ASK Musings

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Reviews Archive

Thursday

22

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Severance by Ling Ma

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those who enjoy novels that move around in time. Those who liked Station Eleven.

In a nutshell:
The fever has taken over the world. Candace has survived it, and is now traveling with other survivors. Through chapters alternating in the past and present, we learn what Candace’s life (and the life of her immigrant parents) was like, and is like now.

Worth quoting:
“It made me wistful for the illusion of New York more than for its actuality, after having lived there for five years.”

Why I chose it:
I saw it in a few book stores and kept picking it up. Finally had to go for it.

Review:
This is a situation where I don’t want to give away too much, because I think the less you know, the more interesting the book is. I accidentally glanced at just a bit of one Cannonballer’s review in my feed and while they didn’t spoil anything, I think something they mentioned did take away from my reading of it because I couldn’t get it out of my head. So I suggest that, if you’re at all interested in reading this book, you just pick it up and read it.

The book looks at so many big ideas — capitalism, immigration, survivalism, urban living — but also smaller, relatable intimacies, such as competition at work, relationships (romantic, platonic, familial), daily life choices. Her boyfriend Jonathan starts out as a mildly interesting character, but I found Candace’s evolution of her view of him to be relatable and more interesting that Jonathan himself.

I like the style of going back and forth in time – I’m not sure this book would be as compelling were it told in a straightforward manner. But at the same time, author Ma is a talented writer, able to create a vivid picture without flowery or overly-descriptive language. I have a strong idea of what the manufacturing plant in China looks like, the hotel, Candace’s New York apartments, her office. I did live in New York for many years, so I think that may have increased my enjoyment of the book a bit, but if it were set in another major city I’m sure I would have devoured it all the same (in any case, I started this book on a Wednesday and finished it Thursday evening, and worked both of those days).

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a Friend. One has already called dibs, in fact.

Wednesday

21

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
People who enjoy quality fiction, ridiculously good writing, and are looking for something a little different in their protagonist.

In a nutshell:
Writer Arthur Less’s ex-boyfriend is getting married. Arthur Less is about to turn 50. Instead of wallowing, Arthur Less decides to accept all the literary invites he’s received and spend the summer traveling the world.

Worth quoting:
“You and me, we’ve met geniuses. And we know we’re not like them, don’t we? What is it like to go on, knowing you are not a genius, knowing you are a mediocrity? I think it’s the worst kind of hell.”

Why I chose it:
My sister was reading this over the holidays a couple of years ago. We saw it in a bookstore and she said she really enjoyed it so I picked it up.

Review:
What a fun and unexpected novel. I’ve lately been enjoying media about older adults (Grace and Frankie is a favorite) because I just don’t think — outside of endless procedurals on CBS — we have enough stories about people who aren’t in their 20s and 30s. Occasionally some 40s sneak in there, but movies like The Wife, or books like Less, are interesting explorations of parts of life we don’t often see.

Arthur Less is an author who has one ex who is a well known and highly regarded genius poet and another who is about to get married. He’s not sure what’s going on with his latest book, and he’s not sure what’s going on in the rest of his life. So when the invitation to his ex’s wedding he instead decides to go to an awards ceremony in Italy, to teach a course in Germany, to go to a writer’s retreat in India. And he learns things about himself along the way, but not the things you think.

Yes, I realize that might sound like a gay male version of Eat Pray Love but I PROMISE you it is not. It’s so much more.

But this isn’t just a well-crafted, well-plotted book. It’s a book that also has gorgeous writing that isn’t pretentious. It isn’t a challenge to read, but instead an utter pleasure. I mean, look at this sentence fragment: ‘an almond croissant is soon in his hands, covering him in buttered confetti.’ That is GORGEOUS. Gorgeous. And now I want an almond croissant.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it. Knowing how it ends, I want to read it again.

Thursday

8

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

There Are No Grown-Ups by Pamela Druckerman

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People looking for a perfectly entertaining collection of essays about mid-life.

In a nutshell:
Author Druckerman shares what she has learned as she entered her 40s.

Worth quoting:
“As you keep looking at things, you see more and more in them.”

Why I chose it:
I finished my book and had a train ride back to the UK ahead of me. This was one of the English-language books available, and it was by an author I’d read before.

