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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 5+ hrs.
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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, narrated by the author, is a collection of short stories, with some seeming to be autobiographical or at least inspired by his own life here in the United States. Some of these refugees are seen through the eyes of another, and in this way, Nguyen provides us with a dual perspective — how the narrator views the refugee and how the refugees view themselves.

The narration was satisfactory as read by the author, but some of it could have been better served by a more practiced audiobook narrator who could have breathed life into the characters and helped readers “feel” the tensions a little more deeply. The author’s narration really didn’t add anything to these stories, like a trained narrator would have.

Despite the narration falling flat, these stories explore what it means to leave one’s homeland for another and be caught between them — between what happened in that other country and what is happening now as a result of those experiences. But not only has Nguyen given us stories that explore that rift in identity and culture shock of entering a new country to call home, he also explores the family bond and how it can be frayed by the past in Vietnam, dementia, sibling jealousy, and so much more. What are the dreams of these refugees and immigrants, will they be achieved, have the given up, are they settling, can they feel at home in a new country that is so different from where they came from? These are the kinds of questions explored in theses stories, and many of these characters seem to stem from Nguyen’s own experiences and family history.

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is probably best read in print or in ebook, rather than on audio, so the nuance of Nguyen’s stories are not lost on the reader. I did enjoy spending time with these characters, but I’ll likely revisit them in print.

RATING: Tercet

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Billy Summers by Stephen King (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 16+ hrs.
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***trigger warning for sexual violence***

Billy Summers by Stephen King, narrated by Paul Sparks, is beyond the supernatural, horror that this author is known for, but it brings to life new horrors — those of real life. Billy, a former soldier, is a murderer for hire, and he’s looking for one last job so he can begin a new life. The set up for an assassination job is detailed and slow going, but readers will delight in the character building of Billy’s alter egos — the plants in various towns to hide what he is really doing. Masquerading as a writer in an office building, a computer IT guy, and his own Billy Summers’ shtick, which isn’t really how he acts.

In many ways, the face of Summers is similar to King’s characters created in years past — Billy is almost a stand-in for King, one of the ultimate character creators. King does give a nod to his previous writings here later on in the novel with a sneak peak atop a ridge at The Overlook. It is almost like this novel is an homage to all the risks he’s taken in his career and a middle-finger to the industry that counted him out and pigeonholed him. But I could be over-analyzing here.

Paul Sparks does an excellent job with every face of Billy Summers, and the narration is back and forth into Summers’ past in Falluja when he was a sniper. What I’ve always loved about King’s novels is his attention to detail, his ability to create well-rounded characters, and the settings that mirror real, small town life that is often considered pale in comparison to large, city life (a perception that he blows out of the water every time).

The most troubling aspect of the novel, however, is the obligatory rape of a young woman who becomes an acquiescent victim with Stockholm syndrome.  But even here, King is stretching this trope as he builds the sad relationship between her and Billy Summers into a morally ambiguous argument that not all snipers are bad guys. Perhaps, there are some who do draw a line in the sand, and Billy does rationalize his actions.

Even as I say that Billy is a mirror for King, so is the young woman by the final pages. It almost made me wonder if King may be done writing, but then there’s something more to this young lady that makes me confident that King is not done with his fictional worlds quite yet.

Billy Summers by Stephen King, narrated by Paul Sparks, is a multilayered story about a stone-cold, calculating assassin for hire who continually wrestles with his morality. King takes you on a journey that will leave you wondering about your own morality and mortality. Things in real life can run astray at any moment, even in a small town.

RATING: Cinquain

Later by Stephen King

Source: Purchased
Audible, 6+ hrs.
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Later by Stephen King, narrated by Seth Numrich, is another of those thriller and less-horror King novels.

(trigger warning for possible domestic violence and incest)

Jamie Conklin sees dead people, but you’ll learn this right from the start of this novel. His life is anything but conventional, especially because of his gift. However, his mother, who works in publishing, struggles financially as a single mother and victim of a Ponzi scheme. What I loved was Jamie’s character development, his innocence was whittled away little by little as others use him for his ability, but at the same time, he learns to think for himself and set some boundaries. His mother seems to have learned little from her romantic struggles, and I sense that she doesn’t think beyond the immediate needs and risks to the bigger picture in many cases. But she’s really more of a background character, like Jamie’s invalid uncle.

King always seems to have a firm grasp on childhood and the struggles kids face with parents, peers, and other adults. He makes their lives real and reminds us that we all had those struggles once. But his supernatural elements really bring the creep. Jamie must contend with some dark evils in this novel, and while not always successful, King’s supporting characters round out the story and provide the main protagonist with the direction he needs in a believable way.

Later by Stephen King provides the best in character development and story-telling, but there is a rushed element near the end that seems like it was tacked on a little too quickly. I wanted a little bit more here, but given that it is told from Jamie’s 20-something point of view after everything happened, it seems like he has more to process later on. Perhaps there will be more, later.

RATING: Quatrain

My One Week Husband by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Audible Purchase
Audiobook, 7+ hrs.
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My One Week Husband by Lauren Blakely, another audiobook with a full cast, is delightful in terms of romance and sexual tension, but my favorite parts are the musical interludes as we learn about the secret past of Daniel Stuart. His past is integral to how he acts, reacts, and engages in relationships with women and why his drive is so business focused. Like Daniel, Scarlett Slade is a savvy businesswoman, and as the newest business partner of Daniel and his college buddy Cole, she brings a bit of sexy into Daniel’s life, but she is far more than just a body to ogle. She is smart and she holds secrets that driver her in business.

Daniel and Scarlett are flirty, fun, and made for each other. And their relationship goes from business to red hot once they decide they need to scope out their next hotel chain acquisition by pretending to be newlyweds — hence the title. These two gamble in business day in and day out, but when their hearts are on the line, can they take the risk?

Lately, I’ve been on a Paris kick — watching movies and reading books set in Paris — I am longing to travel somewhere, and Paris is romance. Here Daniel is English, and that accent and Paris are a lovely combination. Add in classical music and violins (see videos for some of the pieces mentioned – Beethoven is one of my favorites), and I am over the moon with this romantic tale. My One Week Husband by Lauren Blakely is one of her best — there is a ton of character development here and hot, steamy scenes.

RATING: Cinquain

The Wild Heart of Stevie Nicks by Rob Sheffield (audio)

Source: Freebie
Audible, 2+ hrs.
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The Wild Heart of Stevie Nicks by Rob Sheffield is a hommage to Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac that relies on Rolling Stone magazine’s extensive archives. It is clear from Rob Sheffield’s effusive narrative that he loves Stevie Nicks, considers her songwriting genius, and her style transcendent. He clearly loves Stevie Nicks and he takes listeners on a journey through her music with the band and as a solo artist. I loved learning that Nicks wrote songs and that none of them were earmarked ahead of time for the band or her solo albums. She just couldn’t help but write songs all the time.

I liked the light-hearted nature of this nugget, as I’m not as familiar with Nicks’ work as others might be. I’ve listened to Fleetwood Mac many times, and I enjoy their music, but I was interested in her as an artist, who seemed to be a force in the band and on her own. I would probably seek out a more in-depth look at her work and her life, but this provided a nice overview without too much “romance/breakup” gossipy stuff, which I tend to not like as much.

The Wild Heart of Stevie Nicks by Rob Sheffield is one fan-boy’s love of Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks told by the man himself. It does provide a great overview for the curious who might not want to be too invested, but if you want something more than squealing about how great she is, you might want to try something different.

RATING: Tercet

Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service by Gary Sinise and Marcus Brotherton (audio)

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Audible, 12+ hours
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Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service by Gary Sinise and Marcus Brotherton, read by the Gary Sinise, explores his upbringing, wayward years, and his stumble into acting and building a theater in Chicago from the ground up. These stories are full of antics, and spontaneity, but they also demonstrate the tenacity of a young man who has found his calling. It is this determination that will carry him not only throughout his acting career, but family trials and his charity work with veterans and children.

Sinise is most well-known for Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump and CSI NY but among veterans, he’s Lt. Dan — yes, military personnel have called him that more than one time. While not a veteran himself, Sinise understands the sacrifices many military men and women make for our country and how heavily the PTSD and wounds weigh on not only those sustaining them, but also those caring for the wounded. Listening to this on audio, I was engaged in the story most of the time, unless he was listing accomplishments.

Despite that drawback, Sinise provides a good look at how his wayward early years and stumble into acting not only set him up for success in film, theater, and television, but also in using that success to help others tasked with protecting our freedoms. While there are moments in the memoir where he references things that later proved false (like WMDs in Iraq), the focus on his work is not political — it is humanitarian. This is the work and the part of the memoir that was the most “real” to me. He seemed to genuinely care about the people he tries to help through his foundations and other organizations, and it is clear that he believes in his purpose.

Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service by Gary Sinise and Marcus Brotherton is an exploration of one man’s journey away from his own concerns and career to a life of service. He’s clearly done a lot of good from uplifting the morale of troops overseas to providing children with school supplies in war zones and ensuring that veterans return home to a place where they can thrive and do more than just survive from appointment to appointment. This is the work to be proud of, work he plans to continue, and work that will leave a lasting impression.

RATING: Quatrain

Forward by Abby Wambach (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audiobook; 5+ hrs.
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Forward by Abby Wambach, read by the author, explores her need for soccer in her life and her early hatred of the game and her talent. But at its heart, it is also a memoir that explores identity and self-love. A lot of her high school and soccer years are spent trying to be seen, but even as she is seen by the public more and more, she feels more unloved. This vacancy in her heart leads her to destructive behavior and she becomes very unbalanced. There is one moment where she turns the tables on herself — asking herself if she knows who she is.

Her life is a roller coaster of emotion where she is on highs and slumps into lows, exchanging booze for pills. However, I feel like when she decides to kick these habits, they are still there but she places less emphasis on them. She talks a lot about getting fit and kicking habits, but she still allows for medications that can be addictive. I found this a bit hypocritical, especially since they mask a larger problem. I sense that there is still denial here in how these pills mask her underlying issues. It begs the question of whether more time apart from soccer and the publicity would have given her more time for reflection and self-assessment, perhaps growth.

Forward by Abby Wambach is an inside look at a woman who has a hard time letting go of control, cannot have faith in others, and learn to love herself and know that she is worthy of love. Soccer is always there for her, even when she doesn’t want it to be. Soccer fans will love the recounting of her championships, Olympics, and more, but these are wider examples of her need for adrenaline and attention. Wambach struggles to be alone and love herself, but she never really recognizes this in the memoir. I think with more distance and further reflection, she would have written a deeper memoir.

RATING: Tercet

Welcome to My Panic by Billie Joe Armstrong (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 1+ hrs.
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**Caution: foul language throughout**

Welcome to My Panic by Billie Joe Armstrong, narrated by the author, reveals some interesting inspiration — Fleetwood Mac as a guilty pleasure — and growing up Billie, one of six siblings with varied musical interests. (love for the Fugazi nod) He speaks about the death of his father, his first friendship in school and how music bonded them, having panic attacks at age 10 and onward, but mostly when he’s alone, and so much more.

To be called a “rock star” was the worst insult for this punk — at least that’s what it felt like when stardom took hold of his life. Armstrong tackles his substance use issues, his panic attacks, and his experimentation in music and his life decisions. Much of his impulsivity seems to stem from a lack of stability in his life — something gain control over his career and life.

Highlights for me were the recorded songs on the Audible. It was a trip into my past and rockin’ out years. I love audio’s that provide some kind of look into the creative mind — whether a singer, writer, photographer, or artist. I would probably say this could have been a far longer memoir with much more detail, but it highlights the biggest influences — as Armstrong sees them — in his life. Welcome to My Panic by Billie Joe Armstrong is a great way to pass the time, and I love the mix of narration with music.

RATING: Quatrain

On the House by John Boehner (audio)

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Audible, 7+ hrs.
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**Caution: foul language throughout**

On the House: A Washington Memoir by John Boehner, read by the author, is an insider’s look at how the House of Representatives works from backroom deals, challenges with fellow party members, and camaraderie between representatives when the media is not in their face or fundraising isn’t front and center. I loved his no-nonsense attitude, but what I found lacking was his own self-reflection on how he could have steered his party and others in different and better ways during his time as Speaker of the House. Much of what he imparts in his years in the House are more “I was right and others were wrong” commentary, which I don’t feel to ring true.

It was great to see his relationships with Presidents Gerald Ford, George Bush, and Barack Obama, especially as Speaker Boehner tried to navigate “Crazytown.” I found it ironic that Boehner started his career in the House as a radical who wanted changes to the House bank, but ended up fighting against “radicals” (Tea Party and otherwise) in his days under the Obama administrations. He has more colorful words for people like Sen. Ted Cruz and others, which I’m sure you’ve heard about online or TV.

Much of the issues facing Boehner were related to the 2013 government shutdown, which he had warned his fellow Republicans that such a standoff would fail against the Obama administration. He may have been right, but allowing the party to hang itself out to dry to prove a political point (which it didn’t) runs contrary to the earlier set up of the book where he hails his respect for the country and its institutions. Mind you, he’s still a Republican with ideals that lean toward smaller government, but in this case, it seems he could have fought Cruz (who was not in the House) harder by pushing his own party away from shutting down the government.

