Sing Unburied Sing – by Jesmyn Ward

“Sing Unburied Sing ” is a brilliantly evocative novel about race, family, love and addiction, with a touch of magic realism and spiritualism.

Thirteen year old Jojo and his sister, Kayla, live with their mother, Leonie, their Father, Michael and their grandparents, Pop and Mam. Jojo (Joseph) and Kayla (Michaela) have never met their paternal grandparents, even though they live in close proximity. Grandfather Joseph will not accept them.

We first meet Jojo on his birthday, when Pap takes him out to slaughter a goat and Jojo becomes physically ill from the experience. Jojo’s mother, whom he calls Leonie, returns from a drug riddled outing with a pathetic little cake made for a baby shower and very little else. Jojo’s father, whom he calls Michael, calls from prison to say he is being released in a week (but notably not to wish happy birthday to his son).

Early in the novel, Pap explains to Jojo that “there’s spirit in everything. In the trees, in the moon, in the sun, in the animals…But you need all of them, all of that spirit in everything, to have balance.” Jojo and Leonie have a sense of spirituality. Jojo has the ability to understand the animals and the spiritual quality to see and converse with ghosts. Leonie can see and converse with her dead brother, Given, but only when she is high (which is a lot of the time). Mam can heal with herbs and plants based solely on her sense of what works. However, unfortunately, during the course of the book Mam is dying of cancer and even her skill cannot save her.

After Jojo’s lackluster birthday, much of the balance of the book is the trip that Leonie, Jojo, Kayla and Leonie’s friend, Misty take to pick up Michael from prison and to return home. Michael is incarcerated at Parchman, coincidentally enough the same prison where Pap was imprisoned years earlier simply for being his brother’s brother. In those days Parchman was especially brutal and the best days consisted of physical labor. While in Parchman, Pap met a boy even younger than he by the name of Richie. Richie suffered more than most while in Parchman.

The story moves back and forth between the trip to and from Parchman, Pap’s experience in Parchman and recollections of Richie, and Jojo’s experiences. The story is told in part by Leonie, in part by Jojo, with interludes from Richie.

Throughout the lengthy drive to Parchman, we get a good sense of the relationship between Leonie and her children. Leonie’s parental emotions and behaviors are complex, moving from love to hatred to violence to jealousy. Jojo appears to be more of a parent to Kayla than Leonie or Michael. Leonie and Misty spend a great deal of time high, yet Leonie’s attitude toward the people they encounter on the trip is one of superiority, suspicion and disdain. After Michael is released, they go to his parent’s house to introduce his parents to their grandchildren but the introduction does not go well.

The characters in this novel are complex. It is a story of intense emotion and conflict, both internal and external. Ward does an excellent job of evoking all of these emotions without telling you how to feel. This is the second good novel I have read in 2017 and you should read it too! You will be able to reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Stay With Me – by Ayobami Adebayo

“Stay With Me” starts out strong. Yejide and Akin are Nigerian, young, in love and newly married. There is an immense amount of family pressure on them to have a child but Yejide is unable to get pregnant. She even goes so far as to climb the Mountain of Jaw-Dropping Miracles, where she is part of a ceremony with a goat and is guaranteed she will become pregnant.

Both families constantly interfere. At one point, Yejide even talks herself into being pregnant. But after 4 years of marriage and no baby Akin does the unthinkable, and takes a second wife. “I was barren and my husband took another wife.” Things go rapidly downhill from there – both in the marriage and in the quality of the novel.

Yejide runs a beauty salon and Akin is a successful banker and they are financially successful. Yejide does ultimately become pregnant, three times, but there are significant costs associated with those pregnancies. The book is told in part from Yejide’s perspective and in part from Akin’s perspective. After all is said and done, both Akin and Yejide question the sacrifices they made in order to have children. “I no longer believed that having a child was equal to owning the world.”

The novel devolves into a horror story. The characters are miserable, their deceptions are diabolical and everyone (especially the reader) suffers. Throughout the novel there are interesting interludes about the political climate in Nigeria, but these interludes are simply not enough to offset the misery of the story and the torment that is the characters’ lives. The novel was short listed for the Bailey’s Prize, so obviously not everyone agrees with me. On the plus side, the novel is blessedly short. You can reserve the book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

A Horse Walks into a Bar – by David Grossman

A Horse Walks into a Bar is the story of Dov Greenstein’s stand-up routine, showcasing one evening in Netanya Israel. It would not be at all accurate to portray Dov’s routine as comedy.

The novel begins with Dov taking the stage and immediately insulting his audience. Pretending to believe he was in the city of Caesara, he exclaims “‘Oh, wait a minute…this isn’t Caesara, is it?…Looks like my agent f****d me again.'” The audience roars with laughter.

The routine continues along the line of insults and jokes and the energy waxes and wanes. Dov’s childhood friend, Avishai Lazar, a retired District Court Judge, is in the audience at Dov’s urging. Dov and Avishai have not seen each other since Dov was 14. Dov is now 57. Peculiarly, and not at Dov’s urging, a short woman from Dov’s childhood is also in the audience. Her presence seems to unsettle him and throws his routine into unexpected and extremely personal territory as he progressively seems to unravel on stage.

Dov and Avishai were lonely children who found each other through a math tutor. Dov kept Avishai amused and engaged, but as it turned out, Avishai did not know much about Dov at all. Avishai learns what he did not know through the very personal on stage routine that evening and ponders the reaction of the audience to the story. “I have no doubt they would have gotten up and left long ago, or even booed him off the stage, if not for the temptation that is so hard to resist–the temptation to look into another man’s hell.”

Through Dov’s routine, Avishai muses about his life and his relationship to Dov. Although resistant to attend the show, and tempted to leave throughout, Avishai stays and finds an unexpected empathy with Dov. The routine ends in exhaustion.

The book describes the comedian’s ability to manipulate the audience and the changing moods of the audience in a way that makes the reader feel the changes. But the book is less about stand-up comedy and the fickleness of audiences than it is about Dov’s personal story and the complexities and politics of life in Israel.

The book is thoughtful and expresses emotion in a way that makes you feel the experience along with the characters. The novel won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize and is a worthwhile, rewarding read. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Forest Dark – by Nicole Krauss

“…in Israel no one can ever agree on the way the world appears, and despite the violence of the never-ending argument, the basic admittance of discord had always been a relief to me.”

Forest Dark is about two very different people, completely unconnected, searching for some sense of something in Israel. Jules Epstein, a wealthy, loud, opinionated and boorish retired lawyer, is recently divorced. He is struggling with who he is, the personalities of his children and what comes next. “On the eve of the first anniversary of his parents’ death. Epstein decided two things: to take out a $2 million line of credit on his Fifth Avenue apartment, and to go on a trip to Israel. …Israel was a place he’d returned to often over the years, drawn by a tangle of allegiances.” Epstein’s residence of choice was the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Krauss never shares the name of the second person, although this reader can only imagine that the second person is loosely (or maybe not loosely) based on the author herself. This second person is an author, a mother of two and unhappily married. She leaves her family behind for a trip to Tel Aviv after she receives a call from her father’s cousin, Effie, telling her that Eliezer Friedman, a professor of literature and former member of the Mossad, had something he wished to discuss with her. The author’s residence of choice was the Tel Aviv Hilton.

The book moves back and forth between the experiences of Epstein and the author. Epstein is befriended by a Rabbi, Menachem Klausner. Rabbi Klausner takes Epstein to Gilgul for Shabbat, where Epstein experiences a highly spiritual environment, and also encounters the Rabbi’s beautiful daughter, Yael.

Rabbi Klausner is organizing a reunion of the descendants of David, and invites Epstein to attend, insisting that he is a descendant. Epstein spends much of the story giving away his wealth, including $2 million to plant a forest in memory of his parents in northern Negev. When Yael needs money for a movie she is making about David, Epstein is all in, but for a minor issue. At the end, Epstein seems to just wander away.

Our author arrives in Tel Aviv and meets up with Eliezer Friedman. Friedman is very mysterious, but tells her a tale about Franz Kafka and his attachment to Palestine. He appears to ask our author to write an ending to an unfinished Kafka novel, although that is not exactly clear. In the process of this mystery, our author and Friedman’s dog are whisked away by the Israeli army to a tiny house in the desert, left to write (or something) and promptly forgotten. Friedman simply disappears.

Throughout the novel, the author delves into the difficulty of writing, the disappointments of literature, the challenges of marriage and the complexities of family and children. In her effort to dig deep and search for meaning and explanations, the musings often feel trivial and border on incoherent in parts. Although the book has its moments, it seemed to me pretentious and self-indulgent. I could not figure out exactly what she was trying to tell me. I suggest a pass on this one but if you want to read it to get a feel for the history and customs of Israel, you can reserve it when it comes out in September by clicking on

A House Among the Trees – by Julia Glass

“A House Among the Trees” is a story of the fictional Morty Lear. Morty Lear is a famous author of children’s stories, best known perhaps for his novel “Colorquake”. Colorquake is a story about Ivo, whose “mother kept a perfect house, a house among the trees.” Ivo is “utterly beguiling”, an artist, a painter of fantastic creatures, all of which come alive off the page. Everyone loves Ivo and Morty Lear is renowned. By the way, Morty Lear is not his real name–try Mordecai Levy.

The thing is, when we meet him, Morty is dead, having fallen off the roof of his house in the trees (Connecticut) trying to remove a limb. And all sorts of things are happening. Morty’s assistant, Tomasina (Tommy) Daulair has been with Morty (and for a while Morty and his lover Soren) for more than 25 years, in Morty’s house among the trees in Connecticut. Tommy has a difficult relationship with her brother, Danilo ( Dani), who as it so happens was the inspiration for Ivo and is just perfectly resentful about Ivo’s wild success; not to mention that Dani is, of course, a failure at virtually everything he does.

Before he died, Morty had agreed to have a movie made about his life. The famous (and very handsome) young actor, Nicholas (Nick) Greene, has agreed to play Morty. Nick has made some arrangements to spend time with Morty in his house and, with Tommy’s approval, spends a few days and nights at the house despite Morty’s death.

While alive, Morty had nurtured an engaging, although obviously platonic, relationship with Meredith Galarza (Merry–nobody’s name is their name), a museum curator , leading her to believe that her museum would receive most of Morty’s collection. But alas, such was not to be, as his collection was directed into Tommy’s hands, to be sold off to establish a halfway house for runaway boys. Ugh!

So Nick visits the house in the trees, the paparazzi shows up and oh by the way, Dani and Merry somehow connect and they show up too. All is well in the end.

I am a Julia Glass fan. I loved “Three Junes”. But there is simply too much going on in this book. Glass can’t seem to decide if she wants to write about loss (Morty, family), regret (Tommy spending 25 years of her life with Morty), family dysfunction (lots of that here), the competitive world of art, or the cynicism of fundraisers and their very disdain for the donors (“Merry’s primary task is to condense and focus all her verve and vigor on anyone who might become a benefactor. She becomes a heat seeking laser… Sadly, the artists are all beside the point…”). Or perhaps Glass wanted to focus on gay rights and AIDS issues, feminism and antifeminism (“it seems she can never quite shake off the instinctive relief she feels when a male authority gives her the sign of professional approval.” Ugh again!). Perhaps Glass wanted us to understand the loneliness of celebrity (“All celebrity does is arrange and spotlight your foibles as if they were mannequins in a shopwindow, tart them up for all to see” ). As a result of addressing so many issues, the characters seemed to me to be unsympathetic and unlikeable, and the book seemed cold and forced.

Oh, one more thing, the book actually seems to be inspired by Maurice Sendak and his book “Where the Wild Things Are.” All that said, if you are a Julia Glass fan you will probably want to read this book anyway. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Exit West – by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West“We are all migrants through time.” Exit West is a story of migration, refugees and change, told through the experiences of an unmarried couple, Nadia and Saeed.

Saeed and Nadia meet while taking an evening class on corporate identity and product branding in an unidentified middle east city at an unidentified place of education. Nadia was clad “from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular notch in a flowing black robe.” However, she was not at all religious and did not pray. Saeed had a beard, but not a full beard. “More a studiously maintained stubble”, and he prayed, but “Not always. Sadly.”

Nadia was extremely unconventional for a woman in a religious country – unmarried, living on her own and commuting here and there, on a scuffed motor bike. Saeed worked for an agency that specialized in the placement of outdoor advertising where he was responsible for working on pitches to potential clients. Nadia worked at an insurance company, handling insurance renewals. On their first date for coffee, Saeed asked Nadia why she wore her all concealing robe if she did not pray. “‘So men don’t f*** with me.”

Their unidentified city was filled with refugees, who “had occupied many of the open places in the city, pitching tents in the green belts between roads, erecting lean-tos next the boundary walls of houses, sleeping rough on sidewalks and in the margins of streets.” Violence was a constant and as Saeed and Nadia continued to learn about each other and grow closer, violence between the government and militants grew, curfews were imposed and the city was no longer a safe place to live and love.

As changes were occurring in the unidentified city, mysterious doorways were opening and people were walking through the doorways to places throughout the world. First in Sydney, Australia, one person emerged through a closet door in someone’s bedroom. Then in Tokyo, two Filipina girls popped up next to a disused door at the rear of a bar. Next was an incident in San Diego. Saeed and Nadia decide to leave their violent city through the doors, and in this way they find themselves first in Mykonos and then in London. In London, the doors take them to a mansion of sorts, where they share living quarters with other refugees. There is initially some violence against the refugees and then the government decides to build communities outside the city to accommodate the refugees.

While in London, Saeed worked in a road crew and Nadia in a female crew that loaded pipe. Together they leave London and go to Marin. Throughout all of this movement and struggle, the novel describes the conflicts between nativists and refugees, the fraught and yet ongoing lives of the refugees and the growing distance and conflict between Nadia and Saeed. Nadia and Saeed ultimately split and lead separate lives, but at the end of the book, 50 years after their separation, they find themselves reunited in the city of their births.

The book has some interesting insights into the violence and intolerance of various parts of the world, and the resultant leap of faith it takes to migrate, symbolized by the magic doors. But the story itself is somewhat shallow and unfulfilling, with a frustrating lack of character development (maybe that’s the point). The descriptions of the lives and difficulties of the refugees, and their relationships with the communities in which they find themselves feel almost like an afterthought. I finished the book wondering if that was all or whether I was missing the rest. If you want to read this very short book which other reviewers have really liked, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Do Not Say We Have Nothing – by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing“Do Not Say We Have Nothing” is an epic history of China, beginning in 1872 and ending in 2016. The story is told by Jiang Li-ling (Marie Jiang) as she discovers her family history through the violence and tragedy of the cultural revolution.

After her father commits suicide in 1989, Marie Jiang lives alone with her mother in Vancouver. One day in December of 1990, her mother receives a mysterious letter, and shortly thereafter, Ai-ming, the daughter of her father’s childhood friend comes to live with Marie Jiang and her mother. Ai-ming was caught up in the student protests in Tiananmen Square and her family thought it best that she leave China. Ai-ming begins to tell Marie Jiang the story of their families and life in China. AI-Ming stays for a few months, leaving for San Francisco and then New York, and ultimately going back to China where she seems to simply disappear.

Ai-ming shares many stories about their family histories and Marie Jiang attempts to unravel the remaining history of her father’s family. Ai-ming’s father, known as Sparrow, was a brilliant composer and taught at the Shanghai Conservatory. Sparrow’s aunt and uncle, well to do landowners, were beaten and sent to reeducation camps as part of the communist movement. Their daughter, Zhuli, was sent to live with Sparrow and his family. Zhuli was a brilliant violinist. Sparrow’s student, Jiang Kai, was also a composer and a pianist. Kai was Marie Jiang’s father. Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai spent a great deal of time together at the Conservatory and become close.

Music was central to both families, although certain tones and melodies were disfavored and considered bourgeois. The students at the Conservatory were critical of each other for focusing on the wrong types of music. “…the girl next to her, an ecru major, mocked Zhuli for favoring music in the ‘negative’ and ‘pessimistic’ key of E-flat minor, and continuing to play sonatas by revisionist Soviet composers…”

The family story reflects how the communist influence impacted every aspect of life, including permissible language, love and music. “[T]he word ‘dear’ was stupid with sentimentality and had been struck from permissible usage.” The politics of the time prevented Zhuli, Sparrow and Kai from pursuing their musical and personal lives in one way or another. The Conservatory was closed and ultimately, Sparrow went to work in a radio factory and Kai moved to Canada. A lot happened in between and their relationship continued across the continents.

A common thread throughout the story is “The Book of Records.” The Book of Records was a number of chapters of an unidentified book which had been reprinted by hand and distributed surreptitiously to those who rejected the inflexibility of communist rule. At times the chapters were used to relay messages. Marie Jiang’s mother had a chapter in her house and Marie Jiang learned about the importance of the book as she unraveled her story.

The story is moving and informative, but tragic and sad. Each life is diminished by the politics of the time and there is much needless suffering and death. The book is well written and was recently short listed for the Bailey’s prize. It is definitely worth a read. You can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi

HomegoingHomegoing is a three century long saga of slavery, violence, discrimination, struggle and eventually some progress, beginning and ending in Ghana, with interludes in America.

The story starts in 1760 in a Fante village touched by a destructive fire. Fire, its strength and its violence, is an ongoing theme in the book. Effia, a child born unto the fire and of a loving father and spiteful mother, becomes a raving beauty. She is ultimately married off to a white British man, James Collins, governor of the Cape Coast Castle.

The top floors of the Castle house the British officers and frequently their Fante wives, but the lower level hold something much more ominous–slaves. The villagers of Ghana terrorize other villages and capture or kidnap people and sell them to the British. Throughout the centuries of the book, kidnapping, violence, slavery and colonization torment the villages.

Effia and James have a child, Quey, and their progeny continue the various cycles through the novel. In the meantime, while Effia and James are living large in the castle, Essi, the 15 year old daughter of the best warrior in Asenteland, has been kidnapped and is malingering in the dungeon of Cape Coast Castle. She is raped, sold to a plantation master in America and has a daughter, Ness, born into slavery. Ness is the start of the novel’s story of slavery and abuse in America.

Throughout the novel there are tales of changing forms of violence and discrimination: In Ghana, violence among villages, kidnapping, forced marriages, superstition and British colonization. In America, slavery, kidnapping, extreme poverty, improper arrests and servitude, discrimination and drug addiction. Ultimately, when the Ghana side of the story and the America side of the story find each other, there is hopefulness.

The novel is well conceived and put together and provides an explanation of the history of racism and inequity in America, ending with a hint of hope. The book can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Library by clicking on

Lincoln in the Bardo – by George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo“’bardo’ (noun) (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life, and manner of, or age at, death.” English Oxford Living Dictionaries.

“Lincoln in the Bardo” is simply an extraordinary work of fiction, unlike anything else I have read. The novel starts out with brief passages from two key gentlemen in the “in between” state, reminiscing about how they got there, then switches to passages from various historic publications ostensibly telling the story of the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Will, of typhoid.

The book moves back and forth between historic passages and the bardo activities, including life and death recollections. In this way we learn about the death of Will, the grief of his parents and the struggle President Lincoln felt over the Civil War and resultant loss of life. The historic passages also offer us a glimpse of the differing perspectives on Lincoln as a man, a father and a President.

The passages from the in between state are fascinating. There are so many characters, including former soldiers, former slaves, criminals, young people, old people, religious people, wealthy people, poor people, good people and bad people. They are brought together by the entry of Will, although they are not in agreement about his ultimate disposition. Slaves are brought together with slave owners, wealthy are brought face to face with the poor and the young with the old. They engage in spiritual or perhaps magical activities, flying through the air, becoming one with the living and encountering fantastical obstacles and miracles. There is a sort of dissonance between the grieving perspective of the living and the supernatural aspects of the deceased.

The characters in bardo are all exaggerations of their behaviors in life. In one example a hunter is required to continuously make peace with the animals he killed. “We were as we were!…How could we have been otherwise?…By the fact that time runs in only one direction, and we are borne along by it, influenced precisely as we are, to do just the things that we do…And then are cruelly punished for it.” Through their stories and their struggles with their in between condition (which few if any of them understand) the reader cannot help but ask what kind of life am I living? How do I choose to make my way and how will I be judged when I am gone?

At the end, some of the characters reflect on the meaning of life and mankind’s ultimate commonality at life’s end. They muse over the importance of that commonality, including empathy and understanding. “At the core of each lay suffering, our eventual end, the many losses we must experience on the way to that end….We must try to see one another in this way…As suffering, limited beings–Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces.”

The first thing I wanted to do when I finished this book was read it again. This one is a must read. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on

Between Them – by Richard Ford

Between ThemRichard Ford is one of America’s great writers. He has a way of answering the question “what is the meaning of life?” in the most direct way possible–by writing about living. “Between Them” is two separate memoirs, one of his mother and one of his father, written 30 years apart. In the memoirs, Ford describes the seeming unextraordinary lives of his parents, which at first blush seems to be a self-indulgent exercise but upon further reflection depicts the fairly extraordinary routine of living.

Both of Ford’s parents were born in Arkansas to fairly humble beginnings. His father, Parker Ford, was working in a grocery when he met his soon to be wife, Ford’s mother, Edna. In 1938, Parker became a salesman for the Faultless Company out of Kansas City, selling laundry starch. The job kept him on the road during the week and home only on the week-ends. Parker held the job until his death.

Most of Ford’s commentary about his father is conjecture and supposition. The memoir was written almost 50 years after Parker’s death and it is clear by Ford’s descriptions of his father that a great deal of time had gone by and that Parker was not well known to his son. However, that seems to be part of the point. Ford surmises that his relationship with his father was likely different from other children’s relationships to their fathers and observes that “I grew up understanding that the view from outside any family, mine included, and the experience of being inside would always be different.”

Parker Ford had his first heart attack at the age of 43. He lived 12 more years, dying at the age of 55. “I can recognize now that life is short and has inadequacies, that once again it requires crucial avoidances as well as fillings in to be acceptable. Most everything but love goes away.”

Ford’s mother, Edna, was born to a 14 year old who left Edna’s father and ultimately married a significantly younger man (who might have been close in age to Edna). Edna’s mother sent her to a Catholic boarding school (Edna and her family were not Catholic) out of concern for her being too proximate to the younger husband. For inexplicable reasons, Edna’s mother later took her out of school and advised her to tell people they were sisters. Needless to say, Edna did not have the most conventional upbringing and Parker’s mother was never exactly accepting of her. Edna ultimately died of cancer while in her 70s.

The best part of the book is the Afterword, where Ford explains his view of life, his parents and why he wrote the memoirs. “I have always admired Auden’s poem ‘La Musee des Beaux Arts’ for its acute wisdom that life’s most important moments are often barely noticed by others, if noticed at all…This understanding has been a crucial urge for most of what I’ve written in fifty years…The fact that lives and deaths go unnoticed has specifically inspired this small book about my parents and set its task. Our parents’ lives, even those enfolded in obscurity, offer us our first, strong assurance that human events have consequences.”

The book is very short and a quick read, with pictures of his parents and his younger self interspersed throughout. The memoirs are consistent with Ford’s uncanny ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary and expose the richness of everyday life. If you enjoy Richard Ford and are curious about where his amazing perspective originated, you should read this book. Between Them will be released in May of this year and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on