The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

I am obsessed with female comedians. I recently stumbled upon Tina Fey’s Bossypants, which I listened to on OverDrive as an audiobook one summer day when I was hiking and I. FELL. HARD. I then branched out to Amy Poehler and a whole slew of other famous women comedians. I personally love listening to these book as audiobooks because it feels like I’m getting my own private comedy show, plus the authors 1)usually narrate their own books and 2) bring in famous friends and family to read sections. Plus there is usually awesome bonus content. If that’s not enough of a reason for you to run out to the library and pick up some audiobooks, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, back to the topic: my recent, yet hard-hitting love of female comedians. When I discovered Amy Schumer and Anna Kendrick were each coming out with new books, I immediately put the respective release dates on my calendar and started scouting for information about their audiobooks. When I saw copies of both books in print on the new shelves, I knew I should just pick them up, read them, and then listen to the audio later. I started with Amy Schumer. (I have Kendrick’s book at home in my TBR pile).

The Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer is way more than your standard autobiography. Schumer makes it clear in the beginning of the book that this is not a memoir or an autobiography; she says she’s way too young to be writing either of those types of books. Instead, she has collected a series of essays that detail the many different experiences that have made her the woman she is today. Throughout this book, Schumer says over and over that she didn’t luck into her career. She worked insanely hard and even though now some people think she has made it, she still has to hustle to get what she wants. Developing new material and testing it out hasn’t changed. She still tries out material on friends, performs in comedy clubs, and is constantly mining her daily life and interactions for humorous material for her work.

Schumer pulls stories from her past and nothing is off limits. She talks about relationships, her father’s battle with multiple sclerosis, her family, her awkward teenage years, her work, and sex. Schumer is not afraid to strip down and bare her soul in order to make sure readers understand what she is talking about. I was thoroughly impressed with this book. I was expecting something hilarious all the way through. Don’t get me wrong; this book had me laughing out loud, but Schumer gets down and talks about very serious topics that I wasn’t expecting, but those sections were so well-worded, I found myself unable to put it down. I recommend you give it a try and let me know what you think below.


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Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger

From the start, Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger is suspenseful, engaging and full of twists and turns. The main appeal, though, is Ridley Jones, whose tidy, enjoyable life is turned upside down one morning when she rescues a small child from getting hit by a car. This act of heroism and the attendant publicity brings out people from her past, causing her to doubt her parents, long-time family friends, and everything she’s believed about her life up until that point.

A freelance journalist living in a cozy East Village apartment, she goes on the run, investigating a man claiming to be her father, and  a shadowy group dedicated to finding homes for abandoned children. She’s not sure who she can trust. She’s not even sure of her new neighbor and love interest, who helps her with her investigation but seems too professional in his skills for someone who claims to be an artist.

While you’re reading this, you’re quite aware that this is very firmly rooted in the thriller genre, and is pure escapism. But it’s artfully done, and Ridley’s re-examination of lifelong assumptions and philosophical musings make it a cut above those churned out by authors turned corporations.

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer

The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer was a pleasant diversion from what I was expecting. I’ve read everything else Meyer has written (the Twilight series and The Host). I actually really enjoyed all her previous works and occasionally would re-read them when I needed a brain cleanse/a break from the heavy nonfiction I was reading. They fit my niche. I picked up The Chemist without really reading the blurb on the back and expected to have a supernatural and science fiction thriller on my hands. I was wrong. It was way more realistic fiction than I was expecting, but I was okay with it.

The Chemist is about an ex-agent who used to work for the U.S. government. She must do one last job in order to clear her name, but this job isn’t nearly as clear cut as she is led to believe. The agency she used to work with is so undercover and clandestine that it doesn’t have a name. People don’t know that the agency exists, but they have heard the rumors of the woman who works there. Being unable to discuss the nature of her work outside her lab, she formed a close relationship with her mentor Barnaby, another scientist. Her employers decided that changes must be made, that her area was a liability, and they killed Barnaby, the only person she ever trusted.

She finds herself on the run from her former employers who are still hunting her. People have been sent to kill her, but she’s managed to escape. After the last attempt on her life, she realizes that while she was working for the agency, she must have either overheard something she shouldn’t have or something she worked on has made her a liability. They have decided she must be eliminated.

After one of her former employers approaches her and offers her a way to get the agency off her back, she must weigh the consequences of taking the job vs. staying on the run. If she takes it, she will be uprooting her entire existence, the only way she has been able to keep herself alive. If she takes it, she will be putting herself both back on her former employers’ radar and, more importantly, physically back within their reach. If she doesn’t take it, she’ll have to stay on the run, continually changing her name and not forming bonds with anyone. She’s safer on the run and alive, but she’s not really living a life when she has to continuously look over her shoulder. This job is her only chance to get her life back and to get her former employer to stop trying to kill her. She decides to take it.

The information she learns while she is performing this job makes her question things she thought she knew as truths. Her life is now in even more danger once she figures out this job’s reality. She is forced to once again fight for her life and now the lives of the other people involved in this job. Even though this job was supposed to be her ticket to freedom, it has instead made her life infinitely more complicated. She quickly finds herself having to rely on others, something she would never even consider if her options weren’t rapidly shrinking.

Meyer has crafted a story that is true to her writing style. Her heroine is strong and fierce, willing to fight for what she believes to be her due. This novel is a highly suspenseful thriller, one that leads readers through a wild goose chase of sorts as the main character works to figure out exactly who is after her, what she is willing to do, and what she is willing to sacrifice in order to save herself. I greatly enjoyed this novel and I think that listening to it added to my suspense level and enjoyment. Meyer also adds a layer of separation between readers and the main character by hardly ever referring to her by name, something that is necessary given the fact that since she worked for such a clandestine agency, her whole working life was a secret and now she must keep things even more under-wraps in order to stay alive. I highly recommend this book.


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The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee

Books that deal with heartbreak seem to be my go-to listen lately. Maybe that’s just because I know the plot will be interesting and engaging, but nevertheless, I find myself gravitating towards heart-squeezing family dramas. The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee is full of devastating consequences, yet heartwarming relationships that make you yearn for each character’s eventual happiness.

The Expatriates is the inter-woven tale of three American women living in Hong Kong. Each woman is a part of the same very small expat community. Their reasons for coming to Hong Kong as well as their personal and professional lives may be different, but the situations that they find themselves in all become intertwined rather quickly, sometimes without them even realizing it. (I was constantly reminded of the idea that we are only separated from someone else by six degrees of separation throughout this book. And also by the fact that the smallest action can change our lives so drastically.)

Mercy is a young Korean American who finds herself in Hong King after her graduation from Columbia. She has moved to Hong Kong looking for a change from the normal and the promise of a more lucrative job. Marcy is haunted by a terrible accident that happened to her recently. Hilary is a housewife whose marriage is on the rocks. She gave up the bulk of her career to follow her husband, David, to Hong Kong, so he could further his career. Hilary finds herself thinking over and over about her inability to have a child and how if she was only able to conceive, her marriage problems would evaporate. Margaret is a married mother of three who is forced to deal with a shattering loss that has destroyed her life and her family. She is having to find a new normal, something she must survive even if she isn’t quiet sure how to do so.

Mercy, Hilary, and Margaret soon find their lives to be thoroughly enmeshed together in was neither of them expected. Each woman must deal with their own separate issues and struggles, but soon they fins that there are many common threads linking them together. Consequences run rampant through their lives, dictating their decisions, their lifestyles, and their relationships. This book was very moving and I found myself listening to it obsessively to try to figure out how their lives were going to unfold.


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Bibliophilia

Bibliophilia, by N. John Hall, is an epistolary novel and, even though the correspondence is via email, it could just as well be letters that arrive by mail . Larry Dickerson develops relationships with Christie’s auction house staff, academics and other book experts as he educates himself about the art of book collecting. His enthusiasm is contagious; he isn’t afraid of appearing naïve or uneducated. He asks the questions that the reader would ask, and the answers he receives are a mixture of the personal and the professional.

Some of their respect and interest may be due to the fact that Larry is newly rich, having sold his great-great grandfather’s correspondence with some noted Victorian authors for  $400,000 – a portion of which he  plans to invest in collecting rare books. Larry always tries to tie his collecting to something he has an interest in, so he begins with Victorians such as Dickens, Thackeray, and Trollope. Along the way, he learns about  printing and publishing history – in both the U.S. and England, condition, inscriptions and book jackets – all of which affect the value of  books, whether they are first editions or not.

Soon, his correspondence leads him to New Yorker writers and cartoonists; he begins to collect J.D. Salinger, Roth, Updike, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and others. It’s fun to get a quick overview of these authors, as well as famed New Yorker editors Harold Ross and William Shawn.

There is a subplot about fraud in the world of rare books – an entertaining way to learn about the underbelly of unscrupulous book dealers. Bibliophilia is an interesting mix of a sort of superficial, middlebrow learning and literary enthusiasm.

 

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Fowler

For me, this was an ideal book-on-cd. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves  by Karen Fowler was an optimum balance between fascinating exposition – about animal behavior, the ethics of scientific theory and experiments – in and out of the lab, and novelistic appeal. Rosemary, the narrator, is an interesting mix of reliable (she addresses the reader and seems to be candid) but also unreliable (memories are faulty especially when critical parts of the story take place in early childhood).

I love to be lectured to, not in the you’ve-done-something-wrong sense, but in the academic sense, where you are given information in a logical and well-thought-out way. I learned a lot about psychology, and  primate and human behavior, as well as memory.

Sometimes this was difficult to listen to – Fowler does an amazing job of showing us our ability to minimize the pain of confusion of animals. The human and animal characters in this story are not abstractions; they are unique and complicated beings, and their pain is our pain. The humans behave in ways that are understandable but not always very likeable.

It’s also a mystery. Early in the book, Rosemary says that she’s lost two siblings. Little by little, she reveals who went missing and why. Even the title is a bit of a mystery, and there’s an a-ha! moment when you realize it’s significance. There’s so much to think about, and to talk about; I’m dying to discuss!

Octavia Butler’s Kindred


I’m blown away by the sheer density and complexity of this novel for a number of reasons, but I’d have to say Butler’s technique of “layering” is so expertly done as to require multiple readings in order to unpack the story.  In other words, reading Kindred is like cutting into an onion and peeling back layer upon layer to reveal the deep meaning within. One of the more surface-level layers is simply that Butler–the first black, female author to write a science-fiction novel–has written a book about a black, female writer who is, in essence, writing, or rather, –re-writing–history and her future.

By definition, “kindred” means to be “connected” or “related to” and maybe most obviously would connote family relationships and ties. Yet, the first mentioning of the word is a departure from that obvious definition and appears early in the book on page 57 when the main protagonist, Dana, describes her white husband, Kevin: “He was like me–a kindred spirit crazy enough to keep on trying.” The statement is both double-entendre and a foreshadowing of things to come: you must be tenacious enough to pursue the life of a writer, bold enough to disrupt the status quo, and crazy enough to keep on trying.

Dana likens the job market in 1976 Los Angeles to a “slave market”, a clear juxtaposition to the literal slave market where Dana and Kevin are mysteriously transported via time-travel. Here, in the 19th century antebellum south, Dana confronts her familial past where American slavery and the promise of freedom are as inextricably linked as black & white identities.  Will Dana’s time-travels allow her to change the course of history and influence Rufus, son of a slave owner & blood-relative of her great great grandmother, whom she is called upon to save time and again? How will Rufus and Dana embody or challenge the systems of institutionalized racism they were born into? It is absolutely remarkable how Butler masterfully stacks layer upon layer to build characters as complex and enmeshed as our troubled and not-so-distant history of slavery and racism in the United States.

Thematically, Kindred is incredibly dense and complex, but I’ll focus on the theme of “performance” or “acting one’s part” that permeates the entire novel.  In several scenes, characters must “perform” their respective “roles” unless they want to suffer the consequences of falling out of line. Time-travel itself is a brilliant way to point out how racism is a construct and not the natural order.  Should we really require the passing of time in order to recognize and challenge systems of power & oppression?

When Dana brings Kevin to the plantation with her on her second journey back through time and space (she merely has to be physically holding onto him in order to transport him with her), she assumes the role of his slave as a matter of survival.  Kevin, of course reluctant to perform his assigned role as her “owner” accepts the painful challenge in order to protect his beloved wife. That Dana even needs protecting in this way brilliantly exposes and lays bare additional gender and sexuality constructs, another way Butler will craft a specific narrative in order to question it with a critical eye. But maybe one of the not-so-obvious questions is: Who, exactly, is assigning these roles, and why, and to whose benefit?  If we ourselves do not choose the role we are expected to play or act out, what are the implications when we are complicit in carrying out the performance? If refusal to play your role could get you killed (although Dana points out that “some fates are worse than death”),what is the best method for positively effecting change? Some characters in Kindred play their parts–worn down over time and physically beaten down–while others refuse to act: one standout character, Alice, asks “Am I a slave?” and ultimately attempts to break free.

