ASK Musings

No matter where you go, there you are.

CBR14 Archive

Wednesday

21

September 2022

0

COMMENTS

Managing Expectations by Minnie Driver

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Fans of well-written and insightful autobiographies of public figures.

In a nutshell:
Actress and author Driver shares the details of a few stories that provide the reader with real insight into her life.

Worth quoting:
I listened so didn’t take down any particular phrases, but there were definitely multiple times I had a strong positive reaction to something she shared.

Why I chose it:
On one level, I’m a bit of a fan in that I think she is fantastic in Grosse Pointe Blank. On another, I have vague memories of claims that Matt Damon broke up with her on Oprah, and I was sort of hoping maybe she’s touch on that? (Spoiler: she does, in the classiest way possible.)

Review:
What an absolutely lovely autobiography. Given I’ve listened to some this year that left me a bit wanting in terms of both the quality of the writing and the choice of stories shared, I was a slightly hesitant, and thought perhaps this was no longer my genre of choice. Driver’s writing put all concerns to rest, as she provides a well-written, well-edited, and well-read (seriously, get the audio version she reads herself) collection of essays that provide insight into a privileged life. And even with that privilege, I didn’t get the sense ever that she was out of touch, or unaware of how lucky she has been in some aspects of her life. She seems to have a strong sense of self, and that comes across in this book.

The book isn’t just about her time as an actress – in fact it starts with a story about her being a bit of a brat as a child. I’d say nearly half the book is about her childhood, and the stories are fascinating. She doesn’t go from episode to episode – she seems to have carefully selected things that for her represent an important time and story in her life. There are just a handful of chapters, and each chapter is pretty narrowly focused, so don’t expect to get her literal life story.

She obviously does discuss her career, but I’d say it’s maybe 1/3 of the book max? The final chapter is heart-wrenching and beautiful, covering the short illness and death of her mother.

As with any memoir, I have no idea what was left out, how truthful the stories are, etc. But I get a sense that Driver has shared a lot of herself, and while it’s obviously not all of herself, it doesn’t feel censored or self-edited in an untrue way. I don’t ‘know’ Driver in any real way, but the book makes me feel now that I do, just a little bit, and I appreciate her contribution to this genre.

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

Monday

19

September 2022

0

COMMENTS

How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
Those who are interested in being more intentional with their time and attention.

In a nutshell:
Artist and author Odell explores ways to be more intentional with our time, and how that relates to community and environment.

Worth quoting:
“That tiny, glowing world of metrics cannot compare to this one, which speaks to me instead in breezes, light and shadow, and the unruly, indescribably detail of the real.”

“The impulse to say goodbye to it all, permanently, doesn’t just neglect our responsibility to the world that we live in; it is largely unfeasible, and for good reason.”

“What is needed, then, is not a ‘once-and-for-all’ type of quitting but ongoing training: the ability not just to withdraw attention, but to invest it somewhere else, to enlarge and proliferate it, to improve its acuity.”

Why I chose it:
The cover kept jumping out at me in bookshops, and then I read something where this was recommended, so figured that was enough to pick it up.

Review:
This is one of those books where the ‘worth quoting’ section could have gone on for pages and pages. Odell is a talented writer, and the book is filled with poetic phrases and insightful paragraphs that get the reader thinking critically about one’s place in the world, the choices one makes, and the impact one has on the community and environment around them.

The book is laid out in six strong chapters and a conclusion. The first chapter, ‘A Case for Nothing,’ makes the argument that we need the space in between, the silence, to think and live and contemplate. And while this ‘nothing’ is often seen as a luxury, she argues that it shouldn’t be – that we all need this time and ability to not have to be productive, to be active, to be consuming.

The second chapter explores the sort of knee-jerk reaction I know that I’ve seen in books that might be considered similar to this one – lets just leave it all behind and retreat forever. But Odell points out that not only is this not feasible for most, it’s not actually what we should be doing, because we owe something to our communities and to those we would leave behind.

From there, her third chapters explores different ways that people have exercised their right and need to withdraw their attention from where the current economy demands we focus it: social media, capitalism, overall ‘productivity’ in the sense of doing doing doing. After making the case of ways to fight against these strains on our time and attention, she then spends a chapter exploring how to engage our attention in other ways. It’s not about finding the right app to limit screen time; it’s about being intentional and recognizing that where we fix our attention creates our reality.

