Hola Papi

by John Paul Brammer
First sentence:: “I was warned not to download Grindr.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher
Content: There’s lots of talk about sex, and lots of swearing including multiple f-bombs and a couple of gay slurs.

This is a book that’s, as the subtitle mentions, Brammer’s memoir loosely framed around the advice columns he’s become somewhat known for. He didn’t have a happy childhood: growing up in a small, rural town in Oklahoma, he was bullied in middle school for his “other”-ness (he wasn’t willing to identify as gay until college).This affected much of the rest of his life, his opinion of himself, the way he approached dating, and even his professional life (which had its fits and starts).

It was an interesting book, learning about Brammer’s childhood, his heritage (which is Mexican, but his family didn’t identify as such, which is an interesting thing to unpack), his experiences being a gay man in America. It’s more introspective and less funny than I expected (I don’t know why I expected it to be funny?), and I didn’t love it at much as I thought I would. That said, it’s always good to read about experiences other than one’s own, and it reinforced the idea that being gay in America still isn’t (or at least wasn’t in the early- to mid-2000s) easy.

I’m not sorry I read it, but it’s also not for everyone.

Seed to Dust

by Marc Hamer
First sentence: “The swifts have left the bell tower and are on their way to Africa.”
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Content: There are three f-bombs scattered throughout, and some mention of abuse. It’s in the gardening section of the bookstore.

For lack of a better description: this book is a lovely homage to gardening and being a part of the earth. Following the months of the year, Hamer talks about his work as a gardener for a country estate in the west of Wales, for a “Miss Cashmere”, an elderly lady he has been tending the gardens for many years. Each small essay is a thought about plants, life, the connection we have to the earth, the weather, literature and poetry… Hamer’s writing is a gift. Both practical — I learned things about gardening! I will probably change a few things I do, like pruning back and cleaning up in the fall, instead leaving it until spring– and lyrical — I loved the way he talked about watching the sun rise, and the changing of the seasons, and how autumn is a season of sadness. He also reflects on his life — it wasn’t easy, with an abusive father and being unhoused for several years — and marriage — I loved his descriptions of his wife.

It’s one of those books you can dip in and out of; it doesn’t really have a narrative the pulls you through, but I think that’s okay. It’s a a meditation of sorts on the joys and sorrows of being alive, and it left me a bit teary in the end. I’m so very glad I read this one.

On Juneteenth

by Annette Gordon-Reed
First sentence: “Texas, perhaps more than any other state in the Union, lives in the public imagination as a place of extremes.”
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Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: It’s short, and there’s nothing objectionable. It does lean toward the history/memoir. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

This one ended up in my box at work (which meant someone there saw it and thought “Ah, Melissa will like this”) so I decided to give it a shot. But, before I could, Russell stole it off my TBR shelf because (I guess?) he knows Gordon-Reed’s work and was interested. His verdict? It’s a great little book of essays, though it’s really less about Juneteenth and more about how Texas is a microcosm for the US as a whole.

And he was right. In these five short essays, Gordon-Reed looks at growing up in Texas as segregation was ending, its history with slavery and the Confederacy, and, yes, what Juneteenth meant to her family growing up. It’s a quick read, but a fascinating one. It’s part memoir, part history, and interesting.

Definitely one to add to your piles.

Why Peacocks?

by Sean Flynn
First sentence: “The reason to have a peacock, I would have thought, is self-evident.”
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Release date: May 11, 2021
Content: There is some talk of violence, animal death, and mild swearing (with about four instances of f-bombs). It will be in the Creative Nonfiction section of the bookstore.

Why have peacocks? That’s the question that Flynn ends up asking when — kind of unexpectedly — he and his family ends up with three peafowl (two cocks and a hen). This book is the exploration of his experiences owning peafowl, the good, the bad, and the fascinating. There’s a bit of history, of how peafowl ended up here in the states, a bit about the learning curve for taking care of the animals, and a bit about the breeding and obsessions with them (both positive and negative).

It’s a delightful little book. Nothing deep or life-changing, but it’s a lot of fun. Flynn’s a good writer — he usually writes about death and disasters, so the birds are a welcome distraction from all that — and balances memoir with history and animal nonsense quite well. I enjoyed spending time with Flynn and his birds, and hearing the stories about them.

It’s a fun read.

Dying of Whiteness

by Jonathan M. Metzl
First sentence: “Before Donald Trump could implement his agenda — in some cases, before he even took the oath of office — reporters and pundits were already tallying the negative implications of his proposals for many Americans.”
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Content: There is some racist language (the n-word is edited) and it’s in the sociology section of the bookstore.

The basic premise of this book is this: why do white voters vote for politicians that enact policies that, in the end, detrimentally effect white people (as well as people of color)? He specifically looks at three areas: gun laws (by studying Missouri), opposition to the ACA and Medicare expansion (in Tennessee), and in cutting funding to education (here in Kansas). He talked with ordinary people on all sides of the aisle to see how policies were effecting them personally, and their health specifically.

It was a fascinating book, looking at data (suicides by gun for white males are much higher in states with lax gun laws, so in that instance, these laws are literally killing people) as much as it exists (there’s not much data on health-related gun issues because of the ban on gun research passed by Congress, and it’s difficult to extrapolate health costs based on education). I’m not sure there was anything I didn’t already know (like the overall heath of people in states that expanded Medicare through the ACA is better than the ones who didn’t). What I found interesting was the reasoning people gave. They need to feel protected, against the “bad guys” so they buy guns. When someone dies, it’s because they didn’t see the signs, and not because they had access to a gun. It doesn’t make sense to me, but it does to them. Metzl wants white people to realize the cost of maintaining this hierarchy, one where people refuse to use the ACA because of the “Mexicans and welfare queens” who are abusing it. Or, in Kansas’s experience, defund education because “some” districts are “mishandling” their money. (As an aside: he quantified what I’ve been feeling for a while: the Brownback years of defunding education has given my youngest daughter a much worse education here than the one my oldest daughter got. I couldn’t quite pinpoint why I felt that, but the data speaks: Kansas education, in fact, is much worse now than it was when we moved here.)

It’s not a light read, but it is an accessible one (I admit when he got into the data, I did some skimming). And I’m glad I took the time to read it.


Audiobook: Broken (in the best possible way)

by Jenny Lawson
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is a lot of swearing, including many, many f-bombs. It’s in the humor section of the bookstore.

In this series of short, sometimes thoughtful, often very funny, essays, Lawson reflects on life, mental illness, writing, and well, just about everything.

Honestly, this isn’t the first book of hers I’ve listened to, an I have to say that it’s really the best way to experience them. (Granted, I’ve not read them, so I can’t definitively say.) I love listening to Lawson — who is really a great narrator — spin her stories, making me laugh. She is a personable writer and a narrator, and does much to just bring you in as a listener into her little world.

I definitely recommend the audio book for this one, if only for the last little bit when she talks about recording the book during quarantining for COVID (since her immune system is shot, she took the quarantine seriously) and it was a nice way to wrap the book up.

She’s crazy, yes. But in the best possible way. I loved this.

Why Fish Don’t Exist

by Lulu Miller
First sentence: “Picture the person you love the most.”
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Content: There’s some mild swearing and discussion of suicide. It’s in the creative nonfiction section of the bookstore.

When this showed up on my TBR pile a year ago, I remember thinking “Ah, that’s the woman from Invisibalia. I love that podcast. I should read this.” But the pandemic started, and I didn’t, and I have a vague memory of M reading the ARC I had and kind of liking it (maybe she took that ARC because I can’t find it?) but I had forgotten about it. Until I was reminded about it by another NPR podcast — Pop Culture Happy Hour this time — and I stumbled across another copy of it at work.

I needed a break from the fantasy I’ve been reading (nothing wrong with fantasy, I was just kind of fantasy-ed out) and so I picked this one up.

I’m glad I did.

Nominally a biography of an early 20th-century scientist and taxonomist, David Starr Jones, this book is also s much more: it’s an exploration of why we do the things we do, how we face the Chaos of the world, and how one woman — Miller — attempts to make sense of it all. Miller is an excellent writer and storyteller (something I knew from the podcasts I’ve listened to) and she kept me involved and interested through all of Jordan’s ups and downs, twists and turns. It was a fascinating story, and one I didn’t know (you’ll have to read it yourself to figure out the title). Let me say this: so much of this fascinating, beautiful, crazy world does not make sense. And to try and force it to may just be missing the point.

I very much needed this little book right now, and I’m glad I picked it up.

The Cooking Gene

by Michael W. Twitty
First sentence: “The Old South is a place where people use food to tell themselves who they are, to tell others who they are, and to tell stories about where they’ve been.”
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Content: There are a few swear words, and the use of the n-word. It’s in the Cooking reference section of the bookstore.

This is essentially two things in one: Twitty’s personal memoir and his professional cooking journey. One part of that — his cooking journey — I found incredibly fascinating. Twitty has dedicated his career and life to recreating and understanding the food and cooking methods that the enslaved people used when they were brought to this country. I think that’s fascinating and valuable, and I found those portions of the book to be interesting. The other part — his personal memoir — was rooted too much in DNA testing and DNA connections to his ancestors as he tried to figure “himself” out. I enjoyed the parts where he was talking about his youth and growing up, but I didn’t connect so much with his musings about ancestors. I get that it’s important to him — especially with his work — but I just didn’t connect with it.

Part of that was the circular method that Twitty used to tell is story. It seemed to start in the middle and wrap around itself and while parts were fascinating, the whole was just a bit outside of my reach.

In short: I really wanted to like this a whole lot more than I ever actually did.

Audio book: Eat a Peach

by David Chang and Gabe Ulla
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is talk of suicide and mental illness. There is also lots of swearing, including many f-bombs. It’s in the Cooking/Food Reference section of the bookstore, but would also work in Creative Non-Fiction or Biography.

Chang starts his memoir stating that he’s too young to write a memoir, that this all feels too pretentious. And yes, in a way he’s right: he’s only 43, and his life — well his work life — has been a mix of luck and obsessively hard work. That said, since the only thin I know about him is Ugly Delicious from Netflix (which I really enjoyed), I was fascinated to learn all about Momofuku and the path that Chang took to where he is today.

It’s not an easy path. Chang had an okay suburban childhood, but not an especially happy one. And while he went to college, it wasn’t an especially good experience. It was when we worked in Japan (for a year? I think?) that he finally got an idea of what he wanted to do: he wanted to bring excellent food to the masses, and recreate the experience of Japanese noodle bars. And thus, Momofuku was born.

I really appreciate what Chang is doing: pushing the boundaries of food, mixing cultures and inspirations to come up with something wholly new. I really would love to eat at one of the restaurants, just to see what he and his team have created. I also appreciated that he was super candid about his mental health. He was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, and was frank about the ups and downs and the medications. He’s his own harshest critic and is adamant that failure is an important part of growth. If one doesn’t fall down, then one can’t grow. And I get that.

And as a narrator, he wasn’t bad. He kept me pulled up to the table (metaphorically) to listen to his stories. I just wish I could have had a plate or two of his excellent food as I did.

We the Corporations

by Adam Winkler
First sentence: “In December 1882, Roscoe Conkling, a former senator and close confidant of President Chester Arthur, appeared before the justices of the Supreme Court of the United States to argue that corporations like his client, the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, were entitled to equal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: It’s long and dense. It’s in the history section of the bookstore.

I heard about this book when it came out a few years back and thought that it’d be interesting to pick it up, just to see what Winkler meant by the subtitle: How American corporations won their civil rights. I reminded myself of this a few months back when discussion at a (virtual) book group lent itself to Citizen’s United and how people trust corporations more than government.

It took me a month to read this, not only because I was busy, but because it’s a lot more scholarly than I was expecting, and because there’s a lot of leagalese. That said, it’s a fascinating look at the history of the relationship between corporations and the Supreme Court, and how, over 200 years, corporations and corporate lawyers won corporations many of the same rights that individual citizens have, and how Citizens United and the Hobby Lobby birth control case are natural outgrowths of that.

Winkler leaves no stone unturned. He begins at Jamestown, which was essentially a corporate town, and how corporations of some sort have basically been part of US history since the beginning. He even calls the Constitution basically a corporate charter. And from the beginning, corporations have been pushing against government regulations and trying to exert their “right” to do as they please.

It’s dense, but it’s fascinating. I came away with a couple of thoughts: 1) the Supreme Court was never apolitical. If you think it’s apolitical, then you’re mistaken. They have always been influenced by outside sources, and since corporations have the money to be influential, then they have done much of the influencing. While the Supreme Court has done good things (enforcing desegregation, gay marriage, Roe v. Wade) they are also very much a problematic branch of government. Ordinary citizens have no say (as seen by the confirmations of Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett) in who gets to sit on the court, and yet the court wields an undue influence over the laws in our country. (I”m not sure that’s a take-away everyone would get from the book; Winkler does a good job of being balanced. I don’t know for sure he’s against Citizen’s United; he just sets out to prove that it’s a logical outgrowth of 200+ years of Supreme Court rulings.)

And, in spite of number 1, there are some interesting justices who understood, over time, what might happen. For me, the most interesting one was Louis D. Brandeis, in the early 1900s, who basically predicted Amazon and Walmart in a dissent in 1933. Winkler writes:

Brandeis argued that the law [a Florida law designed to limit the spread of chain stores] should be upheld because the rise of nations chains. “by furthering the concentration of wealth and power” and reducing competitions was “thwarting American ideals; that is making impossible equality of opportunity; that it is converting independent tradesmen into clerks; and that it is sapping the resources, the vigor, and thee hope of the small cities and towns.”

He went on to write that the “great captains of industry and finance” were “the chief makers of socialism.” All of which I found fascinating. Later in the book, another dissenting justice basically predicted what we have now: drug companies putting out advertisements for individual prescription drugs in the hopes that consumers would ask their doctor for them by name.

Anyway. I’m not sure how much of this will retain, and at one point I was complaining to R that it all felt hopeless: how does one change something that’s been embedded in the system since the beginning. I guess the answer is: one step at a time. And knowing that the system is this way — pretty rigged in favor of corporations having “rights” and against regulation — is a step in the right direction.