Making Things Right: The Simple Philosophy of a Working Life by Ole Thorstensen

Translated by Sean Kinsella

35787524Making Things Right is the simple yet captivating story of a loft renovation, from the moment master carpenter and contractor Ole Thorstensen submits an estimate for the job to when the space is ready for occupation. As the project unfolds, we see the construction through Ole’s eyes: the meticulous detail, the pesky splinters, the problem solving, patience, and teamwork required for its completion. Yet Ole’s narrative encompasses more than just the fine mechanics of his craft. His labor and passion drive him toward deeper reflections on the nature of work, the academy versus the trades, identity, and life itself.

Review:

I am always here for non-fiction in translation so when I saw this title as an audiobook I scooped it up.  Using the framework (ha) of a loft renovation Thorstensen shows what it’s like to be an independent contractor in Norway.

Most of the book is process – how bids are calculated, how materials are ordered and brought into the loft via a crane, how you make sure the floor of a bathroom is water-tight.  It’s fine and good, but this electrician’s daughter was slightly bored by the details.

My favorite bits were the ones between – talking about how people from different places and backgrounds enter the trades, what gets played on the radio, how people in different parts of Norway opt for different kinds of construction.  I was cuted out when he gave to small kids, who were going to live in the loft once it was done, free rein to draw in pencil all over the drywall.  They marked out the rooms, still only plans, and drew airplanes as they saw fit.  Adorable and heartwarming.

27427788I ran into a few issues, though.  Unfortunately the translation and audiobook narration do not mesh well.  It sounds like a British English translation read by someone who knows Norwegian and speaks with an American accent.  On top of that it sounds like some terms were slapdash “translated” into American without much thought.

For example, at one point the text reads “6.25 feet”.  This strikes me as poor translation from metric – I’d call that “six feet three inches”.  But 6.25 feet stands, and it’s read aloud as “six point twenty five feet”, which sounds even worse.  Six and a quarter feet, six point two five feet… why “point twenty five”?

There are also some terms that seem common in European discourse that I’ve never heard before.  I found myself googling “social dumping” and “passive housing”, terms that make no sense unless you’re familiar.  I may just be ignorant but a gloss in the text would have been appreciated.

Likewise, at one point Thorstensen lists radio programs he listens to while working.  “[so-and-so] does a great radio show”, he says, with no further info.  I desperately wanted one more word in there – a great music show, a great interview show, a great comedy show… something.  I don’t think you have to explain every unfamiliar reference (there are many more) but some could use this minimal, additional info.

All in all Making Things Right is an okay book, but if you’re looking for great carpentry memoirs go for Nina MacLaughlin’s Hammer Head instead.

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The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story by Christie Watson

36750090Christie Watson spent twenty years as a nurse, and in this intimate, poignant, and remarkably powerful book, she opens the doors of the hospital and shares its secrets. She takes us by her side down hospital corridors to visit the wards and meet her most unforgettable patients.

In the neonatal unit, premature babies fight for their lives, hovering at the very edge of survival, like tiny Emmanuel, wrapped up in a sandwich bag. On the cancer wards, the nurses administer chemotherapy and, long after the medicine stops working, something more important–which Watson learns to recognize when her own father is dying of cancer. In the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, the nurses wash the hair of a little girl to remove the smell of smoke from the house fire. And the stories of the geriatric ward–Gladys and older patients like her–show the plight of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Review:

I’m not sure I can be completely fair reviewing this book – a section early on made me mad and ended up tainting it for me.  I’ll get to that in a minute.

But first, let me say that this is a well-written account of being a nurse in England.  Watson is drawn to some of the most emotional parts of the hospital – mental care, emergency, palliative care, neonatal intensive care – so expect heart-wrenching, as well as heart-warming, stories.  We watch Watson grow from a nursing student that’s duped by psych patients to a knowledgeable practitioner of one of the most noble arts.

I learn then that nursing is not so much about tasks, but about how in every detail a nurse can provide comfort to a patient and a family. It is a privilege to witness people at the frailest, most significant and most extreme moments of life, and to have the capacity to love complete strangers.

She talks how hard the work is – not only long hours and lifting heavy patients, but also the emotional toll.  I think most understand nursing isn’t easy, but I’m not sure we all appreciate how punishing it can be.

Compassion fatigue is common when caring for people who have suffered trauma. The nurse repeatedly swallows a fragment of the trauma—like a nurse who is looking after an infectious patient, putting herself at risk of infection. Caring for negative emotions puts her at risk of feeling them, too. And taking in even a small part of tragedy and grief, and loneliness and sadness, on a daily basis over a career is dangerous and it is exhausting.

As you can see the writing is good, and Watson’s stories are interesting and affecting… but I’m having a hard time getting over the fact that she throws my profession under the bus.

Many of you probably know that I’m a medical interpreter who helps non-Japanese speakers communicate with doctors and staff at a Japanese hospital.  It’s an important job because without correct and complete information about symptoms, family history, and so many other things it’s difficult to arrive at a correct diagnosis and provide adequate care.

Strike one – Watson calls interpreters “translators”.  It’s a distinction many don’t know (translators = written word, interpreters = spoken), so I can let that slide.  But then there’s strike two – she continues and says that in the emergency department they forgo calling qualified interpreters because using family members is faster and easier.

There are arguments against [interpretation] from non-experts; a suspicion, on the part of the nurses and doctors, that the words are being softened and not translated precisely, but it’s quicker than finding a[n interpreter].

There aren’t just arguments – it comes down to professional ethics and morals.  It is a health provider’s duty to provide the best care, and asking a daughter or brother to relay important, detailed, technical information under stress can go wrong in so many ways.  Interpreter codes of ethics state that even professionals shouldn’t interpret for friends and family, the conflict is so great.  Watson blithely dismissing the right of limited English speakers to have a qualified interpreter, to have access to critical information about their health in a language they understand, makes me see red. Looking at the importance she places on ethics in other parts of the book it becomes galling. Gah.

I admit it, I pretty much glowered at the chapters after that.  The writing and stories brought me around again so I can still recommend the book to fans of medical non-fiction, but not as wholeheartedly as I would like.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

35068432“You’ll be silent forever, and I’ll be gone in the dark.”

For more than ten years, a mysterious and violent predator committed fifty sexual assaults in Northern California before moving south, where he perpetrated ten sadistic murders. Then he disappeared, eluding capture by multiple police forces and some of the best detectives in the area.

Three decades later, Michelle McNamara, a true crime journalist, was determined to find the violent psychopath she called “the Golden State Killer.” Michelle pored over police reports, interviewed victims, and embedded herself in the online communities that were as obsessed with the case as she was.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark offers an atmospheric snapshot of a moment in American history and a chilling account of a criminal mastermind and the wreckage he left behind.

Review:

My Serial Killer Summer™ (ha) continues!  There is no way I would skip this book, especially with the alleged killer being found, not to mention the hype!

McNamara deserves that praise for her writing – it’s engaging, chilling and fascinating.  She spent years hunting down the Golden State Killer and details that search while describing many of the murders and rapes he committed.  I’ve seen people on BookTube who had a hard time getting through the creepiest parts – understandably, the crimes are heinous.  While I shivered a few times I never felt compelled to put the book down… not sure what that says about me.

What McNamara does better than so many ~cough male cough~ writers is that she respects and honors the victims.  We hear their stories, how their life was changed – they are their own people and I greatly appreciate having their perspective.

On top of the tragedy of the crimes is the tragedy of the author’s unexpected death in 2016, before she finished the book.  As a result some chapters were cobbled together from her notes and research.  These sections are rough compared to McNamara’s amazing prose, but I’m not sure what else they could have done.  It did make for a jarring experience, though, and lessened my… enjoyment?… of the entire book.

I listened on audiobook and got on well with the narrator, ending up at 1.8x speed.  A pdf with maps and timelines is included with the audio files.  I wasn’t sure I’d use it but it’s handy near the end as the detectives go hunting for patterns in the crimes.

I’m so sad that McNamara wasn’t able to finish her book and see the Golden State Killer brought to justice.  Despite the choppiness it’s a great read and an easy recommendation for any true crime fan.

Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession by Alice Bolin

35180951In her debut collection, Alice Bolin turns a critical eye to literature and pop culture, the way media consumption reflects American society, and her own place within it. From essays on Joan Didion and James Baldwin to Twin Peaks, Britney Spears, and Serial, Bolin illuminates our widespread obsession with women who are abused, killed, and disenfranchised, and whose bodies (dead and alive) are used as props to bolster a man’s story.

From chronicling life in Los Angeles to dissecting the “Dead Girl Show” to analyzing literary witches and werewolves, this collection challenges the narratives we create and tell ourselves, delving into the hazards of toxic masculinity and those of white womanhood. Beginning with the problem of dead women in fiction, it expands to the larger problems of living women—both the persistent injustices they suffer and the oppression that white women help perpetrate.

Review:

I have mixed feelings about Dead Girls – it starts amazing but sadly I had trouble getting all the way to the end.

I do want to be clear – the first part, about the titular women American culture obsesses over, is incredible.  Bolin talks about “Dead Girl Shows” that use the memory of women-who-were to tell stories about the men who killed them or seek to revenge their deaths.  Instead of looking at the impulse some men have to prey on young women the narrative of these shows concentrates on the killer’s psychology and methods, making the practice seem inevitable and beyond the man’s control.  I highlighted many, many passages from this section and will be revisiting the essays so I can chew over them more.

That’s only part one of four, though.  The second section takes a step away and examines women who are living but have been used to sell a story in a related way.  I like Lonely Heart, about the contradictions and tragedy in Britney Spears’ fame, but otherwise my interest started to wane.

If the book were a tire that’s where the slow leak started, with a more steady whooosh becoming apparent over the last two parts.  Bolin gets deep into her experience of being lonely after moving to the West coast and I couldn’t get on board.  It’s an amalgamation of things I have a hard time caring about or connecting with (LA, Joan Didion, accounts of roommates and boyfriends) with books that we are assumed to know but oftentimes I did not.  If you love so-called “Hello to All That/Goodbye to All That” essays, worship Didion, and don’t mind a jumble of thought, you’ll do better here than I.

It’s hard for me to rate Dead Girls because it went from a compulsively readable, fascinating ride to a flat tire I had trouble rolling over the finish line.  I thought it would be a great fit for my Serial Killer Summer but sadly only the first quarter or so fit the bill.

Thanks to William Morrow and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI by Robert K. Ressler and Tom Shachtman

25561483FBI veteran and ex-Army CID colonel Robert Ressler learned how to identify the unknown monsters who walk among us–and put them behind bars. Now the man who coined the phrase “serial killer” shows how he is able to track down some of today’s most brutal murderers.

From the victims they choose, to the way they kill, to the often grotesque souvenirs they take with them–Ressler unlocks the identities of these vicious killers. With his discovery that serial killers share certain violent behaviors, Ressler’s gone behind prison walls to hear the bizarre first-hand stories countless convicted murderers. Join Ressler as he takes you on the hunt for toady’s most dangerous psychopaths. It is a terrifying journey you will not forget.

Review:

Here’s what I wanted when I read Incendiary – a look into the mind of a repeat criminal. Ressler is a pioneer in the field of profiling and uses cases, both famous and not, to explore the minds of serial killers.  I learned a lot – organized vs. disorganized killers, what may push someone to their first murder, and what drives them to repeat the crime again and again.

While informative and interesting several things put me off, though.  First, the victims are minimized, often reduced to clues to analyze the mind of the killer.  The criminals’ thought process, and the men who work to understand it, are prioritized above all else.  The upcoming book Dead Girls address this point really well – watch this space for a review on release day.

Also, Ressler is full of himself and it grates.  What’s the line… ‘may the lord grant me the confidence of a straight white man’?  That’s Ressler.  He quotes letters of commendation while he humble brags about every little thing.  He tells stories about bending the rules for the sake of the investigation and always comes out squeaky clean.  It’s goddamn annoying but also maybe expected from a G-man of his era. (Note: expected does not equal excused.)

I listened on audio and have no complaints about the narrator or production. While nowhere near perfect, Whoever Fights Monsters provides a foundation to build my Serial Killer Summer on.

…yeah, I’m making it a thing. Heaven help me.

Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, the Mad Bomber and the Invention of Criminal Profiling by Michael Cannell

31451258Grand Central, Penn Station, Radio City Music Hall―for almost two decades, no place was safe from the man who signed his anonymous letters “FP” and left his lethal devices in phone booths, storage lockers, even tucked into the plush seats of movie theaters. His victims were left cruelly maimed. Tabloids called him “the greatest individual menace New York City ever faced.”

In desperation, Police Captain Howard Finney sought the help of a little known psychiatrist, Dr. James Brussel, whose expertise was the criminal mind. Examining crime scene evidence and the strange wording in the bomber’s letters, he compiled a portrait of the suspect down to the cut of his jacket. But how to put a name to the description? Seymour Berkson―publisher of the tabloid The Journal-American―joined in pursuit of the Mad Bomber. The three men hatched a brilliant scheme to catch him at his own game. Together, they would capture a monster and change the face of American law enforcement.

Review:

I feel a true crime binge coming on and I started with this book because hey, “the invention of criminal profiling”.  It makes you think the how of profiling would be discussed.

But no.

Don’t get me wrong – this is a good account about the “Mad Bomber of New York” who set off pipe bombs in the city for the better part of two decades.  He started small, putting bombs in out of the way places, and got more adventurous as time went on.  The NYPD was getting criticized for allowing him to continue unfettered for years.  Desperate, they asked a psychiatrist for help.

