Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Completed: The Man Without a Face


Continuing the 2017 Bitmoji theme... we actually used these in a text conversation about this book! I guess this probably says all you need to know about what this book was like for us.

Whelp. You and I read this really depressing book together, basically trying to be better citizens of the world... but mostly scaring the shit out of ourselves. After the 2016 US presidential election and the news that Russia had influenced the outcome, I asked a FB friend with extensive Russia knowledge to recommend something to read. Kristina recommended this book, The Man Without a Face, saying that you can't understand modern Russia without understanding Putin.

It's easy to summarize this book: Putin does terrible things! But our reading was definitely filtered through the experience of reading with a newly inaugurated tRump in the White House. For both of us, it was discomfiting to read what feels like a futurecast of how things could or might turn out here. You took to calling it "tRump's playbook" (or I guess, Bannon's playbook?), which seems terrifying. I don't want to live in a dictatorship! What can we do to stop it?

In fact, we spent a lot of time talking about how we were grateful that it had been written pre-tRump. Had it been written after, it seemed likely we would have concluded that the Putin's flaws were massaged to highlight the similarities to tRump. Perhaps we would have been skeptical, but since it was written years ago, it was there for us to discover on our own.

One of the pleasures of this book is how great the writing is. Gessen is a journalist, and she weaves a tight and highly readable tale of Putin's rise from lowly KGB agent to Russian President. She makes it easy to follow the complex geography of places and people that populate the book.

However, I think for both of us, it was impossible to read descriptions of Putin's worldviewhis greed, his pettiness, his need to control and manipulate others, his megalomania, his inability to have others question himwithout thinking: this sounds like an exact description of tRump! Here's a selection of some of those lines below:
"No one is easier to manipulate than a man who exaggerates his own influence" (18). 
"Putin could not resist taking it all...On several occasions, at least one of them embarrassingly public, Putin acted like a person afflicted with kleptomania" (258). 
"The person I described in this bookshallow, self-involved, and not terribly perceptive, and apparently very poorly informedwas indeed the person running Russia, to the extent that Russia was being run" (304).
I think there were a few scenes that stood out to both of us: Putin and his wife returning from Germany with a 20 year old washing machine, an unbearable luxury in Russia; the stealing of the Super Bowl ring from the Patriots owner; and the chilling scene where the author meets Putin, only to realize he doesn't know who she is. All dictators are out of touch with the people whose lives they destroy, either from disinterest or from the people around him being afraid to tell him the truth. Impossible not to make the connection to tRump, who shows us every day that he knows nothing about our country, its citizens, or our government.

Here are a couple of "notes" that you made in your book that sum up how we felt as each new Chapter of Doom piled on:

Given tRump's open war on media going on at this very moment in our country, this does not seem like a good sign for us. That chapter was followed by:

Also Not. Good.

This chapter read like a harrowing account of what is going to happen to our own country, and soon. Granted, we have had democracy longer than Russia has, but there were many, many parts of this plan that felt like, "Oh... that's... totally plausible..."

Both of us found the description of how Putin harnessed right-wing hatred for LGBTQ Russians to create a kind of axis of hatred to be surprising and terrifying, especially after there was some hope demonstrated with the marches and the voter turnout! After he decided to attack the gays, other countries banded together behind that flag of hatred and decided he was a man on a holy mission.

Who are we fighting, Kelly? I don't know about you, but the descent to this kind of tribalism scares the everloving crap out of me. I want people to be better. We talked about the differences between our country and Russia, our long history of freedom, widely available social media, education – but will that be enough to save us from those who embrace hatred and authoritarianism as the twisted new American way?


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Completed: A Confederacy of Dunces


Talk about taking one for the team! Our read of A Confederacy of Dunces to start off the year came about in a really weird way. I had posted some dumb Facebook challenge--sum up the plot of your favorite novel in six words---and my husband posted a six word description of A Confederacy of Dunces. You texted me the equivalent of WUT?!?! and a book challenge was born. 

Basically, we agreed to read (re-read for you, first time read for me) this book, and Darrell agreed to read along with us and be our special guest. 

When we started, your two mindsets could not be more different. Lol. 

