Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBrideThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Narrator: Michael Boatman
Published by Penguin Audio on August 20, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 14 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes he is a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually, Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride s meticulous eye for detail and character, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

I absolutely loved this book, and I think listening to the audiobook was a major reason why. Michael Boatman’s narration is excellent. I loved his characterization of John Brown and Owen Brown in particular. In style, this book reminded me a great deal of Mark Twain, particularly Huckleberry Finn. McBride’s portrayal of John Brown is sympathetic yet realistic. Through the voice of his narrator, Henry, we have a full picture of a complicated man: a religious zealot called by God to end slavery and a man who truly believed all people are equal. I honestly haven’t read enough about the real John Brown to know if the characterization is completely accurate, but it definitely rings true.

I love it when historical fiction asks me to research, too, and this book had me checking out other sources so I could learn about John Brown. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said that what he feared was “thousands of John Browns.” It’s interesting to ask what might have happened had John Brown not conducted his raid on Harper’s Ferry or engaged in the skirmishes in Bleeding Kansas. Would the war have happened later? Would the South have organized in the face of ardent abolitionism? In any case, it’s difficult for me not to admire his dedication to the cause of freedom for African Americans at a time when that was not just unpopular but illegal. His tactics were violent, but it’s probably true that nonviolent protest would have accomplished nothing. After all, it took a bloody war to resolve the question of slavery, and the question of racism is still open.

I appreciated McBride’s invention of Henry as a narrator. He offered an opportunity to interpret John Brown’s actions through the lens of one of the enslaved people Brown was attempting to free and also to offer an outside perspective that is both sympathetic and critical of Brown. This balance makes it easier for McBride to draw a more complex picture of Brown and his followers than if he had chosen a narrator from among them or even a further outsider.

There is a chunk of the story in the middle when Henry is separated from Brown that I didn’t find as enjoyable. During this section, Henry is working in a hotel/whorehouse and falls in love with one of the prostitutes. However, he is disguising himself as a girl, so it’s complicated. I’m wondering now, as I finished the book, if that section added to the story or not. I suppose it depends on whether the reader sees this as a story of John Brown or a story of Henry Shackleford. I tend toward the former, and I will admit that part of the book slowed down the story’s momentum a bit for me, but not enough for me to dock any stars.

One literary aspect I appreciated was McBride’s clever use of motifs. For example, on several occasions, Brown wants to stop and pray when the group is in danger, and his son Owen is often the one to tell him to wrap it up so they can get out of danger. Another example is Brown’s directive to Henry to “hive the bees,” or try to rouse support for Brown’s cause among the Black population. He brings both motifs back touchingly at the end of the novel. We know how John Brown’s story ends, but McBride managed to make it satisfying and true to the characters he created. The first thing I did upon finishing this book is to check out Deacon King Kong, another of McBride’s novels. I wanted more. I can’t wait to watch the film!

five-stars

Review: Led Zeppelin: The Biography, Bob Spitz

Review: Led Zeppelin: The Biography, Bob SpitzLed Zeppelin: The Biography by Bob Spitz
Narrator: Rob Shapiro
Published by Penguin Audio on November 9, 2021
Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
Length: 21 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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Goodreads
five-stars

From the author of the definitive New York Times bestselling history of the Beatles comes the authoritative account of the group Jack Black and many others call the greatest rock band of all time, arguably the most successful, and certainly one of the most notorious. Rock stars. Whatever those words mean to you, chances are, they owe a debt to Led Zeppelin. No one before or since has lived the dream quite like Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham. In Led Zeppelin, Bob Spitz takes their full measure, for good and sometimes for ill, separating the myth from the reality with the connoisseurship and storytelling flair that are his trademarks.

From the opening notes of their first album, the band announced itself as something different, a collision of grand artistic ambition and brute primal force, of delicate English folk music and hard-driving African-American blues. That record sold over 10 million copies, and it was the merest beginning; Led Zeppelin's albums have sold over 300 million certified copies worldwide, and the dust has never settled. Taken together, Led Zeppelin's discography has spent an almost incomprehensible ten-plus years on the album charts. The band is notoriously guarded, and previous books shine more heat than light. But Bob Spitz's authority is undeniable and irresistible. His feel for the atmosphere, the context—the music, the business, the recording studios, the touring life, the radio stations, the fans, the whole ecosystem of popular music—is unparalleled. His account of the melding of Page and Jones, the virtuosic London sophisticates, with Plant and Bonham, the wild men from the Midlands, into a band out of the ashes of the Yardbirds, in a scene dominated by the Beatles and the Stones but changing fast, is in itself a revelation.

