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Reviews Archive



July 2017



Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith

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Four Stars

Best for: People unsure about poetry but looking for a way in.

In a nutshell: Collection of poems about life. Not just on mars.

Line that sticks with me:
“I didn’t want to believe
What we believe in those rooms:

That we are blessed, letting go,
Letting someone, anyone,

Drag open the drapes and heave us
Back into our blinding, bring lives.”

Why I chose it: There’s a poetry square on the summer reading BINGO I’m playing, and I figured, why not start with something from our nation’s Poet Laureate?

Review: As I mentioned in the title, I don’t believe that I’ve read any poetry since high school. This slim collection seemed manageable, plus I loved the cover.

Having read it, I’m sure that I’m missing some layers of meaning, but even with that acknowledgment, I can still say that I enjoyed this collection. I can see myself going back to it in the future, re-reading some of the poems.

The poem “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected” was especially powerful, as Ms. Smith explores some particularly hate-filled murders (hopefully you know what I mean by that), including that of abortion provider George Tiller. In one section of it, she has the murdered writing postcards to their killers. It’s powerful.

I’m not sure how much more poetry I’ll choose to read. In my city we have a poetry bookstore, so I might go in later this year and see if they have suggestions on more poems, and also on ways to really understand and read them.



July 2017



There Is No Good Card For This by Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell

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Four Stars

Best for: Those who have friends or family going through a rough time, or who someday will have friends or family going through a rough time (so, all of us).

In a nutshell: Dr. Crowe and Ms. McDowell provide practical ways to be there for the people you care about when they are experiencing the worst.

Line that sticks with me: “Just because you have experienced the same thing as someone else does not mean you know how they feel.”

Why I chose it: Two reasons: I write my own modern etiquette blog, and I get a lot of questions on this topic; and I’ve had a lot of friends go through some really rough times lately and want to get better at being there for them.

Review: What a great idea for a book! It’s easy to read, full of practical advice, reassuring stories, and serious examples that show how you can go wrong and how you can do better.

But it isn’t about shaming your efforts or instilling the fear that you’ll say the wrong thing. In fact, from the very beginning, the authors are clear that while yes, it is possible that you’ll screw up (and they go into detail in the last section, with example and language to avoid), you really need to set that fear aside and just do what you can.

I think probably the most helpful bit is the “Empathy Menu.” It’s basically four pages of different roles you can take on to be supportive. I appreciate it because the point is to focus on what you’re good at being able to offer, as opposed to trying to do something that ultimately won’t work. Don’t offer to cook if you can’t or don’t have time. It’s okay to be the person who can provide child care but not the person who can put together a great playlist for them to listen to while undergoing a medical procedure.

It is inevitable that people we love (as well as ourselves) will experience something awful at some point in their lives. I suggest taking a day or two to read this so you’re prepared, and then keep it on the shelf so you can refer to it when you just aren’t sure what you can do for your friend or family member.



July 2017



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Five Stars

Best for: People interested in great writing on race, especially writing that gives perspective on race that isn’t US-centric.

In a nutshell: Ms. Eddo-Lodge explores the history of racism in Britain and looks at ways to address it today.

Line that sticks with me: “Being in a position where their lives are so comfortable that they don’t really have anything material to oppose, faux ‘free speech’ defenders spend all their spare time railing against ‘offense culture.’” (p133)

Why I chose it: I follow Ms. Eddo-Lodge on Twitter and find her work to be insightful and interesting.

Review: This book was released last month in the UK; I ordered it on Amazon to be able to read it before its official US release in December. And I’m so glad I did, because it is a fantastic book that I think US readers can really learn from. Ms Eddo-Lodge weaves her own experiences in with a thoughtful analysis of the difference aspects of racism, including strong chapters devoted to the intersections of racism and sexism as well as racism and class.

The book is broken down into seven chapters, each of which could stand alone as its own but also fits in and builds upon the others. The first chapter focuses on the history of race and racism in Britain. Those of us familiar with Brexit and the rise of white nationalism in the UK (not to mention its imperialist history) will not be surprised by some of this. At the same time as someone raised in the US it was interesting to read the perspective of a British person. Specifically, the idea that the US tends to take up so much of the discussion world-wide about racism, which can leave other countries thinking that they don’t necessarily have it within their own borders.

I found two chapters to be especially resonant. “Fear of the Black Planet” talks about the deeply held fear of white nationalists that they are losing ‘their’ country to people of color, and that they need to fight this. Because of libel laws in the UK, Ms. Eddo-Lodge had to offer Nick Griffin, a white nationalist, a chance to respond to some comments, so part of this section is a transcript of their interview. It is fascinating in that Mr. Griffin digs his own hole, as it were. Not to him I’m sure, but I think that anyone just reading his responses to Ms. Eddo-Lodge’s thoughtful questions will recognize how utterly wrong he is about race and what makes a country and its people.

The other chapter is the one on feminism, where she delves into the concept of white feminism. I think we’ve seen a lot of that in the US lately as well, and she offers up a strong and straightforward way of explaining it: “It’s not about women, who are feminists, who are white. It’s about women espousing feminist politics as they buy into the politics of whiteness, which at its core are exclusionary, discriminatory and structurally racist.”

If you are in the UK, Australia or New Zealand, I strongly recommend you go buy this at your local bookstore. If you are in another country, you might be able to order it online through Amazon. If you have a tall to-be-read pile at home, please place a request with your local library and bookstores that they be sure to carry this when it is released in December.



July 2017



The Little Book of Talent by Daniel Coyle

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Two Stars

Best for: People looking for a quick read and a couple of helpful tips.

In a nutshell: Mr. Coyle provides 52 tips to help you get better at something. Anything.

Line that sticks with me: “But in the talent hotbeds I visited, practice was the big game, the center of their world, the main focus of their daily lives.” (p 39)

Why I chose it: As part of that whole summer reading BINGO thing our public library is doing, one square is ‘recommended by an independent bookseller.’ Also, I like to learn things.

Review: Hmm. There are 52 tips, which I suppose is meant to correlate to weeks in the year, but the book isn’t laid out like that. Instead, each tip ranges from a paragraph to a few pages, grouped by getting started, getting better, and keeping it up.

Some of the tips were helpful and familiar. The one I mention above, about practice, reminds me of the book by Commander Hayden (astronaut). Since they might never go to space, they have to treat preparation as the real thing. That’s what matters.

Other tips run contrary to ones I’ve learned before, especially about writing. One is to “never mistake activity for accomplishment.” Which, yikes. Like, the fact that I write every single day — haven’t missed a day since March (that includes when I had food poisoning), when I started that — is a fucking accomplishment. That activity is making me a better writer.

The tips are meant to be universal but, as mentioned above, I don’t think they are always applicable. And while the title is certainly true — this is a little book — I think it could have been a series of blog posts, or perhaps included in some sort of habit app. Not sure it warranted this fancy binding and shiny cover.



July 2017



The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton

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Four Stars

Best for: People not that familiar with architecture who are interested in learning about it in a philosophical way.

In a nutshell: Author de Botton takes the reader through a lovely journey exploring how the buildings we inhabit can help fill missing pieces in our lives, and impact how we feel.

Line that sticks with me: “The buildings we admire are ultimately those which, in a variety of ways, extol values we think worthwhile.” (p 98)

Why I chose it: I bought this long ago. It’s survived multiple book purges and moves, but I finally opened it up because I’m participating in a book challenge this summer, and one of the categories is a book about art or an artist. To avoid spending all the money, I’m checking my to read pile first, and came across this gem.

Review: I don’t know much (anything?) about architecture. I know that craftsman homes are popular in my current city, and that ranch-style homes were popular where I grew up. I’ve been learning a bit reading the amazing blog McMansion Hell (which I only came across recently thanks to Zillow going after the writer, then having to back off), but I’ve not been able to put my finger on why certain styles depress the hell of me (most one-story homes; any office park a la Office Space), while others bring me joy (pretty much anything in Paris).

This book has helped me to understand a bit better where my tastes lay and why. I am certain that there are architects who would disagree, but much of Mr. de Botton’s premise is that not only does style reflect the available resources and the elements that must be kept out (a house in Phoenix is probably going to look different from a house in Finland), but also the lives we are living. The greatest example of this is when he argues that people who seek out modernist homes are looking for some order in a chaotic life outside the home, whereas those dramatic palaces built in the 1600s weren’t just a fancy show of money, but also an attempt to create beauty in a time that was pretty dangerous (I mean, think about the diseases running rampant through cities).

