Category Archives: Blow-dry Books

ALONE TOGETHER: LOVE, GRIEF AND COMFORT IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 by Jennifer Haupt

This year has been something, right?

I am constantly reminded that we are all going through the same experience. While some people have clearly been more negatively impacted by the pandemic than others, and some deal with it more close up than others, we are all dealing with some variation of the same stress and anxiety. And we’re dealing with it in isolation. But one way of connecting, of course, is through art, and it’s no surprise that this pandemic has inspired a spate of writing that, nine months in, underscores the universal nature of the losses brought on by covid-19. One of those books is Alone Together: Love, Grief And Comfort In The Time Of Covid-19, a collection of essays and poetry written by a range of literary voices and edited by Jennifer Haupt.

Why I picked it up: I wanted to hear how people more eloquent than I were dealing with the pandemic. When I was offered a chance to review Alone Together, I gladly took it.

Alone Together‘s essays and poetry are grouped into three main categories: Grieve, Comfort and Connect. They cover the deaths of close relatives, the strain this year has put on relationships, what it’s like to be Black during the pandemic. Essays are short and readable, with something familiar in almost every one of them. I recognized some of the 90 contributors to this collection – Jean Kwok, Pam Houston, Dani Shapiro, Garth Stein, Andrew Dubus III, Caroline Leavitt – but there are many new-to-me writers in here as well. And best of all, the proceeds from the book go to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which supports independent booksellers impacted by the pandemic.

Alone Together was this month’s blow-dry book (the book I read, slowly but steadily, while I dry my hair each morning). It was the perfect book to pick up for ten minutes or so and then put down until the next day. I could read an essay or two and immerse myself in that writer’s unique perspective and experience before taking a break and picking the book up again the next day. I recommend Alone Together for anyone feeling isolated and eager to feel part of humanity again. Yes, this situation is awful, but we’re in this together. That sounds trite and clichéd, nine months in, but it’s really true. I’ve found that the best thing to come out of this year has been the feeling of connection I’ve found, often in surprising places, and Alone Together certainly helped reinforce that feeling.

Alone Together was the 62nd book of 2020.

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.

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.

HOWARD STERN COMES AGAIN by Howard Stern

I’ve never been a regular Howard Stern listener. Long before he got to Sirius XM, Stern made his terrestrial home here in DC in the early 80s on DC-101 and I used to listen occasionally, but I rarely tune in to his satellite show. He doesn’t offend me, but for whatever reason, I never got on the bandwagon. I also never watched America’s Got Talent, so I didn’t witness his rebirth as a kind, encouraging judge/coach on that show either. So I came to Stern’s recent book Howard Stern Comes Again, a collection of his most influential interviews, with a mostly blank slate.

Why I picked It up: I was intrigued by Stern’s take on the interviews he’s done, as well as the content of the interviews themselves. I actually paid money for this one in the bookstore!

In the intro to Howard Stern Comes Again, Stern talks about his evolution as a radio personality. He started out as a shock jock, and continued that tradition at Sirius. It wasn’t until later in life that he softened a bit, becoming more introspective and overall kinder to his guests and to himself. Looking back now, he regrets the way he treated some of the people who came on his show and the wasted opportunities to have deeper, more meaningful conversations. The interviews he has collected in Howard Stern Comes Again are all ones in which he felt he made a real connection with the other person, learning about them and himself in the process. The people he interviewed are mostly comedians and actors, like Tracy Morgan, Jimmy Fallon, Chevy Chase, Gwyneth Paltrow, Chris Rock Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart, but he also talks to musicians (Ed Sheeran, Billy Joel) and real estate mogul/reality TV/president types (ugh).

Howard Stern Comes Again was my blow-dry book, the one I read while drying my hair in the morning. It’s the perfect book for that purpose, as I could get through about one interview every day. I enjoyed my mornings with these celebrities, getting to know them a little better. Stern probes his guests on the topics he himself grapples with – perfectionism, depression, mortality – which leads to honest, revealing and often surprising conversations.

My guess is that I am the ideal reader for Howard Stern Comes Again – I hadn’t heard any of these interviews before and I got to experience the new, improved Howard 2.0 fresh, without it dredging up memories of the old version (though some misogyny does sneak into his interviews, and he loves to bring up sex whenever possible). Overall, this was a worthwhile read and I am glad I picked it up. I learned a lot about a lot of people.

Howard Stern Comes Again was Book #34 of 2020.

THE HOLDOUT by Graham Moore

The Holdout by Graham Moore is a legal thriller that goes back and forth in time between the past – ten years earlier, when a sequestered jury acquitted a teacher accused of killing his student with whom he was allegedly having a relationship, and ten years later, when the jury has reconvened on the anniversary of the trial to film a special. Maya, one of the jury members, was the sole holdout, and she eventually convinced the rest of the jury to change their verdicts to not guilty, a verdict that was questioned by everyone who had watched the trial on television. When Maya returns to her hotel room on the night of the reunion to find one of her fellow jurors dead, all eyes are on her.

Why I picked it up: The Holdout isn’t my genre – legal thriller – but it was well-received and was my book club’s May pick.

The Holdout looks back on why each member of the jury eventually chose to acquit the defendant, and how Rick, the juror found dead in the “now” section, became obsessed after the trial with finding out the truth. But who would have wanted him dead?

The Holdout has a lot going for it – jury dynamics are fascinating, and there are a number of plot twists throughout that I didn’t see coming. It turned out to be a well-timed read as well, given its treatment of race and the criminal justice system. It’s a relatively quick read, too. But The Holdout just didn’t do much for me. I don’t love thrillers and I particularly don’t love courtroom books. (There’s a reason I left the law.) There are some pretty unrealistic elements to the story, one of them being Maya’s own behavior after she was accused of the murder, and I found myself sighing at several points over how unlikely they were. And most of all, it has been almost a week since I finished The Holdout and I’ve barely thought about it since our book club discussion – never a good sign.

If you like thrillers and are looking for a beach read this summer, The Holdout might fit the bill. Otherwise, I’d pass.

The Holdout was Book #24 of 2020.