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.

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell

This is the last Sarah Vowell review for a while, I promise! It turns out that I can only take so much of the same kind of book. Also, I didn’t like this one very much, which is disappointing because I actually own the print version, but which is less disappointing because I only paid a dollar for it.

Anyway, this book is Sarah Vowell doing her Sarah-Vowell-iest to describe early Puritan America, specifically the set of Puritans that came over in 1630 to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There’s lots of stuff about religion, of course, and Indian relations, but mostly what I remember is the politics (of course) and the fine lines everyone had to walk to attempt to make this whole colony thing work.

And this is interesting, sure, but unfortunately it seems that I am less intrigued by Puritan politics in the 1630s than I am about current politics and presidential assassinations, and so I must admit that I didn’t pay that much attention to this audiobook. Well, except when Vowell went on her tangents — I will forever be amused by the idea of her explaining to her small nephew why the Puritans were still killing the Indians long after the “first Thanksgiving.” Poor kid; his aunt is ruining everything for him!

Also, I may try actually reading this one again in the future; I think that part of my problem here was the fact that I know so much less about this aspect of history than I do about presidents and politics, and so I kept getting all the Johns confused, among other difficulties. Maybe if I can flip back and forth to remember who everyone is, I’ll have a better time of it? Eh, give me a year or so and we’ll see. 🙂

Recommendation: For history lovers who don’t mind a little whimsy in their historical narratives.

Rating: 7/10

Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell

I mentioned re: The Partly Cloudy Patriot that I thought that Sarah Vowell’s sarcastic nature might come across better in audio form over print form, and I think this is where I can say that that’s true. I tried to read Assassination Vacation once before, a couple of years ago, and gave it up almost immediately for being odd and confusing. This time, though, I was better prepared and had Sarah Vowell reading it to me as it was meant to be read, and so it went down real smooth-like. Or whatever.

This book is similar to The Partly Cloudy Patriot in that it is a) about politics and b) liberally (ha!) sprinkled with Vowell’s personal anecdotes. It is, as you might guess, about various assassinated presidents (but not JFK), but it’s not so much about the assassinations themselves as about what the assassinations meant at that point in history and mean now and what happened as a result.

So, for example, Vowell talks about her favorite president, one Mr. Lincoln, and how his assassination was meticulously planned by Booth to happen on a laugh line to cover up the whole assassinating bit as much as possible. And then she talks about how Booth ran ostensibly without forethought toward a friend’s place, and moves into a personal anecdote about how she and a friend tried to follow Booth’s path, failing miserably even in a car with maps from MapQuest, like, come on, this was not an accidental hiding place.

In another amusing example, Vowell talks about Teddy Roosevelt succeeding the assassinated McKinley, and how he was out hiking in the Adirondacks when the whole dying thing was going on, and also how when a messenger from the White House came running up a mountain to find him and bring him back to Washington, Roosevelt was like, “Nah, I think I’ll eat some dinner first.” Priorities, right?

And then there was the only problem I had with this book as an audiobook… Charles Guiteau. He’s the guy what shot James Garfield, whose monument in Lake View Cemetery I adore, and it turns out that he is really really annoying. Every time the voice actor playing him started talking, I found myself moving my headphones away from my ears and just waiting for the annoying to stop so I could listen to Sarah Vowell again. Part of this was the shouty quality of the actor (of Guiteau?) and part just how insane Guiteau’s words were. He was a crazy person, I have found out.

But aside from Charles Guiteau, I quite liked this book. Assassinations are interesting creatures, and I liked the many and varied perspectives Vowell brought to them, from first-hand accounts of contemporaries to first-hand accounts of Vowell getting seasick on her way to the Dry Tortugas. Sometimes her tangents got a little out of hand, and sometimes she got too much into the minutiae of politics, but on the whole I think it struck a good balance.

Recommendation: For lovers of politics and murder most foul. Or just kind of foul, I guess, depending on your viewpoint.

Rating: 8/10

The Partly Cloudy Patriot, by Sarah Vowell

I said on the Twitters the other day that I don’t know whether I want to marry Ms. Vowell or be her when I grow up. But after finishing up this book and starting in on her next, Assassination Vacation, I think I just want to hang out with her and go on strange adventures on an irregular basis. She’s delightfully quirky, but I’m not sure I could actually be friends with her.

I picked this book up for many reasons, but the main ones are that Vowell has a new book out, I’ve never read one of her books, and I’ve heard that the new one is a little odder than her others so it made more sense to back up and wade into the pool that is Sarah Vowell. Whatever that means.

And let’s be honest, I loved it. It merited the Twitter mention as well as three quotes in a row on my Tumblr… I found myself cracking up in the middle of work and hoping that no one asked what was going on, because it would be too hard to explain.

Part of it is the subject matter… this book is a collection of essays mostly about politics and patriotism, which haven’t changed terribly much save in name in the last nine years. Vowell is a capital-D Democrat, so she spends a few essays proclaiming her love for Bill Clinton and Al Gore and her distaste for George W. Bush. But there’s no proselytizing, just an acknowledgement of her politics and her involvement in the political institution. And outside of politics proper, Vowell includes some essays about the underground lunchroom in Carlsbad Caverns National Park, the current practice of declaring everyone a Rosa Parks, and playing that one basketball game in the arcade.

The other part is Sarah Vowell. I listened to the audiobook, which is primarily narrated by her, with brief cameos from others (like Stephen Colbert as Al Gore), and so each essay is imbued with Vowell’s inflections and emphases. Considering her often sarcastic nature, I can imagine that these essays might come across rather differently in print, so I’m glad I went in for the audio. It’s sort of like hanging out with Sarah Vowell, right?

Recommendation: Highly recommended, unless you’re smitten with George W. Bush.

Rating: 9/10
(A to Z Challenge)