This is the part I was waiting for – how did Dr. Brussel come up with a profile?  What medical knowledge did he draw on to arrive at the picture of a killer?

Sadly we don’t know.  Cannell sticks close to the police so we see Brussel make a prophecy (a Slavic guy in a double breasted suit, probably living with female relatives) and that’s about it.

I desperately wanted more info on the invention and process of profiling (see title) so I was disappointed.  If you’re a fan of true crime there’s a good story here, just expect more ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ than ‘hows’.

The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell: A Dyslexic Traitor, an Unbreakable Code, and the FBI’s Hunt for America’s Stolen Secrets by Yudhijit Bhattacharjee

28953569The story Bhattacharjee covers is fascinating – in December of 2000 an FBI agent got a hold of coded letters sent to the Libyan consulate.  They were sent by a CIA analyst and offered to sell classified material to the foreign power at the price of millions to be wired to a Swiss bank account.  As proof of his access the writer included several top secret documents and promised information about US reconnaissance satellites, defense systems, and more.  It’s information that could put the US military and security in grave danger, not to mention kick strategy back a decade or two if it falls into the wrong hands.

I was excited to dig in – a whodunit, yea!  …except that we learn who the culprit is early on.  Heck, his name is in the first few lines of the jacket copy.  From there we could have gone down one of several paths – a why-dun-it, a how-dun-it, or a how-they-caught-him-…it.  But instead of picking one and committing Bhattacharjee gives us a little of each, and that lack of a single driving force made the read fall a bit flat for me overall.

Listening to the audiobook didn’t help, either, as alphanumeric code gibberish doesn’t translate well to the spoken word.  I got the sense that if the ciphers were laid out on a page it would all come together but in my ears it remained largely incomprehensible.

So… ‘Danger tonight’ would be enciphered as four dot one dot fourteen dot seven dot five dot eighteen star twenty dot fifteen dot fourteen dot nine dot seven dot eight dot twenty.

@_@

Not the narrator’s fault, not anyone’s fault, but it did make some parts tough going.

Overall the story is interesting and at 1.8 speed it’s a quick and fun listen, but while serviceable it didn’t tip over into awesome.  If you’re into codes or espionage you’ll want to give The Spy Who Couldn’t Spell a go, but do yourself a favor and stay away from the audiobook.

Exploring Kyoto by Judith Clancy

9781611720419_c37d9I feel so lucky that I’ve had the chance to live in Kyoto for an extended period of time.  It’s beautiful, surrounded by mountains on three sides and chock-a-block with history.  It’s the kind of place that when you tell people where you live you mention the closest temple or shrine.  “Oh!” locals say.  “It’s beautiful over that way.”

Clancy guides you around all parts of the city in 31 walks.  She’s been here since 1970 so she really knows her stuff.  History buffs will love the explanations about each attraction’s significance, and even those who loathe history ~raises her hand~ will gain an appreciation while staying interested.

Each walk starts with an overview and public transportation options to the start point.  Along the way notable shops and eateries are mentioned, often with price ranges so you know what you’re getting into.  Relevant tips about etiquette are scattered throughout and maps, photos, and a detailed index are included.

Boats awaiting passengers at Arashiyama.
Arashiyama

After reading the introduction I checked out the walk for my favorite part of the city, Arashiyama.  It’s a mountainous district with a stunning river, temples, and iconic sights.  I’ve shown friends and family around it many times and all my favorite places are mentioned, from Tenryuji Temple and the Togetsukyo bridge to the bamboo forest and Iwatayama Monkey Park.  Clancy also recommends places I haven’t heard of – it turns out that until now I’ve missed out on Rakushisha, literally “the cottage of fallen persimmons”.  It’s associated with the poets Kyorai and Basho and the gardens have stones with poems carved into them.  I can’t wait to go the next time I’m over that way.

This is the books greatest strength – it covers all the “must-sees” while also directing you to underappreciated sites.  Japan and Kyoto in particular have been attracting more and more foreign visitors each year and many go to the same places, so getting off the beaten path provides a welcome respite from any crowds and a better look at the “real” Japan.

If you’re looking to spend any decent amount of time in Kyoto you can’t go wrong with Clancy as a guide.

Thanks to Stone Bridge Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

36556972“She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it but look what she wrote about. She wrote it BUT…”

How to Suppress Women’s Writing is a meticulously researched and humorously written “guidebook” to the many ways women and other “minorities” have been barred from producing written art. In chapters like “Prohibitions,” “Pollution of Agency,” “The Double Standard of Content,” “False Categorization,” and “Isolation” Joanna Russ names, defines, and illustrates those barriers to art-making we may have felt but which tend to remain unnamed and thus insolvable.

Review:

How to Suppress Women’s Writing can be considered a classic so I’m excited that it’s being re-released.  Written in 1983 and based on academia in the 1970s some parts feel dated but the underlying principles are sadly relevant.  Russ systematically goes through the “reasons” women’s writing has been maligned for centuries – she didn’t write it.  Or she wrote it but she had help, or she only wrote one of it, or she’s an anomaly. (Oh yes, there’s more.)

Each method of suppression gets its own chapter with historical examples of how it was used.  A word of fair warning – it’s on literary criticism and takes for granted that you know your 18th and 19th century writers.  If you’re not familiar ~raises her hand~ the name dropping with minimal explanation can be confusing bordering on annoying.

That doesn’t make the material less fascinating, though.  For example, Russ randomly looked at anthologies and academic lists and found that women accounted for between five and eight percent of writers selected.  You would think that a longer list or larger book could “afford” to include more women but the percentage actually went down with size, not up.  As Russ notes:

It seems that when women are brought into a reading list, a curriculum, or an anthology, men arrive, too – let the number of men drop and the women mysteriously disappear.

She argues further that isolating women in this way makes them look like anomalies and thus more easily minimized and ignored.  Now and then Russ points out that these same methods are used on people of color and other marginalized groups, but doesn’t dive much further until a mea culpa afterward.  I chalk this up to the fact that the book was written over thirty years ago but I was hoping for more intersectionality all the same.

All in all I’m glad I read How to Suppress Women’s Writing and I’m thankful that it’s once again in print – may it supercharge our BS detectors and empower us to fight back.

Thanks to University of Texas Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Invisible: How Young Women with Serious Health Issues Navigate Work, Relationships, and the Pressure to Seem Just Fine by Michele Lent Hirsch

33931697Though young women with serious illness tend to be seen as outliers, young female patients are in fact the primary demographic for many illnesses. They are also one of the most ignored groups in our medical system–a system where young women, especially women of color and trans women, are invisible.

And because of expectations about gender and age, young women with health issues must often deal with bias in their careers and personal lives. Not only do they feel pressured to seem perfect and youthful, they also find themselves amid labyrinthine obstacles in a culture that has one narrow idea of womanhood.

Lent Hirsch weaves her own harrowing experiences together with stories from other women, perspectives from sociologists on structural inequality, and insights from neuroscientists on misogyny in health research. She shows how health issues and disabilities amplify what women in general already confront: warped beauty standards, workplace sexism, worries about romantic partners, and mistrust of their own bodies. By shining a light on this hidden demographic, Lent Hirsch explores the challenges that all women face.

Review:

Part memoir, part anecdote, and part research, Invisible does an amazing job looking at women society deems “too young” or “too pretty” to be sick.

The good:

  • The book is own voices for both health issues and being queer, which is awesome in its own right, and her conscientious efforts mean…
  • …it may be the most intersectional book I’ve ever read. Lent Hirsch mentions how each woman interviewed identifies and the range across race, sexuality, religion, and gender is amazing.  She goes into how each of these identities affect how a woman interacts with health care as well as friends, family, coworkers, and romantic partners.
  • This care is reflected in own voices reviews for Invisible.  My favorite is by Corvus who identifies as Queer, trans, and disabled.  They write, “This is the first book of this kind that I have read – that was not specifically about LGBTQ populations – that didn’t let me down.”  Their whole review is wonderful, go check it out here.
  • There’s a thoughtful discussion with several people about using the word “disability” in relation to themselves, and why they do or don’t embrace it.  There are many answers to this question and I like how so many different angles are covered.
  • Large sections of the text are straight from discussions the author had with women of all sorts.  While reading I thought – if a straight cis white man wrote this book he would only grab the juiciest quotes and summarize the rest through the lens of his own experience.  Lent Hirsch, however, has each amazing woman speak for herself and the book is stronger for it.
  • Even though my own experience as a patient is thankfully limited there are still parts that hit close to home.

    The new pharmacist was great.  He never commented on my looks or how my body made him feel.  What a low bar I was holding him to: he was ‘great’ because he didn’t harass me.

The not-so-great:

  • Only one thing here – I would have liked the 30,000 foot level writing to be stronger.  There are themes that could have been developed to make the book gel as a cohesive whole and their lack feels like a lost opportunity.

Invisible is an insightful look at what women of all sorts go through while dealing with chronic illness.  It’s a must read if you have any tiny bit of interest in the subject – I loved it.

Thanks to Beacon Press and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.