Weekend Shorts: Awesome Dudes For a Change (Plus One Lady)

I have been listening to a LOT of audiobooks lately, which is super awesome, except when I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of blog posts. So, please enjoy these very short takes on some pretty awesome audiobooks about pretty awesome people!

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
As will be my caveat for, oh, all of these books I’m talking about today, I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book except that he’s that dude what took over The Daily Show. But I got an audio copy of this book for free for some unremembered reason, and had some listening time to kill, and so… voila!

And wow, this is a seriously good audiobook. Noah is a great narrator, which makes sense with the TV show host thing, and he has some amazing stories to tell. He talks about growing up during apartheid, and goes into great details that I’ve sadly already forgotten about how his black mother and white father left him in a very weird limbo, both socially and legally speaking. He also talks about his abusive stepfather, who is not just a regular jerk but an attempted-murdering jerk, which is crazy and awful. But of course my favorite stories are the ones that are a little happier and/or weirder, including one about working as a young copyright-infringing entrepreneur in the suburbs and another one that can’t be true but also can’t not be true about a dance performance at a Jewish center starring solo dancer… Hitler.

Yeah, so, basically now you have to go listen to this. You’re welcome. (Seriously, listen to it. It’s awesome.)

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
Here, again, my knowledge of the authors was “Anderson Cooper is that silver fox guy, right?” and also “Gloria Vanderbilt is… probably a Vanderbilt?” Yeah, I know, I’m shaking my head, too. This is a memoir that I would never have picked up except that my book club wanted to read it, and, well, it was so awesome that I did that thing where I make a second book club read the same book so I can talk about it all over again. So good, guys.

The premise of the book is that basically one day Cooper realized that his mother was old and that he didn’t know a lot about her life that wasn’t more or less public knowledge, so he started emailing her to ask her questions about her life before him, and a little bit about her life with him. Those emails became this book, and with the addition of the authors as narrators this book became an amazing audiobook. Seriously, try not to cry when Gloria Vanderbilt is crying in your ears.

If you’re like me, you will learn way more than you ever thought you even remotely needed to know about this Gloria Vanderbilt person, but you will also be totally okay with that because she’s endlessly fascinating. She was born into a branch of the Vanderbilt family but lost her Vanderbilt father almost immediately after her birth, and so she was raised by a very young socialite mother and also a nanny and her grandmother and there was a giant custody battle and the newspapers were involved and there was scandal and things were just crazy. Then, when all that was sorted out, Vanderbilt got herself into a bunch of really terrible relationships and marriages, plural, and was generally kind of a hot mess. Then she settled into being an adult, more or less, and became pretty well known for her designer jeans and made a point of working even though she could totally have lived on her inheritance and she made several babies including one Anderson Cooper. He tells some pretty good stories about himself as well, including how he came out as gay and how he basically tricked his way into a reporting career, which seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

Then it all comes together at the end with a discussion about, you know, life, the universe, and everything, including whether or not fate is a thing and if optimism is just fooling yourself, so, you know, I didn’t mention the crying earlier for nothing. If you haven’t had a good cathartic existential crisis lately, this book is probably good for one. But in a good way! If that’s a thing.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am almost embarrassed to include this book in this post, because I remember so very little about it and I will do it absolutely no justice with my words. But I do want to include it, because even if I can’t remember the details, I can remember how good I thought it was while I was listening to it and how important it definitely is.

The book is written as a letter from Coates to his son in the aftermath of all the everything that’s been happening lately, race-wise. Coates writes about his own experiences as a black man in our world, and the uniting idea of the book is the idea that black people are seen and regarded and experienced as bodies moreso than people. This is a strange concept to think about, but Coates frames it in a way that makes a lot of sense and will leave you thinking all the thinky thoughts after you’re done with the book.

I might recommend this one in print, though, because while Coates is indeed an excellent narrator, listening to him read his book is more about the experience of hearing the way his words flow rather than the experience of receiving information. Not that that’s a bad thing. His words flow very nicely.

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The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The NamesakeMy library picked this book for their Big Read title this year, and so of course I picked it for my library book club to read and talk all about!

The discussion turned out kind of awkward, as only two people (neither of them regulars!) came, and one hadn’t read past maybe page ten, but the book itself was pretty darn good and I think had more people come it would have been a decent discussion as well.

