Homeland Elegies ~ by Ayad Akhtar

Nice book.  Beautifully written.  Interesting story with major themes wound all through it.  
I guess this is a fictionalized memoir.  It takes the shape of Akhtar’s life but anyone who seriously mistakes it for a straight memoir is missing some parts.  The first section, “Overture: To America” is probably straight.  

*******
Homeland Elegies
by Ayad Akhtar
2020 / 344 pages
Read by the author: 10h 19m
Rating: 9.5 / contemp US
*******

In several ways it reminds me of some of Salman Rushdie’s work. (This is a good thing.) “We are all mongrels.”  

Ayad is an American born of Palestinian immigrants who has a hard time feeling “at home” in the US.  For most of the novel, he’s on his way to becoming an award winning writer. His parents are both medical doctors.  But although he was born and raised here, Ayad doesn’t feel like at home in America. He doesn’t say this is the fault of the native white Americans. The way he understands it, his alienation is his own fault.  He thinks of and refers to himself as being Palestinian – an outsider.  That’s part of the main theme.  

Other parts are how his parents think of themselves as being so honored to be here but how he, Ayad, feels cheated.  (I think that’s pretty common for the immigrant generation to be grateful for the US and their children to feel cheated by not getting the whole “American Dream.”). 

And what is American?  Oh Akhtar opines for awhile on that one.  Perhaps it’s financial debt – he riffs on that a lot from his own debt to an auto mechanic to the transnational corporate regimes who operate unilaterally without anyone even voting.  And then there’s the matter of the stock market and short-selling with small towns being the victims.  

And it’s about families, especially fathers – one obnoxious father in particular – heh.  

There’s a bunch of sex in here, too – as I suppose would be appropriate in the memoir of a successful single male in his early 40s living in New York in the 1980s and ‘90s.  But his Muslim mother and morés are always just under the surface.  

Religion, usually in the form of Muslim vs Christian, comes up again and again -never for long – some of this is really well done.    

And of course 9/11 is covered,  Ayad was in New York at the time, on the streets, so that gets some play – he, his friends and his family were suddenly both suspects and victims. 

And Akhtar includes some economics and Black economics and Black rights and Black artists.  Actually, there’s a lot of economics as theme.
 
And there are scams and scandals sprinkled through as well – even a touch of the dark side. 

Akhtar meanders and drifts to the point he makes this tale a rather baggy, shaggy thing, but I really thoroughly enjoyed it.  

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3565413568

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Nothing to See Here ~ by Kevin Wilson

This is a strange book but if you can suspend your disbelief and accept that two kids spontaneously combust and then go with the flow of the story, you’re home.  It’s a really good book,  fun with a definite point to make.  (Yes.)

*******
Nothing to See Here
By Kevin Wilson 
2019 / 277 pages
Read by Martin Ireland 6h 40m
Rating:  9 / contemporary fiction 
*******

Lillian and Madison are best friends from private school days where Madison’s family pays her whole way and Lillian is a scholarship student.  They’re roommates and both love basketball and are both kind of weird, or so they self-describe. Madison’s father pays  Lillian to covers for Madison when Madison pulls something more than a stunt and is asked to leave the school.  A few years later Madison needs a favor from Lillian and asks her to be nanny to her two stepchildren whose mother has died.  There’s one twist – the kids catch fire and burn, spontaneously.  (Got that?)  

Madison is now the wife of a US Senator who has great potential and the mother of his third child.  It’s the Senator’s first two children who have problems with spontaneous combustion and their mother is deceased.  So the kids come to live with Madison and the Senator in their mansion outside of Nashville.  And Lillian is hired to care for them.   

This book deals with all the relationships; how Lillian manages her charges and how Carl, the Senator’s personal assistant, deals with the the situation,  and how rich-girl Madison deals with life and the Senator in his predicament.  There are more ways of responding/reacting and everyone has a different way.  

I loved the book.  No, it’s not the finest writing but there’s something about the story and characters that’s real.  The plot, with kids catching fire, may seem bizarre but that’s not the point – nor is the reason for their catching fire.  The point is how are the other characters responding and what works? Why? What do people care about?   I’m looking forward to more books by Kevin Wilson.

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10 Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World ~ by Fareed Zakaria x2

I read this last month for the All-Nonfiction reading group which discussed it this month so I read it again.  It is good but not exactly what I expected but maybe I should have.  

*******
Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World 
by Fareed Zakaria 
2020 / 308 pages, inc notes
Read by author – 7h 24m
Rating – 8.75 / politics and gov’t
*******

Zakaria is a journalist for CNN and a political author who specializes in foreign affairs and  American issues.  He likes talking politics as well as history and economics.  Medicine and technology are not really his fields of expertise although he’s very smart.  

So the book is more about the pandemic in terms of government response, financial markets, experts, and other things.  It’s not about how our lives will change but about how maybe our “systems” should change to meet the felt demand.  

He writes nicely and is generally well organized although he does digress.  I think the title was catchy and worked as an organizing principle so it stuck. But it feels more like 10 general issues connected to the pandemic than a list of things we really can learn.  He’s best in the chapter on how globalization is affected – this is big, imo, but that’s his specialty.  

Anyway – as usual I got more out of a second reading.  🙂 It’s a good book but don’t expect real answers.  

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Lizard ~ by Banana Yoshimoto

This book is not one of the several books Yashimoto is noted for but it is definitely a worthy addition to her oeuvre.  It’s comprised of 6 seemingly light and elegant short stories dealing  how young middle class urban singles in Japan of the 21st century find and love healing, while breaking away from a society of conformity and high expectations.

Lizard 
by Banana Yoshimoto   
1995 – 129 pages HC
(Translated by Ann Sherif) 
Read by Emily Zeller – 3h 34m
Rating:  8.75 / short stories 

The second and last stories really caught my attention.  In Lizard, the second story, the male 1st person narrator, a therapist, falls in love with a young autistic woman, an acupuncturist, with special healing powers.  His approach to her and their opening up to each other are very sensitively told.  

The last story, “A Strange Tale from Down by the River,” is about a young woman who has been running away from a difficult past and has found love but the man here has problems, too.  

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Ready Player Two ~ by Ernest Cline (DNF)

** DNF means Did Not Finish **

Ready Player One was great – actually that’s why I checked this one out when I saw it available at the library and found the sample to be fine. But still,  I had not read good things about it.

Ready Player Two 
by Ernest Cline 
2020 / 371 pages
Read by Will Wheaton 13h 46m
Rating;  DNF –

So at first glance I was pleasantly surprised by how compelling it seemed.  So okay, Cline writes well and Wheaton is excellent with the narration. It starts out as a fairly good book. And then it slides. I understand it was the unplanned sequel to an amazing book, Ready, Player One, which I loved. WHich was made into a pretty good movie (I understand). But to me, this second helping seems seriously marred by the over-attachment of the author to the video games and movies of the 1980s.   Those are, unfortunately, two big strikes against it.  

In Ready Player One (2011) Wade Watts,  our first person hero, wins the big computer game contest and gets all the fame and fortune he ever wanted.  But as is revealed in Book 2, the winnings include a huge techie change to the world and a new riddle with a new prize for the winner. These are “game changers” for reals.  

Too bad –  when, at about halfway through, the movie Pretty in Pink became the latest 1980s cultural relic to be mentioned I caved, closed the book and said to myself – it’s a DNF, write it up and don’t count it because you just can’t finish this.  

Will Wheaton does a great job of narrating the book, but a good reader only goes so far… .  

Fwiw, I was 38 years old in 1986 and I don’t think I ever saw that movie as if I’d even remember, because that was 35 years ago and not in my impressionable youth.  

I have rarely not finished books I’ve started, but I usually purchase my books. I ‘ve just started using the library for whatever I can find there. I have been delighted with some but this time I was appalled and am really glad I didn’t pay money for it and don’t feel compelled to finish.

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Convenience Store Woman ~ Sayaka Murata

Omg – Wow!  I really didn’t expect much from this book, but half way through I found myself entranced by the story as well as by the first person narrator, Keiko Furukura.  When the book first came out it sat on my wish list for several months before I finally gave up on having time and chucked it out. Just lately it turned up in the “Free with Membership” (Premium Plus) part of the Audible site.  Okay – I put it in my this time and it sat there for another several days.  

Convenience Store Woman 
by Sayaka Murata 
*Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori *
2018 – 176 pages (hc)
Read by Nancy Wu 3h 22m
Rating:  9.25  / contemporary Japanese 

Today, having finished House Arrest by Mike Lawson, (I need to read more of his books) I finally picked out Convenience Store Woman and started listening.  I was enchanted, enmeshed.  I don’t know why that didn’t happen with the sample but … right timing is important.  

When I got about 1/2 way I started looking for the info about the book, translator and pages and stuff like that.  Omg, I knew it was short but I didn’t know it had so many rave reviews until I looked at the Amazon site for it (not reading the reviews just seeing them there).  Wow!   It’s validating when you find that a book you’re really appreciating gets rave reviews from so many professionals – Google it yourself.    🙂 

Anyway,  there’s a 1st person,  Keiko Furukura, telling the story of her life.  She was born to average parents in Japan, but it seems she had some problems and people thought her a bit strange.  She sometimes didn’t understand what people meant when they spoke, so when her playmates screamed “Stop it!” to a boy who was harassing them, she bonked him on the head with a spade – and that stopped him.  In school she did a couple of similarly unacceptable things, but then she really tried to fit in.  After she finished high school she found a part time job at a brand new convenience store – (think 7/11) and a very small place to live on her own.  

The main thing about Keiko is that she loves her job and the convenience store itself.  The story unfolds and Keiko develops and has problems. It seems the world, and Japanese families in particular, have expectations of people and Keiko isn’t living up to them at all. (But this is NOT The Vegetarian by Han Kang!)

This book is so much fun – different and refreshing.  The book isn’t exactly up-beat, but it’s warm and friendly and as such makes an excellent break from the current negative left-overs of life in 2020.  It does turn serious after awhile, there is a theme which unfolds and a message of sorts.   At only 176 pages or 3+ hours you can easily do this in a day.
https://groveatlantic.com/book/convenience-store-woman/

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House Arrest ~ Mike Lawson

Quite an enjoyable thriller.  

*******
House Arrest 
by Mike Lawson
Read by Joe Barrett 8h 26m
Rating – B+ / 
*******


“As Congressman John Mahoney’s fixer, Joe DeMarco has had to bend and break the law more than a few times.  But when Representative Lyle Canton, House Majority Whip, is found shot dead in his office in the U.S. Capitol and DeMarco is arrested for the murder, DeMarco knows he’s been framed. Locked up in the Alexandria Jail awaiting trial, he calls on his enigmatic friend Emma, an ex-DIA agent, to search for the true killer.

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Conviction ~ by Denise Mina

I’ve read with enjoyment several prior novels by Denise Mina. This one was recommended by someone in a mystery book group and it’s a stand alone novel. 

*******
Conviction
by Denise Mina
2018/
Read by Cathleen McCarron 9h/46m
Rating:  A / crime thriller 

*******

Conviction starts slow and then gets convoluted with back story and then turns into a page-turning thriller while the reader tries to unwind the coils of threads.  Generally happy, the young, married- with-children Anna McLean is sitting in the kitchen of her suburban Glasgow home.  She’s listening to her favorite true crime podcast with her morning coffee when she’s startled plum out of her wits when she realizes that this time, with this crime, she knows the people involved!  OMG!   (But what does that mean to the reader?  –  Good questions – we read to find out exactly.) 

It seems that several years prior a luxury yacht exploded in a Scottish bay.  On it were Leon Parker and his two teenage children and no one else – no staff, nothing.  The absent chef was convicted but that’s only 10% of the story because #1 – he didn’t do it and #2 -who is Anna McLean anyway, to be remembering all this and apparently running away from her own past involving this crime?   
And! In Anna’s present, just that very morning,  her husband is leaving her for the neighbor lady, Anna’s best friend.  To make matters worse the neighbor lady’s husband has come over to Anna’s house.  Which would be bad enough except that Anna has come unwound by the realization that someone is going to recognize her and come after her due to the explosion she was in some way a part of. The two leave town together.  

And the rest of the book is a whirlwind chase with building tension and danger.  Mina puts her superb wordsmithery and wry humor on display just right.   Enjoy! 

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Winter Counts ~ by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Okay – I finally really finished The Ministry for the Future and wrote up a review.  Then I read a chapter in 10 Lessons for a Post-pandemic World by Fareed Zakaria because the All-nonfiction Reading Group is discussing it. Then I picked up A Promised Land, Barack Obama’s memoir and read another chapter there.  Finally I got to Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden which I’d picked up on sale.

*******
Winter Counts 
by David Heska Wanbli Weiden 
2021
Read by Darrell Dennis 8h 17m
Rating –  B / crime (Native American)

*******

I expected an average crime novel taking place on a reservation similar to what I’ve read quite a lot of prior but this was far more imbued with Native American customs and lore.  It gets very violent toward the end (be warned).
 
It takes place on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota where drugs have made unfortunate inroads and private investigators have to do law enforcement when the federal system doesn’t work.  The fictional Virgil Wounded Horse is just such private detective who, when his nephew seems to be caught up in the problem, gets involved more deeply than he has prior.  

There is a lot of accurate reporting mixed into the story. 

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The Ministry for the Future ~ by Kim Stanley Robinson

Aaaahhhhh….. what a fine, fine book!  Omg!  This might be the best book I’ve read so far this year (but it’s only February so … ).    I started this book maybe a week ago and was hooked almost immediately.  It’s complex and dense in many ways and although I read quite a ways in there came a point where I knew I was missing something. There was some complexity I had missed.  Then I was a little more than 100 pages from the end (77 – 80%?) and I realized that I wasn’t going to really understand the ending if I kept going like this.  So I started over.  

*******
The Ministry for the Future 
by Kim Stanley Robinson 
2020/ 
Read by a cast
Rating –   A+ / climate fiction / futurist
*******

This time I was very satisfied.  I found where I’d gotten confused and missed something (there was more than one place!) and just kept going with my head nicely straightened out.  This time I was taking brief chapter notes and that helped me stay focused.  There are long stretches of information and meditative type narrative broken by the more plot oriented stories of the characters.  There are two basic characters, Frank and Mary,  whose individual stories intertwine.  

But the rest of the novel is mostly comprised of the monologues of various anonymous characters who tell us about their thoughts and lives. These are mostly short chapters and 106 chapters altogether. Most characters only appear one time but there are a few who reappear. The monographs of some characters are like stories, others are more meditative. And some characters are unlikely – they include a microbe and a phonton and a mammal, etc. They are beautifully done, very nicely arranged and the author uses them for a variety of functions.

Overall and very generally the book is about how our world today could get thrust and twisted and pushed and pulled and forged and fashioned into a new world of a peace and prosperity for all, top to bottom, with the earth and all its living parts participating. In other words, how we could become utopia.  This is one author’s very intelligently imagined detailing of what that struggle might look like.
 
The revolution works via serious enforcement of the Paris Agreement and all that would entail. This enforcement starts after several serious climate disasters.  The Ministry for the Future is instrumental in developing the program which affects all people all over the world.  The head of this ministry is Mary, from Ireland.  She has a committee which comes up with ideas and presents them to the various countries.

It gets a bit fantastical in some of the middle section chapters and some parts at the end are dragged out.  

 I’ve read in the reviews that there’s a lot of hard science in this book as well as real economics along with some nicely researched social and historical material.  
I want to mention that the audible version is fabulous with a large cast for the many little chapters and points-of-view.  

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The Survivors ~ by Jane Harper

I so looked forward to this book.  I totally enjoyed both of Harper’s priors, The Dry and The Lost Man.  Those were terrific and I loved the settings, characters, the plots and the tension.  So the day The Survivors came out, Feb 2,  I was downloading.  

The Survivors 
by Jane Harper (Australia)
 2/2021 – 
Read by Stephen Shanahan 11h 57m
Rating A+ / crime suspense

First impressions?  Alas – the reader’s accent is so thick I was mistaking Kieran for Karen.  And Ash sounded  like the nickname for Ashley, a girl.  Wrong. To add insult to injury,  the Prologue doesn’t give names and it’s only a fore-taste of something which happens much later in the book – it’s not really a Prologue.  But Chapter 1 suddenly has about 8 characters at a restaurant and getting through Chapters 2 and 3 things seemed to get worse as the 8 were interacting.  I kept reading but nothing  cleared up.  At Chapter 7 someone is killed and to prevent further confusion, when I got to Chapter 8 I just started over.  This was still only about 10% – not bad.  
 Anyway,  in the second go at it I took out a yellow pad and started scribbling character names as I came across them, along with a tidbit of interesting information about them.  

Kieran, age 30 and Mia have a new baby named Audrey and they have come home to a tiny town in  Tasmania to see his parents and their old friends.  Kieran’s parents are Verity and Bruce Elliott.  Bruce has dementia and is about to go into a home. Ash an old friend of Kieran’s, is a bachelor boy who seems to flirt a lot – he runs a landscape business.  Olivia is a waitress and a friend of the group, housemates with Bronte who is also a waitress but from out of the area.  Then there’s Liam who is a youngish cook at that restaurant and also works part time for Ash.  He tells Bronte that Kieran is a killer and killers deserve what they get.  Chapter 4 introduces Sean, another good friend, a travel guide, and the housemate of Ash.  There are other characters but those are the main ones. 

So the friends, Ash, Kieran, Mia, Sean, and Olivia are at this seaside restaurant, talking and catching up while Liam and Bronte (neither of whom are part of the old clique from high school) are in the kitchen talking. Kieran overhears this and is very uncomfortable.  “It was the day of the storm…”  It seems everyone knows that Kieran killed Liam’s father (Sean’s brother) as well as his own brother. Few people hold grievances but Liam is unforgiving. 

Later that night a body is found on the beach.  – okay – Now I felt I needed to know who was who!  

The narrative goes back and forth between the old days, a decade prior, and the present.  I wouldn’t say it alternates because there’s not that much order to it.  It just drifts back and forth with the memories of the group.  The title has several meanings or references.

The characters are pretty well drawn if you read carefully.  The setting is well done but it’s not The Dry.  The story is wonderfully well plotted but it takes time to grow into its own.  I stayed up very late last night finishing this  It has a great ending.   

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Just Mercy ~ by Bryan Stevenson

Except for the last couple chapters, I was kind of disappointed in this.  I know it’s a classic now but I think that’s because of the movie version.  I don’t watch movies.  That said, the book won a bunch of awards for the book and its author and the movie won some more.  So my disappointment is probably more a statement about me and my proclivities right now.  (“Justice and Redemption” are always good things to learn!) 

*****

Just Mercy:
A Story of Justice and Redemption
by Bryan Stevenson 
2014
read by author
Rating:  7.5 / true crime – memoir

*******

The book (I don’t know about the film) is a memoir and although McMillian’s story is central, there is a lot of other material in it; children in adult courts and jails for crimes considered to be adult; police and courts which are essentially rigged by racist attitudes and a lot of white anger; the treatment of women in society and in jails. The jails seem to all be in the South but some of the laws are allowed by the US as a whole,  fwiw.  

This book is an indictment of Southern law enforcement from cops to juries (“polite society”) and on the archaic notion of life-imprisonment (or worse) for children.  The death penalty in relation to the poor and African American of our society and is more than touched on.   Long term solitary confinement continues, unfortunately. (And the Black community itself is not without sin – touched on in the last couple chapters.) 

Stevenson, the author, started the legal aid group “Equal Justice Initiative” which continues to be his main concern and their early cases are the basis for the book.  Life sentences for 14-year olds is now against the law in the US.

I very much enjoy true crime but that’s not really what this is. It’s more like a legal memoir  with some Black history and sociology thrown in.  Also, it’s basically about a decade old.  I just couldn’t get into it.  The author reading his own material might have been part of the problem.  I’m sure the movie was great but it too would be dated – and that’s important with a subject like this because what it’s trying to do is to raise awareness and protest but for the protest part to happen the events described have to be more current.  

Wiki gives the book and its reception much better treatment because they work with the times.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_Mercy_(book)

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