I made a promise to myself that I would read more this summer. If I’m going to be relaxing in my sunny yard on a day off, I'd hope I'd be reading, you know? It’s hard for me to really get into books unless I am captivated by them pretty quickly, and I have learned that I am most grabbed by nonfiction: memoirs, essays, historical and/or therapeutic content/research (big surprise there), etc. So while I read a handful of other books this past year and summer, in this post I'm writing about the ones that seem to be helping me learn and grow as an individual, while also informing my work as a therapist. I always LOVE getting book recommendations (I need a little motivation sometimes), and my dear colleague, Rebecca Putna, wrote a book list post last year that inspired me to pick up some new things to read. And I ultimately decided I wanted to write a book post, too, and to make it an annual thing. So, I hope this post inspires you, too, in some way. Here are my thoughts (read: strong opinions) on a few favorites from this past year!
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed, a local Portland author, is a pretty big name at this point. And for good reason. She is a beautiful and insightful writer who owns her story and brings her full and honest self to her work, which inherently is a gift to all of us who are also working to live wholeheartedly and authentically in our lives. This is actually the only book on this list that I didn’t read within the last year, but I just had to include it anyway. I discovered this book a little over 4 years ago during a difficult time of transition and grief, and found it to be so extraordinarily helpful, normalizing, and cathartic. Tiny Beautiful Things is a compilation of many letters and responses from an advice column that she used to write. While I can’t say for sure whether or not I endorse every ounce of advice she gives in this book, I do feel that she shares some very wise insight, and provides an effective platform for recognizing our common humanity and allowing us to feel less alone with our fears and wounds. I often give this book to any dear friend who is going through a hard time. It’s just right for that, I think. Thanks Cheryl! (You can also check out the Dear Sugar podcast, if you want more.)
Come As You Are, by Emily Nagoski
I cannot rave about this book enough. Several of my female therapist colleagues have recommended it to me in the past, but I only just read it in full this summer (which was the first book to motivate me to finally write this blog post). I was ultimately driven to read it after having an in-depth, very vulnerable conversation with a group of female non-therapist friends in my life, in which we all came to realize that women do not connect honestly about their sexuality in our culture. Each person in this conversation expressed some degree of feeling alone with their questions/concerns, like they were dysfunctional or broken sexually, and worrying that they were the sole cause of sexual “problems” in their relationships. This realization that we are so often made to feel like our sexuality should look and feel this one way (and otherwise we don’t talk about it because it’s too shameful) made me really sad for my friends, myself, and women in general.
I identify strongly as a feminist, which means that inevitably I apply Feminist Theory to my work. This essentially means that when my clients are sharing about their internal world, their beliefs, and their experiences, I simply cannot help but also be aware of the social constructs, cultural messages, and systemic issues that have influenced and informed these beliefs and feelings over their lifetime. For (cisgender) women, this book addresses many of them, but primarily focuses on sexuality and our relationship to our bodies, challenging the many spoken and unspoken lies we’ve been told in our culture. Emily's writing brings to light the possibility of understanding the very NORMAL truth about your own body and its inherent wisdom about what is and is not healthy for it. To actually love and trust your own body and your own experience, not what “society” tells you is “right.” The short version: This book is AMAZING, and I believe it could help every person of every and any gender to be curious about, understand, and embrace their own bodies, to become more and more comfortable with their partner(s)’s sexuality, and to broaden their awareness of the vast spectrum of human sexuality in general.
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, by Meghan Daum
There is an abundance of information in our culture about what it means to be a woman, and the expected existential goal of being a mother is a major factor. The majority of women in our society learn at a young age that having a baby is an assumed part of their futures and there is barely any conversation about whether or not it is actually a choice. There aren’t nearly enough resources out there for the women (and men, for that matter - though the cultural pressures are different) who choose not to have children, or those who are grappling with this difficult and important decision. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed is a book of essays written by women and men on the topic of deciding not to have kids. This book does not address the topic of wanting children but not being able to have them - that feels like a different conversation entirely and I appreciate that Meghan saw that distinction. I continue to feel that while our culture is evolving and the expectations that accompany gender constructs are shifting slowly, there is still a great need for more understanding, openness, and insight about choosing a life without children. So many assumptions are made about people (women, especially) who make this choice: they are selfish (hence, the book title), they won’t live a meaningful or complete life, there must be something ‘wrong’ with them if they don’t have a ‘natural maternal instinct,’ they must hate kids, they will never connect with their siblings’ or friends’ kids, they will die alone, etc. Very painful, and frankly, inaccurate assumptions about the characters and lives of those who are without children, and I can only imagine it leaves many feeling alone, misunderstood, and rejected/devalued by our society. I was deeply grateful for the courage of these writers, and I believe that Meghan Daum is one of the pioneers in helping to change the conversation about what it means to choose a life without children, and to provide a window into some examples of the lives of those who choose to be child-free - and guess what? They are happy, they feel fulfilled, and their lives are equally meaningful and valuable. I hope there is more to come!
