May 2020 Reads

Baking Off the Shelf
My favorite book I read this month!

I finally started reading again. Seriously, the last book I read was Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie way back in March! I’m blaming it on coronavirus. I definitely reached peak anxiety overload with everything going on, zapping all my mental focus. Anyways, I’m finally in the mood to read and I’ve managed to knock out several books this month! Now, my next goal is to blog regularly.

I’d like to formally introduce you to my book review and recommendations column: Reader’s Advisory! I am still figuring out the best format for my reviews/recommendations, and I’d appreciate your input. Would you rather individual book reviews or monthly round-ups? Or would you like a combination of both? Also, are you interested in hearing about the books I started but did not end up finishing? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Books I Read This Month

I’m a pretty slow reader. I don’t typically get through a ton of books per month, so finishing five books in one month is sort-of a big deal. I inched my way back into reading with some non-fiction, which did the trick because once I finished The Likability Trap I was back to reading regularly.

The Likability Trap by Alicia Menendez

4/5 stars | Interests: Non-Fiction, Business, Women in Business, Self-Help

I picked this book up because I felt overdue for a good business book. Whilst scrolling through the available books on Libby, this one caught my eye. Three things about this book: 1) This book is not about how to be more likable, 2) It is not packed with research, nor is the author a professional social scientist/researcher, and 3) This book specifically talks about likability as a professional hurdle and trope for women, but that doesn’t mean this book is “only for women” – it’s for everyone.

Menendez spends a majority of the book exploring of the idea of “likability” and how “being likeable” has translated into a tenet of our corporate culture. She offers up the compelling idea that “likability” is really a proxy for unconscious bias and gender discrimination. My biggest takeaway was on receiving feedback. Menendez points out that women tend to receive feedback focused on their style or presentation. Her advice is to reframe this poor feedback by asking specific questions about it, such as “Compared to whom?” or “Based on what?” She also highlights the difference between likability and relatability, and why we need to re-frame our mindsets to focus on relatability.

Overall, I thought this was a really good read. It’s a great conversation starter and has a ton of great quotes. It is also a good balance between books like Braving the Wilderness and traditional canon like How to Win Friends and Influence People. At it’s heart, The Likability Trap advocates for women to be self-confident, advocate for themselves and other women, challenge stereotypes and bias, and to not be afraid to walk away or say no when your personal, ethical, or moral code is undermined. It would make an excellent book club pick!

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

3/5 stars | Interests: Fiction, Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, LGBT, Romance

The Paying Guests has been on my To-Read List for a long time and I knew it was literary fiction, but I had no idea it was a lesbian romance/crime novel! This book is seriously underrated. The writing is excellent and the dialogue is snarky. There are several steamy sex scenes, which are also anxiety-inducing stolen moments. I also loved that is set in post-Victorian England. I think the historical context makes the dichotomy between the two main characters – Frances and Lilian, even more intoxicating.

The characters are what makes this novel great. I really loved Frances. She is a brilliant and fierce feminist lead, and her character has so much emotional depth. In contrast, I hated Lilian. But I can see that Lilian is the perfect foil to Frances, with her seemingly meek wife-ness and put-on naïveté. The plot is what makes this novel three stars for me. It centers on a love triangle. The first half of the book is dedicated to building up a forbidden romance, then there is a climatic crime of passion. The second half of the book follows the investigation of the crime, the arc of Frances and Lilian’s character studies, and dissolution of lovers’ plans. The plot is not mentally intricate (it’s very straightforward), but there is a lot of emotional intricacy. There is also a lot of commentary within the dialogue and plot themes on women’s rights and lesbian relationships, which despite the historical setting is very timely.

I give this novel three stars because for all of its highlights and punch, it moves rather slowly. The beginning and ending are paced just right, but the vast middle is a trudge. I was reminded of The Goldfinch, where Theo and Boris spend what seems like eternity in the drunken haze of Las Vegas. Except in The Paying Guests, it’s an eternity of doing housework in a crumbling mansion for a Frances’ middle-aged mother who can’t seem to grasp she’s not rich anymore and its not the Victorian era. Even though it moves slow, it is a solid read. It makes a nice addition to a summer reading list, especially if you are interested in reading more inclusive books. Waters identifies as a lesbian herself and writes predominantly novels featuring lesbian protagonists, which makes me wonder why we don’t see more of her books on round-ups promoting LGBTQ and inclusive reads.

SLOW: Simple Living for a Frantic World by Brooke McAlary

5/5 stars | Interests: Non-Fiction, Slow Living

This book was so much better than I was expecting. I liked it so much, I wrote a long review about it here. McAlary’s description of what slow living is not really hooked me. In the introduction she writes that slow living is not baking bread, growing your own food, wearing neutral tones, beautiful wooden chopping boards, and perfect kitchens – that’s Instagram. I also really enjoyed her writing prompts in the beginning to get you focused on your why, which she argues is the key to slowing down and living an intentional life.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to breaking down the various topics typically associated with slow living – decluttering, mindfulness, disconnecting from social media, embracing imperfect over perfect, balance, gratitude, etc. To do this McAlary combines her personal story with best practices and strategies for implementing intentionality in your own life. You can do all of the things, some of the things, or none of the things she suggests – slow living is whatever you want it to be. The primary message is a little deeper. SLOW reminds us that the actions and activities we prioritize and value directly affect our daily life. Constantly checking social media or trying to stay on top of the latest trends is not really the life legacy we want to leave, so we should start spending our time elsewhere.

