Review: Possession, A. S. Byatt

Review: Possession, A. S. ByattPossession by A.S. Byatt
Narrator: Virginia Leishman
Published by Vintage ISBN: 0679735909
on October 1, 1991
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 555
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

Man Booker Prize Winner (1990)

I first read this novel about 20 years ago on my husband’s recommendation, and I felt like revisiting it. It’s even better than I remembered. The blurb doesn’t do Byatt’s genius justice. Not only did she invent a fictional love story between two fictional Victorian poets, but she also managed to build a world of literary criticism around the poets, replete with territorial academics and tongue-in-cheek digs at some of the wild theories academics espouse about symbolism and meaning. On top of all that, she wrote poetry and critical excerpts purportedly the work of her characters. All of this serves to make this novel and its characters very real. You might swear, after reading the book, that you also had to read Randolph Henry Ash in school and also couldn’t make any sense of him (just as a few of the characters say).

Ash appears to be based on Robert Browning, and this supposition is strengthened by the fact that Byatt’s mother was a Browning scholar. She likely heard many of the things that later cropped up in her book around the dinner table at home. Christabel LaMotte seems to be a composite of writers like Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë. The scholars studying their work seem pretty recognizable figures in academia. I think this book might potentially have a narrow appeal. I’m sure English literature nerds, poetry lovers, and anyone interested in Victorian literature would enjoy it, but beyond that, the poetry passages are purposefully dense and difficult, and I’m not sure the general reading public would find the plot thrilling. (I did.) If your interests lie within that narrow window, reading this book will provide great rewards.

Because a good chunk of this novel is set in the 1850s-1860s, I’m counting it as my first book in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge for 2022. I’m also counting as a book set in the United Kingdom (a small part is set in France) for the European Reading Challenge. See my reading challenges page for more.

five-stars

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro

Review: Klara and the Sun, Kazuo IshiguroKlara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, Sura Siu
Published by Random House Audio on March 2, 2021
Length: 10 hours 16 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

'KLARA AND THE SUN' IS A MAGNIFICENT NEW NOVEL FROM THE NOBEL LAUREATE KAZUO ISHIGURO - AUTHOR OF 'NEVER LET ME GO' AND THE BOOKER PRIZE-WINNING 'THE REMAINS OF THE DAY.'

'KLARA AND THE SUN,' the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro since he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, tells the story of Klara, an Artificial Friend with outstanding observational qualities, who from her place in the store, watches carefully the behavior of those who come to browse, and of those who pass on the street outside. She remains hopeful that a customer will soon choose her.

'KLARA AND THE SUN' is a thrilling book that offers a look at our changing world through the eyes of an unforgettable narrator, and one that explores the fundamental question: What does it mean to love?
In its award citation in 2017, the Nobel committee described Ishiguro's books as "novels of great emotional force" and said he has "uncovered the abyss of our illusory sense of connection with the world."

Kazuo Ishiguro seems to me, more than any other author living, to be writing to explore what it means to be human. Where does our humanity reside? How do we remember? How are we remembered? Or, as Josie’s father asks Klara in one of the most profoundly moving parts of the book, “Do you believe in the human heart? I don’t mean simply the organ. I’m speaking in the poetic sense. The human heart. Do you believe there is such a thing?” That passage was the first part of the book to cause me to burst into tears—it was not the last—and as I explained to my husband, it reminded me of this essay, “Joyas Voladores” by Brian Doyle, adding more dimension to the essay (which, honestly, didn’t make me cry the first time I read it but now makes me cry because I associate it with this passage). Ron Charles argues in his review of Klara and the Sun that ” the real subject, as always in Ishiguro’s dusk-lit fiction, is the moral quandary of the human heart.”

I have yet to finish an Ishiguro novel without bawling, and this book was no exception. As with his other novels, in Klara and the Sun, Ishiguro’s narrator has a compelling voice. Her childlike propensity to hope, her belief in the healing power of the sun, is simply heartbreaking. It’s hard not to draw parallels to both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, and both of those novels also have memorable narrators who struggle to make sense of the mysteries of the human heart as well. There is something different in Klara’s struggle to please, to understand. She has the lack of agency of Kathy in Never Let Me Go and the outsider observational perspective of Stevens in The Remains of the Day, but she’s somehow more innocent. The ending of the book just wrecked me.

