Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

I absolutely cannot wait to get back into my car and drive from Davenport, IA to East Moline, IL across the frozen tundra that is the Quad Cities. You might think I’ve lost my mind, and perhaps I have a little bit; but let me tell you that the Ali audiobook, narrated by Kevin R Free, and based on author Jonathan Eig’s “definitive biography” is absolutely stunning. Although my experience with audiobooks is relatively limited, I have to say this one makes me want to read all 623 pages of the biography. Free, who also considers himself a storyteller,  narrates the larger-than-life biography of Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay) with conviction and eloquence, the perfect example of a well-executed audiobook and also a testament to author Eig’s finely-crafted prose.

Normally, it’s easy for me to snooze on audiobooks and lose focus in the middle of a chapter (or worse, a sentence). In fact, listening to audiobooks has proven to be an act of meditation: I’m consciously directing my attention to the narrator and, sometimes painfully attempting to stay focused on the developing story. Too often, like a child who loses interest in a new toy just moments after receiving it, I lose interest in the storyline unless the narrator is particularly emotive, funny, or engaging. But every chapter Free narrates makes me feel like I’m watching an award-winning film. The imagery, writing, and narration are that good. I’ve read a few reviews, and one commenter noted that he felt like he was “ringside” during the fight descriptions because the writing truly is that good.

Cassius Clay, who died in 2016 at the age of 74, endured 200,000 punches throughout his career. I cannot possibly conceive of what that would feel like. He was wildly inspired by Sugar Ray Robinson, a famous boxer well known for being particularly outlandish, flashy, and bold. Ali was single-mindedly focused on becoming the greatest boxer who ever lived; yet he was insanely complex as well as he came into his own in the context of segregation, The Blood of Emmett Till, and the Little Rock Nine. One might simply state that Ali was a fighter in every sense of the word: you can be sure he fought fiercely against racism and injustice that plagued the post-war United States.

I’m nowhere near finished with this book, but I can only imagine it gets better. Check out this article with Author Eig who concludes, after 500 hours of interviews with Ali that “no biography is complete. There’s always more to explore.” Here is what NPR , the Washington Post, and The New York Times had to say. Of course not all the reviews are shining. This particular article claims that Eig did not shed light on the last 30 or so years of Ali’s life and that the book provides “a somewhat perfunctory account of how his story fits into the larger arc of race in America.” As someone who is only about ten chapters in, I appreciated the historical backdrop that Eig establishes early on in the book; although it’s not like a few measly chapters could possibly address the terrible blight of racism on our collective history, so I will wait to see if maybe Eig delves more deeply into issues of race in America. One hopes that a “definitely” biography has earned its heavyweight title, just like the greatest boxer of all time.

A Library of Things

 If you’re anything like me, and you favor a minimalist lifestyle that prioritizes access over ownership, the prospect of a Library of Things may interest you. A Library of Things (LOT) is a most magical and sensible space where libraries, innovation, and sharing economies intersect. When you visit a LOT, you can borrow items you don’t want to commit to purchasing before you can prove the purchase is truly warranted. Not sure if you’re a fan of camping? Don’t sweat it: check out a tent before dropping the cash on new gear. Wondering if you’re likely to develop a serious interest in cake decorating but hesitant to shell out your hard-earned dollars? Check out some cake pans and decorating accessories. Ready to serenade your cat with ukulele music for any occasion? Stop by the LOT and check out a ukulele.

Since libraries are already perfectly structured to lend non-traditional items such as power tools, cake pans, outdoor/adventure gear and equipment, musical instruments and accessories, ties, seeds, and lawn kitchen appliances, it makes perfect sense that innovative libraries have already added many “things” to their circulating collections. At the Hillsboro Public Library in Oregon, for example, patrons can check out a chocolate fountain, popcorn machine, and karaoke machine among many other practical and unique things. At the Shirley M Wright Memorial Library in Wisconsin, patrons can check out bird-watching kits. The Stark County district library partnered with Stark Parks to launch a bicycle sharing program!  As you can see, the possibilities are endless. In California at Sacramento Public Library, patrons can check out yard equipment like hedge-trimmers and a lawnmower, among many other things.  In this article, Director of the Sacramento Public Library, Rivkah Sass describes libraries as “the original sharing economy” and that when developing a LOT they “were looking at the generation coming up that doesn’t necessarily want to own things. They don’t need a pressure cooker to store on a shelf and gather dust.” Can I get an Amen, people?  You don’t have to be a Millennial to appreciate the benefits of a clean, open space that isn’t crowded by a surplus of material possessions you’re likely to use a handful of times before banishing to a lifetime in your kitchen cabinets. Not only does a LOT save you money, but it also saves space, enables access, and encourages discovery and innovation.

