Reading Trendy: Collected Biographies of Women

Hypercolor T-shirts. Scrunchies. Slap bracelets. Spandex bodysuits. Mood rings. Tight-rolled acid-wash jeans. Trends come and go, and not just in the fashion world. The literary world has its fair share of trends as well. Right now we’re experiencing one I can only call wondrous, as collected biographies of trailblazing women are gracing our shelves and checking out at the speed of light. Without further ado I am pleased to introduce you to some rad women.


Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella
Even if it might not have seemed like it at the time, these women have helped repave the path for women in the world, whether they be gay, straight, political, artistic, or the first woman in space (looking at you, Sally Ride). Each biography contains the basics, like birth/death years and a brief overview of her life. But we get to dive in even deeper with personal quotes, notes on each woman’s legacy, and illustrations. This book is aimed at teens, which is great so that kids today have some positive role models outside the Kardashian family. I would have loved a book like this when I was growing up. But don’t let the targeted age group sway you: this book is still entertaining and empowering enough for adults too.

Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science–and the World by Rachel Swaby
This was the book that started it all. I’d owned a copy for nearly a year before I finally started reading it this summer. Friends, I tell you I learned more useful information reading Headstrong than I think I did in all of high school. Sorry Mrs. Klaus, it’s true! You’ve probably heard that silver screen legend Hedy Lamarr was an inventor whose radio guidance system helped lay the groundwork for wifi and Bluetooth. But have you heard of Lise Meitner (nuclear fission), Marie Tharp (created the first scientific map of the ocean floor), or Marguerite Perey (discovered the element francium)? What about Alice Ball? She was from Seattle and developed a groundbreaking treatment for leprosy. This book is designed so that you could read one chapter each week and end up with a year of scientific geniuses dancing through your subconscious.

Remarkable Minds: 17 More Pioneering Women in Science & Medicine by Pendred E. Noyce
Sad but true: this book looks like a textbook and that could let it slip under your radar. But what it lacks in outward appearance it makes up for in substance. Each chapter focuses on a different woman, but it goes deep into her life providing photos (or paintings, if our lady lived pre-photography), diagrams relating to her field of work, and a timeline of major world events alongside her personal achievements to give everything context. Out of all the books mentioned here, this is by far the most detailed.


Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
This book is beyond gorgeous. It’s truly a work of art and author/illustrator Rachel Ignotofsky clearly has immense talent. We all judge books by their covers even if we try not to. There’s something so appealing about a colorful, intricately decorated book that makes me sit up and take notice and I know I’m not the only one. So if your goal is to get kids interested in a book about women scientists, this is absolutely the way to do it. Even the endpapers are breathtaking! Since it’s aimed at children the passages are brief and more of a general overview of each woman, but wow, what design! Definitely don’t miss this one.

Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs
The beloved (at least by me!) author of The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy is back with something completely different. Here Sam Maggs introduces us to the rad ladies of science that history sometimes has a tendency to overlook. I can’t say too much about this since it’s a book we still have on order. It was originally set to publish mid-October but the publishers have since moved it up to…this past Tuesday! Once our copies are in you can believe they will be flying off the shelves faster than you can say STEM!

It’s reassuring to realize that when you check out one of these books you’re only going to have to read one book, but you’ll read dozens of biographies of some truly incredible women. This is one trend I hope never ends.

Talking to Strangers (About Books) Part 2

Greetings, intrepid readers! In my last post I talked about all the amazing things happening for bookworms on social media. I highlighted three different platforms (Goodreads, Instagram, and Litsy) and detailed the top 5 types of conversations you’re likely to have among fellow readers on those apps. Today I’m going to review some of the stellar books I’ve read as a result of these conversations with strangers. All of these books were outside of my typical fluffy/frivolous reading repertoire and I never would have picked them up had I not seen in-depth reviews and quotes from readers on bookish social media. I should add these are listed in the order I read them. And some of these were partially reviewed in my post last month about the 24 in 48 Readathon.

