We’re All Damaged… and that’s kind of OK

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We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

3 words: wry, funny, open

This summer, our book club’s theme is Humor. And this is our lead-off book, and it was a home run.

Funny? Yes. In the things are really terrible but that makes them funnier way.

It’s set in the Midwest, so: bonus points. Living here in flyover country (don’t get me started), it always does my heart good to read a book with a solid Midwestern setting.

Andy had fled to New York after his wife left him for another man, but now his grandfather is dying, so Andy’s returned to Nebraska.

And his family’s hatched all kinds of (hilarious) new dysfunctions since he’s been gone, and he’s alienated from his best friend (aka his ex-wife’s brother), and basically his life is an unhappy mess.

Then a quirky young woman with a mysterious history pops onto the scene, and things get way more fun and way more complicated.

While his parents pursue their obsessive interests (his mom’s aiming to become a new talking head on Fox and he barely recognizes her, and his dad is preoccupied with an illegal motorcycle… and maybe something more), Andy bumbles around, trying to make things right.

Here we have a bunch of mostly good-hearted characters, all struggling in their own ways and crashing into one another and then trying to figure out the forgiveness thing.

It reminded me–in a good way–of This Is Where I Leave You. They both deal with loss and love with wry humor, and they both have the potential to make a person laugh out loud.

Give this book a whirl if you like… novels about returning home, post-divorce recovery, cringe-worthy gallows humor, quarter-life crisis, the Midwest

OK, if I’m looking for more books like this… funny about non-funny topics… Go!

Alas… that I hadn’t read it earlier

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

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3 words: character-driven, unfolding, storytelling

Wow. I never knew I’d like this book as much as I did.

I know post-apocalyptic novels have been all the rage for a decade or more, but I kind of struggle with them. I mean, real life is hard enough, you guys! So tossing in a “this is the end of the world as we know it” scenario seems so freakin’ grim.

But I know: good drama makes a good story.

And in this book, first published in 1959, there’s some amazingly strong storytelling. It’s that good old Midcentury style, with a big story and well-drawn characters and an earnest social message.

I liked it so much.

Here’s what surprised me most: The characters really come first in this novel, even though obviously the plot’s drama is going to try to suck all the air out of the room. But the characters and their responses to a nuclear attack are believable and relatable. And while a person could dissect the story and describe each character as representing a different response to the nuclear winter, I didn’t feel like the characters were merely there to represent types. They felt too real.

So, the plot is basically this: the US and the USSR fire nuclear missiles at each other and lots of cities are destroyed, and outside the cities, people try to figure out how to survive. It’s actually pretty terrifying. If I’d read this book in middle school, back when we actually feared this crap would happen, I think I would’ve wanted to hide under the bed.

Though, ultimately this book offers some hope. There’s plenty-o-trauma, but in the end, some people actually survived.

Give this book a whirl if you like… post-apocalyptic stories, contemporary classics, Mid-Century novels, solid storytelling

So… anybody wanna talk me into tackling another post-apocalyptic book because: characters?

Making the Constitution completely fascinating

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The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell

 

3 words: educational, lively, page-turner

Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans!

While it’s fair to say I’m primed to love this book (political science major and Hamilton obsessive), there’s so much here to love.

But… I’m not a natural reader of graphic novels, so in order for this book to really work for me, it had to perform on a pretty high level. I need to be won over by a graphic novel, and this one accomplished that feat.

As I was reading, I couldn’t believe how fun the author and illustrator made this book. Yes, it’s about the Constitution, and yes, that could be on the dry side, but… they make it interesting. And colorful and visually engaging. I kept thinking of Schoolhouse Rock, and that ramped up my fondness even further.

The author makes the Constitution and the Bill of Rights downright relatable, and he makes it relevant. We learn the Why.

I gotta say: pretty darn fascinating.

But then, I’m also the reader who occasionally got verklempt while reading this book, because: our government!

It’s messy and sometimes it doesn’t look like it’s working well at all, but it’s built strong enough to endure some serious crap. And that’s a serious comfort, my friends.

And if you need a soundtrack, of course Hamilton provides one.

Give this book a whirl if you like… nonfiction graphic novels, American history, the Schoolhouse Rock approach to learning, the “why” behind the American system of government

 

My fellow readers… what book would you recommend for the 4th of July?

Audiobook so good it ruins you, doggone it

(photo credit: By Bea A Carson [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Nix by Nathan Hill

3 words: wry, family, storytelling

So this happened…

After finishing this book, I drove around resolutely dissatisfied by three audiobooks I tried to begin. Nothing worked (I will never be satisfied) because The Nix had totally spoiled me with its splendor.

As the Dear Man’s dear nephew said, “Magnum opus. That is all.”

Except: here we’re not gonna let that be all. More words!

This book is one of those big stories you just fall into, and it carries you away. I kept feeling surprised by each new turn the narrative took, but it all worked.

The tone captured me right away. When describing the way the media responded to a middle-aged woman hurling pebbles at a politician, the wry sarcasm completely delighted me. When I’m smiling out loud during the first five minutes of an audiobook, that’s a good sign.

We start with Samuel Andresen-Andersen, then meet his pebble-throwing mother, his mother’s lawyer, his worst student, his literary agent, a gamer who lives in the video game where they both spend too much time, and people from his mother’s brief (accidental) foray into the 1968 protest movement.

And there are even characters from Iowa. What more can a person ask for?

With a nicely balanced blend of cynicism and hope, this story unfolds through flashbacks and interspersed storylines.

And just when I thought I had it figured out… it surprised me one last time.

Big, literary, entertaining, and immensely satisfying.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary novels with a modern tone and sense of humor, complex family stories, narratives that interweave the past and the present, stories of 1960s counterculture, the past coming back to bite you

 

What book was so good it ruined other books for you?

 

 

Boone boon

Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan

3 words: myth-busting, detailed, literary

Travel-inspired reading: I’m kind of hooked on it.

 

Anyone else with me on that?

At the reconstructed fort

When the Dear Man and I were canoeing in Kentucky, we also visited Fort Boonesborough.

It’s a place where Daniel Boone lived and dramatic things happened there.

So: we history geeks were into it.

Result: I wanted to read a Boone biography.

During our visit to the truly spectacular Paris Public Library, I asked the wonderful librarian to recommend a biography of Boone, and she suggested the Robert Morgan. I’m so glad she did.

This book, written as it is by a novelist, is seriously narrative. Morgan’s one heck of a talented storyteller, and his writing is downright lovely.

Original site of fort

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being immersed in this story.

Even beyond the drama (being captured by Native Americans and absorbed into the tribe as the son of the chief — who knew?!) Boone’s life offers plenty of food for thought.

There’s some major irony here. Boone loved hunting and exploring, but his efforts led to the destruction of what he valued most. By opening up the West to settlement, there went the hunting grounds.

And when a biography of Boone was published during his lifetime, he became a folk hero and lived with the weirdness of early 19th century fame.

Morgan’s warm, compassionate portrait paints Boone as a decent, talented man who was deeply loved by his family and friends. And that’s an angle I hadn’t really considered — the man’s personal life. Morgan brings him very much to life, and he made me care about this man whose legend has obscured his humanity.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like…exploration, stories of loners, the frontier, early American history, a nuanced and balanced view of a historical figure

 

So, good readers… have you ever read a book because of a vacation inspiration?

Listening to Lincoln

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

3 words: melancholy, gentle, eccentric

 

I’m guessing you might’ve heard this by now, but… this is The Big Audiobook of The Year.

And it’s not because there are more than 160 narrators, though that’s certainly a source of much of the buzz.

And it’s not because the cast contains tons of famous actors, though that’s true, too.

And it’s not because all of this fuss is over the author’s debut novel.

All of those things contribute, but for me, there are three other factors that make this thing so amazing.

First, the story makes you feel all the feels. At one point, I had to turn off the audiobook, because otherwise serious sobbing would’ve ensued, and I was pulling into the parking lot at work. That wouldn’t do.

This book is a magical realism-tinged look at the days following Willie Lincoln’s death in 1862. The Civil War is raging away, and then Lincoln lost his beloved son. And the way Saunders writes, you feel it.

But because this book is narrated by lots of dead people in the cemetery, you also feel lots of other things, because they represent a cross-section of humanity. So there are kind souls and there are brutes, and there’s gentleness and there’s crassness.

Second, the author tells the story in an inventive way. Not only is much of the book narrated by the dead, but there are also sections of knit-together excerpts of writings of the time, describing things like Willie’s death, and the Lincolns’ parenting style, and Lincoln’s personality and appearance. And the opinions differed widely, so you see the difficulty of getting at “the truth” of a person or a situation. But throughout, the greatness of Lincoln shines through.

And third, Nick Offerman. The man’s a narrating genius. He and David Sedaris read the two main roles, and I gotta say: Offerman’s subtle, understated way completely slayed me. The nuance in his voice conveys ten times more than dramatic flailings could even hint at. His character is in denial about his own death, and each time any of the ghosts is about to say “casket,” he substitutes “sick box.” It nearly choked me up.

If you’re going to read this book, I sure hope you’ll listen to it. The beauty of the narration — by all those 166 narrators — adds texture and emotion to an already remarkable story.

Give this book a whirl if you like…Lincoln, cemeteries, ghosts, books that include snippets of real historical accounts, sad stories, a bit of earthiness, The Graveyard Book, The Spoon River Anthology

Bite size reviews

I’m cramming for two upcoming book discussions, so this week we’ve got… the Bite Size Reviews.

Here we have three books I’ve read recently, liked just fine, and then completely not written about here.

Ready?

