Reading Round-Up: August 2018

Happy almost-September! I usually wait until after the end of the month to do these round-up posts, but since I just started my latest book last night, I know I’m not going to finish it before we’re into September. And while I guess September technically isn’t the fall, and it certainly shows no signs of cooling down where we live, it still always feels like a new beginning to me — that’s what all those years of school will do to you, I guess. And so I bid a cheerful adieu to summer with a look at my last summer books:

  1. Present Shock (Douglas Rushkoff)
  2. The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football (John J. Miller)
  3. The Quiet American (Graham Greene)
  4. Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self (Manoush Zomorodi)
  5. Decline and Fall (Evelyn Waugh)
  6. Every Bitter Thing is Sweet (Sara Hagerty)
  7. Golden Age and Other Stories (Naomi Novik)
  8. Open Mic Night in Moscow: And Other Stories from My Search for Black Markets, Soviet Architecture, and Emotionally Unavailable Russian Men (Audrey Murray)
  9. Uprooted (Naomi Novik)
  10. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See)
  11. Seabiscuit: An American Legend (Laura Hillenbrand)
  12. The Wife (Meg Wolitzer)

This was probably my most balanced month in a while in terms of fiction and non-fiction reads: if not in number of books, then probably in terms of rough page count. I think I would like to fall into a pattern of where I’m reading at something like a 1:2 ratio of non-fiction to fiction. I get itchy when I read too much of the one or the other in a row — alternating a little more deliberately gives me a constant, rotating mental palate-cleanse which I find refreshing.

Bored and Brilliant and Uprooted have already been touched-on in their own posts.

I’m afraid I don’t have much to say about Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock — I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but at this point its contents seem to have slipped completely out of my head. Except one thing, which is when he points out how weird it is to have Facebook flatten all of the relationships we have gathered over the years into an eternal present where we’re interacting with current coworkers and friends from grade school and everything in between. Yes; that is weird. But that’s all I remember. Sorry, Mr. Rushkoff. Maybe I can’t remember this book because I am suffering from a case of present shock.

The Big Scrum was a fun read. I care very little for sports in terms of sitting down and watching them, but I love sports writing and I love a good sports story. This is a fascinating account of how football came to occupy the place it does in American culture, and taught me basically everything I know about Teddy Roosevelt (not hard to do when you’re starting from zero!).

And speaking of sports writing, man oh man: Seabiscuit. It’s no surprise to me that Seabiscuit was a best-seller; it was easily the most engrossing thing I read this month. Laura Hillenbrand is an impeccable historian and a fantastic storyteller — at one point I found myself actually getting breathless as I read the account of one of Seabiscuit’s races. And sure, that race happened eighty years ago, but Hillenbrand made it come alive. The best part is that because the story takes place in the 1930s, you can find newsreel footage of at least some of the events covered in the book. Here is Seabiscuit’s 1938 match race against his half-uncle, War Admiral, which is widely hailed as one of the best horse races of all time:

Last month I read Sara Hagerty’s Unseen, which is her second book; this month I read her first book second, Every Bitter Thing is Sweet. The title is an allusion to Proverbs 27:7, “One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet.” This book is more of a memoir than Unseen, going into a lot of detail about things that were only referenced in the second book: the deep struggles in the early years of her marriage, the pain of a decade-plus of infertility, the trauma lurking behind her children’s adoptions. These are all bitter things — but, she writes, can be sweet to us when we let them feed our hunger for God.

The last non-fiction I tackled this month was Audrey Murray’s Open Mic Night in Moscow, which slots nicely into one of my favourite genres: amusing travelogues. The book follows Murray as she travels through the former Soviet states over the course of about a year. It’s surprisingly vulnerable at times, and sneakily educational — but most of all it’s very, very funny.

As far as fiction goes, this month was a pretty good mix of serious and silly. I very much enjoyed The Quiet American, and it will go back into my pile one day; I have a feeling it’s one of those books that gets better with subsequent readings. Decline and Fall will doubtless be another one to revisit in a year or two; it’s satirical and preposterous and thoroughly enjoyable. And if I read it enough I may finally be able to keep Evelyn Waugh and Edith Wharton straight in my mind. Those E.W.s are confusing.

