Book Reviews

Here are the books I’ve read recently and a quick review for each:


This is my new favorite non-fiction book. I’m not normally a non-fiction kind of reader. But the author did great in telling a story while also educating the reader about the devastating effects eviction can have on individuals, families, and communities. He follows six families in Milwaukee – three from the North side “ghetto” and three from the far south side “white trash” trailer park. I love that he writes the book from the individuals’ perspective – what they say they’re thinking and experiencing – rather than his perspective of what they’re going through. He also gives their two landlord’s side of the story. He did an amazing job of telling each person’s (tenant or landlord) story without placing judgment or blame on either party. Sprinkled in-between the narratives are statistics and facts that demonstrate how the events that happened to the families are typical for others, both in Milwaukee and many other cities. It was eye-opening for a Wisconsinite, but the author also makes a point throughout to show how the lack of affordable housing and the consequences of such is a nation-wide issue.

Happy City
Another excellent non-fiction book. It seeks to answer the question of what set-ups in a city (transit options, infrastructure, density, types of housing, etc.) make people the most happy. It explains why urban sprawl is so awful yet so attractive to people. It also explains why extreme high density is so attractive to some people, yet also miserable. I love that it truly meanders and weighs different options, both the pros and cons, rather than set out to prove that one specific model is the end all be all for urban planning. It offers solutions that are more like guidelines and can be adjusted based on the current situation in different types of cities and existing sprawl, rather than just ideas for new developments.

Hillbilly Elegy
So I kind of went on a non-fiction kick, not sure why. This book is the memoir of a guy who grew up poor in Ohio, with family originally from the Appalachia area of Tennessee. He joined the marines after high school, then graduated from Ohio State in 1.5 or 2.5? years, and went to Yale Law School. I feel like this book was well-timed and in vogue given the 2016 election, in terms of people trying to understand Trump’s base or the “ignored” rural, poor whites. (Eye role for the ignored…rural America is heavily subsidized and receives a ton of government benefits and resources. Also, I would point out that poor whites did not make up a majority of Trump’s base.) However, that is not actually the purpose of this book (as far as I can tell) and anyone turned off at the thought of a political discourse should not be dissuaded from reading it. It’s actually not political at all. In fact, my review is way more political than the book itself! Kudos to the author for that. I think I was 2/3 rds done with the book before I realized the author was a Republican. This surprised me given his upbringing and (seemingly) admittance that he survived as a child, in part, because of welfare. In general, I related a lot to this book as someone who grew up (“working”) poor in rural Wisconsin, albeit not nearly as poor as the author. While I did not have a traumatic childhood like the author, I definitely saw a lot of the same things as him and many (probably most) of my classmates grew up in situations like his. I cried a good bit while reading it, even though its not written as a sad tragedy; it just hit that close to home. I think its a good read and an important addition to the diverse portrait of what it means to be poor in America.

My favorite fiction for the year, and up in my top five overall. I haven’t enjoyed a book as much as this one since I found the New Orleans Sentinels series. It is a fantasy book involving wizards and set in some unknown land and unknown time, similar to medieval Poland. This is because the author’s inspiration for the book if based on Polish fairy tales, and in a way it is Grimm esk. I feel like there’s not a good way to talk about how awesome this book is without giving something key away. So I’ll end by just saying if you like Harry Potter, fantasy, Grimm fairy tales, or historical fiction, you will love this book.

A tragic story about family relationships breaking down with an unexpected paranormal twist. I felt that it was a “deep” examination into human nature and our emotional needs. In a way it reminded me of blend between a Jodi Picoult and Alice Hoffman book (which in my mind is a compliment). I would classify it as a quintessential novel. I liked the added paranormal dimension (pun intended) because it gave what would otherwise be a traditional story a modern touch.

The Nest
Oh man, family drama! I liked this novel because it was so realistic yet still a compelling narrative. And I am not normally drawn to realistic portraits, because I find them too harsh in the details. Like the difference between an amateur shoot and point photo and an impressionism painting; both portray a ‘truth,’ but one is easier on the eye and more pleasant to absorb. It follows the current life of four siblings who waiting for a mid to late-life inheritance to solve their financial problems. That is until, one sibling gets in trouble and the mom busts open the inheritance to throw money at it. Then the other three siblings are trying to figure out how to get the fourth to pay back the inheritance asap.

I didn’t like that the characters portrayed some of the worst, normal human traits (they weren’t evil, but they weren’t good) and only sometimes did you see a glimpse of the good. I guess I’d rather read about aspirational characters who overcome difficulties, rather than characters who are overcoming problems of their own doing. Or at least characters with better character growth. But as a friend once told me, some people change but never really grow, so why do we expect all our fictional character to do so? It was still an entertaining read, complete with life lessons like don’t establish an inheritance trust if you have money – just donate it to charities in your will or set up college funds for grandkids instead.

Glass Castles
This book is an insane memoir, describing the author’s crazy childhood with nomadic parents. The author describes incidents such as being three and (accidentally) setting herself on fire while cooking hotdogs. Her parents subsequently ‘rescued’ her from the hospital and applauded her for ‘getting back on the horse’ when she made hotdogs for herself a few days after coming home from the hospital. She grows up in desperate poverty, at times not having electricity, heat, or hot water. Yet you increasingly realize that its a self-imposed poverty (by her parents), in that her mother has a teaching degree yet refuses to work most of the time because she wants to be an artist. Her dad is very intelligent, but blows money on booze and can’t keep a job. They give up living for free in an inherited house for unknown reasons and don’t bother to rent it out for income. The list goes on. My main take away from this book was thank god for the free lunch program we have today, so kids don’t have to dig through the trash after lunch to eat like the author did when she grew up.

This was an interesting, short novel following a phd chemistry student for about year and half during her ‘what am I going to do with my life’ mid-twenties crisis. She’s struggling to finish her phd research project and has fallen out of love with science or at least her chemistry program. Her long-term boyfriend has proposed and asked her to move out of state with him when he gets his first post-doctorate job. But she’s not ready for marriage and fears moving with him because of how her mother resented moving to America for her dad’s career aspirations. During the novel, the narrator comes to terms with her depression – without ever really admitting she’s depressed. Along the way she examines childhood memories and the difficulties associated with being the child of immigrants; in particular trying to meet the cultural and personal expectations of her parents.

It’s filled with wry humor and written in a very direct manner. Sometimes, I found the writing too direct, where the prose had short, choppy sentences. Exactly how I would imagine a scientist would write a novel. At the very least, it was a different change of pace from the writing style of books I normally read. And I related a lot to the narrator’s disinterested, numbing depression. I thought the author nailed it in articulating how it feels, despite never explicitly stating she was depressed or that her actions and feeling were symptoms of depression.

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