mini-reviews: earth and hooey

I was dealing with an international move last June, so I felt like I needed some levity during a time of stress (and excitement, of course). I also drove between Kansas City and Madison twice in that month, so audiobooks were in order! Here are two humor books I listened to on audio during that crazy month:

After listening to America: The Audiobook in August 2015 I’ve had Earth (The Book): A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race by Jon Stewart, et al on my list. I’m sure I missed some of the visual gags listening on audio instead of reading on paper, but this one had the same great performances by The Daily Show alumni with the same great irreverent, sarcastic, biting humor I expected. Although I didn’t find it quite as consistently laugh-out-loud as AmericaEarth was another fine lighthearted roadtrip selection. I still miss Jon Stewart on Daily Show (although I love Trevor Noah now, too!)

The short story collection A Load of Hooey is Bob Odenkirk‘s authorial debut. When I say short I really mean short—if I recall correctly, the audiobook was less than three hours long, even. As with all short story collections, there are some hits and misses, some memorable and some forgettable. A year later there are a handful of stories I remember liking a lot: “One Should Never Read a Book on the Toilet,” “Didn’t Work for Me,” “Obit for the Creator of Mad Libs,” “Abs,” “Origin of ‘Blackbird’,” and “Second Meeting of Jesus and Lazarus.” Many of these selections are seemingly random soliloquies that read like sketches, and if you like Bob Odenkirk’s offbeat Mr. Show humor you’ll like Hooey—it’s a fun way to pass a couple hours.

Listened to audiobooks in June 2016.

reading recap: may 2017

I read 13 books in May! Even though several were short and several were on audio, this might be a personal record for me. I also already hit 50 books (currently sitting at 51)! I can’t believe it. I guess this is what happens when you listen to audiobooks all day while you draw.

  • The Hearts of Men (audio) … Nickolas Butler, read by Adam Verner
  • Frankenstein (audio) … Mary Shelley, read by various
  • The Leavers (audio) … Lisa Ko, read by Emily Woo Zeller
  • The Road to Jonestown (audio) … Jeff Guinn, read by George Newbern
  • What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (ebook) … Lesley Nneka Arimah
  • There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé (ebook) … Morgan Parker
  • The Teacher Wars … Dana Goldstein
  • Men Without Women: Stories (audio) … Haruki Murakami, read by various
  • Life’s Work (audio) … Dr. Willie Parker, read by Caz Harleaux
  • The Radium Girls (audio) … Kate Moore, read by Angela Brazil
  • Drinking: A Love Story (ebook) … Caroline Knapp
  • Parable of the Sower (ebook) … Octavia E. Butler
  • Bitch Planet, Book One … Kelly Sue DeConnick with Valentine De Landro

My favorites for the month, as usual, were the non-fictions: The Road to JonestownThe Teacher WarsLife’s WorkThe Radium Girls, and Drinking: A Love Story. I was fascinated by Jonestown and Radium, while Teacher Wars and Life’s Work are important pieces to understanding where we are on the topics of education and abortion today. Drinking was personal and raw, and made me think more deeply about my own use and relationship with alcohol.

Of the fictions, The Hearts of Men and What It Means When A Man Falls from the Sky really stand out to me, as well as a few stories from Men Without WomenParable of the Sower and Bitch Planet were recent picks for my international book club with my friend Anthony, and it was so great to read these along with him.

This last month I made a detailed plan for catching up on book posts here. I want to write a little bit about everything and I WILL get to it all! I’m traveling for several weeks in June and July, so I’m not sure how many posts I can write up and schedule ahead, but I’ll try my best to keep this space active a bit while I’m away.

I’m currently listening to Going Clear on audio, the exposé on Scientology that came out a few years ago, and it’s riveting so far. I also recently purchased Van Gogh’s Ear and Pachinko, which I’ve had my eye on for weeks! I also would like to pick up Chris Haye’s A Colony in a Nation and Roxane Gay’s new one, Hunger, while I’m on the road this summer. What are you planning for summer reading?
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the hearts of men

I’ve had my eye on Nickolas Butler ever since reading his debut, Shotgun Lovesongs, a couple of years ago, and put The Hearts of Men on my list as soon as it came out. And of course I’m going to read another book set in Wisconsin! From Goodreads:

Camp Chippewa, 1962. Nelson Doughty, age thirteen, social outcast and overachiever, is the Bugler, sounding the reveille proudly each morning. Yet this particular summer marks the beginning of an uncertain and tenuous friendship with a popular boy named Jonathan.