The last parts of the book focus on community, environment, space and time. I could be more specific, but I’m still processing what I’ve read. I didn’t expect the book to look so heavily at environment and ecology, but that is a consistent theme, and the fact that Odell is an avid bird-watchers plays heavy into the analogies she provides. She then wraps up discussing the idea she calls ‘manifest dismantling;’ that is, looking at ways communities have deconstructed the mistakes of their place that have disconnected them from nature and the world around them.

I think my review might suggest this book is all over the place, but it’s not. There’s just so much to contemplate, it’s one of those books that I would have loved to read as part of a book club so we could have discussed each chapter in depth. Regardless, I know this one will stick with me.

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

Sunday

18

September 2022

0

COMMENTS

On Being Nice by The School of Life

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Two Stars

Best for:
I am not going to recommend this to anyone, though I could imagine that perhaps fans of Jordan Peterson might find this to be right for them? Not for any specific reason, just a feeling I have.

In a nutshell:
The best I can describe this is as the book form of one of those personality tests management consultants rely on that don’t have any backing in science and yet very confidently reduces everyone down to a series of dichotomies.

Worth quoting:
Nope.

Why I chose it:
This is how The School of Life (authors of this book) describes itself: “We are a passionate group of people devoted to psychology, philosophy, therapy, art and culture – and on a mission to build exemplary tools that bring about growth, calm and self-understanding.” Sounds fairly up my alley, especially the philosophy aspect. Turns out, not so much.

Review:
There are a few different perspectives out in the world on the concepts of ‘nice’ and ‘kind,’ but most of the ones I tend to agree with are those that view ‘nice’ as a sort of outwardly performance, whereas kindness is an action that shows caring for someone else. It’s fascinating to me that the authors chose to focus on being nice, and not kind, but in reading this book, I’m not even sure they got that right.

This book seems to be deeply invested in archetypes and the idea that in every category of being, people are either a or b, and these types are both diametrically opposed to each other and also not entirely sophisticated or deep. And somehow at the same time, each of these types within a category had me saying ‘what?’, ‘huh?’, or ‘how on earth did you come to that conclusion?’

For example – they talk about people who are Polite vs people who are Frank and that this stems from ‘a contrasting set of beliefs about human nature.’ Huh? What? After reading the chapter, I’m still not entirely sure what they mean, but nearly everything I wrote in the margins was some version of ‘that doesn’t make any sense’ or ‘show your work.’ Similarly, the chapter that talks about shyness – YIKES. Deeply insulting and just unnecessarily weird.

The book also talks about the value of flirting (what? why?) and offers some suggestions about how to be a friend. The latter isn’t entirely void of interesting and possibly helpful suggestions; basically just enough to keep me from assigning this book one star instead of two. But overall, it feels almost like an alien was given a few books to read and movies to watch, and then asked to write a book on human behavior based on that very limited experience.

I think perhaps the authors were meaning to write a book on how to be the sort of person other people might want to be friends with? Maybe? It still wouldn’t be a book I’d recommend, but this version just makes very little sense to me, and where it is coherent, it’s not backed up with any support.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Toss it (along with another book by the same organization that I won’t even attempt to read)

Thursday

8

September 2022

0

COMMENTS

Life in the United Kingdom by Jenny Wales

Written by , Posted in Move to UK: Settling In, Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
There is only one audience for this one, and that audience is people who are planning to live in the UK long term.

In a nutshell:
Everything the UK government thinks one needs to know to become a citizen or permanent resident of the nation.

Worth quoting:
N/A

Why I chose it:
On 22 September I’m taking the Life in the UK exam, which I need to apply for permanent residency early next year.

Review:
So this book is subtitled ‘A Guide for New Residents’ and honestly I wish they gave these out to everyone with their visa. I’m sure historians and current political folks will take issue with a lot in this book, but I was looking for a very basic book to explain how things work here, and this is a pretty snappy little abridged history of the UK.

As someone who is from a republic, it’s taken awhile to wrap my head around a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary system. And as I type this, I’m listening to the BBC broadcast about the Queen’s passing, which just happened this afternoon. There is a lot in this handbook that is no longer applicable. I think the national anthem has changed, right? It’s now God Save the King?

If you ever find yourself moving to the UK for more than a few months, even if you don’t plan to stay long enough to pursue citizenship, I think that it would be a good idea to pick this up. There’s some useful information in here, and some interesting little facts.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep it. My partner needs to study!

