Audiobook: Make Your Bed

by Admiral William H. McRaven
Read by the author
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Content: There’s nothing that wouldn’t be applicable to anyone ages, say, 14 and up. It’s in the giftbook section (graduation, really) of the bookstore.

This slim book is based on a graduation address Admiral McRaven gave back in 2014 to the University of Texas at Austin. It’s a simple premise: 10 life lessons McRaven learned while training and serving as a Navy SEAL commander. It’s direct, no-nonsense, and incredibly insightful. The lessons really are easy: make your bed, work together, look at a person’s heart not their size, don’t lose yourself in adversity, and so on. In the book, he expounds on these points with stories from his experience as a SEAL, both in training and in combat. It’s excellent. (In short: it’s the military book I’ve been wanting to read.) McRaven reads his work, and he’s a good reader as well: he knows how to draw a listener in, and it gives it that personal touch that puts this short book (the audio was a little over an hour) over the top.

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Lone Survivor

lonesurvivorby Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson
First sentence: “Would this ever become easier?”
Content: It’s a non-fiction military book so there is a lot of harsh situations and swearing. It’s in the biography section of the bookstore.

No, this is not my usual reading. But I figured I’d branch out and give something that’s completely outside of my comfort zone a try. And I was willing to read this story of a Navy SEAL and their mission to capture and kill Osama bin Laden. I’d like to think I went in with an open mind, willing to hear Luttrell’s story, to listen to the justifications for war, and to try and understand what makes someone become a Navy SEAL.

And at the beginning I was mostly okay with it. I was fascinated and impressed with his recounting of his training, of the hardships he had to endure. But, the longer I read this the more one thing bugged me: this book didn’t have an editor. And it was driving. me. nuts.

“Didn’t have an editor” is an assumption. I’m sure someone went through for spelling and punctuation. But what was missing was a cohesiveness, a tightness to the story. Luttrell would repeat himself time and time again. He’d go off on a pages-long rant on the “liberal media” (two words I’m tired of hearing together; what they really mean is corporate east-coast based media, and that includes Fox News). He would quote someone and then have a paragraph explaining how this wasn’t accurate but you get the gist. In short: the publishing company did Luttrell a disservice for not giving him a good editor and making him tighten up his writing: Luttrell sounded much less intelligent than I am guessing he is. No, he’s not a writer. I get that. That’s why publishing houses hire ghost writers (and if this is Robinson’s doing, then he’s not a very good ghost writer): to make the “celebrity” story more cohesive.  It just got to a point where I couldn’t stand the circular writing, the opinionizing, and the plain bad editing.

Which is sad, because I think Luttrell’s story is a valuable one. I just wish I could have gotten through the book.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

billylynnby Ben Fountain
First sentence: “The men of Bravo are not cold.”
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Content: Oh, the swearing! Lots and lots and lots. It’s in the adult fiction section at the bookstore.

This one is going to be tricky to sum up. It takes place over several hours, during a Thanksgiving day Dallas Cowboys football game in 2004. But, it’s more than that. It’s the story of the Bravo team in the Army who are on a Victory Tour after a battle in Al-Ansakar, in which one of their members was killed. It’s the story of Billy, a 19-year-old who enlisted after he was arrested for smashing out the windows of his sister’s awful boyfriend. (It was either the Army or jail.) It’s the story of Billy’s relationship to his family, and the people who are concerned about him going back to the war. It’s the story of a post 9/11 America, of the people who were so patriotic and so gung-ho about the war and the conflict between their vision of the war and the reality that Bravo experiences.

I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is in portraying a military experience, but I found it fascinating. I enjoyed getting to know Billy and the Bravos (I especially liked their sergeant, Dime.) and learning Billy’s backstory (his father was especially awful). I was fascinated by the contradiction between military life and civilian life; those of us not in the military really do take things for granted, and no amount of  patriotic “I support the troops” will change that. I don’t know if Fountain’s objective was to make that division clear, but that’s what came through to me. That all the things we, as civilians, usually do to call ourselves patriotic (flying the flags, saying we support the troops, etc.) pales in comparison to what those who actually join the military do. They’re the ones who put their lives on the line, every day. And flying the flag and saying we love the USA is nothing in comparison.

It got me thinking, anyway, which is a hallmark of a good book.

