Sissy

by Jacob Tobia
First sentence: “I never really got to have a childhood.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: March 5, 2019
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and some talk of sex. It will be in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Jacob Tobia (they/them) is a lot of things: a writer, an activist, a performer, a producer. What they are not is someone who fits into what society has defined as “male” and “female”. This memoir, which is absolutely delightful to read, follows Tobia through their childhood, as they struggle with their “male” body and their desires to present more feminine.

To be honest, I have no idea if I’m even talking about this correctly. I really did enjoy reading Tobia’s book, and it made me think about the way I was raised and the things that I have either consciously or unconsciously inherited from society, and the way I look at other people. But, aside from being challenging — not a challenging read, but it did give me things to think about — it was highly entertaining. Tobia has a great writing voice, and the book is fun and funny as well as heartbreaking at times. It’s made me think about trans people (especially since my nephew is trans) and the ways in which society at large just isn’t equipped to handle people who don’t feel they fit within a binary system. (And it’s little things, like gendered bathrooms, or a pregnant co-worker who says “We found out the gender; it’s a boy!” that are making me think.)

I think Tobia has an important story that is not only relevant, but entertainingly told and highly engaging as well.

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Audiobook: The New Farm

by Brent Preston
Read by: Chris Henry Coffey
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content:  There’s some swearing, including a handful (6 or so) f-bombs. It’d be in the sociology or gardening section of the bookstore, if we had it. 

To be honest, this is usually the sort of book that my husband would read: the story of a couple of Canadians who got tired of working the office grind and city life, and decided to head out to the country and start an organic farm. I don’t know if that’s something he would like to do, but it’s definitely something he admires. I don’t know what made me pick it up; I suppose I was curious to see what went goes into making a sustainable, small, organic farm work and survive as a business. And I guess it just sounded interesting. 

And it was, for the most part. Preston and his wife Gillian had a super huge learning curve with this farm, and he doesn’t mince words about all the things that went wrong. Or how much money they lost during their first two or three years. He was also pretty frank about how running a small, sustainable, organic farm is a community effort: they started making progress financially when they reached out and found communities to be a part of, and ways to increase their reach. Growing excellent produce isn’t enough (though it’s important); you also need to have ways to reach people, and ways to get help working the farm. 

I did pick up some good gardening tips, things to help with the soil in our little garden, and things to help with growing plants better. And I did find the narrator entertaining (though I assumed it was the author reading it; I was mildly disappointed when I found out it wasn’t). My only real complaint is that it only went through the first couple of seasons, and it just kind of … ended. That may have been my version of the audiobook, but the narrative just stopped. But, if that’s the only complaint, it’s not that bad. 

Evicted

evictedby Matthew Desmond
First sentence: “Jori and his cousin were cutting up, tossing snowballs at passing cars.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a work of non-fiction and Desmond doesn’t hold any punches. There is talk of drug use, swearing, and some violence. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I’ve been meaning to read this one since it came out a few years ago, but let other things get in the way until we picked it for my in-person book group. And, just like I thought, I found it to be difficult to read and yet incredibly important at the same time.

Desmond, a professor of Social Science, moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a year to study the effects of poverty in the inner city, particularly through the process of evictions. And what he found is sobering. He goes into a lot of detail, following both black and white renters as well as landlords over the course of the year (though I think it may be longer), but it boils down to two things: capitalism isn’t good for everyone, and it’s important to have a stable home in order to succeed in life. The first one is this: there are lot of people getting rich off the backs of poor people. Not just the landlords, who buy the property for practically nothing and then raise the rent so it’s almost more than the renters can pay. There’s also the “business” of evictions: moving companies, storage places, and so on. Not to mention the city process: there is a whole court system to deal with this (I didn’t know that). It’s insane, and a product of our ethos here in America that believes if you can’t make it on your own, then it’s your own fault.

The second part may be obvious: constant moving is hard on children and adults. It’s hard to start over when you have to move once a year (as we did when my oldest was young), but moving two, three, four times in a school year makes it impossible for kids to keep up. And it goes for adults too. Many of the people Desmond was writing about were drug addicts (their own choice, sure), but he followed a couple of them as they tried to get out, and once they had a stable home, a secure environment, in a neighborhood that supported them, they were able to turn their lives around. I found that interesting that a home — someplace a person could come to that was secure and not falling apart, where there was heat and electricity — could mean that much. I guess, since it’s always something I’ve had, I took it for granted.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book was the author’s note, where he talked about his methodology. He doesn’t have many answers, except that poor people are paying too much of their income in rent (more than 2/3 of their income! Which is why they get behind!) and that we (the government? non-profits? private corporations?) should invest in some stable housing for poor people. In our book group discussion, we talked about how Utah has dealt with the problem of homlessness. Maybe more cities/states can take note and move in that direction. Because, honestly, more good, stable housing for our poorest people is good for everyone.

A Room Away From the Wolves

roomawayfromthewolvesby  Nova Ren Suma
First sentence: “When the girl who lived in the room below mine disappeared into the darkness, she gave no warning.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and abuse that could be triggering. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

This one is going to be tough one for me to sum up, because I am not sure what, exactly, happened. The words were very pretty and I read the whole thing, but I, for the life of me, do NOT understand what happened.

There’s a girl — Bina — whose mother remarried when she was nine to a man with two daughters who were quite abusive to Bina. And so, the summer before Bina turns 18, her mother suggests she leaves. Bina goes to a place in New York City her mother had stayed when she was young, before Bina, the Catherine House. There are 14 girls in the house, where weird things happen, and they try to bring the ghost of Catherine back, and Bina’s super confused, and… I just lost the thread of what was going on.

I suppose this was meant to be a grand metaphor for something, and I’m sure there are people out there who like this atmospheric type of book with a hugely unreliable narrator, and I did finish it, to it’s not terrible.

It’s just that I need someone to explain it to me.

Audio book: Heartland

heartandby Sarah Smarsh
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some frank talk about abuse and drinking as well as a lot of swearing (including multiple f-bombs). It’s in the biography section of the bookstore, but I think a teenager might be interested in this.

This has been a big deal around the store, mostly because Smarsh grew up just outside of Wichita (and rumor has it she’s moved back here), and the places and people in it are pretty much staples in this community. But her story — the child of a teenage mom, growing up in a rural community on a family farm — belongs to much more than those of us here in Wichita. In fact, as I listened to her story — which sometimes got political, but mostly she kept personal — I heard echos of my own mother’s and grandmother’s story — married young, growing up in a small rural community, working hard their entire lives for just barely enough. It’s the story of many, many Americans.

Even so, Smarsh has one thing going for her that many poor do not: she is white. Sometimes, she acknowledges that fact, and tries to be more inclusive in her conclusions. But often, I felt like she was saying “look at me, look how poor we were, look how much I suffered, look at those scars” and I wanted to roll my eyes. Very few of us escape our childhoods without scars. And just because she grew up poor in Wichita and Kingman, doesn’t make her story exceptional.

Except she told it (and read it) well. So I have to give her that.

Death of Truth

by Michiko Kakutani
First sentence: “Two of the most monstrous regimes in human history came to power in the twentieth century, and both were predicated upon the violation and despoiling of truth, upon the knowledge that cynicism and weariness and fear can make people susceptible to the lies and false promises of leaders bent on unconditional power.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a small book, but dense, dealing with philosophy and politics and it doesn’t hide that it’s critical of Trump. It’s in the politics section of the bookstore.

Kakutani, who was the former chief book critic of The New York Times, decided that what the current political climate needed was a book examining how we got to the current political climate, and the inherent distrust of the media. On the one hand, yeah: this book is important. On the other hand, the only people who are going to read it are the people who think that the current political climate is problematic. So, I guess the question is: what’s the point of the book?

I did learn a few things: I had forgotten (or never learned) that the Fairness Doctrine — the policy which demanded that media give equal time to all political parties, and which I learned about while studying journalism in college — was overturned (disbanded?) in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Combine that with the Telecommunications act in 1996, which allowed for media conglomerates, and you end up with our current media climate, in which someone like Trump can call reputable papers Fake News because he disagrees with them, and in which you have a majority of Republicans who believe that the media is lying and making up stuff. Of course it’s more than that, but that’s what I found interesting about it.

(As an aside, Russell, who actually studies these things, found the book to be lacking. My take-away? This book was not meant for scholars.)

In the end, though, Kakatuni doesn’t really offer any solutions how to solve this problem. Though, in talking about it, I came up with one: Turn off the TV, shut down social media, and talk to someone, especially someone who disagrees with you. Maybe then, we can figure out how to look past this fear and let people speak their truths, and find a common ground again.

Audio Book: So Close to Being the S**t, Y’all Don’t Even Know

by Retta
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Listen to it at Libro.fm
Content:  Lots and lots and lots of swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the humor section of the bookstore.

I’ve said it here before: I have a weakness for celebrity memoirs, especially when read by the author. And so, even though I don’t really know a whole lot about Retta (aside from that she was Donna on Parks and Rec), I splurged for this. And I found it to be extremely delightful. She is a funny writer, but more than that, she is a funny story teller. She holds nothing back, from the way she grew up to her struggles with money and finding an acting job, to her accidental love for the LA Kings. It’s an entertaining journey with a lot of laughs along the way.

I’m not sure there’s much else to recommend it, except that it’s utterly delightful and a lot of fun. Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what you need.