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Thursday, December 19, 2019

New Dork Review Best Books of 2019

Well, this is unusual. In fact, it's a first. My best books of the year list includes more nonfiction (6) than novels (4). I read a ton of great novels this year, of course — my top three of the year are novels! But maybe because writers are churning out great memoirs (and publishers are publishing them!) and other narrative nonfiction at an unprecedented clip, I read and connected with more of these terrific books than I ever had in a year before. And they were all over the place — from a magazine editor to a donkey racer to an examination of climate change and AI!

As always, it was a terrific year in reading. Here's my full year in books, via Goodreads, if you're interested. And  here are my top 10 favorite books of the year:

10. The Rise of the Ultra Runners, by Adharanand Finn — I ran my first ultramarathon this year (a 50k, about 31 miles), and if your first reaction to that information is WHY?!, then you should check out this book. Finn is a British journalist and above-average runner who set out to answer the question about what makes these ultra-runners tick. So to really answer the question, Finn took on the challenge himself, setting a goal of running the 100-mile Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), ultra-running's most prestigious event. Along the journey to get there (to enter UTMB, you have to accumulate a number of points by running other ultras), he meets and interviews the cream of the ultra-running crop, and tries to learn about their motivation for running 50-mile, 100-mile, even-greater-distance races. And he has to answer that question for himself. It's a riveting adventure story, good for runners and non-runners alike.

9. The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett — Patchett can do no wrong. She's one of the best writers working now, and her latest novel is a fascinating dark fairy tale family saga that's one of her best. This was one of my most-anticipated novels of 2019, and I was so happy it lived up to the hype. (Side note: In 2019, I checked off a major bookish bucket list item by visiting Patchett's bookstore, Parnassaus Books, in Nashville. It's smaller than I expected it'd be, but still really great. Naturally, I bought one of Patchett's books there as a souvenir.)

8. Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall — Just a delight! The ultimate underdog story: A rescue donkey learns to run in the World Championships of Burro Racing, warming hearts everywhere! There's your ready-made movie tagline! And that's literally what happens in this terrific and hilarious book. But it's such a charming story. And along the way, McDougall (of Born to Run fame) teaches us about so much more than just burro racing. I laughed. I cried. I looked into adopting a donkey myself.

7. Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl — This is a memoir as much about the magazine business as it is about Reichl's signature subject for which she has legions of fan: food. I picked it up for the former, but loved it for the latter — she has a way of making food so personal with her writing, that even this non-foodie really loved it.

6. Nights In White Castle, by Steve Rushin — You want some comedy? This is some high comedy. With his signature wit and one-liners, Rushin gives us this memoir about his teenage years in suburban Minneapolis in the mid-1980s and his time at Marquette University soon after. If you're a child of the 1980s, too (though Rushin is a bit older than me), you'll love all the references and jokes here.

5. Falter, by Bill McKibben — Are we screwed? Yep, we might be totally and irreparably screwed. McKibben, who is one of personal environmentalist heroes, gives us three reasons why: Climate change, the rise of unregulated AI, and gene editing. All these have the potential to combine to wipe us all out. No exaggeration. He's worried. But he also provides some potential solutions. This is about his least cheery book, and that's saying something. But it's a vital read.

4. 26 Marathons, by Meb Keflezighi — You won't find a nicer, more personable athlete than Meb, the rare runner who has managed to cross over into popular culture. Meb recently retired and this book chronicles each of his 26 professional races, but it reads more like a memoir of his running career, detailing his successes and failures, injuries, sponsor problems, and so much more. You don't have to be runner to love this book; just a reader in need of inspiration and a good story.

3. Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig — The longest novel I read this year was one of the best. I love the premise here: What would cause our fragile, ultra-divided country to fracture? Would a mysterious sleep-walking disease do it? Wendig's such a cool, smart writer, whether he's talking about AI, religion, or epidemic, he's fascinating and funny. And this novel is populated with a ton of great characters — a fierce teenage girl, a small-town preacher, a disgraced former rock star, a brain-damaged cop, and so many more. This is a book you just get lost in.

2. Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid — This book feels so real it's hard to believe it's fiction. Of course, this "oral history" of the eponymous 70s band is a blast, but one of the reasons I really loved this novel is how it describes the creative process to write songs, and what it says about the inspiration for art.

1. The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo — As entertaining and well-written as anything I've read in a long, long time, this family saga about four sisters and their parents through the years in Chicago is what you want every novel to be. Honestly, when I was only about 50 pages into this book, I knew it'd be a favorite of the year — and that's held up through the next 500 pages, and also the six months since I read it in June. I really loved this book.

(Note: I'm currently about halfway through Samantha Power's memoir, The Education of an Idealist, and if I'd finished it before this post, there's a 100 percent chance it'd be on the list. It's spectacular.) 

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Running With Sherman and Unfollow: Reviews of Two Recent 5-Star Memoirs

I've read more nonfiction this year than in any other year past, and these two most recent ones are two of the best I've read this year!

Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall
This summer, I was browsing through RoscoeBook's collection of autumn ARCs, and noticed this book with a familiar cover composition and colors. "Hey, is that ... That looks like Born to Run...Woohoo! A new book by Christopher McDougall! ... Uh, but it's about donkeys?" So I had a hard time talking myself into this new one...it just seemed so silly. But talk myself into it, I finally did — and I'm so glad I did. It's spectacular!

Sherman is a poor neglected donkey rescued from a farm near McDougall's own in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (famous for being a hotbed of Amish activity). He slowly nurses Sherman back to health, with the help of some of his neighbors, and a goofy goat named Lawrence. But he's told that for Sherman to survive, he needs to be given a purpose. So, why not donkey racing?

McDougall had already become somewhat versed in the odd sport of burro racing in research for Born to Run when he was in Leadville, Colo., site of one of the most prestigious (and difficult) trail ultramarathons. Burro racing is a huge deal — a sort of homage to the region's past. So McDougall, his wife Mika, and a troubled teenager named Zeke begin training a team of donkeys to run a race in Colorado.

Along the way, as in Born to Run, we get riffs on whatever McDougall becomes interested in as he's writing the book. Here, that includes his experiences with a quirky Amish running club, how the human/animal connection is mutually beneficial and has benefits ranging from healing from injury to treating PTSD, and how exercise can be a boon to mental health, among many other topics.

So then eventually, McDougall and his rag-tag team make it to Colorado to run the race, but not without a few hiccups and challenges to overcome.

This book is just an absolute delight — a perfect read for animal lovers, runners, or anyone who just loves a good heart-warming, funny story. McDougall is often friggin' hilarious — whether he's talking about a fart contest with the donkeys, or having to clean his donkey's "downspout," there are dozens of laugh-out-loud moments here.


Unfollow, by Megan Phelps-Roper
This story is insane. It's also insanely well-written, wise, and courageous. I actually stumbled across the book on the Nonfiction New Releases shelf at RoscoeBooks, knew nothing about it, but when I saw the subtitle — A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church —I knew immediately it was something I had to read.

So you've no-doubt heard of — and likely been disgusted by — Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church. They're a group of terrible humans who began protesting against homosexuals, and soon gained despicable notoriety for picketing soldiers' funerals and other high-profile events.

Megan is raised in this wretched environment since birth. Through the 1990s (she's only 6 years old in 1992 when the church first starts protesting), she participates in everything the church, founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, does. As the social media era dawns, Megan in her early 20s becomes the church's de facto Twitter guru, even arguing with celebrities like Kevin Smith about the church's doctrine and practices.

But the highlight here is the moment of Megan's catharsis in her late 20s. Not often do you see such a moment of revelation so clearly written. She is painting with her sister, and starts to wonder, in an almost zen-like moment, if what the church is doing to her mother — they're basically shunning her for some imagined transgressions — isn't exactly what the church as a whole is doing to everyone else. And they're doing this based on faulty doctrine. After a bit, she and her sister make the immensely difficult and courageous decision to leave the church and her family.

Near the end of the book, she includes a long discussion about doubt vs. certainty (the benefit of the former, and the danger of the latter), and this was one of my favorite parts of the book. After Megan leaves the church, she travels around speaking about her experience and her moment of revelation, and she finds people mostly forgiving of her. But like Tara Westover in Educated, she can never quite quit her family. This is always so hard to understand. Yes, they're her family, and all she ever known, and she loves them, but also, they subjected her to what amounts to child abuse, raising her in this rigid hateful church.

So then the questions is: How much do you blame someone for the terrible things they did when, for all intents and purposes, they didn't have a choice, they were ostensibly brainwashed? Even though Westboro actually prized education for its members, this idea of insulation is why so many cults fear education — they fear their followers will see the world for how it really is, and not their narrow-minded, tightly controlled indoctrinated view. To me, this is fascinating — how people come to these realizations that the world is different than they'd always been taught. It takes an immense amount of courage to turn your back on a lifetime of belief.

This book is really terrific, and highly recommended if you were a fan of Educated, or if, like me, you're a fan of the "losing my religion" story.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

My 9 Favorite Non-Fiction Books of the 2010s

Last post, we took a look at my favorite novels of the last decade. That list was incredibly hard to pare down to a manageable number. This list, my favorite non-fiction reads from the last 10 years, not so much. That's mostly because I read vastly more fiction than non — probably by a ration of 8 to 1 or so. But still, some of my favorite books of the last decade are memoirs, current events, sociological studies, and more recently, running books. Here, in no particular order, are my 9 favorite non-fiction reads of the last decade.


The Noble Hustle, by Colson Whitehead (2014) — Everyone knows Whitehead now as the purveyor of powerful fiction like The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. But if you want a more light-hearted, much-funnier Whitehead, read this chronicle of his experience training for and participating in the World Series of Poker. It's so great! This book is my go-to recommendation to any dude who claims he doesn't like fiction but wants a good, engrossing read.

Evicted, by Matthew Desmond (2016) — I read this both because of the ecstatic reviews and its spot on the NY Times 10 Best Books of 2016, but also because I lived in Milwaukee for 10 years and wanted to see what this book had to say about one of favorite cities. It's a stunning read, sad and rage-inducing. The idea here is that shelter should be a human right. But clearly, that is not the case now. Still, reading about it is extremely eye-opening. This IS a book everyone should read.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama (2018)— Powerful, engaging, inspiring, and given the current state of things, heartbreaking. This might be the best memoir I've ever read.

— Educated, by Tara Westover (2018) — I'm so inspired by stories like Westover's about people who were raised in rigorously religious, non-intellectual settings, and managed to overcome that upbringing. Westover's story is a doozy! Imagine not setting foot in a classroom until you're a teenager, but then going forth to eventually earn a doctorate. What was fascinating about this book, too, is that she can never quite quit her family who was so evil to her. That's a theme in a lot of these "losing my religion" memoirs — stop believing, but never give up on family.

26 Marathons, by Meb Keflezighi (2019) — Meb is the rare runner who has crossed over into popular culture. That's because he's a perfectly delightful human. Ever since his win at the Boston Marathon in 2014 (the year after the bombing), Meb has been a gracious ambassador for the sport of running. He retired from racing recently, and has published this book about all his professional races. But it really reads more like a memoir of his running career — his ups and downs, injuries, sponsorships (and not), disappointments, and successes. I got to meet Meb a few years ago and he's as nice in person as he seems in all his interviews (and in this book!)— and it's so great when that happens! Meb! Meb! Meb!

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanthi (2016) —This is maybe the most difficult book I read this decade. It's the last piece of work by a dying man and it's about his struggle to find meaning in his life. When I wrote about this, I said "It's 220 of the saddest pages I've ever read in my life," and that holds true.

Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright (2013) — Wow! As I said above, I love stories about people bucking their "cult." But in this book, cult is literal — as it's about several people who escaped Scientology. What stood out to me about this book is how much influence, power, and money the Church of Scientology really has. It's terrifying! But knowing is half the battle, and this is an amazing read.

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, by David Lipsky (2010) — Duh, right? If you've been here for any amount of time, you probably are aware of my David Foster Wallace fan-boy-ness. And this terrific book about a Rolling Stone writer taking a road trip with DFW as part of his book tour is a rare insight into "everyday DFW." He's just as funny, smart, quick-witted, grouchy, and goofy as he appears in his novels and essays. And I loved the movie adaptation of this book, with Jason Segel as DFW. I still miss DFW (is it weird to miss someone you never met?) and often read a novel thinking, "Man, DFW would've LOVED this book!" Hard to believe he's been gone 11 years.

— Let Your Mind Run, Deena Kastor (2018) — Since fall of 2015, which is when I started running, I've read just about every running book I can get my hands on. This my favorite. Kastor is an Olympic medalist, and world-class marathoner, and her story about her life, and how she's mastered the mental aspects of being an elite runner, has lessons for everyone, not just runners. It's an intensely personal book (Kastor, an avid reader with a BA in English), actually wrote this herself — no ghostwriter here! And so she's really adept at putting you in the shoes and in the head of an elite athlete. I was a huge Kastor fan before this book, and if possible, much more so now.