Book Review: The Library Book by Susan Orlean


Author: Susan Orlean
Title: The Library Book
Narrator: Susan Orlean
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:
Susan Orlean’s excellent work of narrative nonfiction focuses on the Los Angeles Central Library, particularly on the April 29, 1986 fire that severely damaged the building. Orlean examines the history and aftermath of the fire and reconstruction through interviews of past and current library employees and an examination of the library’s history to its origins over a century ago. The book also tells the story of Harry Peak, a young aspiring actor and attention seeker who became a leading arson suspect. The cause of the fire remains unsolved to this day.

I actually visited the Los Angeles Central Library on my visit to Southern California in 2007, and I’ve included a couple of photos below.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin


Author: Samanta Schweblin
Title: Fever Dream
Translator: Megan McDowell
Narrator: Hillary Huber
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This weird and creepy horror novella set in a resort town in Argentina.  It’s narrated in a conversation between Amanda, the novel’s protagonist who slowly uncovers dark secrets from a boy named David. The book doubles as an environmental fable as the children of the town, starting with David, are poisoned by a toxin that spreads through the community, including Amanda and her daughter Nina.  The sparse novel serves as an attempt to unravel the source of the problem.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Empire of Shadows by George Black


Author: George Black
Title: Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story Of Yellowstone
Narrator: Jack de Golia
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc, 2019 [originally published in 2012]
Summary/Review:

I’m planning to visit Yellowstone National Park for the first time this summer, so I was excited to read this history.  I failed to read the small print, though, since it turns out this book is the history of Yellowstone over the six decades from the Lewis & Clark expedition to the Congressional establishment of the first national park in 1872. It is primarily a military history of the conflicts between Native peoples and the U.S. armed forces sent to defend the interests of white American explorers, exploiters, and settlers.  Part of me rolls my eyes at another history that focuses entirely on military actions, while another part feels shamed that I wish to avoid the bloody background of a place special to all Americans.

Key figures in this history include Jim Bridger, a trapper known for his tall tales, although later many of his descriptions of Yellowstone’s natural wonders would be proved true.  William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan, known for their adoption of total war tactics in the Civil War, are key military leaders in the effort to “tame” the West.  The first thorough expedition to explore the future park by the United States was lead by Lt. Gustavus Cheyney Doane, and the exploits of his team make up much of the latter part of the book.

The message of the book is clear in that creating a National Park preserved a unique ecosystem, but it only happened after extermination of the buffalo and removal of the Native tribes.  The buffalo have been reintroduced to the park, but the legacy of the Native people is still hidden.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: The Bluest Eye
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2007 [originally published in 1970]
Summary/Review:

I first encountered Toni Morrison in college where I read her novels for three or four different courses (including a senior seminar focusing entirely on Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison) and she quickly became one of my of favorite authors.  I first read The Bluest Eye in the summertime, not for a course, and found it a most emotionally devastating novel.  I’m not alone if feeling strong emotions about The Bluest Eye.  A friend in college said after she read the description of Pecola’s rape, told sympathetically from her father’s point of view,  that she threw the book across the room.

Pecola is young Black girl in Lorain, Ohio in 1941 from a poor and unstable family.  Her father Cholly Breedlove is an alcoholic while her mother Pauline is distant and more invested in the cleanliness and order of the rich white family where she works as a housekeeper than her own family.  Pecola is dark-skinned and even among the African American community she is considered “ugly” and is mocked and shunned.  Pecola in turn idealizes whiteness and dreams of getting blue eyes.

When we first meet Pecola she is staying with a foster family because Cholly burned their house down.  The MacTeer family, working class but stable, offer a contrast the Breedloves. They have two daughters around the same age as Pecola, Claudia and Freida.  The youngest of the girls, Claudia, is a narrator for parts of the novel (alternating with a third-person omniscient narrator) and offers a child’s perspective on many unsettling incidents.  Claudia is also the only person to show any compassion to Pecola.

The Bluest Eye is not an easy book to read, although it is an important book because it deals with real problems. The cruelty of people and the deep scars of racism that lead to internalized hatred are too prevalent to ignore.  The audiobook is especially powerful read by Toni Morrison herself.  She makes the excerpts from Dick & Jane stories at the start of each chapter sound chilling.

Favorite Passages:

“So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die.”

