Book Reviews [2021 Q4]

Book Reviews [2021 Q4]

In Q4 of 2021, I read 19 books. That might be a quarterly record for me!

In 2021, I read 66 books [68 if you count my two school textbooks]. Of those, 16 were about health [my reading goal for the year], 14 were memoirs [my favorite genre], 13 were about racism or social justice issues, and 11 were fiction.

Also, I should mention that I give star ratings for these books just for fun and based solely on my own enjoyment of the book. Also, a four star rating means that I really, really liked the book. These are books that I definitely recommend and think are absolutely worthwhile reads. The only reason they don’t get five stars is because I reserve five stars for my absolute favorites – either for their entertainment value or the value of their content.

After I list my Q4 reads, I’ll share a list of my five star reads and my absolute favorite book(s) of 2021.

Here are the books I read in the final quarter of 2021:

October

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Fabre and Julie King

⭐️⭐️⭐️

Eh. This book was just okay for me. It was very similar to the parenting advice book, Now Say This, which I LOVE and have read several times. But, How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen was [in my opinion] not nearly as helpful or practical. Both books have similar content about affirming kids feelings and avoiding harsh reprimands and all of that, but many of the recommended responses did absolutely nothing to sway my stubborn toddlers.

🤷‍♀️

So I would recommend that you skip this and go read Now Say This.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Brett bought me this book to read when I took my kids on a trip to my aunt’s lake house. Maybe it was more about the setting – getting up early and reading with a fresh cup of coffee while watching the sun rise over the lake – but I really enjoyed this book. It is definitely not my preferred type of fiction, but it’s on Oprah’s book list, so I knew it would be worth a read. [Brett did not know that it was borderline erotic when he gave it to me, but I don’t think he was upset about it].

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Probably one of my favorite reads of the entire year – and definitely my favorite book about health and nutrition and food and animals and life and family…

This is the story of Barbara Kingsolver and her family buying a farm and growing/raising their food and committing to only eating local for a year.

It is just such a good book! Of course, it’s about topics that I am SUPER interested in: healthy food, sustainable farming, homesteading, eating local, environmentalism, the ethical treatment of animals, cooking, baking, raising, growing, and making food from scratch.

Basically, this book is about rethinking all of the aspects of our food that we currently view as unnecessary inconveniences – such as raising animals, growing vegetable from seeds, and knead bread by hand – and realizing that all of these things reconnect us to the earth, to its finite resources, to its shared inhabitants, and ultimately, to our own humanity.

This book is also largely responsible for me becoming an omnivore once again, after a year of veganism – although I now have much, much higher standards for the meat and dairy I am willing to consume. Here’s an excerpt from her very insightful views on veganism/vegetarianism:

“A hundred different paths may lighten the world’s load of suffering. Giving up meat is one path; giving up bananas is another. The more we know about our food system, the more we are called into complex choices. It seems facile to declare one single forbidden fruit, when humans live under so many different kinds of trees.”

Barbara Kingsolver. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

But that’s not all. There is SO MUCH good information in this book, I could quote the whole thing! So you just have to read this book!!

Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich

⭐️⭐️

“Being old enough to die is an achievement, not a defeat, and the freedom it brings is worth celebrating.”

Barbara Ehrenreich, Natural Causes

So, I’ve been reading tons of books about health, and then it all took a rather morbid turn and I started reading books about death. This, however, turned out to be especially depressing because she’s basically saying that everything I’m doing to be healthy is a total waste of time.

I didn’t really like the book for obvious reasons. She may have very good points about how worthless preventative screenings are or how pointless it is to avoid wine and chocolate or to frequent the gym when your body is withering away regardless – but she seems to imply that the only reason for healthy habits is to lengthen one’s life. I disagree. I think that a healthy life is a more fulfilling, more useful, more productive, more enjoyable life, even if that does mean a little less chocolate and wine. And, heck!, I frickin love my time at the gym.

Stop trying to take that away from me, Barbara!!

But I will say this: as a result of this book, I am a lot less likely to undergo a colonoscopy in the future. So, I guess I can thank Barbara for that!

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Now this book, on the other hand, was a really helpful, practical book about how to make the most of your time at the end of your life. In particular, I came away realizing how hospice is not just a death warrant that you take on when all else has failed and you’ve totally given up hope of having any meaningful time left, but rather it is a means by which you can experience a full end of life – one that keeps you out of the hospital, away from painful or debilitating treatments, and allows you to enjoy the things that matter most in life for as long as you have left.

