The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Book – Helen Russell is a magazine journalist, living in London with her husband. Their days are filled with commuting and long hours at work. Their evenings are packed with social engagements and alcohol. They have been trying unsuccessfully to conceive for a couple of years. Helen dreams of retirement at the age of 33. Then, Helen’s husband gets an unexpected offer to work for Lego in Jutland.

Helen begins to research the country of five and a half million people, and discovers that they pay high taxes, get free healthcare, free education and subsidized daycare. Danes average a 34 hour workweek. And, according to the UN World Happiness Report, Denmark is the happiest country on earth. Helen and her husband decide to move to Denmark and this book documents their first year of living in their adopted country.

Helen’s chatty writing style and witty observations entertained me. She shares her experiences with food, relationships, religious traditions and the many unwritten “rules” she encounters. The Year of Living Danishly was an enjoyable exploration of a different culture and a lifestyle change. If you like this book, you may also want to read Happy as a Dane or the Little Book of Hygge.

The Creeps: A Deep Dark Fears Collection by Fran Krause

Comic Strips – Do you still pull all the blankets tight around you at night to keep the monsters out? Does a comment someone made years ago still haunt you at inopportune moments? Have you ever wondered exactly why your pets are so good to you (is it because you’re dying and they know it)? We all have a few irrational fears, and it’s surprisingly fun to read about other people’s, even if you run headlong into a few of your own at the same time.

The Creeps is a collection of Krause’s Internet project “Deep Dark Fears,” in which he solicits fears and paranoias from his audience and illustrates them. It’s weirdly compelling reading, seeing what other people are afraid of, what horrifying thoughts cross their minds at perfectly innocent moments. You’re bound to find something in here that makes you cringe, something that makes you laugh, and something that makes you nod your head in sympathetic understanding.

Cover Me: The Stories Behind the Greatest Cover Songs of All Time by Ray Padgett

Book – The phrase ‘book of essays’ always suggests to me something stodgy, solemn and old-fashioned–until I remember that every Buzzfeed article is an essay by another name. Cover Me actually started as a series of posts on the author’s blog, and that pedigree shows, in a good way.  It’s a compilation of nineteen bite-sized nuggets of popular music history, exactly the kind of irresistible stories that can keep a reader clicking through to the next page until the small hours of the morning.

Author Padgett is a music producer as well as a writer, and his industry knowledge informs and enriches these impeccably-written essays.  Even after many years of blogging on the subject of cover songs (songs re-recorded by a different artist than the original) he was hesitant to delve into the subject in book form, because cover songs are not exactly a unifying theme.  They belong to no one particular era, genre or movement–but that fact in itself makes them an ideal vehicle for a macro-view of popular music as a whole, at least the past 65-ish years of English-language popular songs.  “Every major change in the music industry since the advent of rock and roll finds some expression in the world of cover songs,” Padgett writes, and he does an admirable job of delving into those larger connections and significances to make each song tell a larger story.  Moreover, he writes history the way it should be written: as a series of human stories, emotional and compelling as well as informative.

As a casual music history fan, I was nervous that Cover Me would be a music snob’s book for experts only, but was pleasantly surprised.  I already not only knew, but knew the words to, almost every song discussed, including all-time greats like Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” and the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout.”  This is definitely a book to enjoy with YouTube on hand, to listen (or, in the case of Johnny Cash’s “Hurt” and the accompanying music video, watch) along to every variation of the featured songs.  Revisiting classics in this rich new way was a genuine joy, and I would recommend it to every teen and adult reader with even a slight interest in popular music or music history.

We Are Never Meeting in Real Life: Essays by Samantha Irby

Book – It’s pretty much a guarantee; if you put a kitten on a book’s cover I’m at least going to pick it up for a closer look. And although Samantha Irby’s cat (Helen Keller, the world’s angriest rescue) is largely a secondary character in We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, I was definitely not disappointed.

Irby’s writing is in turn hilarious, sexually explicit, vulgar, moving, emotional, and definitely not for the faint of heart. Irby, who also blogs under the title ‘bitches gotta eat’ explores both the anecdotal and the deeply personal, always with refreshing candor and wit. Essays in her second book cover everything from her Bachelorette application (she’s 35 but could pass for 60 if she stays up all night) to growing up with an alcoholic parent (who once punched her in the face for doing the dishes wrong). It’s also wryly—and sometimes laugh out loud—funny and feels more like conversing with a dear friend than reading a stranger’s inner thoughts.

Irby grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, so local readers will find much of her experiences familiar and relatable. Her essays are loosely interconnected, making this an easy book to pick up and put down at your leisure. Anyone looking for a funny and emotional memoir that is nevertheless easy to read should look no further.

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles that Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better Too) by Gretchen Rubin

Book— If you like personality tests and putting people into categories, you might enjoy The Four Tendencies, Rubin’s newest pop psychology book about human personalities and how to work with your (and other’s people’s) native propensities to achieve your goals. In short, Rubin proposes that you can sort all of humanity into four categories based on one key trait: their response to internal and external expectations. Upholders respond readily to all expectations; Questioners follow inner but resist outer expectations; Obligers fulfill external obligations but neglect inner ones (the commonest category); and finally, Rebels instinctively reject all expectations. Rubin is quite hyperbolic about the import of her “discovery,” pompously comparing it to the Fibonacci sequence or the double helix pattern of DNA. The book’s organization is reminiscent of an astrology book, wherein each tendency is explored in detail with a zodiac sign-like profile, then elaborated on in chapters like “The Obliger Employee” or “The Upholder Child.” Despite the allure of sorting people into little boxes, I came away from the book thinking that Rubin’s system had little more merit than sorting people based on blood type, or favorite color, or skull shape, or any of the other too-neat heuristics people have used to pigeonhole themselves and each other.

Rubin would expect me to say all this, of course: I got sorted into the Rebel category when I took her included 4 Tendencies quiz. Despite me giving Rubin a hard time, I genuinely did enjoy this book. Not, mind you, as a meaningful psychological tool, but as a fun diversion akin to taking the Sorting Hat Test on Pottermore and gleaning what insight one may, no matter how specious. Definitely pick this one up if you enjoyed Rubin’s other books or if this particular personality test speaks to you.

NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman

Book – Autism spectrum disorders exploded into the public consciousness in the early 2000s, along with worries that this sudden uptick in diagnoses meant that something unnatural was happening to children, something that had never been seen before. Really, Silberman explains, with great and gracious detail, our understanding of what “normal” development looks like and how eccentricity shades into disability is changing. In this book, he follows the history of autism and the researchers, parents, and people with autism who shaped our understanding of the different ways the human brains can work.

This isn’t a nice history; people have, historically speaking, not been nice to other people who have disabilities or even just differences that make them annoying. And since Hans Asperger and Leo Kanner, who shaped our modern understanding of autism, were physicians working in Austria and Germany in the mid-twentieth century, eugenics and genocide play a large role in early chapters. It gets better after the Nazis, but that’s not a very high bar to clear. The way people diagnosed with autism have been treated under the guise of helping them to become “normal” is upsetting at best. And yet, I found this a very hopeful book. Despite the burying of Asperger’s research; despite the litany of abuse and mistreatment; despite the struggles autistic people still face in being understood, accepted, and listened to; Silberman paints a picture of a flourishing subsection of humanity, one with astounding gifts and a great uniqueness, one which is ready, in this age of technology, to come into its own.

Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki

Book–If your primary complaint about Marie Kondo’s best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is that it just isn’t hardcore-minimalist enough for you, Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye, Things will be just your speed. Sasaki recounts his journey toward minimalism that stemmed from his dissatisfaction with his life. He was, in his own words, “an unmarried adult with not much money to speak of.” Interestingly, after embracing minimalism, he is still in the same boat, but is now happy with his life. He owns an air mattress, wallet, keys, iPhone, a few dishes, multipurpose liquid soap, and a hand towel. Sasaki makes some decent points with regards to owning possessions to appear a certain way to others (DVDs to seem like a movie buff, books to appear cultured) and suggests minimalism as a way to strip away pretense, but I personally think he takes his obsession with minimalism a bit far. For instance, he mentions how much happiness he derives from using full-size bath towels when he travels in hotels as opposed to the scratchy hand towel he uses at home and recommends routinely denying yourself so that things you used to take for granted become sources of happiness.

