ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

Books Archive

Sunday

15

October 2017

0

COMMENTS

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty

Written by , Posted in Reviews

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

Written by , Posted in Reviews

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

Written by , Posted in Reviews

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

Written by , Posted in Reviews

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.

Tuesday

3

October 2017

0

COMMENTS

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for: Anyone possibly considering a move to Denmark. Or just people who like fish-out-of-water stories.

In a nutshell: Writer Helen Russell moves with her husband to the land of Legos for (at least) a year, and takes the time to document her experience and how it differs from life in the UK.

Line that sticks with me: “ ‘We have a lot of ‘curling parents’ in Denmark, who do everything for their kids and won’t say not to them. The expression is named after the sport — only it’s the parents with the brooms who keep brushing in front of their kids, removing any obstacles to make their lives easier.’ ” (pg 204)

Why I chose it: It’s possible I’ll be embarking on my own year of living Danishly in the next few months.

Review: This is a fun, fairly quick read (despite its 350 pages). Author Helen Russell decides to spend some of her time in Denmark getting to the bottom of why the country is consistently ranked as having the happiest inhabitants. She breaks the year down by the twelve months, focusing on one area in each month. She explores the home, the workplace (we’ll get back to this), child-rearing, the social support net, health, culture, and traditions, among other things.

Some bits are fascinating, and I’d be interested in reading a review from someone who was born and raised in Denmark. I’ve heard that the Scandinavian system — very high taxes, lots of social support, but not nearly as much income disparity as in places like, say, the U.S. — is great in general, and given the fact that in the U.S. our elected officials seem hell-bent in taking what little access to health care we are guaranteed away from us at the first opportunity (for example), it sounds a bit like a dream.

However, it is lacking in some parts. First, while Ms. Russell does sort of mention the issue when talking about animals and a law passed that was seen as impacting Kosher and Halal preparation, she doesn’t really discuss what life is like for immigrants who are not white. Do they have the same levels of happiness? How are race relations in the country in general?

The other main area that is lacking is the discussion of the workplace. While she does share some of her husband’s experiences, because she is a freelance writer, she doesn’t have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to work in a different country’s office.

Saturday

16

September 2017

0

COMMENTS

Life in Motion by Misty Copeland

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for: Those who enjoy a good memoir; those who enjoy a story about someone rising to the pinnacle in their artistic field.

In a nutshell: Misty Copeland tells the story of her life, from living in southern California to being promoted to be the first African American female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre.

Line that sticks with me: “In ballet, appearance is critical. That may seem superficial or frivolous, but in an art form that is visual, and so much about grace and suppleness, it definitely matters.” (p 108) (I am not a fan of the implications in that line.)

Why I chose it: I enjoy going to the ballet, and I’ve seen articles describing her talents in the past.

Review: I often find it hard to write reviews of books that I don’t love and don’t dislike. This book falls into that middling category, although do want to say that I think this is a fine book, and that people who are interested in learning more about Ms. Copeland’s life will not be disappointed.

It is full of candor, and benefits from having distance from many of the more difficult subjects she addresses (her childhood, the fight over where she should live). Though not all stories are in her past, as especially in the second half of the book when she shares more of her experience not just as a dancer starting many years late, but as a black dancer in a field dominated by white dancers.

I appreciate Ms. Copeland’s honesty as she navigates how to share the feelings she has about her field, especially as she is still in it. It’s possible that this book might look different if written a decade after she stops dancing – I’m thinking of how the book by Abby Wambach, who has retired, had a very different feel from the one by Carly Lloyd.

The one thing that I found frustrating, and it was a small section, was in her discussion about the challenges she faced when she finally went through puberty and found herself curvier than other ballerinas. It’s interesting to read her stand up for herself – that she should be viewed based on her skill and ability, and not punished for not fitting the antiquated idea of super-thin, white ballerina, but in the same breathe say things like the line I pulled up top. Would she support someone with as much talent, skill, and grace as her who was, say, 300 pounds? She doesn’t seem to want limits placed on herself, but at the same time seems to accept different limits that she agrees with. I have a hard time reconciling that.

As someone who enjoys ballet, I enjoyed the discussion of the work that goes into creating that art. I think to enjoy the book you should at least have some interest in ballet.

Tuesday

12

September 2017

0

COMMENTS

It’s OK That You’re Not OK by Megan Devine

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for: Those who are grieving, or those who want to be better prepared to support those who are grieving.

In a nutshell: People who are grieving deserve better than what society offers them. This book attempts to provide some direction towards that.

Line that sticks with me: “We have to be able to see what’s true without fear of being seen as weak, damaged, or somehow failing the cultural storyline.” (p 54).

Why I chose it: Ms. Devine spoke at an event I attended this past weekend, and was kind enough to also sell her book to attendees prior to it’s release next month.

