Saturday, March 21, 2020

The Last Black Unicorn

Written by: Tiffany Haddish

First line: School was hard for me, for lots of reasons.

Why you should read this book: Pretty much everything that happens in the first three-quarters of this memoir is truly heartbreaking, but Haddish's comedic tendencies have a way of glossing over most of the horror of her life and forcing you to laugh at the worst things that have ever happened to her. Physical, sexual, and emotional abuse are running themes in her story, and she still manages to report the events in such a way that the reader can't help but smile. From her mother's accident and subsequent brain injury, to her experience in foster care and her terrible relationship history, the story proceeds to build upon itself until Haddish's success as a professional comedian and actress seems not only well-deserved, but also inevitable.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You've had sex with Tiffany Haddish.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

A Broken Tree: How DNA Exposed a Family's Secrets

Written by: Stephen F. Anderson

First line: When I was a young boy, I loved watching Leave It to Beaver.

Why you should read this book: It's hard to discuss this memoir without massive spoilers, but, couched in the vaguest terms, the author and his siblings discover that neither of their parents were the people they thought they were. Since we already know the story hinges on DNA evidence, the reader will not find the revelations as terribly shocking as the author and his siblings did, but it's an interesting read nonetheless, full of complex emotional relationships and secrets and lies. A fast read, basically split into two parts, the first part being the actual story and the second part answering questions that many people had about how the author discovered and reacted to his story.

Why you shouldn't read this book: One thing the author declines to do is deeply examine the psychology of how his parents got to the point they got to—there's some discussion of it, but many readers will probably finish the book wishing they had a better understanding of why.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Shape of Water

Written by: Guillermo del Toro and Daniel Kraus

First line: Richard Strickland reads the brief from General Hoyt.

Why you should read this book: I guess it's a novelization of the popular movie, written after the fact, perhaps to fill in details that couldn't fit in the film version. Basically, if you loved the movie about the mute janitor who falls in love with a kidnapped swamp creature so much that you need to know what every single character (including the swamp creature) is thinking as the narrative unfolds, this is the story for you. It's crisply and engagingly written with ample descriptions and layered, nuanced, believable characters.

Why you shouldn't read this book: The movie is better, so help me.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Henry Huggins

Written by: Beverly Cleary

First line: Henry Huggins was in the third grade.

Why you should read this book. Although it is over seventy years old, there is still much delight to be found in this quiet novel about a small boy who feels as if nothing interesting ever happened to him until the day he shared his ice cream cone with a skinny, medium-sized, mixed-breed dog. Of course, the ordinary world of any child who plays outside his house, takes the bus into town, and has a life that doesn't involve being tied to a screen tends to offer plenty of interesting moments, such as when Henry accidentally breeds hundreds of guppies in his bedroom or when he digs up twelve hundred worms to pay off a debt incurred when he accidentally throws a neighbor boy's football into a passing car. While some of the references, especially the monetary ones, are dated (Henry's allowance is a quarter a week and his ice cream costs a nickel), I love the idea of modern children reading about a time when kids inhabited their own, largely unsupervised world and moved through it with a sense of agency, and, as a bonus, Cleary's more popular and enduring characters, Beezus and Ramona, have some cameos.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't like dogs, fish, or worms.

They Called Us Enemy

Written by: George Takei and Eisinger Scott Becker

First line: George! Henry! Get up at once!

Why you should read this book: In one of the more shameful chapters of American history, one hundred twenty thousand loyal Japanese-Americans were rounded up and locked in internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor during World War II; almost half of these citizens were children, and one of those children was beloved Star Trek actor and queer rights icon George Takei. This autobiographical retelling of the four years he and his family lived as prisoners of their own country is a smart, accessible, and sometimes heartbreaking story about family, identity, love, and betrayal. The book's narrative arc follows a logical course but also moves about in time, making it useful for younger readers who may lack some of the cultural and historical knowledge necessary to make sense of young George's horrifying experience.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Takei's story has also been transformed into a Broadway musical, Allegiance, so if you like singing and dancing you might enjoy that version more than this graphic novel.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Q Road

Written by: Bonnie Jo Campbell

First line: At the eastern edge of Kalamazoo County, autumn woolly bear caterpillars hump across Queer Road to get to the fields and windbreaks of George Harland's rich river valley land.

