Audiobook: Go Back to Where You Came From

by Wajahat Ali
Read by the author
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Content: There’s a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the humor section of the bookstore.

I had no idea who Ali was when I picked this up. I think it called to me because I’m always looking for immigrant stories, ones by people who don’t have my experiences. And although Ali is not an immigrant, he’s a first-generation American, which is just as interesting. It’s basically a memoir; Ali tells the story of how his parents came to America from Pakistan, his childhood, and then growing up and the trials he and his parents faced. (Spoiler: it’s a lot.) Ali tells his story with grace, keeping a reader/listener engaged with wry humor and just plain good storytelling.

It’s a good reminder of white privilege, and that there must be something bout this country if immigrants still want to keep trying to make a life here in the face of all the obstacles put in their way by white supremacy. Ali was a good person to spend a few hours with, and I feel like I learned something after having listened to his story. It was a good reminder that we’re all in it togeher in this huge melting pot we call America. Maybe we can even figure out how to make it work. Ali seems to have some hope for the future. I hope he’s right.

Audiobook: Wintering

by Katherine May
Read by: Rebecca Lee
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Content: There is some talk of mental illness and depression. It’s in the Self Help section of the bookstore.

This was all the rage at the bookstore the first Christmas of the pandemic. Everyone seemed to need a “self help” (t’s not really a book about how to make it through difficult times that Christmas. it’s a bit weird, i know, reading aboook about winter in the spring (but this is when the hold came through; I don’t remember when I put it on hold), but the thing is, while this book is set over winter and kind of deals with cold and snow, it’s really more about the down times in our lives. The “winters of our lives – and not just age, May insisted, and I think she’s right, that “winter” can come anytime when we’re feeling low, or fallow, or just not “summery”. Maybe it’s because I’ve noticed that I’m really attended to the weather, but somehow that resonated with me.

There really isn’t much else to the book. I enjoyed the narrator, she was delightful to listen to and kept me interested in the story. But, it was a compelling story: I was interested in what May had used to help her through her winters. And maybe I’ll figure out how to accept and cope with mine, too, as I get older.

Worth reading any time of the year.

Audiobook: Olga Dies Dreaming

by Xochitl Gonzalez
Read by: Almarie Guerra, Armando Riesco & Inés del Castillo
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Content: There is a lot of sex, on-screen and off, a lot of f-bombs and swearing, and one (implied) rape scene. It’s in the Adult Fiction section of the bookstore.

Oh, this one is a hard book to sum up. Olga is a 40-year-old, single, wedding planner whose mother left the family when Olga was 13. Her older brother, Prieto, is a congressman for their Brooklyn district, and a closeted gay man. They’re basically trying to survive and deal with both the gap and the shadow that their revolutionary mother has created. It’s a process – Olga dealing with latent trauma and working with the ultra-rich, and she hits a breaking point when Hurricane Maria hits. As does Prieto. It’s very much a sibling book, a growing up book, a making your own way out of the shadow of your parent’s expectations book.

That doesn’t begin to cover the book, or how it held me spellbound, especially on audio. It was smart, interesting, informative (I did learn a bunch about Puerto Rico’s history), and fascinating. The narrators were all excellent, and I was completely engrossed in the story. I had feelings about the characters, and I wanted to spend more time with them (Mateo is really the best). An excellent book and one I’m glad I took a chance on.

Audiobook: Four Hundred Souls

Edited by Ibram X. Kendi and Keisha N. Blain
Read by a full cast (too many to list!)
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Content: It does not sugar coat history. There are mentions of lynchings, rape, use of the n-word, and mild swearing. It’s in the history section of the bookstore.

I’ve had this on my TBR pile (the large one, not the small one by my bed) ever since it came out a year ago. And then I got a great idea from a bookstagrammer: read a little every day in February for black history month. I tried to get it done by the end of the month and almost made it. It was easy to break down into little sections: the book spans 400 years, but every author gets a 5 year period, and the sections are broken up into 40 years chunks. Each individual author gets to choose what they want to talk about: some focus on an event, some on a person, some on an idea. Many chose to relate their essay to the way the country is today. It’s less of a history book and more of a “how history has impacted today” book, which I appreciated. Not all essays were equally interesting, but there was enough for me to keep engaged. That, and the essays were generally very short – less than 5 minutes in audio. The narrators were all really good, for the most part. I think some of the essays were read by the authors, but since the narrators didn’t announce themselves before they began reading, I wasn’t sure. (They do all say their names a the end, but it was hard to match them up. Mostly I was like “Oh, they read? Cool!”)

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it and learning about the history of Blacks in America. Fascinating well-done book.

Audiobook: A Spindle Splintered

by Alix Harrow
Read by Amy Landon
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Content: There is some mild drug use (marijuana) and a few f-bombs. It’s in the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of the bookstore.

Zinnia Gray is dying. She has known her whole life that she won’t live long past her 21st birthday, so as it arrives, she figures she is doomed. Her best friend, Charm, throws a Sleeping Beauty-themed party in a tower for Zinnia’s birthday. But a rip in the continuum opens up and Zinnia finds herself in the actual Sleeping Beauty story. Or at least one version of it. The princess’s name is Primrose, and Zinnia has disrupted the curse. Together they need to figure out how to break the curse and get Zinnia back to her world.

It sounds like a pretty basic fairy tale retelling, but I did appreciate Harrow slightly subverting it. Primrose is gay, which is why she doesn’t want to marry the boorish prince. The Wicked fairy is.. .not. The tale and everyone’s impending death/sleep can’t be changed. And yet, Harrow keeps the reader pulled in and intrigued in the story. It helps that Landon is a fabulous narrator, keeping me intrigued. It also helps that it’s a short read: only 4 hours– so I didn’t feel like Harrow padded the book with anything but the bare necessities.

All this to say that it was a delightful diversion, and an enjoyable listen.

Audiobook: On Animals

by Susan Orlean
Read by the author
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable, except maybe some animal violence. It’s in the Science section of the bookstore and is probably good for anyone who loves animals.

I think it’s pretty well-accepted that Orlean is a fabulous non-fiction writer. And so an entire book filled with essays on different animals? Sign me up. She covers a whole range of animals from her adventures in chicken raising to her fascination with donkeys as well as other animals: lions, pigeons, mules, pandas, orca whales.

I learned so much about animals, some of which I knew but much of which I didn’t. Orlean has a dry sense of humor and some of the stories — there’s one about her picking a chicken to go on Marth Stewart as well as the story about her homicidal rooster, Laura — just cracked me up listening. She’s a good narrator, sounding just like I thought someone who has spent much time writing and researching non-fiction subjects (my first exposure to her was The Orchid Thief, which is just amazing) would sound. She takes her subjects seriously, but it doesn’t feel weighty.

An excellent book, highly recommended on audio.

Audiobook: Crying in H Mart

by Michelle Zauner
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Content: There are some swear words, including a few F-bombs It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This is basically Zauner’s homage to her Korean mother, who passed away from cancer in 2014. She goes through her childhood, how her relationship with her mother developed and struggled, and through her mother’s sickness and her death to the year or so afterward. The thing that ties everything together is Korean food. Her mother’s home cooking, the tastes and smells that accompanied Zauner all through her childhood trips to Seoul to see her mother’s family, and through to watching Mangchi on YouTube after her mother’s death, in order to learn the food traditions that she didn’t want to be lost.

It wasn’t a gad book, and Zauner wasn’t a bad narrator. But, I didn’t quite love it either. At times, Zauner felt like a whiny brat, and I just wanted to shake her. I suppose she was just being honest, and so I can admire her for that. The things I liked best were near the end when she starts learning how to cook Korean food. The chapter where she learns to make kimchee was fascinating. And I understood her pain (sort of? I haven’t lost anyone I was incredibly close to, really) or at the least, I understood that this was how she was processing her pain.

I can respect this book, at least, even if I didn’t love it.

Audiobook: Velvet Was the Night

by Sylvia Moreno Garcia
Read by Gisela Chipe
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Content: It’s very sweary, including multiple f-bombs, very violent, and has on-screen sex. It’s in the adult section of the bookstore.

Maite, 30 years old and still unmarried, works as a secretary in a law firm in Mexico City in 1971. She’s bored with her life, lonely, and has only one thing to live for: the next issue of Secret Romance, a comic romance she follows. She reluctantly agrees to take care of her neighbor, Leonora’s, cat when she leaves the the weekend. The problem only begins when Leonora doesn’t come back. Determined to get her pay, Maite falls headfirst into a world od activist student, Russian spies, double-crossing government agents. She’s not the only one looking for Leonora, either: Elvis, who works or a shadowy government figure, is trying to track her down as well. Told in alternating narratives, Moreno-Garcia paints a picture of an underground Mexico City in the 1970s that was dangerous as it was alluring.

I’m not quite sure what to think of this one. I don’t usually go for thrillers, and so I don’t know who it stacks up in the genre. I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, though they grew on me as the book went on. Maite is so incredibly pathetic, it was hard not to feel sorry for her, but she got some pluck and drive as the book went on. Elvis seemed like a one-note character, but became more complex. At the very least, it kept me reading, which does say something. Though that may have more to do with the narrator, who was fabulous, than with the story I really enjoyed Chipe’s narration; she definitely knew how to pull the listener in, and keep them entertained

I’ve been saying at work that Moreno-Garcia doesn’t write the same book twice. If you like noir, you might like this one. It is a fascinating picture of a time in history, and she’s a good writer. I just don’t know if this is a great book.

Audio book: Fox and I

by Catherine Raven
Read by Stacey Glemboski
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Content: There’s some intense moments. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

Catherine is a biologist by education, but mostly she’s a naturalist: she enjoys being in nature, having worked as a park ranger and currently lives mostly off the grid outside of Yellowstone National Park in Montana. The book is basically a memoir of her life, but more its more than that: it’s a reflection on our relationship with nature, and whether or not it’s “appropriate” to befriend a wild animal. In her case, a wild fox.

This is an odd book, reminding me very strongly of Lab Girl. Raven struggles with her feelings of friendship towards something that “supposed to” be an object of her study. It’s most interesting when she”s analyzing literature — most notably Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and The Little Prince — or maybe that’s what I found most interesting. Even with it’s oddness, I found the story compelling possibly because the narrator is really good. She kept the book interesting and entertaining in spite of its oddness.

Not my most favorite book this year, but an interesting one.

Audio book: The Bad Muslim Discount

by Syed M. Masood
Read by: Pej Vahdat & Hend Ayoub
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Content: There was some swearing and references to sex. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

Anvar Faris was a child in Karachi, Pakistan, but when unrest started to affect his city, his parents decided to immigrate to the US. They landed in the San Francisco area, where Anvar met the love of his life (Zuha, at least I’m hoping I spelled that right), and realized that no matter how much his mother tried, he was not going to be the kind of Muslim that she wanted him to be.

Safwa grew up in war-torn Baghdad, with a conservative father who was taken and tortured by the US soldiers. She fled, leaving her ailing brother to die alone, something her father could not forgive. They ended up in Afghanistan, where they meet a opportunistic young man who gets Safwa and her father passports to Mexico, and from there they come to the US, ending up in San Francsico.

This book is less about the plot — though there is some tension between Safwa and her father and the young man (whose name I don’t think I could spell, having only heard the audio) and Anvar and Zuha help, in the end. It’s much more an exploration of how people live their religion (or don’t) and the reasons behind what they do and why the do it. Safwa’s father is strict and abusive, but how much of that is his beliefs and how much of that is the abuse he suffered at the hands of the US? The young man is angry and manipulative, and how much of that is his religion, or is it the circumstances of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan? Anvar is lax in his religion, but how much of that is laziness and how much of that is a serious questioning of religion His other brother is strictly faithful, but how much of that is because he believes and how much of that is putting on appearances? It’s an interesting exploration.

It’s also a good look at the variety that Islam has. I think too often, especially here in the US, we tend to paint Muslims as all one thing, when in reality (um, much like every other religion) there is a spectrum.

At any rate, the writing is good, and the narration was thoroughly enjoyable. I liked this one a lot.