The Rereaders and DNFer
Darrell first read this book in a college class (editor's note: LONG TIME AGO!) on Southern Fiction. One of the most interesting parts to me is that Darrell said, "changed my perspective on the South." As you know, the South is not Darrell's favorite place (editor's note: this is a radical understatement), so reading something that helped explain this place and that was also a farce was a real win for him. Farce has always been one of his favorite genres in comedy, and he didn't know it existed in "literature" until he read this book.

Kelly had already read it and *ahem* disliked it. She read it with a book group, and as far as she can remember, they read it as straight fiction, not as a farce/satire/etc. She cannot remember anyone thinking the book was funny; everyone hated the main character and everything he did and wondered why anyone would enjoy this book.

Jenny had started this book at some point---it was her husband's favorite book of all time!--but honestly found it so tedious that she gave up in the first 30 or so pages. "We can still have true love and different tastes in books," she remembers thinking.

This time around, Kelly and Darrell read it via aBook while Jenny read the pBook.

Conversation 1
I for one were really happy we talked to Darrell about it as we read. Having him keep saying, "Don't you think it's funny?" helped me get to the parts that were truly humorous. For me, that wasn't until Ignatius got the job at the Levy Pants factory.

Darell pointed out that the most biting satire is about work: who works, who doesn't, who has to work, who doesn't work, who is made to work. We all liked the character of Trixie, who is forxed to work even though she only wants to retire. Furthermore, with the setting being New Orleans--- it places the book firmly in relationship to the Civil Rights movement. This leads to the ultimate question: what is the ultimate concept of work in a place like the South, where people were forced to work? This setting allows the author to explore modern influences in our society and how they've adapted to the systems of our culture--sexism, racism, feminism, etc.

Kelly noticed that the author was an especially astute observer of race relations, which is not a skill we attribute  to that many white folks, especially white folks in the 60s. In fact, with this ridiculous character, the author recognizes that this is not the right way to bridge the racial divide. This is a topic that is being addressed far more publicly today (2017) so it's interesting to see Toole recognizing it in the 1960s. Darrell agreed, saying that the best part about the writing how observational it is, hitting on all these details without shying away from what he sees.

Darrell talked about the description of what he saw as the "passivity of southern black culture" in the text. He went on to say, "My relationship to people I grew up with in the south--I had a friend like Ignatius, his dad committed suicide--his house looked like a plantation. He never worked! I always had a job, but he never had to work. And the whole notion of work was scary. He had an elitist perspective about work." I thought this was especially interesting because I think one of the things that Darrell and I have most in common is a belief in hard work.

We wrapped up the first conversation by talking about some of the female characters, especially the Mother. She's this fascinating creature that is a complete paradox: nature vs nurture; her pride and intolerance of her son; her spoiling and shaming of him. Kelly pointed out that the "donut scene" where she offers Mancuso the leftover, picked over donuts is the author's way of making sure we know that Mom is the one who created and is feeding the beast that is Ignatius. Jenny did a lot of inappropriate giggling at all of the homoerotic imagery used by Ignatious---lots of hot dogs and Dr. Nuts in this book.

Kelly and Darrell both said that the aBook is terrific and laughed over Jones' pronunciation of "whoa" and "ooowee."

Convo 2:
I didn't take as many notes this time. We talked a lot about how this book is character-driven vs. plot-driven, and the various challenges that presents to the reader.

The plot itself just builds to a farcical crescendo, the most memorable part of which might be Ignatius running around New Orleans with a cutlass! Darrell admired how the author was crafty in the way he created the story, demonstrating how we're all interconnected. We can complain about everything but you'd be surprised how much gravitas you carry for the people around you. Darrell said, "There's no plot!" and Jenny grumbled, "Yes, that's my problem!" Lol.

As a character, Ignatius always blames everyone else for his problems, but his perception of why things are the way they are---fortuna--which compels everything to happen, and he's powerless to help it. We all thought he was pretty loathsome and unwilling to accept any responsibility, but he's  a catalyst, making things happen for all the characters around him. Darrell thought that in this way, Ignatius stands in for the South itself, it carries everyone down a road, it impacts who they are, their outcomes,  but anyone can better their situation. He thinks that the people who end up okay have some sort of impetus, motivation, or drive.

The ending was sort of a let down. Since I was the only one reading a pBook, I could tell that the book was ending, but Kelly said she was surprised it had ended. Especially with the frenetic pace of the plot up until the street fight, the ending just seemed to lose its steam. Darrell, though, pointed out that it played, tempo-wise, very much like a Mardi Gras funeral. The slowness, the mournfulness, seemed almost purposeful.

