Review: Salt Houses, Hala Alyan

Review: Salt Houses, Hala AlyanSalt Houses by Hala Alyan
Narrator: Leila Buck
Published by Mariner Books ISBN: 1328915859
on June 5, 2018
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 13 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

On the eve of her daughter Alia’s wedding, Salma reads the girl’s future in a cup of coffee dregs. She sees an unsettled life for Alia and her children; she also sees travel and luck. While she chooses to keep her predictions to herself that day, they will all soon come to pass when the family is uprooted in the wake of the Six-Day War of 1967.

Salma is forced to leave her home in Nablus; Alia’s brother gets pulled into a politically militarized world he can’t escape; and Alia and her gentle-spirited husband move to Kuwait City, where they reluctantly build a life with their three children. When Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in 1990, Alia and her family once again lose their home, their land, and their story as they know it, scattering to Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond. Soon Alia’s children begin families of their own, once again navigating the burdens (and blessings) of assimilation in foreign cities.

Lyrical and heartbreaking, Salt Houses is a remarkable debut novel that challenges and humanizes an age-old conflict we might think we understand—one that asks us to confront that most devastating of all truths: you can’t go home again.

This was an excellent book. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good intergenerational family saga. The book brilliantly explores the cost of war and the trauma of losing a homeland, especially in the quietly heartbreaking ending. It also explores the endurance of people in the face of conflict. Home may be lost, but the family will continue. It’s a great addition to the genre of historical fiction exploring what happens to a diaspora. The strength of women and how they hang onto and pass on culture and stories was such an important part of this book as well.

I really enjoyed the characters, who were so well-drawn and fully fleshed that I felt like I knew them. My favorites were probably Riham and Atef, but I really appreciated all of the characters. Alia is the character around which the book turns, and by the end, the reader has met five generations of the family as they have struggled to make a permanent home. I particularly appreciated how strong the women characters were. I think many Westerners have stereotyped notions of what Muslim women in the Middle East are like, and honestly, one of the best ways to dispel stereotypes is to tell our stories.

I also liked the structure of the novel. It was interesting for me to move among different characters and see the family dynamics and history through different family members’ eyes. The story begins in Nablus in Palestine in the 1960s in the leadup to the Six Days War and traces the family to the near present in 2014 in Amman, Jordan, which is another element of the structure that I liked. At times, the characters reflect on events in the past, but I didn’t find it hard to keep track, even though I was listening to the book instead of reading it in print. The narrator was also excellent, but after listening to the author (see below), I wish she had been able to narrate it. One of Alyan’s strengths is her ability to draw a scene. I think my absolute favorite scene in the book was Riham in the water, but Atef’s reflections near the novel’s end, and Souad’s chapter and Lina’s chapter were also compelling. I think this is a book I’ll be recommending to others.

The author has a fascinating story herself. Check out this story from NPR:

In this TED video, Alyan shares some of her poetry:

If you want to see her visit to Politics and Prose, check out this video, which includes a reading:

I read this book for my August selection for the Book Voyage Challenge—a book set in the Middle East.

five-stars

Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson

Review: Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill BrysonShakespeare by Bill Bryson
Narrator: Bill Bryson
Published by HarperAudio ISBN: 0061555347
on October 23, 2007
Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
Length: 5 hours 28 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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five-stars

William Shakespeare, the most celebrated poet in the English language, left behind nearly a million words of text, but his biography has long been a thicket of wild supposition arranged around scant facts. With a steady hand and his trademark wit, Bill Bryson sorts through this colorful muddle to reveal the man himself.

Bryson documents the efforts of earlier scholars, from today's most respected academics to eccentrics like Delia Bacon, an American who developed a firm but unsubstantiated conviction that her namesake, Francis Bacon, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays. Emulating the style of his famous travelogues, Bryson records episodes in his research, including a visit to a bunkerlike room in Washington, D.C., where the world's largest collection of First Folios is housed.

Bryson celebrates Shakespeare as a writer of unimaginable talent and enormous inventiveness, a coiner of phrases ("vanish into thin air," "foregone conclusion," "one fell swoop") that even today have common currency. His Shakespeare is like no one else's the beneficiary of Bryson's genial nature, his engaging skepticism, and a gift for storytelling unrivaled in our time.

If you’ve seen my most recent reviews, you might have noticed I’m on a bit of a Bill Bryson kick right now. I had been wanting to read this book for a while, but for one reason or another, I hadn’t moved it from my TBR pile to my reading pile. The other day, I had to put a hold on an audiobook I wanted from the library, and I figured I’d see if I could listen to this one instead, especially as it is short. Yesterday, the book I had put on hold became available to check out, so I thought I should try to finish this book up.

Did I learn anything new here? Well, not really, but that’s only because I’ve read a lot about Shakespeare. I’m no expert, but I have been teaching his plays for over 20 years, and I have taken coursework in addition to the reading I’ve done. I think the average casual reader would learn quite a bit.

Bryson is by no means a Shakespeare scholar, but what he writes in this slim book corresponds with what I have learned from others. The book’s brevity and humor might make it more accessible for some people interested in learning more about what we can know definitively about William Shakespeare. The truth is, we know quite a lot, particularly for a man of the sixteenth/seventeenth centuries. He’s one of the most dissected people to have lived, and unlikely new discoveries are sometimes made. Bryson recounts a few of these in the book. He carefully veers away from speculating when we don’t really know—which is refreshing because people fill in the gaps of our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life in some really strange ways. I thoroughly enjoyed this book for what it was meant to be: a brief biography based entirely on what we know about William Shakespeare.

five-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: 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

Review: How the Word is Passed, Clint Smith

Review: How the Word is Passed, Clint SmithHow the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America by Clint Smith
ISBN: 0316492930
on June 1, 2021
Genres: History
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

Poet and contributor to The Atlantic Clint Smith’s revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave-owning nation.

Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader through an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks—those that are honest about the past and those that are not—that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation's collective history, and ourselves.

It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving over 400 people on the premises. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola Prison in Louisiana, a former plantation named for the country from which most of its enslaved people arrived and which has since become one of the most gruesome maximum-security prisons in the world. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.

In a deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of our country's most essential stories are hidden in plain view-whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth, or entire neighborhoods—like downtown Manhattan—on which the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women and children has been deeply imprinted.

Informed by scholarship and brought alive by the story of people living today, Clint Smith’s debut work of nonfiction is a landmark work of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in understanding our country.

This is a fascinating book and a must-read for, well, everyone. In the pages of this book, Clint Smith embarks on a journey to several sites associated with slavery and racism and shares the stories of those sites and how their past is either reckoned with or isn’t. For a taste, you might consider reading Smith’s recent article in The Atlantic: “Why Confederate Lies Live On.” For another, more poetic taste, check out this poem:

In the book’s Epilogue, Smith writes that we are not as removed from the history of slavery and racism as some of us would like to pretend. Recalling a story his grandmother told him about White children throwing food at her from their bus as she walked, he writes, “The children who threw food at my grandmother and called her a n***** are likely bouncing their own great-grandchildren on their laps” (288). I know for a fact that they are because I was raised by them, as hard as it is for me to say. I love some of my family and they have been and in some cases still are deeply racist. Part of the reason that racism persists is ignorance. So much of the truth of what really happened was not taught in schools. I know I didn’t learn it. I do think more efforts are made now to try to right that wrong, but many states are also engaged in a fierce battle—at this very moment—to prevent teachers from teaching students the truth about slavery and racism.

Learning the truth about this country could be cleansing and freeing, but there is so much fear. As Smith argues, students “knowing their history helps them more effectively identify the lies” they are told about their history and their present (262). Ultimately, Smith’s thesis is that if we know the truth, we can heal and move forward, but if we continue to remain ignorant, then our societal problems due to racism will persist.

Smith’s writing is lyrical and beautiful at times. Smith’s background as a poet is on full display in some of the language he uses. He begins the book by calling on readers to listen. In his Prologue, he uses language such as “congregation,” “crowd,” and “gathered” to call his audience together to hear what he has learned in his travels to Monticello, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston, New York City, and Gorée Island (Senegal), finally ending with his grandparents’ stories. Smith makes the clear argument that history is us; we caused it to happen, and we can change its course.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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

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
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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: Tartine Bread, Chad Robertson

Review: Tartine Bread, Chad RobertsonTartine Bread by Chad Robertson, Eric Wolfinger
Published by Chronicle Books (CA) ISBN: 1452100284
on October 29, 2013
Genres: Cooking
Pages: 304
Format: E-Book
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five-stars