What I did find interesting were the yarns about his childhood and his early House years, including his assessment of Sen. Ted Kennedy and others. Some of these stories seem a bit inflated, but that’s typical with memoirs focused on making the speaker sound more upright and honest than they may have been. We all want to remember our past actions in the best light.

As an aside, I had no idea that the Speaker could make their own rules for their office, including being able to smoke inside! But Boehner did just that! Another fun fact, according to Boehner, Bernie Sanders is the most honest and non-cynical politician in government.

On the House: A Washington Memoir by John Boehner is his review of his time in the House from his early years scrapping his way to the top and as Speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in government. What I got out of this is that you are only as powerful as the relationships you build and the consensus you can achieve through those relationships. However, as more politicians become “radical” — adhering to their beliefs without room for new information or compromise — the government is likely to become far more dysfunctional.

RATING: Tercet

How To Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 10+ hrs.
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How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, read by the author, is a phenomenal listen. I want to read the book as well in print. Kendi has the perfect voice for this book, and it makes the personal stories far more relateable. Much of this resonated with me because I grew up in the 1990s and I saw many of these phenomena that Kendi talks about. The idea that “color” is no longer seen is obviously ridiculous, but the sentiment is even more trying when systemic processes and socialization force us to “see” color as thug or criminal or worthy of the benefit of the doubt or forgiveness, etc.

“The hate that hate produced. … More hatred makes them more powerful,” Kendi says. He himself is a victim of this, enabling the racist policies and power to continue and gain strength. Hating white people becomes hating black people and vice versa, he adds. His arguments can be convoluted and circular in his narration, which is another reason, I’d like to read the text because I tend to absorb these kinds of concepts better in print than audio. I was particularly fascinated by his conclusion that white supremacy is actually a nuclear ideology that is anti-human because many of the policies it opposes actually would have helped their poor white brethren, so the question is which white people are supreme? Those with more money, at least so it seems from the examples provided by Kendi.

Kendi also reminds us that we often look for theories and evidence that validates our points of view or biases. None of us are immune to it, but we can be watchful for data that caters to those biases and learn how to see through the fog. The story of Kendi in college coming to a conclusion that white people are aliens and that’s why they hate blacks is an illustrate of this point. What we need to understand is that racism is the lumping of one group of people into a group to be looked down upon or turned into the “enemy” or “evil” other. We all have the power to protest racist policies, no matter where in the power structure we are.

The only drawback for me was that Kendi tends to get sidetracked and the narrative becomes convoluted, which muddles the message in some ways. His narrative also is far from linear. I do like how he personalized his examples to demonstrate that all people are capable of racism. This is a message we all need to hear and understand, so that we can be prepared to move away from racism as the human race.

How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi reminds us not to fall under the mind control of white supremacy that we have no power — if they control your thinking, they control you. These are wise words. Now, if you are looking for a practical guide on how to accomplish real change in policy and processes, this is not the book for you. What you need is to take the lessons in this book about identifying racism and resisting those policies, affecting change, and standing up to the oppression of yourself and others.

RATING: Quatrain

Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely (audio)

Source: Purchased
Audible, 8+ hrs.
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Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely, an audio with a full cast, was so much fun to listen to. Jason Reynolds and Truly Goodman have significant chemistry but a pact she made with her brother nearly a decade ago stands in their way of getting together, even if they had a one night of hot romance. Both of these workaholics also don’t have time for dating. Jason Reynolds is The Modern Gentleman Of New York and a best man for hire, two jobs he doesn’t want to see collide, and he needs to finish his work as a best man in order to help pay for his sister’s medical school.

While the sexual tension is palpable and the heat rises on more than one occasion, Blakely shines in her comedy. The zingers between the men and their friends, the banter between Truly and Jason is hilarious, and there is so much more fun to be had in this audiobook. There is a full cast of audiobook narrators on this one, and they clearly had a grand time making this one.

Instant Gratification by Lauren Blakely is a riot, and I was laughing out loud. My daughter was dying to know what I was listening to, but sadly this is not for young ears. I needed a good laugh and this book hit the spot. The characters are well drawn and their interactions are believable — for high-end Manhattanites.

