What I liked
The descriptions and characterization of suspected arsonist Harry Peak, especially as seen through the eyes of other unreliable characters. His sister especially dropped a few details that made the reader realize she either doesn’t know the whole truth or doesn’t want to.
Similarly, I enjoyed the characterizations of historical staff members at the Los Angeles Public Library, including those fascinating directors. Although the book focused on an event in a place, it’s the people that make the story relatable.
What I didn’t like
The lists, mostly. Granted, this is coming from someone who loved Moby Dick. But listing out the types of garbage strewed along a fence line, the books being transferred from one library branch to another, the history of bookmobiles, and on and on… didn’t contribute to my understanding of the topic. It didn’t keep me engaged in the narrative.
And why do they ever let authors read their own audiobooks?
Given my day job, I know more about libraries than the average bear, I suppose. But I found myself fluctuating between “Duh, of course,” and “No, that’s not right.” I found several instances in which she listed a “fact” that was simply incorrect, including some about the place where I work. Which was frustrating.
What I can learn
Stay on task. It’s probably impossible to write a book about a contemporary topic that you don’t live and breathe that will be accepted without issue from people who do live and breathe it. So it makes more sense to me to stay on a topic that very few people live and breathe. If this book had focused just on Harry Peak and the fire or even the history of the LA Public Library staff, and less about what libraries are like today, I would have stayed more engaged.
In this deeply honest book, Evan J. Peterson introduces and defends PrEP while laying bare his sexual anxieties and exploring how PrEP has helped them. Through short personal stories, we learn about his experience of being a gay man born into the era of AIDS and the relief of seeing a way out of the nightmare. Many readers, I suspect, won’t have much knowledge of PrEP before reading this, and it serves as a great introduction.
Full disclosure: I’ve been friends with Evan since we met at Florida State University, and I’m a straight cis woman, and I didn’t know about PrEP (or even HIV-pos undetectable status) until Evan started writing about it.
Why didn’t I know about PrEP? Evan points out that HIV has become un-newsworthy as treatment options have improved. HIV is not the death sentence it was when Evan and I were growing up. Our attention on disease has moved on to Ebola and zika, our fundraising efforts to cancer research, our demographic judgments to opioid addiction. In the straight community (still dominant, despite concerns that Pride celebrations have become too mainstream), there’s just not much concern about HIV anymore. And in a lot of ways, that’s a good thing! Thirty years ago, few of us imagined that medicine would have come so far in treating—and now preventing—HIV. What we gave up is keeping the disease in the conversation so we’d know of advancements like PrEP.
Beyond PrEP, this is a sexual memoir. To a straight, cis girl like me, raised in the same era and similar culture as Evan, gay sex was one of those things that all the kids joked about, but I doubt that most of us knew exactly what was involved. With other shaming prohibitions against porn, masturbation, and sexual experimentation, there wasn’t a lot of room to even ask questions. Evan’s open and honest narrative covers not only the technical details of his sexual experiences, but also the anxieties, awkward moments, and uncertainties that formed his understanding of what it meant/means to be a gay man.
I highly recommend this book. Share it with your friends. Use it as a conversation opener to talk about PrEP and HIV. Use it as an opener to talk about sex. Let it help you work through those questions you were too shy to ask. And enjoy Evan’s open—and often funny—take on the experiences that have shaped his life.
One Summer provides a rather comprehensive view of America in 1927, with a special focus on New York, Boston, and Chicago. Bryson does a great job of providing the background information you need to make sense of the summer's news stories, and he lets you know how things turned out in the long run.
The book includes a lot of details that feel very well researched. The narrative-style stories are supported by data--pounds of food served, tickets sold, money made, hours in flight, home runs hit by various people and teams, etc.--that got a little overwhelming in the audio version, but probably work better in the print version.
The two men that really anchor the book (and who had incredible summers) are Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh. I also learned a lot about Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Jack Dempsey as well as, to a lesser extent, Henry Ford, Sacco and Vanzetti, Al Capone, and many more.
In many ways, hearing the stories of 1927 put today's news stories in perspective. Things have been worse in America. Racism and antisemitism ran rampant. Prohibition was still the law of the land. Floods overwhelmed both sides of the Mississippi. Bombs regularly blew up public officials' homes, and the murder rates were higher than they are today. But most criminals went free because forensic science was not nearly as advanced. Journalists desperate to increase circulation printed whatever sensational story they thought would sell, regardless of the truth. Although most people didn't know it yet, the economy was about to crash devastatingly. In 1927, most people had grown up in an America that was constantly lagging behind Europe in innovation and cultural importance, even though America had most of the gold. And yet, the faceless throngs, which seemed to gather spontaneously around any notable event, feel optimistic.
If you know anyone who's been alive since 1927, think of all they've been through, of everything that has changed in the last 90 years.
And, next time the world feels like it's ending, look at how far we've come and how far we could still make it in the next 90 years.
Best. State. Ever. is a very funny book that taught me a couple important things.
