My Favorite 2018 Non-Fiction Reads

Like every single year, I didn’t read as much Non-Fiction as I meant to — but I did read a decent amount, more than I did in 2016-17 combined (he reports with only a hint of defensiveness). These are the best of the bunch.

(in alphabetical order by author)

Lessons From LucyLessons From Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog

by Dave Barry

My original post
So, I figured given the tile and subject that this would be a heavier Dave Barry read, with probably more tears than you anticipate from his books — something along the lines of Marley & Me. I was (thankfully) wrong. It’s sort of self-helpy. It’s a little overly sentimental. I really don’t know if this is Barry’s best — but it’s up there. Lessons From Lucy is, without a doubt, his most mature, thoughtful and touching work (that’s a pretty low bar, I realize — a bar he’s worked hard to keep low, too).

5 Stars

 The War Outside My Window The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

by Janet E. Croon, ed.

My original post
LeRoy Wiley Gresham was 12 when he started keeping a diary. LIttle did he know at that point that he was about to witness the American Civil War (and all the desolation it would bring to Georgia) and that he was dying (he really didn’t figure that out until the very end). Instead you get an almost day-by-day look at his life — what he does, reads, hears about (re: the War) and feels. It’s history in the raw. You have never read anything like this — it will appeal to the armchair historian in you (particularly if you’ve ever dabbled in being a Civil War buff); it’ll appeal to want an idea what everyday life was like 150 years ago; there’s a medical case study, too — this combination of themes is impossible to find anywhere else. This won’t be the easiest read you come across this year (whatever year it is that you come across it), but it’ll be one of the most compelling.

5 Stars

TimekeepersTimekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed With Time

by Simon Garfield

My original post
I, for one, have never thought that much about my relation to time, my relation to clocks/watches, etc. I know they govern our lives, to an extent that’s troublesome. But where did that come from, how did we get hooked on these things, this concept? These are brief studies/historical looks/contemporary observations — and I’m not selling it too well here (trying to keep it brief). It’s entertainingly written, informative, and thought-provoking. Garfield says this about it:

This is a book about our obsession with time and our desire to beat it. . . The book has but two simple intentions: to tell some illuminating stories, and to ask whether we have all gone completely nuts.

He fulfills his intended goals, making this well worth the read.

4 Stars

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

My original post
If you grew up in the 80s or earlier, you were fascinated by Soviet Russia. Period. They were our great potential enemy, and we knew almost nothing about them. And even what we did “know” wasn’t based on all that much. Well, Sergey Grechishkin’s book fixes that (and will help you remember just how much you used to be intrigued by “Evil Empire”). He tells how he grew up in Soviet Russia — just a typical kid in a typical family trying to get by. He tells this story with humor — subtle and overt. It’s a deceptively easy and fun read about some really dark circumstances.

4 Stars

Planet FunnyPlanet Funny: How Comedy Took Over Our Culture

by Ken Jennings

My original post
Half of this book is fantastic. The other half is … okay. It’ll make you laugh if nothing else. That might not be a good thing, if you take his point to heart. We’ve gotten to the point now in society that laughter beats honesty, jokes beat insight, and irony is more valued than thoughtful analysis. How did we get here, what does it mean, what do we do about it? The true value of the book may be what it makes you think about after you’re done.

3.5 Stars

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (Audiobook)The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

by Mark Manson, Roger Wayne (Narrator)

My original post
This is an enjoyable, amusing, call to re-examine your priorities and goals. It’s not about ceasing to care about everything (not giving a f^ck), but about being careful what you care about (giving the right f*cks). Manson’s more impressed with himself than he should be, but he’s a clear and clever writer displaying a lot of common sense. Get the audiobook (I almost never say that) — the narration is worth a star by itself (maybe more).

4 Stars

Dear Mr Pop StarDear Mr Pop Star

by Derek & Dave Philpott

My original post
If you read only one book off this list, it should probably be the next one. But if you pick this one, you’ll be happier. This is a collection of correspondence to pop musicians/lyricists picking apart the lyrics, quibbling over the concepts, and generally missing the point. Then we get to read the responses from the musician/act — some play with the joke, some beat it. Sometimes the Philpott portion of the exchange is better, frequently they’re the straight man to someone else. Even if you don’t know the song being discussed, there’s enough to enjoy. Probably one of my Top 3 of the year.

5 Stars

ThemThem: Why We Hate Each Other – and How to Hea

by Ben Sasse

My original post
My favorite US Senator tackles the questions of division in our country — and political divisions aren’t the most important, or even the root of the problem. Which is good, because while he might be my favorite, I’m not sure I’d agree with his political solutions. But his examination of the problems we all can see, we all can sense and we all end up exacerbating — and many of his solutions — will ring true. And even when you disagree with him, you’ll appreciate the effort and insight.

5 Stars

Honorable Mention:

Henry: A Polish Swimmer's True Story of Friendship from Auschwitz to AmericaThe Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

by Steven Pinker

I started this at a bad time, just didn’t have the time to devote to it (and the library had a serious list waiting for it, so I couldn’t renew it. But what little I did read, I thoroughly enjoyed and profited from — am very sure it’d have made this post if I could’ve gotten through it. I need to make a point of returning to it.

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You Had Me at Woof (Audiobook) by Julie Klam, Karen White: A meandering mess of vaguely dog-related memoirs.

You Had Me at WoofYou Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness

by Julie Klam, Karen White (Narrator)

Unabridged Audiobook, 5 hrs., 44 mins
Tantor Audio, 2010
Read: November 1 – 6, 2018

From the Publisher’s Site:

           Julie Klam was thirty, single, and working as a part-time clerk in an insurance company, wondering if she would ever meet the man she could spend the rest of her life with. And then it happened. She met the irresistible Otto, her first in a long line of Boston terriers, and fell instantly in love.

You Had Me at Woof is the often hilarious and always sincere story of how one woman discovered life’s most important lessons from her relationships with her canine companions. From Otto, Julie realized what it might feel like to find “the one.” She learned to share her home, her heart, and her limited resources with another, and she found an authentic friend in the process. But that was just the beginning. Over the years her brood has grown to one husband, one daughter, and several Boston terriers. And although she had much to learn about how to care for them—walks at 2 a.m., vet visits, behavior problems—she was surprised and delighted to find that her dogs had more wisdom to convey to her than she had ever dreamed. And caring for them has made her a better person—and completely and utterly opened her heart.

Riotously funny and unexpectedly poignant, You Had Me at Woof recounts the hidden surprises, pleasures, and revelations of letting any mutt, beagle, terrier, or bulldog go charging through your world.

Spend much time around this blog and you’ll know I’m a sucker for dogs — real or fictional — if a book has a strong dog element in it, I’m sold. This should’ve been right up my alley. I expected to really dig it — but the reality didn’t match my expectation.

These meandering personal essays/memoirs are organized by lessons taught by various dogs, sure, but they didn’t seem as well-organized as those from similar books by Dave Barry or David Rosenfelt (or maybe it’s just guys named David that think like this). I didn’t think the voice was very consistent throughout — I frequently couldn’t tell if I was supposed to be laughing with Klam or at her. Or maybe I shouldn’t have been laughing at all. I didn’t find a lot to relate to — or even grab on to — in some of the anecdotes, other than a sense of pity for the two-legged individuals in her family and life. (that came out a little harsher than I intended, but I’m sticking with it).

I can’t point at anything in particular — other than her unessential and unsubtle celebrity name-dropping — that I didn’t like. I guess I found the thing too unfocused, too inconsistent, and not enough about the actual dogs. It seemed to be more about her in relation to various dogs. To an extent that’s true with the aforementioned books by the various David’s, too — but I don’t think it’s as much about them (although, I never wondered who I was supposed to be laughing at with them).

Is it possible that my problems with the book are in the narration? Sure, a lot of it comes down to understanding Klam’s voice, and Karen White’s interpretation of that could be affecting me enough to not appreciate the book. But I don’t think so — I can’t imagine an audiobook director or publisher is going to let something that disconnected from the text be produced, and White seemed to match the text and context with what she was doing. Granted that’s hard to know without reading the text independently, but I don’t care that much. If the text is really that slippery, that’s on Klam anyway, not White.

Oh, here’s something I really appreciated about the book — Klam talks at least twice about dog owners who will replace a beloved pet with one of the same breed and general appearance and give it the same name (sometimes several times). This answers a question I asked a couple of weeks ago. Even knowing this is a thing that people who aren’t Robert B. Parker or Robert B. Parker characters do, it’s still messed up. Happily, Klam agrees.

The concluding anecdote was good — maybe a bit too much, really — but it was sweet. And the section about dealing with the death (expected or not) of a dog was really strong. That’s why I’m not listing this as 2 Stars or fewer. There’s some really decent writing here, but the voice was inconsistent, the whole thing felt too self-serving, and . . . well, there’s just something intangible that happens between the reader and the text, and I just didn’t like this one. It’s not a bad book, per se. But it’s not a good one.

—–

2 1/2 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

So Let It Be Written by Mark Eglinton: A Disappointingly Delivered Account of a Rock Star’s Career

So Let It Be WrittenSo Let It Be Written: The Biography of Metallica’s James Hetfield

by Mark Eglinton

Paperback, 219 pg.
Lesser Gods, 2017
Read: October 29 – 30, 2018
Here’s the Publisher’s synopsis:

           The first and only biography of one of the best front men of the modern era.

With James Hetfield at the helm, Metallica went from being thrash pioneers to heavy metal gods. He overcame adolescent upheaval and personal demons—including his parents’ divorce, his mother’s untimely death and severe alcoholism—to become metal’s biggest star.

So Let It Be Written does justice to the many hats Hetfield has worn, with his strong leadership, signature vocal style, powerful guitar-playing and masterful songwriting. Author Mark Eglinton uses exclusive, firsthand interviews—with prominent rock stars and key figures in Hetfield’s life—to construct the definitive account of Hetfield.

There are many problems with this book. If it is a definitive account of Hetfield, it’s because there’s not a lot of competition. The firsthand interviews seem to be with people who knew Hetfield in school or shortly thereafter — or friends of former bandmates. For insights from people closer to him, Eglinton seems to rely on interviews published in magazines or done on TV or in a documentary. I could be wrong about that — there might be more original research performed by him, but given the utter lack of citation, it’s hard to say for sure.

This book is primarily about Hetfield’s professional life, following the account of Hetfield’s mother’s death, we maybe get two full paragraphs (scattered over chapters) about Hetfield’s family (but repeated statements that family is the most important thing to Hetfield), and his friendships outside the band aren’t given much more space.

Rather than a biography of James Hetfield, this comes across as the story of Metallica with a focus on the input, influence, and antics of Hetfield. With a special emphasis on glorying in the music and lyrics of the albums leading up to Metallica/The Black Album, and in denigrating everything from Load through the build-up for the release of Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, which wasn’t released in time for him to come up with a strong opinion about (with some okay words directed to the documentaries and films produced in that time).

It’s clear that Eglinton was a fan of early Metallica, and has a wide appreciation for and knowledge of the metal scene. He has the knowledge base and the passion to produce a strong book about the band — but he seems to lack the ability to focus on the life of one man. Somehow, the author wrote a similar looking book, James Hetfield: The Wolf at Metallica’s Door, seven years earlier than this — and it was longer. I’m not sure how he pulled that off — my guess is more analysis of the contents of albums and/or his estimation of their worth. I’m curious about the differences between the two, but not enough to put up with reading it to compare.

James Hetfield is a deeply flawed, incredibly talented, and interesting figure. A biography of him should be intrinsically and automatically fascinating, and it takes a certain kind of author to take that potential and turn it into a disappointment. Sadly, Eglinton is just that kind of author.

Don’t bother.

—–

2 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

✔ Read a memoir or biography of a musician you like.

BOOK BLITZ: Outfoxing the Gaming Club Blitz by Pascale Batieufaye

Biography, Business
Date Published: May 2018
CLAIM INSANITY OR BE FIRED!
Ex-Casino Employee Spills All of the Unseen Corruption
Running Rampant in the Business!
Ideas flow freely through the work environment, and the good ones are scooped up and put into action. But what happens when your ideas are suddenly being claimed by someone else? What if you found out that your employer was hiding secrets from the public? A job is supposed to secure one’s finances, but what if it was actually the cause of your financial troubles?
All of these questions – and more! – are addressed in Pascale Batieufaye’s tell-all memoir, Outfoxing the Gaming Club: A Former Worker Reveals All. From the kitchen to guest services, Batieufaye exposes the corruption and exploitation present in one of the world’s biggest casinos, Resort Casino, where he worked from 1996 to 2004
Through the book’s pages, Batieufaye details how corporate executives undermine their employees and use their ideas as their own, as he found was done with his own ideas when he shared them with leadership at the gambling powerhouse. He also details the mistreatment of the Native Americans he witnessed, who built the very grounds that now contribute to their injustice.
“I have centered Outfoxing the Gaming Club on the emotional suffering I faced while working for my previous employer,”shares Batieufaye. “The book outlines guiding principles for those who have experienced maltreatment and anxiety in their own workplace. Readers will discover the crookedness that occurs right under the noses of the patrons, and unearth the oppression that the employees had to deal with on a daily basis.”
An exposé for both gamblers and those opposed to it,this book details:
· How his own ideas were stolen from right under Batieufaye’s feet
 
