Oh my, it feels like it’s been 100 years since I’ve read a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. They were all the rage in the 90’s! And I read so many of them as a teenager. So as an expectant mother myself, when I received this book as a gift, I was excited to crack it open and step into the nostalgia for the series and read some great stories about pregnancy, delivery and children.
It mostly lived up to the hype! There were some great emotional stories that brought me near tears, cute cartoons and funny stories that I read out loud to my husband. The book includes a pretty wide variety of real-life stories from those with infertility issues, those who adopted, those who delivered early and those who delivered late. Considering the book is now more than 20 years old (!!), it did feel a bit dated in its diversity. If it were to be published in 2021 for instance, I would expect there to be more inclusive stories of gay couples or interracial couples having children. But I understand that in 2000, those kinds of stories were not likely to be included.
I also was surprised to find that there were no “celebrity” entries. At some point as I was reading, I remembered many of the Chicken Soup books of yesteryear promoted the stories by “famous” people on the front cover. It was always exciting when you’d come across an entry from Maya Angelou or Garry Marshall.
I also remember feeling the stories were better written back in the day and cut to the heart a little more. But that also may be because I was a teenager when I was reading those books and not as well versed in good writing. It’s hard to come across profoundly gut-wrenching writing when the stories are submitted by amateurs.
Truly though, that does not detract from the stories and content itself! Reading the book made me grateful for the relatively easy and healthy pregnancy I’ve had, hopeful – and a little nervous! – for delivery and excited to be a mother.
Recap: Ginger Zee is one of the most recognizable faces in TV news. As the chief meteorologist for ABC News, she appears daily on Good Morning America, travels the country to storm chase and deliver vitally important news about the weather and shares the details of her personal life on Instagram – complete with very adorable photos and videos of her two young sons.
But as she describes in her memoir, it took a while and a windy road for her to get this point. She worked in small markets, wore flip flops her first time on-air and wasn’t entirely sure how to write a script. She dated men who were horrible for her, broke off an engagement and suffered from verbal and emotional abuse. She tried to commit suicide and ultimately checked herself into a facility to get help. All of this was going on “behind the scenes” as she climbs the professional ladder, eventually making it to New York.
She is so delightfully adorable on-air and on social media that it’s hard for viewers to consider the many layers of anxiety and depression that she has managed over the years. And that is exactly why she wrote the book – to show the way things appear on the outside aren’t always the way they appear inside. This book is a thorough study on that, and an encouraging look at what can happen when you recognize the problems in your life and finally decide to get help.
Analysis: Ginger Zee’s story is powerful and necessary to be heard. Especially by young women – in any industry. But as a TV news person myself, I was also enraptured with her tales of job interviews, TV mishaps and ABC Network travels and assignments.
As much as I love her as a person and her anecdotes and found her story to be captivating, the writing itself could have used some work. The Natural Disaster title works perfectly as a representation of what she does for a living and how she describes herself, but the metaphor is used repeatedly throughout the book, to the point where I felt like I was being beat over the head with it. At times, I also found the book confusing in terms of time jumps. There were a few chapters that would go in chronological order and then she would write something like “But wait, let’s go back because this was also happening that entire time.” Maybe she was going for a little whiplash action in her writing just as she felt she was experiencing in her life, and just as one would experience in a real natural disaster. Either way, I sometimes got a little lost keeping track of what happened when because of those time jumps.
All that said, Ginger Zee has a voice and she’s using it to talk about big topics that MATTER. And there’s nothing more that I can do except respect and thank her for that.
I’m going to be completely honest with you. This year was an absolute crap year for me when it came to reading. I recognize a global pandemic may have seemed like the perfect opportunity to sit and read a ton, and I’m well aware that many people did that. However, I’m an essential worker and was not home nearly as much as some others this year, and I also felt so completely drained by work and the day-to-day reality of the state of the world that when I was home, I found myself wanting to do nothing more than veg out on the couch watching Netflix. I simply felt I had no more brainpower to expend on reading.
That said, I read far fewer books than I normally do in a year and kept this list a little shorter for that reason.
