Citizen: An American Lyric | by Claudia Rankine

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
(Graywolf Press, 2014, 169 pages)

I feel like I could keep rereading this small book and take something different away from it each time. It packs that kind of punch. Citizen is broken down into 7 parts and each focuses on a different aspect of how the black experience is lived in this world where the death and/or invisibility of black people continues despite growing voices of outrage. The 7 parts of the book are filled with poems, short essays, and art in various forms.

Some sections hit harder for me than others. The night I finished reading this book I teared up in the process. Rankine does an amazing job making the reader reflect on what she has written on the page. There were some parts of Citizen that I honestly had a hard time deconstructing, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth putting in the time to do so. There were actually a number of times I put the book down to look something up and get the history of what Rankine was referring to in the text.

Citizen was nominated for a National Book Award and was the recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry. I’d certainly recommend it, especially if you’ve been wondering what all the buzz was about.

Big Science | by Michael Hiltzik

Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention That Launched the Military-Industrial Complex by Michael Hiltzik
(Simon & Schuster, 2015, 512 pages)

When I saw this new book sitting on the display shelf, I had to check it out. I’d read a couple of books on the Manhattan Project and atomic bombs, and Ernest Lawrence’s name kept popping up. I only knew that he was a key scientist involved in the Manhattan Project and he won a Nobel Prize for inventing the cyclotron.

This book covers Lawrence’s professional career, not so much about his personal life. I enjoyed learning more about his contributions to nuclear physics, his leadership in establishing “Big Science,” and the birth of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. It’s a treat to read about other extraordinary scientists whom Lawrence worked with on the Manhattan Project. Among them was Arthur Compton, a Nobel laureate, who served as Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis for eight years.

Chapter 13 covers the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge Tennessee which I know some about. It’s fun to read about it from the views of Lawrence and his 100+ PhD physicists from Berkeley. Here’s a fun story: In a week long competition, the high school diploma workers outdid the PhD physicists in adjusting the knobs and optimizing production. The workers were trained to follow the instructions; whereas the scientists questioned and investigated the minor fluctuation of their meters (271).

Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron not only revolutionized nuclear physics, it also paved the way for medical research and diagnostics. The cyclotron is a machine that accelerates particles. For example it can produce F 18, a radioisotope, which is used in PET scans. The first commercial medical cyclotron was installed in 1941 at Washington University in St. Louis.

I found this book to be well researched, fast-paced and engaging. If you are interested in World War II or nuclear physics, give this book a try.

Pig Tales | by Barry Estabrook

Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat

Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat by Barry Estabrook
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2015, 336 pages)

Normally when it comes to books that address things like animal treatment and factory farming I tend to steer clear because I don’t like feeling depressed about the nature of our food system. But Estabrook’s Pig Tales seemed to offer the promise of ending on a brighter note rather than being all doom and gloom. The book focuses on how pigs are typically raised for slaughter and how it is detrimental to the animals, the environment, and society as a whole. But he goes forward from here and offers examples of farmers that are doing things humanely, healthily, and successfully.

This was a really good read. While it’s definitely depressing at times, it does offer ways to encourage the general public to speak with their wallets. Take the time to seek out sustainable meat options – yes, it might be more expensive but you’re paying for quality and humanely raised meat. I won’t get on a soapbox, but I did come away from this book more aware of what I could do and what could be done more broadly to enable the animals raised for us to eat to have a better quality of life before giving it up.

A Natural Woman | by Carole King

A Natural Woman: A Memoir

A Natural Woman: A Memoir by Carole King
(Grand Central Publishing, 2012, 488 pages)

I listened to the audiobook, A Natural Woman: A Memoir, written and read by multi award-winning singer/songwriter, Carole King. With the national tour of the Broadway musical about King’s life, Beautiful, coming to St. Louis in February, I thought I would check it out. In the 1960s, King co-wrote hit songs with husband Gerry Goffin, such as Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” The Shirelle’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” Bobby Vee’s “Take Good Care of My Baby,” the Chiffon’s “One Fine Day,” and Little Eva’s “The Loco-Motion.” Little Eva was King and Goffin’s children’s babysitter, and after the song became a hit, they had to find a new babysitter! It was interesting to learn the stories behind many of these songs and about how a record was made in the studio. The book spans several decades, and King spends a good amount of time talking about the culture of the 60s, which made for an interesting history lesson. King began a successful solo career in the 1970s, especially with her number one album Tapestry, containing the songs “I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late,” and “So Far Away.” James Taylor had a number one hit with King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” The book contains details about the making of Tapestry and about her long-time friendship with Taylor.

