Author: Hari Kunzru
Title: White Tears
Narrators: Lincoln Hoppe, Danny Campbell, Dominic Hoffman
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
This novel is narrated by Seth, a young white man working as a studio engineer as a partner to Carter, a friend from art school who shares his love for music. Carter comes from a wealthy family and is a douchey bro who claims to only listen to Black music from the analog era because of its “realness.” Seth is the narrator but Kunzru leaks through that he’s also not the most admirable person.
As part of his work, Seth records ambient sounds around the city that are digitally edited into musical recordings. On one occasion, he records a man singing a blues song and on Carter’s prompting, Seth edits it to sound like a scratchy 78 from the Twenties and they release it as a lost blues song by a musician named Charlie Shaw. They are then contacted by a record collector who informs them that he last heard this recording in 1959 and that Charlie Shaw is real.
This sets off the narrative in which Seth loses everything, possibly even his mind. It’s never clear if he’s beset by a phantasmagorical punishment for cultural appropriation or if it’s a story told by an unreliable narrator suffering mental illness. Seth’s narrative is interrupted by the record collector’s story (one in which he has a subservient relationship with a partner paralleling Seth and Carter) and Charlie Shaw himself. It’s a clever and creepy and gory and unsettling book, that’s nevertheless hard to stop reading.
Recommended books: Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Author: Karen Russell
Title: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Narrators: Ariel Sitrick, Zach McLarty, Patrick Mackie, Nick Chamian , Jesse Bernstein, J. B. Adkins, Kathe Mazur, Arthur Morey, Kirby Heyborne, Deirdre Lovejoy
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2010
Previously read by same author: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
This collections of short stories deal with themes of the transition from adolescence to adulthood, loss and grief, and animal nature of humanity. They are deeply in the magical realism genre as these coming of age stories include fantastical elements. My favorite stories include “Haunting Olivia” about two brothers looking for their lost sister who sailed away on a crab’s exoskeleton, “Z.Z.’s Sleepaway Camp for Disordered Dreamers” where a boy with prophetic dreams goes a camp for children with sleep disorders, “The City of Shells,” told from the perspective of an outsider girl who gets trapped in a giant conch shell, and “From Children’s Reminisces of the Westward Migration” which is an ordinary boy’s perspective on a pioneer journey when his father is a Minotaur pulling the wagon.
Recommended books: The Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Djibouti.
Author: Abdourahman A. Waberi
Title: In the United States of Africa
Translator: David Ball, Nicole Ball
Publication Info: Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
This novel is set in an alternate universe where Africa, unified as a single nation, is prosperous and has colonized the rest of the world. White people try to escape poverty and war as refugees to Africa. One could put together a concordance as long as the book to all the references of things in this topsy turvy world that are allusions to our world. After a few pages of this it moves beyond satire and feels more like the author trying to demonstrate his cleverness.
Unfortunately, the plot and characterization is pretty thin. The main character is Malaïka (aka Maya), a child born in France but adopted by an African doctor. The story follows her life and her journey as an adult to return to France and meet her birth mother. To add to the overall experimental style of the novel, it is written by an unnamed narrator addressing Maya.
This novel is short but a complicated read. I’m sure there’s a lot of good stuff that just went over my head.
Title: How to Stop Time
Narrator: Mark Meadows
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
The narrator of this novel Tom Hazard has a genetic condition that makes him age physically at a significantly slower pace than the typical human. In the present day he is over 400 years old but only appears middle-aged. The narrative switches back and forth from Tom’s present day attempt to make a normal life for himself as a history teacher in London and memories of his past. These include the horrors inflicted upon him by superstitious people, his one true romance with his wife Rose in Elizabethan England, and his recruitment into a club of similar people who age slowly in the late 19th century. It makes for a charming mix of historical fiction and a contemporary romance. Haig is good at filling in the details of what it would be like to live, work, and love over the time of centuries, accumulating memories and experiences.
Recommended books: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Time and Again by Jack Finney
Around the World for a Good Book selection for Finland
Author: Arto Paasilinna
Title: Year of the Hare
Narrator: Simon Vance
Translator: Herbert Lomas
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2010), originally published in 1975, translated to English in 1995
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.
Author: Ivan Jenson
Title: Gypsies of New Rochelle
Publication Info: Michelkin Publishing (2017)
I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
I gave up on reading this novel about 40% through. The novel set in 1980 is narrated by 17 y.o. Shawn Aldridge, the youngest member of an eccentric family that recently moved from the midwest to the New York City suburb. All of the children are expected to accomplish something great, but most of the family’s hopes are pinned on Shawn’s sister Nora becoming a concert violinist, leaving the other children to work out their resentment and inadequacy in other (supposedly comic) ways. Shawn, an irritating narcissist, sees himself as a sensitive poet and spends much of his time taking the train to New York where he dates an exotic dancer, while simultaneously dating a typical middle-class suburban girl in New Rochelle. The characters frequently stereotype others, and the author’s voice seem to agree with them. The dialogue is stilted and unbelievable. Really everyone in this book is loathsome, and while it’s possible to have a novel with no sympathetic characters, you have to be a better writer than this. I’m not surprised to look at Amazon and see this book compared to Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors, because I hated the movie adaptation of that book for many of the same reasons I hate this book.
“Now, there were two sides to this family. One was playful, fun, drunken and the other was desolate and desperate. At any given moment I could not tell which side was going to win out. The dark or the light.” – (Kindle Locations 134-135).
Author: Tiffany D. Jackson
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2017)
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.
Author: Barbara L. Baer
Title: The Ballet Lover
Publication Info: Open Books, 2017
Summary/Review: I received an advance reading copy of this book through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.
This novel begins in 1970 and tells the story of Geneva, a writer for a niche ballet magazine, set against a feud between the great dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova. The cruelties and sexism of the ballet world are reflected in Geneva’s life as her publisher squashes her honest accounts to maintain access, her long distance boyfriend plans a future with little concern for Geneva’s interests, and she has to care for her aunt who survived an escape from Nazi Germany. Geneva’s keen observational skills that make her a talented journalist also seem to be a handicap as she seems to often be observing rather than acting on her own life. In addition to an interesting fictional narrative there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes segments in ballet drawn from real life. The one thing about the conclusion of the book is that Geneva’s problems aren’t really resolved so much as she grows older and doesn’t find them so important anymore, which I guess is real life, but much of an ending for fiction.
Recommended books: Under the Net by Iris Murdoch and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Author: J. Courtney Sullivan
Title: Saints for All Occasions
Narrator: Susan Denaker
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2017
Previously read by same author: Maine
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.
“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 books: Charming Billy by Alice McDermott, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín, and The Gathering by Anne Enright
Author: Zadie Smith
Title: Swing Time
Narrator: Pippa Bennett-Warner
Publication Info: New York : Penguin Press, 2016
Previously read by the same author: White Teeth
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 books: Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
Author: Amy Gettinger
Title: Roll with the Punches
Publication Info: Raucous Eucalyptus Press (2015)
I read this book as an attempt to read something I wouldn’t usually read after seeing it in a Kindle deals email and thinking “I’ve never read a romance novel based around roller derby.” Turns out that this novel is actually about an aspiring author, Rhonda, who has discovered that her novel was stolen and published by a popular novelist and she is now being accused of plagiarism. Also, her mother is in the hospital and she has to take care of her father who is suffering from dementia. And there are two men in her life with whom she has romantic feelings: James, a handsome young tech geek from her writers’ group, and Dal, a former student of her fathers. Also, Dal is Native American so there are a lot of uncomfortable Indian joke. And there is a roller derby plot squished in there although it doesn’t seem to fit in with everything going especially since the roller derby team also doubles as another writer’s support group. Whew! I was curious about the mystery of who stole the manuscript so I read to the end, but ultimately was disappointed by the increasingly ludicrous situations, the two-dimensional nature of most of the supporting characters, and the unlikely way all these different things overlapped in Rhonda’s life.
Recommended books: Further Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin
Author: George Saunders
Title: Lincoln in the Bardo
Narrator: Cast of Thousands
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
This is a curious, experimental novel that is built upon the true story of President Abraham Lincoln making several visits to a crypt to hold the body of his recently deceased son Willie. The “bardo” is a Tibetan Buddhist concept that of an intermediate state where a person doesn’t know if they’r alive or dead. The author gives voice to dozens of deceased people who comment Lincoln & Willie but also tell their own stories and interact with one another. A third element to this novel are sections which are merely collages of writing, newspapers clippings, and historical works about Lincoln and his times. The novel is an oddly abstract attempt at understanding grief and coming terms to death, both on Lincoln’s personal level and the large scale trauma of the Civil War. The audiobook is particularly interesting since each character is read by a different actor, several of them quite famous, lending it the quality of an audio play.
Recommended books: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust and Severance: Stories by Robert Olen Butler
Author: Daniel Handler
Title: We Are Pirates
Publication Info: New York : Bloomsbury, 2015.
This is an “adult” novel written under Handler’s real name instead of his more famous pseudonym, Lemony Snicket. Set in contemporary San Francisco, the story details the lives of a dysfunctional family living beyond their means in an Embarcadero condo. The storylines alternate between Phil Needle, a radio producer looking to exploit the legacy of an African American blues musician, and his 14 y.o. daughter Gwen, who has grown disaffected by the upper middle class life and eventually puts together a crew to steal a boat and run amok on the San Francisco Bay (the “pirates” of the title). Snicket-like touches are there such as the unreliable and mysterious narrator who begins as a guest at the Needles’ party but then locks themselves in the bathroom to begin telling the story of their hosts. And the story of Gwen and her youthful companions (plus her grandfather with Alzheimer’s) is far more engaging that Phil’s story. Ultimately, this novel felt a bit drab and I ended up finishing reading it more out of courtesy than interest.