Another thing. Here’s the disclaimer I include every year. This is not a list of my top picks of books that were published this year (although some were). For that kind of list, I recommend the NYTimes 100 Notable Books of 2020 list. This is a list of my top picks of books I personally read in 2020, regardless of what year they were published. Below that is a complete list of the books I read this year. Enjoy!
8. The Sweeney Sisters – This fictional tale of three wealthy sisters grappling with the death of their famous father and what to do with his legacy was a perfect summer beach read. Light, easy, romantic, a little predictable and still a lot of fun.
7. Living the Sutras – Part yoga textbook and part journal guide, this book breaks down the ancient yoga sutras, detailing the theory and practice of yoga. Each of the 195 sutras go much deeper than “triangle pose!” and in this book, each is accompanied with a little writing prompt, allowing the reader to also go deep and learn about themselves while reading.
6. The Promise of a Pencil – Part memoir/part self-help, Adam Braun shares how he built an incredibly successful charitable organization from the ground up. In doing so, he also shares how he learned to let go of the corporate life he was conditioned to desire, how to be a better leader and human and the importance of leaning into your passion for the betterment of the future.
5. Unbearable Lightness – I never really cared or knew much about Portia de Rossi until I read this book, and now I have incredible respect for her. Her memoir about her battle with an extreme eating disorder and depression is dark, honest, real and compelling. And her ability to write far exceeded my expectations.
4. Universe of Two – This WWII-era historical fiction novel has nothing to do with battle and nothing to do with the Holocaust. What a gift. Instead it centers on the Manhattan Project: one of the engineers involved and the women he was in love with who lived across the country. It’s romantic, educational, beautifully written and I couldn’t put it down.
3. Waiting for the Punch – If you’re a fan of Marc Maron’s podcast WTF, you will love this book. And if you’re not, but have always wondered what the fuss is all about, this book is your perfect way in. The book is divided into themes, and each one includes transcriptions of some of his best, funniest and saddest celebrity interviews. I may have cried more reading this book this year than any other. It is chock full of life lessons and earns its own credit separately from the podcast.
2. Becoming – What more can I say about Michelle Obama’s famous, bestselling memoir that hasn’t already been said? It is superb. It is honest, feminist, political without being too political, uplifting and inspiring. I don’t know why I waited so long to read it, and honestly, why have you?
Untamed – Glennon Doyle deserves every bit of praise she received this year for this book. The bestseller struck a serious chord with most of America as Doyle details her honest descriptions of falling in love, parenting, feminism, politics, charity and the importance of being true to yourself and your passions and following through with everyone you want despite the “consequences.” She calls herself on her bullshit. And you’ll read this, crying, calling yourself on yours.
BOOKS I READ IN 2020
The Magnanimous Heart – Narayan Helen Liebenson
The Promise of a Pencil – Adam Braun
Unbearable Lightness – Portia de Rossi
Okay Fine Whatever – Courtenay Hameister
40 Days to Personal Revolution – Baron Baptiste
The Sweeney Sisters – Lian Dolan
Universe of Two – Stephen P. Kiernan
Untamed – Glennon Doyle
Becoming – Michelle Obama
Waiting for the Punch – Marc Maron
Living the Sutras – Kelly DiNardo
Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream – Doris Kearns Goodwin
Recap: LBJ was the 36th President of the United States. I like to say that separately from the fact that he was inaugurated after the assassination of John F. Kennedy because those two facts are often lumped together and LBJ deserves a little more recognition than that. Because he didn’t just step in. He changed America. He took our country through the turmoil and trauma of the 1960s. He signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He put into place legislation that still impact us through the present. He also entered the U.S. into the Vietnam War.
And yet, he was much more than all of this. LBJ was a tall, broad man who loved his wife Lady Bird more than anything. He was awkward at public events, but fantastic negotiating in small groups. He grew up with a deep-seeded fear of paralysis and death only to succumb to a heart attack alone – his worst fear realized. Biographer and author Doris Kearns Goodwin takes us through his entire life, from his parents and the generations before he was born to the last day of his life. She shines a light on everything he did, everything he succeeded in and failed at, and the lasting impact he’s had. She paints LBJ not only as a President, but as a person.
