10 Books I Read in 2017 and 10 Words to Describe Them

Hello, friends!

Am I the only person who blinked and suddenly it was 2018? I swear, 2017 was the fastest year of my life. What a blur!

Of course, even though it went fast, I remember a lot of it–and a lot of what I read, and I want to share some of that with you. So I’m going to talk about 10 books I read last year–the good, the bad, the ugly. And of course, because just listing those books and writing summaries would be too easy, I also tried to describe each book in one word.

The Road to Character by David Brooks — Emotional. Bill Gates reviewed this book on his site a couple years ago, and his review was enough to convince me that I needed to read this book. Brooks observes that today we tend to focus more on what he calls “resume virtues” and too little on “eulogy virtues” and we need to find a balance between the two. He explores several historical figures and a specific aspect that he feels sums up their personal character. His chapter on Struggle (profiling social worker Dorothy Day) read like a punch in the gut, and his chapter on Love (profiling Mary Anne Evans, better known by her nom-de-plume, George Eliot) made me cry. I can’t say I’m a better person having read this book, and Brooks doesn’t claim to be a better person having written it, either, but it for sure made me think about how I want to be remembered–and as a result, how I must be to achieve that.

The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman — Repetitive.  I liked the idea behind this book, and I still think there is value in Chapman’s idea–that many relationships fail because couples don’t know how to effectively communicate their love for each other. Enter the five love languages: quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, acts of service, and gift-giving. Chapman argues that in relationships, people tend to have a preference to one or two of those specifically, and offers advice on how you can use those to communicate with your partner. That said, I thought it was very repetitive and could have been 100 pages shorter; but the ideas inside are good ones and worth looking into.

Fall of Giants by Ken Follett — Political. If you read here, you may already know I’m a fan of Ken Follett. I actually read four of his books in 2017: the entire Century trilogy (FoG and its sequels) and A Column of Fire, which came out in September; but I used FoG here as it sets the tone for two more books. It follows interconnected, international families and characters through the early years of the twentieth century through World War I. Even though it’s a novel, it’s one of the most political books I read in 2017–a lot was happening in the world in 1914 and beyond! I walked away from it with a final understanding that politics have always been very, very heated. Not necessarily the lesson I thought I’d get from KF, but it’s nice to get something unexpected from a book.

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli — Surprising. I’ll be honest; I had to read this book for a class. And I’m glad I bought it rather than renting it, because it’s on my bookshelf now. Economics is interesting to me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to read a whole book with the word “economy” in the title. This book was a genuine surprise in that it reads like a novel. Somehow, Rivoli has managed to tell what is potentially a very boring subject as a story. And of course, I learned a lot, as it covers the entire life cycle of a t-shirt from cotton in the fields of Texas to yarn in China to for sale in the Florida tourist shop. And if you are curious, Salvation Army and Goodwill are not where t-shirts go to die. I know–I didn’t know either.

Why Wall Street Matters by William D. Cohan — Essential! I decided to read this book at the beginning of the year when I realized that I was starting a Master’s program in Finance and yet I actually new nothing about the U.S. financial system–which makes me no different from many Americans, to be fair. This book changed that; while I may not be able to explain to you what a call option is (yet), I can tell you what the U.S. financial system is about. Cohan, a former banker and NYT columnist, explains in simple language what the financial system does and what went wrong in 2008, as well as what is right or wrong with how we dealt with it. I highly, highly recommend this book.

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson — Indescribable. I can’t come up with an accurate adjective to describe Isaacson’s biography of my favorite Founding Father. Within its pages I found the BF that Americans are familiar with; flying kites in thunderstorms, his fondness of women, and the witticisms we’ve been taught since grade school (“a penny saved is a penny earned”). I also found or re-learned certain aspects of Franklin’s story; his entrepreneurial spirit, his love of all things England, his change in attitude towards slavery. Most interesting, but not the least bit surprising, was finding out that he was an advocate for self-help and -improvement, and always knew there was something he could be better at. It was a genuine pleasure to read this one!

