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.

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.)

Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

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 Shopaholic is chick lit at its light, airy, and compulsively readable best.

If you like this book because of the fashion focus, you’ll also love The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (and its sequel), the Haley Randolph series by Dorothy Howell (start with Handbags and Homicide), and the rest of the Shopaholic series. If you’d have liked this one better if only Becky weren’t so darn shallow, try some of Rainbow Rowell’s books, like Attachments, or A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan.

 

 

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

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.

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.