Monthly Archives: August 2017

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanahAmericanah is the first book I’ve read by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and one of the few books I’ve read at all by African novelists. It tells the love story of two people who are apart for most of the book — the main character, Ifemelu, and her high school and college boyfriend, Obinze. When student life in Nigeria is interrupted by political unrest and frequent strikes at their university, Ifemelu moves to the United States to get her degree. The plan is for Obinze to join her eventually, but amid the struggle of trying to adapt to immigrant life and earn a living, Ifemelu slips into depression and cuts off contact with Obinze. When she begins to rebuild her American life, she starts afresh, leaving Obinze in the past.

Meanwhile, Obinze moves to London, where he too struggles to make a living. His position is even more difficult than Ifemelu’s, because he outstays his original visa and tries to live and work in the UK as an undocumented immigrant. For a boy who grew up as the son of a university professor, living an enviable upper-middle-class life in Nigeria, this is a huge come-down indeed.

By the time both return to Nigeria and their paths cross again, they have both changed greatly (and Obinze has acquired a wife and child). Yet the attraction between them has not faded with the years. The final section of the novel explores where their relationship goes from there. But the bulk of the story is the tale of their separate years apart, the insights each of them gains into their very different immigrant experiences in two different countries. Adichie’s writing not only gives the reader a very clear picture of life in Nigeria, but of the subtle shadings of cultural difference between Nigeria, the U.S., and the U.K., as well as racial and class differences within each of these countries. Ifemelu parlays her trenchant and witty observations about life as a “Non-American Black” in the U.S. into a wildly successful blog, and it is the fineness of those observations, the keen eye for detail in a character, a scene, a hairstyle, an item of clothing, that drives this thoughtful and often funny novel.

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Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew J. Sullivan

midnightbrightideasI’ll pretty much pick up any book with the word “bookstore” in the title, or any book that’s set in a bookstore (whether wholly, or just in part). In the cast of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, with its appealing title and cover, the titular bookstore provides the backdrop for a story that takes the main character, bookstore employee Lydia Smith, on a reluctant journey into her own past.

Lydia enjoys her quiet life — a steady relationship with her kind and undemanding live-in boyfriend, and her work at a bookstore where she finds pleasure not only in the books but in the patrons, including the many outcasts, misfits and homeless (or nearly homeless) people who take shelter there. When tragedy invades the bookstore one night and a man hangs himself among the upstairs bookstacks, Lydia is horrified. But the horror becomes more personal when she realizes that the dead man not only has ties to her, but to a past she has done everything possible to distance herself from.

It was at this point (as often happens with me in reading) that I realized I was reading a mystery novel, even if it’s not marketed primarily as such. Lydia has to follow a trail of clues to find out the connection between the violent death in the bookstore and another act of terrible violence in her own past — and to find out who committed the original crime, and why.

This is the sort of book that, midway through avidly turning the pages, I found myself thinking, “This author has set up SUCH an intriguing mystery — can he possibly resolve it in a satisfying way?” The answer is almost yes … everything is resolved and does tie together, but the author has to introduce a couple of pretty big coincidences to make the resolution work, and I’m always wary of staggering coincidences. There’s also a method of leaving clues that is way too clever to be believable … but I still found the story enjoyable, and thought Lydia, in particular, was a very likeable and relatable character, as a person who has tried to construct a new life amid the ruins of tragedy. I don’t agree with every choice Lydia makes (especially a big one at the end) but I always empathized with her.

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Filed under Fiction -- general, Fiction -- mystery

Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie

homefireHome Fire is the rare book that retells a classic story for the modern era in a way that, to me at least, never feels at all forced. With a book like Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, even though I enjoyed it, I felt some elements of the plot, some things the characters did, were shoehorned in there only because they paralleled plot points in The Taming of the Shrew. In Home Fire, Kamila Shamsie retells Sophocles’s Antigone in the setting of a family of Pakistani immigrants to the U.K. Isma, Aneeka, Parvaiz, Eamonn and Karamat are parallels to Ismene, Antigone, Polynices, Haemon and Creon, but they are also real, flesh-and-blood people, living out their lives against the backdrop of a country torn by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim suspicion. The opening scene, with Isma going through a rigorous security screening at Heathrow Airport and missing her flight to her graduate program in the US, sets the tone for the rest of the novel.

