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I love to read, and I read a lot. Books I read this summer, in the order in which I read them:

John Hodgman, Vacationland

I’ve loved John Hodgman since he was a Daily Show correspondant and the PC in those old Apple Computer ads. Now I love his New York Times Magazine column and his Judge John Hodgman podcast, in which he arbitrates petty disputes (is a hot dog a sandwich?). Vacationland is an appropriately moody, self-aware/overly intellectual humorist memoir about his mother’s death and the various places in Maine and Massachusetts that he has vacationed in. As a person who appreciates a depressing beach (Oregonian), this was relatable content and at times smirk-face funny. 6/10

Lily Brooks-Dalton, Good Morning, Midnight

I usually hate apocalyptic novels but a couple of them snuck into my reading list this summer. This is a sweet novel with an ending that actually surprised me, although the secret would probably be guessed in advance by a smarter reader. The two main characters, an astronaut on her way home from a mission to Jupiter’s moons and a scientist living in a research station in the Arctic, are beautifully written. Not my usual fare, but I enjoyed this book as casual reading! 7/10

Joan Didion, The White Album

Didion is one of my favorite writers, and I crave her razor-sharp observations. This book is a collection of essays from the 1970s looking back on California and the 1960s. There are also essays about her own emotional unraveling and hospitalization, and her travels to Hawaii and Colombia to hit a restart button. It’s wonderful to read someone who has lived through the social and political upheaval of the 60s try to parse the experience only a few years later. For me, it’s helpful to see someone try to record a close reaction to a crazy time - we’re in a crazy time ourselves. What will we think about 2016-2020 ten years from now? 10/10

Amy Poehler, Yes Please

Amy Poehler is hilarious and worldly and compassionate. The best line in this book is, “Treat your career like a bad boyfriend.” Meaning, if you don’t pay attention to it and act like you could take or leave it, it will come running after you. Definitely has happened to me.

I read this in two days and it’s light and fun. 6/10

Tara Westover, Educated

Just wow - this book shook me.  A memoir of Tara’s childhood growing up in a Mormon separatist survivalist famiiy in the middle of nowhere in Idaho, it’s an incredible story of how she escaped and ended up with a Ph.D. in history from Cambridge. I had some trouble reading this book because of depictions of physical abuse, both intentional and unintentional, so maybe don’t pick this up if you have difficulty reading that stuff. Or skip some pages. What I loved was the author’s commitment to finding truth in alternate realities: her family’s alternate reality, where the Illuminati control the government and medical doctors only do you harm, is just as real to them as our reality is to us. And let’s be honest, our whole nation is living in fractured alternate realities right now, and the search for abject truth is difficult to render at the moment. I give this memoir 9/10.

Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism

Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now

I’m reviewing these two books together because they are essentially two answers to the same question: what do we do now that we are pretty sure social media is bad for us? Cal Newport’s answer is, characteristically for the author of Deep Work, to optimize. If you have to use social media for your work, figure out how to use it as little as possible for the greatest benefit. Jaron Lanier takes a bigger view: no matter who we are, we shouldn’t use online services that sell our data or manipulate our behavior because our boycott could save the world. Lanier’s argument is way more persuasive, and in comparison Newport’s book comes across as a future classic textbook for Late Capitalism 101/”Neoliberalism and You.” However, Lanier writes like a white man with dreadlocks from Berkeley on a tangent (which he is) and Newport’s writing  is super polished and actually...well, useful. 

The Berkeley girl in me gives them both 9/10 for different reasons.

Emma Cline, The Girls

The Girls was published when Emma Cline was only 27. This novel has been on my shortlist for about a year and a half, because, well, cults and northern California. She writes about a Manson-like cult based outside Petaluma and eventual grisly murders in Sausalito, all from the vantage point of a 14-year-old girl. It is disturbing, not least of all the child sexual assault, violence, and brainwashing, but because of the assertion that any of us are capable of these things under the right circumstances. I left this novel at a friend’s apartment because I didn’t want it near me after I was done with it. Cline is a powerful writer. She got in my head. I kind of don’t appreciate it. 8/10

Richard Powers, The Overstory

This was the book of the summer, for me. It’s won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer and it’s obvious why - the writing is insanely lyrical, the characters well-drawn, the theme eternal. Basically, it’s about trees. About trees, environmental activists turned eco-terrorists, scientists studying the interconnectedness of all things. Alienation and isolation versus connection and growth. The novel affected me deeply, so deeply that I got pretty depressed while reading it. (Leander: “Maybe you should put that book down.”)

But it also delighted me, especially the storyline loosely based on real old-growth redwood tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill. I was obsessed with her in high school in the late 90’s during her 738-day tree sit in Humboldt County, California (just one county north of my home). The novel brings up serious questions about our environmental responsibilities and our responsibilities to each other. I loved it. 15/10

Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Oh, Rebecca Solnit, you give me hope in the dark every time I see your name in print. A brilliant writer/activist/thinker, Solnit is often the most sane and persistent voice in a field of what can feel like fearmongers. Hope in the Dark was written in 2004, in response to the re-election of George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. It’s a loose chronicle of various activist movements that gained ground, had success, and changed the world. It’s an opportunity to look back and see what worked, what worked in an unexpected way, what partial gains were achieved, how long it took for some things to change, and what characteristics of leaders or collectives were successful in changing minds. This is a much-needed read for anyone watching the news - and I do mean anyone, even if you’re watching Fox! Such levelheadedness deserves praise. 10/10

On the list for fall - would you like more capsule reviews? Let me know. Suggestions for books? Very open!

  • Trick Mirror: Reflections on Delusion by Jia Tolentino

  • Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottlieb

  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders