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Author Archive

Saturday

21

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down by Haemin Sunim

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone who feels a bit overwhelmed by life. Anyone who doesn’t, but still wants some suggestions for how to slow down and calm down.

In a nutshell:
Buddhist monk and professor Sunim offers reflections on ways to more deeply experience different aspects of life: rest, mindfulness, passion, relationships, love, life, the future, and spirituality.

Worth quoting:
“Unless we recognize the still point beneath the surface of our changing emotions, we will feel we are hostage to their whims.”

“When you make a mistake, simply ask yourself what you were meant to learn from it.”

Why I chose it:
Life is a lot right now. Right now? Always? Who knows. But I’d rather enjoy what I can than stress about what I cannot change, and I’m always looking for fresh (or reliable) takes on how to do that.

Review:
A book on slowing down that actively makes the reader feel calm? Sounds like a good book. And it is.

As I mentioned above, the book is split into eight sections, and each section includes a couple of short essays, and then some quotes or brief reflections / statements. They are a bit all over the place, but not in a bad way. It’s not so much a book of inspirational quotes; it’s more like a collection of somewhat related thoughts that the author wants to share with the reader. It feels almost like poetry, but it isn’t, at least not in the traditional sense.

Reading this book gave me more of a feeling than an intellectual reaction, if that makes sense. Some words rung true and are things I already incorporate into how I live my life; others were new and things I wanted to try to take on. And still others – nope. Couldn’t relate, can’t relate, or just disagree. But that’s okay. Everything is not for everyone.

The book also includes some lovely illustrations. Usually I sort of glance over such illustrations, but they are interesting and a bit fantastical and calming as anything. A cool addition to what is already a nice reading experience.

Will I all of a sudden be calmer, less stressed, more able to see the things that matter in the world? Probably not. But I think this book, and other like it, move me in that direction.

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

Sunday

15

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

No Place to Go by Lezlie Lowe

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

Four Stars

Best for:
People with an interest in public infrastructure, but also people interested in how our public choices impact who can enjoy being out in public.

In a nutshell:
Author Lowe explores the problems with the (lack of) public toilets across many countries.

Worth quoting:
“I grew up being socialized to expect a line for the bathroom. I spent decades so desensitized to the indignity that I never questioned it.”

Quoting someone interviewed for the book: “Public bathrooms are part of that infrastructure, the same way roads and other things are. And if you can’t even get that right, how can we go further?”

Why I chose it:
I always have to pee.

Review:
No, seriously, I always have to pee. It’s not a medical issue – I just am often in search of a toilet. When the first round of lockdown restrictions were lifted in England, I was so excited to go for walks further than a few blocks near my house, but we were definitely limited in maybe 30 minutes out, because within an hour (maybe 90 minutes), I would need a toilet, and London doesn’t have loads of public toilets. When I fly, I get an aisle seat. And before I leave the house to do ANYTHING, I always use the loo.

For Lowe, the recognition that public toilets are often a bit of a shit show came when she had young children and had to navigate staircases down into dirty, often locked public bathrooms in parks. And for many people with no mobility or other challenges that can make using the toilet more than a simple affair, having children is when they start to realize that there are not a lot of places where literally anyone can go to relieve themselves. In those moment of realization, she decided to explore public provision of toilets.

But she doesn’t just think about how people with children are impacted. She takes on how this affects people experiencing homelessness – loads of NIMBY types get super angry about people peeing and taking a shit in the street, but if there aren’t any toilets, where on earth do you expect them to go? Lowe also explores accessibility, and how the needs for some folks are going to be different than the needs of others. She looks at how the compromises city planners make when putting in the rare public toilet make those toilets even worse (think about the pretty gross stainless steel, seat-less wonders found in many parks). And thankfully she also looks at how the strict division of gender in toileting harms trans people – along with people who care for others of another gender who need to use the toilet.

