Sunday, January 18, 2015

2014 Year in (Book) Review

If you read my post from last year, in which I had only read four whole books over the course of the year, you can rejoice with me in my slight improvement. However, summarizing so many more books took a long time for me and so February happened, and the "end of the year" theme isn't so relevant.  I would like to say my uptick in reading is due to a longer commute time, and it partially is.  But the real reason I am reading more is that I have rediscovered my love for the library.  You may recall that last year, I would go to the library unprepared, be overwhelmed at all the options, and walk out with nothing.  This year, I've started making a list of books to read. I add to the list when I get a recommendation, read an interesting review, or hear a good quote. This way, I go with a book in mind and often put it on hold ahead of time.

As I've grown more familiar with the shelves, I've started to get one book on my list and one that I picked up while browsing.  It really has re-sparked the love for reading I had as a kid.  Seriously, one year the only thing I got in trouble for in school was for reading during class time. I also had no friends that year, so there's that.

Anyways, I usually walk during lunch breaks to library in DC, since it's easier to fit in.  Going to the library gives me the same feeling that riding a bike around the city does: like an optimistic Mary Poppins throwing wildflower seeds at every patch of dirt, leaving a trail of beauty behind me. In my head, it is as if I'm waving to friends instead of avoiding puddles of saliva on the sidewalk, courtesy of the mentally unstable homeless that also frequent the library. I imagine myself toting a baguette and bouquet of flowers rather than a bag of dirty gym clothes, and heading to a picnic on a spring day rather than the alternating sweating or freezing that I experience in winter. This is how the library makes me feel.  Maybe that description of myself, will help you understand why I choose books that likely sound as much fun as taxes. (Oh my gosh - I realized after writing that that taxes are fun to me - what is wrong with me?)

Without further ado, the books of 2014:

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell.

Honestly, I love Malcolm Gladwell's books, and this copy is even signed! I went to an event at Sixth and I where he was the main star. I can't remember how they advertised it - "A night with Malcolm Gladwell" or something that evoked images of a nice fireside chat. That is kind of what it was, assuming your fireplace is in a synagogue with your closest thousand friends who took all the good seats (and we still got there a half hour early), and someone from Slate is asking the questions instead of you. I think the main lesson here is that if you want me to arrive early anywhere, tell me that Malcolm Gladwell will be there.

As per usual with Gladwell's books, I found this book fascinating. One of the big ideas of the book is that maybe the characteristics that make someone a "underdog" can actually be a strength that lead to unexpected victory. For example, someone with a reading disability may have to make up for it by becoming really good at memorizing, resulting in academic success. Obviously, this theory can't really be generalized, otherwise my lack of physical strength and coordination would have turned me into an Olympic figure skater. (Or maybe a gymnast. Not as cold and fewer sharp objects. Also less getting whacked in the knees.)

The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

I'm not sure what I thought this book was about - a violent crime that occurs on a farm?- but it was not about that at all. Though I still think a "catcher in the rye" sounds like a kidnapper. This book I loved. The rambling and angst and the absolute honesty. No wonder it's a classic. This quote is probably the perfect summary, "What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though." I wish I could have been J.D. Salinger's friend. I wouldn't have arrived a half hour early for him though, but it would be because with him, I wouldn't have to. Because what's the rush when you are just going to sip some sherry and comment about the ridiculous nature of people in the world? Although, really, he probably would have much cooler friends than me, so also that's why I wouldn't get there early - because I wasn't invited.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

I bought this book right before a 4 hour bus ride.  I had finished my other book was afraid I'd be bored.  Of course, once I got on the bus I was either asleep or too motion sick to read anyway. This was kind of "meh." A fast and humorous read set in Seattle, it made me really want to go there, but the story itself felt slightly juvenile, though it was clearly for adults. Maybe this is why I'm skeptical of most modern fiction.  The best quote was this:

"'That's right,' she told the girls. 'You are bored. And I'm going to let you in on a little secret about life. You think it's boring now? Well, it only gets more boring. The sooner you learn it's on you to make life interesting, the better off you'll be.'"

