Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

September 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

owlsLet’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris


The only thing better than reading a David Sedaris book is listening to one. His method of telling stories is captivating, and getting a whole book of his essays read to you by the author himself is a real treat. The book does get off to a rocky start, possibly because it’s a various collection, and not one centered on a particular theme like his earlier works. As a result, it was a little difficult getting in to this collection.

There’s an undercurrent of cruelty in these essays, either committed against or by Sedaris, that undermine the humor of the pieces, so the book lacks the charm that his earlier books have (the piece about the sea turtles was especially horrifying). He concludes his pieces with poignant observations that are thoughtful and meaningful, but getting there is a bit of a struggle. Later in the book, the essays return to Sedaris’ usual form, but at the beginning of the book, I was tempted to give it up.

Speaking of the beginning of the book, the tables of contents were different between the audiobook and print editions. They were mostly the same, but I noticed some pieces came later in the print version of the book than they did in the audiobook, and the monologue pieces all came at the end. At first, I thought I was reading an abridged version of the print book, but by the end, it contained all the same pieces as the dead tree edition.

Most of the book was read by Sedaris, but there were a few pieces where the producers used recordings of his live readings instead of having a studio-recorded version of the piece. Those were nice, since the audience feedback helps make some of the pieces. The one about waiting in airlines was especially good, moreso because it was one of those live recordings. I was less enthused about the musical pieces that acted as interludes between the essays. They helped to demarcate the different pieces, but they distracted from the endings of the essays.

Owls isn’t as engaging or as charming as Me Talk Pretty One Day or Holidays on Ice, but it’s still signature Sedaris storytelling. The pieces seem darker, and more self-analytical, but there are also the laugh-out-loud moments that one would expect from one of Sedaris’ collections. Fans will eat it up, but they might also come away from the book with a new outlook on Sedaris himself. At the very least, he comes across as very self-absorbed.

Started: August 30, 2018
Finished: September 6, 2018

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Letting Go of God

August 13, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

godLetting Go of God by Julia Sweeney


This book (er … recording, I guess; this is only available on audio, since it’s a recording of her one-woman show, and was never published in print) was name-dropped a couple of times in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I didn’t receive Dawkins’ message as well as I had expected, due to his tone, but I was still interested in reading about others’ experiences with atheism, and I thought hearing about it through comedy would be the way to go. At the very least, I figured Sweeney’s tone wouldn’t be as abrasive as Dawkins’.

I’m so glad I did, because this is such an enlightening piece. Sweeney starts her story at age seven, as an Irish-Catholic girl who enters the so-called “Age of Reason”, when she’s no longer considered a child, and can now be accountable to God for any sins she may commit. From there, she takes us through her life as a Catholic, as a believer, and her life as a rationalist, where she tries to make sense of the God she worships. It’s a fascinating journey, told with equal parts comedy and tragedy, one that involves discussions with Mormons and priests, nuns and hippies, and even a stubborn believer in intelligent design.

Sweeney’s story is intensely personal, as anyone’s story of faith must be. Major events in her life dictate her faith, such as her brother’s painful death from cancer, and she relates those events with the emotion they deserve. Interestingly, when faced with the possibility that there is no God, she finds herself asking questions about those very events, and asking what they meant to her when she removed God from the equation. Some people would view it as pointless suffering; Sweeney viewed it as an impetus to do more in life to prevent those sorts of things from happening to other people. It’s a perspective I’ve never considered, even though part of me has come to that conclusion on my own, just without putting it into those words.

Something else that stood out to me from Sweeney’s story is how religion and faith forces people to look inward, and see the world as a very small place. Once that faith is removed, one looks outward, not just to other people in the world, but beyond, into space, where suddenly everything seems more glorious, more perfect, and more inspiring, even as it humbles us for being such a small part of the cosmic whole. When you look at all of existence as something that was built for us, it’s less impactful than when you look at it as something that developed through the complex building up of happenings that brought us to this point in time. Carl Sagan said something similar in The Demon-Haunted World, but where Sagan gives it to us as something to consider, Sweeney uses it as the point of her own story.

Letting Go of God is an insightful, well-written memoir of faith and identity, told in a charming manner that uses emotion and laughter to carry us through Sweeney’s struggles. More importantly, she tells us her own personal journey, without mixing it up into something that is supposed to be a guide for others, like Dawkins did in The God Delusion. As such, it’s a piece that has value for any listener, atheist or agnostic or Christian or anything else. I can see myself revisiting this work many more times in the future.

Started: August 7, 2018
Finished: August 8, 2018

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Spy Rock Memories

August 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, )

spySpy Rock Memories by Larry Livermore


After reading Punk USA, the story of Lookout! Records, I figured I needed to get the complete picture of the label by reading Larry Livermore’s take on it, too. The thing is, when I went to find his book, I saw that he had another book, one he wrote about his time living on a mountain in a house that had running water thanks to the creek near his cabin, and electricity thanks to its solar panels. That time predated (and overlapped) Livermore’s time with Lookout!, so I figured I should start with this book before moving on to How to Ru(i)n a Record Label, even if I wasn’t all that interested in reading about living off the grid.

In my review of Punk USA, though, I noted that a well-written book about a topic in which the reader may not have a lot of interest will still be engaging, and Spy Rock Memories is one of those books. Livermore tells his tale with a kind of self-awareness that shows us both sides of a story, even though it’s written by just one person. He’s quick to show us his successes (he even admits that he is his own favorite topic), but he also easily admits his failings.

Though Livermore touches on his dealings with Lookout!, the story is really a memoir of his life on the mountain. He talks about how he came to buy his home there, how he survived the brutal winters, the repairs and additions he had to make to his home (which, based on the way Livermore tells it, he had to do constantly), and his run-ins with the local wildlife. He writes about being a hippie, about being into punk, about making friends and enemies on the mountain due to his beliefs, and tying all of his ideals together into a self-published newspaper/newsletter called The Lookout. He writes about starting a band with some of the kids of his neighbors, of his forays into San Francisco and Berkeley both before and after the label began, and his presence in the local town and what it meant to his life on the mountain.

He also writes about the heartache of broken relationships, of finding, raising, and losing pets, of achievements and losses, and disilluisonment, not just with his label, but also with how to live life and the idea of living on the mountain. It’s a very human story, with a sharp focus. Sometimes, Livermore comes off as being self-important, enough so that it’s difficult to know if what he’s telling us is the truth as it actually happened, or is the truth as he wants it to be, but his self-effacing manner through the memoir suggest more of the former over the latter. It still comes through on occasion, though.

Spy Rock Memories is a fascinating read, and one that preps me for How to Ru(i)n a Record Label. It’s good to know that Livermore can write about more than just the facts, and can pull real emotion into his story, because it means the next book will be a perfect complement to Punk USA, where it felt more factual than emotional. That’s probably the difference between a memoir and a biography, to be honest — one is told by the person, while another is told about a person. Regardless, I look forward to seeing Livermore’s take on his involvement with Lookout!

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Stitches: A Memoir

August 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

stitchesStitches: A Memoir by David Small


I stumbled across this book while browsing Goodreads one day. That’s nothing of note (a lot of the books that wind up on my to-read list come from there), but that particular day, I happened to be browsing the site after installing a browser extension that linked to my library. The summary and artwork both looked promising, and my local branch had a copy, so I gave it a test run, and what do you know? It works!

Stitches is a memoir of David Small’s early life. It’s a heavy story. Small’s parents were cold and distant, more interested in their own well-being than his own, and they often saw him as a burden more than anything else. His father, a radiographer, tries to cure Small’s pulmonary problems by dosing him with X-rays, so when he’s in his early teens and develops cancer, it’s not much of a surprise. Well, it’s not much of a surprise to his parents. It is to Small, because he goes into surgery expecting the doctors to remove what he’s been told is a sebaceous cyst, but when he wakes, he’s missing his thyroid and one of his vocal cords, and is effectively mute. It’s only then that he discovers he had cancer.

Dysfunctional families are the subject of many a memoir, so the memoir itself isn’t anything new, nor does it provide any particular insights into why families can be dysfunctional. What drew me to the story was the anecdote about his surgery and his ignorance of his own health, and once that point is passed in the story, it ceases to be as interesting. Small carries the story through to its conclusion, offering some small explanations for why his parents were like they were, and offering some small bit of closure to the relationship with his mother, but it doesn’t feel engaging. The story is compelling enough, and Small’s illustrations are evocative (there’s a break in the middle of the story where the style changes, and that change is used to great effect), but in the end, I couldn’t feel much more than pity for the author and his family, and I don’t feel that’s the appropriate emotional response for what happened to him.

Memoirs aren’t really my thing, but every so often a graphic memoir catches my attention enough to make me want to read it. Fun Home was another one I read and only just barely enjoyed, and Stitches is about the same for me. Part of it is they’re so one-sided; family dynamics, even in the healthiest families, are complicated, and it’s impossible to get the entire story of a family just by listening to one member. In his afterword, Small suggests that he did a lot of research into his family when writing the book, but it’s still a story told entirely from his viewpoint. I can’t help but feel we’re not getting the entire story, but maybe that’s the point of any memoir. Again, they’re not a genre I typically read.

I wasn’t impressed with Stitches, but I admit I’m not the target audience. I liked Maus, but most other memoirs I’ve read have felt pointless and self-indulgent. Fans of memoirs, or fans of stories about terrible families, might enjoy it (is “enjoy” even the right word here?), but for the most part I didn’t get it.

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