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.

Best Friends

by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham
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Others in the series: Real Friends
Content: There’s some uncomfortable parts with anxiety, and a bit of “romance” with boys and girls. It’s in the middle grade graphic graphic novel section of the bookstore.

Picking up where Real Friends left off, with the summer before Shannon’s sixth grade year. She’s convinced that she’s going to have a great year: they’re the oldest kids in school, she’s best friends with the most popular girl in school, and maybe she’s got it all figured out. Except, she doesn’t, not really. Friendship — especially in sixth grade in the 1980s — is a minefield. And being popular has costs.

Much like Real Friends, this one is full of heart and humor and insight. My poor sixth grade self, awkward and not knowing how on earth to fit in, completely empathized with Shannon’s plight. And it was nice that she used excerpts (polished up, of course) from a novel she wrote in sixth grade. It made for a nice balance to the drama of the contemporary story. Pham’s art, of course, was perfect for the story, especially when dealing with Shannon’s anxiety. It’s a perfect compliment for Real Friends, and a wonderful exploration of what real friendship means.

Audiobook: Naturally Tan

by Tan France
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s sweary, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I’ve said this before: one of my truly guilty pleasures is reading celebrity memoirs. I’ve enjoyed learning their stories for years, but I especially love them in audio, particularly when the author reads the book. I am a collector of stories, and I feel it’s like we’re sitting in a room and they’re just telling me a bit about themselves. It humanizes them, and I thoroughly enjoy it.

And so, of course, since I love Queer Eye and I love celebrity memoirs, I was kind of destined to love this. It’s not perfect: you can tell that Tan is not really a writer, though he’s super smart, and after a while I did get tired of his use of “but,”. Even so, I did enjoy the book. I found out things about Tan that were super fascinating (and fun: he ADORES Salt Lake City and the members of the church, which I found charming) and I enjoyed the peek into how he got the Queer Eye job and what it’s been like filming the show.

The bonus material on the audio was worth it, too: Tan got Antoni to come and they had about a 10 minute conversation about the show, their friendship, and writing a memoir. Definitely added to my enjoyment of the book!

So, no, not perfect, but a lot of fun.

Kitchen Confidential

by Anthony Bourdain
First sentence: “Don’t get me wrong: I love the restaurant business.”
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Content: There is a lot of talk about drug use and a lot of swearing (including many, many f-bombs. Kitchens are not “clean” places to work.) It’s in the Creative Non-Fiction section of the bookstore.

This is one of those books that I’ve said to myself many times over the years (it was first published in 2000) that I need to read it. I like food books. I like books about restaurants and I have heard nothing but good things about this one. Why haven’t I read it before?

Good question. And I’m glad I fixed it. And for the record: I read the original hardcover (because that’s what the library had) and not the updated paperback.

This is, essentially, Bourdain’s personal story of how he became a chef in New York. It’s not a pretty story. He wasn’t a nice guy. But, he worked hard, and he was a reliable employee, and so he climbed the ladder. And, after he went to the Culinary Institute of the Arts, he moved to New York and began making a name for himself. It was an up and down process, the downs fueled mostly by his drug use, but eventually, he landed a decent stable chef position. He talked about the people he met, and all the jobs he worked, and the dynamics of the (mostly male) kitchen. It’s crass and vulgar and foul, but I loved reading his stories. It made me slightly nostalgic for the time I worked in a restaurant kitchen (worked my way up from dishwasher to prep cook), because there really is a family dynamic to working in a kitchen. I was glad I didn’t pursue it as a career, though, because I don’t think I had the stamina it takes to actually make it in the business.

But this was a fun trip through the New York City restaurant world of the 1970s and 1980s and I really enjoyed Bordain’s version of it.

Audiobook: Save Me the Plums

by Ruth Reichl
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I adore Ruth Reichl and have since I read Tender at the Bone a very long time ago. (While I was listening to this, I was wondering if I knew who she was before she became the editor in chief of Gourmet, or after. I’m still not quite sure.) She has a way with telling a story (granted: I have not read her work of fiction) and with writing about food. And this book — the memoir of her time as Gourmet editor in chief from 1999-2009, when the magazine folded — is no exception.

Reichl weaves the story of how she became the editor in chief and her experiences with Condé Nast with memories of growing up and her family, both her parents and her husband and son. She tells stories of how stories came to be, of working with editors and art directors and photographers and chefs. As someone who once studied journalism and who has an affection for the profession, I adored this. I loved seeing the inner workings of a magazine (and was wistful: in another universe, I am a food and travel writer, I think) and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she talks about food.

I know some of my co-workers haven’t enjoyed this as much as they liked her other books, but I disagree: this is quintessential Ruth Reichl, talking about what she knows best: food and community.

I especially loved it on audio: she is a fantastic narrator, and knows how to make you feel like you’re sitting with her as she spins these tales. I absolutely loved it and am very sad that it’s done.