Why you should read this book: Everything is about to change in Kalamazoo one fateful autumn day when echoes of the past ripple through the present to reorient the future, and the people living around the oldest barn in the county find their relationships sundered, strengthened, reordered, and reexplained. Rachel, the foul-mouthed, gun-toting teenage bride of middle-aged farmer George Harland loves nothing the way she loves the brown earth of Harland's farm, except maybe young David Retakker, who loves George Harland's quiet, masculine strength as much as he hates his own perceived weakness. Meanwhile, the suburbs encroach on their prospects and their neighbors either want the farm gone or suffer through their own jealousy for everything George Harland represents.

Why you shouldn't read this book: OK, so this is the author's first novel, which takes place fifteen years after her second novel, and focuses on the daughter of the protagonist from the second book, who hasn't been born yet in the novel that could be considered the prequel to the first book, except it was written years later. Got it? No? Go read Once upon a River and then come back.


Written by: Stephen King

First line: The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

Why you should read this book: I first read it when I was twelve years old, which I mention by way of defense as I go on to explain that I just finished reading this enduring novel to my fourteen-year-old stepdaughter (by her request) (and also add that, prior to becoming fascinated with King's work at that age of twelve, I was afraid of everything, and this book and other novels of his I read that year, taught me to overcome, at least for the next twelve years, the free-floating terror of my existence). My stepdaughter said, "This is the longest novel we've ever read," to which I replied, "It's the longest novel most people have ever read," but the story of seven kids defeating an ancient evil that lives under their city, enjoys dressing like a clown, makes everyone a little crazy, and eats kids' fear (and other parts) continues to hold a prominent place in the collective conscious by virtue of its unrelenting examination of terror—virtually every trope of terror known to humans in the '80s manages to hit the page. There's something to scare everyone, whether or not you suffer from coulrophobia, including the truly terrifying concepts of racism, sexism and homophobia, in a gripping tale told from multiple points of view.

Why you shouldn't read this book: First, the racism, sexism, and homophobia is pretty extreme, and while King is clearly using it to denote bad characters with bad morality and bad motivations, if you don't personally remember the '80s, you will likely find yourself astonished at the casual use of now-taboo language. Second, like virtually all of King's work, it's ridiculously overwritten and would probably be a better novel with a couple hundred pages edited out.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts

Written by: Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose, Alberto Ponticelli, Vanesa Del Rey, Leonardo Manco, Mateus Santolouco, Sebastian Cabrol, Paul Pope, Irene Koh, & Francesco Francavilla

First line: Ah, here you are, poor lost soul.

Why you should read this book: Fans of spooky manga and pre-code horror comics rejoice—here is a sumptuous anthology of creepy collected tales (using a frame with a frame device, even) loosely organized around food and eating, and honoring its multi-cultural source material along with the best conventions of the genres that inspired it. In addition to the eight comics presented here, you get five original recipes from the famous chef (food inspired by the tales) as well as an appendix of monsters. And if all of this is not terrifying enough for you, this project is apparently one of the last things Bourdain completed before he took his own life, so, you know, really quintessential horror genre stuff going on right here.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Monsters. Sex. Violence. These words do not fill your soul with thrill and anticipation.

Swing It, Sunny

Written by: Jennifer L. Holm & Matthew Holm

First line: She's just a regular girl in a regular world!

Why you should read this book: I guess I'm reading them out of order but from a stylistic perspective this spectacular book, told in a series of vignettes that come together to present a complete picture, is even better than the previous volume I reviewed. Despite living in a loving family, there is a conspicuous absence in Sunny's life: her big brother has been shipped off to boarding school for bad grades and bad behavior and who knows what else, and even when he's with the family, something is still missing. Sunny lives her life, develops new friends and new interests, and manages to find a way to reach out to her distant, angry brother so he can see some hope for the future.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't want any rainbows or rays of sunshine in your life.

Bad Gateway

Written by: Simon Hanselman

First line: This place seems cheap and is OK.

Why you should read this book: It will break your heart, in a good way. It's about a drug-addicted, welfare-cheating witch named Megg; her drug addicted, trust-fund hippie boyfriend cat named Mogg; and the assorted other creatures who flit in and out of their drug haze. Megg's life is bleak, and she is determined to hang on to the bleakness, seeming to put as much effort into staying in a bad place as it would take to get her to a better place, but the volume ends with her going back home to see her mother and, presumably, examine the path that brought her to this bleak place.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Sex, drugs, violence, often all at the same time.