Book Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher


AuthorCarrie Fisher
TitleWishful Drinking
Narrator:  Carrie Fisher
Publication Info: S&S Audio (2009)
Summary/Review:

Based on her stage performance, the delightful Carrie Fisher wryly reflects on her celebrity upbringing, her marriages and relationships, her mental health problems, and substance abuse issues.  An interesting memoir for fans and non-fans alike.

Recommended booksFuriously Happy by Jenny Lawson, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and You’re Never Weird on the Internet by Felcia Day
Rating: ***

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Book Reviews: Dig if You Will the Picture by Ben Greenman


AuthorBen Greenman
TitleDig if You Will the Picture
Narrator: Peter Berkrot
Publication Info: Tantor Media, Inc., 2017
Summary/Review:

I received a free advanced reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program (although I ended up listening to an audiobook from the library)

Greenman’s book is the story of Prince’s career largely told through Prince’s music with a focus on his role as a cultural icon and sometimes generous/sometimes rocky relationships with other musicians.  Prince’s biography is in there too, but it’s more of the details fall into place around the examination of his music.  Greenman is a devoted fan of Prince so his own experience as a Prince fan emerges several times in the book, but unlike Rob Sheffield who makes the fan’s experience a window into a greater understanding of an artists, Greenman’s personal reflections seem more an intrusion.  Nevertheless, it’s overall a great attempt at understanding the life work of someone as mercurial and hard to define as Prince.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana

Author: Taiye Selasi
TitleGhana Must Go
Narrator: Adjoa Andoh
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2013)
Summary/Review:

I was surprised that my Around the World for a Good Book selection for Ghana turns out to have a good portion of the narrative set close to home in the Boston, Massachusetts area.  Selasi’s novel is a story of immigration, family, the long term ramifications of choices made, and an attempt to peer beyond the stereotypes of Africa and Africans.

The novel is set around the family of Kweku Sai, long isolated from one another, coming together in Ghana for his funeral.  Kweku immigrated to America where he became a celebrated surgeon, but after being unjustly fired, the great shame causes him to leave his family and return to Ghana.  His wife Fola was a law student who gave up her career to support Kweku, and faces difficult choices when forced to raise 4 children on her own.  The eldest son Olu follows his father into medicine, but his father’s abandonment leaves him fearful of commitment.  The sister-brother twins Taiwo and Kehinde bear the scars of being sent to live with Fola’s brother in Nigeria after Kweku’s departure and the sexual abuse they suffered there. The youngest child Sadie didn’t know her father at all and until shortly before the main narrative begins had been very close with her mother.  All of their stories are told in extended flashbacks intertwined with the present day story.

This is a heartbreaking and harrowing novel and should come with a big trigger warning.  It unfortunately tends toward the melodramatic although there is honesty in the family dynamics portrayed.  Thankfully, this is also a story of redemption and healing, although it is still hard to not feel unsettled after reading.

Recommended booksThe Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri  and Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy by Alexandra Bracken


AuthorAlexandra Bracken
TitleThe Princess, The Scoundrel, and The Farm Boy: An Original Retelling of Star Wars: A New Hope
Narrator: Rebecca Soler, Marc Thompson
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group , 2015
Summary/Review:

The is a new novelization of the  original Star Wars film adapted for younger audiences (albeit the original novelization is something I enjoyed as a kid and this is something I enjoy as an adult so those specifications are rather loose).  Bracken uses the movie script, the 1981 Star Wars radio drama, and her own imagination to retell Star Wars: A New Hope in three parts: first from Leia’s point of view from her capture by Vader to the destruction of Alderaan, the story picks up with Han from the cantina to their escape from the Death Star, and Luke holds the point of view for the final third of the movie.

Since everything is seen from the point of view of one of these three characters, scenes from the movie such as those involving R2-D2 and C-3PO and Darth Vader and other imperial leaders are left out, while the part of Luke’s story from the early part of the movie is only told in conversations and Luke’s memories.  But what is lost is made up for by the rich detail of each character’s inner life and perspectives, as well as scenes that aren’t in the movie (my favorite involves Luke going through an X-Wing simulator test with Wedge Antilles).

