ASK Musings

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Books Archive

Friday

18

August 2017

0

COMMENTS

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

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Four Stars

Best for: People who see what is happening in the U.S. and want some quick tips on how to fight back.

In a nutshell: The subtitle says it all. Twenty lessons the guide our fight against the encroaching tyranny.

Line that sticks with me: “When exactly was the ‘again’ in the president’s slogan ‘Make America great again’? Hint: It is the same ‘again’ that we find in ‘Never again.’” (p 123)

Why I chose it: I was in a bookstore on Tuesday and saw this on a table. It looked like a book I could read quickly, and I was (and still am) really struggling with the best way for me personally to address what is happening in the U.S.

Review: Author Timothy Snyder is an expert on tyranny. His field of study is Eastern Europe history. And, according to Wikipedia, he and I went to the same school (LSE shout out!).

What I’m saying is, he seems to know what he’s talking about. And he uses his knowledge to share twenty quick tips (backed up by 1-4 pages of support) of what to look for, what to do, and how to handle ourselves as we face this administration and the current state of the nation.

A sampling of the tips: “Do not obey in advance.” “Believe in truth.” “Investigate.” “Establish a private life.” “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.” Some of them are obvious to me ( “Be wary of paramilitaries.”); others were not as much (”Make eye contact and small talk.”). There were only a couple of times that I found myself raising my eyebrows – one when the tip seems to suggest that people who aren’t in the streets aren’t doing real work, and one that suggests that patriots agree to fight in wars. I think he believes the former; the latter may just have been the result of poor language choices.

This book doesn’t have all the answers, but it provides a good reference point for when I find myself reacting, but not sure if I want to react that way.

Thursday

17

August 2017

0

COMMENTS

White Rage by Carol Anderson

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Five Stars

Best for: All white people in the U.S. right now.

In a nutshell: Dr. Anderson shares a concise history of all the shit black people have gone through because of the anger white people feel when black people start to make even a little bit of progress.

Line that sticks with me: All of them. Seriously, I underlined, circled, or commented on all but maybe three pages in this book.

Okay, fine, here’s one: “Somehow many have convinced themselves that the man who pulled the Unites States back into some semblance of financial health, reduced unemployment to its lowest level in decades, secured health insurance for millions of citizens, ended one of our recent, all-too-intractable wars in the Middle East, reduced the staggering deficit he inherited from George W. Bush, and masterminded the takedown of Osama bin Laden actually hates America.” (p 157)

Why I chose it: Because after the tiki-torch white supremacist violent rally and the subsequent murder of a counter-protester and beating of a black man by these racist assholes, I needed to read something. So I went to my happy place, our local independent bookstore, and wandered around until I found this.

Review: This book is phenomenal. It is poetic and yet extremely straightforward. Dr. Anderson exercises an economy of language that I envy, as she is able to tell a compelling and undeniable history of racism against black people in the U.S. in just over 160 pages. But I thought it was much longer when I bought it, because Dr. Anderson includes OVER 60 PAGES of notes at the end. She isn’t just telling a story, she’s backing up each statement with a source.

Dr. Anderson divides the book into just five elegant chapters, plus a brief prologue and epilogue. Each chapter takes on a section of U.S. history: reconstruction, great migration, education segregation, backlash to civil rights, and the continued destruction of voting rights. The premise is that white people have such an inability to handle black people making any strides forward that they react with new and creative ways to work the system to try to push them back down.

The detail in each chapter is phenomenal. Dr. Anderson shows how horribly white people have treated black people in the this country every time there is a hint that they may be making some progress away from the discriminatory systems put in place by those same white people. How southern states passed laws to not just punish black people laboring within their state, but to prevent them from ever leaving to pursue better work elsewhere. How one school district closed its doors to all students for FIVE YEARS rather than integrate. How fuckers like Scott Walker (I originally wrote Wallace instead, probably since he seems to be the spiritual son of George Wallace) did everything they could to disenfranchise thousands of people in his state.

