BOOK REVIEW | Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Ifemelu–beautiful, self-assured–left Nigeria 15 years ago, and now studies in Princeton as a Graduate Fellow. Obinze–handsome and kind-hearted–was Ifemelu’s teenage love; he’d hoped to join her in America, but post 9/11 America wouldn’t let him in.
Years later, when they reunite in Nigeria, neither is the same person who left home. Obinze is the kind of successful “Big Man” he’d scorned in his youth, and Ifemelu has become an “Americanah”–a different version of her former self, one with a new accent and attitude. As they revisit their shared passion–for their homeland and for each other–they must face the largest challenges of their lives.

My thoughts:
Americanah is an epic love story that tells the tale of Ifemelu, her immigration to the United States from Nigeria, and her eventual emigration back to Nigeria. This is a book about race in America, and Adichie isn’t afraid to tackle difficult topics head on.

When Ifemelu is young, before her immigration to the United States, she falls in love with Obinze. After her departure their relationship fades, and he takes a different path, moving to London where he lives illegally. Though living in different worlds, the two always think of one another, and we spend much of the story wondering if they will become reunited. While in American, Ifemelu dates both a white man and a black American man. Obinze felt like the constant with which these experimental men were measured against – would anyone ever stack up?

Ifemelu is a direct and bold personality, and has no problem with pointing out other people’s faults. I loved her relationship with Curt, the white man; he loved her fully and respected anything she had to say regarding race, loving her natural hair while she was embarrassed by it. Ifemelu, however, always found fault with Curt; she found his racial respect frustrating, as if he could never “get it”. In many ways that is true, as a wealthy white man in American he could never fully understand her experience, but I wanted her to let him in. I found Ifemelu hilarious at times, and incredibly frustrating at others. Maybe that’s because I am the product of an interracial relationship, and I’m in one as well.

The narrative style is unique – we flip between Ifemelu and Obinze, past and present, and my personal favourite: Ifemelus’s blog posts. Ifemelu writes a successful blog about race in America, and choice blog posts are interspersed throughout the book like mini essays. These are essential and poignant, and made much of the book for me. I loved them.

Some of the best moments for me were in the discussion of hair. There is discussion of good hair, nappy hair, conforming through hair, and embracing hair. I’m half black – my mother is Jamaican and my father is Irish/English – and I have curly hair. Not black hair, not wavy hair, but curly. I spent most of my youth hating everything about it, and killing it with flat irons and relaxers (relaxer burn is real!), all the while hoping it wouldn’t rain as to ruin all of my hard work. I eventually decided to stop torturing my hair, grow out the relaxer, and learned to be OK with the stuff that grew out of my head. It was a long journey, but worth it. However, to this day, I feel like my curls don’t look as professional as straight hair does. I long to go swimming without having to consider what frizz reducing and controlling products I’ll have to lug along with me for afterwards. It’s amazing to me how much of a hold hair can have over enjoyment of life, and it was comforting to see this reflected in literature.

It was fascinating to see race through Ifemelu’s eyes – how race only became a prevalent part of her life in America, and when she returned to Nigeria she felt her blackness fade away. I thought about this, and realized that if curly hair were the majority, I likely wouldn’t feel so much frustration towards mine. It’s amazing the impact that culture has on self-worth.

Adichie dives into the election of Obama, which I remember so well. Like the characters in the story, I had similar fears – would someone try to harm him? Could this actually make issues of race worse? It’s fascinating to read this book in the era of Trump, and sad to see that this may have been true. I remember the hope and tears shed when Obama was elected, and appreciate Adichie’s perspective on that moment in history. I’m Canadian, but whatever happens in American always makes its ways over to us in one way or another.

The struggles of immigration are highlighted from two perspectives: Ifemelu’s immigration to America, and Obinze’s illegal immigration to London. They both have struggles and successes, and one particular moment with Infemelu had me in tears. They bother, though in completely different ways, end up returning to Nigeria.

There’s a lot going on with this book, but it was so worth it for me. Adichie is an amazing storyteller, and clearly extremely intelligent. I did take issue with certain sentiments, but will keep the controversy to myself. If you’re interested in the black experience in America, read this book. If you’re not interested in that experience, you must read this book.

BOOK REVIEW | Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the long-awaited new novel– a book that sold more than a million copies the first week it went on sale in Japan–from the award-winning, internationally best-selling author Haruki Murakami.

Here he gives us the remarkable story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man haunted by a great loss; of dreams and nightmares that have unintended consequences for the world around us; and of a journey into the past that is necessary to mend the present. It is a story of love, friendship, and heartbreak for the ages.

My thoughts:
I have no sense of self. I have no personality, no brilliant color. That’s always been my problem. I feel like an empty vessel. I have a shape, I guess, as a container, but there’s nothing inside. 

