Tag Archives: memoirs

A Year of Reading: The Books I Read for a Monthly Challenge

Gather in, bloggers and readers, I’m going to tell you a secret.

Are you ready? Here goes…

I love reading. 

Ok, that was not a secret at all.

51j4xd2ntcl-_sx355_bo1204203200_I’m actually going to tell you about the books I read for a book challenge I gave myself in 2017. I found this awesome little book on Amazon called A Year of Reading by Elisabeth Ellington and Jane Freimiller.

The book features a different theme each month with five options for what to read. What I loved about using this guide is that it includes diverse authors of various ethnicities as well as a wide variety of genres in its recommendations. Over the course of the year, I read a mix of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, and even a few graphic novels.

It also includes discussion and reflection sections and extra credit opportunities with bonus book recommendations, interviews and videos to check out, and more!

Here’s a sample of what my year looked like using this guidebook to switch up my reading! I didn’t finish every book every month, because life gets in the way sometimes. But there were months I read more than one title for the theme too, so in the end, it evened out.

My Year of Reading

January: A Happier You
Book: The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman


What I liked about it: This book is a collection of the author’s art, sketches, and photography. It includes story snippets and random musings. It’s different than any other book I’ve read. For more info about this book, check out my previous post here.

February: Classic Romance
Book: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg


What I liked about it: A fascinating look at love and relationships across generations, geography, and social media.  

Blog Review: Check out my favorite parts in my full blog review!

March: Focus on Justice
Books: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell


What I liked about it: Easily one of my favorite reads of 2017. Incredibly well written, the book chronicles Stevenson’s journey toward working with wrongfully convicted death row inmates and juveniles who were tried as adults. The book discusses one case in detail throughout, but includes multiple examples of cases Stevenson worked on. From tampering with evidence to racial prejudices, the author and lawyer tackles what’s wrong with our justice system.

Blog Review: Read my full blog review of the book.


What I liked about it: So powerful. Congressman John Lewis joined with illustrators to tell his story of the civil rights movement to a whole new generation in this graphic novel series. Definitely read all three books! Another favorite that will make you think, make you learn, make you humble, make you crave change, do better, be aware!

April: Creative Spirit
Book: Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo


What I liked about it: Beautiful blend of memoir, prose, and poetry. It’s emotional, artistic, and rhythmic. This one deserves to be read aloud.

Blog Review: Read my full blog review.

May: Families in Fiction
Book: The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi A. Jackson


What I liked about it: Family dynamics are at full play in this story of sisters who move from Brooklyn to Barbados to live with their grandmother. It’s more than a coming of age story, that’s just a small part of the tale. There are family secrets and lessons to learn as the sisters create a new sense of home.

June: Families in Nonfiction
Book: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast


What I liked about it: A humorous and heartfelt graphic novel and memoir about caring for aging parents. As much as you’d think this was a quick, easy read since it’s illustrated, I had to take my time and read this slowly. With older parents of my own, there were parts I could identify with, and the unknown future and potential issues this book brings up made me emotional. It shares real feelings and concerns about what we do with the people we love as they get older.

July: Journeys
Book: In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta Ahmed


What I liked about it: I didn’t know a lot about the Muslim faith before reading this and it was interesting to have a woman’s point of view on the religion and its practices both in Saudi Arabia and the western world. Despite faith-based and gender barriers, the author and doctor was able to show the reader her deep love for the religion, the women who are making progress in unique ways, and how to be a strong, professional woman.

August: Starting Over
Book: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord (did not finish)


September: This Digital Life
Book: The Circle by Dave Eggers


What I liked about it: Um, I didn’t care for this one personally. The storyline is interesting and brings up issues about social media, safety, and security. However, I was disappointed with the lead character and felt the author did not represent her very realistically. I think if a writer is going to write a main character that is a different gender or ethnicty than themself, they should make that character as real as possible. The numerous sex scenes that take place in public bathrooms did not do anything to move the story forward or seem true to the character. They very much felt written by a male for a male. This made my interest in the book lessen.

October: Reading About Reading
Book: The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe by Ann Morgan (did not finish)


November: Comfort Food, Comfort Reading
Books: Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness by Sasha Martin
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley


What I liked about it: Sasha Martin had a very difficult childhood, and despite moving around and many unstable moments, she’s created a memoir that revolves around food. From the unique, makeshift meals her mother made to family recipes to attending cooking school, Martin finds meaning in them all.


What I liked about it: Another graphic novel for my list! Knisley shares short stories of food memories in this graphic novel. From learning how to cook mushrooms with her mother to traveling the world and surviving on pastries, her passion for food will be felt.

