Audio Book: The Witches are Coming

by Lindy West
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s swearing, including lots of f-bombs, plus frank talk about sex. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

This book of essays, written in past couple of years and spurred on by the election of Donald Trump, is not just a feminist skewering of the alt-right and those attacking progress in all its forms. It’s also a reminder — especially for me, as a white, middle class, educated woman — that there are causes worth fighting for, that all sides (at least on the national scale) are not equal, and that it’s okay to be outspoken on things you believe in (and, to be fair: believing in things is a Good Thing).

It’s a reminder that “political correctness” is really just respecting other people and their identities and boundaries. A call that fat people deserve respect too, especially in this thin- and diet-obsessed culture. And maybe West is a White Woman, but (I thought, but I’m no BIPOC) she made sure she was trying to be inclusive and reminding those of us who are White Women that there are people out there who are marginalized and disadvantaged. And that there are people suffering while we’re sitting in our nice suburban households.

No, she’s not kind to the alt-right (but should she be?) or to the men who have abused their power for their own personal profit. And that’s part of what I liked about this. It was unapologetic and brazen and I loved that. It’s not going to resonate with all readers, but I think West knows that but she’s not trying to be palatable to all readers. She has Beliefs and she stands by them, and I can respect that.

And West is a good reader as well. She was entertaining and one of those readers I’d happily listen to for a long time.

Audio Book: North Korea Journal

by Michael Palin
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s a journal travelogue, so it’s probably only interesting to people who like Palin or are interested in North Korea. It’s in the Current Events section at the bookstore.

I haven’t seen the BBC special this journal is based on, but I don’t think it’s really necessary. Palin is an incredible diarist, and this is based on his experience gaining access to North Korea to film a travelogue and then his experiences during the two weeks he was in North Korea.

It’s a fascinating story: I don’t know much about the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is its official name) besides what we hear through the media, which (to be honest) isn’t much. Palin didn’t get a whole lot of access to the “common” people and when he tried to strike up political conversations, he was immediately shut down. What he did wasn’t often edited, but sometimes — like in the instance when he wanted to be filmed sending an anti-American postcard to Terry Gilliam — they preempted things from happening. The “minders”, as Palin called them, wanted to show North Korea at its best, so he wasn’t really allowed free access to the country. There’s an interesting postscript on the book written by one of the directors (I think; I can’t quite remember now) about the negotiating that needed to happen before they could even start filming, and how it was difficult to get across that they wanted to see “everyday” life, not just the Best of the Best.

It’s a fascinating book (and a short one!) and Palin’s delightful to listen to.

Highly recommended. (Now, to go see if I can find the show somewhere.)

Audio book: Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and talk about sexual assault, abuse, and rape. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I think I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell in the past, but it’s been a very long time. However, after listening to an interview with him on It’s Been a Minute, I kind of felt like this was an important book to read. And I’m so glad I chose it on audio; it was a fabulous way to experience this book.

Gladwell takes the arrest of Sandra Bland in Texas in 2015 and examines it to find out what went wrong. He comes up with three areas that affect the way we talk to strangers: human’s tendency to default to truth — we always believe that everyone else is on the level; the expectation of transparency — that our faces show our emotions the way the faces in movies and television do; and the idea of coupling — that there are certain things that go together, like crime and certain behaviors.

It’s a fascinating and revealing book, one that makes me believe that our current crisis with tribalism and police brutality really might boil down to an incredible lack of understanding all around. We don’t really get to know people anymore, and so we’re constantly surrounded by strangers. Which means, we’re constantly relying on these faulty “tools” that we use to get by in society.

The audio is fabulous as well; instead of reading the book straight, Gladwell uses original audio as much as possible, so that it has the feel of a podcast rather than an audiobook. I think it made for a better reading experience than if I had just read it outright. It definitely gave me much to think about.

Highly recommended.

Once More to the Rodeo

by Calvin Hennick
First sentence: “I can’t even get us out the door right.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: December 10, 2019
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some talk of emotional and physical abuse. It will be in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Calvin Hennick is a white man who grew up in the Midwest. For him, that meant a hot mess of a family, a father that didn’t care and wasn’t there, and not looking back after he graduated college. He met his wife Belzie, who happens to be black, in New York, and they’ve made a life for themselves in Boston with their two children. As their oldest, Nile, turns five and is about to start kindergarten, Hennick gets this brilliant (maybe) idea: take Nile on a road trip, just the two of them, to Iowa to see the rodeo. On the way, maybe Hennick can teach Nile a bit about being a black man in American (though that’s probably not something Hennick, who is white, can do well) and maybe he can figure out this whole fatherhood business once and for all.

Lofty goals for a road trip, and Hennick really doesn’t achieve them. However, the joy really is in the journey in this book. Hennick weaves his experiences on the road with Nile — who really is a sweet and precocious little kid — with reflections on his situation growing up, and the lack of love and support he felt from the adults in his life. Honestly: I’m surprised Hennick didn’t end up staying in small-town Iowa, knocking some girl up at 15, and just becoming bitter. It’s a sterotype, but that’s where his life was pointing. He didn’t, though, and he is a moderately successful (and a very good) writer. He’s making life work. And if he has doubts and questions about his ability to be a good parent… well, we all do.

Still, it was enjoyable spending time with Hennick and Nile and going on a road trip from Boston to Iowa. And maybe I learned a little about being a decent parent along the way, too.

Born a Crime

by Trevor Noah
First sentence: “The genius of apartheid was convincing people who were the overwhelming majority to turn on each other.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is violence and swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I am a sucker for celebrity memoirs (especially on audio, and I’ve heard this one is great), but it seems like I’m the last person to read this one. I don’t know why I put it off, but I was really glad that my in-person book group picked it.

It’s basically the story of Trevor Noah’s (host of the Daily Show) upbringing in South Africa. He was born under apartheid to a black mother and a white father (who were not married), and his mother raised him. To be honest, it’s more a love story to his mother; you can tell, reading this, that Noah loves and admires his mother and the sacrifices she made for him. It’s a very funny book: Noah was not a “good” child, and was constantly in trouble. But, it’s also a reflective book: Noah breaks down apartheid and racism and why South Africa is so messed up. It’s thoughtful and funny and sweet and interesting, which is actually very remarkable for a celebrity memoir.

And I’m really glad I read it.

Lab Girl

by Hope Jahren
First sentence: “People love the ocean.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This was the Big Read for Wichita this year, and I kind of knew what to expect going in. A science-based memoir of a biologist. And that’s pretty much what I got: Hope Jahren grew up in Minnesota, the daughter of a scientist, and she knew she was going to be one when she “grew up”. She went away to Berkley for her PhD in biology, and picked up a lab partner, Bill, and embarked upon a really weird career. Interspersed with facts about trees and plants (they really are very awesome, trees), Jahren tells about her ups and downs of being a research scientist and the odd brother/partner/friend she has in Bill.

It’s a fascinating story — being woman in the research science field in the late-1990s/early-2000s wasn’t easy, and it was made more difficult by Jahren’s eventual bipolar diagnosis — interspersed with interesting science. It did drag a bit in the middle, and I’ll admit to skimming some of the science, which I find interesting but I don’t always understand. But, in the end, she’s had an interesting life, she’s a brilliant scientific mind, and I’m glad I read it.

Nine Pints

by Rose George
First sentence: “There is a TV but I watch my blood.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There are some mild swear words, and some frank talk about sex and sexually transmitted diseases. It’s in the science section of the bookstore.

This one, kind of obviously, is all about blood: what it does in the body, sure, but more about the business of blood, about donating and transfusions, about the history of bloodletting and leeches, and about the diseases that are transmitted by blood. It’s also about the stigma that surrounds blood: we like it when it’s in our body, but not so much when it’s not. It’s a fascinating look through the world of medicine and science surrounding blood.

I liked some chapters better than others. The chapter on donating reminded me that it’s been a while since I’ve donated, though I know they probably don’t use my blood and plasma for transfusions (something about hormones in a woman). I didn’t like the leeches chapter (it made my skin crawl!). I found the chapters about HIV and menstruation to be the most powerful. George focused on the stigma behind both in third-world countries (though we are not without it here) which I found fascinating.

Then again, I do like these pop-science books. George is much like Mary Roach, picking a topic and delving deep and making it interesting and accessible to those of use who are not scientists. It’s a fascinating book.