Keltie Peay pays special attention to the ladies this month in recommending five books that women should be sure to include among their bookclub’s picks in 2020. Don’t worry fellas, you can learn something from these books too!
As January draws to a close, it’s possible, possible (and I am NOT judging here) that some of your best intentions for the New Year have gone the way of Meghan Markle’s HRH or last year’s misguided experiment with super-low-rise-rockstar-skinny jeans. Resolved to lose ten pounds? Delia brought homemade scones to the office! Resolved to go to the gym every single day? I literally did not have time to pee for ten straight hours yesterday. Resolved to finally read Melville? It’s a really long book about a whale. But it’s never too late to resolve to be better in ways that really matter. To be more brave. To be more sane. To be more happy. To be more you. Here are five books to inspire and delight.
RESOLUTION: To be more brave, start saying YES.
Begin your practice of everyday enthusiasm for that which scares you, intimidates you, or lurks just outside of your perfectly-comfortable zone by reading Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes (yep, that Shonda Rhimes, Queen of Shondaland and, well, All Television). A defining moment for Shonda came when she considered not attending the Kennedy Center Honors where she would be sitting in the presidential box as a guest of the Obamas, because she was too busy. And she’d need to buy a dress. And she’s an introvert who would fail to muster the nerve to actually speak to FLOTUS and POTUS. Triggered by a conversation with her sister, who tells her pointedly, “You never say yes to anything,” Shonda decides to embark on a Year of Yes. For one year, she will say YES to everything she is afraid to do, to every invitation issued or opportunity presented that she reflexively wants to dodge. She agrees to a cameo appearance on The Mindy Project. She boldly brings a cake she did not make herself but purchased at a bakery to her child’s pre-school party (gasp!). She generally champions her own all-around badassery (Shonda’s word) without apology. Year of Yes is funny, smart, heart-warming and compact. Shonda, after all, is the writer and mastermind behind the funniest, smartest, and most dramatic 42-minute shows on TV (that’s a 60-minute slot minus commercials). So take it from the Queen, breathe deeply and say Y-E-S when your less brave self wants to jump to the instant no, and do the thing that scares you, preferably while wearing badass red lipstick.
Now, if you want to up the ante, and take the next even more hilarious leap, turn for guidance to Courtenay Hameister’s Okay Fine Whatever: The Year I Went From Being Afraid of Everything to Only Being Afraid of Most Things. Courtenay, a successful NPR on-air host and producer, is nevertheless paralyzed by constant anxiety about absolutely everything. In this book, Courtenay, simply exhausted by all of her ever-present fear, decides to spend a year not only saying yes to things that materialize before her, but also affirmatively planning and executing many scary feats that she herself has identified as outright assaults to her very small comfort zone. Consider the idea of going with male family members to visit a strip club or spending time in a sensory deprivation tank when you are seriously claustrophobic. She does both. She says Okay Fine every single time she is asked out or set up and goes on 28 first dates. Twenty-eight first dates. That falls into the realm of truly terrifying to me. The results are positively hysterical, and occasionally promising. The book is described as “one chronically anxious woman’s attempt to become braver, one insanely awkward adventure at a time.” Courtenay may never again go to a “cuddle coach” (that is a real thing), but she’s set the bar high for what she can do if she just says yes. And saying yes to the small, uncomfortable stuff that is inconsequential gives her courage-credit in the bank, so she can say yes to the big and consequential stuff when it comes.
RESOLUTION: To be more sane, start saying NO.
You’ve tried all the better-sleep action items in the magazines: turn off electronic devices before bed? Check. Do your cardio, but not past 6PM? Check. Meditation and relaxation exercises? Check. Still can’t sleep? Check. Ada Calhoun’s new bestselling book Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis, is not an instruction manual on HOW to sleep. It is about why many of us women are not. Calhoun rejects the false narrative that women can have it all and do it all—and says NO to the idea that once we reach a certain age we should have “rock hard abs, a perfectly calm disposition or a million dollars in the bank.” She presents extensive research to support her basic claim: that we can’t sleep because we always worry. Generation X women are more likely to have greater debt, persistent under-employment, and considerably more sustained overall dissatisfaction than the generations before them. In short, we are worrying ourselves to a joyless, sleepless life, and possibly to an early, sleepless demise. The solution is not melatonin. It is more connection and more honesty with other women who almost universally feel the same anxiety, but who are culturally and socially inclined to present a happy, well-rested face. This book is a resounding shout out to women who can’t ever seem to clock a good night’s sleep. We are all in this together, wide awake, and we don’t have to be.
In Burnout, a more global approach to many of the same issues raised by Calhoun, sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski challenge us to “unlock” the stress cycle by saying no to both the external factors that create it (they cite the “bikini-industrial complex” as one) and the internal ones (constant self-judgment). The writers reject trite advice about self-care (exercise, green smoothies, coloring books, mindfulness, bubble baths) astutely observing that ‘wellness’ has become just another goal that women feel pressured to achieve. This book is both passionate and practical. It is well-researched and offers common-sense advice for minimizing the stressors in our lives. The joy of the book, however, is that it is also funny and relatable. While writing and researching this book, the Nagoski sisters found that they didn’t need to explain to women what burnout is—women just needed and yearned for permission (from themselves and others) to get off the stress-cycle merry-go-round and find healthy ways to say no to the madness.
RESOLUTION: Read something just for fun. Not Moby Dick.
From Caroline de Maigret and Sophie Mas, the authors of How to be Parisian, now comes Older, but Better Older. This book is unadulterated fun—laugh-out-loud lists like “things you never thought you’d say” and “things you still forget, every time.” There are also age-defying mood lighting and make-up tips thrown in for good measure, and an entire chapter that is an ode in nine stanzas to loving the butt you have. Read it and remember it every time you have the slightest temptation to ask the mirror if those pants make your beloved butt look big.
So here’s to bravery and sanity and fun in 2020—Happy Reading!
Guest columnist Keltie Peay is a top graduate from the University of Virginia School of Law (Class of 1998) and Harvard College (Class of 1995). Following law school graduation, she clerked with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia and the following year, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Prior to devoting her professional life to the dissemination of important ideas and valuable life lessons through books (both as an independent copy editor and bookseller with Parnassus Books), Keltie practiced white-collar criminal defense and complex civil litigation with the Nashville law firm of Neal & Harwell and the national firm Redgrave LLP. Her column, The Reader’s Docket, appears on Latitude’s blog Insights the third Thursday of every month. All of Keltie’s past and current recommendations are listed here and available for purchase online through Parnassus Books.