Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Pound Foolish by Helaine Olen

After reading Dollars and Cents, I decided to pick up another book about money. But unlike Dollars and Cents, Pound Foolish isn't about the wrong ways we think about money, it's an expose of the personal finance and financial industry.

Pound Foolish starts by taking a look at the history of personal finance, starting with S.F. Porter, a personal finance guru who rose to dizzying heights before falling into obscurity. The next chapter continues the examination of personal finance gurus by looking at the controversial Suze Orman and how she changes personalities and advice to suit her audience. Chapter three shifts from people to ideas as the author debunks the latte myth - that our small little luxury spends are what's keeping us from being millionaires. Instead, the book argues that the changes to the economy are so huge and the financial difficulties most Americans face so huge that such small changes will not help.

And that really is the central idea of the book - that personal finance is not personal and that Americans have to change the system of things before they can be financially secure.

Which is why as we read through Chapter four and the rest of the book, the focus slowly shifts from the personal finance gurus to the larger financial industry. Chapter four talks about retirement and criticises the American 401(k) as being inadequate. This chapter also introduces the 'most dangerous woman in America', Teresa Ghilarducci, and her hope to "create a pension plan for all of us by having workers and their employers contribute a minimum of 5 percent of pay into a guaranteed account via mandatory automatic deduction. The government, in turn, would contribute a $600 annual tax credit [...] All this money would be placed in United States bonds which would promise an annual minimum return of 3 percent above the rate of inflation."

That sounded a lot like the Singapore CPF system, in that employees and employers must contribute a certain percentage to a savings account (well actually there are three accounts for different purposes), which have interests rates that range from 3.5% to 5%. Not identical, but similar.

After talking about retirement (and whether Americans can afford it), the book goes on to talk about the culture of commissions in the financial service sector. This was actually pretty disturbing because it's clear that there are people preying on the elderly and not much is being done about it. When the chapter is done, the book continues on the idea of making money through investments (although not necessarily for retirement) by talking about the quest for the perfect investment.

The last three chapters bring the topic back to the topic of personal finance, as they discuss women and money (I know a few people who would have a lot to say about it), how real estate may not actually make you money, and the myth of financial literacy (the author doesn't believe it's possible to be financial literate).

Like I mentioned above, the central idea of this book is that personal finance is not financial and that Americans have been tricked into thinking that it is. To be honest, while a lot of the things here are eye-opening, I'm not entirely convinced by the argument. While it's true that sudden accidents or events can knock you off a financially secure position, advice such as getting rid of debt and cutting down on needless spending isn't bad (that said, some of the debt advice wasn't the best). It almost feels as though the author has no trust in the average American and wants to absolve them of any financial mistakes they might have made because it's the big bad financial industry and personal finance gurus to blame.

I'm not so sure if that's true. I do think that if you teach people how to think about money and to recognise the blind spots in their thinking, it's possible for them to make good decisions. While we probably shouldn't be asking financial institutions to teach people how to be financially responsible, given the conflict of interest, I think trying to make people financially literate is a good goal.

Overall, this was a pretty good book about how the financial environment affects personal finance. Perhaps its because I'm not in America, but I do follow quite a few responsible financial bloggers (although I will admit that there are many irresponsible ones) and I think that they are doing a good job educating people, which is probably why I'm not as pessimistic about the whole thing as the author.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault

I borrowed this book because tea was mentioned. Unfortunately, despite the fact that tea leaf reading is central to the story, tea didn’t play a huge part.

The Leaf Reader starts with the disappearance of Andrea Quinley. Though Marnie doesn’t know her, the news affects the whole town. That said, Marnie didn’t think it would affect her personally. Not until she started tea leaf reading for Matt and found out that it was about Andrea’s disappearance. Although a bit scared of the fact that the things she sees are sometimes accurate, she is convinced to help investigate Andrea’s disappearance.

I quite liked the set-up for this book and I was curious to know how it ended, but I felt that the middle part dragged. (MILD SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because that the ‘reveal’ about Marnie having actual powers came so late, but a good part of the book felt like it was just Marnie and Matt guessing their way through the whole thing rather than being guided by what she saw in the teacups. It was only at the end that things came together.

That said, one thing I liked about the somewhat slow middle section were Marnie’s remembrances of Jimmy, the bad boy who may have had a connection to Andrea. It helped to humanise Jimmy, who never appeared directly in the story and who might have remained a bogey figure if not for the memories.

Marnie was also a pretty interesting character. I think part of the story is about her learning to accept herself, but like I mentioned before, because the ‘truth’ about herself came so late, I felt like the issue wasn’t dealt with fully. Instead, I had this wrong impression of her background and the issues she needed to deal with, which felt like a red-herring. Not to say that being in a ‘weird’ family isn’t a proper issue, but I thought the ‘family powers’ part needed more attention.

Overall, this is a pretty interesting story. While the middle felt like it dragged on a bit, I have to admit that I continued reading because I was sufficiently hooked and had to find out the truth about Andrea’s disappearance. So the book did do it’s job in getting me to pick it up and finish it. I just feel like it could have been stronger.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

To be honest, I was a little hesitant when I picked this up because I wasn’t sure if I would like it. The blurb sounded good but the cover was kind of creepy and I don’t even know if I like Gothic fiction. But when I started this, I quickly found myself hooked and finished the book in no time.

Warning: this book is pretty short so there will be mild spoilers in the review

Mary Katherine (Merricat) is an eighteen year old girl who lives with her uncle Julian and her sister Constance, to whom she is fiercely devoted to. The three of them are outcasts because six years ago, someone put arsenic in the sugar and killed most of the family. While Constance was eventually acquitted of the murders, suspicion still hangs over them, leaving Merricat as the only member of the family who ventures into the village.

Despite that, the three of them are happy. Until cousin Charles comes and Merricat finds that her sister and their household is rapidly changing.

This was a very creepy story, partly because Merricat is the main character and protagonist. If you read on, it’s pretty obvious that Constance is the normal one, full of love of her sister and while scared of the outside world, also longing to rejoin society.

Merricat, on the other hand, is contented with the way things are because she has her loving sister all to herself (and uncle Julian). To her, the outside world is nothing more than an intrusion on what could be a happy life. Which is why although she’s eighteen, Merricat feels like she’s much younger - almost childlike - mentally.

The family dynamics alone would be creepy, but when you add in the village, things go up a notch. There is so much unmasked hostility in the villagers that it’s scary. In the first chapter alone, a grown man corners Merricat and insinuates (almost saying it point blank) that he wants her and her family gone. That interaction was so uncomfortable that I almost stopped reading.

Overall, this was a great book. It’s definitely not something comfortable to read - the tension in this book can be really high at times - but it is addictive and fascinating in its own way. If this is Gothic fiction, I should try reading more of it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 by Naoki Higashida

Someone from Church lent me this and it is so good! Written by the same author of The Reason I Jump (which I haven’t read but really want to now), this book contains the thoughts of a young man who happens to be severely autistic.

Naoki Higashida writes using an alphabet grid, without anyone else’s hand touching his, so you can be sure that the words in this book really did come out of his mind. And when you look at the subjects he muses about, his poetry, and his short story, it’s clear that he has an extra-ordinary mind.

In this books, he talks about his struggles to learn and communicate, as well as encourage all neurotypical people not to give up on people with autism, because they do want to live their best life and they can pick up our emotions. If this wasn’t a library book, I would have highlighted so many quotes, such as:
"On the surface, a sheltered life spent on your favourite activities might look like paradise but I believe that unless you come into contact with some of the hardships other people endure, your own personal development will be impaired."
And I probably would have bookmarked all his poetry. I’m normally not a poetry type of person, but I find that his poems inspire and uplift, even when they look on the slightly more unpleasant side of life. Two that I particularly liked are Rumours and Words - look out for them if you're reading the book!

