Summertime and Stacks of Books: The Perfect Match

I associate Summertime with very specific things:

  • Fresh vegetables from my garden or local farmer’s market
  • Weekend walks downtown with frequent stops added in to explore new places
  • Trips to the pool where the smell of chlorine and the sounds of splashing makes everything okay
  • Ending hot days on a porch swing with a book in my lap and a beer in my hand

With long days and my favorite kind of weather – hot – I spend as little time as possible at my computer. This means I have a lot of reading under my belt and so many books to tell you about. There were some duds that landed on my reading list, so I’ll skip those.

Organized by how I read them, here is how I’ve spent a lot of June and July:

1984 by George Orwell.1984 by George Orwell

The problem with missing out on what is typically required reading in high school is that when you finally get around to reading a book a classic book, you miss out on the expert guidance and interpretation of a great teacher.  When I told people I was starting George Orwell’s classic 1984, they told me not to. They said that in our current state of political affairs, it would freak me out. What does it say that it didn’t?

There was one section of the book that did sort of get me thinking. In the dystopian world described in 1984, there is a perpetual war underway, and this war is necessary to maintain balance, economy and progress. Orwell explains that the war is over the “disputed area,” which encompasses much of Africa because it is a source of slave labor and natural resources. This rings too true to me. If ever there were a resource-rich area of our world that was constantly being battled over, you would have to call out Africa, right? I’ve gone down some wormholes of conspiracy theory that I won’t go into…

I’m glad I read this book. I still wish I had read it in school, but better late than never.

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy.The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

A recent cat-sitting gig earned me a fresh stack of books, including an advance copy of The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy. While I likely would not have picked this book up otherwise, I’m glad I read it. Levy is a writer for The New Yorker and she knows how to tell a good story. I liked that she was willing to be really honest, which oftentimes presenting herself in not the best light.

The Rules Do Not Apply is the story of Levy’s first marriage, how she briefly became a mother and how her life fell apart. Cheery stuff, right? It offers some interesting commentary about motherhood and where we do and don’t have control, as well as insight into the different roles of women and career.

Levy was a guest on a recent episode of Fresh Air, where she discussed this book with Terri Gross. She makes some interesting comments about feminism and shares the true ending to her own story, which isn’t included in the book. There are spoilers, but it’s worth a listen:

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny.Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

This book was also a reward for cat-sitting and one I only picked up because the cover art was quirky. The story Katherine Heiny shares in Standard Deviation is equal parts odd and funny. Told from the perspective of Graham Cavanaugh, it’s about his relationships with his first and second wives and his son Matthew. My favorite parts were all focused on Matthew and his forays into a local origami club, who takes their interest in origami very seriously.

The reviews I’ve read of this book are pretty mixed, but I liked it. I enjoyed reading how Graham described his complicated relationship with his pretty awful-sounding wives and how he explains his struggles raising a child with special needs.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond.Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Falling squarely into my Read Harder category is Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond. This 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book explores eviction culture, which is not a phrase I’m familiar with but which totally makes sense. Just like poverty begets poverty, so does a cycle of evictions beget more of the same.

In Evicted, Desmond explores the relationship between evictions and poverty. His research included living in a trailer park, shadowing landlords and in-depth interviews. The end result will change the language future researchers will use when talking to people about evictions.

This book is at times very hard to read, but moves long more quickly than you might think. Desmond focuses on eight families and two landlords. The backgrounds of each is very different, spanning age and race, which helps make the stories more universally applicable. While the focus is Milwaukee, it’s easy to make connections to any other city.

By reading this book, you will get a new understanding of poverty and economic exploitation.

Beartown by Frederik Backman.Beartown by Frederik Backman

Frederik Backman is one of the authors whose books I will always check out. They are rich on character development and deep backstories. For his past few books, I’ve listened versus read them. Joan Walker did the audio for both Britt-Marie Was Here and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, and she’s wonderful. Her accents! So good. After confirming that Beartown was read by someone else, I moved to the paper version. It’s been nice moving back and forth between format, letting me see how it changes the experience.

I was most taken with how Backman describes community, values and culture: “What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.” And “values is the fact that we trust each other. That we love each other.” And “culture is as much about what we encourage as what we actually permit.” Isn’t that beautiful? I like it as a way to frame what’s happening in the world. If you look outside and don’t like what you see, you get to make a choice. Are you choosing to let it remain that way? Are you permitting behavior you don’t like? Because you get to help co-create your community and what you see is as much the result of your actions as your inaction.

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline.A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline

Every piece of art has a back story. Be it a picture, a song, a vase or a photograph – the finish piece is influenced by a story. In A Piece of the World, Christina Baker Kline shares the back story to Christina’s World, a painting by Andrew Wyeth. Heavily researched, though slightly fictionalized, A Piece of the World  is the story of Christina Olson. Her life is very much confined both by geography and physical ability. Aside from a few brief trips outside of town, Christina spends most of her life on her family farm. An incapacitating illness makes everyday tasks difficult. Despite this small space in which she lives, or maybe because of it, Christina becomes very close friends with artist Andrew Wyeth, who later paints a picture of her.