Fish in a Tree

by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
First sentence: “It’s always there.”
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Content: The chapters are short, and while there are some bigger words, there’s nothing that a 3rd grader couldn’t handle. It’s in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

Ally doesn’t like school. Part of that is the result of her moving so much — her dad’s in the military, currently deployed in Iraq/Afghanistan (it didn’t say; I’m assuming this) — of it is because Ally can’t read. It’s a fact she’s hidden by becoming a troublemaker and through her art, but whenever she tries to read, the words swim, her head hurts, and she just. can’t. do. it.

Enter in Mr. Daniels, the permanent sub for her regular sixth-grade teacher who’s off on maternity leave. He picks up on Ally’s defense mechanisms, and realizes that there’s more going on than meets the eye. He espouses the believe that not everyone’s smart in the same way (yay for that!), and draws on Ally’s strength, giving her the confidence to make friends — Albert, the science geek, and Keisha, a baker extraordinaire — and to stand up to the classroom bully, Shay.

There are some nitpicky things that bothered me throughout that kept me from loving this as much as I wanted to. First, why did the teacher have to be male? I’m torn on this one: on the one hand, it’s showing a man doing things that are “normally” reserved for women. He’s concerned about his students, he’s caring, and he reaches out. Not to mention that he’s a man in a female-heavy profession. However, it seems to me in books like this — where a teacher saves a struggling student — the teacher is always male. It’s the men who get to think outside the box, who find ways to connect with the struggling students, who make changes within the system. And that bothered me.

Additionally, there’s a point when Albert comes out of his shell to fight back against his bullies, in order to protect Ally and Keisha from them. Perhaps that was in character for Albert, but it bothered me deeply. Why did he need to protect them? I initially thought it was because they were his friends — maybe he’d do the same for boys who were his friends — but then he says something about “never hitting a girl”and I cringed.

On the other hand, I was glad that Hunt included a broad spectrum of personalities and classes: there are people who are hyper, middle of the road kids, rich kids, kids on free lunches. The usual suspects — drugs, bad parents, etc –aren’t anywhere to be seen. The focus, really, is on celebrating our differences, and recognizing that intelligence isn’t tied to doing well on tests. And that’s worth celebrating.

So, while it’s an uneven book, I’m glad it’s out there.

The Penderwicks in Spring

by Jeanne Birdsall
First sentence: “Only one low mound of snow still lurked in Batty Pederwick’s yard, under the big oak tree out back, and soon that would be gone if Batty continued to stomp on it with such determination.”
Support your local independent bookstore: read it there!
Review copy intercepted when opening freight at my place of employment.
Release date: March 24, 2015
Others in the series: The Penderwicks, The Penderwicks on Gardham Street, The Penderwicks at Pointe Mouette
Content: It’s a bit more advanced than the younger end of the reading spectrum can handle by themselves, but it makes a wonderful read-aloud. It will be in the middle grade (grades 3-5) section of the bookstore.

The Penderwicks are back! I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. So SO very happy. In fact, I sat down and devoured this book in one day, and then was immediately sad because I should have savored it.

It’s been four years since the last Penderwicks book, and the girls have aged appropriately. Rosalind is off at college, Skye is a senior in high school (as is Jeffrey) and Jane is a junior. That leaves Batty as a fifth grader, the oldest of the younger Penderwicks, her step-brother 8-year-old Ben, and their half sister, two year old Lydia. That’s a lot of responsibility for Batty, who is used to being the youngest. Add to that her beloved Hound’s death (six months prior), and Batty finds herself struggling this spring.

She does make some good discoveries. Their neighbor Nick Geiger has come home from a tour in Iraq, and he inserts himself in the lives of the Penderwicks with nothing but wonderful results. And even though Skye is having some issues with Jeffrey and Jane is surrounded by boys and Rosalind brings home an absolutely awful boy from college, Batty’s finding her own way.

The most wonderful thing about this book is that’s it’s just as good as all the other Penderwicks books. Birdsall is such a fantastic author, capturing the innocence of childhood as well as the more complex of emotions: frustration with being young, a bit of despair, a bit of helplessness. It’s a funny book — the Penderwicks are witty and wonderful — but it’s also one that tugged at my heartstrings and made me cry in the end.  It’s honest, and simple, and absolutely wonderful.

The Port Chicago 50

by Steve Sheinkin
First sentence: “He was gathering dirty laundry when the bombs started falling.”
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Content: There’s some disturbing moments, not only violence, but also racism. I was made uncomfortable by it (which I think was the point). There is also about four censored f-bombs. Sheinkin is masterful at simplifying data  without being simplistic, so I think this is suitable for 5th grade on up. It’s in the Middle Grade History section at the bookstore.

During the summer of 1944, on a little-known port in the San Francisco Bay where Navy ships were loaded with ammunition, an enormous explosion happened. So large that it killed more than 300 men were killed, the pier and the docked ship were obliterated, and men in the barracks were injured, some severely.

It sounds like a tragedy, but nothing too serious. Except for this fact: of the 320 men who were killed, 202 of them were African American men who had signed up for the Navy and had been relegated to the dangerous job of loading the ammunition. The way the Navy worked in 1944 was that the white men got to serve on the ships; the black ones were segregated out and assigned the menial tasks the white sailors didn’t want.

But it gets better. The men who survived the blast were shuttled to a nearby port, and even though they were suffering trauma from the blast (who wouldn’t be), the were ordered to go back to loading the ships. Fifty sailors flat out refused orders. So they were put on trial for mutiny. And convicted. Even though there was never any plot to defy their superiors or take over the base. They just were tired of being treated differently than the white sailors and wanted to know why.

Some good came out of this: because the Secretary of the Navy was a (mostly) reasonable man (and because Eleanor Roosevelt got involved) the Navy (and soon after the rest of the military) was one of the first places that was desegregated in the country.  But, was the price of being convicted mutineers and spending 16 months in jail too high?

Sheinkin doesn’t whitewash anything that happened during those months and years surrounding the Port Chicago 50 trial. He lets the Naval officers stand for themselves (and any reasonable person would see that they were IDIOTS. Or maybe that was just me), and lets the trial transcripts stand for themselves. Thurgood Marshall even got involved, trying to get the government and the military (the officers of which come off as a bunch of racists; I was going to use a stronger word, but changed my mind) to exonerate these men for being human. Sheinkin pointed out that this was the first event on the long path of the Civil Rights movement, which was something I didn’t know, and something we don’t often remember in history books.

It’s extremely well-written and as intriguing as Sheinkin’s other works. He’s a masterful history writer, and knows just how to make things interesting and informative without being dry.

Excellent.

Audiobook: The Cuckoo’s Calling

by Robert Galbraith
read by Robert Glenister
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Content: None of the murders are grisly — they’re all alluded to — and there’s some talk of sex, but none actual on screen. However, the language is very adult (including many, many f-bombs), and for that reason, it’s in the mystery section (well, also because it’s a mystery) of the bookstore.

Cormoran Strike is hard up on his luck. Retired from the military due to an accident in which he lost part of his leg, and recently broken up with his posh, upper class girlfriend, the only thing Strike has is his private detective practice. And even that’s not doing terribly well. He can’t afford the temporary secretary that’s shown up, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to default on the loan his estranged (but famous) father gave him.

Things are looking pretty down when John Bristow, adopted brother of supermodel Lula Landry walks in Strike’s office with an incredible story. Bristow claims that the police have it wrong: that Landry’s death was not a suicide as originally thought, but rather murder. Someone pushed her off her third floor balcony to her death. The question is: who?

I really didn’t have expectations going into this one. I knew it was J. K. Rowling but I don’t really read many mysteries, so I wasn’t dying to get to this one. But, when I saw the audio book, I figured it was worth a try. I didn’t love it, but I was intrigued by it.

Perhaps it was because I knew it was Rowling before I went in, but I could tell that it was Rowling’s work. The way she described things (and because it’s audio, I don’t have a handy example) felt similar to the Harry Potter books. That, and she really does have a gift for names. The plotting was good as well; she kept up a good pace, and even though there were some bits that weren’t vitally necessary, it wasn’t under-edited. And the twist at the end didn’t come out of nowhere; something which was incredibly important to me.

I did feel like she under-utilized the administrative assistant, Robin. She gave us background on her, and made her a sympathetic character, but really didn’t have her do much of anything. I kept waiting for a grand Robin Moment that never quite came. The narration was excellent; I was impressed with the range of accents and voices that Glenister could do; perhaps one of the reasons I stayed interested in the book was because his narration was so compelling.

That said, it was a good, solid mystery. Nothing too spectacular, but nothing mundane or pedantic. Which means it’s just about right.