I would totally recommend this book! It’s a moving and uplifting insight into a person that we might not even think we can communicate with. The beauty of his words show that there is deep potential within everyone, and that we should not be so quick to write off people as unable to contribute to society.

Definitely read this if you have the chance!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Dollars and Sense by Dan Ariely

Found this book through another Dayrean's review and since I enjoyed Dan Ariely’s other books, I thought I’d give it a go!

Dollars and Sense is a personal finance book, only instead of telling you what to do, the book shows you the financial mistakes you’ve been making and explains why. The first part of the book covers what money is (foundation) and the second, longest, part covers the not-so-rational ways we think about money, such as:

- Relative prices (we’re tempted to buy when we think that we’re saving something even when we’re not)

- Mental accounting (we categorise the ways we spend money which leads to not so prudent financial decisions

- The Pain of Paying (so we value potential loses more than potential gains)

- Anchoring (basing valuation on the first number we see)

- Ownership (if we can see it as ours, we value it higher)

- Whether we think the price is fair (to us and for the effort we see exerted)

- Whether we can restrain ourselves in the present for the sake of the future

- Overemphasising money

- Fancy language and rituals making us value a product more

- Expecting a certain experience vs the actual experience and how that affects our value of it.

After going through all these ‘bad’ thinking habits we have, the book ends on a hopeful note: by offering us strategies we can use. Of course, awareness plays a huge role in helping to avoid such behaviour, but other things we can do is to visualise the future as a concrete thing (save for a specific retirement date, e.g. Dec 1 2050, instead of a vague X years in the future), make good financial habits (like savings) opt out rather than opt in, and other strategies.

I found this book to be very educational and very entertaining! It’s actually co-written by Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler; since one of Kreisler’s ‘jobs’ is comedian, it explains the copious amounts of humour in this book. The chapters all focus on one, perhaps two ideas, and are explained using stories that are buffeted by studies.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to change the way they think about money. Like another one of Ariely’s books say, we humans are ‘predictably irrational’. That means that we can anticipate certain habits and change them for the better.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F.H. Batacan

I feel like this year has been fairly good for the SEA Reading Challenge so far because I’ve read two fantastic books - Track Faults and other Glitches and Smaller and Smaller Circles. I found this while searching for SEA fiction and borrowed it the minute I saw “Pinoy detective fiction” because I love mysteries.

Smaller and Smaller Circles Stars Father Saenz, a Jesuit priest who is also a forensic anthropologist, and Father Jerome. When the mutilated bodies of young boys are found in Payatas, they decide that they have to be part of this investigation and get to the bottom of the matter. In the subplot, Father Saenz is on a crusade to get a child-molesting priest away from the charity that puts him in contact with young boys.

This is so much more than an amazing detective story. I really felt the weight of bureaucracy and corruption as Father Saenz, Father Jerome, and the Director of the NBI try to marshal their resources to achieve justice for the poor that normally get less than nothing. Add in the weight of the subplot (with a man of the Church pushing for justice) and you get a stunning indictment of corruption in both the civil service and the Church.

And this is not a spoiler, but if you read the book, pay attention to chapter 34. It’s my favourite, and in my opinion, the most powerful chapter because it humanises the people of Payatas and shows us that these boys were loved and did have worth - even if the ‘higher ups’ didn’t think they were worth devoting resources to.

The characters were also expertly written - there are the two Fathers, who want the best but also know the worst of the world, Director Lastimosa, who is merely a stop-gap for the real appointee but still tries his best, and Arcinas, the ambitious attorney. They all sprang to life on the page and I find it sad that this is not the start of a series because I would love to see how all of them and the relationships between them continue to change.

I would highly recommend this to everyone who wants a good read. It’s superbly written, with great characters and a plot that will keep you turning. I know this book came out several years ago but I’m still going to hope that a sequel is in the works.

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Bite Sized History of France by Stephane Henaut and Jeni Mitchell

I requested this book from Netgalley purely because it’s about food (even though I don’t really know or eat a lot of French Food).

A Bite Sized History of France tackles French history through its food, from the Gauls (before the Roman Empire) to modern day France. Each chapter is relatively short and focuses on one food, such as honey, wine, many types of cheeses, the croissant (a relatively new invention, it seems), salt, how the potato become popular, and much more.

Along the way, the book dispels some common legends about food and tries to put them in the proper light.

While the book is organised roughly in chronological order, the topical nature of the book means that this isn’t the right place to get an overview of French history. Certain people (like Napoleon and some of the Kings) pop up in a couple of pictures but things aren’t placed into the bigger picture.

But, this book is an enjoyable way to dip in and out of French history. I will freely admit to being an ignoramus about the subject and it was fun to learn about things like how mushrooms became popular (and how seriously they take mushroom hunting). There are also some really great chapters that explore the darker side of French history, namely French’s colonial ambitions that brought peanut oil to the nation.

Overall, this was a fun book that foodies will definitely enjoy. It not only introduced me to French history and culture (and lots of food), it also showed me the global nature of food through the development of French cuisine.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

As you know, I’m a huge sucker for fairytales, which is why I picked this book up. The name and the cover intrigued me, as did the promise of a book within a book.

The Hazel Wood stars Alice, an angry girl who has been on the road with her mom for her whole life, trying to escape their bad luck. After her grandmother, the famous author Althea Prosperine passes away, her mother falls in love and decides to settle down.

But her mother jumped to conclusions and Alice comes home from school one day to discover that her mother, stepfather, and stepsister have been stolen away by the Hinterland. While her stepfather and stepsister are returned, her mother is not and Alice embarks on a journey to rescue her mother.

Helping her is Finch, a boy from her school who’s a super fan of her grandmother and has actually read the stories she wrote. He introduces her to her grandmother’s dark works, something that proves invaluable in their journey.

I love dark fairytales so I obviously really enjoyed this work. I can’t say too much without giving away spoilers but I thought the worldbuilding was excellent and tied in with Alice’s personality very well.

And of course, I loved the retold fairytales here! They are dark and creepy and so good. I went to Goodreads and saw that the author will be publishing the tales in a standalone book and I am so excited for that!! But the estimated publishing date is 2020 which makes me a little sad (and I hope I don’t forget about it!)

Going back to Alice, I thought she was a really interesting character. She has some anger management issues, which she acknowledges and tries to manage, but her love for her mother is fierce and true (although complicated, like all relationships) and I really admired her loyalty.

I also liked Finch, the super rich super fan that immediately helped Alice. Unfortunately, he and Alice’s relationship didn’t develop the way I expected and hoped, but their relationship was still pretty sweet.

If you’re a fan of dark fairytales, you’ll want to read this. I really enjoyed this book and I cannot wait for the standalone of the stories to come out!

Monday, July 9, 2018

Autism's False Prophets by Dr. Paul Offit

I decided to read this after having enjoyed Pandora’s Lab. As you may know, my brother has autism and while it’s mild, it can be quite a challenge (especially seeing people bully him).

Autism’s False Prophets takes the reader through the journey of autism science and how all the pseudo-science ‘explanations’ and ‘cures’ came to be. After showing how vaccine and other reasons do not cause autism, Offit goes through the current understanding of autism.

I already knew that MMR vaccines and mercury don’t cause autism (even my bro knows) but what I didn’t know was how much of a vested interest Andrew Wakefield and other parties had. I mean, Wakefield received money from a lawyer seeking to prove a link between vaccines and autism and didn’t declare it! All those attacks by anti-Vaxxer’s on doctors being in the pocket of ‘big pharma’ seem more hypocritical than ever.

Another thing that the book made quite clear was that a lot of people don’t make their decisions on whether vaccines are harmful or whether alternative medicines work based on the science. Instead, they base their decisions on personal stories, which have a bigger impact emotionally but aren’t backed by science.

The only part that made me go “eh” was this short section on autism and faith. Perhaps it was because the section was so short, but it seemed like Offit was linking anti-vaxxers with Christianity, which is just about the most ridiculous thing I can think of. Christianity isn’t anti-science and to generalise that way seems contrary to the scientific nature of the book.

Overall, this was a clear and easy to understand explanation of how all the misinformation about autism and treatment of it arose. Seeing how everything developed made me feel disappointed at how people are so willing to go against science at the expense of their children. Also, labelling autistic children as “vaccine-injured” and describing them as having “soulless” eyes is cruel and demeaning to children with autism.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal

One problem with having an insane TBR list is that it can make the best-laid plans can go awry. After enjoying Shades of Milk and Honey last year, I was determined to read Book 2 of the series shortly after. Unfortunately, an unmanageable TBR list and new book finds intruded on that and I only got around to reading the second book, Glamour in Glass, recently.

Glamour in Glass moves away from the sly Austen references and England to Belgium, where Jane and Vincent are having their honeymoon (and looking for new ways to use glamour). Unfortunately, Napoleon's shadow rears its ugly head and Jane and Vincent find that they aren't spared from the coming war.

I don't know if it's because there was such a long gap between Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass, but I didn't enjoy this as much as I did the first book. I felt that it took a fairly long time for the war action to start, which was weird because the blurb had me thinking that most of the story was about the coming of Napoleon.

Character-wise, I felt like Jane was a lot more insecure in this book. Sure, she was always comparing herself to her sister in the previous book, but it feels like her self-worth is tied up in glamour so much more now and she has absolutely no trust in Vincent, despite the fact that they are married and he has given her very little indication to doubt him (of course, he's hiding something but it's not very big). That said, I did like how Jane pushed against the convention that had Vincent taking all the credit for the glamours that they made together.

But don't get me wrong, even though I'm not as happy with this book as the previous one, I did enjoy it. I like that Jane is a proactive character and that she's every bit as capable as Vincent instead of being a damsel in distress. Speaking of the damsel in distress trope, it was fun to see the tables turned and have Jane be the one that needs to save Vincent.

Overall, this was a fun story, although not as good as the previous one. I suppose that in trying to establish the series as more than a riff on Jane Austen, or perhaps because this one no longer alludes to Jane Austen to obviously, the book lost a bit of its initial charm. Still, I'll probably continue the series if I come across the third book.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The SEA is Ours edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

Found this in the library and decided to borrow it for the SEA Reading Challenge! Like the title says, this is an anthology of short stories set in Southeast Asia, largely by Southeast Asian authors (from the back it seems like at least half the authors were born and raised in Southeast Asia while the rest have Southeast Asian roots). There are twelve stories in this anthology and they are:

The collection starts with a short introduction that, to be very honest, left me with a bad impression of the book before I started reading (good thing I borrowed the book without reading the introduction). It felt so angry and I didn’t really understand why - as far as I could tell, they were angry at the tropes in steampunk (Victorian England) because of diversity. Not sure how they connect but the anger was palpable.

There are twelve stories in this anthology and they are:

1. On the Consequence of Sound: This was about flying and flying whales! Very cool and I liked how Tagalog was woven into the stories - I was asking Jo Jie Jie about the sentences. It’s a pretty haunting story about ambition and sacrifice and a strong start to the collection.

2. Chasing Volcanoes: Another story set in the Philippines and another really good one! It’s set on an airship and has two strong female characters - the captain and the rebel princess who’s trying to save a village.

3. Ordained: This seems to be a family drama but to be honest, it was too short and I couldn’t grasp the story.

4. The Last Aswang: My brother and I have been talking about aswang with Jo Jie Jie and so I was really excited for this story. Unfortunately, it was a letdown. Perhaps it was the influence of the introduction (I really don’t like activist fiction, it’s not my thing) but this felt like an “our culture is better than the colonial culture” sort of story. Which could be good if done well (the story Devil Wind from Young Warriors is a good example), but in this case, it felt like the author started with a message in mind, which totally did not appeal to me.

5. Life under Glass: This was a short story about hunting rare creatures. I kind of wish it was longer because I didn’t get a chance to connect with the main character.

6. Between Severed Souls: It took me a little while to get into this story about a Filipino Pygmalion in the midst of a civil war but when I did, I thoroughly enjoyed it. The steampunk elements fit in well and I felt like all the characters had their own motivations and hurts, which made them come to life.

7. The Unmaking of Cuadro Amoroso: This was pretty good - three genius students plan and execute their revenge after the fourth in their group dies. Again, it took me a while to understand what was going on but the ending was very satisfying.

8. Working Woman: A steampunk story set in colonial Singapore, with triad lords and half-machine Samsui women. This was definitely one of the strongest stories in the book and one of my favourites because it had plot, it had strong characters, and it was in a world that was strange yet familiar. Would definitely recommend this to people looking for a Singapore steampunk story.

9. Spider Here: Another Singaporean steampunk story but this one wasn’t as strong was Working Woman. The world was intriguing, with the idea of ‘threads’ in living creatures that can be manipulated and a protagonist in a walking chair, but I wasn’t clear about what was happening even by the end of the story.

10. The Chamber of Souls: This was Vietnamese steampunk and one of the stronger stories in the collection. It deals with a group of refugees who are accepted into what seems like paradise - until they’re under attack. Add in a robot whose main purpose is to serve tea and store souls and you’ve got a story that kept me interested until the end.

11. Petrified: Another story taking place on a steamship, this was a fairly enjoyable (but also sad) tale with automatons that can pass for human. It felt like most of the action took place off the page (told to us in a recap) but I liked the concept, start, and ending.

12. The Insects and Women Sing Together: The last story in the collection was, sadly, a weak ending. Like with Ordained and Life Under Glass, I didn’t understand what was going on, even at the end.

Overall, this was a pretty uneven collection. It’s a pity because I am always for tropes being broken in a smart manner, but some of the stories didn’t connect and/or make sense to me. There were some good stories, but I went into this collection expecting an anthology as strong as Track Faults and Other Glitches and sadly, I didn’t find it.

Monday, July 2, 2018

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

It took me quite a few days to work through this but I’m finally finished! I’ve been intending to read this for a very long time because I heard that it’s a good companion to Hillbilly Elegy - one is a personal story while the other (this) is an academic work.

Like the subtitle says, this book is about the class of people known as “white trash” or “red necks”, from when people started coming to America in the 1600s, where they were called “waste people” to the 2000s, the era of Honey Boo Boo child. Over the course of these twelve chapters, one message is hammered home, again and again in great detail:

There is, and has always been, a group of white Americans who are looked down upon and are seen as separate from the other ‘whites’.

Just to be clear, this is not a book on marginalised society in America. The focus is on this marginalised and historically looked down upon white people, and other racial groups are only mentioned in related to them; which means that African Americans are only mentioned sometimes and Asian Americans not at all. But this may have been a good choice because the book is a huge read and to try to tell the story of everyone would have made it too much to handle.

This book was very useful in illustrating how futile identity politics can be. I’m not and probably will never be part of this white underclass, but just reading this helped me imagine their frustration when after literally hundreds of years of insults and discrimination, they are told that they have something called “white privilege”. The book illustrates how little of this ‘privilege’ they’ve had when it says that:
"Poor whites were inexpensive and expendable, and found their lot comparable to suffering African Americans when it came to the justice system. Nothing proves the point better than the fact that both black and white convicts were referred to as “niggers”. "
If anything, this book has shown me that the issues of class and racism in America (and perhaps in other parts of the world) are much more complicated than some think. As tempting as it is to simplify things into “Group A oppressor” and “Group B victim”, history and reality is often much more complex and we must be able to grasp the nuances of issues if we are to solve them.