Monday

8

August 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Office BFFs by Jenna Fischer & Angela Kinsey

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Fans of either The Office TV show, or The Office Ladies podcast

In a nutshell:
Jenna ‘Pam’ Fischer and Angela ‘Angela’ Kinsey share stories of their time on The Office, which led to them becoming best friends.

Worth quoting:
N/A (audio book)

Why I chose it:
It was suggested by Audible and sounded fun

Review:
I didn’t watch The Office when it was on – I mean, I’m sure I saw episodes of it at the time but it wasn’t a show I regularly tuned in for. Some of it is just too cringe for me – my secondhand embarrassment is very easily set off – but some of it is really sweet. Once the show ended I watched it on streaming.

The book hits on exactly what I think any fan of a TV show wants. Behind the scenes gossip, interesting little nuggets about different famous episodes, deep dives into the main fictional relationships. This one also has the added bonus of learning about the real-life friendship of the two authors.

Unsurprisingly if you are familiar with these two actresses, the gossip is all kind and sweet. It sounds like everyone who worked on the show was just lovely. Really the only time there’s any tension is when discussing the fact that the show (I’m assuming the network, NBC) provided no maternity leave pay for Jenna Fischer, nor did they come up with ways to shoot around her leave, but they would accommodate other actors who had to be away when filming movies. Not cool, and I really appreciate that she spoke out about this, and the hardship of coming back to work five weeks post-partum because she needed the paycheck.

I’m not familiar with the podcast that Fischer and Kinsey started, similar to West Wing Weekly, but after listening to this book I’ll probably check it out.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Recommend to a Friend (who loved The Office)

Friday

5

August 2022

0

COMMENTS

Rogues by Patrick Radden Keefe

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People looking for some quality long-form writing about some interesting and disturbing characters.

In a nutshell:
Keefe brings together essays he’s written for magazines over the past decade or so.

Worth quoting:
N/A – Audio book

Why I chose it:
Loved his past two books – didn’t realize this was a collection of long essays.

Review:
This is not a bad book. It was not exactly what I was looking for, but I did still enjoy it. I listened to each essay in one sitting (well, running – it’s perfect for a 4-5 mile run, cool-down and stretch), which I think was the right call, because I would get the full story all at once.

The first essay is one I recall reading when it first came out, about someone who sells what are likely counterfeit rare old wines. There’s some enjoyment in it because one of the people he rips off is a Koch brother.

Other essays cover El Chapo, a woman in witness protection in Amsterdam because she testified against her mobster brother, a famous attorney who takes on notorious death penalty cases, someone fighting to find the truth of the Lockerbie bombing, and others. Also … Anthony Bourdain. I appreciate the title but I think it’s a bit much – some people don’t really fit under the ‘rebel’ theme but they also aren’t criminals. I don’t know – I’m happy they put all these essays together, but the link is tenuous at best.

Keefe is a talented investigative journalist – that is not in doubt. At times I wish he’s choose different words in his writing – sometimes it feels a little like that episode of Friends where Joey uses a thesaurus to try to make his letter to the adoption agency sound fancy. But that’s a choice Keefe makes as a writer, and it only sometimes pulled me out of the essays.

I don’t think anything in particular is gained from listening to this as opposed to reading it, but I do think each essay should be consumed all in one go.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it (if I could – it’s an audio book)

Saturday

30

July 2022

0

COMMENTS

This Book Will Make You Kinder by Henry James Garrett

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Five Stars

Best for:
All of humanity (but mostly the privileged folks).

In a nutshell:
Philosopher Garrett makes his case for the reasons we should be kind, and the ways people falter at it.

Worth quoting:
“The problem is not that oppressed people don’t empathize enough with their oppressors; the problem is that privileged folk don’t empathize enough with the oppressed.”

“Our beliefs about the inevitability of certain forms of suffering are intimately connected with our beliefs about what type of world is possible.”

“If you believe rules are the source of your duty to be kind and abstain from cruelty, you will be kind only to the extent that the rules demand.”

“Many people, for instance, mistake those rules of property and ownership upon which our capitalist system is built for moral rules, and they limit their empathy for that reason.”

“Kindness isn’t a complicated matter; in the end it comes down to whether you choose to look or to look away.

