In Q1, I read 23 books. We took two trips with lengthy car rides which really helped me achieve this. [Audio books on long car rides are my favorite.] Most of these are real winners, some are just “meh,” but here’s the list and my thoughts about each one.
[Warning: these reviews often digress into soapboxes. Sorry.]
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
Unfortunately, the first book I read in 2022 was not my favorite. This memoir of Paul Kalanithi’s life, career, and struggle with the cancer that would ultimately claim his life was interesting, but so sad, mostly because I was aware at the outset that he was going to die. But I really can’t even say anything critical about it because I know that the man spent his last dying days writing this book, and I am grateful to him for doing so. He lived what we all fear—a fatal diagnosis—and as a doctor himself, of neurosurgery no less, he has important things to say about life and the role of medicine in it.
“Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue.”Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
10% Happier by Dan Harris
Dan Harris is really funny. Since I had never watched him on TV [honestly, I didn’t even know who he was], I was completely surprised by how great this book was – both for entertainment value and for providing real talk about mindfulness and practical advice about meditation. Of course, I am also insanely jealous of Dan Harris, who because of his position within the media, was able to just schedule interviews with all the great spiritual leaders of our time [Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and the Dalai Lama] any time he had a question. Geez, wouldn’t that be nice.
I especially appreciated that this was not a spiritual journey, but more of a journey toward centering oneself around meaningful principles through mindfulness. It actually reminded me a little of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, about psychedelics, which seem to ultimately provide someone with the same result as meditation: a loss of the ego. As someone who is highly spiritual, but anti-religion, this book was just another reminder that I simply must start a meditation practice.
I definitely recommend this book. It is entertaining and interesting and liable to convince you to sit on the floor in silence for at least 10 minutes a day.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
I listened to this audio book while driving back from Florida after our vacation in January and it was the perfect book for a road trip. And the reader, Wil Wheaton, is EXCELLENT. [I just recently finished listening to the sequel, Ready Player Two, which is also ready by Wil Wheaton and it was just as good.] I’m not a big “gamer” per se, but I love a great quest adventure and this one was interesting enough to keep my attention for the full 12 hour drive.
The story is set in the future, when climate change has ravaged the planet and overpopulation has led to huge ghettos [called “stacks”] and all the people on earth spend most of their time escaping the real world through a virtual simulation called the OASIS. [This is all sounding a bit too plausible, am I right???] Living in one of the stacks is Wade Watts, who spends all of his free time searching for a hidden Easter Egg left by the original creator of the OASIS, James Halliday. And of course, the kicker—the finder of the egg inherits Halliday’s company and fortune.
As far as futuristic fiction goes, this one is good. [The movie by the same name is also pretty decent, but as always, the book is better.]
Die with Zero by Bill Perkins
Well, this book was a huge disappointment. I picked it up in the library because, after reading the back, I thought that Perkins was going to recommend that everyone stop hoarding a ton of money until the day they die and instead, using all that money to improve the world. Sadly, that is not what he recommends. This book’s whole agenda is to encourage people to spend all their money on themselves, specifically on experiences that will provide happy memories that they can think about when they are eventually bedridden. I could not disagree more with this idea; however, I do agree that everyone should use their money in such a way as to die with zero. I agree that it makes absolutely no sense to save up money your whole life just to leave it behind in a bank account to be distributed by whoever is left behind. Actually, I don’t think we should be hoarding money no matter how you intend to use it. I mean, how insane is it for me to amass wealth while millions of children die every year from diseases I could easily prevent with all that money? Which is why, Brett and I only save a little money and give the rest away.
I mean, it’s not that he didn’t have any useful information in here. I thought that some of his practical points were good, like about annuities, which I had never heard of, and about spending more when you are young and less as you age. And there is information in here for every income level.
Honestly, this book kind of made me angry as Perkins writes about spending his millions on his favorite past time—poker tournaments! For the love of all that is good and holy. What a fucking waste! [Please excuse my language.] Maybe I’ll just have to write my own book about how to use your money to create real and lasting happiness. And trust me, it’s not by purchasing yachts or traveling to fancy destinations or owning massive homes or driving obscenely expensive cars. Happiness has always been found in compassion for others. I kind of thought we all knew that by now.
Decision Points by George W. Bush
This book was a real trip through the past for me since I vaguely remember the major events of Bush’s presidency, but not with any real detail. I was in junior high and high school for most of his time in office, and not particularly interested in politics at the time, so it was fascinating to read about the backgrounds and circumstances of each of these historical events.
