she is. Her writing about her own personal experiences is even more meaningful and moving.

I listened to I Am, I Am, I Am on audio. It was narrated by Daisy Donovan, who did a great job conveying the intensity of this personal narrative. (I was a little surprised that it wasn’t narrated by O’Farrell herself, and I supposed I just pretended it was O’Farrell reading it as I listened.) I highly recommend the audiobook, which breathlessly and urgently conveyed the gravity of the subject.

BACHELOR NATION by Amy Kaufman

I am a fan of the Bachelor franchise. I have been since the beginning. I’ve watched almost all the seasons – maybe missed 4 or 5 along the day – and it’s definitely one of my top guilty pleasures. It’s mindless, yes, and predictable and ridiculous too, but I do love watching it.

So I jumped at the chance to read and review Bachelor Nation: Inside The World Of America’s Favorite Guilty Pleasure by Amy Kaufman. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the franchise, compiled with lots of research about the show and how it works. Kaufman starts with a history of dating shows, which is a little dry, but then explores how the Bachelor franchise got started and why it’s so popular. Kaufman explains how the producers manipulate interviews and dates to create drama, and how people on the show are pressured to act certain ways and say certain things for the cameras. She covers the double standard for men and women on the show and gets a bit into the details of what it’s like to live in the mansion.

I didn’t learn anything earth-shattering, but Kaufman did answer some of the questions I’ve amassed over time. I wish she had gone into more detail about the daily lives of the contestants and what it’s like for the couples when the cameras stop rolling. Many of her sources were other books, articles or blogs, and I wanted more first-person accounts and interviews. I feel like I never have enough detail when it comes to The Bachelor!

If you’re a hardcore Bachelor fan who follows the podcasts and blogs about the show, then you’ll probably find that Bachelor Nation doesn’t have a lot of new material. If you’re a casual fan who hasn’t spent a lot of time learning about the show, then you’ll find this book to be a fun read. If you don’t know or care about the show, then definitely don’t pick this one up.

A BEAUTIFUL, TERRIBLE THING by Jen Waite

A few weeks ago, I said that I was done reading popcorn thrillers about sociopathic husbands. So what did I do next? Picked up a memoir about a sociopathic husband. SMH.

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing is the story of the demise of Jen Waite’s marriage to a charming Argentinian man named Marco. She married him after a frenzied period of dating and enjoyed 5 blissful years with him before everything fell apart. A few weeks after she gave birth to their daughter Louisa, she found a strange email on his computer that suggested that he was seeing someone else. He denied it repeatedly, but it came out over the next few months that Marco was cheating on Jen with another woman (and that there had been others).

The cheating was bad enough, but hardest for Jen was Marco’s coldness and lack of empathy. He claimed to be “sick” and “numb” and “unable to feel” anything about what he had done. After a lot of internet research and therapy, though, she concluded that he was a sociopath who had tricked her for years into believing that he loved her, but who cast her off when he decided he was ready to move on due to his own need for attention and adoration.

I guess I’m glad I read A Beautiful, Terrible Thing… ??? In the end, yes, Marco was awful and Jen’s pain was very intense, but did I need to read a whole book about it? I was more interested in the analysis of sociopaths and the identification of their patterns than the timeline of the revelations about Marco’s infidelity. Waite is a good writer, so it’s not like the book wasn’t written well. It’s just a somewhat familiar story and in the end I didn’t really grow that much for having read it. There is a lot of talk about not giving too much of yourself to another person or being so invested in their happiness, but if Marco hadn’t been a sociopathic monster, I don’t think Waite would be advising against either. (That’s what marriage is, right?)

You probably know by now whether this book is for you or not.