· The mistreatment of Native Americans involved with the company
 
· Corruption’s role in the mental health of himself and other employees at the company
 
· Gambles employees took when attempting to contribute, knowing all too well they may not receive proper credit for those ideas
 
· The emotional suffering that workers had to deal with on a daily basis
 
· And so much more!
About the Author

Pascale Batieufaye attended Johnson & Wales University, where he studied travel and tourism. He is technically an animal rights activist and aspires to open an animal rehabilitation center for rescue animals. His principal occupation has been a part time school bus driver since the end of 2012, which allowed him to write five unpublished manuscripts in his spare time. Before that, Batieufaye ran a video store which closed up at the hype of Netflix’s driven internet power. He has also held some backbreaking jobs, such as courier driver (independent contractor) and Skycap/baggage handler, although nothing seems to take as much of a toll as his work with a major, corrupt casino corporation did, as detailed in his book Outfoxing the Gaming Club.
Contact Links
Purchase Links
RABT Book Tours & PR

The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 edited by Janet E. Croon: A sick and dying teen witnesses history

There’s so much more I want to say, but I ran out of time — and went on pretty long already. It’s really bugging me all the things I wanted to talk about, but didn’t. There may be a follow-up. I updated this slightly after posting thanks to a comment from the publisher.

 The War Outside My Window The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

by Janet E. Croon, ed.

Hardcover, 480 pg. (includes an 8-page photo insert)
Savas Beatie, 2018
Read: May 1 – 28, 2018

When he was twelve, LeRoy Wiley Gresham, of Macon, Georgia starts keeping a daily journal (well, as close to it as anyone really ever does). The year is 1860 and he and his father are headed to Philadelphia to consult with leading doctors about LeRoy’s medical condition, which local physicians have been unsuccessful in dealing with — the book contains a medical foreword and afterword that will explain these circumstances better than LeRoy ever does (partially because he doesn’t have the whole story). From Philadelphia they return home and to talk of succession — it’s not long before the Confederacy is born and Fort Sumter is fired upon. This is the setting for these journals — published for the first time this year.

LeRoy was born to be a Southern Gentleman and was raised as such — and between the War, his age and disease, he never really had an opportunity to examine his upbringing. As such, he is incredibly partisan, shows nothing but contempt for the Union, Lincoln, the Union Army, etc. The language and attitudes he uses toward his family’s slaves (and pretty much everyone’s slaves) is par for the course during the Civil War, readers need to remember this going on. He is also a pretty astute observer and realist — when the tide begins to turn for the Confederacy, he’s aware and his upfront about it (there are even traces of “I told you so” to his writing when it comes to certain strategies).

Meanwhile, life continues — people go to school, crops are grown and harvested, babies are born, people die and are married, kids get pets. LeRoy’s family were staunch Presbyterians, his father a leader in the local church — presbytery and synod meetings are also reported on.

For LeRoy, the years after his return from Philadelphia (and those leading up to it, really) are also years of deteriorating health, bouts of pain, and ineffective treatments. Those who put this book together have determined (and it seems only likely) that there are two major health problems going on here — a horrific leg injury sustained when he was 8 and tuberculosis. Neither did him any favors — his life wasn’t going to be easy just with the injury, but TB made it short. Tracing the worsening of each is tragic — and LeRoy dies not long after the end of the War.

All of these topics are detailed and recorded — almost every day — in a few brief sentences. Sometimes it can be jarring the way he’ll go from casualty numbers, to talk about his coughing, to a comment on peach harvests and the book he’s reading in a paragraph a little briefer than some of the longer ones in this post. But that’s just what was on his mind that day. Sometimes there are strange doodles or other things recorded, lists of Bible questions, practice trials of his own developing signature and other things like that (often with photos included).

