Weekend Shorts: Serious and Less Serious Business

Normally I like to at least try to theme my Shorts posts, but this week the offerings probably could not be more different. We’ve got one super-serious and fascinating look at race in America, and one relatively lighthearted fantasy crime story. Let’s start with the serious.

The Fire This Time, by Jesmyn Ward
The Fire This TimeI was pleasantly surprised by how good Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was a few years back, so when I saw her name on a Brand New Thing I wanted it. When I saw that it was a collection of essays from different authors about the Black/African-American experience in America, I was even more intrigued.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, Legacy, covers the past: the history of a person, of a people, of a family, of noted and obscure figures. The longest of these essays, “Lonely in America”, talks about how even in history-obsessed New England there is a giant slavery-shaped gap in the common knowledge. It also talks a lot about libraries (not always nicely), so you know I liked it best.

The second part, Reckoning, covers the present, from pop culture to civil unrest and often both in one essay. My favorite of these essays is “Black and Blue”, a look at one man’s love of walking in Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans; and New York City. As you might guess, his experiences in each place are equally dangerous but for different reasons. As a person who loves to walk and who has walked in some pretty shady situations, this piece really resonated with me.

The third part, Jubilee, covers, of course, the future. Daniel José Older writes a letter to his future children, and Edwidge Danticat one to her daughters, using the facts of the present to create hope for the future.

Not all of these essays are especially polished or organized or straightforward, but all of them are true, and I definitely recommend this collection to anyone looking to make sense of the world today.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi
The DispatcherOkay, now that we’re done with the serious, let’s get to the brain candy. The Dispatcher came out on Audible on Tuesday, and it’s 100% free until the beginning of November, and it’s like two hours long so I don’t know why you haven’t already downloaded it. It’s an audio-first experiment, but if you like what I have to say about it and hate listening to things, there’ll be a print and ebook version out next year.

I downloaded it because free, of course, but also because Scalzi and because the description was intriguing. It’s a story set in a world where people who are intentionally killed come back to life, but those who die unintentionally don’t, so there are people called Dispatchers who are hired by insurance companies and the like to intentionally kill people who are dying in surgery or performing crazy stunts or whatever so they can come back to life and get a second try at whatever they were doing. In this story, Zachary Quinto plays our Dispatcher narrator, who gets recruited to play consultant for the… police? FBI? someone… when a Dispatcher acquaintance of his goes missing.

It’s along the lines of Lock In in that it’s a pretty basic crime story with a fantasy wrapper, but unlike Lock In, whose backstory came in a separate novella, it is a super quick story and the exposition ends up taking up the majority of the story’s time. And then the plot was basically put in the box from Redshirts to produce a nice, tidy, but kind of unsatisfying ending.

BUT it has the line “You have Resting Smug Face” in it, and is two hours of pure Scalzi goodness, so, I mean, it’s a win overall.

The premise is great, the writing is great, the story is fun, but the novella length is no good. I could easily have read a novel’s worth of this, and maybe I’ll get to if enough people find this story as perfectly acceptable as I did.

Weekend Shorts: Tiny Cooper and Terry Pratchett

Hold Me Closer: The Tiny Cooper Story, by David Levithan
Hold Me CloserTrue story: I almost didn’t read the adorable and wonderful Will Grayson, Will Grayson, because I didn’t want to deal with Tiny Cooper. And yet, when I saw this ridiculously shiny book coming out earlier this year, I was like, yeeeeeah I’m totally going to read that.

Hold Me Closer is, I guess, Tiny’s draft of the big gay musical he puts on during Will Grayson, Will Grayson, with all the songs and talking but also little notes about how Tiny sees particular scenes going and jabs at Will’s love life. The musical itself is great and pretty realistic for a teenager’s first musical — the songs are obviously not professionally written but are pretty darn good, and the content is infused with that hopefulness that teenagers have in spades.

And Tiny is a wonderful character, full of self-confidence and self-doubt alike as he navigates his childhood and the wonders of dating and friendships and family life as you get older. Even if you are not a large gay teenager, you will still relate to a lot of the ideas of this book.

I’m not sure if you could get away with reading just this and not Will Grayson, Will Grayson, but you should read the original book anyway so why not do both?

A Slip of the Keyboard, by Terry Pratchett
A Slip of the KeyboardAnother true story: It took me five whole months to get through this book. To be fair, I started off reading one short essay per day, and then kind of completely forgot about the whole thing, and then came back to it and read it much more quickly. I think you can read it either way — slowly parceled out or in huge gulps — and still have a fine time with Sir Terry.

