Book Reviews: Death Is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa


Around the World for a Good Book selection for: Syria

Author: Khaled Khalifa
Title: Death Is Hard Work
Translator: Leri Price
Narrator: Neil Shah
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books (2019)
Summary/Review:

During the Syrian Civil War, a rebel leader named Abdel Latif al-Salim dies of natural causes.  His dying wish is to buried by his sister in their hometown of Anabiya.  His son Bolbol, a middle child viewed as weak an indecisive, pledges honor this wish.  Joined by his older brother Hussein and younger sister Fatima set off on a journey with their father’s body.

The normally short trip runs into snags due to the many military checkpoints along the way, as well as religious extremists and even wild dogs.  At one point, Abdel Latif’s body is even arrested for his alleged crimes against the government.  The book is a reflection on the human cost of war and how it interrupts the normal flow of life.  It also depicts a family’s collapse as the siblings who were close as children now find themselves distant.  The book is heartbreaking and more than a little absurd, and very human in its details.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Black Water Sister by Zen Cho


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Malaysia

Author: Zen Cho
Title: Black Water Sister
Narrator: Catherine Ho
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Incorporated, 2021.
Summary/Review:

Jessamyn Teoh, a recent college graduate who grew up in the United States after her family emigrated there from Malaysia during her early childhood, faces an uncertain future.  She is moving back to Malaysia with her parents where she has to adjust to an unfamiliar culture, find work, and maintain a long-distance relationship with her girlfriend while hiding that she’s lesbian from her parents.  Things grow more complicated when Jess begins hearing the voice of her deceased grandmother Ah Ma.  Soon Jess finds herself plunged into an adventure featuring a powerful real estate developer, gangsters, and gods.  To put things right, and to find justice for Ah Ma, Jess must become a medium for a vengeful goddess known as Black Water Sister.

Black Water Sister is a unique novel that blends elements of fantasy, mystery, and fish out of water story to tell a story of contemporary Malaysia.  Facets of Malaysian culture such as tradition, religion, and family are woven into the narrative.  Unfortunately for Jess (and others like her), homophobia is also a part of the Malaysian culture.  It’s an interesting and well-written story that I enjoyed.
 
Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Wales

Author: How Green Was My Valley
Title: Richard Llewellyn
Narrator: Ralph Cosham
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2011. [originally published in 1939]
Summary/Review:

This novel is a coming-of-age story set in the Welsh coal mining region of the late 19th century that blends sentimental nostalgia with gritty reality.  The narrator is Huw Morgan, the 8th of 9 children and the youngest son in a family of coal miners.  An accident in Huw’s childhood makes him unable to walk for several years and during that time he develops a passion for reading that leads to him going on to higher levels of education than the rest of his family.

Through the novel Huw observes the conflicts between the miners and the companies that own the mines that leads to union organizing and strikes.  Huw’s father Gwilym and some of his brothers are opposed to activism while other brother are labor organizers.  Over time the declining fortunes in the valley lead to Huw’s siblings leaving Wales to try their luck elsewhere.  Huw also observes the environmental degradation to the valley by the mining operations.  The novel also deals with gossip and scandals in the valley such as affairs and unplanned pregnancy.  While Gwilym supports Huw’s education, his mother Beth is firmly against it, especially when Huw’s teacher only speaks in English and discriminates against the Welsh.

There are apparently a whole series of books about Huw Morgan, but I think I’ve had my fill of Huw.  The style of writing is too old-fashioned for my taste although I can see why it’s considered a classic novel.  I once watched the film adaptation of How Green Was My Valley as a teenager (mainly because I had a crush on Maureen O’Hara) but I don’t remember it at all.  I will have to rewatch the movie and see how faithful it is to the book.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique


Around the World for a Good Book selection for the United States Virgin Islands

Author: Tiphanie Yanique
Title: Land of Love and Drowning
Narrator: Cherise Boothe, Korey Jackson, Rachel Leslie, and Myra Lucretia Taylor
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, MD : Recorded Books, [2014]
Summary/Review:

This historical novel is a multi-generational saga about the Bradshaw family of the United States Virgin Islands.  The story begins in 1917 with the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States and the ongoing theme of the narrative is how the Virgin Islands are American but treated as something tangential.  Events withing the story include the enlistment of V.I. men to World War II and the Korean War, the rise of tourism and resort hotels, Hollywood using the islands as a filming locale, and the Civil Rights movement which inspires a movement to occupy the beaches that are being privatized by white American property owners and hotels.

The Bradshaw’s story starts with Owen Arthur Bradshaw, a ship’s captain, and his wife Antoinette, who are part of highly-respectable family on St. Thomas.  They have two daughters, Eona and Anette.  Owen also  fathers a son named Jacob Esau with his mistress. When their parents die (Owen in a traumatic shipwreck), Eona is forced to put aside her desires to raise Anette.  The novel alternates among the three children’s points of view as it follows their story up until the 1970s.  Yanique’s writing feels inspired by Toni Morrison and has touches of magical realism.  There’s also a lot of incest, both knowing and unknowing.

There are parts of this book that are very interesting but also some parts I found quite absurd (the Hollywood movie ends up being a pornographic film, in the 1950s?) and other times that I just wished that Yanique would get on with the story instead of circling around a point.  So, consider this a mixed review.

Recommended books:

  • Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
  • Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Vietnam

Author: Ocean Vuong
Title: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Narrator: Ocean Vuong
Publication Info: [New York, NY] : Penguin Audio, 2019
Summary/Review:

In this poetic, nonlinear narrative, the narrator – nicknamed Little Dog – writes a letter explaining his life to his mother, Hong.  The story is based on Vuong’s own life, who like Little Dog is the grandchild of a Vietnamese woman and a white American soldier, emigrated to Hartford, Connecticut as a refugee, and is raised by a single mother.  The center of the narrative is Little Dog’s teenage experience of coming out gay and his first relationship with a boy named Trevor.  The language in this book is beautifully deployed in describing ugly things, from Little Dog’s grandmother Lan’s experiences in the Vietnam War to Trevor’s narcotics addiction. From the pain, Vuong is able to extract a novel of beauty.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Bangladesh

Author: Tahmima Anam
Title: The Startup Wife 
Narrator: Tanha Dil
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Asha Ray, the child of immigrants grows up feeling like an outsider in the United States, but blossom into adulthood as a talented computer scientist.  While working on her PhD, she is reunited with her high school crush, a white American named Cyrus.  They fall in love, get married, and begin working on an app built on Cyrus’ idea of creating rituals around non-religious things that people are passionate about.  Working in a startup incubator in New York City, Cyrus begins to emerge as a charismatic celebrity tech guru, while Asha and her work are pushed to the side.

I have to say I waited too long after finishing reading to write this review because I’m forgetting the details.  But I do recall initially enjoying the book but losing interest as it went along.  Nevertheless it is an interesting take on “bro culture” in the tech world that discriminates against women and people of color as well as the immigrant experience.  There are also parts of it that oddly reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  I suspect that my engagement problems with this book were more my fault than the authors so your mileage may vary.

Rating: ***

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