Vacationland by John Hodgman (twice) – I’ll get to why I read it twice later. I love John Hodgman and am glad he finally turned to memoir. This is a funny, beautifully written book about aging, vacationing on the sharp, rocky beaches of Maine, and, ultimately, figuring out how to live kindly. As a memoirist, Hodgman writes clearly and vividly with disciplined restraint—something we can all strive for.
The South Side by Natalie Moore – Moore is a respected public radio journalist here in Chicago. In this book she explores the racial segregation that plagues Chicago and also offers a rich portrait of the South Side, where she grew up.
Just Kids by Patti Smith – Better late than never. I finally got around to reading this 2010 book and am so happy I did. I love it when poets write nonfiction because the result is almost always stunning, a prose feast. It’s what I was hoping for with Hillbilly Elegy, back when I mistakenly thought J.D. Vance was a poet. Whoops. The title sounded poetic.
Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling – Also not a new book, but worthwhile for those in need of a belly laugh from the inimitable Mindy Kaling.
The Actor’s Life by Jenna Fischer – I’m not an actor and have no aspirations of becoming one; I’m just an admirer of Jenna Fischer and her work. While this book does contain specific advice for budding actors (e.g., how to get a good headshot, how to get into the union), it also offers a lot of general wisdom that anyone starting something new and risky can benefit from. I got a lot out of reading this book in the year I decided to become a freelance writer.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld – A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, for fans who wonder how the Bennet family would have fared in early 21st century Cincinnati. Sittenfeld’s writing is elegant, if a little too stylized in some passages. I particularly enjoyed her subtle yet powerful take on how Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s character would manifest in today’s world.
Independent Contractor, Sole Proprietor and LLC Taxes Explained in 100 Pages or Less by Mike Piper – Mike is a client who writes straightforward books about complex financial subjects. This one was a must for me to revisit when I became self-employed.
Pronto, Riding the Rap, and Fire in the Hole & Other Stories by Elmore Leonard – Never thought my summer reading would include a stack of crime fiction, but these were gifted to me and I ended up being completely charmed by Elmore Leonard’s no-nonsense writing style. Check out his list of 10 writing tips. My favorite: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Let the Story Do the Work by Esther Choy – Esther Choy is a Chicago-based storyteller who works with corporations and nonprofits. This book is a good resource for professionals looking to hone their storytelling skills (and their networking abilities).
Black Klansman by Ron Stallworth – I picked this up after seeing Spike Lee’s wonderful film adaptation. Many details that I assumed were fictionalized for the movie turned out to be true, such as Stallworth’s interactions with national Klan leader David Duke. Sometimes you just can’t make this stuff up.
A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut – A reference in Esther Choy’s book led me to this one, as can happen with books. This was my first time reading Vonnegut. The experience inspired me to read Slaughterhouse Five later in the year.
Letters of E. B. White by E. B. White – Finishing this volume of letters (over 700 pages of them, spanning 1908 to 1985) might be the most significant thing I accomplished in 2018. Many times, I didn’t think I would see the end of it. As anyone who’s ever tried to read a book of someone’s letters knows, it’s not easy. But White was an exceptional letter writer. He kept each epistle short and rich, a gift to the recipient. He often treated his correspondents to beautiful descriptions of the animal and plant life on his farm in rural Maine, as only the author of Charlotte’s Web could do. By the time I reached the end of the letters (which coincided with the end of White’s life), I felt as though I were mourning the loss of a friend. Which is something, considering I never intended to read White’s letters. I had wanted a book of his essays and apparently miscommunicated my wish: my husband got me the letters instead. It turned out to be a happy accident, even if the sheer weight of the missives gave me anxiety at times. My interest in White’s essays was piqued by Hodgman, who makes several thinly veiled references to White in Vacationland. Once I finished the letters, I had to go back and reread Vacationland to fully appreciate Hodgman’s allusions to White and compare the two writers’ experiences inhabiting the same town in Maine decades apart. I guess I have Hodgman to thank for turning me into an E. B. White nut.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White – This classic grammar and style handbook was assigned reading in one of my undergraduate English courses. I’ve reread it many times since then and, after reading White’s letters, I of course felt compelled to pick it up again. While I don’t think it’s a book that works particularly well for most of today’s English speakers and writers, I will always treasure Strunk’s immortal words on succinct writing: “Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”
How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will Too by Sal Severe – A recommendation from our pediatrician. This books reminds us that we’re all responsible for modeling the behavior we want to see from others, whether they’re preschoolers or fellow adults. Good nugget.
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut – It took Vonnegut decades to figure out how to tell the story of his experience as a captured soldier living through the catastrophic bombing of Dresden during World War II. He ended up using several means to convey his trauma and disillusionment: fiction, autobiography, and science fiction.
So there you have it for 2018. I sure liked a lot of what I read and am excited to see what this year’s book adventures will bring. Here is what’s currently on my nightstand:
The Self-Employment Survival Guide by Jeanne Yocum – A gift from my dad, no stranger to the world of the self-employed.
Essays of E. B. White by E. B. White – The obsession continues!
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville – Vigorously recommended by Kurt Vonnegut.
How Baking Works by Paula I. Figoni – With Figoni’s help, 2019 just might be the year I conquer pie crust. But probably not. Let’s face it, the adage “easy as pie” could not be less true.