Once More to the Rodeo

by Calvin Hennick
First sentence: “I can’t even get us out the door right.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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.

Audiobook: The Book of Delights

by Ross Gay
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s irreverent and sweary, including multiple f-bombs.

I was having a week where I was angry at everything. Did not matter what it was, I was just in a constant state of pissed-off-ness. I was scrolling through my audio books, and I landed on this one. “Hm,” I thought to myself, “maybe I need this one.”

I vaguely knew about Gay going in because he visited the store, and a lot of the staff really loved him. (A lot of the customers, too.) But I wasn’t ready for this book back in April, when it came out. I did, however, need it now.

The basic premise is that Gay, a black poet, spent a year — from his 42nd birthday to his 43rd — writing small essays on the things that delight him. Sometimes they wander into memories, sometimes into ruminations on race or the nature of Joy. Sometimes it was just him expressing delight in a simple touch, or the sharing of a flower, or conversation.

Whatever it was, it was all particularly delightful, especially as read by Gay. His reading, for me, was everything. He made me think, he made me laugh, and he made me look for the delights in my own life. (If you want a sample of him reading, check out his poem To the Fig Tree on the Corner of 9th and Christian.)

This book is, simply, a delight.

Running with Sherman

by Christopher McDougall
First sentence: “I knew something was wrong the second the pickup truck pulled into our driveway.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Release date: October 15, 2019
Content: There’s some mild swearing. It will be in the sports section of the bookstore.

When our Random House rep came and pitched this book, he said (something to the effect of) he didn’t think that a book about burro racing would be a good read, but that this was fantastic. Since we all love him, we took him at his word, and I picked it up. And you know what? He’s right. This IS a fantastic read.

Chris McDougall and his wife ended up in Amish country by choice. They liked the idea of a simpler life, and so chose to get out of Philadelphia and live next door to people who shun most of modern technology. And so, when one of his neighbors (a Mennonite, not an Amish) begged Chris to take a neglected donkey off of a hoarder, Chris didn’t blink an eye. They christened the donkey Sherman, and had to figure out what to do with him. Another one of his friends mentioned that donkeys need a job, and Chris got a harebrained idea: he had heard of (and attempted to run, once) burro racing in Colorado and maybe, just maybe, that would be a goal for Sherman.

So, Chris and his wife Mika and some friends set about attempting to train Sherman for the World Championship Burro race. And the trip is SO worth the ride. Chris takes us through the ups and downs of healing a donkey — and a few people, as well — and prepping and how everything got figured out. And along the way, I was reminded that 1) connection with animals is important for humans (it’s a good thing we have a dog!); 2) connection with community — friends and wider than that, if possible — is important; 3) exercise and being out in nature is important; and 4) fear the thing, do the thing.

And the ending? The chapter in which Sherman got to run the burro race? I legit cried. It’s such a heartwarming and special and wonderful book!

Invisible Women

by Caroline Criado Perez
First sentence: “Most of recorded human history is one big data gap.”
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Content: There is some harsh facts about women’s health and some mild swearing. It’s in the sociology section of the bookstore.

An old high school friend of mine invited me to read this book as part of a book club she started on Facebook. She said she needed a sounding board to go off on as she read this book, and after finishing it, I can see why. Perez’s thesis is that women have not been included in studies — medical, transportation, housing, government, you name it — because the “typical human” is a 30-something, average height, white male. And since women — and I think this includes trans women, though Perez doesn’t talk about that — have different needs, patterns, biological responses, that means the lack of data is literally killing women. It’s an extreme position, but I think she has the data to back it up.

I found the book to be enlightening — while this is a first world problem, it’s more of a dire issue in places like Bangledesh and India, where assistance from first world organizations (often run by men) don’t think about the how the needs of women in those places differ from the needs of women in the first world, not to mention how the are vastly different from men. It makes me want to respond to this problem somehow, but I’m not entirely sure. Give to organizations that give assistance that are run by women? (That was an awkward sentence…) Vote for women, definitely. But: how do you change thousands of years of men being the “norm”? It’s disheartening. I suppose the least I can do is some of the small things: make sure I’m not defaulting male in my speech, in my thinking (I’ve already had to stop myself a few times) to be more inclusive. Because inclusivity is good. And making sure that women are represented is important.