Book Review: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Song of Solomon
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009 [Originally published in 1977]
Other Books Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Song of Solomon is a novel I read a couple of times in college and is my favorite of Toni Morrison’s many masterpieces.  I feel unqualified to write about it, since Morrison’s used of words, world building, characterization, and storytelling are so terrific they are to describe.

The novel tells the life story of Macon Dead III, known by the nickname “Milkman,” and his journey of self-discovery.  Milkman comes from a prosperous African American family in an unnamed Michigan city.  His father, Macon, owns lots of real estate, and his mother, Ruth, is the daughter of the city’s only African American doctor.

Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives on the other side of the tracks and is a bootlegger and something of a mysterious figure who was born without a navel. Despite Macon’s alienation from his sister, Milkman begins visiting Pilate and establishing more of a link with his family past.  He also begins a long-term sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar.  Milkman is also contrasted with his older, more world friend Guitar who is part of a secret organization of men who kill white people in retaliation for racial murders of blacks.

Milkman begins a southward journey, opposite of the Great Migration occurring at the same time the novel is set, ostensibly to follow the trail of some gold his father and Pilate once found. In reality, Milkman is finding connections to his past and his people. First, he visits the real town of Danville, Pennsylvania where his grandfather was murdered by white people and his father and Pilate had to flee for his safety. Then he continues to the fictional town of Shalimar, where Milkman pieces together his family history to enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The ending of this book is both tragic and triumphant.  I was surprised that there were scenes in this book that stuck in my memory perfectly over 25 years.  Although there was also a lot of the book I’d forgotten. The novel remains one of my all time favorite books.

Favorite Passages:

“I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Rating: *****

Movie Review: Like Water for Chocolate (1992)


I’m participating in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge by watching and reviewing some of my favorite movies of all time that I haven’t watched in a long time. This post contains SPOILERS!

Title: Like Water for Chocolate
Release Date: April 16, 1992
Director: Alfonso Arau
Production Company: Miramax
Synopsis:

A friend of mine said that watching this movie made her “hungry and horny at the same time.” That’s a good summary of the magical realistic comedy-drama based on the novel by Laura Esquivel.

In the early 20th century, in northeastern Mexico, Tita (Lumi Cavazos) grows up with the knowledge that her family tradition expects her as the youngest daughter to never marry.  Instead, her strict Mama Elena (Regina Torné) expects Tita to care for her in her old age on their family ranch. Tita learns the art of cooking from the elderly family cook, Nacha (Ada Carrasco).

When Tita and a young man named Pedro (Marco Leonardi) form a mutual attraction, Mama Elena rejects his marriage proposal.  Instead he marries Tita’s eldest sister Rosaura (Yareli Arizmendi) since it will allow him to be close to Tita.  Tita’s emotions are magically transferred into the meals she cooks leading to incidents such as everyone at Rosaura and Pedro’s wedding feeling the sadness of lost love and later when Pedro gives her roses and everyone feels arousal.

The movie takes place over several decades as Tita and Pedro need to hide their forbidden love and Tita stands up to her mother.  The movie is framed by Tita’s grand-niece in the present day narrating the story around the recipes in Tita’s cookbook.

When Did I First See This Movie?:

I saw it at the local arthouse cinema around the time it came out.

What Did I Remember?:

I remembered three details clearly:

  • a naked woman running from a burning outhouse and jumping on a horse with a soldier.
  • a woman trailing a very long blanket behind a horse-drawn carriage.
  • the special ingredient in her cooking is love.

What Did I Forget?:

Pretty much everything else.

What Makes This Movie Great?:

This movie strikes the right balance of magical, comical, and dramatic.  It explores a lot of issues through a whimsical story such as family, tradition, and gender.

What Doesn’t Hold Up?:

Considering that this movie features a women-lead cast with men as side characters, depicts Mama Elena as a strong woman running a remote ranch on her own, and offers Tita as a more compassionate alternate version of strong womanhood, I’d say that it was ahead of its time in many ways.  It still feels very fresh to me event though the story took place over 100 years ago.

Is It a Classic?:

Yes, I think so.

Rating: ****

5 more all-time favorite movies starting with L:

  1. Laura (1944)
  2. Lifeboat (1944)
  3. The Little Mermaid (1989)
  4. Living with Pride: Ruth Ellis @ 100 (1999)
  5. Lost in La Mancha (2002)

What is your favorite movie starting with L?  Any guesses for my M movie (Hint: it features a great quest)? Let me know in the comments.

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: ***

Podcasts of the Week Ending June 23


Another week of audio delight for my earbuds.

The Truth :: Fish Girl

A tale of a girl and her friendship with a puffer fish.

Have You Heard? :: A La Carte: School Choice, Segregation and Gentrification in an Unequal City

Interview with Carla Shedd on how the “school choice” movement is undermining public education while promoting segregation and inequality.