In the epilogue, Dr. Anderson mentions Republican candidate Donald Trump’s promise to “take our country back.” I hope that there is a paperback update in the works, and that she is able to add a section of what has happened in these past few years. I did, however, hear her on a podcast this week discussing Charlottesville. You can hear her in the August 16, 2017 episode here: http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510312/codeswitch

Reading this book with the current events in the background caused my jaw to tighten and my pulse to race. I’m not naive. I know that the history of white people in the country is horrific. I know that that history didn’t end with the Civil War, or the Civil Rights movement. I was not surprised by what happened in Charlottesville, nor was I surprised by the President* coming down firmly on the side of neo-Nazis and white supremacists. But this book brings some of that history home. It gives me something to point to if I encounter a white person who is ignorant of how what is going on today is not that different from what white people have been doing to black people since the Emancipation Proclamation, but has a genuine desire to learn more. It gives me specific examples to point to when the asshole white people I encounter act like this shit hasn’t been going on forever.

As I said up top, I think all white people in the U.S. need to read this book. Share it with people and keep it in mind as you take to the streets to stand up against white supremacists. But also keep it in mind when you’re at work and someone starts to complain about affirmative action, or you’re out with friends and someone tries to suggest that there’s no problem with voter ID laws, or your state legislature thinks its fine to continue using neighborhood property taxes to disparately fund schools. Because while we should all obviously be letting the Nazi cosplayers know their hate isn’t acceptable, we also need to know that not all racism comes in the form of a white hood or white polo shirt and khakis. It’s systemic and will take all of us working to change it.

Saturday

12

August 2017

0

COMMENTS

Surpassing Certainty by Janet Mock

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Four Stars

Best for: Fans of Ms. Mock’s writing and those interested in learning more about her life; people interested in a tight memoir focused on just a few years of early adulthood.

In a nutshell: Author Janet Mock shares part of the story she chose not to include in her first memoir “Redefining Realness.”

Line that sticks with me: “I did not have the luxury to sulk, though. I could not wallow. I could not let my bitterness affect the quality of my work. Doing so would only make it harder for those coming after me.”

Why I chose it: I enjoyed Ms. Mock’s first memoir and wanted to read more.

Review: It took me awhile to get really into this book. I’m not sure if it was because of the week I was having, but it took me about a week to read the first half and just an afternoon to finish it. I’m glad I pushed through, because it’s a great read.

Ms. Mock shared her journey as a trans woman in her first memoir. However, she left out her first romantic relationship and marriage, which she delves into in this book. She explores her work as an exotic dancer, her time in college in Rhode Island and Hawaii, her marriage to a man in the Navy, and her pursuit of a journalism career in New York City.

She is candid about the challenges in her relationship, and about the challenges she had in undergraduate and graduate school, and as a woman of color in publishing. Her moments of revelation around colorism and around her confidence being perceived negatively are especially poignant.

Ms. Mock writes in language that is a bit flowery for my preference, but she tells a great story. This is not to say that I think she do anything different; sometimes I find her writing feels more like a novel than creative non-fiction. And perhaps that is a good thing; I just can find it a bit challenging to navigate. But clearly that’s not a barrier for me, as I still picked this up having read her first book.

Sunday

6

August 2017

0

COMMENTS

Matilda by Roald Dahl

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Five Stars

Best for: Kids. Adults. Humans. Other.

In a nutshell: Very smart young woman Matilda uses her mind to fight back against those who treat her — and the people she cares about — poorly.

Line that sticks with me: “Of course you looked! You must have looked! No one in the world could give the right answer just like that, especially a girl! You’re a little cheat, madam, that’s what you are! A cheat and a liar!”

Why I chose it: As part of our library’s summer reading challenge, one of the BINGO squares is a book recommended by a young person. My eight-year-old niece recommended this one.

Review: I don’t think I’ve ever read a Roald Dahl book. I know, I know. No James and the Giant Peach, no BFG. I first heard about Matilda through Mara Wilson’s (grown-up) writing a few years back, since she played her in the film. So I had a very basic understanding of the book’s plot, but not much more than that.

I started it at lunch and didn’t put it down until I was done. I loved how smart and kind and capable Matilda is. I loved that she uses her brain to help people, but also that she isn’t so absurdly wise beyond her years that you don’t believe she’s only five. And I loved that it showed sometimes adults are wrong and sometimes adults are right. That you kids should speak up for themselves.

I do have to say … as lovely as Miss Honey is, she and all the other adults at the school really were completely failing at protecting those children from Miss Trunchbull. I don’t care how intimidated you are by your boss, if she treats kids that way you do something about it. Yikes.

Sunday

6

August 2017

0

COMMENTS

How to Be a Bad Bitch by Amber Rose

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Two Stars

Best for: People who like Amber Rose; people who like glossy how-to book with lots of pictures and not a lot of text.

In a nutshell: Amber Rose offers some (I suppose not totally shockingly) heteronormative advice to woman.

Line that sticks with me: “Don’t follow trends if they don’t look good on you.” [Note: but why not? What if you like the way they look? Does she mean if *you* don’t’ think they look good, or if society doesn’t?]

Why I chose it: It looked like it could be fun.

Review: This book is fine. Some parts – like the push to cultivate confidence and not change yourself for others – are laudible. Other parts are so focused on the idea that women will want to date men that I’m curious whether Ms. Rose is aware that non-heterosexual people exist.

In the first couple of chapters there are some clear product placements; I can tell you what skincare brand Ms. Rose uses, and what body shaping undergarment brand she prefers. I was worried this was going to carry on throughout the entire book, but that was it.

There are photos of Ms. Rose on pretty much every page. Most are glamour shots, but some are of her as a kid and teen, which are fun and sweet. There are also some good tips in here, but none that are especially groundbreaking or new, and some strike me as oddly old fashioned and gendered. She makes some pretty sweeping generalizations about what ‘men’ and ‘women’ are like, which is fairly uninspired.

Saturday

5

August 2017

0

COMMENTS

If You Lived Here, I’d know Your Name

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Three Stars

Best for: People about to visit or who have just visited rural Alaska; people who like short slice-of-life stories.

In a nutshell: Obituary writer and Haines resident shares stories of life in a rural Alaskan town.

Line that sticks with me: “Following an old Haines rule, we dressed for the weather, not the vehicle.” p 19

Why I chose it: Two weeks ago I was on a cruise in Southeast Alaska, and took an excursion through Haines. It was a gorgeous part of the country, and when I saw this book in a store at our next stop, I decided to pick it up.

Review: Author Heather Lende is a journalist for one of the two local papers in Haines, population 2,400. About 15% of the residents are Tlingit, and pretty much everyone participates in some form of hunting, subsistence fishing, or dramatic outdoor activity like snowshoe hiking.

As you might expect from this book, there is a lot of talk about how Haines is the best place on earth, and how the people who live there are a different type, but Ms. Lende is also honest in examining some of the downfalls and challenges of choosing such a life. If someone is seriously injured during a snowstorm, they might not be able to get evacuated out. Their closest level one trauma center is in Seattle. Because of the types of jobs one can find in town, there are deaths from fishing accidents, or small aircraft crashes.

Many — but not all — of the stories relate to a death, which makes sense, since Ms. Lende is an obituary writer. But some are just about other components of life, whether adopting a daughter from overseas, or working with a political opponent on a fundraiser for medical bills.

This book is well written, but there are some parts that I found questionable. The first is the chapter when Ms. Lende goes to adopt her daughter. She repeatedly uses the term G*psy instead of Roma to refer to her daughter’s birth family. Not cool.

There’s also a chapter about political disagreements that is meant to come across as teaching the reader a lesson about how you can still come together and have pleasant times with people you disagree with. Unfortunately, the disagreement she and this man in the story had was essentially over the humanity of members of the LGBTQ community, so I had a hard time with the ‘let’s all get along’ nature of brushing that very real issue under the rug.