Come visit Davenport Public Library to see the “Tech-Know Library” and view a full list of the technologies available for checkout including but not limited to:  graphing calculators, a light therapy lamp, eReaders, a Go Pro, blue-tooth blood pressure monitor, and Snapchat spectacles!

What kinds of items do you think the public library should make available for checkout?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the Midst of Winter : a novel / Isabel Allende

Isabel Allende’s newest novel In the Midst of Winter is a page turner filled with suspense. Part love story, part history, part current immigration issues where baby boomers learn to love again while covering up a crime scene and dealing with their own histories of violence, love lost, and innocence begot.

A story about three separate individuals, Evelyn, Lucia, and Richard whose previous lives become intertwined in a series of flashbacks and unfortunate events including military overthrow, drug escapades in Rio, and gangs in Guatemala. Richard a college professor living and working in New York, Lucia, Richard’s colleague who he has helped obtain a year professorship in New York who also happens to be Richard’s tenant living in the freezing basement of his Brooklyn brownstone, and Evelyn a DACA refugee turned illegal alien come together in Allende’s imaginative fictional concoction of romance, murder, suspense, and drama. The three characters are brought together by a harrowing snow storm in New York when Richard hits Evelyn’s car, embarking all three of them on a journey none would have ever expected.

The reader will enjoy reading this fictional tale where boomers despite their trials of hurt and loss learn that there is still life left in them to live and love left within them to give.

Mercy For Animals: One Man’s Quest To Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals

Nathan Runkle, author of Mercy for Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals is just one of those people whose passion is apparent from the moment he opens his mouth. Like his speaking voice, Runkle’s writing style is remarkably elegant and concise. I was shocked that he struggled with reading and writing as a young student because he is a remarkably articulate speaker and writer.

Like the farm and dairy investigation transcripts contained in its pages, this book is not for the faint-of-heart. In creating transparency within the culture of American food production practices, Runkle and his team pull the curtain back, so to speak, to reveal the brutality inherent in factory farming operations. In short, this book is about how Runkle founded Mercy for Animals, a non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness about the lives of sentient farm animals and the system of which they are a part. At the core of this book lies the fundamental belief that the lives of all beings deserve respect and dignity.

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of bullying or oppression will sympathize with the plight of Mercy for Animals. The sickness, disgust, and perhaps solidarity you will feel when you go behind the scenes at a factory farm will empower you to make changes in your lifestyle and better yet, how you relate to and think about animals. In short, this book spotlights Runkle, his twenty-year career, and the other investigators who obtained jobs in hatcheries and slaughterhouses across the United States and abroad in order to spotlight what goes on behind closed doors. Their work created the pressure necessary in order to affect change even at the level of national policy. The exploitation and commodication of animals and workers in a billion-dollar industry forms the bedrock of modern animal agriculture as it’s impossible to pack 60,00-100,000 chickens into a warehouse without grave consequences. Opposition to this industry was established alongside the industry itself, and you can bet Runkle smartly contextualizes his book alongside Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle published in 1908, among others.

As Runkle learned, investigators document every minute of footage with objective language rather than evocative language. For example, when the book discusses what “thumping” means in the pig-farming industry, investigators refrained from using “emotional” language. Instead, undercover investigators might describe “thumping” as a “standard practice” entailing slamming “defective” piglets into the concrete to kill them rather than saying “workers grabbed helpless piglets by their legs and swung them violently into the concrete to crush their skulls” (which is exactly what happens). In other words, investigators are not permitted to purposefully appeal to the emotions of readers and must instead focus on relaying facts and behaviors. But as Runkle knew, there really is no nice, flowery way of making a lifetime of suffering sound like standard operating procedures (even though euphemism and secrecy lies at the heart of the animal agriculture industry). As many consumers know, myself included, the majority of meat and dairy foods we consume are produced not by “humane” family farms peppered with “happy cows” grazing in green pastures but rather from massive mechanized farming operations deliberately located in remote areas out of sight…and out of mind. I’d say slaughtering 12,000 pigs per day constitutes massive AND industrial –the opposite of humane family farms. Although that seemingly innocuous cellophane-wrapped animal product in the grocery store reveals only the end product of factory farming, the animals on our plates endured a lifetime of suffering. Floors caked with excrement, dust, blood, and decaying animal bodies is commonplace–not some grotesque bit of propaganda created by bleeding-heart, tree-hugging hippies to get you to care about animals. The respect we extend to our beloved family companion animals is virtually non-existent in the lives of farm animals. After a delve into the animal liberation literature, try singing “Old MacDonald” in the year 2018 and hearing it as more nursery rhyme then pantomime.

