Wednesday, July 27, 2016


Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond (2016)

You may have already heard about this new book that investigates landlords and tenants in Milwaukee. It's gotten a lot of press since even before it was released a few months ago. I wasn't planning to read it, but for some reason impulsively put it on hold at the library. I am interested in the current state of income inequality in the US, and this is obviously pretty related.

In this book we meet a number of real people who are struggling unsuccessfully to stave off eviction. Arleen and her two sons, a nurse-turned-drug-addict named Scott, a few generations of the Hinkston family, and others. We also become acquainted with inner-city landlord Sherrena Tarver and trailer-park owner Tobin Charney. Desmond follows all of them for a few years, really delving into their life stories, motivations, and challenges.

It's very easy to point fingers at people for not taking responsibility for their lives, and there were definitely some people in this book who made poor life choices. But the impossibility of coming back from one bad choice is overwhelmingly difficult, and even people who tried to do the right thing but just had bad luck seemed to be punished over and over. The fact is that housing is incredibly expensive in this country, even in the slums. And although the landlords were making money off of the poor people, it didn't seem (at least in Sherrena's case) that she was trying to gouge people.

I learned several rather startling things in this book. For one thing, I didn't realize how few poor people are able to get subsidized housing; most are stuck in the regular rental market, which can be impossibly expensive. I also learned about "nuisance violations," which mean that a landlord is liable if one of her properties has 3 or more 911 calls in a certain period of time. The result is usually evicting the people who made the calls. This puts victims of domestic abuse in a very precarious situation, even resulting in them not calling 911 when they should. I don't have to tell you how dangerous that is. Arleen was evicted one time in part because of a 911 call she made when her youngest son was having a bad asthma attack. I also hadn't ever thought about how much evictions can affect other aspects of a family's life. For instance, Arleen's kids had attended 5 different schools in the course of 2 academic years, which isn't setting them up for success. Having to move suddenly also means unplanned time off work, which can result in losing one's job. Frequent changes in address also meant that one person in this book stopped getting welfare benefits at all and became dependent on a food pantry to eat.

Luckily, Desmond does end on a positive note, providing an idea for a housing voucher program that could prevent most of these situations. I'm under no illusion that this will ever happen in the United States, because for some reason we are pretty uninterested in helping the poor. But I like knowing that it's possible.

For a nonfiction book, this one was pretty accessible. Because it focused so much on real-world stories it was easy to understand. My only difficulty was that because Desmond switched back and forth between the stories I had a hard time keeping track of the different peoples' stories. I don't understand why authors are so allergic to just telling a story from start to finish. It would have worked much better for me to tell one person or family's story at a time. Many readers are probably more astute than me though and will have no problem following the stories in this book.

If you're interested in the problems of America's poor I think you'll learn a lot from this book. I really think that income inequality is the biggest problem we have in the US, and that most of our other problems are directly caused by it. I'm also really interested in Nancy Isenberg's White Trash, and Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, which is arguably related to poverty. Have you read anything recently addressing similar topics that you could recommend?

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Top 10 Things Books Have Made Me Want To Do Or Learn

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. Today's topic is Top Ten Things Books Have Made Me Want To Do Or Learn After Reading Them. This is a great topic, but also hard because sometimes it's difficult to remember the exact books that made me want to do things. Like, I love books in which a woman moves to a new town and buys a house all of her own and fixes it up while developing a romance with a local, but although I know I've read more than one book like that, I can only think of one specifically. It's also important to note that I haven't actually done most of these things. It's more like I was inspired for a moment and then realized that it would take effort, and of course in other cases it's impossible. Still, it was fun coming up with the list!

1. Make maple syrup snow candy
Inspired by: the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (This is the easiest thing on the list and I've still not done it!)

2. Move to a new place and live in a cute little house
Inspired by: Mariana by Susanna Kearsley is the one that comes to mind, but I know there are a ton more!

3. Relive my teenage years but do a better job of it
Inspired by: The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, and every other book starring a confident, self-aware teenager.

