My Favorite Books of 2019

Choosing my favorites is hard because I read a lot of good stuff. I’ll cheat by using categories.

Best Historical Fiction
The Island of Sea Women


Best Set in a Boarding School Book (my favorite sub-genre)
The Swallows


Best Book about an Old Lady Serial Killer (also a nominee for Best Use of Cross-stitch)An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good


Best Psychological Thriller
The Turn of the Key


Best Romantic Comedy
The Unhoneymooners


Best Nonfiction That Scared Me Half to Death
I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer


Best Sequel
Olive, Again


Best Weird Book
The Need


Best Nonfiction That Confirms the World Is Terrible
The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters


Best “Change Your Life” Book
The Myths of Happiness

Best Overall (Tie)
Home Fire  Girls Burn Brighter


The Minnesota Murderess

Minnesota Murderess.png

I’ve been working on an article about an arsenic murder trial in Minnesota in 1859. It’s finally published in The Atavist magazine. You can read it here.

It has everything: Murder, poison, illicit lovers, true crime journalism, misogyny, and Victorian sticks-in-the-mud.

Fun fact: One of the primary sources was a bound trial transcript so old and dirty that it gave me hives on my arm.

2018 in Books

I ended up finishing 90 books this year, which is far more than I usually read. I have no idea what changed in my reading life. Did I spend less time doing something else? Did I use my time better? Did I learn how to read faster? I honestly have no idea. But what a wonderful reading year it was!

It’s too hard to choose my favorites, so instead I’ll list some books I loved within specific categories. I’ll also include my one-sentence blurbs.

Best Self-Help

Do less dumb stuff so you can do more smart stuff.

Best Literary Fiction (Tied)

Institutionalized racism hurts people.

Family is hard.

Best Creepy Read

This woman’s revenge plot is messed-up (and totally deserved).

Confessions by [Minato, Kanae]

Best Ripped From the Headlines Novel

It’s hard to know why people do horrific and tragic things.

Best Sci Fi

It’s easier to solve a space mystery if you have more than one body.

Funniest Book (Tied)

Extroverts are very tiring, especially if you are married to the queen of them all.

Humans are confusing to space aliens.

Best Historical Fiction

Love for a child grows in even the most challenging circumstances.

News of the World

Best Nonfiction

Happiness, as a concept, functions to marginalize people in ways that are insidious and dangerous.

What were your favorites of 2018?

#MeToo Reading List

People Holding Banner Near Building

Like many Americans, I watched the Brett Kavanaugh hearings last week. The hysterical behavior of Kavanaugh, Lindsey Graham, and Orrin Hatch, among others, turned the hearings into a pageant of perceived male victimization. For anyone who doesn’t benefit from white male privilege, the performance was a disgusting slap in the face–a reminder that many of our political representatives prefer to believe an angry, unhinged man rather than actually investigate a credible accusation.

Trump’s comments yesterday at the swearing-in ceremony demonstrated the hold white male patriarchy still has on America. Trump gave his new friend a tongue-bath, declaring him “innocent” and apologizing for his having to endure questions at a job interview.

Even if an investigation revealed no evidence of a sexual assault, Kavanaugh’s behavior at the hearing showed a man who can’t control his emotions, can’t hold up under pressure, can’t defend himself without resorting to rage, and can’t address issues without bringing in his personal biases. Can you imagine if a woman had reacted that way? Or a person of color?

So, yeah, it’s a troubled time in America. My plan–besides voting–is to start reading more books that help me understand perspectives that our politicians desperately want to silence.

Below is a list of books I plan to tackle. What are you going to read?

“In Living a Feminist Life Sara Ahmed shows how feminist theory is generated from everyday life and the ordinary experiences of being a feminist at home and at work. Building on legacies of feminist of color scholarship in particular, Ahmed offers a poetic and personal meditation on how feminists become estranged from worlds they critique—often by naming and calling attention to problems—and how feminists learn about worlds from their efforts to transform them.”



  “In Asking for It, Kate Harding combines in-depth research with a frank, no-holds-barred voice to make the case that twenty-first-century America supports rapists more effectively than it supports victims. From institutional failures in higher education to real-world examples of rape culture, Harding offers ideas and suggestions for how we, as a society, can take sexual violence much more seriously without compromising the rights of the accused.”




  “In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change.”






“Anxious about her prospects after leaving a stagnant job, Tambudzai finds herself living in a run-down youth hostel in downtown Harare. For reasons that include her grim financial prospects and her age, she moves to a widow’s boarding house and eventually finds work as a biology teacher. But at every turn in her attempt to make a life for herself, she is faced with a fresh humiliation, until the painful contrast between the future she imagined and her daily reality ultimately drives her to a breaking point.”



P.S. If you want strong women in leadership, consider donating to Heidi Heitkamp’s campaign. She had the guts to stand up for her convictions at the risk of losing her senate seat next month. I’m proud to be a North Dakotan.


Some Thoughts: Education by Tara Westover

I usually don’t read memoirs–mostly because they feel self-absorbed to me. There are few things more self-involved than writing an entire book about yourself. I suppose I gravitate toward fiction because the author’s voice can be couched in characters’ voices.

But occasionally I find a memoir that’s every bit as good as fiction: Education is one of them. Not only is the writing excellent, the story itself is bonkers. Tara Westover grew up in rural Idaho to a mentally ill father with delusions of grandeur and a mother whose primary household function was enabling physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.

