2021 Reading List: Dare to Lead by Brene Brown

I think I have to stop reading books by Brene Brown. Don’t get me wrong, I love all her vulnerability work and I think she really has something there. But I looked back at the past few books of hers that I read and I didn’t love those ones either.

I love her as a person. I really do. I think she’s doing great work. I think she’s changing lives and organizations. I think she’s making a difference. And I’m sure her message and her books resonate for a lot of people.

But for me, I just can’t read about rumbling and wholeheartedness anymore.

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2021 Reading List: The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World

Two days after I finished this book, Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce. Since I loved this book and I suddenly felt irrationally close to Melinda after reading her words, I was heartbroken. I have struggled to finish this post ever since.

I admittedly don’t know very much about Bill and Melinda Gates, besides their involvement with Microsoft and the Foundation. But I will be the first to tell you that I don’t think you need to know someone’s entire biography in order to read their books, articles, media, etc. and listen to what they have to say. So I was excited to read Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

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2021 Reading List: Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope by Wendy Holden

Every so often I pick up a book about the Holocaust. It’s a heart-wrenching reminder of the strength and fragility of human beings. I can’t remember where I saw this book recommended but it was probably on a list somewhere. Seems that other people find these stories to be moving as well.

Born Survivors: Three Young Mothers and Their Extraordinary Story of Courage, Defiance, and Hope, by Wendy Holden, is perhaps more impactful and meaningful to me now, as a mother myself, than it might have been a few years ago. This is a shockingly true story of three women who were in the early weeks of pregnancy when they were sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Amazingly, all three mothers and all three babies survived. This book is their story.

This book takes readers through each of the women’s lives, telling us where they grew up and went to school, how they lived with their families, their hopes and dreams, their skills and values and religious views. One chapter at a time, we learn about their backstory and who they were before the Holocaust changed their lives forever.

Every story of a Holocaust survivor is heartbreaking. It’s horrific and unimaginable. These stories are perhaps more so.

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2021 Reading List: Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo

Somewhere I must have read something good about this book. There has to be some reason why I thought it would be worth reading, why I thought it might help me succeed in life.

Maybe for someone out there, this book really was worth reading. But for me, it felt redundant and childish.

Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo is the basic pep talk you need if you are struggling, in general, with life, and maybe if you’ve never ever had a pep talk before and if you’ve never heard anyone else cheer you on and tell you that you have what it takes. But at the end of the day, that’s all it was. A pep talk. It was nothing life changing. There were no huge life lessons explained. There was nothing that the book told me that I didn’t already know.

I have had lots of supportive people in my life who have told me, in some way or another, that I am amazing and strong and capable and smart. And I have read books and articles that are far too similar to what this book ended up offering.

I wanted this book to actually help me figure shit out. I wanted this book to give me some mind-blowing insider knowledge about how to literally figure everything out. Things like how to change a tire, how to plan a wedding, how to fly to a foreign country. Actual, practical things. And yes, the book is telling you that those things are figureoutable. But it does so in a vague way that starts with setting your goals and managing your time and following your dreams.

There are plenty enough books out there about how to follow your dreams and achieve your goals. I don’t need another one, particularly this one. This book was full of platitudes and fluffy motivational quotes. As if she’s the first person to ever quote them. As if I don’t see those exact same quotes set against the background of a beautiful sunset at the beach every other day on Facebook. She starts the chapter with one of these Pinterest-y quotes and then she goes on to explain it as if she has all these deep, innovative, novel thoughts. All she did was take the same old tips for goal-setting and career-building and put it against the backdrop of a made-up word. She tried to make her philosophy seem new and different but it was the same-old same old framework.

I don’t think Marie Forleo acknowledged real life enough either. She mentioned that, yes, the working mom doesn’t have much extra time in her day. Or that, yes, there are setbacks or issues that happen in your journey to achieving your goal. But she almost completely ignores the fact that there are actual struggles that sometimes are beyond people’s control. You can’t just dedicate 20 minutes a day to your goals and get out of the cycle of poverty. You can’t change systemic racism with her figureoutable mindset.

At the end of the day, this was a cute little self-help book that was wildly naive and incredibly lacking in original thought and advice.

2021 Reading List: Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Here’s a fun, light-hearted read for you. Of course I had to read Crazy Rich Asians, by Keven Kwan, before I watch the movie and see what all the hype was about.

I finished this book pretty quickly, but not because it was particularly great. For the first half of it, I actually thought the plot was pretty boring. It was extremely descriptive of the rich lifestyle led by these families in Singapore and rather lacking in the action. Of course, the detail and nuances about their lives was necessary for the reader to truly understand the reasons and emotions behind the later actions.

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2021 Reading List: Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

Even before you read this review, you know Liane Moriarty will never disappoint.

Nine Perfect Strangers, by Liane Moriarty, has a lot more going on than you might think at first glance. The book is about nine people who book a 10-day retreat at a health resort in order to transform their lives. It is actually a bit of a misnomer because not all nine people are strangers to each other. There is a married couple and a family of three. So obviously they are not strangers to each other. But on second thought, maybe they are…

The story is told from the point of view of all of the characters, but seemed to focus most on Frances. Frances is a romance novelist who had recently fallen for, ironically, an internet romance scam. Maybe it would have been better if she’d lost all her money and been more destitute, but Moriarty made it sound like she was so insanely rich that losing a ton of money didn’t even matter for her. Frances has two ex-husbands, no children, a gaggle of friends, an estranged family. She had just read a critical review of her recent book and decided that she needed this cleanse at the resort to start over.

We learn about the rest of the characters in similar chapter by chapter fashion. Tony is an ex-football star, Lars is a gay divorce lawyer, Ben and Jessica are a young married couple who recently won the lottery but are struggling with their marriage, Carmel is a recently divorced mother of four who thinks she’s fat, Heather and Napoleon are there with their daughter, Zoe, and they are grappling with the grief of their son’s (her twin’s) suicide three years ago.

They are all there for different reasons, but being at a health resort, they all believe the ultimate outcome will be that they are refreshed, rejuvenated, healthier, and perhaps thinner. But the reviews of this resort are mixed, the guests just don’t know why. We learn early on to be skeptical of this place when Frances’ friend warns that the director, Masha, has some unconventional techniques. And Frances’ massage therapist warns her not to do anything she is uncomfortable with.

I was hoping for a little more drama amongst the guests, but their challenges and struggles are fairly straightforward. They are all going through different seasons in life and trying to figure out what that means for them, how to cope, and how they are going to move forward. Nothing sinister is going on in any of their backgrounds, like I suspected.

The true crazy one turns out to be Masha. I felt sorry for her innocent assistant, Yao, and all of the resort’s staff, ignorant of what was happening right under their noses. I felt sorry for Masha, who couldn’t find a healthy and normal way to cope with the terrors of her past.

This book takes you deep into the character’s lives, and their normal human struggles. Death, grief, love, jealousy, money, vanity, weight, drugs, marriage and divorce. It covers everything. And it makes you wonder, what would it take to truly transform your life? Is it as simple as a week at a health resort? 10 days without your phone and alcohol? Losing weight? A meetup with a stranger? Confronting death itself?

What would make you realize you need a change and turn your life around? Is the answer that simple?

Rereading The Book of Joy, Three Years Later

In 2017 I loved The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams so much that I now own my own copy.

The last time I was looking for joy, I was traveling in Greece. It seems funny to me now that at a time when, looking back, my life seemed pretty easy and wonderful, I felt that I was lacking true joy. After rereading that post I wrote three years ago, I think I was actually looking for a personal escape. I was working at a company I loved, doing a job I loved, but I felt stressed and overworked. I wanted to feel happier in the career choices I’d made. I wanted to know that I didn’t make the wrong choices and that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I just needed to shift my attitude and my perspective and then I’d feel more joyful about my daily life.

And it’s true – a lot of what the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop say truly boils down to an attitude adjustment. Telling yourself to find joy and be grateful. Reminding yourself that everyone is struggling and your struggles are not unique, meditating about the people around you and wishing them happiness which will in turn bring you more happiness. These things aren’t true changes that you need to make in your life. They are mental shifts.

It was also easy to feel more joyful after vacationing in Greece. I took a break from my phone and the internet, I observed a new culture and world around me, I relaxed, exercised, and drank ouzo. I was full of joy.

But now. After the year we’ve had I felt like another dive into The Book of Joy was warranted. I am feeling lonely, sad, self-centered, and stuck. My grandparents just died. When I picked up this book, I was looking for meaning and purpose beyond my day to day activities. If my grandparents were able to live their lives in meaningful ways that made such a difference to so many around them (as I’d come to realize at their funerals), then what could I do to give my life that same sense of purpose and fulfillment?

It’s amazing how you can read a book more than once and take away different messages each time. Different chords ring true, different phrases stand out, and different chapters make more sense. Last time, I unknowingly focused on anything related to internal happiness. My own joy.

What I took from the book this time was its focus on others. You can’t just find happiness within yourself. You can’t just will it to happen with an attitude adjustment. You actually have to go live a purposeful life. And the way to do that is to actually focus on others. Life is meaningful in relation to the people around you. The people you help, the people you go through stuff with, the people you love. Your life’s meaning comes from what you do for others. Focusing on others take the focus off yourself. You forget your own troubles but you find such joy in making others happy that your troubles aren’t important.

It’s been difficult to do this in a pandemic. How can we focus on being kind to others when we can’t see their face under the mask? How can we practice compassion when we’re holed up in our own homes? It makes sense that I’ve turned inward, focusing more on myself. But perhaps it’s because of this pandemic that we should be turning even more to others. Helping each other, supporting each other, talking to each other. It’s just so difficult.

