My rating system:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite

5 - average for what I read

1 – terrible; why did I finish it?

 

A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline – This was a wonderful piece of fiction. Based on the painting “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth, the novel tells Christina’s life story. It’s done with sensitivity, with heartbreaking details, and realism. Christina suffers from an unknown illness that makes it hard for her to use her arms and legs, and she struggles with other people’s pity and attitudes. I found it very hard to put down, and even better than “Orphan Train” by the same author. Grade: 8

 

Hunger by Roxane Gay – How is this book so good? There are many memoirs out there but none like this. There are many books out there about women struggling to deal with the aftermath of rape, struggling to love their bodies and deal with pain, memoirs of people just telling you the truth of their lives and letting you inside their heads. There are many memoirs by people who ultimately do not triumph. But none are really like this. I can’t say quite why Gay’s book is so outstanding, but her writing itself is a cut above the prose in almost any other memoir. There are many gobsmacked reviews on Goodreads, here’s a bit from one of them: “It is not a memoir that asks for our pity, or tries to manipulate the reader, it is simply a woman's truth.” And “I was glued to the pages, completely rapt, as the author used words to create a plethora of emotions and reveal things about the world we live in.” Sorry for quoting from other people’s reviews; I do that when a book is too awesome. Grade: 9

And now, a digression…

Given the above two books, and “Saga” on the last book report, how am I supposed to enjoy any other books now? The struggle is real, nothing’s measuring up now! Here’s a rundown of books I started to read after the above but couldn’t finish.

There was a book about women pirates – well-researched but didn’t hold my interest; it just skipped around from one similar story to another until they kind of all blurred together. A young adult novel about a gay teen – great topic but bogged down with uninteresting details, and the writing (especially the dialog) was embarrassing. A book meant to inspire people to become their own superheroes but was really an excuse for the solipsist author to talk about her amazing self. (Blech).  A book of essays which started out strong, full of incisive observations and strong cultural commentary, but after a few good ones the book got filled with the author’s reviews of books and movies  - books and movies which I’d never seen or read (and most I’d never even heard of), so I just couldn’t relate or see a good reason to keep reading. A work of fiction that involved talking animals, and sorry – I hate talking animals, your book has to be otherwise amazing in order for me to read it if it’s got talking animals.  A work of fiction narrated by a character who is a drug addict – it was immediate, sexy and daring, consisting of mostly brief paragraphs, snippets of her day. Not bad, but again it got very repetitive and plus I knew exactly where it was going and just wanted off that ride.

 

There are always books that I start but don’t finish; I am the first person to say that life is short and I’m not going to force myself to finish anything I don’t wish to. But dang, I’ve outdone myself lately with giving something the ax if I don’t love it! I guess each book just has too much great competition. And there are more good books below!

 

Okay, back to the book report. Here was another good one:

I Will Always Write Back by Caitlin Alifirenka, Martin Ganda, and Liz Welch – A true story told in chapters that alternate between Caitlin’s perspective and Martin’s. Caitlin is a well-off young student in the US, and Martin is an impoverished student in Zimbabwe. Both of their schools unroll an optional pen-pal program, they are matched to each other, and develop a friendship through their letters. Although Martin doesn’t write about it directly, it eventually becomes clear that his family is impoverished, his entire country is struggling, and even being able to afford postage to the US is becoming a problem. Caitlin and her family want to help. Definitely a heartwarming story that reminded me that one person can make a difference in this world. Grade: 7

 

Believe Me by Eddie Izzard – A memoir by the renowned comedian. I loved hearing Eddie’s coming out story (he is trans), but oh man the book needed better editing. It’s way too long and has so many details. (Like a whole chapter about him playing football as a kid. There wasn’t anything special about it. He just played some football when he was a kid. If I ever write a memoir, I won’t include how I took piano lessons as a kid since it didn’t really impact my life that much). Only the obsessed fan will be able to make it through the whole thing.  I also expected a memoir by a comedian to be, well, funnier. I think Rachel Dratch did the perfect comedian memoir: it was hilarious, it was broken down into the most intriguing parts of her life, there’s no filler. So, full disclosure: I didn’t read the entirety of Izzard’s book. But his parts on coming out were good. And as meh as the book was, it did inspire me to YouTube some of his performances and they are great.  Skip the book, re-watch some of Eddie’s performances instead. Grade: 3

 

Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright – Another fantastic book! The author makes a very grim topic readable, and truly at times hilarious. And yet it’s full of insight and research and just fascinating stuff about human history that we should know. Did you know that just about 100 years ago, a flu swept the US, killed more Americans than the number who died in the Civil War, no one really knows what caused it, what stopped it, or if it might strike again? And since World War I was going on, journalists were heavily censored and couldn’t even warn people to stay away from public places! Each chapter of the book covers a plague, like the one above – how people handled it, what we should know, just the interesting stuff. And I can’t say again how funny the writing is; I think I’d read anything she wrote. Grade: 9

 
It's hard to read any book after "Saga". None of them can compare.

How did the authors make me care about each character so much?

Book report

Jul. 1st, 2017 08:35 pm
 

My rating system:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite

5 - average for what I read

1 – terrible; why did I finish it?

 

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs – I listened to this book on audio, and it’s a work of non-fiction. Robert Peace was born in an African-American neighborhood in New Jersey that suffers from many of the problems urban America has: sub-par schools, jobs that don’t pay well, crumbling housing, Black men being locked up without fair trials, and more. Bolstered by a hard-working, self-sacrificing mother and by his own brains, Robert gets into better schools and seems on his way to a successful life when he lands a scholarship at a very prestigious university. And yet, the book’s title gives you something of a spoiler into what happens. Why was his life “short and tragic”? What would it have taken for him to rise above the odds? The book offers no easy answers but it is a fascinating character study, and a fascinating look at the reality of life in America for those who are born into poverty and with the wrong color skin.  The book may be sad, but I was completely taken in with it. One minor complaint: I would like to give a stern talking-to to whoever produced or directed the audio book. Each CD had just 2 or 3 tracks on it. Most tracks were really long (like 30 minutes), but some were just a minute or two. Makes no sense; good audio books have short and numerous tracks in case you need to pop out the CD and listen to something else. Well, I guess books on CD will go the way of music on 8-track cassettes so the point will be moot pretty soon. Grade: 8

 

Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit – A collection of essays by the acclaimed writer. The book was originally published in 2004 but updated with a new forward in 2016. The book is only 140 pages but it demands to be read slowly and carefully. I complied. I retyped passages that moved me and shared them on social media; it was that good. Solnit lays out the dangers of despair and gives real examples of how those who hope and work for a better future can stay committed and have hope that a better world is possible.  The book is not about rah-rah pie-in-the-sky optimism; Solnit’s examples of activism being successful are concrete, grounded, and global. Grade: 8

 

Hi, Anxiety by Kat Kinsmark – A memoir about the author struggling with anxiety and depression. We see how it impacts her day to day life, and the challenges of everything from going to the doctor to trying to keep her conditions a secret. It was well-written and eye-opening. Grade: 7

 

Saga, Volumes 1  & 2 by Brian K Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples – Holy hell, this graphic novel is amazing! Thank you, Ann, for recommending it. The interstellar story of star-crossed lovers fighting the odds was lovely. The artwork was some of the best I’d ever seen. I’ve attempted to read graphic novels over the years where I can’t recognize the same character from panel to panel. This artwork was beautiful, each character drawn so well.  The storyline was fast-driving, and every single character felt fully realized. And all the different worlds and different species, and their interactions, were so imaginative. Can’t wait to see what happens next!! Best thing I’ve read in a while. Grade: 9