I honestly would not have enjoyed the book nearly as much without all the conversation, and I'm sure that Darrell and Kelly felt the same way.

Signing off until Putin strikes. Ooowee!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Our books for 2017

Wow! This is our seventh year of committing to reading books from our To Be Read (TBR) piles and talking about them on this here blog. Dang!

New Format for 2017

For the previous six years, we each selected our own list of books and worked on them independently. For the last two years, we have also chosen a few books to read together throughout the year. Since we enjoyed that so much (and kind of struggled to get through our independent lists in 2016...), we decided to read all of our books together this year. 

So this has turned into a little 2-woman virtual book group. (We do have a special guest in January to mix things up, though.)

2016 was the first year that we were not a part of a larger reading challenge. We missed that experience, so we looked around and found... the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder Challenge.

We then went through our TBR shelves and chose books that we had that would fit the 24 Read Harder (RH) categories and we compiled our joint list for 2017:

Our 2017 Books 

Our chosen books, in alphabetical order (RH categorie[s] that the book fulfills are in parentheses):
  1. Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
    (book set in Central or South America/written by a Central or South American author; book published between 1900 and 1950 )
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
    (debut novel) 
  3. Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio
    (book published by a micropress) 
  4. The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer
    (fantasy novel)
  5. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
    (book about books; book you’ve read before) 
  6. for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange
    (classic by an author of color; collection of stories by a woman)
  7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
    (book that has been banned or frequently challenged in your country)
  8. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen
    (book that is set more than 5000 miles from your location)
  9. Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi
    (book by an immigrant or with a central immigration narrative)
  10. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
    (book about war)
  11. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North
    (superhero comic with a female lead; all-ages comic)
  12. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
    (book wherein all point-of-view characters are people of color; book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey)
  13. Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil
    (nonfiction book about technology)
  14. What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman
    (travel memoir)
Note: We choose 14 books in case any of them are unbearable and we need to ditch them. In the past, we have aimed to read 12 per year. Of course, if we want a chance at "winning" the challenge, we'll be readin' all 14. Stay tuned!

There were 24 categories on the form (<-- that is the form with our books filled in) and these are the ones that we did not select books for together:
  • A book about sports. (Jenny feels confident that a ToB book is going to fulfill this category.)
  • A book that is set within 100 miles of your location (since we don't live less than 200 miles apart, no one book could fit this for both of us. Jenny is going to read Negroland by Margo Jefferson and Kelly is going to read The Sugar House by Jean Scheffler. We may or may not report on these here. It's our blog, so we do what we want. Heh.)
  • A YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+ (Jenny recommends Not Your Sidekick by CB Lee, which fills both this category and the next, but she's already read it.)
  • An LGBTQ+ romance novel.
  • A collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Reading and Discussion Schedule

As we go through the year, we'll update this for ourselves...
  • January: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (w/ special guest: Darrell!)
  • January/Feb: The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen 
  • Post-Putin/Pre-UG Palette Cleanser: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North
  • Feb/March: Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead 
Whew! That was a lot of information. But hey, we'll be happy we wrote all of this down in another seven years when we say "Wait... how did we pick our books that year?"

Now let's get reading!

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Completed: Lincoln on Leadership

[Dear god, this post is long. I even chopped it down. I'm sorry. I'm better at editing someone else's work...]

Dear Jenny,

Over a year two years ago, I was promoted to a management position at my former company. As a result of this, I got a surprising number of book recommendations regarding all kinds of management and business practices. At first, it seemed helpful, but then I was... kind of resentful. I mean, I've got a giant pile of books that I want to read and now I've got a fresh pile of books to read about... work? Ugh.

(Side note: One of my colleagues actually handled this beautifully and would cite specific chapters from a book she recommended that would directly relate to management challenges that I was having. Now that is a generous and genuinely helpful way to recommend a management book!)

One of the books recommendednay, literally pressed into my handswas a dog-eared copy of Lincoln on Leadership. Our neighbor loves this book so much that he carries it around in his backpack all of the time and re-reads it every year. He loaned me his copy and insisted that it was the best management book that I would ever read.

