ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

Author Archive

Sunday

24

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

British Politics: A Very Short Introduction by Tony Wright

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People who understand how British government should work in theory but want to know how it works in practice. It’s like British government 201.

In a nutshell:
Former Member of Parliament provides a very basic (though not basic enough for me) understanding of how the UK government works.

Worth quoting:
“Britain is rare among democratic states (only Israel and New Zealand belong to the same category) in not having a book of constitutional rules.”

Why I chose it:
I was looking for British government 101 – something more than what Wikipedia might tell me – after moving to the UK in 2018.

Review:
I earned a Political Science minor in college. I have two graduate-level degrees in public administration and public policy. I’ve spent 12 of the 16 years I’ve worked post-college in the public sector in the US. I share this because I want you to understand that I find government interesting from both a practical and a theoretical perspective, and have taken great pains to educate myself in this area.

But when I moved to the UK, I felt like I was back in kindergarten. As far as I could tell, UK government looked something like this: there’s the Queen, duh. And the Prime Minister. And the PM isn’t directly elected like the US President – they are the leader of a party that gets the most votes in Parliament at Westminster. And they need the Queen’s permission to form a government, but that’s, like, a formality, because she never says no. And if they step down, there isn’t a whole new election, there’s just this mini-election by the members of the party in power (no, not the Members of Parliament, the members of the party, which might be like .2% of the actual population).

Parliament sort of governs all of the UK. But maybe mostly England? Because Northern Ireland has a devolved government. So does Scotland. And apparently Wales? Does England have one then too? Are these nations, like US states, where they all have a government but there’s a bigger federal government that handles the messy bits like trade and war? No?

And then bills that become laws – it goes House of Commons (like the US House of Representatives), then the House of Lords (not at all like the US Senat), and then it has to be signed by the PM, right? Oh, no? Not even close? Cool. Cool cool cool.

Guys, even before the bizarre autumn of 2019, where the PM resigned, and there was a glimmer of hope that Labour might take over, and EU bills were all failing, I just wanted to know how it all works. I went to a bookstore and asked one of the kindly booksellers if they had anything like a UK Government 101 book to help me understand. Like, I’d be happy with something they give to 10-year-olds. [I tried Wikipedia, but it was both too much and not nearly enough information (though I guess England doesn’t have it’s own government? The hell?).] They were confused and seemed almost shocked at my request. But after much conversation amongst themselves, the booksellers suggested I order this one.

That’s a lot of information in what is meant to be a book review, but I provide it all so you get the context that even with this very short, pretty straightforward book, it was STILL too detailed for me. It’s brief indeed, but still gets into political machinations and workings that would make better sense if I understood how the UK government was, on paper, meant to work. And this doesn’t have it.

This seems like a great second half to a book that I am still in search of. I should probably have realized that it wouldn’t be quite right because it’s about British Politics, not British Government, but alas. Couldn’t he have included, like, a chart in the first two pages explaining things? Or even stick it in the back so readers who aren’t as ignorant of the topic as I am aren’t insulted? An appendix with a flow chart would have been useful.

Back to the bookstore (when it reopens) to see if I can get something else. Maybe this time I’ll tell them its for my imaginary 9-year-old niece.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it – some day I might get that 101 I’m desperate for, and then this will make more sense.

Saturday

23

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

Asking for a Friend by Jessica Weisberg

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Anyone who likes self-help books / advice columns.

In a nutshell:
Author Weisberg explores the history of advice giving, from Benjamin Franklin to life coaches.

Worth quoting:
“Americans’ interest in advice reflects our cultural tendency toward optimism: we tend to believe that with a bit of direction and a small boost, the future can be bright.”

“People seem to prefer advice-givers whose wisdom seems attainable, who learned from doing.”

Why I chose it:
My sister gave me this for Christmas a couple of years ago, because I LOVE advice books (and have my own advice website).

Review:
The title gave me the impression that this book would focus primarily on newspaper (or online) advice columns: Dear Abby, Dear Prudence, Dr Drew (blech), Dr Ruth. And while the first two are covered in one chapter, the focus is as much on other ways people have become well-known by giving advice, including life coaches and marriage counselors.

The book is divided into four parts, and starts with ‘Old, Wise Men.’ I was most fascinated with the section on Benjamin Franklin, partly because Weisberg brings up the Silence Dogood letters, which I know only because I watch National Treasure probably three or four times a year. But it also covers experts like Dr Spock and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, and traditional advice columnists like Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners), giving readers some insight into their background and their philosophy around providing guidance to others.

This book is mostly focused on the history of advice-giving; I think another volume would be interesting if it focused on the more modern advice columnists, or perhaps more of a comparison to how its evolved. This book seems to generally end with the 1990s (ish); it seems like so much has happened with this field in the last 20 years that I’d like to see that thrown into the mix.

The only criticism I have is in one chapter she reference Woody Allen a lot. I don’t need a pedophile mentioned in my books on advice, I don’t care how influential he may have been.

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

Sunday

10

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Book of London Place Names by Caroline Taggart

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Those who like to have access to basic trivia about places they live or visit.

In a nutshell:
Author Taggart provides some history in an accessible way.

Worth quoting:
“…no one seems to be sure, but there was probably once …”
(Seriously, it seems like for half the names, this is the answer.)

Why I chose it:
Moved to London. Wanted to learn more.

Review:
I think this is the last of the books I bought on sort of a whim when I first moved here and wanted to learn as much as I could about London. Considering I’ve been here for well over two years and am just getting to them now, clearly I didn’t dive right in.

I’ve now read a few books like this one, and I think overall it’s probably the easiest read. It feels a bit repetitive at times, but that’s because most of the places have similar stories – they are names for someone royal, or for someone no one can remember, or for a geological feature.

I appreciated that Taggart didn’t include stories about ever street or every part of London – she picked some highlights. Now, I’m not sure how much cultural awareness went into her decision-making; it’s entirely possible that she systematically left out areas that might have significance to BAME groups or immigrants. But she did at least cover London south of the river, which I think some folks forget even exists. To that end, I live and work (when I’m not in lock-down) in south London, so I especially enjoyed learning about the history of the places I used to walk by every day.

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

Sunday

10

May 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Me, I thought, but apparently not, as I was not able to get through it all.

In a nutshell:
Oh boy. Iris’s sister has driven herself off a bridge and is dead. Then there’s another book, a science-fiction-y type book. Then Iris is a child, and we learn about her life growing up. Apparently later on there are many twists.

Worth quoting:
“Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow case by its absence.

Why I chose it:
I bought this awhile ago, right around when I first read The Handmaid’s Tale and wanted to read more of her work.

Review:
It’s hard to review a book that I couldn’t get into, especially when maybe the issue was me? The writing is great – I can picture the characters and every scene I read. The story overall was just I think too jumpy in the beginning for me to feel invested in any area of it. I generally enjoy time jumps and not really knowing where something is going in a novel, but this felt so disjointed that I couldn’t get into any sort of flow with it.

I can see a world where I start this book on a flight and then keep reading it while on vacation. But with everything going on right now, and all the different ways to get distracted right now, I needed a book that would immediately suck me in, and this one did not.

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

Thursday

23

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

Waste Not by Erin Rhoads

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone looking for ways to to reduce their waste across multiple areas of their life and home.

In a nutshell:
Author Rhoads provides tips, suggestions, examples, and recipes for ways we can make more things ourselves and rely less on single-use items.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
I was at an exhibition about food growth, distribution, and waste, and they were selling this book.

Review:
This book is great for its genre. It’s not oblivious to the benefits of plastic (the section on medicine is basically ‘plastic saves lives’); it just wants to give you a whole lot of tools that you can use to reduce plastic’s presence in your life.

The book is broken up into a few sections: tools, tips, and tricks. The Tips section is broken into areas: kitchen and food, cleaning and care, beauty and body, entertaining and events, and little people and furry friends. It also provides suggestions for how to waste less when traveling.

Right now I find myself hyper focused specifically on food waste. We are relying primarily on grocery delivery because our local shops are so small that its hard to keep the appropriate social distance. We’re a small household (two humans, two animals), so some of the produce boxes mean we end up with a couple of items that go bad before we can eat them because we haven’t been great about learning how to preserve / freeze / use up items. I think this book will be helpful in that way in the near term,; as we start to shift our lives to whatever the new normal is, I’ll be able to incorporate more of the tips into other areas of my life.

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

Monday

20

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

I Never Knew That About London by Christopher Winn

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Someone on a walking tour of London boroughs (with a well-fitted backpack to hold the book, because it is heavy).

In a nutshell:
A sort of abbreviated encyclopedia about central London.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
When I first moved back to London a couple of years ago, I went through a phase of buying a lot of trivia-type books about London and England. I read a few, then stopped. Thought while I’m unable to go exploring the city as I usually would, I could at least learn something.

Review:
The title isn’t so much misleading as it is … incomplete. There are for sure a lot of little fun facts within this book that I never knew. But mostly this reads as one of those DK Eyewitness Travel guides. Those are generally my favorite types of travel guides, but I just wasn’t expecting it from such a hefty book. It has some drawings, but not a picture for everything, which makes it a little harder to imagine what building / area of London is being described. I’d love to rip out sections and take them with me on a little walking tour when lock down is lifted. But if you’re looking for more of a quick-reading trivia book, this is not it.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it (it’s still a good reference book)

Sunday

19

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those who like nature writing; those who appreciate quality narrative non-fiction; those who just want to remember what it is list to be outside.

In a nutshell:
Ray and Moth and in their 50s with two grown children. They have lost their home, which is also their farm and livelihood, to a sketchy business partner and a punitive judge. A couple of days later, Moth receives a diagnosis of a terminal neurological disorder. The decide to sell what they have left, store what they want to keep, and try to walk the 630-mile South West Coast Path, a.k.a. the peninsula in England just below Wales.

Worth quoting:
“Is it human nature to crave ritual? Is it instinctive to construct a safe environment before we allow ourselves to sleep? Can we ever truly rest without that security?”

“Does it take a time of crisis for us to see the plight of the homeless? Must they be escaping a war zone to be in need?”

Why I chose it:
This is the last book I purchased before we went into lock down. I bought it from a bookshop in central London, not realizing that I’d end up reading it during a time when I craved the outdoors.

Review:
There is a lot going on in this book. Not a lot in the sense that plot points keep coming – basically this book is literally just Ray and Moth hiking. But it’s beautifully written, and speaks to how easily one can find oneself without a home, and what people do to try to survive. It’s a bit cheesy to call it inspirational; I’m not about to sell my belongings to go walk 630 miles. But at the same time, it is inspirational. These people found a way to figure out how to keep living their lives when they had no money, no home, and a shit health prognosis.

They are clear about their situations — they don’t have access to unlimited funds and time like some people who choose o take the path. This is what they can think to do while they figure out what to do next. They get some benefits from the government (about £45 per week), so they are able to buy cheap food along the way. But that’s it. They aren’t on some romantic quest to find themselves; they are trying to survive.

Ray speaks about how people they encounter react when Ray and Moth share their situation. If they are ‘just’ backpackers, they’re usually treated with some respect and admiration. When they say that they are homeless, they are treated with disdain, or fear, as though it is catching.

Right now is a weird time. Those of us with homes who are under lock down may be struggling with feeling trapped within it, at times forgetting how wonderful it is to have a home we can be locked down in. There is a reason many countries are suddenly trying to provide shelter for those experiencing homelessness – COVID-19 is a threat to their health when they don’t have access to hand-washing options, or enough food to avoid shops on a daily basis. But not having a home isn’t just a challenge during disease outbreaks; it’s not something anyone should have to experience if they don’t want to, and it is frustrating that so many people don’t care about the people experiencing it.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it.

Monday

13

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
Those interested in poverty, society, and housing. People who appreciate less academic, more narrative non-fiction books.

In a nutshell:
Ethnographer Desmond follows a couple of landlords (really slumlords) and a handful of tenants through housing struggles.

