No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide by Glenn GreenwaldI admit that when the news broke about the NSA’s surveillance scandal, I didn’t feel terribly alarmed about it. Of course I value my own privacy, but the NSA wasn’t really going to spy on me, right? What’s the big deal? In his book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, Glenn Greenwald aptly explains what exactly the big deal is. Greenwald is an acclaimed journalist and after reading this, I understood why he’s won so many awards. He’s great at turning something complicated and maybe a little bit boring into a compelling narrative. It doesn’t hurt that in researching this story, his own life turned into a bit of a real life spy novel. Greenwald was the journalist to whom Edward Snowden decided to entrust his leaked documents, but in order to meet with him, Greenwald and his colleague had to travel to Hong Kong and follow Snowden’s requests, like meeting in unoccupied hotel conference rooms and greeting each other with code phrases, or covering his head with a towel when he types in his computer password to prevent any hidden cameras from being able to observe. At first, Greenwald (and I) thought Snowden’s measures seem extreme, but as Greenwald gets in deeper, Snowden begins to seem more and more reasonable.

I recommend No Place to Hide to any reader looking to understand the NSA surveillance scandal and what the right to privacy should mean in the USA. It also doubles as a pretty good true crime thriller.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I first heard of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan when it was announced as a 2013 Alex Award winner. The Alex Awards are for books written for adults that are deemed to have appeal for teen readers. Since I myself am an adult who works with teens, I like to check out Alex Award books when I can, and when I happened to see the audiobook version of Mr. Penumbra was checked in right before I left on a trip, I decided to check it out. I’m definitely glad I did!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a story for people who love books, but also for people who love the internet. It’s a book for people who love puzzles, and figuring stuff out. It’s a book for everyone who grew up looking for a secret door into Narnia or waiting for their letter from Hogwarts. It’s the story of Clay Jannon, who lost his graphic designer job and ended up working the night shift at the titular bookstore. The bookstore has very few customers, and Clay can’t understand how it stays in business at all. With his free time he starts poking around and discovers that the bookstore is much more than it appears to be on the surface, and he and his friends get caught up in an exciting international secret society.

This really works as an audiobook because it’s so fast-paced. Also, the book’s author makes a cameo in it as the narrator of the audiobook-within-an-audiobook, which is a fun addition.

I agree with the Alex committee; I think this would be a great book for adults and teens alike. (Note: There is some mild adult language, and a glossed-over description of 2 adults in a relationship. Still, if this were a movie, I personally think it would be PG-13.)

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Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

 

Here’s a librarian confession: sometimes when I sit at the reference desk, people come up to me and ask me to suggest a funny book. I always say, “Well… have you read anything by David Sedaris?” Sometimes, people have already read everything of his and loved it, and then I suggest similar works. Sometimes, people never never heard of David Sedaris, and then I force them to check out Me Talk Pretty One Day. But every so often, people will say, “Oh… you know, I tried to read something by David Sedaris and I just couldn’t get into it.” I literally don’t know what to say to those people. Not thinking David Sedaris is funny does not compute to me and I have no idea what else to suggest to those people. Like, maybe they think Shakespearean tragedy is hilarious. I just have no way of knowing.

Anyway, obviously, I love David Sedaris’s writing so I knew I wanted to read Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls as soon as I could. I especially love a chance to listen to his books as audio books, because he reads them himself and there’s always a bit of extra humor in his delivery. I was also excited when I heard that the music between essays would be by Andrew Bird, one of my favorite musicians. So, I was primed to love the Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls audiobook, and it did not disappoint.

If you already enjoy Sedaris’s brand of quirky, dark, observational humor, I probably don’t need to say any more about this book. If you’ve never read anything by David Sedaris or heard any of his stories on NPR, this book is as good a place as any to start.

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls largely consists of the darkly comic essays Sedaris is known for, describing events like shopping for taxidermied owls to give his boyfriend for Valentine’s Day (“’I really think the owl will do it for me today. It’s a Valentine’s Day present—perfect for our new place. A house, actually—no basement, and three stories tall.’ I wasn’t trying to be boastful. I just wanted him to know that I was loved, and that I lived aboveground”) or getting his first colonoscopy. The “Etc” alluded to in the book’s subtitle refers to a series of poems Sedaris wrote about dogs, as well as a set of monologues intended to be performed by high school speech teams. I saw Sedaris speak when he came to Louisville on his book tour, and he told the audience that he’d heard about high school speech students adapting his essays to perform, and he felt skeptical of their ability to condense his work, so he wrote some pieces that would already be within the time limit. Those were all particularly hilarious, and I’d love to hear them performed by high school students. (Maybe a bonus track on his next audiobook?)

(NOTE: this book overall contains adult language that parents might not feel comfortable listening to with children in the car.)

Anyway, I highly recommend this in audio form, or in print. Unless you’re one of those people who doesn’t think David Sedaris is funny, in which case… gosh, I don’t know, maybe try Macbeth?

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

As NAFCPL’s resident teen librarian, I read a lot of teen fiction and don’t often seek out adult fiction–when I do read an adult book, I tend to go for nonfiction.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy FowlerBut I read several tweets and blog entries that all said the same thing–go read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler as soon as possible, and don’t read any spoilers for it. This piqued my interest, and I picked up the book. (Unfortunately, the plot summary for the book on GoodReads.com gives away the plot spoiler everyone was telling me to avoid. Oops.)

In this blog entry, I’ll avoid spoilers for the book’s big twist. But I will say that I don’t think the book is ruined if you accidentally hear about the twist before you read it–in a way, I enjoyed knowing what was coming. It was like knowing how a magic trick is done but still appreciating the craft. I could see what Fowler was building to and admire how cleverly she was doing it, even if I wasn’t surprised when it happened.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of Rosemary Cooke and her family. For a time, Rosemary had an idyllic childhood in Bloomington, Indiana, with her brother, her sister, and her academic psychologist parents. But as Rosemary narrates the story, she’s a college student who barely talks to her parents. Her brother is a domestic terrorist, and she hasn’t seen her sister in years. Rosemary narrates how things came to be this way  (“I sometimes worried that [my parents’] marriage had become the sort Inspector Javert might have had with Jean Valjean.”) alongside funny stories of her college life (“I’d been considering telling Harlow what I’d just learned about chimp sex. Much would depend on how drunk I got”) in a witty, insightful way. Describing a family Thanksgiving, Rosemary observes:

In Bloomington, to someone my grandma’s age, the word psychologist evoked Kinsey and his prurient studies, Skinner and his preposterous baby boxes. Psychologists did not leave their work at the office. They brought it home. They conducted experiments around the breakfast table, made freak shows of their own families, and all to answer questions nice people wouldn’t even think to ask.

This, ultimately, is what We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about–answering questions nice people wouldn’t even think to ask. It does so in a generous, thoughtful way.

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The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the age of colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

 

A few of my very smart friends enthusiastically recommended The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander to me, so I expected that it would be an interesting book. But I wasn’t expecting it to be as readable and compelling as it was. Michelle Alexander is a legal scholar and I was afraid this book would be very dry and dense, but I was extremely impressed with how clear, concise, and eloquent her arguments were. You definitely do not need to be a lawyer or legal scholar to perfectly follow this book.

As indicated by the title, Alexander makes the case that the American prison and justice system acts in the same way the old Jim Crow laws did to create a permanent undercaste  (she explains that it is indeed a caste and not an underclass, because there is no way out of a caste, while class is more fluid). In her introduction she admits that this argument sounds extreme and it took her many years to become convinced of it, but the more she learned about our current systems of justice, the more concerned she became. In the United States, felons are the last group of people who can be legally discriminated against. They cannot vote, serve on juries, or receive public assistance (such as food stamps or public housing).

This is a difficult topic to talk about–many find it difficult to sympathize with felons, since they must have committed a crime and brought this situation upon themselves, right? Alexander’s book outlines how difficult it truly is for poor Americans to get a fair trial. Since public defenders are so overworked, many who are accused of crimes are convinced to plead guilty in exchange for a shorter sentence, without being informed about all the rights they will lose once they become convicted felons. Studies have shown that white and black Americans use illegal drugs in equal proportions, or that white Americans use more illegal drugs than black Americans. Yet in some states, as many as 90% of drug offenders in prison are black. In Kentucky, 1 in 5 black men of voting age are unable to vote due to felonies. If this information concerns you, or if you don’t believe that such a thing could be possible in the United States in 2013–especially if you don’t believe it could be possible–I highly recommend The New Jim Crow. It’s a stunning and important book, and Alexander is an exceptionally clear and thorough writer. I recommend this book even to readers who don’t normally pick up works of heavy nonfiction.

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