Why I chose it:
It had cute illustrations – plus I love a good book on kindness because I know I am not as kind as I’d like to be.

Review:
I knew this was going to be a special book when I got to page 5 and found an illustration of two whales. One says ‘Mama, how do we know when we’ve crossed from one ocean to another?’ and the mama whale responds ‘We don’t. Borders are socially constructed and you should be wary of anyone who takes them too seriously.’ Such adorable and profound illustrations fill this clever take on philosophy, morality, and empathy. There are turtles, dogs, birds, butterflies and other creatures imparting simple but important words of wisdom.

Garrett is a philosopher, and though this book is easy to read, it definitely has some aspects that remind of philosophy books and papers I read at university. His project with the book is to answer two questions: why are we kind, and why aren’t we kinder. The answer to the first question, he argues, is because of empathy, and the answer to the second question, is because of mistakes we make that ‘switch that empathy off.’

Early on he argues that many disagreements on particulars happen because we haven’t agreed to the underlying parameters or basic premises of the issues. If we’re starting from vastly different places, it is not surprising that we’ll feel as though we are talking past one another.

At this point and at many times throughout the book, Garrett is clear that he is not arguing that everyone makes the same number and type of empathy-limiting mistakes – this quote from above is critical to keep in mind throughout: “The problem is not that oppressed people don’t empathize enough with their oppressors; the problem is that privileged folk don’t empathize enough with the oppressed.”

Once Garrett has made his first argument about empathy and kindness, he turns to what he considers ‘empathy limiting mistakes.’ These are reasons why people essentially aren’t kinder. But first, he spends an entire chapter talking about how these mistakes are not evenly distributed throughout society – those with more power are often choosing or allowing themselves to make these mistakes, which result in them retaining more power of the people who they are choosing not to empathize with.

The chapter on the types of mistakes is enlightening, and includes things like false beliefs; ignorance / lack of knowledge; failure of imagination; a limited conception of morality (e.g. just following the rules of a religion, but not allowing for the idea that things not covered by those rules might also be unkind).

Once he’s explored in detail and provided examples of how each of these mistakes leads to a lack of kindness, he spends a chapter on how to improve empathy. This includes things like listening, treating people as experts in themselves, listening to those who are multiply oppressed, avoid being defensive, and being present.

I loved this book. I loved the sincerity and honesty with which Garrett approaches this topic. I love that he points out that ‘it costs nothing to be kind’ is a pretty limited conception of kindness – if we’re doing it right, it may very well cost us a lot to be kind, and that’s okay. I keep thinking about this book and I’ll be thinking about it for awhile.

Recommend to a Friend / Keep / Donate it / Toss it:
Keep / Buy for everyone

Sunday

24

July 2022

0

COMMENTS

Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Four Stars

Best for:
All of, us collectively, as a society, who are fed up with the expectations that we just work work work.

In a nutshell:
Author Petersen explores how the Millennial generation has been put into basically a really shit situation.

Worth quoting:
“This isn’t a personal problem. It’s a societal one — and it will not be cured by productivity apps, or a bullet journal, or face mask skin treatments, or overnight fucking oats.”

“Just because middle-class parents decided that a certain style of parenting is superior doesn’t mean it empirically is.”

“By cloaking the labor in the language of ‘passion,’ we’re prevented from thinking of what we do as what it is: a job, not the entirety of our lives.”

Why I chose it:
Although I’m a Xennial, I can definitely relate to the feeling of just being completely exhausted by the world and the expectations of all of us.

Review:
Author Peterson has written an interesting and important book, though in the end, I’m not sure it is telling us anything we don’t already know, at least those of us who are paying attention.
This book was written before the ‘Great Resignation’ became a thing, which makes it quite prescient.

She starts by looking at how we got here – essentially the values and pressures put on people by their parents. She’s not blaming the previous generation exactly, just discussing how their lives were different than the lives of their children. It reminds me of something I’ve read elsewhere – Boomers love to belittle Millennials for demanding ‘participation trophies,’ but the Boomers are the ones who taught them to expect those trophies – so why are the Millennials the ones being derided?

From there, the book focuses on what so many of us know – how for many of us, our lives have been a constant hustle. Get the best grades you can while also playing a sport, learning an instrument, and volunteering so you can go to a good university. Get the best grades there, along with perhaps some unpaid work experience (though only for those who can afford that), and then get a job. Which will pay you very little, and take up so much of your time that you have no time for living.

