Weekend Shorts: Awesome Ladies on Audio

Why Not Me?, by Mindy Kaling
Why Not Me?Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? on a solo drive a while back and enjoyed the heck out of it, so I was happy to find her new book available when I needed a new audiobook. This edition of Kaling’s memoirs focuses on being a lady, being a lady in Hollywood, and dating cute boys. It’s not super memorable several weeks later, but I definitely enjoyed the listen on my drives and runs.

Awesome essays from the book:

“How to Look Spectacular: A Starlet’s Confessions”, full of advice of varying practicality for regular people. Have lots of hair! Get spray tanned! Tailor everything! Don’t pose the same way in every darn picture!

“Player”, about falling in love with a new friend to the exclusion of everyone else, and how that’s really never a great idea.

“One of the President’s Men”, in which Mindy meets a hot dude and has approximately the most frustrating relationship with him.

“A Perfect Courtship in my Alternate Life”, which is a made-up story told through emails about Mindy Kaling the Latin teacher and, well, a suuuuuper cute courtship.

This was a super fun audiobook and if you’re a Kaling fan or a fan of chicks with opinions in general, you’ll probably like it.

Furiously Happy, by Jenny Lawson
Furiously HappyAnother excellent second book to follow up an amazing first book. I love Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, whose blog is the most ridiculous and wonderful thing I read on a regular basis. She’s never met a tangent she didn’t want to go off on and she has a way of purposely misinterpreting the world that makes her life, and our lives, better for it.

Lawson writes amazing essays about things that happen to her that start off mundane (going to sit in a cemetery) and end up insane (finding herself accidentally attending a funeral in said cemetery), and also things that start out insane and keep going (corralling her husband into couples therapy because she wants him to get regular therapy and then fearing all the things he might possibly tell the therapist while he’s there without her). This book also includes several essays on the topic of depression, anxiety, and various other mental illnesses that I found really touching and important to listen to as a mentally okay person and that are probably way more empowering for the people who share Lawson’s mental states. This is definitely a book everyone needs to listen to, not leastly because Lawson’s narration is almost funnier than her stories.

You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), by Felicia Day
You're Never Weird on the InternetThis is Day’s first book and it is uh-mazing. I loved this book the most out of all the books in this post, and that is saying something. The best part is Day’s narration, which, like Lawson’s, feels more like swapping stories with a friend than listening to a performance. It’s full of awesome voice acting and nervous laughter and when Day tells embarrassing stories you can hear that embarrassment in her voice and it is awful and wonderful at the same time.

Also awesome is just hearing the story of Day’s life, from her childhood as a weird hippie homeschool kid right after homeschooling was legalized (Day notes that she doesn’t have a GED but does have a 4.0 double-major college degree) to being the wildly internet-popular chick from The Guild and Geek and Sundry that she is today. I have never been homeschooled or had internet-only friends or been addicted to WoW or started a web video company, but now I basically don’t have to because I’ve felt all the associated feels.

I was surprised to find that Day’s memoir contained pieces on anxiety and mental illness, which she talks about very frankly and smartly and between this and Lawson’s book I’m thinking a lot of internet-savvy ladies will be getting their brain chemistry checked out soon. Yay for healthy brains! I was not surprised to find a chapter on the whole GamerGate/misogynist internet dudes debacle of the last year, although Day admits she almost didn’t write it because who wants to go through that all again, and I was thrilled that she lays out the beginnings of the movement clearly for people like me who only caught the tail end of the blow-up. As she says, she’s not going to change anyone’s minds by talking about it, but maybe people will be a little more moderate in their reactions? On the internet? We can hope?

Overall, an amazing book and one I couldn’t wait to get back in the car to finish listening to but at the same time that I didn’t want to listen to obsessively because then it would be over and what could I possibly listen to next?

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingI had heard all the good things about this book, but I was hesitant to read it because I have an irrational mental block against both memoir and poetry. I know, I know. I’ve had some success lately with memoir on audio, though, so when I saw this was available on OverDrive, read by Woodson herself, and also very short, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a try.

It did not hurt. It was actually quite wonderful.