Kindred is the kind of book that will stay with you, I am of sure. The complexity and depth of characters will challenge you to step outside of your comfort zone and do something that great books make you do: contemplate, sympathize, connect. I had some powerful emotional responses while reading this book which is exactly why I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in what it means to be human.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Sun is Also a Star continues my journey back into young adult fiction. I used to exclusively read only young adult fiction, but about five years ago, I decided that I needed to read outside my comfort area (and to read books with people my own age in them). Starting to read in a new area can be daunting, so I recommend looking at award-winning book lists and even articles with lists of books on different subjects. That is how I stumbled upon The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon.

Nicola Yoon had already been on my radar because of her book, Everything, Everything, but I had never actually read it. When I found an article that was talking up The Sun is Also a Star, I decided to give it a go and try to see what everyone was getting so excited about. (I was also slightly obsessed with making things using yarn when I saw this book cover, so I figured I needed to read it!)

The Sun is Also a Star takes place all in one day. Natasha is a girl who loves everything that is based in facts. She adores science and has a list of facts for almost any situation. She lives with her parents and her younger brother in a one bedroom apartment. Natasha’s life had been going along perfectly until one day when her father makes a mistake and ruins everything for the whole family. Her life could implode around her. Daniel is a boy who never messes up and is therefore seen as the good son at home and the good student at school. After his older brother messes up in college, the pressure on Daniel to be perfect becomes even higher.

When the two meet, Daniel finds himself questioning what his parents have always told him and just how he lives his life. He is a poet and a dreamer, but must live up to his parents’ high expectations. Daniel must find a way to be around Natasha more than he probably should. Natasha is more hesitant than Daniel and finds his exuberance about their “relationship” daunting and more than a little off-putting. Daniel feels that there is something magical and extraordinary between them, if only he could get Natasha to feel the same way. Daniel reaches out into the universe to try to convince Natasha that their futures can change, but he has trouble believing he can change himself.

This book, while taking place in one day, shines through a series of flashbacks into each character’s life. Minor characters that Natasha and Daniel come in contact with have their own sections within the book as well. The tiny snapshots into daily life show the effect a short interaction with a complete stranger can have on both your life and the other person’s. The ending left me wondering what had really happened between the two. Long after I finished reading this book, I found myself thinking a lot about fate, how even the smallest and inconsequential of our actions can greatly impact our lives and the lives of others, and how our attitudes and thoughts can influence our futures as well. The Sun is Also a Star had more of an impact on me than I thought it would. I’m glad I decided to pick it up and give it a try.

Fake News – What It Is and How to Evaluate It

There is a lot of talk in the U.S. and around the world right now about fake news. What, exactly, is fake news? Generally, fake news is information that is wholly or partially made up, but designed to look like an authentic news report and to attract lots of attention – often resulting in advertising revenue. It often appeals to the strong emotions of its targeted audience.

Oxford Dictionary acknowledged its influence by announcing the 2016 word of the year: post-truth, an adjective, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

I think we should all exercise caution especially when dealing with those stories that do cause an emotional reaction. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is fake news (just because you don’t like the message doesn’t mean it is fake news) but it can be a red flag that the story merits double-checking with additional sources. Seek those not related to the first source where you encountered it.

Here are some websites that you can use to evaluate news sources:

The Media Bias/Fact Check news website has a search bar on its main page where you can type in the name of a news source and retrieve a scale that attempts to qualify how far to the left or right that news source typically leans. They maintain a list of questionable sources. The website also has a list of what is generally accepted to be the least biased news sources, which you can find here. MBFC explains their methodology and acknowledges that no evaluation is 100% without bias. Check out the list – you may learn about a new source that you will want to make a habit of checking on a regular basis. I’ll admit the ads are bothersome, but it is how they pay to keep the site running.

FactCheck.org is one source you can use to double-check information. Facebook recently announced that it is partnering with this source to help identify and flag fake news circulated on its platform. FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. According to their website, their mission is “to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics…Our goal is to apply the best practices of both journalism and scholarship, and to increase public knowledge and understanding.” This site is primarily focused on U.S. politics. During election years, they will report on the accuracy of what is aired on political TV ads and in debates, speeches, interviews and news releases.

Another source to verify political information is Politifact.com, self-described as “an independent, nonpartisan news organization… not beholden to any government, political party or corporate interest.” They have a long history, which you can read about here. The system of evaluation they use is called the Truth-o-meter, which ranges from “Truth” on one end to “Pants on Fire” on the other. They have a newsletter to which you can subscribe if you wish to receive information updates on the latest fact-checks. They are also partnering with Facebook to help flag fake news when it is shared.

For information that covers a broader array than politics, Snopes.com can be helpful. I like the search option at the top of the page where you can easily type in any keywords and retrieve information on rumors and urban legends. It began in 1995 and has become a well-known online source for debunking falsehoods or verifying facts with evidence.

As an information professional, I encourage people to take some time to verify information sources before accepting them as completely true. When presented with information in any form, take care to ask yourself these questions:

 

  • Who wrote/originally said this? Is the author clearly identified? What else has the author written and has it been disputed in any way?
  • What is this? Is it a presentation of facts? An opinion piece? An advertisement?
  • When was it written? Is there new information available that could shed more light on or take the place of this information?
  • Where was the information gleaned? Was the person reporting it actually a witness to the events reported? Is there data/photos to back it up and are the sources cited? Are there quotes from others in the know and are they relevant to the topic being reported?
  • Why did the author write this? Is it designed to entertain, to influence my purchases or affect my decisions in a certain way?

 

We at the library want to help you build awareness about information and what it is designed to do. Not all information is presented to simply inform. Much of the information we are deluged with on a daily basis is designed to influence. That is not necessarily bad, but we all need to be aware of how information influences us. Likewise, we need to acknowledge our own personal biases and be honest and gracious with ourselves and others that they exist.

I invite you to learn more about this topic by attending a panel discussion about fake news, hosted at the Eastern Avenue branch library on Monday, Feb. 6th at 6:30 pm. The event is free of charge and refreshments will be provided. Please come with questions for our panelists, which include representatives from local television, print and radio news sources as well as writers and educators in the field of journalism. Visit our webpage for more details.

 

Save the Date by Mary Kay Andrews

In high school and college, I read romance books as a way to escape from all the stress of school and work. Light, fluffy, sweet reads where the main characters end up together were my favorite. Add a little miscommunication into the mix with just a shadow of doubt that the main characters may not end up together, and I’m hooked! When I discover an author who fits my criteria, I gobble up the rest of their books until I’m finished. Mary Kay Andrews has hit the sweet spot for me recently.

Save the Date by Mary Kay Andrews is a solid fiction/romance read. Even though this book is considered fiction, there was definitely a strong romance feel to it and I quickly kept reading to see what would happen to all the love interests. I also really enjoyed the fact that there were multiple storylines running concurrently and they were not all mushy, gushy love. I could actually imagine a story like this happening in real life!

Cara Kryzik is a florist in Savannah, Georgia. Having been sold the shop by the previous owner for just $1, Cara is struggling to make ends meet and to break into the wedding scene in this tight-knit, high society area. She even had to get a loan from her father in order to keep the store open, something he brings up in every conversation she has with him. Coming off a fresh divorce, Cara is determined to keep her shop up and running. She may not believe in love, but she believes in beautiful flower arrangements. Cara realizes that it’s all about who you know in this town and keeping those important people happy will lead her to more and more business.

Cara’s luck begins to change once she scores the account to do the flowers for the wedding of a lifetime. She has become the go-to person to do flowers for any society wedding. Everything is peachy! Even though she desperately needs money, Cara still finds the time to help out her high society clients sort of pro-bono and even does flowers at a big discount for some of her poorer clients. She’s even dabbled a bit in wedding planning, helping make sure everything is together and ready for her clients’ big days.

Planning this almost million dollar wedding has put her in the sights of a rival florist who resents Cara for taking what he considers to be his. Add in a man who has stolen her precious goldendoodle, Poppy, and a bride who doesn’t seem all that invested in either planning her wedding or having a huge wedding despite what her step-mother and father want, and Cara finds herself struggling to make sure everyone is happy this wedding season. She must confront her own feelings about love, while working with so many demanding brides and mothers-of-the-bride. This book had me rooting for Cara to finally have no worries and to be stress-free. It’s a great read. Check it out and let me know what you think!


This book is also available in the following formats: