Audiobook: Over the Top

by Jonathan Van Ness
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen on Libro.fm
Content: Jonathan has not lived a PG-13 life, and his book reflects that. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

Much like Tan France’s memoir, I listened this for the sheer pleasure of getting to “know” another person’s story. Jonathan grew up in Qunicey, Illinois, as one of the few out gay people in the town (as he said: “Hunny, I was never in!”). It wasn’t easy. He’d experienced sexual abuse at a young age at the hands of a family friend, and spent most of his childhood and 20s trying to suppress the shame and trauma that came along with that abuse. It doesn’t make for a light, fluffy, fun book, but that’s the point. JVN is known on Queer Eye for being the positive, optimistic one, and he sets out in this book to share all the parts of himself with us. Part of that is bubbly and optimistic, but there’s a lot that isn’t. He’s been through a lot. And I’m glad he’s talking about it.

He was absolutely delightful as a narrator, as well. I liked that he made himself giggle at times and that his voice was choked with emotion at other times (the death of his stepdad, whom he loved, was particularly hard). It’s a very personal story, and I’m glad I chose to experience it in this personal way.

It’s not high literature, but I never expected it to be. It is engaging and entertaining and enlightening, though. And I loved it for those reasons.

Almost American Girl

by Robin Ha
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Content: There is some mild swearing and a lot of bullying. It’s in the graphic novel section of the bookstore.

When Robin Ha was 14, in 1995, her mother married a Korean man in America and uprooted their life in Seoul, moving them to Alabama. Robin was shocked and upset (partially because her mother told them they were going on vacation, and then sprung it on her when they were already there) because she liked her life in Korea. She had friends, she liked her neighborhood, she liked her school. She fit.

And suddenly, she doesn’t. She doesn’t know much English and the kids in Alabama are cruel to an outsider. In this graphic memoir, Robin tells the story of the year she learned to adapt and learn and try to fit in. It’s an interesting immigrant story, but it’s also the story of how her mother didn’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal Korean society (she was a single mother who had never been married, and that’s looked down upon) and wanted not only a better life for her daughter, but a freer one for herself. Ha reflects on the dual nature of being Korean and living in America, and eventually not quite fitting in either place.

A customer at the bookstore pointed me in the direction of this one. She’s on a bit of a Korea kick, and she said this was one that helped her understand what life is like in Korea. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but it did delve into Korean cultural mores, and it really portrayed how Ha often felt like she was in over her head. I liked Ha’s artistic style as well. Everything was written in English, but she color coded the text bubbles: blue for Korean, black for English. She used color and framing to help portray young Robin’s feelings of helplessness and anger, and in sepia-toned flashbacks, gave readers her mother’s story and Robin’s history in Seoul.

It’s an excellent graphic memoir, and definitely one worth reading.

Recollections of My Nonexistence

by Rebecca Solnit
First sentence: “One day long ago, I looked at myself as I faced a full-length mirror and saw my image darken and soften and then seem to retreat, as though I was vanishing from the world rather than that my mind was shutting it out.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There is some mild swearing and talk of rape, but nothing graphic. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I had no idea what to expect from this book. I’ve never read any Solnit before, though she’s been writing for decades. I only picked this up because we have this Pick of the List program at the bookstore, and this was one of our picks (booksellers more sophisticated than me picked it!). What I got was a beautifully written, lyrical, loosely chronological memoir of a woman’s professional life. It’s not a strict memoir, per se: Solnit only briefly touches on her childhood, and it tends to jump around in time. “Recollections” is really the best word for it, as it feels as though she’s sitting with you just kind of musing about the paths her life has taken. It is a feminist work: the “Nonexistence” part is about how men have often tried to diminish her thoughts, her work, herself and her perseverance in the face of that.

It is so beautifully written though. A couple passages that struck me: “I believe in the irreducible and in invocation and evocation, and I am fond of sentences less like superhighways than winding paths, with the occasional scenic detour or pause to take in the view, since a footpath can traverse steep and twisting terrain that a paved road cannot.” I feel like this could be the book’s thesis statement. And yet, the paths she takes us down are both lyrical and interesting and I found myself wanting to take the time to wander with her.

A second passage: “I was arguing that the wars of the future and the past were overlapping in the present, and that they were largely unrecognized because of how we thought about things like war, and the West, and nature, and culture, and Native people.” Even with her musings, she is political and radical, and reminded me so very strongly of some of the Western writers I’ve read, like Terry Tempest Williams. I’m not hugely drawn to the West or the Southwest in writing (or in nature, preferring my lush green trees and water — and yes, humidity — of the East and South), but I admire writers like Solnit for their passion for wide open spaces and their understanding of how Native peoples fit into the larger picture.

I’m actually curious about some of Solnit’s other books now. And perhaps I will actually read them. I’m glad I read this one.

Audio book: Becoming

by Michelle Obama
Read by the author.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There’s some mild swearing. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

This is your basic memoir: the life of Michelle Robinson Obama, from growing up in the South Side of Chicago to going to college at Princeton and law school at Harvard, to how she met and married Barak Obama, her challenges and successes as a professional woman with two children, and then dealing with a husband who wanted to become (and then became!) president and all the challenges and success with being the first lady of the United States.

First off: yes, it does live up to the hype, especially on audio. Obama is a delightful narrator, and listening to her tell her insightful, funny, interesting story is a treat (whether or not you agree with her husband’s politics, I think). She is a delightful, smart, good human being and I’m glad she chose to tell her story. I do hope it does what I think she hopes it does, and inspires young girls and young women to get involved.

Mostly what it made me do, in the end, was desperately miss having someone in the White House (whether or not you agree with their politics) who took the idea of governing seriously, who did their best to be ethical and honest, and who actually was Presidential. You could argue that Barak Obama wasn’t a great president, but what you can’t say is that he didn’t take the role seriously. Same for Michelle: she took the idea of being First Lady seriously, harnessing her influence for something good, and I miss that terribly.

At any rate, this was an excellent book.

To Dance

by Siena Cherson Siegel and Mark Siegel
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the author.
Content: It’s pretty basic, text-wise, even if the print is small. It is in the middle grade graphic novel section of the bookstore.

This is Siena’s story of how she went from a child in Puerto Rico to being a ballerina a the School of American Ballet in New York. While she never really worked with Balanchine and Baryshnikov and Suzanne Farrell, she saw them and watched them dance from the wings. She worked incredibly hard, devoting her life to ballet, but eventually had to give it up because of an ankle injury at age 18. (Which is tragic, if you think about it.) It’s a really fascinating look into what it takes to be a prima ballerina. (Stick around for the back matter: it was full of pictures and clippings from Siena’s childhood.)

I really liked Mark’s art as well. It’s different from the 5 Worlds series, but he really did capture both the work and the grace and elegance in ballet. They didn’t brush over the pain; there were depictions of aches and pains and bloody toes. It made me remember a time in my life when I adored ballet and wished I could be a ballerina (but was never willing to put in the work).

I’m glad I read this.

Once More to the Rodeo

by Calvin Hennick
First sentence: “I can’t even get us out the door right.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
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.