The parallels to the classic Greek tragedy are not heavy-handed, though they do get more direct in the later sections of the story. (You don’t have to have read or remember Antigone to appreciate the novel; it works perfectly well as a story on its own, but for those who know the play the parallels add a great deal of richness and interest). Instead of a father who killed his own father and accidentally married his mother, Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz suffer a different kind of “family curse” — a jihadi father who abandoned his father in the UK to go fight with Islamic militants.

Like the curse of the gods on Oedipus’s family, the absent father’s choice shadows the lives of all three of his children. The role of the overbearing Creon, King of Thebes, in the play, is filled here by Karamat Lone, Home Secretary in Britain’s Conservative government. He, too, is of Pakistani Muslim origin, but in order to rise to power he has recreated himself, marrying a white American woman, ceasing to be an observant Muslim, and lecturing other Muslims on the importance of assimilating to white British culture and not standing out.

When Karamat’s son Eamonn encounters first Isma and later her sister Aneeka, it’s inevitable there will be conflict between the two families. How shattering that conflict will be is clearly foreshadowed by the fact that the novel is based on a Greek tragedy.

Point of view throughout this novel moves from one character to the next, with sections told from the perspective of each of the major characters. At first I found it jarring that we did not return to the point of view of a character we’d already met and grown close to, but I found each of the characters so compelling, believable and intriguing that the book never ceased to engage me. I knew this story was going to break my heart — again, Greek tragedy set against the background of modern racism and terrorism wasn’t likely to turn out any other way — but I could not put the book down until I found out exactly how. 

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Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

justmercyJust Mercy is a powerful book that I’ve wanted to read ever since hearing the author interviewed on CBC Radio some time ago. Bryan Stevenson is an African-American lawyer who founded an organization called the Equal Justice Initiative dedicated to representing clients who are not well served by the justice system. EJI’s clients are mostly people of colour, almost all poor, and they include people on death row, people wrongly accused, and people serving life sentences for crimes committed when they were juveniles. The story of Stevenson’s own development as a lawyer and a fearless advocate for justice is woven throughout the stories of his clients.

Stevenson focuses on one major story that threads throughout the whole book: that of Walter MacMillian, a black man accused of murdering a young white woman. There was no evidence that MacMillian committed the crime and plenty that he didn’t (dozens of people saw him elsewhere at the time the murder took place). Stevenson’s conclusion was that police, anxious to solve a horrific crime that upset the community, pinned the crime on MacMillian who was accused, in the flimsiest possible way, by his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend (more or less … it was complicated, but that was what it boiled down to). Despite the lack of evidence to support his conviction and plenty of evidence for his innocence, MacMillian was found guilty and sentenced to death.

The Walter MacMillian case was especially poignant because it took place in Monroeville, Alabama, famous as the home of Harper Lee and the template for her fictional town of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. As he began to investigate the case and work for MacMillian’s conviction to be overturned, Bryan Stevenson discovered that while white people in Maycomb were very proud of the fictional story of a white lawyer who defended an unjustly accused black man, they were not nearly so interested in helping a real-life black lawyer defend an unjustly accused black man.

In between the chapters in which Walter MacMillian’s story unfolds, Stevenson tells his own story, the stories of other clients, and the larger story of race, class, and (in)justice in America. The book, and the stories it tells, are damning, eye-opening, and also inspiring — inspiring because of people like Bryan Stevenson, who are willing to give their lives and careers to making things better.

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We Are Never Meeting in Real Life, by Samantha Irby

wearenevermeetingMany readers probably picked up this book because they’re familiar with Samantha Irby’s blog, but I just saw the description of the book and thought it sounded interesting and funny, so I didn’t know what to expect.

Irby is indeed a very funny writer, of the “my life is actually objectively terrible but I’m writing about it in a funny way” school of humour. She writes about an impoverished and abusive childhood, the death of her parents, chronic illness, and a string of failed relationships — as well as her adoption (and subsequently the death) of an antisocial cat who, like Irby herself, is plagued with medical problems. Sounds like a laugh a minute, doesn’t it? This could just as easily have been a heart-rending memoir (and sometimes it is) but in a humourist’s hands, it’s easy to laugh at the funny side of a life pockmarked by misfortune and failure. (Some things have clearly gone well for her, like a wildly popular blog, a book deal, and the one relationship that didn’t end in disaster, so there’s that, too).