Daring Greatly, by Brené Brown
I mean, doesn’t this go without saying? If you don’t know Brené Brown, you better start getting to know her, ASAP. Start with this Ted Talk, and then continue with this Ted Talk, and this Super Soul Talk (my personal favorite). Then read Daring Greatly, and maybe even check out her online learning community, CourageWorks. Brené Brown has opened up important and accessible dialogue about the role of vulnerability in connectedness and happiness, the power of living authentically, and the value of being brave and honest over remaining safe and disengaged from our lives, even if it feels risky. In my personal experience and in my experience working with clients as a therapist, these concepts, when broken down into relatable and approachable nuggets the way she presents, can change people’s lives. They changed mine. She goes even further in her latest book, Rising Strong, to talk about self-trust, integrity, boundaries, and bravely facing our emotions head-on even when we are in the midst of struggle or pain. Both books are worth every word.
Shrill, by Lindy West
Okay, if there is one book on this list that I would tell you to read first, it would be this one. It’s hard to do it justice, but I'll do the best I can. I read this book in about 3 days, early this summer, and was so impacted by it that I immediately wrote a decently long Facebook post about how good it was. Over the last few months, I have received numerous (I can think of at least 6 right now, but maybe more?) phone calls/texts/emails from people - mostly people I’m not in close touch with anymore - who saw my post, read the book, and wanted to thank me for letting them know about it because they loved it so much. Okay, so I’ll leave that right here.
Shrill is a very special and important book. It is a memoir of essays by Lindy West, a feminist comedian who has identified as fat for most/all of her life. In her writing, Lindy bravely and openly shares about her experience being fat in America, as a young girl, as an adult, as a comedian, as a romantic and sexual partner, as a daughter, in the workplace, in the spotlight, on airplanes, at the doctor, in restaurants, everywhere. She is hilarious, sarcastic, fierce, vulnerable, and so emotionally articulate. She normalizes so much and also opens your eyes even more to just how pervasive and oppressive our culture is with fat-shaming and objectification of women’s bodies, from a fresh and important perspective that we do not hear from enough. She is a powerful voice for women and anyone who has ever struggled with body image or their relationship to their body. Which is basically... most people. It certainly hits close to home for me and many people I know - clients, friends and family alike. And I think that whether you relate directly to Lindy’s experience or not, this is an important read, simply just to learn and maybe even to become a better person. The ways we talk about bodies and health, especially women’s bodies and the things that affect women’s bodies (sex, menstruation, pregnancy, abortion, rape, rape JOKES, domestic violence, cultural standards of beauty, etc.), needs so much work - this could not be more important right now. Our culture’s strategies to address these issues have never helped, in fact they typically have made things worse. We need new voices, and Lindy is one of the best so far. I wish I could write more about this, but I don’t want to overthink this “review.” I just hope you read the book as soon as possible. K?
Mating in Captivity, by Esther Perel
Esther Perel is a brilliant woman. She spent years and years researching intimacy, relationships, and marriage around the globe to gain a comprehensive understanding of human romantic/sexual connection. Her wisdom is invaluable. She originally wrote an article in response to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, as a foreign (Belgian) therapist observing American culture around sexuality. This ultimately inspired her writing this book. As she observes, in American culture, we get pretty direct messages about the importance of monogamy, commitment, sanctimony, fidelity, etc. and expectations are set very early on about what is or is not normal or acceptable in long-term relationships and partnerships. Then if/when a relationship does not "succeed" in living up to these standards, there is so much trauma and shame. In Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel provokes new conversation about the intersection of sexuality and long-term partnerships. She explores what is expected in our relationships, invites what is often unspoken, and provides insight and ideas about how couples can promote closeness, transparency, and authenticity in ways that may challenge the mainstream understanding of sexuality and love. She offers some cutting edge insight into what makes a relationship truly sustainable, understanding our deep desires for security and freedom at the same time. Highly recommend this one.
Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
From what I can tell, this is one of those books that all therapists have to read at some point, but I would recommend it to most anyone. Now that I finished it, it’s hard to believe I waited this long to read in the first place. In this short memoir, Psychiatrist Victor Frankl shares about his experience as an inmate in a concentration camp in World War II. During this time, as he witnessed others in their suffering and reflected on his own, he experienced an existential awakening that later informed the development of his own therapeutic approach, which he called “Logotherapy." The name is derived from the greek word logos, which means “reason.” Basically, Dr. Frankl found that even in the most despairing of circumstances, the people who survived were not necessarily the most physically strong of the group, but were in fact those who had the ability to connect to a greater purpose or meaning in their lives. Frankl believes humans can find meaning through being authentic in relation to one’s environment, sharing yourself with the world through creativity/self-expression, and having a sense of control over our attitude when we must accept circumstances we can’t change. I loved this book. It was a quick read, but also painful and challenging as his experiences are described in graphic detail. I had many moments in which I had to stop and take a few deep breaths. But, it speaks so highly to the complexity of the human experience and how incredible it is that we have the ability to make meaning of our lives in a way that literally helps us survive, even in the most hopeless of situations.
*Other favorites from past years (in other words, I don't want to keep writing right now):
Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller
Room, by Emma Donoghue
The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander
Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh
Carry On, Warrior, by Glennon Melton
This is How: Surviving What You Think You Can't, by Augusten Burroughs
Hold Me Tight, by Sue Johnson
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron
*Here's what's on next year's reading list:
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and was Shot by the Taliban, by Malala Yousafzai
Quiet, by Susan Cain
Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind To Yourself, by Kristin Neff
Bad Feminist, by Roxanne Gay
Real Artists Have Day Jobs, by Sara Benincasa
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others, by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
Choose Yourself!, by James Altucher
The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum
The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion