Escape! The Story of the Great Houdini

by Sid Fleischman
First sentence: “I have been a fiction writer by choice and instinct for a long professional life.”
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Content: There are some risque photos (Houdini did a lot of his tricks in the nude for honesty’s sake) and some intense moments. It would be in the middle reader biography section of the bookstore, if we had it.

I’ll be honest: while I enjoy illusions, I’m not obsessed with it, and while I knew who Houdini was, I really didn’t know much about his life or his magic tricks. So, when my class hit a biography section and this was on the list, I figured why not read a kids’ biography on Houdini.

(First: are kids still interested in Houdini? Hubby saw this on my nightstand and remarked “I adored Houdini as a kid.” Does that still happen?)

I learned that Houdini was a workaholic, a bit of a jerk, and definitely competitive. He’d put himself in pretty much any situation to prove that he could do whatever it was that was put before him (challenges were his favorite thing!) regardless of personal safety. Fleischman, a fellow Jew and magician, is incredibly enthusiastic about Houdini (even though he keeps the actual secrets of how Houdini performed his tricks, well, secret) and that comes through in the biography. I don’t know if it’s something I’d refer kids to in order to do research on Houdini (though maybe: Fleischman does work to debunk some of the myths surrounding Houdini, ones that Houdini himself perpetuated), but it does make for entertaining reading.

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Audiobook: Steve Jobs

by Walter Isaacson
Read by Dylan Baker
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Content: Steve Jobs had a foul mouth. You are forewarned. Also, it’s a bit on the business-y side. It’s in the biography section at the bookstore.

I don’t know why, really, I picked this up. I’m not a computer person, or even an Apple fan (though I do own an iPhone). I needed something short to listen to while I drove around delivering things one day, and this kind of jumped out at me.

It’s a basic biography of Steve Jobs, the founder and eventual CEO of Apple computers and CEO of Pixar. Isaacson, a reporter, was picked by Jobs before his death in 2011 to write this book, and given access to all sorts of information that Jobs, who was someone who valued complete control, usually didn’t divulge.

I did learn a lot of things about Jobs, computers, the 1970s, business and the intersection between all of them. First and foremost: Jobs wasn’t a nice person. Which got me to wondering: are all people at a high level of business — either CEOs or just high up in the business — generally work-obsessed jerks? If so, what does that say about us as a country, that in order to be “successful” and proclaimed “innovative” and “a genius” we have to treat other people like crap?

The other thing I learned about Jobs was that he was just an Idea Man. He worked, sure, but it was managing and thinking outside the box and demanding things of others, but he never really created anything himself. I don’t know if I had any respect for him to lose, but knowing that he just thought up the ideas rather than actually implementing them changed my perception of him.

Did I like the book? Not really. It was kind of long and a little boring. Part of that may have been the narrator, who wasn’t the most engaging. But part of that was Isaacson’s writing: it was meandering and a bit pandering. Not something (or someone) I would want to read again.

Audiobook: Yes, Please

by Amy Poehler
Read by the author.
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Content: Amy likes to swear. A lot, but not excessively, and generally not gratuitously. She is also pretty frank about sex and her drug use. I’m not going to say it’s not for teens — whom I know make up some of her fan base — but know that going in. It’s in the humor section at work.

I have made an executive decision: all celebrity bios are better in audiobook form. Period. That is all.

I really wasn’t that interested in reading this one; I’d paged through it a couple times when it came in back in October, and I figured: this was one for the True Fans. (Which I am not. I’m more like a Passing-by Fan.) But even I couldn’t resist the opportunity to listen to Amy Poehler read her book.

And, for the most part, it was a lot of fun. It’s a meandering book, wandering through memories, observations, Deep Thoughts, and Pithy Comments. That worked for me for a while, but wore me down by the end. Thankfully, the last chapter was recorded live, which helped end the book on a high note.

Perhaps it’s because she comes from an improv background, but I felt Poehler (and the audiobook) was at its best when she strayed from the script and just riffed. The two minutes she and Seth Meyer went off (which I’m assuming is not in the book, though I haven’t checked) were brilliant. She operated under the guise that she was recording the whole thing in her own personal home audio booth, and that there was a party going on in the background. She chatted for a bit with Patrick Stewart, Kathleen Turner, and Carol Burnett which just made me happy. And hearing her parents’ Boston accents (actually, I loved it when Poehler’s came out too) was charming.

It was all the little extra things that made this book enjoyable. But in the end, that wasn’t enough for me to truly love it.

Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson
First sentence: “I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA — a country caught between Black and White.”
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Content: There’s nothing objectionable. And it’s even an easy-ish read. Sure, it’s poetry, but it’s not difficult. Hand it to anyone with an interest in writing, kids, and history. It’s in our middle grade biography section at the bookstore.

I’m not quite sure where to start on this one. It seems We’ve (the collective we, here) been inundated by memoirs and biographies of celebrities, People of Note, and at first glance Jacqueline Woodson’s new book just falls into that pit of “celebrity” (of a sort) biographies.

Except, it’s not so much a biography or memoir as it is a reflection upon a childhood. Woodson makes her childhood an Everyperson experience, something that the reader can readily identify with, even if they didn’t have her exact same experiences.

Her childhood begins in Ohio, but mostly it’s spent in South Carolina, with her grandparents, and in Brooklyn, where her mother finally settled with Jacqueline and her brothers and sister. I kept trying to figure out the timeline (if she was born in 1963, then it must be…) but eventually, I just gave up and let myself get absorbed in the story.

And absorbed I was. Woodson wove historical elements into her story — sit-ins in the South; the way her grandmother felt about the way she was treated in stores by white people; music that was playing on the radio — all of which helped put her personal story in a larger framework. I could easily forget I was reading a memoir; it felt so much like a novel.

Part of that, too, was the form. Written in free verse, the memoir took on a lyrical quality. There were moments, especially toward the end, where I was moved by her insights not only in her life, but for Life in general.

One more thing: I appreciated her portrayal of religion. I get the sense she’s not a practicing Jehovah’s Witness anymore, but she portrayed the religion of her grandmother and her own childhood with respect. It was neither good nor bad; it was just a part of her life. And I found that refreshing.

Highly recommended.

Audiobook: Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography

by Neil Patrick Harris
Read by the author.
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Content: There are eight f-bombs (yes, I counted) and some frank (but not graphic) descriptions of his sexual experiences as he was trying to figure himself out. It’s in the adult biography section of the bookstore, but if you’ve got an interested teen, it’s a lot of fun and quite accessible.

I’m a sucker for celebrity bios. I really am. I love the peek into their lives and their histories, and I’ll devour their histories. I’m curious and a bit of a voyeur. (but not a stalker. Yet.)

So, I was probably going to read Neil Patrick Harris’s bio anyway. But when I got wind of the premise — it was going to be a choose your own adventure book! I LOVED those! — I knew I had to read it.

It comes in two formats: print and audio, and for this experience I chose audio. (Event though I ended up picking up the print book as well. Just to see.) And what an experience it is. On the one hand, I missed out on the whole “choose your own” part; it’s kind of hard to do that with audio. And one of the reasons I wanted to see what the print book was like. Instead of leaping through the book following one path (some of which include fake deaths by sand trap — somehow Joss Whedon was responsible for that one — or avalanche — Big Bird’s fault — or death by bowling ball) or another (where he/you end up overweight and working in a Schlotzsky’s), he reads it straight through. So, it gets a little difficult to tell which is Truth (so, I thought the bit about Katy Perry and the homophobe at the pre-Superbowl Party was fake until C informed me otherwise) and what was Fiction.

But the positives completely offset the negatives in this listening experience. For one: it’s NEIL PATRICK HARRIS narrating. And he’s brilliant. More than brilliant: phenomenal. ┬áVoices (I LOVE his announcer voice) and clips (the best one is the audio of 13-year-old Neil doing a speech on optimism). And (in my favorite section) the vocal annotation of David Burtka in the chapter on how they met which just slayed me with adorableness.

I could go on and on raving about this one. I loved every moment I spent listening to it. The format (using second person instead of presenting it as “this is my life”) involved me, and on top of that NPH has a wonderful sense of humor and gratitude about his life. Maybe it’s not great literature, but it was a truly enjoyable book to read/listen to.

Audiobook: One More Thing

by B. J. Novak
read by the author
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Content: lots of language, both mild and strong. Most of it unnecessary, but I don’t think I expected anything less. Is in the adult fiction section of the bookstore, but I bet older teens would like it.

I picked this up because people at work were raving about it. Said it was hilarious. And I decided that I need some humor in my life. So, even though it’s by an actor I’ve never heard of (I didn’t watch The Office, though he was the “other guy” — the one that I didn’t recognize – in Saving Mr. Banks), I figured why not give it a try.

It says it’s “stories and more stories” but I think it’s more “jokes, observations, and a couple of stories.” There were 64 in the book, and sometimes that felt derivative. Not that I minded: some of the shortest stories were some of the funniest ones. Novak is a great narrator, by the way, and he got a whole bunch of other celebrities to help him out, though he used Rainn Wilson and Mindy Kahling the most

My favorite of the whole book was “The Something by John Grisham,” where John Grisham’s newest novel gets published with his place-saving title instead of a “real” one. I was guffawing at the idea that Grisham’s novel would not only get published with such a bad title, but get rave reviews. Just because he’s John Grisham. (I suppose there’s a poignant commentary there on publishing and fame, but I was laughing too hard to find it.) I did like “No One Goes to Heaven to See Dan Fogelberg”, which is an imagining of what Heaven will be like, and how, maybe, we won’t want to spend time with people we didn’t know well in life, even if they are family. Some of them — like the “Comedy Central Roast of Nelson Mandela — made me uncomfortable, and I thought Novak’s humor was more mean than observant. But, for the most part, like in Wikipedia Brown and the Case of the Missing Bicycle” — a spoof on Encyclopedia Brown — or “Bingo” — where three cousins are vying to win Bingo at a resort, only to lose to their grandpa — or “Closure” — where a girl whose boyfriend has broken up with him gets absolute closure I was highly amused. And the discussion questions at the end of a couple stories, as well as the end of the book, I thought were a nice touch.

It’s like David Sedaris without the sardonic undertones.

I’m not sure I would have liked this as much if I hadn’t have listened to it. (Much like me and David Sedaris, come to think of it.) There’s something about hearing jokes, as opposed to reading them, that makes the humor work better for me. It’s not a deep book, or one that’s going to stay with me for a long time. But it was amusing, and it did make the drive back and forth to work enjoyable.