On thing that she mentioned that really stuck out to me was how awful it as that so many people who are working don’t have access to toilets during their shifts. Yes, we’ve heard of the Amazon delivery drivers peeing into bottles because they don’t have time to stop. But even if they had the time – where are they going to pee? Where are taxi drivers and other ‘gig’ economy workers who don’t have offices going to relieve themselves? They’re also peeing into bottles. And as Lowe says: “Just imagine any of these solutions applying to the average office worker: ‘Sorry, Mildred, you can’t leave your cubicle today. Just toss your urine out the window. Hope you aren’t on your period. Ta ta.’”

It is absurd that society seems to just be … okay with our governments not providing space for everyone to do one of the most basic of human functions. Not everyone can afford to buy a muffin every time they need to take a shit. Not everyone feels comfortable sneaking into a pub on a Saturday evening when the patrons have been drinking all day. We expect our governments to provide services that allow us to live in the world – things like roads that take us into the city center. We should also expect them to provide the services that allow us to actually make use of the city center once we get there.

Lowe approaches this topic from so many different directions that it could have been a mess, but instead, it is well-written, well-edited, and fun to read.

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

Tuesday

3

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

Ten Steps to Nanette by Hannah Gasby

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People who like memoirs, especially ones that go in unexpected places.

In a nutshell:
Comedian Hannah Gadsby tells of her life growing up in Tasmania, her career in comedy, and how she built her one-of-a-kind show Nanette.

Worth quoting:
“The lies of a vulnerable minority should never have been put into the hands of the majority in a media landscape that is all too happy to be powered by the fumes of a toxic debate.”

“I find joy in my life where I once couldn’t because I was too busy trying to do the ‘right’ thing instead of checking in with my own needs first.”

Why I chose it:
I’m a fan of Gadsby’s comedy, and the way she constructs a show.

Review:
In this memoir, Gadsby shares so much of her life, and she does so in an interesting way. I read a LOT of memoirs, and this is one that took me a bit by surprise. It shouldn’t have, but it did. Like much of her comedy, Gadsby’s book is clever, intelligent, unique and unexpected.

The entire section about the 1990s is really well done, with each year discussed in a clever way highlighting things that happened that year in Australia and worldwide, as well as in her life. As someone completely unfamiliar with Australian politics, I appreciated hearing her take on things, and how the debate over the right for gay people to live their lives without prosecution, and then the right for people to marry who they loved, and how that deeply impacted her as a queer person.

She shares her trauma, but it isn’t traumatic, if that makes sense. She doesn’t provide detail unless she needs to. As always, she is careful with her words and edits where its needed.

I started the book and read the first couple of chapters but then put it down for a month. It’s a long book, and while its so well-written, it wasn’t an easy read. Then yesterday, which was a holiday here in the UK, I decided to finish it. I read basically all day, and I finished it, and I think that was the best way to take it in. All in one or two sittings. Some books lend themselves easily to chapter by chapter; I think this one is best when the reader can really dive into Gadsby’s story.

Something to note, which again, shouldn’t be a surprise. My partner was sitting next to me basically the entire time I was reading the book, and when I finished, he commented that I didn’t laugh at all while reading it. And it is true that I didn’t laugh out loud because it’s not a funny memoir. There are parts where I chuckled inside – I mean, Gadsby is brilliant, and that translates well to the page – but this is not a funny book. It is a serious memoir that takes on serious topics.

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

Sunday

1

May 2022

0

COMMENTS

Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Readers interested in climate change, abandonment, natural disasters, and nature.

In a nutshell:
Author Flyn explores a variety of places across the world where humans have left a space – either because of their own damage, or natural disaster, or change in the way of living – and looks at how the earth renews itself, sometimes coming back stronger than before.

Worth quoting:
“We weed out plants well suited to the ground and conditions, and insist on propping up expensive, ill-suited, ornamental ones. Better, perhaps, to resist the impulse. Step back.”

“In an urban environment, entering an abandoned space is the nearest thing we have to stepping off the map.”

Why I chose it:
I find abandoned and/or remote areas to be really interesting. I’ve always lived in either dense suburbs (growing up) or major cities, so the idea of just … leaving an area to be reclaimed by the earth is hard to imagine. My partner spotted this book in a shop and I knew I would enjoy it.

Review:
What if you had to up and leave your home because of a volcano? Or a meltdown at a nuclear power plant? Or the creation of a buffer zone between warring nations? What if your home was slowly degraded, due to industry leaving it, or due to the poisoning of the area by the industry that you relied on for income? Or maybe the way of life you and your family grew up with changed, and you had to abandon your home on a tiny island?

Flyn explores all of these scenarios – and more – in her interesting and descriptive book. In all, she looks at a dozen different areas where humans once were. In a few, humans are still there, adjusting to a new way of living, but in most, people have had to leave, relinquishing the land to flora and fauna, who in many cases have made amazing and unexpected comebacks.

In one chapter, she looks at Ukraine and Chernobyl, which obviously retains a lot of radiation but not enough to necessarily kill many of the plants and animals that remain. In another, she explores a tiny island in Scotland, where the last family left nearly 50 years ago. A couple of buildings remain, but what’s most interesting are the many generations of domestic cattle that have slowly been returning to their wild roots.

As I have lived in densely populated areas my whole life (and generally choose that because I like, for example, being able to walk to the grocery store, not need a car, and have access to public transit), I find any large spaces no longer touched by humans to be fascinating. I picture the people who lived there, and then think how quickly it can change, sometimes through the actions of those very people, but sometimes completely outside their control. Especially in the chapters discussing post-war landscapes, I couldn’t help but think of the current conflicts going on around the world, and what is happening to the people being forced out, and what will happen to the places they once lived.

If we did 1/2 stars, I’d probably give it 3.5, but the topic and the way Flyn covers it caused me to round it up. My hesitation is that the writing is a bit flowery, in that the descriptions of the wildlife and vegetation are EXTREMELY detailed, to the point that for someone like me, who isn’t really knowledgeable of that topic, it all starts to blur together. I think some editing might have been beneficial here. But really that’s my only criticism.

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

Saturday

23

April 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Practice of Not Thinking by Ryunosuke Koike

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Anyone looking for a book on mindful living that isn’t primarily about meditating a few times a week.

In a nutshell:
Former Buddhist monk Koike shares his thoughts on ways we can stop thinking (or, I’d argue, stop overthinking, as his suggestions do require a fair bit of though) and ultimately live more peacefully.

Worth quoting:
“[B]egin by being considerate, thinking of our listener, so we don’t cause unnecessary stimulation or stress for the other person.”

“If we’re truly sorry about something, we should think about the best way to ease the burden on the other person rather than merely apologizing or making an excuse for our own comfort.”

Why I chose it:
It caught my eye in a bookstore. Also, my life has recently been a bit stressful, and I was looking for something other than ‘meditate more’ in terms of mindful living.

Review:
CN: Fatphobia

I am ambivalent about this book. There are some aspects of it that I think are insightful, interesting, and helpful; there are some aspects that I find a bit naive and possibly even detrimental if followed. In some of those instances I believe I understand what Koike is getting at, but I’m not sure he’s portraying a very realistic approach to living.

But first, the good. The book opens strongly, laying out what Koike sees as ‘thinking disease.’ He pulls in concepts of Buddhism and suggests that many of the ways we act in life can be seen through the prisms of desire, anger, and uncertainty, and we should seek to limit our experience of these. Throughout the book he does connect many concepts that I might not have associated with one of those three emotions to them, and it’s an interesting concept

The main approach for Koike is is that we must develope our senses, defined as speaking, listening, seeing, reading and writing, eating, discarding, touching, and nurturing. I found the speaking and listing sections to offer the most practical insight. The other sections, while not necessarily bad, just didn’t speak to me as much.