Review:
The book is written almost as a love letter to a friend. Ms. Devine carries such kindness in her writing, stemming from her own experience witnessing the sudden death of her partner Matt. She was a writer, therapist, and artist prior to his death, and was able to take her experience, along with what she has learned from others, to create a community (Refuge in Grief) to help others experiencing grief, and write a book that both validates feelings and provides practical tips for navigating an experience that is utterly horrible.

The through-line of the book is that grief is not a problem to be fixed. It is a new reality that the grieving person must honor and tend. People will not “get over” profound losses, and it is cruel to demand that they do. Friends and family members of those who are grieving want their old loved one back, and don’t listen or pick up on the overt and subtle clues that they are not helping. We want to help, but we want that help to lead to things being fixed, and that’s not a thing that will happen.

In my work, we have that list of things to never say to someone who has lost someone, and I see some of those phrases included here as well. Things like “they’re in a better place” or, worse, “everything happens for a reason.” Ms. Devine goes into why these phrases are so very hurtful, regardless of the fact that they usually come from a good intent. Like in so many areas of life, the harm caused doesn’t care what the intent was.

There are a million things I could say about this book. I should caveat my review by pointing out that I am not the primary target audience — I have so far been lucky enough to not have experienced real loss in my life — but I have seen enough friends living in their grief to want to know how I can better support them. While there is a section of the book that is directed at folks like me that I found immensely helpful, there is also such value in reading words directed at those who are experiencing loss. I cannot understand what they are feeling, but I can at least get a sense of the challenges they are facing and the ways our culture and society can make a horrible experience so much worse.

The event I attended where I purchased this book was Death Salon Seattle. I chose to attend in part because I think our society has a very strange and unhealthy relationship with death in myriad ways [from how some refuse to talk about it, to how others are forced to talk about it at way too young an age, to how we expect those who lose someone to ‘get over it’ ever (and usually in a few months, maybe a year tops)] and partly because my job, as some of you know, involves planning for the response to a mass fatality incident. Most days I’m doing something death-related; the Salon gave me an opportunity to look at death outside of the plans and procedures and meetings that fill up my workday.

Seeing Ms. Devine speak is a gift. She was able to tailor her talk to this group in a way that recognized that a bunch of individuals who spend a lot of time thinking and talking about death may have some very specific ways we can support those who are actually experiencing loss. This book is another gift, and one I strongly recommend anyone who is thinking this might possibly be something they need pick up.

Saturday

9

September 2017

0

COMMENTS

The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for: People looking for a little break, or need to be reminded that it’s okay to take one.

In a nutshell: The head of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen offers some ideas for how to enjoy some quiet time.

Line that sticks with me: “Basically, you want to think: How would a Viking squirrel furnish a living room?” (p 123)

Why I chose it: Honestly, the book’s cover is adorable.

Review: This is a surprisingly thick book looking at ways to incorporate the Danish concept of Hygge into life. After reading the book — which I definitely enjoyed — I think that the main idea is that we should seek to build more cosiness into our lives. Given that I live in Seattle, this is an infinitely appealing idea to me. I love curling up with a book. I love candles. I love being cozy.

I’m not entirely sure if the book is necessary; do we need 280 pages to tell us that it feels good to snuggle up under a blanket with a cup of tea or cocoa in hand? Or to tell us that it’s nice to have better, softer lighting? Or that connecting on a personal level with our close friends and family is good? No. But it’s nice to be reminded of it, and the illustrations and photos are stunning.

But seriously, the lighting ideas are fantastic. Also, I think I want to move to Copenhagen now.

Tuesday

5

September 2017

0

COMMENTS

The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Two Stars

Best for: People who care too much about what other people think (but also aren’t in any real danger if they think ill of them)

In a nutshell: In this parody of the Marie Kondo book, Ms. Knight provides a method for prioritizing your life (and the fucks you give).

Line that sticks with me: “Personal policies are definitely the way to go in this scenario. They are mysterious and they tend to make people a little bit uncomfortable and really shut down the conversation.”

Why I chose it: I run a blog with an expletive in the title that I hope to someday turn into a book, so I thought I’d check out another curse-word-laden choice.

Review: It’s fine. Really, the two stars is probably a bit unfair, given that I could see someone finding parts of this really helpful. If you have difficulty saying no to things, and don’t know how to prioritize your life meaningfully, I think this book can help. I’ll get to the major issues I have with it down below, but first, the good stuff.

Ms. Knight breaks down our lives into four categories: Things, Work, Friends/Acquaintances/Strangers, and Family. Within each category she asks us to write down all the things currently occupying our brain space (good and maybe not good), and then go back and cross out the things that we need to stop giving a fuck about. Things that take p too much mental space and that stem from us caring about what other people think of us.

She also is quick to recognize, however, that just doing whatever you want can make you an asshole, so she offers tips on how to avoid that in how you gently respond to requests for your time, thought, or energy in areas you’ve decided to stop giving a fuck about. For example, you might have decided to stop giving a fuck about dieting, but your friend won’t shut up about how he is eats paleo. Can you let him know you’re not interested in that topic of discussion, and do that without guilt? Possibly.