As you may know by now, I love a political memoir. There is something about hearing a first person account of historical events that I really appreciate. It also humanizes these leaders and shows how they are normal humans with feelings, just trying to do their best, like we all are. We may judge them and criticize them and disagree with them [or, more rarely, adore them], but the position of President isn’t a cake walk. If you need a reminder of that, read this book.
Holy cow, Bush had a miserable presidency. All of the worst events of modern history [with the exception of the COVID pandemic] seemed to occur during his time in office — including the only two wars that the US has fought in my lifetime. Here’s a short list of the highlights [or should I say low-lights]: the terrorist attacks of 9/11 which led to the “War on Terror,” the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina, and of course, the stock market crash, housing market collapse and great recession of 2007. Yikes. And there are more, like No Child Left Behind, the biggest tax cut in history [which of course favored the wealthy], and the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US military. This book started sounding like one long apology to the American people as President Bush explained his reasoning for all of his decisions. And I actually believe him. He seems like a very decent, kind man. He is a man who came from money, a man who was in the oil industry, a man whose father was also the president—with all of those limitations, I would say he did the best he could.
A Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren
I love this woman and I’ll just get it out of the way right now: Elizabeth Warren is not a socialist. [I mean, really, it is almost embarrassing how American politics has basically turned into a name-calling sport with the left hurling “Trump-lovers!” while the right screams “Socialists!” Geez, louise.] Anyway, in this memoir, Warren shares how she rose from a mom who dropped out of college to a tenured professor at Harvard to a congresswoman serving in the United States Senate. Warren was also the first female to be elected to the Senate in Massachusetts. Basically, this woman is a rock star.
This book is especially interesting when read simultaneously with Decision Points by President Bush and A Promised Land by Barack Obama, because she provides a different perspective of the financial crisis of 2007. As a specialist in bankruptcy law, Warren had been fighting for more protections for ordinary people from big lenders who take advantage of vulnerable people through obscenely high interest rates and risky loans. In this book, she tells the story of being asked to speak to the board of a large bank about how to reduce the number of clients who are filing for bankruptcy. [This was years prior to the bursting of the housing market “bubble.”] When she told them that they shouldn’t lend to people who are already in financial trouble, they told her, “Look, lady, we’re not going to stop doing that—that’s how we make our money!” [My paraphrase.]
All I can say is, if we had listened to this woman earlier, the recession could have probably been avoided altogether.
The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
Honestly, I was really drawn to this book because of the cover art, but in the end, I was a little disappointed because it felt too predictable and too similar to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I did, however, appreciate that this novel featured homosexual main characters while not making it a thing. Thanks to this book, our society is one step closer to treating everyone like they are normal, because, of course, they are.
The Guest List by Lucy Foley
This murder mystery by Lucy Foley has everything I love in a good novel: great use of flashback and foreshadowing, characters full of secrets, slow unraveling of the mysteries, and plenty of suspense to keep me reading. I listened to the audio book which was also really good and used different readers for each of the different characters.
As always, with fiction, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but you should definitely read it.
Mine! By Michael Heller and James Salzman
This book was very interesting because it made me think about things I’ve never thought about before, sometimes totally blowing my mind. For instance, did you know that when you send in a DNA sample into one of those ancestry companies, they keep the sample and own the rights to that DNA [YOUR DNA] forever. That might not be a big deal, but it could turn out to be pretty lucrative for these companies in the future. And they actually convinced YOU to pay them to take your DNA.
Anyway, this whole topic is especially interesting for two reasons: #1: The two most valuable words in America are “money” and “mine” and it turns out if you have enough money, you can make anything yours. #2: Our laws set the ownership rules and our judicial system interprets them, so our government is really important for defining all these weird gray areas of ownership. It might sound pretty straight forward. What’s yours is yours and what’s mine is mine. But in actuality, it is far from that simple.
Read this book and you’ll understand what I mean.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell
I love Malcolm Gladwell, and I loved this book even more than Talking to Strangers, which I read last year. Strangely enough, I’ve read around this topic enough to have heard some of these studies quoted in other books, but that did not make this any less of a riveting read.
I don’t remember how I first came to recognize that my own success in life—in everything, actually—is not a result of my hard work, or my perseverence, or my skillset but, rather, is a product of random chance. I just happened to win the cosmic lottery and be born to a white, middle class family in the wealthiest nation in the world. I happened to be born to parents who loved me, who paid for me to have a private education, who taught me to work hard and manage my money wisely. I mean, yeah, there are people who made out better than me, but they are very few compared to the number of people who are born on this planet without any of those privileges. The moment I realized this fact, my life changed because I was no longer the victor enjoying the fruits of my labor, I was just like every other person on this planet, except I got lucky.
