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Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Book Review: On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

I have long loved and admired Dr. Sacks, and I wish I had read more of his books about the bizarre and sometimes hilarious ways the human brain can work. Although it's also nice to know I still have several left to read.

To start with, this provocative cover got a lot of people talking and picking up the book who might not have when it first came out. We think of the elderly, gray-bearded doctor we saw on television in the last couple of decades, and of course portrayed by Robin Williams in Awakenings as quiet and retiring. To see him young and buff and wearing leather on a motorcycle was jarring in a delightful way.

He goes through his childhood briefly, and the book really gets started with him going off to school. Both of his parents were also doctors, and his older brother became a doctor, so it was kind of a given, although he wasn't 100% at first--he kept his options open, but it kept coming back. He also has another brother who had mental health problems. He was brilliant, but troubled and lived with their parents for their entire lives. It's easy to attribute Oliver's career to his brother's problems but those in fact came later, after he'd started down his path.

Pretty soon Oliver moves to Canada and then the United States for school. He tells his parents it's temporary and he'll return to England (where he was avoiding post-WWII mandatory military service). But he never does permanently. Although he also never becomes a US citizen. He stays at a YMCA, he gets a job in San Francisco, he rides his motorcycle all around North America. His graduate schooling is somewhat haphazard and yet it also somehow happens. He loses a few jobs over the years as well, sometimes clashing with management, sometimes not getting funding, sometimes being banished for radical ideas. It's crazy to think, with the caliber of standing he had later in life, that in his early career years, he was fired a couple of times. I wonder if the men who fired him ever later looked back on that and thought wow, they really screwed up?

Anyway, he talks about a couple of early loves, including one young man who broke his heart. And after that, Oliver more or less swore off a love life. (He also didn't have time for one.) He was celibate for many decades, but in his 70s he met a wonderful young man, Bill Hayes (who wrote Insomniac City about their relationship.) He was always torn about being gay. I mean, he was okay with it, but he felt severe judgment from his mother, which affected him greatly.

The book was charming and gave great insight into the background of this great mind. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Except, that even if Dr. Sacks wasn't able to do the audiobook himself, they really should have gotten an Englishman as the narrator. It was discombobulating to hear him speak of being British and of England being home, from a man with an American accent. That seemed sloppy to me (even though the narrator was great otherwise.)

I downloaded this book from the library via Cloud Library.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Book Review: Shadows of the Workhouse by Jennifer Worth, narrated by Nicola Barber (audio)

I forget that these books get into much, much more personal detail about the lives of the people in the neighborhood, and much less into the lives of the nuns and nurses, then the TV show. But I like them just the same. While I do prefer to get to know the recurring characters better than non-recurring ones, I do learn more about the era and the lives of the poor then, by Ms. Worth's deep dives into the backstories of people who grew up in the workhouses and who fought in WWII and that sort of thing, than if I just learned about Jenny and Trixie and Sister Evangelina. For me the one discordant note is how Sister Julienne is portrayed as more flustered, less in control, less impressive in the book than in the TV show. I suppose she's also more "real" in the book, but I really admire her on the show and think she's someone to emulate in times of trouble or difficulty, which in the book she doesn't handle quite as elegantly.

Once again, all of the stories in this book were made into episodes in the first couple of seasons of the TV show and I remembered them vividly. Some took an awful lot of cutting as they must have been 100 pages in the book to boil down to a 1-hour episode. It is good to get the extra detail, and it's frightening to realize that these Dickensian stories are a heck of a lot more recent than Dickens! And it's also important to remember that. It wasn't that long ago, and if we forget how the poor were treated, it's easy to start to regress.

Ms. Barber is a delight as a narrator. There are loads of accents including Cockney and to my American ear, she nailed them all, and really added a ton of flavor and immersion in the atmosphere to the books that's easy to lose in print when you start reading with your own American accent, or can even be hard to understand, if reading phonetically reproduced slang and thick accents. Her men's voices are really impressive--a couple of times I did a double-take and wondered if they hadn't done a switch-up and had a man briefly read a few lines. Her Trixie sounds exactly like the actress in the TV show, and she herself doesn't sound far off from the actress playing Jenny.

Like the show, the book is relaxing and calming, and yet it talks about distressing times during which the British stiff upper lip came very much in handy. But it is not an anxiety-producing book despite that. And I learned a lot, almost like a sociology text. Will listen to book 3 very soon.

I listened to this audiobook via CloudLibrary via my local library.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Book Review: Bad Mermaids Make Waves by Sibéal Pounder

Every once in a while, you need a palate cleanser. Something that is mindless and fun, to break up the other books. And this fit the bill, to be sure.

Three teenage mermaids have been spending time on land, with legs and feet, when they get an emergency letter from the mermaid queen that she needs their help, and in fact they're the only ones who can help, and they have to cut their time on land short. When they return to Hidden Lagoon, they find that the queen is missing, piranhas are keeping tabs on everyone, and a bunch of new rules are in place for seemingly no reason. But of course there is a reason. Someone's trying to usurp the queen, and since Beattie, Mimi, and Zelda were on land, they weren't tagged by the piranhas, and they can travel through the various mermaid lands without being monitored and caught. So it's up to them to figure out what's going on and save their queen!

This was light and fluffy, a perfect book for kids who love those fairy princess books but have grown out of them. It's chunkier with more content, good vocabulary, a variety of characters that cover a gamut of types, not just pretty princess-y mermaids, and a mystery that isn't completely obvious. Is this serious future summer reading material? Definitely not. But kids deserve some beach reads too to intermix with those assigned classics, and this one will certainly be fun.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Bloomsbury USA, which is distributed by Macmillan, my employer.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Book Review: Street Warrior: The True Story of the NYPD’s Most Decorated Detective and the Era That Created Him by Ralph Friedman, with Patrick W. Picciarelli

Ralph Friedman was a cop in the Bronx in the 1970s, when basically the whole borough was on fire (or might as well have been and no one was going to put it out.) Even Manhattan was in poor shape in that decade, and the Bronx probably had it the worst in terms of crime and poverty.

Ralph had grown up in the Bronx so he was thrilled with his posting when he became a cop. He arrested someone on his first day, and never slowed down. Eventually he became the most decorated cop in the history of the NYPD, and had the most arrests. Which is even more impressive considering that he was sidelined by a major injury and wasn't able to get in his full 20 years. He would frequently arrest people while off-duty. He would arrest multiple people a day. He figured out a way, with the Bronx DA's office, to get his arrestees processed quickly and to get himself in and out of the courthouse fast on court days, as that was most cops' biggest problem if they wanted to have high arrest numbers. (It's also helpful to have a partner who doesn't want arrests--one who has a family and wants to only work 40 hours a week and not get overtime.)

Ralph shot and killed a few people. He saw his partner get shot. He helped track down the bad guys when his little brother, a transit cop, was hurt. He took down mobsters, drug dealers, and lots of general bad-time hoods. He became a detective and was on his way to be one of the most legendary NYC cops of all time when he had the aforementioned injury.

This book is a fun adrenaline rush. Mr. Friedman and I don't see eye to eye politically, and he's very sure about some opinions which I think are more opinion than fact (as he presents them) in terms of how things have changed since the 70s and why. However, that's a pretty small part of the book altogether, and this was a fun read. Would be great for a dad or brother who isn't a big reader, any NYC buffs, or even Law & Order fans.

This book is published by St. Martin's Press, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Book Review: The Lambs: My Father, a Farm, and the Gift of a Flock of Sheep by Carole George

Carole was a bit tired of the legal rat race in Washington DC. She would leaf through the real estate listings, looking at big old farms out in the country (I picture of course the scene in Baby Boom when Diane Keaton does the same thing and ends up moving to Vermont.) She's single and childless, but close to her dad, even though he lives out west. One day, she buys a farm. Then, as she slowly goes about fixing it up and winding down her law firm, she decides to buy some sheep. She ends up with a small flock of Karakul lambs, who she names after historical composers. She doesn't breed them, and of course with only 13, she doesn't get much wool. They're definitely more pets than farm animals. And She adores them. So does her father who comes to visit frequently and for extended periods.

