Books I’ve Read This Week: Living in America

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 23: Living in America One of my favourite weekly podcasts is This American Life, which showcases the experiences of people from all walks of life amidst unusual circumstances. I kept the format of This American Life in mind as I selected books to read this past week from a wide range of unexpected perspectives on American society including a Finnish journalist who recently received American citizenship, and the former executive director of the National Scrabble Association. My reading choices all focused on daily life in the United States in the past, the present, and (speculatively) the future. Here are this week’s reviews:

#155 of 365 The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life by Anu Partanen

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Hardcover, 418 pages

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Date Read: June 20-22, 2018

Review: A fascinating perspective on American society and culture by a Finnish journalist, who becomes an American citizen by the end of the book. Partanen argues that the generous social programs in Nordic countries such as Finland allow individuals to become independent adults and achieve their full potential regardless of social background while the comparative absence of a social safety net in the United States makes college students reliant on their parents for support (sometimes well into adulthood) and elderly people reliant on their adult children for care and assistance. The book is filled with fascinating details about life in Finland such as forest kindergartens where young children spend their time outside, and the delay of the start of academic education until children reach the age of seven, a gradual progression that has excellent results.

While the substance of the book is engaging, the tone sometimes becomes repetitive as Partanen repeats the phrase “The Nordic Theory of Love” numerous times to describe Finnish marriages and family structures. She also describes certain American policies as backward or anachronistic, words that might make an American audience defensive rather than open to embracing her suggestions for social change. Perhaps Canadians are the ideal readers for a book of this kind. An engaging and thought provoking read.

#156 of 365 Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century by Jessica Bruder

Genre: Society and Culture

Format: Audiobook, 9 hours and 57 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Read: June 21, 2018

Review: A fascinating and sometimes depressing study of a little known subculture of Americans who live in vans and RVs, traveling from one temporary job to another. Bruder, who lived in a van herself while researching these 21st century nomads, interviews a wide variety of nomadic workers. Some lost their houses and jobs in the recession and took to the road out of necessity while others relish the freedom of the open road and compare themselves to 19th century mountain men.

There are sections of Nomadland that resemble The Grapes of Wrath with the promised jobs being offered by 21st century Amazon warehouses instead of the California peach orchards of the 1930s. Nevertheless, many of the interviewees display a great deal of optimism, ingenuity and support for one another in difficult circumstances. An absorbing audiobook, well read by Karen White.

#157 of 365 Calypso by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 38 minutes

Date Read: June 22, 2018

Review: David Sedaris’s best essay collection since Me Talk Pretty One Day. In common with all of Sedaris’s books, there are some hilarious chapters including his addiction to his Fitbit (even when suffering from digestive problems at the airport) and his description of checking into an American hotel then ordering “the southeast lard pocket” in a chain restaurant.

Calypso stands out, however, because, of the introspective chapters where Sedaris mourns his mother and sister and grapples with his own mortality. Amidst all the fun anecdotes, there are some moving reflections such as “Though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family… Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of.” The audiobook is well read by the author and includes some sketches from his live performances. Highly recommended.

#158 of 365 Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar and Geek Underground by John D. Williams Jr

Genre: Memoir/Society and Culture

Format: Paperback, 216 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Date Read: June 23, 2018

Review: An entertaining short memoir by the former Executive Director of the National Scrabble Association that includes what goes on behind the scenes at the Scrabble tournaments, the differences between living room play and tournament play, how words are added and removed from the Scrabble dictionary, tips for improving your game, anagrams, palindromes, and the list of around 175 offensive words that were removed from the Official Scrabble Dictionary in the 1990s.

Williams keeps the focus firmly on Scrabble rather than himself and I was curious to know more about how Scrabble affected his life. He mentions in passing that he liked to keep his weekends to himself but the book makes clear that he was also being bombarded by letters and calls from everyone from retired schoolteachers to prison inmates asking for his advice on whether a word was correct in the game and if Scrabble dictionaries could be distributed more widely. Great as an introduction to competitive Scrabble culture but falls short as a memoir.

#159 of 365 New York: 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson

Genre: Science Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 22 hours and 34 minutes

Dates Read: June 22-26, 2018

Review: An engaging and thought provoking novel that is both a warning about the possible impact of climate change on the coastal cities of the world and a whimsical tale of an imagined future New York that resembles Venice only with skyscrapers emerging from the canals created by rising sea levels. There are searches for sunken treasure and an effort to prevent the extinction of polar bears by flying them from Churchill, Manitoba to Antarctica in a zeppelin, angering protesters who want to keep Antarctica’s existing ecosystem intact.

While the setting and imagined history of the future is fascinating and cleverly blended with references to 19th and 20th century New York events and historical figures, the characters are often thinly drawn and are not particularly memorable. The most prominent character is the city of New York itself, which is still recognizable after the deluge with traffic jams (involving boats), apartment living, property speculators and new arrivals in search of opportunity in spite of the rising sea levels flooding lower Manhattan. The plot also slows down in the second half and begins to change focus from climate change to financial mismanagement. The audiobook is read by a chorus of narrators, which helps keep the wide variety of different perspectives distinct for listeners.

#160 of 365 Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Genre: Society and Culture

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books

Format: Hardcover, 256 pages

Date Read: June 24-26, 2018

Review: An interesting and sometimes unsettling history of the rise of positive thinking in the United States and the surprising dangers of too much optimism. Ehrenreich begins with her own experiences being treated for breast cancer where she notices a strong focus on the patient keeping up a positive attitude throughout treatment although the science behind whether the patient’s determination to stay positive affects their overall health is inconclusive. She then explores how positive thinking emerged as a reaction to harsher Calvinist doctrines in the 19th century but still retained a strong focus on self examination at the expense of looking at conditions in the outside world in a realistic fashion and working to change them for the better. The book calls for neither positive nor negative thinking but balanced examinations of circumstances, followed by actions that ultimately lead to positive change outside the individual.

#161 of 365 Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diane Preston

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 532 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City

Date Read: June 25, 2018

Review: An harrowing account of the last voyage and sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, filled with evocative details that bring the passengers to life. There is a newlywed couple departing on their honeymoon who still have confetti in the folds of their clothes, children in sailor dresses who want to help the crew paint the lifeboats and a talent contest for the passengers on the last evening of the voyage. The book is difficult to put down during the scenes concerning the sinking of the ship and the rescue of the few survivors. What is striking throughout the narrative is how disaster was anticipated by many of the passengers and the press from the beginning of the voyage, in contrast to the confidence of the passengers on the Titanic a few years earlier. Also, safety precautions recommended by the Titanic inquiry were not uniformly implemented by the First World War, contributing to the death toll on the Lusitania. A tragic and compelling book about a disaster that informed the American entry into the First World War in 1917.

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