 

Daughter of Kura by Debra Austin – It’s been too long since I’ve read a good novel taking place during pre-history. This book’s setting is half a million years ago in Southeast Africa. The protagonist lives in a matrifocal society and, as granddaughter of the village’s leader, she is poised to someday be leader herself. But a strange man enters their village with some new ideas, and group cohesion starts to break down as a result. Since I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I glanced at a few reviews on Goodreads. Some criticized the book for its predictable plot (true) and lack of details. The author lays out, in an afterword, what we know about this time period and some things we can guess at – and perhaps she played it too safe, rarely taking educated guesses at details which would’ve rounded out the book and supplied more snapshots of the characters’ daily lives. (Some examples – we don’t know whether the characters wear clothes for warmth or decoration, whether they bathe for sanitation or vanity, whether or not they have attempted to domesticate animals or tried to create their own groves of edible plants). That is a legit criticism, and yet I have to say that I enjoyed the story she had to tell anyway. The book quenched my thirst for a good yarn taking place in pre-historic times, and let’s not forget that too many extraneous details can weigh a story down too. Bonus points for including characters who are attracted to members of the same sex. Grade: 7

 

My rating system:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite

5 - average for what I read

1 – terrible; why did I finish it?

 

Here We Are: Feminism for the Real World edited by Kelly Jensen – I hate to quote from the back cover, but I like its summary. It tells us that 44 writers, dancers, actors, and artists contribute essays, lists, poems, comics, and illustrations about everything from body positivity to romance to gender identity to intersectionality to the greatest girl friendships in fiction. My own thoughts: the above is an excellent summary. (Sidebar: why is Word flagging ‘intersectionality’ as a typo?? Get woke, Word!) Sure, the tone of this anthology was rather fun and breezy, but what’s wrong with that? I’m all in favor of the editor and writers bringing feminism to a broader audience. I can’t say I learned a ton of new stuff but I can say I enjoyed the book and found it refreshing. Grade: 7

 

I Almost Forgot About You by Terry McMillian – I listened to this book, by the bestselling author of “Waiting to Exhale”, on audio. The protagonist, Georgia, is 50-something and her life is just fine – she has a successful optometry practice, two divorces, two adult daughters who are well, and friends. But she’s bored too and searching for meaning. She gets the idea to reconnect with her ex-husbands and ex-boyfriends, and also to sell her practice, sell her house, and maybe travel by train across the US and Canada. I like the set-up, but plot-wise the book really dragged. Dialog was the biggest problem though because each character sounds the same. Georgia has a mother, 2 BFFs, and 2 daughters – and they all speak in a witty, acerbic-but-caring, “sassy” manner. You could pull dozens of pieces of dialog from this book and have no clue which character spoke which lines. And it actually gets tiresome, like ‘no more sarcastic banter, please!’ Compounding the problem, the exes who Georgia meets up with also all sound the same and like they’ve all somehow recently done an amazing amount of self-reflection. Wanted to love the book but it was dull. Grade: 3

 

Victoria the Queen by Julia Baird – A very detailed biography of England’s longest-serving monarch. Minus the pages of detailed notes, the book is 500 pages long. It’s pretty good. The author gives us an idea of who Queen Victoria really was, what she was like, and her impact. Baird also never shies away from controversy. The parts I enjoyed the most were Victoria’s private life: her relationship with her husband (it seems they were very much in love), her 9 kids, and her late in life friendship-that-likely-was-more with a Scottish man. Grade: 5

 

The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You by S. Bear Bergman – A series of essays by the trans writer. The essays are fairly insightful, sometimes funny or witty, once or a twice a bit too twee. But overall it’s a strong collection if you want to learn more about life for a trans/queer man. Grade: 6

 

Turning Japanese by Marinaomi – This is either a graphic novel or graphic memoir (the cover of the book says one thing, the spine another). The protagonist is part Japanese, she lives in San Jose, she and her boyfriend visit Japan and struggle a bit with a culture clash and each other. It was nice as a peek into someone else’s life but I’ll likely forget about it in a few months. Grade: 4

 

My rating system:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite

5 - average for what I read

1 – terrible; why did I finish it?

 

So Sad Today by Melissa Broder – This is a collection of essays, in which the author lays bare her life and her struggles – whether it’s insecurity or anxiety or depression or addition, she has faced it all. I know there are a lot of “disaster memoirs” out there; you know, the ‘look at me! I’m a mess! And/or my life has been so hard!’ But this book is far better than that. Honestly, Broder’s writing was addicting. I just had to keep reading to see how she is doing, what she’s dealing with and how she’s dealing with it. The book is raw and honest, and often hilarious. Grade: 8

 

The Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel – No clue why I finished this book. I think maybe I just kept hoping it would get better and amount to what its reviewers promised on the book’s jacket (“a silken web of intrigue”….”vibrant journey into the grandeur of the Tang Dynasty”). Anyway, the novel is historical fiction, centered around a young and beautiful woman who becomes concubine to the emperor in China centuries ago. It has every standard plot device you could imagine (a rival who hates our protagonist! A handsome young man who she can’t be with! Conspiracies against the emperor! Which our protagonist somehow gets pulled into.) But the story is so drawn out and boring and never builds to any sort of climax. Wish I had gone with my gut and abandoned it early on. Grade: 2

 

Comfort and Joy by Jim Grimsley – A novel taking place in contemporary times about two men who are in a relationship. One comes from lots of old Southern money and is closeted with his conservative family. The other comes from poverty and is sick. Good writing and fairly realistic characters, but the novel’s pace was slow as molasses. Grade: 3


Saving Alex by Alex Cooper – This is a memoir about a teenage girl who tells her Mormon parents that she’s gay, and they send her to stay with strangers who purport to “cure” her. Unsurprisingly, they abuse her and even torture her in the process. Needless to say it’s not very fun to read (or listen to on CD, as I did) although it is gripping and well-written. Grade: 8

 

This is Just My Face by Gabourey Sidibe – Three works of non-fiction in this report and all are memoirs. Maybe I need to branch out a bit, though Gabourey Sidibe would just tell me to unapologetically read what I want. Sidibe is the star of the movie “Precious” and is also on the show “Empire”, and this is her story. She’s funny, open, serious at times, insightful at times- really, it’s a great memoir. Grade: 8

Book report

May. 5th, 2017 10:09 am
 I seem to always have book reports ready on Fridays....

My rating system:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite

5 - average for what I read

1 – terrible; why did I finish it?

 

I can’t decide if I am too harsh when grading fiction, or if I just plain prefer non-fiction.

 

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain – A novel of historical fiction, which I listened to on audio. Gustav grows up in early 1950’s Switzerland, with a mother who doesn’t seem to love him and with a country reeling from World War II. He is told that his father was a hero who died saving Jews; Gustav’s best friend Anton is Jewish.  The plot is not hard-driving but it is….sufficient. Like just as I was getting bored there’d be an interesting revelation. The writing was top-notch as the author definitely makes me feel like the characters are real and human. I was brought to tears at one point and I’d definitely say there is heart in this book. Yet, I wanted more too, like as “nice” as the book is, it never reaches a crescendo or a moment of awe. Some revelations about the characters came too little too late. Grade: 5

 

The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North – A novel taking place in modern times, with each chapter narrated by an acquaintance of the titular character. Sophie is obsessed with the art of filmmaking; she also has trouble relating to people or expressing herself in any way other than film. She tends to mystify, disturb, and intrigue anyone around her. It was really well-written, and just like in the above novel, every character felt like an actual person. Grade: 6

 

Future Sex by Emily Witt –I perused reviews on “Goodreads” because this is a hard book to review or even describe. But I don’t want to just paste in other people’s thoughts, so let me try my best. The gist of the book is that life for folks in their 20’s and 30’s is less prescribed and more uncertain than those of previous generations, when it comes to love and sex. So the author sets out to explore a few topics in depth because she herself isn’t sure how she feels about the complicated topics. Each chapter focuses on a different angle, such as an in-depth look at the porn hub kink.com to sex at Burning Man to the world of webcams. What did I like about the book? I love reading about people who are outside of the mainstream – especially their love and sex lives. Although Witt would probably argue that the mainstream is feeling outside of the mainstream. (Sidebar, just had a flashback to Kate Pierson of the B-52’s in 1990 saying that people who feel outside of the mainstream are the mainstream, though she was talking about it in more of a freak-and-geeks sort of way, not specifically pertaining to people’s love lives and sex lives. Does every generation feel that most folks are feeling excluded from the mainstream?). Each chapter is well-written and interesting. As for a downside to the book, I will repeat something I read on Goodreads a lot (and strongly felt myself), the book is depressing. I think it’s both Witt’s writing style and the subject matter, but she doesn’t convey energy or positivity, just kind of like a bleak rendering of a picture. Grade: 7

 

I Will Find You by Joanna Connors – In 1984, the author was raped at knifepoint. She decides, a few decades later, to go back and try to learn about the man who did this to her. Early on in the book, we learn that he was sentenced to decades in prison and died of cancer while incarcerated but Connors still wants to learn what his life was like. The book is very compelling and hard to put down. Needless to say, I felt fury while reading about her rape. One sad thing is despite having a pretty airtight case and despite working with some good professionals along the way, the author also faced some horrible treatment while/after reporting the assault. I agree with Jon Krakauer’s words on the cover: “Magnificent, necessary, unflinchingly honest.” Grade: 8

 

The Story of Jane by Laura Kaplan – In Chicago in the late 1960’s and early 70’s, a group of women decided they’d had enough of seeing women maimed and hurt by not beign able to get safe, legal abortions. So they decided to create a service called Jane. They spoke with women and helped them find abortionists who were safe. They operated under constant threat of being arrested and of seeing something medically go wrong. This book is the group’s story, written by one of its members. The book was published 20 years ago but is more relevant than ever today, and is really captivating. The book was an action-filled recap of a team functioning, of their struggles, and triumphs. I loved it. Grade: 8

Time for another book report

My rating system:
10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer – You probably know who Amy Schumer is. This is her collection of essays on a variety of topics. As one reviewer said, whether she's experiencing lust-at-first-sight while in the airport security line, sharing her own views on love and marriage, admitting to being an introvert, or discovering her cross-fit instructor's secret bad habit, Amy Schumer proves to be a bighearted, brave, and thoughtful storyteller. I liked the book. It was funny but serious at times. Most of the essays ranged from good to fascinating (a few standouts: a section on how she became a famous comedian and a section on the Tea Party-loving man who shot and killed two women at a screening of Amy’s movie). I think Amy is cool. Grade: 8

How to Be Alive by Colin Beavan – This is a great book about how to chart a path to finding a satisfying and fulfilling life. Beavan isn’t interested in the traditional societal definitions of success. He wants to help you if you’re looking for more meaning and joy while also wanting to address the crises and challenges in our world such as climate change and racism. Although it wasn’t the right book for me – I’m in a really good place right now both on personal happiness and on spending time working with groups trying to make a difference – it was written really well and was refreshing and heartening to read. Grade: 8

My Last Continent by Midge Raymond – A unique and interesting novel taking place in modern times. Deb is an introvert and a researcher of birds; she makes several trips to Antarctica to study penguins. She meets and becomes romantically involved with Keller, another American who spends part of the year working in Antarctica. Both are concerned with the destruction of the penguins’ habitat, and things get even more complicated when cruise ships start invading the area but don’t know how to navigate the harsh conditions. I loved the characters, the setting, and the pace at which the author moved the plot. My only gripe is that each chapter jumped around in time, and although the start of the chapter tells you when it takes place in relation to a major plot point, I still would’ve preferred less jumping. Grade: 7

Kisses from Katie by Katie Davis – This is definitely not the kind of book I usually read. It’s a memoir of a young woman who went to Uganda at the age of 18 and devoted her life to serving Jesus and helping Uganda’s poor. She adopts several orphaned girls, runs a school, goes into slums with a mobile medical clinic, and does anything else she can to help. I admit, I don’t often read books by folks who are this devout, who talk about living as a servant of Jesus and carrying out his will. Nothing against them, it’s just not my thing. And I just finished reading an issue of the left-leaning magazine “Shameless”, and I know there’s plenty in this book that Shameless writers would disagree with (the author says she wants to be Black in heaven. And at the end of the day she’s still a missionary which many see as problematic {too many missionaries are like “I’ll help you if and when you convert to my religion”}). But. I couldn’t put the book down. Davis went all out to care for children who were poor, sick, and hungry. She gave up a life of material comfort to bring God’s love to people. Devout Christian or not, you have to admire what she does and how she wholeheartedly lives the best parts of Christianity. The constant references to God and to her religion get annoying, but that is what brought her to Uganda and what drives her. Also, her tidbits of day to day life in an Ugandan slum are fascinating. Grade: 7

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by Charles Duhigg - This book provides a framework for understanding how habits work, and a guide for understanding how they might change. Plenty of illustrative examples. I need to see if I can now put it into play to stop pushing my cuticles back! Grade: 7
Once again it's Friday and I have no plans. But I do have 5 more books under my belt!

My rating system:
10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

A Study of Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas – This was a new twist on Sherlock Holmes, staring a female Holmes (and a female Watson). Reading it, I felt like I do with many mysteries – I tried to catch clues and figure it out, but I would’ve needed to make a chart of every detail presented in order to solve it. (Which makes me think maybe I shouldn’t read mysteries? I mean if I’m not going to try to figure it all out, why bother?) And a nitpick: the start of the novel is very confusing with lots of characters and scenarios thrown at you and it doesn’t start to jell at all for a while; the author doesn’t give us an easy entry into her characters’ world. But still, it was pretty engaging. Grade: 5

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Stein – This is a memoir in the format of a series of essays, by a stand-up comedian who has written for a lot of shows like SNL. Despite her impressive resume, I’d never heard of her so my initial impression of the book was based off the book’s jacket, in which the author is described as a tomboy who grew up to become a “tom man.” I felt I got a bit of “bait and switch” from that, because pretty soon after adulthood hits, we hear of Stein buying designer dresses, getting her pubes waxed, going to really heavy-duty exercise classes specifically to chisel her butt (like not to improve her health; she tells us she’s only going there to get her butt to look good), and shopping at Victoria’s Secret. So JK on the “tom man” thing then? (I even googled pictures of her and she is beautiful. It’s so sad that she didn’t or doesn’t think she is. Our world is crazy, as are our standards of beauty). So I was a bit put off by all that, but then I reminded myself to give Stein a break. Maybe whoever wrote the jacket got carried away. She’s got a lot of funny and insightful moments in here too; I even LOL-ed a few times. She had a great essay on porn, as she feels similar how I do about it (she likes some of it, but realizes that a lot of it degrades women and has become so commonplace, really impacting a lot of people’s sex lives). Grade: 7

The Linnet Bird by Linda Hollman – A nice work of historical fiction, set in 1830’s England. The protagonist is born poor and her mother dies when she’s young, leaving Linnet with an abusive stepfather. I have to admit I’ve read lots of novels staring similarly-situated young women, and as the story progressed I worried a few times that this would be your typical story where our helpless heroine is saved by a big, strong man. But the author, thankfully, had more in mind than this familiar storyline. Any time Linnet is saved it’s due to her own smarts. The author skillfully kept the plot moving rapidly and tossed in a few surprises. I really enjoyed it, and yet I should probably add that if it weren’t for these book reports, this is the type of book I’d likely forget that I’d ever read, in a year or less. Grade: 6

Breaking Night by Liz Murray – A memoir by a woman who was born into very hard circumstances (parents were both drug addicts, mother died young, they were often homeless). The book’s cover tells us “from homeless to Harvard”, and indeed Murray eventually finds an ‘alternative’ high school, graduates from it, and gets a scholarship to Harvard. Feeling down about humanity, I needed a good uplift and this book provides it. Once people at Murray’s alternative school and others heard about her circumstances, she is showered with gifts and help. So that was cool. If I wanted to nitpick, I’d say that the author paints herself as a bit too perfect as a kid – like she’s never mad at her mom for being a drug-addict who neglects her children, she is endlessly patient. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know, or maybe an editor succumbed to the temptation to make Murray seem a bit too good to be true. Regardless, I’m glad I read her book; it was – yeah – inspirational. Also, sounds like we need more high schools like hers! Gotta wonder how many others could succeed as she did if they found their way to a school like the one she found. Grade: 7

Heft by Liz Moore - I listened to this novel on audio, and it's about two men who have never met each other but whose lives are intertwined because of a woman. Arthur is lonely, housebound, and very "obese". Kel is a teenager whose mother was a student - and later friend - of Arthur's; Kel's mother has become an alcoholic. I have to say that Kel wasn’t credible to me as a character – he’s just too sensitive, too sweet, too caring of his mother without ever being angry at her. He's also boring - his segments go on for too long and I found myself saying "Move it along, Kel!" a few times. As for Arthur, I was worried the author would make him into a caricature of a fat person, but she didn't; he actually felt like a fully-realized and sympathetic person. I'd say the book was good enough, though I wish it had been mainly about Arthur. Grade: 4

Book Report

Jan. 2nd, 2017 08:49 am
Another Book Report already? Having 13 days in a row off work will do that, give you plenty of time to read.

My rating system:
10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

An Undisturbed Peace by Mary Glickman – A work of historical fiction. In the 1830’s, young Abe is sent by his mother to America to escape England’s anti-Semitism and find success. He meets a Native American woman, Dark Water, and falls in love with her – but America’s war against Indians is in full swing and she, and her people, will soon be faced with forced deportation. Dark Water has her own backstory including a true love, Jacob, who is a Black slave from whom she is estranged. This should have added up to a great book, but something about the way it was written was just a bit off. Most of the story is told to Abe as flashbacks – he will go away for a bit, find Dark Water or Jacob again, learn a bit more about what had happened years ago, then it starts over again – more finding someone, more flashbacks to what Abe missed. I found all the flashbacks jarring and the novel didn’t flow well. Grade: 4

You Can’t Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson – I have to quote from the back cover because it sums the book up so well: “Being a black woman in America means contending with old prejudices and new absurdities every day. Comedian Phoebe Robinson….is ready to take these topics to the page and make you laugh as she does so.” The book is a series of essays, and they are both serious and funny. Robinson calls out the racists and sexists, and does it in a readable and funny way. Grade: 8

Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel – Just as the title promises, this is a US-based history of dating. The author looks at the history of sex and love in modern America, and does an admirable job of including all races and sexual orientations. There’s one thing missing from the book, and this is a personal (and maybe unpopular) opinion: the notion that dating can be fun and healthy. When I meet a couple, one of the first things I do is ask how they met. Maybe they “dated” at one point or maybe not, but I think the quest to find someone you really click with can be...kinda cool. This book makes dating sound exhausting, sexist, stupid, shallow. Maybe it is for 90% of the population on most of their dates, and I was crazy to have enjoyed it to an extent, who knows? (Also, apart from that, the book got a little boring at times, so that’s why the grade isn’t higher). Grade: 4

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood – Whenever I do these reviews, I use my own words to talk about the books – but every now and then, I paste in a review I read on the internet if I think I really need to. So this is a novel, perhaps a cross between the horror and dystopian genres. The plot is this: several women are kidnapped and brought to a compound in the middle of nowhere, where their captors keep them under brutal conditions. Yeah, as you can tell, it’s not exactly a joy to read. But it is very literary. Okay, and now some help from a reviewer online since I do want to do the book justice: “It is an unflinching indictment of modern culture and both men and women are accountable. What is the "natural" way of things? Is it for men to subjugate women and women to be sex objects and servants? Wood spins the story almost as an allegory, myth, or fairy-tale, but the message is like a baseball bat to the head. It is important to address some of the harsh truths presented in this story; that women have been complicit in their own enslavement, allowing themselves to be viewed as sex objects, in fact aiding and abetting this with everything from lipstick to plastic surgery. Women aid and abet body-shaming, not just for non-centerfold bodies, but also shame for the very fact of being female; menstruation, childbirth, body hair. In “The Natural Way of Things”, Wood imagines what happens when civilization goes away, when basic needs are threatened. Is our "natural" state more akin to animals? Is our compassion and humanity toward each other enhanced or suppressed? Do our captors become themselves enslaved by the infrastructure/culture they have created?.... “The Natural Way of Things” should be on every Book Club list, but be prepared for controversy, denial and despair. The book does not provide answers, but honest conversation, might.” That sums it up well. Not a pleasant read but certainly unforgettable. Grade: 7

However Long the Night: Molly Melching’s Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph by Aimee Molloy – I mentioned that the above book was not pleasant but was unforgettable. But this book is both pleasant and unforgettable. I first heard about the organization called Tostan when reading “Half the Sky” – the authors of “Half the Sky” said that the work being done by Tostan could eliminate the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) rapidly, similar to how foot binding was done away with within a generation. I’d rather have a root canal than read details about FGC, but somehow this book, “However Long the Night”, is very readable. It details the work done by Tostan and the life of its founder and driving force, Molly Melching. It’s wonderful to read. Melching is a powerhouse. She could’ve been content with an easy life in suburban Illinois but she had a passion for living in new places, learning languages, meeting people. As a college student she ended up in the African country of Senegal in the 1970’s and never left, finding something about the people and their sense of community that clicked with her. She worked with and then founded organizations to help the people, first with literacy and then with empowerment, working to find ways to teach them about human rights and dignity. That work led the communities themselves to learn more about FGC – something that was never openly discussed, just done to every female – to question it, and then to agree to abandon it, community by community. I could go on and on, but I’ll just say that the book flows really well, powered by the very compelling story of Melching’s life and the work she has done. One of those books where I enjoyed every page and felt inspired at the possibilities of real change and progress. Grade: 9
I periodically post reviews of books I've read. Here's the latest bunch - and first, the ratings scale:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue – I’m so admiring Emma Donoghue’s talent! In this novel, our protagonist is a 19th century nurse who has taken on an unusual assignment: go to a remote town in Ireland and observe an 11 year old girl who claims she has lived for months off of no food. Things are not what they seem, and everyone – including the nurse and her charge – has secrets. Another great, well-written, page-turning novel. I don’t give too many grades of 9, but - Grade: 9