Spitz takes the music seriously, and brings the band's artistic journey to full and vivid life. The music is only part of the legend, however: Led Zeppelin is also the story of how the 60's became the 70's, of how playing in clubs became playing in stadiums and flying your own jet, of how innocence became decadence. Led Zeppelin may not have invented the groupie, and they weren't the first rock band to let loose on the road, but they took it to an entirely new level, as with everything else. Not all the legends are true, but in Bob Spitz's careful accounting, what is true is astonishing, and sometimes disturbing. Led Zeppelin gave no quarter, and neither has Bob Spitz. Led Zeppelin is the full and honest reckoning the band has long awaited, and richly deserves.

Oof. Okay, this book. I will start with the caveat that when I was in high school, Led Zeppelin was my favorite band. This was post-breakup, several years beyond John Bonham’s death, when Robert Plant had a flourishing solo career. I was 15, I think, when I first heard them on the radio, and I started buying up cassette tapes of their back catalog. I listened to them so much that when I put on one of their albums today, I still know them note-for-note. Over the years, I admit my interest waned, and I did not seek out many of the posthumous releases that have come out over the last 20 years or so. I don’t even own all of their albums in iTunes (something my 17-year-old self probably would have thought unthinkable). I haven’t read some of the books and memoirs, but I had read enough of them to know they’re generally hagiographic and fawning in nature. I had heard good things about this biography, so I decided to listen to the audio version.

This is a great biography. Spitz wasn’t able to interview the band, who (probably wisely) opted not to talk with him in the wake of #MeToo. However, he did interview many people I’d never heard from before. As a result, I learned many things about the band that I didn’t previously know, especially about Jimmy Page’s childhood, adolescence, and early music career. Even as a big fan of their music, I wasn’t aware of the extent to which the group was really Jimmy’s band with some hired musicians (essentially), or that they really weren’t friends with each other, or that their drug problems were that bad. On a surface level, I knew some of these things, but Spitz helped me understand these things and how they impacted the band. I had a pretty thorough knowledge of some of the groupie stories, but they were disturbing in the extreme in Spitz’s telling. I think other books tend to gloss over the stories or cast them in a different light, but Spitz shines a great big spotlight on them. These men did not believe women were fully-fledged human beings worthy of any sort of respect. That’s it. Led Zeppelin definitely suffers under the microscope. In particular, their manager Peter Grant, tour manager Richard Cole, and drummer John Bonham were thugs and should probably have done prison time—all three of them—for the violence they committed. Multiple assaults, rape, arguably attempted murder. The only shocking aspect of John Bonham’s death is that it didn’t happen sooner. In fact, it’s pretty shocking Jimmy Page didn’t die, too. I didn’t realize how close the band was to breaking up anyway when John Bonham died, either.

Spitz’s background in music is also handy when he’s describing their performances and recorded output. He takes a fresh look at their music, as he was not a fan prior to writing the book, and as such, he avoids some of the fanboy flattery that so many other books and articles engage in when discussing Led Zeppelin. In his hands, the music feels fresh and new. I consider it remarkable restraint that he didn’t excoriate “Hot Dog,” arguably the worst song they recorded. He mentioned the song just once. The last two albums were definitely a letdown after Physical Graffiti, which is probably my favorite of their albums. I caution Led Zeppelin fans about reading this one. Spitz is unflinching, and he may take them down a few notches in your estimation (he certainly did in mine). It’s hard to look away from the worst of their excesses with your respect for the band intact. Still, I thought it was a fascinating examination of the group’s stories and music.

five-stars

Review: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie Walton

Review: The Final Revival of Opal & Nev, Dawnie WaltonThe Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton
Published by 37 Ink, Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 198214016X
on March 30, 2021
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Length: 13 hours 17 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
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five-stars

An electrifying novel about the meteoric rise of an iconic interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour.

Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.

In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.

Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.

Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.

This book is AMAZING. I highly recommend listening to it on audio, as it’s read by a full cast including some pretty major players: Bahni Turpin, an award-winning audiobook narrator, voices Opal Jewel, and Tony-winning actor André De Shields (Hermes in Hadestown) voices Virgil LaFleur, Opal’s stylist and best friend. I wanted for those two characters, in particular, to be real people so that I could hang out with them and just listen to their stories. I loved everything about this book: the audiobook narration, the references to social media, the Rolling Stone-type magazine Sunny writes for, and the interview-style format.

I’m sure that fans of Daisy Jones & The Six would like it, but for me, it goes even deeper than that book to expose issues of sexism and racism in music. The story is both a fascinating look at rock’s history and its present. Dawnie Walton writes with authority on the subject, and as a lifelong music lover, it was so refreshing and fun to read about its history in a book like this. Walton couldn’t have bundled more of my personal interests into one book if she had tried—in fact, all she needed to do was make one of the characters a bread baker, and there’s literally nothing else to add. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves music.

five-stars

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: In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

four-half-stars

Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five-stars

Reading Roundup: May-June 2021

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

Dana Huff Dissertation Defense

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

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