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang


Author: Helen Hoang
Title: The Kiss Quotient
Narrator: Carly Robins
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media Llc (2018)
Summary/Review:

Stella Lane is a successful and prosperous econometrician in Silicon Valley.  She’s obsessed with math and works long hours, but struggles with interpersonal relationships, especially dating men.  She also has Asperger’s, so she’s definitely not a typical romance protagonist.  Her mother’s desire for grandchildren prompts her to decide she will need to practice having sex in order to be more attractive to potential partners.

Stella hires male escort Michael Larsen for an extended program of practical sexual lessons that are humorous with their dispassionate checklists.  There’s an immediate attraction between the pair and yet each thinks that other would not be interested in a real relationship.  Stella’s social anxiety makes her feel that someone like Michael would not be interested in her if she wasn’t paying him. Michael is embarrassed by being relatively poor to Stella and carries they weight of his absent father, a philanderer and con artist, who he fears he may be too much like. Over time they expand their arrangement into a pseudo-dating relationship, and have a remarkable level of emotional intimacy, and yet still can’t see the possibility that their love is very real (until the end, of course!).

It’s refreshing to see these characters sort through some very ordinary problems of social anxiety and self-identity.  They are both constantly described as being incredibly hot, though, so I guess they’re extraordinary in that way.   This book has a lot of lot of sex, but also a lot of talking.  It’s very good in dealing with issues of consent in relationship, which alone, makes it worth a read.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella


Author: W.P. Kinsella
Title: Shoeless Joe
Narrator: Grover Gardner
Publication Info: Blackstone Publishing, 2011 (originally published 1982)
Other Books Read By the Same Author:

    • The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
    • Box Socials
    • The Thrill of the Grass
    • The Mocassin Telegraph and Other Stories
    • The Dixon Cornbelt League, and Other Baseball Stories
    • Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa: Stories
    • The Further Adventures of Slugger McBatt: Baseball Stories
    • Red Wolf, Red Wolf: Stories
    • Magic Time

Summary/Review:

W.P. Kinsella was one of my favorite authors growin up and this is one of his classic books. Most people will be familiar with this novel as the source for the movie Field of Dreams.  The basic gist is that a baseball crazy man named Ray Kinsella marries a woman from Iowa and together they purchase a farm.  Ray gets a mystical message “If you build it, he will come” and knows that it refers to disgraced baseball star Shoeless Joe Jackson.  He builds a baseball field on his farm, and Shoeless Joe appears, followed by the rest of the 1919 Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for throwing the World Series.

Ray gets more missions from the mysterious voice: to take reclusive author J.D. Salinger to a game at Fenway Park, find the curiously named Moonlight Graham who played in one baseball game and never came to bat, and the Oldest Living Chicago Cub player.  Bringing this odd group together, Ray is also able to reunite with his (dead) father who played baseball in his youth, and his (living) identical twin brother who ran away from the circus.

What I forgot about this book is that it is largely a series of conversations focusing on philosophy, dreams, American identity, and fatherhood.  It’s a great blend of magic and the quotidian.  And the fictional version of J.D. Salinger is a hoot, and one can only hope the real Salinger was something like that.  The book holds up and perhaps even better than I remembered from an adult perspective.

Favorite Passages:

“You don’t have any witnesses.  What if it was all a hallucination? Religous fanatics are known to have delirious visions.  You’re obviously a baseball fanatic.”

Recommended books:
Rating: *****

Book Review:Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration by Thomas Brothers


Author: Thomas Brothers
Title: Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration
Narrator: Keith Sellon-Wright
Publication Info: HighBridge Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

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

The author of this book is a Duke University musicologist, and I don’t think I will represent the musicology well in this summary, although I did find it interesting to listen to. Brothers uses two popular music acts of the 20th century to illustrate the creative genius of musicians collaborating together to create new tunes: Duke Ellington and The Beatles.  This is basically two books in one with half the book about each group of artists.

Ellington is generally depicted as a lone genius composer, but Brothers states that he was more of an arranger than a composer.  He relied on others – particularly Bubber Miley and later Billy Stayhorn – to write the songs, and his entire band contributed parts as they worked on a tune.  That Ellington frequently gave himself sole writing credit was a recurring source of disgruntlement for Ellington’s band members.

The Beatles are more widely recognized as a collaboration – Lennon-McCartney – although it’s commonly believed that John Lennon and Paul McCartney only composed songs together in The Beatles’ early years.  Brothers breaks down the recordings and shows that not only were Lennon and McCartney were collaborating right up until the Beatles broke up, but a wider group of collaborators contributed to creating the Beatles music including George Harrison, Ringo Starr, producer George Martin, sound engineer Geoff Emerick, guest artists like Eric Clapton and Billy Preston, and yes, even Yoko Ono.

Brothers makes the controversial, but accurate, statement that Strayhorn was musically more talented than Ellington, and that McCartney’s musical talent outclassed Lennon’s.  But Ellington had the ability to listen to various solos by the artists in his band and arrange them tunefully, while Lennon brought a rock & roll edge and lyrical bite to McCartney’s music.  As I noted, there’s an academic level to this book that is perhaps beyond a novice to me, but I still enjoyed reading about these great artists and how they made their most memorable tunes.  But mostly, I want to listen to some Duke Ellington and The Beatles now.

Recommended books: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock n Roll by Elijah Wald, Dreaming the Beatles by Rob Sheffield, Duke Ellington by James Lincoln Collier

Rating: ***

Book Review: What is Yours is Not Yours  by Helen Oyeyemi


Author: Helen Oyeyemi
TitleWhat is Yours is Not Yours
Narrator: Ann Marie Gideon, Piter Marek, Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

What is Yours is Not Yours is a collection of linked short stories, all of the stories including keys as a symbol, with some characters from earlier stories reappearing in later stories.  Oyeyemi creates a wide diversity of characters and settings while keeping a natural flow that veers among the weird, humorous, and practical. The stories contain elements of magical realism and mythological ideas in a contemporary setting.  This is one of those books where I feel I missed a lot of things in the reading and would definitely be worth revisiting.

Recommended books: Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: An American Childhood by Annie Dillard


Author: Annie Dillard
TitleAn American Childhood
Narrator:  Tavia Gilbert
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., p2011.
Summary/Review:

I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek many years ago and so I’ve long meant to read another of her books.  An American Childhood is a memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and 1960s.  The early chapters are vivid descriptions of her inner life as a child focusing on her imagination. A particular compelling passage describes her horror at a figure crossing her room at night which later realizes is only light from passing cars, but nevertheless she continues to imagine that something is really in her room.  From an early age, Dillard is fascinated by nature and she describes learning about it from books at the library and experience much of nature even in her urban environment.  As she gets older the narrative grows into more of a traditional memoir more focused on people in her life and her experiences at school and church.  Dillard’s prose is beautiful, but I didn’t find this book nearly as engaging as Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Recommended booksOne Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty, Colored People: A Memoir by Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Memories of a Catholic Girlhood by Mary McCarthy
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem


Author:  Jon Mooallem
TitleThe Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America
Narrator: Fred Sanders
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

Wild Ones is an honest look into the status of endangered species and their relationship to humans in the present day.  Mooallem makes three trips – sometimes bringing his young daughter – to see animals who may be extinct within our lifetimes.  He first visits Churchill, Ontario, the only location where polar bears live adjacent to a human community and their strange celebrity status there.  Next, he visits the Antioch Dunes National Wildlife Refuge in the Bay Area of California where Lange’s metalmark butterfly clings to survival in a post-industrial environment.  Finally, he visits the Whooping Crane Eastern Partnership (WCEP) breeding centers that attempt repopulate whooping crane populations with minimal interaction with humans (the staff where crane-like disguises) and follows the annual Operation Migration where cranes are lead by light aircraft. At each spot, Mooallem interviews the people trying to rehabilitate the endangered animal populations as well as amateur participants and observers.

Supporting his journalistic endeavors, Mooallem also researches the relationships of humanity to animals in America, focusing on figures ranging from Thomas Jefferson to 19th-century zoologist William Temple Hornaday to 1970s whale advocate Joan McIntyre.  Mooallem frequently recognizes that the idea of wilderness is impossible in a world so widely-populated with humans.  The idea that endangered species can be simply rehabilitated and reintroduced to the wild is being replaced with the reality that they will require perpetual management to survive.  He also notes how people’s appreciation of wild animals is inversely proportional to their populations, and animals once endangered – such as Canada geese and white-tailed deer – are now considered pests.  But Mooallem also sees hope in a world where humans and animals are more interconnected as the ideas of a seperate wilderness are dismissed.

Mooallem writes in a snarky, fatalistic tone that, while understandable, I find off-putting.  Nevertheless, I find this an informative and thought-provoking book.

Recommended booksWhere the Wild Things Were: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators by William Stolzenburg, Central Park in the dark : more mysteries of urban wildlife by Marie Winn
Rating: ***1/2