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Danny recently received an English degree from Boise State University and is working hard to become a professional writer. He hasn't quite figured out how to reconcile that career with the need to eat and afford housing but he's surprisingly okay with that. He mainly reads fiction, gravitating toward the "grit lit" genre about good people who make bad decisions, mostly because it reminds of him of his own life. He also can't pass up a good book about the art of stand-up comedy. He currently resides in Chandler and hopes to one day own a car. He blogs here.
In case you haven't noticed, our world has become inundated with jokes. Comedy is everywhere. It's in commercials, social media. politics, even church marquees. We have reached peak comedy. One of the central questions Ken Jennings asks is if everything is now funny, is anything funny? We have an insatiable appetite for jokes and it just might be destroying our sincerity as a culture, because once something is funny it can never go back to not being funny. This is affecting the way we consume news and the way we interact with the world. After all, how can we affect social change if we're too busy laughing at the problem? I'm kind of suggesting this book is a downer and it's really not. Jennings is a funny guy himself, and a student of comedy, and Planet Funny is as much a history of, and love letter to, comedy as it is a social critique.
Charlie LeDuff has two important things going for him as a journalist: A great nose for bullshit and a seemingly endless supply of empathy. The former is expected but the latter is shockingly rare in modern journalism. Charlie travels the country, with his forged press credentials in tow (Fox wouldn't spring for the real deal), finds and talks with the people the rest of us have all forgotten about. His concern is for the working class and the poor being exploited by the rich, or the government, or the media. He doesn't just collect these stories though, he takes these stories of the exploited directly to the exploiters, questions and challenges them. He demands answers even though nobody's willing to give them. His is a fearless and almost reckless kind of journalism that this country desperately needs right now.
Though it's set in South Africa, it's all too easy to recognize the relevance Weeping Waters has in America these days. I may be in the minority here but my favorite thing about a good crime novel is not the who-dun-it aspect, but the more terrifying mystery of how the characters will learn to live again in a world that has been shattered by violence. Karin Brynard brings us a novel that cares far more about the characters and the racial politics in South Africa than she does about solving any mystery. Not that the mystery itself isn't compelling, because it is, but this story elevates itself into something far bigger and more meaningful.
A unique look at World War I in that the book is concerned with two significant powers lingering mainly on the sidelines of the conflict. Herman compares and contrasts Lenin and Woodrow Wilson's personalities and quests for power and isn't particularly kind to either of them. 1917 assumes you know all the terrible things Lenin did so he spends more time on the damage Wilson's presidency did to the international stage and how just a little bit of flexibility, or empathy, on his part could have helped set the world on a much different path then the destructive one it's been on ever since the first World War.
Lenin was a fanatic and a ruthless man. He believed wholeheartedly in Marxism but was always willing to overlook the teachings in his pursuit of power. The ends would always justify the means. He was petty, cruel, and prone to violent outbursts while also being funny, charismatic, and devoted to the women in his life. Victor Sebestyen wants the reader to understand that Lenin was a complicated man and dismissing him as simply a ruthless dictator (though he was) is missing the point of the revolution in Russia.
Cormac McCarthy on meth.
Adapting a comic book character into a traditional novel format usually doesn't work out great. Visuals and splash panels are so important to the genre that inevitably something is lost in the transition. Jason Reynolds gets around that by mostly removing Spiderman from the story and focusing on Miles Morales, a half black and half Puerto Rican growing up in Brooklyn and trying to fit in in a school for rich kids where he doesn't feel he belongs. There are certainly very comic-booky elements to this novel (why wouldn't there be?) but Reynolds finds a way to tell a gripping and often moving way to tell Miles' story. This comic book character novelization manages to deal with institutional racism in a more honest and interesting manner than any "serious" novel I've read in a long time.
It took a couple chapters, but I'm in. I'm a convert. Let's bring that Mammoth back. In Woolly, Ben Mezrich follows teams of scientists attempting to resurrect the Woolly Mammoth and details how they aim to do it and the ramifications of their possible success. It's not all man's hubris either, the benefits of bringing back this extinct animal could help curb the effects of climate change and may inadvertently lead to an eradication of a vicious strand of herpes threatening to wipe out the Asian Elephant population. It also tackles the inevitable Jurassic Park comparison head on and takes care to explain why this is not the same thing, and the science in that famous novel is ridiculous anyway. This book reads quickly and it's a fascinating study of how far we've come scientifically and how far we still may be able to go.