The audiobook definitely helped, as Woodson’s poetry is free verse and so the book sounds like a regular memoir most of the time. But the audio also makes the poetry part so much better because you can hear where Woodson breaks her lines and where she wants the emphasis and I’m looking at the print version right now and it’s just not the same. There are a few poems where the spacing and italics and the white space in the print version have their own sort of gorgeousness to them, but overall I am very glad I chose to listen to this.

Oh, what’s the book about, you ask? Right. Well, it’s a memoir, of course, of Woodson’s childhood growing up briefly in Ohio and then primarily in South Carolina and Brooklyn in the height of the civil rights era.

“I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
Columbus, Ohio,
USA—
a country caught

between Black and White.”

Those are the first lines of the first poem in the book, and they set the stage for what’s to come. Woodson and her siblings grow up with a Southern mother and Northern father and feel the strain of that geographical divide no matter where they’re living. In South Carolina they live with their mother’s family in their mother’s home, but even their mother is wary of their lives there. As a Northern transplant to a very Southern part of Florida, I was startled to hear these words coming out of my car speakers:

“Never ma’am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough to show respect.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days . . .”

That first part is absolute crazy talk in my neck of the woods, where a forgotten “ma’am” gets even grown adults in trouble. “Ma’am” and “sir” have become so ingrained in my vocabulary that it’s hard to imagine anyone purposely not saying them, but of course it makes perfect sense in the context of the time.

And that’s how most of the poems go — they’re mostly short, some very short, reflections on mostly normal events like moving and going to school and making and keeping friends, but they’re all imbued with history, whether the history of Jacqueline Woodson or her family or the South or the whole country.

It’s a beautiful book and if you are on the fence about it for any reason, please do give it a try, especially in audio. You probably won’t regret it.

Recommendation: For everyone, really.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: Moar Audiobooks!

I really am liking having more time to do the audiobook thing now that I’ve killed off a few podcasts (and some have killed themselves off, sniff sniff). But I am going to run out of books I know I want to listen to soon, so if y’all have recommendations for memoirs (preferably funny ones) or nonfiction (preferably fact-filled and with a sense of humor), tell me tell me tell me!

Unfamiliar Fishes, by Sarah Vowell
Unfamiliar FishesA few years ago, when I had a job at which I could listen to audiobooks all day long, I went on a quick Sarah Vowell bender and listened to three of her books all in a row. I loved her writing and her voice (literary and literal), but the binge was too much, I guess, and I never read her again. Until now!

This is another of her focused histories (like The Wordy Shipmates), and in it she talks about the history of Hawai’i and the white inhabitants who took it over. I didn’t know much about Hawai’i except that it’s, like, an island, and a state, so it was fascinating to find out that there have been Americans there since 1820, first doing the missionary thing and then totally taking over.

I learned many fun facts while listening to this book, most of which I promptly forgot, but I did come away with the sense that if I ever manage to make it out to Hawai’i, I’m going to end up forgoing the beach for trips to old missionary houses and obscure museums. I mean, let’s be honest, I’d probably do that anyway, but now I kind of want to go just to do that!

One note on the audio: there are a large number of guest voices on the audio, and I was excited to see how they would be used, but weirdly they are used only to read quotes from various historical figures. Each actor gets a few people to “be”, but then there are other people that Vowell has covered, and it was just kind of weird. Perhaps knowing this in advance will improve your listening experience?

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, by Issa Rae
The Misadventures of Awkward Black GirlI don’t know what’s wrong with me. I hate memoirs, or I thought I did — apparently, listening to memoirs read by their authors is like the coolest thing ever. So even though I knew absolutely nothing about this book going in except that she’s apparently a funny YouTube person and that a friend of mine thought the book was pretty okay (I assume that’s what 3 stars on GoodReads equals), I was all for it.

And then I started the book, and I was like, holy crap. Turns out that Rae is the same age as me, and after listening to so many memoirs of people at least a few years older than me, it was sort of weird to hear someone talking about a childhood with computers. She starts off the book talking about writing stories on the computer and printing them off on dot-matrix paper and getting the Internet and being obsessed with chat rooms and learning how to stretch the a/s/l truth in PMs and I was like, um, I thought that was just me. So, fantastic start.

Her childhood seems very different from mine on a large scale, with her stories of moving cross-town, cross-country, and cross-world, and of growing up black in variously diverse neighborhoods. But of course it’s also similar, as she navigates friendships and school and being a super-awkward teenager. She writes about her parents’ failed marriage and how it affected her own relationships, and about chopping all her hair off and the freedom she felt with it gone, and about coworkers and how much they can suck. It’s not a particularly focused book, but it’s super fun and often hilarious and I am definitely going to have to check out Rae’s various webseries in the hopes that they will be the same.

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.

When Women Were Birds, by Terry Tempest Williams

When Women Were BirdsI picked this book for my book club to read because the internets had told me great things about it, and the conceit as explained to me was fascinating: Williams’s mother died and left Williams all her journals, of which there were many and of which all turned out to be completely blank. That’s crazy, right? Who keeps a bunch of blank journals? I needed to know more.

But it turns out there isn’t anything more to know. Williams has no idea why the journals were blank, and doesn’t really postulate on it at all. Instead, she gives us 54 odd, practically stream-of-consciousness essays on “voice” or lack of it, drawn from her own life and only rarely touching on her mother’s. Which is fine. But it’s not what I thought I was getting into.

To be fair, I can see what Williams is doing with these essays. She’s describing situations where her own voice or general idea of power come into play, times when she was as silent as her mother’s journals and times where she used her voice and power to leave some metaphorical journal entries. Some of the vignettes are completely self-contained, but some require background information that we never get — blank pages in the journal that is this book. All we can really know about a person is what they tell us, and sometimes they tell us nothing.

I get it. But I didn’t like it. I needed more. It felt like reading The Year of Magical Thinking with another book club, where all the people who actually knew who Joan Didion was were like, this book is amazing, and the rest of us were like, so, that happened. I don’t know anything about Williams, but based on the little information I got she sounds like a pretty interesting person, and I bet that if I had known she was a quasi-famous author and environmentalist and especially if I had read her memoir I would have been better placed to read this book.

Sorry, book club. I’ll do better next time.

Recommendation: For people who know anything about Terry Tempest Williams or people who can enjoy the conceit of a book without thinking too hard about the content.

Rating: 4/10

As You Wish, by Cary Elwes

As You WishAt some point in the fairly recent past, I went to see The Princess Bride for the first time… in the theater, that is, as I have watched the movie approximately one zillion times and it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I saw it with a bunch of other people who also love the movie and one person who was actually, literally, truly seeing the movie for the first time, and all of us were more than a little baffled when she was like, “It’s okay, I guess.” Inconceivable!

I’ve also read the book, though only once, way back at the beginning of my blogging career, and I was struck by how it could have been a novelization of the movie and not the other way around, except for the very beginning and a very cool part in the middle that I’m sad wasn’t in the movie.

So I was totally primed for this book, is what I’m saying.

And before I say anything else, I would like it noted that my comments are based on not just an advanced reading copy of the book but a digital advanced copy that had some poor formatting choices when it came to the numerous what I’m guessing are sidebars but ended up just cutting right into the middle of paragraphs and sentences in this version. I can only hope that those formatting issues are taken care of in the final digital version.

Okay, so. I had expected this to be a book about The Princess Bride, which it is, sort of, but it’s more correctly a memoir of Cary Elwes’s experience with The Princess Bride, from casting to filming to the strange cult following that has built up around the film since its release on home video. And that’s cool, for the most part, but there are long stretches of the narrative that are just Elwes (and often the people in the sidebars) having a love-fest for all the other people in or related to the movie, which gets a little boring after a while. It also seems like most of the cute stories that Elwes tells are things I already knew from watching the extras on my DVD copy or from the 25th anniversary coverage a couple years back, and I’m not sure how many people are standing in line for this book that haven’t consumed those other things already.

But there are a few stories that I didn’t know before reading this book, and those stories are totally worth reading the rest of this fairly short book and I’m not going to spoil them for you because I will not do them the justice that Elwes does. And these stories will make you want to go back and watch the movie, which is of course never a bad thing.

I wish that this book had been a little different, with more of more people’s perspectives and some tighter editing on Elwes’s wordy style, but I suppose even Westley can only do so much. And hey, maybe someone else (I’m looking at you, Mandy Patinkin) will decide to do this again around another anniversary?

Recommendation: If you love The Princess Bride, you’re probably already reading this. If you don’t, there is nothing I can do for you.

Rating: 7/10