Book Review: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Zambia

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead


Author: Colson Whitehead
Title: The Nickel Boys
Publication Info: New York : Doubleday, [2019]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Set in the 1960s, with a framing story in the present day, The Nickel Boys tells the story of the boys held at the Nickel Academy reform school in Florida. The protagonist of the story is Elwood Curtis, a studious teenager who begins taking courses at a local college. He is unjustly arrested and prosecuted when he accepts a ride from an acquaintance in what turns out to be a stolen car.

Elwood, an optimistic child inspired by the Civil Rights Movement finds himself among hardened and more cynical inmates including a boy name Turner whom he befriends.  Much of the novel details the harsh conditions of the “school” where boys are sexually abused, face severe corporal punishment, and some simply disappear.  The segregated facility is also much harsher in its treatment of Black students.  As much as Elwood tries to keep his head down and make it through his sentence, his sense of justice brings him into conflict with the authorities.

In the present-day narrative, the graves of boys murdered at the Nickel Academy are uncovered a few years after the institution is closed.  Men who survived incarceration at Nickel come forward with stories of their abuse.  There’s a big twist in the story that I didn’t see coming and makes me want to reread the book because I’m sure it would change the meaning of a lot of the narrative.

The Nickel Academy is based on a real reform school in Florida, and Whitehead incorporates events described by survivors into his story.  The narrative is a grim tale and a microcosm of America’s sins of racial discrimination and the carceral state.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston


Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Narrator: Ruby Dee
Publication Info: New York : HarperAudio, 2005. [originally published in 1937]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Their Eyes Were Watching God remains one of my favorite books of all time. I read it several times in the 1990s but hadn’t revisited it since.  To listen to the audiobook narrated by Ruby Dee is a treat.

The novel depicts the journey of self-actualization of Janie Crawford, a Black woman in early 20th-century Florida.  It begins with Janie as young teenager, experiencing an awakening that is both sexual as well as tied to the natural world and the possibilities of youth. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, who raised her in absence of her mother, is anxious that Janie will follow her mother’s path as unwed mother and marries Janie off to older farmer named Logan Killicks.

It is a loveless marriage and Killicks mainly wants Janie as labor for his farm. Janie runs off with the charismatic Joe Starks, an ambitious man planning to move to the all-Black town of Eatonville, where he sets himself up as mayor and prominent businessman upon arrival.  But Starks is very controlling and abusive of Janie, restricting even her social life. After Starks’ death, Janie meets the younger man Tea Cake, and at last finds love.  While Janie experiences joy and fulfillment sharing Tea Cake’s life as a migrant farmer, he also gives off some red flags of possessiveness and irresponsibility.

The novel is framed by Janie telling her life story to a friend, and it is through the experiences of these four relationships – Nanny, Killicks, Starks, and Tea Cake – that she is able to discover herself and control her own destiny.  Hurston’s novel draws on African-American folklore and the importance of being tied to nature in human life.  Published a generation before the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements it was a book ahead of its time.  But it has rightly found its spot in the literary canon.

Recommended books:

  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Rating: *****

Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland


Author: Justina Ireland
Title: Dread Nation
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This novel is set in an alternate universe where the dead rose from the Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War ended because of the zombie apocalypse. Twenty years later, the surviving society has adapted by training Black and indigenous people to become “attendants” who protect the white elites from attacks by the “shamblers.” Among these are this books narrator, Jane McKeene, a student at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore as the novel begins.

Jane is a highly-skilled but outspoken student often ending up in trouble. A series of events lead her to being exiled to a new model town on the prairies of Kansas with her colleagues Catherine and Jackson. The town of Summerland has its deep secrets, though, and is under the rule of the virulently racist sheriff.  The book works as metaphor for the slavery and Jim Crow periods, and how the ruling caste seeks to perpetuate social divisions even under existential threats to humanity.  But the book also works as a straight up adventure and horror story, with no shortage of humor, especially in Jane’s wry narration.

Recommended books:
Rating:

Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar


Author: Zeyn Joukhadar
Title: The Map of Salt and Stars
Narrator: Lara Sawalha
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2018]

Summary/Review:

This novel is the story of 12-year-old Nour, who grows up in Manhattan, but after the death of her father, her mother takes the family back to their native Syria. Nour find herself an outsider, unable to speak Arabic. Unfortunately, their move to Syria coincides with a time of increasing protests that grow into the Arab Spring and then the Syrian Civil War. Nour and her family become refugees crossing the Middle East and North Africa.

Throughout the novel, Nour tells herself her father’s story of Rawiya, a girl from hundreds of years earlier, who disguised herself as a boy and has adventures traveling around the Meditteranean. The two stories interweave through the novel, intersecting in the similarities of the two protagonists.

The novel is a good story and in Nour and Rawiya has two characters that readers can identify. It’s a good introduction for young adult readers (and old adults like me) to the issues of contemporary Syria from the perspective of a child.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin


Author: Samanta Schweblin
Title: Fever Dream
Translator: Megan McDowell
Narrator: Hillary Huber
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This weird and creepy horror novella set in a resort town in Argentina.  It’s narrated in a conversation between Amanda, the novel’s protagonist who slowly uncovers dark secrets from a boy named David. The book doubles as an environmental fable as the children of the town, starting with David, are poisoned by a toxin that spreads through the community, including Amanda and her daughter Nina.  The sparse novel serves as an attempt to unravel the source of the problem.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Beloved
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2006 [originally published 1987]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, is probably her most famous and also the first of her works set in the 19th century and dealing with the effects of slavery.  Set in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, it focuses on a freed woman named Sethe who shares a house with her youngest daughter, Denver.  Because the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first-born daughter, Sethe’s two sons left home early and Denver’s life is one of social isolation.