Honestly, I wasn't that into it  I had a stack of other books piling up from colleagues  buuuut... he's my neighbor and he has just loaned me his very favorite book. So I added it to my TBR list on this blog, knowing that if I committed publicly to reading it, I would [most likely] actually do it (unlike the 10-15 other management books gathering the electronic equivalent of dust on my Kindle right now...)

Of course, as we both know... I am no longer a manager! But I had committed to reading this book. So I did it. My change in employment status + my general intolerance for non-fiction made this book a bit of a slog, but I did it, and I made some notes, so lemme flip through them and jot down some thoughts for ya here...

The premise of the book is: "Lincoln was a great leader and here's why (and how)." The author compiled a bunch of information on Lincoln and grouped together some examples which showcased Lincoln's leadership philosophies and practices.

Note: Given that my neighbor's copy was so precious to him (meaning I was likely to drop it directly into a puddle), I immediately bought the Kindle version of this book to read and take notes in. My notes give "Kindle Locations" for citations.

One misstep:
For the most part, I found this book interesting and useful. But there was this oooooone little thing that bugged me: At the end of each chapter, there's a bullet-pointed summary of the chapter's big takeaways. That's terrific -- great to have those later when the narrative has faded from our minds.

However, the author wrote this in the Introduction: "The reader will note, by the way, that certain Lincoln 'principles,' cited at the end of each chapter, will not have been introduced previously in the chapter narrative. In all cases, these new principles derive from actual Lincoln quotes relevant to the chapter’s theme."

I'm going to call BS on this. There were several times when I reviewed the "Principles" at the end of the chapter and thought, "Waaaaait a minute... when, exactly, did you bring up that notion?" Such a strange choice and negated a lot of credibility.

Having said that... there were also a lot of great messages in this book...

Hiring takes a long time
"Contemporary leaders who experience difficulties finding the right chief subordinate can take comfort in the knowledge that at this point in the Civil War, Lincoln had spent more than two and a half years searching for an aggressive general who could do the job." [1611]

This actually did make me feel pretty good! We would spend months interviewing and hiring a single candidate. And that was so exhausting that, if they didn't turn out to be a good fit, we wouldn't want to get rid of them because... gah. Go back to the beginning?! I always felt like it was better to cut our losses and start over (because managing a "bad fit" was SO exhausting) but most did not agree with me. So Lincoln's my man -- sometimes it takes years to find the right candidate for the job!

It's all just "news"
"By today’s standards, the moniker 'Honest Abe' might be considered pretentious, even contrived. But the fact is that leaders who tell their subordinates the truth, even when the news is bad, gain greater respect and support for ideas than their less virtuous counterparts." [732]

I always say, "There is no 'good news' or 'bad news' -- there is just 'news.' So let's just focus on how we're going to deliver it." This concept is not at all popular, either at work or in personal lives, but shit. The news has got to be delivered. Taking care with messaging also lessens the "bad news" blow. For instance, when people left (either voluntarily or not) my workplace, no one wanted to announce it ("But that's bad news!") But without announcements, people got waaaaaay more freaked out when colleagues suddenly "disappeared" (or seemed to). If you just treat it like what it is (news) and handle it accordingly, you can go a long way towards neutralizing the negative reaction to the news.

Let's get together
"Frequently, getting people together can avoid destructive thinking that tends to build on people’s misgivings and apprehensions about others and their departments." [1276]

So true. I witnessed this time and again at work. Once people decide to start complaining about another person or department's work, it just snowballs. But if you get people together (and keep getting them together), that's the way to overcome those hurdles. This is especially true when groups are geographically distant from one another. 

Kinda painful...
"After all, the most important asset an organization has is its employees." [514]

After what happened with my former company, re-reading that quote is a bit of a kick in the gut...
especially because we went from being a company that did feel that way to be a company that did not. Ugh.

"In business, for example, new CEOs often take the reins of a struggling corporation by instituting massive layoffs without concern for the welfare of employees. They concentrate solely on achieving bottom-line results. On the other hand, many executives are often afraid to take decisive action for fear of adversely impacting people. In either case, too much focus on one principle over the other usually results in failure. Lincoln, however, knew it was important to do both." [2174] 

I have witnessed both of those scenarios now (the blind cutting and the blind keeping of dead wood) and neither are good. Lincoln knew what he was talking about!

"Rather than inhibiting progress or sapping energy, innovative thinking actually increases an organization’s chances of survival. With today’s technology changing so rapidly, modern corporations simply must be able to respond and innovate. This is particularly true of the computer industry, for example, where today’s greatest, most advanced invention is often tomorrow’s dinosaur." [1670]

Our company was the worst at innovation. We started with a fantastic product and then we just continued to develop that single product for 19 years. Over time, we had innovators join the company, but when they discovered that their ideas were going nowhere, they would leave.

It's not just demoralizing on a personal level ("I can't get anything done around here/my company does not respect my ideas"), but also on a larger company level ("Holy hell. This place is never going to succeed!" <-- Fact.)  I honestly have no idea how this concept was so foreign at my place of work, but it was nice (if painful) to see it spelled out here.

On this, I disagree:
"Leadership often involves parenting, and Lincoln’s fatherly tendencies aided him in his position as president. The organization is the family; the leaders is the head of the family. Consequently, leaders often nurture and guide subordinates much as parents do children." [646]

No. Nonononono. I think "nurturing [the career of] and guiding" subordinates is correct, but I think that can be done in a non-parental way. I find the concept that one needs to "parent" their subordinates to be both condescending to the employees and f'ing exhausting for the managers. 

However, I do agree with this thought along the same lines:

"Lincoln also tempered his unusually intense drive to achieve with an equally strong capacity to care."[2173]

I think you can have empathy and compassion for people and still not treat them as your child. Maybe it's easier to slip into a parental role (I've certainly had some managers who did do that [which I hated]) but saying that it's supposed to be that way (in the above quote) is never going to hold water with me.

I also learned a bunch of other stuff about Lincoln that you probably already know cause you live in Illinois, but I'm not going to list that here. I'll just say that I do feel slightly better educated as a result of reading this book, which is always nice. 

And... BOOM. (Two more to go!)


Completed: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Dear Jenny,

First, I will say this: this book has nothing to do with the movie of the same name. (That's the #1 question I got while reading it. Heh.)

Why did you pick this book?
This one, like Wolf in White Van was a book that I kept hearing about and running into (it was also on the 2015 ToB Long List).

I bought it at a great little bookstore in Harbor Springs, MI called Between the Covers (I'm sure you've been there, since your family vacations in HS) and I started reading it on the beach when I was there. When I got home, I put it on the TBR shelf where it sat for... well, yes, a long time. When I picked it up again, I had no idea what was going on, so I restarted it. This was the first of many times I said, "WTF?" while reading this book and then chuckled to myself saying, "Good title!"

I finished it a few months ago and have little recollection of it now, I must admit. Let's see what I've got...

Give a quick overview of the characters and plot. 
I just looked on Good Reads to get the synopsis and refresh myself on it and, first of all, just reading the book's description, I thought, "WTF?" and then I had to laugh at this question from a reader about the book: "Is this the start of a series of novels because this one did not have a logical conclusion?" Bwahahaha.

All right -- this description is scraped from Good Reads:
Three young adults grapple with the usual thirty-something problems—boredom, authenticity, an omnipotent online oligarchy—in David Shafer's darkly comic debut novel. 
The Committee, an international cabal of industrialists and media barons, is on the verge of privatizing all information. Dear Diary, an idealistic online Underground, stands in the way of that takeover, using radical politics, classic spycraft, and technology that makes Big Data look like dial-up. 
Into this secret battle stumbles an unlikely trio: Leila Majnoun, a disillusioned non-profit worker; Leo Crane, an unhinged trustafarian; and Mark Deveraux, a phony self-betterment guru who works for the Committee. 
Leo and Mark were best friends in college, but early adulthood has set them on diverging paths. Growing increasingly disdainful of Mark's platitudes, Leo publishes a withering takedown of his ideas online. But the Committee is reading—and erasing—Leo's words. On the other side of the world, Leila's discoveries about the Committee's far-reaching ambitions threaten to ruin those who are closest to her. 
And that description actually makes waaaay more sense than actually reading the book, because the way it happens is that you meet each of those three characters totally separately, in pretty long, convoluted chapters of their own and then sloooowly, they meet up and join into a single story line.

I'll admit that it took me awhile to get into the story... because the characters' chapters were each so long, when we got back to another one, I'd think, "Wait... what's going on with this person again?" but it was good, once they came together.

And the "come together" part is not covered at all in that description, but I'm not going to tell you about it cause it's a pretty fun read that I think you might enjoy and I don't want to spoil it. Also, I don't really remember the allll of the convoluted business very well. Ha!

What it is like to be in the “world” of this book?  How did you feel while reading this book?
The answer to both of these questions is that "WTF?" was a Very. Good. Title.  I'd say it's a real "thrill ride" of a book. Sometimes I get lost with dark/underground/spooky bad guys, but I was able to keep up with most of the weirdnesses in this one.

What’s something you thought the book did really well? How was it accomplished?
Bringing the three separate plot lines together. It took awhile to get there, but once they did, I was glad to have so much "back story" on each of the characters.

What is one thing that needs improvement in the book?
Maybe the mysterious ending. I don't think it "ruined" the book or anything, but it did feel a bit unfinished. But... sticking the landing is obviously difficult, as I don't think that most books do a very good job of it, honestly.

All right! Time for a bonus/think-y question. Not sure if I'm going to be able to pull quotes for this, but I'll take:

Tone/Mood/Theme: what is the author's attitude toward the subject of the book and the emotions that surround the story? 
The author was totally going for a feeling of "WTF?" the whole time, and he nails that. Weird secret groups, impossible scenarios, changing people's identities, remote hideouts, etc. So I think his attitude was "this is going to be crazy!" and he definitely does that.

Overall, it was a fun read. It's hard to write an in-depth review of "fun reads," but I read it, enjoyed it aaaaand... this post is DONE. Wheeeee!


Completed: Detroit: A Biography

Dear Jenny,

Read this a few months ago. Looks like the template is really for fiction books (do we need another for non-fiction, maybe?) so I'll just go on my own here...

Since moving to the Detroit area in 2012 (almost FIVE years ago, if you can believe it), I've been on a "learn more about Detroit/Michigan mission." So this book landed squarely into that realm.

As the subtitle says, this book is written as "a biography," so it goes back to the settling of Detroit, how the city grew, how and why it fell/is falling. In general, I struggle reading biographies and I must say that I struggled to read this book -- it was pretty dry.

And then there were small nits that detracted from the book as a legit information source.

For instance, the author called "ruin porn" "ruins porn":
A lot of neighborhoods have risen and fallen in Detroit, but none has been more emblematic than Brush Park. It is the visual center for "ruins porn," as locals refer to the unending stream of photographs of empty crumbling buildings. [63]
The "as locals refer" line just made me look this guy up. He's from Maine. He lives in LA. His time at the Detroit News is barely a footnote in his biography. It's a small nit, but come on. If you're going to use a "hip" term, make sure you get it correct. That, along with the dryness of the reporting, I think is because this guy is not a local and, honestly, I don't really get the impression he cares about Detroit at all. Which may not be a requirement for a "biography," but it sure makes for a less interesting read.

There were also what I would call some flat-out "Duh" moments:
A recent study published in the American Sociological Review charted the progress of more than four thousand children into adulthood, and concluded that those raised in poverty had a significantly lower chance of graduating high school, and, by extension, reaching long-term stability. [xiv] 
Oh, FFS. Really? You needed a study for that? How about this: Use the damned money for funding that study and spend it on education. Ugh. I know that's not the author's fault, but why even quote that dumb stat? Who are you even talking to?

And this complaint doesn't necessarily have to do with the book itself, but I do wonder what the author thought of this (if he even cared)....

I have the pBook, but I needed to burn through some books, so I got the aBook. I had some trepidation because the negative reviews say that the reader totally butchers local place names. But I thought, "Well, I can deal with that... there are some weird looking words here and some butchery is okay..." For instance, there is a street called "Gratiot." Detroiters say "Grasshit" [Wow. Never noticed the "shit" in there -- it's less noticeable when spoken aloud!] This narrator said "grah-tio" -- like... the French pronunciation. I expected that.

But THIS guy mis-pronounced "Michigander!" I mean... what?! (Hard to explain how, exactly, but he basically said the state name and then "der" at the end. Like: "Michigan-der" vs. "Michi-GANder" -- you the bird?!) That just seemed so avoidable. I mean, it's like... not knowing how to pronounce "Hoosier." Sure, it's an odd demonym, but there are only 50 damned states and you're a voice actor.

I guess I would say, as a primer -- like, for someone who truly knew nothing about Detroit (and maybe didn't really care that much), this book would be fine. As it turns out, my education is working and I already know a lot about Detroit! Go, me. For my money, I would recommend Detroit City is the Place to Be (re-reading my review, it seems like I wasn't crazy about that book, either, but I have thought a lot about it since reading it, which is a good sign). It's got some kind of radical ideas about how to "fix" Detroit, but I liked that. In this book, I just felt like there was a long list of wrong turns the city has taken (especially over the past century) and... hey! Looks like we're f'd.

I didn't expect this review to turn so negative, but looking back on my notes... yeah... I didn't really enjoy this book. I think I felt "responsible" for that at the time (like, "I don't like biographies, so that's on me") but looking back on these issues, the book itself had some fundamental problems.

From now on, I think I'm going to stick to reading books about Detroit that are by Detroiters. Or transplants, but certainly people who have some affiliation with the city.

Ok! Another one down! It's the fiiiiiinal coooountdoooown...


Completed: Housekeeping

As we skidded into the final days of 2016, we read our 4th and final book together of the year: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.

Overall impression: Lovely book and lovely writing. For a not-very-plot-driven book, it captured our attention and was basically un-put-downable.

One slight criticism, raised by Jenny: The narrator is supposed to be uneducated but her prose doesn't really indicate that.

Kelly argued that it does in many ways -- short sentences strung together like (randomly selected page here):
People came down to the water’s edge, carrying lamps. Most of them stood on the shore, where in time they built a fire. But some of the taller boys and younger men walked out on the railroad bridge with ropes and lanterns. Two or three covered themselves with black grease and tied themselves up in rope harnesses, and the others lowered them down into the water at the place where the porter and the waiter thought the train must have disappeared. After two minutes timed on a stopwatch, the ropes were pulled in again and the divers walked. [6]
As a quick rebuttal, Jenny opened to another random page and offered a passage like this one:
It is true that one is always aware of the lake in Fingerbone, or the deeps of the lake, the lightless, airless waters below. When the ground is plowed in the spring, cut and laid open, what exhales from the furrows but that same, sharp, watery smell. The wind is watery, and all the pumps and creeks and ditches smell of water unalloyed by any other element. At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains. [9]
Point made. But still... the language is so beautiful and the images are so evocative that these inconsistencies are forgiven.

We both agreed that the role and descriptions of the water in this book were incredible. One line about the water that Kelly highlighted (highlit?) was this one: "By evening the lake there had sealed itself over." [8] Just so spooky and lovely!

The term "housekeeping" evokes the idea of taking care of your family/spouse/children, but so much of this book is about women not being able to care for their sisters and what impact that has: Sylvie unable to take care of her sister (the girls' mother), who commits suicide. Our narrator Ruth, unable to care for her sister Lucille, who leaves home to find care elsewhere.

Finally, we spent some time dissecting the final, heart-breaking line of the book:
No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie. [219]
"This woman" is Lucille, Ruth's sister, sitting in a restaurant in Boston, waiting for a friend. The negatives in the sentence makes it kind of confusing, because this is speculation. Ruth is not really watching Lucille, but that does not mean that she is not thinking of them, waiting for them, hoping for them. The turn of "always for me and Sylvie" makes the reader understand that yes, yes she is waiting and hoping for them. Lovely and heartbreaking.

Further Reading
At the end of our discussion, we talked about "further reading" -- more about this author, the fact that she went 25 years between publishing this and her next work of fiction, etc. Here are a few links that give more insight, both to the book and to the author.

It was an "NEA Big Read" -- a lot of information on the book here, including discussion questions (like, "At the end of the novel, why do Sylvie and Ruthie take such an extreme step?" which is something that we discussed) and a pretty in-depth Bio.

Here's the NYT book review from 1981, when the book was released (damn, I love the Internet.)

Here's a conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson (he named her book Gilead as one of his favorite books) where he basically interviews her, which is... pretty cool. This takes place in 2014. Interesting to read some of these observations, considering the recent election.

And here's an interview with her from January 2016 -- she's got some interesting opinions about the world. We might want to have a Book Chat just about Marilynne Robinson!