Book Review: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird


AuthorSarah Bird
TitleDaughter of a Daughter of a Queen 
NarratorBahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army.  The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook.  The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.

After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay.  In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter.  Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.

The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book.  I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare.  On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.

My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
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Recommended booksJubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Rating: ***1/2

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Book Review: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack


Author: Mike McCormack
Title: Solar Bones
Narrator: Timothy Reynolds
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, 2017
Summary/Review:

Marcus Conway is a ghost.  On All Souls Day, he sits at the dinner table waiting for his family to return, and unspools a stream-of-concious monologue about this life written in a single sentence (this is the second single-sentence novel I’ve read recently!).  The single sentence isn’t as apparent in the audiobook – deftly narrated by Timothy Reynolds – but I do notice that he starts a phrase with “and” a lot, adding a certain rhythm to the prose.  Marcus talks about his own father’s death, his sometimes troubled relationship with his wife and children, and his work as a civic engineer.  Local politics also plays a big part of his story, from voting to a politicians thick-headed insistence on building a school that’s not structurally sound, to even the awful stomach virus that infects his community – including his wife – caused by bad sanitation.  Over time, Marcus unravels the details of his own death and comes to terms with his mortality.  The thing about this novel is that for all the experimental nature of its narrative, Marcus is a perfectly ordinary person doing ordinary things.  McCormack’s writing unveils the fascinating stories within the everyday person.

Recommended booksBeatlebone by Kevin Barry and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Rating: ****

Book Review: Doomi Golo : The Hidden Notebooks by Boubacar Boris Diop


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Senegal

Author: Boubacar Boris Diop
Title: Doomi Golo : The Hidden Notebooks
Translator: Vera Wülfing-Leckie, Moustapha Diop
Publication Info: East Lansing : Michigan State University Press, 2016.
Summary/Review:

Doomi Golo is written as a series of notebooks from the eccentric Nguirane Faye to his missing grandson Badou, who presumably will never see them.  Nguirane Faye weaves together tales of his everyday life with myths and fables and a history – albeit fictionalized – of Senegal. The novel is unique in being a rare work of fiction originally written in Wolof, the language of Senegal’s largest ethnic group, rather than the official language French. Boubacar Boris Diop also translated the novel into French from which this English translation was made.  It would be interesting to learn what differences in nuance exists in the prose of the three versions.  This is a good Around the World for a Good Book choice since it provides a good entry point into Senegalese life in culture.  That being said it was also a challenging book  and deserves a deep read.

Recommended booksThe Story of the Madman by Mongo Beti and A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Angola

Author: Jose Eduardo Agualusa
TitleA General Theory of Oblivion
Translator:  Daniel Hahn
Publication Info: London : Harvill Secker, [2015]
Summary/Review:

This book tells the story of Ludo, a Portuguese woman living in the Angolan capital of Luanda. When a revolution achieves independence for Angola in 1975, Ludo does not join the crowd of colonizers returning to Portugal, but instead bricks herself into a penthouse apartment, surviving on self-grown vegetables and trapped pigeons.  There she remains for 30 years, as Angola suffers Civil War and its original Leftist government falls to one more welcoming of capitalism.

The novel is written more as a series of vignettes, short chapters of sparse text reflecting the isolation of Ludo and other characters, physically and metaphorically.  There are other storylines in the novel outside Ludo’s apartment, which may be things that Ludo is aware from hearing out her window, or memories of earlier days, or just other people’s stories.  It’s never really clear.  And Ludo isn’t completely alone for 30 years as she has encounters with two other people over that time, one that goes poorly, and one much better, but I won’t spoil that here.

A General Theory of Oblivion is an interesting and challenging novel.  For Around the World for a Good Book purposes it also a good introduction to Angola’s history since independence.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Switzerland

Author: Peter Stamm
Title: To the Back of Beyond
Translator: Michael Hofmann
Publication Info: New York : Other Press, [2017]
Summary/Review:

A family returns from a vacation to their home in Switzerland, and after putting their kids to bed, the father and husband Thomas simply walks away from the house leaving his wife Astrid and two children behind.  The short novel alternates with scenes of Thomas hiking across the mountains and Astrid trying to continue her life and waiting for his return.  This is not the first book I’ve read about a man leaving his family behind which is apparently some male fantasy I don’t share.  It’s unclear if this book is intended as an indictment of toxic masculinity or a celebration. This is a well-written book, but not one I can really review because it depresses and infuriates me so much.