I can’t imagine that there are many people who would come to this book with no previous knowledge of Star Wars but I think it would be a treat for that reader, while stilling allowing a lot of surprises if they eventually see the movie.  The audiobook is enhanced by familiar John Williams music, sound effects, and voice acting by the narrators Soler and Thompson.  This would make an excellent accompaniment to a long family road trip.

Recommended books: Star Wars by George Lucas and Star Wars : Before the Awakening by George Rucka

Book Review: Time and Again by Jack Finney


Author: Jack Finney
TitleTime and Again
Narrator: Campbell Scott
Previously Read by the Same Author: From Time to Time
Publication Info: Simon & Shuster Audio, 1995 (Abridged)
Summary/Review:

Having recently reread The Time Traveler’s Wife, I felt compelled to revisit another time travel romance on my list of 100 Favorite Books. The story tells of Si Morley, a commercial artist recruited to join a secret government experiment.  Unique among time travel stories, there is no time machine or magic involved, but Si and his fellow travelers simply use self-hypnosis to open themselves to the past that exists intertwined with the present.  Si travels to New York City in 1882, and one of the great aspects of this novel is the detail that Si provides that really creates a vivid image of time and place.

The book is not perfect.  Despite being published in 1970, Si seems pretty old-fashioned in a casually paternalistic way not all too different from his 1882 compatriots. Neither of his love interests, 20th-century Kate and 19th-century Julia, are all too well-developed, and Si doesn’t seem to have much concern about ditching one for the other.  Si also romanticizes the 1880s while comparing it to the horrors of the 20th-century while overlooking the inequality, crime, disease, and war of that period.

This audiobook version is abridged and leaves out some important parts of the books.  Most significantly, it obviously lacks the collections of vintage photographs of New York that make up Si’s photo essays of 1882.  But there are also a couple of memorable scenes excised, including one where Si draws an abstract portrait much to the confusion of his companions at the boarding house and another where Si’s romantic view of the 1880s is briefly pierced by observing the hardship of a horse-drawn streetcar driver enduring the brutal winter weather.

This book is not as quite as good as I remember from my previous read, but it’s still a rousing time travel adventure and mystery and one of the best examples of its genre.

Here’s my brief review from 2002:

A fun time-travel adventure where the means of time travel is merely self-hypnosis that takes the modern world away. A lot of the novel is fairly plotless as we follow the protagonist Si Morley through the streets of New York in the 1880’s. My favorite part is when Si observes a streetcar operator in the snow and the romantic bloom of a “simpler time” drops away. I think this book could be adapted into an entertaining film.

Recommended booksDoomsday Book by Connie Willis, The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and Dreamland by Kevin Baker

Rating: ****

Book Review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett


Author: Terry Pratchett
TitleMonstrous Regiment
Narrator: Stephen Briggs
Publication Info: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004
Previously Read by the Same Author: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (with Neil Gaiman)
Summary/Review:

I’ve been wanting to find a way into the Discworld series but not knowing where to start, I asked folks on library Twitter, and this book was recommended as an entry point.  This novel follows Polly Perks as she disguises herself as a man and joins the army in order to find her missing brother.  Her ragtag regiment has a lot of individuals not ready for war as well as a vampire, troll, and an Igor.  It turns out that Polly is not the only one in the regiment with a secret.  Spoiler: It turns out that pretty much every member of the regiment is a woman. This leads to a comical plot where they go undercover disguised as washer women.  This is a funny and sharply satirical book, and it does make me want to read more Discworld (recommendations welcome).

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
TitleThe Time Traveler’s Wife
Narrator: ‎ Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

It’s worthwhile to sometimes go back and reread one of the books that made my list of Favorite Books of All Time.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve read this book, and I’ll append my original review at the end of this post.

A lot of the things that made me love this book in the first place are still quite appealing.  I love stories of time travel, and that this one has a protagonist whose travel through time is uncontrollable and unexplained makes an interesting twist and creates a great structure for the book.  I also like that he’s a librarian who likes punk rock, because you know, that’s like me.  There were a number of things I forgot from my previous reading as well, most importantly Kimmy, Henry’s childhood landlady who acts a surrogate mother and is an absolutely wonderful character I’ll never forget again. Having become a fan of Doctor Who in recent years, it’s interesting to revisit this book and see how it influenced the story of River Song and the Doctor.

Of course, there are a lot of creepy things about this book, such as an adult man visiting his future wife as a child and establishing a relationship with her (arriving naked to boot).  I do credit Niffenegger for taking a direct approach to these uncomfortable issues rather than shying away from it.  Another thing I realize now that I must’ve been clueless about as a younger reader is that it plays with the romance novel genre as well.  But that’s one of the things that keeps this on my favorite books is that it works on so many levels, science fiction and fantasy, realism and magic, romance and for lack a better term “manliness.”

The voice performances of Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole as Henry and Claire add a lot to this audiobook version of the book as well.

Ok, here’s my short review from 2004:

This book reads almost as if Jasper Fforde took a serious turn. Almost. Complements to Niffenegger for adroitly managing the timeline, both in the story world and how she presents it to the reader. I also admire that she made Henry real by not always having him likable. Yet you can sympathize with him for what he has to do to survive with his chronological problems. I find it interesting that he travels in both time and in space, yet he never seems to travel too far from Chicago or Clare’s childhood home. Curious also that he always bounces back to the “present,” never jumping onward to another time or just staying there for a long time. But I’m quibbling, not with the book, but with the thoughts that occur as I ruminate this brilliant novel. Over 500 pages and I read this in less than a day.

Recommended books:

Time and Again by Jack Finney, Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery, Every Day by David Levithan, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards

Rating: *****

Book Review: When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele


Author: Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele
TitleWhen They Call You a Terrorist
Narrator: Patrisse Khan-Cullors
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2018
Summary/Review:

This memoir depicts Patrisse Khan-Cullors life growing up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles, where her family and community were under constant surveillance and harassment from the police.  Her father was in and out of prison and her mentally ill brother was also imprisoned and tortured by the police.  As Cullors grows older she also deals with her disillusionment with her mother’s church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and grows to understand her queer identity.  She became an artist and an activist in her teenage years, advocating for reform and abolition of prisons.  In 2013, responding to her friend Alicia Garza’s post about Treyvon Martin, she created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag and has been active in shepherding the movement.  This memoir is both harrowing and hopeful in depicting the lives of people of color and LBGT people in America that is under assault, but also the positive gains that come when people stand up for their rights, equality, and dignity. This is definitely required reading for all Americans in 2018.

Favorite Passages:

“I cannot help think that the drug war, the war on gangs, has really been no more than a forced migration project.  From my neighborhood in LA to the Back Bay to Brooklyn, Black and Brown people have been moved out as young white people build exciting new lives standing on the bones of ours.  The drug war as ethnic cleansing.”

Recommended booksThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and  Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Rating:

Book Review: Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Finland
AuthorArto Paasilinna
TitleYear of the Hare
Narrator: Simon Vance
Translator: Herbert Lomas
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010), originally published in 1975, translated to English in 1995
Summary/Review:

This delightful novel tells the story of Kaarlo Vatanen, a journalist from Helsinki traveling in the northern countryside of Finlan, whose car hits and injures a young hare. Vatanen finds the hare, nurses it back to health, and adopts it. This prompts him to leave his job, his wife, and sell his boat to fund his life as he and the hare travel farther north in the Finnish wilderness where they have various madcap adventures.  It’s clear that it’s full of satire of Finnish people and culture albeit I don’t know enough about Finland to get the references.  More broadly it has the very 1970s themes of self-discovery, counterculture vs. the emerging globalization of business, and the absurdities of the Cold War.  There is another story from the 1970s, possibly a British one, that this reminds me of but I can’t recall what it is.

Recommended books:
Rating:

Book Reviews: On Bowie by Rob Sheffield


Author: Rob Sheffield
TitleOn Bowie
Narrator: Tristan Morris
Publication Info: New York, NY : Dey Street Books, [2016]

Previously Read By The Same Author:

Summary/Review:

The thing I like about Rob Sheffield’s music writing is that he eschews the distanced approach of music critics, and while he’s writing as a fan, he’s not writing a hagiography of his musical heroes.  Instead, Sheffield writes about how fans engage with music and the artists that create it.  This is particularly significant in Bowie’s case as Bowie himself was a fan who never hid his influences, collaborated with many of his favorite musicians, offered support to young up and coming artists, and even on his final album took some inspiration from the much younger artist Kendrick Lamar.  Bowie also engaged directly with his fans, treating them as special people, and encouraging their creativity.  The funny thing is that Sheffield presents Bowie fans as the outcasts of society whereas I came to Bowie later in my life because when I was young I never felt cool enough to listen to Bowie.  Regardless of how you come to Bowie, this is a great book with stories of his life and how he created his music.

Favorite Passages:

“Nobody enjoyed laughing at his humiliations more than he did.”

“That’s one of the things David Bowie came to show us — we go to music to hear ourselves change.”

Rating: ***1/2

 

Book Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik


AuthorNaomi Novik
Title: Uprooted
NarratorJulia Emelin 
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2015)
Previously Read by the Same Author: His Majesty’s Dragon
Summary/Review:

This epic, high fantasy rooted in the Polish folklore focuses on a land tormented by an evil, sentient forest (the Wood) that can only be held in check by the magic of wizards.  The wizard who lives near the provincial village of Dvernik in the kingdom of Polnya, known as The Dragon, selects one teenage girl every 10 years as a tribute.  The novel begins when the protagonist Agnieszka is unexpectedly selected and brought to the Dragon’s castle, The Tower.  There she’s made to perform domestic chores and the Dragon trains her in simple magical spells, frequently berating her for her clumsiness and unruly appearance.  From this “Beauty and the Beast” scenario it’s not surprising that these two will fall in love.

It turns out that Agnieszka is in fact skilled in magic although not in the way that The Dragon expects.  As she becomes more experienced, her compassion moves her to challenge The Dragon’s pragmatic approach of using magic to simply hold back the approach of the Wood.  Instead she liberally applies magic to rescue people trapped by the Wood and pushes the Dragon toward more aggressively combating the evils of the Wood (yes, this book can totally be read as a metaphor of the 2016 Democratic primary campaign).

Agnieszka ends up finding herself thrown into the politics of the royal family and into the ultimate conflict against the Wood.  It’s grim and gory but with a satisfying ending.  I found the book a bit too long and humorless, but a good example of informing a women-centered heroic narrative with elements of classic folklore.

Recommended booksBaba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugrešić, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Rating: ***

Book Review: No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein


Author: Naomi Klein
TitleNo Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need
Narrator: Brit Marling
Publication Info:  Blackstone Audio, Inc., 2017
Previously read by same author: The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Summary/Review:

Klein’s latest work is aptly summed up by it’s title, the necessity of doing more than just resting Trump but also creating a positive alternative for the future.  Although it was published last summer it feels like it sums up the Trump regime’s first year pretty thoroughly.  Klein elaborates on the conditions in the USA that made Trump’s election possible including: the shift in corporations from manufacturing products to downsizing resources and focusing on creating brand identities, the mainstream news media’s infotainment style of political coverage that focuses on the personality clash of candidates rather than issues, the rise of reality television competitions, and even the culture of professional wrestling.  The Democrats play a role in setting the stage for a Trump Presidency as well with their embrace of neoliberal ideology, their emphasis on wealthy celebrities  having the solutions to world problems, and development of philanthropic organizations enmeshed with access to political leaders, all of which have been reflected in the dark mirror of Trump.

Klein then revisits her earlier book The Shock Doctrine, focusing on how it played out in Pinochet’s Chile, the war in Iraq, and in post-Katrina New Orleans.  Many of the actors involved in the catastrophic decisions in Chile, Iraq, and New Orleans are now major players in the Trump administration, and seem poised to exploit a disaster (natural, financial, or terrorist) to bring the shock doctrine to widespread application in the United States.

Klein revisits the coalition of activists who had success opposing the WTO and economic globalization in the 1990s, but organizational problems lead to its collapse after the September 11th attacks.  Learning lessons from the previous generation of activists, Klein and others have created the Leap Manifesto in Canada as a model for activist coalitions around broad goals of economic equality and stopping/slowing climate change.

Klein’s book seems like a quick summary of other books and ideas put together in one volume, but it’s well-organized and pointed toward the situation we are dealing with today.

Favorite Passages:

“All this work is born on the knowledge that saying no to bad ideas and bad actors is simply not enough.  The firmest of no’s has to be accompanied by a bold and forward-looking yest – a plane for the future that is credible and captivating enough that a great many people will fight to see it realized, no matter the shocks and scare tactics thrown their way.  No – to Trump, to France’s Marine Le Pen, to any number of xenophobic and hypernationallist parties on the rise the world over – may what initially brings millions to the streets.  But it is yes that will keep us in the fight.

Yes is the beacon in the coming storm that will prevent us from losing our way.”

“In this sense, there is an important way in which Trump is not shocking.  He is entirely predictable, indeed cliched outcome of ubiquitous ideas and trends that should have been stopped long ago.  Which is why, even in this nightmarish world, will remain to be confronted. With US vice president Mike Pence or House speaker Paul Ryan waiting in the wings, and a Democratic Party establishment also enmeshed with the billionaire class, the world we need won’t be won just by replacing the current occupant of the Oval Office.”

“[Hillary Clinton’s] failure was not one of messaging but of track record. Specifically, it was the stupid economics of neoliberalism, fully embraced by her, her husband and her party’s establishment that left Clinton without a credible offer to make to those white workers who had voted for Obama (twice) and decided this time to vote Trump”

“Trump’s assertion that he knows how to fix America because he’s rich is nothing more than the uncouth, vulgar echo of a dangerous idea we have been hearing for years; that Bill Gates can fix Africa. Or that Richard Branson and Michael Bloomberg can solve climate change”

“But crises, as we have seen, do not always cause societies to regress and give up.  There is also a second option – that, faced with a grave common threat, we can choose to come together and make an evolutionary leap.  We can choose, as the Reverend William Barber puts it, “to be the moral defibrillators of our time and shock the heart of the nation and build a movement of resistance and hope and justice and love.” We can, in other world, surprise the hell out of ourselves – be being united, focused, and determined.  By refusing to fall for those tired old shock tactics.  By refusing to be afraid, no matter how much we are tested.”

Recommended booksNobody by Marc Lamont Hill, Listen Liberal —or— What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? by Thomas Frank
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick


AuthorMatthew Quick
TitleEvery Exquisite Thing 
Narrator: Vanessa Johansson
Publication Info: New York : Hachette Audio, p2016.
Summary/Review:

Not sure what to make of this book. Nanette O’Hare is a good student and star soccer player at her high school, but an outsider who spends her lunch time with her English teacher.  When her teacher introduces her to an out-of-print book about a disaffected teen railing against conformity, Nanette’s life is changed and she finds and befriends the book’s author. While Nigel Booker refuses to discuss his novel, he does encourage Nanette to rethink her life, leading her to quit the soccer team and reconsider going to college.  He also introduces her to a boy her age who is also a fan of the book and a tortured poet, Alex.  Alex is kind of the manic pixie dream boy of the novel which is kind of a tragedy since neither Nanette nor the author seem to want to realize that he is a colossal douche.  I won’t go into any spoilers but a lot of things happen that push Nanette to the edge of her sanity and increase her resentment against everyone she knows.  I think the problem with this book is that so many characters are so one-dimensional and villainous, that it undermines the generally well-rounded and contradictory characterization of Nanette herself.  Maybe I’ve just finally outgrown teenage rebellion?

Recommended booksThe Pigman by Paul Zindel, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Rating: **

Book Review: Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick


Author: Anna Kendrick
TitleScrappy Little Nobody
Narrator: Anna Kendrick
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2016
Summary/Review:

Anna Kendrick is a talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive, so it’s reassuring to read her memoir where she shares her insecurity and feelings that she is a misfit.  On the other hand one my wonder why someone who is a  talented actor, singer, dancer, and writer who also happens to be funny and very attractive has anything to complain about.  Luckily, Kendrick’s memoir is full of humor and perspective on her life story.  She tells of being a child actor on Broadway commuting from Maine to New York for auditions and living in a tar-stained Los Angeles apartment with several roommates even as her fame grew, but she’d still not seen the financial reward.  There’s a lot of insight on her relationship to boys and men and how she’s grown to assert herself.  And then there’s her hilarious takes on celebrity life such as the ridiculous things a woman has to go through for photoshoots and red carpet occasions.  It’s a different type of celebrity memoir, funny, honest, and beneath the surface, a little bit sad, but ultimately persistent.

Recommended books: You’re Never Weird on the Internet (almost) by Felicia Day and Bossypants by Tina Fey
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson


AuthorTiffany D. Jackson
Title: Allegedly
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2017)
Summary/Review:

Mary is a teenager living in a group home in Brooklyn after several year of serving time for murdering a baby when she was 9-years-old. Allegedly, as is Mary’s frequent refrain.  When she falls in love with a man at the nursing home where she volunteers and becomes pregnant, she begins to reevaluate her past so that she can have a future with her baby and boyfriend.  The incidents of the night of the murder and her mother’s role in it as well as other facet’s of Mary’s past are slowly revealed while in the present time Mary has to deal with case workers, psychiatrists, and her hostile companions in the group home.  The book is good at showing the horrors of the modern day carceral state and Jackson does a great job at developing Mary’s voice.  However, the twists in the story seem unnaturally injected into the narrative to build suspense, especially the biggest twist at the end of the book, make it hard to recommend this book.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan


Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
TitleSaints for All Occasions
Narrator Susan Denaker
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2017
Previously read by same author: Maine 
Summary/Review:

The Irish-American family novel has a lot of familiar tropes – resentments, feuding, alcoholism, unexpected pregnancy, Catholicism, generation gaps, poverty to prosperity, et al.  Sullivan (no known relation to yours truly) employs them all, but her great gift in writing is characterization.  The novel is set over a few days in 2009 after the death of the eldest child in the Rafferty family, the 50-year-old bar owner Patrick, in a drunk driving crash.  The family comes together for the wake and funeral with the unexpected arrival of an elderly nun unknown to the children of the family.  In-between descriptions of the few days leading up to the funeral the novel flashes back to fill in the family history, starting with the sisters Nora and Theresa leaving their Irish village to emigrate to Boston, and how Nora takes the conventional course of marrying and raising four children, first in Dorchester, and later in Hull, Massachusetts, while Theresa becomes a cloistered nun. It also explains the falling out to the two sisters and why the children grew up unaware of Theresa’s existence.  Nora and Theresa alternate as point of view characters with wonderful insight into their complex characters.  The reader also gets to learn of the each of the surviving children, John the overachiever who found unexpected success as a political adviser to Republicans in deep blue Massachusetts (including a thinly-veiled Mitt Romney character), Bridget who is never quite sure that Nora has accepted her as lesbian but wishes to inform her mother of her and partner’s plan to have a baby, and Brian, the youngest who has moved back in with his mother and seems directionless after his baseball career flamed out in the minor leagues.  It’s a touching and heartbreaking novel, and not quite all that you’d expect.

Favorite Passages:

“She had long known that in this family, the truth got revealed belatedly, accidentally, drunkenly, or not at all. But still, she felt hurt.”

Recommended booksCharming Billy by Alice McDermott, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, and The Gathering by Anne Enright
Rating:

Book Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith


Author: Zadie Smith
TitleSwing Time
Narrator: Pippa Bennett-Warner
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Press, 2016
Previously read by the same author: White Teeth
Summary/Review:

An unnamed narrator, whose mother is of Jamaican descent and father is white English working class, tells her life story focusing on her relationships with three women.  First, there’s her mother who is a social activist and later an elected official with whom she feels alienated.  Second, there’s Tracey, the only other nonwhite girl in her dance class who becomes her childhood friend (well, frenemy really) and is a much more talented dance.  Finally, there’s Aimee, an Australian pop superstar (I guess like Kylie Minogue, although Aimee seems more like Madonna) who hires the narrator as a personal assistant.  The narrative moves back and forth in different periods of the narrator’s life filling in details of these relationships.  Smith takes a risk in making the narrator have no name but having characteristics that are autobiographical, and then makes the narrator so driftless and somewhat unlikable.  One her traits is that she rarely is in control of her own life and lets these other women control her narrative, yet when she does take action is usually something petty.