This book is one of the best I read this year. It has me thinking about what it means to be human and how much of our humanity we have lost over the last several years. Prepare the tissues if you read it. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Superb.

five-stars

Review: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, Dave Grohl

Review: The Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music, Dave GrohlThe Storyteller: Tales of Life and Music by Dave Grohl
Published by HarperAudio on October 5, 2021
Genres: Memoir
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

So, I've written a book.

Having entertained the idea for years, and even offered a few questionable opportunities ("It's a piece of cake! Just do 4 hours of interviews, find someone else to write it, put your face on the cover, and voila!") I have decided to write these stories just as I have always done, in my own hand. The joy that I have felt from chronicling these tales is not unlike listening back to a song that I've recorded and can't wait to share with the world, or reading a primitive journal entry from a stained notebook, or even hearing my voice bounce between the Kiss posters on my wall as a child.

This certainly doesn't mean that I'm quitting my day job, but it does give me a place to shed a little light on what it's like to be a kid from Springfield, Virginia, walking through life while living out the crazy dreams I had as young musician. From hitting the road with Scream at 18 years old, to my time in Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, jamming with Iggy Pop or playing at the Academy Awards or dancing with AC/DC and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, drumming for Tom Petty or meeting Sir Paul McCartney at Royal Albert Hall, bedtime stories with Joan Jett or a chance meeting with Little Richard, to flying halfway around the world for one epic night with my daughters…the list goes on. I look forward to focusing the lens through which I see these memories a little sharper for you with much excitement.

I loved this book. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve read; I’d rank it right up with Bruce Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run. I was exactly the right age when Nirvana broke. I was a sophomore in college. I turned 20 the month Nevermind was released. All these years later, I still think “Smells Like Teen Spirit” captures the Gen-X zeitgeist. In the immortal words of Kurt Cobain, “Oh well, whatever, never mind.”  I mean, that’s pretty much the Gen-X ethos.

My favorite stories from the book (in no particular order):

  • Dave Grohl rescheduled a show in Perth, Australia, necessitating a ridiculous trip from Australia to the US and back just so he could take his daughters to the Daddy/Daughter Dance and honor his tour obligations. On the flight back to Australia, he suffered from both food poisoning and turbulence.
  • Grohl played drums with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on Saturday Night Live. Tom Petty apparently gives looks that tell entire stories. Apparently, Grohl nearly became a permanent Heartbreaker.
  • Grohl’s Republican father disowned him when he dropped out of high school to pursue music (with his mother’s blessing). His father’s parting words were classic.
  • Grohl bought himself the Joan Jett Barbie on a shopping trip with his daughters. Later, Joan Jett stayed with the Grohls at their house and read bedtime stories to Violet Grohl, Dave’s daughter.
  • Grohl apparently lived in a haunted house and had an encounter with a medium who told him his dreams about UFOs were real.
  • After Kurt Cobain’s death, Grohl retreated to a remote part of Ireland. His encounter with a hitchhiker with take your breath away, but I don’t want to give it away.

Grohl handled some aspects of his story with class: he has plenty of reason to blast Courtney Love, but he never even mentioned her in the book. Likewise, he maintained the privacy of his ex-wife and ex-girlfriends. He lays all of his success at the feet of his mother, and truthfully, she sounds like a lovely person. I definitely want to read her book now that I’ve read his.

Grohl’s memoir is aptly titled, for he is a born storyteller. I was highly entertained for the entire ride, and if you pick up this book, too, I highly recommend you listen to Grohl read the audiobook (you will not be disappointed).

Grohl put together an epic playlist with all the songs and/or artists he mentioned (thanks to my sister for sending it to me; she’s the biggest Dave Grohl fan I know).

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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Goodreads
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
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Goodreads
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
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Goodreads
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
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Goodreads
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
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Goodreads
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

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex HaleyThe Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley by Malcolm X
Narrator: Laurence Fishburne
Published by Audible Studios on September 10, 2020
Genres: Biography, Memoir
Length: 16 hours and 52 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

One of Time’s 10 most important nonfiction books of the 20th century.
Experience a bold take on this classic autobiography as it’s performed by Oscar-nominated Laurence Fishburne.

