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
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
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: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar

Review: Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, Erica Armstrong DunbarNever Caught: The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Narrator: Robin Miles
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1442394501
on February 7, 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 7
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
three-half-stars

A startling and eye-opening look into America s First Family, Never Caught is the powerful narrative of Ona Judge, George and Martha Washington s runaway slave who risked it all to escape the nation's capital and reach freedom.

When George Washington was elected president, he reluctantly left behind his beloved Mount Vernon to serve in Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the nation's capital. In setting up his household he took Tobias Lear, his celebrated secretary, and eight slaves, including Ona Judge, about which little has been written. As he grew accustomed to Northern ways, there was one change he couldn't get his arms around: Pennsylvania law required enslaved people be set free after six months of residency in the state. Rather than comply, Washington decided to circumvent the law. Every six months he sent the slaves back down south just as the clock was about to expire. Though Ona Judge lived a life of relative comfort, the few pleasantries she was afforded were nothing compared to freedom, a glimpse of which she encountered first-hand in Philadelphia. So, when the opportunity presented itself one cold spring day in Philadelphia, Judge left everything she knew to escape to New England. Yet freedom would not come without its costs.

At just twenty-two-years-old, Ona became the subject of an intense manhunt led by George Washington, who used his political and personal contacts to recapture his property. Impeccably researched, historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar weaves a powerful tale and offers fascinating new scholarship on how one young woman risked it all to gain freedom from the famous founding father.

The subject matter of this book is utterly fascinating; however, because so little is known about Ona Judge, the author, unfortunately, has to engage in a lot of speculation. To be sure, it is well-researched speculation and certainly rings true. I am grateful for Dunbar’s attention to detail and meticulous research. I was able to round out my understanding of quite a few historical issues on the topic of slavery I had not understood before. For example, Dunbar explains why Washington was unable to free people enslaved by Martha Washington’s first husband and why he chose not to free people he enslaved. I already felt the entire practice was reprehensible, but reading this book only underscored the inhumanity of slavery. It boggles the mind that people engaged in this practice and felt like it was acceptable, never mind the fact that many of them thought they were doing enslaved people a favor.

In addition to Ona Judge, I learned about Hercules Posey, Washington’s chef who also escaped to freedom. If I had one suggestion to round out this book, it might have been to write about several people enslaved by the Washingtons. It might have helped the author avoid the speculation she had to use. I think Ona Judge is a fascinating person, but we just don’t know enough about her to fill a book. I was interested to see a children’s version of this book has been printed. It’s entirely possible that a children’s version would have been just perfect—I think there is enough known about Ona Judge to fill a children’s or even YA book.

So why only 3.5 stars? Well, I think Dunbar missed an opportunity. I think Ona Judge’s story would have made excellent historical fiction. If Dunbar had opted for historical fiction, she wouldn’t have had to use the speculative voice that overwhelms the story. She also might have been able to include more details. As it is, I think Dunbar was constrained by the sparse details available about Judge’s life.

I would love to see more books like this one, but this story serves as a stark reminder of the many lives that are not recorded for posterity. Their lives mattered then, and they matter now.

three-half-stars

Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram, narrated by Michael Levi Harris

Review: Darius the Great is Not Okay, Adib Khorram, narrated by Michael Levi HarrisDarius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
Narrator: Michael Levi Harris
Published by Listening Library on August 28, 2018
Genres: Young Adult
Pages: 8
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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four-half-stars

Darius Kellner doesn’t make friends easily. He gave up on the Boy Scouts years ago—to his father’s lasting disappointment—and after being diagnosed with depression, he quit the neighborhood soccer club, too. As the only Persian boy at his Portland high school, he’s an easy target for Trent Bolger and his Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy.

Then Darius goes to Iran for spring break (and despite what the Soulless Minions of Orthodoxy say, it’s not to join ISIS). He’s visiting his mother’s hometown, Yazd, to meet his family—and his ailing grandfather—for the first time. But Darius speaks better Klingon than Farsi, and he knows the Silmarillion better than the Shahnameh. Even surrounded by Persians, he can’t fit in.

Not until he meets Sohrab Rezaei, his grandparents’ Bahá’í neighbor. Darius is drawn to the lonely boy who helps water his grandfather’s fig trees, and the two strike up a tentative friendship, filling their days with pick up soccer, trips to the Jameh Mosque, and walks through Dowlatabad Garden.

But things in Iran are far from perfect. Darius’s grandfather’s health is failing. His dad is more distant than ever. And when Sohrab faces family issues of his own, Darius is powerless to help—or to hold their hard-won friendship together.

But he still has to try.

My school is considering this book as an all-school summer read, and as an avid reader and English department chair, I agreed to check it out to see if it would be a good candidate. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this book. Darius is a great character, and the book’s setting in Yazd, Iran offers a counterpoint to other texts set in the country. Khorram depicts the country’s beauty and heritage, and Darius quickly falls in love with it.

I loved Darius’s interest in tea and geeky pursuits such as The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek. I especially approve of his fandom for Star Trek: The Next Generation. That was my show, too. I also liked the way Khorram handled Darius’s navigation of questioning his sexuality and getting to know grandparents he has only ever seen on Skype.

I teared up when Darius and his father finally have the talk that has been brewing for most of the book. I definitely want to read the sequel, especially since the audiobook version of Darius the Great Deserves Better is also narrated by Michael Levi Harris, who did a superb job with Darius the Great is Not Okay.

four-half-stars

Review: She Lies in Wait, Gytha Lodge

Review: She Lies in Wait, Gytha LodgeShe Lies in Wait by Gytha Lodge
Published by Random House ISBN: 1984817353
on January 8, 2019
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 368
Format: E-Book
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

On a scorching July night in 1983, a group of teenagers goes camping in the forest. Bright and brilliant, they are destined for great things, and the youngest of the group—Aurora Jackson—is delighted to be allowed to tag along. The evening starts like any other—they drink, they dance, they fight, they kiss. Some of them slip off into the woods in pairs, others are left jealous and heartbroken. But by morning, Aurora has disappeared. Her friends claim that she was safe the last time they saw her, right before she went to sleep. An exhaustive investigation is launched, but no trace of the teenager is ever found.

Thirty years later, Aurora’s body is unearthed in a hideaway that only the six friends knew about, and Jonah Sheens is put in charge of solving the long-cold case. Back in 1983, as a young cop in their small town, he had known the teenagers—including Aurora—personally, even before taking part in the search. Now he’s determined to finally get to the truth of what happened that night. Sheens’s investigation brings the members of the camping party back to the forest, where they will be confronted once again with the events that left one of them dead, and all of them profoundly changed forever.

With the caveat that I don’t read mysteries often and am not generally a fan of the genre, this book is a good representative of the genre. The hardboiled DCI has an interesting backstory, and his new recruit DC Hanson is also interesting. I thought for a bit that the book might have a Murder on the Orient Express vibe, but a) I suppose it is hard to top the master at her own game, and b) it would have felt a bit like cheating anyway. Lodge leaves the reader guessing sufficiently until the end, though the climax of the novel didn’t hit me right. I don’t like to give away mysteries, but let’s just say it is better placed in some Romantic novel Lord Byron might have cooked up than in a 21st-century mystery. Also, why is it that the villain unmasked always loses all their nuance and complexity and is just evil? Part of what makes villains interesting, at least to me, is that complexity. It’s why, for example, I think Voldemort is a sort of boring villain, whereas the Malfoys are more interesting. The other characters managed to be more complex and interesting.

I read this thinking it would be light and kind of entertaining. I am finding it hard to read during the pandemic, though that problem is easing up a bit for me as the school year ends. I never felt the urge to give up on this book, and it kept me entertained. I suppose you can’t ask for much more than that, but I don’t think I was invested enough to read the next DCI Jonah Sheens book. However, I must admit this is probably mostly me and my own reading proclivities. Mystery lovers might really enjoy it.

three-half-stars

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan WrightFrankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0143128795
on January 23, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 281
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
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three-half-stars

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he's created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by "Baghdad's new literary star" (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

I read this novel at the suggestion of some friends on Twitter. While I didn’t finish it in time for our online book discussion, I resolved to finish it before I had to return it to the library.

I found the book’s premise intriguing, and I appreciate the fact that it is one of the few books by an Iraqi author that captured the attention of Western readers—which is a shame. However, if I’m being honest, I had no trouble putting the book aside for days at a time. I wouldn’t say I wanted to stop reading it because I did want to finish it. I am also contending with being in graduate school and all the extra time that it takes to finish work for my classes. I also believe the book was engaging and well-written, but perhaps just not for me. I liked a few of the characters, especially Elishva and Hadi. In all, however, I found the book’s various threads a bit disjointed.

three-half-stars

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books ISBN: 0385537077
on July 16, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 214
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
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five-stars

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.

As soon as I heard about the impending publication of The Nickel Boys, it went on my to-read list. Whitehead’s last novel, The Underground Railroad, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. One of the things I appreciated most about The Nickel Boys is that it amplified the stories of the boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, and their stories should not be lost. Their stories are horrific, but we owe it to ourselves not to look away—to face what we have done as Americans. Plenty of people knew what was happening in this prison, for calling it a school is inappropriate. Many of the stories out of Dozier are coming from white men who suffered indescribable horrors at this school, but Whitehead’s novel shares the stories of their Black counterparts, who suffered the same atrocities with the additional indignities of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism.

While this novel shines a light on the abuse endured by the boys at Dozier, renamed Nickel in this book, this book is really about a young man, Elwood Curtis, hanging on to his dignity as a human being, attempting to maintain his feelings of self-worth, and passing that regard on to his friend Turner, who thinks people are basically irredeemable (where has he had the opportunity to learn otherwise?) and that the best way to make it through is to keep your head down, and scheme for what you can get. The tragic thing is that places like Nickel have crushed young men like Elwood, and they are doing it as I write this, too. America needs to come to terms with the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice in sentencing that disproportionately punishes Black and Brown men. My personal opinion is that it’s time, past time, to talk about reparations. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates says, we allow the “how” of reparations stop us from considering the “why,” and books like The Nickel Boys provide plenty of evidence for why. 

Ben Montgomery and Waveny Ann Moore ask in their expose on Dozier, “What is the cost to society of such a place?” As the authors argue, “boys went in damaged and came out destroyed.” A former psychologist at Dozier said, “Anytime you’ve got human beings together, you’re going to have people abusing each other.” But we cannot dismiss what happened like that.

Further Reading:

five-stars