Book Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Jamaica

Author: Marlon James
Title: A Brief History of Seven Killings
Narrators: Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis
Publication Info: [Minneapolis, MN] : HighBridge Audio, 2014.
Summary/Review:

This novel is anything but brief, but instead an epic story told from multiple points-of-view sprawling over three decades and spilling out of Kingston to New York City.  There also a lot more than seven killings depicted.  The title of novel is sort-of explained later in the narrative as a kind of story-within-the-story.

The action of the story takes place over five days.  The first two are in December 1976 and detail the attempted assassination on Bob Marley (referred to throughout the novel as “The Singer”).  Later sections of the novel are set on single dates in 1979, 1985, and 1991 and deal with the ongoing personal and political ramifications of the assassination attempt as well as the rising crack epidemic.  The narrators include gang members and dons of Jamaica’s political party-aligned gangs, a CIA agent, an American music writer originally from Rolling Stone, the ghost of a murdered politician, and a young woman desperate to leave Jamaica for the USA who changes her identity several times throughout the novel.

This is a challenging book to read due to its sprawling narrative and dozens of characters.  It’s hard to keep track of the whole story and honestly I think some of the chapters may just as well be self-contained short stories.  The Jamaican patois used by many of the characters can also be difficult although I enjoyed listening to the voice actors on the audiobook. But the hardest part of the book is that is just so brutal, violent, and unceasingly grim.  That doesn’t make it a bad book, of course, and I do like to be challenged.  But it was a hard book to read nonetheless.

Recommended books:

  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Rating: ***

Book Review: Arresting God in Kathmandu by Samrat Upadhyay


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Nepal
Author: Samrat Upadhyay
Title: Arresting God in Kathmandu
Publication Info: Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
Summary/Review:

Arresting God in Kathmandu is a collection of nine short stories set in Kathmandu, the capital and largest city of Nepal.  Upadhyay, who emigrated to the United States and teaches creative writing at Indiana University,  was the first Nepalese author writing in English to have his work published in the west.  The stories deal with family relationships, generational dynamics of more traditional parents and their globalized youth, and the ever-present class consciousness.I struggled reading this book, because many of the characters and their relationships just seemed mean-spirited (there probably is a better word for what I’m feeling here) and unrelieved by joy or progress.  But otherwise it does provide an unsentimental look at everyday life in contemporary Nepal.

Rating: **

Book Review: Prisnms by Garth St. Omer


Around the World for a Good Book selection for St. Lucia

Author: Garth St. Omer
Title: Prisnms
Publication Info: Leeds, England : Peepal Tree Press, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Prisnms is a rather unpleasant little book narrated by Eugene Coard, a man who grew up in St. Lucia an emigrates to the United States to study psychiatry.  He is a deeply unpleasant man who is selfish and seemingly indifferent to the negative effect he has on other people especially the women he dates and marries.  Most of the book is his memories where he relates his low regard for just about everyone in his life.  Parts of the book are also psychotic dreamscapes that literally end with Eugene stating that he just woke up.  Honestly, as the book went on I had less and less idea of what was actually going on.

I kind of feel bad to have this book represent St. Lucia for my Around the World for a Good Book project and will need to seek out a more engaging work somewhere down the line.

Rating: **

Book Review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Serbia

Author: Téa Obreht
Title: The Tiger’s Wife
Narrator: Susan Duerden and Robin Sachs
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Téa Obreht’s debut novel mixes together folklore and magical realism with the grim realities of the war-torn Balkan region in this story set in fictionalized Balkan nation.  The framing story is told by Natalia, a doctor on an errand of mercy who reminisces about her recently deceased grandfather who was also a doctor.  Natalia’s story is intercut with the story her grandfather told her about his many encounters with The Deathless Man, who claimed he couldn’t die and couldn’t age. A third story is intertwined about a Muslim girl who was deaf and mute and a child bride in Natalia’s grandfather’s childhood hometown. She befriends a tiger that escapes from a zoo during World War II and becomes known as The Tiger’s Wife by the superstitious villagers.

I confess that the shifting narratives and points of view threw me off a bit, but that’s more of a reader’s error than any fault of the book. Obreht magnificently deploys magical realism in a narrative that attempts to unlock memory in a land torn apart by violence.  She also tells a story of a family over time that parallels the region’s experience with death and war.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Austria

Author: Elfriede Jelinek
Title: The Piano Teacher
Translator: Joachim Neugroschel
Publication Info: Grove Atlantic, 2009 [originally published in 1983]
Summary/Review:

Erika Kohut is a woman in her mid-thirties who teaches piano at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory.  She lives with her controlling mother in a very taught and unhealthy relationship. Erika rebels in various including buying clothing she never wears, self-harm, and deliberately injuring strangers.  Over the course of the novel she also explores her repressed sexuality by going to pornographic movies, peep shows, and practicing voyeurism.

Walter Klemmer, a student over a decade younger than Erika, begins to show her attention. Their desire grows and when they finally acknowledge it, Erika requests a sadomasochistic relationship. Walter, who is an arrogant prick, really justs wants to have sex with an older woman and move on.  Things go horribly, horribly wrong.

