Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
(Penguin Audio, 2013)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by Michael Boatman)

From Goodreads: "Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry's master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes he is a girl. 

Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War."


The Good Lord Bird won the 2013 National Book Award and is on the current Rooster Tournament of Books shortlist. It was practically the rule that I was going to like it. But I'm such a rebel; I don't abide by rules. I forge my own path! I strike out in my own direction! No one can make my decisions for me!

So here's my own, personal, not ordained take on McBride's novel: super. I so dug the narrative voice, the main character, the thematic elements, the humor. Surely this was in part due to Michael Boatman's narration, which was all about Onion's voice. He was very much on this crazy journey with Onion, from Kansas to West Virginia, through battles and life in campgrounds and reconnaissance at Harpers Ferry, to the eve of the raid and beyond. Boatman is so good at translating McBride's tone and dialect that I wonder if I'd have enjoyed the book so much in print. (I did look at the sample online, and can see why it would be hard to jump into cold, but as an oral experience, the whole thing just runs along like a clear fast stream.)

John Brown comes across as crazy (like a fox) and super charismatic; no matter how often Onion talks about striking out on his own, he's as caught up in Brown's plans as the rest of them. Part of this is the combination of youth and the inclination to stick with the devil you know, but part is that Onion is proud to be John Brown's good luck charm. And I love the way McBride handles Brown's vast store of superstition and omens: they very much inform the text, but they don't dominate it. It's easy to just ascribe it all to Brown's craziness, but all along, and without Onion particularly noting it, those beliefs prove important.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story by Diane Setterfield
(Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013)
Format: audio CD via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Jack Davenport)

From Goodreads: "Bellman & Black is a heart-thumpingly perfect ghost story, beautifully and irresistibly written, its ratcheting tension exquisitely calibrated line by line. Its hero is William Bellman, who, as a boy of 11, killed a shiny black rook with a catapult, and who grew up to be someone, his neighbours think, who 'could go to the good or the bad.' And indeed, although William Bellman's life at first seems blessed - he has a happy marriage to a beautiful woman, becomes father to a brood of bright, strong children, and thrives in business - one by one, people around him die. And at each funeral, he is startled to see a strange man in black, smiling at him. At first, the dead are distant relatives, but eventually his own children die, and then his wife, leaving behind only one child, his favourite, Dora. Unhinged by grief, William gets drunk and stumbles to his wife's fresh grave - and who should be there waiting, but the smiling stranger in black. The stranger has a proposition for William - a mysterious business called 'Bellman & Black'..."

Let's not begin any discussion of Setterfield without my urging you to check out The Thirteenth Tale, which I read before I started this blog, but which would have earned a lot of virtual space here. It was captivating and fun and adroit.

Bellman & Black is different. It unfolds at a slower pace, and dives into different concerns, and didn't make me impatient to get back to it. Which makes it different, but not bad. I still very much enjoyed Setterfield's tone and language and mastery of the trajectory of her story. It's a ghost story in a similar vein, I thought, to Sarah Waters's The Little Stranger; not very ghostly, but with a mysterious presence overseeing the action. Not a very meddlesome presence, in this case - almost more theoretical than real, and certainly anyone (with the possible exception of Bellman) could explain away Black's pseudo-presence. It was captivating, but in less of a race-through-it-and-go-back-immediately way. 

Bellman spoke to me. He's not someone you get to know deeply, but he's someone you observe closely. He's not sure, often, why he is driven as he is, but he's good at his work, smart, intuitive, gifted. It's hard to dislike Bellman, just as it's hard to relax with Bellman. He shows his love for his uncle, his mom, his wife, his kids by working as hard as he can to do benefit to them. (He's a lot like my dad.) (Except, I hope, for the being haunted by the rook who he killed as a lad part.) I was engrossed by the steps involved to set up Bellman & Black (the company) - the builders, the hiring of staff, the decisions about merchandise. (My company used to sell displays for funeral homes; we still have partial caskets laying around.) It all spoke to me, and made it all the easier to empathize with Bellman disappearing into the demands of his business to the exclusion of all else. He was, ultimately, a tragic character but a noble one.

Davenport's narration of Bellman & Black is fluid, with just a hint of creepiness edging the clarity. I liked his ability to access a fairy-tale place when the text called for it, without taking the whole book along for the ride.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Rooster Ten! The Tournament of Books is Back!

It's time! It's time! The Morning News's Tournament of Books Shortlist has been released!

