I’m not generally into horror stories, but with Halloween just around the corner my latest read seemed especially fitting.

My scary selection? “The Big Short,” Michael Lewis’ fascinating account of the subprime mortgage meltdown.

I know you’re thinking a recounting of the collapse of the U.S. real estate market — and, by extension, a sizable chunk of the banking industry — doesn’t qualify as a horror story. But trust me, it does. If you think about the monumental impact of en masse defaults on subprime loans, it becomes easy to see just how horrific the situation truly was.

Like many things in life, the mortgage market implosion was a phenomenon that was difficult to appreciate as it was happening. But through the lens of time, guided by Lewis’ expertly crafted narrative, readers will begin to understand what happened. (I say ‘begin to understand,’ because let’s be real — most of us may never fully comprehend a credit default swap.) Overall, Lewis does an impressive job of making an incredibly convoluted system mostly accessible.

I’m willing to bet that most of us know someone — or at least know someone who knows someone — who got swept up in the hustle. Although maybe I shouldn’t say hustle, as one of the tenets of Lewis’ book is the contention that the vast majority of the players weren’t deliberately dishonest, but actually didn’t realize the mess they were creating. Intentions aside, though, the results of the lax lending (and subsequent sale and resale — and resale again and again — of mortgage-backed securities) had devastating effects that are still being felt today. Many homeowners who defaulted in 2007 or 2008 continue to experience the effects of a foreclosure or bankruptcy on their credit records. Others who managed to hang on to their houses are just now starting to see their homes attain the “value” they supposedly had when they first purchased them.

As someone who bought a home at the beginning of the madness but somehow managed to avoid the disastrous results realized by many (Thanks Mom & Dad, for drilling the importance of strong down payments and fixed-rate mortgages into my head!), I’m immensely grateful to have dodged that bullet. But as someone who’s also watched dear friends struggle to recover, I’m flabbergasted that something like this could’ve happened.

While I still don’t fully understand all of the mechanics, Lewis’ book was invaluable in making clear to me the basic premises which allowed the American Dream to morph into a national nightmare.

Bonus read: If you’re looking for a low-commitment spooky tale, check out Gillian Flynn’s “The Grownup.” It’s dark and a bit twisted like Flynn’s other works (“Gone Girl,” “Dark Places,” “Sharp Objects”), but in a quick and easy-to-read format. Just keep in mind that it’s also a little risque, so keep the kiddos away.

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With distance, comes safety.

It’s true in both a physical sense (i.e., forest fires in California are unlikely to impact my home on the East coast) and in a metaphorical sense (i.e. a typically inner-city scourge like crack addiction is unlikely to affect middle-class suburbanites).

When you remove that distance, things get tricky. To me, that’s the crux of Jennifer Weiner’s latest novel, ‘All Fall Down.’ The protagonist, Allison, is a successful writer, with a beautiful – if challenging, at times – daughter, and a comfortable home in an upscale neighborhood. In short, she’s not who you think of when you hear the term ‘drug addict.’ The fact remains, though, that she is.

We’ve all heard about the opioid crisis affecting our nation. Often, it’s easy to push it from our minds, saying, “That would never be me.” How many of us, though, have at some point been prescribed a heavy painkiller? Maybe you had a surgery, or hurt your back, and those extra pills are just sitting there in the medicine cabinet. All it takes is one or two bad decisions and the descent down the slippery slope begins.

Weiner does an excellent job of telling the story from Allison’s perspective– a writer, wife and mother who truly believes she has her drug use under control. She also avoids the trap of the excessively dramatic “rock bottom” moment, instead taking what, though undoubtedly a bad moment, is far less horrific than the typical turning-point tale, as the catalyst for Allison’s move toward getting help.

As in her other books (If you haven’t read ‘Good in Bed,’ please stop reading this and go get it right now. And no, it’s not about sex. Well, not really.), Weiner avoids perfect conclusions and cliched characters, opting instead for real people with real shades of gray like the people we all know– and further, like the people we all are. Allison’s journey doesn’t have a tidy little ending, all tied up in a bow. That’s not how life works, and Weiner isn’t going to pretend it is. Though I did find the ending a bit abrupt, even for a realist such as myself, I appreciate Weiner’s unwillingness to pander to the Hollywood mentality.

To me, this book is a stark reminder of that tried-and-true saying: “There but for the grace of God go I.” We are none of us immune.

What do you get when you combine old-home renovation, yummy recipes and oddball relationships into one story? A new favorite book for me, to start with — but also just a genuinely enjoyable and at times even educational read.

In “Recipe for Distaster,” Stacey Ballis weaves a delightful tale of a woman, Anneke, whose life suddenly and spectacularly falls apart — much like the falling-down home she’s working on rebuilding. OK, that’s an exaggeration. The house isn’t falling down, but it is in need of a gut job in pretty much every respect.

Which brings me to the first cool thing about this book: Anneke is a builder– and a good one at that. In an industry dominated by men, she not only holds her own, but excels. Well, as far as building skills go. Her people skills need some work.

Speaking of relationships, there’s the obligatory love story, of course. It’s an entertaining one, with lots of twists and turns. But there’s also some great messages about family: blood relatives who let you down, friends-turned-family who stick by you even when you may not totally deserve it, and pseudo-family members who prove themselves more worthy than the real deal.

But to me, the true draw of this book was the old house. It’s a cliche, but they just don’t make ’em like they used to. And every time Anneke uncovered another hidden feature of the home (tapestry! dumbwaiter! original hardwoods!), my heart leapt. Yes, I’m an old-house dork. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

The other truly enjoyable part of this book was the old recipes Anneke uncovered as she was working on the house. I started Googling them so I could try them myself, before I realized Ballis had conveniently included them at the end of the book. Bonus points for that. With an artic-cold weekend looming in Boston, soubise is looking particularly appealing. Look it up– I think you’ll be glad you did!

 

Suffice to say, I’ve been remiss in keeping up with this blog. Here’s the thing about a blog about books: Obviously, the writer loves to read. So, when given a choice between reading and writing about reading, I’ll often choose … reading. I know, I know—it’s shocking. But there you have it. In attempt to make up for this dereliction of duty, I offer up these quick, nugget reviews of a few of the best books I’ve read lately. Beware, the books are as random as they are great.

“World Gone By,” by Dennis Lehane

The last in the Joe Coughlin series by Boston native Lehane is a page-turner, without a doubt. You know he’s a bad guy, but you can’t help but root for Coughlin. Lehane has a knack for making characters likable who, on a surface level, really aren’t all that appealing. The great insider references to our fair city are always fun, too.

“Dad is Fat,” by Jim Gaffigan

To totally change pace, let’s talk about a funny book. In short, Gaffigan is hysterical. And I mean that in the sense of: hysterically trying to keep up with his 4 kids—all crammed into a tiny, 2-bedroom NYC apartment. The bedtime bit is hilarious, as is his explanation of how you can regularly pay for two nights in a hotel but not actually sleep there. (Get your mind out of the gutter—he’s a happily married man!). Gaffigan has that rare gift of being funny without being offensive—a welcome treat to this reader.

“Offbeat Bride: Taffeta-Free Alternatives for Independent Brides,” by Ariel Meadow Stallings

You’ll never guess: I got married recently! You didn’t see that coming, did you? Anyway, I’m far from the earthy-crunchy-granola type, but I’m also highly unlikely to ever be featured on “Say Yes to the Dress.” (That is what it’s called, right? I don’t know that I’ve seen more than 3 minutes of that show. An aside: You should’ve seen the poor bridal shop attendant’s face when I told her I wanted to remove the beaded sash on my dress—the only adornment on the otherwise plain frock. But that’s another story…) Some of the suggestions in this book are a bit much for me, but I certainly appreciate Stallings offering up an alternative to the 2-years-in-the-making, $40,000, matching-custom-printed-everything sideshows that all of the bridal magazines push. Bottom line: a good read for brides who just want to have a fun day with the people they love.

“Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free,” by Hector Tobar

Hey, I told you this was random. Remember when those miners were trapped in a mine? Yeah, I vaguely did, too. Tobar’s tome delves into this surreal story, with loads of insights from the men who were actually trapped underground. From their accounts, you really start to feel how incredibly terrifying and hopeless their ordeal was—and how they somehow still managed to keep hope, even when weeks passed with no contact with the outside world. Tobar addresses not only the rescue from the mine, but the ensuing changes in the miners’ lives—from simple existences of hard, manual labor to international celebrity, complete with instant wealth. Some handled it; some didn’t. When the miners were brought up out of the mine, the world stopped watching—the saga seemingly over. For the men who’d spent more time underground than any human was ever meant to do, that was far from the end.

You absolutely should read Amy Poehler’s new memoir, “Yes Please.” (And while you’re at it, watch her recently concluded show, “Parks & Recreation.” Not only will it make the chapters about her co-stars from that show more relevant to you, it’s just a darn funny and well-written show.)

But let me save you some time and give you the takeaway right now: Amy Poehler and I are meant to be besties. Oh, and Tina Fey, too. Always Tina Fey. (Who also wrote a fabulous book recently, called “Bossypants.” Another excellent read.)

Speaking of bossiness, at one point in the book Poehler explains that when she calls a woman “bossy,” it isn’t an insult. This is one of myriad reasons I know we’d get along. To me, bossy is high praise. It’s just another way of saying “someone who gets sh*& done.” I’ve found that there are a lot of people in this world who need bossing, and therefore having an ample supply of “bossers” is critical. I, for one, am happy to oblige.

Other reasons we should be bosom friends (bonus points if you know the fabulous ’80s movie, based on an even more fabulous book, wherein this phrase was used): she also accidentally texts the person she’s talking about, instead of the person she means to be talking to (oops!); she’s a procrastinator who somehow always still manages to produce excellent work; and, most importantly, she enjoys making people laugh. (The key difference here is that she likes to be onstage making people laugh, whereas I am reduced to a state of panic at the mere thought of performing in front of large groups of people and therefore prefer to hide behind my pen. Or in this case, keyboard.)

We’re also both Massachusetts gals, so setting up a coffee klatch should be no problem. Have your people call my people,  Amy. (And by people, I mean me. I have no people. What do you think I am, a Hollywood star or something?)

So, it’s been more than a year since I posted on this blog. Not sure how that happened, but there you have it.

A lot has changed, and in the interest of transparency I feel the need to post a brief update. The title of this blog is “On the Read Line,” and the premise was that I’d write about books I read during my daily commute on the T.

Well, I no longer take the T (which, after the debacle of the past month or so, is a huge relief to me. My apologies to all those who are still stuck on the train). I do, however, still read. I suppose I could change the name of the blog, but “At My Desk” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

So, to summarize: not on the train, but still writing.

As you were.

I’ve just finished reading “Skinny Bitch.” It’s potty-mouthed and veganism-pushing, but it also contains a lot of eye-opening information. (Disclaimer: This post will undoubtedly be longer than usual. I’m going to try very hard not to preach, but this is a topic I care a lot about so I apologize in advance if I sound like I’m standing on my soapbox. I truly do not mean it that way; I’m certainly not an expert — far, far from it — and I don’t meant to sound like I think I am.)

So, vegans don’t eat any animal products. Unlike vegetarians, they don’t eat eggs or dairy. This is hard for me to consider, since I love eggs and dairy. I honestly don’t care that much about meat (except bacon. Oh my, do I love bacon), but eggs and dairy are top choices for me. Having read several books about food and diet in this country, a lot of what the authors had to say wasn’t new to me. But some of it was. For instance, this was the first time in my life I’d ever read anything saying milk was bad for you. My initial reaction was that that was ridiculous. I mean, milk? It does a body good. We all know that. But as they went on to explain their reasoning, I started to question my own blind acceptance of the dairy industry’s advertising campaign. And believe me, as the daughter of a former dairy farmer, that was a big leap for me. I’m not ready to say I’ll give up dairy just yet, but it definitely is food (pun intended, sorry) for thought. They raise several key points which I think merit consideration: 1. Humans are the only species which drink the milk of another species, and the only species that drink milk past infancy; 2. Milk and dairy products come from cows, and therefore have all, or at least a fair amount, of the disease-causing potential of ground beef, and 3. Milking is not the painless process we think it is for cows (and cows aren’t actually meant to produce milk all of the time, but only when they give birth — much like humans).

Of course they talk a lot about the conditions that exist in factory farming. This wasn’t news to me. I’ve read other books about it. It’s horrible, and it’s already caused me to cut way back on my meat consumption. That said, I do think animals were intended for human consumption (if you read the oldest books in existence, e.g. the Bible, you read accounts of meat-eating humans). I don’t, however, believe we were ever meant to consume nearly as much meat as we consume. And I think it’s a vicious cycle. Because we’ve become conditioned to believe that we should have meat at every meal, and that we can’t get enough protein without it (nonsense), the meat industry is pressured to keep prices artificially low. In order to do so (and to of course generously line their own pockets), they use truly horrific practices in their plants — both for the animals and for the consumers of their product. I don’t think I’ll be giving up meat entirely, but I do think I’ll be cutting back even more, and making every effort to know where my meat is coming from and to buy meat that has been humanely raised and killed. That will definitely be more expensive, but I’m hoping that in eating less meat, that will free up more money in my food budget to buy better meat.

This book makes no bones about the fact that the FDA and USDA do not truly have the best interests of the people at heart. To put it bluntly, it’s politics as usual. They’re beholden to special interests, in bed with the meat, dairy and processed food industries. If you read Michael Pollan’s books, he talks about how doctors/experts 30+ years ago advised the government to revise the food pyramid, greatly lessening the emphasis on meat and dairy, but after being pressured by the lobbyists, the government backed down. Wow.

I think the biggest thing I’ll take from this book, though, is to try to eliminate processed/artificial foods from my diet. I knew they weren’t doing me any good nutritionally, but I don’t think I fully realized the harm they were actually doing. We’ve all heard talk about trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils, and frankly I thought it was mostly just a bunch of hooey, but I’ve read enough at this point to think there’s truth there. For me, the bottom line is this: If it doesn’t occur in nature, it’s probably not a good thing to put into my body.

I know buying more natural food will cost more, and will definitely require more time spent preparing and researching food. The time will be a challenge, for sure. The money will be challenging, too, but I’m fortunate enough to be able to spare a little more money to spend on food. Not a huge amount, but enough to make a difference, I hope. I know not everyone can say that, and I certainly don’t judge anyone who just can’t swing it. We all have our own unique situations to consider, and we can each only do the best we can. I just happen to believe that, personally, the best I can do is better than I’m currently doing.

To sum it up, this book isn’t for the faint of heart. But if you can tolerate the language (and it is amusing at times, in all honesty), and if you don’t get too defensive about the whole veganism thing, there are lessons to be learned here.

Jen Lancaster is a favorite of mine. That said, I found her first fiction offering, “If You Were Here,” to be a bit underwhelming. I felt like I’d read most of it before, since parts of the book closely mirrored Lancaster’s non-fiction accounts in her memoirs and on her blog.

This time, though, I found her fiction thoroughly enjoyable. “Here I Go Again” is a humorous, yet poignant, look at what happens to the high-school bully after high school. We see Lissy Ryder’s seemingly perfect life implode, and then observe as she goes about trying to right her past wrongs. In the process she learns about herself and maybe even improves her future.

The interesting thing to me about this book was the concept that though bullying is obviously not a good thing, it actually can have positive results sometimes. Some of Lissy’s classmates, mercilessly tormented by the hot pink BMW convertible-driving, football captain-dating head cheerleader, used their pain as motivation to go on and achieve truly amazing things with their lives. There are lessons here about using what life hands you to achieve your goals, but ultimately this book is what all Lancaster books are: hilarious, and reminiscent of a certain era in time that’s very dear to those of us who lived through it.

Bibliography: I would say that I’ll go back and right some high-school wrongs, but honestly I was a dork. And while I wasn’t bullied, I also don’t think I bullied anyone else.

Next chapter: I’m honestly not quite sure… I’m sure something will come up!

(Bonus points if you caught the reference in the title. Which has nothing to do with this book. But anyway…)

I finally read “Life of Pi.” Yes, I realize EVERYONE else read it several years ago. (Or more likely, saw the movie.) That’s kind of my point. I can’t stand reading the same thing everyone else is reading at the same time. Heck, I waited until ALL of the Harry Potter books were out before I even started the series. (Waiting is doubly advantageous when you’re reading a series. None of that waiting for the next book to come out. Which reminds me… George R.R. Martin, let’s get this show on the read. Yes, I know I’ve said this before. No, I don’t care if I’m repeating myself.)

Back to the point: “Life of Pi” was, in a word, awesome. Until it was confusing. Really, really confusing. I consider myself a pretty intelligent person, but at the end of this book I was all “Huh? What just happened?” And while I realize that was kind of Yann Martel’s intention, it still bugged me. I deal with uncertainty and ambiguity all day in real life; I actually enjoy having my recreational reading all tied up with a neat bow at the end.

That said, this was still a phenomenal book. And I do appreciate Martel’s desire to make us think — if I’m not tired, that is. The animal descriptions alone were worth the read. And, oh, the things I learned about the ocean… I do realize this wasn’t a non-fiction book but there were a lot of interesting factoids that were true. (I know; I Googled them. What did we do before Google? I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t Google something. Amazing. I remember when I had to go to the library. They had these things called “encyclopedias.” They were full of information. Check it out, kids. Truly amazing.)

So, yes, this was a great read. Definitely highly recommended. Just don’t read when you’re in an “I need closure” kind of place in your life.

Bibliography: Read up on animal/human interactions. And the ocean.

Next chapter: Jen Lancaster’s “Here I Go Again”

My sister has a wall hanging that reads: “I’m not bossy; I just have better ideas.” Perhaps it says something about me that I have, on numerous occasions, expressed a desire to have one for my house. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that when my favorite comedienne came out with a book titled “Bossypants,” I was all over that like white on rice.

Not to get carried away or anything, but I think it’s reasonable to say that Tina Fey is the single best thing to happen to humanity, oh, ever. Seriously. She’s smart, funny, self-deprecating, funny, multitasking, funny, accomplished, funny… The list goes on. Fey had me laughing aloud on the train with chapters such as ‘That’s Don Fey’ (a hilarious tribute to her father), ‘Peeing in Jars with Boys,’ and ‘Dear Internet.’

Fey does it all, but refuses to accept the mantle of “model woman.” She’s realistic about the shortcomings inherent in trying to have a career and a family. She simply does the best she can, and writes about it in an incredibly amusing way. In short, I want to be her. I already see a lot of similarities (see: bossiness), so I think it’s possible, no?

I’ve heard Fey called “the thinking man’s sex symbol.” This is presumably because she’s both attractive and intelligent/funny. While I’m disheartened to think only a specific subset of men would be attracted to such a stellar human being, I guess there is a certain cachet in giving the airbrushed models a run for their (boatloads of) money in the “sex symbol” department. Fey, of course, laughs this off, and spends the better part of a chapter talking about the artifice of photo shoots and digital editing that gave her the designation.

Definite thumbs-up for “Bossypants.” If you appreciate smart (and occasional toilet) humor, you’ll love this book.

Bibliography: Find that wall sign, dammit. Or maybe just steal my sister’s.

Next chapter: “Life of Pi” for book club. This book was wildly popular, so I’ve been avoiding it. (Yes, that seems backwards. But I hate being a follower.) But my book club chose it, so here we go…