Most Wanted by Lisa Scottoline – I listened to this on audio. A tale taking place in modern times, it centers around a woman named Christine. When the novel opens, she is pregnant – she and her husband had desperately wanted to be pregnant, but his sperm is no good, so they had agreed to use a donor despite his ego feeling bruised. They soon learn something shocking and horrible about their donor and the novel turns into basically a mystery. I thought the voice actor did a good enough job with a variety of voices, though a few of them sounded either a bit too similar or stereotypical. Emma Donoghue’s novel (above) had more substance and just as much urgency to its plot; this one was fairly light-weight though it did hold my interest. Grade: 4

Trials of the Earth by Mary Mann Hamilton – This is the true story of a woman “pioneer” in the 19th century Mississippi Delta. She and her family survived floods, tornados, and other natural disasters. And she coped with a husband who was at times loving and hard-working but at many other times drunk and absent. Mostly it held my interest but – full disclosure – I didn’t finish every page of the book. But I read enough of it to put it here. Maybe there is something about “pioneer” life that a lot of people find fascinating – the hard work, the improvising, the life without electronic gadgets. On the other hand, this book doesn’t quite succeed because after about 215 pages, I just didn’t feel compelled to go on. Like it was decent but starting to feel repetitive. Also, I hated reading the horribly racist attitudes of the author and everyone she associates with, even if they were the norm for 19th century whites (and today’s Trump voters). Grade: 4

The Upside of Stress by Kelly McGonigal - Doris listened to this on audio and said it was good, so I gave it a read. As you can guess from the title, the author makes the case that although stress can be scary and uncomfortable, it also allows potential for growth, energy, and focus. I like that the book is readable but grounded in research. The author does not approach the subject with rose-colored glasses, she’s not all rah-rah-rah about stress either. But she does suggest that we can embrace it instead of fear it. Grade: 6

Prickle Moon by Juliet Marillier – I don’t usually care for short stories at all, but Marillier is one of my favorite authors. She writes historical fantasy, and I heard that one of the tales inside “Prickle Moon” was related to her Sevenwaters series, which I adored. The Sevenwaters story (“Twixt Firelight and Water”) was truly engaging; I hope the author might write a few other short stories in the Sevenwaters realm. And there were a few other standouts in this collection which nicely wove together fantasy, a bit of romance, and the author’s solid ability to capture a scene and transport you into the moment. But….oh my goodness, the stories in the second half of the book were duds! In her Afterword, Marillier tells us that they were written for women’s magazines as basically romance-based stories. They take place in the here and now (not my favorite setting), they are way too romance-novely…ugh they just sucked. The first half of the book was really good, so I guess that merits this book a grade of: 5
Number of books on my "to read" lists:

- Non-fiction: 78

- Fiction: 31

- Audio books (these are mostly books that I don't have as deep an interest in as the above, but they're available on audio so I'll give them a try in the car): 35

- Books I own but haven't read yet: 6
My rating system:
10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average for what I read
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

Spirit Rising by Angelique Kidjo – Back in the 90’s, I used to buy more music than I do now. I once bought a CD of Angelique Kidjo’s; I’d classify her work as world music, and although I didn’t fall in love with it, I did enjoy one song on the CD a lot. So I was fairly interested when I heard she had a memoir out. It’s a beautiful, colorful book full of pictures and just an inspiring, “nice” story. Kidjo was born and raised in the west African country of Benin; left for Paris; her music career took off; she performed around the world and often shared stages with Alicia Keys, Bono, Peter Gabriel, and other greats; she became a strong advocate for African women and children and a UNICEF ambassador. An uplifting, if not earth-shattering, read. Grade: 6

Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett – The author formed a group with several friends to deal with the sexism they experience at their workplaces. This group is the result of their learnings from each other, like survival tips for women in the workplace. Although none of the advice was all that ground-breaking, I really liked the book. Any woman could use it as a refresher, and I love that it came about from a group helping each other, instead of an individual. Grade: 7

The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipacchi – A novel taking place in contemporary times, it is part social satire, part mystery, part modern fable. The center of the story is around two women: one is conventionally ugly on the outside, the other conventionally beautiful but she hides it under a series of disguises because of how people react to her beauty. The book was so good: the social satire, mystery, and fable elements work together very well. You do have to suspend disbelief several times; things happen in this story that can’t happen in real life. And I wish the mystery angle of the book had been more prominent because it was excellent. But that’s nitpicking. I listened to this on audio, and the voice actor handled a number of different characters with aplomb. (Does anyone say “aplomb” anymore??) Grade: 9

Den of Wolves by Juliet Marillier - Another novel by this author whose work I love; she writes historical fantasy. This is the third book in her Blackthorn and Grim series. In this novel, Blackthorn and Grim struggle with their feelings for each other when Grim is called away by a powerful landholder to build a house for him. Of course things are not what they seem, especially regarding the landholder’s mysterious daughter. Just like the previous two books in the series, the “big reveal” was easy to figure out; I knew what the big mystery was long before the characters figured it out. Either I’ve gotten really used to Marillier’s style, or I’m just super-smart, or the book is a bit too easy in that regard. I think it’s probably the first and the last ones. . I also thought the treatment of Blackthorn and Grim’s relationship wasn’t quite satisfactory; at the end it just didn’t feel right. (I won't say more on that, to avoid spoilers). So I’d rate this book as a bit below average for Marillier, but I so love her settings, her characters, and (usually) her plots, and no other writer really gives me this, so...Grade: 7

How to Win at Feminism by Reductress - An hilarious satire of women's magazines and the media which co-opt feminism and try to convince women we can have it all if we only buy, buy, buy. Sometimes it's hard to keep a good parody going for the length of a whole book, but this one pretty much succeeds. The look of the book itself is pink, bright, and splashy like so much of what is marketed to women. I lol-ed a few times, and even Doris paged through it and laughed a bit. Grade: 8

Book Report

Nov. 3rd, 2016 08:07 pm
My rating system:
10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average for what I read
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout – A novel taking place in modern times about a successful New York-based writer, her very humble Midwest origins, and her unemotional mother. I do normally prefer novels that are more, well, plot-driven than this. This is really more of a character-study. It has details and nuances; I just needed more of a plot. Grade: 4

How to Make White People Laugh by Negin Farsad – This was awesome; Farsad is a Muslim comedian and she is hilarious and insightful. The book was fun, funny, and it tackled serious stuff in a very accessible way. I laughed out loud a few times too. I really do think that works like this really up the ante for comedians, like you can't just be funny, you have to make people think a lot too. Loved it! Grade: 8

The Ice People by Maggie Gee – A dystopian novel published almost 20 years ago. The 60-year old narrator, a misogynist named Saul, tells his life story. He’s now living in an ice age, surrounded by semi-feral boys. Society began to collapse decades ago when a lot of things happened at once: men and women decided to mostly “segg” (separate from each other), men became fascinated with robots called Doves, the climate changed drastically, no one cared about elections or government, widespread health emergencies such as ebola outbreaks happen, and more. I could definitely buy the drastic climate change (I mean it’s basically happening), the health pandemics (very prescient about ebola!), and the lack of interest in democracy (also basically happening), but the whole gender segregation thing didn’t ring true to me. (In the 1970’s the US had – what? – maybe 200 lesbian separatists? Voluntary gender segregation has never really caught on). Putting that aside and accepting the fact that the narrator is an asshat, the book is a page-turner. I was fascinated by the changes in society as Saul struggles to navigate them. The book was fascinating, very well-written, imaginative. Grade: 8