And, as with every single book about animals, they start to age. And they do what every animal in every book about an animal does. Which mirrors also Carole's own ascent into late middle age, and her father's descent in his nineties to the point where he can't come visit anymore as it's too hard for him to travel so far. The sheep (she continues to call them lambs throughout their lives but I'm sorry, I'm not that precious) certainly have distinctive personalities and she even researches the breed extensively and where they are from. Her family is perhaps over-educated, as she and her father wax lyrically about the Caucuses and poetry in a way that would put a lot of college professors to shame. But it's a lovely, lyrical, pastoral memoir of loving animals and being loved by them, and coming to terms with the life expectancy of our loved ones, and therefore of our own.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Book Review: All Summer Long by Hope Larson

Isn't it great when you read a book and your biggest complaint is that it was too short? That's also a problem when reading ebooks on my iPad I find--sometimes the end sneaks up on me.

In this graphic novel, we start at the end of 7th grade, and best friends and next door neighbors Bina and Austin are torn. Austin got in to a prestigious soccer camp at the last minute from the wait list, so they won't be spending the summer together as usual. Bina wants her friend to be happy, and he is a great soccer player, but it's still a huge bummer. I love the idea of the summer fun index they've kept in last years where there was a numerical score for the end of the summer and how much fun they'd had. but they opted to not do that this summer. And that's good because they were, after all, not experiencing the same summer at all.

Bina ends up kind of becoming friends with Austin's scary older sister. She checks out a new band. She starts babysitting. She practices guitar. She goes to visit her older brother and his husband to meet their newly adopted baby. Her summer is pretty scattered and solitary but she learns to entertain herself, to find inner resources, and she gets through it all just fine. At the end of the summer, Austin returns, but he's... weird. Turns out a big reason he was often not returning Bina's texts is because they're at the age where it's weird for boys and girls to be friends, and while kids at their school are okay with it because they've been friends for always, it wasn't something he could explain at camp.

I do wish there'd been more content. It didn't feel like the exhausting, neverending kinds of summer you experience at that age, and waiting for Austin to come home from camp didn't seem like long. Basically, there was one real event for each week. So it felt like the summer was about 12 days long. But really, if my only complaint is that I wanted it to be longer, that's a very nice thing!

Bina felt very real and was easily relatable. It was nice that unlike a lot of middle grade books, Bina is pretty comfortable in her skin, even if she's biracial and tall and sometimes wears knee socks with hamburgers all over them. She isn't being shunned or bullied. (She has no one to hang out with because all of her friends are away for the summer, not only Austin.) It's fantastic to have those books, but sometimes it feels like we may have overcorrected and only have those kinds of stories. Anyway, I loved it.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer, so I got it for free.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Review: The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein

Who cleans up after a personal disaster? Have you ever been watching Law & Order and think to yourself, yikes, who will be mopping that blood off the ceiling? I also used to love to watch Hoarders but I didn't connect that the two types of cleaners—crime scene and hoarding—are often the same. You might think the crime scenes would be worse but not according to Sandra Pankhurst, who does these cleans—dead people don't argue and don't want to keep garbage. And Sandra is so empathetic that she does really great with those hoarding clients, but it also is emotionally exhausting.

This book claims to be and probably started out as the story of trauma cleaning and who actually does that, but it ends as an uncompromising and compellingly poetic biography of an enigmatic and utterly singular person, in this case, Sandra Pankhurst. A father, a wife, a prostitute, a rape victim, a funeral arranger, a hardware store owner, and finally a trauma cleaner, her life has been defined by dichotomies and oxymorons. She is a transgender woman who had her operation in 1980s Melbourne, Australia, not exactly a very understanding or progressive time. She has been a pioneer in many ways, and while some of her decisions are not what you might have done in her shoes, she's an admirable person just the same.

You certainly do also get the stories of some of the traumatic cleans she's done, and they are fascinating, but Sandra is the center of every story. I know this is a ballsy thing to claim, but in the end, this book reminded me of The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I dare you to read this book and try to take your eyes off her.

This book is published by Macmillan, my employer.