Analysis: Here’s the thing. I have to admit I didn’t know much about LBJ before reading this book. The extent of my knowledge was that he took over after JFK was shot. But after a trip to Austin, Texas last year and a stop at the LBJ Presidential Library, I was fascinated by everything he had done for the Civil Rights movement. Why didn’t that ring a bell? I’d never read a presidential biography before, and LBJ had piqued my interest just enough to encourage me to buy this one.
It took a long time for me to get through it – months! It’s not because it wasn’t a good book. He is a fascinating man with both good qualities and bad. And author Doris Kearns Goodwin was not only close enough with him to know him well, she’s also an excellent writer. Plus, I’m giving myself a little extra grace with how little I read this year – there was a global pandemic after all, and with everything going on in the world, I found that most days, the last thing I wanted to do was read.
The book is simply dense. There is a lot – and I mean a LOT of information – detailing each of his policies, the men he worked with, his childhood, his struggles during Vietnam, his struggles with the Kennedys. Everything you could want to know about the man is in this book. The same thing that makes it dense is the same thing that makes it delicious and fast-moving once you get into it.
Recap: Words of wisdom, words for laughter, words for self-love and compassion, words of you’re-not-alone-ness. As comedian and actor Marc Maron has proven with hit hit podcast WTF with Marc Maron, when you wait for punchline — either comedically or dramatically — and you finally hear it, everything changes. Maron has encountered hundreds of these moments on his podcast, talking with fellow comedians and actors as well as musicians, directors and even politicians about their lives and mental states. Something fascinating almost always comes from one of his interviews, something we, as listeners, can take with us as guidance for how to keep going in this crazy world.
Waiting for the Punch compiles and transcribes snippets from many of Maron’s interviews over the years. Each chapter is themed around a specific topic, including growing up, relationships, addiction, mortality, failure and success. Fan favorites like Mel Brooks, Bruce Springsteen and President Barack Obama are sprinkled throughout the book speaking about several topics. Each selection is note-worthy. Some stories are just so wild and crazy, I found myself completely entranced. Some stories made me laugh, others made me sob. I can honestly say I learned something from almost every one.
Analysis: As a huge fan of Maron’s podcast, I never hesitated to buy and read his book. But at some point, I did wonder what it would add if I’d already heard these — or at least some of these — interviews. But reading the book makes its purpose quite clear.
At times people talk so fast, it’s hard to fully take in what they’re saying and allow those words to land before the conversation moves on. Being able to read what they’re saying allows me to gain far more insight from what they are sharing and offering the public. The podcast offers knowledge and conversation. The book offers resonance. Book in hand, I can highlight and save my favorite quotes as true words to live by and return to them again and again without having to search for and re-download a years-old podcast.
There are other great things the book offers. First, Maron introduces each chapter, and it is fantastic (as usual) to hear from him directly on these topics, these guests and his own journey and life lessons. But perhaps my favorite part of the book is the formatting. Not only is each chapter themed topically, but the selections also weave together. For instance, when in one interview Mel Brooks spoke candidly about his friendship with Carl Reiner, the next selection in the book is from Carl Reiner talking candidly about his friendship with Mel Brooks. The next selection was from an interview with Carl Reiner’s son, Rob Reiner who also talked about their friendship. There are many examples of this throughout the book. There’s a science and obvious thought behind which snippets went where.
As it turns out I never had any reason to down Waiting for the Punch. It’s something I can drop into or pick up re-read stories here and there whenever I want, depending on whatever it is I’m in the mood to learn about. I can only hope that Maron continues to put out new editions in the future.
Recap: To us, she is the former First Lady, a woman about whom we already know so much – who Michelle Obama is married to, how many children she has, what her platform was while serving in the White House, where she’s from. Her Wikipedia page tells a lot more – where she went to school, what she got her degree in, where she worked prior to her role as First Lady.
But all that is surface information – interesting, but mostly trivial when it comes to the wealth, insight and warmth a human being has to offer. Michelle Obama’s bestselling memoir Becoming offers a much truer, more authentic view of who Michelle Obama was, is and is…becoming.
The level of detail in which she remembers her life is astonishing. She is full of beautiful and meaningful stories and anecdotes, trials and tribulations that have set her on this path. Stories from her childhood are full of piano lessons, growing up black, strict but loving relatives, her mother getting her out of her second grade class, the guidance counselor who told her she wasn’t “Princeton material.” Stories from adulthood tell the romance of her relationship with President Obama, the loss of her father and close friend, and the struggles she faced with finding her purpose in work, getting pregnant and then managing work, motherhood and her husband’s politics. And then there’s the politics of it all – the criticism and backlash she faced, the lessons she learned, the racism she faced, the platforms she picked and the behind-the-scenes details of life in the White House (they pay for their own groceries!) and some of the biggest events we only know as televised (i.e. On Election Night 2008 when, after President Obama’s win and on the drive to his acceptance speech, with the streets emptied and blocked for their motorcade, one of her daughters said “Dad, I don’t think anyone’s coming to your party.)
Analysis: With this memoir, Michelle Obama paints a picture of herself as the star character in her own fish-out-of-water novel. And for the first time, despite any number of articles and interviews I’ve read, seen or heard, I got it. I got her. I understand the level at which she was swept into a life of “wife of politician.” So focused on her own career and family for so long, she never saw any of this coming. It’s hard to believe that from someone who has been married to the guy who ran the country for eight years, but reading her book, you ultimately reason one critical piece of information: she’s just a woman, like any other. A woman with doubts and fears and questioning about whether she’s doing the right thing. A woman with love for her family and unending support for those she loves. A woman who takes experiences and learns from them, hoping to only learn and grow more with each new chapter.
Becoming is not a “self-help” book, but so many parts of it are so relatable, it’s hard to ignore the insights she has to offer, like this:
This may be the fundamental problem with caring a lot about what others think: It can put you on the established path — the my-isn’t-that-impressive path — and keep you there for a long time. Maybe it stops you from swerving, from ever even considering a swerve, because what you risk losing in terms of other people’s high regard can feel too costly.
In Becoming, Michelle Obama portrays herself as the every woman, but she has lived quite a life because of the ride she’s just so happened to hop on.
Recap: Courtenay Hameister has been living in a state of anxiety and dread for years. She knows it. She’s accepted it as her way of being. And then she decides to step down from her job as a host of a popular NPR show, knowing that working on the show in a less-showy capacity will eliminate a fair amount of her stress. She’s right, but she quickly realizes in order to better handle her anxiety, she cannot only step down but also must step up and face her fears.
Courtenay Hameister begins a new mission, calling it her Okay Fine Whatever (OFW) Project, during which she must suck it up and say “okay, fine whatever” to all the things that scare her. For a year-and-a-half, she follows this mantra as she dives into a sensory-deprivation tank, goes on 28 first dates, visits a sex club, dates polyamorous men, books a session with a professional cuddler and gets high while writing with her coworkers.
For better perspective, it’s worth noting we’re not talking about a young, hot twenty-something embarking on all this but a mid-40’s woman who never had experience in any of these areas. This is exactly why these leaps of faith are much more than simply “experimentations” but they’re explorations of self-discovery and opportunities to flex her bravery muscles, which only sets her up for the next big thing in her life.
Analysis: Doused in dry humor and brave bluntness, Okay Fine Whatever may have been the exact perfect book to read in the middle of a pandemic. Though compartmentalized into little vignettes, it’s a book that forces you to step back and look at the bigger picture. It’s not about her crazy shenanigans, but about the baby steps she’s taking toward being up to the something bigger in her life. She’s doing the things she needs to do to take a massive leap at the end, and that’s more than I can say for most people.
It must be said that the concept feels a little redundant. Grey’s Anatomy writer/producer/creator Shonda Rhimes wrote the book Year of Yes a number of years ago with a similar idea: say yes to all the things that scare her. But the things Hameister embarks on versus Rhimes are completely different, as is her writing style and voice. So while similar in nature, they’re not necessarily that similar in tone.
Hamesiter is uproariously funny and weird and goes in unexpected directions. Her honesty is astounding; I know I wouldn’t feel comfortable writing half the things she wrote about, let alone doing them. Massive kudos to Hameister for letting it all hang out there.
