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Reviews Archive

Monday

10

May 2021

0

COMMENTS

Grown Ups by Marian Keyes

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Four Stars

Best for:
Fans of Liane Moriarty’s writing.

In a nutshell:
CN for book and review: Disordered Eating

The Casey family – three brothers and their wives and kids – are at a dinner party when it seems as though a few secrets are about to be spilled. We immediately go back six months in time to see what has led to this.

Worth quoting:
“As a skinny, knock-kneed eight-year-old, she knew that too much bread and butter would make her fat – and far was the worst thing any girl could be.”

Why I chose it:
Paperback sale. Also I mostly enjoyed the last book of hers I read.

Review:
Three brothers – Johnny, Liam, and Ed – are married to three women – Jessie, Nell, and Cara. The book focuses mostly on the women, though the men have their own point of view chapters at times. Johnny is Jessie’s second husband, after her first husband (and Johnny’s best friend) leaves her widowed at 34. Nell is Liam’s second wife, and she is significantly – like, 15-ish years – younger than him. Cara and Ed are each others’ first partners.

It becomes clear quickly that everyone has issues. Jessie is an only child who craved a big family, and shows her love by spending loads of money on fancy trips for the extended family (and might be overextended in her finances). Johnny works for and with Jessie, and is father to three with Jessie, and stepfather to two (who aren’t really big fans of his). Liam is a former famous runner, dealing with his career ending, while Nell is a socially conscious set designer who married Laim just six months after meeting. Ed is a botanist, and Cara works in reception at an extremely high end hotel, and she’s also dealing with (and hiding) bulimia.

There’s a lot going on here.

It took a couple of chapters for me to get people straight and sort out their relationships (though there is conveniently a family tree at the front of the book), but once that was sorted, the book was pretty hard to put down. It’s over 600 pages long, but I finished it in four days because I just wanted to keep reading. And there are some genuine surprises that appear along the way — some that the reader could easily predict, and a couple that come out of nowhere but totally make sense. It was a fun read with some deeper exploration of themes (especially the bulimia storyline)

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

Tuesday

4

May 2021

0

COMMENTS

The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House by Audre Lorde

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Five Stars

Best for:
People interested in some seriously good essays from a poet and activist.

In a nutshell:
This mini book contains five of Lorde’s essays / speeches on revolution and liberation.

Worth quoting:
“To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society.”

“Only within a patriarchal structure is maternity the only social power open to women.”

“Can anyone here still afford to believe that the pursuit of liberation can be the sole and particular province of any one particular race, or sex, or age, or religion, or sexuality, or class?

Why I chose it:
This was included in one of my subscription boxes.

Review:
I had heard Lorde’s phrase that is the title of this collection, but I had no idea of the context of it – she had been invited to speak at conference on feminism, was told many different concepts and facets of womanhood and feminist would be represented, and instead was faced with a big group of white feminists instead. She was no pleased, and made it known. That talk unfortunately could have taken place a week ago – I think we see it with white liberals a lot. We see it in all industries when they hold conferences – tech only invites men (usually white), except to the one panel on women in tech, where they invite a woman, but she’s also usually white. The problem here, as Lorde elucidates, is that, for example, the patriarchy is part of the problem, and we can’t frame the solution to the problems of patriarchy using the same systems and criteria that the patriarchy set up. We need to acknowledge and inhabit our differences.

There are five other essays in here as well, and the one that I found affected me the most was Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism. Lorde looks at why anger is necessary, and why guilt is often ‘just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication.’ It made me think of the utter uselessness and dangerousness of white liberals who are so focused on their own white guilt that they can’t move forward in their own anti-racism work. Lorde makes the argument that anger is necessary and good and productive, and translates into action. In a world where the concept of the ‘Angry Black Woman’ is used as a way to discount the opinions shared by Black women whether angry or not, I found this to be an extremely important discussion.

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

Monday

3

May 2021

0

COMMENTS

We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba

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Four Stars

Best for:
Those interested in learning more about an abolitionist approach to justice.

In a nutshell:
Author and organizer Mariame Kaba shares a collection of essays and interviews she has written over the years on the concept of police, prison, and surveillance abolition.

Worth quoting:
“History is instructive, not because it offers us a blueprint for how to act in the present, but because it can help us ask better questions for the future.”

“Prison is not feminist.”