The War reporting is going to get the bulk of each reader’s attention. Which is completely understandable — and it gets about half of the space of the book, the other topics compete for the other half of the space. His information (as the wonderful footnotes demonstrate) is frequently mistaken — and he knows his, and will often speculate about as he reports what the newspapers say. We’re used to news stories developing over minutes and hours, LeRoy had to be content with learning about something days after the event, and then still learning details weeks later. His frustration about that is seen occasionally — especially as te War grinds on and it’s harder for newspapers to be printed and delivered (paper itself becomes scarce). At one point there’s such an outbreak of smallpox that there’s no one available to bring his family their newspaper, so they have to send someone to retrieve it — LeRoy’s utter disgust at that is both hard to believe and completely human. “Fascinating” doesn’t come close to reading his perceptions and understanding the events that are history to us – talking about famous battles as they’re happening and news is getting out. His account of Sherman’s March is incredible – and adds so much perspective to the contemporary reader’s own understanding.

Normally, this writing would be something I’d pan and complain about. But this was never intended for publication — that’s clear — it’s a young man’s private journal and reads like it. You see a growth in his style, his way of thinking — and reading. But it isn’t an easy read with a strong narrative pulling you along. It’s repetitive, full of details that mean only something to him, stupid humor written for an audience of one (which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate his wit). Don’t expect to enjoy this read, to find a style that will grab you (or really, any style at all). It’s authentic — and not authentic in a “so well researched and told that it might as well be the real thing” way, but in a this is what this person thought and recorded about others’ thoughts in the 1860s to himself — it’s completely honest (well, there might be some self-deception/self-aggrandizement at work, but not much).

I grew to really like LeRoy — his attitude, his quiet faith, his patience, his stupid jokes, his intelligence. You watch someone’s life day-to-day for a few years and you almost can’t help it. His death — which I knew was coming before I opened the book, and knew was nigh given the date (and lack of pages left in the book) — struck me hard. I couldn’t believe it, really, but I got emotional in the last couple of entries.

His last entries are followed by the text of his obituary from the Macon Telegraph and a letter that his mother sent to her sister which filled in some details about his last days and condition. That letter is a great touch and helps you see that a lot of what you had learned about LeRoy from his writing was also seen by his family — it wasn’t just LeRoy’s self-image. You also see that LeRoy’s critical gaze, which is displayed frequently, was a family trait (but pretty understandable in the context)

The effort putting this book together — transcribing, deciphering, tracing the family members and friends — the medical research to diagnose LeRoy all these years later) — I can’t fathom. Croon deserves so much more reward than she’ll likely ever receive for this. Really, I’m in awe of her work. The Publisher’s Preface, Introduction, and Postscript (and aforementioned Medical Foreword/Afterword) are must-reads and will help the reader appreciate LeRoy’s own writing and Croon’s efforts.

Every so often, reading my email can be surreal — getting a request to read and post about this book was one of those times. The same form has led me to read a book about a P.I. with a talking (and sentient!) arm, a crime solving frog, and a werewolf rock star — and now, this literally unique book?* I’ve rarely felt so inadequate to the task. What do I know from historic diaries? Here’s what I can say — you have never read anything like this — it will appeal to the armchair historian in you (particularly if you’ve ever dabbled in being a Civil War buff); it’ll appeal to want an idea what everyday life was like 150 years ago; there’s a medical case study, too — this combination of themes is impossible to find anywhere else. This won’t be the easiest read you come across this year (whatever year it is that you come across it), but it’ll be one of the most compelling.

It feels stupid putting a star rating on this — but, hey, that’s the convention, so…no doubt about it:

—–

5 Stars

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for this post and my honest opinions.


* Which is not to say that there weren’t merit to these books or that there weren’t others — of comparable quality to this. I could provide lists.

✔ Read a book about a historical event you’re interested in (fiction or non).

Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

Everything is NormalEverything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid

by Sergey Grechishkin

Kindle Edition, 336 pg.
Inkshares, 2018
Read: March 19 – 26, 2018

I would spend hours by the balcony window, watching smoke rise from the power station chimneys on the horizon and listening to the suburban trains chug by in the distance. Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

This is the kind of thing that you expect a memoir of growing up in the Soviet Union to be full of — a grim skyline, yearning for something unobtainable, a general malaise. But in Sergey Grechishkin’s book, you don’t get a lot of that — yes, it’s there, to be sure (how could it not be?), but there’s so much more.

