January 2020 Book Marks
New year, new decade. By this point I’ve learned resolutions are futile. For about thirty days, the gym at my YMCA is chock full, friends order fizzy water instead of wine. People make bloated promises about waistlines, turning over new leaves and becoming better/leaner/healthier versions of their former selves. And then real life takes over. The Ben and Jerry’s calls to me from the freezer. All that unnecessary self-flagellation and loathing is déjà vu all over again.
At the end of my sophomore year in high school, my parents announced we were moving. After the tears, despair and the “Best of Bread” album on repeat while I mourned my lost life in Delmar, New York, I fixed on one silver lining. Moving meant I could re-invent myself. Maybe instead of the flat chested, brace face, class clown, I could be a woman of mystery. I could change my personality amidst my future group of friends and be….”cooler.”
You know where this is going. It didn’t work. I was hard-wired to be the same goofy, wise-cracking, outgoing, big American self that I’d always been. Life has a level set for all of us and while we can tinker at the margins (lose that five pounds, stretch, read a book a week, live more in the moment) most of us revert at some point to who we are. The realization of that fact is actually sort of freeing.
So as I enter the next decade, this is what I’m thinking about:
– Say “yes” more, but exercise the power of a guilt-free “no”
– Spend less on “things” and more on experiences
– Order fewer things from Amazon with its damned packaging
– Reach out to old friends for no reason
– Schedule “Me” days in my calendar and hold the line
– Write more – tackle that book idea that sits on my desktop
– Forgive myself for the days I don’t feel “in the moment”
And while these smell a little bit like resolutions, I’m going to call them rules to live by. Health, happiness, home and new horizons are my wish for all of you this year. And, of course, many good books by your nightstand. Here are a few to get you going in the new year.
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Reminiscent of Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad,” Coates weaves a bit of the fantastic with the harsh realism of slavery on a Virginia plantation. Hiram Walker has been born into bondage, the son of the master and half-brother of the some-day lord of the manor, a cruel and ignorant boy he must serve. When his mother is sold to another plantation, he loses his memory of the past, but instead is imbued with a mysterious power that can “conduct” himself and others on the journey to freedom. It’s a wonderful play on words that Coates employs with great effect. This dramatic story switchbacks between beautiful human moments and scenes so brutal that I had to set the book down and catch my breath. It’s a dramatic and beautiful story of a family ripped apart and the war that was waged by so many families to simply live with and rejoin the people they loved.
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
This novel tackles multiple topics with linebacker speed, even as the story slowly simmers to a boil. Alex Chamberlain is an accomplished white woman with a female-powered “brand” who is married to a TV anchor. When motherhood intersects with her career, she hires Emira to babysit part-time. A 25-year old broke college graduate who is still figuring out what she wants to do, Emira forms a special bond with two-year-old Briar. When a security guard who sees a black woman with a white child in an upscale grocery store accuses Emira of kidnapping, the incident is videotaped. The chain of events that are then set in motion, including the appearance of a bad high school boyfriend, are on a crash course that not only makes for a fun read, but illuminate many of the social issues of our time. The complexities of race, privilege, white guilt, transactional relationships, social media, motherhood, and how we define family are examined from multiple facets with clever dialogue and interior monologue.
The Body by Bill Bryson
For anyone curious about what makes us tick and how we were built, this is an exhaustively researched and sometimes disgusting, look at how our bodies work. For his latest book (and I’m a huge fan) Bryson takes us on a tour of ourselves, body part by body part, system by system. There are chapters devoted to the brain and guts and skin and hair, each weaving together history, expert interviews and anecdotes, which are the author’s signature moves. For example, did you know that one kiss transfers over one billion bacteria from mouth to mouth along with 0.2 micrograms of food bits? In the end, the take-away for humans is that bacteria may win. Because of our over-use of antibiotics, we haven’t kept up with eliminating new strains, which could lead to our demise by some dystopian superbug. Time for a wakeup call. And for those of you who want to take the same kind of up close and personal tour of the history of the home, be sure to read Bryson’s book “At Home,” which is one of my all-time favorites.
Out in JANUARY 2020
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Vanessa, a bored hotel employee trapped in her hometown, is monitoring Facebook, where a student has accused her high school English teacher of sexual abuse. But Vanessa is keeping a deep secret. When she was just 15 years old, she also had sex with that teacher. And years later, she is still certain that the experience was love. In a story that is told alternating between the past and present, it explores memory and trauma with the powerful exhilaration of a young woman discovering the power of her own body. This novel explores some of the most pressing questions and issues in this post #metoo world; what does consent look like, who is complicit and who is the victim? It’s a hard book to put down.
Little Gods by Meng Jin
A different kind of immigrant novel, Jin delves into the tangled bond between mothers and daughters by examining the next generation’s perspective and experience on the emigrant country. The book starts in a hospital during the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing where a brilliant physicist, Su Lan, is giving birth to a baby alone after the father has abandoned her. Mother and daughter move to America where Liya lives within the silences and contradictions of her mother’s life in a new land. Seventeen years later, when Su Lan dies unexpectedly, Liya takes her ashes to China, which to her is an unknown country inhabited by ghosts of the past. A story of emotion and migration that spans time and class, the novel explores unfulfilled dreams and grapples with the issues of grief, memory, time, physics and selfhood, as well as the age-old themes between mothers and daughters.
JFK and Mary Meyer – A Love Story by Jesse Kornbluth
JFK’s womanizing stories have become legend since his death, yet have always been somewhat shrouded in mystery. An accomplished journalist, Kornbluth takes facts and weaves them into a fictional account of the unsolved story of Mary Meyer. From 1962 until his death, the president had an alleged affair with an educated, artistic, socially prominent woman who was often a guest at White House dinners. But eleven months after his assassination and just shy of her 44th birthday, Mary was shot execution style walking along the Georgetown towpath. While an African American man was convicted, her murder was never solved. Mary kept a diary, which becomes the basis for Kornbluth to use his writing skills and imagine not just the intimate relationship, but also the friendship. Jackie, Mary and Jack are the main characters of this short and easy read, but it’s the footnotes Kornbluth uses in this diary entry format that provide the fourth and pointed perspective. For those still fascinated with the Kennedy mystique and the personal side to his pain, Kornbluth has reconstructed a thought-provoking and engrossing book that makes your feel as if you’ve tumbled back in time.
Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis by Ada Calhoun
As a tail end Baby Boomer, I initially wondered what insight a book about Gen X existential angst and despair would offer to me. Instead, I inhaled every word, relating in many ways to the well-articulated struggles women have with money, work, child-rearing, caregiving and relationships. The take-away? We are not alone. What started as the author’s memoir attempt at age 40 to understand why she still felt lousy after supposedly “having it all,” became a universal book for women of all ages. Gen X is not the only one to feel “less than” after attaining many of the outward markers we think of as success and personal fulfillment. Combining generational research with data experts, interviews with more than 100 middle class women and her own humorous and poignant stories, I found myself underlining passages and nodding my head. One of the uplifting take-aways was that once those foggy pre and menopausal years of sweat and hormone rage pass, many of us can enter a calmer more Yoda-like existence of acceptance, mentoring and even fairly consistent happiness.
The Angel and The Assassin by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Our brain is a complex computer that runs our body and we’re only just beginning to understand some of the mysteries. In this scientific detective novel, award winning journalist Nakazawa uses her personal experience with an auto-immune disease and resulting “brain fog” to delve into the mind body connection in hopes of helping the millions who suffer from mental, cognitive and physical health issues. Her focus is on the important role of a tiny brain cell called “microglia” and its potential to help treat or contribute to breakthroughs with some of our most insidious neurological disorders. For years this cell was thought to be the brain’s “housekeeper,” removing damaged cells. But a recent discovery determined they can also go rogue, especially when triggered by the body’s immune system, morphing these cells into destroyers that can wreak havoc with everything from memory to anxiety, depression and Alzheimer’s. Under the right circumstances, microglia can be tamed back into healers, holding the potential promise that they can one day prevent disease that may have applications for us all.
Lee Woodruff Speaker-Author-Executive Media Trainer