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Author Archive

Wednesday

15

September 2021

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COMMENTS

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
People who enjoy mysteries but who are also interested in deeper writing and social commentary.

In a nutshell:
Elena’s daughter Rita was found dead, hanging from the bell tower of their church. It is determined to be suicide, but Elena knows otherwise.

Worth quoting:
“She continues on, as if no one else existed, just like she feels no one else knows she exists.”

“Not long ago I was told I was arrogant. Don’t keep the names other people give you.”

Why I chose it:
This was another recommendation from my book spa day, and I’m so happy it was recommended to me, as I don’t think I would have come across it otherwise.

Review:
Elena has Parkinson’s. She can’t move her neck up, so her view when she is walking, or sitting, is basically the lower half of what most of us see. She doesn’t have tremors, but she isn’t able to move without assistance from medication, and the book is broken up across the four pills she takes during the day, as they kick in and then wear off. She meticulously plans her movements and day based on whether she’ll be able to walk.

And today is a big day. Elena has big plans, though we don’t learn exactly what they are until the end of the book. Her daughter Rita, who lived with and helped Elena with her personal care needs, was found dead a few weeks ago. She was found hanging in the church bell tower right before an evening mass, during a rain storm. To everyone else, it is clear that Rita died by suicide. But Elena knows something else: Rita was terrified of lightning, specifically of the church tower being struck by lightning during a rain storm. She never went to church when it was raining. So clearly, something else is up.

Throughout the fairly short book, we learn a bit about who Rita was, Rita and Elena’s relationship, and how Elena’s illness affects Elena’s life and Rita’s life. But it is all through Elena’s lens, so the question becomes – how much does Elena really know about Rita?

The book looks at a lot of issues that other ‘mystery novels’ don’t tend to dive into – primarily, what do our bodies mean to us, and how much control do we have. Should we have. And how much do other people seek to control us?

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Recommend to a Friend

Saturday

4

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

Notes From An Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone contemplating all the horrors in the world right now.

In a nutshell:
Author O’Connell travels to various parts of the world to examine how people are reacting to various apocalyptic-adjacent events.

Worth quoting:
“Preppers are not preparing for their fears: they are preparing for their fantasies.”

“This was a new entry into the apocalyptic imaginary: bankers and hedge-fund managers, tanned and relaxed, taking the collapse of civilization as an opportunity to spend some time on the links, while a heavily armed private police force roamed the perimeters in search of intruders. All of this was a logical extension of the gated community. It was a logical extension of capitalism itself.”

“What did I really mean by the end of the world, after all, if not the loss of my own position within it?”

Why I chose it:
This was another one recommended to me by a bookseller at my “book spa” day after I said I appreciated dark subject matter. The main line that stands out on the back of the book sets the tone: “Now updated to include the latest apocalypse.” (There is a brief notes section up front discussing the COVID pandemic.)

Review:
O’Connell has written something I thought not possible: a book that explores so much of what is going horribly wrong right now from a disaster standpoint that didn’t make me want to just bury my head under my pillow. Now, it’s not a cheerful book, or even a particularly hopeful one (though he does try to tie his thoughts as the parent of young children to each story, which gives him some hope). It’s deeply disturbing, but also entertaining to read. Given it is non-fiction, that seems like an odd thing to say, but I stand by it.

Each chapter sees O’Connell exploring some fresh hell on earth; more specifically, he looks at how people are addressing these issues. Not from a political or governmental level; he’s looking at the individuals. He explores the ‘prepper’ community, including a place in South Dakota where developers are selling former ammunition bunkers to people who want to set up their own personally protected fallout / bomb / zombie invasion shelters. He looks at the Silicon Valley assholes looking to treat New Zealand as their own colonial retreat (again) for when things get bad for them. He explores the deeply disgusting actions of the Elon Musks of the world who are desperate to escape earth and live out their colonizer fantasies on Mars.