Detroit Hustle by Amy Haimerl – The author and her husband are seeking community. Although they love their neighborhood in New York, they are also seeking a challenge. They learn that Detroit is undergoing something of a renaissance and decide to purchase one of Detroit’s many dirt-cheap houses as a fixer-upper. They learn that although Detroit’s houses may be cheap, renovating them is not. Nor is it easy to get a loan for the work, and the couple is not wealthy. But they cash out their 401(k)s and persevere; this is their story. I loved their determination to build community and live in a rough and tumble city, as well as their awareness of racism and that they themselves have some level of privilege. And I give this book credit for never being boring. Grade: 7

Bitch Planet, Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine DeLandro – Quite a striking graphic novel! I actually had a nightmare about it. In this dystopian world, patriarchy is even worse than it is now, and any woman who is “noncompliant” is sent to “bitch planet”, a horrible prison where the women are treated like property and are humiliated every day. Although we see some defiant and kick-ass women, the book sure is depressing and a bit scary. (Looks like Volume 2 recently came out and has a ton of holds at the library; hope they get to me soon). Grade: 8
My rating system:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average for what I read
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

Lady Cop Makes Trouble by Amy Stewart - Last year I read the author’s excellent “Girl Waits With Gun”, and this is its sequel. The setting is New Jersey circa 1915, and our protagonist strives to be the titular “lady cop” at a time when women can’t vote. She has a supportive Sheriff but is put to the test when something goes wrong under her watch and she had better fix it. Like its predecessor, the novel kept me interested. My only complaint is that the first novel revealed a twist regarding one of the sisters of the main character, and that twist is never addressed or resolved here. (Making us wait for a third book maybe?) Grade: 6

A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan – I can’t figure out why this novel – which takes place during modern times – is so good. The plot is simple. The protagonist’s husband abruptly leaves his job, they decide that she should go back into the workforce (she’s been taking a break from paid employment to raise their 3 kids), she lands a job that sounds great at first, but things aren’t what they seem, the husband’s drinking problem escalates, the main character gets estranged from her best friend, and her father is terminally ill. See, there’s nothing all that enthralling in that description. So why did I devour the book in just a few days? The realistic examples of a workplace? The likeability of the main character? Or maybe it wasn’t just her workplace but everything about her life felt real and alive and relatable. Hmmm. Well I still can’t figure it out but I enjoyed the book so much. Grade: 7

Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation by Sharon Salzberg – I used this audiobook more for reinforcement; I already knew meditation is helpful and it’s good to hear more about why and how it works and what it can do for you. This was a short audiobook. My only complaint is that it contains a lot of guided meditations which I really can’t do while driving (and I no longer have a way to play CDs inside the house, so I couldn’t do that at home either). So I had to skip parts of it, but that’s fine – I still love meditation! Grade: 7

Playing Dead: Inside the World of Death Fraud by Elizabeth Greenwood – This was really fascinating, a look inside a mysterious world. The author, burdened with student debt, ponders the idea of faking her death or disappearing to get away from her financial troubles. So she investigates the world of death fraud. She finds a man who successfully faked his own death before turning himself in years later, men who tried and failed to fake death or disappearance (this is the most common – most attempts at this sort of fraud do fail), Michael Jackson fans who believe their idol is still alive, an insurance company investigator who successfully tracks down fakers, and many more oddities. It was a great glimpse at something I’d never given much thought to. Grade: 8

Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking by The Ladydrawers and Anne Elizabeth Moore – A very unusual book. The authors use mostly comics and some text to explore the world of the global garment industry, sex trafficking, workers’ rights and more. I love the concept but I have a lot of complaints. One, the font on many of the comics was just way, way too small – I don’t use or need reading glasses for anything else but I could not make out the words too often here. The book also displays a kind of “rah rah rah” attitude towards sex work which I see a lot from too many on the left, and which is too one-sided. It’s like they trip over themselves to view sex work as positive and empowering - and they downplay the horror of people being forced into sex work -- without ever considering the other side. After reading “Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution”, I have to admit that I can’t get behind this attitude. Then the authors try to posit that anti-trafficking activists are in bed with the garment industry. I just don’t buy that either. Also, the book spends a lot of time looking at the history of the garment industry in Austria. Austria? I mean it has the population of Chicago, it’s just kinda weird to devote so much ink to it when the span of your book is supposed to be global. Still, the authors made a few good points – like question everything, even when an organization says it provides fair trade products and is helping workers, and that clearly workers’ rights and unions would make an impact. Grade: 3

Book Report

Oct. 1st, 2016 06:01 am
My latest book report:

My rating system:
10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average for what I read
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future by Michael J Fox – Only 2 CDs long, this is a memoir by the famous actor. I was surprised at how short it is, and then I saw that Fox has published other books too. (Should they be combined into 1 memoir??) In any case, the brief memoir definitely engaged me. I liked hearing how he went from high school drop out to respected actor. I would’ve liked to have heard a bit more about his fight against Parkinson’s. What’s weird about this CD is that Fox speaks very quickly during his narration, a bit too fast. It’s odd , shouldn’t an actor know about vocal pacing? Unless maybe the speed of his voice is related to the Parkinson’s? Grade: 5

Fallen Land by Taylor Brown – In the final year of the US civil war, a young couple in the ravaged South has to flee a band of marauders who believe that the man committed a crime against them. It was exciting at times and definitely drew me into this fascinating setting, but it wasn’t anything super-special either. Grade: 4

In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park - This is a memoir by a young woman who defected from North Korea. Her story absolutely enthralled me. I know I’ve read many books by folks who lived in North Korea and people who survived other horrific circumstances. Park is no exception; although her family was actually fairly well-off by North Korean standards, it still was a hellhole to live in. (One example. When she finally leaves North Korea, she gets a physical. She had never had a physical in her life before). I eagerly listened to this audiobook, wanting to know what would happen to Park and her family. One complaint: the voice actor was abysmal. I double-checked and the book is not narrated by the author, so I’m baffled as to why they hired someone who could barely speak or pronounce English; she was painful to listen to. Grade: 8

The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley – I recently read “Shrill” by Lindy West, and I gotta say again what a joy it is to be able to read books like this. Like West, Hurley is thoughtful, funny, brilliant, and brave. She writes candidly about her own life (trying to make it as a writer, deal with medical issues and having no money) and about the broader world of women writers, sexism, online harassment, and the like. I savored each essay. My only criticism is that the book contains a few too many short, choppy sentences which sound a bit too dramatic at times. Grade: 9

Soil Sisters by Lisa Kivirist - I love "how to" books and I love books about farming, so even though I have no intention of become a farmer, I loved this book of advice for women farmers. It was fun to read and very well-written, full of great tips and advice from a variety of women farmers. Extra bonus points for covering the experiences of people of color and queer people living in rural America. Grade: 7
My rating system:
10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average for what I read
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?


