I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi

29513537Luvvie Ajayi is a go-to source for smart takes on pop culture, and I’m Judging You is her debut book of humorous essays that dissects our cultural obsessions and calls out bad behavior in our increasingly digital, connected lives. It passes on lessons and side-eyes on life, social media, culture, and fame, from addressing those terrible friends we all have to serious discussions of race and media representation to what to do about your fool cousin sharing casket pictures from Grandma’s wake on Facebook.

With a lighthearted, razor sharp wit and a unique perspective, I’m Judging You is the handbook the world needs, doling out the hard truths and a road map for bringing some “act right” into our lives, social media, and popular culture. It is the Do-Better Manual.

Review:

Someone recommended that I read I’m Judging You as an audiobook and I’m really glad I did.  Ajayi, while not a trained narrator or actor, is engaging to listen to and provides a full experience.  The shade that comes through the speakers is real, y’all.

I enjoyed most of the book but found it highly uneven.  The sections on Life and Fame are okay, and the section covering Culture is excellent.  The chapter The Privilege Principle is my personal favorite and should be required listening for people everywhere.  Racism, rape culture, and homophobia are also covered.  The best part about this culture section is that even if you know what Ajayi is going to talk about the essays are engaging and fun.

The social media section, on the other hand, covers entry-level digital etiquette (one chapter: #Hashtag # I #Hate #Your #Hashtag #Abuse) and is boring and obvious to anyone born after 1982.  My listening slowed down at this point because yes, I get it, and no, it’s not funny listening about it.

The religion section struck me as a little contradictory.  Ajayi says that she doesn’t push faith or religion or anyone, then segues into how to be a good Christian two sentences later.  I’m agnostic so I found it annoying but (sadly) in line with my experience – people are usually understanding of other religions, but when you say you don’t have one it short circuits their brain.  Ah, well.

All in all I’m Judging You is a good read but I’m hoping that Ajayi comes out with another book that’s more solid beginning to end.

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush

32988669How do you clothe a book?

In this deeply personal reflection, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri explores the art of the book jacket from the perspectives of both reader and writer. Probing the complex relationships between text and image, author and designer, and art and commerce, Lahiri delves into the role of the uniform; explains what book jackets and design have come to mean to her; and how, sometimes, “the covers become a part of me.”

Review:

While this book, an essay really, is only 80 pages long there isn’t much here here. Lahiri likes some of her covers and doesn’t like others. We learn that she has little say in what clothes her book… but that’s it. I think it would be compelling at a shorter length, maybe as an article in the New Yorker, but it doesn’t grab me here.

Lahiri would like it if more English-language books were dressed up in uniforms. I wanted to ask if she’s ever strolled down a genre aisle.  Harlequin Presents fits her ideal perfectly – similar look to the series, go together on a shelf, each different but part of a larger editorial whole. Or look at the first nine books of the Mercy Thompson series, where the head to knees three quarter pose of the heroine gives the line a unified feel. Avon designs a cover font for each author so the books hang together, as well as give them striking spines. Literary fiction may be letting her down but the rest of the book store has her covered and she doesn’t realize it. Sigh.

I was hoping to learn something or be enlightened but no dice.

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System by Sonya Huber

32815566Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles.

Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Review:

I knew from the opening lines of the first essay, Pain Bows in Greeting, that I would like this collection.

Pain wants you to put in earplugs because sounds are grating.  Pain has something urgent to tell you but forgets over and over again what it was.
Pain tells you to put your laptop in the refrigerator.
Pain runs into walls at forty-five-degree angels and ricochets back into the center of the room.

The essays range widely from the near poetry of the above to magazine-type explorations of what it means to live with pain.  Some spin out metaphors.

Pain twists me like the ends of a Halls cough drop wrapper.  A few cunning turns transform a flat square of wax paper into a neat home for a lozenge.  If I do not unroll pain, I carry it.

All are fascinating.  Huber tells us what it’s like to watch your body slowly decline, to mourn the healthy body you’ve left behind, to try and explain and quantify your pain in just the right way to doctors and specialists.  You’re frustrated in reducing your pain to a number on a ten point scale.  You underestimate it so you’re not labeled as a drug seeker.  When yet another person suggests that doing yoga would help, you read “the implication: if you tried harder, you could fix it.”

It’s a window into life with pain that I’m grateful to have.  As a medical interpreter I feel better armed to assist patients who are in chronic pain themselves.  I also feel like I have the tools to be a better human.  A theme that has come up in my reading this year is that when someone tells you their story, listen.  Believe them.  Huber gives you no other choice.