I saw this book described as “erotic” but there’s absolutely nothing sexy about it.  In fact, it is quite repulsive.  Jelinek seems to revel in using the most unpleasant description possible for the human condition and the human body.  It just gets worse and worse and I really struggled to finish this book.  I’ve also seen the book described as “satire,” but it reads to me as nothing more than caustic misanthropy.

Rating: **

Book Review: Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Antigua and Barbuda

Author: Jamaica Kincaid
Title: Annie John
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus, Giroux, c1985.
Summary/Review:

Annie John is a novel about a young girl growing to become a young woman.  The story includes the deterioration of her relationship with her mother, her love for another girl named Gwen, and Annie John’s depression.  Colonization weighs over the story in the conflict between traditional ways and English culture. I don’t know if this novel is autobiographical, but Kincaid writes with a sense of lived experience while also being timeless.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Zambia

Author: The Old Drift
Title: Namwali Serpell 
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh, Richard E. Grant, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2019)
Summary/Review:

This is an epic novel that attempts to depict the history of Zambia through the fictional stories of several generations of a few interrelated families.  The characters are a mix of Black African people native to the region that would become Zambia as well as European colonizers and expatriates.  The novel begins with explorer David Livingstone seeing Victoria Falls for the first time.  This is ironic since later in the novel a character says that when telling stories to white people you need to always start with a white person “discovering” something. The novel ends in a near future time when biotechnology has become commonplace.

The stories in this novel draw on the traditions of magical realism.  For example a woman’s hair grows so fast so as to constantly cover her entire body.  Her daughters, on the other hand, have fast growing hair on their heads that they are able to profit from by selling for wigs.  Some parts of the story seem ludicrous but are drawn from actual Zambian history, such as the plan for a Zambian space program in the 1960s to send a woman to Mars with several cats.  This may or may not have been a joke in real life.

The novel is sprawling and it includes a large cast of characters and I found it hard to remember who is who. The novel is also written in a style more akin to history than a literary narrative which made it hard for me to hold my attention.  I would chalk this up as a reader issue than a flaw of the book, though.

Overall, this is a weird and wonderful work of fiction.  Serpell is a young contemporary author and it will be interesting to see what she produces next.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Golden Child by Claire Adam


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Trinidad and Tobago

Author: Claire Adam
Title: The Golden Child
Narrator: Obi Abili
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 2019.
Summary/Review:

The Golden Child is a family drama set in rural Trinidad. The Deyalsingh family, Trinidadians of Indian heritage, are Clyde and Joy, and their twin 13-year-old sons Peter and Paul.  Peter is the “golden child” of the title, academically gifted, and Clyde saves all the family’s money for his future, despite his wife’s desire to move to the city or to improve the house they live in.

Despite the title, Paul is the main focus of the novel.  He is believed to be “slightly retarded” due to loss of oxygen to his brain at birth. But over the novel it is revealed that he is a kind child with many hidden talents, and most likely has learning disabilities, although this is never specifically stated.  The novel begins with Paul going missing, and then flashes back on the previous 13 years of the family from various points of view.  When we return to the present day timeline, Paul is facing a very real threat and Clyde is faced with difficult choice.

Adam does well at developing the characters and family dynamics, as well as showing everyday Trinidadian culture.  But this is also a grim and disheartening book, so don’t pick it up for light reading.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Flights by Olga Tokarczuk


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Poland

Author: Olga Tokarczuk
Title: Flights
Translator: Jennifer Croft
Narrator: Julia Whelan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2018
Summary/Review:

Flights is a collection of 116 vignettes, some of them exceedingly brief, while others are short stories.  They all focus on a theme of travel and are narrated by a nameless woman who practices an old Orthodox Christian belief of constant movement to avoid evil. There’s a lot of variety in the vignettes ranging from contemporary stories to historical fiction.  In addition to the theme of travel, with a focus on travel psychology, there is also a reoccurrence of the theme of anatomy and dissection.  This is a weird and wonderful book, although I did struggle mightily to keep up with the fragmentary narrative.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Scotland

Author: Janice Galloway
Title: The Trick is to Keep Breathing
Publication Info: Normal, IL : Dalkey Archive Press, 1994.
Summary/Review:

The narrator of this novel is Joy, a 27-year-old women who works as a drama teacher and is struggling with depression, anorexia, and alcoholism. The accidental death of the married man who was her lover prompts a breakdown which leads to her spending time in a mental institution (where she doesn’t get much help).  The fractured narrative uncovers both the events of her traumatic events and the societal expectations of women that have lead to her current state.  This is a challenging book to read, both due to the raw emotions of an honest appraisal of depression, and the stream of conscious style of writing. One feature Galloway uses is adding snippets of text to the margins as if Joy is annotating the novel.  It took me waaaaay too long to finish reading this book, but I’m glad I did because it is a powerful story of mental health issues that are too often hidden.

Recommended books:

  • In Transit by Brigid Brophy
  • Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Rating: ***1/2