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 wish we could make George required reading for all potential parents, or at least for all teachers. I loved it.
I don’t often read middle-grade books, but I received my copy at ALA Annual 2016 when I accidently found myself in line to have Alex Gino sign it. As they signed it, I told them I wasn’t familiar with it, but it sounded intriguing. They were gracious and wrote something kind inside the cover.
The plot of George is incredibly simple, focusing on George—a 4th grader who knows she’s a girl even though everyone else thinks she’s a boy—and her desire to play the part of Charlotte in the class production of Charlotte’s Web. Although George is told she can’t play Charlotte because she’s a boy, and although she undergoes some bullying related to her gender identity, the story of her coming out to those around her is one of the most inspiring and beautiful I’ve heard of. When I grew up, even gay kids didn’t have such an easy time (and I’m not *that* old, but the area where I lived was quite “socially conservative”). The idea that a young, transgender kid could get as much support as George does from her parents and teachers and peers is so hopeful and wonderful.
Not every transgender kid has it so easy, even these days. But the fact that this book can present this picture of life and make it feel real, I think, can inspire kids and the adults who love them to be fearlessly authentic. George reminds us not to question what’s “wrong” with transgender people, but to encourage them to be who they are, the same way you might encourage someone who shows an early aptitude for playing the violin or solving math problems. If every boy was a high school quarterback and every girl was a cheerleader captain, the world would be a terribly boring place. George celebrates our diversity, even the diversity within a family.
I’m not sure how I would have discovered George if I hadn’t wandered, dazzled, into that line at ALA. But I’m so glad I did, because now I can share this beautiful story with everyone.
Plum Wine starts with an interesting premise: a young American woman teaching in Japan in the 1960s loses her closest Japanese friend and inherits a collection of homemade plum wine and pages of writing in kanji, which she can’t read. Why did her friend leave her this? How did she die? What mysteries are contained in these papers? The American, Barbara, comes to realize that the papers are the first writings of the year by her friend and her friend’s mother, and there’s one for each year going back to the 1930s, skipping a few years during World War II. She also comes to understand that her friend survived Hiroshima. Interesting!
However, the story fails to deliver on this idea. The main focus of the plot is Barbara’s relationship with a Japanese man, Seiji. Seiji, who knew the dead friend, translates sections of the writing for Barbara. From the beginning, Barbara suspects that Seiji is hiding something about the writing, and she even gets some of the pages translated by other people. But she doesn’t continue to get these translations because she fears… hurting Seiji’s feelings? Many of her other acquaintances warn her to stay away from Seiji, but instead she gives him all the wine and the writing. Unsurprisingly, he betrays this trust and actually destroys a lot of the writing.
It's not clear from the text exactly why Barbara feels so drawn to Seiji and places so much trust in him. Maybe she’s lonely and looking for some connection, but she has other acquaintances that reach out to her after her friend’s death, and she either avoids them or hides large parts of herself from them without explanation. It seems likely that it’s mostly about the sex, but since this all happens off-screen, the reader isn’t really let in to that passion. We’re told that Barbara feels passionate toward Seiji, but she doesn’t seem to understand anything about him, his emotions, or his motivations. So her repeated and increased trust in him, despite many alarm bells, feels misplaced.
Barbara talks a lot about wanting to know more about her friend’s life, and we realize that she knew so little about it, it’s hard to imagine that they were actually even friends. She didn’t know about the woman’s daughter, for example, who had died only about a year before Barbara met her. She didn’t know she was a Hiroshima survivor, or that she knew Seiji’s family, or really anything else. So what was that friendship based on?
Also, I was kind of shocked that Barbara didn’t think twice about opening and drinking the wine she inherited, which her friend had saved unopened for decades. No hesitation about drinking the last of this wine that will ever exist, alone and in a bad mood or casually with Seiji. Really?
The author includes some really engaging detail about life in Japan at this time and about living in Hiroshima before and after the bomb. Barbara remains purposefully ignorant of the ongoing Vietnam War, and doesn’t seem particularly informed about World War II, aside from her America-based memories. Because of this, the most interesting character is Rie, a young Japanese woman from a low caste who survived the bomb, is politically involved, wants to tell her and her father’s story, and works at the American Air Force base rebuilding the faces of dead soldiers from Vietnam before their bodies are shipped home to the US. If the story had followed Rie more closely, I think I would have found it much more interesting.
Instead, the narrative sticks close to Barbara, who’s biggest conflict is whether she should continue to allow Seiji to translate these invaluable manuscripts slowly, dishonestly, and entirely at his convenience instead of just handing them all over to literally anyone else she’s met in Japan and having them all done at once. I was never convinced by her reasoning, and so most of the plot felt like it had a huge hole. Even so, those glimpses into Japanese life at this time—balanced between traditional social structures and the recent shame of World War II—were enough to keep me reading through to the end.
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.
I usually try to read novels as stand-alone pieces of art. I avoid reviews and critical theories about the novel’s meaning/importance/symbolism/whatever. Sometimes, I’m aware of the context, or I’ll do little research on the setting, but not much. It’s not until after I finish a work that I try to find out how others interpreted it. Certainly, there are pros and cons to this strategy, and others may disagree with it. But it usually helps me to form my own opinion first and then let that opinion be influenced later.
However, I felt like I missed a lot in One Hundred Years of Solitude by following this strategy. This feels like a book that it best read in a college course, where a professor has identified a bunch of related readings and can lead a conversation about what it all means. At minimum, maybe it should just have a lot of editor’s footnotes in it.
Because I don’t know what this all means. I understand that it’s a reflection of Latin America, but I also know that I’m missing a lot of the context here. Even down to the title—time, in the novel, is presented as cyclical and repetitive, so who/what is alone for one hundred years? The language and the metaphors are beautiful throughout, but I can’t see what they’re obscuring.
I have more research to do here, obviously. At some later point, I’ll probably read this book again and re-evaluate my reaction to it. But for now, it has left me intrigued.
The author does a great job of allowing her letter-writing protagonist to damn himself through his own words. Somehow, although we never see their responses, we imagine the eye rolling and sighing that every one of his recipients must do when one of his letters arrives. He's not the only villain in this story, but it's really interesting to see through his words into the motivations that drive him.
The novel's format somewhat limits the action that can take place, but it allows a deeper than usual dive into one character's world view. I recommend this especially for readers in academia who're looking for a funny, character-driven drama (I wouldn't say this is a comedy).
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.
More of a poem than a novel, and a better poem than most. Virginia Woolf pulls threads of images through the fabric of individual characters’ lives in a way that exposes their innermost thoughts and feelings, impressions they may even hesitate to admit to themselves, let alone to the other characters around them. By exposing her characters down to their essences, Woolf creates a cast of distinct individuals that readers can relate to one by one through the common humanity of their anxieties and sudden waves of affection.
Although the narrative jumps frequently from one character’s mind to another, the impressions are distinct and clear enough that the reader doesn’t get lost in the translation of these cloud-like expressions to the printed page. We understand James’s seething hatred just as we understand why his father continues to tickle his leg. We understand Lily’s certainty about moving the tree toward the middle just as we understand Tansley’s insistence that women can’t paint, can’t write.
There’s not much plot to the story. In parts 1 and 3, the focus instead is on a microscopic view of a few hours of life. In part 2, the view zooms out so far that 10 years pass in an instant. These hours may not seem significant in the scheme of things—in parts 1 and 3, no one is born, no one dies—but they influence every life who experiences them. And Woolf‘s genius conveys this quiet drama beautifully.
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.
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