December: Heartwarming Classics
Book: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


What I liked about it: I completed this one on audiobook and highly recommend the BBC radio production recording if you can get it. Excellent narrator and the story is infused with additional sound effects like the chains, the chimes of the clock striking the hour, and some instrumental music. I really enjoyed this classic and would read it again.


What reading challenges did you do or are you currently doing?
Do you think reading diverse books is important?
What do you want to read more of this year? 




How Did You Get This Number? A Humorous Book Review

I adore Sloane Crosley. She’s been recognized as the female David Sedaris, which is high praise for comedy writers. I read her first memoir, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, last summer and LOVED it. Ms. Crosley and I share quite a bit of humorous childhood experiences and her essays – particularly the one about the atlas moth – had me laughing out loud. You see, I do not do bugs.

Working on a humorous non-fiction book myself, I’ve been guzzling down comedy books to get a sense of voice and see what works and what doesn’t. I was ready to check out more Sloane Crosley!

For Christmas, I added her next book, How Did You Get This Number, to my wish list and my sister obliged.

In this book, Sloane shares a love story, one of New York City and her own as well. Every gory detail about her relationship with the place she lives is there – from desiring to live in a haunted apartment complex that used to be a brothel to buying high class furniture that “fell off the back of a truck” from a guy named Doug. Along the way, this new adult finds a place for herself amidst the moments that shaped her life.

Frequently writing for The New York Times and GQ magazines, Sloane Crosley has a quick wit that burns off the page. She has a style of writing like your having a conversation with your bestie over coffee, and yet the comparisons she makes about life are so biting and enjoyable.

Travel buffs will also get a kick out of this read for her descriptions of things like hailing a New York taxi cab, getting lost in the streets of Turkey, bonding with fellow bridesmaids in the wilderness of Alaska, and trying to smuggle an antique thermometer out of France.

I read this book as part of my To Be Read Pile Challenge for 2014. I am now 2 books into the challenge, with 10 more to go. You can see my full reading list here.

What books are on your must read list this year?
How’s your reading going so far?
Got any recommendations for me?

She Got Up Off the Couch: A Seriously Funny Read

I just finished reading Haven Kimmel’s book, She Got Up Off the Couch, which was part of my To Be Read Pile Challenge list.

I was first introduced to Haven Kimmel’s books by a local librarian at a book club discussion about memoirs. I immediately read her bestselling memoir, A Girl Named Zippy, and it’s quite possibly one of my favorite books ever.


In one of my FAVORITE parts, Haven (Zippy) believes her family when they tell her she was born in a gypsy tribe and found abandoned in a wagon. Also, she had a tail. For weeks, she rides around town on her bike believing she is the renegade daughter of nomadic gypsies and that her adoptive family had her tail surgically removed.

This is just genius.

In She Got Up Off the Couch, Haven’s story continues, growing up in the small town of Mooreland, Indiana. The person who gets up off the couch, is her mother, Delonda Jarvis. Haven is pretty open about the fact that her family was a bit broken, though she didn’t know it at the time. Her mother spent all hours on the couch reading books or talking on the phone, until one day, she decided to go to college.

The thing is, Delonda didn’t know how to drive. So she bummed rides to the neighboring town for awhile before buying a cheap, rundown Volkswagon and learned to drive it. She graduated with a degree in English and went on to become a teacher. But the story of how she got there and how this shift in the routine impacted the Jarvis family is a page turner.

Here’s a quote about her mother:

“She had done all these things and she was going to graduate summa cum laude, which meant Good But Loud, from the Honors College, and she had done it all in twenty-three months. It takes some people more time to hang a curtain.” She Got Up Off the Couch

While the title of Haven’s book refers to her mother, it is just as much Haven’s story too. She grew up in a Quaker home, and went on to attend Seminary School, where she ended up writing her first memoir, Zippy. In this second glimpse, we meet Haven when she’s entering her early teen years. Her older siblings have moved out of the house, leaving her and her estranged parents to deal with another.

Her natural curiosity makes her a loveable character. Haven is a girl who never wears shoes, or skirts, and occasionally puts rocks in her mouth – cause she likes the way they taste. Her father is a charismatic factory worker who doesn’t work in a factory, and her mother is about to turn their worlds upside down. This is a coming of age story for all three family members, and right or wrong, each is going to make drastic changes and question everything they knew to be true before.

Author Haven Kimmel

Looking for something to read? Definitely pick up one of Haven Kimmel’s books. I’ve purchased multiple copies of A Girl Named Zippy as gifts for friends and family. It is that good.

Happy reading!
What book(s) have you recently finished that you loved?

The Last Minute Gift Guide of Funny Books

Whilst completing the first draft of my book, I read a lot of humor books. Memoirs, satirical essays, and some estranged fiction. The majority of which, I absolutely loved!

So if you’re running around, still trying to find gifts for everyone on your list, (or a few for yourself), look no further.

Jess’s Last Minute Gift Guide of Funny Books for Funny People!

For the Coworker With the Same Sick Sense of Humor As You or the Family Member You Want to Shock Most:

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

There has to be some Sedaris on the list! I’m also a big fan of Holidays on Ice and Me Talk Pretty One Day. This book is full of childhood tales from Sedaris, as well as travel essays illuminating you on topics like healthcare and Santa Claus. The latter of which is by far my favorite chapter, titled Six to Eight Black Men, which made me laugh so much, I called my mother and did a dramatic reading over the phone for her.

For the Person Who’s Having a Hard Time Embracing Their 30’s

I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley

I LOVED this book because I felt like I shared so many of the same experiences growing up as Ms. Crosley did. We both loved My Little Pony, we both hated bugs, and we both thought summer camp was overrated. Clearly we were soulmates.

I loved reading about Sloane maneuvering her way into adulthood with witty quips and full-fledged childish behavior! “Can I get you anything?  Coffee? Tea? A pony?”

For the Celebrity Obsessed Friend Who’s Never Missed an Episode of The Office

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

I appreciated learning more about The Office’s Kelly Kapoor before she was Kelly Kapoor. For instance, did you know Mindy Kaling spent a substantial amount of time impersonating Ben Affleck on an off-Broadway stage? True story.

I enjoyed her conversational style and willingness to bare all her insecurities over dieting, diversity, and writing. Definitely excited for her that she has her own show now, that girl worked for it!

For Your Most Sarcastic Friend or the One Who Says They Hate Going Out But In Fact Go Out All Of the Time

The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club by Laurie Notaro

This book was recommended to me by an agent at DFWcon. She told me if I was writing comedy, I needed to read Laurie Notaro, who has quite the list of popular titles to her name, but this is the one I picked up.

In The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club, Laurie regales us with apartment story horrors dealing with fumigators and children, spending the last bit of your paycheck at the bar, and knowing who your true friends are. It’s a guidebook for living life on the accident-prone, awkward moment, laugh with your besties side!

For Explaining to Strangers Why You Are the Way You Are

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Some of you may know Jenny Lawson as The Blogess. In this “mostly true” memoir, she recounts her bizarre childhood which included loose bobcats in her house as a highlight!

From first jobs to dating to married life to giant metal roosters, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is hilarious! And get the book because the pictures are worth it! Her dad was a taxidermist so there’s lots of pictures of animals!

Another example of very conversational (blog like) style writing in which you feel like you are in cahoots with the author.

For the Commuter or Traveling Friend (Get the audio book!)

Belle Weather: Mostly Sunny With a Chance of Scattered Hissy Fits and You Can’t Drink All Day if You Don’t Start in the Morning by Celia Rivenbark

I’m serious, y’all. Get the audiobooks! Celia Rivenbark reads them herself and her no-nonsense, southern charm just bites with hilariousness!

She covers everything from home entertainment to how to make Miley Cyrus shaped pancakes for your daughters sleepover.

I’m telling you, this woman is a genius and I wish she was my neighbor.

For Your Book Club

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

My book club read this one and had a great discussion. Bonus – it’s lighter fare in terms of book club reads, in that the author uses humor to tell a story. So if you want a book with guts for the story, but dressed up in a…little black dress…then this is definitely the book for you!

At the time the book takes place, the author is newly divorced, after her husband left her for a man named Bob. The she suffers in a horrible car accident. She ends up moving in with her mennonite parents and finding a way to move forward while acknowledging her past.

For the College Student or Mentor

I’m Down by Mishna Wolff

A tale of finding one’s own. Mishna Wolff grew up in a poor, Black neighborhood with her single, white Dad who believed he was Black. Except that he wasn’t. And neither was her mom. Yet her father did everything he could to make Mishna “down”.

Struggling to fit in, Mishna practices basketball almost as much as her playground insults. But all she really wanted to do was stay in and read a book.

The author has been a public speaker at universities since her memoir’s release and it’s both a humorous and poignant tale about coming of age and coming to terms with your family.

For the New Mom/Aspiring Career Woman

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I mean really. Tina Fey’s book is for everyone.

But I think it will especially appeal to new moms and women struggling to climb the ladder. Fey’s memoir shares funny stories from her childhood about summer theater as well as her honeymoon disaster of a cruise.

But best of all are her tales about her improv days in Second City and breaking into Saturday Night Live. She’s both a risk taker and an insecure actress. She shares the ups and downs of doing a photo shoot, working with mostly men, and how she only lasted 72 hours when it came to breastfeeding.

There’s no subject left untouched. And she’s ok with that. She’s bossy. 🙂

Those were some of my very favorite reads this year!

What funny books do you love? What title do you want wrapped under your tree this year? Are you done shopping?

Grayson: A Book Review and Lesson on Positivity

Lynne Cox (source: newyorker.com)

For Lynne Cox, a champion long distance open water swimmer, practice and positivity go hand in hand.

If you’re unfamiliar with Lynne and her triumphs, here are just a few of her records:

  • In 1972 at age 15 Lynne swam across the English Channel and shattered the men’s and women’s world records with a time of 9 hours and 57 minutes.
  • In 1975 Lynne became the first woman to swim across Cook Strait between the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Her time was 12 hour and 2 1/2 minutes.
  • In 1976 Lynne became the first person to swim across the 42 degree F waters of the Strait of Magellan with a time of 1 hour 2 minutes.
  • In 1985 Lynne swam “Around the World in 80 Days” by swimming 12 extremely challenging waterways some that had never been attempted.
  • In 1987 Lynne became the first person to swim across the Bering Strait as a way to open the US-Soviet Border for the first time in 48 years with a time of 2 hours and 6 minutes.
  • In 1994 Lynne swam through the Gulf of Aqaba from Egypt to Israel and from Israel to Jordan tracing the progress of peace between the three countries.
  • In 2002 Lynne became the first person to complete a 1.2 miles in Antarctica, from the ship the Orlova to Neko Harbor in a time of 25 minutes.  (All facts from Lynne Cox’s website)

Not bad right?  Would you believe me if I said Lynne was inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame?  She is.

Lynne’s journey in the water began at the age of 9, when she was coached by Harvard University coach, Ben Muritt.  By age 12, she was working with 4 time US Olympic trainer Don Gambril.

Grayson, is a memoir by Lynne about a routine swim practice that became a life defining moment.  She was only 17 years old when this happened.

Imagine yourself swimming laps early in the morning, back and forth between pier points.  The sun is not up yet.  You are alone in this day where the black sky blends into the dark waters.  Suddenly, hundreds upon hundreds of anchovies are swimming past you!  And behind them are grunion.  Slippery, iridescent fish are moving so fast, that one grunion ends up in your mouth!

This is a grunion. (source: latimesblogs.latimes.com)

After the grunion, you become swarmed by large, 40 pound tuna, bouncing out of the water, all chomping for their next meal.  That’s when you realize, you’re in a food chain cycle.

Below you, the current is weighted.  You can tell something is beneath you.  Something big.  It’s following your path.  As you continue to stroke forward, you peer behind you with each breath checking for dorsal fins.  Is it a shark?  Panic in every fiber of your body tells you to leave the water, but the fighter inside you says stay.  Stay and finish your workout.  This situation is real and you will face it again on another swim, you have to prepare yourself.  Stay.

You can see a friend on shore waving their arms at you.  He comes running down and he tells you, “It’s a whale!”


That is the beginning of the story of Grayson, a four month old baby gray whale and how Lynne meets him while she is practicing in the ocean.  What follows is an epic journey that lasted hours where the two new friends go in search of Grayson’s mother, without whom he will not survive.

Lynne Cox swimming (source: laurinswim.com)

You will not believe what they go through, and yet through it all, Lynne is a consistent reminder of the power of positivity in our thoughts.  There are times where her body becomes weak, where she loses Grayson, where she wonders if his mother is dead.  But Lynne will defy it all and remain assertive.  She will remind you that there is no task too big if you break it down and go piece by piece.  She will remind you that the hardest and most difficult trials of our lives are best made with decisions of heart instead of head.  And she will do all of this with such imagery as you can barely imagine.

For this midwest girl, the Mississippi River is the closest thing I have to open water.  I have been to both oceans surrounding our country, but I have never had the delights and trepidations that Lynne describes while encountering dolphins and jellyfish.  It has been a few months since I read this book, it was at the end of summer.  I just went to my library’s book discussion on it and it reminded me that I while I was reading this book, I was sitting on a patio chair outside with my feet up on the seat because reading about the food chain cycle around her was terrifying!  I also shared bits of the book aloud with my boyfriend because the descriptions are so rich and magical. Lynne Cox does something only a handful of us can do, but she invites us along in her writing with beauty and awe.