So yeah, folks are burnt out.

Peterson explores a variety of things that contribute to this: the digital age forcing work into every aspect of our lives; parenthood and how much energy that requires; unfair and unequal division of labor.

There’s so much in here and I think a lot of people would benefit from reading it. And while there are loads of reminders in there about the lives we all live individually, Peterson make a point to not offer specific solutions. There’s nothing here that a better time management method will fix – this is a problem with our society. Demanding people work eight or more hours a day, five days a week, commute 2 or 3 hours a day, raise children, with insufficient pay and very little support is a society that needs to be overturned at a systemic level.
We collectively need to take control back from the people who think its just fine for us all to work ourselves beyond exhaustion.

And until then, we definitely need to stop judging other people who might not go to university, or who might not parent the way we would, or who are living their lives in ways that we might not (but perhaps that we wish we could). The system is fucked up and people are doing their best to survive it.

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

Saturday

23

July 2022

0

COMMENTS

Buy Yourself the Fucking Lilies by Tara Schuster

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Anyone looking for some ideas for how to take better care of themselves.

In a nutshell:
Writer Schuster had a bit of a rough childhood, and so has been essentially exploring how to parent herself, and grow into the person she wants to be.

Worth quoting:
‘Life is not always a list of problems to be solved; sometimes it’s actually made up of fun and ease and beauty and laughter.’

‘There is no special prize at the end of life for “the busiest.”’

Why I chose it:
Honestly? The cover’s pretty cool. Also I like a bit of a vulgar title.

Review:
This was a fun book to read. It felt a bit indulgent (to read, not to write), but also there is some pretty cool stuff in here. One of the pull quotes from a review calls it ‘Wild meets You Are a Badass’, and I kind of agree? I don’t know if there is anything groundbreaking or earth shattering in here, but honestly? Sometimes I do like to be reminded that when possible, life should be enjoyed.

Now, obviously, one could view that as a pretty superficial or possibly naive view of the world. What if you have a health issue? What if you have no money? What if you’re facing some really serious problems? Who has time to, essentially, buy the fucking lilies when you aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from?

But if you approach the book for what it is – namely, suggestions and tips that the author has tried that have helped her grow as a person, enjoying her life more, starting from a place of some level of privilege – then I think it’s pretty good. Suggestions related to friendships, to self-awareness, and to personal values are ones I’ve started to incorporate. Others, mostly about diet / exercise / drinking or about finding a partner, I skimmed over because those aren’t so relevant to me right now.

The author is a good writer – the book is conversational and at times a bit funny. For what it is, I think it’s a pretty good read.

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

Wednesday

29

June 2022

0

COMMENTS

The Little Book of Big Ethical Questions by Susan Liautaud

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
People looking for some conversation-starting ethical starting points.

In a nutshell:
Ethics professional Liautaud explores a bunch of questions and what the ‘right’ thing might be to do in each.

Worth quoting:
“So I try my best to be careful about making choices that affect the people who will be living with them.”

Why I chose it:
I like accessible pop philosophy books.

Review:
And yet … I need to stop buying pop philosophy books. I’m almost always disappointed. (Except How to Be Perfect. That was fun.) This book is fine, though some parts did frustrate me enough to make me underline a whole lot and write a lot in the margins.

The book breaks the questions down into six sections: family and friends; politics, community and culture; work; technology; consumer choices, and health. She includes questions like: “Should you read your child’s or teenager’s diary or journal?”; “Should voting be mandatory?”; “Should your employer have a say in what you post on your private social media?”; “Should robots have rights?”; “Is purchasing organic food and products a more ethical choice?”; “Would you be in favor of editing the genes of human embryos?”

It’s got a great range of questions, and I think I might have enjoyed the book more with a book club so we could have some good discussions, though some of the questions in the book are pretty straightforward for me, while for the author she sees nearly everything in shades of gray. That’s not necessarily bad, and I think she makes some great arguments against binary thinking in certain circumstances, but there was a bit too much bet-hedging for me.

The chapter that got me frustrated was looking at the question “Should CEOs speak out about important social and political issues of the day?” And her response was basically nope. As though CEOs don’t owe anything to their employees or customers other than dividends. Yuck.

(Also, once again, can philosophers please stop referencing Peter Singer! Ugh.)

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