books I’ve read in 2011 (in great detail), part I

1 Apr

The Namesake– Jhumpa Lahiri. The first of Jhumpa Lahiri I’ve read after ‘The interpreter of maladies’ and just as wonderful. Lots of emotional and cultural themes around identity, home, the struggle of being caught between two worlds. It also had a lot around naming, the names given to us, the names we choose for ourselves, and how we are perceived by others as a result.  “They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.”

Unless – Carol Shields. My first novel by Carol Shields and I found it powerful. The narrator is a 44 year old woman, living a perfectly peaceful suburban life, who has had no need to ever feel any anger. Until she discovers that her eldest daughter has been sitting cross-legged on a Toronto street corner with a begging bowl in her lap and a placard saying GOODNESS around her neck. The sense of disengagement that the narrator feels from her husband and friends, the lack of support and understanding which leads to isolation- it’s all described beautifully. Ultimately, the anger that the narrator feels makes her understand the world, and her daughter, better. “It doesn’t mean that all will be well for ever and ever, amen; it means that for five minutes a balance has been achieved at the margin of the novel’s thin textual plane; make that five seconds; make that the millionth part of a nanosecond.”

Noah’s compass– Anne Tyler. My mother introduced me to Anne Tyler a few years back, and I really connect with her writing style. I find she describes life situations really well, just the every day detail that is quite hard to put your finger on usually. I find it hard to describe the ‘bigger picture’ contents of this book but it’s about a 60 year old man, going through a bit of a life change (following a job loss and an accident which has caused memory loss!). All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life. He had dodged the tough issues, avoided the conflicts, and gracefully skirted adventure. “I just don’t seem to have the hang of things, somehow. It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life.”

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao– Junot Diaz. I didn’t really enjoy the writing style so I struggled a bit through this one. It centres around Oscar, a Dominican growing up in New Jersey, and a curse ‘fuku’ that has affected his family for generations. I learned a lot about Dominican history though and actually grew quite fond of Oscar by the end of it. “Nothing more exhilarating … than saving yourself by the simple act of waking.”

My Father’s Wives – José Eduardo Agualusa. Probably my favourite of all the novels I’ve read recently…. gorgeous descriptions of Luanda, Maputo, Cape Town. Music, family connections, belonging, racial/social identity, the search for a past and the truth…this book is dripping in saudade,  “And what use will it be to you knowing the truth?’ ‘It’s not a question of being useful. What use is the beauty of stars to me? They make my soul glad. I think truth has something to do with beauty.”

Icy Sparks– Gwyn Hyman Rubio. Set in Kentucky in 1956, a young girl with Tourette’s struggles to be accepted by her peers, teachers, and even tries to hide her condition from her grandparents who are raising her. The thing with Tourette’s of course is that you can’t hide it. Heartbreaking descriptions of exclusion. “I was born a frog child from Icy Creek. From my father, I inherited the fear that resided in his coal-black eyes, and from this fear I’ve gained wisdom. […] From my mama, I grew to see the world through hope-filled eyes. Though hope did not come easy.”

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives – Lola Shoneyin. I can’t really describe this book without given anything away, so if you’re curious- read it! Not the most well-written book in the world, but it’s light-hearted and gave some insight into a household of 4 wives (and all their children) dominated by a traditional patriarch in Nigeria.

Lucky– Alice Sebold. I haven’t read The Lovely Bones, so this is my first experience of Alice Sebold. This book is a memoir which describes her experience of being raped when she was in college, how that incident and the healing continued to shape her life. Very haunting, and it triggered a lot of my fears about rape/sexual aggression that I didn’t know I had. I also thought it was quite daring in some aspects- for example discussing how the rapist was a young Black male in America, the stereotypes around this and how hard it is to confirm them in a situation such as this. “I forgive you,” I said. I said what I had to. I would die by pieces to save myself from real death.”

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