Review:
As I mentioned in a previous review, I’m turning 40 next year, so some of my book choices are focused on that reality. This book happened to fit into that trend, and it offered some interesting insights. Some of the chapters within the book are clearly repurposed versions of previous essay’s Druckerman has written, but she manages to make them mostly fit together.

On thing I appreciate about her writing is her honest self-assessment. Well, at least it seems honest (I don’t know her), as it isn’t always flattering, nor is it self-deprecating in a way that reeks of false humility. She wonders if she has any immutable characteristics; she struggles to make friends.

She isn’t totally relatable, and I don’t think I agree with all of her suggestions and advice, but some components – especially chapters 18 (’How to figure out what’s happening) and 21 (how to say no) – resonated with me. I’m definitely happy I picket it up.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (I’ll be tossing it, but only because I got a lot of tomato juice on my copy)

Thursday

8

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Ghosted by Rosie Walsh

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Finished: 2 August 2019

BINGO:
Summer Read

Best for:
Fans of the Liane Moriarty school or interwoven stories with a serious mystery at the center.

In a nutshell:
Sarah and Eddie spent an amazing week together before he left for a quick holiday. She hasn’t heard from him since, even though they basically declared their love for each other. Is he just a jerk, or is there something else going on?

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
Wandered into a bookshop looking for Nine Perfect Strangers, but it’s still in hardback so way too big for travel. This cover reminded me of Moriarty’s style, then I read the back and thought ‘yup, this is perfect to read on the lake this summer.’

Review:

Whew, after two serious non-fiction books in a row I needed this. It isn’t exactly light reading, but it was quick and enthralling and I quite literally did not want to put it down. (Seriously, I was annoyed when I had to set it aside so I could shower this morning.) I started it yesterday late in the day and finished it over lunch today. I wanted to know how it ended, but I also enjoyed the path author Walsh took to get us there.

The book is broken into three parts, and most of it is told from the perspective of our protagonist Sarah. We learn early on that she’s lost her sister at a young age, and she carries that loss with her into adulthood, where it factors into major life choices like leaving the UK for the US and her career path. She meets Eddie on a visit home to the UK but doesn’t yet tell him the details of her childhood.

Then, he’s gone. They promise to meet up after his trip to Spain but she doesn’t hear from him again after they part ways. He doesn’t respond to texts or voicemail and hasn’t checked in on social media (but also hasn’t blocked her), leading Sarah to think, given how intense their week together was, that something has gone horribly wrong.

To tell you anything more would take away from your enjoyment of this book. But please trust me when I say that there are some turns you see coming and some turns you don’t. And I’ll be honest in that the ending wasn’t the one I would have picked but I think it still works well (hence the five star review).

Really my biggest issue with the whole book is the part where Sarah realizes she didn’t ask Eddie how he was going to vote on the Brexit Referendum (the book starts in the summer of 2016). If there was any chance he was going to vote Leave, I’d say that ghosting was really a blessing.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it – leaving it at this lake house so the next guests can enjoy it.

Thursday

8

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

Working the Phones by Jamie Woodcock

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Finished: 1 August 2019

BINGO:
Award Winner: 2016 Labor History Best Book

Best for:
Those who enjoy a good case study / ethnography and are interested in the state of organizing today.

In a nutshell:
Academic Jamie Woodcock is interested in labour organizing and, as his PhD dissertation spent time in a call center to learn more about the work — and the resistance — taking place there.

Worth quoting:
“‘There were all sorts of rules.’ For example, ‘hanging coats on the back of your chair was banned, little things like that.’ These were things that did not affect the productivity of workers directly. This suggests the rules were more about power.”

“The advent of computer surveillance means the fiction of the ever-watching supervisor could become reality. Even if they were to miss something at the time, the records can be scoured for transgressions after the fact.”

Why I chose it:
I know the author through my partner. We were at his flat for dinner, and I noticed the book on the shelf and asked if I could read it.

Review:

As mentioned above, I have met the author.

Right up front, to be clear: this is an academic book. Some people who write particularly interesting dissertations on topics that might be of interest to the general public are able to convert their dissertation into a book, as Woodcock has done here. And it generally works quite well. Yes, there are some sections that are a little hard to follow as I don’t have a strong background in labor writing (I’ve yet to read any Marx, for example), but at no point was I confused as to the general points the author was making.

