What I’m Reading: June 2018

28114556The Unbanking of America by Lisa Servon

What do an undocumented immigrant in the South Bronx, a high‑net‑worth entrepreneur, and a twenty‑something graduate student have in common? All three are victims of our dysfunctional mainstream bank and credit system. Today nearly half of all Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, and income volatility has doubled over the past thirty years. Banks, with their high monthly fees and overdraft charges, are gouging their low- and middle-income customers, while serving only the wealthiest Americans.

Lisa Servon delivers a stunning indictment of America’s banks, together with eye-opening dispatches from inside a range of banking alternatives that have sprung up to fill the void. She works as a teller at RiteCheck, a check‑cashing business in the South Bronx, and as a payday lender in Oakland. She looks closely at the workings of a tanda, an informal lending club. And she delivers fascinating, hopeful portraits of the entrepreneurs reacting to the unbanking of America by designing systems to creatively serve many of us. Banks were once essential pillars of our lives; now we can no longer count on them to do right by us.

I got to hear Lisa Servon speak about a month ago.  She gave an overview of her research, summing up what was basically the last chapter in her book, and it really made me think.  Alternative financial services are viewed as the “bad” services in our society, but according to Servon, that’s a narrow way of looking at it.  She went into this research wondering why people use payday lenders and check cashers instead of banks, and came out wondering why banks don’t seem to want to meet their customers’ needs.

I really enjoyed reading this book.  It was technical while maintaining personality at the same time.  She studied behavior as it relates to economic status and vice versa, and pointed out that transparency and immediacy are two things alternative financial providers have over banks.  She gives a very rounded, realistic perspective, not demonizing people for using alternative financial services like many of us tend to.  She had a hypothesis at the beginning, but did a good job of maintaining an open mind, and she admits that she came out with very different conclusions than she expected.  This is a very easy book to understand, and I think it offers a great perspective on our relationship with money today.  It is important and useful knowledge for the average America, but especially for those who work in the financial industry.

33667175Of Mess and Moxie by Jen Hatmaker

In this highly anticipated new book, beloved author Jen Hatmaker parlays her own triumphs and tragedies into a sigh of relief for all normal, fierce women everywhere. Whether it’s the time she drove to the wrong city for a fourth-grade field trip (“Why are we in San Antonio?”) or the way she learned to forgive (God was super clear: Pray for this person every day, which was the meanest thing He ever said to me. I was furious.), she offers a reminder to those of us who sometimes hide in the car eating crackers that we do have the moxie to get back up and get back out. We can choose to live undaunted “in the moment” no matter what the moments hold, and lead vibrant, courageous, grace-filled lives.

This essay collection is one part memoir, one part motivational self-help, and one part humor.  She states in the intro that it’s geared toward women from their mid-teens up, and that’s a big demographic, but I think it works.  Jen is relatable to a lot of different kinds of people and has no trouble speaking to their specific dreams and realities.  It’s clear that she is a PEOPLE PERSON (caps intended).  Jen loves Jesus by loving the people she knows, which includes her husband, children, children’s friends, her own friends, and their families, which basically equates to a small town.  I admire that.

Her huge community, however, was the barrier for complete relatable-ness for me.  Because I’m so internal, I’m didn’t resonate with a lot of her experiences.  I’ve never had the desire, for example, to spontaneously have 15 people over to my house from 6pm to midnight.  Also, because I’m not a huge fan of self-help, I did end up skimming through the last halves of several chapters — I had read the personal story and skipped over the applicable advice.  It was funny, though, and I like her voice.  Jen is inviting and accepting.  This would be a good read for women who want to laugh and feel a bit more heard at the same time.

19547856Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met. 

Where do I even start with this?  This book is an absolute gem, and it’s a perspective that is way overdue in YA.  Not only is a love story about gay teens important culturally, it’s just a really well-written novel.  I’ve always thought that if the characters aren’t good, the book isn’t good.  That’s not something you have to worry about with this, because the characters are fantastic.  Simon and Blue are of course great, and all the side characters had their own lives and didn’t seem flat at all.  I especially loved Simon’s family.  Parent relationships specifically are something we don’t see enough of in YA, but Simon’s parents made lots of appearances and seemed realistic.

As for the romance, it was on par with Eleanor and Park, which for me is the epitome of well-written YA love.  It was a great balance between the thrill of being truly known by someone else for the first time and the excitement of new sexual attraction.  It also completely squashes the kill the gays trope, and makes a point of showing just how many people in Simon’s life support the LGBTQ community.  That was refreshing, since the (very) few other books I’ve read about gay teens revolve around strict, unaccepting parents or friends.  I know that is not at all uncommon in real life, but I imagine it’s nice for LGBTQ readers to be reminded that there are supportive people out there.

The last thing I want to point out is that Albertalli managed to squeeze some social commentary into the novel without it feeling overbearing or forced, which is a feat.  Throughout the novel, a few different characters recognize that they’ve been thinking of white and/or straight as the human “default,” and make small comments to themselves or their friends about it.  Then they move on.  I think that’s an accurate reflection of teens today, and it makes readers think without being cloying.  I really don’t have anything bad to say about this novel (and they did a good job with the movie adaptation too).  Five stars; read this book.

6569735Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” She survived—and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, the Kill Club—a secret society obsessed with notorious crimes—locates Libby and pumps her for details. They hope to discover proof that may free Ben. Libby hopes to turn a profit off her tragic history: She’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club—for a fee. As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started—on the run from a killer. 

I love a good thriller, and Gillian Flynn doesn’t disappoint.  I was glued to this, which is not surprising given Flynn’s knack for keeping up just the right amount of suspense throughout the novel.  The character development was good too — Libby starts the novel out very anti-social and depressed, but starts to come out of it by the end despite the continuing trauma of finding out what really happened.  Some of the side characters were a bit inconsistent; given their own roles in the tragedy, I thought some of them would be more hostile towards Libby while she was interviewing them than they were.  But I’m willing to suspend disbelief a little more for thrillers, where the plot is already crazy.  If you like thrillers, this is a good pick.

All images and descriptions from Goodreads.

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