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Saturday, December 14, 2019

Book Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

I love that my new book club reads brand-new still in hardcover books. I get to read books that aren't published by my employer, and are big in the zeitgeist. This one made me a tad nervous as the one other Patchett novel I'd tried to read (Bel Canto, for my book club in Charlotte), I'd utterly failed. Didn't even get to page 20. I've read and loved I think all of Ms. Patchett's nonfiction, but I wondered if maybe I was destined to only like her nonfiction and to not connect at all with her fiction.

And the word "connect" is interesting here because while I liked the book, I couldn't truly connect with any of the characters. There was a distance and I felt like I was being held at arm's length throughout the book. But once I got into the book, got somewhat used to the jumping around in time (which pretty much stayed confusing), and mostly could remember who characters were when there were big gaps between their appearances, I started cruising. I read the second half of the book much faster than the first half. And while I enjoyed it, and boy was there a heck of a lot to talk about at book club from the book (siblings, step-parents, saints, Catholicism, duty, repeating the past), I said at the start of the discussion that there was no plot. A few people seemed annoyed I said that, but they also didn't refute me.

Maeve and Danny's father remarries Andrea, and then he dies. And after a while Andrea kicks Danny out of the house and he has to go live with Andrea (who is older.) He goes to law school but always wanted to own real estate like his father so that's what he does. He marries and has a couple of kids. He and Maeve periodically go back to the house they grew up in, The titular Dutch House, and park on the curb, and bitch about their step-mother. I'm sorry--I still see no plot. That's okay. Not every book has to have one, and this one instead very much was about character development and relationships. But if you prefer plot-driven novels, this book might not work for you.

I did enjoy it. I'm glad I finally read and liked a Patchett novel. But it felt a bit lackluster in the overall. Nothing really blew me away. It's not sticking with me long-term. I enjoyed the discussion very much. But I won't be seeking out other novels of hers, at least not in the short-term.

I bought this book at Browseabout Books in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, an independent bookstore.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Book Review: No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder

Wow, I had no idea that a book about such a horrible topic could  be so compelling. This book reads like true crime, combined with sociology.

Ms. Snyder spent years researching domestic violence (one of several not-good names for what she also calls intimate terrorism.) She follows a couple of cases pretty intently, drilling down to the minute-by-minute of the last days. And she talks to a lot of police officers, social workers, and everyone in between: a couple of men who work with an intensive year-long prison program, a woman who works a hotline in the middle of the night, and numerous people serving on boards or committees around the country, fashioned after the NTSB's post-crash  investigations, to see if there are some fixes to the system that can save lives down the road, not focusing on placing blame.

While she does acknowledge the instances of same-sex violence and also that men can be victims, the overwhelming victims are women (and children) and so she does use pronouns in that way. And of course, if violence is going to bother you, this book is full of it from end to end. But it's so important, so crucial, to understand one of the last stigmas in our society. And in fact, an area which is getting worse. The number of familicides is going dramatic upwards, and almost all domestic acts of mass shootings began with domestic violence, from Sandy Hook to the Charleston Church murders to the first one most people remember--the University of Texas shooter in the bell tower in 1966. It's also the one area of violence in American society which is almost exclusively white men (familicides and mass shootings, that is. Not domestic violence.)

One thing that really sticks with me is how often you hear people ask "why didn't she just leave?" As if it was easy and simple (hint: it's neither.) But you never hear, "why didn't he just not hit her?" or simpler yet, "why didn't he just leave?" How come in this situation, we expect the victim, not the perpetrator, to lose her house, her job, possibly her kids, her income and financial independence, and all her family and friends (her entire support system)? There are interesting new options in terms of shelters. And also, why do we think these abusers can't change? Why do the vast majority of them get zero help, zero counseling, and then we put them back out in society and think things will be different? States that have mandatory gun turn-ins for convicted abusers have half the domestic homicide rate as other states. And yet, only a couple of states have that law. You'll be shocked at situations where judges don't give restraining orders. And how ineffective those restraining orders can be. I was shocked that 7 states (and DC) including New Jersey where I live, do not classify strangulation as a felony! It's a misdemeanor! It's also the number one predictor of a future domestic homicide.

If we want to reduce homicides in this country, if we want to save money and have stable families and children growing up in homes without abuse, we need to tackle this at the source. Police need to stop dismissing incidents as private matters that don't need to be written up. When arrests are made, they need to not be misdemeanors. The courts and social services need to be involved earlier. And most importantly, we need therapy, group therapy, support groups, and interventions that can stop the pattern, stop the cycle once and for all. Anger management doesn't help--that's actually not the issue here. We need to stop blaming victims so more of them feel safe coming forward. (Reverse the genders--or heck make everyone in the situation male--a man punched or kicked or threatened with a gun another man--and it would be a criminal, not civil issue from the get-go, and would not be a misdemeanor. Why the heck is it not as much of a crime if it's a woman on the receiving end?)

This book made me angry, infuriated, frustrated, and it kept me riveted--I read the whole thing in about 28 hours. And I think everyone needs to read it. This is a modern epidemic in America. And it's one we can tackle, if we have the stomach for it.

This book is published by Bloomsbury USA, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Book Review: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell

Around the holidays is an utterly perfect time to read this book. When better to improve our understanding of how we miscommunicate with others, especially those we don't know well, as when we're thrown together in travel, in parties, and even with some family members we might not know well (or might even be new family members.) In this book, Malcolm Gladwell explains both why we miscommunicate (millennia of evolution in very small groups never imagined we'd be communicating with hundreds, let alone thousands of people we barely know or literally don't know in the blink of an eye), and how--through assumptions, generalizations, biases, and a lack of contextualization.

He uses a few well-known extreme examples of communication gone horribly wrong--Sandra Bland, Amanda Knox, Jerry Sandusky, Brock Turner--to illustrate his thesis. And I really have to give a big pitch for the audiobook version of this book. He says in a note at the beginning that he was very much influenced by his podcasts and how they're produced, and so he included actual audio from Sandra's Bland's vlog on YouTube, from the police camera of her traffic stop, and of Amanda Knox narrating the audio version of her memoir. Hearing their own voices was very powerful. He also recorded several interviews he had with experts and included audio snippets of those, and actors read out other bits of dialogue. It made for a much, much more interesting listening experience than a lot of audiobooks that are simply read straight-through by a single narrator, and I ended up listening to the whole thing in just 2.5 days. I'd recommend the audio over the print version for this particular book as I think it gives such a rich, nuanced, and multifaceted experience, particularly with the Sandra Bland situation.

This is another book that stuck with me for days and weeks. I thought several times about the default to truth problem in the Jerry Sandusky problem. I know I do this. I do it to a fault. My husband sometimes seems to be on the opposite track (which is no better--a complete lack of faith in humanity did allow one accountant to figure out very, very early on that Bernie Madoff was a Ponzi schemer, but it's also what caused Ms. Bland's police officer to assume terrible things about her.) And I am more aware of it now, but I never thought of it as a problem--I figured simple that as a society, we all get along best if we assume the best about one another until proven wrong. But it turns out there are inherent problems in that mindset, as well. Such as assuming a colleague you know well and like, couldn't possibly be doing anything unthinkable with that little boy you saw him with in the shower. And this hardwiring in our brains is how these situations repeat themselves. As far as simple, everyday interactions go, it's probably fine. But that traffic stop started out as a simple, everyday interaction too.

I know the book has been controversial, and I understand why. But I also think that people need to read it before making blanket assumptions. Particularly as this book is entirely about how blanket assumptions, one way or the other, are almost always going to lead us astray. Read it and judge for yourself. Personally, I found it very eye-opening.

I listened to the digital audiobook which I downloaded from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Book Review: The Ghost Map: the Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, narrated by Alan Sklar (audio)

Many people have heard the story of the first big successful instance of epidemiology, and how it traced an outbreak of cholera back to a particular pump in London, the pump handle was removed, and everything was fixed. Yay! While the outlines of that story are mostly true, the fuller story behind it is much more interesting, a little more complicated, and didn't resolve quite that easily.

I found the first 80% of the book fascinating. At the end, the author extrapolates about cities, epidemics more generally, and brings it all into the modern world, and that didn't work for me. I do appreciate trying to show the connection from the past to now, but it didn't feel necessary to me (maybe just as a 15-page afterword). That said, the historical part was so good, I could overlook that. I'd still very strongly recommend this book, and the narrator was quite good as well.

I listened to the digital audiobook from my local library via Libby/Overdrive.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Book Review: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

This was possibly the best book club discussion I've ever been involved in. And I'm extra glad it was a book club book, because I liked it better after the discussion. Because we were going to discuss it, and because I had issues with it, I (and others) looked for reviews and interviews with the author, and that brought a lot more to the understanding of the book. Although it's an easy argument to make, that if you need outside information to fully understand and appreciate the book, it's not completely successful.

