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"Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

July 23, 2014 by PatLeach
I read much of "Americanah" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie while on a brief family trip to Forth. I admit to bowing out of some family time to dip back into this novel of a contemporary woman's journey from Nigeria to the United Sates, then back.

Much of the story is framed as flashbacks while Ifemelu is having her hair braided for her return to Africa. She reflects on her early days in Nigeria, and her friendship with a young aunt who becomes mistress to a general. When power changes hands, that aunt leaves quickly, ending up in America. Ifemelu follows soon after. Ifemelu's initial depression, and resorting to performing sex acts for money, contrast with her later success. To her great good fortune, she lands a nanny job with a rich family. She becomes involved with rich and educated men. Thus she has much experience with race and class, and she pulls all of that into a blog that becomes remarkably profitable.

Meanwhile, Obinze, the love of her young life, experiences his own migration story, entering England legally but staying long after his visa expires. After living and working without documentation, he is deported. His fortunes rise in Nigeria as a successful businessman. He comes to see that his marriage, his family, even the way in which he makes money, do not reflect who he wishes to be. He seems not be living by the values his mother nurtured in him.

Adichie reveals and explores a remarkable variety of issues here--race, color, class, shame, and trust. I keep returning to the image of hair braiding as I consider how she does it, weaving together people, places, and politics. I tend to prefer novels that are pared down to just a very narrow chute. Adichie introduces all kinds of minor characters to push the story along. They leave as quickly as they appear. She also provides remarkable detail about clothing, about hair, especially African hair, and about food. It all seems a little messy, maybe too untidy, and yet it works.

I'll recommend this to book groups who don't shy away from 500-plus pages. I finished the book with the satisfying sense of a story well told, a better appreciation for the adjustments that immigration requires, and a distinctive view of race and class in America. I'm not surprised "Americanah" landed on this year's Notable Books list.


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Chammanda Ngozi Adichi, "Americanah",
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"The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma

July 07, 2014 by PatLeach
There's a special pleasure to a book that's read on a trip. I certainly sensed this in "The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards" by Kristopher Jansma, which I started and finished during a recent trip to Chicago for a library conference.

It makes a perfect example of why I love reading the titles from the Notable Books List each year--I come across fabulous books that I would have missed otherwise.

Basically this novel circles around an unnamed narrator and his two most important friends. The story opens as the narrator describes how his mother, a flight attendant, often left  him in the care of vendors at the airport. His ability to fit in, especially to mix among wealthy people, leads to a lifelong pattern of dishonesty. He meets the man who becomes his best friend in their college English class. That friend soon writes a fabulously successful novel, though his life is shadowed by addiction and mental illness. Through that friend, the narrator meets the woman he loves but can never marry. Much of the energy in this novel is generated as the three of them come together, then fall apart.

Each of the ten chapters could stand alone as a short story, focusing on a particular time and place. Jansma's genius is how he uses these pieces to pull the whole story together, how an image introduced in one place returns in another.

How does a writer avoid revealing what others don't want shared? When should a writer betray a friend to further success? What are the chances for success when relationships are built on lies? How can broken friendships be mended? When is honesty required?

I was surprised by how readable this book was, given those heavy questions. I credit Jansma's clever eye for detail and ability to draw attention to a new place. The book goes from the East Coast to New York City to India to Africa and many places between. Part of the pleasure in the reading was just learning where it would take up next. Meg Woltitzer aptly used the phrase, "playfully weird" about this book. I would add "playfully smart." I know that I missed many well-placed literary allusions.

I have confessed before to my Pollyanna-ish hope that at last one person will learn and grow in a novel, and end up a better person. That happened here, though it wasn't easy or pretty.

I'm not aware of many  people who've read this.  I'm hoping a few of my friends will do so soon, so that we can discuss it. I'll recommend this to people who like literary fiction, especially if they don't insist on the work being too dark and pessimistic. In the heart of this story of friendship, betrayal, and love, stands that critical question--CAN a leopard change its spots?


Tagged in: Notables, fiction, Kristopher Jansma,
Comments: 0

"Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" by Juliann Garey

February 25, 2014 by PatLeach
I chose "Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See" by Juliann Garey because it's on this year's American Library Association Notable Books list.

Briefly, it's a novel about a man's descent into mental illness, in this case bipolar disorder, eventually climbing back toward a glimmer of hope for his recovery.

