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