rupi kaur milk and honey by carol on litsy
Milk & Honey by Rupi Kaur
It seemed like everyone who hadn’t read this book when it came out late last year was picking it up for the first time in April for National Poetry Month. I typically don’t read much poetry but I made an exception for this title. In her first book of poetry, Rupi Kaur takes us deep into her life with extremely personal poems about her childhood, past boyfriends, and learning to heal after trauma and breakups. It’s a quick read, but one that is extremely frank and open about what she’s gone through in her life. Even with all of the personal details, most women will find themselves somewhere in this book. I do love how it ends on an uplifting note, as if to say this too shall pass and I am stronger now for having gone through all of this. I also like the “everywoman” appeal of the poems as they invite each woman to look back on her relationships, her period, how she got through extremely trying times and came through stronger, though hurting.

lindy west shrill by carol on litsy
Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West
I am apparently the only person who had not heard of Lindy West before this book, and even so I got to it too late to see her at a reading in Seattle as she was traveling around the country on her book tour this spring. I regret not having her on my radar until now, but I have been forever changed by reading her book Shrill. Not only does Lindy tackle major topics like feminism, abortion, and rape culture, she is the number one poster child for squashing fat-shaming and having positive body acceptance. During her book I found myself questioning my own attitude towards my body, and asking myself why I let others’ opinions of what they think I should wear and what they think is appropriate or not for my body type affect what I purchase and what I wear. The day after finishing Shrill I wore a dressy pair of shorts to work. People saw my knees and I didn’t die!

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Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Reading Roxane Gay is a lot like talking with your most level-headed friend. Even if the subject matter is one that evokes strong feelings, she keeps her cool and tries to discuss these important things with you in a calm, clear manner. In Bad Feminist Roxane Gay manages to cover everything from pop culture to rape to feminism to a career in academia. She doesn’t talk down to us, but rather goes out of her way to lay out the inequalities, the injustices, the annoyances, and the facts in a matter-of-fact and yet empathetic way. There is a definite juxtaposition of mixing very serious topics with lighter ones. I was extremely fascinated reading about her time as a competitive Scrabble player. First of all, I didn’t even know that such a thing existed. But I realize that to do anything competitively there is a suggestion that your skills stand above the average person. To play Scrabble competitively implies an intellect and strength of character that few posses. Such is the case with Roxane Gay. She is smart. She is funny. She is working on a book called Hunger that I can’t wait to get my hands on, and I get the feeling I will always react with grabby hands when someone mentions a new release by her.

claudia rankine citzen an american lyric by carol on litsy
Citizen: an American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Every time something horrible, unjust, and tragic happens in this world, the bookish social media clusters swarm together in shared empathy, seeking understanding  to try and make sense of the senseless. Such was the case with Citizen. I want to live in a world where this book isn’t necessary–but the sad and disgusting truth is this book is very much-needed. There are many put-yourself-in-this-situation passages that are written in the second person. The use of the second person is clever and intentional in a book that tries to expose life in a racist country. Because as much as we would like to think we have evolved past racism, bigotry, and inequality, we have not. As a country, we still have so far to go it’s heartbreaking. But that’s why books like this are here for you, and why I recommend everyone read it. Everyone. Bookish social media declared this required reading for every American citizen and I wholeheartedly agree.

rebecca solnit men explain things to me by carol on litsy
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Once again my bookish social media connections raved about a book, calling it necessary reading, and once again I picked up the gauntlet. And while this book isn’t just about mansplaining–a term the author has mixed feelings about–it definitely is about the disenfranchised and the cultural missteps that need to be corrected if we are ever going to improve our communities.The passages that really stood out to me involved having a voice and being heard. Historically it has been disgustingly easy for the group in power to silence anyone else whose opinions, thoughts, feelings, or civil liberties would infringe upon the leading group’s power. But the more that people band together to share one voice–civil rights, women’s suffrage, feminism, exposing racism in one’s community–the harder it is to ignore the message.

These relatively short books packed a mighty literary punch. While I wouldn’t have sought them out on my own, I am so glad my bookish comrades urged me on. Not only was I reading out of my fluffy comfort zone, I was seeing the world through some very different perspectives. You’ll notice these books were strong on themes of racism and sexism, feminist to the core. I’m currently falling down a rabbit hole of such, with book recommendations based on these books spiraling out from my TBR pile.

More books that bookish social media has recommended to me that deal with race and racism include Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Freedom is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis.

More books that bookish social media has recommended to me that deal with sexism and feminism include Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, and He’s a Stud, She’s a Slug and 49 Other Double Standards Every Woman Should Know also by Jessica Valenti.

Hopefully you’ve not only gained some new titles to add to your TBR pile but also seen what good can come from social media. I’ve rarely encountered a troll on Goodreads, Litsy, or the #bookstagram portion of Instagram. It’s kind of like a book nerd’s utopia. We’re definitely living in the golden age of reading. Seize the day and your smartphone and join the reading revolution!

Imagine a Blogger’s Holiday

books for bloggers‘Tis the season for giving, and as you may have seen here on A Reading Life, we love the idea of giving friends and family books, books, and more books for the holidays. Leslie wrote about book-gifting traditions in her family, and we bombarded you with our staff members’ favorite books, music, and movies of 2015.

I’m here today to offer a different perspective. I’d like you to close your eyes (well, after you read this part first!) and imagine a holiday made especially for bloggers, specifically those here on A Reading Life. Do you hear each blogger’s distinctive voice? The types of books or music they usually enjoy? Okay, somehow you need to know to open your eyes now, even if you’re not reading this because I told you to close your eyes and you’re obviously an excellent listener. Are you back? Great! I’ve been thinking a lot about my fellow bloggers and have decided to share with you and with them the books I would give them if I had a pile of cash at the ready. The good news is that all of these books are available at the library, and I happen to know they all frequent it.

Heartwood, you post about books that may have skipped our radar the first go-round and new translations of epic reads. You have a firm grasp of worldwide literary fiction, but I have something more localized in mind. I offer you Writing America: Literary Landmarks from Walden Pond to Wounded Knee by Shelley Fisher Fishkin. This book straddles the line between fiction and nonfiction–those good ole 800s. It takes the reader on a journey throughout the lower 48 and offers deep insight into the places that birthed America’s greatest words, from The Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio to Angel Island in San Francisco. There’s even a chapter featuring the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, where the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture resides. You will love this book about books featuring a library!

Girl, you read all the books I am too afraid to even pick up, let alone read! But I finally found something we can both agree on: Charles Bukowski on Cats edited by Abel Debritto. Sure, there’s a black cat on the cover, its back arched and ready to pounce. But what else could this book shelved in the poetry section have to offer? I’ll tell you: filthy, hilarious poems about cats and their undermining ways, and excerpts of prose that tell you just what is going on in those feline minds. At 3 am. In the alley below. Nonstop. There are also some very heavy words, but I know you’re good for it.

If there’s one thing I learned early on in my career it’s this: never recommend a picture book to a children’s librarian. Either they’ve already read it and loved it, or they’ve already read it and hated it. This goes doubly true for you, the librarian who buys those picture books for the library! But I’m going out on a limb here to bring you How the Library (Not the Prince) Saved Rapunzel by Wendy Meddour and illustrated by Rebecca Ashdown. The message is solid: you don’t need a man to get things done for you. But it’s delivered in a way that is compelling for storytelling purposes. The text is conversational, and the illustrations are humorous and action-packed. If you can’t use it for preschool storytime, you could totally read it with your granddaughters at home!

You write these amazing Did You Know? posts for the blog, and I always learn something new! But you also run the successful and fun Crochet & Knit Club at the Evergreen Branch, so this book speaks to those creative fiber urges I know you have. Knitless: 50 No-Knit, Stash-Busting Yarn Projects by Laura McFadden has a plethora of ideas for you to use up those remnants I know every crafty lady has. There’s a huge range of project difficulty, as well as different uses–wearables, home goods, gifts, and more. No matter what color or type of yarn you have leftover from a project, there’s something in here that will speak to you!

Although you’ve been focused on blogging about music this year, I know you have an adventurous palate and love to cook. I confess I couldn’t pick just one book for you, so you are getting two! My Life on a Plate: Recipes from Around the World by Kelis marries a little bit of musical memoir with recipes and an obvious talent for cooking. I had no idea that Kelis became a chef via Le Cordon Bleu, but paging through this cookbook made it obvious that girl is talented no matter what she does. And if you want to get a little more focused in your culinary adventures, Fermented by Charlotte Pike is just what you need. It covers kimchi, yogurt, labneh, miso soup, and more. You can also learn to make drinks like mead, kombucha, and lassi, though I know you will still prefer Priscilla’s lassi the best!

