BRL Best Books of 2019

Here they are – my favorite books of 2019 (note: I read a lot of backlist titles so they’re not all published this year.) Overall I seemed to have less 5-star reads this year than last year, but plenty of 4-star reads. Let’s get to it (in no particular order:)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008.) Strout has emerged as one of my favorite writers. I’d been meaning to read this for years and I’m so glad I did. Gut-wrenchingly beautiful writing.

The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner (2019.) I haven’t written a lot about this but this has been a year of positive changes for me in terms of my body image, weight, health, all that stuff. This is the book that got the ball rolling for me, and it’s funny, smart, relatable, engaging. I love the author’s Instagram feed as well. She’s a hoot. If you’re interested in Health at Every Size or have issues with food and exercise I highly recommend this book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2019.) Smart, atmospheric modern-day Gothic mystery. Loved it!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951.) Brilliant, suspenseful, masterful novel with a heck of an ending. Who exactly was the manipulator in this novel? I’d read this again in a heartbeat.

March:Book Three by John Lewis (2016.) The last in a graphic memoir set that just blew me away. I feel like I learned more about the Civil Rights movement in 1960’s America from this three-volume set than I did in all my history classes. The artwork provides a visceral wallop that drives home how violent and dangerous the struggle for rights was. This set also made me realize what a hero Representative John Lewis is.

The Nickel Boys by a Colson Whitehead (2019.) I thought Whitehead’s last book, The Underground Railroad, was a masterpiece, but he did it again with his next book! In spare prose he focuses on two teenaged black boys in Florida in the 1960’s. They become friends at a reform school for “delinquent ” youth, mostly black kids who were petty criminals or just unwanted kids. He could have wallowed in the horror these boys faced but he didn’t, and I’m grateful. He didn’t waste one word in depicting the injustice and harsh circumstances these young men faced, but instead shined a light onto what was a real situation for hundreds of boys in a real life school like this in Florida. Very moving without being manipulative.

The Lager Queen by J. Ryan Stradal (2019.) This book just went straight to my heart. I don’t even like beer.

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain (2019.) I’m grateful that I read this because it’s given my family our Tech-Free Sunday time, where we put down our devices and just hang out with one another. We look forward to this time, even my video-game-obsessed 8 year-old. A very good, very short book about the benefits of unplugging one day a week.

In the Woods by Tana French (2008.) So atmospheric! So intricate and haunting. I got lost in this book. I don’t know why it took me so long to try French.

Over the Top by Jonathan Van Ness (2019.) A very brave memoir from a very open and brave man. So good!

A18h+5O2G3LHonorable Mention: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore (2019.) Historical romance that’s super-smart and well-written. Didn’t tempt me to roll my eyes even once. Great characters and plot, and just enough steaminess to be fun but not annoying. Can’t wait to read her next one.

I like my range of styles here – two self-help books, a contemporary fiction, two mysteries, a graphic memoir and a regular memoir, two literary fiction titles, a classic, and a romance! No one can accuse me of a narrow reading life. I hope your 2019 reading lives were big and wide and full of five-star reads.

Late to the #ThanksgivingReadathon (Better Late Than Never)

Happy Thanksgiving for those of you celebrating today! I just decided to join in on Jackie’s Thanksgiving Readathon. Why not? I’ll be reading anyway this weekend, right?

THANKSGIVINGREADATHON-2019-BANNER

Here’s my TBR. I’d like to finish two of these and start two (actually I’ve already started two, LOL:)

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory

Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon

The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan (poems)

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal

Are you participating? If not, what books do you hope to read/start over the weekend?

Random question: what’s your favorite Thanksgiving/Holiday family gathering food? Mine is a tie between the sweet potatoes, creamed Parmesan spinach, and the cranberry sauce (yeah, I know, I’m weird.)

I’ll be back tomorrow with another post, about my latest read for the Classics Club.

 

Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

I may have mentioned before that I love the Netflix series Queer Eye. LOVE IT. It’s a balm for the weary 21st-century soul. Five adorable, kind gay men meet a person who is stuck somehow in their life… mentally, physically, emotionally, sometimes all three… and, with great compassion, help them break out of their funk and start to go after their dreams again. It’s just lovely and practically every episode makes me cry happy tears. It’s hard to pick a “favorite “of the Fab Five, but if I had to it would be Jonathan Van Ness. He is the hair and skin “expert” but like all the guys he has many more layers.img_4998

Little did I know just how many layers he has until I read his new memoir, Over the Top. Wow. He really lays his life out there for the reader and I find it so brave to be that vulnerable.

When people had asked me whether I was ready for my life to change, I don’t think I really understood what they meant. It wasn’t just that strangers would know who I was. It was this other thing that started to happen to me: when I looked in their eyes, sometimes, there was a little voice in my head wondering, Would you still be so excited to meet me if you really knew who I was? If you knew all the things I’d done? If you could see all my parts?

Over the course of the memoir we see how childhood sexual abuse and growing up gay in a small, conservative Midwestern town affected his life. Despite a loving, pretty accepting family, they didn’t seem to have the emotional tools to deal effectively or help Jonathan deal effectively with his own pain and anxiety. Young Jonathan turned to food and imagined skating and gymnastics routines to escape his complicated emotions.

From the outside, my carpet-skating routines were not actually quite as major as they felt inside my head, but they gave me something so important. Choreographing routines on my own in the basement for hours on end gave my imagination a place to roam free. Nobody was there to tell me how to move my body or what music was right for me to listen to. I could daydream about how if I nailed this short program I’d be heading into the long program in second place and could lock down my spot on the Olympic team. Being able to entertain yourself is a valuable skill, especially if you’re in a prolonged dark space. (For me, that was Quincy.) Maybe that’s dramatic, and maybe I’m too sensitive, but there wasn’t much naturally occurring joy in that era for me, so it was up to me to make my own. Especially being such a soft, round kid – who wanted to be a fit, sporty one – dancing made me feel graceful. It gave me a freedom I didn’t have anywhere else.

Later, Jonathan would develop an addiction to drugs that proved very hard to kick, as well as a sexual addiction. He delves into some very dark times in his life with amazing honesty, including the period of his life that he was a male prostitute. Reading this I felt amazed that he’s still alive considering all the risky and dangerous positions he put himself in. It’s a real testament to his family and to his spirit that he persisted and fought for a better life for himself.

When you’re a survivor of abuse, living in chaos can be the most upsetting yet comforting thing in the word. It was for me.

I loved reading about how he got into the hair business and started turning his life around. The section where he worked at a very posh, high-pressure salon in L.A. was fascinating. It sounds like a hellish, toxic environment that I’d never want to work in but he came away with so many skills and a new confidence in his abilities.

His step-father’s illness and death, his own HIV diagnosis, his eventual introduction into show business and landing the part on Queer Eye, they’re all covered. This is a very open, brave book. He showed that he’s not just the sunny, ultra-positive person he often seems on the show. Those are real parts of him but also there is real trauma and messiness there too.

Over the years I’ve heard horror stories of celebrities being dicks to nice people, and I always thought that was horrifying – why wouldn’t you be nice to your fans? What did you think you were getting into? But what I’ve realized is that you can’t be the same version of yourself at all times. Maybe your kidney function test results came back weird, so you have to go back to the doctor and you’re worried, but you can’t explain that to the fan who just wants a selfie. Maybe you just held your thirteen-year-old cat in your arms as the took their last breath, but the group of people wanting a picture don’t care – they just want their bubbly JVN, and they want him right now. It’s been the honor of a lifetime to be held to this ideal, but what I really want to tell the people asking for photos is: I’m literally just as lost as you. And I’m just as much of a perfectly imperfect mess. People are layered- good and bad, filled with joy and sorrow. The key is being grounded in the relationship you have with yourself. Basing my worth in how I treat myself despite how others treat me has been the key to my success – and I want that for you too.

I really do feel like this book will help people. People with addiction and circumstances similar to Jonathan’s and people who just have your average insecurities and anxieties. It’s a fast read, engaging and at times funny with lots of Jonathan’s trademark phrases he uses (ferosh for ferocious, etc.) I loved this book. It’s a must-read if you’re a fan of the show and even if you’re not, it’s an entertaining and moving read. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Mini-Reviews: 24/6 and In the Woods

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain

Are you addicted to your phone? Do you feel like your kids spend too much time on the computer or game console? Has your concentration, creativity, or sleep suffered compared to the days when you didn’t have a little computer in your pocket all the time? Do you stay awake past your bedtime watching endless episodes of your favorite show on Netflix? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book might be for you.

“Internet pioneer” (it says so on the jacket) Tiffany Shlain has made a very persuasive case for turning off screens for 24 hours during the week. Her family (husband and two kids) are Jewish and they practice a weekly “Technology Shabbat,” screen-free from Friday evening to Saturday evening. They begin the evening inviting people over for dinner, playing actual record albums on a record player, lingering over food and conversation to kick off every weekend. It sounds idyllic. Saturday begins with sleeping in, reading, writing in journals, even normal weekend activities like soccer games. She makes a plan beforehand, with phone numbers or directions written down on paper. (She does advocate the use of a landline telephone for emergencies.) After all, before cell phones we just consulted maps and planned meetings or outings beforehand, didn’t we?

In addition to telling her story, why she came to try this tradition, she goes into the science of unplugging from screens – what it does for your brain, sleep, stress levels, etc.

Though researchers don’t always agree on why sleep is so important, everyone concurs that it is. Sleep does so much for our bodies and brains. It’s when the pit crew comes in and gets everything ready for the next day.

One of the things that happens is a literal brainwash. While we’re asleep, our brains actually shrink in a process called “synaptic homeostasis.” This process makes room for the brain’s level of cerebrospinal fluid to rise dramatically, washing out the damaging proteins that have built up over a day of thinking. It also allows synapses, which grow and widen while the brain is awake and busy but cannot grow indefinitely, to return to their normal size.

At the end of the book she provides a guide to trying your own Tech Shabbat, with suggestions for activities broken down by age group and even a recipe for challah bread that her family often makes during their time. You can do yours any day that works for your family. She also included friends sharing their experiences trying the Tech Shabbat, what surprised them or challenged them. It’s a very practical book, and it’s quite short, so you could read it in an afternoon.

My family hasn’t gone so far as to commit to a full 24 hours of no screens, but for the past two weeks we’ve had “Tech-Free Time” on Sundays. For five hours we don’t use any screens at all. It might not sound like much, but it’s been a game-changer for me. We play outside, play board games or do puzzles, read, work on projects around the house, and just actually talk with one another without distractions. I feel so much more present, and time actually feels like it’s slowing down. I do leave my phone on in case of emergencies, as we don’t have a landline. But I don’t respond to texts and keep it away where I can’t see it. I keep a notepad for writing down things I need to look up or do online later. I am thinking we should try expanding our time. As Shlain writes, “You are the parent. You can make anything happen. ” I highly recommend this book if you feel like you or your family old benefit from screen-free time.                        ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

In the Woods by Tana French

I’ve been meaning to read Tana French for years. I finally did and I’m so glad! I was worried that the plot of this would be too disturbing, with kids going missing and/or murdered, but I found that I could handle it. (Is the steady diet of mysteries/thrillers/police procedurals finally toughening up my soul?) What I encountered here was lush, thoughtful, atmospheric writing, and a page turning plot as well. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s Secret History, that sort of autumnal, almost elegiac feeling. The main character, Dublin Detective Rob Ryan, is the survivor of a horrific childhood incident, most of which he doesn’t remember. When a child turns up dead in the woods where Ryan was found twenty years previously, now the site of an archaeological dig and impending highway, he’s desperate not only to find the killer but to see if there’s a connection to his childhood trauma.

I loved the writing, found the characters credible and occasionally irritating in the way real humans can be, and was fascinated by the dual mysteries at the book’s center. I will definitely read more by Tana French.     ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski

The introduction to Burnout reads: “This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by everything she had to do, and yet still worried she was not doing ‘enough’.” Um, hello! The Nagoski sisters have been reading my mail.