But it all goes downhill for me in two spots: the work section and the family section.

In the work section, she uses wearing sandals (against dress code during summer Fridays) as something she’s decided to stop giving a fuck about. She just wore sandals, and that was that. No consequences. And she’s right in that its generally a silly rule, and she also acknowledges that uniforms and safety issues might make her point moot. But the overall premise is that if you just ignore the rules you think aren’t worth your time, you’ll be fine. And I just want to take her editor aside and say “um, you didn’t see anything that, I don’t know, might backfire on an employee?” Ms. Knight suggests that as long as you’re doing your job well, this stuff won’t matter, but the thing is, for some members of our population, they must follow every fucking rule or some racist or sexist asshat will use it as an excuse to fire them.

In the family section, she goes full tone deaf and uses the example of her aunt and uncle talking about the validity of president Obama’s birth certificate as a means to illustrate not giving a fuck about talking politics with relatives. Can you guess the race of the author from that? Because I can. So many white people have just decided that they don’t need to give a fuck about talking about racism with their relatives because it bums them out or makes them mad, without considering the consequences of those folks continuing to live their lives with that opinion uninterrogated. I just … arg. It made be super mad, and I hope will perhaps get a serious look if the book ever gets a revision or ends up in paperback form.

Tuesday

5

September 2017

0

COMMENTS

Too Fat Too Slutty Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for: Those interested in a detailed analysis of the different ways women are seen as not conforming (unless you’re interested in those who are too old – that chapter was not great).

In a nutshell: Buzzfeed writer Petersen looks at ten different women and how each can be an example of being too ‘something’ that women aren’t meant to be, and how they use that to subvert the system.

Line that sticks with me: “To call Clinton ‘too’ anything is to authenticate and fortify power, broadly speaking, as the proper province of men.” (p 158)

Why I chose it: The premise is pretty cool.

Review:
I read this book while on vacation, and so was able to consume it chapter by chapter, reading pretty much each one in its entirety. I highly recommend going that route, because each section can stand alone as its own story and analysis.

Ms. Petersen’s premise is that there are many different ways that women can be ‘too’ something for society, and that some women use that as a means to fight the systems that oppress us. Specifically, she looks at being too strong, fat, gross, slutty, old, pregnant, shrill, queer, loud, and naked, and associates one woman with each of these characteristics. She recognizes that her list is overwhelmingly white (80%), cis (90%), and straight (unclear how each woman identifies, but I’d say probably in the 80-90% range). Given that, she can’t get too deep into any one area because by picking a representative archetype of the ‘too’ characteristic, she necessarily ends up limiting herself.

But that’s not to say that each chapter only looks at the woman she chooses. Some focus more on the specific woman than others, but each does explore the broader implications of some other individuals who have faced down the condemnation around the unruly behavior (e.g. she discusses Roseann Barr in the ‘too fat’ section that focuses on Melissa McCarthy).

The chapter that I found the must anger-inducing is probably the Serena Williams one, because she has been treated so blatantly unfairly over the years, from the sexism to the racism to the misogynoir. She’s robably the greatest athlete of all time, but, y’know, she has muscles and is a black woman, so of course she gets a ton of shit. I also was a bit teary-eyed after reading the Hillary Clinton chapter (’too shrill,’ because of course); that does not bode well for when I pick up her book next week.

What I found interesting was that, for the vast majority of the sections, Ms. Petersen seems to be on the side of the woman fighting the system. She’s picked someone who is kind of like ‘fuck you, I’m going to do what I want’ to fit the adjectives, and explores how these women have done it in a supportive manner. She is a bit ambivalent in the Melissa McCarthy chapter, but even that one she does see McCarthy as generally not caring about her size in a way that sees her obsessing over reducing it. I suppose she’s also more critical in the Caitlyn Jenner chapter (’too queer’), but overall makes a strong argument.

But the stand-out exception to me is the chapter on Madonna (’too old’). In the other chapters, Ms. Petersen makes argument about how these women are fighting back and don’t give a fuck, but she takes real issue with how Madonna has chosen to represent that. Her analysis is primarily that by choosing to be so into keeping her body fit, Madonna is not rebelling against age, but simply conforming to the ideas of beauty. Which … perhaps? But this analysis doesn’t fit well with the rest of the book. I think there’s an interesting discussion to be had there – is it more harmful to fight the system by keeping one’s body fit into one’s 60s and demand to be seen as sexy, or to lessen one’s regular workouts so that one can age in a more ‘traditional’ way and then demand to be seen as sexy? I’m not entirely sure, and I don’t think Ms. Petersen is either, which is why I feel like this chapter either belongs in another book, or she should have picked a different woman to represent that adjective, given how the same analysis doesn’t seem to hold in the other chapters.

I still recommend this book despite the three stars (usually I go with four+ for my strong recommendations) as I think there is some interesting cultural commentary here.