Not only have you founded and successfully run the overwhelmingly awesome Southside Book Club, but you also have a love of food and cooking. Therefore I give to you the gift of Simply Scratch: 120 Wholesome Homemade Recipes Made Easy by Laurie McNamara. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Laurie’s blog, but the Simply Scratch book follows in the footsteps of the Simply Scratch blog. Laurie doesn’t take premade shortcuts, preferring instead whole food options I know you’ll appreciate. I think you’ll find a lot to love about Simply Scratch, and maybe even find a recipe to bring to the next Southside Book Club meeting in February.

Science is your thing, and it’s definitely an area where you know more than I do! However, I know you really liked 2014’s What If?, so I now give to you Randall Munroe’s newest tome of amazingness, Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words. Munroe is a genius, this we know. He proves it yet again with this book, where he uses only the “ten hundred most common words” to explain very complicated processes. Everything from toilets to car engines, microwaves to space exploration. Of course Mr. xkcd illustrates throughout, so we get simple words and basic pictures to help us along. This book is also ginormously tall, so it can be used for other things besides reading: flattening posters, shooing the dog off the couch, or knocking something off a tall shelf.

Like Lisa, this year you dedicated a lot of blogging to music. I’m really happy you both do this, as I am no good at explaining what music sounds like and why it would appeal to anyone other than me! You’re also into some out-there fiction, a lot of it touching on Science Fiction. Therefore you get Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong. Down below I’m going to post a quote from the dust jacket and you’re going to see why I might think this would appeal to the guy who can dig into Science Fiction and loves seeing an absurd plot travel along at light speed.

From the disturbed imagination of New York Times bestselling author David Wong, and all-new darkly hilarious adventure. Nightmarish villains with superhuman enhancements. An all-seeing social network that tracks your every move. Mysterious, smooth-talking power players who lurk behind the scenes. A young woman from the trailer park. And her very smelly cat. Together, they will decide the future of mankind.

In case that doesn’t hook you, on the back cover there’s also a life-size photograph of a cyborg hand (I assume–it has metal joints sticking through the skin) flipping you the bird. And did I mention the sidekick slash familiar c-a-t? You need this book in your life!

Just in case Santa is reading this, here are some books I wouldn’t mind finding under the tree:

carol wants

Nerdy Nummies: Sweet Treats for the Geek in All of Us by Rosanna Pansino
I am a nerd! I am a geek! And I love to make and eat sugary treats! Rosanna is behind the incredibly popular web series Nerdy Nummies and all of her talents translate perfectly into this book. The book starts off with teaching you the basic building blocks for the recipes that follow. And OMG, the things I could make with this book! D20 cookies! Motherboard cake! Mana and health potions! Can we just call this the gift that keeps on giving? Because it totally will be.

Notorious RBG: the Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I am awed and inspired by this woman, and this book goes deep into her life while still being entertaining. The Tumblr of the same name is simply incredible, but if I had this book on my shelf I could get my RBG fix even when the power is out and I’m forced to read by candlelight.

Small Scenes from a Big Galaxy by Vesa Lehtimäki
I love LEGOs. I love Star Wars. And I love a great mash-up! Vesa originally created this book as a birthday gift to his son. Using the snowy scenes inspired both by his native Finland and the planet Hoth, Vesa composed photographs that became a sort of retelling of the space saga I love. Not only are the photos incredibly detailed and fun to look at, but I could get some serious macro photography inspiration, too.

So there you have it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a bucket of money to buy you bloggers these incredible books, but it’s the thought that counts, right?

Happy holidays!

My 2015 Summer Reading List

Ahhh summer! Freshly mowed lawns and the sound of sprinklers, grilled corn on the cob and cold slices of juicy watermelon and summer reading. Definitely summer reading. My summer memories are filled with trips to the downtown library, coming home with a stack of hardbacks and afternoons reading.

Most summers I make two reading lists — one for me and one for our grandbabies. I get reading ideas from best seller lists, from what’s on the shelf, and by asking co-workers what they’ve read lately. Quite a few of their suggestions are on my list. Here it is:

index (4)I have currently dropped everything else to read  Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish by John Hargrove, former Senior Orca Trainer at SeaWorld. John Hargrove loves killer whales. He was elated after finally realizing his dream to perform with orcas at SeaWorld. Once on staff, however, Hargrove began to realize that all was not right behind the corporation’s shiny, happy facade. I highly recommend this book and the film Blackfish, which tells the story of Tilikum, the notorious performing whale who has taken the lives of several people while in captivity.

index (6)I am listening to David McCullough read his impeccably researched and brilliantly written book, The Wright Brothers. It offers a rare portal into the turn of the century, but more than that it helps us understand ourselves as Americans. To say that focused perseverance is the key to the Wright Brother’s story would be an understatement. David McCullough demonstrates the fortitude of the brothers in the context of the family which made them possible. This book has been highly acclaimed and it lives up to every accolade. Read it!

index (7)The World’s Strongest Librarian is by Josh Hanagarne. He writes about everything: his parents, his doubts about his Mormon faith, his Tourette’s and the problems it causes, and his search to find a meaningful career. And he makes the reader want to keep reading. I’m glad that he described the reasons why he thinks books and reading are important. He also makes an impassioned plea for the future of libraries. For that, I thank him from the bottom of my library-loving heart. But most of all, his is an amazing story. You’ll be glad you read it.

index (8)The Heir Apparent:  A Life of Edward VII, the Playboy Prince by Jane Ridley is more than a biography of the playboy prince. The whole family gets into the act. Edward was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and she thought he was stupid and lazy. He was pretty much stuck being the heir apparent for 60 years and made up for it by being a notorious gambler, glutton and womanizer. Surprisingly very few scandals had any impact on him and eventually he became very popular with the English people. He also spent a lot of time on the continent and by the time he became king, he was a very adept diplomat. His main worry diplomatically was his nephew Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany who was very paranoid and Edward thought war with Germany was inevitable. Having died in 1910 Edward didn’t live to see his fears come to pass. This is an interesting book for lovers of the British monarchy.

index (1)index (2)indexindex (3)That’s a lot of non-fiction! How about a novel for some real summer reading? I have any and all of the works of Kent Haruf on my list thanks to the recommendation of fellow librarian Sarah who says that his writing is simply beautiful. All of his novels are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado which is loosely based on Yuma, Colorado, an early residence of Haruf in the 1980’s. These books are fabulous as his wonderful writing is reminiscent of Steinbeck. They come highly recommended and should be cherished as the author recently passed away and there won’t be anymore. I want to carry these around all summer if only for the beautiful covers.

indexA Room With A View by E.M. Forster portrays the love of a British woman for an expatriate living in Italy. For Forster, Italy is a country which represents the forces of true passion. Caught up in a world of social snobbery, Forster‘s heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, finds herself constrained by the claustrophobic influence of her British guardians, who encourage her to take up with a well-connected boor. When she regrets that her hotel room has no view, a member of the lower class offers to trade rooms with her.

index (1)And one more! I have to add Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee to this list. This long-awaited sequel will chronicle the adulthood of Scout in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama. Will this be another courtroom drama? Since it is set in the 1950’s, will it reference the civil rights movement? What’s gonna happen? Will they make it into a movie? We’ll have to wait for the book to be published on July 14th to find out.


And finally, here’s (part of) the pile of books for the grandbabies:

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So, that’s it for my summer reading lists. I hope that you have one and I’d love to know what’s on your list. Have you read any good books lately?

Go the Distance with Audiobooks

Yes Please coverFor those of you who don’t keep up with obscure monthly observances, June happens to be National Audiobook Month. This, in my opinion, is excellent timing. What better month to celebrate a form of reading that allows us to enjoy the best of summer? We can safely read while we run, garden, hike, or embark on long road trips. It should come as no surprise that our library employees are avid consumers of the audiobook in its many forms. In order to help you choose your next ear-read (I’m making that a word), we’ve asked our staff to review some of their favorite audiobooks. Place your holds now!


Harold Fry coverThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel  Joyce (CD and eAudio).  This novel is about a man who is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance. I enjoyed listening to it partly because of the narrator’s British accent but mostly because of the well written and compelling story.

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy is also by Rachel Joyce (CD) and it is the story told from the perspective of the woman who Harold Fry is walking to visit. It features another charming British accent and there’s a surprise at the end.

Short Nights coverShort Nights of the Shadow Catcher by Timothy Egan (CD and eAudio) is the story of photographer Edward S. Curtis and his passionate project of documenting the remaining Native American tribes in stunning photographs. An incredible adventure narrative and a penetrating biographical portrait, Egan’s book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis’s iconic photographs. You obviously don’t see the photos while listening to this book, but the images created by this author are still vivid in my memory. I associate it with painting our basement as that’s what I did while ‘reading’ this fabulous story. Now if I could just have a Curtis photograph for my basement walls…

These Few Precious Days by Christopher Andersen (CD) will amaze you with the whole story of Jack and Jackie’s final year together. This book is a glimpse into the twilight days of Camelot.

One Summer coverYes, Please! By Amy Poehler (CD) is simply hilarious and made even better by being read by the author herself. Listen to this one if you need a good laugh, and who doesn’t? (Lisa here – I have to second this choice – it’s fantastic!)

One Summer: America 1927
by Bill Bryson (CD and Playaway) is about just that: America in the summer of 1927. This is a big story about the big personalities of the day: Babe Ruth, Calvin Coolidge, Charles Lindbergh, Al Jolson and more. Do yourself a favor and let someone else read it to you! It’s fascinating.


Grapes of Wrath coverThe Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (CD)
I had always meant to read this and once I had a long commute, I was able to find the time. The book about the plight of American farmers who were forced off their farms by drought and foreclosure during the 1930’s is everything you’d expect. But the narration adds so much to the story. When you finish the audiobook, cue up Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads, which the library also owns.

One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B. J. Novak (CD and eAudio)
Very funny, well worth hearing B. J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Mindy Kaling, and many, many others perform the occasionally brilliant, sometimes underdeveloped, always funny pieces on the audiobook version of this short story collection from a writer of the American version of “The Office.”

Fighting Chance coverA Fighting Chance by Elizabeth Warren (CD and eAudio)
Elizabeth Warren’s story of her bumpy rise to fame and political power not only sets the stage for (likely) a higher office, but serves to inspire and make her as relatable as she appears in interviews and speeches. Read by the author/politician, Warren has a wonderfully rich voice, elevating the telling nicely.


Born Standing Up coverBorn Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, written and read by Steve Martin (CD). Listening to the long-time writer/producer/actor/musician/comic’s audiobook gave me a jolt of intimacy and pleasure that his book—no matter how well written—could not have delivered on. Born Standing Up had me marveling at not just the words, but his voice: the tone and timbre, and timing, and Martin’s is impeccable. Martin’s memoir about growing up in southern California, working and learning magic at Disneyland, playing banjo in coffeehouses, his unusual, breakthrough comedy routines and becoming hugely popular on Saturday Night Live was a funny, enthralling life story.


I have become an audiobook fanatic since acquiring an MP3 player several years ago. I listen when I’m gardening, walking, cooking (sometimes this is not a good thing), ironing—in other words whenever I’m doing something that doesn’t take a lot of concentration.

I have several favorites. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (CD and Playaway) is one I heard early in my career as a book listener, and it still comes back to haunt me. The reader’s voice was perfect for conveying Didion’s sense of loss and hopelessness as first her husband then her daughter die in the same year.

Bringing Up the Bodies coverI listened to both of Hilary Mantel’s books about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his association with Henry VIII.  Several people had told me that they found it difficult to track who was who when they attempted to read Wolf Hall (CD and eAudio), the first book in what is expected to be a trilogy. Listening to it there was no such difficulty. The right reader is critical to my enjoyment of an audiobook, and Simon Slater was the perfect choice for my ears. But then I also enjoyed hearing Simon Vance read Bring up the Bodies (CD and eAudio), Mantel’s sequel.

Dance with Dragons coverLastly I thoroughly enjoyed all of the George R. R. Martin series, Song of Ice and Fire (CD and eAudio).  I didn’t expect this to be true because I don’t normally read fantasy or science fiction, but I was hearing rave reviews from library patrons, and thought listening to the audio version would be easier than reading all 694 pages of A Game of Thrones. Many hours later—and I mean many hours since each of the books in the series so far run more than 30 hours—I came to the end of the fifth book,  A Dance with Dragons, and all I could think of was when would he finish writing the next book so I could find out what happened!


Misty imageMy all-time favorite audio book has to be Misty of Chincoteague read by Edward Hermann (Playaway). His voice is so great and friendly, making me feel like a grandpa is reading it. I also like that it is a playaway so I can walk around with it. My commute is only 1.5 miles, so a book on disc would take me ages!


