Summer Reading Suggestions

Book Page Heart

I was sharing some book recommendations the other day with friends on Twitter as I’d hit one of those moments I love as a reader which is finishing a great book and then wanting to find my next target.  Perhaps you are the same way?  All of these should not really have long hold times at the library since they’re not particularly new.  I limited myself to 5, in no particular order, and tried to have fantasy, fun fiction, serious fiction, and non-fiction represented.  I tried to avoid spoilers and give general impressions.  Would love to hear if you have suggestions for me in turn and if you’d like to read more recommendations on the blog in the future!

The Chosen (amazon affiliate link) by Chaim Potok – I was on our “Battle of the Books” team at Wasilla high school (yes, that, Wasilla for those of you that follow politics).  In case my husband is reading, this was in addition to having been in the Stamp and Coin club at one point and Business Professionals of America so my nerd tendencies run deep.  With Battle of the Books you read a set book list along with teammates and then are quizzed about them.  So a question might be “in which book does the author write about buttons?” or something like that and the answer has to include the title of the book and the author (for that one I think the answer was All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque).  The Chosen is a book I came upon through the Battle of the Books book list and I would have never picked it up otherwise.  The blurbs all say it is about a friendship and a secret but what a friendship and what a secret.  This is a riveting book about two boys in similar but different worlds.  One is being raised in a Hasidic home (his father is a Rabbi) and the other is being raised in a home with a father that is a teacher and referred to as a “Zionist.”  There’s a sequel that catches up with the boys years later called The Promise (amazon affiliate link) that I enjoyed as well.  Everyone I’ve given The Chosen to as a gift or a recommendation has reported back that they couldn’t put it down.  I even recall reading it on a shaky school bus en route to a field trip because I wanted to find out what would happen to Danny and Reuven.

The Graveyard Book (amazon affiliate link) by Neil Gaiman – This is technically a “young adult” book but who cares about such distinctions anyway?  It is a fantasy book and considerably less scary than Neil Gaiman’s Coraline or American Gods (what can I say, I scare easily!) despite being about a boy that is adopted and raised by ghosts in a graveyard.  And if you find you like Gaiman’s style there are so many awesome books that await your discovery.  It helps with that minor sadness that comes with finishing a wonderful book – how will another book take me on a similar journey away from my surroundings?  By the way, have you ever been reading and then realized that you forgot yourself for a while?  That time passed and you obviously were living/breathing during that time but you forgot to pay attention because you inhabited the words in front of you?  I love when that happens.

The Last Dragonslayer (amazon affiliate link) by Jasper Fforde (read an excerpt here, I found this from a note at the end of NPR’s summer reading suggestions for teens) – I think for me the interplay between real life and magic is a hard one for fantasy books to get just right – if you have a world that is too complex with so many made up concepts and words and names the reader gets lost.  If you have just enough of the familiar, though, to let the reader follow along with the action and absorb some of the new ideas (dragons, magic, the idea that marzipan is mined but then makes people drunk when consumed) as they go, you have a winning book.  That may account for a lot of the way the Harry Potter series (which this book is compared to in many reviews) is so beloved.  You have our world with a magical one running parallel.  In The Last Dragonslayer, much like Jasper Fforde’s Jurisfiction/Thursday Next series (beginning with the fantastic The Eyre Affair) we have an England we quickly realize is not our England but there are houses and streets and cars so we can pretend we know what is going on for a little while.  That is, until a team of magicians hired out to do odd jobs change a house’s plumbing without raising a single saw or forming a single weld…oh, and they do it in an afternoon.  An old favorite book of mine is Dealing With Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede and if you liked the way dragons were depicted in Wrede’s series you’ll really enjoy this book.  The ending had a twist that I didn’t see coming and I loved it for that as well.  There’s a sequel to The Last Dragonslayer coming out September 3, 2013!  Can’t wait!

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (amazon affiliate link) by Rebecca Skloot – I don’t like when summer reading lists include sad fiction but this is non-fiction and as much about the journey of the author in investigating an untold story as it is about that story.  I could not put it down.  Even when there was a power outage and I should have been conserving my phone’s battery life I read long into the morning on my kindle phone application.  I had to know more about Henrietta Lacks, the unconsenting source of cells grown in labs worldwide and only known as HeLa for so long.  I also know enough of some of the background cases provided by Skloot to know she really did her homework on the law so you can rely on her for the science explanations featured as well.  She makes it very accessible and you finish the book really feeling that as human beings we should all treat one another better.  I sought this book out after reading The Help for our book club because The Help made me feel like much of the dynamic of what it was really like to be African American during segregation in the United States was not brought through (or dismissed as background information).   If you are on twitter, be sure to follow Rebecca (@RebeccaSkloot) for updates to the story and tweets about science and medical rights generally.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (amazon affiliate link) by Alexander McCall Smith – What is summer without a good series to read through?  This particular series has 13 (14 in November 2013) titles and if you end up liking the first you will certainly enjoy following the rest.   I will say the first title is the strongest and some of the others are appealing more because of the familiar characters versus the mysteries being “solved.”  Also, I don’t always agree with the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, in how she resolves some cases (sometimes letting people go instead of reporting them) but the setting (Botswana) is worlds away from here.  The stories follow Precious as she sets up her agency and opens her doors, following in large part the advice of a book about “Private Detection” that is periodically quoted.  If you are an attorney by trade you’ll like that the author is an attorney because he throws some funny bits in here and there on the subject of lawyers.  At any rate, the prose is distinctly restful and contemplative while at the same time a source for a number of actual out loud laughs.  I think if the Anne of Green Gables series is one you enjoy, you’ll like all the main and supporting characters in this book (and series).