The Measure of Sucess: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home, by Carolyn McCulley and Nora Shank

Written by two members of my church, I found this book on "Biblical Womanhood" refreshing.  My only small complaint was that there wasn't a concrete takeaway, but the book was purposely broad, as each person's circumstance is different. Some background: I grew up in a conservative Christian church where the main focus for women's teachings was on having a "heart for the home." Even though, my parents and many others in my life always supported me in my pursuit of education, career, and graduate degree, it often felt like there was less support for people who weren't stay at home moms. So now that that can of worms is only cracked and not all the way open: I really like how this book went through the history of work, especially for women, pointing out how for most of history, the home has not been the refuge from a long day at the office it is now - no, it was the office, the center of business and economics for the family.  So when it says in Titus 2:5 that women are to be "busy at home," that doesn't mean to be constantly redecorating.  McCulley and Shank show that the idea of work can be applied to any calling, professional or not.

Sarah's Key (didn't finish), by Tatiana de Rosnay

I read the first couple chapters, then stopped. Then reread them a few weeks later. Then decided a story about kids and WWII concentration camps really sounded way too sad for me to want to finish no matter how beautifully it was written.

An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, by Tyler Cowen

So I'm kind of wishing I had written this book. I mean, look at the name of this blog! Economist! That's me! Foodie! I don't like how pretentious it sounds, but I did complain about the temperature of red wine a couple weeks ago, so Foodie? That's me too! (And nerd! Because my heart is even now, beating faster at the thought of combining my two favorite topics!) If, like me, you like food, and like to get really analytical about your decisions, this is for you. Written by George Mason economics professor, Tyler Cowen, I loved that he is local enough for me to visit the places he recommends. I love his mindset towards food because it captures how I often feel, "...eating out while traveling isn't just about the food, it's also a quest. It's a chance to create an adventure, a memory, a connection to the local culture; and it's a chance to help define what your trip, and indeed your life, is about. Traveling can spur the realization that eating is a creative art."

The book goes through a fascinating history of food in the US, experiments in grocery shopping, and tips for how to find the best places to eat at. It gave me much more of a shove towards ethnic foods in less glitzy neighborhoods where the bang for your buck is likely to be better than most spots on the "best of" lists. I wasn't thrilled with his stance on some of the more political issues of food (ie: he claimed GMOs are ok because there isn't conclusive proof otherwise), but I enjoyed this book, if nothing else because it relieved some of the self-induced pressure I can feel to only eat at popular (and budget blowing) spots.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (didn’t finish), by Michael Pollan

One day on the train ride home my conversation with an especially chatty seatmate went something like this:

"Do you work nearby?"
"Yeah, I'm an economist - I studied math and economics in school, so I'm kind of a numbers need."
"What are you reading?" Motioning to this book in my hand.
"It's this book called The Omnivore's Dilemma."  I explained my selection, “ I just really like eating so thought it might be interesting.” 
"Wow, you like math and food. You're such an awesome girl!"

I think he must not have met very many people.  I then waved to Jason across the aisle and excused myself from further conversation so I could finish the book before it was due back at the library. I didn’t finish, but it might be a good book for you if you want the attention of someone who is way too easily impressed.  (Jason can testify that the downside of those two characteristics is that when grocery shopping, I take way too long calculating unit prices and going back and forth about organic vs. natural vs. conventional.)

Anyways, the part I did read was fascinating, though it certainly shows the ugly the food industry is when politics pervert the system.  For example, the part I read focused on the government corn subsidy. I read this a while ago, so may have details fuzzy, but the gist is: there was an overproduction of corn in the earlier part of the 1900’s. This drove the prices down, meaning farmers made less than they counted on, and so made up the difference the next year by planting even more corn, which lead to even more surplus, even lower prices, and a downward spiral. When the subsidy was first introduced, the government bought excess supplies of corn and stored them for years when production was lower, thus keeping the price of corn artificially high in years of plenty. However, food policy changed – I can’t remember when, 70’s or 80’s? – so that the government still paid farmers for the excess corn, but left the excess on the market instead of storing it. Long story short, cheap corn prices result in today’s issues: prevalence of high fructose corn syrup, use of corn for feed, and therefore hormones for cattle whose stomachs are not made to digest it, and over development of land for agricultural use. That kind of stuff is frustrating, but fascinating to me, and I’ll have to finish it sometime.

Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French (not finished), by Harriet Welty Rochefort

Really, I picked up the book hoping to learn the "secret" as to how France could be known for rich buttery foods yet filled with svelte, trim people.  (I was really hoping that lots of red wine would be the answer, but it was something far more practical: petite quantities.)  Like someone who uses twenty words when ten will do, it was entertaining but I didn't feel like I didn't miss much when the library due date arrived with 1/3 of the book left to go.  Perfect for the Francophile, traveler, or anyone who wants to put a finger on what makes the culture of the French so refined, the book definitely made me want to emulate parts  of French culture, and bumped Paris and the Riviera up a few notches on my travel wish - list.

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck

Beautiful and haunting, the characters of this story will stick with me for a long time. If Heller made me want to befriend him, Steinbeck made me want to befriend his characters. Like going on a hike rather than a roller coaster, the ups and downs of the plot were more gradual, but the details more marvelously studied.  A story of two families captures the wonder and brokenness of life with such vivid descriptions I wished this book was mine and not the library's so I could have highlight my favorite quotes.  It's not really what I'd call a "beach read," but still worth it.

Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu, by J. Maarten Troost

This guy is hilarious.  At least to me, and by now you know to be wary of using me as a litmus test.  The auto biographical tale of the author and his wife when they move to Vanuatu. After leaving an office job in DC, he follows his wife to the edge of civilization for her job. There he learns local culture, customs, and entertainment. But it's really his dry and witty sense of humor and commentary on society that I loved, especially since I have had the exact soul-sucking experience on the DC metro that hooked me at the start. The book was a fun way to learn about another part of the world, and his stories had me alternating between wishing I could live on a rural island and being glad I don't. I suppose the indigenous drug use would get it a PG-13 rating, but the titles of his books really are worse than the content. I don't support drug use. Disclaimer box is checked.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think, by Brian Wansink
Books on food are a theme because, as I told the train guy, I love food. I also like being informed about what I consume and found this book fascinating! It's less of a diet book, more of a study into the psychology of eating. The author certainly cited various scientific studies, many of which he was involved in conducting, but it wasn't like a textbook. Wanksink talks about factors that frequently cause us to overeat and simple, healthy ways to eat better. One big point he made, which should seem obvious, is that we eat more when the container or serving utensil we use is bigger. This may seem fairly obvious, and you might even think you know better than to make that mistake. Amusingly enough, he performed this experimental on the very scientists studying this topic, and they still ate something like 50% more ice cream when using a bigger scooper! The very people who should know better! Even if weight isn't an issue, most people gain 1 pound a year, making it relevant to most.  This book helped me think about ways help me keep my family healthy, held my interest, and wasn't overly scientific.

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Technically, I started this in 2014 and only finished last week in 2015, but figured it was close enough.), by Elizabeth Kline

Do you ever get frustrated that your clothes pill after just a few washes? Do Anthro and J.Crew catalogs go straight in the trash because anything more than $10 at H&M makes you feel guilty? Do you have an overflowing closet but "nothing to wear"? Do lose your sunglasses every year? Ok that's just me.

Anyways, no matter your answers this book is for you! Cheesy sales pitch aside, I thought this book was really interesting. Seriously, the only downside is I felt like I should have been taking notes for work. I was shocked to learn that amidst skyrocketing prices for housing, education, everything, the real price of clothing has actually decreased in the last decade. This is largely due to the change in trade agreements allowing for a massive outsourcing of cheap, foreign labor. The result is not only cut throat prices, but a deterioration in quality, lost US jobs, poor working conditions, and a "fast fashion" consumerism that treats clothes as disposable. Of course, I'm not as quick to demonize those results as Kline is, as there is always another side to any argument, but they aren't good.  Trends that once changed every decade and now are changing monthly. It's definitely not a fashion guide, as the Kline makes it clear she had a lot to learn about style. (I wore black, brown and navy blue at the same time the other day, so I do too.) Her takeaway is not to necessarily spend more total money on clothes, but buy fewer items at a higher quality, as they'll last longer anyway.  I'm taking it as permission to buy nicer clothes because it's socially and environmentally responsible.  I'm hoping it helps with my dress addiction.

So, turns out reading more books takes a long time to write about.  If I lost you with all that, at least you have suggestions by better writers.  Hopefully you get some good ideas.  Have you read anything good lately? I'm almost ready for my next book - of course, after I do my taxes!