Haruki Murakami broke my heart with his gorgeous story of Tsukuru Tazaki and his search for what it all means. In his high school days, Tsukuru was a part of a special friendship; a group of five that were truly inseparable. Four of his friends share a unique bond – their last names all represent a color: Aka is red, Ao is blue, Shiro is white, and Kuro is black. Tsukuru, however, feels colorless as his name simply translates as “the builder”.

In his college years, without warning, his four friends reveal that they will no longer speak to him leaving Tsukuru ostracized and alone. Tsukuru has no idea why this occurred, but is convinced that his flaws are what led to this  abandonment. Though painfully suicidal, Tsukuru manages to graduate from college and build a successful career. Tsukuru eventually meets a woman named Sara, and with her encouragement realizes he must face his past and release his pain so that he can move into his future. On the cusp of a great romance, Tsukuru journeys to reconnect with his old friends and put to rest this difficult part of his life. His reunions open old wounds, but also pave the way for new discoveries.

I went into this book knowing little about the plot, and it turned out I was in the perfect mindset for something like this. Murakami examines many complexities of modern life with writing that is clean and straight forward; his insights aren’t muddied by overly colorful prose. The language is clear and direct, and it’s not nessecary to dig into the text for meaning: it’s all laid bare. Many Murakami fans suggest reading this work later, not as your introduction to his writing. I absolutely adored this book, though, and am now excited to dive into the magical realism that he is known for.

BOOK REVIEW | Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado

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3.5/5 stars

From the publisher:
In this courageous, inventive, and intelligent novel, Viola di Grado tells the story of a suicide and what follows. She has given voice to an astonishing vision of life after life, portraying the awful longing and sense of loss that plague the dead, together with the solitude provoked by the impossibility of communicating. The afterlife itself is seen as a dark, seething place where one is preyed upon by the cruel and unrelenting elements. Hollow Heart will frighten as it provokes, enlighten as it causes concern. If ever there were a novel that follows Kafka’s prescription for a book to be a frozen axe for the sea within us, it is Hollow Heart.

My thoughts:
Di Grado’s imaginative second novel, Hollow Heart, opens with a punch to the gut:

In 2011 the world ended: I killed myself.

It’s immediately evident that this is not going to be your average ghost story. Our narrator, Dorotea, navigates the living world from the perspective of the afterworld. She visits people and places she knew while living, all the while returning daily to her corpse to fascinate in its decomposition. As a side note – this a book not for the faint of heart – graphic depictions of the decomposition of a human body are present throughout. I, of course, reveled in its casual discussion of gore.

For a book about death, this is surprisingly refreshing. It’s creative and introspective, and reads almost autobiographically. Dorotea has experiences and thoughts that will be relatable to many women in their 20’s (such as an obsession with skinny bodies). We learn that Dorotea’s mother suffered from depression, that her father was not present in her life, and that suicide is no stranger to her family; Dorotea works through her struggles from the other side, and does a bit of haunting while she’s at it.

Dorotea discusses the suicide attempt of Sinéad O’Connor, and untimely deaths of other celebrities such as Whitney Houston and Amy Winehouse, with a fascination that was both fun to read but occasionally jarring. I’d be wrapped up in some lovely prose or dialogue, when suddenly there would be 2 pages or so on a celebrity’s death.

Sinéad had tried to kill herself but hadn’t succeeded. I had. Between her and me, who had won, and who had lost?

This book was not perfect for me – it felt repetitive at times (and this is a very short book), and dragged a little in the middle. The first and final seconds are beautifully written, however, and I was fascinated with Dorothea’s growth in the afterlife. A unique read that will resonate with those who are living with depression.

BOOK REVIEW | A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
On the eve of Angolan independence an agoraphobic woman named Ludo bricks herself into her apartment for 30 years, living off vegetables and the pigeons she lures in with diamonds, burning her furniture and books to stay alive and writing her story on the apartment’s walls.
Almost as if we’re eavesdropping, the history of Angola unfolds through the stories of those she sees from her window. As the country goes through various political upheavals from colony to socialist republic to civil war to peace and capitalism, the world outside seeps into Ludo’s life through snippets on the radio, voices from next door, glimpses of someone peeing on a balcony, or a man fleeing his pursuers.

My thoughts:
This book is stunning; poetic and concise, with a bit of a magical feel. This is the story of Ludo, who shuts herself into her apartment by building a brick wall on the even of Angolan Independence. She will stay here for the next 30 years, struggling to survive. First, she uses up her stores, then she begins eating fruit from her terrace, eventually she turns to pigeons for sustenance – all the while burning books and furniture for warmth. Along the way, we are introduced to a variety of players in the Angolan war, as well as one unexpected character who changes the course for Ludo.

This story is told through narrative, prose, and Ludo’s journal entries. There are so many beautiful passages in this book but this one, taken from Ludo’s journal, resonated deeply with me:

I carve out verses
short
as prayers

words are
legions
of demons
expelled

I cut adverbs
pronouns

I spare my
wrists

This is a short and powerful read – a true work of art.

