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: ****

Book Review: The Celery Stalks at Midnight by James Howe


Author: James Howe
TitleThe Celery Stalks at Midnight
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review:
A more direct sequel to the first novel as Bunnicula escapes from the house leaving a trail of dead, blanched vegetables in his wake.  Chester’s suspicions are again aroused and he draws in Harold and the new dimwitted puppy Howie into his investigation, leading to mayhem.  It’s very silly and funny.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Howliday Inn by James Howe


Author: James Howe
Title Howliday Inn
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review: To build on my belief that this series should be called “The Harold and Chester Mysteries,” Bunnicula doesn’t even appear in this story.  Instead, the Monroe’s go on vacation and Harold and Chester are sent to a kennel called Chateau Bow-Bow.  There, Chester immediately begins to share his suspicions of the other dogs and cats and their human caretakers.  It turns out that there is something suspicious going on even if Chester’s earliest assumptions were way off base, but it does lead up to a wonderful Holmes and Watson moment for Chester and Harold.  Another fun book with a bit of mystery.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery by Deborah and James Howe


Author: Deborah and James Howe
TitleBunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery
Narrator: Victor Garber
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2004
Summary/Review:
My family enjoyed listening to this book on a long Thanksgiving road trip.  The premise of this series is that the Monroe family discovers and adopts a young rabbit with fangs who apparently can escape his cage and drain the vegetables in the kitchen of their juice and color.  But in all honesty, Bunnicula is a minor character in his eponymous book and this series could be called “The Harold and Chester Mysteries.”  Harold is the good-natured family dog who narrates the book and Chester is the egoistic and conspiracy-minded cat who stirs the pot with his suspicions of Bunniculas’ vampiric powers.  All in all, it’s a funny and entertaining family tale.
Recommended booksBeezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary, Stuart Little by E. B. White, and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
Rating: ***

Book Review: Find Me by Laura van den Berg


Author:Laura van den Berg
TitleFind Me
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Summary/Review:
This novel is the story of a young woman named Joy, an orphan raised in various foster homes, who becomes a test subject in a remote hospital when she is found to be immune to a deadly disease sweeping the United States.  The disease has the effect of causing people to lose their memories and the book uses the disease to symbolically explore memory and identity.  Joy’s first person narrative switches between flashbacks to her life as a foster child and the increasing despair of living in the prison-like hospital with people dying around her.  About 2/3’s of the way of the novel Joy escapes and ventures out to try to find her birth mother (this is written on the dust jacket so it’s not really a spoiler). From this point on it feels like a lot of the characters are there just to serve a symbolic role in Joy’s life rather than seeming like realistic characters.  I’ll say this is an interesting premise and mostly engrossing book with an unsatisfying ending.
Recommended books: Flu by Gina Kolata
Rating: ***

Book Review: American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan


Author: Edmund S. Morgan
TitleAmerican Slavery, American Freedom
Narrator: Sean Pratt
Publication Info: Gildan Media, LLC (2013)
Summary/Review:
This book is not so much a history of slavery as it is an economic history of Colonial Virginia.  In a sense, understanding the conditions of Colonial Virginia is important to understanding how this English community came to adopt chattel slavery based on race.  But reading the book the topics vary far and wide from the concepts of slavery and their contrasts with the American ideals of freedom.  In short, it’s an interesting book albeit not necessarily the one I expected.
Recommended booksThe World They Made Together by Mechal Sobel and Colonial Virginia : a history by Warren M. Billings
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: How Music Works by John Powell


Author: John Powell
TitleHow music works : the science and psychology of beautiful sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and beyond
Publication Info: New York, NY : Little, Brown, 2010.
Summary/Review:

With a lot of humor and avoidance of technical detail, Powell breaks down everything about music including physics, acoustics, decibels, rhythm and melody, and musical scores. Despite the simplicity of the book, I still find myself challenged in remembering all that I learned, but I suspect that this is a good introduction to music for most readers.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was John F. Kennedy by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was John F. Kennedy
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Continuing our way through the “Who Was…?” series with my son.  This book again shows the series’ ability to be age-appropriate, but to also offer honest appraisals of their subjects.  I was particularly impressed by the details of Kennedy’s pre-Presidential life.

