An Immense World, by Ed Yong

Ed Yong’s book An Immense World is a great example of the kind of non-fiction audiobook that I listen to with great interest even though I only understand and retain a small fraction of it. It’s about the sensory lives of animals — how dogs understand the world through smell, what it really means to be blind as a bat, and things far more arcane than that. The writing is lively and engaging, and listening to the book was a great way of exposing myself to a vast world of knowledge that I was almost completely ignorant of. I definitely couldn’t pass a test on the contents of a book just from one casual listen-through, but I was left with a reminder that the world and the other creatures we share it with are far more rich, strange, and varied than my human understanding reveals to me.

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Please Scream Inside Your Heart, by Dave Pell

This is another one I listened to as an audiobook which is hard to categorize, although I did really enjoy it. It’s an almost day-by-day journey through 2020 from the perspective of someone who admittedly consumes way too much media (Pell produces an online newsletter called NextDraft that offers “a quick and entertaining look at the day’s most fascinating news”); it’s a summary of American’s twin obsessions in that year — Donald Trump and Covid-19 — and how they were entwined; it’s also a memoir of Pell’s own personal and family response to the events of the year. The family perspective is particularly interesting as both Pell’s parents were Holocausts survivors, and their observations about the growing right-wing movement in the United States form a backdrop to the ever-escalating crises of life in 2020 America.

Ancestor Trouble, by Maud Newton

This book sounded like it would have everything I love — a woman explores her complicated family history, and along the way explores our ideas about ancestors, from “23 and me” style genetic-testing services, to ancestor worship traditions. I listened to it as an audiobook, as I generally do with nonfiction, but for some reason I just didn’t connect with this one as much as I’d hoped. Not a bad book by any means; just didn’t hit the right notes for me.

Unmask Alice, by Rick Emerson

Right after racing through the audiobook of Tim Miller’s Why We Did It, I started listening to the very different, but equally compelling Unmask Alice, which I came to by way of the podcast You’re Wrong About, which did a three-part series on Go Ask Alice, part 3 of which featured Rick Emerson with an interview and a recommendation to read his book for the rest of the story.

I’m not sure why I found this so compelling, apart from the usual reason with great non-fiction: I didn’t know I was interested in the subject until someone wrote about it in such an engaging way that I couldn’t put it down (or turn it off, in the case of an audiobook).

I’ve never actually read Go Ask Alice, though the book has been around almost my entire life (published in 1971). I was always aware of it in a vague way as part of the culture: the anonymous diary of a teenager who died as a result of drug use (mostly LSD). I also had a sense that it might be a fake diary, and learned a bit more about it from episodes of the podcasts Worst Bestsellers and the above-mentioned You’re Wrong About. But with Unmask Alice I took a very, very deep dive into the world of author Beatrice Sparks and her best-known books, Go Ask Alice and Jay’s Journal (about a teenaged boy who dies by suicide after becoming involved with satanism and the occult).

Long story short: after some incredibly exhaustive and detailed research, Emerson concludes that Beatrice Sparks was pretty much a fraud through and through. She didn’t have the psychology degree (much less the PhD) that she claimed to have; she may have done some volunteer work in hospitals or programs that worked with troubled youth but she certainly was not a therapist or counsellor, which she represented herself as being. What, then, of her claims that Alice’s, Jay’s, and other diaries came her way as part of her work as a youth counsellor, or that other books were based on her case notes? Sketchy at best — especially in the case of Jay’s Journal, which was very loosely based on the real diary of a sixteen-year-old boy who died by suicide and whose mother gave the diary to Sparks, only to feel horribly betrayed by what she made of it. The true story that may have provided the germ of the original Alice book is not explored in nearly as much detail here as the “Jay” story is, because the author had permission to speak to and write about “Jay”‘s family and friends, whereas the people involved in “Alice”‘s story wished to have their privacy protected. But the broad outlines of that story are sketched here too, and it is indeed a very different story than the one that became famous and is still selling millions of copies today.

This is a great, well researched and engagingly written story of an author who pulled off an amazing scam — but what adds a layer of interest is how Sparks’s two most famous books tie into the political and social story of America during the years they were published. The timing of Alice was fortuitous — the book got a big bump in visibility from Art Linkletter, who Sparks already knew from some previous writing gigs, during the time that Linkletter was grieving the death of his daughter from a possibly drug-related suicide. The book became part of the hysteria that led to Nixon’s “War on Drugs,” and, well, we all know how well that worked out.

As for Jay’s Journal, the parts that were complete made up and unconnected to the real story of the boy behind the diary – the occult explorations, the bizarre satanic rituals — proved to be the most interesting to readers, and fed into (possibly even helped kick-start) the 1980s “Satanic panic.” So Beatrice Sparks was far more than just an unsuccessful writer who conned her way into becoming a successful one — she was an influencer whose contributions to American society led to untold harm to a lot of innocent people. Which makes Unmask Alice not only an incredibly interesting and engaging book, but maybe an important one too.

Why We Did It, by Tim Miller

Opinions will be divided on this book, but I found it fascinating. Tim Miller is a moderately well-known “Never Trumper” who used to work in communications for several Republican politicians prior to the 2016 election. Miller was working for Jeb Bush when Trump won the primary, and his subsequent disgust with Trump and all that Trump represented, led Miller not only (eventually) away from the party altogether, but to a re-examination of how the party he had once supported and worked for led to the outcomes of 2016 and beyond.

Tim Miller never worked in the Trump administration, but for this book he tells the stories of lots of people who did — some who agreed to talk to him on record and some who did not. But he titles it Why We Did It rather than Why They Did It because Miller fully owns and admits to his own culpability in building the machine that courted the votes and empowered the voices of the same people who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and who stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021.

For some leftie readers, Miller’s self-examination won’t be enough to exonerate him (and I think he’d be OK with that). As a gay man working for an increasingly homophobic political party, the cognitive dissonance was already starting to get to him, but it’s valid to ask whether, if Jeb Bush had won the 2016 Republican primary, Tim Miller would still be a Republican operative. Did his growing questioning and discontent with much of his party’s direction require the catalyst of Trumpism to turn it into open rebellion, or would that have happened eventually anyway?

There’s no way to know for sure, obviously, and while Miller answers a lot of questions in this book, he doesn’t touch on that one directly. For me, as an interested Canadian who swore off my obsession with US politics after 2020 (and has mostly managed to keep distanced from it), Miller’s engaging voice, humour, and honesty were enough to draw me back in for as long as it took me to listen to this audiobook. (Worth noting that I’m using “voice” here in the metaphorical sense as this is one of those audiobooks that is narrated not by the author but by someone else. As Miller is a podcaster, his voice is quite listen-able and I don’t know why he didn’t narrate it himself as I would have enjoyed that even more, but that’s a very minor quibble).

Red Famine, by Anne Applebaum

This book about the Holodomor, the tragic (and almost completely avoidable, in fact promoted by the Soviet regime) Ukraine famine of 1932-33, took me forever to get through on audiobook — it is long, dense with detail, and on a very difficult and painful subject — but it is very relevant background to have in the light of the current invasion of Ukraine by Russia. It’s helpful to understand the pre-Communist relationship between the two countries (not that Ukraine was officially a “country” for much of that time, but Applebaum shows how Ukrainian identity and nationalism was always a powerful force and always put down by Russia). As well as learning about the famine itself, I was interested in how controversial even talking about or naming the famine (the Soviets referred to it as “food difficulties” and similar euphemisms) was for a long time, well up through the Cold War era, when sympathy with Ukrainian nationalists was often seen as a right-wing, anti-Communist position in the West (this, as well as WW2 obviously, goes a long way to explaining Putin’s current slander of all Ukrainian nationalists as “Nazis”).

Anne Applebaum clearly has little sympathy for even the most lofty ideals of the Russian Communist movement, in the light of the suffering Stalin’s regime caused in Ukraine, and viewed through the lens of these events, that perspective is entirely understandable. Even when I had finished, I felt like there was a lot of nuance I still didn’t fully grasp in this book, but I certainly learned a lot more than I knew before, all of it helpful in understanding the context of the current Russia/Ukraine situation.

Talking to Canadians, by Rick Mercer

A family member gave my husband Rick Mercer’s memoir Talking to Canadians for Christmas. So a lot of Christmas vacation was spent listening to Jason burst out laughing while reading this book, then having him go, “Oh, I’ve just gotta read you this bit … oh, just one more bit …” while reading sections of the book.

In keeping with my policy that the best way to enjoy a comedian’s memoir is on audiobook, read by the author, I decided I would like to hear the book read aloud — but by Rick Mercer, and also in order from beginning to end.

This is as funny and thoughtful as any Rick Mercer fan would expect his book to be, with great anecdotes about growing up in Newfoundland and breaking into show business on the local scene before eventually making it big on national TV. My only disappointment came when I realized the book was nearing an end and Rick was just getting ready to launch his solo TV show. That was when it dawned on me this book was not going to cover the long and epic run of the Mercer Report — that will have to wait for another book! Thoroughly enjoyable!

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

This was a very long audiobook that took me several weeks (on and off) to listen to, but it was well worth it. It’s a very detailed (though for a general audience, not scholarly) analysis of the Great Migration, the movement of Black people from the American south beginning during the First World War and continuing until the civil rights era in the 1960s and early 70s. The breadth and scope of this book is impressive, sweeping through several decades of American history and looking at the reasons for the migration and the impacts of it in many different Northern and Western cities where the migrants settled. However, this broad scope is balanced by a personal focus: out of the many migrants Wilkerson interviewed in the 1990s when most were elderly, she chose three individuals — one woman and two men — who all migrated from different places in the South, to different Northern cities, in different decades (the 30s, 40s and 50s), and traces each of their stories throughout their lives. Telling the story in this way — three individual histories unfolding against the background of the much bigger story of two or three generations of migrants seeking freedom and better lives — makes the whole movement come alive for the reader. We see the horrific Jim Crow-era racism that forced these people to leave — and also the more veiled but just as real racism that they faced in the North upon arrival. This book is social history at its best and I learned so much from it.

How to Be Champion, by Sarah Millican

Following immediately upon the heels of Bob Mortimer’s And Away… (and not unrelated to a very long two-day drive Jason and I just went on), How to Be Champion is another entry in the “UK comedians I like who are reading their own life stories” category. I love Sarah Millican’s humour, and in this 2017 memoir she writes about childhood, growing up, being bullied, being a weird nerdy little kid and teenager, getting married very young, getting divorced, getting into comedy, being a woman, having periods, not wanting children, falling in love again, having body image issues, feminism, being a target of online hate, and so many other things. There’s also a bit of light-hearted self-help in each chapter in the form of Sarah’s “tips on how to be champion” (she also explains what “champion” means, in her North-of-England dialect, in case you’re not clear). Funny and often insightful.

And Away…, by Bob Mortimer

One of my favourite audiobook categories is “UK comedians reading their own memoirs” and as Bob Mortimer is a favourite of mine in the world of comedy, it was unsurprising that Jason and I would both enjoy listening to his memoir. Mortimer structures the story of his life and career around his 2015 heart attack, surgery, and recovery, switching back and forth from 2015 to the more distant past as he tells the story of the life he lived leading up to that event, his career in comedy, and what he learned and the changes he made after almost dying. Some serious thoughts here, but mostly the tone is light and there’s some very, very funny observations. Also, if you watch Bob Mortimer’s frequent appearances on Would I Lie to You, as we do, you’ll realize the reason his most outrageous stories are usually true — he has an incredible gift for taking incidents from his life and telling them in the most unforgettable ways (plus, he has done some really weird stuff)! Thoroughly enjoyable, though, like most celebrity memoirs, probably mostly enjoyable if you know the man and his work.