Book Review: Spinning by Tillie Walden


Author: Tillie Walden
TitleSpinning
Publication Info: First Second (2017)
Summary/Review:

Walden’s illustrated memoir tells of several years in her childhood when she was a dedicated figure skater and synchronized skater which involved rising early to get to the rink, extensive travel to tournaments, and a discomfort with the performative femininity expected of her.  Outside of skating, Walden moves from New Jersey to Austin, TX and has to adjust to a new school, deal with a bully,  and come out as a lesbian.  It’s an insightful and meditative look back on the choices made in childhood and their long lasting effects.

Favorite Passages:

“I’m the type of creator who is happy making a book without all the answers.  I don’t need to understand my past fully in order to draw a comic about it.  And now that this is a book that other people will read, I feel like it’s not really my turn to answer  that question.  It’s for the reader to decide, to speculate, to guess.  It reminds me of how in English class in high school we would always talk about the author’s intentions in every moment.  And I used to always wonder if there was ever an author who really didn’t mean any of it, and the meaning found its way in by accident.  I think I’m that author.”

Recommended booksFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Rating: ***1/2

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Book Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher


AuthorCarrie Fisher
TitleWishful Drinking
Narrator:  Carrie Fisher
Publication Info: S&S Audio (2009)
Summary/Review:

Based on her stage performance, the delightful Carrie Fisher wryly reflects on her celebrity upbringing, her marriages and relationships, her mental health problems, and substance abuse issues.  An interesting memoir for fans and non-fans alike.

Recommended booksFuriously Happy by Jenny Lawson, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and You’re Never Weird on the Internet by Felcia Day
Rating: ***

Book Review: Black Panther. Vol. 1, A Nation Under our Feet by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Chris Sprouse


Author:Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze (Artist) and Chris Sprouse (Artist)
TitleBlack Panther. Vol. 1, A Nation Under our Feet
Publication Info: New York, NY : Marvel Worldwide, Inc., a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, [2017]
Summary/Review:

This collection includes the first four issues of this Black Panther series.  The illustrations are amazing, and Coates’ sparse, meditative text makes one thing.  I do find it hard to identify all the characters and keep up with the story, but that may just be a me problem with inexperience reading comics.  The collection also includes a reprint of Black Panther’s 1960s debut in a Fantastic Four comic when he apparently was a villain.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig


Author:Matt Haig
TitleHow to Stop Time
Narrator: Mark Meadows
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

The narrator of this novel Tom Hazard has a genetic condition that makes him age physically at a significantly slower pace than the typical human.  In the present day he is over 400 years old but only appears middle-aged.  The narrative switches back and forth from Tom’s present day attempt to make a normal life for himself as a history teacher in London and memories of his past.  These include the horrors inflicted upon him by superstitious people, his one true romance with his wife Rose in Elizabethan England, and his recruitment into a club of similar people who age slowly in the late 19th century.  It makes for a charming mix of historical fiction and a contemporary romance.  Haig is good at filling in the details of what it would be like to live, work, and love over the time of centuries, accumulating memories and experiences.

Recommended booksThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Time and Again by Jack Finney
Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Dig if You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman


AuthorBen Greenman
TitleDig if You Will the Picture
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2017
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program (although I ended up listening to an audiobook from the library)

Greenman’s book is the story of Prince’s career largely told through Prince’s music with a focus on his role as a cultural icon and sometimes generous/sometimes rocky relationships with other musicians.  Prince’s biography is in there too, but it’s more of the details fall into place around the examination of his music.  Greenman is a devoted fan of Prince so his own experience as a Prince fan emerges several times in the book, but unlike Rob Sheffield who makes the fan’s experience a window into a greater understanding of an artists, Greenman’s personal reflections seem more an intrusion.  Nevertheless, it’s overall a great attempt at understanding the life work of someone as mercurial and hard to define as Prince.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: When Grit Isn’t Enough by Linda F. Nathan


AuthorLinda F. Nathan
TitleWhen Grit Isn’t Enough 
Publication Info: Boston, Massachusetts : Beacon Press, 2017.
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Linda F. Nathan is an educator and founder of the Boston Arts Academy (BAA).  Like most public high schools in Boston, the student body of the BAA is largely children of color from low-income families, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants. Reflecting on her years as headmaster of the BAA, Nathan recalls her pride in promising students “college for all,” and was seemingly successful as the BAA has high graduation rates, high college acceptance rates, and a higher than usual rates of students going on to graduate college.  But she also questions whether high schools are properly preparing students for college, or if “college for all” is even the promise they should be making.

Much of her data who comes from former students who struggled to complete college and usually not because they couldn’t handle the academics.  Instead colleges create many barriers to students based on their race and socio-economic status that make it hard for her student to fit into the college culture, get the support they need, and keep on top of all the costs of attending college.  And yes, they make mistakes – failing to fill out a form, missing a meeting with a supervisor, not keeping the grade point average up – but while these things are just road bumps for more privileged students, they can end a college career for Nathan’s students and others like them.  Not only that, but low-income students are often left with crippling debts for the course they did take, but not able to transfer those credits.  Even community college, often presented as a good alternative or preparation for a four-year college, has it’s own problems and can be exploitative of low-income students.

Nathan also investigates the “no excuses” philosophy common in many charter schools that claim to be preparing poorer children of color for college.  While Nathan is very careful to withhold judgment of charter school teachers’ emphasis on strict discipline and rote behaviors, it’s hard not to read about what Nathan witnesses in this schools and not see it as abusive and ultimately more geared to the needs of adults than the education of children.  Again and again, Nathan reveals the idea of “grit” being used to pin any failures of children on their own character rather than question the reality of poverty, racism, and inequality.

Grit is Not Enough is important read for understanding the realities of public education today.  Nathan and her former students, as well as present-day students, are voices that need to be heard more in informing our nation’s public policy regarding education.

Favorite Passages:

Deeply held beliefs frequently go unchallenged in societies.  They are how we explain phenomena or culture or history. They are often false, yet persist.  I believe that these assumptions, or what I’ve come to call false promises, persist in public education because we hold so tightly to the American ideal of equality.  It is this belief that I and many Americans desperately want to be true.  It is this belief that we fight for.  But it is also this belief that we must fully unpack, deeply understand, and interrogate if we are to uphold our fragile democracy.” – p. 6

“It is the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ ethos to which so many generations of Americans adhere.  Yet data repeatedly show hoe poverty, social class, race, and parents’ educational attainment more directly influence an individual’s success and potential earnings than any individual effort. We clearly do no yet have a level playing field, but this belief is all but impossible to challenge. Whenever we hear of another bootstraps story, we want to generalize.  We disregard the fact that luck often plays a major role.  And in generalizing and celebrating the individual nature of success, we disregard the imperative to rethink social and economic policies that leave many behind.” – p. 8

“In middle- and upper-middle-class families, an invisible safety net typically surrounds young people planning to go on to college.  There is usually a family member or friend who will step in and remind a student about the intricacies of student loans and deadlines, or the m any requirements for staying registered once enrolled, or issues that can arise with housing.  However, if you are a lower-income student and you miss one or two e-mails or have a change in your adviser, you may find your dreams derailed.  It may be tempting to dismiss the examples above as ineptitude or carelessness on the part of individual students, but why must there be different rules, expectations, and outcomes for low-income versus middle- or upper-income students?” – p. 23

“If we allow an assumption like ‘race doesn’t matter’ to prevail, racial issues can be conveniently explained or excused as singular matters to be solved by individual intervention.  Singular responses allow us to avoid the actions needed for racial and socio-economic equity and a path toward a healthy and vibrant society and economy.” – p. 73-74

“What all the talk about grit seems to miss is the importance of putting children’s experience front and center.  In other words, when the emphasis on grit ends up as a stand-alone pedagogy, the context of student’ life and family circumstances is ignore.” – p.76

“We want to allow for growth mindsets in a way that might equalize the playing field, yet we continue to entrap so many of our young people with the assumption that if they just play by the rules, do the right things, they will be successful.  Achieving high test scores has become the only way to measure success or to prove that students have learned grit.  Equating better test results with healthy learning has reduced many schools to a narrow understanding of learning.” – p. 106

“Imagine if American high school students knew that they could study careers in music or finance in a vocational school as either an alternative or precursor to college.  Imagine if our community colleges could truly reinvent themselves and be places where students enter the allied health professions or even design professions.” – p. 133

“School can be the place where you practice how dreams are realized.  School can be where you can build a strong sense of self – an identity that you can belong to a special tribe, like artists, or change-makers, or mathematicians or inventors.  To ensure that schools incubate future dreams and dreamers, curriculum, structures, and pedagogy must encourage deep engagement both with teachers and with community members.  The walls between school and community can and should be permeable.” – p. 161

Recommended booksTinkering toward Utopia by David Tyack  and Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch

Rating: ****

Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana

Author: Taiye Selasi
TitleGhana Must Go
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

I was surprised that my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana turns out to have a good portion of the narrative set close to home in the Boston, Massachusetts area.  Selasi’s novel is a story of immigration, family, the long term ramifications of choices made, and an attempt to peer beyond the stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

The novel is set around the family of Kweku Sai, long isolated from one another, coming together in Ghana for his funeral.  Kweku immigrated to America where he became a celebrated surgeon, but after being unjustly fired, the great shame causes him to leave his family and return to Ghana.  His wife Fola was a law student who gave up her career to support Kweku, and faces difficult choices when forced to raise 4 children on her own.  The eldest son Olu follows his father into medicine, but his father’s abandonment leaves him fearful of commitment.  The sister-brother twins Taiwo and Kehinde bear the scars of being sent to live with Fola’s brother in Nigeria after Kweku’s departure and the sexual abuse they suffered there. The youngest child Sadie didn’t know her father at all and until shortly before the main narrative begins had been very close with her mother.  All of their stories are told in extended flashbacks intertwined with the present day story.

This is a heartbreaking and harrowing novel and should come with a big trigger warning.  It unfortunately tends toward the melodramatic although there is honesty in the family dynamics portrayed.  Thankfully, this is also a story of redemption and healing, although it is still hard to not feel unsettled after reading.

Recommended booksThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri  and Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: This is an Uprisingby Mark Engler


AuthorMark Engler
TitleThis is an uprising : how nonviolent revolt is shaping the twenty-first century
Publication Info: New York : Nation Books, [2016]
Summary/Review:

This book is a comprehensive evaluation of the tools and strategies used in nonviolent movements, whether they be to overthrow dictators or to advance social change in representative democracies.  Much of this book is based on the work of Gene Sharp (who actually passed away during the time I was reading this), who published his theories on nonviolence in 1973’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Engler illustrates nonviolent movements in action through cases of the satyagraha movement that lead to India’s independence from Great Britain, and the tactics and campaigns of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress of Racial Equality, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the American Civil Rights Movement.

Two other figures are also examined for their contributions to the theory and strategy of nonviolent movements.  The first is Saul Alinsky, whose book Rules for Radicals (1971), served as a guidebook for organizing community organizations along nonpartisan and ideologically diverse lines towards pragmatic results achieved over the long term.  A countering theory comes from France Fox Piven, who along with Richard A. Cloward published Poor People’s Movements (1977), which argues that the most vulnerable communities lack the resources to manage long-term campaigns or gain political influence without using disruptive tactics such as boycotts, sit-ins, traffic tie-ups, and strikes. From Piven’s point of view, the organizations created by Alinsky’s organizing can become too complacent or risk averse once they’ve established themselves and made ties with political leaders.  From Alinsky’s point of view, the disruptive movements championed by Piven often fail to make lasting social change and run out of steam.

There are obvious beneficial ideas and strategies that can be drawn from each theory, and Engler argues that a hybrid approach was successful in India, the Civil Rights Movement, and more recently by Otpor!, the Serbian resistance to the tyranny of Slobodan Milošević.  Otpor! was a decentralized movement which made it more difficult for the Milošević regime to target leaders for retribution, or for leaders to become too comfortably entangled in the government to the point that would not want to risk taking action.  Despite the decentralized approach, Otpor! maintained strict guidelines on action known as frontloading that helped maintain consistency on message and strategy.  Many Otpor! actions came in the form of satirical street theater performances which doubled as recruitment by inviting interested passersby to attend intensive training on nonviolence.

Engler also relates cases of how nonviolent movements are working in the contemporary United States.  Marriage equality became reality in the United States not because of a Supreme Court decision, but because an organized movement worked for decades to shift public opinion.  Movements can be divisive by design with ACT UP presented an example of a group who used provocative and polarizing  direct actions that brought attention to people suffering from AIDS that could not be achieved by more pragmatic organizations who feared losing the few gains already achieved by the LGBT community.

This is an important book that summarizes the history of nonviolent movements, breaks down key tactics and strategy, and serves as a blueprint for future nonviolent revolutions.  I think massive nonviolent movements will be vital to address the severe social and political issues we’re facing in the 21st century and recommend that everyone read this book to get a sense of what needs to be done.

Favorite Passages:

This book is concerned with a specific phenomenon: momentum-driven mass mobilization. It contends that those who have most carefully studied these mobilizations—examining how to construct and sustain scenarios of widespread protest—come out of a tradition of strategic nonviolence. It argues that political observers watching the democratic upheavals of the twenty-first century should incorporate this tradition’s insights into their understanding of how social transformation happens. Those wishing to bring such upheavals into existence, meanwhile, do well to marry these insights with their existing approaches to leveraging change. – p. 3

Nonviolence is often written off as obsolete, an idea that has been mostly forgotten and is largely irrelevant in global affairs. Yet, every time it is cast aside, strategic nonviolent action seems to reassert itself as a historic force. Without taking up weapons, and with little money and few traditional resources, people forming nonviolent movements succeed in upending the terms of public debate and shifting the direction of their countries’ politics. Nonviolence in this form is not passive. It is a strategy for confrontation. – p. 3

Gene Sharp documented how unarmed uprisings could produce remarkable and sometimes counterintuitive results. Whereas violent rebellions play to the strengths of dictatorships—which are deft at suppressing armed attacks and using security challenges to justify the creation of a police state—nonviolent action often catches these regimes off guard. Through what Sharp calls “political jiu-jitsu,” social movements can turn repression into a weakness for those in power. Violent crackdowns against unarmed protests end up exposing the brutality of a ruling force, undermining its legitimacy, and, in many cases, creating wider public unwillingness to cooperate with its mandates. – p. 6

Walker and Cotton were not trivializing the violence of the police dogs. They took the risks of the campaign very seriously. As King had contended, the point of creating a public crisis in Birmingham was not to introduce Connor or other authorities to violence. Rather, it was to expose the violence routinely inflicted upon the black community under Jim Crow segregation. “We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. “We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with.”54 Walker and Cotton knew that the attacking police dogs would serve as a choice representation of the much more pervasive violence that flourished in the city. In his tactical foolishness, Bull Connor had become an ally in exposing the brutality of white supremacy. And he was just beginning. – p. 22

But in democratic countries with representative institutions, the conventional wisdom is that the process of altering the status quo looks very different. It means working through officials in high office. It requires prolonged and often painstaking back-room negotiations between various interest groups. And when reforms are achieved, they are never so stark or dramatic as a dictator’s fall. Or are they? As it turns out, this accepted vision of how political change occurs has serious flaws. At best, it presents an incomplete picture of how progress in our society is won. At worst, it is a wrong-headed story that stubbornly conceals the way in which many of the most significant gains of the past century have been secured, from women’s suffrage, to labor laws, to civil rights. It misses how people with few material resources and little access to conventional powerbrokers have sometimes been able to bring about transformations that mainstream politicians consider to be absurd and impractical—right up until the moment when these changes become common sense. – p. 87

In a democratic nation, monolithic thinking likewise trains citizens to focus on the top. The vast majority of people are taught early on to hold this view. Most history books chart the rise and fall of business tycoons and ambitious politicians. The message is further reinforced when the bulk of our political reporters spend their time writing about the activities of these same actors. Legislative victories are credited to the policymakers who sign the final bills into law rather than to any movements that might have made passage of the bills possible in the first place. The public absorbs this bias, conflating the process of democratic reform with the decisions of charismatic leaders who manipulate the course of the nation’s affairs. – p. 95

If there is a common trait in the most prominent movements of the past century—whether they involved efforts to end child labor, redefine the role of women in political life, or bring down an apartheid regime—it is that they took up causes that established powerbrokers regarded as sure losers and won them by creating possibilities that had not previously existed. As the pillars give way, barriers long seen as too daunting to be overcome suddenly appear surmountable. – p. 114

Momentum-driven organizing necessarily places a greater focus on the symbolic. In their mass mobilizations, activists in this tradition need not abandon a push for concrete gains entirely. But instead of measuring their results only by incremental wins at the bargaining table, they use other metrics as well: movement in opinion polls, growing numbers of active participants, the ability to generate resources through grassroots channels, and the responsiveness of different pillars of support to their mobilizations. Organizers of civil resistance cannot be content with empty declarations of victory or with merely “speaking truth to power.” They must be hard headed in assessing their progress in winning over advocates and sympathizers from outside their immediate networks, always guarding against tendencies to become insular “voices in the wilderness.” – p. 140

Practitioners of nonviolent conflict have regularly shown themselves willing to be intentionally divisive, making use of a complex yet critical phenomenon known as “polarization.” In doing this, they grapple with an undeniable tension: broad-based support is vital if campaigns of civil resistance are to prevail. And yet many of the tactics of nonviolent disruption tend to be unpopular. People prefer calm speech and reasoned dialogue to the ruckus of confrontational protest. In many cases, creating a galvanizing crisis around an issue involves inconveniencing members of the general public, potentially alienating the very people that advocates want to win over. Moreover, when a vocal minority speaks out, it can inspire its most ardent enemies to begin organizing in response. Notwithstanding these dangers, the experience of social movements—from the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to ACT UP in the 1980s and 1990s, to the immigrant rights movement in the new millennium—shows that polarization can also be a powerful friend. By taking an issue that is hidden from common view and putting it at the center of public debate, disruptive protest forces observers to decide which side they are on. This has three effects: First, it builds the base of a movement by creating an opportunity for large numbers of latent sympathizers to become dedicated activists. Second, even as it turns passive supporters into active ones, it engages members of the public who were previously uninformed, creating greater awareness even among those who do not care for activists’ confrontational approach. And third, it agitates the most extreme elements of the opposition, fueling a short-term backlash but isolating reactionaries from the public in the long run. – p. 199

With the passage of time, successful movements are often celebrated as heroic and noble. But, while they are still active, their tactics are never beloved by all. Accepting that reality is part of using conflict and disruption as tools for change. – p. 224

The need for disruptive movements to reignite on a persistent basis raises the question of how even very committed people can sustain their efforts over the course of decades and generations. One way to do this is to build communities that reach beyond the realm of traditional political struggle. Although the building of alternative communities and institutions can be a potent force in social movements, it can also present challenges. Activists have long debated the question: Should we fight the system or “be the change we wish to see”? Should we push for transformation within existing societal structures, or should we model in our own lives a different set of social and political relationships that might someday form the basis of a new society? Going back centuries, different movements have incorporated elements of each approach, sometimes in harmonious ways and other times in ways that create conflicts between groups. – p. 271

Recommended booksNobody by Marc Lamont Hill, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Do It Anyway by Courtney E. Martin, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn, and Becoming a Citizen Activist by Nick Licata
Rating: *****

Book Review: The Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken


AuthorAlexandra Bracken
TitleThe Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy: An Original Retelling of Star Wars: A New Hope
Narrator: Rebecca Soler, Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group , 2015
Summary/Review:

The is a new novelization of the  original Star Wars film adapted for younger audiences (albeit the original novelization is something I enjoyed as a kid and this is something I enjoy as an adult so those specifications are rather loose).  Bracken uses the movie script, the 1981 Star Wars radio drama, and her own imagination to retell Star Wars: A New Hope in three parts: first from Leia’s point of view from her capture by Vader to the destruction of Alderaan, the story picks up with Han from the cantina to their escape from the Death Star, and Luke holds the point of view for the final third of the movie.

Since everything is seen from the point of view of one of these three characters, scenes from the movie such as those involving R2-D2 and C-3PO and Darth Vader and other imperial leaders are left out, while the part of Luke’s story from the early part of the movie is only told in conversations and Luke’s memories.  But what is lost is made up for by the rich detail of each character’s inner life and perspectives, as well as scenes that aren’t in the movie (my favorite involves Luke going through an X-Wing simulator test with Wedge Antilles).

I can’t imagine that there are many people who would come to this book with no previous knowledge of Star Wars but I think it would be a treat for that reader, while stilling allowing a lot of surprises if they eventually see the movie.  The audiobook is enhanced by familiar John Williams music, sound effects, and voice acting by the narrators Soler and Thompson.  This would make an excellent accompaniment to a long family road trip.

Recommended books: Star Wars by George Lucas and Star Wars : Before the Awakening by George Rucka

Book Review: Time and Again by Jack Finney


Author: Jack Finney
TitleTime and Again
Narrator: Campbell Scott
Previously Read by the Same Author: From Time to Time
Publication Info: Simon & Shuster Audio, 1995 (Abridged)
Summary/Review:

Having recently reread The Time Traveler’s Wife, I felt compelled to revisit another time travel romance on my list of 100 Favorite Books. The story tells of Si Morley, a commercial artist recruited to join a secret government experiment.  Unique among time travel stories, there is no time machine or magic involved, but Si and his fellow travelers simply use self-hypnosis to open themselves to the past that exists intertwined with the present.  Si travels to New York City in 1882, and one of the great aspects of this novel is the detail that Si provides that really creates a vivid image of time and place.

The book is not perfect.  Despite being published in 1970, Si seems pretty old-fashioned in a casually paternalistic way not all too different from his 1882 compatriots. Neither of his love interests, 20th-century Kate and 19th-century Julia, are all too well-developed, and Si doesn’t seem to have much concern about ditching one for the other.  Si also romanticizes the 1880s while comparing it to the horrors of the 20th-century while overlooking the inequality, crime, disease, and war of that period.

This audiobook version is abridged and leaves out some important parts of the books.  Most significantly, it obviously lacks the collections of vintage photographs of New York that make up Si’s photo essays of 1882.  But there are also a couple of memorable scenes excised, including one where Si draws an abstract portrait much to the confusion of his companions at the boarding house and another where Si’s romantic view of the 1880s is briefly pierced by observing the hardship of a horse-drawn streetcar driver enduring the brutal winter weather.

This book is not as quite as good as I remember from my previous read, but it’s still a rousing time travel adventure and mystery and one of the best examples of its genre.

Here’s my brief review from 2002:

A fun time-travel adventure where the means of time travel is merely self-hypnosis that takes the modern world away. A lot of the novel is fairly plotless as we follow the protagonist Si Morley through the streets of New York in the 1880’s. My favorite part is when Si observes a streetcar operator in the snow and the romantic bloom of a “simpler time” drops away. I think this book could be adapted into an entertaining film.

Recommended booksDoomsday Book by Connie Willis, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and Dreamland by Kevin Baker

Rating: ****

Book Review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett


Author: Terry Pratchett
TitleMonstrous Regiment
Narrator: Stephen Briggs
Publication Info: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004
Previously Read by the Same Author: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (with Neil Gaiman)
Summary/Review:

I’ve been wanting to find a way into the Discworld series but not knowing where to start, I asked folks on library Twitter, and this book was recommended as an entry point.  This novel follows Polly Perks as she disguises herself as a man and joins the army in order to find her missing brother.  Her ragtag regiment has a lot of individuals not ready for war as well as a vampire, troll, and an Igor.  It turns out that Polly is not the only one in the regiment with a secret.  Spoiler: It turns out that pretty much every member of the regiment is a woman. This leads to a comical plot where they go undercover disguised as washer women.  This is a funny and sharply satirical book, and it does make me want to read more Discworld (recommendations welcome).

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
TitleThe Time Traveler’s Wife
Narrator: ‎ Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

It’s worthwhile to sometimes go back and reread one of the books that made my list of Favorite Books of All Time.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve read this book, and I’ll append my original review at the end of this post.

A lot of the things that made me love this book in the first place are still quite appealing.  I love stories of time travel, and that this one has a protagonist whose travel through time is uncontrollable and unexplained makes an interesting twist and creates a great structure for the book.  I also like that he’s a librarian who likes punk rock, because you know, that’s like me.  There were a number of things I forgot from my previous reading as well, most importantly Kimmy, Henry’s childhood landlady who acts a surrogate mother and is an absolutely wonderful character I’ll never forget again. Having become a fan of Doctor Who in recent years, it’s interesting to revisit this book and see how it influenced the story of River Song and the Doctor.

Of course, there are a lot of creepy things about this book, such as an adult man visiting his future wife as a child and establishing a relationship with her (arriving naked to boot).  I do credit Niffenegger for taking a direct approach to these uncomfortable issues rather than shying away from it.  Another thing I realize now that I must’ve been clueless about as a younger reader is that it plays with the romance novel genre as well.  But that’s one of the things that keeps this on my favorite books is that it works on so many levels, science fiction and fantasy, realism and magic, romance and for lack a better term “manliness.”

The voice performances of Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole as Henry and Claire add a lot to this audiobook version of the book as well.

Ok, here’s my short review from 2004:

This book reads almost as if Jasper Fforde took a serious turn. Almost. Complements to Niffenegger for adroitly managing the timeline, both in the story world and how she presents it to the reader. I also admire that she made Henry real by not always having him likable. Yet you can sympathize with him for what he has to do to survive with his chronological problems. I find it interesting that he travels in both time and in space, yet he never seems to travel too far from Chicago or Clare’s childhood home. Curious also that he always bounces back to the “present,” never jumping onward to another time or just staying there for a long time. But I’m quibbling, not with the book, but with the thoughts that occur as I ruminate this brilliant novel. Over 500 pages and I read this in less than a day.

Recommended books:

Time and Again by Jack Finney, Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery, Every Day by David Levithan, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Rating: *****

Book Review: Lonely Planet Chicago


TitleLonely Planet Chicago
Publication Info: Lonely Planet (2017), Edition: 8
Summary/Review:

This is a book I read because, of course, I’m planning to visit Chicago this year.  I seem to remember that Lonely Planet guides were once good for getting past the touristy things and actually learning about a place, but I didn’t see that as much in this guide.  The major focus seemed to be on “hip” places to shop, dine, and drink mixed with repeated factoids about Chicago’s history. And they mention the Chicago Cubs “curse” multiple times while only once or twice acknowledging their 2016 championship, which I guess goes to show how much time they spend updating these guides every year.

Rating: **

Book Review: Siege by Roxane Orgill


AuthorRoxane Orgill
TitleSiege: How General Washington Kicked the British Out of Boston and Launched a Revolution
Publication Info: Candlewick (2018)
Summary/Review:

I received a free advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Siege is a book that tells the story of the Siege of Boston in 1775-1776 from multiple perspectives and entirely in verse.  It’s a spectacular way of presenting how the Continental Army was able to fortify the hills surrounding Boston and force the British Army to evacuate the city. And while there’s poetic license, almost all of this book is based on historical fact.  The characters include familiar names like George and Martha Washington, Colonel Henry Knox, Sir William Howe, and Abigail Adams, but also Washington’s aide-de-camp Joseph Reed, Washington’s enslaved manservant William Lee, and rank-and-file Continental Army privates Caleb Haskell and Samuel Haws.  Orgill also versifies Washington’s daily orders and the news from Boston.  This is a wonderful approach to presenting a moment in history and highly recommend it.

Favorite Passages:

“Funerals – three, four, five a day
General Gage has ceased
The pealing of church bells
They cast too melancholy a mood
They do not bring back the dead” – p. 31

“I believe it
from the jetsam
washed ashore
spindles
headboards
tables without legs
splintered drawers
carved backs of Chippendale chairs

they’re leaving the town intact
but nothing to sit upon.” – p. 171

Recommended books:

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, and 1776 by David McCullough

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele


Author: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
TitleWhen They Call You a Terrorist
Narrator: Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2018
Summary/Review:

This memoir depicts Patrisse Khan-Cullors life growing up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, where her family and community were under constant surveillance and harassment from the police.  Her father was in and out of prison and her mentally ill brother was also imprisoned and tortured by the police.  As Cullors grows older she also deals with her disillusionment with her mother’s church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and grows to understand her queer identity.  She became an artist and an activist in her teenage years, advocating for reform and abolition of prisons.  In 2013, responding to her friend Alicia Garza’s post about Treyvon Martin, she created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and has been active in shepherding the movement.  This memoir is both harrowing and hopeful in depicting the lives of people of color and LBGT people in America that is under assault, but also the positive gains that come when people stand up for their rights, equality, and dignity. This is definitely required reading for all Americans in 2018.

Favorite Passages:

“I cannot help think that the drug war, the war on gangs, has really been no more than a forced migration project.  From my neighborhood in LA to the Back Bay to Brooklyn, Black and Brown people have been moved out as young white people build exciting new lives standing on the bones of ours.  The drug war as ethnic cleansing.”

Recommended booksThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and  Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Rating:

Book Review: A Life in Leadership by John C. Whitehead


Author: John C. Whitehead
Title: A Life in Leadership: From D-Day to Ground Zero
Publication Info: Basic Books (2005)
Summary/Review:

I read this book for research at work.  Whitehead tells his life story which involves commanding landing vehicles on D-Day, rising to Co-Chair of Goldman Sachs, serving as Deputy Secretary of State to George Shultz, leading numerous nonprofit organizations, and guiding the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan after the September 11th attacks.  His style of writing has a bit of a humblebrag to it, but I suppose he’s earned it he spins the yarns of the many significant historical events and trends of the 20th and 21st century he was directly involved in.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Finland
AuthorArto Paasilinna
TitleYear of the Hare
Narrator: Simon Vance
Translator: Herbert Lomas
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010), originally published in 1975, translated to English in 1995
Summary/Review:

This delightful novel tells the story of Kaarlo Vatanen, a journalist from Helsinki traveling in the northern countryside of Finlan, whose car hits and injures a young hare. Vatanen finds the hare, nurses it back to health, and adopts it. This prompts him to leave his job, his wife, and sell his boat to fund his life as he and the hare travel farther north in the Finnish wilderness where they have various madcap adventures.  It’s clear that it’s full of satire of Finnish people and culture albeit I don’t know enough about Finland to get the references.  More broadly it has the very 1970s themes of self-discovery, counterculture vs. the emerging globalization of business, and the absurdities of the Cold War.  There is another story from the 1970s, possibly a British one, that this reminds me of but I can’t recall what it is.

Recommended books:
Rating:

Book Review: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon


Author: Nicola Yoon
TitleThe Sun is Also a Star
Narrator: Dominic Hoffman, Bahni Turpin, Raymond Lee
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2016
Summary/Review:

This beautiful and romantic young adult novel tells the story of two teenagers who share one significant day together.  Daniel is the Korean-American son of immigrants, an aspiring poet, and in order to fulfill his parents’ aspirations is heading to an admissions university for Yale University.  Natasha is an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica brought to New York due to her father’s quixotic dreams of becoming an actor, is passionate about science, and is meeting with a lawyer in a last ditch effort to stave off deportation.

They meet by happenstance, then meet again, share their dreams and philosophies, and fall in love.  This book is completely unrealistic in that there’s no way that Daniel and Natasha could do all the things that they do in a single day, and the coincidences are too many.  But Daniel and Natasha are REAL, their thoughts and conversations spectacularly illustrate them as fully fleshed and specific teenage human beings.  Natasha and Daniel alternate as narrators offering different perspectives on the same situations, and there are also chapters from a third person omniscient narrator who fills in the details on the seemingly minor characters and family members who play a big role in the story.

This is a terrific and  thoughtful novel.

Recommended booksLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Rating: ****

Book Reviews: On Bowie by Rob Sheffield


Author: Rob Sheffield
TitleOn Bowie
Narrator: Tristan Morris
Publication Info: New York, NY : Dey Street Books, [2016]

Previously Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The thing I like about Rob Sheffield’s music writing is that he eschews the distanced approach of music critics, and while he’s writing as a fan, he’s not writing a hagiography of his musical heroes.  Instead, Sheffield writes about how fans engage with music and the artists that create it.  This is particularly significant in Bowie’s case as Bowie himself was a fan who never hid his influences, collaborated with many of his favorite musicians, offered support to young up and coming artists, and even on his final album took some inspiration from the much younger artist Kendrick Lamar.  Bowie also engaged directly with his fans, treating them as special people, and encouraging their creativity.  The funny thing is that Sheffield presents Bowie fans as the outcasts of society whereas I came to Bowie later in my life because when I was young I never felt cool enough to listen to Bowie.  Regardless of how you come to Bowie, this is a great book with stories of his life and how he created his music.

Favorite Passages:

“Nobody enjoyed laughing at his humiliations more than he did.”

“That’s one of the things David Bowie came to show us — we go to music to hear ourselves change.”

Rating: ***1/2

 

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik


AuthorNaomi Novik
Title: Uprooted
NarratorJulia Emelin 
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2015)
Previously Read by the Same Author: His Majesty’s Dragon
Summary/Review:

This epic, high fantasy rooted in the Polish folklore focuses on a land tormented by an evil, sentient forest (the Wood) that can only be held in check by the magic of wizards.  The wizard who lives near the provincial village of Dvernik in the kingdom of Polnya, known as The Dragon, selects one teenage girl every 10 years as a tribute.  The novel begins when the protagonist Agnieszka is unexpectedly selected and brought to the Dragon’s castle, The Tower.  There she’s made to perform domestic chores and the Dragon trains her in simple magical spells, frequently berating her for her clumsiness and unruly appearance.  From this “Beauty and the Beast” scenario it’s not surprising that these two will fall in love.

It turns out that Agnieszka is in fact skilled in magic although not in the way that The Dragon expects.  As she becomes more experienced, her compassion moves her to challenge The Dragon’s pragmatic approach of using magic to simply hold back the approach of the Wood.  Instead she liberally applies magic to rescue people trapped by the Wood and pushes the Dragon toward more aggressively combating the evils of the Wood (yes, this book can totally be read as a metaphor of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign).

Agnieszka ends up finding herself thrown into the politics of the royal family and into the ultimate conflict against the Wood.  It’s grim and gory but with a satisfying ending.  I found the book a bit too long and humorless, but a good example of informing a women-centered heroic narrative with elements of classic folklore.

Recommended booksBaba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Rating: ***