Recap: A reflection on loss and grief, The Magnanimous Heart dives into meditation as a means of not necessarily coping with it all, but embracing it all as part of the process of life. The self-help book explains that the “magnanimous heart” is a heart of freedom, liberation, acceptance and balance. By explaining the “constant squeeze” of suffering that we all feel, author Narayan Helen Liebenson offers suggestions and concepts for stepping into feelings of “enoughness.”
She makes the case for not trying to “fix” anything but to accept and approach each moment exactly as it is and to recognize that our thoughts are mere thoughts, not truths or facts.
She explains the difference between psychological questions and meditative questions and encourages asking yourself those meditative questions and learning to just sit in it, even though the answers may not come.
The real freedom, she explains, comes when we relax the grasping, the “constant squeeze” for perfection or more or whatever that unattainable thing may be for you. It comes when we recognize “enoughness,” allow it and accept it.
Analysis: As a practitioner of meditation for several years and a deeper dive over the last year, I had been looking forward to reading this book for quite some time. After my father died a few years back, the title resonated with me. I ultimately enjoyed the book and found it incredibly insightful but it’s more difficult to say I found it useful.
Liebenson writes in a very abstract, greater concept kind of way with too few anecdotes to make me feel connected to her. I had to read sentences sometimes three and four times just to understand the point. And then once she made it, she often repeated it.
I loved everything she wrote and appreciated her explanations of why meditation can be helpful. But with a few weeks hindsight, I already can’t think of a specific tangible tidbit she offered for me to use to either improve my life or my daily practice …other than keep practicing.
But alas, maybe that’s enough. Maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe if I had been practicing meditation more consciously, my mind would have been sharp enough to have remembered more of her book.
I couldn’t let the new year (and decade!) begin without my favorite blog edition…my top picks of 2019! Fair warning: this year life really took hold. Suffice to say, I didn’t read nearly as much as I usually do or would like to. But I read enough to select my 10 favorites! This is a list of the best books I personally read, not necessarily books that were released in 2019. For a list of those, here you go. At the bottom, I’ve also included the complete list of books I read this year.
10. Before We Were Yours – This historical fiction novel showcases the awful beginnings of child adoptions in the United States. Its time jumps and changing narrators add suspense to the story of little Rill, who does everything she can to keep her family in tact when Tennessee Children’s Home Society (a real place in an otherwise made-up story) does everything it can to disrupt that for money.
9. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck – It’s the anti-self-help self-help book. The book that tells you it’s not a self-help book and it’s going to tell you all the opposite things from a regular self-help book. And that’s kind of true. Which is why it’s so effective. A lot of my takeaways from this massive bestseller is that author Mark Manson relies on a lot of Buddhist methodology to explain how best to live your life – with the understanding that life is suffering and once we accept that, things can start to be a little better. Prepare for some foul language and real talk truths.
8. Not That Kind of Girl – Writer/director/actress Lena Dunham shares her life in this messy memoir made up of short stories and essays, unveiling the depths of her anxieties, neuroses and mental health issues as well as just being honest about what it is to be a girl and woman in the modern world. Some stories are sad, some are hilarious riots, but all are well-told, vulnerable, and bluntly honest.
7. How to Read Literature Like a Professor – This how-to for making literally any book better is divided into themes and symbols to explain what matters in a story and what it means. Chapters focus on anything and everything from the significance of ill characters in books to Bible references to food and sex and seasons. Most of the examples were from books and literature I haven’t read BUT the writer explains everything so well that it’s not only changed how I understand and appreciate books, it also applies to TV, film and pretty much any creative medium. A true game-changer.
6. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Author Jon Kabat-Zinn book on the power of meditation is a simplistic, effective how-to for those who have been meditating for years and those looking to start a regular practice. He’s science-based, but instead of constantly throwing facts, studies and research at the reader, he shared personal anecdotes and understandable metaphors to make meditation manageable.
5. Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin does it again, choosing real people in history whose stories have remain mostly untold and telling them, with her own fictionalized dialogue and writing. This one is set in 1940’s Paris during WWII. It tells the story of a real couple, Claude and Blanche Auzello, who lets their marriage waiver as they focus on saving Jews during the Holocaust.
4. The Storyteller’s Secret – This fictional tale about love and love lost starts after modern-day Jaya has another miscarriage and separates from her husband. On a search for connection and answers to life’s questions, she travels to her family’s native India. During the course of the book, her story and her grandmother’s intertwine in a beautiful, heartbreaking and heartwarming way.
3. The Light We Lost – I went back and forth on where to rank this one because I loved it so much. The romance of two young people in NYC during 9/11 continues over the next 13 years. It is gripping, tragic, romantic, sexy. I can’t remember the last time I wanted to finish a book and simultaneously not want it to end so badly.
2. The Girls in the Picture – I was halfway (or more?) through this book before I realized this wasn’t only historical fiction about the beginning of the film industry in America in the early 1900s. It was also historical fiction about a real actress and female screenwriter who were friends. This film story that’s really about friendship and feminism detail the lives and careers of Frances Marion and Mary Pickford in a way that’s fun and dramatic.
1. The Four Agreements – Simple, but not easy. This big-time bestselling nonfiction quick read give you the basics everyone can and should follow to live a better, happier life. There are four agreements you must make with yourself. They sound simple enough, but life makes it really hard to make them easy. This book details the how and why. Once you read it, it is truly life-changing.
BOOKS I’VE READ 2019
The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Peronsal Freedom – Miguel Ruiz
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories – B.J. Novak
The Storyteller’s Secret – Sejal Badani
Goodbye, Vitamin – Rachel Khong
The Girls in the Picture – Melanie Benjamin
Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life – Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Light We Lost – Jill Santopolo
Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” – Lena Dunham
Stinky Tofu: A Comedic Novel – Ross Henry Nodell
Mistress of the Ritz – Melanie Benjamin
Then She Was Gone – Lisa Jewell
Unqualified – Anna Faris
Before We Were Yours – Lisa Wingate
The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life – Mark Manson
How To Read Literature Like A Professor – Thomas C. Foster
Recap: Actress Anna Faris is unqualified to write this book about relationships and relationship advice. There’s no denying that. She’ll tell you that right off the top. Hell, it’s in the title. But she doesn’t care what you think. So she’s doing it anyway. Why? Well, in all honestly it’s at least in some part because her very successful podcast of the same name has garnered such a massive following that she knows she now has the ability to write a book that will sell. But on a less meta and more compassion wavelength, Faris is the kind of woman who battles insecurity like the rest of us and yet overcomes it – at least on the surface level – with a strong sense of “I-don’t-give-a-s***.” It’s taken her until her 30s and 40s – and admittedly so – to care less about what other people think and more about what’s best for her and her family.
That’s what Unqualified is really all about – a mix of stories and anecdotes from her life and the lessons they have taught her. She details the ways her relationships have changed her as a person and the ways fame has tried to do the same. Seventy-percent memoir and 30-percent self-help, Unqualified is a very honest glance into the world of a famous – but not super, uber iconic status famous – person who truly strives to be a better person everyday for her family, her fans and herself.
Analysis: Is Unqualified the best written memoir I’ve ever read? Absolutely not. Faris is not a writer. She is an actress and podcaster. She writes like she talks. As a broadcast journalist, I do the same, but in the beginning of her book I had a hard time taking her seriously because of the lackadaisical manner in which she writes. Here’s the thing: stick it out. It’s worth it.
If you’ve ever listened to Faris’s podcast, some of the anecdotes and things about her will be a little redundant. (We know this, Anna. We’ve heard it before.) But when it comes to her relationships with her exes and even friendships, she gets more honest and real than I ever expect out of a memoir, particularly a celebrity memoir. Was Chris Pratt okay with this? Was her first ex-husband? I’m sure she had clearance, but I was so flabbergasted with her realness, I couldn’t help but wonder.
That honesty is what works here. Faris does not pretend to be a perfect person. (Unqualified, remember?) But she writes what she knows, what she’s learned and hopes that for someone out there who may or may not even realize they need it, her book offers help. For me, it did; by showing me that we are always evolving and there is always room for acceptance and kindness.