Irby’s humour is sometimes a little too raw and graphic for me in dealing with sex, bodily functions and illness — but I am a noted prude and squeamish-person, so that reflects more on me than on her (but is a warning worth noting for other squeamish prudes). Still, despite a few cringes I found this an enjoyable read.

It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this memoir (or collection of essays — it doesn’t unroll in the continuous flow you’d expect from a memoir) to Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I also read recently. There are definite similarities between the two writers: both African-American women who write about body image, food, sexuality (including bisexuality), physical and mental illness and disability. Gay is a very serious writer who can at times be quite funny; Irby is a humour writer who brings a sardonic eye and voice to very serious topics. (Apparently Gay and Irby are friends in real life, and this article about Irby begins with a funny anecdote about a reader confusing the two, so it’s clearly not just a case of lily-white me thinking All Big Black Women Who Write About Their Bodies Look Alike).

What is the mysterious alchemy that makes one book an acclaimed literary soon-to-be-classic, and another a fun, commercial read? I’ve always struggled with this question in reading fiction, as I read both popular and literary fiction, and I still can’t pinpoint the difference. It’s there in non-fiction too — I can see that Roxane Gay and Samantha Irby are doing different things with quite similar material, but I can’t quite explain what the difference is, apart from the fact that Irby plays her experience for laughs. But as with popular and literary fiction, both are great reads, as long as you know what you’re getting. If you’re not too squeamish about sex, swearing, and (especially) poop, you’ll enjoy We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

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Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

swingtimeZadie Smith is one of those writers I have been meaning to read forever but never getting around to, probably because her work comes with so much literary acclaim I was afraid it was going to be impenetrable and a little boring (because let’s be honest, some — by no means all, but some — books that win a lot of literary awards are less than fun to read). I couldn’t have been more wrong. When I finally picked up Swing Tim(because of the happy coincidence of it appearing both on the Booker Prize longlist and my library’s list of available e-books this summer), I was immediately drawn in to a believable character with a compelling voice and a richly drawn world that I found hard to put down. I will definitely be reading more of Zadie Smith.

The first-person narrator of Swing Time (who never reveals her name, though it took me more than halfway through the book to realize this) is a young girl of mixed race (black mother, white father) growing up on a North London council estate in the 1980s. She takes dance lessons as a young girl, and though she shows no remarkable talent, she develops a passionate interest in dance and the history of dance, immersing herself in old Fred Astaire movies on TV and VHS, and devouring the biographies of dancers as her recreational reading. In young adulthood, she is suddenly catapulted from her entry level job in television to an entirely different and more glamorous life when she gets hired as a personal assistant to a major pop star, and plunges into the world of the rich and famous.

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Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

halfbloodbluesIt’s always great when a bok is able to take you to a place you have never been, geographically or historically or both. Half Blood Blues does this through the voice of jazz musician Sid Griffiths, an African-American bass player who lived in Berlin as a young man in the 1930s. All was going well for Sid and his bandmates — a collection of African-Americans and Germans, with the German members including Jews and one mixed-race German — until the Nazis came to power. Decrying jazz as a degenerate influence, the new regime began shutting down jazz was played and arresting musicians who didn’t fit the “Aryan” mold. 

Though Sid narrates the story in a quirky, memorable voice filled with old-time jazzy slang, and most of his time in the novel is spent with his lifelong frenemy, the drummer Chip, the real focus of the story is on another character. Hieronymus Falk is the one mixed-race German member of the band — the child of a white German mother and an African father, an outsider everywhere, an abomination to Nazi theories of racial purity. Hiero, the youngest member of the group and the most vulnerable, is also the most talented, a phenomenal trumpeter who wins the attention of Louis Armstrong. When those of the band members who haven’t yet been arrested are forced to flee Berlin for Paris, personal tensions and jealousies among the band members come to a head as that city falls to the invading German army.

The story is being narrated in flashbacks from the perspective of 1992, when Sid and Chip are guests at the premier of a documentary about Hiero’s life and music. The opportunity to revisit the past reveals long-hidden secrets and lies. While there were a few plot points in this novel that didn’t entirely hold together for me story-wise, it was an beautifully-drawn glimpse into a place and time rarely visited in fiction.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical