Book Reviews: Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Indonesia

Author: Eka Kurniawan
TitleBeauty is a Wound 
Translator: Annie Tucker
Publication Info: New York : New Directions, 2015.
Summary/Review:

This contemporary Indonesian novel depicts the history of the nation from World War II to the 1990s through a fictional port city as it goes through Japanese occupation, revolution against Dutch colonialism, Communist uprisings, massacres, and civil war.  While it’s a well-written and engaging novel, it’s hard to keep reading through the depictions of rape, torture, and cruelty. Balancing these grim realities is a magical realism element which includes ghosts, curses, and reincarnation.

The book centers on Dewi Ayu, the beautiful and pragmatic prostitute, and her daughters.  Three of her daughters, beautiful like their mother, end up married to local military commander, a mob boss, and a communist revolutionary.  The last daughter, named Beauty, is cursed by her mother to be ugly to protect her from the suffering of her other daughters.  And yet, all of these women, and their children, and the numerous other townspeople introduced in various tangential stories suffer and keep on suffering.  It’s almost too much to bear.
Favorite Passages:

“What does it feel like to be dead?” asked Kyai Jahro. “Actually, it’s pretty fun. That’s the main reason why, out of everyone who dies, not one person chooses to come back to life again.” “But you came back to life,” said the kyai. “I came back just so I could tell you that.”
“Have you become a communist?” asked his mother, almost in despair. “Only a communist would be so gloomy.” “I’m in love,” said Kliwon to his mother. “That’s even worse!” She sat next to Kliwon and stroked his hair that was curly and growing long. “Well, go play your guitar under her bedroom window like you always do.”

Recommended booksThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Silver Stallion by Jung-Hyo Ahn
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


Author: Colson Whitehead
TitleThe Underground Railroad
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info:  New York : Random House Audio, [2016]
Read by the Same AuthorApex Hides the Hurt
Summary/Review:

This novel is fiction, but it peels back the wounds of slavery in the United States.  In this universe, the Underground Railroad is a literal train carrying escaped trains north to a tenuous freedom.  Cora escapes the cruelty of life on a Georgia plantation to the railroad making several stops along the way.  South Carolina appears to be a haven where African Americans live in a company town, but as Cora ends up working as a living exhibit in an anthropology museum, she learns that the whole town is a front for eugenics experiments.  North Carolina is a place where slavery is ended by attempting genocide, and Cora has to hide in a sympathetic white man’s attic where she witnesses the regular pageants accompanying the lynching of blacks and white helpers. A slave catcher brings Cora to a wild west version of Tennessee, and she escapes again to a community of freed blacks in Indiana.  Even here she can’t find any peace.

The magical and mythical elements frame a novel that contains the full brutality of slavery and racism in the United States.  It’s a brilliant construct that brings home the reality of America’s grim secrets.

Recommended booksIncidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Rating: ****

Book Review: George by Alex Gino


Author: Alex Gino
TitleGeorge
Narrator: Jamie Clayton
Publication Info: Scholastic Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

This novel tells the story of George, a fourth-grader coming to terms with identifying as a girl when presenting as a boy.  It’s set against a class performance of Charlotte’s Web in which George desperately  wants to portray Charlotte.  There are a lot of stock characters in the novel, including the school bully, and the former friend who now hangs with the bully. And there’s a temporary falling out between George and her best friend Kelly, as much over Kelly getting cast in the staring role as George outing herself as transgender.  But the novel shows even how people with good intentions can hurt – from George’s mother who doesn’t want George to put herself at risk of discrimination, to George’s older brother who was more ready to accept a gay sibling, and George’s teacher who hides behind the idea of fairly parceling out roles in the play to boys and girls.  At the end of the novel, George and Kelly get to enjoy a perfect day out with George presenting as a girl for the first time, which is a delightful outcome for the fictional character, and one I hope real life transgender children get to enjoy.

 
Favorite Passages:

“My point is, it takes a special person to cry over a book. It shows compassion as well as imagination…Don’t ever lose that.”

“The play will begin at six sharp. Parents and family, I hope you’ll stay for the PTA meeting that will follow.” A few parents coughed in response. George knew that coughing was the adult equivalent of groaning.”

Recommended booksEvery Day by David Levithan, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell,  and Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Rating: ****