I like some essays more than others, but it’s still an easy recommend to anyone who works with or knows someone in chronic pain, or just wants a beautifully written peek into that world.

Thanks to University of Nebraska Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit

29633797In a timely follow-up to her national bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit offers indispensable commentary on women who refuse to be silenced, misogynistic violence, the fragile masculinity of the literary canon, the gender binary, the recent history of rape jokes, and much more.

In characteristic style, Solnit mixes humor, keen analysis, and powerful insight in these essays.

Review:

I read Men Explain Things to Me a month ago and I’m happy I was able to follow up so quickly with The Mother of All Questions.  It’s a continuation of Solnit’s previous essay collection with a thankfully more inclusive lens.

The standout essay is A Short History of Silence, about how women are forbidden or prevented from speaking and not heard when they do.  It’s a truth we hold in our hearts but avoid looking at too closely because man, it hurts.

Being unable to tell your story is a living death and sometimes a literal one.  If no one listens when you say your ex-husband is trying to kill you, if no one believes you when you say you are in pain, if no one hears you when when you say ‘help’, if you don’t dare say ‘help’, if you have been trained not to bother people by saying ‘help’.

My heart aches because I know this.  I’ve seen it, not only with myself and women but other marginalized groups.  Others say the stories are ‘unbelievable’, which as Solnit points out, “means those with power did not want to know, to hear, to believe, did not want them to have voices.”  I’m happy to see that she recognizes the different and varied challenges faced by people of color, those who are LGBTQ*, and others who were often overlooked in Men Explain Things to Me.  Solnit also explores what this hyper-masculine culture means for guys, punishing them for showing “soft” feelings and effectively blunting their emotional range as humans.

Jaw dropping and rage inducing facts abound – rape is the most common form of trauma, but PTSD research is directed at male veterans.  “Fight or flight” was largely studied in male rats and humans and women often employ a third, until now unrecognized, option.  One reason the gun homicide rate hasn’t risen is not because fewer people are getting shot, but because medicine is getting better at saving those who are.  In fact more people are getting shot.  And on and on.

Luckily Solnit also points out things we can all do.  Tell your story if you can, and listen and believe those who are telling you theirs.  If someone lobs a sexist inquiry your way reply, “Would you ask a man that question?”  Do the intellectual work to not see groups (Muslims, women, poor people, etc.) as monolith entities, for that is the road to believing you can attack any member for the entire group’s perceived sins.

Overall The Mother of All Questions is more nuanced and inclusive than its predecessor while still packing an eye opening gut punch.  Necessary for the times we live in and a hearty recommend.

Thanks to Haymarket Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

18528190In her comic, scathing essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit took on what often goes wrong in conversations between men and women. She wrote about men who wrongly assume they know things and wrongly assume women don’t, about why this arises, and how this aspect of the gender wars works, airing some of her own hilariously awful encounters.

She ends on a serious note— because the ultimate problem is the silencing of women who have something to say, including those saying things like, “He’s trying to kill me!”

This book features that now-classic essay with six perfect complements, including an examination of the great feminist writer Virginia Woolf ’s embrace of mystery, of not knowing, of doubt and ambiguity, a highly original inquiry into marriage equality, and a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women.

Review:

This is one of those books that I’ve been meaning to get around to for a while and I’m glad I did. I didn’t care for Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost but these essays are a stylistic world apart.

It’s Feminism 201 for those newer to the movement but everyone will get something from it. Personally it reminded me that it’s important to flip the narrative and look at issues from the opposite angle. If there is a rape at a college the women are told to protect themselves – don’t go out alone, don’t walk at night.

Some pranksters put up a poster announcing another remedy, that all men be excluded from campus after dark. It was an equally logical solution, but men were shocked at being asked to disappear, to lose their freedom to move and participate, all because of the violence of one man.

Similarly,

…of sixty-two mass shootings in the United States in three decades, only one was by a woman, because when you say lone gunman, everyone talks about loners and guns but not about men—and by the way, nearly two-thirds of all women killed by guns are killed by their partner or ex-partner.

Feminism past is connected to feminism present, and we are reminded that we will need the movement far into the future. The message can be troubling and infuriating but there’s also a healthy dose of optimism.

I made a ton of highlights and had my mind pleasantly stretched, but I would have liked to see intersectionality discussed more. Women of color, trans women, and others face more awfulness than white, cis women and it deserves to be acknowledged and examined.

But that’s my only complaint. Men Explain Things to Me is a quick read that will stick with me for a long time.

What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear by Danielle Ofri

32820244Despite modern medicine’s infatuation with high-tech gadgetry, the single most powerful diagnostic tool is the doctor-patient conversation, which can uncover the lion’s share of illnesses. However, what patients say and what doctors hear are often two vastly different things.

