The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next DoorThe Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Published by Chatto & Windus

This is, on the surface, a simple story about a feud between two neighbors in South Africa and the surrounding details of what the drama between the two women is all about. But this is post-Apartheid South Africa, and since Hortensia is black and Marion is white, their feud comes with all kinds of deep-seated issues of race, class, and background. When one of the women suffers an accident that brings the two of them in close quarters for an extended period of time, they are forced to confront each other as well as their own prejudices as they attempt to forge what can only be described as a tenuous acquaintanceship.

I love reading books set in different cultures and continue to remind myself of the importance of doing so. The Woman Next Door was the perfect example of such a novel, as I have to say that I’m more ignorant about the details of Apartheid than I’d like to be (and plan to remedy that with future books, probably more non-fiction about the topic). The book was a good intro to how the culture has attempted to evolve into a more tolerant and accepting society since the end of Apartheid, but it is clear that the degree to which that has actually happened is minimal at best.

This book is full of little references to the culture in this part of South Africa, the long-lasting effects of Apartheid, and the ways in which living through that shaped how these women think and behave. There are several scenes where Marion begins to have light bulb moments about her part in keeping blacks and whites separate and the fact that she is racist and never realized it until her conversations with Hortensia. There are other moments where Hortensia outright confronts Marion about her racism and doesn’t make it easy for her – she forces her to examine her prejudices head-on and not run or hide from them.

Even with the honesty that Hortensia and Marion face within themselves, I still didn’t think the book went as far as I would have liked to address the racism and prejudices inherent in these women’s lives. Put simply, I liked the concept but wanted more. I wanted even harsher criticisms of Marion’s behavior and I wanted even more intense confrontations between the two women. In addition, I didn’t feel particularly connected to either woman, and I just wanted to feel something more for them. In the end, while I appreciate what Omotoso was doing in this novel, and the writing was great, overall the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I liked it but didn’t love it. Again, though, the book exposed me to a culture that I wish I knew more about and looked at some history that I also want to learn more about. So in that sense, it was a total win. I just wish I would have gotten more feeling, more connection, from the characters.

The Golden Son by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

The Golden SonThe Golden Son by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Published by William Morrow

Anil Patel is the pride and joy of his parents, as he’s the first in his family to attend college and later travels from his village in India to Dallas, Texas to begin his medical residency. When his father dies, Anil has to assume the role of head of household, and from thousands of miles away, his father’s duty as the arbiter of disputes among the people in their village. While Anil attempts to assimilate into American culture, at the same time he is being pulled back into his traditions and values from his Indian culture back home on an almost daily basis, and he must figure out a way to balance the two demands equally, for his family and his future. Meanwhile, Anil’s best friend from childhood, Leena, has an arranged marriage in their village in India and struggles desperately to deal with the demands of her new family. Her new in-laws are nothing like how they advertised themselves to be, and for fear of shaming her parents, she can’t tell them how unbearable her new life is. She eventually finds herself in a desperate situation involving money, abuse, and family honor, and what she ends up being forced to do has a resounding effect on her family and Anil’s.

That summary doesn’t even come close to doing this gorgeous novel justice. These characters, these families, they wound their way around my heart and stayed there for weeks after I finished reading about them. I felt deeply for Anil and Leena, but also for the secondary characters in the novel. Leena’s parents are desperate to secure their daughter’s future, but in their desperation, they will stop at nothing to get what they believe is guaranteed happiness for Leena – even when it literally costs them everything they own. And how things turn out for Leena, despite the lengths her parents go to for her, is absolutely heartbreaking and the exact opposite of what her parents wanted for her. Anil’s family is another cast of characters that just jumps off the page – between his younger brothers, his sister (who is also good friends with Leena), and especially his mother, they each grow and change throughout the book and become different, mostly better versions of themselves. The fact that the author managed to show that growth to the reader, while setting a good chunk of the book in another part of the world (not where these characters are located), is pretty awesome.

There were so many devastating moments throughout this book, but Gowda does an incredible job at never letting the reader fully lose hope. Yes, it’s a heartbreaking and sad novel, but it has so many shining moments of love and happiness throughout that it makes the reader continue to root for the characters and believe, against all odds, that something will eventually work out for them. In addition to that, Gowda’s writing is absolutely gorgeous and I soaked up every single word that was on the page.

The Golden Son is the kind of book I really treasure – it’s layered, complex, has fantastic characters that come to life on the page, a story that captivates, and beautiful writing. I can’t say enough great things about this novel. It will be one of my favorites this year for sure.

Mini-reviews (attempting to wrap up 2015 reading part 4)

Saga, Volume 1Saga, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughan
Published by Image Comics

Publisher’s summary: When two soldiers from opposite sides of a never-ending galactic war fall in love, they risk everything to bring a fragile new life into a dangerous old universe.

I chose to read Saga because I have been wanting to try more comics and everyone raves about this one, so I thought it would be a good choice. I really loved it! I loved the angle of these star-crossed lovers – individuals from two different intergalactic species that happen to be at war who fall in love, have a child together, and have to try to make it despite the universe telling them they cannot be together. There is war, drama, love, ghosts – you name it, Saga has got it. And the illustrations are absolutely beautiful and SO creative. I am by no means an expert on comics but I found this one truly excellent and am looking forward to reading the rest.

Mambo in ChinatownMambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok
Published by Riverhead Books

Charlie Wong has spent almost no time throughout her twenty-two years of life outside of Chinatown, where she lives with her father and younger sister. Her job as a dishwasher makes her miserable, so when she lands a new job as a receptionist at a dance studio, she’s thrilled. As Charlie gets to know this new world of dance, her own talents begin to rise to the surface and her life quickly changes into something she had never dreamed for herself. At the same time, however, her sister is having trouble in school and seems to become almost chronically ill. Charlie has to figure out how to grow into her new identity in the American world while at the same time figuring out how to get her firmly Eastern world-minded father to help her sister.

Jean Kwok has a talent for bringing to life the experiences of people I don’t read much about – in her first novel, she detailed the life of Chinese immigrants, and in this one it’s all about American-born Chinese – those who were born here in America, but have lived their lives immersed in Chinese culture. I really enjoyed this novel and felt SO deeply for Charlie. She is the kind of character the reader connects to immediately and roots for throughout the novel. I read so anxiously and hopefully as Charlie discovered this new world, as she learned that she has true talent for something other than washing dishes, and as she stood up to her father and her uncle in regards to her sister’s care. I was proud of her, even! Kwok really showed the reader how difficult a balance children of immigrants must strike between their parents’ ways of thinking and living and the ways of the culture they’ve been immersed in here in the US. Mambo in Chinatown is a fantastic story with a lot to think about, a ton of heart, and great characters. Highly recommended.

Why Not Me?Why Not Me? By Mindy Kaling
Published by Crown Archetype

Mindy Kaling’s second collection of essays invites readers to see inside her brain as she talks about career, her quest to find happiness and excitement in life, falling in love, and looking different from just about every other person in Hollywood.

I’m a huge Mindy Kaling fan and I really enjoyed these essays. Kaling is smart, witty, extremely funny, and really has an eye for what’s going on in society. She pokes fun at people and ideas without being hurtful, while at the same time shows readers how tough it can be to be yourself in a world that wants you to be the same as everyone else. She is just great, I enjoy her tremendously, and if you like her humor you should definitely read both of her books.

Mini-reviews (attempting to wrap up 2015 reading, part 3)

The Bishop’s WifeThe Bishop’s Wife by Mette Ivie Harrison
Published by Soho Crime

Linda Wallheim, devout Mormon, wife of the Bishop, and mother of five, finds herself increasingly involved in the disappearance of a woman in her community, Carrie Helm, who left her husband and young daughter behind. As Linda gets deeper into her own investigation of Carrie’s husband, Jared, she comes to the conclusion that he must have murdered his wife. Although Linda’s husband has asked her to stay out of it, she can’t help feeling for Carrie as she learns more about her life with Jared, and gets pulled closer emotionally to Carrie’s young daughter. She’s pulled between her duty to her husband and church, and what she feels as her duty as a woman to help uncover the truth behind Carrie’s disappearance.

I didn’t grow up around the Mormon church, so everything I know about the religion has been from books, movies and TV, so I have no background upon which to judge if Harrison’s depiction of Mormon life in this book is accurate. That being said, The Bishop’s Wife was pretty darn entertaining and it certainly felt relatively realistic. I’m not a huge fan of when women feel that they have to defer to their husband’s wishes, whether because of religion, culture, or another reason, but I felt that Harrison did a nice job depicting the internal struggle of a woman for which that was the expectation, but she was pulled to do differently by her own conscience. The mystery kept me turning pages and I didn’t guess what really happened until close to the reveal at the end. I’m not sure I loved it enough to continue with this series, but this book was certainly enjoyable.