In spite of a childhood with no formal education–and very little informal education–Westover finds a way to go to Brigham Young University. After graduation, she studies at Cambridge and Harvard, eventually earning a PhD. She does all of this in spite of her family who are determined to keep her from learning and growing as a person.

I do think the end is weaker than the beginning. The last few chapters feel a bit empty as Westover navigates a bizarre and neverending family fight. I felt like something must have been missing because I couldn’t figure out the motivations of her parents or siblings. It was like a big piece was missing that would explain how they all ended up where they were. I also wondered a lot about money. How does one afford that kind of formal education? I barely manged to penny-pinch my way through state universities, even with fellowships, scholarships, and assistantships. (I also suspect I have an eighth of her brilliance, so there’s that.)

What I liked most about the book–aside from the extraordinary writing–was Westover’s ideas about education. I wanted to read more about how she evolved from a kid who had never read much of anything besides The Book of Mormon to a graduate student studying some of the greatest Western philosophers of all time. I would love to know if she thinks anyone can become educated as she did or if she recognizes how singular she is. And I’d love to know exactly which ideas really paved the way for her to break out of her family’s narrow world.

Westover is a significantly more forgiving and understanding person than I am. I know her father had a mental illness, but the entire family suffered from his paranoid illusions. Between the father’s obsession with the end times, her brother’s physical abuse, and a total lack of intervention from every other adult in her life, it’s a wonder that Westover can paint such a fair picture of her family members. My version would be a lot angrier.

Pick up the book for the beautiful writing. Stay for the incredible triumph.

Some Thoughts: Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin

I’ll read any book about habits. It’s my weird addictive genre-crack. So I finally picked up Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits from the library, and have some thoughts.

Let’s just start by saying that even a book about habits that I didn’t love is still worth it to me. As far as I’m concerned, any book about habits is a treasure.

As you can probably guess by that lead-in, I didn’t love this book. I did, however, learn some useful things from it. I’ll start there, and then I’ll tell you what turned me off.

Useful Stuff

1. Rubin uses a personality framework to talk about habits. She suggests that everyone (basically) falls into one of four categories: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Your personality framework will largely determine how you develop, modify, keep, and break your habits.

  • Upholders are the Type-A people of the world. They do things just because you should. They never waver because they know what they ought to do and they just do it. I’m the child of two Upholders.
  • Questioners are the people who want verified research and data before they commit to anything. Questioners will question everything until they are completely satisfied that something is worth doing. I’m a Questioner, which is probably why I read habit books all the time. I’m married to a Questioner and together we ask questions all day long.
  • Obligers are accountable to external forces. They work best with clear rules and expectations, and they often value other people’s expectations more than their own. I have Obliger tendencies. I suspect many women do.
  • Rebels do whatever they want, depending on how they feel. They create habits if they want to. They break habits when they don’t work anymore. They basically are accountable to no one.

2. Once you know your personality framework, you can figure out the best way to develop your habits. As a Questioner, I need research first. If you are an Obliger, you need external accountability. If you are an Upholder, you just need to believe a habit is the right thing to do.

So all of that was quite interesting. Plus, I like Rubin’s writing style. It’s fun to take the journey with her as she learns about these ideas and applies them in her life. But here’s where I had some problems with this book.

A Questioner Questions

1. Rubin is an Upholder. Maybe because of that, she comes off as a very joyless person. Her life is so regimented and so filled with all the things she has to do that I ended up feeling kind of depressed reading about it. I kept hoping she’d sleep in until 6:30 some morning and then–I don’t know–watch TV in the middle of the day while eating Cheetos.

2. Rubin rarely breaks any of her rigid habits and insists that that makes her happy. It probably does. But because her framework isn’t mine, I had trouble seeing how anything she writes relates to me. By her own admission, everyone’s individual personal determines how we approach habits. And while she gave some suggestions for each framework, it was pretty clear this book is for Upholders like Rubin. Her “fall-off-the-wagon” moments were basically eating a raw, unsalted almond after 8:30 pm or failing to put a book back on the bookshelf.

3. I felt like Rubin had a pretty clear agenda here: She wanted this book to be an encomium to carb-free eating. After reading about her carb-free existence, I felt like I’d accidentally joined a cult. Rubin’s cupcake-eating sister and her candy-sneaking daughter felt way more relatable. I wanted to hang out with them. As a Questioner, I feel compelled to point out that Rubin’s research on carb-free eating isn’t as settled as she suggests.

4. The more interesting issue that Rubin implicitly raises, in my opinion, is one about why we are obsessed with “good” habits and what those mean. A lot of Rubin’s habits–and my own too–are basically things I think are good and right, but are actually at least partially part of the framework of capitalism and patriarchy.

For instance, we know that weight doesn’t predict healthiness (and vice versa), yet we all loudly announce just HOW GOOD we feel when we are thin. I mean, does your blood really feel better in your veins? Or do you feel better because your skinny shorts fit and that’s what the world expects? When we complete a bunch of tasks, we feel productive. But do those tasks matter? Or are we keeping busy because the world has said that busy little beavers are the best kind? I didn’t get the sense that Rubin cared much as long as she upheld. That’s what felt so joyless and depressing to me.

Still, I actually really liked Rubin’s writing, and I’d still recommend the book.

But if you are looking for real strategies, I’d recommend Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.