Books, books, and more books.

5 – The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama. I have a problem with books written by politicians, even those politicians I like. I can’t stop thinking about how they’re angling, positioning, and posturing. It’s hard for me to separate the words on the page from the next office they will seek. This book was no different. The entire time, I kept thinking, “This man is running for president.” There are some very good parts. His overviews of various aspects of modern American life are excellent; he would make a fine history professor if he ever decides to chuck the political stuff. Some of his ideas are inspired, efforts to get away from the rigid thinking that forces Americans to declare themselves as Red Staters or Blue Staters, with no room for discussion, debate, or middle ground. But, some of his ideas are extremely trite. Not sure if he was rushed and decided saying things like “we need to make schools better,” was enough, or if he was afraid to come up with something controversial. I like Barack a lot. But when I put this book down, I wasn’t super fired up to go start campaigning for him. I still like him a lot, it’s just not a great book. Oh, and the title. The entire time I was reading it, I thought of Lionel Richie and his “Outrageous!” night. “Audacious!”

6 – The Soul of Baseball – Joe Posnanski. JoePo’s homage to Kansas City and Negro Leagues legend Buck O’Neil. Joe spent a year traveling with Buck and related the stories, well some of the stories. It would have been impossible to relate them all. If you know about Buck, much of the book will be a rehash. But it’s a great rehash. And the new stories are wonderful. Buck’s magnanimous reaction when he wasn’t voted into the Hall of Fame cemented his legend. Joe shows how Buck really did want to get in, and was momentarily crushed when he realized it wouldn’t happen. His ultimate reaction, would the Hall of Fame want him to talk about the people from the Negro Leagues they did let in, showed what a wonderful man Buck was. I’ll admit it, I read most of this book with tears in my eyes. Tears for the injustices this country allowed not so long ago. Tears for the manner in which Buck dealt with those who kept him from achieving his ultimate dreams. Tears for what a wonderful man Buck was. And tears for having lost such a great man and fantastic ambassador for both baseball and my hometown. Great, great book.

7 – A Long Way Gone – Ishmael Beah. If you were in a Starbucks this winter, you probably saw the ads for this book. I found it on sale, and as it fit into my broader interests in Africa, I picked it up. Is is the story of a younger Ishmael Beah, from age 11 through 16, when he first fled the civil war in his home land of Sierra Leone with friends after their families were killed, and then fought for the government as one of the country’s infamous child soldiers. Child soldiers are becoming more and more common in Third World wars, and the war in Sierra Leone was one of the most horrible examples. Kids younger than ten were forced to fight, often after being forced to ingest drugs. It’s a horrendous problem, one that can wipe out a nation’s future if it is lucky enough to get through the war.

Beah’s story is certainly compelling, but it isn’t well told. First, the book is loaded with passive voice. After j-school, passive voice drives me nuts. Didn’t someone edit this? Second, there are strange omissions. He glosses over much of his actual war activities. Some of that is no doubt because of the insane amount of drugs (often cocaine mixed with gunpowder) he was forced to ingest before each battle. Other elements have no doubt been banished from his memory. Finally, we know he makes it to the US and goes to college from the dust jacket, but he doesn’t tell us about that. The book ends with him making it to the Sierra Leone embassy in neighboring Guinea. I think the story of how he made it to America and what he accomplished after he got here is as compelling as his stories of fleeing the war and then fighting in it.

8 – “Love is a Mix Tape – Rob Sheffield. My graduate school completion, one evening read. As a regular reader of the music blogosphere, I glanced at a few of the glowing reviews of this book when it came out. But I didn’t read too much, because I wanted to form my own opinion. So when I got into it, I saw it was much more than an ode to the mix tape, or just a Nick Hornby-esque autobiography wrapped around an interesting frame. Sheffield is a music writer and commentator – he has appeared on several VH1 shows – and the book indeed traces his love affair with the mixtape from the late 70s, when he and his dad filled an entire cassette with “Hey Jude” repeated over-and-over, to today. Along the way, we see that music was his way of finding entry into social situations, poor Rob doesn’t sound like he was the best looking kid in the world (not judging, I’m not proud of most of my middle school pictures), and way of putting events into context. Then, he met a girl. She loved music. They bonded over a shared love of Big Star, began dating, and eventually married. Easy enough, right?

He would never have sold the book if there wasn’t a twist of some kind, and it is a devastating twist that makes the book. Six years into their marriage, his wife was sewing one day, she stood up, took a step, and fell to the floor, dead instantly from a pulmonary embolism. Much of the book is about his grieving process, or about finding old tapes they made for each other and reliving the memories of when she was still alive. It’s heartbreaking, and while my experience was different, certainly brought back a lot of memories of the initial weeks after my mom died. Of course, eventually, he realized he needed to get busy living again, he met another woman, and fell in love with her. But the book stands as a testament to the amazing love he felt for his wife.

Other than thinking about my experiences grieving, the book also made me wish that I had held on to more of my old mix tapes. I’ve got a few here and there, along with piles of old CDs in a closet somewhere. But I was all about taping over mixes that had served their purpose with newer, better music. Or I periodically purged mixes that were a year or two old, tossing the tapes into the garbage. I always wanted to find a way for tape to contain a memory of everything you had ever taped onto it, so you could practice aural archaeology, digging through layers of music deposited over the years to find the songs you loved when you were 14 or 12 or 9. Good times.