The New One – 3/5 Stars
This is the second Mike Birbiglia book I’ve read, after Sleepwalk with Me, and it’s good in the ways that comedians’ books are good and bad in the way that comedians’ books are bad (though this is a general issue with the form more than this specific book). Mike Birbiglia’s career is interesting in part because of the way he clearly got taken up by “Big Storytelling” around 2009 or so, and the opportunities to write movies that came along with that fueled this. Storytelling, in the way of this book, is an effective format for conveying interesting and complex ideas. The levels of emotional honesty that many of the moments this book takes are pretty raw and almost gut-wrenching at times. It’s not a book built on pain, but it does take its perspective through some pretty painful places. It’s about Mike and his wife Jen deciding to have a baby, especially against a lifetime of feeling that he didn’t want to be a father, both for the same basic reasons that a lot of people don’t want to have kids — fears of changing lives, discomfort with bringing others into this world, self-doubt, and vulnerability — but also for the fact that he’s had a series of health problems that look to continue into the future. So narrating the moments where he feel disconnected from his wife, how this creates two fully separate new relationships in the house are all great.
The only issue with the book is that too often topics are touched on, but not explored, and the jokes generally feel pretty warmed over. This last point is more about if there’s humor, that’s good and necessary, but if there’s jokes, they should be sharp.
My Vanishing Country – 3/5 Stars
I am not entirely sure how to approach this memoir review except to say that I feel like this memoir has some real limitations to it that it batters against constantly. Bakari Sellers is someone I don’t really actually know much about, and so a lot of this story is new to me. And as such, I spent a lot of time here getting used to his voice and his story with new prior knowledge. He’s the audiobook narrator here, which adds depth to the painful parts and verisimilitude to the “country parts” because of his accent.
Sellers is the son of a well-known and well-regarded civil rights activist and academic. His father was charged with felonies from his alleged (and the accusations are obviously very suspect) role in a massacre or “riot” at the Orangeburg Massacre at South Carolina St. Bakari Sellers went on to run for statewide office and became the youngest member of the SC statehouse alongside a real rogue’s gallery of Republicans like Mick Mulvaney.
So this is his memoir.
Like I said, this is an odd memoir because there’s truly compelling story here, but the memoir is so broadly focused that even the most interesting parts get watered down, and the analysis of racial politics in the US and more to the point, racism in the United States is all solid and accurate and righteous, but that analysis is also lacking a certain amount of depth. So the book is good, the story is compelling, but the approach somehow both broadens and limits the effectiveness of the book at the same time.
Last Seen Wearing – 3/5 Stars
I had to look up the publication date for this book because it can’t quite seem to find itself located in time. If we place it in terms of crime novels, it’s coming out about the same time as the Martin Beck series, and it certainly seems to share some of the same sensibilities and discomforts about the changing mores in contemporary society. But if we place it within the realm of books, well, then it doesn’t really have much to say at all. So I honestly thought it was from the 1950s for the levels of anxiety it expressed about sexual mores. It’s more explicit about describing them, and less reactive than other novels, but it still seems oddly naive in general.
Anyway, this is about a missing girl who was, as you can imagine, last seen wearing she school clothes when she went missing, and the investigation for our anxious, drinks a little too much, having marital problems detective will cause him to second guess some things. I don’t think this is a continuing series for me over all.
The Mark of Zorro – 2/5 Stars
This book is kind of boring (and it’s not entirely its own fault) and predictable in part because of how well-trodden Zorro is, especially given how visual the appeal is for filmmakers. I’d imagine this series being written and published right at the rise of the commercial film industry and especially in the serials industry really helped to cement its fame.
So let me consider a different angle. What is myth-making in the US? So this is a myth created by a white American writer about a 18th century swashbuckling folk hero in Spanish California/Mexico. There’s times where this book feels like it was written as 16th or 15th century, and there’s a real flair here borrowed from Dumas and other European figures, so it feels oddly Romantic and out of place in the US, especially given that the US Romantic figures like Natty Bumpo (if we’re going to pick a contemporary character) are very Native American (and encounter) characters, folk heroes associated with the Revolution and later the Civil War, and beyond and ultimately pretty east coast. When we think about Western characters then, the cowboy, the outlaw, the lawman, the western US Native American figures all draw from a very different well than this character who occupies the same time and space.
But it mostly comes do to for me, is the sword. Americans just don’t use swords man, and so having an American (North American broadly) figure with a sword just feels weird. Also the novel is just an over grown trope garden, so that feels weak.
Hey Rube – 3/5 stars
If you feel like being taken back to the months leading up the 2000 presidential race through the middle of the 2004 presidential race in sports, politics, fear, and cultural tension and atmosphere for about 6 hours of listening, then boy do I have the book for you. Hunter S Thompson, in a very un-ESPN like move — especially post 9/11 and post Disney buyout — was asked to write a sports and politics blog for a while on a special extra section of ESPN.com. This is the result. More than anything, this book is a time capsule of that incredibly scary time, as Hunter S Thompson, pseudo-liberal, pseudo-anarchist, pseudo-libertarian looks at and mirrors the chaotic tension, fear, anxiety, loathing–obviously, and other feelings of the early 2000s. He makes incredibly strident accusations and assertions, he also makes lots of predictions. He gets as many of them right as he does wrong, but the ones that are right, are very right. He makes wild swings too, from calling Generation Z (well, Millennials now) the most privileged generation to ever be born, up until 9/11 when he recognizes that Millennials are maybe the most cursed. He fires his shotgun wildly into the night kill terrorists (personifying the abject fear and confusion of the months after 9/11) and ends up killing only two peacocks instead of Osama Bin Laden.
What stands out here is his absolute hatred for corruption and incompetence in government. He hates the Bushes for their dumb evil, and rightly reminds us how dumb and how evil they were (we need a lot of reminders on this as we fantasize a little too much about how awful this current administration is), but he also hates Gore for being weak. There’s a lot of righteous anger here, and a lot of deeply cynical, deeply sarcastic misfirings too.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas -4/5 Stars
I was definitely…not too young, but maybe…when I first read this book. Not only was I not old enough to really know the feelings of lostness and oblivion that your twenties and early thirties can bring, I didn’t know enough about the world to really understand the underlying critiques of 1960s counter-culture embedded in this book. Mostly, not only did I not know about drugs at all (never really having any of the impulses or fascinations with them), but I was actively terrified of them (thanks DARE and my mom). So being a little older (even a few years older than Thompson was when he wrote this) the book lands more with me now. I still have no real impulse or attraction to drugs, but I get the sense of self-annihilation they can render (thanks drinking!).
The book (and if you’ve seen the movie, it really does a good job with this) captures the feelings of lostness and paranoia of a life on the other side of knowledge. There’s a chaos and entropy in this book which looks and lies like freedom, but in reality, it’s despair. The writing is sharp and funny, and there’s some real genius moments, like the piecing together of events from scattered fragments of audiotape.
Nickle Brickle’Bee – 2/5 stars
So I was asked to read this book and given a free audiobook by the author. I haven’t decided yet if I will be posting this review on Goodreads or not (and I can imagine this little introduction won’t be making the cut). Mostly what I have to say about this book, is nothing. It’s a YA/middle grade fantasy novel in which a young orphan, Nickle, is brought to a foster home where he starts to witness strange occurrences. Among other things is that he’s significantly smaller than other kids his age, but he also has the beginnings of a beard, some few years early for that. Well, it turns out he might be a dwarf (magical dwarf, of course), and he might even be the most important dwarf of all time or of the moment, who can help shed light on a dwarf mystery.
If it feels like you’ve read this book before, well, you have. It’s pretty full of the trappings of lots of other books that share the same basic structure. It replaces dwarves for…..heroes/myths, wizards, vampires, what have you. The writing is competent, but lacking the kind of charm needed to pull off an otherwise really familiar story. You can tell and retell previously told stories, but there needs to be a voice capable of selling it, and unfortunately this book lacks a compelling narrative voice. In addition, the world-building of the book not only lacks imagination, it feels arbitrary. I probably won’t be accepting any more free books from authors.
Cold Storage – 3/5 stars
This is the first novel by the well-known and well-regarded screenwriter David Koepp. We begin in the early 1990s when a containment crew whose primary mission is to sabotage nuclear development programs on foreign soils finds a village in which all the residents have died from some kind of biological agent. Despite their careful precautions, one of the crew dies as well (we learn it’s a semi-sentient fungal colony) and the spread of the agent is contained.
Twenty-five years later we meet the contemporary characters, two security guards at a storage unit in the suburbs and a man trying to get rid of two dead bodies (a deer and a cat). The two guards, bored at work, and with a little crush on each other, stumble into a hidden part of their workplace that, while called the sub-basement clearly goes a lot farther down. They go see about it. The other man seems to be infected by the fungus, which acts like toxoplasmosis, controlling his impulses, looking to spread. We also end up following one of the agents from the original containment mission, long retired, and brought back into service.
So the book should and does sound like a blend of a couple of Michael Crichton books, because that’s pretty much what it is. There’s a lot of Andromeda Strain in here, and a lot of….maybe Congo? But mostly it’s relatively derivative and rehash, but also decent. It will surely make an ok Netflix original some day.
The Crying of Lot 49 – 5/5 Stars
This is another book I can’t fully rate honestly because it’s one of those book I found in the college bookstore when I was 19, fell in love with the cover (the Perennial Press one) and bought it and devoured it. It’s not a book that I feel like I have total control over or anything like that, but it’s something that I’ve read a half-dozen times or so, and always enjoy revisiting. This is the first time I am reading it in my (late, sigh) 30s, and that difference matters for me in some significant ways. For one, the novel feels way less sweeping than before, and while there’s a giant implication of centuries-long, world-wide conspiracies in this book, the actual scope is very small, vanishingly small, as Oedipa Mass’s journey never takes her that far from home in southern California. It’s more California than I would have recognized in my early 20s too.
The most remarkable thing about the book, reading it in 2020, is how neoliberal policies in the almost 60 years since it was published more or less have taken the teeth out of it. We literally just had the president try to sabotage the US elections, in plain sight, by purposely destroying the US postal service. And in addition to that, the Republicans have been trying to destroy the postal service for 30 years in order to privatize it. So a book with an underground postal service (which actually reads more like gig-economy stuff than conspiracy now) is almost quaint.
Lies My Teacher Told Me – 4/5 Stars
You could do a lot worse than have this be the only book you ever read that disrupts the grand narratives of US history: ever forward progress, American Exceptionalism, manifest destiny in physical and metaphysical ways, etc etc. You really could. The book is written by a college history professor, especially acting in capacity of an educator here, who has reviewed several (a dozen I think) US history high school textbooks and looked at the ways they discuss, or don’t discuss many of the foundational themes and events in US history. So this book is both an analysis of those texts, a wider discussion of US history pedagogy, and a kind of correcting the record of these abuses of education. As a teacher myself (not a history/social studies teacher), I do get a little defensive about education at times regarding things that can and do risk my job versus things that are best practices for students, so my reactions have sometimes been a little in that vein. But over all, like I said, if this is someone’s first and even only interaction with these ideas, that would be a huge start.
What strikes me about this text (and I am about 40 now) is how much so many of the arguments and idea embodied in this book have become part of public discourse in non-Nationalist circles. For the most part, this book is sans critical theory, so there’s not much going on here in terms of introducing an esoteric (and misused) lexicon into online spaces, but the distillation of ideas is pretty much what you find in cursory study of left-ish discourse. So either Loewen really tapped into the zeitgeist or helped to create it.
The Swerve – 4/5 Stars
The subtitle for this book is “How the World became Modern” which works, but also maybe oversells the scope of this text. This book is pop (but well-researched and well-argued) philosophical history of ideas, specifically the ideas that started eroding the foundation the domination of Christianity (through a pure exercise of religious doctrine). For Greenblatt, whose idea of the “swerve” (an important, if cloyingly named concept) involves the ways in which rather than the world being controlled by fatalism and predetermination, thinking shifted over centuries to allow for a kind of chaos theory (the swerve being the ideas that determined pathways can be influenced by a near infinite number of variables that cause them to divert, attract, repel, or influence their courses) that is the opposite of fate. This makes the most sense to modern readers (of a type) but is still a scary concept in general because while it allows your own free will to influence your life, it allows the free (or loose) will of any other force to do so as well.
Anyway, he describes this history of ideas through the central event of the discovery of a text of Lucretius’s The Nature of Things by a medieval monk, who translated it, and help to usher in the ideas antithetical to the teaching of the church (and coincidentally predating the church by several hundred years). More than anything, it’s a book that made me more interested in the books it talks about than this book itself.
The Good Nurse – 3/5 Stars
This book is a very popular choice among my high school students when I assign them to read a nonfiction text. They already love reading murder books, and especially true crime, so this makes sense. But especially for my students who want to be healthcare workers, this is one that makes them really excited. So this book tells the story of Charlie Cullen, a nurse who, when caught, admitted to the murders of at least 40 people (though estimates of his death tool are in the hundreds). The book is a relatively straightforward history of how he would inject or overdose patients on a few specific drugs (digitoxin and insulin mainly) under his care. Sometimes this would leads to investigations, and by pleading ignorance and then moving on, he was able to escape detection for a long time. If you’ve seen Castle Rock season two, that show echoes this through the work history of Annie Wilkes.
But the book adds in a critique of the private hospital system, in which corporate cover ups, liability, HR, and other forces helped to hide the patterns of abuse to avoid culpability, so there’s an indictment of larger power structures as well.
So while the story is compelling and the critiques valid, I am learning about myself that I don’t really like true crime all that much as a nonfiction genre because of the hidden strokes of the writer. The research and sourcing of a lot of these events feels slightly opaque to me, more used to academic work.
The Ballad of Peckham Rye – 3/5 Stars
Sometimes reading Muriel Spark books feels like an exercise in chasing the dragon. A few of her books are so so so good that I am compelled to read her voraciously to find those other books f hers that will feel the same. Almost none of her books are bad, including this one, but many of them are not very good, like this one. I did like this book as a kind of mocking of British toxic masculinity through the “angry young man” books of the 1950s and 1960s, but like many Spark books, I felt like I was looking for something that wasn’t here.