Book Review: “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg

If you are looking for a conversation starter, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead” (amazon affiliate link) is a great choice.  I am glad I read it on the recommendation of several women I admire, but now that I’ve read it I can see where a lot of the critics are coming from.  When we initially selected “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg for our book club book, I read some online reviews and found there were those that praised Ms. Sandberg’s approach to the issue of equality for women in the workplace while others felt like her writing came from a position of a privileged career.  I dismissed the negative reviews, thinking that being a COO of Facebook shouldn’t foreclose someone from writing about workplaces in general any more than being a man would stop someone from writing about women’s issues.  You’re allowed to explore a topic even if it isn’t something you live, after all.  That said, I found the author at her most credible when she was in her element, recounting stories from her own career and relating them to the careers of similarly situated people.  The book was strong, well-documented and footnoted, an inspired me on many fronts.

It is near the end where the narrative lost me a little, but overall the book is strong.  I think Ms. Sandberg tried to address a wider audience with her concluding chapters.  The biggest light bulb moment in the book for me was where she lays out how women step onto an off ramp  career-wise when they anticipate having a family and therefore miss out on opportunities for a career that would suit a family life down the line.  If she was unapologetic about her audience being women working in the higher reaches of corporate America then I would have had no (or fewer) issues but she brings the “mommy wars” in as an afterthought and then does nothing about them.  She gives remarks about respecting women’s choices while saying they don’t really have a choice but I don’t think we can discuss equality in the workplace without addressing that corporate America in general (though her experiences with Google and Facebook are different) exploits employees.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a favorite concept of mine since I learned about it the first time and it came to mind when I was trying to put my finger on what bothered me about this book.  I am oversimplifying this, but according to Abraham Maslow, when your basic needs are not being met, you won’t seek to resolve needs that appear higher on the pyramid of needs.  So if you don’t have food, it is unlikely that you’re worried too much about whether your esteem or self-actualization needs are being met.  Applied here, the things that “Lean In” asks us to do regarding our careers and even home lives skip ahead in the hierarchy.  There’s no way that the percentage of women in the workforce that have children for whom they give care really would have time to worry about whether they are making themselves available for career advancement.

sandbergquote_ohmahdeehnessI admit that I am among the privileged parents, I am able to work largely from home (unless I have meetings or hearings) and my husband can take time off if our kids are sick.  Maybe I feel challenged by the implication that “staying home” to care for children is like stepping away from a career, and that such a choice may hurt womankind in the workplace?  Am I seeing something in the book that comes from myself and not from what the author actually is saying?  My friend Jessica recently shared with me John Updike’s rules for literary criticism (see them listed on Wikipedia) and I have been struggling with my review of this book for a while now so the last rule listed jumped out at me:

If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s œuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

(source).  Now, I think “Lean In” is very good but in trying to mentally unpack why the final chapters unsettled me I am left wondering what I feel guilty about, what riled me in the book that represents a button within me that was pushed.  I feel the tension of the false choice of the “work life balance.”  I feel the pressure of phrasing like “working mom” and “stay at home mom” – for example Ms. Sandberg writes, “Women who want to take two weeks off … or two days … or two years … or twenty years deserve everyone’s full support.” (location 2393)  When I read that I highlighted the text because even the idea that I took time “off” feels like a judgment.  Maybe it isn’t?  Maybe I’m the one that is insecure?

So much of reading this book entwined with things that were going on in my own life as I read it, so I thought the blog might be a good place to “think aloud” and organize my thoughts.  I was at a free library concert with the kids a few weekends ago and before the show started one of the children’s librarians announced that all summer, while school was out, they would be offering free lunch at the library (every day of the week except Sunday).  Food insecurity is a terrible thing to contemplate.  That there are children who have their only meals in a given day because they attend public school feels very wrong.  You may know of someone that opts to spend money one way and then rely on free services to close the gap instead of focusing on feeding their children (or making conscious choices about having children in the first place), but whatever their parents’ choices, kids don’t have any choices.  I know that the book isn’t addressing the moms that have no choices even though it attempts to acknowledge that until we have choices for both women and men then there won’t be equality.  The book also acknowledges that there are women, 50% of working mothers for example, that don’t even have vacation time and face poverty if they take time for leave.  To acknowledge these women in the fact sections of Ms. Sandberg’s arguments and then swing back instead to examples from the US Treasury, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and the like, is what made me feel like the book’s premise was on shakier ground.

