ASK Musings

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Author Archive

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)

Sunday

15

March 2020

0

COMMENTS

I Might Regret This by Abbi Jacobson

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Anyone who likes a good road trip story. Anyone who is feeling a bit lost.

In a nutshell:
Writer and actor Abbi Jacobson (of Broad City fame) decides to go on a three-week road trip after breaking up with her girlfriend. She documents her time.

Worth quoting:
“People who can talk while exercising—anything more than a hike or walk—are insane to me. You want to tell me the drama that’s currently going on at your office? Ohh, your co-worker plays their music too loud?? It’s distracting and no one else seems to care?? I can’t breath right now!”
“It’s okay to not figure it all out. It’s okay to feel broken and alone and scared sometimes. It’s okay to not know everything. It’s okay to not eat where everyone tells you to, or not take a selfie in front of everything you’ve seen or done and post on the internet for friends and strangers to see.”

Why I chose it:
I like funny women telling their own stories.

Review:
It seems as though my world has changed dramatically since I bought this book and started reading it. I purchased it when I was visiting Seattle in mid-February, two weeks before their first case of COVID-19 was detected (but after one had been confirmed in a neighboring county). I had dinner with a good friend who works for the health department there, and we could tell it was just the beginning, but no one really knew what was coming. I stopped reading this book until this weekend not because it isn’t great (it is!) but because my brain is full. I feel like if I have time to read, I should be reading the news, talking to my friends who are dealing with kids home from school for the next six weeks, keeping up on Twitter.

But my brain needs a break. Sometimes that comes in the form of re-watching Parks and Recreation (only 8 episodes left!), but it also needs to come in the form of books. Good books. Books that either make me laugh or that make me feel connected to others (especially as we’re all being told to take a step back in our physical connections). This book definitely helped with that.

Abbi Jacobson is probably best known to you as one half of the amazing duo responsible for Broad City. The stories she tells in this book come from a road trip she took in the summer of 2017, right before the final season was shot and right after breaking up with her girlfriend. She spends three weeks traveling mostly along the southern bit of the US, along the way exploring her heartbreak, her feelings about the future, and many of the general issues anyone with some introspections struggles with.

It isn’t a lighthearted take, but there are parts that are very funny. It feels honest and yes, vulnerable, but not self-pitying, if that makes any sense. It’s just good reading.

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

Wednesday

19

February 2020

0

COMMENTS

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs by Caitlin Doughty

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for: Anyone – from 10 to 100 – who has questions about death.

In a nutshell: Mortician and author Caitlin Doughty answers some of the most interesting and pressing questions from tiny humans.

Worth quoting:
“Sometimes death can be violent, sudden, and unbearably sad. But it’s also reality, and reality doesn’t change just because you don’t like it.”
“Technically, per the laws of the state of California, I am not allowed to slip [your dead hamster] Hammibal into your pocket, even if he’s just a small pouch of cremated remains. I’m not allowed to ‘bury’ an animal in a human cemetery. Would I do it anyway? Umm, no comment. (tiny paw extends from your suit pocket)”

Why I chose it: I’ve read both of Doughty’s previous books, and enjoyed them very much. I also attended one of the Order of the Good Death conferences (held in Seattle), which was fascinating and well-done.

Review:
Caitlin Doughty is a talented author. She has a way of making death feel less terrifying and more another interesting part of life. I find her to also be hilarious (come on, that paragraph about the dead hamster? That’s funny shit!). And in this book she takes her skill at demystifying the scary and uses it to help our younger friends better understand what happens to our bodies when we die.

Covering everything from fluid leakage, to burial laws, to how a death in space would be handled (along with, of course, whether fluffy is going to go to town on your dead body), Doughty finds a way to keep the reader entertained without ever being disrespectful. That’s a narrow line to walk, but she does it effortlessly. The book also has fantastic illustrations accompanying each question.

What more can I say? Go check it out, and while you’re at it, pick up her other two books if you haven’t already: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, and From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death.

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

Monday

17

February 2020

0

COMMENTS

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Written by , Posted in Reviews

4 Stars

Best for: People who enjoy stories told from multiple perspectives.

In a nutshell: Roy Jr and his wife Celestial have been married for a year and a half and are visiting his folks when a chance encounter at a hotel leads to a woman falsely accusing him of rape. He is convicted and sent away. This is the story of what happens next.

Worth quoting: “Is motherhood really optional when you’re a perfectly normal woman married to a perfectly normal man?” (This isn’t a huge plot point but I loved seeing that expectation of motherhood in print.)

Why I chose it: I’ve heard so many people speak so well of it that I finally decided to pick it up.

Review: There are many things in this book that I can’t imagine. I can’t imagine being falsely convicted of a crime. I can’t imagine my partner being sent away for many years, and having to figure out how to choose to live my life while apart. I can’t imagine trying to rebuild my life after getting out of prison. But I still related to the relationships in this book. Parents and children, partners, friends. These ideas are all explored under the stress of injustice and trauma, and it’s interesting to look at how everyone chooses to respond.

The book is told in three parts: before, during, and after Roy Jr is in prison. There isn’t a big focus on the crime or the trial; instead we learn a bit about the main characters, the false accusation happens, and we learn about the conviction. The middle part is told exclusively (I think) through letters between Roy Jr and various people – his wife, his wife’s best friend, his father, his attorney. It’s a well done convention that helps move the story along. The final part is told from the perspective of multiple characters who each have a unique voice.

I’m so glad I decided to read this. I don’t know why I resisted – I’ve said multiple times that I am not primarily a fiction reader but I think I need to suck it up that sometimes I’d rather learn more about the human condition from fiction than a well-written science book. I found the story interesting and well-crafted, and the ending satisfying.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it: Pass to a friend. I’m visiting my folks and will leave it in my sister’s room so she can check it out next time she visits.

Sunday

26

January 2020

0

COMMENTS

The Last by Hanna Jameson

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

4 Stars

Best for: Anyone who enjoyed Station Eleven, or who likes the post-apocalypse genre and is looking for one aimed at adults.

In a nutshell: Nuclear War has started. Two months later, 20 people remain at a hotel deep into a Swiss forest. A child is discovered dead. History professor Jon decides to document what has happened, and what happens next.

Worth quoting: “A lot of people confuse movement with progress.”

Why I chose it: Buy one get one half off sale. I’d chosen American Marriage, and was scanning for another. This had a recommendation by Emily St. John Mandel (Station Eleven), so I picked it up.

Review:
What happens when the world ends not from an outbreak of disease, but from a day of nuclear war? If you are nowhere near the blasts, how do you survive? Do you want to survive? What is your life like?

For the guests at this hotel in Switzerland, they have plenty of food, comfortable hotel beds, and water. No internet, and rationed electricity. What do they do? Should they explore beyond the hotel? Try to get to their homes? Do their homes exist anymore?

That’s enough to try to figure out but then a dead girl is found in one of the water towers. Millions – possibly billions – have already died. But this is a death close to home, and for Jon, it means something to try to find justice for her. While also grappling with the existential crisis of a completely different world than the one that existed before he arrived at this hotel for a conference.

The book appears to be suggesting that Trump is why the nuclear blasts happened. This leads to an interesting discussion about the responsibility of those who voted for him. In a nod to the 53% of white women who voted for him in 2016, the one US citizen at the hotel who voted for him is indeed a white women. The characters are complicated – no one is outright evil, everyone appears to be just doing their best in a shitty situation.

I think the only thing that I could take any issue with were a couple of word choices that the US folks in the story made that are very much British English terms: tannoy (megaphone) and mitigating circumstances (which is the specific term for seeking some allowance or delay in an exam or paper because of something beyond a student’s control). I’d never heard either of those terms used in that way until I moved the UK. But that’s really the only thing I could take issue with.

Oh! Sorry, one more thing, which is the publisher’s fault, not the author. The back jacket reads “You and nineteen other survivors hole up in an isolated Swiss hotel. You wait, you survive. Then you find the body. One of your number has blood on their hands. The race is on to find the killer … before the killer finds you.” That’s … not a great description of the book. Yes, there is a murder and yes, the protagonist spends a fair bit of time focused on that. But this isn’t a thriller about finding a murderer, per se. It’s a thriller, but the thriller isn’t just about that, if that makes sense. In fact, I’d argue that’s a side story. So if you’re looking for a straightforward thriller, this isn’t it. But hopefully you’ll still pick it up, because it’s really good.

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

Saturday

11

January 2020

0

COMMENTS

Brain Droppings by George Carlin

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for: Fans of Carlin’s clever and confrontational style of comedy.

In a nutshell: Comedian Carlin shares jokes, observations, and wordplay.

Worth quoting:
“You could hear a pin drop. Well, you can’t hear a pin drop. Not even a bowling pin. When a pin is dropping, it’s just floating through the air. There’s very little noise. You might be able to hear a pin land but certainly not drop.”

“I hear ya.” “Wonderful. And are you picking me up visually as well?”

Why I chose it: I’m trying to read before bed (instead of staring at my phone) but didn’t want anything too heavy. Thought I’d revisit what I used to describe as one of my favorite humor books.

Review:
Some of you may know Carlin as the first host of Saturday Night Live. Others may know him from his famous ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV” sketch. My guess is most of you know him as Rufus, the amazing supporting character from the Bill and Ted films, who will be sorely missed when Bill and Ted Face the Music is released this summer. I think of him as the author of this book, because I’ve read it (part or in full) probably a dozen times.

This isn’t a comedic memoir, or even a collection of humorous stories or essays. There are some slightly longer bits (say, 2-3 pages), but mostly it is a paragraph joke, or a one-liner, or even a collection of two-word phrases that Carlin thinks is interesting. Some of it makes me laugh out loud; some of it makes me think. A lot of it revolves around wordplay and the discussion of what certain words and phrases actually mean, if one really thinks about it.

There are definitely parts of this book that make me cringe. Carlin has a strong aversion to the idea of ‘political correctness,’ and claims to not be on any ‘side’ politically. This is evident, for example, in his justification for use of the word r*tard. However, he has a strong sense of justice, and recognized how poorly people of color (though he would hate using that term) and women are treated in society. I think he’s who people like Ricky Gervais think they are (edgy, cool, astutely observant) but they couldn’t hold a candle to him. They’re not in the same world as him.

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