I’m a huge fan of Naomi Novik’s nine-volume Temeraire series, which is probably easiest to explain thus: the Napoleonic wars, but with dragon-based aerial support. Golden Age and Other Stories is a collection of short stories set in the same world, each one inspired by a piece of fan art (pictures included, of course!). That’s a neat way for an author to interact with her fandom — I’d love to see more of that kind of collaboration.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane was the first selection of a new book club I’ve been invited to join. Except then it was un-selected in favour of something else, but since I already had a copy from the library I read it anyway. This novel is set (mostly) in China from the late 1980s through the present day and touches on a lot of themes: education, international adoption, the interaction between Chinese and Western culture, the relationship between majority and minority ethnicities in China, and woven throughout, a whole lot of the history and production of pu’er tea. It’s tremendously sad — I cried a bit — but the ending is perfect. And I now have another Lisa See book waiting for me on my to-read pile.

Last but not least was Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, which I (and everybody else, judging by the library holds list) read because it’s been recently made into a movie. I guessed half of the surprise ending when I was about halfway through, but didn’t see the other part coming at all. It’s a quick, engaging read with lots of stuff to chew on.

Meet Alia

Lest this blog become all technological gloom and doom all the time, let me quickly point out something very cool I heard about yesterday — a counterweight to my last post, if you will.

I’ve started listening to a podcast called Team Human, hosted by Douglas Rushkoff. My introductory episodeĀ  — 93: Palak Shah: Who’s Going to Care? — immediately grabbed my attention because of its subject: domestic workers (nannies, elder care workers, housecleaners, home healthcare providers, etc). This is a field I know relatively well. I worked as a nanny for several years. My mother cleaned houses for a time when I was a teenager. One of my sisters-in-law does some work in the home assistance field. So I know a little bit about domestic work from my own experience, and when I was a nanny I often ran into other nannies and sitters (and occasional housecleaners) during the course of my days.

In her interview segment, Palak Shah, the social innovations director at the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), called domestic work the “invisible backbone” of society — and if you think about it, that makes sense. If you have children and want to go to work, you need someone to care for those children. If you have elderly parents you can’t care for, somebody else needs to fill that role. In many respects, domestic workers are the ones who let the “regular” workforce get to work. But it is a largely invisible field because the work happens in the privacy of other people’s homes. And although domestic work is everywhere, it’s not a particularly respected field, and certainly not a well-paid one. When I was a nanny I was very fortunate in that most of my families treated me fairly, and my main clients (hi, Bruce and Steph!) registered as a business so that I would also be getting/making contributions to the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, etc. But many (probably most) domestic workers, especially in America, lack the worker protections and benefits (pensions, health plans, paid sick days, contracts, etc.) that the non-domestic workforce often takes for granted.

But domestic work does have something big going for it, which is that it is what we might call “future proof” — which is to say, domestic work is not something that can be automated or outsourced. We’re a long way from robots that can clean a bathroom. You’re not going to skype in a nanny from India to watch your children while you work. Domestic work is going to be around for a long time, and so the question is — how can we as a society make it better? If it’s important work — and it is important work! — what can happen to make working in people’s homes more tenable, sustainable, dignified, etc. for those who do it?

These are the sorts of questions that Palak Shah and others like her are asking. And one of the potential answers is a cool little app called Alia, coming out of the NDWA’s Fair Care Labs, which functions as a “portable benefits plan”, currently being beta tested for housecleaners. The idea is that a housecleaner will sign up and get her clients to do so as well. Each client pays a premium into Alia of $5 or $10 per cleaning. That money accrues in the cleaner’s account and can be used to provide paid time off or go toward insurance costs. Because the benefits are tied to the worker rather than to the job, she doesn’t have to worry about losing them with a change in employment. I think it’s a very cool concept; here’s a nice write-up in Wired Magazine. (And if you clean houses or use a housecleaner, consider signing up for beta testing.)

There: technology being used for something useful and pro-humanity. See? It’s not all bad. Some of it is very good indeed, which I need to remind myself whenever I have one of my regular Luddite fits.