The Namesake takes place over about 30 years, following the lives of a Bengali family from Calcutta to Boston to New York and beyond. The three main characters are Ashima, a woman who finds herself in an arranged marriage that will take her from her Calcutta home to far-off Boston but strives to make the best of it; Ashoke, the man Ashima marries who is very happy to be so far from home and who once very nearly died in a train accident; and (mostly) Gogol, their son, who gets his weird name from the author of the book his dad was reading at the time of the accident and who spends all of his life trying to reconcile his Bengali roots and his American upbringing, with more or less predictable results.

“Predictable results?” I hear you saying. “I thought you said this book was pretty darn good.”

Well, yes. The plot, what little there is, is pretty standard. Immigrant parents have American kid, he rebels against his parents’ values and goals for him, he has a series of relationships (some ill-advised), at the end of the book he has more respect for his parents and their lives than he previously had.

But! The characters are super interesting, Gogol foremost to me because he follows a similar path with his name as I did, shunning the name he grew up with to choose his own name and create his own identity. I was going to say I never went so far as to legally change my name and then I remembered that in fact, I got married and changed my last name, so. I am fully on board with the story of how a person’s name impacts their life.

And it’s a fascinating topic in this book, especially, as Gogol’s name comes out of a Bengali naming tradition that I can’t quite wrap my head around, which is that a person gets a “good name”, like Ashima, to put on birth certificates and passports and school papers and whatnot, and a “pet name”, like Monu, that everyone who actually knows you calls you. In this book, Gogol is meant to be a pet name, but Gogol’s parents take too long coming up with an acceptable good name and they, and he, end up stuck with this one, at least until Gogol turns 18 and can fix it himself.

But back to the characters — I love Gogol’s parents, too, who could easily have been left out in favor of Gogol’s story, but whom we see adapting in their own ways to American life and carving out a semblance of home with the apparently fairly large Bengali community in eastern Massachusetts. Ashoke’s train accident story and his reticence to share it with his son rings very true, as does Ashima’s propensity for feeding too much food to family, friends, and strangers.

Also delightful is Lahiri’s writing, which isn’t beautiful in the “here, look at this particular sentence and adore it” sort of way, but which, when all those sentences combine, is a subtly descriptive and engaging sort of writing that I just fall for every time. If Lahiri’s writing were a voice, I would probably listen to that voice read the phone book, as they say. Is there a better analogy for that? I bet there is, and I bet Lahiri could tell me what it is.

I’d read and loved Lahiri’s story “Interpreter of Maladies” in some collection I can’t even remember ages and ages ago, but somehow never read any more of her work until this book. This vast oversight is going on my “Vast Oversights to Rectify in the Soon-Time” list, for sure.

Recommendation: To read when you’re looking for a quiet family story, or if you want to think to hard about what life would be like if your parents had just named you something different.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told YouI don’t remember who recommended this to me when I was collecting book club titles, but THANK YOU. I picked it for one book club and loved the book and discussion so much that I used it to fill an empty slot in another book club a month later, and the discussion was still top-notch with a different set of readers. But, to get to these awesome discussions, you have to read a pretty devastating book, so, be prepared.

The book opens with the lines “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” so you think you know maybe what you’re getting into from the start. Lydia’s dead, you say? Well, let’s find out who did that and call this mystery solved, shall we?

Oh, you want to talk about some other stuff first? Okay, sure, we can talk about the fact that Lydia’s grown up in a mixed family, with an American-born Chinese dad and a white Southern mom, in the 1970s, in small-town Ohio. Yeah, that’s pretty tough. The parents met at Harvard, though? That’s pretty progressive! Oh, but the mom gave up med school to have Lydia’s older brother? And the dad got passed over for a faculty position at Harvard and had to take the Ohio job to pay the bills? Ugh, lame again. Oh, and the parents are both projecting their own insecurities onto their middle child, making her feel obligated to become awesome at both making friends and doing math and science? Man, maybe Lydia killed herself over all this!

Wait, no, did she? No, she’s fine. She’s got friends. Even a boyfriend! She’s been hanging out with that nice… weird… loner kid from down the street, whom Lydia’s brother absolutely hates… and who’s been acting really strangely since Lydia died, like, extra strange, like maybe he’s keeping secrets about that night… Uh-oh. And what’s this? The cops are talking to Lydia’s dad about the last time he filed a missing persons report? For Lydia’s mother? But she’s here, she’s fine… right? Well, she’s not going to be when she finds out Lydia’s dad is having an affair with his TA, that’s for sure.

