mini-reviews: mozart’s starling and the rise and fall of the dinosaurs

Even though I’m not necessarily a “science” kind of person—much more artsy fartsy—I still like reading narrative non-fiction about some science topics. I listened to these two very different science-based audiobooks about animals in May and found them both really fascinating:

Naturalist and birder Lyanda Lynne Haupt was inspired to research the story of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s pet starling, which he took home from the pet store after hearing it sing a version of a melody from his Piano Concert No. 17 in G Major. The bird served as a muse and companion for Mozart for three years. To aid her research, Haupt decided to adopt a starling of her own. She was totally charmed by the creature’s personality, affection, and intelligence, and could see how Mozart likely felt the same. Mozart’s Starling is part biography, part memoir, and part natural history of these animals. I didn’t know starlings are considered pests and an invasive species in the United States, while they’re nearly extinct in Europe. There is definitely a lot more about the bird than about Mozart and his music, but lovers of birds, nature, history, classical music, and also specifically Mozart will enjoy this interesting book. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

Who isn’t fascinated by dinosaurs? I was really excited to borrow this narrative history on audio before the latest Jurassic World movie installment came out. Steve Brusatte‘s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs walks readers through their evolution and ultimate demise, from roughly the Triassic period to the end of the Cretaceous period. His description of the asteroid that obliterated millions of years of the natural evolution of these animals is violent and disquieting (I loved it). Part of this book is background on Brusatte’s career. He name-drops people in archaeology and paleontology he’s met a bit too much, but it’s not overwhelming—the dinosaurs are still definitely the stars of the book. I really loved learning about all the newest dinosaur species discovered around the world. I’m just blown away by all that can be learned from some unearthed bones. You don’t need to be a science or dinosaur buff to enjoy this book. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

mini-reviews: the art of the con and a false report

Like many people, I’m fascinated by true crime, and often the genre dominates my non-fiction reading. In May, I listened to two different but equally interesting true crime books on audio:

The Art of the Con by Anthony M. Amore was an interesting look at modern fraud and forgery in the art world. The profiles are pretty fascinating: a woman who sold fake art she claimed was real and procured from a wealthy estate, one person who employed Chinese immigrant artists (in the country illegally) to copy famous works, a high-quality scanning (giclée) operation, faked “antique” photography, and more. There’s a pretty good chapter on web-based schemes too. Amore’s writing leaves something to be desired—it’s less narrative and more news reporting. I got through it in just a couple days on audio while drawing, but I can see how this wouldn’t necessarily be a page turner on paper. I would have liked a little more information on the techniques the forgers used to recreate the masters’ style in their fakes. Still, this may be a decent place to start if you’re interested in true crime in the art world. Basically, the old proverb stands true for art, too: a fool and his money are easily parted. And if a deal on a piece of art is too good to be true, it probably is. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America came out this year, and couldn’t be more important or timely. T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong crafted a very engaging and fascinating examination of not only one specific rape case, but also some psychology and history on the subject. In 2008, a young woman named Marie reported that she had been raped. Within days, Marie’s honesty and integrity was called into question, as much under investigation as her rapist. She eventually broke down and said she made up the rape. The situation she was in was really horrifying and enraging. A few years later, Marie’s rapist, who was a serial predator, was caught and convicted. There is a profile of Marie’s rapist—his habits, history, and mental state. But he is not the focus of the book. The authors describe the misogynist history of rape investigations and how women pretty much have never been believed. [Listened to audiobook in May 2018.]

mini-reviews: fates and furies and before the fall

I’ve been so engrossed in non-fiction the last few months that I decided I should read some fiction that’s been on my shelf and neglected for far too long. I had really been looking forward to these two dramatic stories, only to end up somewhat disappointed in the end.

I read Lauren Groff‘s Arcadia a few years ago and absolutely loved it, so I was really excited to get Fates and Furies right when it came out. Of course and uncommonly, I set it on the shelf and promptly forgot about it. I wish I had added this to my TBR Pile Challenge! Unfortunately, Fates didn’t work for me as well as Arcadia. Fates is the story of Lotto and Mathilde, a couple who married spontaneously and faced challenges through their decades-long union, some typical and some extraordinary. I liked that the book was split in half and readers got to hear both “sides” of the story, first from Lotto and second from Mathilde. Groff is also a beautiful writer. Some of the prose is just stunning and a pleasure to take in. I think she’s very inventive and imaginative with her characters as well. As for those characters, I personally wasn’t crazy about them. Not that characters have to be likable for me to like the book. In this case, I guess I’m not really into stories of privileged elites right now, or of successful men carried by women. The names were just awful too, Lotto (short for Lancelot), Chollie?? Lotto and his sister call their mother “Muvva.” I thought at first Chollie and Muvva were just the accent of the narrator but nope. Ugh. Pretentious. Well they are pretentious characters. There is a composer character in the book whose portrayal I completely hated and wasn’t even a shred of close to realistic. I get that the book is supposed to sort of be Greek mythology but it was just too much for me. Mathilde had a very compelling story though, I really enjoyed her part and perspective, which is the “furies” second part of the book. I’m sure this kind of epic character-driven drama full of secrets is right up some readers’ alleys, just not mine. I’d still like to read more by Groff though! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

I ordered Before the Fall by Noah Hawley right after it was released because I’m a huge fan of the TV show Fargo, for which he is a producer. The premise is great: a private plane carrying eleven people—a Fox News-esque mogul, his family, and their security guard; a rich couple; the crew of 3; and an artist—crashes off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard shortly after takeoff. 40-something artist Scott survives the crash, and rescues one of the children, the four-year-old son of the TV mogul. Everyone else perishes. The book alternates between Scott dealing with the event’s aftermath, being an unwilling hero figure in the spotlight, and backstories on each of the plane passengers. How did the plane crash when all systems checked out before takeoff? What happened? Why? Was there a conspiracy to take down these rich and powerful people aboard? Who exactly is this Scott guy, and why was he aboard? It starts off as a good mystery and survival story, and most of the characters are rendered well (except the women, sadly, are one-dimensional). The ending though… yeesh. Too convenient and I think won’t hold up well over time… it’s hard to say much without spoiling. Despite the lame ending, there are a lot of great ruminations here on hero worship, wealth, power, media consumption, art, and luck. [Read in June 2018.] ***Before the Fall is my fourth of twelve books for the 2018 TBR Pile Challenge.

mini-reviews: vacationland and instant replay

More non-fiction! Here are a couple of great, diverse celebrity memoirs I recently listened to on audiobook:

I’ve wanted to read Instant Replay for years, the diary of inside linebacker Jerry Kramer of his experience of the Green Bay Packers’ historic 1967 season. I’m sure my dad has a copy somewhere but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. When Kramer was recently inaugurated into the NFL Hall of Fame, though, my interest was renewed and I was able to listen on audio. What a great book! It’s definitely for a niche audience; if you’re not familiar with the team, key people involved, or the game of football, you will likely not be interested. Kramer may not have the most eloquent “voice,” but he’s a straight-talker just like Lombardi was, and Kramer’s day-to-day account here of his last season playing, as well as Lombardi’s last season coaching the Packers, is full of great stories from both on and off the field. A must read for any Packers or football fan for sure. [Listened to audiobook in April 2018.]

I listened to John Hodgman‘s Vacationland on audio while flying back to the States from Singapore a couple weeks ago. I enjoy Hodgman’s humor in small doses, so maybe listening in one long sitting wasn’t the best for me, but I’d definitely recommend audio over paper for this one. His sly delivery makes all the difference on many of these stories. Sometimes he meanders off-topic and much of it is navel-gazing white privilege, but at least Hodgman acknowledges this and his self-deprecating humor makes it work. I enjoyed it and it was a good way to pass the time, even if it won’t be very memorable in the long run to me. [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

mini-reviews: creative quest and bored and brilliant

I was on a non-fiction bender the last few months, and perhaps it’s because I’m sort of embarking on this new “career” as a freelance artist, but I was really interested in reading about creativity lately.

As soon as I saw that Questlove had another book coming out I requested it right away from the library. If you’ve read his fantastic 2013 memoir Mo’ Meta Blues some of the stories will be familiar to you, but here Quest relates them to unlocking creativity within. He’s even more full of questions in Creative Quest than in Mo’ Meta, and it’s like he’s having a conversation with you, especially if you listen to the audiobook version: how can we figure out how to practice creativity together? I do wish I had been more proactive about listening along to all the music he references, but it was tough with the audiobook. I think he fixated on curation-as-creativity a bit too much for my taste, but I LOVED the “micro-meditations” method he talks about, which I use all the time while drawing. Many of the techniques he goes through are not revelations—much is common sense—but Quest’s inquisitive, warm nature makes readers feel like creativity is something we can all practice, not just gifted musicians, artists, etc. Just a fun, encouraging, quick read I totally recommend. [Read ebook and listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

Bored and Brilliant came up in my library suggestions after I finished Creative Quest, and I thought it might be a good companion read. Unfortunately, this one didn’t live up to Quest’s book, and neither did it live up to its own subtitle. Where Creative Quest is more about the creative process, Bored and Brilliant is more about ditching distractions, specifically your smartphone. I thought this would be more about the meat of allowing your brain to explore ideas and think deeply, or techniques to do so, but it was more about how to stop being so addicted to your smartphone. While I agree that we all need to cut back on our devices and social media, and I also agree that spending some time being bored is a good thing, I don’t agree that simply doing so is like the Field of Dreams: “if you put down your cell phone, creativity will come.” It’s not quite as easy as that. If you have trouble disconnecting from your phone, then this could be a helpful book for you, but if you’re looking for insights into actually unleashing creativity in yourself then maybe skip this one. I loved that while I was playing video games while listening to the section on the pros and cons video game play has on creativity, lol! [Listened to audiobook in June 2018.]

reading recap: june 2018

I had a just-okay reading month for June. Here’s what I got through:

  • Revenge (audio) … Yōko Ogawa, read by Johanna Parker and Kaleo Griffith
  • Creative Quest (ebook/audio) … Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
  • Before the Fall … Noah Hawley
  • Fates and Furies (audio) … Lauren Groff, read by various
  • Bored and Brilliant (audio) … Manoush Zomorodi, read by author
  • Vacationland (audio) … John Hodgman, read by author

I loved Creative Quest and Vacationland, but the rest didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I was happy to get to some fiction, though, as well as one paper book. I’m still really heavy on audio; I’d love to have more balance and less time with technology. More detailed thoughts on all these books coming soon!
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