Audio book: My Life as a Goddess

by Guy Branum
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Listen to it at Libro.fm
Content: There was a bunch of swearing, including many f-bombs, and frank talk about sex. It’s in the humor section of the bookstore.

I have, in fact, mentioned my weakness for celebrity memoirs, especially if I can listen to it on audio. They just hit my happy button. And I’ve just found out that I enjoy them, even if I don’t know who the celebrity is! (As in this case.) I found out about thins one through Pop Culture Happy Hour when it was recommended by my favorite crank, Glen Wheldon. (Who actually has a reference in this book…) Anyway. This is basically Guy’s story about how he went from the boring farm town in the Sacramento Valley (I really enjoyed his diversions about agriculture!) to being a stand-up comic and a comedy writer. It was quite hilarious, but also introspective and touching. I think one of the things I like best about these kind of books is hearing someone else’s story, learning how they got to where they are today. Branum didn’t have an easy life; he was often ostracized as a child (not to mention his sister, who was really only alluded to) and his parents — especially his father — cut him off when he came out. He made a wrong turn going to law school, and I liked knowing that other people make wrong turns and turn out okay. I also thought his rant about the cultural biases against clubs (I may never listen to Shape of You by Ed Sheeran the same way again. Or Bohemian Rhapsody).

I loved every moment listening to Guy tell his story (the best bits where when he cracked himself up). A delightful book.

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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.

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. 

American Dialogue

by Joseph Ellis
First sentence: “Self-evident truths are especially alluring because, by definition, no one needs to explain why they are true.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s a work of scholarship, even if it’s written for a mass audience. There are footnotes and endnotes, etc. It’s in the history section of the bookstore. 

I picked this one up because I was curious after hearing an interview with Ellis on the New York Time Book Review podcast. I’m not quite sure what it was that he said that made me want to pick it up, but after hearing it, I put it on hold at the library. 

The basic premise is this: Ellis takes a look at four of the American founders — Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington — each through a prism of an issue that is both relevant back then and today. Jefferson gets race; Adams, equality (monetary, not gender); Madison, law; and Washington, war. Ellis dissects each man’s letters (easiest to do with Adams, most difficult with Washington), speeches, and papers, in order to come up with what they were thinking about when they framed the country — from the Declaration to the Constitution, but especially the latter — and what we can learn from that. 

And I think that the take-aways are striking. Ellis starts from the position that slavery and the genocide of the indigenous peoples are America’s original sin, the things that we have yet to redeem ourselves from. We (especially today) have forgotten that the Constitution was never meant to be written in stone, but is, in fact, a living document that’s supposed to change and adapt to the needs of a growing and changing country. He admits that the founders were geniuses, but they were also human, with flawed logic and changing opinions. 

I’m not sure it’s a book everyone Must Read, but I found it fascinating to learn about these men and the ideas they had. 

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.