Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
After Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave died, she worried that her two children wouldn’t have a happy childhood. Part memoir and part self-help book, co-authored with psychology professor and author Adam Grant, this book is full of case studies of people who’ve experienced great loss and how they’ve recovered and become more resilient. Raw and intimate, Sandberg’s account of her husband’s sudden death and the aftermath is moving. Facebook executive Sandberg admits she never appreciated the difficulty of being a single parent, although she has a large network of family and friends, a supportive boss, and is very wealthy. I’m not sure that someone who’s just lost a family member would find comfort in this book, but those who are wondering when and how they’ll recover might, along with people who want to support them. Sandberg appreciated when people asked, “How are you today?” and didn’t avoid talking about her loss. Sandberg talks about what she learned about grief and resilience, and how she and the kids got through their first year without Dave.
A candid memoir about Amy’s life in tiny Freeville, New York, with her teenage daughter, Emily, and with many family members nearby. Amy is an advice columnist, and travels to Chicago monthly to meet with her editors and appear on the radio show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” A follow-up to The Mighty Queens of Freeville, this is frank and funny while also dealing with love and grief. Amy falls in love with local contractor Bruno, who has a house full of daughters, one of whom wonders why Amy keeps showing up for dinner. They get engaged, plan a fun wedding, and work hard to blend their families. Amy finds quiet time at the movies, in her car, and in the little house she uses as an office. She also visits her frail mother Jane daily. Eventually, Amy loses and mourns her mother, struggles with clearing out her mother’s house, regains her love of music, reluctantly reconnects with her father, and works on becoming her best self. I found this book hard to put down, and enjoyed Amy’s vivid descriptions of family and small town life.
Endurance: A Year in Space, a Lifetime of Discovery by Scott Kelly
Would you like to spend a year in space? That was the challenge faced by Scott Kelly, an astronaut since 1996. How would his absence affect his relationship with his two daughters, and his longtime partner, Amiko? What would happen to his health, especially his vision? Scott finds out, along with Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko, as they spend 340 days on the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016. Scott thought school was boring until he read Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff as a teenager. An EMT, he later attended SUNY Maritime College, then became a Navy pilot, learning to land on aircraft carriers. Scott and his identical twin brother Mark were selected to the astronaut corps on the same day, and they agree to a twin study comparing their health during Scott’s year in space. Though the reader knows he returns safely to Earth, Scott still makes parts of his memoir suspenseful. In 2015, three supply missions to the International Space Station failed, and there were some issues with station rendezvous and docking. Scott also made an emergency spacewalk. Over the year in space, he had twelve crewmates. I was interested to learn that the Russian cosmonauts stay on their side of the station most of the time, hosting the others for Friday dinners and other celebrations. Scott keeps very busy repairing equipment, conducting science experiments, exercising, welcoming new crew members, taking photos, monitoring his health, and being interviewed, rarely getting time to relax and read his copy of Endurance, about Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition. In November, public television will air a documentary about his journey, “Beyond a Year in Space”. What Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Mikhail learned and experienced during their year in space may help in planning for future voyages to Mars. This memoir is entertaining and compelling reading.
Patagonian Road: A Year Alone Through Latin America by Kate McCahill
Kate McCahill brings the reader along on her yearlong journey through Central and South America, roughly following by bus the journey Paul Theroux made decades earlier by train. She gets a writing fellowship that pays for Spanish lessons, rooms in hostels, food, and travel. Kate also volunteers as an English teacher in a couple of villages and in Buenos Aires. She misses her lover and her Finnish grandmother, shares her joys and fears, and tries to immerse herself in the local culture, although she’ll always be a traveler, not a local. While readers of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild may enjoy this book, I think closer readalikes are Wild by Nature, by Sarah Marquis, and Jodi Ettenberg’s blog, Legal Nomads. I enjoyed the occasionally lyrical writing, descriptive without being wordy, and McCahill’s willingness to share her experiences and feelings with the reader.
Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship by Isabel Vincent
Isabel, an investigative reporter for the New York Post, is befriended by her colleague’s father, Edward. They both live on Roosevelt Island, in the East River. Edward was married to Paula for 69 years, and promised before her death to keep on living. Happily, he’s a gourmet cook, and Isabel starts visiting weekly for dinner and advice. Edward tells stories about his life, shares his poetry, and turns Isabel into a foodie. She has moved many times with her husband and daughter, and her marriage is unraveling. In later chapters, Edward is visibly aging, while Isabel might be falling in love again. This charming memoir reads like fiction. I only wish that it were longer and included recipes.
The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Naturalist Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig, meets a forty pound octopus named Athena, and becomes fascinated by octopuses. She becomes an octopus observer at the New England Aquarium in Boston and meets aquarists, interns, and volunteers who bond while an octopus wraps an arm or two around their arms, and while they stroke her soft head. Octopuses (not octopi) are intelligent, very curious, and capable of changing the color, pattern, and texture of their skin many times in an hour. Boneless, they can and will fit in very tiny places and try to escape from their tanks to explore the world. The suckers on their eight arms can smell and taste, and are both strong and flexible. Over a couple of years, Sy gets to know four giant Pacific octopuses in Boston, travels to Seattle to watch octopuses mating, and learns to scuba dive. Sy observes wild octopuses in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. Poignantly, she also watches a favorite octopus, Octavia, grow old. After reading this absorbing, moving memoir, I look forward to spending time at aquariums observing the amazing octopuses.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
I was charmed by this short and funny memoir by a copy editor at The New Yorker. Between explaining the eccentricities of spelling and grammar at The New Yorker and a chapter titled “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”, Norris entertains and educates. Gender in the English language, how to decide if commas in a sentence should stay, and an enlightening look at the history of compound words which may or may not be separated by a hyphen are a few of the topics covered. Anyone who has groaned at the sight of a sign boldly stating: “Buckle Up! Its the Law” will likely enjoy Norris’ personal and literary anecdotes; I certainly did.