It’s hard to imagine an end of life scenario where I don’t want to fight for more time, but truthfully, we need to come to terms with the fact that some fights in the end are simply not worth the trade off. A quiet passing, surrounded by loved ones, without pain or ambulances or defibrillators…that would be my preference in the end [if I am someone who knows in advance that the end is near]. I can’t decide whether I would prefer to know I’m going to die or to die unexpectedly, but if I’m lucky enough to live a long life and die of typical old age ailments, then this book will prove very helpful for me. It has already dramatically changed my view of the medical world and it’s role in the human experience of dying. But I will probably want to reread this book in thirty years or so – assuming I’m still kicking.

“Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way.”

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

“…Our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture, and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.”

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

Though I’m only thirty-five years old, this book has really valuable advice and information about how to make the most of my life all the way to the very end. I mean, the end is coming for all of us. We should be prepared for it.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This was a great book. I read Colson Whitehead’s book, The Underground Railroad, which was good, but The Nickel Boys is excellentgut-wrenching, poignant, suspenseful, and even has an unexpected surprise at the end. I really enjoyed it and I highly recommend it.

As with all fiction I read, I don’t like to give very much away, but it’s worth mentioning that this story is based on a real boys school, which made it all the more powerful for me.

November

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I love this book! Bill Bryson is so entertaining as he recounts the adventures that he and his friend, Katz, have while hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’m pretty sure I was laughing out loud at times, mostly at Katz’s expense [and as I’ve said before, when I start responding to books audibly while reading, that is a very good sign]. You just can’t make this stuff up…well, actually Bryson totally could have since most of it happened on a completely isolated trail through the woods – but if he did, I don’t want to know. It is too perfect the way it is.

“It would be useful (I wasn’t quite sure in what way, but I was sure nonetheless) to learn to fend for myself in the wilderness. When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors, I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake. I wanted a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, ‘Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.’”

Bill Bryson, A Walk in the Woods

I’ve always wanted to hike the AT – but not so much shit in the woods – and I actually can’t decide if this book made me want to do it more or less…but either way, it was a great book.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (⭐️) for audiobook

Talking to Strangers is a fascinating book and the audiobook is phenomenal. Gladwell introduces the audiobook by saying that he wants it to sound like a podcast – a podcast with a production budget. And it definitely does.

In the book, Malcolm Gladwell discusses how to understand the people we don’t know, or maybe more importantly, how to not misunderstand them. By using high profile people from world history and recent events – Adolf Hitler, Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Larry Nassau, to name just a few – and the stories of how these people were misunderstood, for good or bad, Gladwell paints a complex picture of how we interact with one another.

I learned A LOT. I was at least vaguely aware of most of these stories, but had never heard them in detail and I was riveted. I was also fascinated to learn of our natural default to truth, how sitcoms like Friends has impacted our understanding of each other, why cops are trained to use aggressive policing methods, how computers are better able to predict a criminals behavior than a judge, and much more.

“We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy. If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let it be this: Strangers are not easy.”

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers

Overall, this book teaches us to be more humble and compassionate in our interactions with the people we don’t know. And we all need more of that.

This book is worth a re-read – or, better yet, a re-listen.

Clean and Green by Nancy Birtwhistle

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’m all about green cleaning, but my favorite part of this book was all of her British-isms like “worked a treat” and “boiled on the hob” and, my personal favorite, “bung up the hole.” [I’m just assuming these are British sayings because I’ve never heard them before.]

But in all seriousness, this book is full of brilliant ideas for cleaning without all the chemical-laden, aquatic life killing, toxic fume filled cleaners you find at the store. I decided to earmark each recipe/method that would be useful to me….omg check out the book now:

[Do you see all the earmarks?? It’s about half the book…]

I should have saved the poor pages and just put the whole book in the “to-do” pile. Anyway, I intend to go through the book systematically using every recommended swap.

I’m especially anxious to try setting my oven racks in the lawn overnight to see if they are magically cleaned in the morning. [This is a real tip that she provides and since it’s in print, it must be true.]

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

What a sad story. It was actually kind of creepy for me in a way because I am not entirely unlike Christopher McCandless in my worldview. The major exception, of course, being that I haven’t rid myself of all my possessions and heading out into the Alaskan wilderness. I’m not that crazy, at least not yet. But, truthfully, the idea is kind of intriguing to me. [Thank God I have kids who keep me from doing anything too rash.]

This book was not entertaining like A Walk in the Woods, but I love how Krakauer slowly unravels the story, or should I say mystery, of McCandless’s final few months of life. Of course, the ending is written right on the cover of the book, but it’s the how and the why that are intriguing.

Anyway, I enjoyed it, but with a sort of sadness that weighed down the experience of reading it. I don’t quite know how else to describe it.

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder

⭐️⭐️⭐️

[I listened to the audiobook and do not recommend it. My low rating is largely because of the reader. Get the actual book.]

