Author: Zadie Smith
Title: Swing Time
Narrator: Pippa Bennett-Warner
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Press, 2016
Previously read by the same author: White Teeth
An unnamed narrator, whose mother is of Jamaican descent and father is white English working class, tells her life story focusing on her relationships with three women. First, there’s her mother who is a social activist and later an elected official with whom she feels alienated. Second, there’s Tracey, the only other nonwhite girl in her dance class who becomes her childhood friend (well, frenemy really) and is a much more talented dance. Finally, there’s Aimee, an Australian pop superstar (I guess like Kylie Minogue, although Aimee seems more like Madonna) who hires the narrator as a personal assistant. The narrative moves back and forth in different periods of the narrator’s life filling in details of these relationships. Smith takes a risk in making the narrator have no name but having characteristics that are autobiographical, and then makes the narrator so driftless and somewhat unlikable. One her traits is that she rarely is in control of her own life and lets these other women control her narrative, yet when she does take action is usually something petty.
A major plot point in the book is that Aimee builds a girls school in a West African village that the narrator plays a big role in returning to visit the village in what amounts to a parody of the sins of celebrity philanthropy. Similarly, the narrator’s mother is a parody of the arrogant left-wing activist who only barely emerges as a flesh and blood character. Tracey is the most fully developed of the three characters as the narrator keeps trying to put her into boxes based on her low-income background, sexuality, and “wildness” but Tracey keeps defying all of that. I find that I enjoy Smith’s writing style in this book but less interested in what Smith has to write about. The meandering quality of the narrative fits the aimlessness of the narrator but doesn’t make it enjoyable to read.
Recommended books: Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
Author: Bruce Holsinger
Title: A Burnable Book
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2014)
This historical novel is set in post-plague London during the reign of Richard II. The key character in this novel is John Gower, a real life poet who Holsinger has also earning his keep by trading in information and intrigue. The events of the novel kick off when Gower’s friend Geoffrey Chaucer (Gower and Chaucer were friends in real life too) asks Gower to find a book that has prophecies of the deaths of English kings that would be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. Gower’s investigations take him into brothels and the criminal underworld of London which Holsinger describes in all their gritty details. Too often Holsinger tells instead of shows, so the narrative gets paused while a character explains exactly what has happened. The plot gets too complicated as loose threads are tied off too soon and new contrivances are added to keep the narrative moving. Holsinger is good at getting the feel of medieval London and has a few good ideas, but the book never lives up to its ambition.
Recommended books: Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, The Plague Tales by Ann Benson, and Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Picard
Author: T.H. White
Title: The Sword in the Stone
Narrator: Neville Jason
Publication Info: Naxos AudioBooks (2008), originally published in 1938
Summary/Review: For a long holiday road trip with my son, I thought he’d enjoy this introduction to Arthurian mythology. I did it with some hesitation, as The Once and Future King was one of my favorite books as a child and I feared it may not hold up to nostalgia. I’m pleased though that this first installment of the tetralogy is still an enjoyable, modernist spin on the story of King Arthur, filling in the story of Arthur’s childhood. Of course, I always thought the The Sword in the Stone was the best of the four parts. One thing I didn’t know is that White actually made major changes when he incorporated The Sword in the Stone into The Once and Future King, and while I can’t really remember enough to recognize most of the changes I was surprised that Disney didn’t actually make up the duel between Merlyn and Madame Mim. Another thing I didn’t notice is a kid was just how blatant the anachronisms are, with Meryln living backwards in time making them a running gag. Knowing how much White loved hunting, I also noticed that he puts a lot of detail into his descriptions of hunts throughout the book, something I must have glazed over as a child. What remains the same is that the book contains a lot of humor, adventure, animal lore, a cameo by Robin Hood (er, Robin Wood), and surreptitious pacifist social satire. And my son, well he covered his ears a lot during the scary party, but insisted we keep listening to the story and that we move on to The Witch in the Wood next.
Recommended Books: The Dragon Stone: A Tale of King Arthur, Merlin & Cabal by John Conlee, The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, and The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by John Steinbeck
Author: Max Brooks, Caanan White (Illustrator)
Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Publication Info: Broadway Books, 2014
In graphic novel form, Max Brooks (curiously enough, the son of filmmaker Mel Brooks) tells the oft-overlooked story of 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard. The largely African-American infantry regiment was among the first American troops to be sent to the front lines in France in 1919 during World War I, where they became known for their toughness and valor and earned their nickname “The Harlem Hellfighters” from their German opponents. It’s an interesting story although Brooks relies on a familiar story of racial discrimination at home and the horrors of war abroad. While the story is told from the point of view of a soldier named Mark, there isn’t much to distinguish the characters and personalize the story. White’s illustrations seem to revel in depictions of gore that would fit in with The Walking Dead, but it’s actually difficult to distinguish the characters – black, white, French, and German – from one another. One nice touch is that Brooks includes fragments of contemporary songs and poems to accompany scenes of the war. It’s very cinematic, in fact, which is not surprising since Brooks originally intended to write a screenplay. The graphic novel has it’s flaws but overall it’s a good introduction to the story of the Harlem Hellfighters.
Author: T. Geronimo Johnson
Title: Welcome To Braggsville
Narrator: MacLeod Andrews
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio (2015)
This novel is a social satire rooted in current events related to racism and culture wars. The protagonist of the story is D’aron, a young white man from a rural Georgia community who escapes to study at University of California, Berkeley. Overwhelmed by the culture shock of “Berzerkeley,” D’aron eventually finds solace in the company of three other misfits: Louis, a Malaysian student and comic; Charlie, a large black man from Chicago who looks like a football player but is actually preppy; and Candice, a white woman from Iowa who claims to be part Native American. When D’aron lets slip in class that his hometown stages an annual Civil War reenactment, the four come up with a plan a “performative intervention” by staging the lynching of a slave and filming interviews with the townspeople responding to the intervention. I shan’t spoil the novel, but things go horribly wrong. Johnson is an equal-opportunity parodist, satirizing both the “backwards” white people of rural Georgia and their defense of their heritage, but also mocking the ways that academia wallows in theory that is disconnected from the reality of lived lives. What keeps the book from being merely a big scolding is that its four main characters are well-developed, believable, and interesting people. The latter part of the book after “the incident” is less interesting than the beginning as it gets bogged down in navel-gazing over what happened. Still it’s an interesting story and commentary on contemporary society.
Recommended books: Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz, We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge, and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Author: Amy Gettinger
Title: Roll with the Punches
Publication Info: Raucous Eucalyptus Press (2015)
I read this book as an attempt to read something I wouldn’t usually read after seeing it in a Kindle deals email and thinking “I’ve never read a romance novel based around roller derby.” Turns out that this novel is actually about an aspiring author, Rhonda, who has discovered that her novel was stolen and published by a popular novelist and she is now being accused of plagiarism. Also, her mother is in the hospital and she has to take care of her father who is suffering from dementia. And there are two men in her life with whom she has romantic feelings: James, a handsome young tech geek from her writers’ group, and Dal, a former student of her fathers. Also, Dal is Native American so there are a lot of uncomfortable Indian joke. And there is a roller derby plot squished in there although it doesn’t seem to fit in with everything going especially since the roller derby team also doubles as another writer’s support group. Whew! I was curious about the mystery of who stole the manuscript so I read to the end, but ultimately was disappointed by the increasingly ludicrous situations, the two-dimensional nature of most of the supporting characters, and the unlikely way all these different things overlapped in Rhonda’s life.
Recommended books: Further Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Author: Nancy MacLean
Title: Democracy in Chains
Narrator: Bernadette Dunne
Publication Info: Penguin Audio, 2017
This book documents the history of the political and economic ideology that has come to dominate the Republican party today. A lot of the familiar figures are here from Friedrich Hayek to Milton Friedman to Charles and David Koch. But the central figure of this narrative is James Buchanan, founder of the “Virginia school” of political economy – teaching and training economists at University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and George Mason University – and a major figure in the Mont Pelerin Society and Cato Institute. Buchanan put forward the public choice theory which introduced many familiar ideas of limited government, anti-regulation, anti-taxation, and rewarding the “job creators” into the public debate. He also came up with long-term strategies of eroding the public’s trust in the government and using the proximity to Washington, DC to keep close ties with right wing leaders while economists trained in his methods went through a revolving door between academia, lobbying, and government positions. MacLean’s writing is obviously biased and I doubt that many of her most conspiratorial implications are 100% accurate. Nevertheless it is clear that this particular form of right-wing/libertarian ideology has taken hold of at least one major party and the wealthy individuals and corporations who support it, and that it is due to a many decade effort to influence hearts and minds by Buchanan and his cohort.
Recommended books: Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston, The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, and The Price of Inequality by Joseph E. Stiglitz
Author: Rob Sheffield
Title: Dreaming the Beatles
Narrator: Rob Sheffield
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017
Previously Read by This Author: Love is a Mix Tape, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran
Even the author wonders what anyone could possibly say about the Beatles. Sheffield’s approach is to look at the Beatles story through the lens of how they’ve remained beloved icons to this day appealing to people who discover them long after they broke up (the author and myself included). Sheffield has a funny way of retelling famous Beatles stories as well as poking holes in a lot of accepted wisdom. One essay on the song “Dear Prudence” contains a lot of the factors in Sheffield’s approach. First he notes that Paul plays the drums because it was recorded at a time when Ringo quit the band and ponders what they may have been thinking or feeling not knowing if Ringo would ever return. Second, he talks about a common theme he sees in many Beatles song lyrics, that while they are putatively written addressing a girl, that they were often a means in which the Beatles could talk to one another. Finally, the actual subject of the song, Prudence Farrow, is famous for needing to be “rescued” from meditating too long in her tent, but Sheffield points out that she was just fine and didn’t need rescuing by a bunch of bored rock stars. Sheffield writes with a lot of humor and joy as he attempts to unravel the continuing appeal of the Beatles.
Recommended books: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll by Elijah Wald
Author: George Saunders
Title: Lincoln in the Bardo
Narrator: Cast of Thousands
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
This is a curious, experimental novel that is built upon the true story of President Abraham Lincoln making several visits to a crypt to hold the body of his recently deceased son Willie. The “bardo” is a Tibetan Buddhist concept that of an intermediate state where a person doesn’t know if they’r alive or dead. The author gives voice to dozens of deceased people who comment Lincoln & Willie but also tell their own stories and interact with one another. A third element to this novel are sections which are merely collages of writing, newspapers clippings, and historical works about Lincoln and his times. The novel is an oddly abstract attempt at understanding grief and coming terms to death, both on Lincoln’s personal level and the large scale trauma of the Civil War. The audiobook is particularly interesting since each character is read by a different actor, several of them quite famous, lending it the quality of an audio play.
Recommended books: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust and Severance: Stories by Robert Olen Butler
Author: Tom Wessels
Title: Granite, fire, and fog : the natural and cultural history of Acadia
Publication Info: Hanover : University Press of New England, 2017.
This book integrates the natural and cultural history of Acadia National Park in an intriguing way. Wessels describes the geological processes that created Mount Desert Island’s unique formations and how the location of the island brings together fauna and flora not found together anywhere else. For a short book, it can be quite detailed, as almost an entire chapter is dedicated to the different types of lichen that grow on the island’s rocks (don’t step on them!) and nearly as much as space to how fogs provide hydration and nutrients to the island’s plants. The Fire of 1947 is also described as a cataclysmic event that unexpectedly shaped the national park that we know today. This is a fascinating introduction to the wonders of Acadia, and a good field guide for visitors there.
Author: James Kaiser
Title: Acadia: The Complete Guide: Acadia National Park & Mount Desert Island
Publication Info: Destination Press (2016), Edition: Fourth edition
This is a spectacular guidebook to one of my favorite places. You’re not going to find much about hotels or restaurants here but you will find detailed descriptions of the geology, ecology, history, and culture of Mount Desert Island. Also there are in-depth descriptions of wildlife, local foods, notable persons, and popular hikes. And all of it is richly-illustrated with glossy photographs. This is a travel guide you can read cover-to-cover like an ordinary book.
Author: Clive Finlayson
Title: The humans who went extinct : why Neanderthals died out and we survived
Publication Info: Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009.