The book looks at call centers in the UK and how organizing might be able to take hold there. In order to better understand the work, Woodcock didn’t just research it, he performed it, getting hired at a sales call center that peddled insurance. From that vantage point he was able to better understand the pressures and stresses in the center (sales targets looming large overhead, bonuses that management push as simple to obtain but that few ever get) and experience the little ways that the workers resist management attempts at exerting power over the workers.

Call center work sounds horrible in general — no one getting a sales call is happy to get one, though some folks might listen long enough to become interested in the product. But the working conditions are so stressful, and management puts in place little rules (like needing to wear business casual clothes even though no customer sees them) designed to remind workers that they are at the mercy of management. They are also on zero-hour contracts and can be fired at will. It’s not great.

But can it be better? I mean, other than eliminating the industry altogether, what options exist for those who do need this work, at least as a stopgap? That is what Woodcock looks at in relation to his time there — what can those who can be fired mid-shift do collectively to get better working conditions or pay? Are unions still relevant, and if they are, are they set up to support this type of work?

As I said upfront, this is an academic book, but it was an easy read, and I felt I learned a lot about labor studies, labor history, and organising.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a Friend — my partner

Thursday

8

August 2019

0

COMMENTS

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

BINGO:
Science

Best for:
Those looking for specific clear descriptions of what the earth may look like at different levels of warming.

In a nutshell:
Science writer Wallace-Wells looks at what has happened so far, what is likely to happen, and what the greater implicates will be as related to climate change.

Worth quoting:
“Almost regardless of your politics or your consumption choices, the wealthier you are, the larger your carbon footprints.”

“More than 140 million people in just three regions of the world will be made climate migrants by 2050.”

“Every round-trip plane ticket from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.”

Why I chose it:
The author spoke with Chris Hayes on his ‘Why is This Happening?’ podcast. I’ve not yet listened to the episode but will now that I’ve read the book

Review:

This book is great if you are interested in having more information on specifically what we are looking at when it comes to climate change. In addition to everything we’ve seen recently (more storms, the hottest temperature ever recorded in the UK and other parts of Europe, fires raging above the arctic circle), Wallace-Wells dives deeply into the specific horrors we can expect to see, including: loss of crops, increased deaths in hot temperatures, areas becoming unlivable, oceans dying, air becoming more polluted, and climate conflict, among others. It is bleak.

It’s even more distressing when you consider, as he does, that we’ve known there are issues for years an we continue to do nothing. If we’d started cutting back on our emissions when we learned about these issues we would have been able to make slight cuts annually; now we need to make huge changes, which means altering every aspect of our lives, starting at the government and corporate levels (sorry, but the ableist straw bans so many people pushed for over the last year won’t do much of anything to slow global warming; in fact our plastic use apparently has very little direct impact on climate change in general).

The book is an interesting and well-researched read, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of solutions. ‘Reduce emissions everywhere, everyone’ may in fact be the reality we need to fact, but there’s nothing here that offers ideas for a path forward. At times it feels almost fatalistic, even though the author repeatedly points out that the future is not written and we can still make changes. By describing the problem and talking a bit about what it means philosophically should humanity essentially go extinct, the author keeps himself in a very specific lane.

I would have perhaps enjoyed instead a book that included all of this science writing and then, with a second author and a second part, laid out the specific steps we need to take. We need action in the form of huge, sweeping changes, which starts with voting in the leaders who will take those actions. But also … I’d like to see what are the actions that have been proposed and are feasible? And what does feasibility look like when we’re talking about something as dire as this? I included that quote about flights at the top of my review because, despite all I’m doing to reduce my footprint (not eating meat, not having children, not owning a car), I’m writing this on family vacation in New England, having flown in from London a week ago. I fly to the US at least twice a year, and in that I’m causing a huge problem. Should air travel stop? What would that mean for other aspects of life? Movement of goods? Movement of mail? Do those of us who live far from family just say goodbye?

I guess my point here is that I’m already sold on the problems, though it is good to have specific areas to point to. I’m interested now in learning about the different solutions and having the conversation about what it means to implement those solutions.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it

Sunday

23

June 2019

0

COMMENTS

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People who enjoy coming of age stories that are (or try to be?) a bit edgier.

In a nutshell:
Marianne and Connell are classmates in a small town in London. His mother cleans her house. They do not run in the same social circles. Things transpire, and they grow up.