It’s fascinating, really, to explore what seems to tie all these reactions and actions together: white men who have basically given up on earth and any sense of community or society where one looks out for others. Preppers hoarding supplies and guns so they can fight off their neighbors; the Peter Thiels of the world who have amassed loads of wealth who are building literal fortresses in other countries; the Jeff Bezoses of the world, who, having harmed so many of his workers is now feeding his ego by flying a phallus into the upper atmosphere.

This book is about the end times, in the sense that perhaps we are always living in them, to some degree, depending on what our personal life experiences are. Just in the two weeks I’ve been reading this book: hospitals in the US have been overwhelmed by people who are completely unwilling to take even the tiniest actions to protect their neighbors (wear a mask and get a vaccine) but think horse de-wormer is a safe medication; hurricane Ida has swept through Louisiana and led to flash flooding in New Jersey and New York; a giant fire crested the Sierra Nevada mountain range and nearly destroyed Lake Tahoe, one of the most beautiful places on earth; the US left Afghanistan after 20 years of a war that should never have happened, leaving behind so many who helped the US and who are in grave danger. Oh, and Roe vs Wade was overturned in the middle of the night.

Also in this time, I was able to hike along the white cliffs of Dover. I cuddled my cats. I laughed with my partners. People across the country went to see movies. People got married. People still had children. They earned college degrees. They had BBQs with friends. They brought their communities together to help neighbors who have been devastated by all the disasters I listed above, and then some.

This book doesn’t offer suggestions on how to fix the climate emergency, or end capitalism. It’s not a blueprint for how those communities and societies that have treated the earth and its inhabitants so poorly for centuries can reverse course. I honestly don’t know what it is – travelogue? Memoir? A bunch of long-form essays? Whatever it is, I think it was well done.

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Recommend to a Friend

Monday

30

August 2021

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COMMENTS

Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People who like humorous essays and who don’t mind a lot of cursing and blue humor. Not for people looking for a lot of Parks and Recreation content.

In a nutshell:
Actor Nick Offerman shares his thoughts on this book that is part memoir, part philosophical treatise.

Worth quoting:
I spent a lot of time noting things said in the book that frustrated me, but I didn’t actually type out any quotes that stuck with me.

Why I chose it:
I was looking for a funny audio book read by the author, and I have enjoyed Offerman’s work as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, so figured I’d check it.

Review:
First things first: if you are picking this up to hear about Offerman’s time on Parks and Recreation, put it back down. Other than a few minutes spent discussing his casting on the show, and one anecdote in the very last chapter, there’s really nothing in here about his time in his arguably most famous role. To which I say – good for him. I’m fairly certain his publishers knew many people would be drawn to the book because of his work on that show, while he just wrote whatever he wanted.

That said, without what I was admittedly looking for, the book was still at times both interesting and entertaining. There is a lot in here that is funny, and also wise. But there is also so much that frustrated the hell out of me, because Offerman sounds so … ignorant. Like, a very well-meaning but out of touch elder. Some notes on this:

– When he talks about food, he says that everyone can get fresh food anywhere, and shames people for serving their kids fast food, with ZERO acknowledgment that access to fresh food isn’t universal, that it’s expensive from a cost perspective, but also that it takes loads of time to cook everything from scratch. This book is a few years old, but this take belongs in the last century, not this one.
– He values work with his hands, and I appreciate that, but he is so dismissive of work that doesn’t fit that narrow definition that it’s a bit exhausting. He also buys into that absurd idea that we all just need to ‘find work we love,’ as though every job out there is super fun if we only just find the right one. Dude, you play dress-up for a living. That’s cool. And necessary – TV and movies have helped keep me going during the nightmare of this pandemic. But there are a lot of shit jobs out there, and a lot of people do them.
– At one point he talks about the problems of marketing and consumerism, and he sounds a bit like a freshman who has just taken his first Comms 101 class.
– He talks about an interaction with the police and makes this claim: ‘don’t run,’ as though that is some how a guarantee of safety. No recognition at all that his whiteness makes his encounters with the police much less fraught.
– He briefly touches on the idea of ‘scent’, which makes me wonder if he’s one of the white celebrities who prides himself on not washing regularly.
– Finally, his commentary on women wearing make-up and getting cosmetic surgery were pretty ignorant and misogynistic. Like, first off, make-up isn’t FOR YOU dude. And for those who feel the pressure to wear make-up to impress dudes, that’s the patriarchy buddy. Same for cosmetic surgery – he talks about how his wife hasn’t had any and how it’s a shame women will do that to themselves, and yet says NOTHING about why women might feel pressured to do that. It’s just so frustrating.

I wouldn’t really recommend this to anyone, but if you already own it and are thinking of reading it, as long as your expectations aren’t too high, I’d imagine you might enjoy it.

As an aside: if you, like me, have thought of giving this to your dad for Christmas some year: don’t. I am mortified now, considering the number of times Offerman discusses various forms of sex. I do think my dad appreciates more raunchy content than my mother would like in the house, so hopefully he at least got a kick out of it. But ooof, that’ll teach me to gift a book I haven’t read.

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Sunday

22

August 2021

0

COMMENTS

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Fans of Liane Moriarty-style books.

In a nutshell:
In 1947 in Cornwall, England, a very small hotel has welcomed a variety of guests for the week. At the start, we learn that a cliff-side collapse has completely destroyed the hotel, burying and killing at least some of the guests. We then return to the start of the week to learn about the guests themselves, ultimately discovering who has survived.

Worth quoting:
“You don’t want to face facts.” “Not in story books, I don’t. I face plenty between Monday and Saturday without reading about them.”

Why I chose it:
This was recommended to me during my Book Spa visit as a pretty easy read that went along with what I called my general enjoyment of ‘middle aged white lady fiction’ (e.g. the aforementioned Liane Moriarty of Big Little Lies and Nine Perfect Strangers fame).

Review:
I did enjoy this book, and am happy with the recommendation, but it was probably 100 pages too long for me. There are a LOT of characters to follow (nearly two dozen), and while I appreciate that each one gets time and treatment to develop their character, it’s a lot to keep track of and frankly not all of it seemed necessary. It was a fun book, but at times reading it was a bit of a chore.

I appreciate how author Kennedy brought people together who were from different backgrounds, and explored (not directly, but through the plot) some different types of travelers and those who interact with them. There are the owners and staff at small, family-run places like this, who have their own lives outside of fulfilling the wishes and whims of people who are just passing through. There are those who are hoping to recover, either from a physical illness or from tragedy that is perhaps too difficult to be around at home. There are those looking for an adventure, or a story, and those who simply want to enjoy being somewhere new.

The book is definitely a bit dark. I mean, obviously, given the subject matter, but basically (and as the person who recommended it to me pointed out), the reader spends 400 pages sort of hoping some people die (and some people don’t). No one deserves to die under a pile of hillside, but the author has told us from the start that some of her characters will. The question is who, and are there any whose death will bring less of a tear to the reader’s eye than others? For this reader, that answer is definitely yes.

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Saturday

7

August 2021

0

COMMENTS

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

Five Stars

Best for:
Anyone who loves compact storytelling that manages to tell a deep and engaging tale.

In a nutshell:
The Narrator, a successful Black British woman who isn’t named, takes us through the day or two before and morning of a visit to her posh white boyfriend’s family home for a party. But that isn’t so much the point; the focus is how Narrator navigates the daily, hourly injustices she faces in this world.

Worth quoting:
“Assimilate, assimilate … Dissolve yourself into the melting pot.”

“His acceptance of me encourages theirs. His presence vouches for mine, assures them that I’m the right sort of diversity.”

Why I chose it:
Last year (pre-pandemic) I received a ‘Book Spa’ gift certificate and was just able to redeem it. It involved a discussion with a bookseller, who then pulled like TWENTY books for me to choose from, discussing why he thought I would like them. I ended up buying 15 of them. This is one of them.

Review:
I could write pages about this book. A university could use this book as the basis for a course on literature, on England, on colonialism. It’s just SO GOOD.

The Narrator is a Black woman living in London, dating a white man. Narrator is, as we learn, extremely successful in her career in finance; her boyfriend comes from money and, as far as I can tell, ‘works’ at building his legacy. He is entitled and unappealing, and I want to know exactly why Narrator chose to be with him. It’s clear why he chose to be with her. Probably not consciously, but it is there.

Narrator is dealing with success in work but with another challenge in her personal life, and that challenge seems to have crystallized her view of her life. As someone in finance she likely was already able to view things ‘logically,’ as it were, but she now seems freer to evaluate everything from a point of brutal honesty. Her white boyfriend, white ‘best friend,’ white colleagues. The parents of the white boyfriend, who clearly view the relationship as ‘just a phase.’ She herself views it that way as well.

Not a lot happens over the 100+ pages from a plot perspective, and yet I was nearly breathless as I turned each page, wanting to learn more of what author Brown felt important to share. How was Narrator feeling? What was she experiencing? How would she make decisions about her future?

The book is disappointing only in that I could have read so much more about Narrator. Brown’s ability to pack so much into so few pages is unreal, and I’ll probably read this again before the year is out.

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Recommend to a Friend

Sunday

1

August 2021

0

COMMENTS

The Home Edit Life by Clea Shearer & Joanna Teplin

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People who like to organize all the things. People who like to look at gorgeous pictures of organized things.

In a nutshell:
Clea and Joanna of The Home Edit fame expand beyond their first book to offer tips for organizing other areas of life (there’s a section on pets!).

Worth quoting:
“For those who claim their family/roommate/partner will never get on board with an organized house, we present you with the silverware drawer. Every single person above the age of three agrees to respect an organized silverware drawer.”

Why I chose it:
I accidentally bought this when I meant to buy their first book. Happy accident indeed!

Review:
There isn’t a lot to say about this book. It’s very pretty, and some of the tips are great. But one thing I have learned from putting into action suggestions from the first book is that it can be pretty expensive. Their own branded containers cost way more than I would have expected (though very pretty!), so while the suggestions of loads of individual containers for things might make sense from an organizational perspective, it might be a bit much from a wallet perspective.

One area that people might find especially useful is the work area. As a lot of office workers are now finding themselves permanently working from home (at least some of the time), they might decide or just finally be able to afford to properly organize their home office, whatever space it is. This book has some suggestions on how to do that.

Overall, this is a mixture of how-to and coffee table book, and that’s fun.

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Recommend to a Friend

Sunday

25

July 2021

0

COMMENTS

Guide to Passing the Driving Test by Malcolm Green

Written by , Posted in Move to UK: Settling In, Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People without access to the Theory 4 in 1 Driving Test App

In a nutshell:
This book offers all 700+ practice questions, as well as a guide to help pass the theory and practical tests, and some new driver essentials.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
Trying to really make sure I pass the test.

Review:
I learned to drive over 25 years ago, in the US. On the right side of the road. In an automatic vehicle. When my partner and I moved to England 3.5 years ago, we didn’t think that in a couple of years there would be a pandemic, and renting a car might be the best way for us to safely go on little trips. So neither of us really bothered to seek out our UK license, which is unfortunate, as a US license is not valid for driving in the UK after a year.

There is a huge back-up with lessons and tests due to the pandemic, but I was able to book in for tomorrow (!) a couple of months back. In the UK, the first bit is a theory test, which include 50 questions (of which one needs to answer 43 correctly) as well as these bizarre ‘hazard perception’ videos. There are 14 of them, 13 of which have one major hazard and 1 has two, and the test involves clicking as early as the hazard appears (but not too early) to get between 1 and 5 points. Need to get a 44% to pass, which is actually fairly difficult initially. For me anyway, the practice videos I’ve often clicked too soon, leading to me getting zero points instead of five.

