Audio book: Fox and I

by Catherine Raven
Read by Stacey Glemboski
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content: There’s some intense moments. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

Catherine is a biologist by education, but mostly she’s a naturalist: she enjoys being in nature, having worked as a park ranger and currently lives mostly off the grid outside of Yellowstone National Park in Montana. The book is basically a memoir of her life, but more its more than that: it’s a reflection on our relationship with nature, and whether or not it’s “appropriate” to befriend a wild animal. In her case, a wild fox.

This is an odd book, reminding me very strongly of Lab Girl. Raven struggles with her feelings of friendship towards something that “supposed to” be an object of her study. It’s most interesting when she”s analyzing literature — most notably Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and The Little Prince — or maybe that’s what I found most interesting. Even with it’s oddness, I found the story compelling possibly because the narrator is really good. She kept the book interesting and entertaining in spite of its oddness.

Not my most favorite book this year, but an interesting one.

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.

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.

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.

The Truths We Hold

by Kamala Harris
First sentence: “Most mornings, my husband, Doug, wakes up before me and reads the news in bed.”
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Content: It’s pretty policy-heavy. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

I picked this one up over the summer mostly because I was interested in what her story was. I didn’t get around to reading it until right after the election, when I figured that because she was going to be Vice President, I really ought to learn more about her.

Granted, reading a memoir that was mostly likely written because she was considering a presidential run isn’t the most balanced way to get information about a person. That said, I am interested in people’s stories and how they see themselves. Looking at it that way, I learned a few things.

1: Kamala really is her mother’s daughter. She rarely, in the book, talked about her father — he as a presence in her life for the first several years, but after her parents divorced, he was out of the picture (at least narratively). You can tell, as a reader, how much Kamala admires her mother, and how much she relied on her advice, and how big a loss it was when her mother passed away.

2: Although her mother was South Indian, Kamala and her sister were raised as Black women. They lived in a heavily Black neighborhood in Oakland, CA, during the late 1960s and 1970s. Her mother was involved in the Civil Rights movement and exposed her daughters to many of the leaders at the time. Kamala grew up around passionate Black women who not only believed in justice, but had each other’s backs as often as they could.

3: Kamala works hard. And she cares. Maybe sometimes her polices are a bit misguided (not that she would admit that), but I think they come from a good place. She wants justice and a better life for people. She wants to reform the justice system, but she also wants to try and stem off the things that lead people into the justice system. Maybe she doesn’t have the best ideas to do it, but she is willing to listen, to put herself into situations that allow her to listen, to advocate, and to do the work. I can respect that.

So, not, it’s not a brilliant narrative, and she’s not the most lyrical writer. But it was still good to read.

Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin
First sentence: “I was born in Harlem thirty-one years ago.”
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Content: There is some use of the n-word. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

This is one of Baldwin’s earliest books, a series of essays reflecting on his life, thus far. I was published in the 1950s, and is really a product of its time, with the use of Negro and just the language in general.

Which means, I wanted to like it more than I actually did. I think the two best essays in the book are “The Harlem Getto”, a series of reflections after Baldwin’s father passed away, and “Equal in Paris” which is Baldwin’s experience on being arrested in Paris (for being an accomplice to steeling a sheet). Both are introspective and interesting. The rest, if I’m completely honest, I mostly skimmed.

Read The Fire Next Time. It’s the better book.

Audio Book: Untamed

by Glennon Doyle
Read by the author
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Or listen on Libro.fm
Content: There are several f-bombs as well as some mild swearing. There is talk of addiction. It’s in the Biography section of the bookstore.

Sometimes a book comes into your life at the right time. I picked this one up to fill out a category in the #ReadICT challenge — everyone’s reading it (or they were back in March, but who’s keeping track?) — and got something completely unexpected and absolutely needed.

I have heard of Glennon Doyle, but never read any of her work, so I was going into this blind. In a series of short essays (some longer than others), the book is essentially the story of her falling in love with a woman, divorcing her husband, and building an entirely new life. But it was about more than that: it was about taking back ownership of your decisions, your life, your feelings and not being “caged” by anything, whether it be society, religion, yourself. It’s a hard thing, being true to your own truest self. It’s much easier to lean on other people’s beliefs and perceptions of you. It doesn’t require the work of figuring things out for yourself. And I think that’s something I needed to hear right now.

I appreciated the humor of the book, the thoughtfulness, the encouragement. I adored Doyle’s honesty and forthrightness, and her willingness to be true to herself at all costs. She sounds like an imperfect but utterly remarkable woman. Doyle is also a good narrator, and I’m glad she read this one; it made it that much more personal.

I’m not sure this is a book for everyone, but I really enjoyed listening to it.

Audiobook: Over the Top

by Jonathan Van Ness
Read by the author
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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
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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.