If any of you are looking for a great Christmas present idea, I highly recommend Lynne’s book.  She intended it for an adult audience, but teens all over have grasped at this inspiring story and found hope in its pages.  It’s a book that with a message that will make you go, “Ok Lynne, I know you’re talking to me!” and anyone can appreciate it.

Go get this book!

For more information about Lynne, her world records, her speaking engagements, her other books, and even her blog, check out her website www.lynnecox.org.

What do you think?  Can you imagine swimming in the ocean with a baby whale?  What experiences have you had growing up where positive thinking played a crucial role in helping you face an overwhelming situation?

If You Give a Squirrel a Walnut, He’ll Probably Bring His Friends

My dad gets along with everyone. He’s a gabby, gracious, and attentive hugger of a guy. However, my dad has one known mortal enemy. Squirrels.

Growing up, the household would move about peacefully to a soundtrack of 50’s and 60’s music. Mom was singing in the kitchen, my siblings were riding bikes around the neighborhood. I was playing orphan or typing adventure stories on my mom’s old typewriter when suddenly – BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! My father would be pounding on the dining room window to scare away whatever squirrel had scurried its way up to our birdfeeder. Sometimes he would camp out on a chair crouched behind a potted fig tree and some African violets and wait for the squirrels to skip across the tree branches. He’d wait until they were on the tip of the branches closest to the feeder, biting his nails in anticipation, and as soon as they’d leap for the feeder – BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG! The squirrel would go somersaulting in the air, and scamper away frightened out of its wits.

Much to my mother’s dismay, my dad started setting live traps in the yard luring the pesky squirrels in with promises of walnuts and peanut butter bread he himself had taken bites out of. The problem with the live traps was that squirrels weren’t the only ones who liked walnuts and half eaten peanut butter bread. Birds and rabbits did too. My mother, haunted by a mean rooster on her family’s childhood farm, refused to deal with the live traps when one of the less fortunate animals was inside. That job was left for me. I’d get home from school and mom would plead with me to please go outside and free the starling stuck in dad’s trap. As I walked around the house toward the cage, the bird would start panicking. Now, I wanted to free the animal, but it involved moving a latch that was right next to the cage portion, and for those of you familiar with starlings, they’re rather predatory and aggressive birds. The bird’s wings would start flapping uncontrollably and its beak would come jutting out at my hand. Eventually, I’d get the metal flap of the opening to slide up and the bird would come shooting out like a rocket.

On days when the trap served its purpose and Dad caught an actual squirrel, he’d pick up the cage and load it into the back of the station wagon. He’d drive out to the woods in the farmland area known as Hebron, occasionally starting wars with my grandfather and uncle, releasing the squirrels on their property to spite them and go after their feeders.

Convinced the squirrels were finding their way back to our house somehow, Dad took the squirrel wars to a new level. He and my brother took to staking out in our shed with BB guns and firing at any squirrel who dared steal birdseed from his feeder. My brother would come in the house and regale the family with the impressive tale of how he shot a squirrel in the butt! For those of you picturing a backwoods house in the country, let me set the scene straight for you. Our house was on the corner of the busiest street in town, and generally we were a respected family with a large garden who kept the grass mowed.

I’m afraid my father’s influence took a heightened level in my brother’s actions when we discovered one day that a muskrat was burrowing under the family pool. My dad was worried the varmint would chew through the lining of the pool, and Lake Witkins, as grand as it sounded, didn’t belong in our backyard. Convinced he would save the day, my brother and a friend staked out from the deck one afternoon and completed the mission: the muskrat was killed. But this was in late fall, and neither boy had sharp, gnarly muskrat teeth to burrow with, and the ground was too frozen to bury the animal, so he put the ugly creature in a big white bucket, pooling blood and all, set it in the garage and left.

My mother was informed the muskrat was now resting in peace, and had told my dad to get rid of the thing and thought he had. She then entered the garage and noticed a big white bucket. The next thing my mother will tell you about is that she sprained her ankle and tore a few ligaments after twisting to get away in a horrified moment of panic. My poor mother crawled her way up the steps to our house and through the kitchen to get to a phone where she could finally call for help. I don’t believe my brother was allowed to help dad with the animal wars ever again.

Recently, on a trip home to see my family, my sister brought over a book from the library she was reading to her two year old daughter. The book was titled, Those Darn Squirrels and I was tickled to present a dramatic reading of the tale to my father. Then, we went page by page and counted the similarities between Old Man Fookwire and my father. We also taught my niece to shake her fist at grandpa and say “Those Darn Squirrels!” Dad may not have bought lasers and trapeze equipment like Old Man Fookwire, but spring is coming, and if you give a squirrel a walnut, he’ll probably invite his friends.

%d bloggers like this: