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Reviews Archive

Wednesday

15

November 2017

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COMMENTS

Manners by Kate Spade

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Three Stars

Best for: Someone looking for a book of miscellaneous etiquette tips and lovely little watercolor illustrations.

In a nutshell: Iconic fashion designer Kate Spade offers some tips for being gracious in your daily interactions

Line that sticks with me: “But might doesn’t equal right, so to all ad hoc experts and lecturers please don’t pontificate on the paint. Lecture halls have seats; museums and galleries don’t.”

Why I chose it: I bought this at least two years ago. I reviewed the second in this little serious of books, ‘Style,’ during one of the Cannonball Reads. Plus, it’s an etiquette book.

Review: You all know I love etiquette books, right? I find manners fascinating. I know that some things we view as good manners are just classist ways of being, but I also think that manners are also a way to be respectful of others. I think this line from Blast From the Past sums it up perfectly:

Troy: “He said, good manners are just a way of showing other people we have respect for them. See, I didn’t know that, I thought it was just a way of acting all superior.”

I have three bookshelves full of etiquette and style books. One of them is from the 1920s. I find them fascinating. To the point that now I have my own etiquette website. This book is a bit of a hodgepodge, with only the loosest idea of organization or theme. But that’s okay. It’s fun to look at, and for the most part the tips were spot on.

However, throughout, Ms. Spade includes some quotes from herself and from her husband. And one (from her husband Andy) I found to be extremely distasteful:

“Have you ever seen an 80-year-old woman look great with a tattoo?”

First off, why limit this to women? As written, Mr. Spade seems to be suggesting that perhaps there are men who look great with tattoos, but not women. That’s sexist, and certainly not a sign of good manners.

But also … I have. Check these folks out. (There are a lot of pictures of dudes here, but also of women, and they are awesome.) It’s just a graceless comment, and is particularly out of place in a book on manners.

Tuesday

14

November 2017

0

COMMENTS

Trainwreck by Sady Doyle

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Four Stars

Best for: People who maybe enjoy the schadenfreud of the seeming downfall of famous women but who are also interested in maybe stopping that.

In a nutshell: Author Sady Doyle examines all the ways we push women and judge them for their imperfections.

Line that sticks with me: “We spend so much time pathologizing “overemotional” women that we scarcely ever ask what those women are emotional about.”

Why I chose it: I’m on a bit of a roll, reading about women who fight the system, who get taken down and fight back. This seemed to fit in nicely.

Review: I’ve laughed at Lindsay Lohan (and not just when she’s being weirdly supportive of Harvey Weinstein – when she’s getting pulled over and drugs are found on her). I’ve scoffed at Britney Spears before her very public meltdown, then did a 180 and for some reason only really saw her humanity when she was being put into conservatorship. I’ve prefaced statements of support for Hillary Clinton with “I know she isn’t perfect, but,” as though there is some politician who is.

I’m also a feminist, and I get real angry when women are dismissed as overly emotional, or irrational, or crazy. And while I sort of know how these two seemingly diametrically opposed philosophies can coexist in my mind, this book brought it to light.

Ms. Doyle provides a look not just at how we seemingly root for women to fail (but then laud them after they’ve died), but the history of how this has been going on for literally centuries. This isn’t an examination of Britney Spears (although her story features prominently in some chapters); it’s an examination of western society and how we treat women. Mostly, how we treat famous women, but Ms. Doyle uses that to point out that this translates to how we treat women in general. How we silence them, how we judge them, how we don’t allow them to be whole, complex people.

Parts are rough to read (although the writing itself is great), but nothing made me madder than the afterward that Ms. Doyle chose to include, discussing in about 20 pages the 2016 election outcome. She has a chapter where she discusses both Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinski, but this afterward looks specifically at Secretary Clinton in light of what we gave up, how we as a country decided we’d rather have an admitted sexual assaulting liar with no government experience than an extraordinarily qualified person who also is a woman. It hurts (and it’s why “What Happened” has been on my nightstand since it was released but I haven’t been able to open it), and it’s hard to find a lot of hope in it. But we’ll see, right?

Saturday

11

November 2017

0

COMMENTS

Reset by Ellen Pao

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Five Stars

Best for: Men who don’t seem to get how hard it is for women and people of color at the highest levels of their field; women who need a little inspiration and some bad ass women to look up to.

In a nutshell: Woman of color venture capitalist is sabotaged by the old boys club in infuriating ways, fights back all the way to court, loses, but still comes out WAY ahead of those assholes.

Line that sticks with me: “I was appalled by their refusal to admit, despite their near-total homogeneity, that they had any problems with diversity.”

Why I chose it: My husband, who works in tech and is especially interested in inclusion, purchased this and recommended it to me after he finished it.

Review: I’m exhausted. Ladies, are you exhausted? Every day I open twitter and cringe as I scroll through my feed, wondering who the latest man is who did something ranging from depraved and disgusting (say, multiple allegations of sexual assault of a minor – sup Kevin Spacey) to depraved and disturbing (say, pulling out one’s penis and masturbating in front of non-consenting adults – sup Louis C.K.). In just the last 24 hours, I’ve spent time with three sets of friends, and every time at least part — if not most — of our discussion involved how we’re all feeling during this time. What this is bringing back up for people who’ve been harassed (e.g., all women). What this means for men trying to figure out how to have these conversations with their female friends. What the difference is between being a sexual assaulter, being a sexual harasser, and just being a misogynistic, racist asshole.

I say this as a preface to my review because while this book focuses primarily on that last category of mistreatment women face in the workplace, I couldn’t help but think about all of the different ways in which men use their power – whether implicitly or explicitly, to hold women down. There are moments of sexual harassment (a colleague lied to Ms. Pao and said he and his wife had separated, then retaliated against her when she found out about his lie and stopped dating him), but the real injustice comes from the millions of ways that the higher levels of industry — in this case, the tech world — perpetuate the idea that men do the work and women should be thought of primarily as assistants.

Ms. Pao’s resume is absurd. She has a bachelor’s in engineering from Princeton. She graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as an attorney. She then returned to Harvard Business School to earn her MBA. And she worked her way across Silicon Valley at start-ups until she was pursued by a venture capital (VC) firm called Kleiner Perkins. While serving as John Doerr’s technical chief of staff, she witnessed and experienced distressing episode after distressing episode. Junior men who produced less were promoted above more qualified women who had produced more. Men automatically assumed the women would take notes or fetch coffee. Men held all-dude retreats, keeping women out of the rooms where the important deals were being made.

So much in this book makes me want to throw things. It’s maddening and disgusting and disheartening. But the reality is, Ms. Pao was never in danger of being, say, left homeless or without an income. So it doesn’t have the urgency of, say, a book about the mistreatment of undocumented farm workers who may very well lose everything if they report abuse.

But at the same time, even though her lawsuit was a long shot, she chose to take it on because she knew she could afford to lose, and wanted to speak out for women who didn’t have the same option. There are a lot of fights we need to engage in, and one of them is making sure that people of color and women not only have a seat at the table, but are listened to and supported in a way that allows them to contribute meaningfully in all realms.

I know that there are some who read about books like this and think that even if people like Ms. Pao are successful, they’re really still only helping more rich people get rich, and not addressing the wealth disparities that allow VC folks to earn millions and millions of dollars while other people make the actual products and perform the labor. And I get that. But I also think about all of the creative work, all the careers, and the ways in which our society is losing out because women and people of color are kept from the rooms where the decisions are made. What amazing tech, what beautiful art, what insightful books have not been created because some straight rich white dudes kept people who don’t look like them down? It’s deeply sad, and our society is the poorer for it.

Wednesday

8

November 2017

0

COMMENTS

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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Three Stars

Best for: People who really enjoy short stories that have more sex than your average book.

In a nutshell: Collection of short stories about many different interesting women.

Line that sticks with me: “In the complex calculus between men and women, Milly understands that fat is always ugly and that ugly and skinny makes a woman eminently more desirable than fat and any combination such as beautiful, charming, intelligent, or kind.” (p 163)

Why I chose it: I really enjoyed Roxane Gay’s nonfiction work and wanted to try her fiction.

Review: I ran very hot and cold with this collection. I suppose that might be the case with most short story collections. Some of the stories were intriguing and kept me reading regardless of the fact that I was walking in the rain at night (seriously – the middle 20 pages are all warped now). And some I just sort of skimmed to get he idea of because I just couldn’t get into them.

There are a LOT of stories. Some are just a couple of pages long; others are much more involved. I would imagine that you could find a few that you enjoy. But it’s just not my favorite, overall.

Monday

6

November 2017

0

COMMENTS

Don’t Take the Last Donut by Judith Bowman

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Two Stars

Best for: People looking for a time capsule that explains lots of what’s wrong with business.

In a nutshell: Protocol expert offers some … traditional ideas about what is proper etiquette in the business world.

Line that sticks with me: “There is merit to the thought the more professional the woman, the longer her hemline.” The fuck?!

Why I chose it: Someone gave it to my husband (I think) and as someone who runs her own small etiquette blog (https://www.hownottobeanassholewhen.com/), I love reading up on what other people have to say.

Review: Do any of you read Ask a Manager? It’s a great website full of advice on workplace challenges. Just last week, there was a letter that discussed someone being fired for wearing a costume at work on Halloween, and then trick or treating in a meeting of high-level executives and clients. Pretty much all of the commenters on the site agreed that the trick-or-treating showed extremely poor judgment, but I was surprised at how many thought that just DRESSING UP ON HALLOWEEN showed extremely poor judgment. I get that I don’t work in finance, but my goodness I wish more people in business would pull the stick out of their ass.

That said, this book would probably be a perfect read for those who think that it’s a breach of professionalism for a woman to wear a suit in a color other than navy blue, black, or charcoal gray. But that’s not just it. It’s that every component of what Ms. Bowman considers appropriate protocol is focused on this weird manipulation and power game. I haven’t worked in the private sector in a dozen years (I’m a government gal), but holy shit. Picking a seat based on which has the most power? Offering my hand first for a handshake to show I’m dominant? Are we cavemen? The hell?

This is a two-star for me because there are some tips in there that can be helpful. But so much of it falls somewhere between eye-roll and throwing the book across the room. She judges a woman as unprofessional for not wearing make-up. She thinks the most important thing when introducing people is to make everyone’s status clear to everyone else. She repeatedly talks about control and power positions. In the sample statements she offers, she sounds like a robot.

Part of the book also suffers from being technologically dated. She seems to dismiss websites as fine to have but not necessary; she thinks what will matter most is the quality of paper stock promotional papers are printed on. She also has a whole chapter on gender but focuses on what women should be doing to fit in. It feels like it was written in 1981.

I love etiquette. I think it matters that we treat other people respectfully. But this book isn’t about any version of respect that I buy into – it’s about manipulating situations to get power and about conforming to very narrow ideas of what ‘professional’ means. Not cool.

Sunday

5

November 2017

0

COMMENTS

We’re Going to Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

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Four Stars

Best for: Those interested in reading a range of stories about an interesting, talented woman.

In a nutshell: Actress Gabrielle Union shares stories from her life.

Line that sticks with me: “There’s an epidemic now of people “being real” when they’re being anything but. It’s the person who loves being “Someone” who notices every little thing wrong with what you say, do, wear, or think, and has to point it out.” (p 178)

Why I chose it: I’ve been meaning to read it, and needed something to get another item from Amazon delivered same day.

Review: This was a read-it-all-at-once kind of book, and I enjoyed it a lot. Ms. Union covers so many topics in her life, from growing up in a predominantly white community and school, to some of her on-set experiences, to her rape at a Payless Shoe store when she was 19. Some chapters are light, and some, obviously, are quite serious.

Memoirs are one of my favorite genres, and I’ve read a bunch over the years. Some hover at the surface. Some only tell quirky or fun stories because that fits their image (or, possibly, because their life has only ever been fun and quirky). But in this one, Ms. Union dives deep, and is able to move from story to story seamlessly. She reveals not just the things you might expect to read about (Hollywood parties), but things that you might not, like what it’s like to be hounded about whether or not you’re pregnant when you’ve experience eight unsuccessful IVF cycles.

Ms. Union talks about what it’s like to raise black boys in a society that kills them for just existing. About what it’s like to be one of the only black girls at a wealthy white high school. And she talks about the importance of friends and of taking care of yourself. It’s a book that I’ll be thinking about for awhile.

Sunday

15

October 2017

0

COMMENTS

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

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Five Stars

Best for: Anyone interested in death and mourning rituals from around the world.

In a nutshell: Author and funeral home owner Caitlin Doughty follows up her bestseller “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” with a look at different funeral and mourning rituals in an attempt to get those in some parts of the West who may be in denial about death to think about it differently.

Line that sticks with me: I’m going to cheat here and offer two:
1. “Cailin, can you smile a little, you look so dour.” “This is a human head. I don’t need pictures of me grinning with a severed human head.”
2. It’s a lovely thought, and a tree may grow from the soil provided, but after the 1,800 degree cremation process, the remaining bones are reduced to inorganic, basic carbon.”

Why I chose it: I love her first book and have since attended the Death Salon that her organization hosted in Seattle. She’s delightful in person, and her personality really comes through in her writing.

Review: This is one of those books that I didn’t want to put down. I started it late last night, and read almost a third of it before forcing myself to go to sleep. I then read it at the gym, on my walk to get errands, and finally finished it off while eating lunch.

Ms. Doughty is interested in helping those of us who might be living in a state of denial around death come to terms with the reality that everybody dies. Some folks are more privileged in this way than in others; people who have either personally experienced loss or have seen death in their community may have an all-too-familiar relationship with the concept of death, while others have only experienced death as part of the end of a very long life of a beloved great grandparent.

But, as we all know, we will all die. If you watch the Good Place, the most recent episode (”Existential Crisis”) shows what can happen when this concept first solidifies in a person’s mind. But in many cultures around the world, death is a part of life, and Ms. Doughty travels to learn more about these practices. Like the rituals of those who live in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, and participate in the Torajan funeral, where individuals are removed from their ‘resting place’ by family members and cleaned and redressed on a regular basis. Or in La Paz, where ñatitas (human skulls) are displayed in some homes where individuals can come and make offerings to receive assistance in areas of their lives.

Back in the U.S., Ms. Doughty also looks at some alternatives to the traditional US cremation or burial, such as open-air funeral-pyre-style cremation, or recomposition (e.g., composting human remains).

As I said, I found this to be a fascinating read. Ms. Doughty is extremely respectful as she learns about other cultures – she isn’t there as a tourist, or as someone interesting in making a judgment. She is genuinely interested in learning from those who do it better than we do, in an attempt to figure out how to improve what’s going on at home.

Saturday

14

October 2017

0

COMMENTS

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

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Three Stars

Best for: People interested in an exploration of what family means, told through an unconventional concept.

In a nutshell: Researcher is interested in creating broader supports for families, and so enlists nine couples and one single mother to enroll in the Infinite Family project.

Line that sticks with me: “David kissed her quickly, which struck Izzy as something he’d seen work out in a movie. She, on the other hand, hated the presumption that she would change her mind if she only made out with him.”

Why I chose it: It chose me! Sort of. This was an advance reader’s edition that I picked up during Indie Bookstore day in Seattle earlier this year. It was wrapped, so I didn’t know what I was getting until I opened it.

Review: This is, for the most part, an interesting tale. It is told mostly in the third person from Izzy’s point of view, although it is occasionally told from Dr. Grind’s perspective. Izzy is just about to graduate high school when she learns she is pregnant by her art teacher. He claims to want to be with her, but only if there is no more baby; she opts for the baby instead. Her mother died when she was 13; her father provides her with food and shelter but little else.

Dr. Grind, meanwhile, is a researcher who was raised by the Constant Friction Method, which his parents created and sounds a bit like torture – their thinking being that if he’s often uncomfortable (maybe his bed will be there tonight, maybe it won’t) and faced with challenges and loss (maybe his dog will be here in the morning, maybe he’ll never see it again), then he’ll develop the ability to handle anything that comes his way. And it seems to have worked, except now he’s more interested in creating families that can be expanded and support each other even if they aren’t related.

Hence the Infinite Family Project. Ten families (all but Izzy’s including one man and one woman) who are due to give birth in a certain time frame are selected to live together in a commune. It isn’t a cult; the parents are free and in fact encouraged to get jobs and pursue further education outside the community, but for the first few years of their children’s’ lives, the kids all sleep communally, and the parents all help raise their little ones. Each family has its own apartment, but the children don’t move in until they are about five. The project is meant to run for 10 years.

This is not nearly as soap opera-y as it could have been. Author Wilson does a good job of exploring how this impact Izzy as both the youngest parent and the only one without a partner. But I always felt distant from her. Perhaps it’s the third person writing, although I’ve connected with characters in similar writing styles. Perhaps it’s because the character of Izzy herself is meant to be a bit removed. I cared about her, but didn’t feel totally invested in her or the other parents. I did feel marginally invested in Dr. Grind.

I can’t say that you should run out and buy it, but if the plot sounds interesting to you, I think you’ll probably enjoy how it plays out.

Sunday

8

October 2017

0

COMMENTS

Crash Override by Zoë Quinn

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Five Stars

Best for: Everyone who spends time online. So, you know, all of us.

In a nutshell: Video game designer who experienced the hell of online attacks tells her story and provides us all with the tools to fight back.

Line that sticks with me: So many! But this is a great one: “Pretty much everything we’ve been told about dealing with online abuse is wrong, but the misconception that ‘trolls’ will just go away if they’re ignored is possibly the most damaging.”

Why I chose it: My husband purchased it (he’s works in the same field as Ms. Quinn), and I was excited for the opportunity to read about how she’s handled the abuse and what she is working on these days.

Review:
You may have heard of Zoë Quinn. She is the incredibly talented video game designer behind Depression Quest. Unfortunately, you may be more familiar with her as the person viciously targeted by an abusive ex-boyfriend in what eventually became known as GamerGate.

In this well-written and incredibly relevant book, Ms. Quinn shares her story. We hear first-hand about what it can be like to be in the center of a near-literal shit storm, and learn about how she worked (and is still working) through it. This changed her life. She went from being a couple of weeks away from moving with her boyfriend to France (where he was to start a new job) to having to couch surf and eventually leave her home in Boston because of the harassment.

The men who decided that they would believe Ms. Quinn’s abuser went after her like a mob. They targeted her online presence from multiple angles, but also doxxed her, finding out her phone number, her address, her dad’s phone number. Anyone who spoke out in her support — especially those who work in her industry — as also targeted. She, and those associated with her, have had to take very serious security precautions, to the point where she urges people to not share her location if they see her in public.

Instead of disappearing, though, Ms. Quinn has been a vocal advocate for change in our systems. She spends time in this book discussing the ways law enforcement is ill equipped to handle this, including how the system of restraining orders can actually make contact with abusers unavoidable (via court appearances) as well as make personal information readily available (as most of these orders require the petitioner to provide their address and phone number). More importantly, Ms. Quinn is quite aware that involving the police is not something a lot of people want to do if they are part of a group that has a history of being treated poorly by law enforcement. She has also been trying to work with tech companies that, as she points out, can somehow quickly ban for life a person who posts copyrighted Olympics footage, but claim their hands are tied with people spewing death threats.

Another thing that has come from this is that Ms. Quinn and her former boyfriend Alex started Crash Override to assist others who are being targeted by online abuse. They — along with unnamed agents — help people address the abuse, from assisting with gaining back control of hacked accounts to escalating issues at tech companies. They are temporarily not taking new cases, but have a wealth of resources available on their website to help people navigate the systems.

Some of this book will get your blood boiling, because it’s so frustrating to read tech companies essentially doing the bare minimum and not taking the steps that exist to help fix things. Its infuriating to learn that a judge could say with a straight face that Ms. Quinn should just find a new line of work, as though that should be an acceptable outcome of the abuse her ex boyfriend instigated. It’s frustrating that this is all continuing today, on a regular basis.

One thing I also wanted to mention is that Ms. Quinn is good at pointing out that her story is just her story, and that other people — especially people of color and trans people — also experience this kind of harassment, and, unless famous, usually are ignored. I appreciate that she is focused on finding solutions that will work for the most marginalized, not just people like her, who have some measure of privilege.

Please go read this book.

Sunday

8

October 2017

0

COMMENTS

Playing Dead by Elizabeth Greenwood

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Four Stars

Best for: Anyone interested in a good (failed) crime story, or the human desire to just leave it all behind.

In a nutshell: Author Elizabeth Greenwood explores the lengths (mostly men, usually arrogant) go through to leave behind their lives.

Line that sticks with me: N/A (didn’t have a pen with me when reading it)

Why I chose it: Do you listen to the “Wine and Crime” podcast? Because it’s great. And they did a whole episode on faking one’s death, including an interview with the author.

Review:
It started with an idea the author had, after realizing how much student loan debt she had, and how unlikely it would be that she could pay it off any time soon. And since student loan debt can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, the author briefly flirted with the fantasy of just leaving it behind the only way she could – if she ‘died.’

While she didn’t end up faking her own death (at least, not exactly, although she does have her own death certificate, courtesy of a contact in the Philippines), she decided to look into the people who do fake their own deaths.

Of course because of the nature of the topic, Ms. Greenwood can only discuss people who failed at faking their own death. There are people who have succeeded, I’m sure, but because they did, we don’t know they did. And while the people who fake their own deaths (and get caught) are overwhelmingly men, it’s unclear if there are women who do it and are just more successful at it, or if women are less likely to do it because they generally feel less able to walk away.

Ms. Greenwood doesn’t just focus on the people who do the faking – she also talks to the investigators who look into possible life insurance fraud, as well as the children whose fathers left. And in one unexpected chapter, she looks into those who believe that famous people (namely, Michael Jackson fans) faked their own deaths.

This is, admittedly, my kind of book. I enjoy books that look into death and crime, and I enjoy non-fiction. So while I was already primed to enjoy it, I think I am being fair when I say that this is a really good book.