I blogged a little while back about some excellent non-fiction audiobooks that I really enjoyed; you can find that post here. More recent favorites include:

The Road coverThe Road by Cormac McCarthy (CD). Imagine the Walking Dead, sans walkers. The world as we know it has been obliterated by an unspecified disaster. Father and son find themselves on a furtive journey to the sea. What they hope to find there is unclear, but it has to be better than where they’ve come from. Doesn’t it? Haunting, anxiety-ridden, but strangely beautiful at times.

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (CD). Young love is rough and often prone to failure. What happens if it never truly dies? Love in the Time of Cholera is a fairly humorous and slightly dark look at one man’s 1/2-a-century struggle to overcome his first heartbreak. It may leave you asking: does love ever truly die?

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Warmth of Other Suns coverThe other day I was walking out with an armload of books on CD, and Richard our audio book selector got all excited because he thought I was getting non-fiction (something he’d like to see checked out more). Shamefacedly I had to admit that it was all fiction, and that I had been slacking a bit on listening to anything factual. His enthusiasm for promoting our non-fiction audio books inspired me to put some of my selections back and browse the other shelves.

I’ve always been a big non-fiction reader, but for some reason this passion hasn’t translated well to audio books. I have a long commute and like to pass the time listening to stories. I’ve found them to be easier to listen to in the little 35 minute drives I have to do throughout the week because I don’t have to pay too close attention to make sure I’m not missing any important points. It’s also easier to pick up where I left off if I haven’t listened in a while because we’ve been using the other car; often with non-fiction audio books I have to rewind a bit to refresh my memory. The only things that combat these issues for me when listening to non-fiction books is to find ones that are written in a very narrative style and have great readers.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of non-fiction audio books that I’ve listened to recently that have kept me enthralled from start to finish.

The Warmth of Other Suns: the Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson (read by Robin Miles). I guess if you need a place to start, choosing a Pulitzer Prize winning book generally isn’t a bad idea. Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by tracing the paths of four African-Americans who migrated north and west to escape the Jim Crow world of the South. Because the author interviewed all four individuals, the book is rich with dialogue and personal stories. Miles does an excellent job of reading Wilkerson’s work, making each individual’s personality shine through, and adding appropriate emphasis and emotion to some of the more difficult passages.

Mushroom Hunters coverThe Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, by Langdon Cook (read by Kevin R. Free). Foodie, traveler, hiker, lover of the Pacific Northwest – no matter what you consider yourself to be, you’ll probably find something to enjoy about this title. Mushroom Hunters reads like investigative journalism mixed with Food Network programming (in the best way possible). Cook tells the story of his quest to learn about the secret not-always-legal world of commercial mushroom harvesting in the Pacific Northwest. I really enjoyed driving back and forth on Highway 2 as Free described the kinds of lush rainy mountains that surrounded me, and all the secret things that may be happening in them.

Detroit cover imageDetroit: an American Autopsy, by Charlie LeDuff (read by Eric Martin). This is a book that I would have loved even if Mickey Mouse was reading it, but Eric Martin’s narration took it from good to perfection for me.  Martin’s gravelly no-nonsense delivery perfectly matches the tone of LeDuff’s vignettes of the rough, hard-working, beautiful, disturbing, hopeful, and troubled City of Detroit. This book isn’t another work of ruin porn aimed at exploiting what befell Detroit after the decline of its industrial might. It’s the honest collected experiences of a journalist who has spent his entire career covering every side of a city that seems to be almost universally hated and feared by the rest of America. No predictions are made about the future. No excuses are made for the past. It’s just the facts as he saw them happen, and it’s dark, light, and magnificent.

Naked coverNaked, by David Sedaris (read by the author and his sister, comedian/actress Amy Sedaris). Ending on a lighter note, I just have to say I’m a sucker for David Sedaris in any format, but I think experiencing his writing performed by himself is always the best. Whether it be appearances on This American Life, or full-length readings of one of his many titles, you’d be hard-pressed to not be entertained. Well, at least you would be if you and I share a similar sense of humor. In Naked, Sedaris tells stories about his upbringing; considering that his family spawned two comedians, you know things had to be unorthodox.  Even though he may be describing something completely ridiculous, his sense of humor remains dry and ironic. This tone is amplified when you hear him perform his work. His readings are so well-timed and pitch perfect that it’s almost impossible to later read something of his without hearing his voice in your head.

I hope some of these recommendations inspire you to treat yourself to some of the many excellent non-fiction audio titles we have in our collections. I know I’ll continue exploring!

A History of Things

Historical nonfiction comes in all shapes and sizes. There is the grand sweeping kind that tries to tell the story of a whole era or a monumental event. Then there are the social histories that see history from the perspective of a particular class or group of people. Another popular type is the historical biography that illustrates the life of an important individual. I’m an indiscriminate lover of all these varieties but I must admit I hold a special place in my heart for a historical work that zeros in on a specific object and tells its story through time. In addition to having a pleasingly quirky and often obsessive focus, these books also provide the service of telling history from a different perspective. At their best, they can help us to rethink assumptions about what is truly important and give us the rare gift of learning something new.  Here at the library, we have many of these histories of things. Listed below are a few of the standouts.

Concrete Planet by Robert Courland
concreteplanetWe take it for granted every day. The house you live in, the sidewalk you walk on, the countless bits of infrastructure that make civilization possible: they all rely on concrete. But where did it come from? Courland guides the reader through the fascinating tale of a substance that was created long ago, but only recently rediscovered after centuries of being lost. In addition to many interesting facts, the author also reveals a few disturbing ones. Chief among them is the fact that the concrete of today is not as strong as that of our ancestors despite many modern manufacturers’ claims. It turns out that those Roman ‘ruins’ have a much longer shelf life than a modern office building.

Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht by Bryan Burkhart and David Hunt
airstreamThis book is many things. It is a biography of Wally Byam the inventor of the Airstream. It is a cultural history of the Airstream, documenting its effect on the idea of recreation in America. Interestingly, it is also a history of the 1959 Cape Town to Cairo Airstream caravan. All of these parts are skillfully told with a dazzling array of archival images that make this book quite beautiful. If you want to learn more about the trend of mobile living in America definitely take a look at Home on the Road: The Motor Home in America by Roger White for a wider angle view of this phenomenon.

cellphoneThe Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World by Guy Klemens
It is now a cliché to have a film demonstrate to the audience that it is ‘from the 80s’ by having a character whip out a cellphone the size of a loaf of bread. But this book goes way beyond that image to tell the history of the cellphone, which actually dates back to the 1940s. While a fun book, this title is definitely heavy on the technology of the cellphone with detailed discussions of concepts such as bandwidth and analog vs. digital so don’t feel guilty about skimming a chapter or two.

Digital Retrodigitalretro by Gordon Laing
This book tells the story of the formative years of the personal computer, 1975-1988, through the machines themselves. Each model is lovingly documented, photographed and provided with a detailed backstory. This was a frenetic period for the personal computer, with big corporations going head to head with eccentric professors, amateur inventors and kids working out of their garages. Definitely check this book out and visit the thrilling days of yesteryear when we were bowled over by the fact that the Commodore 64 had 64KB of RAM and BASIC was considered the programming language of the future.

theyugoThe Yugo: The Rise and Fall of the Worst Car in History by Jason Vuic
You tend to think of history as a record of the ‘winners’ but as this book points out, epic failure can be instructive as well. Hailing from the former Yugoslavia, and riding a very brief wave of popularity in the mid1980s primarily due to a price tag under $4000, the Yugo turned out to be one of the most flawed cars ever built. The tale of how it even got to the commercial market in the first place, with the help of an overeager U.S. State Department and a Detroit auto industry reluctant to build cheap subcompact cars, is fascinating and instructive stuff.

jetpackdreamsJetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (but Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was by Mac Montandon
This is the story of one man’s quest to answer the burning, to some, question: Why can’t we all have our own working Jetpack? Popular culture, think Buck Rogers or Boba Fett, has been promising us one for a long time now. It turns out that prototypes were actually developed in the 1960s but funding quickly dried up so the Jetpack is now the province of a dedicated band of aficionados. The author travels the country to seek out these dedicated few to see if any of us will be able to commute to work via Jetpack in our lifetimes.

So if you are planning a foray into historical nonfiction, why not avoid the big picture and focus on the small stuff? The Devil is in the details after all.