This was kind of a weird book for me to have picked up, really, as I’ve only read three of Pratchett’s books, all fiction, and this is a book of non-fiction essays whose only commonality is that Pratchett wrote them. So there are essays about books and reading and fantasy and science fiction and all those great things, but there are also introductions to books I know nothing about and asides about books of Pratchett’s I’ve not read yet and essays about weird Christmas things and nuclear power plants and stuff. I feel like I probably needed at least five more of Pratchett’s books under my belt before attempting this.

But it was still pretty darn good! And the reason I blazed through it at the end is that I got to the section where Pratchett rants about Alzheimer’s and how it’s a terrible thing, and you need not have any of his books in your house to agree with that sentiment. You may not agree with his stance on assisted death, on the other hand, but in these essays he’s clearly done his research and it’s fascinating to see the various opinions in this debate.

All in all I would definitely recommend this more to Pratchett mega-fans, but even if you’re not you’ll make it through all right.

Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings, by Shirley Jackson

Let Me Tell YouI often tell people how much I love Shirley Jackson, what with having read and enjoyed The Haunting of Hill House and having read and LOVED We Have Always Lived in the Castle and, of course, The Lottery. Shirley Jackson! She’s so great! She writes the creepiest things!

If you had told me before I started this new collection of her work that the pieces I would enjoy most would be the ones about her everyday life as a parent and housewife, I would have thought you’d had the wrong Shirley Jackson, is what I’m saying.

Not that there aren’t creepy stories. The book opens with a story called “Paranoia”, in which one Mr. Halloran Beresford is just trying to get home, but he keeps running into and being followed by some weird guy in a hat. Another story, called “Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons”, involves a woman who receives a weird letter, ignores it, and then reaps the consequences. Even some of Jackson’s biographical essays have a spooky sort of slant to them.

But primarily the short stories in this collection are teeny vignettes (a page or two at most) of mundane life, brief peeks into a household or a relationship that require the reader to fill in some of the meaning and importance. Many of these I just did not understand, others I could kind of figure out but wasn’t thrilled with.

The humorous essays are where Jackson shines, especially, as I said before, talking about family and home life. “In Praise of Dinner Table Silence”, “Questions I Wish I’d Never Asked”, “How to Enjoy a Family Quarrel”, “The Pleasures and Perils of Dining Out With Children”… these are all stories I could see being written today, except that they’d be gif-filled BuzzFeed lists and not nearly as hilarious.

Second place in the awesome category, behind those essays, is the title story of the collection, which is only in second place because it’s not actually finished. When I saw the editor’s note that it was only a partial story, I was like, uh, okay, but after reading it I completely understand why it was included. It is the start of a longer story, and is much longer than possibly everything else in the book, and it is kind of beautiful. It’s almost unfair to include it in this book because a) it stands out like a sore thumb as a well-developed longer story amongst a sea of super-short stories and b) all that development comes to naught when the story ends abruptly in the middle of some nice exposition. But I still managed to enjoy it immensely, so I guess it works out?

I highly recommend this collection for fans like me, who have read just a couple wonderful things and haven’t gotten the full spectrum of Jackson’s writings, and for Jackson completists. If you’re a Jackson newbie you should probably stick with her previous story collections or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which is the best ever.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: Audiobook Edition

After going through a heavy podcast phase, I did some culling of my playlist and realized that I could probably squeeze in an audiobook in the dead times between my remaining podcasts. Huzzah, more books! But of course, with my podcast-trained ear I am now terrible at listening properly to audiobooks so I can’t really give them full, proper reviews. So here, have some short, improper ones!

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba
The Boy Who Harnessed the WindI knew I needed nonfiction for my first book back in the commute-listening saddle, and it turns out that the library I work for has approximately no nonfiction audiobooks on OverDrive. On the plus side, that made it easy to pick this one, which I had meant to read years ago and which also fits my diversity requirement. I had a bit of trouble with this one as I hadn’t quite worked out the podcast/audiobook balance and ended up listening to it over almost two months.

It was a great listen anyway. What I knew about the book was that it was about a, well, boy who built windmills in Africa. But the windmill-building is actually a very small part of the book. Most of the book detailed William’s life as a kid growing up poor in Malawi, dealing with limited food and money, a year of famine in the country, and his inability to go to school because it required cash and so did buying food.

But William made the best of it, as you do, and spent his time not in school getting science books from the library and scavenging for supplies to build a windmill which not only gave his family electricity to work with, but got him noticed by people on the internet who were able to get him school, funding, and his own TED talk. It’s a great book if you need some inspiration to keep moving, or, alternately, if you need to feel like a failure at life because you are so much older than this kid. Either way!

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
Yes PleaseUm, yes. Please. This book is delightful and wonderful and kind of amazing. I’ve heard rumblings from people who didn’t like this book because they were expecting this or that, and I think that I loved it because I had basically no expectations. I’ve seen Amy Poehler in things, but I’ve never been an SNL person and I never made it past the first episode of Parks and Recreation, so I didn’t really know what I was getting into.

But, again, it’s amazing. Poehler talks about various pieces of her life, from childhood to the Upright Citizens Brigade to SNL to Parks and Rec to motherhood to divorce, and she does it all with sarcasm and dry humor. And, for the audiobook, she invites other people to come read things for her, including Seth Meyers reading a chapter he wrote for the book but also including Patrick Stewart reading haiku about plastic surgery. As Patrick Stewart does, apparently.

There was plenty that wasn’t really for me, like the chapter extolling the virtues of Poehler’s Parks and Rec co-stars, but regardless it was all fun to listen to and sometimes surprisingly emotional. I highly recommend this book, especially the audio version, for anyone who needs a good, solid, sarcastic laugh.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay

Bad FeministA few months back, I read Gay’s An Untamed State and did not like it very much at all. It was a tough read in several ways, and I just couldn’t bring myself to appreciate the reading experience. But I liked Gay’s writing and I knew this book was coming out and I kept my fingers crossed that it would be good.

It was pretty good!

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, as I’m not the widest reader of essay collections, so I just dove right in and hoped for the best. Gay starts off the book talking a bit about the state of feminism and the state of her own feminism, which is, like mine, somewhere along the lines of “I’m a lady and ladies are awesome and we shouldn’t put down ladies for the sake of putting down ladies.” She’s willing to expend a little more effort than I am in getting the “ladies are awesome” word out, as evidenced by the collection of feminist-y essays that follows the introduction.

Gay’s essays are primarily about the intersection of women and pop culture, from Girls to Sweet Valley High to The Hunger Games, and how pop culture needs to get its act together because it’s not cool to make a really awesome rap song for Gay to blast with her windows down and then have all the lyrics be about abusing women. There are also several essays about race and politics and general public discourse on feminism, and some closing essays reiterating Gay’s feminist stance or lack thereof.

I think my favorite essay from the collection is one near the beginning that is also available on Gay’s tumblr, in which Gay details the steps women can take to be better friends. These include not belittling other women, not being mean for the sake of being mean, not believing that women suck (something it took me several years to figure out between high school and college), telling the truth, and enjoying a friendship for what it is. Really, it’s a good primer for embarking on any kind of relationship, and you should share it with all of your friends, especially those of the adolescent variety because I just read another book where the lack of this knowledge caused a murder and yeah it’s a fiction book but YOU NEVER KNOW.

Ahem. Anyway. There’s also an essay about Scrabble that follows shortly after the friends essay which baffled me a little at first because it is in no way obviously about feminism, but it’s a fun essay and if you read enough into it you can come away with some good metaphors about feminism, so that’s a win.

All of the essays are written in a very personal style — I think at least a few of them come from her tumblr and others are opinion pieces from various media outlets — and while it’s fascinating getting into Gay’s head and learning more about her personal opinions and beliefs, it turns out that she is juuuuust a little bit prone to run off on tangents. They’re not uninteresting tangents, but sometimes the connections are jarringly tenuous, as in her essay that is about either Miss America or Sweet Valley High or fitting in at school or the terrible writing in Sweet Valley Confidential, which left me wondering more than once if my ereader had skipped a page or seven accidentally.

But overall I found this book a fun read, reinforcing a lot of my already-held beliefs and introducing me to some new ways of thinking about race and privilege that will hopefully lead to me being a better person in the future. Not bad!

Recommendation: For those who want to spend some time thinking about social issues and also terrible teen book series.

Rating: 8/10

The Southerner’s Handbook

The Southerner's HandbookThis book came out not too long after I started my new job in a more rural area of Northeast Florida, and once I saw that it existed I knew I had to read it. Jacksonville is pretty Southern (I tend to think of it as the last Southern city on I-95), but there are enough transplants that it’s not all ma’ams and grits. But in Callahan? Even grown adults are deferring to their parents and there is sweet tea at every big event. So I needed to brush up on my Southern.

This book covers all manner of Southern, from Virginia down to Florida and over even as far as Texas, and it covers it in handy bite-sized essays from various authors, so you can, if you want, pick and choose what things you want to know more about. I chose to read it straight through and learn all the things, albeit over the span of a few months, and that worked okay for me!

The most useful chapters (where chapter equals group of essays) for me were the ones about food, drink, and arts and culture, since those are the ones I certainly participate in most.

In the food chapter, I learned about the two million styles of barbecue that exist in the south, what cookbooks I need to obtain pronto, and even picked up some decent recipes for things like biscuits and grits. I’ve yet to try them out, but it’s just a matter of time. In the drinks chapter I found out that I have indeed been making proper lemonade this whole time, so props to me!, but also that my knowledge of fancy Southern cocktails and bourbon in general is severely lacking. Similarly, the arts and culture section has added about a dozen authors and even more books to my Southern TBR list.

The other chapters, on style, sporting (read: hunting and fishing, mostly), and gardening were also super interesting, if less applicable to my tiny little porch garden or my office attire. I do want to obtain a sassy trenchcoat, though, for wearing in the two months of the year that I won’t die of heat exhaustion while wearing it!

A lot of the essays are sort of straightforward, “here is a thing that exists”, but more than a few of the essays are of the humorous variety, including some from delightful Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me panelist Roy Blount, Jr., and a new-to-me essayist called Allison Glock, who is from Jacksonville and so gets plus two points from me — not that she needs them. I, unsurprisingly, liked the funny ones the best.

Although the book is called The Southerner’s Handbook, I feel like it’s only really a handbook for us non-Southern types who are trying to figure out what everyone else is on about. If you are a born-and-bred Southerner this is probably more like a Southerner’s No-duh-book, but that is not a terrible kind of book by any means.

Recommendation: For Southerners new and old, for different reasons. Possibly not for Northerners?

Rating: 7/10

Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a HalfI don’t have a ton of experience with the wonder that is Hyperbole and a Half, but I’m pretty sure it is some sort of comic/diary mashup and I am positive that everything I’ve read on it is awesome. I was introduced to the site via Brosh’s fantastic post about the mystical alot, and later the CLEAN ALL THE THINGS post; more recently Brosh put up two posts about depression that made the rounds of my internets and were actually quite informative though also sad-making.

Those may possibly the only posts I’ve seen on that site itself, so I was excited to read this book and see what I’d been missing — like other blogs to books, it is comprised of posts from the blog as well as some new content, though I could not tell you which might be which.

The book starts (well, after the introduction) with an essay about a time capsule Brosh left for herself at ten and dug up at 27, which contains a letter asking lots of questions about Future Allie, enumerating the kinds of dogs Ten-Year-Old Allie liked, and requesting that Future Allie please write back. Brosh takes this request to heart and writes back to several of her past iterations to give them some useful advice, though if they could have taken the advice we would not have this amusing essay or the rest of this book, so…

Several of the essays recount stories of Brosh’s two adorably mentally challenged puppies (is there any other kind?), and these might be my favorites just because I miss my own puppies and their ridiculous personalities but that is totally valid. Puppies are weird! They make strange noises and try to protect you from things that don’t even exist! These are truths I think anyone can relate to, unless they’ve managed never to have a pet, which is a situation that should be rectified immediately. But maybe not with one of Brosh’s dogs.

Actually, my favorite story might be the one in which Brosh’s mother takes her children for a nice walk in the woods that turns into a more-than-seven-hour attempt to find a way back to civilization. Brosh’s mother does not want to worry the children and sends them off to find all the pine cones while she figures out what to do, but of course she does not know what to do and her children are left wondering why they aren’t allowed to go home anymore. Brosh makes one of my worst nightmares a delightfully comical experience — probably because, spoiler alert, she survives to tell the tale.

Brosh makes a lot of things delightfully comical, whether they start out terrifying or sad or mundane, and her simple drawings make everything just that much better. I really didn’t need more things to read on the internet, but I think Hyperbole and a Half might just make the cut in my RSS reader.

Recommendation: For lovers of truth bombs, dysfunctional childhoods, puppies, and fun.

Rating: 9/10

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson

Let's Pretend This Never HappenedOne of the things I like about the 14-hour drive up to my parents and in-laws is that I get to listen to audiobooks along the way! I so rarely listen to them anymore that it’s nice to have some dedicated time where I’m really not going to do anything else.