Well, now I'm one of them (grown-ups, that is). My eyes have stopped rolling quite so dramatically when Margaritaville comes on, and I can crack up while reading Dave Barry. Life goes on.
The funniest part of the book by far is the Introduction. Hearing him explain exactly what makes Florida great had me laughing so frequently that my husband put in headphones so he could focus on a much more serious book across the room.
After covering a brief history of Florida from the state's emergence from the ocean through the 1980s, when the Wikipedia article trails off, Barry offers brief travel essays from some of the more Florida-specific activities still available today. The best essays are the ones in which Barry is along for the ride: Key West, LIV (Miami nightclub), and Lock & Load Miami, but also Weeki Wachee, Spongeorama, and even The Villages. The essay on Cassadaga seemed like a missed opportunity, because Barry wasn't able to suspend his disbelief enough to enjoy himself. This is also a problem when he's hunting for the Skunk Ape, except that he obviously develops a deep respect for the person leading the hunt, and the essay becomes a reflection on a nearly extinct way of life unique to Florida.
I think, but I'm not sure, the humor of this book would translate to people who aren't from Florida. After all, I've only actually been to two of the places he visits. But I can tell you that everything in here rings true and gives a good picture of "Real Florida." And that's coming from someone who voluntarily moved away from the state and has no plans to move back! Every state should support a resident Dave Barry.
I expected The Soul of an Octopus to be a philosophical look at what we know about octopuses’ inner lives compared to what we know about humans’ inner lives. I expected to be faced with some tough questions about what defines and differentiates humanity from other creatures and to be surprised by the depth and oneness of all life.
This book, while good, isn’t that. The author touches very briefly on the philosophy of the mind in a few different places, but skirts the really hard questions. Mostly, the book is a detailed memoir of the author’s research for this book, centering on her experiences with the New England Aquarium in Boston. And, although I was disappointed not to get the book I was expecting, her experiences over this year or two were still quite interesting.
The author gets a pretty incredible opportunity to visit with a series of octopuses at the aquarium before they are put on display for the public. She gets to know their personalities, and she gets to watch their incredible bodies work. I definitely learned a lot about octopuses through this book, and now I really want to go somewhere where I can watch them interact with their environments. (One thing I learned is that they’re hard to keep in captivity, and my local aquarium doesn’t have one.)
Overall, this is a good, entertaining way to learn about this incredible animal and a couple of the people the author meets at the aquarium. It’s just not a deep dive into what it means to have consciousness and the ability to empathize with other creatures.
Not long after I finished Beyond Belief, I happened across a new Scientology building that was hosting an open house. A friend and I went in. This experience was sort of like watching a movie and then walking into the theme park attraction built around that movie. Suddenly, the characters and settings and the whole fantasy world has jumped off the screen and into real life where you can interact with it. You may feel a little shy, never realizing you’d need to think of something to say when meeting the characters face to face, but there’s everything exactly where you imagined it would be.
I’ve long been curious about and rather fascinated by this “church,” and I learned a lot from Beyond Belief about how it all works. Every time this organization makes the news for some reason, it seems to validate the author’s description of how things work. There should be no question that she and many people around her suffered abuse—mentally, emotionally, and even physically. The most bizarre thing about the story is why it’s allowed to happen in America at all. But then, there are a lot of things about power in America that seem insane.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Scientology.
When I picked up this book, I expected it to be a self-help style, “here’s what I did and maybe you can make some positive changes in your life too” kind of book. It’s not that. Let’s just get that out of the way first. This is much closer to a coming of age story. It’s the story of a man who lies without money and the life events that led him, almost inevitably, to such a decision.
Daniel Suelo lives (most of the time) in a cave. He scavenges for his food in dumpsters, takes advantage of free meals in town, or harvests from forgotten vegetable patches that have gone wild. He blogs from the public library and rides a bike, walks, or hitchhikes to get around. He has a lot of friends and followers who provide him with food and open offers of shelter for nothing more than an exchange of ideas with him. His life is extreme, but he believes fully in what he’s doing. A spiritual rejection of capitalism and consumerist culture, he lives his life closer to an Indian mystic or a Biblical prophet.
But The Man Who Quit Money is not an attempt to advocate for Suelo’s lifestyle or convince us all to quit our jobs and start eating expired packages of Chips Ahoy. Instead, it’s a picture of one life, so far. Suelo was raised in a small evangelical church in the American West in a loving family that never had much money or stability. Suelo bought fully into his family’s religion until he left home and started studying other religions and experiencing how Christian missionaries live throughout the world. Over many years, he became disillusioned with his ideal picture of a clean, pure life. He suffers from depression. He couldn’t seem to fit in with several of the jobs he tried. When he finally admitted that he’s gay, his family reacted poorly. He attempted suicide.
But author Mark Sundeen presents Suelo as one of the happiest, most at peace people you could ever hope to meet. For Suelo, checking out of the system of who he was “supposed” to be was his salvation. Still a Christian, Suelo blends in similar philosophies from many major religions and points out that all of them preach giving up material wealth in favor of spiritual awakening. He takes the “What would Jesus do?” idea very literally. Jesus wouldn’t commute two hours each way to work in an office that he hated jut to make a paycheck to buy a house and a car and insurance. Jesus would rely on God to provide for him (like the lilies of the field) and would spend his time helping others in whatever way he could. And that’s what Suelo tries to do every day.
I really appreciate that Sundeen doesn’t try to raise Suelo up to Prophet level, even though he takes him very seriously. He doesn’t try to say that these choices are right for everyone—not everyone can or should live like Suelo any more than everyone should live like Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. But he paints a fascinating picture of humanity, illustrating how our life experiences lead us to be the people we come through the choices we make. After reading this, I’m not ready to live the scavenging lifestyle of an ascetic philosopher, but I have more respect for those who do. And I love seeing someone so confidently turning his back on the whole broken system.
A few years ago during a long, white winter, I read Moby-Dick and loved it. I loved the descriptions of the boats and the oceans and the day-to-day life of sailors who signed up for this incredibly demanding and dangerous lifestyle. They risked everything for the promise of adventure, travel, and the admiration of the folks back home, but almost no money. They chose to pursue and butcher by hand animals so large, so strong, and so intelligent that it’s almost unbelievable that they ever managed to capture a single one. And yet they did succeed, in the middle of the ocean with not much more than a small ship, a few row boats, some spears, and an awful lot of rope. They brought back enough whale oil to light most of a country.
Being fascinated with the mindset that would make a whole group of people choose such a lifestyle, it didn’t take much for me to pick up In the Heart of the Sea (with its fancy new movie-inspired cover). This thorough history covered everything I wanted to learn about—and some things that hadn’t occurred to me yet—but remained readable and engaging throughout. It opens with cannibalism and builds from there.
Philbrick’s mastery here is to shape these historical figures as well-rounded characters before relating the entire “plot.” You get to know each of them through his primary source research, so you empathize with the choices they make when faced with a variety of dangerous situations. He also establishes well the culture of the Nantucket from which they came, exploring the role of women, African-Americans, Quakers, greenhorns, children, and other social groups within the larger culture—a culture that revolves entirely around whaling. This background enables the reader to not only understand but also sympathize with decisions that, with the benefit of hindsight, we know will be disastrous.
I also learned a lot more, even than from Moby-Dick, about the daily life upon a whale ship during this time. Especially fascinating was the excursions the crew made onto the Galapagos Islands to harvest sea birds and tortoises, which they would cook right in their shells. Sailors brought as many live tortoises as possible back to the ship (by strapping the tortoises onto their backs). The tortoises would live on the deck eating and drinking very little until the crew was ready to eat them. This kept the sailors in fresh, unspoiled meat without having to share nearly as many of their provisions as the live pigs on board demanded. Before this, my imaginings of a whale ship didn’t include sailors tripping over pigs and tortoises on deck, sliding side to side in rough waters.
The print book includes a lot of historical paintings and photos as well as technical drawings of ships and whaleboats, which supported the text. I’d recommend reading the paper copy. Also, yes, I saw the movie not long after finishing the book. Although I could watch Chris Hemsworth and Cillian Murphy do just about anything for two hours, the movie wasn’t nearly as good as the book (and I don’t think that’s always the case). The characters are flattened and simplified to fit them into easier personas that don’t require as much backstory. The effects were, of course, impressive and thrilling, but it’s no substitute for the engaging, detailed and horrifying narrative presented in the book.
This recording is a beautiful, comforting walk that leads you to take a hard look at your emotional reactions to yourself and to others. Tara Brach comes at her advice from a Buddhist perspective, but many of the concepts are recognizable from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She explains the concepts clearly in a gentle voice, and then she walks the listener through some short meditations to reflect on what she’s been teaching. I think most everyone can learn something from here, and I highly recommend it.
This audiobook wouldn't work as a print book; it's specifically audio. The author does a great job at explaining the meditations and then walking you through them with enough time to breathe through it and enjoy it.
After listening to this, I brought it into my Meditation Group at work. I worried that the idea of chakras would turn people off, but we talked about considering it like a body scan meditation, and everyone seemed to really like it.
After several voice-only meditations, which you can do seated or lying down, the author introduces you to a standing/walking meditation (we just walked in place). She starts with a steady and consistent drum beat that's easy to step to. Then she adds a 4-count breath in and a 4-count breath out. And there's something wonderful that happens when a group of people is all moving and breathing as one. When you've had time to get comfortable with that, she walks you through all the chakras, up and down, focusing differently with each pass. By the end, the energy level is high and joyful. I think everyone in the room felt like we had experienced something wonderful together.
After that, there's another drum piece, but without words, so you can sit or lie down again and enjoy a more personal practice. It's a nice sort of "cool down" after the high-energy standing meditation.
If you're new to meditation, I recommend trying this CD. Take maybe 30 minutes at a time, and over three sessions you can get the whole disc. Or spend longer, enjoy it from beginning to end. I really like the way she explains things to make it feel less foreign, less "weird," less scary.
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