I rarely reread books, but this one was worth it. It was worth the reminder right now that even though it feels like we are all living in our own little Covid-bubbles, we are actually all still connected. Even though we feel isolated and we’re struggling, there are others who are struggling as well. Even though it’s difficult, we will get through this by focusing on the greater community, the world around us, and helping others.

2021 Reading List: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Maybe it was just coincidence that the first book I finished in 2021 was a book about a dystopian replacement of the United States, right when we are watching extreme displays of anarchy play out in real life at the U.S. Congress. Crazy. Appalling. So wrong. I could go on, but this isn’t about politics today. This is just my book review.

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood, is a sequel to her novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in 2019. Then, like now, I marveled at a book that is written to be wholly fictional and unrealistic and yet is so believable that it may actually happen. I remember thinking that The Handmaid’s Tale was a well-written book but kind of boring in terms of action and plotline. The Testaments, on the other hand, was the opposite. There was a lot going on in this book, and Atwood pretty much required you to read The Handmaid’s Tale first so that you know the background and context of this Gileadean world.

Despite being written some 35 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the connection to the characters and the life they live is seamless.

The book is set about 15 years after the time of the The Handmaid’s Tale, and follows the experiences and accounts of three women, who are, inevitably, connected.

The first, a young girl, Agnes, the daughter of a Commander. Then another young girl, Daisy, who lives in Canada with her parents who run a thrift shop. Lastly, Aunt Lydia, one of the founding Aunts of Gilead, the one who is in charge.

Throughout the book, you realize that everything about their lives is based on lies and deceit. Agnes’ parents were not her real parents. She gets a step-mother, Paula, who had lied about the way her previous husband had died. She gets out of an arranged betrothal by lying and saying she had a calling to become an Aunt. Daisy’s parents aren’t her real parents. They are involved in a secret organization that smuggles girls and women out of Gilead to safety. Daisy had actually been smuggled out of Gilead herself when she was a baby and everyone in Gilead is looking for her. She must lie and deceive in order to sneak back in to Gilead with the hope that she can be a messenger to reveal the crimes of Gilead and bring about its destruction. Lydia’s entire life is built on lies, eavesdropping on every conversation in order to use what’s said and play the right hand. She says she is the founder and is committed to the success of Gilead but she’s actually plotting its demise and has been since she was captured.

Once again, I am surprised by how little time passed between the coup that resulted in the founding of Gilead, and the current events of the book. I had commented that in The Handmaid’s Tale it seemed that only 3 or 4 years had passed – Offred remembered her previous life, her husband, her child, as if it had happened so recently. And now reading The Testaments, I realize that if Aunt Lydia founded Gilead and she had already been considered old then and she is still alive to run the place, then we are only talking about 20 years of Gilead.

So there are women who remember the old ways. There may only be one generation of children who’ve been brought up completely engrained in this dystopian culture. And yet everyone acts like, this is the world, this is the way it is. It’s amazing how they forgot. It’s amazing how they could have adapted to this life of lies, brainwashed into thinking that Gilead is a better place than the world before.

Violence keeps them there. A violent and oppressive system that Lydia herself came up with and devised the rules for. The lack of power keeps women from rebelling. Killing their own citizens keeps them from running away. Fear for their lives and the lives of people they know and love keeps them quiet and subdued.

When you boil it all down, any society could become like this. Take away the power, change the rules, resort to fear and violence to contain the disorderly, and you have a system that is completely dysfunctional and morally wrong. But those with the power might say, whose morals? Everyone thinks their own worldview and way of life is the correct one. That’s why they’re living it. We all think everyone else is wrong, had made the wrong decision. The most extremists will fight, kill, overthrow, and condemn those who don’t believe what they believe or do what they say is right. The most extreme will spread lies, convince others to join them, incite insurrection, all in the name of what they think is fair and just. They think their world is better than reality and they will stop at nothing to control everyone around them and contain them in it.

I know I said I wouldn’t get political, but I leave you with this. Is the world we actually live in today much different from this fictional futuristic society?

2020 Reading List: Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

It shouldn’t surprise you, but this book is about three women. More specifically, three women and how they experience their own sexuality. One woman, Maggie, had a secret affair with her teacher when she was 17 years old. One woman, Lina, has a sex-less, presumably love-less marriage so she has an affair with a married man. The third woman, Sloane, has sex with other men and women while her husband watches or participates and she mostly enjoys it.

This book, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, is real, raw account of these women’s lives. I loved the way it was written; it felt unbiased and yet it was emotional and relatable. Relatable in the feelings and desires of these women, not necessarily lifestyle. It didn’t glorify or condone any lifestyle or decision but it also didn’t cast judgment or blame on anyone. It was an exploration of the real needs and wants of women that are so often ignored. Continue reading

2020 Reading List: Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis

Once again, I picked this book to read because I needed something light and fun. I needed to get my mind off the coronavirus, the quarantine and isolation, the illnesses and deaths reported in the news. I needed an escape. I figured that since I liked Rachel Hollis’ book, Girl, Wash Your Face so much, I would also enjoy this one in a time of worldwide crisis. Continue reading