In addition to the music, King talks extensively about her personal relationships. She was married four times, once to a husband who physically abused her. There were other significant relationships, too, and it was sometimes hard to keep track of which one she was talking about!

One surprising thing I learned is that King is also an actress, having starred on Broadway and in the TV show Gilmore Girls.

Listening to King read about her life made me feel a personal connection to her. When she talked about meeting celebrities, she often reported feeling star-struck. Similarly, I would think, “Wow, I can’t believe she got to hang out with John and Yoko!” Then I remembered how famous she was herself. Periodically King breaks into song, and it’s nice to hear her voice so raw and vulnerable without instrumentation.

Carole King has won many prestigious awards over the years, most recently the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. I highly recommend A Natural Woman: A Memoir, especially if you’re planning to see the national tour of Beautiful.

Carry On | by Rainbow Rowell

Carry On

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
(St. Martin’s Griffin, 2015, 522 pages)

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell is the young adult tale of Simon Snow, magic, vampires, friendship, and love. The first quarter of the book reads like a Harry Potter wannabee novel. Simon is 11 years old when he becomes involved in magic. He doesn’t know his parents. He is taken to a school of magic. He is the chosen one. The list goes on. But when Simon’s roommate, Baz, returns to school after an unexplained absence, the story takes off and becomes more interesting. There are holes in the magic in Great Britain. No one is sure why. Someone is attacking the school of magic. Simon’s life is in danger. Simon, Baz, and Simon’s friend, Penelope, work together to try to save their magical world.

Simon Snow first appeared in Rainbow Rowell’s earlier novel, Fangirl. I did not read Fangirl. I was still able to understand and enjoy the book. Rowell says that Carry On was written as a standalone novel. Once I got past the feeling of “I’m reading Harry Potter all over again,” I did enjoy the book. The characters are interesting. There are a couple ghosts thrown in for good measure. I did think there was a loose end or two, but that may be just me.

More Fool Me | by Stephen Fry

More Fool Me

More Fool Me by Stephen Fry
(The Overlook Press, 2014, 400 pages)

In his previous memoir, The Fry Chronicles, Stephen Fry capped off his account of his days at Cambridge University and his early television career by confessing that the next stage of his career was largely fueled by cocaine. In More Fool Me, he details that frenetic period (the late eighties through the early nineties) as a comedian, actor, writer, and public personality, including his dependency on “Bolivian marching powder” as he calls it.

Fry’s creative and eloquent use of language is, as always, hilarious. In this book, as well as his previous two memoirs, Fry’s humor is put in the service of some serious self-examination. I loved this description toward the end of the book about the purpose of memoir:

“Memoir, the act of literary remembering, for me seems to take the form of a kind of dialogue with my former self. What are you doing? Why are you behaving like that? Who do you think you are fooling? Stop it! Don’t do that that! Look out!” (376).

Though the book is highly entertaining, witty, and very funny, it doesn’t quite live up to the standard of the earlier installments. The final 150 pages or so are made up of Fry’s diary entries from August through November of 1993. There is certainly some interesting stuff there, including stories about friends and celebrities, and the entries are very cleverly annotated for clarification and correction. That said, the details of dinners attended, golf games, daily writing regimes, and other mundane activities can get a bit tedious. The diary does give an often interesting snapshot of the phase of life that Fry discusses earlier in the book, but a short selection of passages would have been much more engaging.

I was also a bit disappointed that Fry didn’t include more stories and reflections about the sketch show A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which he was writing and filming at the time. The diary includes some discussion of the show and his close relationship with the (also hilarious) actor Hugh Laurie, but it focuses mostly on writing schedules and production issues. On the whole, however, a very enjoyable book from a smart, funny, and compassionate man.

Between Shades of Gray | by Ruta Sepetys

Between Shades of Gray

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
(Speak, 2012, 352 pages)

Ruta Sepetys does an incredible job captivating the reader with this story. Between Shades of Gray talks about an aspect of World War II that is often overlooked: when the people of Lithuania were captured and sent to work camps in Siberia. Our protagonist, Lina, is a 15 year old artist who is deported with her mother and younger brother, Jonas. She does what she can to keep her spirits up and to stay close to her family. She also tries to get messages to her father (who was taken elsewhere) through coded drawings and letters passed along to other prisoners.

I was so engrossed in this book! Even though it’s marketed as a YA title it definitely has wide appeal. I definitely recommend it – but not if you’re looking for something lighthearted…

Rogue Lawyer | by John Grisham

Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham
(Doubleday, 2015, 344 pages)

Rogue Lawyer is the latest bestselling novel by John Grisham. Rogue Lawyer features tough-as-nails lawyer, Sebastian Rudd, who believes that even the guilty are entitled to a lawyer. Rudd’s office was destroyed so he and his assistant, Partner, work out of Rudd’s high tech van. Rudd lives on the 25th floor of his apartment building because he thinks it is safer than the lower floors. Rudd has reason to fear for his safety. He defends a crime boss, a murderer, and a drug addict among many other clients. Rudd also has to deal with a nasty ex-wife and some members of the police force who don’t like his clients.

In some ways, Rogue Lawyer seems like a collection of short stories. Rudd finishes one case and moves on to the next case. While all the cases are interesting, the only thing that ties them together is Rudd. I enjoyed Rogue Lawyer much more than Grisham’s previous novel, Gray Mountain, but not nearly as much as I enjoyed a slightly earlier novel, Sycamore Row.

Rogue Lawyer is worth reading. At some points, this novel is hard to put down. I still haven’t decided if I like Rudd or not. Maybe Grisham will bring this character back again and I’ll have another chance to decide.

The Book of Three | by Lloyd Alexander

The Book of Three (The Chronicles of Prydain #1)

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander
(Bantam, 1990, 224 pages)

The Prydain Chronicles was one of my favorite series as a kid. I’ve wanted to reread them for years, so now I’m reading them to my daughter. The stories are based on Welsh mythology and include lots of interesting and beautiful Welsh names. Prydain itself is the medieval Welsh term for Britain, and the novels have a medieval feel, complete with kings, sorcerers, dark lords.

The story centers on Taran, an Assistant Pig-Keeper who dreams of becoming a hero. He finds adventure when he is recruited by Gwydion, the High Prince of Prydain, to help raise an army to defeat the Horned King, the terrifying warlord of the Death-Lord Arawn. In the process, Taran is joined by companions who help him accomplish his task, including the hot-headed princess Eilonwy, the bard Fflewddur Fflam (whose harp strings break every time he exaggerates a story), and the lovable if slightly pathetic beast Gurgi (he’s something between a man and monkey).

These stories are excellent adaptations of mythic material, and Alexander clearly worked from substantial research. But the really unique thing about this series is the humor. A bard who is never allowed to embellish a tale makes for some very funny moments, as do the constant quarrels between Taran and Eilonwy. I remember thinking the books were very funny when I was younger, and my daughter finds Gurgi especially hilarious.

Pretty Girls | by Karin Slaughter

Pretty Girls

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter
(William Morrow, 2015, 416 pages)

Karin Slaughter has a two popular series (Will Trent and Grant County) but this is one of her stand-alone novels.  If you enjoy thrillers, it really delivered with lots of suspense and a great plot.  My only criticism was the ending, it felt like it was tacked on and tied up a little too easily.

“More than twenty years ago, Claire and Lydia’s teenaged sister Julia vanished without a trace. The two women have not spoken since, and now their lives could not be more different. Claire is the glamorous trophy wife of an Atlanta millionaire. Lydia, a single mother, dates an ex-con and struggles to make ends meet. But neither has recovered from the horror and heartbreak of their shared loss—a devastating wound that’s cruelly ripped open when Claire’s husband is killed.”


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