“The problem with casting militarization as the problem is that the formulation suggests it is the excess against which we must rally.”

Why I chose it:
I’ve followed Kaba on Twitter (known as @PrisonCulture) for a few years, and was excited to read more of her writing in a longer form.

Review:
I grew up in a well-off, mostly white, suburban town. My only interaction with the criminal punishment system was the regular visit from D.A.R.E. officers during elementary school, and being pulled over a couple of times. In college, I once requested assistance from the police after a break-in of my boyfriend’s car where my bag was stolen; the officers I dealt with were sexist jerks. I studied society and justice as an undergraduate, took a course in policing, and even thought I would become an attorney one day.

I also recall the beating of Rodney King as my first awareness that maybe the police, and criminal punishment system (I haven’t referred to it as the criminal justice system once I read criminal punishment used as a term by someone I unfortunately can’t recall) possibly failing to hold police to account. And now I am someone who thinks the entire system needs to be torn down and rebuilt based on different values.

I didn’t get here overnight, I still at times have trouble articulating my thoughts on these issues, and I still have so much to learn, but books like this one help me solidify my values and my approach to things. I think a lot of white people who chose to become more involved in actions to protest and defund the police in the US after George Floyd’s murder are still not comfortable with the idea of removing the police from communities. Kaba I think hits the nail on the head in this book, where in one essay when asked about how can we imagine a world without police, she points out that this is actually the reality for so many white communities. The police don’t harass us in the ways they harass and terrorize people of color in communities where they are the majority. White people are mostly raised to think that we can call on the police when something really awful happens to us, and the police will help.

But at what cost?

Kaba spends a good amount of time in this collection talking about accountability vs punishment. A few of the essays are framed around Me Too and stories of sexual assault. She touches directly on how so many have clamored for people like R. Kelly and Harvey Weinstein to be abandoned in prison for life. That this seems right and fair to us, especially to women who may have experienced such violations. But she points out that this isn’t consistent with the ideas of abolition. That we can’t just say its fine to abandon some people because we specifically feel like their crime is really bad. Because what comes from that? How does that heal the harm caused? How is prison any sort of accountability for harm caused? Is that justice, really?

Since starting to come to my view that reform is insufficient and ultimately could be harmful, and that abolition is the approach I support and the one that aligns most with my values, what I’ve struggled most with is that I want an alternative to be presented to me, fully formed. I want to be able to point to X idea and say that will definitely work, and that is exactly what we should replace our current criminal punishment system with. But Kaba’s writing has helped me to be more comfortable with the idea that it’s the community that needs to come together to decide how we want our values to come out when someone is harmed. The fact that the current system is vile is enough to make it right and good that we tear it down and try something else. The current system is ALREADY failing, so what abolitionists in communities across the US are trying out can only be better.

I am so new to this way of thinking (LOL at the people who claim we all get more conservative as we age), and I know others are too. I think this is an excellent book for anyone who is interested in police reform, defunding the police, prison abolition, to pick up. Everyone reading isn’t going to agree with everything Kaba shares, but the way she shares it, and her reasoning? It’s worth reading, taking in, and sitting with.

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

Sunday

25

April 2021

0

COMMENTS

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
Those interested in how corporations and the government have failed us. Those who enjoy a little bit of schadenfreude (though, in my opinion, not nearly enough).

In a nutshell:
The Sackler family, obsessed with their reputation and ‘good name,’ help 400,000 people to their deaths via the opioid epidemic.

Why I chose it:
I loved the author’s book ‘Say Nothing’ about The Troubles in Northern Ireland and searched for other work. Saw this was being released in April so ordered it right away.

Review:
What is a name, really? Is philanthropy truly a gift if it comes with so many strings, including the need to have one’s name splashed across all the things? How do we hold accountable the leaders of corporations that cause pain and suffering for millions?

Author Keefe explores all these themes in his excellent book that focuses on the Sackler family, the name behind the billion-dollar pain empire via one of the ventures they chose not to put their name on, Purdue Pharma. If you’re not familiar, Purdue Pharma patented OxiContin, the extraordinarily strong opioid pain reliever introduced in the 1990s.

The book opens with a deposition in the late 2010s, but immediately jumps back to the early 1900s so we can follow three generations of the Sackler family, starting with boys Arthur, Raymund, and Mortimer. Arthur took the lead as the first born to take a bunch of jobs, supporting his family. He and his brothers all went to medical school, and all married (some of them multiple times). Over time Arthur especially starts to build the empire with medical marketing, then the purchase of Purdue Frederick and Purdue Pharma.

