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.

Advertisements

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne: A combination of one of my favorite topics and least favorite form

Dog SongsDog Songs

by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne (Illustrator)

Paperback, 121 pg.
Penguin Press, 2013
Read: December 6 – 11, 2018

Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble.
A dog is a true and noble friend. A dog
is also a hedonist.

I don’t know if I’ve posted about poetry here before. Probably not. Despite many attempts (when I was younger) — including a few classes, I’m just not a poetry guy. I can appreciate the occasional poem — and there are a few poets I can really get into, but on the whole? Not my thing.

But part of the 2018 While You Were Reading Challenge, was to read a collection of poetry — and I came close to grabbing an Ogden Nash book off my shelves, but my wife had been given a collection a year or so ago of poems about dogs. And it’s been at least a month since I posted something about dogs, so it’s about time.

So yeah, there are 35 poems about dogs — most of them (all of them?) seem to be based on Oliver’s own dogs — a couple of dogs get a handful of poems about them. Those, obviously, you get a pretty good idea about. Otherwise, it’s just one-shots about some great-sounding dogs.

Oliver does a great job conveying a strong impression about a dog in just a few lines — or even a few words. “He was a mixture of gravity and waggity” is one of the best lines I’ve read in 2018. I do think she goes over the top in terms of the wisdom or deep knowledge, etc. of dogs. But when she focuses on behavior, or personalities of specific animals, I find her pretty entertaining — and even moving.

I’m not saying that I’m going out to grab every Oliver collection in print or anything, but I liked most of these poems — several of them I liked a lot.

There’s also one essay in this slim volume. Skip it. Oliver is a poet, not an essayist.

Does this book need Burgoyne’s illustrations? Nope. But they’re nice to look at, so I’m not complaining. I’d be more than happy to hang some of these around the house.

—–

3 Stars

✔ Read a collection of poetry.

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

Pub Day Repost: Lessons From Lucy by Dave Barry: America’s Funniest Human Tries to Learn a Few New Tricks from an Old Dog

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

by Dave BarryeARC, 208 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 2018
Read: July 19, 2018

Before I say anything else, Barry has set up an Instagram page (well, probably not him, actually — he states in the book he doesn’t understand Instagram) for his dog, Lucy. You should absolutely check it out and then come back to read what I have to say about the book. Dog Pictures > my blog. Pretty near always.

With that out of the way . . . Dave Barry has been a dog person for most of his life, one of the many reasons I like him. I distinctly, and fondly, remember columns and/or references to Earnest and Zippy (the emergency backup dog) years ago. Those two make a brief appearance in this book, but they aren’t the focus. The focus (if you can’t tell from the title) is his dog, Lucy. At the time of writing, Barry and Lucy are the same age — 70 (or 7 times 10 in her case), which means that both of them have many fewer days ahead of them than behind — which sounds awfully morbid for Dave Barry to talk about, but he does so frequently and purposefully.

As they’re at similar stages in life, Barry notices a huge difference between the two — Lucy is far happier and seemingly better adjusted than he is. So he sets out to try to learn a few lessons about life from her, which he passes on to his readers. Things like Pay Attention to the People You Love; Don’t Let Your Happiness Depend on Things; and Don’t Stop Having Fun. None of these, Barry knows, are original or ground-breaking — they’re pretty much common sense. Yet, they’re the kind of common sense things that he (like many/most humans) doesn’t actually do a great job at.

The result is a mixture of a Self-Help book and a Humor book — humor about himself, his life, as well as dogs. Sometimes the swing between the two genres can be jarring, but that’s pretty rare. For the most part, he moves easily between the two, taking the readers along with him on this ride. I can’t tell you how many times I went from grinning, chuckling or laughing out loud to getting misty-eyed within a couple of pages. It seems that Barry has learned a little bit about writing over the decades.

I’ve loved Barry’s humor longer than either of us would probably care to admit. One of his strengths is finding a way to take an old joke, or at least a joke everyone’s made before — like, say, I dunno, dogs sniffing each other’s hind-quarters — and make it feel fresh and new. More importantly, funny. He’s also able to make jumps from premise to punchline that no one expects. There is, for example, a Hugh Hefner joke where one doesn’t even come close to belonging — and it works perfectly. Even knowing that, you won’t see it coming until you’re snickering at it.

As for the heart-felt material? It works pretty well, too. I don’t think anyone will walk away from this book thinking “Wow! That was insightful. I never would have thought of it on my own!” Nor do I think Barry was trying for it. But, readers will appreciate the reminders to live like Lucy (or their own dog), and the way Barry phrases things might add some freshness to the concept. Which is all anyone can really ask.

I really don’t know if this is Barry’s best — but it’s up there. The ratio of Attempted Joke to Funny Joke is pretty high, I’m not sure if I can think of a higher one in his ouvre. 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). Couple that with me being a sucker for a Dog Book — even if it is a semi-Self Help book — and I can’t help but give it 5 Stars. This is a winner, no matter what.

—–

5 Stars

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for this post — which is my honest opinion and pleasure to give — thanks to both for this.

Voyage of the Dogs by Greg van Eekhout: An All-Ages SF that is a sure-fire crowd-pleaser

Voyage of the DogsVoyage of the Dogs

by Greg van Eekhout

Hardcover, 208 pg.
HarperCollins, 2018
Read: October 1, 2018

           Of course, the humans couldn’t go alone. There had to be dogs. Because wherever humans went dogs came along. Like rats, only more helpful. Dogs would herd livestock. Dogs would keep watch against the unknown. And, more importantly, dogs would keep the human crew company during the long spaceflight, and on their new home, far away from Earth.

But first they had to get there.

I guess this is technically a “Middle Grade” book — but forget about that. Call it All-Ages instead — that way, adults and YA readers and . . . everyone can enjoy this SF guilt-free. I should also include this line from The Big Idea post Van Eekhout wrote on Scalzi’s blog: “Spoiler: I don’t kill off any of the dogs in this book. Why not? Because I’m not a monster, that’s why not.” It’s important to get that out of the way.

Let’s start with this: the rationale to bring dogs along on a spaceship. It’s brilliant. It also points to one of the biggest problems with Starfleet, the Colonial Battle Fleet, the Serenity, etc. A lack of animals. Sure, NCC 1701-D had pets (not that we saw them often), but they were sealed up in cabins. And Firefly‘s episode “Safe” had cattle, but that was an oddity. The animals aboard Laika are there for purposes — like the main character, Lopside. He’s there to hunt rats — where there are humans and cargo, there are rats. Something small and fast — and with a good nose — is needed to hunt rats down.

The book will do a better job explaining the roles of the other three dogs and what advances in breeding have led to dogs being capable of being more than the dogs we have today — while still remaining dogs — to become Barkonauts.

These poor, brave dogs go into the hibernation state just before the humans do to complete the voyage to a nearby star system as part of human exploration and colonization, the first mission like this humanity has tried. But when the dogs wake up, they notice something’s wrong — part of the ship is missing, as is the crew.

They’re too far into the mission to turn around, too far away for a rescue mission to reach them. At this point, Lopside and the others have to try to salvage what they can and limp along to their final destination.

Lopside is a terrier mix, he’s brave, he has (understandably) abandonment issues — which are not helped at all by the absence of the humans. He’s a little scatter-brained (like a good terrier) and he’s incredibly loyal and has a great heart. The other barkonauts are as well-drawn and lovable.

Van Eekhout is clearly a dog-lover and it comes out in his characters. He’s also a pretty good story-teller, because even with that spoiler, I was invested in the outcome and really wasn’t sure how he was going to pull things off in a way that was satisfying and that wouldn’t reduce semi-sensitive 5th-graders across the globe to quivering balls of tears (a lesson Wilson Rawls could’ve used, I have to say — no, I’m not still torn up about Old Dan and Little Ann, why do you ask?). He does succeed in that — although some might get a bit misty at a point or two. It’s a fun and creative story, and takes some oft-repeated SF tropes and deals with them in a refreshing way.

Ignore the stars — I can’t bring myself to give it more, I don’t know why. Pay attention to what I have said above and this: read the book. It’ll warm your heart, it’ll make you make you a little sad, it’ll give you something to grin about — and it tells a good story, too. What more do you want?

—–

3.5 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

Lessons From Lucy by Dave Barry: America’s Funniest Human Tries to Learn a Few New Tricks from an Old Dog

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

by Dave Barry

eARC, 208 pg.
Simon & Schuster, 2018
Read: July 19, 2018

Before I say anything else, Barry has set up an Instagram page (well, probably not him, actually — he states in the book he doesn’t understand Instagram) for his dog, Lucy. You should absolutely check it out and then come back to read what I have to say about the book. Dog Pictures > my blog. Pretty near always.

With that out of the way . . . Dave Barry has been a dog person for most of his life, one of the many reasons I like him. I distinctly, and fondly, remember columns and/or references to Earnest and Zippy (the emergency backup dog) years ago. Those two make a brief appearance in this book, but they aren’t the focus. The focus (if you can’t tell from the title) is his dog, Lucy. At the time of writing, Barry and Lucy are the same age — 70 (or 7 times 10 in her case), which means that both of them have many fewer days ahead of them than behind — which sounds awfully morbid for Dave Barry to talk about, but he does so frequently and purposefully.

As they’re at similar stages in life, Barry notices a huge difference between the two — Lucy is far happier and seemingly better adjusted than he is. So he sets out to try to learn a few lessons about life from her, which he passes on to his readers. Things like Pay Attention to the People You Love; Don’t Let Your Happiness Depend on Things; and Don’t Stop Having Fun. None of these, Barry knows, are original or ground-breaking — they’re pretty much common sense. Yet, they’re the kind of common sense things that he (like many/most humans) doesn’t actually do a great job at.

The result is a mixture of a Self-Help book and a Humor book — humor about himself, his life, as well as dogs. Sometimes the swing between the two genres can be jarring, but that’s pretty rare. For the most part, he moves easily between the two, taking the readers along with him on this ride. I can’t tell you how many times I went from grinning, chuckling or laughing out loud to getting misty-eyed within a couple of pages. It seems that Barry has learned a little bit about writing over the decades.

I’ve loved Barry’s humor longer than either of us would probably care to admit. One of his strengths is finding a way to take an old joke, or at least a joke everyone’s made before — like, say, I dunno, dogs sniffing each other’s hind-quarters — and make it feel fresh and new. More importantly, funny. He’s also able to make jumps from premise to punchline that no one expects. There is, for example, a Hugh Hefner joke where one doesn’t even come close to belonging — and it works perfectly. Even knowing that, you won’t see it coming until you’re snickering at it.

As for the heart-felt material? It works pretty well, too. I don’t think anyone will walk away from this book thinking “Wow! That was insightful. I never would have thought of it on my own!” Nor do I think Barry was trying for it. But, readers will appreciate the reminders to live like Lucy (or their own dog), and the way Barry phrases things might add some freshness to the concept. Which is all anyone can really ask.

I really don’t know if this is Barry’s best — but it’s up there. The ratio of Attempted Joke to Funny Joke is pretty high, I’m not sure if I can think of a higher one in his ouvre. 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). Couple that with me being a sucker for a Dog Book — even if it is a semi-Self Help book — and I can’t help but give it 5 Stars. This is a winner, no matter what.

—–

5 Stars

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for this post — which is my honest opinion and pleasure to give — thanks to both for this.

The Squirrel on the Train (Audiobook) by Kevin Hearne, Luke Daniels

The Squirrel on the Train (Audiobook) The Purloined Poodle (Audiobook)

by Kevin Hearne, Luke Daniels (Narrator)
Series: Iron Druid Chronicles/Oberon’s Meaty Mysteries, #2
Unabridged Audiobook, 2 hrs, 54 min.
Kevin Hearne, 2017
Read: December 2, 2016


I posted about the text version about a month ago (and reposted last week), but wanted to say a little more about the audiobook — so for the sake of those who just clicked on the Audiobook post, I’ll just repeat everything I said before, but tag on something at the end about Luke Daniels’ work. Can the magic of The Purloined Poodle be recaptured? Yes — maybe even topped. For many, that should be all I need to write. If that’s the case, you’re fine — go ahead and close this, no need to finish this.

If you’re still here, I’ll write a little more — While on a trip to Portland to go sight-seeing, er, sight-smelling, Oberon, Orlaith and Starbuck get away from Atticus (er, I mean, Connor Molloy) while chasing after a suspicious-looking squirrel. That’s a tautology, I realize, if you ask the hounds, but this was a really sketchy-looking squirrel. Anyway, this brought the group into the path of Detective Ibarra. She happens to be at the train station investigating the odd murder of a man who looks just like Atticus.

Naturally, that gets him interested and investigating things as best as he can. Thanks in no small part to the noses of the hounds, Atticus and an old friend are able to uncover what’s going on to help Atticus’ new friend make an arrest.

It’s a whole story in Oberon’s voice, I don’t know what else I can say about the writing/voice/feel of the book. That says pretty much everything. From Oberon’s opening comparison of the diabolical natures of Squirrels vs. Clowns to Orlaith’s judgment that “death by physics” “sounds like justice” to the harrowing adventure at the end of the novella, this is a fine adventure for “the Hounds of the Willamette and their pet Druid!”

No surprise to anyone who’s heard the audiobook for any of Oberon’s other appearances in short stories/novellas/novels, but Luke Daniels killed it here. From the overall characterization and narration he does as Oberon on down to the little details, like Oberon’s particular pronunciation of “Port-LAND,” I just love it. Frankly, how anyone can listen to his rendition of Starbuck’s first steps with words like, “Yes food!” and not giggle like Ron Swanson is beyond me. He gets the serious moments, the anger, the awe, the silliness just right. I just can’t say enough good things about this audio presentation.

There’s a nice tie-in to some of the darker developments in the Iron Druid Chronicles — that won’t matter at all if you haven’t read that far, or if you can’t remember the connection. This was a good sequel that called back to the previous book, and told the same kind of story in a similar way — but didn’t just repeat things. Just like a sequel’s supposed to be, for another tautology. I smiled pretty much the whole time I read it (as far as I could tell, it’s not like I filmed myself). I don’t know if we get a third in this series given the end of the IDC next year. If we do, I’ll be happy — if not, this is a great duology.

—–

4.5 Stars