I feel that I learned about architecture and beauty, but I also got to enjoy some gorgeous writing. The language Mr. de Botton uses throughout is lovely, a perfect accompaniment to the many examples of different styles of home and building. It can be a bit dense at time, but I think it is worth it, especially for those interested in a more philosophical examination of our built environment.

The only reason this is a 4-star book for me is because there are so many lovely pictures in this edition but they are all in black and white, which really takes away from my ability to see the detail and understand more of why they might be examples of architecture that elevates or depresses us. If not for that, this would be a 5-star read.



July 2017



Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata

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Three Stars

Best for: People who have literally never thought about how to be an activist. As in, have never heard of petitions, don’t know about public forums, have never seen a protest.

In a nutshell: Former Seattle City Council member Nick Licata shares his tips for making change in the world, as illustrated by many, many, many Seattle-based anecdotes.

Line that sticks with me: N/A

Why I chose it: Mr. Licata is a local politician and this book looked like it could be interesting.

Review: This review could go two ways: brutal but fair, or kind but fair. I’ll go with the latter, because, for the most part, this book is the vanilla of ice creams. Not vanilla bean, not French vanilla, not ‘premium’ vanilla; just plain vanilla. Which can serve as a fine base for a more flavorful sundae or as a great side to a delicious piece of cake or pie, but on its own, doesn’t do a whole lot.

The book is well organized, building upon different component of activism and discussing how they are interrelated. This is a strength of the book, because Mr. Licata seems to recognize that there is space for many different types of activism, although he clearly prefers the much less radical, much more incremental version. And in that respect I think he and Justice Ginsberg are similar — they both want change, but seem to think the best way is slowly, over time. I know a lot of folks who might disagree with that sentiment.

At the same time, this book came out just last year (2016) but already feels a bit dated. I don’t think Black Lives Matter is mentioned more than in passing which, considering how much activism sprung up related to that, is an odd omission. The sections that talk about social media seem more like they were written in 2010; while Mr. Licata recognizes that Facebook and especially Twitter are helpful, he seems to not realize how useful they can be in individuals getting connected to each other (as opposed to politicians connecting with individuals).

I live in Seattle, and have for seven years this go round (ten if you count my college days), and even I found the anecdotes provided to be too Seattle focused. I don’t think Seattle is necessarily the best example to hold up to other cities to say “this is how you get shit done.” But even if it is, there have to be more examples from other cities and smaller towns. I think that Mr. Licata wasn’t super interested in doing research, and perhaps was more interested in writing a memoir. Instead of a really strong activism how-to, or a really interesting autobiography, we ended up with a lesser quality version of the two.

With all of that said, however, I can see value in this book, if it were paired with, say, a more radical discussion of types of activism. Maybe in a politics 101 course at a university, or in a civics class offered to seniors in high school. It’s not bad, and I certainly learned some tips that I think will be useful in my life as an activist, it’s just more basic than I was hoping it would be.



July 2017



Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

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Four Stars

CN for entire review: Racism, Rape, Slavery

Best for: Really anyone. I don’t think you need to be into graphic novels or science fiction to enjoy this work.

In a nutshell: Somehow Dana — a young Black woman living with her white husband in 1976 — ends up being transported back to the mid-1800s when a young son of a slave master fears death. Without warning, she is then transported back to 1776. This cycle continues, and times including her husband.

Line that sticks with me: “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” (p 89)

Why I chose it: My husband received this as a gift this year and thought I would also enjoy it.

Review: This was an intense read, possibly made more intense by the portrayal of the images associated with the it. In a traditional novel, we imagine the scenes. And its possible what we imagine is more dramatic than, say, what might end up in a film adaptation. But with this graphic novel format, the images showing the whippings, the attempted rapes, the horror, are all quite real.

Below are spoilers, as they were hard to avoid in the areas I’m most interested in exploring.

Dana’s relationship with Rufus — the boy, then teen, then man who she is connected to — is complicated. Saving his life often means saving her own, but keeping him alive may mean other things, like the continued mistreatment of other humans. Yet if she kills him before he issues free papers for the slaves, all she does is risk those slaves being sold to yet another white person. Dana has some sympathy for Rufus at time, and the reader can sometimes see that perhaps there is a grain of humanity in him, but then he refuses to embrace that grain and continues along the path his dead slave-owning father led him down.

Her relationship to the slaves on the plantation is also complicated. She doesn’t speak like them, she can read and write, and she gets some preferential treatment that keeps her from the harder labor in the fields. But she still gets whipped, and has her life threated. She has to ‘remember her place’ and try to figure out how to help the slaves without putting their lives — or her own — at risk.

I’ve don’t believe I’ve finished any of Ms. Butler’s books before. I believe I started one for a book club but didn’t connect. This one, however, I couldn’t put down. The science fiction is there for sure, but it isn’t the main focus. Yes, it’s about woman who gets pulled into the past without control, and then returned seemingly beyond her control. Time passes in the past but when she returns, minutes or hours have passed in the present day. We don’t know how the mechanic works, and we never find out (we do learn the why, sort of). And yes, there is a level of tension in terms of when will she get pulled back next, and can she return before she is hurt badly. But it isn’t the main point.

The main point is, as I see it, survival. How does one survive in this time and place — Maryland, during the slavery era of the U.S. — when one has no experience of it? And how does one survive when one does? Is there any complexity to slaveholders, or are they all 100% evil? Does “product of their time” mean anything? Is it an excuse, or simply an explanation? How does a slave survive? How does a free Black person survive? How does anyone thrive?

I do think we probably lose a few things in the adaptation to graphic novel, which is what kept me from giving this four stars. Regardless, I’m definitely glad that I read this, and I’ll be thinking on it for awhile.

Also — Cannonball!



July 2017



The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino

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Three Stars

Best for: Those who love Paris and enjoy learning more about specific neighborhoods (or in this case, a single street).

In a nutshell: U.S. ex-pat and journalist Ms. Sciolino provides a look at the individuals who live and work on the Rue des Martyrs, providing current information and a look at the history of the street.

Line that sticks with me: “A hardware store has been at No. 1 since 1865.” (p 56)

Why I chose it: On our whirlwind visit to 19 independent books stores on Seattle Bookstore Day, we stopped at a travel bookstore and saw this. I love Paris, and liked the idea of learning the stories of a few people from one neighborhood.

Review: This book has some really lovely moments, and a few questionable editorial choices. Ms. Sciolino moved to Paris in 2002, and to the Rue des Martyrs a few years later. After her editor suggested she write an article on the closing of a fish shop on the street, she decided to explore the area more, focusing just on the people and shops of this single strip in Paris, stretching from the 9th to the 18th arrondissements.

Some of the stories are lovely and sweet, providing a look at the lives of current business owners who carry on traditions for years. Some locations have had the same type of business in it for literally decades if not longer. The stories also often have a bit of history in them, especially the recurrent theme of the origin story of Saint Denis (and Catholicism in general). I could picture some of the locations, having been to Paris and walked down this street before; mostly it just made me want to return.

As I said up front, there were a couple of decisions that I found somewhat questionable. The first was the repeated use of the term ‘transsexual’ when describing a cabaret that feature drag shows ( I appreciate that I may be lacking in knowledge in this area, but my understanding has been that this term is, if not insulting, as least displays ignorance. But again, I’ve been wrong in the past. Regardless, it was jarring to read repeatedly.

The second is her picking and choosing which religious beliefs to spend time on. There is a chapter that is (mostly) well done that focuses on Jewish life on the Rue; in it Ms. Sciolino discusses the Jewish schoolgirls who were killed after France did not protect them during WWII, the Nazi occupation, and explores the Jewish heritage of this street. She also spends considerable time — and a few chapters — discussing the Catholic history of the street. Is there no Muslim history she could have explored? Are any of the shopkeepers she interviewed Muslim, and have they found challenges with the rise in French anti-Muslim sentiments? This perspective would have been nice to learn about.

Finally, she’s clearly an upper-middle-class woman who may truly be friends with some of the shopkeepers, but others she interviewed may have just been humoring her inquiries as they did not wish to lose her business.

That aside, this is still a book I would probably recommend to someone about to visit Paris and stay in the 9th or 18th arrondissement.



June 2017



My Year In Books: The Halfway Point

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I mostly pick my own books; I’ll occasionally go with a recommendation, or someone will buy me a book. This year I also participated in Seattle Indie Bookstore day, which meant I got a few unknown books thanks to grab bags and such.

The good news: No one-star books this year. And more four-star than three- and two-star ratings combined. Nearly 20% of the books have the coveted five-star rating. The average is 3.76. Sweet.


Once again it is no surprise that I keep coming back to non-fiction books.

I don’t know what it is. I’m just drawn to non-fiction books more often.

Style or Genre

Ah, memoir. You, combined with essays and sociology books could keep me happy for years. (The styles you can’t see include Young Adult, Science Fiction, Science, Humor, Health, Etiquette, and Biography.)


This is where I’m trying more to focus on diversity in the authors I’m reading.

I’ve got the gender thing down mostly well (no non-binary authors though):

Nationality is still heavily USA-focused (boo):

In terms of race and ethnicity, I’ve got a slightly better breakdown than in years past:

That said, it should not still be majority white.

And finally, I decided to see how it broke down by gender and race / ethnicity:

No Native writers at all. No Middle Eastern Men, no Latina Women. Not great.

I have, however, been mostly good at sticking to my goal of not reading two white authors in a row.

Alright, back to reading!



June 2017



Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes

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Four Stars

Best for: People looking for some insight how the U.S. got where it is, and some ideas for what we need to do to change that.

In a nutshell: The inequality in this country is harming us, and the powerful (in Government, in Business, in Banking) are so focused on the idea of meritocracy that they can’t see that it isn’t working.

Line that sticks with me: “In reality our meritocracy has failed not because it’s too meritocratic, but because in practice, it isn’t very meritocratic at all.” (p53)

Why I chose it: I finally read the back cover and realized that the topic is something that interests me greatly.

Review: This well-paced, well-researched, easy to read book is yet another one that I wish I’d read as part of a book club. I want to talk about the things I just read, and get other perspectives! Which I think is a pretty strong endorsement.

Mr. Hayes (of MSNBC fame – also his twitter feed @chrislhayes is a nice mix of news and incredulity at the news) divides the 240 pages of his book into seven meaty chapters that fly by. He starts by providing the reasonable premise that the U.S. likes to think of itself as a meritocracy – that anyone can get ahead if they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Never mind institutional challenges (don’t worry, he gets to those); those who get to the top are there because they deserve it.

He then goes on to explain how this mythical notion, if it every actually was true, is certainly no longer true. Using such great examples as steroid use in baseball, the banking collapse (and bailout), and the Iraq war, Mr. Hayes provides a thoughtful commentary on how our systems are not operating in a way that allows people to get what they deserve; they instead are functioning in such a way that they foster even more inequality as time goes on. He provides some interesting reasons for why it is getting worse, such as the fact that the elites of any field are out of touch with the rest of us, and that when we set ‘being the best’ as the ultimate goal, we also set ourselves up for people to cheat their way to the top.

I found two parts of the book especially compelling: the first is early one, when Mr. Hayes uses his high school alma mater (Hunter College High School) to demonstrate how something that is ostensibly 100% merit-based has become quite inequitable. The other is his ability to remind the reader that people have different descriptions of the elite — the Left see the Elite as the power-hungry corporate CEOs and Wall Street Banks; the Right see the Elite as Hollywood, academics, and fancy intellectuals — but that ultimately what matters is that the elite don’t seem to care for or represent the rest of us.

Mr. Hayes doesn’t leave us without hope; he offers up examples like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street as different ways the people have gotten together to fight back against those in power. The entire last section is full of different ideas, although none so concrete that I feel I can point to what I need to do next. That said, I think a lot of what we’ve seen in reaction to the 45th U.S. President fits in line with his suggestions.

I’m leaving out other important things, such as his fascinating discussion of insurrectionists versus institutionalists is fascinating, but hopefully you get the point. What’s so disconcerting is that this book was published five years ago, and yet the downward spiral continues. I wish this book weren’t so relevant, and that it was more history book than current events, but alas, here we are.