Toby Fleischman is a liver doctor in Manhattan, who is nearly divorced and exploring the wild new world of internet hookups and sexting. One morning his soon-to-be-ex-wife drops off the kids before he's even awake, and he can't get in touch with her. For days. It's summer so the kids aren't in school, Toby doesn't have child care lined up, and the kids have some summer things he has to arrange for them to do. He talks his son into going with his daughter to sleep-away camp which helps a lot, but it's a real difficulty and burden. And where the heck is Rachel anyway? As he continues to not be able to find her, he goes from annoyed to worried to angry.

Partway through Toby's story about his horrible wife and how no matter how hard he tried, nothing was ever good enough for the harridan, you realize this isn't a traditional third-person narration. It's first person. You just don't know who the narrator is yet. Eventually it's revealed the story is being told by Toby's old friend from a semester he spent in Israel, Libby, a married mom in New Jersey.

I had issues with the style of the narration (that was not improved upon discussion), the breakdown of the story (that way--but it also is something that shouldn't have to be explained afterwards for readers to get the point), and all the sexting (felt gratuitous). But I liked the complicated portrayal of a marriage--no one ever marries an awful person and is themselves a saint while the other person destroys the marriage. That's just not ever the case. It's got a bit of a Rashoman-thing going on with multiple perspectives on the same incidents from three characters, which I like a lot. Everyone agreed the portrayal of the Upper East Side constant striving and one-up-man-ship was really accurate. It's interesting that in a book that superficially is about how a marriage failed, is big-picture about issues with gender and gender roles. However, I think it's only marginally successful in being about that, since you have to be TOLD that's a big theme in the book. Once you're made aware, you can see that issue everywhere, but it's not at all obvious. I'm not sure if it's too subtle or just too ingrained in today's society for us to see it objectively, but that's the best part of the book, and yet I think the vast majority of readers will overlook that.

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore, Watchung Booksellers.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

My Month in Review: November

The Month in Review meme is hosted by Nicole at Feed Your Fiction Addiction. I got a little behind last month but I'm starting to catch up a bit. I think I'll finish on schedule.

I note the non-Macmillan books in this post with a star.

Books completed this month:
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
The Body: A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson (audio)*
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President by Jill Wine-Banks
Me by Elton John (audio)
The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus by Ryan Jacobs (audio)*
The Mall by Megan McCafferty
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett*
No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us by Rachel Louise Snyder
Old Lovegood Girls by Gail Godwin
The Wrong Mr. Darcy by Evelyn Lozada

Books I am currently reading/listening to:
The Invisible Boy by Alyssa Hollingsworth
Check, Please!, Book 2: Sticks and Scones by Ngozi Ukazu
When Did the Statue of Liberty Turn Green? And 101 Other Questions about New York City by Jean Ashton*

What I acquired this month (non-work books):
A few gifts for the holidays, but no books for me. Again, being good!

Friday, November 29, 2019

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Personally, I hate reading series where all the books aren't out yet. For one thing, not every author can decently end a story. For another, on occasion, those series never end at all for one reason for another. Most importantly, I have a crap memory, and so I really want to read them all more or less in a row or else I'll forget too much if I have a year or more in between. As this book came out 10 years ago and the final one int he trilogy comes out after the holidays, I'd have had to have a masterful memory to make that work! But I heard the third was coming and so I knew I could finally get started. And as they're all chunksters (this one is just over 600 pages), I will need all that lead time.

Thomas Cromwell at the beginning of the book is a little kid, constantly getting in trouble with his blacksmith father, being beaten to a bloody pulp on frequent occasions. He runs away, goes to sea, and comes back a successful cloth trader having worked in Europe. He quickly becomes a landowner, a leader in his town, befriends Cardinal Woolsey who is King Henry VIII's primary adviser, and is on an upward trajectory that seems to know no end. He survives the downfall of Woolsey, gains the confidence of Anne Boleyn, is promoted a dozen more times, and manages somehow to be a strongman, a Lazarus, and a shaman of sorts, all at once. Everyone hates him, everyone wants him on their side, he charms everyone (that he wants to) even when they're certain they could never be charmed by such a shyster as him. It's a brilliant eye into the heart of power, with all its egos, machinations, emotions, complications, manipulations, and chaos. I can't wait to start book 2.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.