Phil Needle wasn’t a good person, in a what-a-good-person-you-are sort of way, but he was good, somehow, surely. He was merciful. He stepped on wounded bees. He did good, and when he did bad it wasn’t his fault. It was a mistake. He was so sorry, behind the bumper sticker, for whatever and everything it was he had done.
Author: Jacqueline Woodson
Title: Another Brooklyn
Narrator: Robin Miles
Publication Info: HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio, 2016
This short novel is the reminiscences of the narrator August reflecting on her childhood in 1970s Brooklyn. It’s a period piece that recreates a place and time so different from the Brooklyn of today, and very specifically the challenges of joys of being an African-American girl in that place and time. It’s also a meditation on friendship, as August recalls the tight relationships with her friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia, friendships that at the time seemed permanent but have long since faded away. The book is permeated with a nostalgic sense of loss, and is a poetic rumination of the more complex themes underlying everyday childhood.
Recommended books: Sula by Toni Morrison and The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Author: Colson Whitehead
Title: The Underground Railroad
Narrator: Bahni Turpin
Publication Info: New York : Random House Audio, 
Read by the Same Author: Apex Hides the Hurt
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 books: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Author:Laura van den Berg
Title: Find Me
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
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
Author: W. P. Kinsella
Title: The Iowa Baseball Confederacy
Narrator: Tom Parker
Publication Info: [Ashland, Or.] : Blackstone Audio, Inc., 
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.
“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
Author: Helene Wecker
Title: The Golem and the Jinni
Narrator: George Guidall
Publication Info: Blackstone Audiobooks (2014)
This engaging novel is set in the immigrant communities of lower Manhattan circa 1900. A woman made of clay – a golem named Chava – finds herself stranded alone in the Lower East Side after the man who would’ve been her master dies on the passage across the Atlantic. A jinni named Ahmad is freed from a metal flask after 1000 years of captivity to fin himself at a tinsmith in Little Syria. Both Chava and Ahmad have to find ways to fit in with their human society, but it’s interesting that Chava, created to be a slave, has trouble adjusting to having free will, while Ahmad, once a powerful king, has to adjust to his more humble circumstances. That they meet and befriend one another is no surprise, and it’s a relationship that proves mutually beneficial. In many ways this is an immigrant tale within a magical realism setting. Eventually, an old antagonist arrives, and the golem and the jinni need to fight to save themselves, which I understand is necessary to create conflict and resolution, but ultimately I enjoy the earlier parts of the novel where they are establishing themselves and finding their place better. There is a host of endearing supporting characters including Rabbi Meyer who recognizes Chava as a golem and takes her under his wing and Boutros Arbeely who forms a partnership with Ahmad in tinsmithing. Guidall does some incredible voicework bringing all the characters to life in the audiobook.
Recommended books: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Author: Ann Patchet
Title: Bel Canto
Narrator: Anna Fields
Publication Info: Blackstone Audiobooks, 2001.
This novel is set in an unnamed Latin American nation that lures a powerful Japanese business man to a birthday party in his honor with an intimate performance by his favorite operatic soprano. A group of revolutionaries attacks the mansion and takes everyone hostage and settle into a hostage situation that carries on for months. Patchet is great at narrating the interior lives of various characters – hostages and captors alike – and the relationships that grow among them until rather surreally they settle into patterns where the lines between the two groups are blurred and daily life becomes something of a prosperous summer camp. Patchet is great with the character work – the Japanese businessman and the opera singer are joined by the gracious host of the Vice President, a shy girl among the terrorists, the indispensable translator, and the Swiss Red Cross negotiator among others. The plot grows increasingly absurd and stretching credulity in the latter parts of the novel, but nevertheless an entertaining with even doses humor and underlying tension.
Author: Kaitlyn Greenidge
Title: We Love You, Charlie Freeman
Publication Info: Chapel Hill, North Carolina : Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2016
This book is difficult to describe in a few sentences. The Freeman family moves from Dorchester to a rural town in Western Massachusetts where they will live in an apartment at the Toneybee Research Institute with a chimpanzee named Charlie. They are part of an experiment to teach a chimpanzee to communicate and were chosen because the children know how to use sign language. There are some immediate racial overtones as the Freemans are an African American family constantly being observed by the white research staff at the institute and it is located in a predominately white town adjacent to a predominantly black town. The book is told from multiple points of view, although the key narrative voice belongs to Charlotte, the older daughter who is the first to feel unease at the institute and at her high school. There are also flashbacks to 1929 where the story of a woman named Nymphadora, a school teacher and member of a secretive society of African American women, reveals the dark origins of the Toneybee Institute. This is a distressing book because it documents the unraveling of the Freeman family set against continuing racial prejudice. It’s upsetting since no character really intends to cause harm by under the circumstances their actions lead to sadness and suffering.
Recommended books: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Bailey’s Cafe by Gloria Naylor, and In Love & Trouble by Alice Walker