ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

Books Archive

Sunday

10

October 2021

0

COMMENTS

The Audacity by TV’s Katherine Ryan

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Best for:
Fans of humorous but also heartfelt memoirs.

In a nutshell:
TV’s Katherine Ryan shares her story, from growing up in Sarnia, Canada, to making her way in the comedy world, to the different ways she has built her family.

Worth quoting:
N/A (Audio book)

Why I chose it:
As a middle-aged white woman living in the UK, I think I’m legally required to at least watch one of her comedy specials. But I have enjoyed both of the ones on Netflix, and enjoyed her show The Duchess, so figured I’d enjoy her autobiography. I was right!

Review:
I cannot entirely relate to TV’s Katherine Ryan. She’s only three years younger than me, and we are both white women from North America who moved to the UK, but that’s where the similarities end. She has a level of unbotheredness that I can only aspire to, and it only works because she also is an empathetic and caring person. It’s very easy to not give a shit about what other people think of one when one also doesn’t give a shit about others; it’s much more challenging to figure out how to walk that line between not wanting to cause harm to others while not changing one’s life to constantly seek the acceptance of others. Ryan seems to have mostly struck that balance.

But I do appreciate her levels of sarcasm, as well as her attempt to find some more layered and interesting takes on popular culture. She doesn’t just go for low-hanging fruit; she brings something more to her discussions. And that shows in how she tells stories about her life, including things like her time working at Hooters, and her various relationships that have not always been the healthiest. She manages to dive deeply into her feelings and motivations, sharing her vulnerability. But she also is a famous celebrity, so her experience of the world is going to be a little different.

I don’t agree with Ryan on everything. Her chapter on cancel culture (because of course – I think every celebrity is required to address that in any book or article written in the coming years) seems almost naive. She has empathy for the people who misstep or straight up act harmful, but seems to overlook the need for empathy for the people who are harmed by those missteps and errors. She strikes me as someone who thinks intention is, if not all that matter, but what matters the most, and that impact isn’t nearly as important. I simply disagree. I also think she is missing some nuance around ‘cancel culture.’ I do think there is a difference between someone who tweeted something at 21 who is now 31 and has shown actual, tangible growth since then, and someone like JK Rowling, who continues to double down, is actively harming the trans community, and shows no interest in learning or growing. Whereas I don’t think Ryan really sees any difference, because Rowling could always eventually grow. I mean, I guess? But all signs point to ‘no’ at the moment.

If you are going to get this, I do recommend the audio version. It’s read by Ryan, but include a bonus chapter (30 minutes!) of her mother! It’s fascinating to hear her mother’s perspective on the same stories we’ve just heard Ryan tell. Honestly, I’d love to see more of that in places where the writers have good relationships with their parents – we all know we experience the world differently based on perspective, and I think it’d be so interesting to hear a parent or sibling’s take on things.

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

Saturday

9

October 2021

0

COMMENTS

The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Fans of mysteries told from a couple of different perspectives.

In a nutshell:
Jodi and Todd have been together for 20 years, though they aren’t married. Todd regularly cheats on Jodi. Todd has gotten his latest paramour, Natalie, pregnant. Natalie is the daughter of one of Todd’s childhood friends, Dean. Events transpire.

Worth quoting:
Really anything Todd from Todd’s perspective was so representative of how I imagine oblivious vaguely misogynistic men think. I could quote him endlessly here, always followed with a giant eye roll.

Why I chose it:
It’d been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years and thought I’d finally read it.

Review:
Ah, this book has one of my favorite storytelling devices: alternating perspectives. Every chapter is from either Jodi or Todd’s voice. They never talk about the same events, so it’s not like we get Saturday night’s perspective from Jodi, followed by Todd’s take on Saturday night. Instead, they alternate each chapter, building on the time line.

Todd is a builder / property investor. Jodi is a psychologist. She never wanted to get married, so they didn’t. They also don’t have children. Then one day Todd is told by his lover Natalie (who is a good 20 years younger than him) that she is pregnant, and she expects that he’ll be leaving his wife and marrying her. And he just sort of … does. Without ever directly telling Jodi. She hears it from Dean, Natalie’s dad. And him leaving her, when they aren’t married, leaves her in a bit of a pickle, financially speaking.

Neither Todd nor Jodi are particularly sympathetic. I kept wanting to throttle them, telling them to use their words, act like grown-ups. Not be assholes. Todd is the primary jerk, but Jodi definitely doesn’t do herself any favors.

I can’t share more without giving away way too much of the plot. But I do think it’s worth a read, especially if picked up at your library.