As someone who dreams of selling all my earthly possessions and living out of a van, I thought this book would be right up my alley. However, it painted a pretty bleak picture of #vanlife. Instead of praising the nomad lifestyle like was hoping, this is the rather depressing story of an apparently large number of homeless…I mean, “houseless” retired people being worked to death and taken advantage of by big companies who need seasonal labor.

[Seriously. Amazon has a whole department called “CamperForce.” Here’s the enticing info on Amazon’s CamperForce hiring page:

“Want to keep enjoying life on the road? Join an enthusiastic team of like-minded travelers and adventurers at Amazon CamperForce. It provides great seasonal jobs at a growing number of state-of-the-art Amazon warehouse locations across the US.”

hiring.Amazon.com

Uh…tempting, but no thanks.]

I was totally unaware that this subculture, which I always assumed to be full of young hippies in their twenties who smoke a lot of pot, is also populated by folks my parents age and older who have fallen on financial hardships and taken to the road.

But the idea of life on the road is still appealing to me and the book was very helpful in explaining how to live out of your van, make a pee bucket and not get caught by the police. But I guess I was envisioning a more…I dunno…lawful and sanitary version of the nomad life.

Anyway, it will mean pretty wild changes for our economy and our communities if more people leave their houses for the new frontier – Boon-docking [and her close cousin, Wally-docking].

Five Total Strangers by Natalie D. Richards

⭐️⭐️⭐️

I only read this book because it was the library’s book club pick so I didn’t have to wait to borrow it. Definitely not my favorite fiction book. The genre was right, but the story was lacking [almost non-existent] and the whodunit was way too obvious – though they hadn’t actually done anything yet. I knew the antagonist a few chapters in and was incredibly disappointed when I was actually right, still clinging to some hope that there would be a surprise or twist or something.

But, alas. Just a book about a girl who takes a ride through a blizzard with five strangers – one of whom is a creep.

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Loved this book. What a beautiful story!

Ultimately, I think this is a story about regrets. Everyone has things in their life they would like to go back and change. And the magic of this story is that it reminds us that there is no such thing as a perfect life, only our own unique experience based on our choices – our personal opportunity to make the most of what we have.

“It is easy to regret, and keep regretting, ad infinitum, until our time runs out. But it is not lives we regret not living that are the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy. We can’t tell if any of those other versions would of been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on.”

Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

My friend who recommended it to me described it as a “feel-good” read, and I couldn’t agree more. I listened to the audiobook while traveling to Chicago for my kidney surgery and it gave me all the feels. Life is a series of choices and all we can do is make the best decisions we can and enjoy the ride.

“The only way to learn is to live.”

Matt Haig, The Midnight Library

What Happened by Hilary Rodham Clinton

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

“We all have the ability to break out of our echo chambers and engage with people who don’t agree with us politically. We can keep an open mind and be willing to change our minds from time to time. Even if our outreach is rebuffed, it’s worth it to keep trying. We’re all going to share our American future together. Better to do so with open hearts and outstretched hands than closed minds and clenched fists.”

Hilary Rodham Clinton, What Happened

As you know, I love a political memoir. And I have serious respect for this incredible woman. Unfortunately, at the time she was running for President, I was not at all interested in politics and I didn’t vote at all [to my everlasting shame]. And she is correct in her perspective on public opinion because all I really remember about her and her campaign can be summarized in one word: emails. How sad and pathetic that such an innocent and commonplace thing could turn into the media firestorm that it did and cost someone a president election. It’s painful to think about, especially in light of the terrible repercussions of our collective stupidity in that election.

Anyway, in this book Clinton is as gracious as ever. I especially love that she recorded the audiobook so that we could hear her share her story. My favorite part is when she shares what a day on the campaign trail looked like for her. I love this sort of “backstage pass” to the lives of political leaders.

If I could go back to my 2016 self, I’d slap myself across the face and say “Wake up! A woman is a primary presidential candidate!Rally the troops and head to the polls!” But, I can’t do that. Not certain what kinds of “troops” I could have rallied anyway since my circles are almost exclusively sexist and republican…but I would have tried. For my daughters. For me. For all women.

Despite the fact that she didn’t win, she definitely paved the way for a female president in the future and I am SO STOKED that I will be able to see it happen in my lifetime.

So, thanks, Hilary. [Is it okay if I call you Hilary?]

December

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling

⭐️⭐️⭐️

I listened to this audiobook as I recovered from surgery and I think the pain meds I was on made it hard to concentrate…or maybe put me to sleep while I was listening, because I don’t have many memories of reading it. I will have to re-read it in the future.

Though I’m slightly ashamed to admit I’ve never read the Harry Potter series, I only read this book now because I was trying to determine whether my kids are old enough for me to read it to them. [From what I remember of it, this book would be fine for them – ages 4, 5, & 7.]

One thing I do remember clearly about this book is being a little disappointed. There are a lot of Harry Potter fanatics out there, so I guess I was hoping to be really blown away by the book, and I wasn’t. But I was also drugged and had other more pressing concerns at the time of reading it.

Ok, I’m definitely going to re-read it. And I think I’ll read the actual book which always sticks better than the audiobook anyway.

How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

⭐️⭐️⭐️

I love Michael Pollan and this book was interesting, but it seemed to be so different from his usual writings on healthy eating [then again, maybe it’s not that different after all]. He begins with a history of LSD and psychedelics, which was fascinating, and then moves on to describing his own experimentation [in safe and controlled environments] with various psychedelic drugs.

I still don’t have any interest in trying psychedelics – not because I’m a prude, but more because I have a stronger fear of a “bad trip” than a desire for a “good trip.” Strangely enough, in Waking Up by Sam Harris, which I read a few months back, Harris wrote that if his kids never experienced psychedelics in their lifetime, he would think they’ve missed out on something important. There seems to be an element of spirituality found in the “loss of self” or “silence of the ego” when using psychedelics, and I am very much interested in experiencing that. However, I’ve since read Dan Harris’s book, 10% Happier, and it seems you can find a similar feeling/experience from meditation, which feels less risky…and also controversial.

But suffice it to say, Pollan succeeded in making me curious.

The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I liked this book, but I didn’t love it. Unfortunately, it seemed way too unrealistic for me to accept the ending. There is no way that would have worked out the way it did. It’s a nice idea though.

I read the whole thing in two days, so it was an interesting book, suspenseful enough to keep me reading, but ultimately a disappointment in the end.

Don’t want to spoil it for you, so if you’re so inclined, read it yourself and see if you agree.

Think Again by Adam Grant

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This book reminded me a lot of another book I read a few years ago called Talking Across the Divide. In that book [which was also excellent], Justin Lee taught me for the first time about “echo chambers” and how to be open to listening to opposing views in order to communicate effectively with the people I disagree with. Think Again is like the second part of the lesson. Now that I have learned how to talk to people with different views, next I need to learn how to be open to change my own own views.

“A mark of lifelong learners is recognizing that they can learn something from everyone they meet.”

Adam Grant, Think Again

I think of myself as a life-long learner. And I believe myself to be pretty good at questioning my own beliefs. After all, I spent the first twenty-seven years of my life being a sexist, homophobic, conservative, religious zealot. And look at me now, a liberal feminist agnostic-leaning quasi new-age hippie. It took A LOT of rethinking to change my beliefs on literally everything. And even now, all my beliefs are fluid and always changing. And since 99% of my connections are still religious conservatives, my beliefs are always being challenged.

BUT Adam Grant has shown me weaknesses in my own thinking and habits that reinforce rather than question my beliefs – quite literally with his story about the debate on the topic of free universal preschool – but also through important lessons about wisdom and humility.

“It’s a sign of wisdom to avoid believing every thought that enters your mind. It’s a mark of emotional intelligence to avoid internalizing every feeling that enters your heart.”

Adam Grant, Think Again

This is a great book. Two thumbs up!

👍👍

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell

⭐️⭐️⭐️

At the time of reading, I didn’t really like this story because of the ending, but now looking back on it, I think it is a good story. The book is about a family who, like all families, has history and secrets and complexities that are slowly unraveled throughout the story. The major events always seem happen on or around Easter [hence the egg on the cover].

For me personally, it didn’t have any redeeming qualities beyond the horrors of hoarding [when I finished the book, I immediately felt the need to purge my excess crap – of which there isn’t much since I’m already a minimalist] and the damage that secrets can do. But I enjoyed the way the story was told.

Similarly to other fiction books I read this quarter, the end of the story was slightly disappointing.


Five-Star Reads from 2021:

Fiction:

  • Mudbound by Hillary Jordan
  • The Shining by Stephen King
  • The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

Nonfiction:

  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Untamed by Glennon Doyle
  • In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
  • Lost Connections by Johann Hari
  • Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man by Emmanuel Acho
  • White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
  • How Democracies Die by Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky
  • How Not To Die by Dr. Michael Greger and Gene Stone
  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • Persist by Elizabeth Warren
  • A Path Appears by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
  • Locally Laid by Lucie B. Amundsen
  • Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
  • A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  • Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Think Again by Adam Grant

Favorite Read(s) of 2021

Despite my best efforts to choose only one favorite book of the year, it is a tie between these two:

Untamed by Glennon Doyle

&

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

You’ve GOT to read these two! And if you do, I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

Happy reading!

📚📚📚

Karis

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