Book Review: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger


Author:  Audrey Niffenegger
TitleThe Time Traveler’s Wife
Narrator: ‎ Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole
Publication Info: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Summary/Review:

It’s worthwhile to sometimes go back and reread one of the books that made my list of Favorite Books of All Time.  It’s been 14 years since I’ve read this book, and I’ll append my original review at the end of this post.

A lot of the things that made me love this book in the first place are still quite appealing.  I love stories of time travel, and that this one has a protagonist whose travel through time is uncontrollable and unexplained makes an interesting twist and creates a great structure for the book.  I also like that he’s a librarian who likes punk rock, because you know, that’s like me.  There were a number of things I forgot from my previous reading as well, most importantly Kimmy, Henry’s childhood landlady who acts a surrogate mother and is an absolutely wonderful character I’ll never forget again. Having become a fan of Doctor Who in recent years, it’s interesting to revisit this book and see how it influenced the story of River Song and the Doctor.

Of course, there are a lot of creepy things about this book, such as an adult man visiting his future wife as a child and establishing a relationship with her (arriving naked to boot).  I do credit Niffenegger for taking a direct approach to these uncomfortable issues rather than shying away from it.  Another thing I realize now that I must’ve been clueless about as a younger reader is that it plays with the romance novel genre as well.  But that’s one of the things that keeps this on my favorite books is that it works on so many levels, science fiction and fantasy, realism and magic, romance and for lack a better term “manliness.”

The voice performances of Fred Berman and Phoebe Strole as Henry and Claire add a lot to this audiobook version of the book as well.

Ok, here’s my short review from 2004:

This book reads almost as if Jasper Fforde took a serious turn. Almost. Complements to Niffenegger for adroitly managing the timeline, both in the story world and how she presents it to the reader. I also admire that she made Henry real by not always having him likable. Yet you can sympathize with him for what he has to do to survive with his chronological problems. I find it interesting that he travels in both time and in space, yet he never seems to travel too far from Chicago or Clare’s childhood home. Curious also that he always bounces back to the “present,” never jumping onward to another time or just staying there for a long time. But I’m quibbling, not with the book, but with the thoughts that occur as I ruminate this brilliant novel. Over 500 pages and I read this in less than a day.

Recommended books:

Time and Again by Jack Finney, Q : a novel by Evan J. Mandery, Every Day by David Levithan, and The Little Book by Selden Edwards

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: ****

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker


Author: Helene Wecker
TitleThe Golem and the Jinni
Narrator: George Guidall
Publication Info: Blackstone Audiobooks (2014)
Summary/Review:

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 booksThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton


Author:  Leslye Walton
TitleThe Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Publication Info:  Somerville, MA : Candlewick Press, 2014.
Summary/Review:

This is a story about a girl born with wings. The novel details three generations of her family’s life filled with heartbreak, tragedy, and little touches of magical realism on every page. It’s basically what would happen if Laura Esquivel or Isabel Allende were transported to the Pacific Northwest.  While the quirkiness can get overbearing at times, this is an engaging story with a lyric beauty. And while the climax is horrific, the finale is optimistic.

Recommended booksSong of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel and Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Rating: ****

Book Review: Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
Title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Narrator: Arthur Morey, Mark Bramhall, Jesse Bernstein, Michael Bybee, Kaleo Griffith, Joy Osmanski
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2013
Summary/Review:
This collection of short stories is hard to describe. Not really science fiction, not really fanatasy, not really horror, maybe magical realism, definitely weird stories. Sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling we meet a variety of interesting characters: vampires who realize that sucking blood does nothing so they suck lemons instead, young Japanese women indentured to make silk with their own bodies, a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate the life of a veteran through his back tattoo, and a guide writer for fans of the whale vs. krill “games” in Antarctica. The stories are all clever and well-written. And each story is matched up with a perfect narrator.

Rating: ***

Book Review: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Colombia
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Title: One Hundred Years of Solitude
Translator: Gregory Rabassa
Narrator: John Lee
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio (2014) (originally published 1967)
ISBN: 9781482939682
Other books read by the same author: Love in the Time of Cholera
Summary/Review:

I always find it difficult to review a book that is a recognized classic.  What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before.  I enjoyed this book a lot, and I was surprised it was so funny (it was meant to be funny, I hope?), at least parts of it.  I also couldn’t keep track of all the characters but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that is not as vital as the story of the town of Macondo itself with its sleepless sickness, civil wars with civil generals (but gruesome executions), and endless rain.  There’s also the books style and use of words and imagery that set it apart from your typical novel.  This novel is also rich in symbolism encapsulating an alternate history of Colombia.

So there you have it, my very short and very dumb review of a classic work of literature.  Here’s all you need to know: read it!
Favorite Passages:

“Fernanda was scandalized that she did not understand the relationship of Catholicism with life but only its relationship with death, as if it were not a religion but a compendium of funeral conventions.”

“Literature was the best plaything that had ever been invented to make fun of people.”

Recommended booksThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende, Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel, Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa
Rating: ***1/2