Greyson Todd narrates all twelve sections, each correlating to an electroshock treatment in a psychiatric ward. He includes flashbacks to his adulthood and childhood, revealing the lingering impact of his father's mental illness.

Todd has achieved high success as a studio executive in California when he decides to leave his wife and daughter. It has become more and more difficult to hide the manifestations of his illness. He has ample money, so he travels to various countries, living all kinds of adventures before that money runs out.

I've been reading most of the books on the Notable Books lists for over 20 years, and my bar is now set very high. This one barely measures up. I can't point to particular faults with it, I simply didn't feel the pull of strong narrative or compelling characters.

Even so, it is a potent book group book. Where Garey excels in this story is when revealing the connection between Todd's behavior and the progress of his illness. In doing so, she asks important questions. What does it mean to hit rock bottom? How do we respond to someone who's mentally ill, especially when he is violent? How do families re-build? Can mental illness be cured without love? How does trust ever happen?


Tagged in: Notable Books, fiction, Juliann Garey, Juliann Garey,
Comments: 0

"The Woman Upstairs"

February 20, 2014 by PatLeach
Working my way through the American Library Association Notable Books list, I picked up "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud.

Its narrator is Nora Eldridge, a third grade teacher in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She introduces this novel, "How angry am I? You don't want to know. Nobody wants to know about that." Nora intended to be an artist. But that has been set aside. At 42, she is a popular teacher, a dutiful daughter, and a dependable friend. She is "the woman upstairs." And nobody knows how furious she is.

She goes on to tell how five years previous her dreams were reawakened by a remarkable family who entered her life. First the son joins her class, then the mother who is an artist invites her to share space, then the father, a visiting professor, becomes special to her. Each of them possesses a personality that matches Nora's needs--their jigsaw pieces seem to complete her puzzle. But it doesn't last, and worse, it leads to betrayal.

Ongoing foreshadowing led me to expect some kind of huge awful explosion. It didn't happen as I expected, and perhaps that is why this is a strong book. It seems entirely realistic--this earthshaking interior change in Nora, instead of propelling her into a life of art, kindles fury instead. She stokes it because it makes her feel alive.

Messud has mastered choosing and describing key interactions. Nora is aware of feminist aspects of her situation and  sees herself enduring dates with duty. Her telling leaves plenty of space for the reader to see more than she does.

The story reads like an extended conversation. It's tailor made for book groups. I salute Messud for the open ending, a perfect discussion point. I still can't decide whether it's hopeless or hopeful. I'll recommend this to many of my reading friends, and look forward to extending the conversation with them.


Tagged in: fiction, Notables, Claire Messud, "The Woman Upstairs",
Comments: 0

Herman Koch's "The Dinner"

February 06, 2014 by PatLeach
The American Library Association's Notable Books List (for adults) was announced Sunday, January 26. It includes "The Dinner" by Herman Koch, a contemporary novel first published in the Netherlands in 2009, now available in English.

The action happens during a dinner at a high-end Amsterdam restaurant. Two brothers and their wives are gathering to discuss their sons. The narrator, one of the brothers, seems to poke fun at every aspect of the restaurant's style, food, and service. He's an unemployed teacher, his brother a candidate for prime minister of the country. Slowly we learn that their sons may be responsible for a death. The dinner conversation will address what comes next. In almost comic ways, the dinner is interrupted by telephone calls, trips to the restroom, and other extended absences. The story takes a sharp turn when the narrator reveals his own history of mental illness and violence, building the bridge to events that grow out of control. Koch seems to be almost calling a bluff with violence, probing what can happen when the stakes are that high. It puts the sons' alarming behavior in an even more alarming context. I couldn't stop reading, a testimony to Koch's plotting and pacing.

Some of the scenes struck me as completely harrowing, partly due to the contrast with the initial setting in the overly civilized restaurant. I appreciated how Koch allowed the narrator's tone to move from humorous though begrudging to almost monstrous. Looking back, I salute Koch for so deftly combining civilization, humor and violence, thus heightening the impact of all. The references to Tolstoy's quote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" remind the reader that this is a distinctive family indeed.

I recommend this to book groups, readers of suspense, and others who seek books that plumb extreme behavior. The classic book discussion issues of how children are raised, how far parents will go to protect them, how mental illness shapes behavior, and how families communicate are all right here. And more.


Tagged in: Notable Books, fiction, "The Dinner", Herman Koch,
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