This post isn’t the equivalent of a virtual finger-wagging, either. It has taken me decades to finally come to terms with–to accept–that the lifestyle choices I made every day absolutely matter. If you’re not particularly “sold” on animal rights, you might then take note that Runkle’s book also illuminates how the poor and people of color are particularly vulnerable fodder for the meat, dairy, and egg industries. While Runkle is more immediately concerned with the plight of farm animals and the suffering they endure at human hands, the suffering is not theirs alone as workers labor in harrowing conditions enduring illness and injury alongside the animals. I cannot help but speculate that the implications of killing and processing suffering animals in order to make a living are devastating–physically, emotionally, spiritually. But as gruesome as the reality of farming operations is, Runkle remains optimistic and steadfast in his mission to help people reconnect to the compassion they already have in their hearts for animals.

Runkle’s optimism is key as the work of Mercy for Animals isn’t for nothing: this organization and others like it are disrupting market forces and supply & demand chains that mask injustice and exploitation. Overall, this book was very well-written and executed. A powerful, animal ethics movement is gaining momentum, changing the way we relate to animals, to our environment, and each other. From a local standpoint,  I’m also excited that “plant-based” and vegan lifestyles have arrived and are celebrated more every day here in the Quad Cities, as evidenced by the Quad Cities own first Veg Fest, to be held August 11th, 2018 at Schwiebert Park on the Rock Island riverfront.

 

 

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

The topic of race relations is coming to a major forefront in young adult literature. (Not that it hasn’t always been present, but new books have been getting major press about it in recent months). One such book is Dear Martin by Nic Stone. Wanting to see how this book handled the topic and also having read and blogged about Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give in May 2017, I decided to see what direction Stone went.

Let’s start by talking about this book. Dear Martin by Nic Stone dives into the sticky world of race relations in America. Justyce McAllister is college-bound, hopefully, and finds himself torn between where he grew up and the school he now attends. A slew of other factors influence him: the fact that he’s on the debate team, his family, his friends, his teachers, his on-again/off-again girlfriend. All those factors dig at Justyce as he works to try to figure out what exactly he wants to get out of his life and what he feels he is entitled to in this life. Justyce is seventeen years old, the age when kids are told that they have to know what they want to do for the rest of their life. Picking a college, picking friends, picking a significant other, picking who you hang out with and what you do on a daily basis all directly influence your choices. All of those factors also directly influence how other people see you.  Struggling to deal with episodes of police brutality and racial profiling that directly affect him, Justyce decides to write letters to the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a way to try to figure out what Martin would do in his situation (Hence the title Dr. Martin, pretty self-explanatory). Justyce’s life seems to get worse and worse. No matter how he tries to better himself, there seems to always be someone bent on knocking him to the ground.

Watching Justyce’s life unfold throughout his letters to Martin and through the snippets of his life that readers are privy to, we gain a better understanding of the rough dichotomy that Justyce finds himself in. He constantly is left to wonder where he actually fits in, who he should hang out with, and why his actions and people’s opinions of him seem to be at odds some days. I found myself rooting for Justyce throughout this book and hoping that his life would continue to get better.

First thought after finishing Dear Martin? Oh man, I wish this book was longer. There is so much content jam-packed in this book that at times I was hoping for the author to expand just a little more. That said, this book was powerfully written and deals with tricky subjects in a way that the intended audience, young adults and kids in high school, would easily understand and relate to. Even though I was not the intended audience, I found myself deeply involved in this book and wondering how everything would turn out. I would recommend this book, but with the caveat that you read The Hate U Give, as well. The two fit so well together.


This book is also available in the following format:

Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View

Cover of the book: Star Wars From a Certain Point of View
Cover of the book: Star Wars From a Certain Point of View

 

Star Wars: A New Hope  is turning 40 this year, so while it’s exciting to look forward to the latest movie, coming out, it’s also fun to revisit the one that started it all. One book that’s made that especially fun is Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View. It’s glorified fanfiction, but it’s by some great authors, some who have already written extensively in the Star Wars universe, others who are better known for work in several genres. The results span genres from short stories, to incident reports, to epic poems, and are often funny and occasionally devastating.

The stories start at the beginning of A New Hope, and follow various cover rebels, Jedi, storm troopers, cantina band members, and family members – fleshing out characters that are often little more than a line of dialogue in the movie.

