Alyssa

About Alyssa

I’m a substitute Adult Services Librarian here at the Warrenville Public Library District. I will read anything shiny that my eye lands upon, but I tend to find that young adult, fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, classic, nonfiction 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.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book–Oliver Ryan, famous children’s book writer, and his loyal wife Alice, who illustrates his books, have a seemingly happy life until one night, after a very good dinner, he hits her, leaves, then comes back to beat her into a coma. The rest of the book is like peeling the layers of an onion. Nugent jumps around in chronology and in viewpoint, each character giving their take on Oliver, their past with him, and why he did it. From his harsh upbringing in a Catholic boarding school, to a fateful summer in France, to his current success, the reader gets more insight into Oliver’s character and motivations with every chapter. By the end, the reader should understand why he did it. Whether you find him sympathetic or a monster is up to you.

Like many books with this structure, it can get a little repetitive. We read tellings of the same scene from so many viewpoints that the details can wear thin by the second character’s take. Also, the story is full of too-convenient coincidences that stretch belief. Nevertheless, I read it in one sitting and found myself sucked in to Unraveling Oliver the way the best domestic thrillers suck you in. While I still found him absolutely monstrous at the end, I could see a different reader coming around to find him at least pitiable, if not sympathetic. This should appeal to people who like the recent spate of compelling Girl novels (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc). If you’re looking for your next read, try B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors, or, in fact, any of B. A. Paris‘ domestic thriller novels.

Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki

Book–If your primary complaint about Marie Kondo’s best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is that it just isn’t hardcore-minimalist enough for you, Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye, Things will be just your speed. Sasaki recounts his journey toward minimalism that stemmed from his dissatisfaction with his life. He was, in his own words, “an unmarried adult with not much money to speak of.” Interestingly, after embracing minimalism, he is still in the same boat, but is now happy with his life. He owns an air mattress, wallet, keys, iPhone, a few dishes, multipurpose liquid soap, and a hand towel. Sasaki makes some decent points with regards to owning possessions to appear a certain way to others (DVDs to seem like a movie buff, books to appear cultured) and suggests minimalism as a way to strip away pretense, but I personally think he takes his obsession with minimalism a bit far. For instance, he mentions how much happiness he derives from using full-size bath towels when he travels in hotels as opposed to the scratchy hand towel he uses at home and recommends routinely denying yourself so that things you used to take for granted become sources of happiness.

I might sound like I’m ragging on this book, but the fact is I quite liked it. While I think Sasaki’s brand of minimalism sounds like torture, he has an interesting writing style and I enjoyed my glimpse into his life which is so different from mine. If you enjoy reading about minimalism, I recommend The 100 Thing Challenge; if you just like keeping up on popular lifestyle trends whatever they are (hey, me too), I recommend How to Hygge.

Noteworthy by Riley Redgate

Book— At scholarship student Jordan Sun’s elite, arts-focused boarding high school, getting cast in the school musical isn’t just a fun diversion–it’s a make-or-break-your-career proposition. After she gets passed over for the musical the third year running, Jordan gets some hard advice. For an alto 2 like Jordan, the deepest register for female voices, there just are not many parts, leading or otherwise, in musical theater. Shortly after, Jordan hears that there is an open spot in the Sharpshooters, the most prestigious a capella octet on campus, and decides to audition. The only catch? The Sharpshooters is an all-male group. Can alto 2 Jordan be just the tenor the Sharpshooters need?

Redgate’s characters, especially the Sharpshooters, are a diverse, tight-knit bunch and it’s a pleasure to see Jordan become a member of their little family. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this story because I know next to nothing about music and even less about a capella, but I needn’t have worried. Noteworthy should appeal equally to music neophytes and music buffs. If you like realistic, well-drawn characters, high school stories with a dash of romance, and stories exploring gender, you’ll definitely want to read this book. If you enjoy this one, you might also enjoy the manga series Ouran High School Host Club, which has a fairly similar premise (girl cross-dresses and gets in with a popular club of boys at a prestigious school) but a sillier tone.

I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo

Book–High school senior Desi Lee likes to have her life under control. With perfect SAT scores, high school popularity, and a great relationship with her goofy, Korean-drama-obsessed widower dad, Desi’s drive and methodical determination have gotten her almost everything she wants in life. The only thing she’s missing is a boyfriend. When she feels an instant connection with impossibly cool and handsome new student Luca Drakos, she decides to apply her scholarly single-mindedness to the project of snagging Luca. Using her father’s Korean drama formulaic romances as a template, she devises a step-by-step plan to win Luca over. Staged near-death experiences and contrived K-drama hijinks ensue.

I had mixed feelings about this book; Desi’s plans cause real harm to real (well, fictional-real) people and she is upfront about how bonkers her plans get. I found that this book was immensely fun if I didn’t take it too seriously, sort of like Korean dramas themselves, in fact. Desi is a charming, strong-willed protagonist with an out-of-whack moral compass who, without spoiling anything, gets off a bit too easy for some of the dangerous stunts she pulls. If you enjoy I Believe in a Thing Called Love, I recommend books by Jenny Han and Sarah Dessen.

The Upside of Unrequited by Becky Albertalli

Book— Despite 26 crushes, Molly Peskin-Suso has never had a kiss or a  boyfriend. Her twin sister Cassie gets a girlfriend, her friends have boyfriends, even her two moms are getting married, but Molly has no one and obsesses about it, feeling awkward and left behind. Molly decides to do something revolutionary–rather than just crushing silently, she chooses to risk rejection and go after the boy she wants. The trouble is deciding which one. Will she go after Will, the cute, hipster-cool best friend of Cassie’s girlfriend, or Reid, the nerdy, so-uncool-it’s-almost-cool boy at her summer job?

While Molly is sometimes so boy-crazy that it’s suffocating to read about, she is a witty, engaging narrator who feels like a real teenager, complete with a Pinterest obsession and dialogue laden with tumblrspeak. Molly is chubby and suffers from anxiety for which she takes medication, situations which Albertalli portrays realistically and sensitively. This is a light, fun book with lots of diverse representation that’s perfect for summertime. The Upside of Unrequited will appeal to readers of John Green and Rainbow Rowell as well as those who enjoyed Albertalli’s Lincoln-nominated first book, Simon Vs. The Homo-Sapiens Agenda.

The Magnolia Story by Chip and Joanna Gaines

Book–Fans of the hit HGTV show Fixer Upper, which focuses on quickly renovating beat-up homes in Waco, Texas to turn a profit and give families their dream home, will be no stranger to Chip and Joanna Gaines, the down-to-earth husband and wife team at the heart of the show. The Magnolia Story traces Chip and Jo’s origins from their parents’ childhoods all the way to the present at their iconic farmhouse, dwelling on their great rapport with and respect for one another along the way. The Gaines come off as truly humble and grateful for the chance to improve Waco and help their family and employees through the opportunities afforded by the show.

I’m by no means a Fixer Upper superfan myself, so I can attest that there is plenty to enjoy here even for those who have seen only a few episodes of the show. I highly recommend the audio book version narrated by Chip and Joanna, which feels like a folksy conversation between the two and showcases their different versions of their shared story. While occasionally a little repetitive and with abrupt jumps in chronology, this fun, squeaky-clean, and meandering memoir will keep you entertained (and make you wish the show was still on Netflix).

Black Man in a White Coat: A Doctor’s Reflections on Race and Medicine by Damon Tweedy, M.D.

Book–Dr. Tweedy, currently an assistant professor of psychiatry at Duke University, shares his experiences in this roughly chronological memoir that explores his identity as a black man and how it intersects with his identity as a doctor. He explores his discomfort with the fact that, for so many illnesses, simply being black is a major risk factor, and he is one of only a handful of black students in his medical program. He observes half-seriously that “being black can be bad for your health.” To me, the most interesting parts of the book are in the middle, where he tells various anecdotes about his patients’ reactions to him as a doctor during his residency and observes the inequalities in care received by the rich and the poor, who are disproportionately black. During his education, Tweedy briefly serves as a doctor at a pop-up clinic in a poor, rural area, prescribing whatever medicines his patients can afford and doing his best to make notes for whichever doctor will see them next time. He contrasts this type of patient-doctor relationship to that of his more affluent patients with health insurance, who are able to see the same primary care doctor each visit and receive drugs based on efficacy rather than affordability.

Tweedy makes for an engaging and thoughtful narrator. His account is modest and he remains cognizant of his own biases, having grown up in a middle class household shielded from the disadvantages suffered by many of his patients. If you enjoy Black Man in a White Coat, try Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, another examination of what it means to be a black man in America.

A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

Book-– Written by former director Neil MacGregor of the National Gallery in London, A History of the World in 100 Objects uses artifacts in the museum to tell the story of the world from our prehistoric origins all the way through to today. MacGregor refreshingly focuses about equally on objects from the Orient as well as the Occident, including such disparate artifacts as a Korean roof tile and a modern-day credit card. The joy of this 700+ page tome comes from how completely knowledgeable and intelligent MacGregor is; I felt MacGregor struck a nice balance between the breadth of topics he covered and the depth he delved into for each topic. I learned more about history, and had more fun doing it, from this book than I ever did in school. If you prefer a listening experience over a reading one, you can also download the entire collection, divided into 100 episodes, from the BBC’s website for free.

If you enjoy this book, you might also like others that take a concrete, artifact-based view of historical events, such as The Civil War in 50 Objects. If you were more intrigued by this book’s birds-eye, macro view of history, try A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (has a science bent) or Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond.

Beast by Brie Spangler

Book--Ever since the 6th grade, Dylan has been larger than other boys. Now at over 6 ft. tall, improbably hairy, and still growing, 15-year-old Dylan (called Beast by his peers) hides his face under hats and feels trapped in a body that doesn’t match his insides. When his school bans hats, Dylan walks off the edge of the school building and breaks his leg. He claims it was an accident. His orthopedist and his mother don’t agree. They send him to counseling for teenagers with self-harming tendencies, where he meets Jamie. Jamie is beautiful, smart, and funny, just the kind of girl that would impress Dylan’s friends. Because this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling, Dylan starts to shed some of his shallowness and misogyny as he falls in love with her, and begins to let go of his anger at the world. However, when Dylan learns that Jamie is transgender (a fact that she told him when they first met, had he been listening), he freaks out and pulls away from her. Will Dylan be able to get over his knee-jerk transphobia and apologize to Jamie? Will she be able to forgive him? Will they get back together?

Of course they will. But reading about how is the whole fun of it. I really enjoyed reading about Dylan’s journey from crass and callow teenage boy to sensitive young man. Despite being a fairy tale retelling, Beast stands on its own. If you enjoy this one, you may also enjoy other LBGT classic story retellings aimed at young adults (yes, this is a whole genre) such as Ash by Malinda Lo (retells Cinderella), Great by Sara Benincasa (retells The Great Gatsby), and As I Descended (retells Macbeth).

The Unbanking of America: How the New Middle Class Survives by Lisa Servon

Book— In a move reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich’s famous undercover excursion into the world of the working poor (Nickel and Dimed), professor of urban planning Lisa Servon worked as a check casher at RiteCheck, a payday lender, and a hotline operator for those having difficulty paying back payday loans to investigate what these services offer to vulnerable Americans. What she found is that America’s banks are ill-serving America’s poor and middle class. With practices such as debt resequencing, where the largest debit transactions on a checking account are non-chronologically processed first to maximize overdraft fees, and long check-clearing times that make it hard for people living paycheck to paycheck to count on their money being accessible, it’s no wonder that alternative financial services are springing up to fill the void. Contrary to popular wisdom, though, not all of these new services are predatory (or at least are no more predatory than banks). In fact, many customers prefer them because their fees are upfront and immediate rather than opaque. Servon’s account paints a more nuanced picture than the banking=smart, check cashing=short-sighted framework that I certainly subscribed to before reading this book.

If you enjoy The Unbanking of America, I recommend Evicted, which examines the detrimental effects that unstable housing has on the poor. For more information on the specific topics covered by Servon, I recommend this Freakonomics podcast on the topic or payday lenders. (For other great podcast recommendations, come to our Discover Podcasts program on Wednesday, November 1 at 7 PM.)