THE WORKS: ANATOMY OF A CITY by Kate Ascher

I always have what I call a “blowdry book” going – same as what other people might call a “slow and steady read”. It’s a book that you read a few pages of a day and stretch out over a month or so, rather than one you read in chunks in a week. I read my blowdry book when I am styling my hair in the morning, and it’s usually about 8-10 minutes of (generally) focused reading. My blowdry book for November was The Works: Anatomy Of A City by Kate Ascher, an exploration of the systems and infrastructure that keep New York City going.

Why I picked it up: I’ve always been fascinated by how big cities – and in particular, New York City – work. How do all of those people get clean water in those huge high rises? Where does all the trash go? How do trains operate without hitting each other? When I learned about The Works, I knew I had to read it.

In The Works, Ascher goes methodically through New York’s urban infrastructure: plumbing, electricity, transportation (the subway!), trash collection, traffic control and more, explaining how it developed and how it works today. I learned about power stations and transformers and how electricity has to be stepped down each stage of the way so that it’s at a manageable level when it reaches homes. I learned about how mail gets to destinations in New York City, including the history of the pneumatic tube network that used to send letters in cylinders through pressurized pipes that connected 23 post across the city. (!) Ascher, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, goes into the science behind all of these systems, explaining how water main leaks can be detected and how bridges are built. She is remarkably well-rounded, and each section of the book is treated with equal depth and detail.

The Works was published in 2005, and some parts are outdated. In particular, the section on communications was written before the explosion in smartphone usage and is clearly not accurate today. (There’s two whole pages on pay phones, for example.) I would love to know whether Ascher might be planning an update to The Works, as she also references a lot of huge public works projects that are probably finished by now.

The Works was a fascinating read. I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in what you can’t see behind your walls or under your streets. New York City is a miracle to me, and I loved getting a glimpse at how it’s possible.

The Works was book #56 of 2020.

THE GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes

Ok, I finished Jojo Moyes’ The Giver Of Stars about a week and a half ago and I am just now getting to review it. November has been crazy. Between the election and work and a rambunctious, distracting foster dog who’s been with us the last four days, my reading and blogging have ground to a halt. So much for my strong year-end reading pace. Hopefully December won’t be so busy. But on to the book. With most Jojo Moyes books, you know exactly what you’re going to get. And with The Giver Of Stars, I got it.

Why I picked it up: I had the print at home and the audio was available on Scribd, and I was in the mood for some dependable Moyes storytelling.

The Giver Of Stars is about a group of traveling women librarians in Western Kentucky in the 1930s who brought books via horseback to people in remote regions of Appalachia. Alice, one of the librarians, has come to America from England to marry a man she thinks will give her a better, more exciting life, but she finds herself trapped in a small town with a man who doesn’t love her and his oppressive father. Margery, the leader of the group, is a fiercely independent feminist yet also deeply in love with a man who wants her to marry him. Three other women round out the group.

Jojo Moyes’ books are engrossing and well-paced, and some are totally predictable. You know what’s going to happen from page 1, and while there might be a small surprise or two, that’s pretty much how things play out. I enjoyed the history lesson in The Giver Of Stars, even if the characters weren’t terribly deep or dimensional. There is a lot of historical interesting detail and an unnecessary murder trial which I could have done without. But overall it was a good read during a time when I was having trouble focusing.

There is a plagiarism scandal around The Giver Of Stars. If I had the time, I’d read Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman Of Troublesome Creek, but now that I’ve read one book about the Pack Horse Library Project, I doubt I’ll pick up another. I feel a little guilty that I may have read the wrong one. 🙁

I listened to The Giver Of Stars on audio. It was narrated by the always dependable Julia Whelan, who did a great job (I think?) with the accents. I highly recommend the audio, which kept me focused and involved with the story.

The Giver Of Stars was the 55th book of 2020.

THE BOYS’ CLUB by Erica Katz

So, I used to be a lawyer. I was once a first-year associate at a big law firm, wearing a suit, trying to learn a whole new language, putting in long hours and feeling insecure about where I stood among the other associates. That was a lifetime ago – I left law 16 years ago and have been happily employed ever since in jobs that are a better fit. But I do remember those days. So when The Boys’ Club, Erica Katz’s fictionalized account of a young woman’s first year at at a big law firm in New York hit the book scene this summer, I knew I wanted to read it.

Why I picked it up: See above.

Alex Vogel, a recent Harvard Law School graduate, joins Klasko and Fitch, a top New York law firm as a first-year associate. She is excited to start her legal career and anxious about the process of picking a practice group. She’s been told to avoid the Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) group, which is known for being the most intense and working its associates the hardest. But she’s also drawn to its high octane, fraternity-esque nature, and gets sucked in when one of the partners asks her to work on a deal. From then on, Alex becomes completely immersed in her work, pulling all nighters and then partying with her colleagues (and clients) to prove that she’s one of the boys and worthy of a spot on the team.

What follows is a fast-paced story that careens from coke-fueled nights, office affairs and high-stakes deals to the strain Alex’s job causes in her personal relationships. Alex also endures sexism and harassment, which she mostly stays quiet about to protect her tenuous standing in the group. As a protagonist, Alex can be annoying – she’s arrogant and materialistic, and she makes a number of really bad decisions. But the story is fun and the pages fly by. As for the ending: it’s disappointing, unrealistic and kind of bizarre, sorry to say. I think the author intended The Boys’ Club to be a feminist statement, but I’m not sure it worked in that regard.

Overall, I had fun reading The Boys’ Club. It ultimately bore little resemblance to my own experience as a lawyer in a big firm (thankfully), and it certainly doesn’t portray BigLaw in a flattering light. If you enjoy getting an action-packed glimpse of someone else’s profession (or maybe your own), however distorted, you may enjoy this one.

The Boys’ Club was the 54th book of 2020.

October Blog Updates

Hi Everyday I Write The Book Blog fans!

Thank you for reading my blog and being part of the EDIWTB community of book lovers!

A few updates from me:

  1. I changed over to a new service for email subscriptions. If you’d like to get an email whenever I post a new review, please use the link at the top right of the blog (“Subscribe to this blog!”) and enter your name and email. You will get an email whenever I post something new. If you were already subscribed via the old service, you may get two emails whenever there is a new post for a short time. Once I know the new service is working well, I’ll deactivate the old one and you’ll go back to receiving one email.
  2. We’re almost to November! Crazy. The EDIWTB 2020 Reading Challenge has only two months to go. I am working on new categories for 2021 – stay tuned and I’ll reveal them in December!
  3. Are you tuning in to The Readerly Report podcast? Nicole and I are back to posting every week and we’ve had some great episodes lately (our favorite campus novels, celebrity book clubs and more). Please subscribe to the podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, and if you can take a moment to review and rate the show, that would be great!
  4. I’d love to connect with you on Instagram – I have a bookstagram account there at https://www.instagram.com/gweiswasser/. Lots of pics of my dog Lucky with whatever I’ve been reading.
  5. I set a reading goal of 60 books for 2020. I am already at 54, so it looks like I’ll easily reach that goal. Thank you, pandemic. Maybe I can get to 70?

Thanks again for reading, and stay in touch!

LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND by Rumaan Alam

Leave The World Behind is a buzzy book this fall, helped by the fact that it’s apocalyptic, like the time we’re living through, and tense, fitting for October. The reviews I’ve read have definitely been divided, though. Some people think it’s one of the best books they’ve read in 2020, while others were disappointed by the ending and/or and didn’t understand the hype. I am not squarely in either camp – I liked it, even if I am not entirely sure what to make of it.

Why I picked it up: The premise and the hype. I liked but didn’t love Alam’s last novel, That Kind Of Mother, but I couldn’t resist this one. It was my October BOTM pick.

In Leave The World Behind, a family of four from Brooklyn has rented a summer house in outer Long Island for a week through Airbnb. Amanda and Clay and their kids Rose and Archie spend a day and a half relaxing in the upscale home, settling into their vacation. Late the second night, there is a knock at the door. Amanda opens it to find an older couple, Ruth and G.H., the owners of the house, who have shown up because of a blackout in New York City. They say they have nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, no one’s cell phones are working, the internet and cable TV are out, and there is no way to find out what’s really going on – terrorism? storm? – or whether the couple is telling the truth.