Shrill by Lindy West – Wow I loved this! Best book I’ve read in a long time. Writer and humorist Lindy West writes about living in a culture that demands that women be small and quiet. She is funny, biting, readable, intelligent – and determined to skewer sexists and those who hate fat people. Writer Dan Savage used to be her boss, and she writes movingly about trying (and succeeding, to a small degree) to change his mind about fat people. West also lays it all bare in terms of some of the horrors she’s experienced – like a flood of internet bullying and trolling all because she has the gall to stick up for women’s rights and, of course, because she’s fat. She’s gone toe to toe with those who defend rape jokes, and she’s experienced another flood of social media hate for it. If you ever need a reminder of how much sexism still exists, read her book. Actually if you just want an excellent read all around, this book is it. And despite the horrors she writes about, West manages to make the book hilarious and digestible. I hope she’ll write a lot more. Grade: 9


Wild Heart: A Life by Suzanne Rodriguez – The subject of this biography is Natalie Barney. I had vaguely heard of her over the years; I’d known she was a lesbian and writer living in Paris in the early 1900’s. She was American-born and a very wealthy heiress. She might be best remembered for hosting weekly salons – gatherings of writers, artists, and intellectuals. She really made that into a thing. Natalie Barney also was known for having many, many loves. Although two women were the main loves of her life (one of them was the painter Romaine Brooks), she always had open relationships and thus was involved with numerous women. Paris was a haven for lesbians in the early 20th century, and she really helped make that scene happen too. Part of me wishes the biography hadn’t been so long (370 big pages with small font!), but I will say that I sure got into Barney’s world, got enveloped in her life and times. So maybe the fact that the book was long is not such a negative. Grade: 7

Esther the Wonder Pig by Steve Jenkins and Derek Walker with Caprice Crane – This true story was a fun, light read. Steve and Derek are a couple, and their story is told mostly by Steve. He impulsively adopts a “mini-pig”, and eventually learns he was duped and that Esther will grow to be a full-sized pig (eventually weighing 650 lbs). The men are animal lovers but they struggle to figure out a way to make their home accommodate Esther, who they have quickly come to love but who pisses all over the house and jumps on furniture despite her bulk. They also stop eating meat and eventually go vegan; they firmly believe in not acting judgmentally or negatively towards those who haven’t adopted their stance. They create a FB page for Esther which receives tons of likes, and still have to try to figure out how to make a difference for farmed animals like Esther while also navigating bitter debates on the FB page. They dream of opening a sanctuary for farmed animals. Great, relevant read. Grade: 8

Free Men by Katy Simpson Smith – Taking place in the US in 1788, the novel tells of three men who are on the run for having apparently committed a serious crime. One of the men is Black, one is white, and one is Native American. We slowly learn their individual stories, as well as that of the man who is tracking them to bring them to justice. I felt there was a bit of promise here, and the prose was lovely, but it dragged and I never felt that the novel fulfilled its great promise. Grade: 3

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son On Life, Love, and Loss by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt – I hadn’t been aware that Gloria Vanderbilt was Anderson Cooper’s mother; I only knew her as the designer behind expensive jeans that I couldn’t have as a kid and some sort of documentary in the 80’s called “Poor Little Rich Girl”. This is an interesting format for a memoir; it’s basically a conversation between a mother and son. I liked it. Although I had to put aside being judgy – with all those heaps of money Vanderbilt has, we never hear a word of her spending any of it to help others. Maybe she does but didn’t write about it. But her life was interesting enough; the best part was the back and forth between her and Cooper. I wanted to hear more about Cooper than Vanderbilt though. I should also add that I’m glad that this audiobook was only 5 CDs long because more than that likely would’ve dragged. Grade: 6
A new book report.

My rating system:
10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average for what I read
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – A work of historical fiction taking place in Nazi-occupied France during WWII. The story centers around two non-Jewish sisters: Vianne who is the elder, married, with a child; and Isabelle who is brash, brave, and principled. It spans several years, alternating with brief sections taking place in modern times staring one of the sisters (we don’t learn who until the end). I’ve read a lot of books taking place during WWII and might not have picked up this one, but it was recommended by a friend. I kinda have “WWII burn-out”. But this book definitely held my interest. Grade: 7

Black Man in a White Coat by Damon Tweedy – This book was excellent. Damon Tweedy is an African American doctor, earning his MD from Duke University in North Carolina. He shares his wisdom and experience in a few ways. He talks about his experiences with racism both during medical school and afterwards, shares his thoughts on affirmative action. He shares some of his patients’ stories especially to shine light on health conditions that are more prevalent among blacks than whites. He even shares his experience dealing with his own homophobia. It was really, really interesting and never dull. Grade: 8

Under New Management by David Burkus – In this book, the author proposes that businesses go against the usual practices and try innovative approaches that have worked well for some companies. Each chapter highlights one of the proposals. A few examples: ban email, fire managers and have individuals structure their own work, have a vacation policy like Netflix’s (you determine how much vacation you take, with your manager’s approval), institute a sabbatical policy, and more. Some of the ideas I liked, others I can’t see working in most places. The book was pretty good; mostly I read books like this so I can help stay current in the business world when I talk to colleagues. Grade: 5

Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole – I listened to this epistolary novel on audio. It’s a love story across a few decades, starting when a poet who lives on a remote Scottish island receives a fan letter from a young American. Like any love story, it has plenty of flaws including a few really cloying letters from our male hero, a few cases of bad acting (most of the voice actors were good but a few Scotts sounded almost Russian at times), and – well – it is pretty much a trussed up romance novel. But it was good enough. A few plot points which I thought would be predictable didn’t turn out exactly as I thought they would, and at times the prose actually does flow. Grade: 4

Pregnant Butch by AK Summers - A fun graphic memoir describing exactly what the title says. Our narrator is a butch and she’s pregnant. It’s really good. It brings to mind some of Alison Bechdel’s work; there are a few trenchant comments about society and the expectations of women and the author’s sense that butches are disappearing in favor of transmen. I love the way Summers bares everything, especially her insecurities about being pregnant and butch. Grade: 8
It's Friday night. A lot of people go out and party. Me, I finished up another book.

By the way, I love my new rating scale:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average for what I read
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

Creating a Life Together by Diana Leafe Christian – This is a how-to guide for forming an intentional community (AKA cohousing or community living). The author talks about how most forming communities fail, and how you can avoid the common pitfalls. There’s a lot of really useful information on finding property or land, creating a legal entity, and financing. Boring but necessary if you are forming a community and not joining one already in existence. My favorite sections were ones that focused on more living in community and dealing with things like: making a living when you’re nowhere near a large or medium-sized city, dealing with conflict, and selecting members to join your group.

(A few other notes that have little to do with the book itself: I subscribe to “Communities” magazine and I sometimes entertain thoughts of joining a community. Surprisingly to me, Doris also said she might be interested too. There’s one about 6 hours from us that is seeking new members but it’s so far from any major city. It’s about 150 miles or so from Des Moines and from St Louis. Could I really handle driving 150 miles if I ever want to see a big concert or get on an airplane? It might be hard to get the food I want to eat, I might be too used to having more privacy and not being around people as much. And there’s the big issue of how community members in rural areas make a living. The author shares that they tend to fall into 3 categories: they are retired and/or living off income from rental properties; they work in jobs where they can telecommute; or they work multiple odd jobs and part-time jobs, some within the community itself, some driving 30 miles to take whatever work they can get in the nearest cities. The third scenario is the most common).
Grade: 8

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe by Elaine Showalter – Julia Ward Howe is best known for writing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”; she was also a suffragist and abolitionist. She also fought her own civil war, as she was married to a man for 30 years who didn’t want her to write, or to speak in public, who continually threatened to divorce her and keep custody of the kids (which he easily could’ve done in the 19th century), and who squandered her inheritance. Somehow she managed to shine despite his every attempt. This was a very good biography. I commend the author for her decisions on the book’s pacing and length. It clocked in at a readable 240 pages. I think anything longer would’ve started tiptoeing near boredom, but this book was good. Grade: 7