A major plot point in the book is that Aimee builds a girls school in a West African village that the narrator plays a big role in returning to visit the village in what amounts to a parody of the sins of celebrity philanthropy.  Similarly, the narrator’s mother is a parody of the arrogant left-wing activist who only barely emerges as a flesh and blood character.  Tracey is the most fully developed of the three characters as the narrator keeps trying to put her into boxes based on her low-income background, sexuality, and “wildness” but Tracey keeps defying all of that.  I find that I enjoy Smith’s writing style in this book but less interested in what Smith has to write about.  The meandering quality of the narrative fits the aimlessness of the narrator but doesn’t make it enjoyable to read.

Recommended booksBrothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: I Was Told to Come Alone by Souad Mekhennet 


Author: Souad Mekhennet
TitleI Was Told to Come Alone
Narrator:  Kirsten Potter
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

Note: I received a free copy of the audiobook for this work through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

This is the memoir of Souad Mekhennet, a journalist raised in Germany but whose parents are from Turkey and Morocco.  Inspired by All the President’s Men, Mekhennet goes to journalism school and enters into the business just as the September 11th attacks change the way a woman of Islamic heritage will be received in Europe and the United States.  She covers the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rise of Al Qaeda and Isis, and the major terrorist attacks in Germany, France, and England.  She gains unique access to meet jihadists face to face for interviews, goes into war-torn Iraq, visits the Islamic communities in European cities where the attacks on Paris were planned, and helps people mistakenly captured by the CIA.  It’s an interesting life story and offers a unique perspective of the past 20 years from someone is both western and Muslim.

Recommended booksBaghdad without a Map and Other Misadventures in Arabia by Tony Horwitz
Rating: ***

Book Review: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein


Author: Carrie Brownstein
Title:  Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl
Narrator: Carrie Brownstein
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2015)
Summary/Review:

I know Carrie Brownstein as a sometimes music critic on NPR’s All Songs Considered (as well as her work on Portlandia – a show I find only moderately funny) so I knew that her memoir of her life and work with the band Sleater-Kinney would be an interesting work.  Brownstein explores the effect of her childhood in which her mother suffered anorexia, her father repressed homosexuality, and Brownstein herself seeks to entertain as way of transforming the sadness around her.  A lot of this books is about identity and the Brownstein analyzes her own   search for identity in raw detail.  The music of Sleater-Kinney is similar in its naked emotion and self-expression and Brownstein details the autobiographical detail that went into that songs.  Sleater-Kinney also had to deal with the typecasting and prejudice of being an all-woman band, when Brownstein wants people to recognize them as simply a great rock band.  Brownstein also relates her own struggles touring with the band that resulted in anxiety and physical illness.  This a very honest and introspective addition to the rock memoir oeuvre.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain


Author: Mark Twain
TitleThe Prince and the Pauper
Narrator: Kenneth Jay
Publication Info:  Naxos AudioBooks , 2001
Summary/Review:

I remember enjoying this book as a child (although I can’t remember what age) and since my son is interested in Mark Twain, we listened to the audiobook on a recent road trip.  It was a little bit more complicated than I remembered, and frankly we both had trouble following parts of the story, but perhaps that is a challenge of audiobooks compared with print.  The basic story is well-known in which the poor and abused Tom Canty meets Prince Edward and discovering they resemble one another, swap clothing.  Through a comedy of errors, they are separated and end up with Tom unwillingly becoming king and the prince having to live life at the very bottom of society.  All works out in the end, and Twain is probably too kind on Edward VI’s actual legacy as king, but the book delves into some of the gritty realities of impoverished masses and the court intrigues of the elites.

Rating: ****