Dangerous by Milo Yiannopoulos — Harmless. There was a lot of talk about this book–and its author–earlier this year and in 2016. My political views are moderate, and I definitely don’t agree with everything Yiannopoulos says, but I do believe in listening to other’s points-of-view. Moreover, I am more thankful that we have freedom of the press in this country, because for all the attempts to suppress this book’s publication, there is really nothing dangerous about it. It’s not an instruction manual on how to think or act. It’s a combination of political discussion and Milo talking about how amazing he is. Other parts remind me of a teenager saying outrageous things just to get a reaction (which I’m sure is the point, given Milo’s support of the 1st Amendment). While I don’t agree with everything in the book, there were parts that amused me. I’m glad I got the opportunity to read it while it was making the rounds in my family a few months back. (And if you’re curious, I have one or two books on the other side of the political spectrum in the lineup for 2018)

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl — Beautiful. I read this during a time where I was struggling this year, and I got a lot of–well–meaning out of it. Frankl used his experiences in Nazi concentration camps to develop his theory and practice of logotherapy, or the search of meaning in one’s life. The belief is that for most people, the meaning to life is work, love, or  getting through hard times (or some combination of the three). I found the book interesting because Frankl does write in part about being an inmate at Auschwitz, but he did not write it to be “another Holocaust book,” but rather to illustrate how the struggle of the time kept him and many others alive. Of course, nothing in my life is as bad as being in a concentration camp. It’s a touching, memorable book and has some haunting passages (the last words–OMG).

The Six: the Lives of the Mitford Sisters by Laura Thompson — Short. I wish this book had been longer! Being American (I know, I’ve said it three times in this post), I couldn’t have told you who the Mitfords were, except that maybe J.K. Rowling had named her daughter after one? Having read about them, I’m not sure I admire any of them (except maybe Deborah–for being normal), but I was nonetheless fascinated by this group of English sisters and how different they all were from one another, as well as their relationships with one another. I myself am a sister, and my only sibling is a sister, so I was intrigued by the lengths the Mitford sisters took when antagonizing each other. I plowed through this book, and I was actually sad to turn the page to find the word “Epilogue.”

Build Your Dream Network by J. Kelly Hoey — Useful. We’ve all heard “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” and the author of this book shares her personal experiences in how networking has helped her change and advance careers. She shares useful tips on how to leverage your existing network for opportunities, as well as expanding your network. It’s definitely worth a read if you understand the power of networking, but aren’t sure how to approach it.

What books did you read last year, and what word would you use to describe them? Comment below!

Cookbook Review: Modern Jewish Cooking

Hey, everyone!

I’m back, and I have another cookbook review for you! If you haven’t read my last cookbook review and didn’t already know, I really enjoy getting cookbooks from the library and try to make a few things from each. Since I already do that, I decided I’d review the cookbooks on my blog–no big deal, I just have to remember to get a picture of my food before I dig in.

This cookbook is  one I’ve been interested in since before last Christmas, which you might think is kind of ironic, because it’s called Modern Jewish Cooking by Leah Koenig. Yes, I requested a Jewish cookbook for a Christian holiday. I’ve encountered Koenig’s recipes before on Tablet, which is a Jewish online magazine (here’s a recent piece she’s written there), but I’m not 100% sure how I first heard about this cookbook. But I know I love Jewish food, and I know I love cooking, and the reviews for this one are pretty good on Amazon, so.

Before getting this cookbook and trying some recipes, my experience of Jewish cooking was generally limited to the Ashkenazi tradition–or Eastern European Jewish cooking. This is not a bad thing; I love matzo balls in my chicken soup, latkes are a winter staple for me, and knishes–well–those are just the ultimate comfort food. But as Koenig points out, Jews are a wandering tribe and have found themselves in just about every corner of the globe (except Antarctica). I’ve never had any Sephardi or Mizrahi cuisine, and this book has it all.

Some of the ingredients in this cookbook were harder to find; rosewater just isn’t something I see at Kroger, nor have I ever seen labneh there, nor za’atar. An Amazon search and reviews told me that Amazon’s prices on these items were “ridiculous” (not to mention, I’d have to pay for shipping!–no, thank you!). Luckily, Metro Detroit is a very diverse area with a large Middle Eastern population, and my best friend Toni lives less than a mile from a Middle Eastern supermarket and all of these items were much cheaper there than on Amazon.

