Review: The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke Emezi

Review: The Death of Vivek Oji, Akwaeke EmeziThe Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi
Narrator: Yetide Badaki, Chukwudi Iwuji
Published by Penguin Audio ISBN: 0593211480
on August 4, 2020
Length: 7 hours 38 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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three-stars

Named one of the year’s most anticipated books by The New York Times, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more. What does it mean for a family to lose a child they never really knew?

One afternoon, in a town in southeastern Nigeria, a mother opens her front door to discover her son’s body, wrapped in colorful fabric, at her feet. What follows is the tumultuous, heart-wrenching story of one family’s struggle to understand a child whose spirit is both gentle and mysterious. Raised by a distant father and an understanding but overprotective mother, Vivek suffers disorienting blackouts, moments of disconnection between self and surroundings. As adolescence gives way to adulthood, Vivek finds solace in friendships with the warm, boisterous daughters of the Nigerwives, foreign-born women married to Nigerian men. But Vivek’s closest bond is with Osita, the worldly, high-spirited cousin whose teasing confidence masks a guarded private life. As their relationship deepens—and Osita struggles to understand Vivek’s escalating crisis—the mystery gives way to a heart-stopping act of violence in a moment of exhilarating freedom.

Propulsively readable, teeming with unforgettable characters, The Death of Vivek Oji is a novel of family and friendship that challenges expectations—a dramatic story of loss and transcendence that will move every reader.

I read this book as part of the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge for September: read a book set in Africa. I had been wanting to read The Death of Vivek Oji for some time, and friends had recommended it. I also read it in the wake of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s attack on the author, Akwaeke Emezi, which made the rounds on Twitter and revealed Adichie has anti-trans sentiments, so I thought reading this book might be one way to support the author.

I’m not really sure why the story didn’t grab me. I think because Vivek/Nnemdi was an ancillary character in her own death, even though Emezi gave her a voice to narrate some of the chapters from her grave. Instead, this was the story of everyone else’s reactions to her death—yes, I get that this was the point—and especially due to the fact that no one was using her proper pronouns until the end, I was finding it hard to really follow her as a character. How did she identify? I felt like it mattered that the reader understand this important fact of her life. I felt like there was a bit too much going on to make the story gel for me. Osita’s conflict over his sexuality and relationship with his cousin, Juju’s conflict over her sexuality, the infidelity of Juju’s father, Juju being a girl instead of a boy, and the Niger wives’ experiences as ex-pats married to Nigerian husbands. Any one of those topics would have been ample material for a novel, but put together made the novel feel like it didn’t quite cohere for me.

On the other hand, the writing is very good, and the perspective Emezi offers is fresh. I understand that voice is paramount in Emezi’s work. Kavita’s grief over the loss of her child was palpable and very hard to read. For me, she is the character who emerges as most memorable, and I would have loved a focus entirely on her story as she wrestled with her grief and found out the truth about her child’s gender identity after that child’s death. The audiobook narrators were brilliant as well, and I highly recommend listening to this on audio with the caveat that it is hard to follow as the story shifts in time. In fact, that might be the reason it didn’t quite grab me. However, even though this book wasn’t for me, I recognize what Emezi is doing and look forward to reading other works they write.

three-stars

Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Review: A Walk in the Woods, Bill BrysonA Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Rob McQuay
Published by Broadway Books ISBN: 0767902521
on May 4, 1999
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 9 hours 47 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

Back in America after twenty years in Britain, Bill Bryson decided to reacquaint himself with his native country by walking the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine. The AT offers an astonishing landscape of silent forests and sparkling lakes—and to a writer with the comic genius of Bill Bryson, it also provides endless opportunities to witness the majestic silliness of his fellow human beings. For a start, there's the gloriously out-of-shape Stephen Katz, a buddy from Iowa along for the walk. Despite Katz's overwhelming desire to find cozy restaurants, he and Bryson eventually settle into their stride, and while on the trail they meet a bizarre assortment of hilarious characters. But A Walk in the Woods is more than just a laugh-out-loud hike. Bryson's acute eye is a wise witness to this beautiful but fragile trail, and as he tells its fascinating history, he makes a moving plea for the conservation of America's last great wilderness. An adventure, a comedy, and a celebration, A Walk in the Woods has become a modern classic of travel literature.

