Audio book: Talking to Strangers

by Malcolm Gladwell
Read by the author
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Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is swearing, including multiple f-bombs, and talk about sexual assault, abuse, and rape. It’s in the Sociology section of the bookstore.

I think I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell in the past, but it’s been a very long time. However, after listening to an interview with him on It’s Been a Minute, I kind of felt like this was an important book to read. And I’m so glad I chose it on audio; it was a fabulous way to experience this book.

Gladwell takes the arrest of Sandra Bland in Texas in 2015 and examines it to find out what went wrong. He comes up with three areas that affect the way we talk to strangers: human’s tendency to default to truth — we always believe that everyone else is on the level; the expectation of transparency — that our faces show our emotions the way the faces in movies and television do; and the idea of coupling — that there are certain things that go together, like crime and certain behaviors.

It’s a fascinating and revealing book, one that makes me believe that our current crisis with tribalism and police brutality really might boil down to an incredible lack of understanding all around. We don’t really get to know people anymore, and so we’re constantly surrounded by strangers. Which means, we’re constantly relying on these faulty “tools” that we use to get by in society.

The audio is fabulous as well; instead of reading the book straight, Gladwell uses original audio as much as possible, so that it has the feel of a podcast rather than an audiobook. I think it made for a better reading experience than if I had just read it outright. It definitely gave me much to think about.

Highly recommended.

The Good Luck Girls

by Charlotte Nicole Davis
First sentence: “It was easier, she’d been told, if you kept a tune in your head.”
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Content: There are illusions to sex and drinking, but none actual. There is also some mild swearing, It’s in the YA section (grades 6-8) of the bookstore.

The Good Luck Girls work at a Welcome House providing “services” to male clients. Most of them have been sold to the welcome house, because their family needs the money. Sisters Clementine and Aster — not their real names; they take on flower names when they’re sold to the house — decide to run when Clementine accidentally kills a “brag” — one of the men they service — which is not an easy feat. They end up taking three other girls with them when they get away, but they’re on the run from the law and the raveners — men who possess powers to create despair and pain — and in search of a bedtime story: Lady Ghost who is supposed to help girls like them.

It’s a long, dangerous path, and one that the girls can only make with the help of a ranger, Zee. Aster is the leader and our main character, and it’s interesting following the journey through her eyes. She doesn’t have the love arc (that belongs to other characters) or the sacrifice arc, but I do appreciate how she grows as a leader. She has difficult decisions to make, and I thought Davis did an excellent job giving Aster the complicated storyline.

It’s a good “road trip” story, with a hint of the old west. I liked that the girls were up against the patriarchy, even if Zee was a bit overhelpful. It made sense though, since the girls didn’t have much outside experience. As fantasy is a way to explore real world issues, this brings to light the plight of girls who are sold into sex work, and the ways in which they are kept captive.

It also works as a stand-alone, which is nice. I think there’s potential for a series, but there doesn’t have to be, and I find that immensely fulfilling.

A good debut.

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.

American Street

by Ibi Zoboi
First sentence: “If only I could break the glass separating me and Manman with my thoughts alone.”
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Content: There is a lot of swearing, including multiple f-bombs, some violence against women, some inference to sex, and drug use. It’s in the Teen section (grades 9+) of the bookstore.

Fabiola has just arrived in America from Haiti, nominally because she and her mother are finally joining her mother’s sister and family. Fab’s Aunt Jo has failing health and her mom is going to come take care of everyone. Except that the last time Fab’s mom was in America — when Fabiola was born — she overstayed her visa. So, she was flagged at customs and now is in detention, and so Fabiola has to face her aunt and cousins — whom she’s never actually met, though they’ve talked on the phone — and the new and scary America alone.

It’s not an easy transition; although Fab has been going to an English private school in Haiti, that’s not the same as a private school in Detroit. And she has to deal with the cultural differences between Haiti and America. And it doesn’t help that her cousin Donna’s boyfriend is a drug dealer, and a cop has approached Fab in order to get information.

It’s a tough book to read — I had to read in small snippets, and I was never fully immersed, but I admit this is not a book that reflects my life. That said, I think Zoboi did a remarkable job capturing the difficulties that not just immigrants face but class divisions and the things that people do just to stay afloat. The family connections that come up between friends, and the ways in which people — no, black people — who are struggling will keep an eye out for each other because there just isn’t anyone else. There’s a lot here about racism and class, and immigrants, and family. There’s a slight bit of magical realism; Fab practices Vodou, and I’m glad that Zoboi included that because it’s nothing like the representations I’ve been exposed to (yeah, in the movies). I appreciated that education.

I’ve read Zoboi’s other books, but had never read this one, and I’m glad I have now. It’s excellent.

Look Both Ways

by Jason Reynolds
First sentence: “This story was going to begin like all the best stories.”
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Review copy provided by the publisher.
Content: There are some tough subjects, like bullying and parents with cancer. It’s in both the YA (grades 6-8) and the middle grade (grades 3-5) sections of the bookstore.

The format of this book is really the highlight: it’s a series of ten interconnected short stories, based out of a school, and following kids as they go home after school one day. One story for either one kid or a group of kids per block.

It’s a clever premise, and one that shuns the large (a school bus fell from the sky is the underlying “What?” of this story) in favor of the small stories. It’s the story of a girl writing in a notebook, observing things and collecting data on the way home (and a side note in another story about how she is “mysterious”). It’s about the troublemakers who are always stealing loose change, and where they go after school and what they do with the money. It’s about older siblings who have died, or kids getting beat up for defending a boy-on-boy not-quite kiss. It’s simple and deep and profound and lighthearted all at once. Which is why, I think, Reynolds is one of the brilliant writers out there.

Will kids read it? I don’t know. I hope so. It would be perfect for school book groups, and for parent-children discussions. And it’s a good reminder that everything — and everyone — isn’t always what it looks like.

Audiobook: The Book of Delights

by Ross Gay
Read by the author
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: It’s irreverent and sweary, including multiple f-bombs.

I was having a week where I was angry at everything. Did not matter what it was, I was just in a constant state of pissed-off-ness. I was scrolling through my audio books, and I landed on this one. “Hm,” I thought to myself, “maybe I need this one.”

I vaguely knew about Gay going in because he visited the store, and a lot of the staff really loved him. (A lot of the customers, too.) But I wasn’t ready for this book back in April, when it came out. I did, however, need it now.

The basic premise is that Gay, a black poet, spent a year — from his 42nd birthday to his 43rd — writing small essays on the things that delight him. Sometimes they wander into memories, sometimes into ruminations on race or the nature of Joy. Sometimes it was just him expressing delight in a simple touch, or the sharing of a flower, or conversation.

Whatever it was, it was all particularly delightful, especially as read by Gay. His reading, for me, was everything. He made me think, he made me laugh, and he made me look for the delights in my own life. (If you want a sample of him reading, check out his poem To the Fig Tree on the Corner of 9th and Christian.)

This book is, simply, a delight.

Audio book: Red at the Bone

by Jacqueline Woodson
Read by: Jacqueline Woodson, Bahni Turpin, Shayna Small, Peter Francis James, and Quincy Tyler Burnstine.
Support your local independent bookstore: buy it there!
Or listen at Libro.fm
Content: There is some on-screen sex as well as swearing, including multiple f-bombs. It’s in the adult fiction section of the bookstore.

I’m at a loss to talk about this one plot-wise. It jumps back and forth through time, starting in 2001, at Melody’s “coming of age ceremony”, where she’s wearing the dress her mother, Iris, wasn’t able to wear, because she was pregnant with Melody and didn’t get a ceremony. It gives us glimpses into the inner lives of Iris and Melody, but also Iris’s parents, and Aubrey, Melody’s father. It’s an introspective novel; nothing really happens, but Woodson’s tight writing and way of observing human nature still allows us to get to know these characters and understand their motivations.

I thoroughly enjoyed the audio book, partially because Woodson’s writing is a joy to listen to, and partially because the different narrators helped keep the story straight. (I was talking to a co-worker who said she was having trouble with this one because she didn’t know which chapter was from which point of view — Woodson, unlike other writers, doesn’t do any favors by telling us at the outset who is narrating, instead making us do the work of figuring it out.) It was short, and to the point, and I liked listening to this one family’s story through the years.

Recommended, particularly in audio.