Book Reviews: September and October ’20

The silver lining of 2020 is absolutely that spending so much time at home this year (and driving places rather than flying) has given me ample reading time and audio book time. My goal for the year was to finish 40 books and I’ve finished 48 – I now upped my goal to 52 (one per week) and I think it’s within sight.

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The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson. (2012, Fiction/Humor). We listened to most of this audiobook on our drive home from visiting my family in Kentucky over Labor Day weekend. The storyline was humorous, spellbinding and fun to follow. In a nutshell, Allan Karlsson, on his 100th birthday does as the title suggests: hops out the window and disappears from the nursing home he was residing in. As we work backwards through his life, we realize that this man has had both hardship and wild adventures follow him from his early years – and he has singlehandedly managed to change the course of atomic science and global politics over his 100 years of existence. I can’t say too much more than that without giving away major spoilers, but Allan has had more adventure and influence than anyone could wish for in ten lifetimes and at 100, his brain is sharp enough to keep the spirit of adventure alive for him and his newfound friends. This book was charming as an audio book as the emotion of each scenario was well conveyed by the narrator, I’d highly recommend you listen to this book.

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The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. (2019, Historical Fiction). This historical fiction novel follows the lives of two main characters and switches back and forth between their perspectives: an 11-year old boy named Ren and a 20-something young woman named Ji Lin. Both are living lives that are not guided by their own decisions in 1930s Malaysia and both feel a compulsive effort to resolve the troubles of others. Despite not ever meeting one another prior, Ji Lin’s and Ren’s lives will become permanently intertwined through (of all things) a severed, mummified finger. This story highlights class and gender issues facing immigrants in Malaysia prior to WWII, as well as the challenges of coming-of-age while facing issues that most teens and 20-something would not have to bear on behalf of their parents / employers / families. Throughout both sides of the story, you are rooting for Ren and Ji Lin, but simultaneously wishing that they had better luck and better families. Though I’m not certain of how historically accurate this story is, it really highlighted to me how much class, socioeconomic status and gender played a role as social determinants in the early 20th century.

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The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters by Tom Nichols. (2017, Non-Fiction/Politics). I really enjoyed this book, but wow, do I wish that there had been a new preface written in 2020 in the age of conspiracy theories and a global pandemic. This content really hits differently in this year. My husband bought this book and I read it before he got to it. It was a good read, but honestly, pretty dry. Not really a page turner, but I suppose this is to be the case when addressing important topics like why expertise has earned doubts and why much of that doubt is ill-directed. In a nutshell, this book confirmed a few things for me:

  1. Everyone thinks they are brilliant because they have access to the internet.
  2. Younger generations and the less educated are less and less able to determine the credibility of information in front of them.
  3. Americans are complete crackpots when it comes to conspiracy theory adoption.
  4. (And a bit of projecting because it is 2020): we’re freaking doomed.

It was interesting seeing how the internet has empowered curiosity and stupidity in one breath, but also how the current context of the world so desperately wants to prove experts wrong. Much of the book addresses the dislike of those who work in academia or in a policy role in government. If you’re curious about why Americans’ brains appear to be melting at a quicker clip in recent years and are up for a short, but relatively textbook-ish read, I’d recommend this one.

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The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein. (2017, Non-Fiction/History/Race). This book was one of the toughest books I’ve read this year and I really had to take my time processing it. This book takes an historic look at the 20th century in the United States and deconstructs a core philosophy at work in the U.S.: that segregation was a result of individual decisions (de facto) rather than enforced and implemented at the behest of the government (de jure). There is clearly a motivation for government to continue to argue that segregation and the disparate economic impacts facing communities of color were not their creation, because if they deny ever taking an active role in segregation, they are (supposedly) legally exempt from needing to create and fund solutions. As an urban planner it was difficult to recognize the facts behind nearly a century of government subsidized racial segregation. Without getting too into the weeds, if you’re questioning how this could ever be possible – it’s not as simplistic as “the federal government allowed for white vs. black facilities until the 1960s” – it is far more interwoven in policy, lending, insurance and banking than I ever imagined. In short, the federal government encouraged and subsidized segregated housing projects and new residential subdivision development, encouraged through their federal agencies underwriting practices that were discriminatory in insurance and lending and have actively disrupted communities of color through disinvestment and disruption of transportation systems. The end result of these legal practices supported by the U.S. government has been challenges for social mobility that have a disparate impact on communities of color and a gap in acquisition of wealth and equity through homeownership that white communities have not faced. This book might read as a little too textbook for some, but for anyone working in planning, transportation, education or finance – this is a must read.