The strange thing is that we actively teach the opposite to people. We tell people to work hard and they will succeed and as a result, we imply that people who are not successful simply aren’t working as hard as you are. We could not be more wrong. And I love this book because it is proof that we are products of so many outside forces, so many factors out of our control, and so few of us are getting lucky. We have to stop the arrogance of thinking we are better just because we were born in a better position than the people around us.
“Everything we have learned in Outliers says that success follows a predictable course. It is not the brightest who succeed. If it were, Chris Langan would be up there with Einstein. Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather, a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.”Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers
If we, in America, could recognize this truth, then maybe we wouldn’t find it so offensive to give equal opportunities to everyone. Maybe then we could be more gracious to those lower on the social ladder than ourselves. Maybe we could finally believe that our success is tied to everyone around us and that we can’t achieved anything on our own.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I’m a Stephen King fan. I used to always associate King with horror stories like It and The Shining, but he clearly can do more than that. What I like best about his writing is that while reading his books, I get so engrossed in the story that I completely forget about the author and honestly, that is really rare for me. This is partly the curse of studying writing and literature in college, but I often find myself thinking of the author when I’m reading fiction. She made this foreshadowing too obvious.[In Five Complete Strangers] or Why does he use the word “untoward” so frequently? [In The House in the Cerulean Sea]
But Stephen King writes so seemlessly, so naturally, so convincingly that I literally forget that there is an author, that this is a work of someone’s imagination, that I’m reading a story and not a real man’s account of travelling back in time to stop the assassination of JFK.
This book is incredible. It is an undertaking, but totally worth it.
Atomic Habits by James Clear
This is a great little book with very practical tips for how to make or break habits. I shared previously [in my March health goal post] that I have a planner with a list of daily habits that I try to accomplish every day and this book provided some really helpful ideas for achieving some of my less desirable goals—like yoga. Here are some of my favorite tips from the book: habit stacking, habit tracking, temptation bundling, and gateway habits. I used habit stacking to re-develop a yoga habit, by stacking yoga with a habit that I already do every day, in this case, my regular workout. [You’ll have to read the book if you want to know what the rest are. I can’t give all his secrets away.]
The book also contains a lot of motivation for getting your shit together, and it’s a quick read.
Career & Family by Claudia Goldin
This is an important book about the gender wage gap in the workplace. In it, Goldin examines the careers of five groups of women based on their birth years and draws the conclusion that the gender wage gap is not due to explicit sexism in the workplace, but rather a societal issue we have with who handles childcare and how it is handled. When it comes to couples with children, women more often opt for the more flexible position so that they will be available for the children, but that prevents them from taking positions that require more hours and therefore more pay. As someone who is about to go back to school full-time and then hopefully back into the workplace full-time, childcare is a major challenge—the biggest obstacle in the way of me having a successful career.
My most prominent thoughts throughout reading this book, were gratitude for the generations that have gone before me and paved the way for me to go to college, get a masters degree, have a career, all while I have a husband and children. This has not been a possibility for very long and I am indebted to everyone who has helped to make it a reality for me. And now my job is to make these things, including equal pay, even more attainable for my three daughters.
The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
This is my favorite book of the quarter. To love this book, you have to have just the right mix of religious background, liberal politics, philosophical thinking, and a love of ethics and morality. But I’m clearly not the only one, because this book has been published and [I assume] purchased by other people.
[Please, if you are out there and you have read this book and you loved it, reach out to me. You are a part of my tribe.]
This guy, whom I had never heard of before reading this book, is a moral psychologist. I didn’t know that was a career choice back when I was eighteen and choosing “what I wanted to be when I grew up,” but if I had, I think my life would have been very different.
Anyway, this book discusses the moral foundations underlying American politics. Fascinating stuff. I took notes from this book and typed them all into a word document and my document is over 7 pages long! [And that’s single-spaced ya’ll.] It is practically impossible for me to choose my favorite quote from my seven-page document, but I will try…
That’s a really great quote, but it’s not my favorite, that was just the shortest one…
“Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects…Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind
Ahh I can’t choose a favorite quote from this book. I guess my favorite quote would be the whole book.
Lost and Found by Kathryn Schulz
Gotta love journalists. They can take three simple words and write a full-length book about them. [And I can poke fun at them because I used to dream of being a journalist.] In this case the words are “lost,” “and”, and “found.” This book is poetic and interesting and…hard to describe. Schulz talks first about losing her father and then finding the love of her life. But along the way she spend a lot of time discussing losing and finding in general.
Here are four quotes that I found to be really profound and meaningful:
“…This may be why certain losses are so shocking. Not because they defy reality, but because they reveal it. One of the many ways that loss instructs us is by correcting our sense of scale, showing us the world as it really is—so enormous, complex and mysterious that there is nothing too large to be lost, and, conversely, no place too small for something to get lost there.”
“Most of us alive today will survive into old age, and although that is a welcome development, the price of experiencing more life is sometimes experiencing less of it too. So many losses routinely precede the final one now: loss of memory, mobility, autonomy, physical strength, intellectual aptitude, a longtime home, the kind of identity derived from vocation, whole habits of being, and perhaps above all a certain forward tilting sense of self, the feeling that we are still becoming, that there are things left in this world we may yet do.”
“The first problem that love presents us with is how to find it. But the most enduring problem of love, which is also the most enduring problem of life, is how to live with the fact that we will lose it.”
“No matter what goes missing, the object you need or the person you love, the lessons are always the same. Disappearance reminds us to notice, transience to cherish, fragility to defend. Loss is a kind of external conscience urging us to make better use of our finite days.”Kathryn Schulz, Lost and Found
But outside of these thought-provoking paragraphs, it felt at times like she was just trying to fill pages.
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
You’ll notice that I’ve started reading books about happiness, not because I am unhappy, but because I’m SO HAPPY that I’m looking for a book that actually gets it right. This book, in my opinion, gets it mostly wrong. In it, Gretchen Rubin endures a self-imposed “happiness project” for a year, doing the things she lists on the cover..and many more. I don’t know why I keep finding myself reading these “challenge books” where the author has to live like a Biblical woman for a year [A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans] or give up sugar for a year [Year of No Sugar by Eve O. Schaub] or limit themselves to seven of everything for a year [7 by Jen Hatmaker] because I don’t really like these books. [Also, why are these types of books always written by Christians?? Can Christians not stick with anything for more than a year???]
But anyway, I did find this interesting tidbit from this book:
“Spend Out. Don’t think about the return. ‘It is by spending oneself,’ the actress Sarah Bernhardt remarked, ‘that one becomes rich.’ What’s more, one intriguing study showed that Sara Bernhardt’s pronouncement is literally true. People who give money to charity end up wealthier than those who don’t give to charity. After doing complex number crunching to control for different variables, a researcher concluded that charitable giving isn’t just correlated with higher income, it actually causes higher income.”Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project
FINALLY! Proof of what I’ve been telling Brett for years! [Of course, Rubin conveniently forgets to mention the source of this “intriguing study.”] I knew this to be true based on the Karmic principle and on my own life experience. The more you give away, the more you get back. It takes some faith in the beginning, but in the end, it makes you happier and gives your life more meaning, which is of course, the real secret. When you give money away, you care less about having money, which actually makes you more rich.
As one of my favorite quotes goes:
Sustainable Happiness edited by Sarah Van Gelder
This is a great little book that is direct and to the point and [rightly] ties the happiness of the planet to our own. In the intro, Gelder inspires us to a new way of looking at happiness:
“The good news is that sustainable happiness is achievable, it could be available to everyone, and it begins by assuring that everyone can obtain a basic level of material security. But beyond that, more stuff isn’t the key to happiness.
“It turns out that we don’t need to use up and wear out the planet in a mad rush to produce the stuff that is supposed to make us happy. We don’t need people working in sweatshop conditions to produce cheap stuff to feed an endless appetite for possessions. We don’t even need economic growth, although some types of growth do help.
“The research shows that sustainable happiness comes from other sources. We need loving relationships, thriving natural and human communities, opportunities for meaningful work, and a few simple practices, like gratitude. With that definition of sustainable happiness, we really can have it all.”Sarah Van Gelder, Sustainable Happiness
This pretty much sums it up. I mean, I think she misssed an important part of happiness in the last paragraph, but everything else is spot-on. She and the other contributors have a lot of other great things to think about when it comes to happiness.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
I wish I had read this book earlier, but I don’t really read much YA fiction anymore. This is a really important book for everyone to read. It is so close to reality that it is scary…and heart breaking. Thomas uses a fictional story to share the struggle, frustration, defeat and hope of the black community in America. We still have so much work to do.
The United States of Arugula by David Kamp
A very interesting historical account of how we went from adoring all things French cousine to creating our own American food culture with our own American celebrity chefs. As a lover of the Food Network, I enjoyed reading the history of some of my favorite chefs. However, I’m not a foodie so a lot of this was outside of my wheelhouse.
The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalia Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Douglas Abrams
FINALLY, a book on happiness that gets it right. It’s no surprise that the Dalai Lama knows the secret to happiness, but considering how many books I’ve read on the topic that get it wrong, I think more people need to read this book.
The main points can be summarized in this one quote by Abrams:
“As our dialogue progressed, we converged on eight pillars of joy. Four were qualities of the mind: perspective, humility, humor and acceptance. Four were qualities of the heart: forgiveness, gratitude, compassion and generosity. On the first day, the archbishop had touched the fingers of his right hand to his heart to emphasize its centrality. We would end up ultimately at compassion and generosity and indeed both men would insist that these two qualities were perhaps most pivotal to any lasting happiness.”Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy
I could not agree more that compassion and generosity are the keys to happiness. I came upon that conclusion from my own life and I wasn’t searching for happiness at all. I was searching for meaningfulness—and happiness was just the byproduct.
This is a great book and a challenge for anyone who is searching for true and lasting happiness.
Chasing Slow by Erin Loechner
I’m sorry, but I did not like this book at all. Just not my cup of tea, I suppose. Nearly everything was a metaphor and felt very forced. [I have to stop accidentally reading this superficial fluff by Christian women.] I was hoping it would be about paring down life and enjoying simple pleasures, but it seemed like it was mostly praising superficial American consumerism.
I did however, like this one quote about a time when she visited an underprivileged community in Africa.
“I do not understand what it is like to live in a place where a drink of clean water is not readily available, where education is not accessible, where my basic needs are either not met or fought for with every ounce of my being. Where I live, we are after silver spoons. Here, there is no soup to slurp.”Erin Loechner, Chasing Slow
You can kind of see what I mean about the metaphors…and of course, when she came back home she went right back to retail therapy and obsessing over her all-white kitchen [which is apparently all the rage on her hugely-popular website.]
For me this book, is down there with Girl, Wash Your Face by Rachel Hollis. Both are directed at wealthy, white American women and are basically pats on the back for superficial, self-righteous, self-centered living.
The Whole-Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Byrson, Ph.D.
This was a very good book with lots of practical information that I put into practice right away with my own kids.
I’ll give you an example. When I took my kids to see Sing 2 in theaters, my middle daughter [4 years old] was terrified at one point, screaming and kicking in her seat. After that part was over, she was fine for the rest of the movie so I forgot all about it. Then last week while we were at someone’s house, they were going to play the movie and Jo immediately started freaking out and saying that she was so scared of that movie and she didn’t want to watch it. Normally, I would have just suggested we watch another movie and moved on; however, because in this book they say to “name it to tame it,” I asked Jo to tell me about the scary part of the movie. As she was telling me what scared her, she started laughing and said “It’s actually pretty silly.” And we talked about how the lion who appeared scary in that part wasn’t really scary in the end and how he just didn’t want anyone to come to his house. Putting her fears into context and talking about them made her see that there was nothing to be afraid of. And, just like that, her fear of the movie was gone.
This is a total game-changer in my home where two of my kids get scared easily and tend to obsessive over their fears.
And there’s lots more great advice where that came from.
“It’s also true that feelings need to be recognized for what they are: temporary, changing conditions. They are states, not traits. They’re like the weather. Rain is real, and we’d be foolish to stand in a downpour and act as if it weren’t actually raining. But we’d be just as foolish to expect that the sun will never reappear.”Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child
I recommend this book for all the parents out there [it’s even helpful for adults].
The New Rules of Aging Well by Frank Lipman, M.D. and Danielle Claro
I loved this book and immediately put into practice many of it’s practical tips like foam rolling [which I know I should be doing regularly, but dang it, it hurts!] and having a swig of vinegar before a meal and eating more fermented foods [sauerkraut anyone?] and extending my overnight fast to sixteen hours…and plenty more.
I don’t consider myself to be old yet, but it’s never too soon to start preparing for the future. Am I right? It’s interesting to me that people plan for their financial future [obsessively, it seems], but totally ignore their physical future. I for one, want to be rock climbing, hang gliding and deep sea diving at the age of 88. That requires some prep work….starting NOW.
Well, there are the books for Q1! Some really keepers. I think I may start posting monthly reviews because these are getting so long…
What have you been reading? Let me know in the comments!