Patients, anxious to convey their symptoms, feel an urgency to “make their case” to their doctors. Doctors, under pressure to be efficient, multitask while patients speak and often miss the key elements. Add in stereotypes, unconscious bias, conflicting agendas, and the fear of lawsuits and the risk of misdiagnosis and medical errors multiplies dangerously.

Though the gulf between what patients say and what doctors hear is often wide, Dr. Danielle Ofri proves that it doesn’t have to be. Through the powerfully resonant human stories that Ofri is celebrated for, she explores the high-stakes world of doctor-patient communication that we all must navigate. Reporting on the latest research studies and interviewing scholars, doctors, and patients, Ofri reveals how better communication can lead to better health for all of us.

Review:

I’m a Japanese⇔English medical interpreter so when I saw the title of Ofri’s latest book I cheered.  Doctor-patient communication – she’s talking about my life!

Medical conversations are examined from all sides.  Is it better to let a complaining patient get their whole litany out at once, or should each point be addressed as it comes up?  Can the placebo affect be utilized in conversation?  How can stereotypes be overcome?  Is it ever okay to lie to a patient?

Each topic is covered with both anecdotes based on Ofri’s patients (vignettes!) and research studies.  All kinds of strategies to improve communication are covered, from how to listen actively to when disclosing personal details is a good idea. I especially like how the studies are dissected journal club style, with weaknesses pointed out along with the strengths.  For example, one study found that doctors that scored low on an empathy test had patients with worse outcomes, but:

Maybe the low-empathy doctors had dismal hygiene and the resulting BO was too distracting for the patients to pay attention to their diabetes.  Maybe the offices of the high-empathy doctors offered cloth gowns rather than paper gowns, so their patients weren’t experiencing frostbite and thus better able to hear what the doctor was saying.  You never know what the confounding factors might be…

As an interpreter I enjoyed the stories and insight but didn’t come away with many pearls I can use myself.  It’s part of the job – I speak other people’s words and can’t outright change the direction of the conversation.  I did pick up some tips, though, particularly how using different wording can change how information is received.

What Patients Say, What Doctors Hear is a trove of information for healthcare professionals, who can expect to learn practice-changing pearls, and frequent patients will appreciate the peek into their doctor’s head. If you are not one of those two groups, though, you may want to start with a different Ofri book.

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

The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

31021280When Betty MacDonald married a marine and moved to a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, she was largely unprepared for the rigors of life in the wild. With no running water, no electricity, a house in need of constant repair, and days that ran from four in the morning to nine at night, the MacDonalds had barely a moment to put their feet up and relax. And then came the children. Yet through every trial and pitfall—through chaos and catastrophe—this indomitable family somehow, mercifully, never lost its sense of humor.

A beloved literary treasure for more than half a century, Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I is a heartwarming and uproarious account of adventure and survival on an American frontier.

Review:

I was excited to find that the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books wrote a memoir about chicken farming in the Pacific Midwest, complete with “The Enduring Classic” blazed on the cover.  But this doesn’t feel like a classic at all, with MacDonald’s sharp wit aimed at people who least deserve the jabs.

She moved to the wilds of Washington with her husband, determined to be the best wife she can by doing whatever makes her husband happy, no questions asked.  Let’s count that as Anger Runneth Over #1 – woman with zero agency.  She hates the chicken farming her husband loves and seems to find no joy in life on the mountain. Sometimes the barbs are funny and telling of how awful she found things.

In my little Death and Food Record book, I, in my prankish way, wrote opposite the date and number of deaths; “Chickenpox-Eggzema and Suicide.” When he checked the records, Bob noted this fun-in-our-work, and unsmiling erased it and neatly wrote, “Not determined.” Men are quite humorless about their own business.

But these moments are few and far between. More often MacDonald lights into her neighbors and people in town, judging them by her city standards of culture and erudition.  Whole passages are written phonetically to exaggerate their manner of speaking and, apparently, the humor.

Charlie wath butchering and I athk him for the thpare ribth becauthe they kilt two pigth and I knowed that the two of them couldn’t eat all them thpare ribth, but that thtingy thkunk thaid, “The reathon I’M BUTCHERING, MR. KETTLE, is becauthe I need the meat,” and I wath tho mad I forgot the egg math I had borried.

Instead of poking fun at a situation she’s grinding people into the dirt, holding them at fault for being different or not being given the same opportunities she has enjoyed.  This closed mindedness and snobbery is Anger Runneth Over #2.

It’s not that MacDonald is incapable of nuance – if she gave other people the consideration she reserved for her grandmother the book would be much more readable.

Gammy was patient, impatient, kind, caustic, witty, sad, wise, foolish, superstitious, religious, prejudiced, and dear.  She was, in short, a grandmother who is, after all, a woman whose inconsistencies have sharpened with use.

Instead we run into Anger Runneth #3, her view and treatment of the Native Americans of the area.  I went into the book knowing that racism of this sort would be an issue and prepared to see the book as of its time, but it’s hateful and awful even for the 1940s.

Little red brothers or not, I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them.

It hurts me so much to even type that.

There are a couple of chapters that are funny if separated from all the rage-inducing passages but I doubt it’s worth the effort.  Consider The Egg and I a classic you can safely skip.

Modern Mindfulness by Rohan Gunatillake

29939328In Modern Mindfulness, Rohan Gunatillake argues that to lead more mindful, calm and happy lives, switching off is the last thing we need to do. Instead he gives readers ideas, principles, and techniques to bring awareness, composure, and kindness whatever they are doing. Filled with over sixty practical exercises, the author’s mobile mindfulness approach gives the benefits of meditation to even the busiest of lives.

Review:

My job can be stressful so my friend recommended a meditation app, something I could do during stolen moments that would help me gain a little peace.  I sat down in the hospital coffee shop and… I tried.  I really did.  But I had to crank up the sound to drown out a crying baby, people were looking at me funny, and I kept opening one eye to make sure my purse was still there.  Still lots of stress, not so much peace.

Gunatillake outlines a method that doesn’t require quiet or closed eyes or even stillness.  There are exercises you can do while walking, commuting, and sitting at your computer.  Modern life feels hectic but there are many moments we can leverage to get back in touch with our body and mind.

There are six core techniques that start with simpler, easier to grasp topics (relaxation, focus, being present) and move through more complex ideas (coping, connection, going deeper).  Each has a guided meditation which, to be honest, I was skeptical of, but ended up liking them more than any audio meditations I’ve tried. Here’s part of one I read while commuting by train:

…there is no need to judge our posture as to whether it is slovenly or sublime, just pay attention to it as it is.

Pay attention in as simple and direct a way as possible right now.

Take as long as you need.

I was standing and that was okay.  I was slouching, and that was okay.  I could look out the window while taking stock of my body for as long as I needed without anyone mumbling in my ear about the next thing.  All okay, all relaxing and peaceful.

After each core meditation there are ten related mobile exercises and they are my favorite part of the book.  Many are linked with some kind of trigger that act as reminders throughout your day to check in and be mindful.  For example, now and then eat breakfast with no distractions, concentrating on the experience of eating.  When you pick up your phone note why you reached for it – boredom? loneliness? – and try sitting with that emotion instead of checking twitter. When you see someone on the street who’s happy let that feeling resonate with you and celebrate with them.

I now have ways to be mindful when I step out the door, when I have a minute between patients, and when my mind is racing on the bus ride home.  It’s exactly what I wanted and needed.

Some more of the good – Gunatillake keeps mindfulness and religion in separate boxes, which this agnostic appreciates. And he points out that some techniques won’t work, and that’s okay:

Sometimes we can look the difficult directly in the face and other times we need to play the relaxation card, moving our attention somewhere more tolerable.  This is not a failure; it is wisdom.

In the introduction he says that formal practice (sitting and concentrating on the breath) is secondary to the mobile exercises.  This made me very happy… until chapter eight or so, when the story changes to ‘but really, formal practice is important and the base of mindfulness, so make sure you do it’.  I may have been more receptive to this switch if I were working through the books and techniques slowly, but it was a frustrating change when reading the book in one go.

My other critique is that Gunatillake’s scope is narrow, with meditations centered on experiences of white collar workers commuting via public transportation.  He assumes that everyone works at an office and is surrounded by concrete which is distancing if, like me, you don’t.  “I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet but meetings at work are really boring,” he says, so clearly he’s never met with a bunch of interpreters!  (Seriously, it’s our job to a) talk, b) care, and c) do what needs doing. It makes for great meetings.)

Anywho… people who live in the country will laugh at the idea of “spend[ing] a short time experiencing a park or a green space”, and there’s a lack of techniques tailored to service jobs or manual labor or even driving.  It doesn’t take away from the exercises but it feels like a missed opportunity.

That being said I really like Modern Mindfulness.  I’m looking forward to going back through it slowly and spending a week or two on each core technique while building up my mindfulness muscle.  If you’ve been meditating for a while you may not squeeze as much out of the pages but it was just what this neophyte needed.

Thanks to St. Martin’s Griffin and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

Foundations of Clinical Psychiatry edited by Sidney Bloch et al.

preview_bloch-final-cover_fcFoundations of Clinical Psychiatry is the trusted introductory text for students of medicine and other health professions, including psychiatric nursing, psychology, social work and occupational therapy. It has also been the essential reference for family doctors for over quarter of a century.

The four-part structure—an introduction to clinical psychiatry; conditions encountered; specific patient groups and clinical settings; and principles and details of typical clinical services, and of biological and psychological treatments—provides a clear overview of clinical practice. It also explores the causes of mental illness and the ethical aspects of its treatment, and covers the full range of psychiatric disorders encountered by health practitioners.

Review:

Yes, this is a medical textbook.  But don’t run away just yet!  If you work in any kind of health profession or have contact with people with mental illness you will find it invaluable.

For background I’m a medical interpreter. If you speak English and walk into a Japanese hospital while I’m on shift I’ll help you communicate with doctors and staff across languages to make sure you receive the best care.  I love my job – I never know what kind of patients I’ll meet on a particular day.  I’ve seen everything from heart attacks to common colds but being called to psychiatry always gives me pause.  Does someone need their medication adjusted?  Will I be interpreting a psychotic delusion?  Or is the patient thinking of killing themselves and in need of immediate help?

After reading this book I feel much more prepared for whatever may come my way.  The book is split into four parts – An Approach to Clinical Practice covers the history, classification, and ethics of psychiatry. The Range of Psychiatric Disorders covers each disorder in detail while the next section, Special Clinical Areas, highlights areas like forensic psychiatry and women’s mental health.  Last is a detailed section on the different treatment options available.  It’s a thorough approach that’s aimed squarely at people with medical know-how who aren’t necessarily doctors themselves.

I highlighted so. many. passages!  I plowed straight through but the chapters stand alone so you can read what interests or affects you.  If you work in a nursing home you’ll gravitate towards psychiatry of old age and neuropsychiatric disorders (like dementia and Alzheimer’s), and if you’re an interpreter like me the chapter on psychiatric interviews will be pure gold.

Foundations is from an Australian publisher but they use both American (DSM-5) and international (ICD-10) classifications.  I now have a deeper, better understanding of all the little corners of psychiatry and have some insight into what the doctor is thinking or aiming for during a particular consultation.

Will everyone be excited to read about mental illness?  I’m going to guess not.  ;)  But if you work in a medical environment or with people affected by psychiatric disorders you’ll learn a ton and be more prepared for whomever may walk through the door. So consider this a hearty, if narrow, recommend.

Thanks to Melbourne University Press and NetGalley for providing a review copy.

The South Side by Natalie Y. Moore

Audiobook narrated by Allyson Johnson

25663734Mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel have touted and promoted Chicago as a “world class city.” The skyscrapers kissing the clouds, the billion-dollar Millennium Park, Michelin-rated restaurants, pristine lake views, fabulous shopping, vibrant theater scene, downtown flower beds and stellar architecture tell one story. Yet, swept under the rug is the stench of segregation that compromises Chicago. Unlike many other major U.S. cities, no one race dominates. Chicago is divided equally into black, white, and Latino, each group clustered in their various turfs.

In this intelligent and highly important narrative, Chicago-native Natalie Moore shines a light on contemporary segregation on the South Side of Chicago through reported essays, showing the life of these communities through the stories of people who live in them. The South Side shows the important impact of Chicago’s historic segregation – and the ongoing policies that keep it that way.

Review:

Radio people are the best, especially public radio people.  As NPR affiliate WBEZ’s South Side reporter Moore has in depth knowledge about her beat, and having grown up in the area gives her a sense of perspective few authors would be able to match.

She talks about her own family’s history in the area but it doesn’t overwhelm or derail the narrative.  It isn’t a lens but more of a frame to hang the story on and it works well.  We learn about the history of the South Side, the policies that have shaped segregation in Chicago, the rise and fall of public housing projects, the larger story behind “Chiraq”, and more.  The topics range from government policy and mayoral politics to crime and public schooling.  I bookmarked a bunch of passages to share but I waited too long and the book has since been returned to the elibrary. :(

I enjoyed The South Side as an audiobook.  Moore’s radio roots mean that there are lots of fitting quotes from her reporting, preventing things from getting too heavy or scholarly.  It tickles me that narrator Johnson is also a Chicago native.  She doesn’t put on a broad Chicago accent (for the best, methinks) but it’s comforting to know that the story is being told authoritatively by someone who lived there.

This book is wonderful for anyone with an interest in cities, segregation, or urban planning, as well as anyone who lives in (or just plain likes) Chicago.