(There was a sort of shoehorned in story line about possible child abuse that I just didn’t think really fit; otherwise this would have been a four-star book for me.)

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

Tuesday

5

October 2021

0

COMMENTS

You Got Anything Stronger? by Gabrielle Union

Written by , Posted in Reviews

4 Stars

Best for:
Anyone who appreciates and is interested in very personal memoirs.

In a nutshell:
In her second collection of autobiographical essay, Union shares her struggles with fertility and more personal life experiences.

Worth quoting:
I listened to the audio book so didn’t jot down notes, but I did laugh out loud when she referred to the crackling of joints as she ages as “old age farts.”

Why I chose it:
I enjoyed her first book. (https://cannonballread.com/2017/11/great-storytelling/)

Review:
Content warning for pretty much all the things: infertility, sexual assault, racism, misogyny.

The book starts off with an intense chapter where Union discusses her miscarriages and struggles with infertility. While some chapters are lighter, most are fairly intense, and all are extremely well-written. One lighter chapter – her experience auditioning for the Matrix sequels – involved the kind of ‘oh shit’ moment that had me cackling out loud. I love that she felt comfortable enough with readers to share what was an embarrassing moment with the world.

One chapter that has received a lot of attention is the experience she and some colleague has in Dubrovnik, where they stopped into a bar that turned out to essentially be a neo-nazi enclave. The story is harrowing. The mayor of Dubrovnik has put out a statement sort of apologizing, but essentially gaslighting her and suggesting that it didn’t really happen the way she said (I’m not linking it here, but you can look it up). Even when sharing her experiences with racism, a white man basically says ‘no, that couldn’t have happened, not really.’

I chose the audio book for this, read by Union, and would recommend it for others.

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

Sunday

3

October 2021

0

COMMENTS

Insight Guides Glasgow Pocket Guide

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Two Stars

Best for:
People who like more narrative and fewer details in their guidebooks.

In a nutshell:
Broken down by neighborhood, this guide provides narratives but not loads of details on places to see.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
We are traveling to Glasgow later this month and sadly I could find no full-size proper travel books on the city – only pocket guides.

Review:
This is the first of two pocket-sized guides of Glasgow I’ll be reviewing. I started with this one because until I read the second, I thought this one was fine, so I guess the big take-away for me is to get at least a couple of different guides when traveling so we can compare and take the best away from them.

Like most travel books, this one is broken down by area, but it doesn’t give a great sense of where things are in relation to the city center. It’s also a long narrative with some items bolded, which isn’t how I can best process and grasp information. I did circle and start different attractions, but mentally I’m just not entirely sure where they all are and how they relate to each other.

However, I will be keeping this book, as I’m sure there’s good information in here, including a fairly robust ‘travel tips’ section that will likely come in handy.

Recommend to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep until our trip is over, then donate it.

Monday

27

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

Her Body & Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Written by , Posted in Reviews

3 Stars

Best for:
People who like a bit of sex with their short stories.

In a nutshell:
A collection of essays exploring womanhood.

Worth quoting:
‘ “Do you hate my body, Mom?” she says. Her voice splinters in pain, as if she were about to cry. “You hated yours, clearly, but mine looks just like yours used to, so—“ ‘

Why I chose it:
Recommended at my Book Spa appointment.

Review:
Some of these essays are intriguing. All are well written, but they aren’t quite what I was looking for in this book. It starts off strong, with an interesting exploration of a retelling of some urban legends. In the middle, the longest ‘essay,’ however, I basically skipped, as it was a paragraph about each episode of Law and Order SVU. I’m sure there’s something deep or interesting there that I missed, but I didn’t really get it. Another essay, about a writer at a writer’s retreat was engrossing.

As I said, the essays are well-written, and I definitely got sucked into a couple of them. But the collection overall felt uneven to me, and there was a lot more sex in it than I’m looking for in most of my reading. Not looking for something chaste, and I know sex factors into a large part of life for many people, but I don’t really need it in every story I read. And to be fair, there was at least one essay I recall where sex isn’t the focus, and it’s one that I found to be really moving – about a woman considering weight loss surgery.

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

Wednesday

15

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

4

September 2021

0

COMMENTS

Notes From An Apocalypse by Mark O’Connell

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday

30

August 2021

0

COMMENTS

Paddle Your Own Canoe by Nick Offerman

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday

22

August 2021

0

COMMENTS

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Fans of Liane Moriarty-style books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday

7

August 2021

0

COMMENTS

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Written by , Posted in Uncategorized

Five Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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