Book Review: Evicted by Mathew Desmond


Author: Matthew Desmond
TitleEvicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Narrator: Dion Graham
Publication Info: Penguin Random House, 2016
Summary/Review:

Using the methods of ethnography, Matthew Desmond lives among the poor in Milwaukee’s most distressed urban neighborhood and in a trailer park on Milwaukee’s outskirts.  The product of this research is a book filled with dialogue and everyday vignettes which reads like a novel, but illustrates the very real dilemmas of America’s working poor facing eviction from their homes.  Once rare, eviction is now so common in the United States that entire industries have emerged to profit off moving and storing the property of evicted tenants.  And that is only scraping the surface of the wealth created by managing the properties in the poorest neighborhoods.

Desmond provides a glimpse into the lives of both tenants and landlords, often providing a sympathetic portrait of people trying their best under tenuous conditions. Yet there are no angels here.  Tenants steal, vandalize, or just flake out on paying rent, while landlords fail to provide even basic upkeep of their properties and taken advantage of their position of power to exploit their tenants. In a lot of ways both tenants and landlords are in the same boat, victims of a larger repressive system that enslaves them both.  One scene that illustrates this is when after a contentious faceoff in court, a tenant asks her landlord for a ride home.

This book is an eye-opening glimpse into the realities of far too many Americans suffering under a system built into our law.  Desmond concludes with suggestions on how to reform the broken system to be more fair to both tenants and landlords.  This is definitely a must read book.
Favorite Passages:

“If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”

Recommended books: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill, and Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston
Rating: ****1/2

 

 

 

Book Review: I Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916 by Lauren Tarshis


Author:Lauren Tarshis
TitleI Survived the Shark Attacks of 1916 by
NarratorP. J. Ochlan
Publication Info: Scholastic on Brilliance Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

I listened to this gripping audiobook with my son.  It’s based on the real events of a shark attacking and killing 4 people and injuring one on the Jersey Shore, including a more inland attack on the Matawan Creek.   The book though is a fictional novel about a 10-year-old boy Chet who is living with his uncle and trying to fit in with the kids in his new community.  The story a child just trying to make friends and not succeeding in a series of pranks leading up to the actual shark attacks is actually well-told and relatable.  The shark attacks are hard to believe, but as noted, they’re the actual true story!

Recommended books:
Rating: ***

Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell


Author: Sarah Vowell
TitleUnfamiliar Fishes
Narrator: Sarah Vowell, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster Audio, p2011.
Previously Read by the Same Author: The Partly Cloudy Patriot, The Wordy Shipmates, and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Summary/Review:

As an East Coaster, my knowledge of Hawaiian history is close to nothing.  And yet it was New Englander’s like myself who initiated the process that transformed Hawaii into a United States territory.  Well, maybe not entirely like myself as they were missionaries who insisted that the indigenous Hawaiians should become industrious Protestants.  Arriving in the 1820s, the New England missionaries would be followed by the industrialist who sought to raise sugar and the imperialists who sought naval bases.  If you know anything about how things works with Americans and native populations, the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893 by a group of American business leaders seems inevitable.  Vowell does an excellent job of piecing together the clashes of culture and swiftly changing alliances that occurred in this century of turbulent change that still leaves its mark on modern Hawaii.  Like other Sarah Vowell audiobooks, the voices of historic figures are read by an all-star cast.

Recommended booksBlue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson


Author:Bill Bryson
TitleThe Road to Little Dribbling
Narrator: Nathan Osgood
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2016.
Previously Read by the Same Author: A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, The Mother Tongue, The Lost Continent, Neither Here nor There, At Home: A Short History of Private Life,
Made in America, and One Summer: America, 1927
Summary/Review:

This is a follow-up to Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island with Bryson officially becoming a citizen of the UK to once again travel from end to end of the island nation.  This time he follows “The Bryson Line,” the longest distance between any two points on the British mainland without crossing open water. The book is full of Bryson’s awe of the natural beauty and cultural history of Britain, mixed with a sad nostalgia for what made Britain great when he first arrived decades go in the era before austerity.  Bryson fills his travel narrative with arcane, yet fascinating, facts about the places he visits as well as his crankier moments when he encounters poor service or obnoxious people.   Bryson fans will enjoy another humorous and erudite addition to his oeuvre, although new readers should probably seek out an earlier book as an entryway.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon


Author: Kekla Magoon
TitleHow It Went Down
Narrators: Cherise Boothe , Shari Peele , Kevin R. Free , Avery R. Glymph , and Patricia Lucretia Floyd
Publication Info: Recorded Books, 2014
Summary/Review:

A story familiar to any American: in a poor urban neighborhood, there’s a scuffle.  A white man in a passing car, stops, draws his gun, fires, and a black teenager Tariq Johnson is dead.  The police let the shooter go claiming he was exercising self-defense.  The novel is told from many voices of Tariq’s family, friends, neighbors, and a visiting minister (who is also running for office) who arrives in town to offer his support.  They offer conflicting views – was Tariq a gang member or not, did he have a gun or not – as well as memories of Tariq, and their part in the communal grieving process.   This highly nuanced book shows that there are no angels but also that there is no one unworthy of empathy.  Excellent reading by a cast of actors performing the various characters’ parts.

Recommended booksLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Detonators by Chad Millman


Author: Chad Millman
TitleThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice
Narrator: Lloyd James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2006)
Summary/Review:

This work of history unravels an overlooked incident in American history: the Black Tom explosion.  This munitions depot on a spit of land on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor was detonated by German saboteurs on July 30, 1916, before the United States had entered the World War.  Debris from the explosion damaged the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge and shattered windows in Manhattan, so it is surprising that it is not a more well-known event. Millman traces the actions of the network of German spies who caused the explosion.  But the better part of the book is dedicated to the legal efforts to hold Germany responsible for the explosion and the series of legal proceedings that occurred over decades until Germany was forced to pay legal damages in 1939, just before another war was about to begin.  The book is plodding at times, and the explosion occurring so early in the book makes the rest feel anticlimactic, but it is a fascinating incident in American history that deserves greater awareness
Recommended booksThe Day Wall Street Exploded by Beverly Gage
Rating: ***

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