4. Go on an amazing and life-changing adventure
Inspired by: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

5. Learn some survival skills
Inspired by: The Hunger Games, The Martian, every post-apocalyptic novel ever, and the Little House books.

6. Change my life for the better
Inspired by: Reinventing You, Stand Out, The Power of Habit, The Wise Heart, Becoming a Life Change Artist...anything I've read about self-improvement or career development

7. Move back to my hometown
Inspired by: The Best Man by Kristin Higgins
I would never actually move back to my hometown, but I'd like to be that character moving back to her hometown.

8. Eat better
Inspired by: The Omnivore's Dilemma and other books by Michael Pollan, The Art of Eating In by Cathy Erway, various books by Mark Bittman
For a while I read a ton of books about food and although my eating has changed a lot over the years, I've gotten to a point where I've read so much about what you should and should not eat that I no longer know what is healthy. So I just eat whatever I want usually, but I do try to reduce my intake of processed foods.

9. Live in the English countryside
Inspired by: Jane Austen, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson, many others. This plan keeps looking better and better to me.

10. Be an upper-class lady in Regency England
Inspired by: Never Judge a Lady By Her Cover by Sarah MacLean, Just Like Heaven by Julia Quinn, A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant, The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan (which I think is not Regency, but I'm not picky.) I realize that I wouldn't actually want to be a woman at that time, but I kind of like the idea of dressing up all the time and not having a job.

Maybe someday I'll actually do these things. (Time travel can happen, can't it?) In the meantime, I'll just enjoy everything vicariously through the books I read!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Bet Me

Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie (2004), narrated by Deanna Hurst

When we meet Min Dobbs, she is in a bar being dumped by her jerk of a boyfriend. She's upset, not because she loves him, but because now she doesn't have a date to her sister's wedding, which is only three weeks away. Later that evening, Min accepts an offer to go to dinner with a man named Cal Morrisey, even though she knows he only asked her out to win a bet. By the end of the evening, they know they can't stand each other and will never see one another again. But fate intervenes, and soon Min and Cal realize they are very much attracted to each other. However, Min doesn't want to take a chance on a guy she knows to be a heartbreaker, and the bet he made - or didn't make? - still stands between them and it lasts for a month, until just after her sister's wedding.

Min's first date with Cal was at a restaurant called Emilio's and this was part of the reason they kept running into each other. Emilio made amazing bread and chicken marsala and Min kept going back there, or ordering takeout that Cal ended up delivering. Another reason they kept running into each other is that on the evening of their first date Min's friend Bonnie and Cal's friend Roger fell madly, instantly in love. So they were bound to end up in the same places.

Min's two best friends had very different beliefs about love. Bonnie was a firm believer in fairy tales; Liza subscribed to chaos theory. Min was pretty cynical about relationships, as was Cal, but there was sort of a running joke that every time one of them insisted they weren't falling for the other one, they'd stub a toe, cut their hand, or somehow otherwise hurt themselves. It was pretty hilarious. In the meantime, Min's sister Diana was about to get married and Min knew there was something wrong. Because of her angst about having a date and fitting into her dress, this whole story centered around the wedding, and when it finally happened it was a pretty spectacular scene.

Min's mother was horrible. She was obsessed with weight loss and constantly admonished Min for not losing weight, reminding her to avoid butter, bread, and basically anything that is actual food. She also ordered Min's bridesmaid dress a couple of sizes too small intentionally and then got angry when it didn't fit.

Cal, on the other hand, found Min irresistibly sexy, not in spite of her curves, but because of them. At one point when she is trying to make "heart healthy" chicken marsala and it comes out terribly, and she reveals that a former boyfriend dumped her because of her weight, he says "Some things are supposed to be made with butter. You're one of them." I love Cal. He was this incredibly good-looking guy and Min didn't fit the image of the sort of woman he would be with, and I thought that was addressed so well. Don't get me wrong, though - he's not perfect. He's known for dumping women after just a few months, which is one of the tensions in their relationship. But he's such a great example of an imperfect yet appealing romance hero.