Going back to Updike, however, one of the listed rules for criticism is:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

(source).  Is one book going to “solve” it all?  The title and tone of the book addresses the reader directly, male or female, and implores them to “Lean In” to whatever pursuit is their passion.  I might be struggling with the fact that I can be passionate about doing a good job, or advocating an issue, or doing right by my family but that doesn’t mean that any one or all of those things define me as a being.  Sure, a career can have fulfilling moments but do I love what I do?  Can I “Lean In” when the work I do as an attorney is perpetually adversarial (sometimes needlessly so – I’m looking at you, “scorched earth” brother and sister attorneys)?  I derive enjoyment from a job well done, but the advice I’d give a young woman early in her career would be that in the long run I don’t think title or status matters as much as just living life and seizing the moments you have now.  I work a lot in elder guardianship cases and am constantly reminded that you can work hard your whole life and your health can deteriorate suddenly and often tragically, so I’m just not sure.

My struggle with this review shows me that there was no “right” way to conclude this book, except to probably hope that some portion of it inspired the reader.  Inspired them to lift others up, to support one another, and to stop infighting when the specific goals we have are different but overall we wish only happiness and free choice for others in our national (and global) community.

Updike suggests to “Give enough direct quotation — at least one extended passage — of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.” (source)  I thought I’d end with my favorite highlights from the book (I love that this is a feature of e-books on Amazon’s kindle, by the way!) as I read.  Seeing them on one page brings me back from my review journey to the realization that this is certainly one (but not the only) book people with an interest in work and families should read so that they can hone their own perspectives.  I will bring one passage ahead of the rest because I would love to see the rallying cry realized in my lifetime, or at least that of my children:

Until women have supportive employers and colleagues as well as partners who share family responsibilities, they don’t have real choice. And until men are fully respected for contributing inside the home, they don’t have real choice either. Equal opportunity is not equal unless everyone receives the encouragement that makes seizing those opportunities possible.

(location 2371)

And now on to the other standout passages (for me):

As Ellen Bravo, director of the Family Values @ Work consortium, observed, most “women are not thinking about ‘having it all,’ they’re worried about losing it all—their jobs, their children’s health, their families’ financial stability—because of the regular conflicts that arise between being a good employee and a responsible parent.”
(location 348)
Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are—impostors with limited skills or abilities.
(location 416)
In order to protect ourselves from being disliked, we question our abilities and downplay our achievements, especially in the presence of others. We put ourselves down before others can.
(location 614)
[…] Alice Walker […] observed, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Do not wait for power to be offered. Like that tiara, it might never materialize. And anyway, who wears a tiara on a jungle gym?

(location 945)

Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest.

(location 1150)

I learned from Fred that effective communication starts with the understanding that there is my point of view (my truth) and someone else’s point of view (his truth). Rarely is there one absolute truth, so people who believe that they speak the truth are very silencing of others.

(location 1160)

So the irony—and, to me, the tragedy—is that women wind up leaving the workforce precisely because of things they did to stay in the workforce. With the best of intentions, they end up in a job that is less fulfilling and less engaging. When they finally have a child, the choice—for those who have one—is between becoming a stay-at-home mother or returning to a less-than-appealing professional situation.

(location 1382)

For most mothers, kids are not a hobby. Showering is a hobby.

(location 1577)

[…] mothers also have to endure the rude questions and accusatory looks that remind us that we’re shortchanging both our jobs and our children. As if we needed reminding. Like me, most of the women I know do a great job worrying that we don’t measure up.

(location 1821)

Instead of perfection, we should aim for sustainable and fulfilling. The right question is not “Can I do it all?” but “Can I do what’s most important for me and my family?” The aim is to have children who are happy and thriving.
(location 2072)
Every social movement struggles with dissension within its ranks, in part because advocates are passionate and unlikely to agree on every position and solution.
(location 2414)
Society has long undervalued the contributions of those who work without a salary.

(location 2499)

When Gloria Steinem marched in the streets to fight for the opportunities that so many of us now take for granted, she quoted Susan B. Anthony, who marched in the streets before her and concluded, “Our job is not to make young women grateful. It is to make them ungrateful so they keep going.”27 The sentiment remains true today. We need to be grateful for what we have but dissatisfied with the status quo. This dissatisfaction spurs the charge for change. We must keep going.

(location 2566)

Sheryl Sandberg is donating all of her income from this book to establish Lean In, a nonprofit organization that encourages women to lean in to their ambitions.

(location 3814)


Thanks for reading!  I’d love to hear your thoughts about the book in the comments!