There were parts, however, that did frustrate me. In the writing section he says we shouldn’t ever write anything negative, and only write about things we’ve enjoyed (lol sorry but what). This is an example of how at times he seems so dedicated to the idea of peace that he sees no value in examining or interrogating things that might not be awesome. The section on eating also somehow ended up being an icky little chapter on dieting, and in the section where he discusses relationships (‘nurturing’), the example he uses of a discussion to have is about a wife being upset that her husband is fat. Amazing how fear of fatness works its way into everything, even a philosophy book on mindfulness.

Another part that I found a bit naive was the way he speaks about money, and people wanting to have some. He definitely is talking about the dangers of hoarding money, and references billionaires, but also he seems to ignore the idea that one might need to save some money so one can pay for one’s bills and housing.

As I said up top, there are parts of this I like. I started reading it during the end of my football (soccer) season, and as a goal keeper it can be hard at times to maintain focus when so much action is happening at the other end of the pitch. Some of the tips in here helped me to focus more on the match and my movements in it. I’m also actively working on incorporating some of what he shared in the speaking and listening sections. But I’m not sure I could fully recommend this to others.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Despite the middling rating, I probably will keep it.

 

Monday

11

April 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Good University by Raewyn Connell

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone who works in higher education, or anyone who has or plans to attend higher education, or anyone who lives in a society with higher education in it.

In a nutshell:
Author Connell explores what universities do, how that has changed, and why that is not great.

Worth quoting:
“It is vital to recognize that universities and schools themselves are highly active in making inequalities.”

“Universities themselves have become increasingly complicit with market ideology.”

Why I chose it:
I work in higher education administration in the UK.

Review:
For the last few years I have worked in higher education administration. I am what you would call ‘professional services staff,’ which means I’m not an academic, and I don’t teach anything. Instead, I do some of the background work that keeps the university going. I’m not as critical as security staff or cleaners, but I help keep things running smoothly for the staff who do things like manage admissions, or provide counselling and mental health support to students.

I have also gone on strike twice for a total of four days in the last five weeks. So things aren’t great.

My line manager is fantastic, but I withdrew my labor in solidarity with colleagues who are facing stress, overwork, low wages, and stress (so important I said it twice). One the first day I went out on strike, I started reading this book, because I wanted to be reminded of what a good university could be.

This book is extremely well-organized and well-researched. Connell starts with reminding us of what the research aspect of a university looks like – who does it, why it is done, and how it contributes to knowledge. She also looks at a larger question about what is truth – is it truth once it is a peer-reviewed journal? What if that journal is part of a system that essentially forces researchers to buy access to research, and looks at research through a very western lens? She then looks at learning and teaching, the other big component most of us think about when we think about universities.

She then gets into some areas that maybe don’t get as much coverage, like the workers themselves, and not just the academics, but the people who work in the cafe, or maintain the buildings, or support the students in other ways.

The areas of the book that stuck with me most were the chapters on privilege, and how universities are often complicit in just reproducing the exclusivity of the world (think Harvard, sure, but really any university that is striving to be at the top of the league tables or high up in the US News & World Report rankings); and the chapter on the university business. The latter especially hit close to home, as I have a visceral reaction to students being referred to as ‘customers,’ and I feel like that happens where I work. I know that they usually only mean it as a sort of best phrase to use when they want to talk about ‘customer service,’ but still. It’s icky to me to treat a university as a corporation or business. I also hear loads of discussion about KPIs and metrics and yes, I understand that its good to know how your team is doing in terms of, say, response times to student queries, but at times it all feels much closer to working in a company than in a public service organization.

Throughout the book Connell clearly discusses what she sees as problems with the current system, and really the only place the book doesn’t quite live up to my hopes is in the last chapter. The penultimate chapter is great, where she provides loads of examples of historic universities (and some contemporary ones) doing things genuinely differently and interestingly. But the final chapter, where I’d love to see some concrete steps and suggestions, isn’t as fully formed as I’d like. But that doesn’t leave me disappointed; it just is motivating me to think more deeply about what I’d like to see where I work, and what collectively we should expect from our institutes of higher learning.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Recommend to all my work colleagues. I’d keep a copy at my desk but we hot desk now. I hate that.

Sunday

3

April 2022

0

COMMENTS

Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone who has been exposed to fatphobia (e.g. all of us) and who wants to work on unlearning it, via book with a lot of heart but also a lot of humor.

In a nutshell:
Comedian Sofie Hagen is a fat woman working to help other fat people to love themselves while also targeting the reasons why fat people might not love themselves: the gross fat bigotry that is evident pretty much everywhere one looks.

Worth quoting:
There are a lot, but because I listened to the audio book while out and about I didn’t write them down. One of the downsides of audio non-fiction for me.

Why I chose it:
I have an Audible UK subscription and this was one of the suggestions.

Review:
I love a humorous memoir. It’s one of my favorite genres of books, but I also can find it a bit challenging to review. Especially this one, which is mixed in with a lot more activism and education than the typical memoir. But let’s give it a go!

Sofie Hagen is a comedian, and she is fat. And she has learned to love herself in a world that tells people that there’s something wrong with being fat. However, as others in fat activism spaces have also pointed out, yes, loving one’s self is good, but the problem is with society, not individuals. Loving one’s self does not make airplane seats accommodating, or clothing options magically appears in physical stores. Accepting and appreciating one’s size does not stop other people from being assholes to you.

There is so much to like in this book, but one part I especially enjoyed were her interviews with other fat activists with different perspectives from her own. She interviews fat Black people, disabled fat people, and others, and she has them record their own part of the interview, so we get to hear their voices. That’s pretty cool.

I found myself laughing out loud many times, but was also drawn into Hagen’s overall personality and the joy that comes through as she tells her story. I could see myself listening to this again, because I think there’s a lot here that I want to properly take in and think about.

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

Wednesday

23

March 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Darkness by Ragnar Jónasson

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Fans of Icelandic mysteries. People who don’t want to be totally in the dark but still want to be surprised.

In a nutshell:
Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir is widowed and closing in on retirement. Early on she receives some surprising bad news, and is given the OK to look into a cold case.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
I loved the Dark Iceland series. This is an unrelated trilogy by the same author so obviously I had to get it. Bonus: the main character is a woman in her 60s – how often do we get that?

Review:
Hermannsdóttir is clearly a complicated woman. She’s a widow, works as a Detective Inspector, lives alone, and is closing in on retirement. When she finds out her retirement has been moved up, she decides to look into a closed case that she suspects wasn’t correctly solved. Asylum seeker Elena was found dead and one of Hermannsdóttir’s colleagues ruled it a suicide. Hermannsdóttir disagrees.

The book follows her exploration of this possible crime, but also her investigation into another one – a man suspected of pedophilia who was hit by a car, possibly intentionally. At the same time, Hermannsdóttir is considering pursuing a new relationship, the first since her husband’s death many years prior. There’s a lot going on here.

I’m not going to go into a lot more detail so I don’t spoil things, but as usual, Jónasson paints a very good picture. This book reads a bit like Arnaldur Indriðason’s books, in that there are what might potentially be related stories woven throughout, and the reader isn’t entirely sure who is being discussed in those chapters. I love that style of writing.

One thing I do appreciate about this book is the exploration of Hermannsdóttir’s career, and how being a woman in a profession full of men has been held back, her male bosses keeping her from moving up the ranks as quickly as lesser qualified men. It’s frustrating to read but good to see discussed in a novel (especially one written by a man). I’m looking forward to reading the second book (it’s a trilogy!), which I may have already purchased.

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

Monday

21

March 2022

0

COMMENTS

Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone interested in a health care worker’s perspective on the first couple of months of COVID-19. Anyone who just wants to feel a little more rage at government failure.

In a nutshell:
Hospice physician and author Clarke shares her experiences – and experiences of patients and their families – during the first few weeks of COVID in England.

Worth quoting:
“In a major trauma, it is effective logistics, more than anything else, that saves lives.”

“It is abundantly clear that our patients were no one’s priority. No one in power had properly considered them.”

“Those residents — the very old, the very sick and people with disabilities — are precisely the population most at risk of dying from COVID. Yet far from being cocooned, as the government promised they would be, they are being incarcerated with COVID.”

Why I chose it:
I used to work in Public Health emergency management in the US. We had plans, though they relied on the federal government to have their shit together. Watching the UK national government, led by wildly inept elected officials, flounder and fail repeatedly, I am interested in learning as much as I can about exactly why and how they could have failed so dramatically, in the hopes that they don’t fuck up the response to the next pandemic.

Review:
As I type this in March 2022, two years and a couple of days after the government finally said maybe people should, like work from home for a bit if they can, there are zero restrictions related to COVID in the UK. I don’t even think we have to stay home if we test positive. I mean, they’d like us to, but not needed. Tests are free (like the only thing this government did right), but that ends at the end of March too. Masks are recommended on transit, but even that’s not required. You could also get on a plane and come here without proof of a negative test. Hospitalizations are on the rise, cases are higher than ever even with fewer people testing. It’s not a good look. But it’s not surprising because, in case you couldn’t tell from the first parts of my review, I think that England has royally fucked up the entire response to this disease.

I think Clarke agrees with me, at least regarding the parts that are in her purview. She kept a diary of the first few weeks of COVID in England, and this book is a compilation of that, experiences of some people who survived COVID, family members of those who did not, and people who were impacted health-wise in other ways; e.g. having to delay or defer treatment for other deadly illnesses like cancer.

England locked down too late, and at one point accounted for something like 10% of COVID deaths despite having less than 1% of the world population. And part of that is because of how England treated people who were in care homes. The staff in those facilities weren’t treated like proper health care employees, and so didn’t get the PPE they needed. At the same time, people were discharged from hospitals to care homes without COVID tests, so COVID was basically forced into these care facilities. It’s disgusting and should be a national disgrace; instead the government is still boasting about their world-beating whatever.

Not that I imagine you need it, but the book provides such a human face to what turned into statistics, especially for those of us like me who so far have been lucky enough to both avoid getting COVID and avoid any of my friends or family getting seriously ill from it. We learn of the experience of someone who had to be intubated, and also the discussions that took place within hospice and when people were definitely dying. It’s not an easy read, but it is a book I couldn’t put down. It gives me hope in the sense that individuals are determined and care so much, but it makes me despair at how utterly so many of the people elected to serve us have failed.

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

Sunday

27

February 2022

0

COMMENTS

Winterkill by Ragnar Jónasson

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Fans of Icelandic crime fiction.

In a nutshell:
A young woman is found dead on a sidewalk, apparently having jumped from the balcony of a home. Or did she?

Worth quoting:
N/A. I just raced through the book.

Why I chose it:
Four years ago I picked up the first in the Dark Iceland series at the Iceland Airport. I immediately tracked down the rest of the books, and then read what I thought was the final (fifth) book. In a bookstore this weekend, I wandered over to the J section in Crime and saw there was a sixth!

Review:
I enjoy these books. They aren’t formulaic but they aren’t totally absurd either. Yes, there are often twists, and sometimes they are ones that I didn’t see coming, but also that are specific enough that it might be hard for anyone to see coming. That said, I always find them interesting.

Ari has gone from a new officer in the first book to the Inspector in charge of police in the town in the final one. We’ve followed his relationships and the birth of his son. He’s not the most complicated person, but he is interesting enough. The star of these books, however, is the way Jónasson writes about small town Iceland. Even in the spring, there’s a sense of claustrophobia, but not in a bad way. The people are mostly pretty typical, but they also all know each other, which makes keeping secrets a bit of challenge. Things are connected, and not always in the ways a reader might predict.

In this particular book, there are a couple of different storylines, which may or may not be related. Plus, Ari’s ex is visiting with his son, so there’s a slight romance angle as well. I believe this is now the final book in this series, as he Jónasson has moved on to create a new series (the first two books I’ve also recently procured). It’s a decent enough wrap-up to the books, and I’m glad I got another chance to see how Ari would handle a case.

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