Here it is:

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarc√≥n
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Hill William by Scott McClanahan
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
The Dinner by Herman Koch
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Son by Philipp Meyer
The Tuner of Silences by Mia Couto
Play-In Round:
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel

As all my loyal readers know, I've read six of these. (My non-loyal readers can figure it out by seeing that six of these have links to my reviews on this site.) (I don't have disloyal readers.) Of the six I've read, I'm delighted that each of them is in the tournament, as I very much liked them all, and found a lot 'discussable' about each. Hopefully the trend will continue as I delve into the other titles.

The first thing I did? Lots of chatter back and forth with my Goodreads group "The Rooster!", because oh, have we ever been awaiting this list. (The internet really does have every kind of community you could wish for, eh?) (Interested? - I will totally approve your request to join us.)

Second, I of course hit the search boxes on my library websites. Luckily, I was able to find most of the ones I hadn't read, so I will be powering through them in anticipation of the brackets coming out for this March-madness-style book tournament.

And third would be the reading. All the lovely, lovely reading. I'm so looking forward to it. Next up is Meyer's novel, which I've heard a million great things about. Could I possibly love it more than the Rowell or the Lahiri? Stay tuned, my friends. I'm sure to let you know.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Lowland

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
(Knopf / Books on Tape, 2013)
Format: audio via library (but I have a hardback, Mom, so I'll leave it on your desk for you) (narrated by Sunil Malhotra


From Goodreads: "Two brothers bound by tragedy; a fiercely brilliant woman haunted by her past; a country torn by revolution. A powerful new novel--set in both India and America--that explores the price of idealism and a love that can last long past death.

Growing up in Calcutta, born just fifteen months apart, Subhash and Udayan Mitra are inseparable brothers, one often mistaken for the other. But they are also opposites, with gravely different futures ahead of them. It is the 1960s, and Udayan--charismatic and impulsive--finds himself drawn to the Naxalite movement, a rebellion waged to eradicate inequity and poverty: he will give everything, risk all, for what he believes. Subhash, the dutiful son, does not share his brother's political passion; he leaves home to pursue a life of scientific research in a quiet, coastal corner of America.

But when Subhash learns what happened to his brother in the lowland outside their family's home, he comes back to India, hoping to pick up the pieces of a shattered family, and to heal the wounds Udayan left behind--including those seared in the heart of his brother's wife."


I first read Lahiri only recently, which is incredibly lax of me given how much I've heard about her over the years. Oh, good gracious is she an amazing crafter of words! Her characters! I want them all in my life; I want to console them and counsel them and make their lives stronger, sooner, so they don't have to endure all the lovely-to-read-about struggles that keep me in thrall as I encounter them. 

This touched me for so many reasons - the evocative picture of Subhash's life in Maine, Udayan's passion and youth and the irrevocable paths it sets him upon, Subhash's definition of himself in both conjunction and opposition to his brother (my sister is 14 months younger than me; I know all about how true a portrait of that sibling relationship was, especially as they were growing up.) Lahiri has a knack for going in unexpected directions with her narrative, but for those paths to feel absolutely integral to the characters and their situations. As much as I loved Subhash (I mean, seriously loved - what a deeply drawn guy), my moment of devastation came at the end, a flashback when Udayan is separated from his brother, and the lowland of the title is witness to some moments that define, well, everything else that happens in the book. It's just stunning.

Sunil Malhotra is perfect for this audio. I enjoyed him as Park in Eleanor & Park, but the adult voices suit his narrative style better. He has a steady, clear, almost wistful tone that really brought Subhash's point of view to life. It was a great listen, for a great book.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
(Touchstone, 2013)
Format: paper book, gift of my awesome niece. (I have six awesome nieces. But this is the one who knows me the best, and vice-versa. Note to my other five awesome nieces - and my four awesome nephews - feel free to come live with us for a few weeks, too, and you'll maybe - maybe - be able to knock her off her perch.)

From Goodreads: "This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative--like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it--but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. So I decided to just make a list of things that are in the book:

Pictures
Words
Stories about things that happened to me
Stories about things that happened to other people because of me
Eight billion dollars*
Stories about dogs
The secret to eternal happiness*

*These are lies. Perhaps I have underestimated my sneakiness!"


When this book was first out, in October 2013, I began hearing about it. Here, there, and soon, everywhere. And yet I didn't go out to get it, or even go explore Brosh's superb blog

I am a fool. Fortunately, my awesome niece is not a fool, so she gave it to me, and now I am a happy fool, and a convert to the cult of Brosh. If only for the all-too-familiar exploits of the Simple Dog and the Helper Dog, I would treasure this book, but Brosh also includes her work on Depression, which is so insightful and incisive it will change your thinking, and straight-up humor like Party, which caused facial muscle spasms due to my laughing so hard.