There's a war you may not know about going on in baseball: The old school vs the new, the "play the game the right ways" vs "stat geeks." This may be emblematic of a deeper cultural divide in these modern times but let's not get into that right now. Keith Law's Smart Baseball is a thesis, a guide, and a clear line drawn in the sand. We've been thinking about baseball wrong ever since it's inception. Most of that is forgivable but now that we have the technology to measure literally everything in baseball, we ought to use it. Law is a national writer and prospect guru. His prose is snarky without being off-putting and this book makes a strong case for new information and stats enhancing baseball without destroying any of the mystique.
A well-researched and great introduction to the concept of income inequality in the United States. Shapiro, through hours and hours of interviews paints a personal picture of what it means to be financially insecure and how our system (sometimes even when it's well-intentioned) perpetuates economic and racial divide. He doesn't just lay on the problems though, there are plenty of solutions suggested in this book as well.
If you know of Doug Stanhope, you probably love him. If you don't know him, he's probably not for you anyway. Like in his comedy, this book doesn't shy away from the darkness, in fact celebrates it and mocks you for being afraid of it. Though there are plenty of comics on the road type stories, which I'm a big fan of, this is, as the subtitle suggests, a love story about his mother. Make no mistake though, it's not an ode to his mother. Stanhope is too smart for that. He presents his mother as she was, not in some idealistic fashion. He loves her in that true way where he doesn't feel the need to idealize her. For her part, she comes across as hilarious, fascinating, and tragic. Though the prose in this book is more controlled than his rapid fire, rage eruption stage dynamic, it still reads as wild and uncomfortable, and even at times poignant. This is a pretty great book.
Delightfully absurd. Let's face it: Norm MacDonald's not for everybody, and his dry aloofness is all over this "memoir." He's more interested in making fun of the celebrity memoir than dishing out the behind the scenes stories these books so often rely on. In fact, the book is almost entirely fabricated. The book tells three stories: The present day where Norm and Adam Eget try to make one last drug-fueled score in Vegas before his debtors come for him, a ridiculous telling of his past through a morphine haze, and a strange and surreal account of his fictional ghost writer struggling to find the humanity in the subject of Norm MacDonald. This book is weird in all the right ways, just like Norm.
The Black Panther Party has been buried as a footnote, at best, by white history, regarding it only as a fringe violent revolutionary group that was around for a short time. Even though I understand this to be nonsense, I still knew very little about the actual history, and operations, of the Black Panthers. This book, an oral history, is fascinating in that it's not interested in the people at the top, but instead it's told at more of a street level, by the "rank and file" members. This gives it an authentic feel and gives a solid background of what these men and women were fighting for. Community organization, support, education, and political activism were at the forefront of their mission. They fought a battle that still goes on in movements like Black Lives Matter. Now, with recent developments in this country, it's probably even more important to understand what they were fighting for because that fight is still going on and we may all need to start adopting some of their strategies.
In White Trash, Nancy Isenberg sets out to expose the truth about the myths of America's origin story, and it achieves that goal perfectly. Tracing the mass deportation of England's "waste people" 400 years ago all the way through the trailer parks and Honey Boo-Boo's of today, this book is sharply focused on both the way we perceive class in this country and how those in power have exploited the poor since our inception. Fun chapters include attacks on Andrew Jackson as a "cracker," Teddy Roosevelt and his campaign for eugenics, and Clinton's sex scandal confirming, in the eyes of his detractors, that he's just another piece of white trash that doesn't belong in power.
At the heart of Silence by Shasaku Endo is an unanswerable question: Is faith, or more accurately the public expression of faith, more important than innocent lives? The Christian faith teaches that the world is likely to make you a martyr and priests tend to go into that life willingly, but that doesn't necessarily go for the congregation. Set in feudal Japan when Christianity was outlawed and heavily persecuted, two Portuguese priests go in for secret missionary work. When caught, they are ready for torture, but not ready to witness the torture and mass killings of those they came to save. This book is beautifully written and if you need more reason to read it, Martin Scorsese is directing a movie based on it due out some time in the near future.
There is a trick being played on you by Noah Hawley. And I mean you, the reader. There is a twist, but it's abstract rather than functional. What is disguised as a thriller, and an effective one at that, Before the Fall is about obsession, privilege, and the dehumanizing effect of the 24 hour news cycle. Hawley takes his characters, all appearing in caricature at first, and slowly fleshes them out until each of them becomes believable and even relatable in their own way. Refreshingly, Hawley doesn't seem to believe in pure evil but instead he focuses on a yearning for something greater that drives his characters. It all adds up to something of a singular experience in the thriller genre: hope and rebirth and maybe even a crushing blow to cynicism.