Empire State: A Love Story (or Not)Empire State: A Love Story (or Not) by Jason Shiga
Published by Harry N. Abrams

Jimmy lives in Oakland, California, with his parents, has few friends, and works in the library. Sara is his best friend, but has bigger dreams for herself than what Jimmy imagines his own life to be. When Sara moves to New York City, Jimmy decides to finally get the courage to tell her his real feelings and arranges a Sleepless in Seattle style meetup at the Empire State Building. His trip to New York is exciting and scary, but what’s scarier is what he discovers when he gets there – Sara has a boyfriend.

This was a cute graphic novel that was an easy, fun way to spend an afternoon. I loved the nerdy way Jimmy responded to the world around him and there were some laugh-out-loud moments during his time traveling to New York. The illustrations were well done and I liked the simplicity of them. I enjoyed Empire State and would recommend it for a quick, light read.

China Rich Girlfriend (Crazy Rich Asians #2)China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan
Published by Knopf Doubleday

This sequel to the incredibly funny and surprisingly heartfelt Crazy Rich Asians brings back Rachel Chu and Nicholas Young just as they’re about to get married. Rachel is sad that her estranged father won’t be able to walk her down the aisle, until she learns that she might be able to forge a relationship with him after all.

I hugely enjoyed Crazy Rich Asians so I was definitely looking forward to this book. Overall it was almost as fun as the first, and I’m still looking forward to whatever Kevin Kwan does next. This book was a bit sillier than the first, and a little less poignant, but still really fun and a highly amusing read. I love these characters, how they are just insanely spoiled rotten and so disgustingly rich, but on the inside they have problems just like the rest of us. My favorite moments throughout these books is when the humanity of these crazy rich Asians shows through their glitz and glamour. China Rich Girlfriend was a really fun read and a must-read for anyone who loved the first book in the series!

 

Mini-reviews – August reads

To say I am woefully behind on sharing with you what I’ve been reading is the understatement of the year. Here it is, November, and I haven’t told you anything about the last three books I read in AUGUST. I’m going to work on remedying that in the next few weeks, as I bombard you all with a bunch of mini-reviews. Here’s my thoughts on the final three books I read in August.

The People in the TreesThe People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara
Published by Doubleday

From the publisher:

In 1950, a young doctor called Norton Perina signs on with the anthropologist Paul Tallent for an expedition to the remote Micronesian island of Ivu’ivu in search of a rumored lost tribe. They succeed, finding not only that tribe but also a group of forest dwellers they dub “The Dreamers,” who turn out to be fantastically long-lived but progressively more senile. Perina suspects the source of their longevity is a hard-to-find turtle; unable to resist the possibility of eternal life, he kills one and smuggles some meat back to the States. He scientifically proves his thesis, earning worldwide fame and the Nobel Prize, but he soon discovers that its miraculous property comes at a terrible price. As things quickly spiral out of his control, his own demons take hold, with devastating personal consequences.

THIS BOOK IS SO GOOD. That’s all.

Kidding, that’s not all, but really it’s so darn fantastic, I loved it. There are not one, but TWO unreliable narrators, which is something I happen to love. So many awful things happen in this book – kidnapping and exploitation of native peoples, destruction of their homes and land, intense sexism that made me want to throw this sexist asshole (Norton Perina) off a cliff, and the worst thing in here is one I don’t even want to say because I think it’s a spoiler. But this is a book that is saying something, Yanagihara is the kind of writer I just adore, and all the awful things added up to an incredible book that I truly could not put down. It’s been quite some time since I read this one, but I am still thinking about it. LOVED.

He's GoneHe’s Gone by Deb Caletti
Published by Bantam

From the publisher:

The Sunday morning starts like any other, aside from the slight hangover. Dani Keller wakes up on her Seattle houseboat, a headache building behind her eyes from the wine she drank at a party the night before. But on this particular Sunday morning, she’s surprised to see that her husband, Ian, is not home. As the hours pass, Dani fills her day with small things. But still, Ian does not return. Irritation shifts to worry, worry slides almost imperceptibly into panic. And then, like a relentless blackness, the terrible realization hits Dani: He’s gone.

As the police work methodically through all the logical explanations—he’s hurt, he’s run off, he’s been killed—Dani searches frantically for a clue as to whether Ian is in fact dead or alive. And, slowly, she unpacks their relationship, holding each moment up to the light: from its intense, adulterous beginning, to the grandeur of their new love, to the difficulties of forever. She examines all the sins she can—and cannot—remember. As the days pass, Dani will plumb the depths of her conscience, turning over and revealing the darkest of her secrets in order to discover the hard truth—about herself, her husband, and their lives together.

I thought I was going to like this one a lot more than I did. What I enjoyed was the deep, introspective look into the marriage between Dani and Ian. What I didn’t enjoy was pretty much everything else. I found Dani somewhat annoying, I thought the book kind of dragged, and I just couldn’t care quite enough about Ian to hope he was alive. Is that awful? Part of the issue might have been that I listened to the audio, and it took me forever, so I think I just wanted the story to be over. In the end, I finished it so I can’t say it was terrible, but maybe okayish is where I fall on He’s Gone.

Eight Hundred GrapesEight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave
Published by Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

There are secrets you share, and secrets you hide…

Growing up on her family’s Sonoma vineyard, Georgia Ford learned some important secrets. The secret number of grapes it takes to make a bottle of wine: eight hundred. The secret ingredient in her mother’s lasagna: chocolate. The secret behind ending a fight: hold hands.

But just a week before her wedding, thirty-year-old Georgia discovers her beloved fiancé has been keeping a secret so explosive, it will change their lives forever.

Georgia does what she’s always done: she returns to the family vineyard, expecting the comfort of her long-married parents, and her brothers, and everything familiar. But it turns out her fiancé is not the only one who’s been keeping secrets…

I was expecting to love this one because, well, because wine, duh. I did enjoy it but not as much as the first of Laura Dave’s novels I read (The First Husband). I tend to appreciate books about a thirtyish woman dealing with something awful and fleeing home to cope, because I know that if something rocked my world in a bad way, I’d fly to Chicago immediately and seek comfort from my mom. So I am totally buying what Dave is selling here. Generally, I enjoyed the family dynamics at play here and Dave did a nice job keeping the people and relationships complex and staying away from stereotypes. I liked the characters and the story worked good. It was a nice read, not the best ever, but good enough and I definitely enjoyed my time spent with the book.

Monday Minis

Has it REALLY been 21 days since I’ve posted here? Wow. July has been busy and I guess that means I have been completely absent. At some point I’ll catch you all up on what’s been going on in my life, but for today I’d like to catch you up on what I’ve been reading. So here’s the rest of what I read in June, and soon I’ll get started on what I’ve been reading this month.

Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler: A True Love Story RediscoveredSome Girls, Some Hats and Hitler: A True Love Story Rediscovered by Trudi Kantor
Published by Scribner

Trudi Kantor was an Austrian hat designer in the 1930’s who was exceptionally talented in her field and as a result, traveled all over Europe to be creatively inspired and to sell her hats. When she fell in love and married Walter Ehrlich, a Jewish businessman, right as the Nazis came to Vienna, everything in her power was focused on getting herself, her new husband, and their families as far away as possible.

I liked this little-known memoir quite a bit. At first I thought “another World War Two book?” but this one is different because it’s got a lighter feel that most books of this genre can’t get away with. Kantor was fleeing the Nazis, and that’s a huge part of her story, but it’s not her whole story. Not even close. She was a fabulous, fashionable, and very wise woman who had a lot to contribute to the world, and her memoir shows that. There is definitely a brevity to her story, especially towards the end, but the book also shows a side of the war that is sometimes glossed over – that of ordinary people who were just trying to live their lives, go about their regular days, when the Nazis changed everything for them. That was most definitely my favorite aspect of the memoir, and why I can recommend Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler.

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published by Knopf

This novel is so many things – a love story, an immigration story, a story about race in America, a story that illuminates how globalized this world has become, and even more than all of that. Born and raised in Nigeria, Ifemelu goes to America for college, hoping that her boyfriend Obinze, will soon follow. But red tape holds him back, and their separation causes the two of them to follow very different paths in life. Fourteen years later, when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria for the first time since her departure, everything is the same as how she left it yet completely different – including and especially Obinze.

I feel that what I wrote above simplifies Americanah into a simple story about missed opportunities and unrequited love – and in a way, the book is about those things. But it’s about so much more than just those things. I loved this novel. Loved it and was challenged by it, loved it because I was challenged by it, actually. Reading about the immigrant experience, reading about race in America from a non-American Black, reading about someone who is half the globe away from her family for fourteen years (when I complain when it’s been more than three or four months since I’ve seen mine), reading about being so in love with someone that it’s easier NOT to talk to them than to confront the fact that you’ll never be together in the way you want, all of this and more is what I loved about Americanah. It’s fantastic. Please read it yourself.

InfidelInfidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Published by Free Press

Somali-born Ayan Hirsi Ali is one of the most controversial women on earth. She left Somalia for Holland at the age of 20, claimed refugee status as a way to escape her arranged marriage, and ended up in the Dutch Parliament. She made a video denouncing Islam that caused filmmaker Theo Van Gogh to be killed and caused huge issues within the Dutch government. Infidel is her memoir, mostly about her years growing up in a Muslim country, but also focusing on how she escaped that culture and what has happened in her life since.

Just a few things about this book, although I could write a way longer post and have a lot more to say. One, I was shocked and saddened by what an awful and abusive childhood the author experienced. Regardless of religion, no child should be forced to grow up the way she did. Two, I think it’s incredibly brave of her to so loudly denounce Islam, a religion that historically has been linked to abuse of women and girls, that requires women to have very few (if any) opportunities to make choices in their own lives, being a woman herself. She’s the very definition of feminist and I applaud what she’s doing – speaking up, being honest, showing people the realities of the world she grew up in, one in which millions of women and girls suffer silently today. All of this while receiving death threats on a daily basis from the men who oppose the truth she’s telling – it’s a brave thing this woman is doing. While most of her memoir is the story of her life, the very end is a passionate call to action and this was by far my favorite part of the entire thing.

I listened to the audio of this and I do not recommend that. I had a difficult time understanding the narrator which detracted from my enjoyment and appreciation of the book overall. I highly recommend Infidel, and definitely encourage print over audio.

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published by Hogarth

This novel, bringing to life war-torn Chechnya with fictional characters but a not-at-all unrealistic story, is haunting and beautiful all at once. When eight-year-old Havaa’s father is “disappeared” by the Russian military, she is taken in by Akmed, a neighbor, and brought to the only remaining hospital in the city to hide. The only doctor left at said hospital, Sonja, has zero interest in hiding a young child from the military, but obliges when Akmed agrees to assist her with some of the patients and their many unmet needs. As the story takes shape, it becomes clear that absolutely nothing is a given in this horrifying time and place, and these characters’ lives are incredibly fragile – yet their humanity is most certainly still in the forefront of their story.

I had a difficult time with this novel, probably because I expected to love it to the moon and back and I am not even sure I liked it. I definitely appreciated it – I learned about a war that I am ashamed to say I knew little about, I felt deeply for these characters and the atrocities they were forced to endure, and I thought Marra’s writing was just gorgeous in its stark simplicity. Ultimately, I found myself staying at arm’s length from the novel, though, and I don’t know if that’s because it was just too difficult for me to wrap my emotional brain around. The few times I’d picture myself in this situation were enough to make me a blubbering mess, so I had to turn that part of my brain off while reading the book. I don’t know. I liked it but didn’t all at the same time. Does that make sense even a little bit?

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Crazy Rich Asians (Crazy Rich Asians #1)Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
Published by Doubleday

Rachel Chu is mostly excited but a little nervous when her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, invites her to spend the summer with him and his family in Singapore. She thinks Nicholas might be The One, so it’s only natural to want his family to get to know her and vice versa. What she doesn’t know is that Nicholas comes from one of the wealthiest families in Singapore, he’s heir to a huge fortune, and his family is not going to accept him marrying an ABC (American Born Chinese). As Rachel gets to know the insanely rich family and friends that her boyfriend grew up with, she begins to question her place in his life – and wonders if she can ever fit in at all.

Can I start really quickly with a short discussion on the term “chick lit”? I am just going to put it out there that if Crazy Rich Asians was written by a woman, it would be deemed “chick lit” and therefore been brushed aside as too fluffy or silly by many readers (and critics). But since a man wrote this book, it’s funny and smart satire. Think about that for a second.

Anyway. The above comment does not mean I didn’t like the book – in fact, I REALLY liked the book. Crazy Rich Asians IS funny. It’s hysterical at times but also in the way that you know the things happening here are kind of true – satire is based in reality, of course. As I read the first fifty pages, I worried that I would have trouble keeping all of the characters straight – there are a lot of people in this book, and they’re all related somehow – but that didn’t end up being an issue. And I think the many characters contributed to my enjoyment of the book, because just at the exact moment I would start to be less enamored by a character and more annoyed, Kwan would switch to someone else. Although I have to admit that I’m not one hundred percent sure I have the family tree down in my brain – this cousin married so-and-so’s niece’s son, etc. Very confusing. But it was much less important to keep their relationships straight as it was to just know who was who and how they were related to Nick.

While the novel is really funny and is supposed to have that light tone throughout, there is a serious element to it and I was glad for that. I think without the depth the end of the novel brought, I would have liked the book a lot less. As it is, though, I thought the ending gave the novel the punch of reality it needed and absolutely gave me a reason to want to read the second book, which was just published the other day.

So I really liked Crazy Rich Asians!! While this wasn’t the kind of book I would have picked up on my own, the combination of great reviews I’d seen for the book and my friend’s urging helped me decide to read it. I can absolutely recommend Crazy Rich Asians and I really did have a lot of fun reading this novel.