Recommended booksThe Cold Song by Linn Ullmann and The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: The Last Wolf  & Herman : The Game Garden, The Death of a Craft by László Krasznahorkai


Around the World for a Good Book Selection for Hungary
AuthorLászló Krasznahorkai
Title: The Last Wolf  & Herman : The Game Warden, The Death of a Craft
Translators: George Szirtes, John Batki
Publication Info: New York : New Directions Publishing Corporation, 2016.
Summary/Review:

This translated work by postmodern Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai contains two novellas or short stories. The Last Wolf is the story of a man telling a story in a bar about hunting the last wolf in Spain.  It’s written entirely in one loooooong sentence.  Herman is a story in two parts about a game warden tasked with trapping predators in the woods near a city who ends up going feral himself, trapping animals of all types, including domesticated animals.  “The Game Warden” portion is told from his perspective while “The Death of Craft” focuses on a group of young men and women traveling to the town and hearing the stories of Herman’s madness going on around them.  Both books focus on hunting and the animal nature within humanity. This is a challenging book to read, especially as an Around the World for a Good Book selection, because of it’s sparse narrative and experimental prose.

Recommended booksJerusalem by Goncalo M. Tavares and Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya
Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney


Author: Kathleen Rooney
TitleLillian Boxfish Takes a Walk
Narrator: Xe Sands
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

In this delightful first person-narrative, the octogenarian Lillian Boxfish celebrates New Year’s Eve 1984 in New York City goes to a bar,  dines out at Delmonico’s, drops in at a party of a pair of young artists, and faces down some potential muggers.  Lillian walks everywhere she goes amid the decay of 1980s Manhattan with the then current Subway Vigilante story a repeated warning of New York hitting bottom.  But Lillian’s charm and curiosity means that she consistently is meeting and engaging with ordinary people in meaningful conversations – bartenders, clerks, security guards, drivers, a mother-to-be going into labor, and yes, even would-be muggers. Despite the city’s flaws, she despises the suburbs, Lillian admires the city’s energy and the opportunity to take her walks.

Along her walk, Lillian reflects upon her life in New York, starting in the 1930s when she became a successful writer of advertising for R.H. Macy and a poet.  Eventually she marries and has a child, but the loss of her career and a troubled marriage lead to depression.  These autobiographical details are sprinkled well throughout Lillian’s walk and experiences.  For audiobook listeners, Xe Sands is terrific in capturing Lillian’s whimsical and thoughtful voice.

This book is a tribute to New York set at a transitional time that reflects on the city’s golden past and emerging future.  It’s also a portrait of a fascinating woman who may be ahead of her time, but I think Lillian Boxfish would say she was right on time.  Better yet, the novel is inspired by a real life person, Margaret Fishback.

Favorite Passages:

“…the suburbs had always seemed mealy and unresolved.  I understood that their in-between-ness — neither town nor country! — was supposed to be their very appeal, but I didn’t find it appealing.  I always wanted either to be in, or get away from the city, not just be close to the city. Were I off in the pastoral hills shingling my own roof or riding a horse, well then, what fun.  And were I catching a subway for a night at the opera, well then, hooray.  But in the suburbs I could enjoy none of those pursuits with ease.” – p. 185

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru


AuthorHari Kunzru
TitleWhite Tears
Narrators: Lincoln Hoppe, Danny Campbell, Dominic Hoffman
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

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 booksWelcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***

Book Review: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
TitleSt. 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
Summary/Review:

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 booksThe Minotaur Takes a Cigarette Break by Steven Sherrill and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Rating: ***

Book Review:  In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman A. Waberi


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Djibouti.

Author: Abdourahman A. Waberi
TitleIn the United States of Africa
Translator: David Ball, Nicole Ball
Publication Info: Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: **