I enjoyed reading this, but I wouldn’t really say I recommend it.

Saturday

29

July 2017

0

COMMENTS

The Hypnotist’s Love Story

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Four Stars

Best for: Someone who wants a quick read with some interesting explorations of loss.

In a nutshell: Ellen (they hypnotist) has just started a relationship with Patrick. Patrick’s wife died seven years ago, when their son was only a year old. Saskia was Patrick’s first relationship after his wife died, and after they broke up, Saskia began to stalk Patrick. It continues.

Line that sticks with me: “You weren’t meant to admit, even to yourself, how badly you wanted love. The man was meant to be the icing, not the cake.”

Why I chose it: I’d downloaded it during my Liane Moriarty phase two years ago but never got around to reading it. But I was just on a cruise, so it was perfect.

Review:
This book reminds me a bit of “What Alice Forgot” in that it doesn’t quite follow what I now consider the Liane Moriarty formula: two or three interweaving story lines told out of order with a great mystery revealed. This has elements of it, but felt fresh to me.

I enjoyed the storytelling and the elements of mystery – some characters pop up unexpectedly – but the main plot felt a bit deeper than one might expect from a beach read (which is where I think her books often end up). Saskia is a stalker, and in general I wouldn’t be interested in their perspective. And she is not made out to be any sort of victim, but as the story progresses, I think we start to recognize that her motivation is more complicated. But that said … if the genders were reversed, I’m not sure if I would feel as much empathy for Saskia as I found myself feeling. And regardless of the amount, is it odd to feel any at all?

The book also looks at how we view losses differently when it comes to an unwanted break-up versus a death. We all carry bits of previous relationships, but when someone leaves us through death, they can become canonized. And the next person who dates the one left behind is there because the previous person isn’t. How do you handle that? How long ‘should’ one grieve a death? And is there a particular reason why we allow for more grief over a death than over the end of a long-term relationship? Is it reasonable to expect someone to get over being left in a few weeks when they thought they had a life with someone? And how can their grief be directed in a healthy way. Moreover, how does it all change when there are kids involved?

I enjoyed this book a lot. The ending was satisfying to me, although I could have seen it ending differently and also being enjoyable.

Saturday

29

July 2017

0

COMMENTS

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

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Five Stars

Best for: People who like good, intense writing and want a bit more insight into slavery in the U.S.

In a nutshell: Cora escapes the plantation she is enslaved on and faces more challenges and danger.

Line that sticks with me: “Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.”

Why I chose it: It’s been on my shelf for a few months; my visiting brother-in-law suggested it was a good book to bring on our family vacation last week.

Review:
Colson Whitehead is a talented writer. He tells a compelling story about a brutal time in U.S. history, weaving in components that aren’t necessarily accurate from a time perspective but that still happened. He doesn’t pull any punches with the horrors of life as a slave and punishment of slaves, but this book doesn’t feel like torture porn. It is graphic but not voyeuristic.

The story itself is fascinating. Mr. Whitehead follows Cora but also tells some of the story of her grandmother and mother, as well as of the people she encounters along the way. We never sympathize with slave owners, but Mr. Whitehead also allows them to be more than just caricatures with twirling mustaches. But what’s better, he allows for the people helping out on the underground railroad (which, in this telling, is an actual railway that is buried underground) to be less than saintly. I also appreciate that the individuals in this book are fully developed and provided with things to do that aren’t just in service of the main character.

Cora, however, is a remarkable woman. She is conflicted. She is brave, but not reckless. She thinks things through. She is skeptical (rightfully) of others. She doesn’t start out totally naive, but Mr. Whitehead draws her out so that she matures in her understanding of the motivations of others. She wants to survive, and she wants to believe that perhaps better things can happen for her.

I’m happy that this book moved up to the top of my to be read list; if you have it on yours but haven’t picked it up yet, I promise you won’t be disappointed if you start it today.

Saturday

15

July 2017

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COMMENTS

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.

Friday

14

July 2017

0

COMMENTS

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.