This book obviously can’t help with the videos, but for people who do prefer to learn from a book instead of an app, it is user friends, has pretty straightforward explanations of why certain answers are correct (which the app seems to be missing), and all sorts of little tips. There are things I didn’t expect to need to know for this test, like about car maintenance (refill your battery? What?). I’m also only taking the automatic practical test, so some questions also seem a bit weird to me as I don’t drive manual.

I guess the test will be if I actually pass tomorrow. If I do, it’ll probably be thanks to the app as opposed to the book, but the book wasn’t a waste of money or anything.

Recommend to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it
Toss it (if I pass!) – I’ve also circled the answers so it’s not exactly helpful anymore.

Monday

12

July 2021

0

COMMENTS

Bloc Life by Peter Molloy

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars 

Best for:
Those who like to read very short insights into a lot of different lives.

In a nutshell:
Journalist Molloy gathers together stories of people who lived in former East Germany, former Czechoslovakia, and Romania under Communist rule.

Worth quoting:
“I was a communist, and still am today, and I’m of the opinion that communism is a good thing when it’s done right.”

“I was opposed to East Germany because it was a dictatorship.”

“A couple who remained childless beyond the age of 25 saw their tax bills increase and had their sex life scrutinized by government inspectors.”

Why I chose it:
I don’t actually know much about the lives of people who lived in countries under previous attempts at communist government.

Review:
So, capitalism is a giant failure. I think that’s pretty apparently given *gestures to everything*. The past few years in the US, socialism has become appealing to some people. And there are aspects of socialism in most capitalistic democracies, like fire departments or schools. And then there’s communism. All I knew about communism before the past couple of years was what I gleaned from pop culture and the very old textbooks that sort of taught me history. Basically, McCarthy hearings, blacklisting, and adding ‘Under God’ to the US pledge of allegiance.

I visited Berlin about a decade after reunification, took the tours, saw the remaining bits of the wall, Checkpoint Charlie. And museums do a great job with some aspects of history, but I find hearing directly from people to be a great way to really learn about how life was. It’s one thing to read about, say travel restrictions; it’s another to hear someone explain what they had to go through to visit someone in West Berlin.

In this book, Molloy gathers stories from people who lived under European communist regimes. He looks at workers, youth, leisure, religion, policing, health, sex, dissent and other topics, focusing on one person’s story for a few pages at a time. Many are heartbreaking, some are inspiring. One thing that became quickly apparent was that these countries were run by dictators who claimed to be communists. In fact, some of the policies in place sounded like ones that Republicans in the US would support if they didn’t know who proposed them – like making abortions illegal.

These stories are important, and I’m so glad I read this book, but I’m only giving it three stars because I think it lacks both sufficient context and sufficient editing. I appreciate the groupings, but not much connects the people who share their stories. It could have used more than an intro chapter and then another couple of introductory paragraphs in each chapter. And I appreciate gathering voices from a variety of regimes, but think it would have been stronger to focus on what was happening within each of the three countries and then comparing across. I don’t know – this just felt a bit like a hodge podge.

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Donate it

Sunday

4

July 2021

0

COMMENTS

Abandoned London by Katie Wignall

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone looking for an interesting if somewhat bleak coffee table photography book.

In a nutshell:
Author Wignall captures some of the haunting images of buildings abandoned throughout this giant city.

Worth quoting:
“The land was bought by Lendlease property developers in 2010 and the estate was demolished between 2011 and 2014. There were 284 ‘affordable homes’ (priced between £350,000 and £1.1. million) made available, but for many of the existing tenants these were too expensive.”

Why I chose it:
I love London, I love photography books, and I find abandoned buildings and areas in the middle of large living cities fascinating.

Review:
Over a decade ago my sister and I visited the Tacheles in Berlin, which was a partially demolished and abandoned department store taken over by artists. It was amazing to see a building that had been left to rot re-purposed in such a way. That wasn’t the first time I was intrigued by what happens to spaces when they are left behind, but it definitely stands out.

This book is part coffee table book, part guide to things to see in London, and part history of the evolution of London. Abandoned docksides, factories, infrastructure, along with homes, shops, and even sports stadiums, each with its own story to tell. Perhaps the buildings outlasted their useful life and needed to be replaced for safety reasons. Or perhaps technology changed, meaning the shockingly gorgeous, gigantic pump rooms of the earliest sewage treatment facilities are obsolete but no one can bring themselves (or afford to) tear them down. Or, in the case of some of the tube stations, maybe a better or more accessible station was built just a few steps away.

Not every photo is of an epic or haunted building – many are just shots of simple shops and homes. Some are even no longer abandoned, bought up and renovated after a few years of neglect. Which makes sense — this is central London, and property is expensive. But it got me really thinking about the stories behind the buildings that remain abandoned, the ones that don’t also have a Grade II listing associated with them. The ones that people would consider eyesores, or a sign of a neighborhood in decline. What happened there? Did a giant superstore (or online services) undercut them? Did they sell a product that was no longer in demand? Did someone lose their life savings when it didn’t work out? Did the landlord raise the rent and drive the shopkeeper out, only to find no one else could afford that rent either?

And when it comes to the abandoned homes, I think about the above quote – some of the abandoned spaces have been rebuilt with housing. But not affordable housing, not when £350,000 is the low end. What happens when you take away crumbling infrastructure and replace it not with a similar but safer, nicer version, but instead some idea of luxury that the people you’ve displaced can’t afford? Why isn’t it replaced with actually affordable public housing? It’s infuriating.

The photos in here are great – some are quite artful, and some are ones that any of us could have taken. But each of them has a story behind it, and thinking about those stories made the experience of reading the book even richer.

I ordered this book as soon as I heard about it, and so had to wait a couple of months for its release. Worth it.

Keep it / Recommend to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it

Thursday

24

June 2021

0

COMMENTS

Broken (In the Best Possible Way) by Jenny Lawson

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

Four Stars

Best for:
Fans of amazing, absurd stories. Fans of sincerity and genuine kindness.

In a nutshell:
The Bloggess returns with her third (I think) collection of essays, which run from tears streaming down your face funny to deeply moving.

Worth quoting:
So much, but audio book, so I didn’t get a chance to write them down. The very last line of the afterward of the audio version, however, was perfect.

Why I chose it:
I’ve read her previous books, and I love listening to her read her own work. She has a fantastic delivery style.

Review:
I utterly adore reading what author Lawson has to say. She has experienced life in such a different way than I have – and yet I always feel like I can relate to what she’s saying. I read her first book as an audio book, but her second as a standard book. For this one I’ve gone back to reading her via the audio book, because it’s just so damned delightful. Hearing someone with her talent read her own stories brings an additional level of humor, joy, and emotion.

In terms of funny stories, for some reason the chapter on the six times she lost her shoes while wearing them really stands out. It’s absurd and hilarious and something that doesn’t make sense when you hear the title, but by the end, it’s like ‘of course.’

The most memorable essay for me is the letter she wrote to her health insurance about their repeated denial of coverage for the medicines that are literally keeping her alive. It is heart-wrenching and infuriating and not at all unique, given the utterly broken for-profit health insurance system in the US. Hearing her read out all the hoops she is required to jump through, while ill, to get the treatment she needs covered by her insurance (and not always being successful at that). I feel like it should be read at every Congressional hearing where universal health care is debated.

This is an extremely wholesome book that also happens to use the word motherfucker repeatedly throughout. That’s how gifted a writer Lawson is.

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Recommend to a Friend