ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by Gail Honeyman

Like many people who answer, “I’m fine” when they are anything but, the title character of Gail Honeyman’s first novel is not, in fact, completely fine. Some colleagues in the office where she works think she’s “mental,” and on some level she is, for good reason. I would say she’s also lonely and analytical and naïve, and she often thinks or says things that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Exhibit A, the first paragraph, captures her voice perfectly:

When people ask me what I do—taxi drivers, dental hygienists—I tell them I work in an office. In almost nine years, no one’s ever asked what kind of office, or what sort of job I do there. I can’t decide whether that’s because I fit perfectly with their idea of what an office worker looks like, or whether people hear the phrase work in an office and automatically fill in the blanks themselves—lady doing photocopying, man tapping at a keyboard. I’m not complaining. I’m delighted that I don’t have to get into the fascinating intricacies of accounts receivable with them. When I first started working here, whenever anyone asked, I told them that I worked for a graphic design company, but then they assumed I was a creative type. It became a bit boring to see their faces blank over when I explained that it was back office stuff, that I didn’t get to use the fine-tipped pens and the fancy software.

Hers is the kind of voice that makes me want to write a novel myself. Throw in Raymond, an IT colleague who takes an interest in Eleanor, and you have even more reasons to keep reading.

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DOPESICK by Beth Macy

As I noted in my review of Dreamland by Sam Quinones, most of us either know someone or know someone who knows someone who has suffered from opioid addiction. This horrifying epidemic, precipitated by the release of the addictive painkiller OxyContin in 1996, has cost this country $1 trillion since 2001 through lost productivity and increased health care, social services, education, and law enforcement costs. And as of 2017, more than 64,000 people were dying every year from drug overdoses.

In DOPESICK, subtitled Dealers, Doctors, and The Drug Company That Addicted America, Beth Macy tells the stories of people who find themselves directly involved in the systemic problems associated with opioid addiction—the parents, children, and grandchildren whose lives are affected; the doctors who have either contributed to or fought this problem; the law enforcement officials who find themselves overwhelmed; and even the drug dealers who flatly admit that the “shit don’t stop”—meaning, You can arrest me, but 10 more dealers will take my place. The demand is relentless. Macy cites a recent Harvard Medical School study that it takes the typical opioid-addicted user eight years and four to five treatment attempts—to achieve remission for just a single year.

You might not want to read such bad news. This is an epidemic that crosses every demographic line, and it has not even peaked yet. But Macy provides some glimmers of hope that we could turn the corner, and many individuals are working to solve this problem.

Regardless of your role, becoming informed by reading this book could be a helpful step.

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REINFORCEMENTS by Heidi Grant

If you are a human being, sooner or later you will need to ask someone for help. And more often than not, you will dread having to do so. Maybe you’ll ask in some strangulated way and the person will say no, or maybe the person will say yes but the whole situation will become awkward and both of you will feel uncomfortable for days afterward. Whether your request is for work, personal, or fundraising purposes, there are reasons why asking for help is so problematic. Researchers have actually studied this phenomenon.

In her latest book, REINFORCEMENTS (subtitled How to Get People to Help You), social psychologist Heidi Grant (author of No One Understands You and What to Do About It, among others) once again provides clear-eyed, humorous explanations that connect extensive research with real life. She systematically addresses 1) why it’s difficult/painful to ask for help, 2) how to ask anyway, and 3) how to create a culture of helpfulness.

Bottom line: You should ask for help. Directly. And read this book for further instructions.

Posted in For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Nonprofit boards, Self-help, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

ONE PLUS ONE by Jojo Moyes

This book sat on my nightstand for months, but once I picked it up, I read it in two days. Good books are like that: ready when you need them. This novel by Jojo Moyes (the author of Me Before You) is delightful and another reminder that not everything that seems awful turns out to be bad; in fact, often we come out the other side stronger and happier. The characters in One Plus One—largely on an eventful car ride to Scotland—are quirky, flawed, funny, and likable, and the plot, while not overly complex, is engaging.

Whenever you get to this one, it will be a fun ride. #punintended

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LOVE AND RUIN by Paula McLain

If you are a Paula McLain fan like me, you already know that she is brilliant at capturing the voices and lives of strong women in history. You’ve read Circling the Sun (about Beryl Clutterbuck—later Markham) and The Paris Wife (about Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife), and you’ve likely already purchased her latest historical novel, Love and Ruin, told from the point of view of Martha Gellhorn, a relentless war correspondent who happened to be Hemingway’s third wife (of four) and in fact was the only one who dumped him instead of the reverse. Martha was brave and bold and also witty and passionate—and deeply committed to her own writing, which is partly why their marriage didn’t last. She was so much more than Hemingway’s wife! So I’m probably not telling you anything you didn’t already suspect: This book is another must-read.

The beauty of Paula McLain’s writing is that she inspires you to want to read more about her subjects. I had barely closed this book before I bought Martha Gellhorn’s travel memoir, Travels with Myself and Another. (I’m only a few pages into it, but it cracks me up that in her description about a trip to China, she refers to Hemingway as “U.C.,” which stands for “Unwilling Companion.”)

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UNBELIEVABLE by Katy Tur

This book got me into some trouble–well, this book and the other four I brought on vacation, which formed a solid, suspicious, sharp-edged block that caused a TSA agent to inform me that she needed to search my bag.

I’m not sure what she thought I was carrying, but we had a friendly, relieved chuckle over my “dangerous” luggage.

This interlude didn’t take too long, and I was soon on my way to a warmer climate, to relax.

I bring this up because TV reporter Katy Tur, the author of this fast-moving book, subtitled My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, had to travel EVERY DAY and never seemed to have a minute to herself in the 500-plus days after Donald Trump took an escalator ride in Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president. She was living in London as a foreign correspondent for NBC and happened to be in New York one day, when she sort of fell into the assignment of covering the Trump “campaign,” which no one expected to last very long. “Six weeks, tops,” her boss said.

We all know how that turned out.

I admit I hadn’t expected to enjoy this book as much as I did. I had already lived through the news. Once was enough, I thought. But actually, seeing the insider perspective of a news reporter on the beat—and particularly a female news reporter, trying to live her life while engaged in such a contentious, demanding job—was fascinating. And fast-paced. And often funny (even beginning with the book’s dedication, which reads, “For the love of God”).

You should check it out.

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THIEVES OF STATE by Sarah Chayes

When we reflect on politics in America, as annoying/frustrating/horrifying as things might seem, Sarah Chayes reminds us that they could always get worse. In THIEVES OF STATE: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security, she explains how corruption has overtaken Afghanistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan and why it has increased the spread of destabilizing religious extremism.

And we’ve had a role in this problem. For example, in places such as Kabul, where we’ve had a military presence for years now, while our stated goals have been to support democratic governance and destroy radical terrorists, the citizens of Afghanistan have had to choose between being led and abused by corrupt officials or being led and abused by religious extremists. Ironically, she points out, because we have not taken corruption seriously enough, the people we are trying to help do not believe we are really trying to help them, so it makes them look around for other options.

This book sheds a bright light on a global problem. It is also an important reminder to citizens of this country that freedom isn’t free. We must remain vigilant.

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HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE by Stanley Fish

This book reminded me how lucky I have been.

I grew up in a house full of books. From first grade forward, every school I attended had its own library, and as soon as my parents let me ride my bike without supervision, I made daily treks to the public library three miles away, where I checked out as many books as I could carry, bringing them back the next day for more. I ate books the way I now sometimes eat potato chips, and I soon became equally enthralled with writing.

I had a sense that my writing would improve if I just kept practicing—and plus, it was fun—so I kept a journal and wrote poems and stories whenever the whim struck me.

One day, my father gave me his copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and I gobbled it up. It reinforced my suspicion that good writers were not born but made, and it gave me hope that some day I’d write something that other people would want to read. In retrospect, I had many, many teachers who encouraged me to write—more than ten that I can think of right now—and while I loved them at the time, I didn’t realize how unusual that was. My family was not wealthy, but my parents and teachers were an embarrassment of riches.

Fast-forward 40 years (give or take), and having published two books (with a third in the wings, if anyone knows a good agent), I’ve begun another—this time, on how to use grammar to improve writing. Naturally I ordered a dozen grammar books to suss out the competition. That’s how Stanley Fish’s HOW TO WRITE A SENTENCE (subtitled And How to Read One) was delivered to my door.

Fish begins with an anecdote from Annie Dillard’s 1989 classic, The Writing Life, in which she tells the story of a fellow writer who was asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?” to which he responds, “Well, do you like sentences?”

A hook like that is almost unfair. I love sentences.

Fish focuses on form, craft, and appreciation, and his insights about writing are dazzling. If you like (or love) sentences, you should really read this book.

Posted in Creativity, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, Nonfiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

EVICTION by Matthew Desmond

Having just finished DREAMLAND, about the opioid crisis, I turned to EVICTION, the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winner subtitled Poverty and Profit in the American City. You could say I’m a glutton for bad news, but it’s more like I’m trying to understand our country’s biggest problems in order to figure out how we could solve them.

While many things in this book surprised me, perhaps most surprising was that no one knew much about eviction much until Matthew Desmond came along. Not long after he moved to a trailer park in Milwaukee in 2008 to begin his research, he discovered that no one had previously studied eviction enough to answer the most basic questions, such as: “How prominent is eviction? What are its consequences? Who gets evicted? If poor families are spending so much on housing, what are they going without?” Poverty researchers had focused on public housing or other housing policies, he noted, “And yet here was the private rental market, where the vast majority of poor people lived.” Desmond dug in, and in addition to conducting the hundreds of interviews and observations that enabled him to tell the stories of the people he describes so compellingly in this book, he created systems for data collection so that people could understand the scope of the problem. He won a well-deserved “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation for his work.

Millions of people in this country—millions—are evicted every year. Some lose their jobs, can’t pay rent, and are evicted; some are evicted and then lose their jobs while they try to figure out where to live next and how to feed their children. As Desmond notes, “Eviction is a cause, not just a condition, of poverty.” He explains the interconnectedness of housing, family stability, schooling, and community stability; when people don’t have stable shelter, he notes, “everything else falls apart.”

This book should be required reading for high school students, as part of a very robust class on civics.

Posted in Anthropology, Crime, Drug addiction, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Poverty, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Race relations, Social Justice, Social psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

DREAMLAND by Sam Quinones

Depending on where you live and whom you know, you might know quite a lot about opioid addiction. You might have seen firsthand how someone goes to a doctor for back pain and ends up hooked on OxyContin. You might have heard about a friend’s child who overdosed on heroin. You might have received a phone call from your own child, asking for help.

While you might know that we are—in dozens of cities and towns around the country—in the midst of an almost unfathomable opioid epidemic that has undermined families, communities, and large chunks of our national economy, you might not know how it started. Everything starts somewhere, somehow. In DREAMLAND, subtitled The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, Sam Quinones tells the stories of many key individuals involved and explains so much, and so much of it is infuriating.

I will not explain it all here. Not surprisingly, corporate greed and fraud play a role. Our problematic health care system shows its weaknesses. The desperation of unemployed men also factors in. The details of how this crisis spread are astonishing.

The consequences are staggering.

Posted in Crime, Drug addiction, For BUSINESS PEOPLE, For EDUCATORS, For PARENTS, History, Illegal Immigration, Investigative journalism, Nonfiction, Poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments