BOOK REVIEW | Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

5/5 stars

“Somebody…should have told us that not many people have ever died of love. But multitudes have perished – and are perishing every hour.”

This book blew me away. A precursor to Call Me By Your Name (which is no secret that I absolutely love), I can see where Aciman was influenced. Baldwin is such a beautiful craftsman of words; his writing is so simple, yet so affecting. This would have a been a bold and brave book during during the time it was published, 1956, and it’s just one way in which Baldwin continues to astound me.

While living in Paris, David, an American, meets a bartender named Giovanni. A spark is there, and through forceful encouragement, he invites Giovanni out with the group. The two connect, and before long they are living together, nearly penniless, in Giovanni’s tiny 1 room apartment. David struggles with his identity – is he bisexual? Gay? It all seems irrelevant when he is with Giovanni. However, David has a fiancé, Hella, and has to make a difficult decision about the life he wants to have.

While living in Giovanni’s small apartment, David refers to it as a closet he is trapped inside of, and I can’t really put it any better than that. This is a story about feeling trapped, choosing to eschew love out of fear, and the painful regret that comes later. David and Giovanni’s lives go down very different paths, and they must each account for the decisions they make and the regrets they have in the face of death. This book is stunningly beautiful at times, violent and tragic at others; it was an emotional journey that had me in tears more than once.

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BOOK REVIEW | Enigma Variations by André Aciman

5/5 stars

I am the most miserable man alive, and more so because no one at this dinner table has the slightest notion of what is tearing me up. And yet, what if each of us at this very table were a monsoon-ravaged island trying to look its best, with all of our coconut trees bending to the winds till hopelessness breaks their backs and you can hear each one crash and all their mealy, hardheaded coconuts pelt the ground, and still we’ll keep our spirited good cheer and add a lilting sprint to our gait on the way to the office every morning, because we’re waiting for someone’s voice to tear us out of our bleak and blistered lives and say, Follow me, Brother. Follow me, Sister. 

After obsessing over Call Me By Your Name, I knew I would be picking up another Aciman book soon. Enigma Variations proved to be the perfect quell to the emptiness I felt after finishing CMBYN, offering a similar narration style and themes. Aciman is an absolute master of internal dialogue; the ache and agony of desire jump out of the pages as we follow Paul from adolescence to adulthood through five uniquely connected vignettes.

We first meet Paul at twelve years old, infatuated with the town cabinetmaker. Next comes Claire; Paul is consumed with the idea that she is cheating on him. Then, a tennis partner named Manfred – a love that takes years to come to light. We meet his college girlfriend who he reunites with every four years, but only for a few days each time. Finally, a girl much younger than himself. Through all of these relationships, Paul searches for…something more. Fireworks? Contentment? Partnership? He is passionate in the chase, but seldom relieved by reciprocation.

Aciman’s prose builds tension; the yearning his characters feel is palpable, and he often provides satisfactory release. A touch that finally happens, or the right words at the right time, with the right person ready to receive them. Much of this book takes place in Paul’s head; his thoughts, obsessions, fears, and desires are laid bare. Aciman writes candidly about all facets of love: diffidence is love, fear itself is love, even the scorn you feel is love. Aciman brings a fresh and realistic approach to stories of this nature, resulting in a wholly unique reading experience.

BOOK REVIEW | Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

4/5 stars

This is a book designed to provoke heated conversations with the hopes of opening eyes and changing perceptions. Kamila Shamsie tells the story of a young man’s search for answers and his unwitting spiral into jihad, forcing the reader to confront discrepancies in media coverage and what it means to be Muslim in this day and age.

Isma has always been caretaker to her younger twin siblings, Aneeka and Parvaiz, after their mother’s death. They don’t know much about their father, but it’s thought that he died as a result of jihadist associations. Years go by, and Isma is free – the twins are grown up and she can return to her dream of studying in America. Before long, a chance meeting at a café in Amherst, Massachusetts brings Eamon, the son of a British politician, into her family’s life. This quaint café meeting does not end up the way it seems it should, but a discovery about their respective fathers ensures their narrative remains entwined.

Eamon heads home to London, where he meets Isma’s sister, the beautiful Aneeka, and a romance quickly ensues. Meanwhile, Parvais, in a desperate search to learn who his father was, falls in with a a man who knew his father and finds himself in Pakistan as a part of the jihadist media. Questions about Aneeka’s intent with Eamon quickly arise when Eamon’s father discovers their relationship, leading to an analysis of love, and what one is willing to sacrifice in the name of it.

There are some plot points that disappear, leaving me wanting more. I was initially drawn in to Isma’s story, but it doesn’t take long for her to become a part of the background. I wanted more from her perspective, as an intelligent and practical witness to everything going on with her siblings. She’s a part of the narrative, but far from the forefront. There’s also a lot going on here, and I don’t know that it all felt fleshed out. That said, this story is absorbing and valuable reading in a time that seems to vilify Muslims. It’s a story of politics and family, but ultimately one of love.

BOOK REVIEW | Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

5/5

There is no one else to tell, Oliver, so I’m afraid it’s going to have to be you . . .

This is the story of Elio, 17 years old, and Oliver, 24 years old, and a summer I won’t soon forget. Oliver is a graduate student who comes to work with Elio’s father and stay at their house in Italy for the summer; he’s intellectual and handsome – the sort of person that everyone is drawn to, including Elio. Elio quickly becomes enamoured with Oliver, and what develops between them is a once in a lifetime love.

I’ve read few books that capture so eloquently the yearning of unrequited love, but, until now, I’ve yet to read anything that so boldly illustrates the intensity that occurs when that love is finally reciprocated. Elio and Oliver couple utterly and completely; there are no secrets, no privacy, nothing too taboo – they become one unified soul. They are electric.

Aciman’s prose lingers before biting, is quiet and loud, soft and aggressive. Narrated from Elio’s perspective many years later, this is both a coming-of-age story and passionate, painful love story. Yes, this book is erotically charged, but with purpose. With Elio, Aciman taps into the ache and agony of desire that often accompanies the teen years. Elio is precocious, over-analyzing each encounter with Oliver, both curious and afraid. This book moved me in a genuinely profound way, more than any book has in a while.