Worth quoting:
“Committee members of college clubs, who are dressed up in black tie very frequently, and who inexplicably believe the internal workings of student societies are interesting to normal people.”
“In school the boys had tried to break her with cruelty and disregard, and I in college men had tried to do it with sex and popularity, all with the same aim of subjugating some force in her personality. It depressed her to think people were so predictable.”

Why I chose it:
It’s being promoted in all the bookshops. The bookseller at the shop close to my work (where I tend to wander on lunch breaks at least once a month) claimed it was even better than her last book. I disagree.

Review:
Connell and Marianne are from different walks of life – his mom is a single mother who, among other things, cleans the mansion of Marianne’s family. Marianne’s father is dead, her brother is cruel, and her mother is uninvolved (and also possibly cruel? Unclear). They are both smart, and they become friends via hooking up. Then they part ways but reconnect in college. Each chapter is a skip in time (sometimes three weeks, sometimes three months, sometimes five minutes) and usually — maybe always? I don’t have the book anymore — alternates between the two characters. The bookseller described it as a ‘will they / won’t they,’ but it’s really a ‘they did, and probably will again, and is that a good thing?’

I get what the author was going for here, but I don’t think it worked for me. I’m not sure how one can successfully do coming of age across five or six years (instead of, say, over the course of one year of high school or college), but I don’t think this is it. By the end of the book I still saw the characters as teenagers playing at being adult, even though they did have very real issues and concerns. And even though the entirety of the book focuses on these two individuals, I don’t get a sense of who they are, really. Connell is meant to be deeply written, but I don’t leave feeling I know much about him. Marianne I felt gets a bit more development, but the way her story is handled seems almost salacious for the sake of being salacious. Which, I guess makes sense? I mean, I don’t know how else the author could have written those components, but they still didn’t work for me. Overall I’m disappointed.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (to the vacation rental home I was in when I finished it)

Monday

10

June 2019

0

COMMENTS

How to Be a Footballer by Peter Crouch

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
People who enjoying playing or watching football, especially the men’s game, especially the English Premier League.

In a nutshell:
Professional football (soccer) player Peter Crouch offers a glimpse into the lives of professional players, including what goes on in the changing rooms, what it’s like to be traded (sold) to another team, and why so many seem to buy such … interesting cars.

Worth quoting:
“You should probably be able to absorb the pain of an opposition goal without needing to wave two finders in the scorer’s face…We all like goals. And if it’s a goal you personally do not like, you can be certain that someone with the same primary leisure interest as you will be absolutely loving it.”

Why I chose it:
I like a good football (soccer) biography, and this one had the potential to be especially entertaining.

Review:
What a lovely surprise this book was! I love football (or, as I grew up calling it, soccer). I’ve played since I was a kid, and last year joined a women’s league here in London, so I train every Tuesday (and one Friday a month), and play in matches on Sundays (and some Saturdays) from September through April. It’s a lovely camaraderie as well as a way to stay fit and keep my brain going as I try to improve. I’m also going to the Women’s World Cup (tomorrow!), where I’ll watch the US Women’s National Team play each of their group stage matches, and then return for the semi-finals and finals.

I have read and reviewed a couple autobiographies from players for the US Women’s National Team, but they were fairly straightforward sports bios, whereas this one is more a collection of humorous observational essays. And, because I didn’t grow up watching the England men’s premier league (or much men’s international football at all), there are a lot of references that I don’t get. However, that didn’t take a way from the book. Sure, there are a lot of players and moments (say, an amazing goal) that are mentioned, but there is enough context within each chapter to get the general gist.

Crouch played for a few teams in the English men’s premier league, as well as for England’s men’s national team. You might recognize him as the extraordinarily tall, very lean, striker. Seriously, the guy is 6’7”. Damn. He currently plays for Burnley, and has played for Aston Villa, QPR and Liverpool in the past. But this book isn’t so much about that. I mean, it is – he talks about his experiences working under different managers, and traveling with different teams. But each chapter is about a different aspect of a footballer’s life, and it doesn’t follow any traditional trajectory. Any given chapter might refer to his time in the youth league, or at a World Cup. He doesn’t talk much about his wife or kids — this is a book about football.

And it’s funny! I don’t know how better to put it than that. Yes, I think you need to have a passing interest in the sport, but Crouch is a genuinely endearing, funny guy who can make an already entertaining story even better. He’s just the right amount of self-deprecating, and he’s also willing to point out when he thinks something is just silly.