I’d recommend SLOW to anyone interested in the foundations of slow living or anyone who needs a little reminder about the benefits of taking the time to assess your current priorities and values.

Conviction by Denise Mina

4/5 stars | Interests: Fiction, Crime Fiction, Comedy

I’m not quite sure how to describe Conviction. It is zany, over-the-top, and hard to follow at times. (I really thought the writing was bad for most of the book, until the ending. I am now convinced it’s meant to be “bad” – that’s part of the schtick.) The story is told by the main character, Anna, in a very stream-of-consciousness manner. I believe Anna is in her early-30s, she’s a stay-at-home mom of two elementary school girls, goes to couples therapy in attempts to save her rocky relationship, and is addicted to true crime podcasts. One morning she simultaneously gets dumped for her best friend and starts a new crime podcast in which she learns an old friend of hers named Leon Parker has died.

Following this opening, the rest of the novel follows Anna’s adventure in attempts to “solve” the murder of Leon Parker, who she is convinced did not sink his own yacht and murder his two children. Anna believes someone else murdered Leon and his two children – someone she herself is on the run from. Along with her sidekick Fin (her best friend’s husband and an anorexic rockstar), Anna sets off to solve the murder. It is a thriller-comedy – there’s celebrities, stolen lovers, a fancy castle, fake identities, #MeToo, Nazis, and yachts. And that’s the half of it. And despite how “amateur” the novel seems, the ending is super solid. You will not be disappointed.

This was a great escapist read. Just the right amount of comedy, thrill, and mystery to keep you turning the page. It was also Reese Witherspoon’s Book Club pick for December 2019, so fingers crossed it gets turned into a little movie!

Books I Started, but Did Not Finish

One of my reading goals for 2020 is to read more books I actually want to read. This sounds like a no-brainer. But I think a lot of us can relate. I find myself reading books because I start them and feel obligated to finish, or because a friend is reading it, or because it got great reviews. Not because I personally am really excited to read it, rather it just checks some box. My To-Read List is ridiculously long, so to really make a dent in it I’m giving myself permission to not finish books I don’t really like. Obviously, there are some I feel it’s important to force myself to finish – especially those that are “out of my comfort zone.” That said, I do think it’s worth mentioning the ones I leave half-finished. You know, in case you also would rather not read it.

We Are The Weather: Saving the World Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer

I originally put this book on my To-Read List because Samin Nosrat recommended it. (Here’s The New Yorker article where she talks about its influence on her.) The book’s premise is a persuasion to take action on climate change through changing our eating habits, but it’s also a dissertation on how your individual actions contribute to a collective whole in pretty much all aspects of life. I checked out the audiobook, read by Foer himself, and got through Part I. My borrowing time was up, and I didn’t renew. I expected something more science driven – less opinion. And maybe a little more originality? I just kept thinking, “He’s literally regurgitating Mark Bittman’s VB6 premise. Is he a huge Mark Bittman fan?” Then I did some Googling and saw Bittman did indeed hype We Are the Weather, unclear to what extent Foer is a fanboy. Some further Goodreads’ review scrolling states the latter half of the book was devoted to Foer interviewing himself, which sounds cringe-worthy but is a plot twist I wouldn’t be surprised by. His tone is rather pretentious, even when he admits to being a hypocrite. (He enjoys eating fast food burgers despite advocating veganism.) Ultimately, We Are The Weather doesn’t really tell me anything I don’t already know. We should eat more plant-based meals, we should strive to be greener. Foer is not someone I consider a subject matter expert in either of those areas, so I stopped reading.

Slow: Simple Living for a Frantic World by Brooke McAlary

I’ve been drawn to slow living in various forms over the years. I first became aware of “slow living” when I was in my early 20s and obsessed with minimalist fashion and design – namely through the ideas of capsule wardrobes, thrifting, DIY, and sparse neutral decor. As I started business school, the concepts of slow living returned in books I read about setting intentional goals, creating meaningful habits, and leadership in today’s noisy digital world. I spent a period of time post-college reading about relationships, mindfulness, and gratitude. In recent years, I’ve been interested in seasonal living, the slow food movement, and urban homesteading. All this to say, slow living is definitely something I aspire to. But lately, I have a creeping sense of self-doubt. I often feel whatever hobby, habit switch, or self-practice I’ve adopted is inauthentic, just a side effect of whatever is trending. Likely because my go-to inspiration and resources are blogs and Instagram, and sadly these places have morphed into lean marketing machines thanks to paid advertisements and sponsored content. I see more and more click-bait headlines in the women’s lifestyle articles and newsletters I read, all ending with product placement listicles disguised as “helpful tips.”

Last week I was (mindlessly) scrolling the available audiobooks via my library’s Libby app. I’d been struggling to find the motivation to read fiction and felt overwhelmed by the constant Covid-19 barrage in the media. How about a non-fiction audiobook?, I thought. I stopped scrolling when I saw SLOW: Simple Living for a Frantic World by Brooke McAlary was available. The audiobook is about 6 hours long and the description sounded like a typical light-hearted self-help read, so I downloaded it and started listening one night while cooking dinner. I ended up pausing the audiobook to grab a notebook. I couldn’t help but write down McAlary’s words and try out her prompts.

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