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: The Number Ones by Tom Breihan


Author: Tom Breihan
Title: The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music
Publication Info: Hachette Books, November 2002
Summary/Review:

The Billboard Hot 100 is a strange beast and the history of the Number One songs is a weird and fascinating story.  Artists like Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and Bruce Springsteen never had a Number One song and some of the most beloved songs of all time have been held out of the top spot by songs that have aged poorly.  Also, some very strange songs by the likes of The Chipmunks, The Singing Nun, Rick Dees, and Los Del Rio hit Number One.  You could say that these are bad songs, but at one point in history the music buying public of the United States found these songs to be their favorite in a particular moment of time.

Two of my favorite podcasts focus on pop music history – Chris Molanphy’s Hit Parade which focuses on the charts and Andrew Hickey’s A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs which goes deeper into the weeds of rock music history. In the past few years I’ve also become a fan of Tom Breihan’s The Number Ones column on Stereogum.  Breihan is reviewing every single Number One song on the Billboard Hot 100 starting from 1958 and as of this writing has made it as far as 2005.  Breihan does an excellent job of researching the histories of the artists, songwriters, producers, et al behind a song and the circumstances that lead it be the most popular song in the USA in a particular moment of time.  Some of my least favorite songs have the most interesting stories.  Be warned though, Breihan can be pretty abrasive about trashing the songs that he doesn’t like (the column on Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was particularly cruel).

This book is a spinoff of the Stereogum column focusing on “twenty chart-topping hits that reveal the history of pop music.”  The book is more professional than the column (no f-bombs castigating songs that Breihan hates).  The songs chosen are ones that changed the face of pop music in the U.S.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Dynamite” introduced the pop music of another country into the American mainstream.  New  musical technologies powered “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Good Vibrations,” and “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” to the top.  While “Rock Your Baby,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Black Beatles” introduced new genres to chart success.

The Number Ones probably doesn’t offer anything new to anyone knowledgeable of pop music history.  But it does frame it in interesting ways and shows how many different ways there are to make a number one hit.  I also like Breihans historical approach to the background of a song.  This is a good book that fans of music will love.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

2022 Year in Review: Favorite Books


Here’s my annual list of my ten favorite books read for the first time in the year.  As always, this is merely the best books I read this year for the first time and not necessarily books published in 2021. For previous years see 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018,  2017,   2016,   2015,   2014,   2013,   2012,   2011,   2010,   2009,   2008,  2007 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. Books published in 2021 are in bold.

Okay, I cheated this year, I got the list down to 11 and can’t find one more I can delete, so this year’s list has a bonus!

Complete List of Books Read in 2022

The books are rated on a scale from 1 to 5 stars with links to summary reviews. (A) is for audiobook.

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 Review: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


Author: Charles Dickens
Title:A Christmas Carol
Publication Info: Chapman & Hall, 1843
Summary/Review:

Over the course of December, I’ve participated in an online book club called A Dickens December where Charles Dickens’ classic story of Christmas redemption was released in short chunks for each day up until December 26.  I am, like most people in the English-speaking world (and beyond), very familiar with the story of the greedy and self-interested old Ebeneezer Scrooge who is transformed by spirits of the Past, Present, and Yet to Come.  Not only have I seen this story adapted into several films, but also I participated in two different stage productions in my childhood!

And yet this is the first time I’ve actually read the book.  The adaptations tend to get it right, adding embellishments more than leaving anything out.  The big thing about reading the book though is seeing Dickens way with words.  I’ve included several of my favorite passages below that show Dickens’ talent with a turn of the phrase.  As always it’s nice to revisit something familiar and see it in a new light.

Favorite Passages:

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.

Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.


The ancient tower of a church, whose gruff old bell was always peeping slily down at Scrooge out of a Gothic window in the wall, became invisible, and struck the hours and quarters in the clouds, with tremulous vibrations afterwards, as if its teeth were chattering in its frozen head up there.


Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!


“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”


The sky was gloomy, and the shortest streets were choked up with a dingy mist, half thawed, half frozen, whose heavier particles descended in a shower of sooty atoms, as if all the chimneys in Great Britain had, by one consent, caught fire, and were blazing away to their dear hearts’ content. There was nothing very cheerful in the climate or the town, and yet was there an air of cheerfulness abroad that the clearest summer air and brightest summer sun might have endeavoured to diffuse in vain.


They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware of them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!”


He broke down all at once. He couldn’t help it. If he could have helped it, he and his child would have been farther apart, perhaps, than they were.


Really, for a man who had been out of practice for so many years, it was a splendid laugh, a most illustrious laugh. The father of a long, long line of brilliant laughs!


Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and, knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration by Bryan Caplan and Zach Weinersmith


Author: Bryan Caplan
Title: Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration
Illustrator: Zach Weinersmith
Publication Info: First Second (2019)
Summary/Review:

Bryan Caplan is an economist (at George Mason University no less) who lays out an argument for lifting restrictions on immigration. And he does so in graphic novel form, illustrated by Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal fame.  I’m naturally receptive to the idea of open borders as someone whose politics are informed by compassion for others and welcoming diversity.  But Caplan uses the economic consensus to make the case for how immigration benefits all people, even the natives of prosperous nations, in ways designed to appeal to the logic of conservative and libertarian mindsets.  Will it work?  Who knows, but I’m glad that someone is making the case and in such a fun, colorful medium!

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey


Author: Sarah Gailey
Title: Upright Women Wanted
Narrator: Romy Nordlinger
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2020)
Summary/Review:

This novella has a western vibe while actually set in a dystopian future in which the United States has crumbled under autocratic rule that discriminates against LGBTQ people (ok, maybe not so far in the future?).  Esther hides in a wagon belonging to The Librarians after the execution of her lover Beatriz.  The Librarians officially travel the southwest distributing “approved” reading material but in fact are gun-slinging lesbian women and enby people with ties to pockets of resistance. It seems like a very short story for all of its ambition, but has some great moments, and can be disarmingly sweet and hopeful.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Reviews: Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original by Rickey Henderson


Author: Howard Bryant
Title: Rickey: The Life and Legend of an American Original
Narrator: JD Jackson
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2022)
Summary/Review:

Rickey Henderson is a man of contrasts.  He was one of the great baseball players of all time, breaking multiple records, and then playing another decade seemingly never wanting to retire.  And yet football was his favorite sport which he really wanted to play instead of baseball.  He worked hard to develop his game and yet he got a reputation for lackadaisical play and missing games.  His flashy style of play earned him the enmity of the conservative, white sports media but the love of young fans especially in the Black community.  His approach to baseball of aiming to get on base by any means and scoring runs was looked down upon by the experts of the time who valued batting average and power, but was vindicated by the Sabermetric approach that came into vogue in the 2000s right as Rickey was retiring.

Bryant interviewed Rickey and several important people in his life, including his wife Pamela.  His life story is tied to his hometown of Oakland, a segregated city where the Black children found an outlet in the community sports leagues that produced a great number of professional sports stars.  One of these was Billy Martin, a cantankerous figure who became a mentor and friend to Rickey as his manager in Oakland and New York. Bryant follows Rickey’s career through 4 stints with the Oakland A’s, a troubled period with the Yankees, and a final decade as a nomad playing for any team who would have him.  Highlights include winning the World Series in the 1989 and 1993 and the AL MVP in 1990.

I can’t say that you really get to know Rickey Henderson from this biography.  Despite his outsized personality, he’s a very private person, and one who seems detached because of he worries about his lack of education showing as well as his inability to remember names.  But I think Bryant does a brilliant job regardless of telling Rickey’s story.  His career coincides with a time in baseball when free agency made the star players multi-millionaires and Black players like Rickey were no longer willing to show deference to the white owners and media.  I’ve always liked Rickey and this book just makes me like him more.

Recommended books:

  • Becoming Manny: Inside the Life of Baseball’s Most Enigmatic Slugger by Jean Rhodes
  • Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis

Rating: ****