Book Review: American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan


Author: Edmund S. Morgan
TitleAmerican Slavery, American Freedom
Narrator: Sean Pratt
Publication Info: Gildan Media, LLC (2013)
Summary/Review:
This book is not so much a history of slavery as it is an economic history of Colonial Virginia.  In a sense, understanding the conditions of Colonial Virginia is important to understanding how this English community came to adopt chattel slavery based on race.  But reading the book the topics vary far and wide from the concepts of slavery and their contrasts with the American ideals of freedom.  In short, it’s an interesting book albeit not necessarily the one I expected.
Recommended booksThe World They Made Together by Mechal Sobel and Colonial Virginia : a history by Warren M. Billings
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt


Author: Samantha Hunt 
TitleMr. Splitfoot
Narrators: Cassandra Campbell and Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2016)
Summary/Review:

This gothic mystery tells two interwoven stories.  The first is about the young Ruth and Nat, foster children growing up in a group home under a strange Christian cult leader.  They begin to claim that they can talk with the dead, and with the help of a con man named Mr. Bell, they escape and begin traveling and hosting seances.

The second story is about a directionless young woman named Cora who becomes pregnant by her cruel boyfriend, who is married to another woman.  Her aunt Ruth, now unable to speak, arrives and takes Cora on a long journey across the state of New York.  There’s a lot of mystery and creepiness in this book, although the real horror is the cruelty of humankind.  {SPOILER} The biggest surprise of this book is that it manages a happy ending. {/SPOILER}
Favorite Passages:

“Forget God. Or don’t call it that. I’m talking about mystery, unsolvable mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as love. I say it is.”

Recommended booksChoke by Chuck Palahniuk and
The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clark
Rating: ***

Book Review: A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn


Author: Howard Zinn
TitleA People’s History of the United States
Narrator: Jeff Zinn
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2009)
Other Books Read By Same Author: A People’s History of American Empire and Marx in Soho
Summary/Review:

This is a powerful “alternate” history of the United States that I’ve long intended to read but only just got around to (I get intimidated by thick books so I went for the audiobook).  Zinn presents many of the familiar stories of American history, but from the point of view of those who don’t often get into the history books – Native Americans, blacks, women, and other marginalized groups.  Wars are stories not of patriotism and national unity but of an average rank and file often at odds with the leadership and demonstrating this through desertion and revolt.  Wars in general have seen much protest, from the Revolution where the goals of the leaders were quite different from the common agitators to the mass opposition to the War in Vietnam. From the earliest days of the American colonies there is also a divide between the elites who hold the wealth and power and the common people that comes out in many class and labor conflicts.  Zinn discusses unheralded unity – such as blacks and poor whites working together for progressive farmers’ movements in the South – as well as divisions within the many movements for Civil Rights and equality.

At times the attitude of the author is too far left-wing for even me to handle, but largely I find this book an instructive look at American history that informs a lot of where we are today.  This book is so full of detail that it’s worth reading again, and the many works Zinn cites could make for a lifetime of additional reading.

Recommended booksLies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown, All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror by Stephen Kinzer, Eyes on the Prize by Juan Williams, How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev, A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit,  A people’s history of the American Revolution : how common people shaped the fight for independence by Ray Raphael,  A People’s History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz, The whites of their eyes : the Tea Party’s revolution and the battle over American history by Jill Lepore,  and A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico by Amy S. Greenberg,
Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

Book Review: Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary


Author: Beverly Cleary
Title: Ramona the Brave
Narrator: Stockard Channing
Publication Info: New York : Listening Library, 2007 (originally published in 1975)
Books Read by the Same Author: Ramona and Her FatherBeezus and Ramona, and Ramona the Pest
Summary/Review:

Ramona is now in first grade, maturing away from being a “pest” but still finding trouble.  She also needs to conquer some fears.  After workmen cut a hole in the side of her house and build a new room, Ramona gets the reward of having her own room, but she also has to face the fear of falling asleep when she imagines a gorilla without bones may ooze into the room.  She also thinks that her teacher doesn’t like her, and she has to face down a mean dog with her shoe.  Another brilliant Ramona book from Cleary.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary


Author: Beverly Cleary
Title: Ramona the Pest
Narrator: Stockard Channing
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2010) – originally published in 1968
Books Read by the Same Author: Ramona and Her Father, Beezus and Ramona
Summary/Review:

In the second book of the Ramona series, Ramona begins kindergarten with much excitement, and while she’s eager to learn to read and write and loves her teacher, trouble follows her everywhere.  Among her problems are being to told to sit in a seat “for the present” and expecting a gift, the temptation to pull the springy curls on her classmates head, declaring herself on Halloween to be “the baddest witch” and managing to frighten herself, and becoming a kindergarten drop out.  Ramona feels ever so true to life with her kid logic and motivations and the book is laugh-out-loud funny.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary


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Author: Beverly Cleary
Title: Beezus and Ramona 
Narrator: Stockard Channing
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2010) – originally published in 1955
Books Read by the Same Author: Ramona and Her Father
Summary/Review:

This is the first in Cleary’s series of Ramona books.  I listened to it with my daughter at bedtime.  In many ways my four-year old daughter IS Ramona Quimby, creative and mischief and sometimes seems indifferent to the chaos she causes.  So this is a true to life book, and it feels oddly contemporary despite being published in 1955.  Unlike later books, this story is told from the point of view of Beezus who has to deal with a little sister who wants to hear an annoying book about steam shovel, colors in her library book, looks her friend’s dog in the bathroom, invites neighborhood children to a party that no one else in the family knew about, and destroys not one but two of Beezus’ birthday cakes.  Beezus has to deal with the guilt that sometimes she doesn’t love Ramona.  Near the end of the book Beezus mother and Aunt Beatrice reminisce about having a similarly contentious relationship as children but are able to laugh about it as adults, giving Beezus some comfort.  It’s a pretty brilliant book and I’m glad I’m getting to hear it now having missed it as a child.
Favorite Passages:

I am too a Merry Sunshine!

Rating: ****

Book Review: Ramona and Her Father by Beverly Cleary


Author: Beverly Cleary
TitleRamona and Her Father
Narrator: Stockard Channing
Publication Info: New York : Listening Library/Random House Audio Publishing Group, p1991.
Summary/Review:

I sadly deprived myself of Beverly Cleary books as a child, so I’m making up for lost time.  In this Ramona Quimby book, her father is laid off meaning that Ramona spends more time than usual with her father at home.  There are a lot of sweet father-daughter moments that touch me as a daddy myself.  But Ramona’s father can also be cranky and short-tempered, especially from being unemployed and forced to quit smoking by his daughters.  It’s a funny and timeless book about childhood and family.
Favorite Passages:

I’ll bet that boy’s father wishes he had a little girl who finger-painted and wiped her hands on the cat when she was little and who once cut her own hair so she would be bald like her uncle and who then grew up to be seven years old and crowned herself with burs. Not every father is lucky enough to have a daughter like that.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Stuart Little by E.B. White


Author: E.B. White
TitleStuart Little
Narrator: Julie Harris
Publication Info: New York : Bantam Audio, p1965.
Books Read By Same Author: Charlotte’s Web and Trumpet of the Swan
Summary/Review:

Listened to this audiobook on a road trip to New York City, appropriately enough.  The titular character is born in New York, surprising his human family by actually being a mouse.  The novel is mostly episodic adventures where Stuart escapes a cat, sails on model boats in the Central Park ponds, and gets caught in the trash.  There’s also an oddly philosophical chapter in which Stuart serves as a substitute teacher.  The book is full of humor and adventure that makes it a classic.

My son believes that the ending is unsatisfactory, and he does have a point.
Favorite Passages:

I’ll make the work interesting and the discipline will take care of itself. – Stuart discusses his teaching strategy.

Recommended books: The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Jackaby by William Ritter


Author:  William Ritter
Title:  Jackaby
Narrator: Nicola Barber
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (2014)
Summary/Review:

This detective novel set in 1892 in a fictional city in New England openly acknowledges that it is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche in the opening pages.  Even “Sherlock Holmes with fantastical and supernatural elements” has been done before, but Jackaby remains fresh and entertaining.  The title character is an investigator who can see evidence of the paranormal.  The story is narrated by Abigail Rook, a young woman seeking adventure who steps off the ship at New Fiddleham and quickly becomes Jackaby’s assistant embroiled in solving a series of grisly murders.

The narration wisely stays with Abigail as we see Jackaby slowly become a warmer character, but still retaining an air of mystery.  The story has a lot of humor mixed with moments of horror, although nothing overly terrifying.  It’s a fun story and I will seek out other installments in the series.

 

Favorite Passages:

“Monsters are easy, Miss Rook. They’re monsters. But a monster in a suit? That’s basically just a wicked man, and a wicked man is a more dangerous thing by far.”
This makes them dreaded creatures, feared and hated by any who hear them, a treatment far disparate from the honor and appreciation they used to receive for their mourning services. Banshees themselves are not dangerous, though, just burdened with the task of expressing pain and loss.

That the battles are usually in her head does not lessen the bravery of it. The hardest ones always are.

Happiness is bliss–but ignorance is anesthetic.

Recommended booksThe Diviners by Libba Bray,  The Monster in the Mist by Andrew Mayne, The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl, The Technologists by Matthew Pearl, The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch, and The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich


Author: Louise Erdrich
TitleThe Round House
NarratorGary Farmer
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2013
Summary/Review:

Set on a fictional Indian reservation in North Dakota, this is the story of the teenager Joe who at the beginning of the novel learns that his mother has been brutally raped.  What follows is a story of legal complications surrounding the crime, Joe and his friends rather naive attempts to play detective in finding his mother’s attacker, and a coming of age story in which Joe learns some uncomfortable truths.  It’s a well-written but emotionally-challenging story about family, guilt, and place.

Recommended books: Waylaid by Ed Lin, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman


Author: Francis Parkman
Title: The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life
Narrator: Robert Morris
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2012, originally published in 1849)
Summary/Review:

This narrative describes 23-year-old Parkman’s travels west in  with fellow Boston Brahmin Quincy Adams Shaw.  Together they travel with settlers adventurers through the future states of of Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas (the title is a misnomer as they never go to Oregon), and spend three weeks hunting buffalo with the Ogala Sioux.  It’s a well-written narrative that captures the flora and fauna of the prairies, the lives of settlers, soldiers, and Native Americans, and the uncertainty of so much change happening in the region at one time.

Unfortunately, the huge problem is that Parkman is deeply prejudice against the native peoples, which yes is a characteristic of the time, but there were more sympathetic contemporary white American writers of the time as well.  Parkman also is dismissive of a number of white settlers he encounters.  I kind of imagine that Parkman and Shaw were like Charles Emerson Winchester haughtily looking down on those around them.  So, yes, this is a terrific descriptive narrative, but there are a lot of aspects that will be hard to stomach for modern readers.

Recommended booksThe Deerslayer by James Fenimore Cooper, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Diviners by Libba Bray


Author: Libba Bray
TitleThe Diviners
Narratorr: January LaVoy
Publication Info: Listening Library (2012)
Summary/Review:

Evie, an outspoken youngster from Ohio is sent away be her family to live with a strange uncle in Jazz Age New York City and ends up helping him try to solve a series of occultist murders.  An outlandish premise, but we also learn that Evie is one of many characters with extrasensory powers (the titular “Diviners”) and that there’s a man who is part machine, so just roll with it.  The characters are richly defined and help hold together a story that’s a little like Ghostbusters, but 60 years earlier.  The narration of January LaVoy captures the carefree spirit and hidden genius of Evie O’Neill and her comrades in this historical paranormal horror mystery.

Recommended booksStrivers Row by Kevin Baker,  The Night Inspector by Frederick Busch, and The Alienist by Caleb Carr
Rating: ***

Book Review: Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson


AuthorJenny Lawson
TitleFuriously Happy
Narrator:  Jenny Lawson
Publication Info: [New York] : Macmillan Audio, p2015.
Summary/Review:

This collection of humorous essays is a laugh riot from the perspective of the author of The Bloggess which skips among topics such as depression, anxiety, marriage, therapy, and taxidermy.  Really, a surprising amount about taxidermy.  Listening to the audiobook in Lawson’s enthusiastically goofy voice is an added bonus.

Recommended booksHyperbole and a Half  by Allie Brosh, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost) by Felicia Day, and Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me  by Ellen Forney
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78 by Robert Sullivan


Author: Robert Sullivan
Title: My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78
Narrator: Mike Chamberlain
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media (2012)
Other Books by Same Author:  The Meadowlands and The Thoreau You Don’t Know

Summary/Review:

Robert Sullivan and I share a surname and a lot of common interests.  In this case, local history and travelogue.  The American Revolution famously began in New England and ended in Virginia, but the majority of the war took place in New York and New Jersey where the battles are greatly overlooked.  Even the coldest winter on record when the Continental Army encamped at Morristown, NJ doesn’t get the press of the somewhat milder winter at Valley Forge, PA.

Sullivan visits sites in New York and New Jersey, attempting to experience the long marches of a Continental foot soldier, while also exploring the popular memory through books, poems, museums, and reenactments.   I really like the premise of the book and some of the historical details of the Revolution and how the landscape continues to inform the New York/New Jersey area.  On the other hand, the book is meandering and not very cohesive, and well … a bit boring at times.  For example, a long portion of the end of the book Sullivan describes in detail many visits to the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey to attempt signaling his family in Brooklyn using a mirror.  It’s just not lively reading.  All the same, I like the way Sullivan thinks and will seek out his other books.

Recommended books:  Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, Snowshoeing Through Sewers by Michael Aaron Rockland and Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald


Author: Helen Macdonald
Title: H is for Hawk
Narrators: Helen Macdonald
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2015)
Summary/Review:

After the death of her father, Macdonald works through her grief by adopting and training a young goshawk, Mabel whom she calls “Thirty Ounces of Death in a Feathered Jacket.” This lyrical book is part memoir and part reflections on nature. It also is informed by T.H. White’s The Goshawk. While I’ve never read that book The Once and Future King and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography are among my favorite books, so I appreciate the back door biography of White. And I can’t help but love Mabel. 

Recommended booksT. H. White: a biography by Sylvia Townsend Warner and Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville


Author: Eliza Granville
TitleGretel and the Dark
Narrators: Cassandra Campbell, Stefan Rudnicki
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2014)
Summary/Review:

Deeply rooted in Grimm’s fairy tales, this novel tells two stories. One set in 1899 Vienna is about a woman given the name “Lillie” who claims to be a robot and is brought to psychologist Dr Josef Breuer (a real life figure who rather creepily keeps Lillie in his home and falls in love with her). The other story is from the point of view of a girl named Krysta who is gradually revealed to be daughter ofthe doctor at a concentration camp in the 1940s. The two stories are connected but I was surprised by how they are connected but also wondered why as it is rather bizarre. The latter parts of the book are most interesting and I like the idea of the power of storytelling but found this story to be rather mediocre beyond setting a creepy, gothic mood. 

Recommended booksThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Little Book by Selden Edwards and Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel
Rating: **1/2

Book Reviews: My Misspent Youth by Megan Daum


Author: Megan Daum
TitleMy Misspent Youth
Narrator: Xe Sands
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media, LLC (2015)
Summary/Review:

I listened this book of essays on recommendation of Slate magazine’s best audiobooks of 2015 article (although the essays were largely published more than 15 years ago leading to a time warp sensation hearing them).  The first few essays are largely autobiographical and detail Daum’s personal experiences with online romance, working in the publishing industry, running up debt to follow her dreams of living New York City, and her hatred of carpets and love of wood floors.  In these essays she comes across as a rather shallow and negative person. Later essays have more of a literary journalism feel including a documentation of the everyday lives of flight attendants and interviews with the polyamorous Ravenheart family.  While I like these essays better, Daum remains overly sarcastic and dismissive of her subjects in a manner I suppose is intended to be “edgy.”  So I didn’t like this book much, but it was a quick read and Xe Sands’ narration skills are excellent.

Recommended books: The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy
Rating: **

Book Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell


AuthorSarah Vowell
TitleLafayette in the Somewhat United States
Narrator:  Sarah Vowell, with  John Slattery, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, Bobby Cannavale, John Hodgman, Stephanie March, and Alexis Denisof
Other Books Read By Same Author:

Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This audiobook includes numerous well-known actors performing the quotes of  historical figures in addition to the author reading the main text.  As the “Lafayette” part of the title implies, this is a biography of Marquis de Lafayette, the young French aristocrat who helped George Washington win the American Revolutionary War.  Vowell starts with Lafeyette’s historic tour of the United States in 1824-25 and then flashes back to Lafayette’s experiences in the war.  I wish that we learned more about the Grand Tour or Lafayette’s post-American Revolution activities, but the war-era biographical details are solid with a mix of Vowell’s humor and pop culture references.  For example, Vowell details the arrival of Baron von Steuben with falsified credentials on a direct continuum to the parade and dance party in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The universal admiration is contrasted to the “Somewhat United States” where it seems that Americans can never agree on anything or get along. The Continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, the Election of 1800, and the Election of 1824 all provide numerous examples of this disunity through which the United States still persevered. It is somewhat comforting that if even the esteemed founders of our country had difficulty agreeing and maintaining cordial relationships that today’s political discord is just par for the course.

The book also takes the form of a travelogue as Vowell and various traveling companions visit sites associated with Lafayette, leading to an amusing side trip in Freehold, NJ to see Bruce Springsteen’s childhood home (both Springsteen and I were born in Freehold), and a very positive experience at Colonial Williamsburg for Vowell, her sister, and nephew.  Particularly interesting is an interview with the historic interpreter who portrays Lafeyette and his experience during the Iraq War era when anti-French sentiment was high.

This is an enjoyable popular history which makes a good introduction to Lafayette and his place in America’s cultural consciousness.

Recommended booksRevolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove and Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Rating: ****

Book Review: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello


Author: Elvis Costello
TitleUnfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink
NarratorElvis Costello
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

The memoir of Declan MacManus, better known by his stage name Elvis Costello,  is more of a collection of thematic essays than a birth to present memoir.  Like the lyrics of his song, Costello’s way with words is evident. His father Ross MacManus, a band leader and musician of some note in his own right, is central to the narrative and an influence on Costello’s life and music, if not readily apparent from his punk/new wave days, but more evident in his latter days as pop/jazz/fusion collaborator.  Speaking of collaboration, Costello name drops an awful lot of musicians and songwriters, although he comes by it honestly having worked with so many of them. Thankfully his stories tend towards the creative process rather than idle gossip.  I can’t help but feel that Costello comes of as something of jerk which is an unexpected outcome for a self-penned biography.  I don’t know if I should admire his self-awareness or just dislike that he’s such a jerk. At any rate there are some interesting aspects of this book if you’re interested in musicians or a fan of Costello, but it’s a bit too long and pompous to recommend to a general audience.

Recommended booksLife by Keith Richards, Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You? by George Clinton, and My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte.
Rating: **

Book Review: The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara


Author: Jeff Shaara
TitleThe Glorious Cause 
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2003
Summary/Review:

Turns out that wasn’t the book I intended to read. That’s okay, because this is an entertaining historical novel about the American War for Independence. Or is it a novelistic history? Because it really reads like a history book.  But a history book with an unusual knowledge of the thoughts and private conversations of its protagonists.  Because there’s a lot here that would never be known from the historical record and is at best educated supposition. Nevertheless it provides an interesting perspective where people are the heart of the narrative rather than a string of battles and military strategies.

The four point-of-view characters in this book are George Washington, Nathaniel Green, Lord Cornwallis, and Benjamin Franklin.  Each of these men is presented as brilliant and noble in their own way.  Their rivals are depicted much less well.  For Washington and Greene that includes Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, and members of Congress, while Cornwallis has to deal with Generals Howe, Clinton, and Burgoyne.  Meanwhile, Franklin faces off against the intrigues of the French court.

As I said, it’s entertaining as a novel and historically sound, and worth a read for a different take on the Revolution.

Recommended books1776 by David McCullough, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution by Robert Harvey, The Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood and Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America by Jack Rakove
Rating: ***