For the home or professional bread-maker, this is the book. It comes from a man many consider to be the best bread baker in the United States: Chad Robertson, co-owner of Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, a city that knows its bread. To Chad, bread is the foundation of a meal, the center of daily life, and each loaf tells the story of the baker who shaped it. He developed his unique bread over two decades of apprenticeship with the finest artisan bakers in France and the United States, as well as experimentation in his own ovens. Readers will be astonished at how elemental it is. A hundred photographs from years of testing, teaching, and recipe development provide step-by-step inspiration, while additional recipes provide inspiration for using up every delicious morsel.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you might recall I’ve been learning how to bake bread for a few years now. I struggle to find time to bake sourdough bread because it has such a long rise. During the week, it’s just not really possible because of work. If I want to bake on the weekend, I need to plan in advance so that I can get my starter active again. I recently read Michael Pollan’s book Cooked, and it reminded me that I still hadn’t finished Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread. Pollan learns to bake sourdough from Robertson and documents his experience in that book. I have read quite a few books about baking sourdough, and my results have been sort of mixed. I decided to give Tartine Bread a try because I had heard that Robertson’s recipe and technique were good.

The selling point of Jim Lahey’s recipe and technique is that it is a no-knead recipe, and you can let it rise overnight. I kind of liked what I saw in Ken Forkish’s book, but it didn’t wow me. I thought it was me, and partly it was. It took me a while to figure out how you could tell your starter was active. I really like Chad Robertson’s helpful technique of dropping a bit into some water to see if it floats. If it does, it’s active. If it sinks, wait longer. I believe that Ken Forkish shared that tip in his book as well. Of the sourdough recipes I’ve tried, I think I liked Paul Hollywood’s recipe the least. I didn’t have good results with it. I figured I’d see what happened with Robertson’s recipe, and I was not disappointed.

I tried Robertson’s recipe and technique as written and made some beautiful loaves of sourdough.

Sourdough Bread
I had to get my starter in there, you know.

I halved the recipe so as to make just one loaf, and I’ve had a chance to bake twice using the halved recipe. I was initially afraid the salt amount was too much, but the bread doesn’t taste salty. The folding technique is easy to master once you’ve tried it a few times. The bread has a perfect crust. I baked Jim Lahey’s recipe as written and found the crust way too hard and dark for my liking. The kids wouldn’t eat it either. In fact, this recipe marks the first time they’ve eaten the sourdough bread I made (I know; they’re weird).

I did not make a starter using Robertson’s technique. I have had a starter going (in the fridge, for the most part) since late 2017, and I didn’t see any reason to make a fresh starter. I’m glad I didn’t worry about it because I don’t think I needed to. I tried the recipe with a bottle of spring water and then with water from the Brita pitcher and noticed no difference, so I think Robertson is right that the water doesn’t matter. He argues that the flour does, and I think he gets his from a local mill. I used King Arthur, which has been my go-to for a number of years now—pretty much since I moved to New England, though I clung to White Lily when I could find it for a little while. If you’re curious, I used King Arthur’s directions to make my starter. Robertson’s recipe calls for whole wheat flour, but what I had on hand is King Arthur’s sprouted whole wheat, which has a slightly milder flavor. I am convinced that the small amount of whole wheat flour is what separates Robertson’s recipe from the rest. It’s not really enough whole wheat flour to taste like wheat bread, necessarily, but I think it adds a flavor that white flour alone doesn’t have. I will definitely have to try Robertson’s recipe with regular whole wheat flour when I run out of the sprouted whole wheat.

I think if you get this book, you will probably get it for the main country bread recipe. I’m sure some of the others are good, but I haven’t tried them yet. Some of the recipes aside from the main recipe for country bread, as Robertson calls it, strike me as a bit different… and complicated, too, but we did try the French toast, which was probably the best French toast we’ve ever had. It smelled amazing as it was baking, too.

I highly recommend this book to anyone looking to try sourdough baking. This is hands-down the best recipe I’ve tried so far, and my results using Robertson’s recipe and technique have been the best out of the sourdough recipes I’ve tried, too. Honestly, I thought the country bread recipe alone made the book worth it.

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
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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