Speaking of Toni, the first recipe was one I made with her, which was the Sauteed Green Beans with Labneh and Sliced Almonds. The tangy labneh and the crunchy almonds really complemented the green beans. I also took an opportunity to try a new vegetable with the recipe for Pan-Roasted Turnips; it wasn’t bad–is anything ever bad if you cook it with a chunk of butter?–but turnips are not my new favorite vegetable.

The following week, Toni and I made Chicken Schnitzel and Caraway Cabbage Strudel. I was at once wary and curious about both of these recipes, since I generally hate the result when I cook chicken in a pan on the stove–it’s always so dry and no marinade changes that. Second, my experience of strudel is that it’s a sweet  food, so the thought of savory cabbage and caraway seeds (which I’ve only ever seen in rye bread) in phyllo was either going to be amazing or terrible. Luckily, it was amazing, and the schnitzel was good too. I had to dredge the chicken in flour and eggs and panko, then fried it in oil on the stove. It wasn’t dry at all!

I also took the chance to make Koenig’s Classic Challah recipe. My last attempt to make challah didn’t end perfectly–the loaves were too dense due to too much flour in the recipe. This time, I think the loaves turned out much better; definitely not dense! Since two loaves came out of it, and there’s no way I’d be able to eat that much bread (although I’ve tried), I gave the second loaf to Toni for her and her husband to enjoy. They said it went great with soup.

And since I just mentioned soup, Toni and I also took the opportunity to make a soup recipe in the cookbook as well. I’ve never used the word “aromatic” to describe food before, but that’s just what Koenig’s Tomato-Chickpea Soup with Spinach was. We garnished the soup with a scoop of labneh. And it was delicious. The leftovers were even better than the original result, too. I was so happy the three days I had leftover soup in my lunch box.

I made Sweet Hamantaschen, the triangle-shaped cookies eaten at Purim (yes, Passover has ended and Purim is not here yet). They were okay; I think I did something wrong. The dough was wayyy too sticky and kneading was a nightmare. Then I think I added too much flour. They weren’t awful, but I didn’t do it right, I think. The chocolate-peanut butter ganache I made for the filling was tasty!

Since the recipes in this cookbook are kosher, I would have liked to see more discussion of the principles of “kosher” means, and what is considered pareve (neutral, and therefore can be served with dairy or meat). But overall, it was a great cookbook to have for a few weeks, and I was very sad to return it to the library. In the end, I might end up buying this cookbook!

ON “BOOKS EVERYONE SHOULD READ”

Last week, I went to Barnes and Noble with my mother. If I was 14, this wouldn’t have been a particularly notable event; when I was younger, my mom and I went to the bookstore all the time together, but that was before Borders went out of business and my mom never really liked Barnes and Noble.

For the first time in a long time, I was at a bookstore with my mother. One of mom’s coworkers is retiring and Mom, knowing that her coworker quite likes wine but doesn’t necessarily know what beverages pair the best with what foods, thought that if there was a book that kind of explained how that went, it would be a good retirement gift. We did end up finding it, and it was a lot bigger than we had imagined it would have been. It was thorough, apparently.

As a lover of books, I started frequenting Barnes and Noble after Borders went out of business. As a lover of bookstores, I like to look at displays to see what they’re promoting and how they’re promoting certain books. It’s summer, so of course they’re going to have a table that is all books for the junior high and high school summer reading lists. I marvel that apparently my 11th grade English teacher is still assigning Richard Wright’s Native Son as summer reading (it is a book I probably would have liked better had we read it as a class), and that the teacher at my old school’s crosstown rival still assigns The Poisonwood Bible. Other displays (ones that aren’t school-related) promote books that I find questionable, but I can live with the existence and bestselling status of 50 Shades, because I’m glad people read, and I’m glad that they talk about books, my opinions of those books aside.

However, I am forever iffy about the table with the sign that says “Books Everyone Should Read.”

Truthfully, I like the idea of a world where everybody reads. Even better is the idea of a world where everybody likes to read. But those lists of books that everybody should read? I tend to disagree with any statement that says everybody should read a specific book.

