Alyssa

About Alyssa

I’m an Adult Services Assistant here at the Warrenville Public Library. I will read anything shiny that my eye lands upon, but I tend to find that young adult, fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, classic, and chick-lit books are my favorites. Books and shows I love tend to have strong character-driven plots, well-drawn female characters, and clever turns of phrase. When not reading, I can usually be found playing Zelda, cooking and baking, and assiduously avoiding the outdoors.

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich

51ksxjzFaRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Book-– Many are familiar with Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, a journalistic experiment in which Ehrenreich take a series of low-wage jobs to investigate the difficulties faced by the working poor. Bait and Switch is a lesser-known companion to this book and explores the raw deal faced by the white collar unemployed. Ehrenreich gives herself 10 months to find a white collar job (defined here at $50,000+ per year, full time with benefits) which is the average length of time it takes most white collar job seekers to find employment. She will then work that job for about three months and do an insider report on corporate culture. What follows is a series of shifty career coaches, wardrobe updates, endless resume tweaking, networking events, and endless web-searching, and no job to show for it at the end.

While I can see how this book might be a cathartic read for a white collar professional struggling after a lay off, I think Ehrenreich’s work suffers from going into her job search with all the wrong motives. I felt that Ehrenreich’s insulation from the real-life consequences of her simulated unemployment causes her writing to be permeated with smug coldness, especially when describing her fellow white collar job seekers. She lacked the compassion for the corporate job-seeker’s plight that would have humanized this book. Nevertheless, Bait and Switch stands well as an indictment of how difficult it is to enter (and re-enter) the corporate world, especially as a middle-aged woman. However, I think the work would have been even stronger if either written by an actual laid-off corporate employee or if Ehrenreich simply chronicled the journey of a white collar job seeker instead of going undercover and shoehorning herself into a story that’s not hers to tell.

Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

7493Book— Structured into six chapters covering six seminal events in Revolutionary American history, Founding Brothers provides a glimpse into the psyches of America’s founding generation. According to Ellis, accounts of the founders often render these men heroically remote and untouchable (well, until the Hamilton musical, that is); by focusing on the bonds among them, Ellis hopes to render his subjects more accessible. Discrete incidents such as the dinner that decided the location of the U.S. capitol and the duel that took Hamilton’s life reveal who these men were when their characters were tested. Ellis’ writing shines when he humanizes the founders with little personal details. Jefferson often sang under his breath. Madison was sickly. Adams was choleric and has a tumultuous friendship with Jefferson. Ellis’ accessible story-telling makes the Revolution feel immediate and precarious rather than a foregone conclusion with the benefit of hindsight.

For a closer look at some of the founding fathers, check out Ellis’ other books, like American Sphinx, which focuses on Jefferson, and His Excellency, which portrays Washington.

 

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

41-rjgGUB5L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book–Ella Minnow Pea (LMNOP) lives with her family on the fictional island of Nollop, just off the coast of South Carolina. On the island nation founded by Nevin Nollop, supposed creator of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” Nollopian citizens are proud of their wordy heritage and communicate in a sesquipedalian style that makes their letters a fun, dictionary-requiring read. In the center of town, there is a memorial to Nevin Nollop, including his famous sentence. The plot begins when one letter falls off of the statue: the letter “Z.” Rather than re-affixing the letter to the monument and moving on, the island Council chooses to interpret this as a divine sign from Nollop, and bans this letter from Nollop’s written and spoken discourse. While “Z” is no great loss, the Nollopian’s rationalize, and dutifully eliminate it, they are less sanguine when more letters begin to fall from the statue and accordingly, from their language, turning their society of free expression into one of censorship, fear, and constrained liberties.

Considered as a novel, Ella Minnow Pea is weak–the characterization is broad and the world-building is vague. As a fable in the vein of Animal Farm, though, it is great fun, and as a linguistic experiment, it’s even better. This book will appeal to people who love children’s books like The Phantom Tollbooth and The Lost Track of Time and were craving an adult version of books that have so much fun with the English language.

