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.
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.)
Book–Becky Bloomwood is a reluctant financial journalist with a dirty secret: she can’t stop spending money. Despite harassment from creditors, Becky cannot resist the siren song of shiny new things, particularly clothes, to the point where she invents a dying aunt to justify borrowing money to buy a new scarf. She tries spending less money (and fails), tries making more money (and fails), and even tries marrying rich. The fun of this novel comes from watching Becky squirm; she has a knack for getting herself into sticky, embarrassing situations reminiscent of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones and is a delightfully flawed character who with a distinctive and strong narrative voice. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, Confessions of a Shopaholicis chick lit at its light, airy, and compulsively readable best.
Book–From college admittance to the actuarial models that determine what you pay for health insurance, decisions of who gets what in our society are increasingly made by algorithms rather than individuals. Former Wall Street quantitative analyst Cathy O’Neil exposes that, while many algorithms claim impartiality, they in fact end up entrenching systemic inequality. For example, many employers are increasingly using applicants’ credit scores as a factor in choosing employees, with the rationale that reliability with paying debt is correlated with reliability generally. Long term unemployed and lower income people are likely to have lower credit scores due to the higher credit utilization rates that typically accompany a shortage of funds, and this practice unfairly bars them from the very employment that would lift them out of their circumstances. O’Neil has plenty of other incisive examples of opaque, badly designed algorithms wreaking havoc on people’s lives from birth to death, but her thesis is that unless an algorithm is transparent, fair, and carefully considered, it tends to reinforce the status quo and penalize marginalized groups disproportionately.
Despite having the word “math” in the title, which tends to scare people off, Weapons of Math Destruction is written in an accessible, plainspoken style that doesn’t require you to be particularly mathematically-minded to follow along. O’Neil’s writing has a gift for making complicated topics simple and will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell.
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 Switchis 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.
Book— Structured into six chapters covering six seminal events in Revolutionary American history, Founding Brothersprovides 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.
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 Peais 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.
Book–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.
Book— 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.
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.
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.