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
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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

three-half-stars

Review: Cooked, Michael Pollan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

four-half-stars

Review: Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

Review: Born to Run, Bruce SpringsteenBorn to Run by Bruce Springsteen
Narrator: Bruce Springsteen
Published by Simon Schuster Audio ISBN: 1508224234
on December 6, 2016
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 19
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
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five-stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five-stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five-stars

Review: Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

five-stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he still has to try.

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

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

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

four-half-stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

four-stars

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian Black

Review: A Better Man, Michael Ian BlackA Better Man: A (Mostly Serious) Letter to My Son by Michael Ian Black
Published by Algonquin Books ISBN: 1616209119
on September 15, 2020
Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
Pages: 304
Format: Hardcover
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five-stars

“Raw, intimate, and true . . . A Better Man cracked me wide open, and it’s a template for the conversation we need to be having with our boys.”Peggy Orenstein, bestselling author of Boys & Sex

A poignant look at boyhood, in the form of a heartfelt letter from comedian Michael Ian Black to his teenage son before he leaves for college, and a radical plea for rethinking masculinity and teaching young men to give and receive love.

In a world in which the word masculinity now often goes hand in hand with toxic, comedian, actor, and father Michael Ian Black offers up a way forward for boys, men, and anyone who loves them. Part memoir, part advice book, and written as a heartfelt letter to his college-bound son, A Better Man reveals Black’s own complicated relationship with his father, explores the damage and rising violence caused by the expectations placed on boys to “man up,” and searches for the best way to help young men be part of the solution, not the problem. “If we cannot allow ourselves vulnerability,” he writes, “how are we supposed to experience wonder, fear, tenderness?”

Honest, funny, and hopeful, Black skillfully navigates the complex gender issues of our time and delivers a poignant answer to an urgent question: How can we be, and raise, better men? 

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

This is an important book for our current moment. I found it helpful to understand the messages men receive about how to be “correctly” masculine, and I think we can lay many of our current societal problems at the feet of these dangerous messages. Readers looking for Black’s characteristic humor will find the subtitle accurate: the book is mostly serious, and I really appreciated the vulnerability and honesty of its seriousness. The book serves as a contemplative memoir, a poignant letter of love and advice, and a meditation on our world. I walked away from it feeling that Michael Ian Black is a good husband, father, and most of all, a good man.

I recommend this book most highly to men, but I learned a great deal from it, too. Most importantly, it gave me an understanding. I don’t believe all men are alike, and I don’t believe they are all horrible, but I freely admit I was reaching a point of despair over the ability of men—White men—to recognize their privilege and work on unlearning some of the most damaging messages they have received. If I had to pick a moment when this feeling started to take shape, it was when Justice Kavanaugh was confirmed. I recognized that man. I am pretty sure I went to high school and college with a lot of guys like him. And I was pretty sure Christine Blasey Ford was telling the truth. I was also pretty sure that Kavanaugh thought he was telling the truth, too. That might seem like a strange thing to say, but I think he felt entitled to do as he pleased, and I think he felt pressured to prove his masculinity through sexual conquest, and I think a lot of the boys in his friend group were doing the same things, which normalized and maybe even celebrated treating women as less than people, only useful as sexual objects. Because I remember what it was like to be a girl in the era in which Kavanaugh allegedly raped Blasey Ford. Black devotes a whole chapter to consent, and he explains the messages both girls and boys receive about consent and how they warp our ability to communicate sexual desire.

I admit things seem hopeless right now. We have a racist, misogynist person in the White House. He operates out of the most toxic and dangerous aspects of masculinity. Our civil rights champion, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died yesterday. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has completely upended our lives and taken the lives of a number most of us can’t fathom. The ending isn’t in sight. We are in the darkest part of the tunnel, or maybe the belly of the whale, and it is hard not to be resigned to despair. This book gave me a little bit of hope. It’s going to take some backbreaking work, but I’m comforted to know people like Michael Ian Black are doing their part for us.

five-stars

August Reading Update

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I haven’t had much time to blog lately, but I am finding more time to read (finally). I successfully defended my dissertation proposal in late July, and since then, I have been working on a piece of writing for my action step—I’m writing a dissertation in practice, which means I have to actually DO something and write about how it worked out. In any case, I thought I’d share a list of the books I have read since my last book review along with short reviews of each. I have been trying to read more library books and not buy a lot of books. I am lucky that my local library has Overdrive, so I can read a lot of library books using my Kindle app. It got me through this quarantine, I can tell you.

  1. Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, Ken Forkish: This is a great book about baking bread, and I learned a few things I didn’t know. I appreciate Forkish giving recipes in grams. I think it’s strange that Forkish’s recipes are almost always for 2 loaves, however. It seems like an odd choice. I also think he’s wrong about a few things (I know he’s more experienced than I am, but I haven’t found keeping instant yeast in the freezer kills it—it actually makes it last longer, in my experience). Still, I think it’s a great addition to my bread-baking library, and the one recipe I have tried so far turned out great. I initially checked this out from the library but then bought it. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★½.
  2. Notes from a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi: I listened to this on audio, and Onwuachi reads it. I thought this was an excellent memoir. Onwuachi has a really interesting story. I heard recently that he is now leaving Kith and Kin, so it will be interesting to see where he goes next. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★★★
  3. Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi: This book is an excellent introduction to several key historical figures and how they represent ideas about racism or antiracism in their times: Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Angela Davis. I learned many things from this book. If I have one quibble, it’s that Kendi cites some secondary sources, and I think going back to the primary sources whenever he can would strengthen his arguments (not that I disagree with him, just that I think people who do will find his use of secondary sources a reason to poke holes in his arguments). Owned. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  4. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Taylor Jenkins Reid: I really enjoyed this book about old Hollywood. I know Reid was partly thinking of Elizabeth Taylor, but Evelyn Hugo seems owes a small debt to Marilyn Monroe, too. The author hints early on that there will be a twist at the end, and yep, it’s a pretty good one. I really need to thank Taylor Jenkins Reid for getting me out of my reading rut. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  5. Passable in Pink, Mike Sacks: This book is a spoof on John Hughes movies of the 1980s. You will recognize Pretty in PinkSixteen CandlesThe Breakfast Club, and maybe a few more films in the plot. The joke wears thin after a bit. I think the beginning is kind of funny, but then it starts to drag. Definitely listen to the audiobook with its great cast if you decide to read it. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  6. The Leavers, Lisa Ko: OMG, this book is still in my head. I loved this book. It’s one of the best ones I read this year. It will have you thinking deeply about how the US treats undocumented immigrants and what happens to children adopted outside of their race as well. There are so many issues to think about. Well-meaning White liberals would do well to read this book. It’s incredible. You will think about the characters for a long time. Owned. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★★
  7. Dear Martin, Nic Stone: I think teens will really enjoy this book. It tells the story of a teenage boy who goes to prep school but has to contend with the racism of police officers. It will inevitably be compared to The Hate U Give and may be found wanting in that comparison (which probably isn’t fair), but it tells a different story and is worth a read. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆
  8. The Marrow Thieves, Cherie Dimaline: This book is set about 25-30 years in a dystopian future in which climate change has wreaked havoc on the world. People stop dreaming, and it makes them go insane and die. Somehow, they discover aboriginal people can still dream, and if their bone marrow is consumed, it can save the lives of non-Native people. The main character in this book is Métis, First Nations, and the book is set in Canada. It’s an interesting read, but I didn’t think it was as amazing as my teacher friends seemed to think. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆
  9. Heart Berries, Therese Marie Mailhot: Tommy Orange said this book was good, and parts of it are really poetic. I understand Mailhot is writing from the perspective of a person with bipolar disorder, but I had a hard time with her. She is married to the man she was dating in this memoir, and he seems like an asshole, so I guess to each her own, but he came off like a fuckboi in this book. This is a book I can appreciate on the one hand, but that I didn’t much like on the other. I can’t figure out how Roxane Gay gave this book 5 stars and only gave There There four. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★☆☆
  10. Consider the Fork, Bee Wilson: This a great little book about all the common kitchen implements and cooking tools we use. The fork is only one. Wilson talks about everything from plates to refrigerators. I learned a lot from this book, and the audiobook is charmingly narrated. Owned, audio. Rating: ★★★★½
  11. When the Beat Was Born: DJ Kool Herc and the Creation of Hip Hop, Laban Carrick Hill: This crossed my radar the other day, and I have to admit I learned from it. I felt like the author could have been more thorough in covering what happened to DJ Kool Herc later on. I know it’s a kids’ book, but leaving it out felt like a cop-out (spoiler: he had problems with drug addiction and sort of receded into the background of hip hop). Owned. Paperback. Rating: ★★★★☆
  12. Grading for Equity, Joe Feldman: I read this as part of some research I was doing. Feldman and I cited many of the same studies in our research. This is a great book, and I’d highly recommend all teachers read it. Owned. Paperback. Rating: ★★★★★
  13. The Only Good Indians, Stephen Graham Jones: I picked this up because Tommy Orange blurbed it. It is an interesting book, and I admit I’m not a huge fan of horror, but this book was pretty good, and I was able to handle the horror parts. I am still kind of wondering what happened. I have a theory, but I am not sure I’m right. Anyway, there is something under the surface about being a good steward of the land and empathy for all creatures that I’m still trying to unpack. I liked the writing, and I would read more by this author. Checked out from the library. Read on Kindle. Rating: ★★★★☆

Books I re-read:

  1. Daisy Jones & the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid (I read this book twice this year!)
  2. 1919, Eve L.Ewing
  3. Counting Descent, Clint Smith (I guess I have never reviewed this, but it’s amazing)
  4. Revolution, Jennifer Donnelly
  5. There There, Tommy Orange (I also read this one twice this year, too.)