Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell


Author: Sarah Vowell
TitleUnfamiliar Fishes
Narrator: Sarah Vowell, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, John Hodgman, Catherine Keener, Edward Norton, Keanu Reeves, Paul Rudd, Maya Rudolph, and John Slattery
Publication Info: New York : Simon & Schuster Audio, p2011.
Previously Read by the Same Author: The Partly Cloudy Patriot, The Wordy Shipmates, and Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
Summary/Review:

As an East Coaster, my knowledge of Hawaiian history is close to nothing.  And yet it was New Englander’s like myself who initiated the process that transformed Hawaii into a United States territory.  Well, maybe not entirely like myself as they were missionaries who insisted that the indigenous Hawaiians should become industrious Protestants.  Arriving in the 1820s, the New England missionaries would be followed by the industrialist who sought to raise sugar and the imperialists who sought naval bases.  If you know anything about how things works with Americans and native populations, the overthrow of Queen Liliʻuokalani in 1893 by a group of American business leaders seems inevitable.  Vowell does an excellent job of piecing together the clashes of culture and swiftly changing alliances that occurred in this century of turbulent change that still leaves its mark on modern Hawaii.  Like other Sarah Vowell audiobooks, the voices of historic figures are read by an all-star cast.

Recommended booksBlue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before by Tony Horwitz
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson


Author:Bill Bryson
TitleThe Road to Little Dribbling
Narrator: Nathan Osgood
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2016.
Previously Read by the Same Author: A Short History of Nearly Everything, A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, Notes from a Small Island, In a Sunburned Country, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, The Mother Tongue, The Lost Continent, Neither Here nor There, At Home: A Short History of Private Life,
Made in America, and One Summer: America, 1927
Summary/Review:

This is a follow-up to Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island with Bryson officially becoming a citizen of the UK to once again travel from end to end of the island nation.  This time he follows “The Bryson Line,” the longest distance between any two points on the British mainland without crossing open water. The book is full of Bryson’s awe of the natural beauty and cultural history of Britain, mixed with a sad nostalgia for what made Britain great when he first arrived decades go in the era before austerity.  Bryson fills his travel narrative with arcane, yet fascinating, facts about the places he visits as well as his crankier moments when he encounters poor service or obnoxious people.   Bryson fans will enjoy another humorous and erudite addition to his oeuvre, although new readers should probably seek out an earlier book as an entryway.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017 by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa


Author: Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa
TitleThe Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2017 
Publication Info: Unofficial Guides (2016), Edition: 2017 ed
Summary/Review:

I did not read this cover to cover, for it is a massive tome containing information about all the Walt Disney World and Universal resorts – theme parks, attractions, hotels, dining, shopping, and more – but I did find it useful for the portions relevant to planning my own trip.  The distinctive feature of this guidebook is the touring plan, suggested itineraries that take one through the attractions at the theme parks in a way to best avoid long waits in line based on collected data.  The book also includes lots of tips submitted by readers offering contrasting perspectives from the authors.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Devil’s Picnic by Taras Grescoe


Author: Taras Grescoe
TitleThe Devil’s Picnic : Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit
Publication Info: New York, NY : Bloomsbury Pub. : Distributed to the trade by Holtzbrinck Publishers, 2005.
Previously Read By Same Author: The End of Elsewhere: Travels Among the Tourists and Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile

Summary/Review:

In Grescoe’s travel books he seeks out a specific theme for his travels.  In The End of Elsewhere he deliberately sought ought the most touristed spots across the Eurasian landmass and in Straphanger he rode the world’s best metro systems seeking solutions for cities.  In The Devil’s Picnic, the theme is prohibition and Grescoe travels the world to make a meal of food, drink and other consumables that have been banned or severely restricted in different parts of the world.  The menu includes moonshine in Norway, poppy seed crackers and chewing gum in Singapore, bull’s testicles in Spain, smoking in San Francisco, absinthe in Switzerland, mate de coca in Bolivia, and assisted suicide in Switzerland (the one thing the author does not sample).  Many of these items are banned out of concerns of morality and health, but Grescoe notes the arbitrary nature of prohibition and the damages on society and individuals that arise when resources are dedicated to legal enforcement rather than treatment, and forbidden fruits are only available through criminal organizations.  Similarily, there’s the hypocrisy of some substances such as caffeine being considered “harmless” and commonplace, something Grescoe attributes to it being a productivity drug that benefits a capitalist system. At times Grescoe comes off as a jerk, like when he deliberately chews gum in Singapore trying to provoke a reaction, knowing that a white Westerner will not be punished like a local.  But largely this is a thoughtful book on where the lines should be drawn between self-determination and societal protection.
Recommended books: Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser and The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon


Author: Kekla Magoon
TitleHow It Went Down
Narrators: Cherise Boothe , Shari Peele , Kevin R. Free , Avery R. Glymph , and Patricia Lucretia Floyd
Publication Info: Recorded Books, 2014
Summary/Review:

A story familiar to any American: in a poor urban neighborhood, there’s a scuffle.  A white man in a passing car, stops, draws his gun, fires, and a black teenager Tariq Johnson is dead.  The police let the shooter go claiming he was exercising self-defense.  The novel is told from many voices of Tariq’s family, friends, neighbors, and a visiting minister (who is also running for office) who arrives in town to offer his support.  They offer conflicting views – was Tariq a gang member or not, did he have a gun or not – as well as memories of Tariq, and their part in the communal grieving process.   This highly nuanced book shows that there are no angels but also that there is no one unworthy of empathy.  Excellent reading by a cast of actors performing the various characters’ parts.

Recommended booksLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
Rating: ****

Book Review: Frozen: The Cinestory by Robert Simpson


Author: Robert Simpson
TitleFrozen: The Cinestory
Publication Info: Joe Books Inc. (2014)
Summary/Review:

I read this adaptation of the Disney musical Frozen with my daughter over the course of several bedtimes.  It’s essentially scenes from the film arranged in a comic book format.  Strangely enough, none of the lyrics to the songs that made this musical famous are included in the book.  Instead the same basic ideas are related in the dialogue.  I don’t know if this is a licensing issue or if they just thought it would work better in comic form without the songs.  Nevertheless, if you and your children enjoy Frozen, this is an enjoyable read.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 26: Call To Arms by Robert Kirkman


AuthorRobert Kirkman
TitleThe Walking Dead Vol. 26: Call To Arms
Publication Info: Image Comics (2016)
Summary/Review:

I’ve never been much too impressed with the character of Negan, so color me surprised that in this story of Negan escaping and joining The Whisperers, I find him funny, interesting, and even a voice of conscience!  It’s the little surprises like this that keep me reading when this series often seems to just retread that same things again and again.  Plus there’s quite a cliffhanger at the end, but Negan isn’t necessarily a reliable narrator so who knows where it will lead to next.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Walking Dead Vol. 25: No Turning Back by Robert Kirkman


AuthorRobert Kirkman
TitleThe Walking Dead Vol. 25: No Turning Back
Publication Info: Image Comics (2016)
Summary/Review:

It seems not that long ago Rick Grimes decided that the way forward was to stop fighting and to work together to create a new society among the dead.  Well, since the creators of The Walking Dead seem only about to work with one or two ideas (while tantalizingly dancing around something more brilliant) we’re back to all out war as the central narrative of the ongoing zombie story.  Rick gets advice from Negan of all people and takes on an authoritarian leadership role to channel the Alexandrians rage at against the Whisperers.  Plus ça change…

Rating: **

Book Review: Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill


Author: Marc Lamont Hill
TitleNobody: Casualties of America’s War on the Vulnerable, from Ferguson to Flint and Beyond
Publication Info: Atria Books (2016)
Summary/Review:

Hill’s book is a collection of essays focused on the people whose names have become party of a litany of violence against African-Americans in recent years: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin and others.  These people who have been made a Nobody in contemporary America are given their full human dignity in Hill’s account of their lives, as well as the incidents that brought their demise and their aftermath.  But Hill goes beyond the headlines and uses these incidents as a window into the greater societal and political trends that undergird them: “broken windows” policing, plea bargains denying people accused of crimes of their day in court and the incredible power this gives prosecutors, “Stand Your Ground” laws and the arming of America,  mass incarceration, and the neoliberal ideal of running the government “like a business” that leads to the exploitation and disasters of places like Flint, Michigan.  This is a powerful book and important book and one I highly recommend that everyone concerned about the future of our nation reads.
Favorite Passages:

“The case for broken-windows policing is compelling because it lightly dipped in truth.  Yet while there is a correlation between disorder (social and physical) and crime, research shows that this relationship is not causal.  Simply put, there is no evidence that disorder directly promotes crime.  What the evidence does suggest, however, is that the two are linked to the same larger problem: poverty.  High levels of unemployment, lack of social resources, and concentrated areas of low income are all root cause of both high crime and disorder.  As such, crime would be more effectively redressed by investing economically in neighborhoods rather than targeting them for heightened arrests.” – p. 44

“Unfortunately, since modern American society, as with all things in the current neoliberal moment, prioritize privatization and individualism, the very notion of the public has become disposable.  As the current criminal-justice process shows, no longer is there a collective interest in affirming the value of the public good, even rhetorically, through the processes of transparency, honesty, or fairness.  No longer is there a commitment to monitoring and evaluating public officials, in this case prosecutors, to certify that justice prevails.  Instead we have entered a moment in which all things public have been demonized withing out social imagination: public schools, public assistance, public transportation, public housing, public options, and public defenders.  In place of a rich democratic conception of “the public” is a market-driven logic that privileges economic efficiency and individual success over collective justice.” – p. 78-79

“There is plenty of reason to debate the central premise of privatization – that business always does it better – but we don’t have to go there to find this idea objectionable.  In the way that privatization separates government responsibilities from democratic accountability, the notion is flawed from its very conception.  Businesses are not made function for the public good.  The are made to function for the good of profit. There is nothing inherently evil in that.  In most cases, the profit motive will almost certainly lead to a more efficient and orderly execution of tasks.  But it does not necessarily lead to an equitable execution of tasks; indeed, it quite naturally resists and equitable execution of tasks. Furthermore, bu injecting moneymaking into the relationship between a citizen and the basic services of life – water, roads, electricity, and education – privatization distorts the social contract.  People need to know that the decisions of governments are being made with the common good as a priority.  Anything else is not government; it is commerce.  One only needs to look back at Michigan to see this idea manifested because the crisis in Flint, as Henry Giroux has written, is what happens when the State is ‘remade in the image of the corporation.'”

 

Recommended books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson


Author: Jacqueline Woodson 
TitleAnother Brooklyn 
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info:  HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

This short novel is the reminiscences of the narrator August reflecting on her childhood in 1970s Brooklyn.  It’s a period piece that recreates a place and time so different from the Brooklyn of today, and very specifically the challenges of joys of being an African-American girl in that place and time.  It’s also a meditation on friendship, as August recalls the tight relationships with her friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia, friendships that at the time seemed permanent but have long since faded away.  The book is permeated with a nostalgic sense of loss, and is a poetic rumination of the more complex themes underlying everyday childhood.

Recommended booksSula by Toni Morrison and The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr


Author: Bob Mehr
TitleTrouble Boys: The True Story of the Replacements
Publication Info: Boston, MA : Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, [2016]
Summary/Review:

The Replacements are a band that have left a legacy of great music, yet always seemed to have the potential to do much more.  After reading this book though, it seems amazing that they even accomplished what they did.  Beyond their music, The Replacements are known for their heavy alcohol and substance abuse and their disastrous antics on-stage.  Turns out that they actually played better when drunk, and their worst performances were a rebellion against perceived hostility in the crowd or plain old self-sabotage. From the beginning, the band is riven by conflicts among its members and with their managers, producers, and record labels.

Mehr’s book traces the band back to their childhoods which were troubled indeed, especially for the Stinson brothers who suffered from abuse and neglect.  Each member of the band is well-developed within the narrative of the band’s rise and fall:

Bob Stinson – The founder of the band who always resented Paul Westerberg essentially taking over, and disliked the move to more melodic pop songs.  Stinson’s substance abuse problems were the most serious of all The Replacements, and he was forced out of the band in 1986.

Tommy Stinson – Bob had his little brother take up bass, and Tommy ended up developing into the most talented instrumentalist in the band.  Tommy’s life is remarkable as he drops out of school and he essentially spends his teenage years playing and touring with The Replacements.  Eventually he grows close to Westerberg and allies with him against his own brother.

Paul Westerberg – In the story related in the book, Westerberg hears the Stinsons’ band rehearsing in their basement and pretty takes over and makes them his band.  Westerberg comes across as arrogant and dismissive, and I really felt like punching him in the face by the end of this book.  And yet, Westerberg also grows to become a talented songwriter creating introspective songs that speak for the disaffected youth of the 1980s.

Chris Mars – Every band has a “quiet one” and The Replacements’ drummer is not just a musician but an artist who finds fulfillment outside of the band.  Still the way Paul & Tommy basically ditch him in the later years is just wrong.

Slim Dunlap – A journeyman/session guitarist who takes over after Bob Stinson’s ousting, he’s older than the rest of the band and settled in his married life, creating quite a contrast.  And yet he becomes something of an enforcer for the band against outsiders.

All in all, this is a well-written book that gives the reasons that for all their flaws, we still kind of find ourselves rooting for The Replacements to succeed.
Favorite Passages:

Though the band’s drinking would come to define and even consume them in later years, in the beginning it was a perfect lubricant for the long hours of practice and their burgeoning friendship. “That was the glue that held us—ol’ Jack Daniels,” said Mars. Westerberg noted: “They weren’t heavy fall-down drunks when I met them. None of us were. We learned to be that together.”

Where other groups evinced a certain artfulness or tried to present an idealized vision of themselves, the Replacements were all rough edges and struggle. That was part of the attraction: watching them, you couldn’t help but root for the band.

When Hoeger asked about their career aspirations, Westerberg articulated a prescient vision of the Replacements’ future: “We’d like to become famous without being professional,” he said. “Maybe like a giant cult.”

“To me, the soul of rock-and-roll is mistakes. Mistakes and making them work for you,” Westerberg would note. “In general, music that’s flawless is usually uninspired.”

Over the course of their career onstage, the Replacements would happily play the role of jesters and buffoons, but their concerts were also a high-wire act as well as a geek show. On one level, it was theater, pure performance—but it was real too. The band was constitutionally unable to put on a conventional act. If they were bored, they sounded bored; if they were drunk, the sets careened; if they were angry, their playing seethed; if they felt ornery, the show might devolve into one long piss-take, a joke on the crowd. That kind of calculated authenticity—in all its paradoxical glory—would be the Replacements’ methodology moving forward.

True Replacements fans—not the ones coming to live vicariously through them or to find sanction for their own behavior—were a different breed. “When we started, we were mixed-up kids, and we wrote about it,” said Westerberg. “It’s funny that the people who related to it the most weren’t fucked-up kids, though. Our fans have always been, dare I say, a little more intelligent than the band was labeled as. I always thought that ironic.” Replacements partisans were, on the whole, literate, dark-humored, and a bit confused about their place in the world. They weren’t the go-getters or yuppie types, but they weren’t hopeless wastrels either. They were, Tommy Stinson would note, “more like us than they fuckin’ knew. They didn’t really fit anywhere. They probably didn’t aspire to a whole lot, but also didn’t aspire to doing nothing either. That’s the kind of fan we probably appealed to most: the people that were in that gray area.

Prince was rumored to have lurked in the shadows at some of the Replacements’ shows at First Avenue, but it was in the bathroom of a club in St. Paul where Westerberg finally ran into him. “Oh, hey,” said Westerberg, seeing the dolled-up singer standing next to him at the urinal. “What’s up, man?” Prince turned and responded in cryptic fashion: “Life.”

Dubbing the Replacements “America’s inebriate counterpart to the Smiths,” Reynolds was one of the few European journalists to grasp the peculiar alchemy that fueled the ’Mats: “At the heart of the Replacements lies fatigue, insecurity, a sense of wasted or denied possibilities, but this is a pain that comes out bursting and exuberant, a world weariness that’s positively, paradoxically boisterous.”

Recommended books: Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Detonators by Chad Millman


Author: Chad Millman
TitleThe Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice
Narrator: Lloyd James
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2006)
Summary/Review:

This work of history unravels an overlooked incident in American history: the Black Tom explosion.  This munitions depot on a spit of land on the New Jersey side of New York Harbor was detonated by German saboteurs on July 30, 1916, before the United States had entered the World War.  Debris from the explosion damaged the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge and shattered windows in Manhattan, so it is surprising that it is not a more well-known event. Millman traces the actions of the network of German spies who caused the explosion.  But the better part of the book is dedicated to the legal efforts to hold Germany responsible for the explosion and the series of legal proceedings that occurred over decades until Germany was forced to pay legal damages in 1939, just before another war was about to begin.  The book is plodding at times, and the explosion occurring so early in the book makes the rest feel anticlimactic, but it is a fascinating incident in American history that deserves greater awareness
Recommended booksThe Day Wall Street Exploded by Beverly Gage
Rating: ***

Book Review: So Close to Home by Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary


Author: Michael J. Tougias and Alison O’Leary
TitleSo Close to Home
Narrator: Elijah Alexander
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

The severity of the German u-boat campaign on American ships in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in the early days of World War II is often overlooked.  Tougias and O’Leary tell that history through the story of the Downs family of Texas as they sail on the cargo ship Heredia from Costa Rica to New Orleans.  The ship is destroyed by torpedoes on the May 19, 1942, and the Downs family are separated in the wreck, each having their own survival journey along with some members of the crew.  It’s a very gripping tale, but Tougias and O’Leary have a bigger story to tell based on the records of u-boat captains and the crews who were big heroes in Nazi Germany.  This means that the Downs’ story is broken up by long sections about the u-boat warfare in general and the experiences of their crew.  Perhaps the Downs’ story was too thin to make a book of its own, but the approach taken here makes the narrative very uneven.  Nevertheless, it is an interesting glimpse into an overlooked period in American history.

Recommended booksUnbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Rating: ***

Book Review: Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli


Author: Becky Albertalli
TitleSimon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Narrator: Michael Crouch
Publication Info: Harper Audio, 2015
Summary/Review:

Simon is a closeted gay teenager living in the Atlanta suburbs and finding himself falling in love for the first time.  The problem is that the boy he loves he only knows through anonymous email exchanges.  Over the course of this novel, both Simon and “Blue” end up coming out and eventually meeting in real life.  But what’s great about this novel is that it explores the changes and complications of life in Simon’s circle of friends and family.  The book has a lot of heart, romance, and humor.

Recommended books:

Every Day by David Levithan and George by Alex Gino
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Anniversary Present by Larry Thomas


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Fiji

Author: Larry Thomas
TitleThe Anniversary Present
Publication Info: Suva, Fiji: Pacific Writing Forum, [2002]
Summary/Review:
I read one play in this collection by the contemporary Fijian dramatist Larry Thomas (of whom it is difficult to find much information online).  The story is about an older married couple, the wife proud of the new set of furniture she’s received from her irascible husband.  Other characters include their adult daughter and ne’er-do-well son-in-law, an estranged son, and a nosy neighborhood.  The story feels very familiar, and I couldn’t help imagining the story playing out on the set of All in the Family.  Nevertheless, it is a Fijian story where the characters speak in the creole of the more disadvantaged members of the society and the conflicts among Fijians and Indians underlie the story.  I feel that without more background information I am missing out on a lot of the greater meaning of the drama, but still found it an interesting read.

Rating: ***

Book Review: I Think of You by Ahdaf Soueif


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Egypt.

Author: Ahdaf Soueif
TitleI Think of You 
Publication Info: New York : Anchor Books/Random House, 2007
Summary/Review:

This collection of short stories, some of which are connected around the same characters, tells stories of women coming of age in Cairo, London, and New York between the 1960s to 1980s.  As an expatriate tale it’s important to realize that these are the stories of a more privileged class than a representative Egyptian work.  Nevertheless, Soueif’s protagonists deal with struggles including discrimination, failed marriages, and miscarriage.  Souief’s writing style is spare and these feel more like vignettes  than stories.  Her lyrical approach seems to be trying to capture emotions more than stories, but doesn’t go far enough to make a connection with the reader.

Rating: **1/2

2016 Year In Review: Favorite Books


Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read in the year.  As always, this is merely the best books I read this year and not necessarily books published in 2016.  For previous years see 201520142013201220112010200920082007 and 2006. You may also want to check out My Favorite Books of All Time or see Every Book I’ve Ever Read cataloged in Library Thing.

In alphabetical order:

 

And, here is every book I read this year with rankings.  (A) is for audiobook.

The books are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 stars with links to summary reviews.

Here’s a thumbnail of what the ratings mean:

  • 5 stars – all-time classic (I’m very stingy with these)
  • 4 stars – a particularly interesting, well-written, or important book
  • 3 stars – a good book from start to finish
  • 2 stars – not a good book on the whole but has some good parts
  • 1 star or less – basically a bad book with no redeeming values

 

January

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

November

December

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: ****