There is SO MUCH going on in this book! Mostly it’s about Lydia’s parents and their myriad insecurities and hoo boy if you weren’t already second guessing your every thought and action watching these people do it might make you start. When I finished this book, I turned to my husband and said, “If you ever decide to leave me, at least LEAVE A DANG NOTE,” and he was like, “I’m never letting you read books again.” Which seems like maybe a good idea, sometimes.

The big theme of the book is that feeling of being an outsider — Lydia’s dad as a Chinese man in a white man’s world (literally, the man teaches American Studies, let’s just start there, shall we), Lydia’s mom as a scientist and budding doctor trapped in the life of a doting housewife, Lydia’s brother as the second fiddle to his younger sister, Lydia’s younger sister as the strangely ignored youngest sibling. All of these people, living together, feeling completely alone. Normally I would be shaking my fist at the sky at all these people who need to just talk to each other, gosh darn it, but in this book it seems so natural. And depressing.

AND THEN THE END. This is where I shook my fist, let me tell you. I may have literally yelled “ARE YOU SERIOUS?!” I may still be angry about this ending today, not because it’s bad or unbelievable but because it is TOO believable and TOO soul-crushing and it might be supposed to be a bittersweet ending but all I feel is bitter, for Lydia, who is a fake person and see above about how I maybe shouldn’t read so many books.

But you! You should read this book! And then come tell me all your feels about it! And I will tell you even more feels that I have, which I know you think is impossible after this post, but I have them!

Recommendation: READ THIS. But not if you’re already sad. Or especially happy; I wouldn’t want to ruin that. Aim for a mid-level contentedness, maybe?

Weekend Shorts: Welcome to Persepolis

I’ve got two rather different offerings for you today. One is a graphic (as in pictures) memoir of Iran after the Islamic Revolution, the other is the first volume of scripts for the Lovecraftian podcast Welcome to Night Vale. You know, I said rather different, but there are probably more similarities between these two things than anyone wants to admit…

Anyway, let’s see what these are about!

The Complete Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
The Complete PersepolisThis was yet another of those book club picks that make me read a book I should have read a long time ago. I hadn’t read it because a long time ago, I was totally not into comics things (I know, right?) and had no interest in some picture book even if it was important or whatever. Oh, me. And unfortunately, oh, several of my book clubbers, as the low attendance at this meeting will attest.

But those who did come loved it, and I liked it quite a lot as well. It is a little difficult to get into, even aside from the pictures aspect, as the book is written as a series of vignettes of Satrapi’s life in Iran and Europe that don’t always flow smoothly one to the next. The breaks can be a little jarring and at least once I found myself wondering if I had managed to skip a bunch of pages because I had clearly missed something.

But the vignettes themselves are super interesting. Satrapi starts at the end of the Islamic Revolution, which overthrew one terrible government for a differently terrible government, as seems to happen in these sorts of revolutions. She talks about the abrupt change from co-ed secular schooling to sex-segregated Islamic schools, the new requirement to wear the hijab and other clothing restrictions, her own anti-authoritarian streak that got her in all sorts of trouble, her family’s involvement in the revolution and post-revolution politics, the bombings from Iraq, her time in an Austrian high school, her return to Iran, her marriage, and more. But the clear through-line is Satrapi’s difficulty in reconciling all of these parts of her life which have defined her in so many different ways that it’s hard to say who the “real” Marjane Satrapi might be.

Satrapi’s art style is kind of rudimentary, with imperfect lines and a pure black and white palette, but somehow she manages to capture the individuality of each of her characters and even of herself growing up and changing from a girl to a young woman to an adult. I was really impressed with this book all around and would definitely recommend it to you and your book club.

Mostly Void, Partially Stars, by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Mostly Void, Partially StarsYou guys already know my obsession with Welcome to Night Vale, but now you know that the obsession extends to reading written versions of episodes I have already listened to, which sounds weird even to me and I’m the one doing it!

And yes, it did take me rather longer to get through the book than I thought it would, partially because Night Vale is kind of a small doses thing and partly because, I mean, I already know what’s going to happen, here. BUT, it was absolutely worth it to pick up on little references and continuity things I missed the first time and for the short intros to each episode written by various Night Vale-adjacent people. I love a behind-the-scenes anything and this one is excellent.

If you’ve never listened to Welcome to Night Vale but want to, definitely listen first. If you’ve been interested in Night Vale but are not into the podcast thing, this is what you’ve been waiting for! If you love Night Vale, I’m sure the Sheriff’s Secret Police have already delivered you a copy.