After finishing and enjoying Bill Bryson’s book about traveling Australia, In a Sunburned Country, I wanted to read A Walk in the Woods. I have taken up walking myself, and while I harbor no desire to walk the Appalachian Trail, I understand the joy a good walk can bring. This book really brings together a few different elements. On one level, it’s the history and ecology of the AT. It’s also a travelogue, which I expected after reading In a Sunburned Country. However, what I didn’t expect (not having read reviews) was that this would be a buddy story. Bryson is accompanied on his journey—his old friend Stephen Katz joins Bryson’s hike and threatens to walk away with the whole narrative. I’d love to know Katz’s reasons for wanting to walk the AT with Bill Bryson, but I’m glad he went.

My largest problem with the book was the narrator wasn’t Bryson. He also mispronounced a few proper nouns, which always bothers me. There are more than a few Deliverance references meant to be jokes, as well. That old stereotype wears very thin after a while, but I felt Bryson was attempting to rationalize some of his anxiety; I’m not sure to what extent he really believes those stereotypes.

This book was particularly fun to listen to as I walked, and I especially enjoyed hearing about some of the places I was more familiar with—the segment on Mount Greylock was interesting to me, as I have visited it and remember seeing everything he described. I imagine it would be fun to read this book while hiking the AT. I learned a great deal about the AT, and I also learned more about ecological concerns facing conservationists today.

five-stars

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

Review: In a Sunburned Country, Bill BrysonIn a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by Random House ISBN: 1415920737
on January 4, 2000
Genres: Nonfiction, Travel
Length: 11 hours 54 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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four-half-stars

Every time Bill Bryson walks out the door, memorable travel literature threatens to break out. His previous excursion along the Appalachian Trail resulted in the sublime national bestseller A Walk in the Woods. In A Sunburned Country is his report on what he found in an entirely different place: Australia, the country that doubles as a continent, and a place with the friendliest inhabitants, the hottest, driest weather, and the most peculiar and lethal wildlife to be found on the planet. The result is a deliciously funny, fact-filled, and adventurous performance by a writer who combines humor, wonder, and unflagging curiosity.

Despite the fact that Australia harbors more things that can kill you in extremely nasty ways than anywhere else, including sharks, crocodiles, snakes, even riptides and deserts, Bill Bryson adores the place, and he takes his readers on a rollicking ride far beyond that beaten tourist path. Wherever he goes he finds Australians who are cheerful, extroverted, and unfailingly obliging, and these beaming products of land with clean, safe cities, cold beer, and constant sunshine fill the pages of this wonderful book. Australia is an immense and fortunate land, and it has found in Bill Bryson its perfect guide.

After an aborted attempt at reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North* by Richard Flanagan for the Book Voyage Challenge (a book set in Australia or New Zealand), I decided to check this title out from the library. I had previously read Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue with mixed results, but I had heard this book was pretty good, and it was. I learned a lot about Australian history and natural science, none of which I knew. Bryson makes the point that we forget about Australia, and I think it’s a valid point.

I found his chapters on the indigenous population to be most interesting. Is there a place in the world where an indigenous population has been treated with a modicum of respect? I’m sincerely asking. What happened to Australia’s Aboriginal population is very similar to what happened to the indigenous population in the United States.

I was also fascinated by Bryson’s description of Australia’s natural features and wildlife. I’m not sure if he has convinced me to visit Australia or steer clear! Of course, Bryson’s characteristic wit makes for a fun read. It made me want to read more of his books, especially those that deal a bit with travel (I checked A Walk in the Woods out from my library). Bryson makes an effort to see as much of Australia as he can—even places that it sounds like many Australians don’t necessarily see. He has a deep curiosity and a wonderful way of drawing the reader into that curiosity.

Bryson narrates this audiobook, and he is a good narrator—many writers are not necessarily good at reading their work. If you do read it, I recommend the audiobook with the caveat that you might find you want to look up some of the text. It was a much more enjoyable read than I was expecting. My only concern is that at times, Bryson seems a bit glib. It was hard to read his concern for the Aboriginal population summed up like this:

If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on Aboriginal issues, all I could write would be “Do more. Try harder. Start now.”

So without an original or helpful thought in my head, I just sat for some minutes and watched these poor disconnected people shuffle past. Then I did what most white Australians do. I read my newspaper and drank my coffee and didn’t see them anymore.

No one is asking Bryson to solve a problem that is centuries in the making. Obviously, no one person can resolve systemic racism alone, especially as a visitor to another country, but deciding not to see it is remaining complicit. This book is now about 20 years old, and I wonder if Bryson would write that last sentence again if he wrote this book now (not that we can excuse him for writing it then). I am glad he spent some pages discussing Aboriginal issues and history, but this book is not the book to really learn about Australia’s indigenous population. Bryson’s curiosity only went so far.

Where he shines is in his self-deprecating description of his traveling fiascos (not being able to find a room, staying in bad hotels, getting an egregious sunburn, freaking out over the local fauna). As long as he keeps it light, this is a fun read. Bryson’s gift is making the reader feel like they’re traveling right along with him, and this was a pretty good trip.

*I was really hating this book. I disliked every single character, and the story was not grabbing me. I feel a little bad since the author was basing it on his father’s experiences in World War II, but there it is.

four-half-stars

Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon JamesA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Narrator: Ryan Anderson, Dwight Bacquie, Cherise Boothe, Robertson Dean, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis
Published by Highbridge ISBN: 1622315383
on October 24, 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 26 hours
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

From the acclaimed author of The Book of Night Women comes a masterfully written novel that explores the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the late 1970s.

On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.

Deftly spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters—assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts—A Brief History of Seven Killings is the fictional exploration of that dangerous and unstable time and its bloody aftermath, from the streets and slums of Kingston in the 1970s, to the crack wars in 1980s New York, to a radically altered Jamaica in the 1990s. Brilliantly inventive and stunningly ambitious, this novel is a revealing modern epic that will secure Marlon James’ place among the great literary talents of his generation.

Damn. I’m not sure what to say about this book. It’s hard for me to recommend it to anyone because it’s really violent and disturbing, but it was completely captivating at the same time. I was riveted. A Brief History of Seven Killings is long and at times unwieldy—I can’t tell you how many killings there were because I lost track, but it was way more than seven, and this novel is anything but brief. I wound up reading chapter summaries after I listened to each chapter so that I could be sure I picked up on the salient plot points.

I highly recommend the audiobook, but with the caveat that you really have to pay attention. The voice actors do a good job, though some of them seem to handle the Jamaican Patois better than others; truthfully, I don’t know that I know enough about the Jamaican Patois to be able to discern how well the narrators captured it. One thing I can say confidently is that their acting was good. Some of the scenes were downright harrowing to listen to in a way I’m not sure is as easily captured in print.

This might seem like a strange way to put it, but Marlon James shines the most in this book when describing scenes of violence. He almost renders the most violent scenes as poetry. Some of the scenes are downright cinematic. I’ve seen some reviewers compare Marlon James to Quentin Tarantino, a comparison that seems particularly apt to me. I also see the influence of William Faulkner.

The book’s epigram is a Jamaican proverb: “If it no go so, it go near so.” In the video below, James says that “fiction is a lie that tells the truth.” I didn’t know anything about the history behind this novel, but as I can tell, as James shares, that it was heavily researched. I was completely unaware of the assassination attempt that left Bob Marley, his wife, and his manager wounded but—astonishingly—killed no one. Timothy White’s 1991 article for Spin is apparently one of the sources, and I highly recommend it as supplementary reading. Reading it made me think that it was a brave act for Marlon James to write this book. It’s not hard to see why James might have read about the incidents surrounding the attempted assassination and think it would make a hell of a book. I definitely don’t think this book is for everyone, but I found it both fascinating and horrifying in equal measures. In the end, however, I can see why it won the Booker Prize some years ago.

I read this book for the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge for June: a book set on an island.

If you have about an hour, you might enjoy Marlon James’s visit to Politics and Prose in Washington, DC.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNx5FXpAoNU

five-stars

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021

I haven’t written any reviews in a couple of months as I prepared to defend my dissertation and had little time to do much of anything but that, but the good news is that I am now Dr. Huff! Here is a picture of me and my dissertation committee right after my dissertation chair referred to me as Dr. Huff for the very first time.

Dana Huff Dissertation Defense

I can’t remember if I have written about it here or not, but I joined Noom and lost nearly 40 pounds since November 2020. One of the things I did to get active and lose weight was take up walking. I walk at least 10,000 steps each day, usually more. As I walk, I listen to audiobooks, which has pretty much been the only way I’ve been able to read as much as I have over this year. Here are some quick reviews of the books I read in May and June (so far).

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021Fool by Christopher Moore
Narrator: Euan Morton
Published by Harper Audio on February 10, 2009
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 8 hours 41 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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four-stars

"This is a bawdy tale. Herein you will find gratuitous shagging, murder, spanking, maiming, treason, and heretofore unexplored heights of vulgarity and profanity, as well as nontraditional grammar, split infinitives, and the odd wank . . . If that's the sort of thing you think you might enjoy, then you have happened upon the perfect story!"

A man of infinite jest, Pocket has been Lear's cherished fool for years, from the time the king's grown daughters—selfish, scheming Goneril, sadistic (but erotic-fantasy-grade-hot) Regan, and sweet, loyal Cordelia—were mere girls. So naturally Pocket is at his brainless, elderly liege's side when Lear—at the insidious urging of Edmund, the bastard (in every way imaginable) son of the Earl of Gloucester—demands that his kids swear their undying love and devotion before a collection of assembled guests. Of course, Goneril and Regan are only too happy to brownnose Dad. But Cordelia believes that her father's request is kind of . . . well . . . stupid, and her blunt honesty ends up costing her her rightful share of the kingdom and earns her a banishment to boot.

Well, now the bangers and mash have really hit the fan. The whole damn country's about to go to hell in a handbasket because of a stubborn old fart's wounded pride. And the only person who can possibly make things right . . . is Pocket, a small and slight clown with a biting sense of humor. He's already managed to sidestep catastrophe (and the vengeful blades of many an offended nobleman) on numerous occasions, using his razor-sharp mind, rapier wit . . . and the equally well-honed daggers he keeps conveniently hidden behind his back. Now he's going to have to do some very fancy maneuvering—cast some spells, incite a few assassinations, start a war or two (the usual stuff)—to get Cordelia back into Daddy Lear's good graces, to derail the fiendish power plays of Cordelia's twisted sisters, to rescue his gigantic, gigantically dim, and always randy friend and apprentice fool, Drool, from repeated beatings . . . and to shag every lusciously shaggable wench who's amenable to shagging along the way. Pocket may be a fool . . . but he's definitely not an idiot.

I read and enjoyed Christopher Moore’s The Serpent of Venice, which is actually this book’s sequel, so after my husband and I listened to King Lear on audio, we decided to try this. If you like Python-esque humor, you’ll appreciate Christopher Moore.

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Narrator: Quyen Ngo
Published by Dreamscape Media on March 17, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 10 hours 44 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
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five-stars

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee's Pachinko and Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War.

Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's first novel in English.

This is a stellar book, and I’m glad I listened to it as I was able to rely on the narrator’s fluency with Vietnamese. I can see why the Goodreads review mentioned the books by Lee, Gyasi, and Ratner (all of which I’ve also read). If you liked any of those books, you will like this one for sure. I read this book as my selection for the Book Voyage Challenge’s book set in South Asia.

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Narrator: Allison Hiroto
Published by Hachette Book Group on February 7, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
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five-stars

Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them all. Deserted by her lover, Sunja is saved when a young tubercular minister offers to marry and bring her to Japan.

So begins a sweeping saga of an exceptional family in exile from its homeland and caught in the indifferent arc of history. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, its members are bound together by deep roots as they face enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.

I learned so much from this book. I haven’t read very much about immigration and racism outside of the United States, and this book opened my eyes to a great deal of history I didn’t know. I really enjoy multigenerational family sagas. I read this book as my selection for the Book Voyage Challenge’s book set in North Asia. I read these last two books out of order, as I mistakenly thought the book set in South Asia was for April, but it was actually the book set in North Asia.

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food by Jennifer 8. Lee
Published by Twelve ISBN: 0446698970
on March 23, 2009
Genres: Cooking, History
Pages: 320
Format: Paperback
Buy on Amazon
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four-stars

If you think McDonald's is the most ubiquitous restaurant experience in America, consider that there are more Chinese restaurants in America than McDonalds, Burger Kings, and Wendys combined. New York Times reporter and Chinese-American (or American-born Chinese). In her search, Jennifer 8 Lee traces the history of Chinese-American experience through the lens of the food. In a compelling blend of sociology and history, Jenny Lee exposes the indentured servitude Chinese restaurants expect from illegal immigrant chefs, investigates the relationship between Jews and Chinese food, and weaves a personal narrative about her own relationship with Chinese food.

The Fortune Cookie Chronicles speaks to the immigrant experience as a whole, and the way it has shaped our country.

This book was given to me in a wonderful book swap I participated in via Twitter. I probably never would have picked it for myself, even though I love reading food histories. I learned a lot in this book, not the least America’s adoption of Chinese-American cuisine. I knew some of the fraught history with immigration, but there was still much to learn on that front as well.

I also re-read King Lear and A Thousand Acres.

Review: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

Review: Anna Karenina, Leo TolstoyAnna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Richard Pevear, Larissa Volokhonsky
Narrator: Miranda Pleasence
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0140449175
on January 30, 2003
Genres: Classic
Pages: 852
Length: 36 hours 59 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
Buy on Amazon
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five-stars

"Everything is finished. I have nothing but you now. Remember that."

Anna Karenina seems to have everything—beauty, wealth, popularity, and an adored son. But she feels that her life is empty until the moment she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky. Their subsequent affair scandalizes society and family alike and soon brings jealously and bitterness in its wake. Contrasting with this tale of love and self-destruction is the vividly observed story of Levin, a man striving to find contentment and a meaning to his life—and also a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself.

I have tried to read this book several times and not been able to get very far. I think my problem was the translation. On a fellow English teacher’s recommendation, I sought out the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, and it was so wonderful that now I’m rethinking my experience with Crime and Punishment—perhaps I should try that book again with the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation?

Anna Karenina was (when I finally read it) one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read. If I had one quibble, I’d say it’s mistitled. To me, this book is really Levin’s story. He is the character around which all the storylines revolve. He was my favorite character and also the most interesting psychologically. I loved the passage near the beginning when he sees Kitty skating, and Tolstoy writes, “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.” I mean… Damn. It was nearly 37 hours long, and I would have listened to more. Tolstoy just understands people. I haven’t seen the like in anything else I’ve read, excepting maybe Shakespeare and Toni Morrison. In fact, it would not surprise me to learn that Toni Morrison liked Tolstoy (I need to read more of her nonfiction). In spite of the massive length of his books, reading this made me want to read more. I’ll be sure to read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations, no matter what, because I was really impressed with their work. Obviously, I don’t know Russian, but what I appreciated was the readability. I have had so much trouble reading books translated from the Russian in the past.

I read that Larissa Volokhonsky essentially translates Russian texts word-for-word, and Richard Pevear then finesses the translation so it sounds better in English. It struck me as kind of a smart approach. Translation is definitely an art. One thing I often did when I taught Beowulf was to ask students to compare several different versions of the same passage to see what they liked and disliked about each one. This translation of Anna Karenina was the one selected by Oprah Winfrey for her book club, and it catapulted Pevear and Volokhonsky into the limelight.

As to the novel itself, setting aside the translation, it seems to capture so much about the human condition: yearning and love, double standards for men and women, parenting and families (that opening line, of course). I got the sense that each character in the novel, no matter how minor, was walking into the novel from a novel of their own. They were all so incredibly real. I almost didn’t feel like I was reading a book. It’s hard to explain, but reading this book was more like listening to the stories of friends. It was just… incredible. A new favorite.

five-stars

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell Potter

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell PotterHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Narrator: Ell Potter
Published by Random House Audio on July 21, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 12 hours and 42 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
Buy on Amazon
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five-stars

Drawing on Maggie O'Farrell's long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare's most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley Street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O'Farrell's new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Oh, this book. I just loved it. Recently, I shared in my review of Never Caught that the author missed an opportunity to weave historical fiction out of the facts we know about Ona Judge. Anne Hathaway Shakespeare is another woman we know very little about. She was pregnant when she married William Shakespeare (who was quite a bit younger than she was), she raised their children practically alone while he worked as an actor and playwright in London, and Shakespeare left her his second-best bed in his will. From these scraps of information, many scholars have concluded that their marriage was not a happy one. O’Farrell takes a different tactic and imagines a love match for the couple that is nearly destroyed by the death of their son and William Shakespeare’s depression and lack of fulfillment.

O’Farrell chooses to call her Anne “Agnes,” as her father referred to her in his will. Agnes is something of an herbalist (and maybe a witch). She’s every bit as fascinating as Shakespeare (maybe more so, under O’Farrell’s pen). The story alternates between Agnes and Hamnet as narrators, for the most part, with tidbits from other characters such as Susanna and Judith. The story also shifts in time, beginning with Hamnet looking for someone, anyone (but particularly Agnes) to help him—his twin sister Judith is sick.

The historical details ring true. As a bread baker and soap maker, I especially appreciated O’Farrell’s references to Agnes’s talents in both areas. Agnes also keeps bees and is something of a bee charmer. However, my absolute favorite historical detail was O’Farrell’s chronicle of the journey of the flea that carried the bubonic plague to Stratford and, ultimately, to the Shakespeare household. It was utterly fascinating. As we are living in the midst of a pandemic right now, the details are also alarmingly present. How did the virus that infected my entire family with COVID-19 in January make its way to us? How does sickness travel like that? I think I appreciated O’Farrell’s exploration of the way the plague traveled even more for having a personal connection to another form of plague.

I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when I read. In that book, Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s equally talented sister who is unable to do the things her brother can do because she is a woman, and those doors are closed to her. What if Shakespeare’s wife were even more talented than he? That is actually how I interpret Agnes’s character. Yet she sacrifices so that he can realize his dreams and their children can be cared for. She’s not different from talented women throughout history in this respect.

Ell Potter is a charming narrator. I’m glad the audiobook was read by a woman, as ultimately, I think this a woman’s story. That’s not to say men wouldn’t enjoy it; quite the contrary, and maybe men should read it. Ron Charles has a great review of the book at The Washington Post. I definitely recommend this book to any fans of Shakespeare, though I caution you that he’s relegated to the sidelines. This story is the story of his family.

five-stars

Review: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel, narrated by Ben Miles

Review: The Mirror and the Light, Hilary Mantel, narrated by Ben MilesThe Mirror & the Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3) by Hilary Mantel
Narrator: Ben Miles
Series: Thomas Cromwell #3
Published by Macmillan Audio on March 10, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 38 hours 12 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

“If you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?”

England, May 1536. Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Thomas Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen before Jane dies giving birth to the male heir he most craves.

Cromwell is a man with only his wits to rely on; he has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. But can a nation, or a person, shed the past like a skin? Do the dead continually unbury themselves? What will you do, the Spanish ambassador asks Cromwell, when the king turns on you, as sooner or later he turns on everyone close to him?

With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant close the trilogy she began with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion, and courage.

What a fantastic close to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell saga. Mantel is a gifted storyteller, and in her hands, Cromwell emerges as a deeply complex man who rose from nothing—the son of a blacksmith in Putney—to one of Henry VIII’s chief counselors. This book covers Cromwell’s fall from grace, and though I knew how Cromwell’s story would end—it’s a matter of recorded history—I dreaded seeing it come to pass. He inspired love and loyalty among his family and servants, but jealousy and ire among Henry VIII’s circle.

One aspect of Mantel’s characterization that I appreciate most is the wry sense of humor she gives Cromwell. I listened to both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies prior to listening to this book, and it struck me that this book had more humor in it, though you might not expect that to be the case, given Cromwell’s well-documented end. As with other people who “crossed” Henry VIII, Cromwell’s downfall was swift. I won’t share any spoilers here, but let’s just say his ending was particularly sad—unfair blame and betrayal.

Ben Miles does a great job with the narration. Seems other reviewers didn’t like him (based on reviews left on Audible), and I’m puzzled as to why. The audiobook had a great interview between narrator Ben Miles and author Hilary Mantel.

I’m counting this book for my February read set in Western Europe in the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge.

five-stars

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren ZanesPetty: The Biography by Warren Zanes
Narrator: Warren Zanes
Published by Audible Studios on December 15, 2015
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Length: 13 hours 57 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An exhilarating and intimate account of the life of music legend Tom Petty, by an accomplished writer and musician who toured with Petty

No one other than Warren Zanes, rocker and writer and friend, could author a book about Tom Petty that is as honest and evocative of Petty’s music and the remarkable rock and roll history he and his band helped to write.

Born in Gainesville, Florida, with more than a little hillbilly in his blood, Tom Petty was a Southern shit kicker, a kid without a whole lot of promise. Rock and roll made it otherwise. From meeting Elvis, to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, to producing Del Shannon, backing Bob Dylan, putting together a band with George Harrison, Dylan, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne, making records with Johnny Cash, and sending well more than a dozen of his own celebrated recordings high onto the charts, Tom Petty’s story has all the drama of a rock and roll epic. Petty, known for his reclusive style, has shared with Warren Zanes his insights and arguments, his regrets and lasting ambitions, and the details of his life on and off the stage.

This is a book for those who know and love the songs, from "American Girl" and "Refugee" to "Free Fallin’" and "Mary Jane’s Last Dance," and for those who want to see the classic rock and roll era embodied in one man’s remarkable story. Dark and mysterious, Petty manages to come back, again and again, showing us what the music can do and where it can take us.

What a great loss to rock and roll. I think I might first have become aware of Tom Petty because my copy of Chipmunk Punk, featuring Alvin and Chipmunks squeaking out songs that were decidedly not punk music, had “Refugee” on it. Later, the video for “You Got Lucky” seemed to be on heavy rotation on MTV, and I admit it was interesting. You couldn’t get away from “Don’t Come Around Here No More” later. Rewatching that video recently, I was struck by how good Tom Petty’s acting is in the video.

However, I’m not sure I appreciated Tom Petty, truly became a fan, until college. I bought his back catalog and listened to the albums on repeat. I listened to them all again as I was reading this book, and I still remember each note. The first four albums, Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersYou’re Gonna Get It, Damn the Torpedoes, and Hard Promises, were on particularly high rotation, along with Southern Accents.

What I appreciated most about this biography was that Warren Zanes is an insider of sorts. In the 1980s, he was in the Del Fuegos and opened for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on tour. He spoke to many of Petty’s friends and associates, and the biography is unflinching in its honesty. Petty seemed like a reflective type of person, and he owned his mistakes. I particularly appreciated the reflections of fellow Heartbreakers Mike Campbell, Benmont Tench, and Stan Lynch as well as Petty’s long-time friend Stevie Nicks.

The part of the biography I found most compelling was Zanes’s account of Petty’s youth and adolescence, followed by his early days in Florida bands, such as Mudcrutch. His incredible work ethic was another interesting thread that ran through the book. It struck me that Petty enjoyed his English classes and didn’t consider them to be “studying” in the same way that his other classes were; you can hear that in his song lyrics. However, as a teacher, I couldn’t help but feel sad about how school crushes the spirits of so many creative people like Tom Petty. I think it was Benmont Tench who said in the book that Tom Petty was really good at convincing people to quit school and join his band.

When I heard Tom Petty died, I was crushed. He’s one of my favorite musicians of all time, and I’m grateful I was able to see him in concert once in 1992, for his Into the Great Wide Open tour. It was a great show. He was a consummate performer.

I put together a highly subjective list of my favorite Tom Petty tunes, more or less in order of preference. Some are deep cuts. I hope you enjoy it.

five-stars

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin, narrated by Bahni Turpin

Review: If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin, narrated by Bahni TurpinIf Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, Bahni Turpin
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Published by Blackstone Audio on February 1, 2016
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Pages: 8
Length: 7 hours and 7 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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four-stars

In this honest and stunning novel, James Baldwin has given America a moving story of love in the face of injustice. Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story mixes the sweet and the sad. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families set out to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience a kaleidoscope of emotions—affection, despair, and hope. In a love story that evokes the blues, where passion and sadness are inevitably intertwined, Baldwin has created two characters so alive and profoundly realized that they are unforgettably ingrained in the American psyche.

There aren’t many writers like James Baldwin. He wrote with facility whether fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. I mean, just listen to him speak.

Much of what Baldwin says here is centered in his novel, as his characters wrestle with being cut out of their opportunities to find happiness and achieve their dreams. In fact, one in the novel struck me particularly hard. Fonny refers to a man who assaults Tish as a “white American,” implying that the police officer who wanted to arrest Fonny for beating the man did not see Fonny as an American. He saw a Black man, and his guilt or innocence did not matter. I realize that police brutality against Black people has a long history, but it’s hard not to see Baldwin as prescient in writing this novel in the early 1970s. He is not speaking only to the moment in which he wrote the novel, but also to our current moment.

My favorite character was Tish’s mother, Sharon. I absolutely loved Tish’s family. They were so supportive of Tish and Fonny, and Sharon set the tone when she told Tish that she would tell the family about her pregnancy. So many families have not supported their daughters when they became pregnant, let alone when the baby’s father is in jail awaiting a trial for a crime he didn’t commit. Even before I watched the movie, I understood why Regina King’s performance was lauded. Sharon is a gift of a character.

I found the ending a bit confusing, so I listened to it again, and then I still had to read a summary online because I couldn’t figure out if what I thought happened at the end was what happened. Ambiguous endings do not trouble me, but this book didn’t feel like it ended. It felt like it stopped. I suppose a good comparison would be the fade to black at the end of the last episode of The Sopranos. The book also moves backward and forward in time, and it was sometimes a bit difficult to follow. Admittedly, this could have been my fault for listening to it rather than reading it. However, there are some beautiful moments in the book as well, and Baldwin’s characterization is realistic and engaging. His characters just seem like people you might know—they are intensely human.

I was able to find the film on Hulu and watched it so I could add my thoughts about the film to this review. The acting is incredible. Stephan Jones and Kiki Layne are perfect as Fonny and Tish. As I mentioned before, Regina King deserves all the praise for her performance, too. The entire ensemble cast was great. The film’s ending is a bit different, and I might argue that the film’s ending is an improvement. For one thing, it was a bit clearer, and it also ended on a note of hope. I understand Baldwin wanted to communicate something with the ending he wrote, and it’s such a beautiful love story that as a reader, I really wanted to have a little bit of hope at the end for the characters. One touch I really appreciated was a simple dedication to “Jimmy”—James Baldwin’s nickname among friends. The movie also helped me understand the book’s title. My audiobook didn’t have the explanation, but the film had some text at the beginning, and since I don’t have a paper copy of the book, I can’t verify this, but I think it was James Baldwin’s introduction to the story, explaining the name. I expected it to be set in Memphis rather than New York and was initially confused. I also loved the film’s score. It’s haunting and perfect. I definitely want to see other films by this director after watching If Beale Street Could Talk.

Bahni Turpin is an excellent narrator. I have listened to her read other books, and I appreciate her approach to the material. I highly recommend the audio version of this book, but you might want to read along to better keep track of the story.

One last treat before I close: Ikechúkwú Onyewuenyi, a Hammer Museum curator, created the ultimate James Baldwin playlist. You just might find some blues in there.

 

four-stars