I picked this particular audiobook to listen to because I highly enjoy the author’s blog, TheBloggess.com, and I’ve subjected my dear husband to a lot of the more ridiculous stories that she tells, usually starting them with, “So you know that crazy chicken lady?”

I haven’t gone back to read the entire site archives, so I don’t know if most of the essays in the book are also on the blog; I only noticed a couple of familiar entries myself, and those were still funny a second time so I’m not sure it really matters.

If you are not familiar with Lawson’s blog, you will probably still be entertained by this book, which includes your usual memoir fare — growing up, making friends, surviving college and marriage and children — but manages to be anything but usual. Lawson’s childhood involved a taxidermist father who would play practical jokes on his children with roadkill, and her adulthood seems largely comprised of trying to understand people whose parents didn’t do things like that.

Even better is Lawson herself reading the book; she knows exactly how weird most of her stories sound, and how sad some of them really are, and you get exactly the impression that Lawson intended when she wrote them.

I’d say the only downside to listening to this in the car is that sometimes you’ll find yourself so distracted by what Lawson is saying and how that could even be possible that you might, say, miss a turn. Or two. Maybe it would be safest to save this for your regular commute. But it’s definitely most entertaining when shared with a similarly humored friend.

Recommendation: For those who like the memoirs of, say, Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling or David Sedaris, and who don’t mind a dirty word or a thousand.

Rating: 9/10

How to Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen

I was so sure this post was going to go up after my book club discussed it, but unfortunately our discussion has been postponed indefinitely. I say this because I found myself not particularly enjoying the essays in this book, but I am almost positive that I will like them more after I have a chance to talk about them with people who did like them.

And I think my dislike stems largely from something that Franzen mentions in his essay “Mr. Difficult,” in regards to a particular woman that once wrote to him. “She began by listing thirty fancy words and phrases from my novel, words like ‘diurnality’ and ‘antipodes,’ phrases like ‘electro-pointillist Santa Claus faces.’ She then posed the dreadful question: ‘Who is it you are writing for? It surely could not be the average person who just enjoys a good read.'”

This woman makes Franzen out to be a “pompous snob,” but I wouldn’t go that far. And I am certainly not afraid of big words or opposed to working through a difficult book that has an excellent payoff. I just found, as I was reading, that Franzen was writing this book for a set of people of which I am definitely not a part, though I couldn’t tell you what particular set that might be. Writerly people? Big word collectors? Hipsters?

Whoever it is, it’s a group that follows Franzen Logic. To me, his essays tended to ramble on, hopping from topic to topic without terribly much in the way of transition and sometimes without much in the way of sense. I often found myself thinking, “How did we get here? Didn’t we start somewhere else? Whatever, I’ll just keep going and hope it comes back.”

On a small plus side, I really only felt this detachment from the writing in Franzen’s more personal essays, the ones where he talks about himself and his life and his opinions a lot. Most of the essays in this book fall into that category. But he also throws in a few journalistic pieces, about things like crappy Chicago mail delivery, the history of cigarettes and cigarette companies, and a high-security prison and the town that surrounds it. And those, I thought, were incredibly well-done, possibly because they required more focus than the personal essays and definitely because I have more interest in strange facts than strange opinions.

Now I’m curious to read some of Franzen’s fiction, which I hope to be more like these latter pieces. I suppose I should pick up Freedom anyway, what with all the hype about it, yes?

Recommendation: Again, I’m not really sure what sort of person would like all of Franzen’s essays, but I’m pretty certain that everyone can find at least one essay in here to like.

Rating: 7/10
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Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, by David Sedaris (30 April — 7 May)

I had this collection of Sedaris essays as my car audiobook for those long drives to and from my music ensembles, and I thought it worked pretty well. Stopping in the middle of a story left me confused, but when I could listen to a whole story at once I was highly entertained.

Most of the stories in this collection are ruminations on Sedaris’s life, both now and as a kid growing up in North Carolina. I felt a little awkward hearing Sedaris talk about playing strip poker and being beaten up by bullies and his brother training the dog to eat poo, but I thoroughly enjoyed his more humorous stories. In particular, I listened to his essay on Christmas in the Netherlands by myself and then immediately replayed it for Scott to hear. It was good.

That story and another were taped as Sedaris read them in front of an audience, but most of them were just Sedaris talking into a microphone, and you could really hear the difference. The man has a stage presence, but he seems to forget to use it without an audience! I wonder if the stories read differently without Sedaris talking.

Rating: 7/10
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