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Happy 6th Birthday, SPR!

As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

Michael Lewis's Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt came to me through one of my Goodwill ventures. 

In the early aughts, stockbrokers were gaming the system in a new way, through high frequency trading and software that gave them a split millisecond notice of others' trades. Gaming the system was nothing new -- in fact, research done by those fascinated with the process found that almost every single regulation on the books not only came because of someone finding a loophole, but also that every new regulation created some new loophole that traders learned to slip through. It's a rabbit hole of you have ever seen one. 

So this current examination of flash trading and the people behind it examines what was going on in terms of high frequency trading, the stock market prices going wacky within moments, dark pools that traders use, and some superheroes out to build a new stock market that plays fair. All in 300 or so pages. 

This is what makes Michael Lewis a genius. He takes these crazy complicated concepts that are difficult for the general public to understand and he weaves them into a narrative that explains the work and is compelling to boot. Who on earth would have ever thought that microsecond trading by a bunch of greedy asshats would be so riveting that you ignore your husband talking to you to soak up all the details? No one, except my financial adviser because it's her favorite book. Lewis crafts a non-fiction narrative like no other, and it makes me dive in headfirst every time I open one of his books. 

This one was fascinating because of its simplicity in explaining a complicated topic, but also because of what felt to me like a classic hero-villain arc. It's clear who the bad guys are and who the good guys are. The back stories of the characters are also fascinating, as many of them revolve around 9/11, which isn't surprising as the book is about Wall Street. I also doing it particular relatable because I happen to work across the street from the NYSE. It was so interesting to put the location into context when talking about something as mundane as fiber optic cables. 

I'm looking forward to picking up more of Lewis's work, as there's a lot I haven't read. This one definitely ranks high on my list of great Lewis reads. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

What Does Consent Really Mean?

What Does Consent Really Mean? by Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis, illustrated by Joseph Wilkinscame across my radar when I was looking for new books to read on my Kindle this fall. (With a small baby, Kindle is really the way to go for me right now.) Now that I am a mother, I am looking for ways to teach consent to my child at a young age, as it's incredibly important to me. Hence, why I picked up this graphic novel. 

What is consent? What does it mean exactly, and does it take away the fun of a sexual encounter? Do you have a right to consent in a relationship? These are the big questions explored in this short primer on what it means to give consent and why it's important. Several friends get together after school, and one brings up a rumor that the new girl was raped. This sparks a discussion about what it means to say "yes" and "no," and if that even matters. (Spoiler alert: it does.)

What I found the most fascinating about this book was the spot-on characterization of high schoolers. Now, it's been on the far side of two decades since I started high school, but looking back on what I knew then, I saw myself in these characters. In fact, even just a couple of years ago I had a conversation with a good friend about women who get roofied, and this friend even, in their 30's, expressed fault on the side of the woman. I can speak to this, as someone who has had the *wonderful* experience of being drugged (that was sarcasm, in case you didn't catch it), that it was 100%, explicitly not my fault in any way. In fact, I couldn't have been more responsible at the time of the incident. But it took me a long time to realize that it wasn't my fault because I didn't give consent. 

So yes, I saw myself and my peers in these high school kids in a graphic novel, just the way I see all adolescents in their semi-developed prefrontal cortices.  Without a full understanding of what consent is and why it matters, kids will continue to believe that as long as it hasn't happened to them, that others should have made better (or even different) choices. 

Which is what I think is the brilliance of this graphic novel. It doesn't treat teens as if they have pedantic, juvenile conversations, but rather meets them where they are. Whether it's gossiping about the new girl being promiscuous, using the word "gay" as a pejorative, or doing things sexually with a boyfriend or girlfriend they aren't comfortable with, we all can understand these things because we've been there. So when the authors turn toward defining consent (with a diverse cast of characters, mind you), it's a seamless transition from gossip to, "Hey guys, wait a second..."

I'll be buying this in hard copy and holding on to it for my own kiddo when it comes to be about that time. We have a couple of other books we are using to guide him when he's younger, and we will add this to our arsenal when he's middle school age. Talk about consent can never start too young. 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Standard Deviation: A Novel

You may recall back a couple of years to when I raved about Katherine Heiny's Single, Carefree, Mellow, her book of short stories. I found it to be brilliant and enrapturing, and I formed a little bit of a writer crush on Heiny. Then she released a novel, Standard Deviation, and you guys, I am in full-blown love.

Graham and Audra have been married for some time, and they are raising their son who is on the spectrum and is currently mastering origami. Life is moving along swimmingly until the day that Audra gets it in her head that they should befriend Graham's cold and rigid ex-wife, Elspeth, who has come back into his life through no choice of his own. One glitch -- Audra was the other woman who precipitated that divorce. The several months spent finding their rhythm, wondering how to have a balance between a former love and a current one, and not killing long-term house guests welcomed by your gregarious and extroverted wife are life-changing for Graham, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

Heiny has a voice that is witty and sharp, and it comes through in this novel told from Graham's point of view. I ate the prose up because it's written in a voice that I know and understand and found deeply personal. I am not as witty as she, not even close in fact, so I am grateful to have had the chance to read and ingest this novel. I wish I had words to explain the joy that I felt reading this book, in the story itself but also in the characters. It reminded me of how I felt reading Jonathan Ames; while their writing is not a replica of one another, I felt that I was reading the thoughts of someone smarter and wittier than myself. That is an amazing read in my book.

I loved the characters in this book, from our protagonist, Graham, to his spacey and lovely younger wife Audra, to their son who was lovable and sweet and living life on the spectrum, to his friends in the origami club who were just as oddly lovable as he, to even Elspeth, whom Heiny made empathetic even though if she were someone I met in real life I might avoid talking to at the holiday party. Heiny has such respect for all of the characters she creates, from the doorman-turned-squatter to the philandering men in the book. I thought about the world of the characters for some time after closing the book, wishing I could be in their world a little bit longer. What a gift it is to finish a book and feel satisfied, yet still wanting to know more.

So, Ms. Heiny, if you ever by some long shot ever read this little post, could you please hurry with another piece soon? It's so enjoyable escaping into your work, even when my subway train is stalled. Which every New Yorker knows is the worst.  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Guest Blogger Charlotte: Inge & Mira


Inge & Mira, by Marianne Fredriksson, is a short novel about the friendship between two women: Inge, a Swedish native, and Mira, a Chilean living in Sweden. I read the book in English, and I’ve never been so curious about a translation in my life.

That’s because I don’t know if I liked Inge & Mira or not. The writing is stilted and factual, with the most important details either unspoken or quickly brushed aside. The story has almost no imagery and scene setting, and the conversations start and end abruptly. It seemed affected and fake, which I found off-putting.

On page one, Inge and Mira meet in a garden center and say hello. By page three, without skipping ahead in time, they are strolling on the beach together, with no explanation as to how they’ve gone from acquaintances to friends in a few sentences. There are times when the book reads like Spark Notes. Here’s an example two complete paragraphs from the novel:

It had stopped raining. Inge sat down in front of the computer but did not manage to produce a single sensible sentence.

She went shopping.”

This structure was different for me, and there were things about it I hated. This is why I wonder how much of this style was because of the particular translation. I took the fact that I was so curious to read the original as an indication that I actually cared about the story and characters. Because despite not loving the writing style, I was truly interested in the characters.

The crux of the story is that throughout their friendship Inge learns about Mira’s past in Chile and Mira has to face the things her family went through before she fled to Sweden. The women come up against one another’s cultural norms, prejudices, expectations, and ways of thinking and speaking about important issues. The inclusion of their children into the story adds even another level to these cultural differences.

This is the part of the book that I loved, even when the writing caught me off guard. I loved that it was written from the perspective of each woman and also from the outside, because I felt that it gave me a chance to appreciate how much culture really has to do with our perspective on everything from huge life events to everyday conversation. The book made me think, and it made me feel for Mira and what her family had endured.

In the end, I found it an effort to read a book with so little imagery that moved so quickly past key points, but I think I found it difficult because I wanted to know more. And that’s because I liked it. Because of this, I might suggest giving it a try if you are quite interested in reflecting on how culture influences our friendships and perspectives. 

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Shame: A Brief History

One of the themes of my life recently, as in the past year, has been shame. While it's something I have absolutely experienced, and still do at times, it's been mostly about how other people in my life deal with theirs. So I saw Peter N. Stearns' Shame: A Brief History, and I knew I wanted to read it.

This historical document of shame goes all the way back in the written record to what we know about shame, from the Greek and Roman view all the way up through pre-modern and the present time. It's important to understand the background of a topic, so I was grateful for these chapters, and I was interested in the historical perspective for sure. However, I was mostly in it for the meat of the burger, which was contemporary views of shame and, if possible, answers for ways to deal with it. While my latter question wasn't answered by this book, my first one was.

There were a few points I took out of this book that I found to be on point, and the first was the decline in shame as Western society took on a more individualistic cultural identity followed by an uptick when social media came into the picture. Shame is a much more powerful tool in a collectivist society, as it is dependent upon group norms. In the United States, as we have seen more people move to a much more urban and suburban landscape, shaming as a point of punishment in general society declines. It's needs a group to serve it, such as in school, where shame still often takes hold. Social media has changed that, with a tweet having the ability to go viral in just mere minutes. That being said, this book does a great job of differentiating between guilt and shame, and how they function as separate entities. I took a great deal away from this book intellectually, and I found it to be moderately easy to read while still providing in-depth and interesting information.

This was a more historical examination of shame rather than a psychological examination, which was what I was expecting, but I found it to be an important piece to read and add to my arsenal as I go about digging deeper into what shame is in our present society (which for me is a Western, urban, young culture) from a psychological perspective.