I also loved Min a lot. I like that she's this totally practical-minded person - I mean, she works as an actuary! - but she also has a weakness for cute, unusual shoes and she has a snow globe collection. I love the way her character develops throughout this novel, and how she realizes which of her relationships are healthy and which aren't. Her friends were great, too and I loved the roles her friends played in this story. She also wasn't afraid to speak her mind, which was incredibly well illustrated in the scene where she had dinner with Cal's stuffy, cold, pretentious parents. It was so satisfying.

Literally my only criticism of this book is that the characters ate so much chicken marsala that I got sick of it, and I've never even had chicken marsala. (At the same time, it made me want to try it.) Min and Cal also got rather ecstatic over Krispy Kreme donuts, which I find pretty similar to Dunkin' Donuts in that they're nothing special. Given that my only complaints about this book are related to the food, I highly recommend it.

I sort of can't believe I hadn't read this, or anything by Crusie, before. I definitely heard of her back in the late 90s or early 00s when I first was reading a ton of chick lit, and this is such great old-school chick lit! It's like old Jennifer Weiner or Jane Green or Marian Keyes. On the one hand, I can't believe it missed it! On the other hand, I'm glad I did so that I could enjoy it now. I kept hearing of this book specifically, and recently there was an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books in which people discussed the book that got them reading romance and more than one person mentioned this one.

Have you read Jennifer Crusie? Are her other books as good as this one? This is the perfect sort of book for me to listen to on audio, so if you have any suggestions for similar books, please let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (2016)

A little girl named Rose is out riding her new bike near her home in South Dakota, when she suddenly falls into a hole. When she is found, she's laying in the palm of a giant hand. Years later that little girl is a physicist and she once again crosses paths with the giant hand. The mystery of its origin and purpose are still unresolved, but it is Rose who finally helps unlock its secrets.

I don't want to give away much more about the plot, because all the fun of this book is uncovering the story bit by bit as you go along. Dr. Rose Franklin is part of a team that also includes Kara, an Army helicopter pilot, her co-pilot Ryan, and Vincent, a graduate student in linguistics. The story is told mostly through interviews with these and other characters, as well as some journals and logs and news reports. The conversations are all with an unnamed interviewer who clearly has a ton of power, and presumably a lot of information that he's not sharing with his interviewees. This means that the reader is also kept quite in the dark about what is going on. We're not privy to the action exactly, but often are getting a debriefing afterward. It's an interesting narrative choice, but I think it works pretty well here.

The story is big, and tied into some larger mythology, and global repercussions. But it's also about people working together in very intense circumstances and how that affects them. It's very difficult to talk about without giving away things that you'll want to discover for yourself if you read it! The chapters are all very short which, combined with the interview format, makes it pretty quick to read.

I've been waiting for this book for about a year. I first heard about it on the now-defunct Books on the Nightstand podcast, and the host's response to reading an early manuscript was so enthusiastic that I remembered it until it was finally published just recently. It turns out that it's the first in a series (#2 is expected in 2017), but it didn't leave me hanging. I still have questions and feel like there's a lot more to discover, but I do feel like the story was complete enough to be satisfying.

I want to compare this novel to The Martian, not because it actually has anything in common with it, but because I think it's similarly accessible to non-science fiction readers. It's not nearly as dense as a lot of science fiction and although it definitely contains science, it's not difficult for regular people to understand. But it definitely involves some important scifi elements, and it's just a fun book to read. Recommended!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ten Books Set Outside of the US

Top Ten Tuesdays are hosted at The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is Ten Books Set Outside the US. Like many people, most of the books I read take place in the US but I do read a decent number of books that take place elsewhere. I get tired of reading about people just like me who live in places that are familiar - I want to experience something new! So when I hear about a book that takes place somewhere that I haven't already read a thousand books about, that piques my interest. Here's a list of ten great books that take place outside of the United States. Just for fun, I also excluded the UK (because SO MANY BOOKS) and made sure each country I did include wasn't on the list more than once. Links go to my reviews so you can read more about why I loved these books.

1. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee (Hong Kong)

2. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (Haiti)

3. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Australia)

4. City of Thieves by David Benioff (Russia)

5. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (The Netherlands)

6. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)

7. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (North Korea)

8. The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian (Syria)

9. The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (France)

10. Written in the Stars by Aisha Saeed (Pakistan)

It was so hard to choose which books to include. I guess that means I've read a lot of really good books that take place in other countries.

What's your favorite book that takes place outside of the US? Have you read any books that are on my list?

Monday, July 18, 2016

All the Bright Places

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven (2015)

Violet's sister was killed in a car accident a year ago. Finch struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. One day they are both up on the school's bell tower contemplating the very long step down when they meet for the first time. It's hard to say who saved who, but as their friendship progresses along with the school project they're working on together, questions arise about whether or not it's even possible to save another person.

As soon as I finished this book I just immediately wanted to talk to someone about it, so I'm very glad I read it for a book group. Most of what I want to talk about I can't mention here because of spoilers, which makes it difficult to write about. It's like I have to just ignore everything that came late in the book and focus on the setup, even though what came later is much more important.

From the beginning I found Finch to be sort of an annoying person and I didn't like how he came on so strong to Violet. He would even sort of follow her around, and that would have gotten really old really fast if I were Violet. But I'm not Violet. She was incredibly intrigued by this boy who continued to remain mysterious even as they grew very close. He was a fun guy, and he got her out of her shell. He wasn't afraid to push her out of her comfort zone, which is just what she needed. For so long Violet had gotten out a lot because of the "extenuating circumstances" of her grief, and Finch saw the truth, which is that she really needed to move on with her life. The adults in the book varied from caring to absentee to verging-on-meddling and I found them to be a realistic array.

I love a story centered around a school project! Violet and Finch paired together on a series of field trips to interesting places in Indiana, as part of an assignment to learn more about their state. I loved their trips and the quirky locations they visited, and the fact that they only needed to visit a couple of sites but kept going anyhow. Their project journal sort of turned into a real journal and the assignment became less about school and more about their lives.

This book has been compared to The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor and Park, but that might be going a bit far. Well, it might be. It definitely has the same appeal, with its smart, self-aware teen characters and the pretty heavy subject matter.

It was only when I began reading and happened to glance at the author info on the back jacket that I realized Jennifer Niven also wrote Ada Blackjack! Totally different book, but also really good - it's the true story about an ill-fated Arctic expedition. I recommend it a lot, as I'm sure I will also recommend All the Bright Places.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Throwback Thursday: The Harrad Experiment

In which I share vague recollections of books I read long ago that have stuck with me.

I thought I had already written about this 1960s classic, but through a gross oversight it seems that I haven't. I read it in high school, and my choice was obviously based entirely on the cover. I'm pretty sure I owned my copy, which I must have picked up at a yard sale somewhere because there were no bookstores in my town and my copy was clearly a used one.

The way I remember it, Harrad College was an experimental school where everybody was naked all the time. Based on the cover, the men were all 40 and the women were all 12.

According to Goodreads, though, the college is more about "premarital" living arrangements and free-thinking. Students live with roommates of the opposite sex, with predictable results.

The description of the updated edition promises a "controversial" biography about the author, which enticed me to look up Robert Rimmer. I learned that The Harrad Experiment was made into a movie in 1973, and it is even available to borrow through my library consortium. (One of the actors in this movie is none other than Miami Vice star Don Johnson!) I also learned that Rimmer died in nearby Quincy, MA in 2001 and that he was an alum of Bates College, a nearby rival of my own alma mater. My brief research yielded nothing controversial about him. He wrote a number of books, mostly about unconventional sexual relationships and believed that someday monogamy wouldn't be the only legally sanctioned form of marriage. His wife of 60 years was apparently not a fan of these ideas.