Over the years, Nelson, irrevocably scarred from the Vietnam War, becomes Scoutmaster of Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan marries, divorces, and turns his father’s business into a highly profitable company. And when something unthinkable happens at a camp get-together with Nelson as Scoutmaster and Jonathan’s teenage grandson and daughter-in-law as campers, the aftermath demonstrates the depths—and the limits—of Nelson’s selflessness and bravery.

The Hearts of Men is a sweeping, panoramic novel about the slippery definitions of good and evil, family and fidelity, the challenges and rewards of lifelong friendships, the bounds of morality—and redemption.

I have some of the same feelings I had about Shotgun Lovesongs. I really like how Butler dismantles the stereotypical notions of manhood and masculinity in his stories. And he is a fantastic storyteller. I never felt the pace lagging or any unnecessary meandering in The Hearts of Men. Each section is purposeful to the overall story and message. That said, the beginning is stronger than the end, mostly because the main characters, Nelson and Jonathan, seemed so fully realized and lively as children but became flat and somewhat generic in later sections as adults. Perhaps that was intentional, though? Is Butler trying to make a point that we lose something, some spark, as we age? I’m not sure—possibly, or it could possibly have been the narrator’s interpretation didn’t handle the jumps forward in time so well for me. I liked Rachel, Jonathan’s daughter-in-law, but I would have liked her to have been more realistic and more three-dimensional—Butler had a similar issue developing women characters in Shotgun. In this story, women are central to the hearts of these men, after all.

Ultimately, The Hearts of Men is a story about boys becoming men, fathers and sons, bravery and decency, how both romantic and platonic relationships affect you, and the ubiquity of being a flawed human. Butler has a sensitive voice and his storytelling is immersive, and I’ll definitely look forward to his next book.

Listened to audiobook in May 2017.

mini-reviews: underground girls, thousand splendid suns

Catching up on posting book reviews from what I read last year has been a lot of fun so far! Next on my list was The Underground Girls of Kabul, which I realized is a great companion piece to a book I just recently finished, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I learned a lot from both of these excellent books.

I listened to Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul on audio about a year ago on a road trip and found it riveting. Like many Americans, I’m sure, I had no idea about the practice of bacha posh, disguising daughters as sons because boys are more valued, in Afghanistan. Honestly I didn’t know much about Afghanistan culture in general before encountering this book. Nordberg profiles a handful of bacha posh women and girls, and how it has shaped their lives both personally and professionally. It is a fascinating account of gender norms as they relate to culture and society, as well as perceptions of temperament and opportunities (or lack thereof) in Afghanistan. The book also examines the complexities of gender identity and its value in global and historical contexts. It was a really worthwhile read I wholly recommend. [Listened to audiobook in March 2016.]

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini had been on my TBR for about five years! Splendid Suns is the story of two women, Miriam and Laila, whose lives intertwine when they become married to the same man—Miriam first and Laila, fifteen years younger than Miriam, a couple decades later. Hosseini’s writing positively aches; I felt so deeply for these women and the hardships they endured throughout their lives. Much like Underground GirlsSplendid Suns bring readers inside daily lives of women living in Afghanistan with its political unrest and societal rules. I wish the characters had been more fully realized (three-dimensional), and some of the “history lessons” peppered throughout were somewhat clunky, but overall it’s a heartrending story that deserves its enduring popularity. [Listened to audiobook in April 2017.]

american war

I’ve been listening to a ton of audiobooks lately while I draw during the day. I recently finished American War by Omar El Akkad, his killer debut novel. El Akkad has reported myriad events across the globe, including Egypt’s Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement originating in Ferguson, Missouri, the war in Afghanistan, and the Guantànamo Bay trials. From Goodreads:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

The book imagines a United States in about 50 years from now, not so united anymore after civil war breaks out between the North and South (again), this time over a law banning fossil fuels. The capital has moved from Washington D.C. to Columbus, Ohio. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia secede, fighting the North to still use oil and coal, while the rest of the country (and, apparently, world) forges ahead with renewable energy. South Carolina is a quarantine state.

It’s not difficult to speculate on another civil war occurring in the United States, based on its current political and ideological divisiveness, with unsettling surges of violence, intolerance, and hate crimes across the country. Historical issues of war such as families torn apart and living indefinitely in refugee camps, children recruited as guerrilla soldiers, cities and towns destroyed, and corrupt politicians appear in El Akkad’s vision of America’s future here, making it that much more believable.

It’s pretty clear that American War serves as an allegory of the Iraq War, with climate change as the book’s catalyst. The climate change aspect is realistic and handled well, but I found it a little strange that race is only brought up in the periphery, and I can’t recall religion being mentioned at all. It’s a noticeable omission, since race and religion loom so large in American society and politics now (still). It would be reasonable to conclude that race and religion would also be factors in an American civil war taking place just a short 50 years from now.

That said, I was able to suspend my disbelief and become immersed in this ruined-wasteland vision of America’s South. I’ve heard that the printed book has a few pages of maps, which I’m sorry I missed out on with the audio, but narrator Dion Graham (who also recorded the audio for the incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 book Evicted by Matthew Desmond) did a fantastic job adding dimension to the characters and dramatizing the action scenes. I really liked El Akkad’s technique of dispersing “historical documentation” with Sarat’s journey, so the reader has a change to learn about how we got to this point.

American War is a fine addition the dystopian-climate change fiction genre popular right now.

Listened to audiobook in April 2017.

reading recap: april 2017

It’s May! Officially a quarter through the year and I’m on a reading roll. In April, I read eleven books, although almost all were experienced on audio:

  • Deviant (audio) … Harold Schechter, read by R. C. Bray
  • Tears We Cannot Stop (audio) … Michael Eric Dyson, read by author
  • The Hate U Give (audio) … Angie Thomas, read by Bahni Turpin
  • White Tears (audio) … Hari Kunzru, read by various
  • On Tyranny (ebook) … Timothy Snyder
  • The Stand (audio) … Stephen King, complete/uncut, read by Grover Gardner
  • Sorry to Disrupt the Peace (audio) … Patty Yumi Cottrell, read by Nancy Wu
  • Exit West … Mohsin Hamid
  • American War (audio) … Omar El Akkad, read by Dion Graham
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns (audio) … Khaled Hosseini, read by Atossa Leoni
  • The Lathe of Heaven (audio) … Ursula K. Le Guin, read by Susan O’Malley

I didn’t mean to end up with so many audiobooks, especially since I have a ton of paper books I want to get through. But I’m really into The 100 Day Project, which started April 4. It’s a 100-day-long challenge to be creative every day. I chose my pencil drawing as my project, not to create a new piece every day necessarily but to get myself into committing myself to spending time drawing. I’ll write a more in-depth post about the experience soon, but basically I’ve been listening to audiobooks while I spend all this time drawing!

Besides the drawing, getting back into my blogging here is another new goal. I miss thinking more deeply about what I’m reading, and I want to keep up my writing skills. I have a lot to catch up on as far as book posts, and I’m planning writing about concerts, CDs, food, and more too!

I was a terrible Dewey’s 24-Hour Readthon participant! I have a hard time starting at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. I only read 10 pages of Parable of the Sower, and I did finish The Lathe of Heaven on audio while I was drawing. Then my husband wanted to take a walk which, here in Singapore, can end up taking a couple-two-three hours. We walked to a gourmet ice cream shop 2 miles from our apartment, and half the way back before hopping a bus. I love how close everything can be here but the heat can be a lot to handle if you’re outside for too long. The ice cream was worth it though 😉

As for the best in April, though, I sincerely hope that everyone reads Tears We Cannot Stop and On Tyranny—super important for these times we’re having in the United States. If I could, I’d buy everyone I know a copy of these two books. Best of the month for me. All these books were good! It may take me a while, but I’m looking forward to doing individual posts on all of them.

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