I don’t want to reveal much more. The rest of the book is about the characters’ response to the strange situation they find themselves in – their assumptions, their panicked reactions, their pursuits of comfort and reassurance. Like That Kind Of Mother, Leave The World Behind looks at race and class, exploring the assumptions the two couples make about each other and the trust – or lack thereof – that grows between them. Meanwhile. Alam ratchets up the tension as everyone in the house gets more frantic for news from the outside world and strange things start happening.

I finished Leave The World Behind feeling deeply unsettled, both about the fate of these characters but also about our own present reality. Alam’s ending is ambiguous but not unrealistic. There is a strong sense of dread and foreboding that only gets stronger as the pages turn, leaving the ultimate resolution as much to the reader’s imagination as Alam’s (though he does guide us there with hints along the way). Some people were dissatisfied with the lack of a true ending in Leave The World Behind. I was actually a bit relieved that I didn’t have to witness whatever was really going on, but, as I mentioned, I felt very unsettled and anxious when I finished. I enjoyed the story and the writing quite a bit, especially the little details about meals and clothes that made it so easy to picture this story unfolding. I’m just still trying to figure out what to make of it all.

Leave The World Behind was Book #53 of 2020.

SAVING RUBY KING by Catherine Adel West

Saving Ruby King by Catherine Adel West is a novel about how abuse, secrets and violence pervade and repeat through three generations of African-American Chicagoans living on the South Side. Told through five perspectives – two fathers, their daughters, and the church they attend – Saving Ruby King opens with a murder and ratchets up the tension throughout the book as truths come out and characters try to resolve their troubled relationships.

Why I picked it up: Saving Ruby King got great reviews, and when it came up on my library hold list AND Scribd had it available on audio, I took that as a sign.

Ruby and Layla have been best friends since they were little girls. Layla’s father Jackson is the pastor at their church, and Ruby’s father, Lebanon, a childhood friend of Jackson’s, is an angry violent man with a lot of resentment toward Jackson. When the book opens, Ruby’s mother Alice has been murdered in their house, and Lebanon is the prime suspect. Ruby wants to escape her father’s iron grasp, and Layla is determined to rescue her and get her out of Chicago. Meanwhile, Lebanon and Jackson have their own secrets and a complex relationship to work out.

There is a lot to like about West’s debut novel. You may think you know who the villains are, but the characters in Saving Ruby King are too complex for that. The worst among them have themselves endured pain and trauma that made them who they are – and that trauma gets passed along to the next generation. Calvary Hope Christian Church serves as the center of this community, the omniscient observer of its congregants’ lives and interactions. In addition to the intense family drama, West covers institutional racism and the South Side and police violence. Saving Ruby King felt almost Shakespearean to me, with trauma, betrayal and murder threading in parallel through the generations. For a debut novel, this plot is impressively complex.

There were a few things that kept Saving Ruby King from being a five-star read. First, for the first 100 pages or so, I had a hard time keeping the bloodlines straight. Second, there was too much telling instead of showing when it came to the characters. I prefer to get into characters’ heads and understand their motivations through their actions rather than being told how they are feeling by the author. Overall, though, Saving Ruby King was a very good book, and I recommend it.

I listened to Saving Ruby King on audio. There are 5 narrators, and I thought the three male narrators were very good (Adam Lazarre-White, who voiced Lebanon, was excellent) but the two female narrators – the voices of Layla and Ruby – were weaker. They sounded too young and girly. Overall the audio is quite good, but some of my confusion in the beginning of the book may have been exacerbated by doing it on audio.

Saving Ruby King was Book #52 of 2020.

THE SHAME by Makenna Goodman

Sometimes I like the idea of a book more than the book itself. That happened to me with The Shame by Makenna Goodman, a novel about a mother of two in a small town in Vermont who is so conflicted about her life that she gets in the car and drives away from her family, pursuing an ideal that may not even exist. While Goodman’s writing is at times brilliant, the book overall was a slog to get through.

Why I picked it up: The Shame was my book club’s October pick.

Alma and her husband Asa used to live in New York City, but have moved to Vermont so that he can be a professor at a small college. Alma stays home with her two children, doing the domestic things that a SAHM does in a rural home. They have animals and a garden, and they enjoy the fruits of the earth and the sensual blessings that the seasons bring. But Alma isn’t content. She flirts with a short-term writing job that she can’t commit to; she follows social media accounts of people whose lives look better than hers; she keeps running lists on her computer of “Things I am Good At / Things I Want To Learn” to remind herself of her value.

Alma’s narrative takes a turn when she comes across (invents?) an Instagram account for a woman named Celeste. Celeste is everything Alma wants to be – urban, sleek, beautiful, timeless; maternal and patient, yet also artistic and creative; capable of entertaining and preparing delicious and healthy meals. Alma admits that “Celeste was based on me, partially, but the ‘me’ I might have been if I had learned to like myself.” Alma’s obsession with Celeste grows, leading to her increased dissatisfaction with her own life and her need to pursue the ideal life that Celeste lives.

On the positive side, I liked the realistic view of modern parenting depicted by Goodman in The Shame: the swirl of love, boredom, confinement, joy, worry, anxiety, envy and gratitude. It’s all here in The Shame, and Alma’s cycling through these emotions each day feels real and familiar. Goodman’s style reminded me of an author I love – Jenny Offill – and The Shame is reminiscent of Offill’s latest, Weather, which too was light on plot but full of observations exploring the challenge of how to balance macro fears like climate change and impending disaster with modern life and its daily banalities. The Shame didn’t work as well for me, though. I had a hard time staying focused and interested, and I found the Celeste plot confusing. i suppose it doesn’t matter whether Celeste was real or not; she was a manifestation of Alma’s ambivalence and dissatisfaction. But I still wanted more clarity.

In the end, The Shame was just okay for me. The brilliant moments were too far between to keep my attention.

The Shame was Book #51 of 2020.

SMACKED by Eilene Zimmerman

Eilene Zimmerman’s memoir Smacked: A Story Of White Collar Ambition, Addiction and Tragedy opens with her going to her ex-husband Peter’s San Diego home, concerned about him because their kids haven’t heard from him and he was ill the last time they saw him. She finds him dead in his bedroom and, shocked and devastated, assumes that he had a heart attack. She is incredulous when the police on the scene tell her that the likely cause of death is a drug overdose, having not suspected that Peter used drugs at all. Smacked is the story of the rise and fall of their relationship and Peter’s secret journey into drug addiction. How did this happen to him, and how could she have missed all the signs?

Why I picked it up: Smacked came highly recommended by Sarah at Sarah’s Bookshelves, and when I found it available on audio on Overdrive, I decided to give it a try.

Peter and Eilene married in their 20s after a mostly happy few years together, and then, after he graduated law school, they moved to San Diego so he could work for a top law firm as an intellectual property lawyer. They had two kids, and Eilene, a journalist, stayed home with the kids while Peter put in long hours at the firm, eventually making partner. Their marriage ultimately fell apart, but it wasn’t until Eilene learned the truth about his addiction that she could fully appreciate what had happened.

Smacked shines a light on a population that many people don’t know about: educated, white collar drug addicts. Looking for a way to relieve stress, or because they are unfulfilled in their jobs, they turn to drugs – prescription or illegal – for relief or to fill a void. They become increasingly dependent on the high to survive, leading to financial ruin and often serious health issues, including death. While Smacked is an intensely personal story, meticulously recorded and related by Zimmerman, it is also a wake-up call about a serious problem. So much of our modern lives can be characterized as addictive – technology, social media, medication – and this phenomenon of white collar addiction should really not be surprising.

Smacked, which is narrated by the author, is well-written and very compelling. I found the impact of Peter’s death on their kids to be the most heartbreaking part of the book. They too had no idea what was wrong with Peter, although they definitely knew something was. Peter went to great lengths to hide his addiction, resorting to increasingly strange and hurtful behavior to accommodate his needs. Zimmerman is understandably angry, regretful and sad, and ultimately sympathetic, which all comes across very clearly in her writing and her performance.

Smacked was Book #50 of 2020.