 

As I Descended by Robin Talley

imagesBook–Roommates (and secret couple) Maria and Lily are students at the elite boarding school Acheron Academy. The girls excel at academics, extra-curricular activities, and popularity contests, especially Maria. The only problem, from their perspective, is that they are not the very best. Fellow student Delilah Dufrey holds this honor: she is valedictorian, captain of their soccer team, and a shoo-in for homecoming queen. Delilah is also at the top of the list to win the coveted Cawdor Kingsley prize, a full college ride and two years of free grad school to the winner. While none of the girls actually need the money, they all crave the status, and Maria wants to ensure that she gets into Stanford with Lily.

To ensure the prize goes to Maria and to stay together, Lily is willing to do anything, even exploit Maria’s belief in ghosts and the supernatural to convince her that getting the prize is foreordained. What follows is a a full-on, ghost-laden, Shakespearean tragedy that neither girl could have predicted where bad decisions pile on top of each other and lies beget more lies. Like The Tragedy of Macbeth that it’s based on, As I Descended is an exploration of the lengths that the desire for power can drive people to.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

dbd04a03f81f114a28fac1068a273e72Book—  His Bloody Project concerns the murder of a husband, wife, and child in a remote 1800s Scottish highland town. There is no question that local teenager Roderick Macrae is guilty. Framed as a series of historical documents found by the author, Macrae’s fictional descendant, the novel captivates not on the basis of who did the murders, but why he did the murders. We get views of Roderick from his neighbors, his lawyer, the newspapers, his priest, a famed criminal anthropologist of the time, and his own diary, each of them proffering viable explanations . Despite all of this testimony, I was unsure at the end what motivated Macrae and am still spinning theories to explain his reasons.

I was surprised to learn this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize. His Bloody Project has all the drive and atmosphere of a tautly written thriller and is more reminiscent of the documentary Making a Murderer than the literary fare that generally garners Man Booker prizes. If you enjoy this novel, I would recommend others with compelling, unreliable narrators in historical settings, such as The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell.

Ten Count Volume 1 by Rihito Takarai

51XhBns8y1L._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_Book— Corporate secretary Shirotani suffers from misophobia, an irrational fear of dirt and contamination. He manages to get by wearing gloves and avoiding situations that trigger his phobia until he crosses paths with Kurose, who immediately notices his phobia and gives him his card. Kurose turns out to be a therapist. Rather than taking Shirotani on as a client, Kurose claims to want to be Shirotani’s friend and offers to meet him weekly at a cafe for free to help him with his phobia. Kurose has Shirotani make a list of ten things that would be hard or impossible with his misophobia, which Kurose will help him confront. Shirotani begins to make quick progress, but how much of it is tied to his budding feelings for Kurose?

This manga was a fun, fast read with beautiful artwork, but would have been so much more interesting for me if it were grounded in reality. In the real world, Kurose’s behavior is grossly unprofessional for a therapist and the blurring of boundaries between professional, friendly, and romantic relationships is in no way beneficial for Shirotani’s mental health. I will be eager to see if future installments of Ten Count explore the repercussions of Kurose’s nonprofessional behavior or if the story will continue along in the la-la land of pretty men falling in love.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

51323qF2glL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Book–In the port town of Malacca in Malaya in the 19th century (modern-day Malaysia), Li Lan is the daughter of a impoverished-but-genteel opium addict. Though of marriageable age, Li Lan receives no suitors but one: the prestigious Lim family wants her for their only son’s bride. There’s a catch, however. Lim Tian Ching, heir to the Lim family fortune, has recently died under mysterious circumstances and is demanding a bride from beyond the grave. Ghost marriage, an ancient but rarely practiced custom, is used to soothe an angry spirit, and guarantees the bride’s place in her groom’s house for the rest of her life.

Before Li Lan has even accepted the proposal, Lim Tian Ching begins to haunt her, and she is drawn into lifelike nightmares that sap away her energy. Li Lan is torn between the waking world and the shadowy ghost world where, if she’s not careful, she may remain forever.

The gorgeous, strange setting of turn of the century Malaya and the dreamlike ghost world draw the reader in, stealing the show from the somewhat milquetoast Li Lan and her trite love triangle between new Lim heir Tian Bai and mysterious spirit Er Lang. The Ghost Bride will appeal to those who enjoyed the movie Spirited Away, which has a similar beautiful, nightmarish, dream-logic setting and characters drawn with a light hand.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

indexBook–Based on some 200 cases of ‘fasting girls’ in the US and Great Britain throughout the 19th century, The Wonder follows Lib Wright, a no-nonsense nurse who trained under Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War, who is contracted to determine the veracity of the titular Wonder, a young Irish girl named Anna O’Donnell whose family claims she, of her own volition, has not eaten since her birthday several months ago. Together with taciturn nun Sister Michael, the two women watch Anna in shifts, Lib hoping to expose the O’Donnell family as frauds and secure her own reputation back home. Lib begins to realize, though, as she gets closer to Anna, that their watch is rather cruel. If, up until their watch, Anna has been fed in some covert way and their watch has put an end to it, they are complicit in starving Anna. As Anna begins to grow weak with undernourishment, Lib must decide if she will watch Anna’s slow death, as the village seems to wish her to do, or put a stop to it.

Set just after the Great Famine, the reader can easily see how Anna and her family have made a virtue of not eating. A child who claimed to be full quickly would be a source of relief to her struggling parents. The unique setting, religious faith, and a web of irresponsible adults and family secrets conspire to keep Anna trapped in her fasting and it is difficult to read. The reader feels culpable for Anna’s abuse just as Lib does. This intense read combines the richly detailed, thoroughly researched historical fiction that Donoghue is known for with the pulse-pounding immediacy of her 2010 breakthrough hit Room.

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

9781594748622Book–Abby and Gretchen have been best friends since Abby’s E.T.-themed birthday in the fourth grade, where Gretchen was the only girl who showed up. Their friendship has been the most significant relationship in both girls’ lives, despite class differences between Abby’s and Gretchen’s families and the vagaries of school friendships. The book is set in Abby and Gretchen’s sophomore year, where they  have climbed up to popularity at their selective high school. Trouble starts, though, at a house party at their friend’s lake house, where the girls decide to try LSD. Gretchen has a bad reaction and disappears into the nearby forest for the night. When she reappears, she is…different.

She ceases bathing, wears the same clothes everyday, scribbles listlessly in a notebook, and, most damningly, ignores her nightly telephone date with Abby. Naturally, when your friend takes a turn for the crazy, your first thought is not that she is possessed by a demon, but eventually it becomes clear that there is more wrong with Gretchen than one bad night can explain. I won’t spoil any of the gratuitous-but-fun demonic evil here, but all of the hallmarks of demonic possession are present and accounted for. Abby must decide whether saving Gretchen’s life is worth risking her own; not only her life, but her precarious standing as a poor scholarship student and all of the success that she has fought so hard for. My Best Friend’s Exorcism is part tongue-in-cheek love letter to the 1980s, part touching best friend story, and part gut-curdling horror, but all fun. Hendrix has mastered the tiny niche genre of injecting over-the-top horror into really unlikely and banal scenarios.

Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West

29340182Book–In Shrill, online columnist Lindy West shares a series of highly personal essays on topics ranging from abortion to being fat to her father’s death. The essays seem to be organized vaguely chronologically, but also with a progression from funny and light to more serious and vulnerable. My favorite of the essays was late in the book, a gut-wrenching account of Lindy’s experience with an online troll who, not content with the pedestrian vitriol usually lobbed at women on the internet, decided to pose as Lindy’s recently deceased father and insult her using his face and personal details. Also unlike other trolls, when confronted on how depraved his actions were, he sincerely apologized and gave some insight on what prompted his actions.

Lindy’s brand of humor is crass, sharp, and laden with modern internet parlance; readers will either respond to it or they won’t. While I did enjoy her essays in this collection, I think that her writing is perhaps better suited to shorter form pieces and journalism. I found that her writing style becomes too abrasive to read for long periods and is best enjoyed in short chunks. If you enjoyed this collection, I would also recommend books by Jessica Valenti and Andi Zeisler.