The Rent Collector by Camron Wright – A novel taking place in modern-day Cambodia, about a young woman, her husband, and son – they live in a garbage dump and make a living picking garbage. Their lives change one day when she speaks with their surly rent collector and asks her to teach her how to read. It was a lovely story, almost reading like a fairytale or a fable. It didn’t seem at all authentic; the author – an Australian man – never convinced me that he really was the character who narrates the story. I’m not an expert on Cambodians but Sang Ly’s voice just didn’t ring true. Maybe given the somewhat fable-like quality of the book, that’s ok? It was a good story anyway. Grade: 6

The Last Hunger Season by Roger Thurow – This is a book about Africa’s smallholder farmers, most of whom are women. Not only are they doing back-breaking work but they have virtually no access to any tools or information to improve their farming techniques and no access to credit. For many months out of the year, they and their families near starve, subsisting on tea, bananas, and cassava (root vegetable) if they are lucky. The author takes us into the homes of four families in Kenya, and he takes us behind the scenes of an organization called One Acre which is working to change this scenario. One Acre provides access to improved farming techniques, fertilizer, and the like. It was great to read about this work being done to make people’s lives better. Grade: 8

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – It was nice to listen to this classic on audio. I’d never read it before; I think maybe I’d seen the movie as a kid but I don’t remember any details. The book is pretty good; I could easily see why Christie is one of the best-selling authors in history. (The back of the book says that only the Bible has sold more copies). I was definitely engaged the whole way through. Special shout-out to the voice actor. He was phenomenal; he handled so many different voices and accents, and made each character unique. Grade: 6

A few final thoughts - they contain spoilers on this mystery! )
A few thoughts on the Jem comics.

Jem and the Holograms #1 by Kelly Thompson and Ross Campbell


Pros:


- Overall I think the author made good decisions on which characters to include. She uses the original 4 members of Jem & the Holograms (when they got up to 5 on the show, it was a bit unwieldy), but instead of using only the three original Misfits, she includes Jetta, who I was glad to see. I’m also cool with her decision to change Jetta’s race to Black (Jem’s creator Christy Marx said she had wanted to do the same, but was told that Jetta had to be Australian or British and white – no Black bad guys), and Stormer I think is drawn to look Latina. (Even though her name remains Mary Phillips, so maybe not?)

- Not everyone woman is skinny! In the original show, all the girls had the same body type: tall and very thin. The author gives us a diversity of body shapes – skinny, medium, plus-sized.

- It’s overall a good reboot – the writer did good job bringing Jem into the current decade. I liked the writer’s notes at the beginning. She points out that Jem is 30 years old, and her goal is to retain the excitement of the original while bringing it into current times. She also makes an interesting point at the end – many fandoms that are this old have multiple source material, but with Jem we never got more than the original show and the dolls. (I assume no one has even watched the crappy movie – I haven’t). I hadn’t thoughts of that. (I watched GI Joe at the same time as Jem, and it had lots of comics plus several reboots over the years and some decent movies. Ditto Transformers). The author also found a way to get the needed backstory in (like introducing Synergy) without making it boring for those who already know the scoop.

- A same-sex relationship is one of the biggest storylines! Yes!

- I like the little nods to the original (Limp Lizards making a cameo!)

Cons:


- I didn’t love the artwork. Kimber often looks like she’s either wearing a mask or is part colt or something. I really didn’t like the way any of the characters looked.

- I’m not getting any feeling of sisterhood among the Misfits. There are two sides to this debate, but in my opinion when they’re at their best, the Misfits did display loyalty and camaraderie. I don’t see a trace of that; Pizzazz’s character is given no depth and so far she’s just a one-note bad guy. Maybe the comic will do what the TV show did and gradually give each Misfit a bit more of a personality, instead of just being a cardboard cut-out of a bad guy. (Other than Stormer, who does have depth here too as per usual).

- I wish the reboot had booted Rio out the door, but what can you do? At least there’s no Eric Raymond. (Yet?)

Jem and the Holograms Viral by Kelly Thompson –


Basically the same as above, with these additions:

Pros:

- Better, more in-depth Misfits characterizations

- Tech-Rat. Christy Marx has said that she had wanted to make Tech-Rat a totally androgynous character, but a 1980’s animated show wouldn’t have allowed that. Although masculine pronouns are used here for Tech-Rat, we finally get to see him in his androgynous (or even genderqueer?) glory

- It's nice to see Craig Phillips. He's only in 2 episodes of the show but was a great, under-used character.


Cons:


- I don’t understand the reviews on Good Reads praising the art in this series. I still think it’s dreadful. And it’s so inconsistent too, like it’s hard to recognize characters from one panel to the next if not for their hair. Also, do I remember that Aja was fat in the first book and now not so much? (It’s possible she lost weight, just wondering).

- Plot-wise, this second volume really started off slow and kinda weird with over-long dream sequences from each Hologram. To me it was a very meh way to start off your book.

- Small point: I love that they always refer to the Holograms as sisters. Will we ever get an origins story? Safe to assume the comic writers are going with Aja and Shana being foster-sisters to the Benton girls? I wonder why the Bentons never adopted them (assuming they didn't because of Aja's and Shana's different last names). Maybe other relatives had custody that they never relinquished.
Book rating system:

10 – life-changing, an all-time favorite
5 - average for what I read
1 – terrible, why did I finish it?

Melody by Sylvie Rancourt – A graphic novel based on the author’s time working as a nude dancer. The text was translated from the French. Although I like graphic novels and graphic memoirs in general, this one was pretty blah. The translation was choppy and awkward, and the main character and her boyfriend are total idiots and unlikeable. (Sorry to be so blunt!!) Grade: 2

It’s Your World by Chelsea Clinton – I like books that talk about problems and issues the world is facing and how we can deal with them. Although I’d argue that “A Path Appears” by Kristof and WuDunn and “Strangers Drowning” by MacFarquhar are better, this book by Chelsea Clinton (yes, that Chelsea Clinton) was good too. It’s targeted at teens and younger kids, but I actually found that to be a plus. Whether Clinton’s talking about climate change or hunger or discrimination against girls and women, she does a good job of breaking down what the problem is and what someone can do to tackle it. Grade: 7

Becoming Nicole by Amy Ellis Nutt – The author is a journalist and she shares the real-life story of a family. A traditional couple adopted twin boys but one of the boys turns out to be a transgendered girl. This was a fascinating story about how the family grows and changes, and fights for their daughter’s rights. Something about the way the story told is awesome. I read the book in one day (it was a day I had off work and was tired from something I did in the morning, so that does help explain it). I love a good true story that’s also a page-turner. Grade: 8

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – A teenage boy whose adventurous grandfather dies mysteriously. A trip to a remote island with an abandoned house where the grandfather reportedly lived for a while. A group of students with special powers. The lead-up to this novel sounded grand and exciting, and the book started out pretty strongly. But the story’s climax kind of fizzled out; the book just didn’t live up to its promise. It held my interest but I don’t plan to read the sequel. Grade: 4

Armada by Ernest Cline - The author of "Ready Player One" has another novel, this one starring another teenage video game genius. He dreams that someday he'll be whisked away into a fantastic adventure, taking him from his humdrum life - and then that is exactly what happens. It was good to listen to (again read by the awesome Will Wheaton), it held my interest, it just didn't wow me. Grade: 5

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