That much plot summary is enough, I think, for you to look at Wyeth’s painting with a new set of eyes. And the more f this story that you read, the more you will be able to read into the painting. Just this one painting had so much back story. And if you assume even half as much inspiration behind other pieces of art, than there are so many more incredible stories to be told.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris.Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris

I love David Sedaris. I have read all his books and many of his essays. I go out of my way to listen to and watch interviews with him and will happily recommend his books. I hope that establishes my admiration of him so what I write next won’t be interpreted as dislike. You have to really like Sedaris to be into Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. I enjoyed it, but think it also felt like a lot of inside baseball. Like, I was able to connect certain entries with other events, but read as a book straight through… without any knowledge of the author and his life… It would just be a harder read. So if you love Sedaris, check this out. Otherwise, go read one of his other books.

The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick.The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

When I saw that Matthew Quick was coming out with a new book, I preordered it, which I do not do often. I’ve written before about how I love his writing and the way he is able to depict mental illness and mental quirk (not the same thing, I know) in a way that is both funny and respectful. It’s a gift.

What I enjoyed about The Reason You’re Alive is that the main character, David Granger, reminded me of a good friend who is polar opposite of me in terms of his political beliefs. We don’t ever talk about politics, or anything tangentially related to them, because we disagree so vehemently. Reading things from Granger’s point of view was nice because, while I thought most of what came out of his mouth was offensive, the Quick was able to write it in such a way that I could see the good in the person and even the logic behind some of the beliefs with which I disagree. I laughed out loud at several point and thoroughly enjoyed this book.

At Home in the World by Tsh OxenreiderAt Home in the World by Tsh Oxenreider

This book is the story of how Tsh Oxenreider and her family traveled the world over the course of nine months. I enjoyed it more for the thinking it got me doing on my own travel then for the actual story, but that contemplation is worth four stars.

When I saw the table of contents and that she visited 19 countries in nine months, I cringed a little. It seemed so American, and not in a good way. More like a “let’s go on a 10 country tour of Europe in one week” approach to traveling. It’s been in resistance to that approach that I have developed my own style of travel, which is slower and tries to me more immersive. The only place where I didn’t feel like I was being forced acknowledge my own pudginess was in the Oxenreiders’ approach to Arica. Those chapters were hard for me to read. The second largest continent didn’t get much love from their travel itinerary. The logic for their choices was … logical, and theirs. It also seemed to barely scratch the surface.

When I wasn’t critiquing the plan by which some countries were experienced, or cringing at the lackluster experiences in Sri Lanka, my intended destination later this year, I was struck mostly by three thoughts:

  • One was Oxenreider noting that she travels to remember her smallness in the world. I love that. It completely resonated with me as I think about some of what I try to achieve when I leave home. It’s so easy to get caught up in the details of life and it can take a brand new setting to remember how little of it matters or how unimportant so much of it is.
  • I love this line. “I meet feel more American than when I’m abroad.” Despite my knocks on Americans above, it’s only when I travel that I am challenged to identify by my country of origin. It is only then that I start really thinking about the privilege and costs that come with being an American.
  • Oxenreider and her husband travel with their three children and say this of the reason behind it. “We want to show them the world while they’re young. The earlier they see the world, the more normal it is for them. And the younger they start raving, the more normal it is for them. And the younger they start traveling, the better travelers they become.” So much THIS. I’m forever grateful for my grandparents giving me the opportunity to leave the country at 17 because of the pattern it set for the rest of my life. I hope I can help others in the same way.

If you’re a traveler yourself, I recommend this book as a sort of meditation about your own wandering. If you’re a parent considering traveling with young ones, I think this is a good example of how it could work and your reaction to their approach might help you know if it’s for you or not.

The Gig Economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing the Life You Want by Diane Mulcahy.The Gig Economy: The Complete Guide to Getting Better Work, Taking More Time Off, and Financing the Life You Want by Diane Mulcahy

I am really surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. I picked it up as a sort work-related professional development activity to help me better understand a work style I am uncomfortable with. I found myself marking pages and telling people about this book much more than I do many novels.

What struck me in this book were the exercises around defining your values and ensuring that your personal and professional activities both reflect and support those values. There were similar activities with finances, asking if you’re funding a life you want or a lifestyle you don’t even enjoy. As someone who struggles to define long-term, concrete goals, both personally and in my relationships, the way author Diane Mulcahy frames these exercises is great for me.

By the end of it, was I ready to run out and join the gig economy? Nope. Does it still freak me out? A little. But do I get it? Definitely. I’m envious of my friends who have already adopted this employment style and no longer as concerned about them and their future well-being.

Those are my books I would recommend. Have you read anything fabulous so far this Summer? Anything you think I should check out?

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