Finlayson is a paleontologist from Gibraltar who writes in this book about Neanderthals as a species of human that evolved parallel to the ancestors of homo sapiens. Finlayson challenges common beliefs such as the “Out of Africa” theory, noting that ancestral humans and proto-humans could move freely back and forth between Africa and the Eurasian landmass, especially when the ocean levels were much lower than they are now. He also theorizes that the fossil record of a many early human communities that lived by the shore have been lost to ocean levels rising. The role of climate plays a large part in Finlayson’s model of human evolution, and attributes homo sapiens adaptation to the climactic changes that made the Neanderthals go extinct more to luck than the superiority of our species. Despite the title, Neanderthals are not the main focus of this book, which is disappointing. His defensiveness about how his view contrast with the common wisdom make me wonder if he’s a renegade that cannot be trusted. While writing on a fascinating topic, Finlayson’s writing is a bit dry and repetitive so the book is less engaging than I would’ve hoped.
Author: Souad Mekhennet
Title: I Was Told to Come Alone
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Note: I received a free copy of the audiobook for this work through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
This is the memoir of Souad Mekhennet, a journalist raised in Germany but whose parents are from Turkey and Morocco. Inspired by All the President’s Men, Mekhennet goes to journalism school and enters into the business just as the September 11th attacks change the way a woman of Islamic heritage will be received in Europe and the United States. She covers the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of Al Qaeda and Isis, and the major terrorist attacks in Germany, France, and England. She gains unique access to meet jihadists face to face for interviews, goes into war-torn Iraq, visits the Islamic communities in European cities where the attacks on Paris were planned, and helps people mistakenly captured by the CIA. It’s an interesting life story and offers a unique perspective of the past 20 years from someone is both western and Muslim.
Recommended books: Baghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz
Author: Daniel Handler
Title: We Are Pirates
Publication Info: New York : Bloomsbury, 2015.
This is an “adult” novel written under Handler’s real name instead of his more famous pseudonym, Lemony Snicket. Set in contemporary San Francisco, the story details the lives of a dysfunctional family living beyond their means in an Embarcadero condo. The storylines alternate between Phil Needle, a radio producer looking to exploit the legacy of an African American blues musician, and his 14 y.o. daughter Gwen, who has grown disaffected by the upper middle class life and eventually puts together a crew to steal a boat and run amok on the San Francisco Bay (the “pirates” of the title). Snicket-like touches are there such as the unreliable and mysterious narrator who begins as a guest at the Needles’ party but then locks themselves in the bathroom to begin telling the story of their hosts. And the story of Gwen and her youthful companions (plus her grandfather with Alzheimer’s) is far more engaging that Phil’s story. Ultimately, this novel felt a bit drab and I ended up finishing reading it more out of courtesy than interest.
Phil Needle wasn’t a good person, in a what-a-good-person-you-are sort of way, but he was good, somehow, surely. He was merciful. He stepped on wounded bees. He did good, and when he did bad it wasn’t his fault. It was a mistake. He was so sorry, behind the bumper sticker, for whatever and everything it was he had done.
Author: Candice Millard
Title: River of Doubt
Narrator: Paul Michael
Publication Info: Books on Tape (2005)
The River of Doubt, or Rio da Dúvida, was the actual, dramatic name of a river in Brazil’s Amazon region that is now called the Roosevelt River. Fresh off his failed attempt to return to the Presidency as the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party candidate, Theodore Roosevelt conducted a scientific expedition for the American Museum of Natural History to explore this remote river in 1913-14. Brazil’s greatest explorer Cândido Rondon joined Roosevelt as leader and were accompanied as Roosevelt’s son Kermit, a naturalist, and 15 porters. This book describes the adventure along the river that was plagued by waterfalls and rapids that required frequent portages, disease, loss of food and supplies, and the threat of the indigenous peoples, the Cinta Larga, tracking the expedition. One member of the party drowned, one was murdered, and the murderer was abandoned by the party in the jungle. Roosevelt himself suffered injuries and illness that brought him close to death and expressed the wish to be left behind. It’s a harrowing story that despite happening in modern times seems to be from a more distant era.
Author: Laura Everett
Title: Holy Spokes : The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels
Publication Info: Grand Rapids : Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017.
Rev. Laura is someone I know, mostly from Twitter, but occasionally at church or out biking the streets of Boston. This is a book about bicycling and as it’s set in Boston, it’s very familiar to me, especially the growing community of bike users that has become more active in the past decade, as well as the more somber remembrances of people who have been killed riding their bikes in recent years. Everett writes about the spirituality of bicycling, beginning with her own conversion to commuting by bike. Her ministry to the city grows as she travels the streets of the most vulnerable communities, seeing them up close without the windshield view. And biking also gives an understanding of vulnerability to the rider as bicyclists are generally maligned community, their bodies always at risk, and any protections gained despite fighting tooth and nail are generally still insufficient. It’s a beautiful book that touches on many things, cities and bikes, faith and justice. I highly recommend it.
Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, In the City of Bikes: The Story of the Amsterdam Cyclist by Pete Jordan, and Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities by Jeff Mapes
Author: James Baldwin
Title: The Fire Next Time
Narrator: Jesse L. Martin.
Publication Info: BBC Audiobooks America (2008)
This pair of essays published in 1963 discusses racial relations in the United States at the time and remains depressingly relevant in the present day. Baldwin, in a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, describes what it means to be black in America with unrestrained anger and compassion. The essays also examine the ineffectiveness of religion in dealing with these problems and his disillusionment with Christianity. Baldwin’s analysis of America’s problems – among both white and black people – is unrelenting, but he does offers some hope that people can eschew their narrow beliefs.
“You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine- but trust your experience. Know whence you came.”
“I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
“I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Recommended books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Author: Russ Lopez
Title: Boston’s South End, The Clash of Ideas in a Historic Neighborhood
Publication Info: Boston, MA : Shawmut Peninsula Press, 
I read this book while researching for a walking tour of the SoWa District. While only a portion of the book was relevant to my research, I found the entire book an engaging and comprehensive history of the Boston neighborhood. It’s particularly revealing if you know today’s South End – a prosperous, upscale urban area – and compare it to the near past when it was a home to working class people of color and considered for complete demolition under urban renewal. Lopez is good at telling a bottom-up story using quotes and stories to tell the life of ordinary South Enders.
Author: Aaron Wallace
Title: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom
Publication Info: Branford, CT : Intrepid Traveler, 
This will be the last in the trio of books about Disney theme parks I’ve read recently, but it’s also the best of the bunch. The author takes us on a tour of the Magic Kingdom and fills us in on the history, artistry, and hidden features of each attraction. Wallace knows a lot about the thinking that went behind creating the attractions and offers insight into how people respond to them. He also pairs each attraction with a movie to watch, and not always the most obvious one. Some of the films aren’t even by Disney! This is a great book on how Disney theme parks work as cultural artifacts.
Recommended books: The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennawey, The Hidden Magic of Walt Disney World by Susan Veness, Inside the Mouse: Work and Play at Disney World by The Project on Disney
Author: J. D. Vance
Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Narrator: J. D. Vance
Publication Info:Harper Audio, 2016
This book is being touted as offering insight into the Trump voter, but I think if you go into the book with that mindset you will be misled. Nevertheless it is an interesting memoir of life for the self-proclaimed “hillbilly” culture of Appalachia. Vance tells the story of his family from rural Kentucky and their migration along the “Hillbilly Highway” to a factory town in Ohio. His community is one of strong family ties, rugged independence, and fierce patriotism. But it is also a place of domestic violence, substance abuse, and extreme poverty. Vance’s beloved grandmother, Mamaw, who primarily raised Vance is a key figure in the book. One of the most interesting political observations in the book is that Mamaw could alternately support right-wing anti-government ideas and social democratic government programs. The contradiction of these seemingly extreme viewpoints is due to the fact the established middle of both Republicans and Democrats have abandoned the ordinary working people. Vance’s story is not typical for an Appalachian person as he joins the Marines, studies at Ohio State, gets a law degree at Yale, and now works at an investment firm in Silicon Valley. A lot of Vance’s book is the story of how he “got out” and doesn’t reflect the perspectives of those unable to “get out” or those for whom “getting out” is not an option to be desired. With those caveats in mind, this is a good slice of life of part of our country and our people who are too often overlooked.
Recommended books: Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich, and The Other America: Poverty in the United States by Michael Harrington