I was initially excited about this book because it features some of my favorite authors. Nnedi Okorafor has been promoting her story, “The Baptist,” about the backstory of the trash compactor monster. Okorafor takes her character seriously, and it works, following the creature as she’s captured on her home planet and taken to the Death Star, where she’s forced to examine her life and  and how she examine her life and her role in the universe.

Other stories look at the ridiculous aspects of living in the Star Wars universe. Mallory Ortberg’s “An Incident Report” follows how difficult it is when your coworker forces his religion down your throat. In general, I liked the Empire points of view best, probably because they often focused on office politics and being frustrated at work , such as “The Sith of Datawork” by Ken Liu looks at the paperwork required to cover up a missing shuttle, or “Born in a Storm” by Daniel José Older,  about a stormtrooper who knows he’d make an amazing dewback rider.

Some other stories I especially liked were “Not for Nothing” by Mur Lafferty, a chapter from a tell all rock in roll memoir of one of the cantina band members, and Kieron Gillen’s “The Trigger” even if it is probably cheating (it features Dr Aphra, an black market archaeologist he created for the Darth Vader comics, but she’s one of my favorites, even if she’s not from the movie, so I’m glad he snuck her in.)

The book is arranged chronologically through Star Wars: A New Hope,  so while I initially skipped around to see what Meg Cabot aproached a Star Wars story, or what Wil Wheaton might be like as a writer, I also enjoyed going back to the beginning and seeing how people imagined the backstories scene by scene. The stories don’t build on each other, so if you are familiar with the movie, you can read as many or as few as you like in any order, and they still work.

It’s fun to imagine all the stories behind Episode IV and to see glimpses of Luke, Leia and Han as side characters in someone else’s grand drama. If you are planning on rewatching the film, I would definitely recommend checking this book out first.

The Library has print copies of Star Wars: From a Certain Point of View, as well as the audiobook available on CD with several readers.

Book VS Movie – The Circle

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I’m a unique blend of obsessive movie lover, the kind that can tell you whether or not an actor has won an Oscar in the last three decades, and avid book reader. So pretty much any time a book gets made into a major motion picture, I read it. Then I watch the movie, where I proceed to pick apart what was done good and what unforgivable mistakes were made by screenwriters and casting directors.

For one of my book clubs, we all agreed that reading The Circle by Dave Eggers would be a great choice. We based this decision solely on the fact that both Emma Watson and Tom Hanks were starring in the movie adaption of the book, and everyone knows those two are awesome! Did you know Tom Hanks won back to back Oscars for Philadelphia ( 1994) and Forrest Gump (1995)? Needless to say, we approached the book with very high hopes. I read the book and something strange happened…

First, let me tell you a little about the book. Mae Holland is hired at the best company in the world by a combination of the reference of her best friend, who has been working at the company for several years, and her own compatibility to the mission of The Circle. It is an internet company that has combined all your separate web identities in one Truyou Circle account. The idea is the end of web anonymity. Then things get strange and more strange. I spent most of the book waiting for one of the 10,000 employees working for The Circle to have one ounce of sanity. Still holding my breath.

Mae is boring with not much of personality. I think Eggers planned it that way for the book to work. His perspective on the future of technology over our lives is brilliant and honestly the ending was very real. I nearly had a nervous break down reading it. The most refreshing thing about the novel is it ended completely different than I thought it would, because I am used to the ‘hero’ ending instead of reality.

I couldn’t wait to see the movie, thinking it was probably going to be better than the book that had way too much kayaking for my taste. I also wondered how Emma Watson was going to pull off the personality of a dull follower like Mae Holland. Then low and behold, the movie not only changed Mae Holland’s personality, but the entire ending! This is the first movie adaptation that I’ve watched that so drastically changed the ending. Many of you reading this will likely watch The Circle movie adaptation and enjoy the ‘hero’ ending it provides in Hollywood fashion. If you want a real mind bender, read the book too.

List of movies that ended different than the books

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

We all remember the “March of Progress” poster from grade school science class, used to illustrate the  straight-line evolution of Homo sapiens from our ancient ancestors. From Australopithecus  to Homo habilius and then to the assumed apex of human evolution – us. But what if evolution wasn’t a straight line? What if suddenly, somehow, it doubled-back on itself, returning our species to our most ancient origins?