Rating: ***

Book Review: SPQR : A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard


AuthorMary Beard
TitleSPQR : a history of ancient Rome
Publication Info: New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Beard attempts the very difficult, a single volume history of Ancient Rome, and succeeds. There’s the evolution from Republic to Empire (which is not the clean split it often appears in retrospect) and there is the succession of warriors and philosophers and all those emperors, which is covered gamely. But Beard covers deeper questions such as the idea of citizenship, which Rome uniquely expanded beyond the boundaries of the city, thus cementing the empire. And Beard gives glimpses of everyday life for the ordinary Roman citizens. It’s a great introduction to Roman history and scholarship. 
Favorite Passages:

It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not. But we come to Roman history with different priorities – from gender identity to food supply – that make the ancient past speak to us in a new idiom.

Roman expansion. There was one obligation that the Romans imposed on all those who came under their control: namely, to provide troops for the Roman armies. In fact, for most of those who were defeated by Rome and forced, or welcomed, into some form of ‘alliance’, the only long-term obligation seems to have been the provision and upkeep of soldiers. These peoples were not taken over by Rome in any other way; they had no Roman occupying forces or Roman-imposed government. Why this form of control was chosen is impossible to know. But it is unlikely that any particularly sophisticated, strategic calculation was involved. It was an imposition that conveniently demonstrated Roman dominance while requiring few Roman administrative structures or spare manpower to manage. The troops that the allies contributed were raised, equipped and in part commanded by the locals. Taxation in any other form would have been much more labour-intensive for the Romans; direct control of those they had defeated would have been even more so.

In extending citizenship to people who had no direct territorial connections with the city of Rome, they broke the link, which most people in the classical world took for granted, between citizenship and a single city. In a systematic way that was then unparalleled, they made it possible not just to become Roman but also to be a citizen of two places at once: one’s home town and Rome. And in creating new Latin colonies all over Italy, they redefined the word ‘Latin’ so that it was no longer an ethnic identity but a political status unrelated to race or geography. This set the stage for a model of citizenship and ‘belonging’ that had enormous significance for Roman ideas of government, political rights, ethnicity and ‘nationhood’. This model was shortly extended overseas and eventually underpinned the Roman Empire.

So what kind of political system was this? The balance between the different interests was certainly not as equitable as Polybius makes it seem. The poor could never rise to the top of Roman politics; the common people could never seize the political initiative; and it was axiomatic that the richer an individual citizen was, the more political weight he should have. But this form of disequilibrium is familiar in many modern so-called democracies: at Rome too the wealthy and privileged competed for political office and political power that could only be granted by popular election and by the favour of ordinary people who would never have the financial means to stand themselves. As young Scipio Nasica found to his cost, the success of the rich was a gift bestowed by the poor. The rich had to learn the lesson that they depended on the people as a whole.

If the assassination of Julius Caesar became a model for the effective removal of a tyrant, it was also a powerful reminder that getting rid of a tyrant did not necessarily dispose of tyranny. Despite all the slogans, the bravado and the high principles, what the assassins actually brought about, and what the people got, was a long civil war and the permanent establishment of one-man rule.

ONE SIDE OF the history of Rome is a history of politics, of war, of victory and defeat, of citizenship and of everything that went on in public between prominent men. I have outlined one dramatic version of that history, as Rome transformed from a small, unimpressive town next to the Tiber into first a local and eventually an international power base. Almost every aspect of that transformation was contested and sometimes literally fought over: the rights of the people against the senate, the questions of what liberty meant and how it was to be guaranteed, the control that was, or was not, to be exercised over conquered territory, the impact of empire, for good or bad, on traditional Roman politics and values. In the process, a version of citizenship was somehow invented that was new in the classical world. Greeks had occasionally shared citizenship, on an ad hoc basis, between two cities. But the idea that it was the norm, as the Romans insisted, to be a citizen of two places – to count two places as home – was fundamental to Roman success on the battlefield and elsewhere, and it has proved influential right up into the twenty-first century. This was a Roman revolution, and we are its heirs.

The basic rule of Roman history is that those who were assassinated were, like Gaius, demonised. Those who died in their beds, succeeded by a son and heir, natural or adopted, were praised as generous and avuncular characters, devoted to the success of Rome, who did not take themselves too seriously.

And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic and mad as they are painted, it made little or no difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes.

Most evocative of all is the story of a man from Palmyra in Syria, Barates, who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century CE. It is not known what brought him the 4,000 miles across the world (probably the longest journey of anyone in this book); it may have been trade, or he may have had some connection with the army. But he settled in Britain long enough to marry Regina (‘Queenie’), a British woman and ex-slave. When she died at the age of thirty, Barates commemorated her with a tombstone, near the Roman fort of Arbeia, modern South Shields. This depicts Queenie – who, as the epitaph makes clear, was born and bred just north of London – as if she were a stately Palmyrene matron; and underneath the Latin text, Barates had her name inscribed in the Aramaic language of his homeland. It is a memorial which nicely sums up the movement of peoples and the cultural mix that defined the Roman Empire, and raises even more tantalising questions. Who did Queenie think she was? Would she have recognised herself as that Palmyrene lady? And what would this couple have thought about the ‘Rome’ in whose world they lived?

The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Book Review: Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt


Author: Samantha Hunt 
TitleMr. Splitfoot
Narrators: Cassandra Campbell and Emily Woo Zeller
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2016)
Summary/Review:

This gothic mystery tells two interwoven stories.  The first is about the young Ruth and Nat, foster children growing up in a group home under a strange Christian cult leader.  They begin to claim that they can talk with the dead, and with the help of a con man named Mr. Bell, they escape and begin traveling and hosting seances.

The second story is about a directionless young woman named Cora who becomes pregnant by her cruel boyfriend, who is married to another woman.  Her aunt Ruth, now unable to speak, arrives and takes Cora on a long journey across the state of New York.  There’s a lot of mystery and creepiness in this book, although the real horror is the cruelty of humankind.  {SPOILER} The biggest surprise of this book is that it manages a happy ending. {/SPOILER}
Favorite Passages:

“Forget God. Or don’t call it that. I’m talking about mystery, unsolvable mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as love. I say it is.”

Recommended booksChoke by Chuck Palahniuk and
The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clark
Rating: ***

Book Review: What Was the First Thanksgiving? by Joan Holub


Author: Joan Holub
TitleWhat Was the First Thanksgiving?
Publication Info: Grosset & Dunlap (2013), 112 pages
Summary/Review: This is a simple but honest children’s history of the settlers of Plymouth Colony and the Wampanoag people and what really happened on that first Thanksgiving.  There’s a fair amount of myth-busting as well as using surviving records to determine actual events.  There’s also a short history of how Thanksgiving became an American holiday and a detailed chapter about visiting Plimoth Plantation (very useful to my son and I since we’re taking a field trip there next month).

Rating: ***

Book Review: His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik


Author: Naomi Novik
TitleHis Majesty’s Dragon
NarratorSimon Vance
Publication Info: Books on Tape (2007)
Summary/Review:

I imagine the author read the Aubrey/Maturin series and thought “I’d like to write that same type of book. With dragons.”  Set in the Napoleonic Wars, this is a historic novel for the most part, with the exception that dragons are real and used by the British and French for airborne battles.  It begins when Naval captain Will Laurence captures a dragon egg from a French ship and forms a bond with the young dragon Temeraire after he hatches.  Laurence and Temeraire quickly form a close relationship, but Laurence is forced to resign from the Navy and join the Aerial Corps, which is not only mysterious and dangerous, but has very low social standing.  Laurence learns that life in the Aerial Corps is more relaxed than in other branches of the military, and that women are paired with dragons and afforded equal standing, so the book is also a comedy of manners in many ways.  Plus, there are cool aerial battles.