Each successive generation seems to be obsessed with putting their names on EVERYTHING. It kind of reminds me of the Trump family – there’s just this deep, almost pathological, need to piss all over the place. I don’t understand obsessions with names and legacy. Maybe it’s because I’m not having kids? To my mind, one’s legacy should be doing good things because they should be done, not because one wants credit and a fancy plaque at the entrance to a museum gallery.

The Sacklers do not ever get what they deserve – though the very last chapter does have a slight sense of comeuppance. They are helped in many ways by the FDA — who should have shut down OxiContin’s claims from the start — but also by the Trump DOJ, who chose not the prosecute the individual family members in addition to the privately owned company. The family made billions off of the addiction of others, essentially creating not just the opioid epidemic but, when they changed the formulation, helping push those individuals on to heroin.

They are evil. And while they do get to sleep on their giant pillows of ill-gotten money, at least one thing is now true: they have completely ruined the name they hold so dear. Museums and universities they donated to have started to strip their name from it (the Louvre, most notably, as well as medical programs at NYU and Tufts), as they don’t want to be associated with such immoral, vile individuals. But it still won’t bring back the lives lost at their hands.

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

Friday

16

April 2021

0

COMMENTS

Knife Edge by Simon Mayo

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
People who like thrillers.

In a nutshell:
In one morning in London the entire seven member investigations team from a national news network is murdered, individually, at knife point. Who did it? And why?

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
Paperback sale.

Review:
Famie is a journalist at IPS in London, and she not too long ago had applied to be a member of the investigations team but lost out on the gig. Lucky for her, because that entire team is murdered on their commutes in to work one morning. Famie has connections to a few members as friends, but one is also a former boyfriend.

No one claims responsibility – so why were they killed? What were they working on? Two months before their murders, the entire team has stopped storing any work on their work computers.

To complicate things, someone is communicating with Famie. The reader learns who that person is, as we learn more about the motivations behind the murders. But we also learn that another attack is planned, so the book swirls around whether Famie and her colleagues can use their journalistic backgrounds to investigate the murders and potentially save more people from peril.

I read the first chapter before going to sleep on Tuesday and realized if I kept reading I’d never go to sleep. I only waiting two more days to finish it because I had plans on Wednesday. It’s that kind of entertaining that you don’t want to stop reading. This was a mostly thrilling read, with a mostly satisfying ending. It’s only not five stars because I’m still not entirely, 100% sure exactly what happened. But don’t let that put you off.

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

Tuesday

13

April 2021

0

COMMENTS

Dear Leader by Jang Jin-Sung

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Four Stars

Best for:
Those interested in learning more about the recent history of North Korea from an inside perspective, set against the suspense of someone seeking asylum.

In a nutshell:
Jang Jin-Sung rose high within the North Korean ruling class as a poet, but eventually fled the country.

Worth quoting:
A lot, but I listened while running so didn’t have a chance to take note.

Why I chose it:
I stumbled across Michael Palin’s show about his visit to North Korea (https://www.natgeotv.com/me/michael-palin-in-north-korea/videos/michael-palin-in-north-korea) and realized I know next to nothing about life in North Korea.

Review:
This is an interesting book.

The book opens with a description of Jang being summoned for an audience with Kim Jong-Il, and just that is enough to realize we are not operating in a realm of what we would consider normality. The phone call comes in the middle of the night with no information other than a place to meet by 1AM. Jang is then driven with others in circles before boarding a train at a private railway station, being instructed to sleep for the two hour ride, then boarding a boat to an island, where the meet with Kim’s … dog. And Kim as well.

From there, the description of North Korea grows. At times it matches the very little I know about North Korea – the hunger, the inability to choose one’s own career – but also it fascinates me. There was an entire department of people who were allowed to view South Korean popular culture (books, poems, newspapers) so they could take on the voice of a South Korean, write books and poems praising North Korea, then distributing it through illegal means within South Korea as a form of propaganda.

Jang is relatively lucky from a young age – he is accepted to a performing arts school for music, but eventually is tutored by a famous poet and wins an award from the leader that includes, essentially a favor. Jang asks that he be allowed to pursue a career in writing instead of the required musical performance / composing career that his education would insist. The leader decrees it, and so Jang becomes a writer. And a very successful one, considering that meeting with Kim Jong-Il described up top happened when he was in his late 20s.

Due to sharing some of the South Korea materials with a friend, and the friend then losing those materials, Jang and his friend decide to run. We know, given he is writing this book, that Jang is ultimately successful, but the how — and the uncertainty around his friend — remains. The experience Jang shares is utterly harrowing. In some ways, he is very lucky in the people he encounters, but others either ignore him outright or actively threaten him with a promise to report him to the authorities.

Interspersed within what could work solely as an escape book is a description of North Korea, including Kim Jong-Il’s taking power from his father, the extreme poverty and danger in the provinces; and the challenges of everyday life in North Korea. He shares one story of returning to visit his home after living in Pyongyang for many years and discovering it changed, including so many laws and rules that, if broken, result in a quick public ‘trial’ and immediate execution.

Obviously one cannot learn all about one country from just one memoir, but this one was engrossing, fascinating, and heartbreaking.

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

Sunday

11

April 2021

0

COMMENTS

The Better Liar by Tanen Jones

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those who like stories told from multiple perspectives; those who relish a good, feasible but not totally telescoped twist.

In a nutshell:
Leslie’s dad has died, and the only way she can get her inheritance is to show up with her sister at the executor’s office. But Leslie has just visited her sister for the first time in ten years, finding her dead. How can she get the inheritance? Perhaps with the help of Mary, a woman who is willing to play a role for a certain amount of money.

Worth quoting:
“But liars are always specific. People who are telling the truth don’t bother to try to convince you.”

Why I chose it:
Part of an Easter paperback sale at Foyles. Plus, I’m trying to read more fiction.

Review:
Hoo boy. While I read the first 20 pages yesterday, I basically spent all of today reading the final 280, because I wanted to know what was going to happen.

The book alternates between the perspectives of Leslie, Robin’s ghost (Leslie’s dead sister), and Mary, the waitress Leslie meets in Vegas after she sees her sister Robin’s body. Leslie is desperate for her $50,000 inheritance, and tells Mary it’s because she’s lost her job and going to lose her house. But Mary learns Leslie still has her job, house is fine. Leslie has a one-year-old baby, and her husband Dave might be cheating on her, so Mary become very curious about why Leslie lied to her, and what she is hiding.

This is a well-told story. There are some moments that slightly beggar belief, but they soon make sense in the broader context of the story. There are twists, there are cringe-worthy moments, and there are moment when the reader genuinely feels for Leslie while also perhaps judging her a bit for her choices.

I won’t spoil the book, but I think it’s important to share a broader content note around mental health issues; the author provides more exploration of the specific mental health issue addressed in the book at the end in a way I haven’t seen before, and appreciated.

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

Monday

5

April 2021

0

COMMENTS

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
People interested in a deep look into just a few lives – their potential, their reality, their what-could-have-beens. People who like novels that aren’t conventional but aren’t totally out there.

In a nutshell:
Five generations of one family experience the 19th century, stopping and restarting along the way.

Worth quoting:
“She’d been able to remake her thinking from scratch, but not her family history.”

“Before striding off on a new path, must one not have acquired a profound understanding of what was wrong with the old one?”

“At many points during her life she had done something for the last time without knowing it. Did that mean that death was not a moment but a front, one that was as long as life?”

Why I chose it:
This was a birthday gift from my partner.

Review:
This review will contain some mild spoilers for the first part o the book.

The premise of this book is what a life might be like should certain events not have happened. I thought it might be a reset at birth each time, but no. The first section looks at the lives of the characters if the daughter (no one has names) dies around eight months. Everyone is destroyed in different ways – the father makes a decision that I find shocking and fascinated; the mother ends up completely shutting down.

In the intermission, we look at what would have happened if, when the baby wasn’t breathing, someone had done something to startle the baby back to life, and follows the family until the baby is a young woman. They all are experiencing pain due to WWI and famine, and there is now a second, younger daughter. The main daughter is traumatized and does not want to live, and, this story ends with her death at 19.

It goes on for there, with five total lives / continuations of life, following the great grandmother, grandmother, mother, daughter, and son. No one has names. No one has an easy life.

It’s an interesting idea, seeing how something going a little different might alter the course of one’s life but also the lives of everyone around one. It’s been done so many different ways, but this way feels … dark but also refreshing. It is a book that both feels totally originally and also extremely familiar.

Something that has struck me throughout the book is just the heaviness of everyone’s lives, and the fact that we don’t know what other people are going through. In this book, the grandmother of the daughter carries a secret with her that affects both her and her daughter. The daughter gathers her own secrets that impact her son. There is generational trauma, and things these family members experience that no one else in their family knows, let alone understands. There’s so much pain held inside. How many of the people we know well, or just encounter on a daily basis, are holding onto a pain we’ll never know about?

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

Sunday

4

April 2021

0

COMMENTS

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Fans of the TV show Call the Midwife; anyone interested in life in London in the 1950s.

In a nutshell:
Midwife Jennifer Worth recounts stories of her time working in the East End of London, soon after the creation of the National Health Service (NHS).

Worth quoting:
N/A (Audio Book)

Why I chose it:
I very much enjoy the TV show Call the Midwife, and have been eying the book in shops for a couple of years now. Finally decided it might be fun to listen to the stories.

Review:
First things first: this book is much more descriptive when it comes to births than the TV show. The show does, I think, a great job of showing how messy and challenging childbirth can be, but hearing all the aspects of it described? That might be a bit much for someone who hasn’t given birth. I have not given birth, but found the descriptions of the different situations to be fascinating.

Jennifer Worth is assigned to work at Nonnatus House, which is an order of nuns who focus on providing nursing and midwifery to the community. She shares her experiences of the East End of London, which includes living conditions that many of us would find nearly unbelievable and definitely shocking were we to encounter it as the norm today. Worth is honest in her reactions (and at times revulsions), and I think that helps the reader understand what life was like for some people. And while Worth is often judgmental when she encounters new situations, by the end of each story she seems to have recognized either where her judgment has been wrong, or at least come to have more understanding and compassion for people who are in a different life situation than she is.

As someone who enjoys the TV show, I couldn’t help but superimpose the actors who play these individuals onto them, which is a challenge when the description is fairly different from the character on TV (this is especially true for Fred). I had to remind myself a few times that the stories she’s sharing, which of course will have shifted due to the passage of time and the fallibility of human memory, are essentially about real people, and real lives, lived not so long ago.

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

Tuesday

30

March 2021

0

COMMENTS

Shit, Actually by Lindy West

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
Anyone who watched blockbusters from the 80s-early 2000s and enjoys a fair bit of of honest snark.

In a nutshell:
Lindy West, who started as a film critic, revisits a bunch of films and comments on them.

Worth quoting:
ARG SO MUCH

From the Harry Potter review: “Even in the moment when his whole family is being terrorized by a giant, fatboy Dudley can’t stop himself from plunging his face directly into the cake and omph momph gromph skromph. As a fat woman, this moment of cultural representation moved me deeply.”

From the Forrest Gump review: “‘My momma always said life is like a box of chock-lits. You never know what you’re gonna get.’ I mean, you mostly know. They write it on the lid.”

From the Rush Hour review (a film directed by Brett Ratner) “Unfortunately, due to the indefatigable vileness of men throughout history, sexual exploitation and abuse of power have pervaded all of our art and media, and everything is tainted and fucked!”

Why I chose it:
It’s LINDY WEST. Also MOVIES.

Review:
I don’t believe this book has been officially published in the UK. When it first came out, the only place I could theoretically find it was on a website I’d rather not use. I eventually was able to get it from a different bookseller, but it took over a month for it to arrive.

Worth the wait.

I thoroughly enjoy West’s writing. Shrill is an excellent book, and The Witches Are Coming was a great follow-up. But I love that she got a chance with Shit, Actually to just sort of … have fun. Obviously she doesn’t turn off her brain when watching these films (as evidenced by that last quote above), but there’s a sense of joy coming from the writing even when she’s reviewing such steaming piles as American Pie.

The book starts out with a review of The Fugitive, which West proudly proclaims as the best movie ever, and the one by which all others are judged. In fact, her rating system is 10/10 DVDs of The Fugitive.

This book arrived yesterday. I spent the evening reading it, then finished it up today, because it was just so good. So fun. I laughed to the point of snorting multiple times. And yes, part of that is possibly because I, too, am a white lady who is about the same age as West, so we are going to have some cultural touchstones in common. I’d seen all but one film she reviews, but even that review had be cracking up.

Times are hard, and it’s fun to read something delightful like this.

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