Dept. H #1, by Matt Kindt
Dept. H #1Sneak attack bonus! I left this comic off my post-hurricane comics roundup a few weeks back, for reasons I cannot currently remember, so you get to hear about it now!

I pre-ordered this comic when I heard it existed because a) Matt Kindt, and b) the cover tagline that says “murder six miles deep.” Murder! In an underwater headquarters! Take my money!

This is just the first issue, so it has to cover some boring backstory bits, but it gets quickly enough into the going underwater business and the big murdery reveal. I’m super into the protagonist, who is a space person (not, like, an alien — I just don’t know what she does for the space program!) sent underwater to solve this murder for mostly bureaucratic reasons but also personal ones, and, as I knew I would be when I ordered it, I am loving the artwork, which is very similar to MIND MGMT and has a colored-pencil-and-watercolors quality to it that I like a lot. This series somehow didn’t make it to my comics pull list proper, but I’ll definitely be picking up the trade when it comes out in a couple months.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyThis was a very last-minute pick for my library book club, with the conversation going something like this:

A: “What’s the next book?”
B: “I don’t know, you haven’t told me.”
A: “We have a list somewhere, but I don’t know where.”
C: “I read a book about a potato society once and it was really good.”
B: “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? I have heard good things about it.”
A: “Okay, that’s our next book!”

This is how all the best decisions are made.

Well, actually, this was a pretty good decision. The book is lovely and perfect for book clubbing, following The Nightingale‘s note that World War II books are prime book club fodder.

Like The Nightingale, this book also covers a geographical area I’d never considered before in relation to World War II, the Channel Islands. Part of the Commonwealth but not of the UK proper, and located rather closer to France, these islands were occupied by German forces and their Todt slave laborers but their inhabitants were apparently, comparatively, left alone to weather out the fighting. I learned all sorts of new things reading this book!

I also rather enjoyed the story part of the story, which is told in the epistolary style I adore so much. Our main character, Juliet, finds herself in correspondence with a man on Guernsey who picked up a book she used to own in a used book store and wrote to her to learn more about the author. As… you do? I don’t know, I didn’t live in the late forties. Anyway, Juliet is a writer looking for a new book idea, and her new pen pal turns out to have a fantastic story. He and his neighbors put together a sort of book club on the island to hide some illicit activity, and that club helped a lot of the members through the war. Throughout the book Juliet writes to these people and they write back to share their stories, and we get these great little vignettes of the war from several different viewpoints. Well, “great”. Most of them are terrifically sad, especially the sort of through-line through everyone’s stories about a neighbor lost to a concentration camp. Nazis are awful, I think it is safe to say.

There’s also a love story, but I cared about that very little except that I am satisfied with how it ended. There’s also also some sly social commentary that may or may not be historically accurate but I will happily believe that it is.

I liked the book quite a bit, and my sister-in-law and my book clubbers all seemed to absolutely love it, so I think I can readily recommend it if you’re looking for a quick, sad but happy, history-teaching novel.

The Night Sister, by Jennifer McMahon

The Night SisterI made an agreement with my boss that we would switch off reading the books for the library book club, which definitely seemed like a great idea after my disastrous first outing with them. But then the next book up, this one, sounded actually pretty interesting and so I stole it from my boss so I could have a good book club experience.

The best-laid plans…

Except this time, it was the rest of the club (only half of whom even showed up) that hated the book, while I was like, wait, I thought it was pretty okay!

It could have been better, sure, but it was so squarely in my wheelhouse I couldn’t hate it when I tried. It’s got multiple points of view, multiple time period settings, interwoven plot lines, Big Mysteries, awesome lady protagonists, and a hint of the supernatural. It’s also a quasi-gothic novel, which is a genre of book that I seem to like more in theory than in the reading but I really like it in theory, so.

What actually happens in the novel: In the present day, a woman violently kills her family and herself, and her estranged childhood best friends, who are sisters, come together to figure out if it had anything to do with that Big Mysterious Thing that happened to them as children. In that childhood period, the Future Murdery Woman and the sisters hang out and navigate teenagerhood and also try to figure out the Big Mystery of the motel FMM’s family lives in. In the farther past, FMM’s mother navigates her own teenagerhood and also tries to figure out the Big Mystery of her sister, who she thinks might be a shapeshifting mare of the kind that her grandmother once warned her about.

It’s a fascinating novel, playing with genre and switching styles between the three time settings as the location setting stays the same — or rather deteriorates, as vacant motels are wont to do. There’s something cool to be seen in the fate of the motel through the generations and in how it is represented, first as a strongly gothic imposing presence and eventually just as a creepy sort of place. There’s a not-subtle nod to Hitchcock and Psycho included in the book as well, and he’s definitely a strong influence on the story.

Where it went wrong for the rest of the club and admittedly a little bit for me as well is the ending, which [SPOILERS FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH] takes what I expected to be either an ambiguous ending or a heavy metaphor about life and swerves to the completely literal, having those mares be real and having some of the characters actually be these shapeshifters. This revelation doesn’t quite fit with the tone of the rest of the novel and so is completely jarring, leaving me with a “Bwuh?” face and then a “Hmmph.” face as a finished it. But with some space between me and the book, I find that I kind of liked it as a “twist” ending. It reminded me a bit of another novel I read a few years ago, though I’m pretty sure there weren’t actual demons in that one? Man, I need to write more spoilers in my reviews so I can remember these books better.

That was a long spoiler tangent, sorry!

Anyway, I ended up liking the book more academically, for playing around with literary conventions, than for its entertainment value, as it is lacking a bit in the plot and character departments. My book clubbers would argue that it’s lacking completely in those departments, but I stayed intrigued the whole way through so I’ll give McMahon points for that. And I will definitely be putting her on my list of Authors Whose Best Works I Should Read Some Day, as she’s pretty prolific and has some apparently very good works to her name.

Recommendation: For those looking for a moderately spooky read and who like a novel that plays with convention and expectation.

Girl With a Pearl Earring, by Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl EarringI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it has been nothing but comics and book club books for the last couple months ’round these here parts. This year that’s been a pretty good thing, because I’m picking the books for one club and my friends are picking the books for the other, and there’s always great discussions to be had.

This book, however, definitely suffered from New Book Club Syndrome. The club at my library wanted an official library moderator, so I stepped in and read the book at the last minute and spent all the time after that nervous about meeting new people whose opinions I don’t already understand. Noooooot the greatest reading environment.

It is possible that NBCS is why I got to the book club meeting and wondered if the other members and I had read the same book, but it’s also possible that this is a terrible book and they’re all just wrong. I’d tell you to read it and get back to me, but I really don’t want to inflict the book on you.

Here’s the basics: The book purports to tell the story behind the painting Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is a pretty plain painting of… a girl… wearing a pearl earring. This is not rocket science. In the story, a girl called Griet (who is, as I understand, completely invented for this book) must leave her family, suffering after her father’s loss of sight and thus loss of tile-painting job, to go work as a maid in the Vermeer household. Life as a maid is rough, but things get much better and much worse for Griet when Vermeer decides to make her his secret assistant, having her prepare paints for him and eventually sit as his subject.

And, seriously, if I had known that was what this book was, I would have read the Cliff’s Notes of the movie and called it a day. But the book is short, and I wanted to do it right, so I ended up reading the whole thing. Ugh.

At book club, after everyone else talked about how great the writing was and how evocative the imagery was and how wonderful the historical setting was, they were like, so, what did you think? When my attempt to plead the fifth failed, I said something like, well, the writing was terrible and the characters were boring and I just didn’t care about any of it. And then I sat quietly and let them love on the book because I’m not a monster.

But, seriously. From the very beginning I knew the writing wasn’t for me — there’s a lot of telling rather than showing, there’s a lot of Griet knowing things that she doesn’t seem like she should know anything about, and the sentences are full of unnecessary words or missing important words like “Vermeer”. But maybe the characters would make up for it? No, it’s mostly just Griet in the book and she’s the one thinking all those unnecessary words and also painting all the other characters as just one thing, good or bad. Maria Thins was okay, but even she was mostly inscrutable.

And then I didn’t care about the plot because I didn’t care about Griet and she is the only thing going in this whole darn book. I don’t care how hard your maid work is, I don’t care about your weird suitor and your weirder crush, I don’t care about this apparently horrible scandal that you don’t seem to be getting that worked up about.

The one maybe interesting bit of the novel is the part where Vermeer recruits Griet to make paint and we get a couple pages about how paint used to be made with bits of bone and other weird stuff and stored in… kidneys? I think?… and then we get a couple other pages about Vermeer’s painting process, which involves a camera obscura so that’s pretty cool. Facts! I like them!

So, yeah. I was definitely not the target audience for this book, and I definitely wish I hadn’t bothered reading it, but if you’re an art person or a Netherlands person or an historical fiction person, you’ll probably like this a heck of a lot better than me.