 

Teammate: My Journey in Baseball and a World Series for the Ages by David Ross

3 words: revealing, fast-paced, casual

Delectable quote: “Don’s idea was that this book be about exactly that, passing along all that I’ve learned from others on an important subject: how to make yourself valuable, even if you’re not the most valuable.” (p. xix)

Give this book a whirl if you like… teamwork, self-improvement, being there for others, baseball, sports memoirs, the Chicago Cubs

 

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

3 words: lyrical, contemplative, philosophical

Delectable quote: “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.” (p. 1)

Give this book a whirl if you like… long, witty sentences; exploring religious beliefs, British humor

 

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

3 words: complex, unfolding, unsentimental

Delectable quote: “Keeping secrets was a family business.”

Give this book a whirl if you like… anecdotal storytelling, family secrets revealed, fascinating fictional lives, non-consecutive narratives, the Space Race, spies, gruff older fellows

 

What books have you read (and not had time to write about) lately ?

June is Audiobook Month

It’s Audiobook Month, my friends!

Anyone out there a compulsive audiobook listener who gets twitchy when there are only 2 discs left, and you don’t have the next audiobook queued up yet?

Me, too.

So here’s some help.

This year, I’m focusing on great audiobooks narrated by their author.

Sometimes, when the author reads the audiobook, it ain’t good.

But sometimes, it’s perfection.

Here are some of the happier cases.

If you’re in the mood for…

 

And now I’m wondering… what author-narrated audiobooks would you add to this list?

 

Bookish Tourist: Parnassus Books

3 words: blissful, family, all-encompassing

This is the story of the day we visited Parnassus Books, aka The Day I Just Kept Flapping.

On our recent trip to Nashville, the Dear Man, his Dear Dad, and his Dear Sister met up with his Dear Nephew and Dear Nephew’s Dear Girlfriend (we have a serious entourage) to visit Ann Patchett’s bookstore.

I’ve been ogling the place on Instagram for months now, and visiting the place is (of course) so much better!

I was instantly taken in by the shelf of “Penned & Picked By Patchett.” There were shelf talkers containing blurbs she wrote, recommending books!

(italics, in this post, denote “blogger flapping with joy”)

Completely thrilling.

We all book chatted our way through the bookstore, and the Dear Nephew bought a book I recommended, based on his reading tastes (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel).

And the Dear Man and his Dear Dad got to hang out with one of the shop dogs.

The bookstore is utterly seductive: wood floors, comfy chairs, friendly dogs, a piano, and tons of carefully selected books on the shelves. Seriously: their backlist picks are inspired.

 

There were so many books I could’ve bought (for a moment, I thought it would be this one…)

This is what a librarian looks like

 

…but I chose This Is Where You Belong by Melody Warnick, because it’s a book I really want to re-read.

While this bookstore is delightful on its own, knowing that Ann Patchett co-owns it and is involved with its design and operation — that adds some serious sparkle. I felt a little bit starstruck when we were there.

And then… I didn’t want to leave.

Purchase in hand… still seduced by the window display

 

But then: smart man (who knows me well) reminded me that a visit to Fox’s Donut Den was up next. Here we are, after the eating of the quite remarkable apple fritter…

 

If you’re ever anywhere even close to Nashville, my fellow readers, all I can say is: Get thee to this bookstore.

It’s pure magic.

George Rogers Clark: this is one sad story

George Rogers Clark: I Glory in War by William R. Nester

3 words: detailed, accessible, revealing

OK, guys. Things are about to get super geeky here.

Today we’re talking George Rogers Clark.

Here’s my reintroduction to the dude… The Dear Man and I were touring Cave Hill Cemetery a couple of years ago, so we could visit the grave of Col. Sanders.

So the guy at the gate gave us a map that showed the locations of all of the famous people’s graves. And George Rogers Clark was on the map. We discussed the fact that we pretty much didn’t know who that was, other than: 1700s? Military leader, maybe?

So: learning.

Here’s the quick synopsis of his life…

First, The Good:

  • Revolutionary War hero, but in the West
  • Led a military unit that captured forts in current-day Illinois and Indiana
  • Founder of Louisville

Next, The Bad (aka The Sad):

  • He had a serious drinking problem
  • He peaked in his 20s
  • He fell into poverty

And finally… The Ugly:

  • Late in life, he betrayed his country by making deals with France and with Spain
  • He was an angry, bitter, resentful man in his later years

 

So there we have quite the story arc. The early rise, and the long downward spiral thereafter.

Which makes this book not the most jolly of stories.

 

Locust Grove

Nevertheless, the reading experience was a really good one, because the writing is fluid, the narrative is dynamic, and the subject matter is pretty darn fascinating. We got ourselves a seriously flawed hero here, guys.

I finished reading the book during our recent canoe trip to the Lexington area, which involved a stop in Louisville. Because we are some serious history geeks (when we’re not being fast food geeks [I was serious when I said we were visiting Col. Sanders’s grave]), we visited Locust Grove, the final home of George Rogers Clark. The house actually belonged to his sister and brother-in-law, but Clark lived there for the last several years of his life, when he was an invalid.

 

The office at Locust Grove

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… the American Revolution, narrative nonfiction about forgotten episodes of major historical events, true stories of the downward spiral, flawed historical figures

 

So, my fellow readers… what semi-obscure historical figure have you found fascinating?