I’ve learned that this is the first in a series of 9 books, and while I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure I want to commit to the whole series (I couldn’t even get through all of Aubrey/Maturin).  If you’ve read them, let me know if it is worth continuing.

Recommended booksMaster and Commander by Patrick O’Brian
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann


Author: Colum McCann
TitleThirteen Ways of Looking
Narrator: Colum McCann
Publication Info:  Random House Audio, 2015
Previously Read by the Same Author:  Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic
Summary/Review:

That Colum McCann sure can write!  This collection of four stories shows McCann’s skill at stringing together sentences, developing characters, and creating entire worlds through rich description in just a short space of time.  The stories include:

  • “Thirteen Ways of Looking” – recreates an elderly, retired judge’s last day shifting between his own perspective and what is recreated from surveillance video.
  • “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” – an author commissioned to write a New Year’s story begins with the concept of a solitary soldier on duty in Afghanistan but the spirals out control adding additional characters, details, and settings.
  • “Sh’khol”- a woman on the coast of Ireland loses her deaf and developmentally disabled son swimming in the ocean and reflects on her life as she devolves into panic.
  • “Treaty” – an elderly nun once held hostage by a guerrilla insurgency recognizes her captor, the man who raped and tortured her, on television posing as a peace activist.

This is definitely a good introduction to McCann’s writing and if you’ve enjoyed his other works a fine addition to his body of work.
Recommended books: Life Form by Amélie Nothomb
Rating: ****

Book Review: 1493 : Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann


Author: Charles C. Mann
Title1493 : Uncovering the new world Columbus created
Narrator: Robertson Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Previously Read by Same Author1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Summary/Review:

A sequel of sorts to 1491, this book investigates the wide-ranging impact of contact between Eurasia & Africa and the Americas and exchange of people, animals, plants, and micorganisms that followed in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ voyages.  This is called the Columbian Exchange and is the root of today’s globalism.  Mann investigates a wide variety of topics, places, and times right up to the present day that resulted from this exchange.  It’s a fascinating overview of social and economical forces at work through history.
Recommended books:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook , and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W. P. Kinsella


Author: W. P. Kinsella
TitleThe Iowa Baseball Confederacy
Narrator: Tom Parker
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., [2014]
Summary/Review:

I’d been meaning to reread this book, one that became one of my favorites of all time when I first read it in a high school, and with the recent death of W.P. Kinsella, this seemed like an opportune time to do so.  The story is one that blends baseball, Americana, time travel, magic, and just plain weirdness.  The narrator inherits from his father the knowledge that his rural town in Iowa was once home to a team in a local baseball league known as the Iowa Baseball Confederacy before the town was destroyed in a flood.  No one else is able to remember anything prior to 1909 .  While Gideon Clarke is mocked for obsession, he eventually finds a way to travel back in time with his friend Stan, a minor league baseball player, to observe and join in the Iowa Baseball Confederacy All-Star Team’s epic game against the visiting Chicago Cubs in 1908. The game lasts 40 days in a rainfall with a stone angel playing outfield and visits by President Theodore Roosevelt and Leonardo da Vinci.  He finds love with a woman named Sarah but also finds that reality is being manipulated by an Indian named Drifting Away and that none of this can last.

So does this book hold up to my fond memories?  I say yes!  It may not be a brilliant work of literature, but it is a fine book which works on different levels of story and metaphor.
Favorite Passages:

“Baseball is the one single thing the white man has done right.” – Drifting Away

Recommended books: The Universal Baseball Association by Robert Coover, The Curious Case of Sidd Finch by George Plimpton, and The Veracruz Blues by Mark Winegardner
Rating: ****