I might sound like I’m ragging on this book, but the fact is I quite liked it. While I think Sasaki’s brand of minimalism sounds like torture, he has an interesting writing style and I enjoyed my glimpse into his life which is so different from mine. If you enjoy reading about minimalism, I recommend The 100 Thing Challenge; if you just like keeping up on popular lifestyle trends whatever they are (hey, me too), I recommend How to Hygge.

Crash Override by Zoë Quinn

Book – If you are a person who lives on the Internet, you probably know who Zoë Quinn is – or at least you know the movement that sprung up after her ex-boyfriend posted a long, defamatory screed about her online, and then grew into an online harassment machine. Even if you don’t, though, you’ve seen some of its effects in the rise of online hatred, the never-ending stream of YouTube-star scandals, and the recent death of a man in Kansas by “swatting” – the practice of calling in a fake report to a police department that will result in a SWAT team being sent out.

Quinn’s book is part memoir, part guide to this environment of a new kind of harassment, one that disproportionately targets women, people of color, and other minorities, and which police and the legal system are woefully unprepared to cope with. She describes how she survived the initial onslaught, and the barrage of harassment and privacy violations she continues to struggle with, and how she founded an organization to help other victims do the same. She also offers some valuable information on how to protect yourself from a similar harassment campaign (without “just getting offline”). But even if you’re not concerned about attacks from the Internet, this is a valuable book to read. Internet culture is a part of our culture now, and we all should be aware of the ways it can go horribly wrong. (Also, Quinn has a great sense of humor. Seriously, just read the chapter titles.)

Why’d They Wear That? by Sarah Albee

Book – Did you know that traditional Inuit sealskin mittens have two thumbs, so they can be flipped and worn the other way when the palms get wet?

That’s not the kind of intriguing tidbit I’d expect to pick up from a book on the history of fashion, but it’s only one of the ways that Why’d They Wear That? exceeded my expectations.  Most books on historical clothing are big, glossy coffee table books from museum presses.  That’s great as a visual feast, but the focus of such books tends to be narrow, and the text is often dense, dry and in tiny font.

Why’d They Wear That? gloriously smashes that mold, but without sacrificing either visual pleasure–it’s bright, bold and gorgeous–or quality of information.  It’s playful in tone, deeply readable and, most importantly of all to me, focuses on whys as well as whats, delving into the practical and societal causes and consequences of what people wear, such as the significance of indigo dye to colonialism and Anglo-Indian relations.  And it’s wonderfully broad in scope, not only covering a vast stretch of time but also–as in the Inuit example above–maintaining a truly global perspective.

Obviously with so much to cover in a slim 200 pages, Why’d They Wear That? provides more of an overview than an in-depth examination.  But as a casual read for a cozy afternoon, it’s a fabulous choice for anyone (adults too, despite its home in Juvenile Nonfiction!) who’s interested in costuming, fashion or history.

Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

Book – Sh*t My Dad Says is the hilarious, wonderful memoir detailing the quirky relationship between author Justin Halpern and his father.  As the title implies, readers will quickly discover the foul mouth of Justin’s always blunt, yet caring dad.  The memoir began online as a Twitter page titled “Sh*t My Dad Says,” which featured all the many quotes of Justin’s beloved dad.  All of Justin’s friends that his Dad’s quotes were hilarious and it soon became clear that the internet loved him too. The Twitter account quickly accrued a mass following with news stations requesting interviews with the writer and the man of the hour himself.

Justin is a very relatable narrator, chronicling life after college, moving back home, and trying to survive in the chaos of adultdom. The introduction starts with Justin’s longtime girlfriend breaking up with him, the catalyst that causes him to seek refuge at home while searching for new life prospects.  The life lessons his father instills upon him as a child, adolescent, and adult are often filled with-tough love, and are downright brutal.

Each chapter is titled with a different theme/life lesson and relevant Dad quote.
Justin traces stories of his childhood with his family and details the lessons he learned from his father.  Many of these stories are experiences that everyone shares, though of course with the special touch of Justin’s father.

The humor reminded me of author Jack Gantos, specifically his series featuring a young man named Jack Henry.  Gantos’ writing is full of crude, weird humor, very similar to Justin’s novel.