Things change with the arrival of Paul D., a man who was enslaved on the same plantation with Sethe.  He begins a (somewhat awkward) sexual relationship with Sethe, encourages Denver to leave the house for social activities, and seemingly drives away the ghost haunting the house.  But things change again with the arrival of young woman named Beloved. Sethe believes she is the embodiment of her dead child because “BELOVED” was all she could afford to carve on her tombstone. Beloved affects all the residents of the household in different, negative ways.

Beloved is a ghost story, whether or not you believe that Beloved is actually a ghost, because it deals with the haunting trauma and pain of slavery.  The novel frequently flashes back to Sethe’s life on the Sweet Home plantation, her relationship with her husband Halle, and the abuse they suffered.  The book is a characters study of sorts as well, as several of the characters – both in the main timeline and in flashback – take turns reflecting on their life, relationships, and suffering.

Beloved has always been a challenging book for me to read.  But I also I believe it is purposefully unsettling to provoke thought on slavery and its painful legacy and generational trauma.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray


Author: Claudia Gray
Title: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice
Publication Info: New York : Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
Summary/Review:

Continuing my daughter’s fascination with the Star Wars universe, we read this novel which is a prequel to the prequels. It tells the story of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi on an assignment several years before the events of The Phantom Menace. The central part of the story is that neither master nor apprentice feels that they have bonded.  In this story they end up in conflict with one another over following the rules and yet that conflict brings them closer together.

This book is complex for a Star Wars story with the events arranged around palace intrigue as well as issues of corporate influence on government and the enslavement of people.  The book has some interesting twists (I didn’t expect who would be the villain) and introduces the eccentric Jedi Rael Aveross, an old friend of Qui-Gon who is serving as a Lord Regent to a young queen.  I really like the character development in this novel of both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as well as the many new characters (members of the royal court, corporate agents, and even an interesting pair of jewel thieves who ally with Qui-Gon).  It makes The Phantom Menace all the more depressing for sacrificing opportunities for great character moments to bland CGI special effects and comic relief.

Favorite Passages:

“It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch—it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks


Author: Terry Brooks
Title: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Publication Info: New York, NY : Del Rey Books, 1999
Summary/Review:

My daughter is really getting into Star Wars now, and I told her we should read some of the books together. She decided she wants to read the novelizations of the films in episode order.  I remember liking the novelizations when I was a kid too.  Back in 1999, after being disappointed by the movie, a friend recommended this book to me because it was written by a well-regarded fantasy writer, Terry Brooks.

Then, as now, I enjoy the novel more than the movie.  Maybe it’s because it has time for scenes that provide greater depth to the characters and their relationships than seen on screen.  Maybe because Brooks does a good job of providing the thoughts and points of views of several characters.  Maybe it’s because Jar Jar is so much less annoying in print.  At any rate, reading a Star Wars book is fun.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Tar Baby by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
TitleTar Baby
Narrator: Desiree Coleman
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2007 [originally published in 1981]

Summary/Review:

Tar Baby was the first novel I ever read.  It was part of the reading for a course I took as a college freshman on African American folklore in literature. I was required to take a writing course as a William & Mary freshman, but as they were all filled up I was allowed to chose from a new series of writing-intensive seminars, and this was the one I picked.  It was a good choice as I got to discuss some excellent literature with the professor and eleven other students and I have to say it was a very meaningful point in my education and life.

The irony is that while I would go on to become a devoted reader of Toni Morrison, I didn’t like Tar Baby when I first read it.  This time I liked it a lot better.  The story focuses on a group of characters on a Caribbean island.  Son, a Black sailor who jumps ship and swims to the island, ends up hiding in the estate of Valerian Street. Valerian, a retired candy manufacturer, has made his island home his permanent residence where he enjoys cultivating plants in his greenhouse despite the pleas of his wife Margaret to return home to Philadelphia.  Margaret is a former beauty queen who we learn is mentally unstable and suffers from the restrictions on her life as a woman.

Working at the estate are a married Black couple, Syndey, the butler, and Ondine, the cook.  Despite their servile position they each have a familiar relationship with their employers and are willing the share their opinions. Sydney and Ondine’s niece, Jadine, who they act as surrogate parents for after she was orphaned. Jadine is highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan after education at the Sorbonne, sponsored by Valerian, and working as a fashion model.

The discovery of Son hiding in Margaret’s closet begins a series of events that reveal the deep-seeded tensions among the residents of the estate.  Valerian makes a great show of treating Son as a guest while Margaret, Sydney, and Ondine disapprove. Eventually, Son and Jadine, both attractive, young people in their 20s flee and begin a romantic relationship.  They first go to New York City where Jadine thrives but Son feels stifled. Then they go to Son’s home town of Eloe, Florida where Son feels more at home being close to nature with his people, but Jadine is overwhelmed by the strict, traditional expectations for women.

The book covers many themes related to women and race. All the women in this story find themselves restricted in different ways. The relations of the Streets to Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine appear cordial at first but are revealed to built on white supremacy. Internalized racism is also revealed as first Sydney and Ondine, and later Jadine, judge Son for his natural and “wild” ways.  And there is the intersection of reality with African American folklore, particularly in the story of the wild horsemen of the island, descended from the first enslaved people brought there. This is also the first book of Morrison’s set in a contemporary rather than historical period which makes it stand out among her works.

Recommended books:
Rating: ****