I mean, come on:

The only bummer for me is that at no point are any of his examples of amazing plays or players women. Yes, obviously he’s played only with men, and only in men’s leagues. But he doesn’t limit his anecdotes to just things he’s directly experienced or people he has played with; he references loads of players and moments that took place before he was playing. Is there really no goal a professional woman footballer has scored that is worth a mention? Not Carli Lloyd’s hat trick at the World Cup Final in 2015? Not Abby Wambach’s headers? It’s just disappointing.

Still, I recommend this book if you like football and you like to laugh.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a friend

Sunday

2

June 2019

0

COMMENTS

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone whose life doesn’t fit the script. And anyone whose does, but insists that other’s lives fit as well.

In a nutshell:
Keiko is 36, single, and has been working in the same convenience store since she was 18. Family and friends want her to get another job, find a husband, and maybe have a child.

Worth quoting:
“When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why. I found that arrogant and infuriating, not to mention a pain in the neck.”
“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”
“People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know.”

Why I chose it:
It’s been on display everywhere I go lately, so I finally picked it up. Glad I did!

Review:
Keiko doesn’t fit into what society expects of women. She works part-time in a job that others look down upon, she doesn’t date, and she doesn’t have many friends or interests outside of work. She makes people uncomfortable because she doesn’t have the same life goals as others – she has no interest in sex, she doesn’t want another job. She studies others so she can fit in better, but overall she’d just be happy if people let her be. But of course, people don’t, including a misogynistic jackass who starts – and quickly leaves – work at the same convenience store.

This is a short book, but it packs a lot into it. Author Murata uses an interesting and different character – one who it might be hard to initially relate to – to make a bigger point about life and what we expect from it for not just ourselves, but others. I get a taste of it at times because I am not having children; some people with children often seem to not entirely know what to do with me once they realize that I’m not going to change my mind. And on a more serious level, I see this playing out in my home town of Seattle, where people who aren’t fulfilling what others view as their duty (namely, to somehow miraculously figure out how to find a home with money they don’t have) are viewed as a drain on society. There’s a life script, and people who follow it (usually people who, I would argue, are unhappy they had to follow it) can be utterly cruel to those who either can’t, won’t, or don’t want to.

Obviously this is complicated by the fact that the thing that seems to make Keiko happy is working in what so many people think of as a soul-crushing job. I saw one review that considered this a horror book. And perhaps part of it is. Or perhaps the author picked something that it would be hard for so many of us to see as a positive to challenge us further. Either way, I’m into it.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it

Monday

27

May 2019

0

COMMENTS

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshefegh

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Two Stars

Best for:
People looking for a well-written, fairly quick read of no consequence, whose characters are all unappealing, especially the protagonist.

In a nutshell:
Orphaned rich woman (no name given, which I didn’t realize until I went to write this review) decides the way she wants to deal with her life is by sleeping. So she find a doctor who is willing to prescribe her all manner of sleeping pills.

Worth quoting:
‘It’s not about the men,’ she said. ‘Women are so judgmental. They’re always comparing.’
‘But why do you care? It’s not a contest.’
‘Yes, it is. You just can’t see it because you’ve always been the winner.’

Why I chose it:
I have picked this book up in shops probably a half-dozen times. Now that it’s in paperback I finally decided to get it. I’m glad, if only because my curiosity is well-sated.

Review:
This was a quick read, for sure. But I did not enjoy it. When I finished it, I wondered what I’d missed. Was this satire – a mocking of all those sort-of coming-of-age books written by white men about young white men? No? It’s just a character study? Huh.

Author Moshfegh is talented, for sure. The book is easy to read, the scenes evocative and well-thought-out. I have a strong picture in my mind of every place described, and a real feeling about each place. But the overall idea of the book, the main concept, the plot, just didn’t work for me at all. As it moved along I sort of got a bit of why the protagonist was doing what she was doing. I think?

Was she depressed? Probably. But was that what was fueling her desire to sleep? Or was she just ill-equipped for the world? Honestly? I didn’t care. Was I supposed to care? Unclear. Like I said, I might have missed something, but maybe not. Maybe it just wasn’t my thing. Entertainment Weekly said “One of the most compelling protagonists modern fiction has offered in years” and just … no. I disagree.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Toss it