In this searing classic autobiography, originally published in 1965, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and Black empowerment activist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Human Rights movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American dream and the inherent racism in a society that denies its non-White citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential for anyone who wants to understand the African American experience and America as a whole.

©1965 Alex Haley and Malcolm X, © 1965 by Alex Haley and Betty Shabazz (P)2020 Audible, Inc.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a book I had been meaning for years—perhaps as long as a decade. I admit I was a bit daunted by the length, and I had only seen the mass-market paperback version with tiny print. I can’t really read mass-market paperbacks anymore. I’m sure there were other, more accessible versions available, but for whatever reason, I never crossed paths with one. I was thrilled to discover this new audio recording narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne.

Malcolm X led a fascinating life. I was really intrigued by his stint in prison and the education he was able to obtain while incarcerated (check out this list of books he mentions he read while in prison). He clearly repudiated his life before prison in the book, in spite of the fact that one might argue that Malcolm X had been dealt a particularly difficult hand: not only was he essentially an orphan as a teenager when his father was killed and his mother was hospitalized, but he was also brought up in a racist society that devalued his intellect and talents. He describes telling a middle school teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up only to be discouraged from pursuing that career by this racist teacher who insisted, “you’ve got to be realistic about being a n—–. A lawyer—that’s no realistic goal for a n—–.” This from a teacher Malcolm X admired, too. Honestly, after reading this book, the first thing I thought is that Malcolm X would have made an excellent lawyer. He knew how to craft an argument, and he had a fairly stunning intellect.

One area where I would push back against Malcolm X is his misogynoir. That might not be the right term. I don’t think he hated women. I don’t think he respected them very much, either, however, and he definitely viewed them as inferior. One might point to his religion, but I’m not sure it’s entirely related to Islam because he seemed to feel that way before he converted as well (and Islam is not the only patriarchal religion—I hear many of the same anti-woman ideas from many corners). It does not follow that just because one knows and understands what it is like to be part of an oppressed group that one naturally empathizes with other oppressed groups, and I would argue this is true of Malcolm X. The most troubling argument he makes is that societies crumble when their women have what he’d describe as loose morals. He describes a case study of “Westernized” women in Lebanon versus women in Saudi Arabia (whom he deemed more properly in their place), and he makes a pretty poor case if you ask me.

It was disheartening to read of Malcolm X’s betrayal by the Nation of Islam, an organization he had done so much to promote. It was also chilling to read Malcolm X’s insistence that he expected to die by violence. One thing that struck me especially hard was that Malcolm X and my grandfather were born in the same month and year. You couldn’t have identified two more different people if you had tried. Their lives and experiences in society couldn’t have been further apart. Perhaps my favorite passage of the Autobiography was Malcolm X’s description of improving his reading comprehension by copying out the dictionary.

I saw that the best thing I could do was get hold of a dictionary—to study, to learn some words. I was lucky enough to reason also that I should try to improve my penmanship. It was sad. I couldn’t even write in a straight line. It was both ideas together that moved me to request a dictionary along with some tablets and pencils from the Norfolk Prison Colony school.

I spent two days just riffling uncertainly through the dictionary’s pages. I’d never realized so many words existed! I didn’t know which words I needed to learn. Finally, just to start some kind of action, I began copying.

In my slow, painstaking, ragged handwriting, I copied into my tablet everything printed on that first page, down to the punctuation marks.

I believe it took me a day. Then, aloud, I read back, to myself, everything I’d written on the tablet. Over and over, aloud, to myself, I read my own handwriting.

I woke up the next morning, thinking about those words—immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember. Funny thing, from the dictionary first page right now, that “aardvark” springs to my mind. The dictionary had a picture of it, a long-tailed, long-eared, burrowing African mammal, which lives off termites caught by sticking out its tongue as an anteater does for ants.

I was so fascinated that I went on—I copied the dictionary’s next page. And the same experience came when I studied that. With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia. Finally the dictionary’s A section had filled a whole tablet—and I went on into the B’s. That was the way I started copying what eventually became the entire dictionary. It went a lot faster after so much practice helped me to pick up handwriting speed. Between what I wrote in my tablet, and writing letters, during the rest of my time in prison I would guess I wrote a million words.

Malcolm X’s ideas have been so widely influential. Modern anti-racist, anti-bias movements owe much to Malcolm X’s thought. I have heard so much about Malcolm X, much of it controversial, fear-mongering lies, unfortunately, and I felt it was important to read his story for myself. For example, many people believe Malcolm X to be biased against White people, and while this was true (and not without good cause, I might add), he later changed these views after experiencing the Hajj and meeting fellow Muslim pilgrims who were White. He viewed Islam as a unifying force. Malcolm X wrestled honestly with his life in this memoir. This is an important book that I think many people should read in order to better understand our American society.

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
Goodreads
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: Cooked, Michael Pollan

Review: Cooked, Michael PollanCooked: A Natural History of Transformation by Michael Pollan
Narrator: Michael Pollan
Published by Penguin Audio on April 23, 2013
Genres: Cooking, Nonfiction
Pages: 14
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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four-half-stars

In Cooked, Michael Pollan explores the previously uncharted territory of his own kitchen. Here, he discovers the enduring power of the four classical elements—fire, water, air, and earth—to transform the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink. Apprenticing himself to a succession of culinary masters, Pollan learns how to grill with fire, cook with liquid, bake bread, and ferment everything from cheese to beer. In the course of his journey, he discovers that the cook occupies a special place in the world, standing squarely between nature and culture. Both realms are transformed by cooking, and so, in the process, is the cook.

Each section of Cooked tracks Pollan's effort to master a single classic recipe using one of the four elements. A North Carolina barbecue pit master tutors him in the primal magic of fire; a Chez Panisse-trained cook schools him in the art of braising; a celebrated baker teaches him how air transforms grain and water into a fragrant loaf of bread; and finally, several mad-genius "fermentos" (a tribe that includes brewers, cheese makers, and all kinds of picklers) reveal how fungi and bacteria can perform the most amazing alchemies of all. The listener learns alongside Pollan, but the lessons move beyond the practical to become an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships: with plants and animals, the soil, farmers, our history and culture, and, of course, the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Cooking, above all, connects us.

The effects of not cooking are similarly far-reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume huge quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.

Cooked is the first of Michael Pollan’s books that I’ve read, though I know he has written a few other books about food. I’m not sure I would have found Cooked nearly as interesting about ten years ago as I did this year. I liked the organization of the book into the four ancient elements. The section on barbecue (fire) was fascinating, though to be fair, I devour pretty much anything about African-American and Southern foodways. I am also a bread-baker, so the section about bread (air) was probably my favorite, and it convinced me to go back into Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread, which I’ve had on my Kindle for some time and started reading a while back and never finished. Stay tuned for a review on that book because I’m nearly done with it (yes, I read cookbooks cover-to-cover on occasion).

I wasn’t as fascinated by the fermentation or braising sections. I’m not sure why because everything about sourdough starter fascinates me. I think it’s just that a lot of the food in the fermentation section isn’t really the kind of thing I like, so I wasn’t as interested to hear how to do it, and braising is a technique I just don’t really use in my own cooking. However, the organization of the book was interesting, and Pollan’s reading is engaging and entertaining.

I agree with Pollan’s conclusions that it’s a shame so few people really cook anymore. I really enjoy cooking, but it does take time. However, what we eat for dinner has drastically improved in quality since I started cooking more seriously. Honestly, I credit a meal subscription plan called Home Chef with teaching me a lot, and Samin Nosrat’s book Salt Fat Acid Heat was also really helpful. The main reason we stopped subscribing to Home Chef is that we received spoiled vegetables a few too many times, and I decided that I needed to be able to select ingredients myself from the store. The actual recipes provided were pretty great, and I still use them all the time to cook meals.

Pollan argues that we’ll eat less processed food and connect more with family (eating together is communion—that’s my argument, not Pollan’s). My husband usually sits in the kitchen while I cook, and we listen to audiobooks and podcasts together. He’s not really a cook, though I think he’s interested. In any case, I think we enjoy these evening respites. I know that regularly cooking dinner has meant we better and saved money, not to mention the time to connect. (We are currently listening to Anna Karenina.)

I definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in how cooking works—you’ll get a dose of science and history along with some fascinating cultural education.

four-half-stars

Review: Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Review: Born to Run, Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Narrator: Bruce Springsteen
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1508224234
on December 6, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Length: 18 hours and 12 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

“Writing about yourself is a funny business… But in a project like this, the writer has made one promise, to show the reader his mind. In these pages, I’ve tried to do this.” —Bruce Springsteen, from the pages of Born to Run

In 2009, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl’s halftime show. The experience was so exhilarating that Bruce decided to write about it. That’s how this extraordinary autobiography began.

Over the past seven years, Bruce Springsteen has privately devoted himself to writing the story of his life, bringing to these pages the same honesty, humor, and originality found in his songs.

He describes growing up Catholic in Freehold, New Jersey, amid the poetry, danger, and darkness that fueled his imagination, leading up to the moment he refers to as “The Big Bang”: seeing Elvis Presley’s debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. He vividly recounts his relentless drive to become a musician, his early days as a bar band king in Asbury Park, and the rise of the E Street Band. With disarming candor, he also tells for the first time the story of the personal struggles that inspired his best work, and shows us why the song “Born to Run” reveals more than we previously realized.

Born to Run will be revelatory for anyone who has ever enjoyed Bruce Springsteen, but this book is much more than a legendary rock star’s memoir. This is a book for workers and dreamers, parents and children, lovers and loners, artists, freaks, or anyone who has ever wanted to be baptized in the holy river of rock and roll.

Rarely has a performer told his own story with such force and sweep. Like many of his songs (“Thunder Road,” “Badlands,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” “The Rising,” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” to name just a few), Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography is written with the lyricism of a singular songwriter and the wisdom of a man who has thought deeply about his experiences.

I’m really behind on writing reviews. I actually finished listening to this book some time back, and if you choose to read it, let me highly recommend the audiobook, narrated by Springsteen himself. Here’s a teaser, courtesy PBS.

 

This memoir is a master class in the genre. In fact, I plan to order a paper copy of it so that I can use it in teaching narrative writing. It’s that good. In fact, it’s the best memoir I’ve read. I don’t say that lightly either, as I have read quite a few.

What makes this particular memoir a standout is its unflinching honesty and its poetic sensibility. Though we know Bruce Springsteen is a great songwriter, that kind of writing talent doesn’t always translate to other forms. I am a bit embarrassed to say how surprised I was that Springsteen’s memoir was so well-written.

I picked this up on Audible using one of my credits a long time ago, and I decided to listen to it at long last after enjoying Warren Zanes’s biography of Tom Petty so much. I like Bruce Springsteen’s music, but I must confess I was not what I’d call a fan. I would never change the station on one of his songs, but I also didn’t own a complete album, and the only album I had listened to in its entirety before reading this book was Born in the USA—my mom had that one when I was a kid. To be fair, I listened to that album a lot. One thing I tried to do as I read this book was go back and educate myself about Springsteen’s music, and holy hell is he amazing. I can’t believe I never listened to Born to Run all the way through. I have to say, “Jungleland” is probably my favorite of his songs.

Springsteen is also a voracious reader, and it shows in the allusions he makes to other books in the memoir itself. As an English teacher, catching those references was a real Easter-egg type of pleasant surprise. I often tell my students that if they want to be better writers, they need to read more. They need to observe what great writers do, what moves they make in their writing. Clearly, Springsteen understands the importance of reading for his writing, but I sense he just enjoys reading for its own sake.

Bruce Springsteen Writing
Bruce Springsteen Writing by Pamela Springsteen, the artist’s sister

When I reached the point in the memoir when Springsteen discussed the death of Clarence Clemons, I admit I cried a little, in spite of knowing very little about Clemons prior to reading this book. Springsteen’s ache over the loss of his friend and collaborator (and sometime co-conspirator) is palpable in his reading. I appreciated Springsteen’s frankness about his struggles with depression as well. It’s tragic that mental illness carries such a stigma, which prevents people from getting help. Springsteen talks about this stigma as well.

I highly recommend this wonderful memoir to anyone, especially music fans. If you are not a fan of Springsteen’s before you read, you will still enjoy this book—and you will probably be a fan afterward. I’ll close out with a playlist of my favorite Springsteen tracks, more or less in order.

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
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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