THE KNOCKOUT QUEEN by Rufi Thorpe

Sometimes the best books are the ones that defy genre categorization. The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe is one of those books. It’s a darkly comic coming-of-age novel about identity, friendship and forgiveness. While the book is very funny at times, it’s also quite sad, dealing with issues like domestic abuse, homophobia and alcoholism. A complex friendship lies at the core of The Knockout Queen, but that friendship is both strengthened and tested by forces much bigger than the two people in it.

Why I picked it up: The Knockout Queen came recommended by trusted sources (Sarah and Catherine, and when it came up as a BOTM pick, I chose it.

Michael lives with his aunt, sharing a room with his Neanderthal cousin, because his mother, who served time for assaulting her abusive husband, has moved into an apartment and taken only Michael’s younger sister. Michael, who is gay, becomes friends with Bunny, the girl next door, who attends the same high school he does. Bunny is large and athletic, neither of them fitting the mold for the “normal” popular kids at school. They become best friends, with Michael spending most of his time at Bunny’s house with her and her shady, alcoholic realtor father Ray. In Bunny and, to a lesser extent, Ray, Michael finds the closest thing he has ever had to a true family.

Bunny and Michael each grapple with becoming young adults – their sexuality, their complicated relationships with their parents, their self-esteem – and their friendship goes through phases as the two have their own experiences, good and bad. A series of events in the second half of the book, however, only proves the loyalty they feel to each other, but also sets them off on opposite trajectories that put distance, both physical and emotional, between them. The Knockout Queen is like 2020 – just when you think things can’t get worse, they do. But Thorpe’s writing – keenly observant, very funny and never sentimental – keeps The Knockout Queen from devolving into melodrama.

I really liked The Knockout Queen. It’s an unexpectedly complex, engrossing book with a memorable, albeit heartbreaking, story and well-drawn, realistic characters. It took me a little while to get into it, and for that reason I’d knock off half a star, but once I got going I was all in.

The Knockout Queen was Book #49 of 2020.

SECONDHAND by Adam Minter

Have you spent any of the pandemic cleaning out your home? Have you gotten rid of clothes, furniture, electronics or (gasp!) books? If so, have you wondered what happens after the truck comes for them, or you take them Goodwill or another donation site? Wonder no more: Adam Minter’s Secondhand: Travels In The New Global Garage Sale is a fascinating look at the circuitous route that our secondhand stuff takes after it leaves our possession.

Why I picked it up: I am kind of obsessed with recycling. I love the idea of things having multiple lives and purposes and avoiding landfills. As soon as I learned about Secondhand, I knew I had to read it.

In Secondhand, Minter, a business journalist, starts by explaining why so much stuff is discarded: we don’t expect our stuff to last long; kids don’t want their aging parents’ stuff; some societies view regular upgrades as a sign of status; manufacturers make it hard to repair electronics, appliances and cars; and more. The result of all of this casting away of things is a huge amount of hard goods that get transported from country to country, from cars and refrigerators to laptops and clothes. They may enter the “global garage sale” via Goodwill in the U.S., or a used bookstore in Japan, or a massive clothing sorting facility in Canada… and then they are on their way to Africa or east Asia or even to a rag manufacturing company in the U.S. with plants around the country. While there is a lot that ends up in landfills, there is also a complex, dynamic economy of companies and markets – legal or not – that find new homes and uses for a broad range of things.

While the book is scary on many levels – overconsumption, storage facilities, disposable culture – there is a lot of positive news in here. First, the interconnected network of buyers and sellers and secondary markets is a testament to human ingenuity and the efficiency of a good market. There are a lot of people who spend a lot of time preventing things from ending up in landfills. Second, Minter’s message is that people can help prevent landfills from getting fuller by investing in quality products and garments that have a longer expected life than many of the “disposable” items we buy today. If you buy something that lasts, you’ll either keep it longer or you’ll find a willing buyer more easily. Third, more countries are passing legislation making it harder for companies to keep their products out of repair shops. That means making it illegal for Apple to degrade their batteries or change their screws so that independent repair shops cannot open their phones.

There’s a lot more to this book than what I’ve summarized. If you’re interested in recycling and reducing waste – go pick up Secondhand! It’s well-researched and conversational in tone, and it will change how you think about buying and donating and consumption overall.

Secondhand was Book #48 of 2020.