RATING: Cinquain

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (audio)

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Audible, 6+ hrs.
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White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo, narrated by Amy Landon, takes a sociologists’ approach to race (which does involve generalizations). White Americans must remember that we are products of our socialization and culture, and no aspect of society lies outside the forces of racism, even if you come from a mixed-race family, had ancestors who were once discriminated against (Irish, Italian, etc.), or experienced poverty, etc. The trick is not to see our unique experiences as making us exempt from racism but to see how those experiences shaped who we are within a racist society and to see the larger picture of how racism impacts others. Secondly, she says we need to redefine the term “racist” — we’ve been taught that racists are immoral and mean and that they consciously hate/oppress others based upon their race. However, this assumption is a societal definition propagated by a racist society. White people need to first examine what it means to be white and what that has brought them in society and cost others — this examination will be a struggle for many.

Superficial differences between races and genders are a result of geographical location and evolution, but biologically we are all the same. The race construct is just that – made up. White supremacy has taken that construct and divided resources based on a false hierarchy, hence the accessibility gaps for non-white groups and non-male groups. Many of these discussions are ones I’ve had before in college with courses and other groups — open dialogue is essential about things that are not “fact” even though they were credited as such. She does touch on exploitation as the catalyst for racism (I would read Stamped From the Beginning for more on this).

Imagine going to court to proclaim you are white because you were misclassified as another race! This actually occurred and scientific experts were called into these cases to provide “expert” testimony. DiAngelo indicates that those European immigrants are the only ones who were successful in becoming “white” after assimilation, etc. Assimilation — think about that — casting aside their customs, speaking English only, and eating only American foods, etc. Those assimilated people now benefit from their whiteness. DiAngelo also points out that if poor and working class Americans across all “races” worked together – they could become a powerful force against the upper “white” classes. However, many perceived as “white” also tend to look down on other poor and working class peoples because of their “whiteness” and the system that oppresses them both. The irony!

“Scholar Marilyn Frye uses the metaphor of a birdcage to describe the interlocking forces of oppression.16 If you stand close to a birdcage and press your face against the wires, your perception of the bars will disappear and you will have an almost unobstructed view of the bird. If you turn your head to examine one wire of the cage closely, you will not be able to see the other wires. If your understanding of the cage is based on this myopic view, you may not understand why the bird doesn’t just go around the single wire and fly away. You might even assume that the bird liked or chose its place in the cage.

But if you stepped back and took a wider view, you would begin to see that the wires come together in an interlocking pattern—a pattern that works to hold the bird firmly in place. It now becomes clear that a network of systematically related barriers surrounds the bird.

Taken individually, none of these barriers would be that difficult for the bird to get around, but because they interlock with each other, they thoroughly restrict the bird. While some birds may escape from the cage, most will not. And certainly those that do escape will have to navigate many barriers that birds outside the cage do not.”

We all have prejudices (it is the way our brain operates) or a sense of discomfort around certain people or groups — acting on those prejudices is discrimination. Racism is a structure (white supremacy) and we need to remember that we have a role to play in that structure. We need to learn to recognize our prejudices and work toward not acting on them and dismantling the structures that employ discrimination against groups different from white males. This is a tall order because many of these ideologies are reinforced in our daily lives.

One notion that came to mind, however, is the “kafkatrap” by which an accused is guilty by merely being silent. Many of us are silent, many of us fail to stand up and point out discrimination (even subtle discrimination), and does this mean we’re all complicit in racism? While this may be true, I prefer less circular arguments and prefer that we work as a human race to improve our systems for all of us. THIS will require us to have discomforting conversations and require actions that run counter to our normal daily actions. It will require us to reform and dismantle white supremacy. We’ll need to widen our view of history, particularly in schools, to acknowledge both the good and the bad, highlighting those who have exploited and committed racism to obtain the upper economic hand, among other things.

My only complaint is that DiAngelo was very repetitive toward the end. She would bring up examples she already used and talk about them again in the same manner she did in the previous chapter. I wouldn’t have noticed it as much if it wasn’t back-to-back repetition. Perhaps she believes repetition will stick with readers more and help them to see the situations she discusses in a new light. I’m unsure.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo, narrated by Amy Landon, asks us to recognize our faults, work to fix them, and to question ideologies that are considered the norm. There is much work to do. Challenging racism starts with recognizing your own prejudices and being conscious of how to modify/change your reactions and behaviors going forward. This is a very academic look at racism, which some may find too high-brow for them. Racism is real and present today (across the globe) — it is not a thing of the past, and we need to tackle it head on and in a multitude of ways. While some of her arguments are circular, she provides a good overview of racism in today’s society and the reactions that white people have when confronted with its subtleties.

RATING: Quatrain