Friday, August 4, 2017

The Best Books I've Read in 2017 (So Far)

As usual, I have set several lofty reading goals for myself for this year.

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If you follow my book recommendations you know that I am obsessed with Goodreads - I have no idea how I would track all of the great reading I do over the years without it! This year I've had the good fortune to join a fabulous book club that is reading its way around the world, beginning with the Middle East. It's called Around the World in 80 Books (anyone can join! click here to find the group) and I highly recommend it - I've tremendously enjoyed the pieces we've explored so far, especially because even for an avid reader like me, it has pushed me to pick up and research things I never would have found on my own. It's free, it's easy, and it's so inspiring!

Since I seem to be crushing my target of reading 100 books this year, I thought it would be great to break up the top books with a review of the first half of the year. Wherever you're at in your reading journey, I'd highly encourage you to pick up one (or all) of these - they may seem random but they have a lot to offer! And if you want even more suggestions, follow along my blog's Books page (link here) or check out my post on the best books I read in 2016 (link here).

Most Helpful for Challenging Societal Norms: Happy City by Charles Montgomery 

I've recently been very interested in the politics and process of city planning and community layouts, and there was no better introduction to that subject than this beautifully written book. Charles Montgomery leaves no stone unturned in his new vision for how our urban centers could work. He truly inspired me to remember that every single thing in our lives is designed (and designed for a reason) - while this can feel defeating, it also means that it can always be changed. I really appreciated that Montgomery is not afraid to be blunt and straightforward about some of the most harmful aspects of traditional urban design, especially in the form of racism and classism. The good examples he uplifts of cities who are thoughtfully innovating for the future are truly well-rounded. For example, they always include provisions for the traditionally most reviled among us (say, drunk homeless people) in innovative, loving ways that provide spaces for all citizens - and isn't that what we say we want our societies to be in the first place?

Since I have returned to living without a car (essentially for my day to day needs at least) a few years ago, I have been SO much happier and healthier. Restricting our cities to be built for cars is honestly tyrannical, and Happy Cities lays this reasoning out in compelling detail. I would urge everyone to give this wonderful book a shot and open their minds to the possibility of living differently from what conventional wisdom dictates. There are so many more ways to enjoy a rich, vivid life that have nothing to do with working thousands of hours of overtime and spending half your day commuting in a car. Definitely check this little gem of a book out!

Most Unexpectedly Spiritual Science Book: The Soul of An Octopus by Sy Montgomery

This is one of the most marvelous little science books I've ever read. It takes a very humanistic, Krista Tippet's On Being approach to zoology by focusing on the octopus (although plenty of other animal information is included as well) through our understanding of the octopus's consciousness. The book reads almost like a memoir, following Montgomery through her travels, her personal interactions with the octopuses (which is correct as opposed to octopi for the plural - little known fact), and other bits of knowledge about the ocean that she weaves in through the central location of the Boston Aquarium.

I've always really struggled with zoos and aquariums as "homes" for wild animals - I think it's rather cruel - but Montgomery makes quite the case for it here, describing how much safer and long lived the animals are as well as the kinds of care they receive that they never could in the wild. She also details how many octopuses (and other fish) are released, if possible, back into the wild before the end of their life so they are able to complete and breed naturally. There is no doubt that the keepers working with them are very committed to giving each a safe, happy life, and that they are imminently qualified to do so. This book lets you peer "behind the curtain" of a zoo/aquarium's operations, and it was really interesting.

Animals tend to get the short end of the stick in measuring intelligence and that is a shame. Montgomery does a wonderful job of explaining how smart octopuses are and how little we are able to comprehend their consciousness - after all, they are composed completely differently from us and have a completely different perspective on the world. There is no denying that octopuses are smart though and that they have distinctive personalities. For anyone who wonders about animal consciousness and eating meat, this will be striking.

The Soul of An Octopus is a wonderful read, especially because it closer ties us to a species not like our own. With the advance of climate change and other multi-national issues facing us, it will take all of earth's creatures respecting and caring for each other to make it through. The Soul of An Octopus really helps bridge the divide between humans and cephalopods, and it's a fascinating walk through their underwater world.

Most Societally Necessary: Hunger by Roxane Gay 

Roxane Gay is such an important writer that I'm not sure how to even review her bibliography - it's really in a category all its own. I adored Bad Feminist, but Hunger is so different, such a unique piece of work, that it's hard to categorize. It's far and away the best thing I've read either about obesity or sexual assault and related PTSD, but also includes so many important details about life as a woman, as a woman of color, as a woman of size (not just heft but height), as a daughter of immigrants (I could go on and on).

There is so much incredible detail wrapped into this book, truly encapsulating an intersectional experience and indirectly demonstrating why it is so hard to talk about intersectional issues. Which part of yourself and your identity does each of your experiences belong to? Which parts of your identity are more important? Are resources equally available to help you depending on race or gender or socioeconomic status? How do you move through pain? How does pain tangentially affect other areas of your life? How do you forgive yourself? Once you've started to heal from your pain, how do you leave it behind after you've carried it for so long?

There are so many rich, rich things to glean from this book, and I think every citizen should read it to have a more compassionate and comprehensive understanding of life as a woman who is obese, survivors of sexual assault, and an enormous range of related things. Roxane is so incredibly brave for writing and sharing this honest, raw book. I can't recommend it highly enough or thank her enough for writing it. We needed it and didn't even know it.

Best History Book: White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg

Talk about timely! This book could not have been published at a more opportune moment. Nancy Isenberg has written an absolutely riveting, thoughtful, highly necessary piece on the history of class in America and how it intersects with race issues. This should be required reading for every citizen. There is no way for us to solve the problems we are facing without understanding where they come from, and Isenberg starts at the very beginning. How many people know how classist the initial immigrants to America were? Or that the constitution was initially set up to base citizenship on property ownership, an influence that colors our view of people living here today? Or that the bungling of Reconstruction post-Civil War was not just devastating for former slaves but also for the white Southern poor?

The research here is exhaustive and truly spectacular, and Isenberg's pointed, clear, riveting writing is perfectly aimed to strike the heart of American mythology about progress and fairness. Although unfortunately named, White Trash is a book that will be a standard in learning about American class and race history for decades to come. If you found yourself questioning the results of the election or have a hard time understanding why white poor people tend to vote or act as they do, this is a great place to start. Also related in fictional form that is a great followup: Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake, about the lives of coal miners in West Virginia.

Funniest: You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson

I discovered Phoebe Robinson through the podcast 2 Dope Queens, and I'm SO glad I did. Not only have I now been introduced to Phoebe's solo podcast Sooo Many White Guys (best. intro. song. everrr.), but she is absolutely hilarious, so thoughtful and well rounded, and is single-handedly helping (at 2 Dope Queens with Jessica Williams) to create an innovative new space for comics of color. In other words: all she does is win win win no matter what.

I was really excited to read this book and it didn't disappoint. It reads just like Robinson speaks, full of her vernacular - it's like you're having a direct one-on-one conversation with her. This casual feel allows her to really dig in to meaty issues but with humor and finesse, and she has a lot to add to many conversations (particularly around intersectionality and feminism) that are vital to our progress today. I feel like for women of color (WOC) this book will feel familiar - none of the issues Robinson discusses will be new ones - but they still might be a hilarious new spin on old woes. In particular, I adore her clever way of abbreviating words. It's a little jarring at first but once you're in on the joke it's really charming and adds a lot of modernity to the feel of her work.

As a white woman, I found a lot of what she said to be important information to me and in learning to listen to other voices and to respect/understand/honor the differences between us. For any ladies who went to the women's march and want to learn more about intersectionality and some of the specific difficulties WOC face today, this is a great primer - I'd encourage you to pick it up.

Best Book for Women: Drop the Ball: Achieving More by Doing Less by Tiffany Dufu 

Forget Lean In; THIS is the book that every woman needs to read. Drop the Ball is a magnificent testimony to all the ways that women convince ourselves that we fall short and torment ourselves with unnecessary and unrealistic expectations. It is perfect for anyone who is too busy in their day to day and struggles to to find time for their real priorities (so... everyone?) and for those with a fierce imposter syndrome. Drop the Ball is a perfect piece demonstrating that women need to get out of our own way in order to lead happier, healthier lives. Dufu's insights are so much more realistic and nuanced than Sheryl Sandberg's; I'd love to see more books by realistic, intersectional women like this be published.

There are a few flaws with the book that are minorly addressed but could use more treatment. The entire concept is really based on a heteronomative, committed partnership - there's not a ton of language in here for non-CIS relationships or for single people. Although these items are not often explicitly addressed, however, I still think there is a lot of wisdom that can be gleaned here that is still useful for anyone falling outside of a heteronormative partnership, and much of this advice is even more vital in that context. For example: don't be afraid to recruit a "village" to help you. Build and maintain a network to call upon. Release your facade of perfection and meet people honestly with where you are truly at, and accept help when it is offered to you. Build strong relationships with others (especially other women). Be straightforward about your expectations and clear about your needs when you make a request. Stand up for yourself. Practice self care.

I cannot rave enough about Drop the Ball. It reflects a lot of conversations my partner and I had when we first lived together, and I wish I had had a book that so clearly laid out ways in which I was not only failing myself, but failing him. We need to have higher expectations of our partners - it is insulting to treat them like mindless creatures incapable of helping around the home. We need to have higher love for ourselves - we deserve time to rest and recuperate from our busy and stressful lives. We need to get off the perfection hamster wheel - it's unrealistic and completely unnecessary, and life is way too short to get caught up in keeping up with appearances.

What kind of world could we make if women really freed ourselves from the chains of eternal domesticity, learned to accept a little mess here and there, and instead focused our time and energy on our real passions and drive to improve society? It's an attainable fantasy, and the only people in our way is ourselves. Stop preventing yourself from finding peace and success. Read Drop the Ball - it is vital for women of any age and their partners should read it too for insight into why their S.O. has the expectations they do/is societally conditioned the way they are. I adored this book, and you and your partner will too.

Best Graphic Novel(s): The March Series by John Lewis 

I am so, so inspired by this wonderful series. Whoever suggested John Lewis make his story into a graphic novel is seriously a hero. I've studied the civil rights movement all my life, but something about the visual nature of this series really hit me in a way that all the thousands of textbook pages I've read never has. The art in these is truly gorgeous and I really got engaged and emotional with this story. Even in just black and white, the drawings are visceral, active and engaging, and they will keep you riveted to the narrative from start to finish. Book 3 is especially spectacular, and I promise it will keep you riveted to each page.

It's so easy to forget what happened (even in recent history) to get us to today, and the unimaginable pain the civil rights marchers went through is rendered here in astonishing, vibrant life. I highly recommend this to everyone - I think anyone can find some great, inspiring lessons here.

To the publishers: Please don't stop with this series! There is so much more of this story to be shared. I would love a graphic novel series like this on other marchers and activists, maybe Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez next?

Most Insightful: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss

I have always had somewhat of an unfair aversion to Tim Ferriss (I can't explain it, he just turns me off a little), but I couldn't resist the idea of this new book with interviews from the super successful of every stripe. I'm so glad I read this! It took a long time to get through but there is so much great information packed into these short interviews. They're funny, heartwarming, inspiring, and will kick your ass into gear towards accomplishing your goals.

In fact, this is one of the few books I would recommend re-reading and revisiting, as one pass through alone won't allow all of the great information here to really sink in. There is something in this book for everyone, from elite athletes to military personnel to comic strip authors, world renowned novelists, great chefs and titans of tech and industry. It's truly an all-encompassing book and I would highly recommend this for anyone who feels a little stuck or uninspired in their life. If you can't find anything in these hundreds of pages to cheer you, nothing ever will!

And if you're a podcast devotee like moi, check out Tim's podcasts (which each of these excerpts in the book is culled from). They're free master classes from the best in the world at their respective crafts - great for taking a long walk or run and doing some serious contemplating!

Best Memoir: The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between by Hisham Matar

This book was one of our book club choices and it was so incredibly informational. I didn't realize how little I knew about Libyan history until I picked it up, and it's fascinating. Hisham's story of his search for his father is devastating and presumably unending, but through his grief he has managed to create a gorgeous testimony to the value of Libya, of the reason to fight for your freedom, and the ideal that sacrifice is worth it if the end goal benefits everyone.

If you're wondering why Qaddafi had to be removed from power and where Libya can go from here, Hisham has several thoughts to share. I learned so much about North Africa and life under a dictatorship in this lyrical, lovely little book and I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants a primer on what is happening there. There are shockingly few great books about Libya and North Africa in general (tends to be the case when an entire generation's worth of writers and artists are imprisoned by a ruthless dictator... but I digress), so it behooves you to really savor the lyrical prose and rich history Hisham presents here.

Best Business Book: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

I was NOT expecting to enjoy this book as much as I did. Being somewhat of a hippie liberal, it's easy to hate on big corporations and think of them as greedy, soulless entities. That understanding, however, ignores the fact that behind every corporation is a very human, very fallible founder, who has made many tradeoffs to help realize their vision. Shoe Dog is so much bigger than being a book about Nike and touches on life, exploration, vision, determination, problem solving... I could go on and on.

Whether you love or hate Nike (particularly its sweatshop legacy), it's impossible to deny the complete revolution Nike created in the shoe industry, all of which started with a simple and noble mission to help provide better shoes made explicitly for the American body. What Nike is today is obviously far more complex than that initial vision, but there are good and bad things to all sides of that story. Be warned that this is a book solely from the perspective of the founder, Phil Knight, so it is going to be overly celebratory. Knight casts himself as the downtrodden, underestimated hero of this story, and it's a compelling narrative (although admittedly lopsided).

If you are able to set aside any concerns you might have about that, this will be a romping good read. It also really humanizes the kind of decisions corporations have to make that aren't always well publicized or explained amidst controversial media uproars. What good are corporations able to do overseas outside of eliminating their sweatshops? What kind of impact and ripple effect can a company have on something as simple as re-working the chemicals in a processing element in order to make a whole industry safer? Who preys upon the corporation itself?

Shoe Dog is a really interesting exploration of these questions and so much more. Anyone interested in creating a start-up or learning more about the interior mechanisms of corporate manufacturing should pick this up. It's not only inspiring, it's enlightening, and you will absolutely fly through it.

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