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant may well be my favorite book ever, and while I recommend it to a lot of people, I understand that it’s not going to be a book that will appeal to everyone (menstruation! childbirth! Biblical figures!). It’s great when I do find someone who has enjoyed it because then I can talk about this amazing book that I am lucky enough to have found and read and loved.

But the phrase “everybody should read this book” is flawed. It implies that there is something to be gained, often a level of personal growth, from reading certain books. A life lesson.

And not everybody is going to pick up on those hidden messages. Not everybody will learn something from those books.

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In my 12th grade English class, somebody applied “everybody needs to read this” to the book Nineteen Minutes (notable to me because it was the only book by Jodi Picoult that I liked). But even within the book, there is a character who survives a school shooting, and despite having friends who died in the event and even having been shot himself, he doesn’t get that he was targeted by the shooter for having bullied him. He doesn’t change his outlook or behaviors.

It’s also notable that one of my classmates didn’t think the main character’s boyfriend is “so bad.” This was worrisome, even to my teacher, because it’s obvious that the guy is bad news. He has abusive tendencies and refuses to wear a condom when they have sex, and also, right around the time we first encounter him in the book, he’s telling his girlfriend that she’s fat and food-shaming her for eating French fries (I think it was French fries, anyway–12th grade was a while ago).

Not everybody is going to get it. And that’s why, when acting like there is something to be gained by reading a specific book and that everybody should read it, you could be doing more harm than good. Not to mention that the implication that books are for learning from explains why a lot of people don’t pick up books outside of school.

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Confession time: I never understood the appeal of To Kill a Mockingbird, and I didn’t learn anything from reading it. I knew by the time I had read it that racism was bad, and that you should always do the right thing, even if the people around you aren’t. Reading the book didn’t reinforce that message, and ultimately, I didn’t enjoy reading it, even though it’s a standard text in classrooms across the country. Almost everybody has read it, and yet I am sure that there are many people out there who also didn’t enjoy it.

And that’s just talking about texts that are in the American literary canon. There are myriad works that are important in other places that I have neglected to mention here. And to some degree I am happy that they aren’t “books that every American should read” because many Americans aren’t going to understand issues in other countries as they apply to those countries. They might understand an issue as it applies to America, but the context of one’s reading of a text is going to affect the lens through which that text is read. And the culture of that reader is also going to affect the lens.

So, yes, I like the idea of a world where everybody reads, but I’m okay with living in a world where not everybody reads the same books.

Do you think that everybody should read certain books? Why or why not?

CHOCOLATE BOOK CHALLENGE

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetI’m not even going to lie, when Kacie tagged me in her post, my first thought was “How could you do this to me? Now I really want some chocolate!”

However, that’s no different from the other 23 hours and 59 minutes of the day, so.

Like I am with chocolate to eat, I’m constantly on the lookout for something interesting or new to read. Generally, “interesting” trumps “new” but when you are like me and you do have a dependence on the written word, well. In addition to chocolate and interesting stories, I also crave opportunities to share the books I love with everybody.

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(I did change some of the chocolate prompts from the original post because I have fun with stuff like that, but Kacie has the original chocolate prompts in her post, if you’d like to see them)

Dark chocolate; or A Book With a Dark Subject | I first heard about Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward from a Tumblr post by another author I admire (I want to say it was Roxane Gay). I had previously read one of Ward’s novels, Salvage the Bones, about a Mississippi family in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina before reading Men We Reaped, which is a memoir Ward wrote to commemorate five young men she knew, including her brother, who died early. It feels tacky to say that Ward writes beautifully about hardship, but her writing leaves me wordless and teary-eyed.

White chocolate; or A Favorite Lighthearted Read | When I tell you this, you’re going to look at me funny, and I’m going to say, “I know, I know.” The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. There, I said it. And you’re probably thinking, “But isn’t that book about Dracula?” And yes, yes it is, and I’m still going to tell you that this book is super-duper fun. It’s got something for everybody. For you Dan Brown fans out there, it’s got a conspiracy. For supernatural fans, it’s got the Vlad the Impaler/Dracula/vampire element. And seeing as it takes place throughout areas of Cold War-era Europe, it definitely isn’t without its appeals to adventure fans, either.

