ASK Musings

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CBR9 Archive

Sunday

10

December 2017

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COMMENTS

Living and Working in Britain by David Hampshire

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Four Stars

Best for: People who are moving to the UK

In a nutshell: Twenty chapters of tips broken down by broad area of interest, like finance, accommodation, transportation, and health.

Line that sticks with me: N/A

Why I chose it: My partner and I (and our two cats) are moving to London in just under a month, and I’m still looking into things.

Review: I found this book to be more helpful than the other book I picked up on the topic. Part of that may be because it is focused on moving to the UK in general (not London specifically), and so half the book was not taken up with a focus on just a few London boroughs. However, I’d still like to find a book that focuses just on tips and information in different neighborhoods. I just ordered the Not for Tourists 2018 edition for London, which should meet that need.

But back to this book. I enjoyed some of the sections a great deal, especially the part about health care. I have had so much dental work done that I’m a bit nervous about leaving my dentist, so it was good to learn a bit more about what that will look like.

A couple of parts that were frustrating – one unavoidable, one less so. The section on moving pets was not fully accurate, as we now have to pay VAT when bringing in animals. But that changed in April, so I understand that it wouldn’t make it into the book. The other part was the sport section. The bit on football (the sport I’m most familiar with, so the other sections may also have had this problem) made no mention of the women’s league. Granted, in the US I’m used to the women’s national team being VASTLY superior to the men’s national team, so I expect the women’s league to be mentioned. But come on – are we really still pretending that women aren’t professional athletes?

Thursday

7

December 2017

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COMMENTS

Living Abroad London by Karen White

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Three Stars

Best for: People moving to London.

In a nutshell: Tips for moving to London.

Line that sticks with me: None that aren’t just good tips for me to know.

Why I chose it: BECAUSE I’M MOVING TO LONDON!

Review: I bought this book a few weeks ago, and finished it at least a week ago. But we were waiting to announce this beyond some close friends until our visas came through, so this review has been embargoed until now.

We’re moving as part of my partner getting a new job, so a few of the items in here aren’t our problem (they’re handling the visa, for example). But the tips on rentals, taxes, phone companies, and transportation are all fantastic. I lived in London for a year previously, but it was for graduate school, so a few things were handled: I had housing all lined up, and had a student loan to cover most of my expenses. I even somehow convinced someone at the mobile phone company to give me a monthly account instead of requiring I do pay-as-you-go.

Because the one thing that will be the most challenging is that we have no credit history in London. Landlords will need to trust that the letter from my partner’s new employer means we are trustworthy with a lease (and also, they’ll need to accept our two cats). We may have to do pay-as-you-go. It could take a long time to get a proper bank account.

I think the biggest bummer for me with this book is that they only focus on a handful of boroughs when providing living advice, none of which are ones we are planning to live in. So fully half of the book isn’t so applicable.

Tuesday

5

December 2017

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COMMENTS

Londonopolis by Martin Latham

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Three Stars

Best for: Those who enjoy trivia about cities, or like learning more about London.

In a nutshell: Historian provides a hodge podge of fun facts and bios of important people, organizations, and shops in London history, from literally hundreds of thousands of years ago through the 20th century.

Line that sticks with me: “Turning carpentry into philosophy, he had made his own coffin, which he knelt in nightly to pray.” p114

Why I chose it: I lived in London a few years ago, and love the city. This little book caught my eye.

Review: This is a fun little book. It’s clearly well-researched, with some randomness thrown in. It is organized by era, but it sometimes jumps around outside of the time frame if the topic connects across, say, medieval and Tudor times.

It’s only about 200 pages long, and a pretty quick read. I found the section on the East India Company a bit questionable – Mr. Latham addresses the issues of colonialism and racism, but suggests they really started after the EIC shut down. I’m not that familiar with that time period, but that seems … suspect.

The earlier parts of the book didn’t draw me in quickly, although there were definitely fun nuggets in there. But the later parts, where perhaps there was more information available to choose from, kept me interested.

My favorite part is the section on bookshops of London. I mean, I love a good bookshop, and this section was like a dream. I’m excited to get back to London to check out the stores that are still in business.

There was one thing I thought was kind of odd. I realize the subheading is “A Curious History of London,” so perhaps Mr. Latham wanted to stay away from common knowledge, but there was nothing about the great fire of 1666. That seems like a pretty big part of the history of the city to not be able to find a curious fact about.

Saturday

2

December 2017

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COMMENTS

Bitch Doctrine by Laurie Penny

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3 Stars

Best for: I don’t know. Maybe new feminists looking for some decent writing?

In a nutshell: Journalist Laurie Penny collects some of her greatest hits into one essay collection.

Line that sticks with me: “It’s easy to criticize call-out culture, especially if the people calling you out are mean and less than merciful. It’s far harder to look into your own heart and ask if you can and should do better.”

Why I chose it: I don’t know. I probably shouldn’t have, as there are so many other writers out there taking on these topics.

Review: Only after I brought the book home did I realize that one of the blurbs was from Caitlin Moran. That should have been enough to make me second-guess my choice, as I think Ms. Moran views the middle-class white woman experience as some sort of universal stand-in that represents all that feminism should address. I also should have second guessed this purchase when I remembered that Ms. Penny wrote “I’m With the Banned,” a (I believe) well-meaning attempt to profile the rise of the new white supremacists in our culture, especially in light of the New York Times piece that recently painted Nazis in a sympathetic light.

With all of that as preamble, I do think that many of the essays in this collection are insightful. I believe all are pulled from previous writing, but only one was familiar to me. It’s a good one called “On Nerd Entitlement” and is a response to an article from a white tech guy who denies that he has benefited from male privilege. She handles the issue with sensitivity and acknowledgment that privilege doesn’t prevent you from experiencing pain.

I don’t generally find myself disagreeing with any of her analysis, and I appreciate the subject areas that she chooses to cover from her perspective – love, culture, gender, agency, backlash, violence, and the future. I could see many of the essays generating good conversation among women, and possible being something to share with men in your life who maybe get it but don’t fully get it.

One thing I noticed was that many essays ended awkwardly. The last paragraph or two often includes a sentence that suggests a connection or argument that wasn’t made in the essay, or a bat turn of phrase that reads a bit like how I wrap up my own writing when I don’t have the time to put in. Which is odd for a fully edited and printed book.

Wednesday

29

November 2017

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COMMENTS

Mutants by Armand Marie Leroi

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Three Stars

Best for: People with a strong science background but who maybe stopped studying it after high school or early college, so still get most of the basics but want some more specifics.

In a nutshell: Exploration of the causes of different genetic mutations in humans.

Line that sticks with me: N/A

Why I chose it: I was in a science and technology bookstore and the topic caught my interest.

Review: What causes our genes to act up? Why are some twins conjoined? Why do some people grow to be three feet tall, while others are much taller? Why are some covered in hair? This book seeks to explain, as the subheading suggests, “genetic variety and the human body.”

On paper, this book should have been great for me. It’s non-fiction and it involves medical issues. It has interesting illustrations. But I found parts of it to be a challenge to read, and it’s mostly because it’s over my head. The book has what appears to be accurate information, and author Leroi has obviously done a ton of research into the topic. But it feels more like a well-written text for a 200-level college course than a book that someone who hasn’t taken biology in well over 20 years can easy absorb.

That said, there were parts that were quite fascinating. I found the vignettes of individuals who had the particular genetic profiles being discussed in a given chapter to be interesting. Nearly all are about people from centuries past (I don’t recall any contemporary ones), I suppose perhaps to avoid creating some challenges for people who are still alive.

I’m still unsure about the title. I think I associate the word with the X-men now, or with something negative, when in reality the genetic differences Leroi discusses are often value neutral. Leroi has the challenge of walking the line between sensationalizing the lives of people who were often, in the past, treated poorly and providing information about what, at a cellular level, brings these genetic difference about. To that end, I think both the title and the cover miss the mark a bit.

If the book sounds interesting but you’re hesitant because you think it might be too full of jargon for you, I suggest skipping the chapter on Limbs. I think that was the wordiest for me, and the least interesting. It’s also where I almost gave up, but I’m glad that I pushed through to finish it.

Saturday

25

November 2017

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COMMENTS

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

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Five Stars

Best for: Anyone who likes a little whimsy in their storytelling

In a nutshell: Almost-eight-year-old Elsa’s grandmother has died, and sent Elsa on a treasure hunt.

Line that sticks with me: “You’d quickly run out of people if you had to disqualify all those who at some point have been shits.” (p 315)

Why I chose it: I enjoyed “A Man Called Ove” very much, and when I purchased it the bookseller said this one is even better.

Review: This book is a lovely look at grief, and the stories we tell ourselves and others. It is not what I expected, but it is even better.

Elsa is almost eight, and her only real friend is Granny, her mother’s mother. Granny smokes and eats cinnamon buns and takes Elsa on adventures, much to the chagrin (so it seems) of Elsa’s mum. Granny and Elsa share a world of fairy tales that span the six kingdoms. Then Granny dies, and Elsa finds herself with a letter to deliver on her Granny’s behalf. Which leads to another letter, and another.

Meanwhile, Elsa and her Mum and stepdad live in a house with multiple apartments, apartments that contain their own stories that might appear to be one thing but are revealed as another. I don’t want to share too much because part of the magic, I think, is in the discovery.

As I said, I didn’t expect this book to be so tied with a land of make-believe, but I’m glad I didn’t realize that because I might not have picked it up. Instead I was treated to a story that I literally did not put down except for a mid-afternoon walk and a dinner-time movie. It took probably six hours to read and I loved every minute. I squealed, I felt punched in the gut, I cried.

Mr. Backman is a deeply talented storyteller, and now I need to go pick up his next book.

Friday

24

November 2017

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COMMENTS

A Uterus is a Feature, Not a Bug by Sarah Lacy

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3 Stars

Best for: Men (because you need to be told); mothers working outside the home who are looking for some support.

In a nutshell: Tech journalist Sarah Lacy makes the case that motherhood is an asset to the workforce, not a detriment.

Line that sticks with me: “It was the men — not the kids — that had proven to be a net negative on many of these women’s careers.” (p 206)

Why I chose it: This is another book by someone in the tech world that my husband thought I might find interesting. He’s recommended a lot recently!

Review: In the first few pages I thought I would love this book. By the middle, I’d almost give up because I thought there was a whole lot of unintentional shaming of people who aren’t mothers. But the last third brought it back around to the point that I think I can give it about three stars (would probably be 2.5 if I did half stars).

The writing itself is fine – Ms. Lacy is a journalist and so knows how to write. But she doesn’t seem to entirely know how to put together a long-form piece. Sometimes this book feels like a memoir, sometimes it feels like a researched piece. Some chapters start with a vignette from her life that then illustrates the content that will be explored on a broader level later in the chapter; others have unrelated vingettes, or none at all. There’s no consistency to the book, so I found it challenging at times to really dive in.

The content, however, is interesting for sure. Ms. Lacy makes a very strong case for all the ways that motherhood is an asset to the workforce, and I appreciate the research she does into this. She sometimes veers into just examining sexism without the connection to motherhood, looking at how marriage (regardless of having children) affects women in heterosexual relationships.

The main problem I have is that, perhaps due to some inartful writing (or perhaps because it is her opinion), much of this book reads as though women who are NOT mothers are somehow incapable of the same achievements of women who are mothers. I don’t think that’s what she’s saying, but as a woman who works outside the home and will never have kids, I’m clearly more attuned to that kind of coded language. On the one hand, I would expect that major life changes would have affect people, and hopefully in a positive way (including motherhood). But I also think that experiencing life in general helps us to grow and make different choices.

I’m not sure how to best articulate this, but there is a way to discuss how life events (having children, getting married, getting divorced) can be seen as a way to improve your life without suggesting that not going through those things means you aren’t improving your life. And I don’t think Ms. Lacy does that very well. There are times where she discussed how mothers can just focus better because they have so many competing priorities they *have* to, and this leads to better productivity. I’m not sure how productivity is defined her, but the way Ms. Lacy discusses it, it sounds like that focus and productivity is only available to women who have kids. That seems disingenuous.

The book is also very gender essentialist – I don’t think how this affects trans men even crossed her mind. For her, uterus = woman. And I know that it is a shift in thinking for a lot of people, and that so much of the sexism and misogyny that exists is based on expectations of cis women; however, I think we’re at a point where our discussions aren’t as rich as they could be when we completely cut out our colleagues who don’t fit into this woman=uterus dimension. Sure, it might complicate the book a little, but I think Ms. Lacy could have figured out a way to work it in.

I’m glad I read the book and, as I said, I think there are lots of folks who will read it and enjoy it; it’s just probably not a book I’ll be recommending to folks like me.

Sunday

19

November 2017

0

COMMENTS

The Bright Hour by Nina Riggs

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Four Stars

Best for: People who enjoy memoirs such as When Breath Becomes Air.

In a nutshell: Now-deceased writer Nina Riggs documents her illness from diagnosis onward.

Line that sticks with me: “These are the things we all say at the end of book club now: ‘I love you.’ Of course we do. Why haven’t we been saying that all along?”

Why I chose it: Memoir + death = An ASK Musings staple.

Review: Author Nina Riggs gives us a gift with this book, in that it isn’t filled with terror and it isn’t overly optimistic. I’d imagine that both of those styles of memoir are necessary for people depending on how they view life, but it seems necessary to also have a book that deals with illness and terminal diagnoses via a third path. I won’t say this is more ‘realistic’ that a book full of fear or of hope, because I know everyone experiences life differently.

Ms. Riggs has two sons, but this isn’t a book addressed directly to them (although in the acknowledgments her husband confirms that they hope their sons will better know their mother as they read and re-read it over the years). It isn’t directed to her husband. It doesn’t even feel as though it is directed at women facing similar life events. It’s just a book that explores life and death via the unexpected twists and the fully expected turns. And it is lovely.

Ms. Riggs is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, so there is a lot of discussion of nature and of him. She is also a very big fan of Montaigne, so he pops up frequently as well. But so do her best friends, and family, and neighbors. She takes her kids to school. She goes through radiation treatment. She buys a wig. She goes on vacation. She has moments of fear and panic, but even she acknowledges that the movie version of her life will likely have more dramatic scenes than her reality.

Her writing style is lovely. The chapters are often very short (sometimes only a paragraph), and while it could have ventured into overly flowery language, it straddles that line of near poetry and reality.

Saturday

18

November 2017

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COMMENTS

The Mole People by Jennifer Toth

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Three Stars

Best for: People who have wondered about those who life on the edges of our society.

In a nutshell: Journalism graduate student decides to investigate the lives of those who live in the tunnels underneath Manhattan.

Line that sticks with me: “ ‘This Coalition for the Homeless is just bullshit,’ he says. ‘Red tape ad litigation. They are procrastinators. They thrive on the homeless. Without us, they wouldn’t have jobs, and they know it.’ “

Why I chose it: A colleague who knows I read an unusually large number of books gave this to me.

Review: Hmmm. This book has be thinking many things. I started out thinking the author had some good intentions in writing it, but by the epilogue I was curious as to what her real motivation was.

I lived in NYC for a few years, and had heard stories about homeless people living in the subway tunnels, so when my colleague offered this book to me I decided to take it. The stories in it are intriguing for sure, although the validity of her research has been questioned by some. Not the stories, but the actual tunnels. When looking to see what Ms. Toth is up to these days, I came across this blog post, which seems to call into question nearly all of her descriptions of the tunnels. This doesn’t mean the stories themselves are also made up, but it does give me some pause.

This book could have benefited greatly from an editor. Not a line editor per say (although some language choices cut the flow for me), but an overall editor. There are over 20 chapters in this book, and some read as independent essays, while others feel like a continuation of the previous chapter. It lacks a cohesive organizing force, and I found that made it more challenging for me to get into, which surprised me, as the stories themselves are quite compelling.

I live in Seattle, and we have so many people living as homeless, to the point that our previous mayor declared it an emergency, which led to an activation of the emergency operations center for months this year. When I was reading about the police coming into tunnels and destroying the homes of these folks ‘for their safety’ so they wouldn’t come back and would feel compelled to seek shelter, I was reminded of the sweeps of encampments taking place daily in our city.

I don’t know how to best create a society where we care for our neighbors, whether they live in a house, apartment, SRO, RV, or in a tent in a park. And moreover, I don’t know how to create a society where, if people do not want to live in an RV or tent, they have options that don’t involve having to give up a beloved pet or stay in a shelter away from their partner. The quote I chose above comes from someone Ms. Toth interviewed for her book; it doesn’t not necessarily reflect my views on homeless advocacy. I’ve worked in government for nearly a decade, and I know that services provided both by the government and by non-profits can come with a ton of strings, and that there are people who realize that, if successful, they’ve worked themselves out of a job. But I don’t believe that they work less hard because of that. I just think our society hasn’t accepted that there may be some solutions out there that we aren’t willing to pay.

As for the specifics of this book, I can’t say whether Ms. Toth met as many different communities as she claims to have, or if all of the stories she shares are true. But on the last page of the epilogue, she said something that bothered me:

“Some people with self-destructive ways made me angry — not for the material things I gave them, but for things they took from within myself. They took from me unrelenting optimism. At times, they took my happiness. They brought an emptiness to my adventure, turning a great story into a human one that I might never put to rest.”

I’m just not sure how to read this sentence without being smacked in the face by her lack of self-awareness. Like, people who live underground “took” your unrelenting optimism? I’m sorry, but are you complaining that people living homeless gave you the sads and maybe put a cloud over your “adventure?” What the hell?

She also seemed to give very little space to women living homeless. She mentions 40% of those in the tunnels may be women, but she devotes only one of the two dozen chapters specifically to women, and in that one nearly all are defined in their relationship to the man in their life.

If you’re interested in the issues covered in this book, I’d suggest checking it out of the library. I don’t think it’s what I’d call ‘a keeper.’

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.