A1+-unICxaLI loved this book. I need to own a copy to be able to flip through and underline and reread. There are so many good points in Burnout that I decided against writing a traditional review and simply share some quotations that meant the most to me instead. Here goes.

  • “Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle.”
  • “To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.” 
  • “Meaning is not made by the terrible thing you experienced; it is made by the ways you survive.”
  • “At the heart of Human Giver Syndrome lies the deeply buried, unspoken assumption that women should give everything, every moment of their lives, every drop of energy, to the care of others. ‘Self-care’ is, indeed, selfish because it uses personal resources to promote a giver’s well-being, rather than someone else’s. “
  • “Feeling helpless and hopeless after watching news about the state of international politics? Don’t distract yourself or numb out; do a thing. Do yard work or gardening, to care for your small patch of the world. Take food to somebody who needs a little boost. Take your dog to the park. Show up at a Black Lives Matter march. You might even call your government representative. That’s great. That’s participation. You’re not helpless. Your goal is not to stabilize the government… your goal is to stabilize you, so that you can maintain a sense of efficacy, so that you can do the important stuff your family and your community needs from you.”
  • “Maybe you don’t look like you used to, or like you used to imagine you should; but how you look today is the new hotness. Even better than the old hotness. Wearing your new leggings today? You are the new hotness. Hair longer or short, or a different color or style? New hotness. Saggy belly from that baby you birthed? New hotness. Gained twenty pounds while finishing school? New hotness. Skin gets new wrinkles because you lived another year? New hotness. Scar tissue following knee replacement surgery? New hotness. Amputation following combat injury? New hotness. Mastectomy following breast cancer? New hotness. The point is, you define and redefine your body’s worth, on your own terms. Again and again, you turn towards your body with kindness and compassion.”
  • “Instead of just looking at your body to evaluate her well-being, turn to her and ask her how she feels: ‘What’s wrong, honey? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Lonely?’ She can definitely tell you, if you listen. You might have to stop what you’re doing, take a slow breath, focus on the sensation of your weight on the floor or the chair, and actually ask out loud, ‘What do you need?'”
  • “Your body is not the enemy. The real enemy is out there – the Bikini Industrial Complex. It is trying sneakily to convince you that you are the problem, that your body is the enemy, that your body is inadequate, which makes you a failure.” 

What my body needs right now is to stop writing this post and get up and stretch – ha ha! Reading this book was like talking to a very wise, compassionate friend. The tone is so intimate and warm, but also pragmatic. Here’s the situation, and here’s what you can do about it. It’s the kind of book that can start to crack deeply ingrained thought patterns and let in some light and freshness to your stale habits. It’s also refreshing that it doesn’t put all the blame for this crap on the individual – it acknowledges the big societal and cultural structures and attitudes that contribute to our stress. I am so grateful I happened upon this book. If you are a woman who feels overwhelmed, run down, worn out, helpless, or like you need a boost of confidence, this is a book for you!

 

 

 

Outer Order, Inner Calm by Gretchen Rubin

“…it’s important to remember that outer order isn’t simply a matter of having less or having more; it’s a matter of wanting what we have.”

41RaMB9o7bL._SX360_BO1,204,203,200_If you’re someone who feels like you’ve got too much stuff and all that stuff weighs on your mind, then Gretchen Rubin’s new book Outer Order, Inner Calm is for you. If you enjoy Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix but you think that her system is too rigid, this is definitely a book you should check out. (Literally. Check it out from your library so you don’t add to your clutter! ) Its bite-sized bits of advice are logical and encouraging and just might give you the push you need to let some things go.

If I only take away one idea from Rubin’s book, it’s this one: If you don’t need it, love, it, or use it, you should probably get rid of it.

Simple, right? And for me, it works better than Kondo’s “spark joy” idea. Everybody’s different, and Rubin seems to get that.

img_3736Another favorite piece of advice: The Three Strikes and You’re Out Rule. If she’s thought about getting rid of something twice before, the third time she thinks it, she gets rid of it. I sometimes find myself holding on to things that people have given me as gifts, but they’re things I don’t really want. I just keep them out of guilt, I guess. Now I can use this idea to show myself that I really DON’T want that scented candle or whatever it is.

Another great tip: Make a Mock Move. Would you bother to wrap up this item in bubble wrap and stick it in a box and put it on a truck to take it to a new house? If not, out it goes.

This is a very approachable advice book for people who don’t want to dump every piece of clothing they own in a big pile on the bed and tackle clutter all at once. Rubin is logical but also recognizes that people need beautiful things and sentimental things in their lives. In fact, her last section is titled “Add Beauty.” I really enjoyed this book and found it very helpful. You can read a few tips at a time or read the whole thing straight through in no time at all. I bet it will inspire you to look at your belongings and habits with a new eye.

 

Five Sentence Reviews: Dear Mrs. Bird, Anne Lamott, and Romance!

I’ve been on a month-long yoga journey with the amazing Adriene Mishler of Yoga With Adriene. I’ve practiced EVERY NIGHT. This is kind of a big deal because I’m famous for starting things and not finishing them. There are three practices left in the sequence (I started a day late.) I’m telling you this because the nightly yoga, while amazing for my soul, posture, and core, is not conducive to blog posting. I’ve been reading, though, so I’m (as usual) a bit behind on reviews. Here are some five-sentence reviews to clear the decks. All of these were four-star reads. In fact, in January I’ve had ALL four-star reads. Still waiting for the first five-star of 2019!

81w5wudgvllDear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce. A charming historical fiction novel set in London during World War II. Emmy Lake is an irresistibly plucky heroine. She takes a job that she thinks is going to be a junior reporter for a newspaper but turns out to be a typist for an advice columnist at a floundering women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, the advice columnist, is prudish and severe, so Emmy decides to secretly help the young women who need friendly advice in a scary time. This was an enjoyable yet moving look at lives in England during the Blitz.

After a big raid it was always sad to see flattened buildings and burnt-out churches which had stood for hundreds of years, but there was something rather triumphant about the monuments and statues, even the parks and big department stores that were still there, getting on with things. The Luftwaffe may have been  trying to blast us to pieces, but everyone just kept getting back up.

Almost Everything: Notes on Hope by Anne Lamott. I love Anne Lamott. I listened to 39203790the audiobook, read by the author, and it was wonderful. If you’ve never read her before, she’s like a kindly, slightly kooky neighbor or aunt who tells you hard truths about life but also gives you M&Ms and hugs. She is consistently hopeful yet aware of the pain of the world and unfairness of life. Reading her makes me feel better, stronger, less crazy, and this was one of her better recent books.

It’s okay to stop hitting the snooze button and to wake up and pay attention to what makes you feel okay about yourself, one meal at a time. Unfortunately, it’s yet another inside job. If you are not okay with yourself at 185 pounds, you may not be okay at 150, or even 135. The self-respect and peace of mind you long for is not in your weight. It’s within you. I resent that more than I can say. But it’s true. Finding a way to have a relatively healthy and safe relationship with food is hard, and it involves being one’s very own dearest person. This will not cause chaos or death, as you were surely taught, but rather an environment where you can drown out the many mean and mistaken voices.

51flpz8fm5lA Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole (Reluctant Royals #1.) A fun, smart, sexy page-turner. This contemporary romance features a guarded, independent STEM-based grad student heroine, Naledi, and an actual prince from the fictional African country of Thesolo, Thabiso, who comes to New York to track down his long-lost betrothed. A case of mistaken identity brings to two together, where they experience undeniable chemistry. The storyline was so well-crafted I kind of skimmed over the sexy parts, to be honest. These characters were fully realized and incredibly likeable; I can’t wait to read more of this series (the next focuses on Naledi’s best friend Portia.)

“Um,” she said. Her general reaction to men she met in her daily life was indifference or tolerance, at best, but something about this man sent her thoughts spinning far, far away from lab work or serving or studying. The only data she was currently interested in collecting was the exact tensile pressure of his beard against her inner thigh, and the shift in mass of his body on top of hers.

Have you read any of these? Have you had a five-star read yet in 2019?