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The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor. (2020, Fiction – Mystery). I like to try and alternate heavier books and topics with some lighter reads and this book was recommended to me on Goodreads. The story follows Maggie D’Arcy, a homicide detective from Long Island, NY who returns to Ireland 23 years after her cousin (Erin) mysteriously disappeared while hiking in a rural area. Her motivation to enter the field of law enforcement was directly related to her cousin’s disappearance and while she has attained a high profile as an exceptional detective in the States, she remains frustrated at never gaining closure about what actually happened to Erin. When new information arises in another disappearance in the same area of Ireland that may connect to Erin, Maggie returns to Ireland two decades later to assist local law enforcement with the case. I’m not a mystery super fan by any means (I read maybe 2-3 a year), I loved the way this author writes in such a sensory fashion. She really created a full sensory experience around Ireland that made me want to take a trip there post-COVID.

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The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot by Colin Cotterill. (2020, Fiction – Mystery). This was an odd read that was pretty easy to get through but was hard to follow. Set in the 1980s, the book follow a retired doctor (Dr. Siri) in Laos who is sent a diary of a Japanese soldier from decades earlier. The diary is written half in Japanese (which he cannot read) and half in Laotian. What starts as the incredibly dull diary entries summarizing life in a military camp unwind into vivid parables and extraordinary imagery that seem saturated in dual meanings. Dr. Siri his wife begin to suspect there is a hidden message in these pages and traverse Laos and Thailand seeking answers about the mysterious Japanese soldier and the missing pages of his diary.

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Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker. (2020, Non-Fiction – Medical / Science). This book was recommended to me by my next door neighbor and was incredibly popular due to it being a spring 2020 Oprah’s Book Club selection. I had a hold at the library for six months to get a copy! A very sombering read, Hidden Valley Road follows the life of the Galvin family of Colorado. Parents Don and Mimi had a dozen children over twenty years (Post-WWII through 1965). Of the ten boys and two girls, six of the boys would go on to develop schizophrenia in their early adulthood. The story follows (heartbreakingly) how mental illness would destroy the lives of six Galvin sons, due largely to a lack of scientific understanding of the disease of schizophrenia and medical practices that resulted in “the cure being worse than the disease”. Interspersed with chapters following the individual lives of all 14 family members, are the stories of leading mental illness researchers of the time, many of whom closely studied the Galvin family genetic makeup, looking for insights into the disease in a family so prone to it manifesting. Trigger warning: this book covers a number of highly sensitive subjects including violence, sexual abuse, drug abuse and suicide.

The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. (1931, Fiction). This is the second book that I’ve read this year that is at least half a century old and both were former Oprah’s Book Club picks. I realized that library holds on newer picks are often a long wait, but in going back years to vintage picks, I’ve been able to get the books more quickly. This book was captivating and intriguing because you just get so invested in the family portrayed. Set in pre-Revolutionary China, the story follows a modest farmer, Wang Lung, from the day of his marriage to O-Lan through to his later life 50 years later. It beautifully portrays the relationship that the family has to the earth in both an agricultural sense and to land ownership as a means of social mobility. Without exposing too much, Wang Lung seems to spend his entire life never quite satisfied enough with that which he has which drives his ceaseless ambition. At times you feel heartbreak for the man, while at others you are frustrated with him for not seeing what is in front of him. Gender dynamics, education, social classes and family loyalty are all explored in this story. After listening to this book, I learned that the author was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize in literature and that her early life was spent in China as the daughter of missionaries. She developed a strong passion for China, its people and culture and as an adult, would advocate against missionaries. (Her argument was that missionaries were ignorant of the cultural dynamics of the places they “served”). She would publish more than 100 books, many Asian-themed and would later in life form the first interracial, international adoption agency (Welcome House) to help find families in the United States for Asian orphans (China and beyond). A major theme of The Good Earth was the difficulties young girls faced in agricultural China because of socioeconomic conditions (the need to provide a dowry) and traditions (such as foot binding), so I imagine this influenced her desire to provide mobility and an escape from the realities of life as a woman in poverty in China. I really enjoyed this book and want to read the other two in this series, Sons and A House Divided.

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