Worth quoting:
Landlords were allowed to rent units with property code violations, and even units that did not meet “basic habitability requirements,” as long as they were up front about the problems.

Between 2007 and 2010, the average white family experienced an 11 percent reduction in wealth, but the average Black family lost 31 percent of its wealth. The average Hispanic family lost 44 percent.

Why I chose it:
I heard many good things about this when it first came out a few years ago but waited for the paperback version. I decided to finally take it off my TBR pile given what we’re seeing now with the influx of people unable to pay rent due to lost wages stemming from the pandemic.

Review:
I am both a tenant and a landlord. It’s a weird situation to be in. After we bought our home in Seattle, we ended up with the opportunity to move to London, and so have been renting out our house because we want to come back some day. That means we also rent in London, and have a pretty shitty landlord. Our flat is fine, but we haven’t had gas since mid-October (we now rely on small propane tanks for heat and hot water that give no warning before they run out. It’s super fun). In one week, both the hot water heater in the house we own and the one in our apartment broke. We (eight time zones away) were able to get someone out to the house to fix it that day; our landlord didn’t pick up the phone for a few hours even though the hot water heater had literally flooded and was pooling water in the kitchen.

So what I’m saying it, I have experience in general on both ends, but my god do I have zero respect for landlords who are out to make a profit off of housing. Like healthcare, I think housing is a human right that should not be withheld for lack of payment,I also don’t think someone should be driven further into debt or poverty while attempting to secure housing.

Desmond follows two landlords – Sherrena, who owns many very low-quality housing units, and Tobin, who owns a trailer park. Sherrena starts out looking like perhaps she cares about her tenants; in reality she cares about squeezing as much money from them as possible. Tobin doesn’t really ever look good. The tenants Desmond talks to either rented from Sherrena or Tobin, such as Arleen, Scott, Patrice, and Larraine (many of whom had children) and all were evicted due to variations on a theme. A missed welfare check. Laid off from work. Unexpected repairs they somehow had to pay for themselves. Having to choose between utilities or rent or food.

In the US there seems to be a real focus on the deserving vs the undeserving poor. People are much more sympathetic to someone who comes upon hard times unexpectedly (like, say a pandemic forcing the restaurant they work at to close) than someone who starts from a tough place. You can see that with all the legislation being passed to help people right now, even though there were plenty of people before COVID-19 who could have used the exact same help. There such a morality attached to being poor compared to being broke, and how people react when they learn the details of someone’s life circumstances shows a lot about their character, in my opinion.

There’s so much in this book to be angry about, but one thing I wanted to highlight was how the criminal punishment complex really plays in here. In one chapter, Desmond talks about evictions related to ‘nuisance’ calls. In Milwaukee, the police could issue nuisance citations if they received three calls to a residence in 30 days. They considered calls regarding domestic violence to be ‘nuisance’ calls. Which means a person being beaten by their husband better not call the cops if, say, the cops have been called before, lest they also get an eviction to go alongside their broken nose. And of course there’s a huge racial element here. Per Desmond, “in white neighborhoods, only 1 in 41 properties that could have received a nuisance citation actually did receive one. In Black neighborhoods, 1 in 16 eligible properties received a citation.”

Desmond does a great job with this book. He tells multiple stories, weaving them together as a narrative. This book could have felt dry and academic; instead I was learning intimate details of these lives, with statistics interwoven to accentuate their lived experiences. It was heartbreaking and frustrating and infuriating.

Right now we’re seeing a lot of people talking about those who were already precarious who are going to face more hardship because of the world’s economic collapse in relation to the pandemic. And that’s good! These folks will need as much help as we can provide (and we, especially in the US, can always provide more if we shift our priorities), but I would encourage people to also consider those who were facing housing challenges before the economy cratered, and who may still be struggling after it has come back.

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

Sunday

5

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
Anyone who enjoys quality journalism, excellent writing, and people in power starting to be held accountable.

In a nutshell:
Journalist Farrow starts investigating Harvey Weinstein and uncovers not just confirmation of his predation, but the people in power who repeatedly covered up his crimes — and the crimes of others.

Worth quoting:
“Later, employee after employee would tell me the human resources office at the company was a sham, a place where complaints went to die.”

Why I chose it:
Given all that has transpired in the past few years, I wanted to read about how one thread came together.

Review:
This book is over 400 pages long and I read it in a day and a half. Granted, I am on lock down, but still. It is an engaging read, even (perhaps especially) knowing that Weinstein was recently convicted of some of his crimes.

At the start, Farrow is working on multiple stories for NBC News, He is an employee, on a contract to investigate and produce serious stories. He spends many months investigating this one, but as he gets closer to wrapping it up and getting it ready for air, his bosses – and those higher up at NBC, get nervous. Very nervous. And not in an understandable way (for example, I completely understand, more so now than ever, why a woman would not want to tell her story publicly), but in an ‘is this really a big deal? Is it worth getting on the wrong side of a buddy?’ sort of way. It’s disgusting.

Farrow is eventually allowed to take his reporting to the New Yorker, publishing a bit after the New York Times publishes similar work with different sources. But the story then becomes not just about the crimes Weinstein committed, but about how he was able to get away with it for so long. NBC News provides a first-hand example of those in power buckling to protect their friends, and the cost of further allowing people to be victimized by predators.

Much of the focus is on Weinstein, including the private investigators he employed to intimidate and threaten sources, victims, and witnesses. But Farrow also discusses other known predators who have been protected — and even promoted — from justice. Matt Lauer and Donald Trump, to name two. He explores how the men in power just don’t care enough about what is right and wrong to do anything about it, and he also discusses some of the women who are complicit (*cough* Lisa Bloom *cough*).

I expected to be throwing the book across the room, because I knew that the reporting would make me angry. But I never got there. And I think that’s a credit to Farrow’s writing. I feel angry and frustration for these women, and rage at the systems that allow repeated predation. But instead of feeling helpless, the book made me feel hopeful that more women will feel that they can speak out, and more men might believe them and actually do something about it. Not in a naive way – I know most people in power are not great humans, and are mostly just concerned with keeping their power. But there are journalists, and editors, and prosecutors who do care, and are doing something.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Pass to a friend (my partner wants to read it next)

Saturday

4

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Break by Marian Keyes

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Those looking for an interesting read that’s a bit longer than one might expect from fiction targeted at women.

In a nutshell:
Amy’s husband Hugh wants a six-month break.

Worth quoting:
I studied her avidly, keen to know how other people managed the tricky, tricky business of being a woman.

Why I chose it:
Airport purchase. Remember airports?

Review:
I bought this book back when known cases of COVID-19 were mostly limited to Asia. I flew from the UK to the US to be with my parents during surgery, then went to visit some friends in the pacific northwest. As always, I bought a book at the airport to add to the four I had with me.

I started it on one of my flights, but wasn’t really able to get into it. I know for some people, being home so much right now (last I heard, about 4 billion of the world’s population are on lock down) means they are reading a lot, but I just can’t focus. I don’t have kids, and I don’t really even need to leave the house (we’re fine with grocery delivery). I’m just mentally exhausted, and this book wasn’t as light a read as I was hoping.

Sorry, there’s supposed to be a review in here somewhere, right?

Amy lives in Dublin with her daughter from her first marriage (to a footballer), her daughter from her current marriage, and sometimes her niece. She’s in public relations and help rehabilitate famous folks who have fucked up. Her husband is going through some things, and has decided he needs a 6-month break from their marriage.

The book is divided into before, during, and after. The during part doesn’t last as long as I expected, and the after bit is more intense than I was expecting. But I appreciated the characters – they weren’t caricatures or stereotypes. Amy’s husband Hugh isn’t a cad; he’s someone who is hurting and is confused. Amy isn’t some scorned woman; she has agency. Even their kids are complex.

It’s not higher rated for me mostly because I think it is just too long. I think the story could have been tightened up a bit, though maybe others would think that would sacrifice the quality. I do know if I come across her books again I will probably pick one up.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (eventually)