BOOK REVIEW | Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

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3.75/5 stars

From the publisher:
Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Nicole Dennis- Benn pens a tender hymn to a world hidden among pristine beaches and the wide expanse of turquoise seas. At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman—fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves—must confront long-hidden scars. From a much-heralded new writer, Here Comes the Sun offers a dramatic glimpse into a vibrant, passionate world most outsiders see simply as paradise.

My thoughts:
‘Membah dis, nobody love a black girl. Not even harself.

Don’t let the beautiful bright cover fool you, this book is bleak. This is the story of a family, the secrets they keep, and the fight for a better life.

Despite living in a part of town that is less than prosperous, Margot has a prestigious job at a tourist’s resort hotel. She endured an unspeakable tragedy at the hands of her mother as a child, and is now determined to do anything that it takes to keep her younger sister, Thandi, from following her dark path. Because of her mother, Margot engages in prostitution to make ends meet and keep up with Thandi’s expensive schooling. While the family expects Thandi to become a lawyer or doctor, she is occupied with a boy from a bad neighborhood, lightening her skin, and dreams of becoming an artist. Margot and Thandie, along with their mother Dolores, harbor damaging and painful secrets which are exasperated by the confines of their culture.

Nicole Dennis-Benn has crafted an engaging story that had me moving quickly through the pages. I cared about these characters and was deeply invested in their fates. This book touches on LGBTQ issues, and issues that people of colour face with raw power. I’m half Jamaican, and I absolutely love reading Jamaican authors – recommendations please! I will be anxiously awaiting Dennis-Benn’s next work.

 

BOOK REVIEW | Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Big Little Lies follows three women, each at a crossroads:

Madeline is a force to be reckoned with. She’s funny and biting, passionate, she remembers everything and forgives no one. Her ex-husband and his yogi new wife have moved into her beloved beachside community, and their daughter is in the same kindergarten class as Madeline’s youngest (how is this possible?). And to top it all off, Madeline’s teenage daughter seems to be choosing Madeline’s ex-husband over her. (How. Is. This. Possible?).

Celeste is the kind of beautiful woman who makes the world stop and stare. While she may seem a bit flustered at times, who wouldn’t be, with those rambunctious twin boys? Now that the boys are starting school, Celeste and her husband look set to become the king and queen of the school parent body. But royalty often comes at a price, and Celeste is grappling with how much more she is willing to pay.

New to town, single mom Jane is so young that another mother mistakes her for the nanny. Jane is sad beyond her years and harbors secret doubts about her son. But why? While Madeline and Celeste soon take Jane under their wing, none of them realizes how the arrival of Jane and her inscrutable little boy will affect them all.

Big Little Lies is a brilliant take on ex-husbands and second wives, mothers and daughters, schoolyard scandal, and the dangerous little lies we tell ourselves just to survive.

My thoughts:
She was suddenly filled with the passionate desire to share everything, to hold nothing back. Fuck dignity.

This quote from the final page pretty much sums up this book – I felt like screaming those final two words so many times throughout. I went into Big Little Lies knowing very little about the plot, just that this is a well-loved book, and I was looking for something to break up some of the dark content I have been reading lately.  This book, however, is a slap in the face.

The story revolves around many women, but the focus is on the interconnections between Madeline, Jane, and Celeste. Initially, this reads as a witty take on modern day motherhood, and the judgments that we place on others. We have the yoga mom, the hot-mess mom, the put together mom, and so on – stereotypes and facades that we assign to others with as a way to justify our own choices.  As we begin to learn more about Celeste and Jane the story opens in breadth, leaving the reader with boundless questions. Moriarty pulls you so eloquently into her world, that you become deeply invested before you’re aware of it.

Without spoiling anything, I must say that Celeste was the character I felt most deeply invested in. Her “little lies”, were ultimately the biggest, and I wanted nothing more for her to find her voice early on – I wanted to send strength to her through the pages.

Marriage was about compromise. “Honey, if you really like that girlie, antique look, I’ll get you the real thing…That is just a cheap, tacky rip-off.”  When he said things like that, she heard “You’re cheap and tacky”. She would take her time setting up this place with cheap, tacky thing that she liked.

Jane often broke my heart, her self-loathing ran so deep:

Intellectually, I know I’m not ugly, I’m perfectly acceptable. But I feel ugly, because one man said it was so, and that made it so.

I highlighted a ton of quotes and moments while reading this book, and I would love to share more but they would reveal too much. This book was a total surprise to me – I went into it thinking I would enjoy it, but not at all expecting to love it as much as I did. Moriarty wraps this story up so perfectly, I couldn’t have asked for more. I am looking forward to digging into another of Moriarty’s books soon!