This is sports journalism. Or at least what it's supposed to be. Michael Leahy uses baseball, specifically the Los Angeles Dodgers of the 1960's, as a backdrop to look at the state and turmoil of the country throughout the decade. The first half of the book is primarily focused on race. Baseball integrated about a decade and a half before the rest of the country outlawed segregation and both handled it poorly. Both the sport and the country allowed black people greater access but failed to do anything at all about discrimination and ingrained injustice. The second half of the book's focus is on labor. With how much money players get paid today, people tend to forget that for a long time they were basically indentured servants, the owners controlled every aspect of their professional lives. This book details the hard fought bargaining rights and unionizing the players went through and the cycle of abuse and intimidation they received from the owners. The two players the narrative mainly follows are Maury Wills, the black speedster who slowly learned to stand up for himself and what is right, and Wes Parker, the rich, white first baseman who grew up in an abusive home. The contrast and similarities strengthen and enrich the book and show the struggle everyone went through in that tumultuous decade. It's sort of a cliche at this point to say baseball is a metaphor for life, but The Last Innocents proves that the cliche is sometimes true. Baseball has always mirrored American life in perfect detail and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come.
I can't say he's really breaking any new ground here but if you are a fan of Chuck Klosterman then you will, in all likelihood, like this book. It's full of delightfully circular arguments that usually lead him back to the beginning or to the conclusion "we can't really know but it's fun to think about." The idea of the book is predicting how future generations will view us. A few of the things he looks at are musicians, writers, political ideas, and scientific thought. It's a fun book and a great read, but if you're looking for anything definitive, this isn't for you.
Are our public schools failing due to neglect and corruption or are they failing because their design is fundamentally flawed and damaging? This is the question at the center of Nikhil Goyal's Schools on Trial. Through detailed and exhaustive research, he explores the history of America's public schooling and it's shortcomings at the conceptual level. There is a lot of negativity in the beginning (i.e. if schools are set up the same as prisons, how can we hold children responsible for resorting to a prison mentality?), but the bulk of the book is hopeful. Goyal cites example after example of schools that are educating students in new and innovative ways, using technology and the very community they inhabit to build something more lasting and tangible than test scores. The fact that Goyal is so young allows him to write about these things with a sense of urgency most of us have already lost. I wouldn't say this is a thorough blueprint of how we can fundamentally change our education system, but instead a call to arms. It hopes to get us mad enough and informed enough to start making the changes necessary to save an education system increasingly in shambles.
Three brothers, dirt poor, become an infamous bank robbing trio that is headed for Canada with their stolen money. That's the main plot, but many subplots thread their way through the novel, all coming together by the end. This is the work of a good writer maturing into a great one. The world is complete and every single character feels whole and authentic. It's a gritty tragedy in the southern Gothic style (though most of the novel takes place in Southern Ohio) that allows redemption and hope to still exist in a bleak and unforgiving world.
The best book I've read in a few years. As much concerned with America's complicated relationship with black history as it is being a biography of James Brown. James McBride refuses to give a linear story, because no person's true story can be linear, and instead dives into the complexities and nuances of the man. Kill 'Em and Leave is passionate, well-researched, and honest in ways you don't expect in a book about a musical legend. If you have even a passing interest in James Brown and/or the music that emerged out of the black communities in the 50's and 60's, please read this.
Love the Dodgers? Hate the Dodgers? Either way, you’ll get a lot out of The Best Team Money Can Buy. In a shallow sense, the Dodgers are portrayed as the most expensive failure in the history of baseball due to early playoff exits in consecutive years. What makes this book exceptional, though, is author Molly Knight’s access and insight into the clubhouse, normally a place of sanctity for players, and the inner workings of a professional baseball club. Personality and ideological clashes abound, important decisions are made on strange whims, and tempers flare at inopportune times. If you’re looking for a story of a dysfunctional franchise filled with overpaid, prima donna players, this book certainly has that in abundance. But more importantly, we get an example of honest sports journalism, a mostly forgotten art, where a group of guys from vastly different backgrounds attempt to come together and bring home a championship.
Leonard Gardner’s Fat City is Rocky, stripped of all its romance and inspiration. Boxers in depression era Northern California, Ernie Munger, at the beginning of his career, and Billy Tully, at the end of his struggle with booze, women, money, and the misguided belief that if they keep fighting things just might change. There is no big fight, though, no moral victory and life-changing payday waiting around the corner. Their common thread is mutual trainer Ruben, who tries to hold together their lives and psyches but fails at every step in the face of their self-destructive natures and resentment of authority. An old-fashioned hardboiled novel full of desperation and pain, and teeming with life, this forgotten American masterpiece feels just as fresh and important as it did when originally published in the 60’s.