Milk chocolate; or A Book That You’re Dying to Read; or A Book that Makes You Thirsty | The former rather than the latter, but I wanted to point out that nothing makes my mouth dry the way  milk chocolate does. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a book I have been longing to read for a minute. The authors I like to read have said very nice things about it.

Chocolate with a caramel center; or A Book that Makes You Feel Gooey Inside | In 2012 I was 21, working 3 jobs, and living with 2 roommates who were swooning over 50 Shades. Once I discovered Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell on a “Michigan Authors” table at the local Schuler’s, I also got to swoon over a book. I’ll take your Katniss Everdeen and raise you one Margo Crane, because that’s really how I feel. Margo has had a rough time of it; her mother abandons her at a young age, her uncle has raped her, her father is killed in an accident. Her response is to steal a gun from her uncle’s locker and to take her rowboat out onto the river. And she further continues to be fucked over by men. But she changes, she survives. And I just cannot stop praising this book.

Chocolate chilli pepper; or A Book that Surprised You | Books can surprise a person on a few different levels. Outcomes, I find, are rarely surprising. More often than not, though, I can find myself surprised by how much I like a book. I enjoy books about people and the secrets they keep, something readers of Kate Morton probably also enjoy. The Secret Keeper surprised me not because of the outcome (the actual outcome should occur to you by the time you’re halfway done) but I did enjoy it, which is generally more than I can say for Morton’s other works. The pace was perfect, and it didn’t reveal too much all at once in the last few pages, which is a mistake I see in a lot of books.

Trader Joe’s dark chocolate almonds; or a Book You Are Just Nuts About | Really, I’d rather call this “Author You Are Just Nuts About” but I’ll throw out a book by my favorite author instead. How’s that sound? When I was in  junior high school, I discovered Tracy Chevalier (and it’s ScarJo’s fault for doing Girl with a Pearl Earring). She’s best known for having written Girl with a Pearl Earring, but shortly after reading that I read Falling Angelswhich made such an impression on me that I could still to this day call it my favorite by her. For one, it’s centered around a cemetery. Two, Edwardian society. Three, suffragettes! Did I mention there’s a cemetery? It’s fantastic.

Hot chocolate with marshmallows (but only the colorful ones); or A Comfort Read | You’re going to get tired of hearing me talk about it, but The Red Tent by Anita Diamant has been one of my all-time favorite books since I was a senior in high school. While it draws on stories from Genesis (specifically the stories of Jacob and Joseph), you don’t have to be religious to appreciate or enjoy it. At its heart, The Red Tent is a story of female relationships and family, birth and death, and love and loss. One person I’ve recommended it to commented that they never felt so fulfilled by a book’s ending before. And really, that couldn’t be more true. Every time I finish reading it, I take a moment to hold myself, because it’s like I might burst if I don’t.

That’s it for today! As part of the challenge, I need to tag 5 people to complete the challenge next! So, I’m going to say that I want to see what Meg, Desiree, Harper, Gwen, and Lydia have to say for their favorite chocolate-book pairings! Friends, please take your time to construct your lists or plow through them (I took my time… a lot of it)!

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What chocolate goes with your favorite book?

READ ACROSS AMERICA DAY

In high school I had this t-shirt (which really isn’t surprising, I had lots of t-shirts, because I’m a total t-shirt-and-jeans person) that had the Cat in the Hat on it and for the life of me, I can’t remember what the damn thing said, but it said something about reading. We wore them for our school’s reading week, which coincided with the first week of March. Because of Read Across America Day.

I really wish I had a picture of the damn thing.

Like just about every other nerd on the planet, I enjoy a good read. I don’t care if I’m reading an article about urban farming in BUST magazine, a book about a girl in a boat in Michigan, or Samurai Champloo fanfiction on my phone (Fuugen 4eva), I tend to enjoy whatever I read, so long as I am reading for the hell of it. (Maybe one day I will tell you the story about how I was an English major and hated everything and everybody, because I couldn’t read just for the hell of it)

It is Read Across America Day, so I do plan on taking a couple minutes–just a few!–to read something. Before I focus on getting new books, I need to focus on finishing the few I have started. Likely, I will be reading Burial Rites because that’s what I’ve been carrying in my purse for the last week.

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How are you celebrating Read Across America Day?