Grechishkin writes with a vivacity, a thorough-going sense of humor, a spark of hope that you don’t expect — and are frequently surprised by. He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of the USSR in the 70s and 80s, but he paints a picture of a life with hope. The book focuses on his childhood — particularly school ages — we get a little before, we see him briefly in University, with a hint or two about what happens next. But primarily we’re looking at his time in school. This coincides with the time of Leonid Brezhnev (at least the tail end) through the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev, with all the changes those days entailed. It’s not an incredibly political book — but it’d be difficult to discuss life under these various leaders without mentioning them and the way each government was different from the previous.

A word about the humor — which is all over. We’re not talking Yakov Smirnoff, first off. Secondly we’re not talking about anything that makes light of the hardships, or denies them. But comments that can talk about the hardships in a way that is above to find the humor in the human condition or something else we can all relate to: like

So many Soviet friendships and even families have been formed while standing in lines.

Nothing major — just a quick smile as you read. At other times, he’ll deliver a hard truth about life in the USSR through a joke. Like here, when describing how they couldn’t process the appearance of Western athletes on TV during the 1980 Olympics criticizing their governments:

For those lucky Soviet citizens who were allowed to cross the border, any sort of misbehaving while abroad or giving the slightest hint at being unhappy with the Soviet workers’ paradise would mean no more trips anywhere except to camping locations in eastern Siberia.

You laugh, and then you realize that he’s talking about a harsh or sad reality while you’re laughing. I don’t know how many times I’d think about something being funny or actually be chuckling at something when I’d catch myself, because I realize what he’s actually getting at.

The jokes slow down as he ages and the narration becomes less universal and more particular to his life — looming chances of being sent to Afghanistan, and other harder realities of adulthood on the horizon. It’s still there, it’s just deployed less.

While narrating his life, Grechishkin is able to describe living conditions, schooling, medical care, shopping, food, friendships, family life, dating, Western movies, crime, the role of alcohol in society, political dissidents, and so much more. I enjoyed his discussing the experience of reading George Orwell (via photocopy) or listening to Western pop music — learning that LPs were “pressed at underground labs onto discarded plastic X-ray images.” You can do that? That sounds cool (and low-fidelity). Almost everything in the book seems just the way you’d expect it, if you stopped to think of it — but from Grechishkin’s life experience it seems more real.

This is one of those books that you want to keep talking and talking and talking about — but I can’t, nor should I. You need to read this for yourself. If only because Grechishkin can do a better job telling his story than I can. You really don’t think that this is the kind of book you can enjoy — but it is..

Did I have a happy childhood? Well, it was what it was. From a nutritional and a relationship standpoint, it wasn’t particularly great. But it also wasn’t awful or tragic. It was, when I look back on it now, normal.

Normal was a word that showed up more than once in my notes — despite everything around him, his childhood seemed normal (and its only now that I remember tat the word is in the title). I’m not saying that I’d trade places with him, his life was not easy — or that there weren’t kids in Leningrad who suffered more forms of deprivation or oppression (not to mention kids in less well-off areas in the USSR). But on the whole, he had a childhood thanks to a caring family, a good school, and good friends. Everything is Normal shows how against a bleak background, a normal life can be possible. It does so with heart, perspective, humor and a gift for story-telling. Exactly the kind of memoir that will stay with you long after you finish the book. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from Inkshares in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

—–

4 Stars

Opening Lines: Everything is Normal by Sergey Grechishkin

We all know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover (yet, publishing companies spend big bucks on cover design/art) (also, this has a great cover). But, the opening sentence(s)/paragraph(s) are fair game. So, when I stumble on a good opening (or remember one and pull it off the shelves), I’ll throw it up here. Dare you not to read the rest of the book.

from Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid by Sergey Grechishkin:

          

Anekdot

n.: the most popular form of Soviet humor, a short story or dialogue with a punch line, often politically subversive. “Being simultaneously independent from and parasitically attached to mass cultural production and authoritative discourse, the anekdot served as a template for an alternative, satirical, reflexive, collective voice-over narration of the Soviet century.”

Many of the anekdots under this book’s chapter headings were once punishable in the USSR by up to ten years of forced labor under article 58 of the criminal code (“ Anti-Soviet Propaganda”). This article was used freely to put critics of the Soviet government behind bars. Today, of course, things are very different in Russia. Now it’s article 282.

Maybe it’s just given the subject matter, I was expecting something dreary or earnest or incredibly serious — or all three, but man, I cracked up at that last sentence. I tell you, my friends, this book is going to have to work for less than 4 stars from me at this point.