It is in this speculative world that Louise Erdrich’s latest novel Future Home of the Living God is set. Taking place in an unspecified time in the near future, the novel is presented as the journal of 26 year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, written to her unborn child. Cedar, the adopted daughter of liberal Minnesota parents, finding herself pregnant, is compelled to seek out her Ojibwe birth parents, ostensibly to discover any genetic problems that might affect her baby, and in a larger sense, to find her own identity. This familiar journey of personal discovery is set against a tumultuous time in which the future of the earth is gravely in doubt as evolution appears to be running backward. Plants and animals are born “wrong,” throwbacks to their genetic ancestors. Human babies and their mothers are dying at an alarming rate, and those infants that do survive are abnormal, with characteristics more similar to our genetic ancestors. The planet is heating up, with harsh Minnesota winters a fond, distant memory, and political chaos is rampant. Soon, pregnant women are encouraged, then forced, into “unborn protective centers” – prisons, really – and a “womb draft” is instated. As Cedar’s pregnancy progresses, she confesses to her baby that she isn’t sure if he (and she is sure it is a he) will have the ability to read the journal that she is writing, if he survives at all. Cedar soon becomes a fugitive, then a prisoner, then fugitive again, seeking sanctuary with her birth family with the help of her adoptive parents.

If this all sounds strikingly familiar to The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, you would be correct. In her author’s notes, Erdrich writes that she began the novel in 2002, then set it aside,  picking it up again after the most recent election. Future Home of the Living God is Erdrich’s first speculative fiction book, but still closely shares the Native American culture she has explored in her past works. The premise of backwards evolution and how it might bring the end of civilization is compelling – it’s what interested me in the book in the first place – and it reads like a thriller (I read it all in one sitting). But at a slim 267 pages, it reads almost too fast, with not nearly enough time spent exploring the circumstances of the world it is set in, the stories of Cedar’s families, or her baby’s father. Since the story is told in the form of a journal, which does lend an intimacy to the narrative, many things go unsaid, or dropped entirely. Even the mystery of Cedar’s birth and adoption – the revelation of which is emotionally catastrophic for her – is quickly dropped to move onto the next crisis. At a few points, I thought that the plot was going in one direction, and then, disappointingly, found it dropped. Perhaps my expectations were overly influenced by my usual science fiction preferences. Some the misdirections reminded me of the short story “Before” by Carolyn Dunn (contained in the excellent collection After edited by Ellen Datlow) an end-of-the-world tale of a plague that leaves only those with Native American ancestors alive. But, that is not the case here.

Which isn’t to say the novel isn’t an exciting and interesting read. There are thoughtful explorations of faith (Cedar is a recent convert to Catholicism), the origin and evolution of our species, how and why we became human, and the consequences of ignoring and abusing our environment and each other, all alongside Cedar’s journey into motherhood and her birth family. The ending might come abruptly, but it is well worth the journey.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

You either love or hate John Green. There’s just no other way around it. I’m firmly in the ‘love John Green’ camp and as a result, I had been anxiously awaiting the release of his newest book, Turtles All the Way Down. He spent a good chunk of time writing this book and when press started to talk about it, I knew I would relate to the character.

Sixteen-year-old Aza has a lot going on in her life. The father of one of her childhood friends has disappeared. That would generate fuss in the community anyway, but add in the fact that the disappeared parent is a fugitive from the law and the craziness begins to snowball. Russell Pickett is a fugitive billionaire and has completely disappeared leaving the community and, more importantly, his two orphaned sons wondering where he is. When a $100,000 reward is offered, Aza and her best friend, Daisy, decide to try to figure out what happened to him. Aza used to be friends with Russell Pickett’s son, Davis, something that Daisy decides is a good omen. Aza is left to try to bridge the gap between herself and Davis.

Aza finds herself doing a lot of trying in life now. Her father died when she was younger, leaving Aza and her mom to try to cope without him. Aza is trying to be so many different things that she feels like she has lost sight of who her real self is. She is trying to be a good friend, a good student, a good daughter, but her mind never lets her be. Aza is contantly caught in a spiral of her own thoughts that gets tighter and tighter the more she tries to ignore it. Until she acknowledges these thoughts, Aza’s mind and body control her. She can’t escape. The distraction that the disappearance of Russell Pickett provides gives Aza a new escape and reintroduces herself to his son, Davis. Aza, Davis, and Daisy form a complicated friend group and Aza spends a great deal of time worrying over herself.

Turtles All the Way Down is a fascinating glimpse into the life of a teenager trying to make it through life. Aza is constantly battling the voices in her head and the spiral that threatens to overwhelm her. She knows that what she is told to do in her mind is usually wrong, but unless she listens, Aza knows she will be unable to function. This book looks deeply into mental health, resilience, the power of all types of friendship, and how love tries to reach us all. Give it a read and let me know what you think.


This book is also available in the following formats: