Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit WestExit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published by Riverhead

Nadia and Sayed meet just as their country is fracturing into a terrifying civil war, and as their love grows, their city becomes a war zone right before their eyes. When they hear rumors about doors that take people away, to somewhere far away from the chaos around them, they decide to learn more. This is the beginning of the adventure the two of them journey on together as they escape from the terrors in their hometown and find themselves in a new place every couple of months.

There is no doubt that the premise of Exit West is extremely compelling and unique; in fact the interesting premise is the exact reason I decided to pick up the book. While I enjoyed a few things about this novel, overall I was more in the camp of finding it unsuccessful than many other readers.

What I really liked about the book was the writing – it was a really cool mix of poetic and concise, telling the reader exactly what he/she needed to understand while at the same time telling the story in a beautiful way. Honestly I may have been more annoyed with the book overall if the writing hadn’t been so gorgeous. I also liked the relationship between Nadia and Sayed, especially in the beginning – I loved reading as they got to know each other, as their relationship developed from friends to dating to something much more serious. I found it fascinating how they managed to navigate their lives and their relationship despite the fact that it felt as though the world was collapsing all around them.

Ultimately my issue with the book was that I felt it was almost two separate books – did the author want to write a book about war, or did the author want to write a science fiction-y book about doors that take people to new places? I had hoped that these two concepts would come together in a way that I found cohesive, but unfortunately I didn’t personally find that to be the case. There were also some issues that I had with the later parts of Nadia and Sayed’s relationship, but I feel that these details are a bit spoiler-y so I’ll avoid the specifics.

I have to say that despite my issues with the book, I did enjoy the experience of reading it. But since the main thing I didn’t like about the book is pretty much the core of the entire thing, I find that to be pretty important. A lot of readers have loved this one, so don’t take my word for it – try it for yourself and come back to tell me what you think.

Advertisements

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the DreamersBehold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Published by Random House Trade

Jende Jonga is a Cameroonian immigrant living in New York City who has saved enough money, by working low-paid jobs, to bring his wife, Neni, and young son to the US. With help from his cousin, who also emigrated to the US and has since found financial success, he is thrilled to get a job working as a chauffeur for an executive at Lehman brothers, Clark Edwards. Clark, his wife Cindy, and their two sons have the kind of life that Jende and Neni can only dream of. But the year is 2007, and as Lehman falls, all four of them are faced with life-altering consequences.

For many reasons, I really liked this book. The characters are authentic and real, the kind of people you would like to get to know in real life and can easily root for in fiction. The plot moves along smoothly and quickly, with major events happening at regular intervals and enough unpredictability to keep any reader’s interest. The writing is really nice – straightforward in a way that makes it impossible not to get sucked into the story. And I loved the way that Mbue portrayed the immigrant experience right alongside the experience of a rich, white couple living the “American dream” was interesting and gave a different perspective on what it must be like to live and work in the US while knowing that at any moment, the life you’re building could be taken from you (Jende wasn’t exactly in the US legally).

There is a feeling of desperation running through the entire novel that is difficult to ignore and truly made me feel deeply for these characters. Jende is desperate to make enough money to give his wife and family the life they have dreamed of in the US. Neni is desperate to escape her poverty and abusive father back home in Cameroon, and once she arrives in the US, is desperate to stay. Clark is desperate to keep his life together even as he can see that the company he is working for is crumbling, along with his marriage to Cindy. And Cindy may be the most desperate of all – desperate to put on a happy face and pretend to the world that she is in a perfect marriage and is raising perfect children, all the while desperately clinging to an ounce of sanity and stability and knowing that she is losing her husband, her oldest son in one way, and possibly her youngest son in another way.

The fact that the author made me feel so emotionally connected to these characters is by far the best thing about Behold the Dreamers. I deeply cared for everyone in the novel; even when I despised their decisions, I empathized with them and tried to understand where they were coming from. I couldn’t stop turning the pages as I hoped for a better life for all four of these adults and all of their children.

I had a difficult time with some of the plot points and I did feel that some of them were a bit contrived and created to make the story more sensationalized then it needed to be. That being said, this was an unputdownable read for me so that’s certainly saying something. While I was frustrated with some of the plot points, especially when it came to some of the preposterous choices of a few of the characters, overall I was able to look past those things and settle into what was an incredible story. For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel and highly recommend it for so many reasons.

Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan

Say You're One of ThemSay You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan
Published by Little, Brown and Company

These two novellas and three short stories tell about life in five African countries from the perspectives of the children who are facing some of the most difficult crises of our time. An eight-year-old living in a shanty in Nairobi experiences his twelve-year-old sister selling her body to pay for the family’s most basic needs, such as food and school fees. A young girl in Ethiopia learns that she must cut ties with her best friend because of the religious wars going on all around her. A Muslim boy denounces his religion and attempts to pose as a Christian on a bus in Benin, headed for a distant relative’s home to escape religious persecution. Two young children in Nigeria have been orphaned by the AIDS crisis and are being sold by their uncle into slavery. And the last story, set in Rwanda, is about a young girl who watches her parents, on opposite sides of the conflict there, resort to the most devastating choices possible as a reaction to their circumstances.

I knew going into this book that it would be a brutal emotional roller coaster, and I was not wrong about that. These stories made me feel anger, frustration, rage, sadness, devastation, and horror at what the people in these stories were forced to endure and especially at the fact that these are real life situations that millions of children in the world have had to experience and, in some cases, are still experiencing. There is no milder way to say it other than that this book is heartbreaking and extremely difficult to get through. You have to put on an emotional thick skin in order to read this book, but once you do, it is definitely worth the pain. You can’t help but feel deep empathy for these characters while at the same time hoping and praying that the world will one day become a better place and people won’t have to suffer this way at some point in the future.

As far as my feelings about the individual novellas and stories, I have to be honest and say that I found the short stories more compelling than the novellas. I felt that in both novellas, the author was a bit meandering and the detail wasn’t quite enough for me to understand why those particular stories were chosen to be novellas and not short stories. There just wasn’t enough meat in these two, in my opinion, and I felt they would have both been better served had they been cut almost in half. That being said, the short stories were insanely good and I wanted more from each of these, which to me is the mark of a fantastic short story. The characters were extremely compelling, nuanced, and sympathetic, and I wanted to read more about them, to see how they were able to persevere despite their circumstances, long after I finished their stories. Of the five stories in this collection, it is the three short stories that have stayed in my brain space long after finishing the book, not the two novellas.

Say You’re One of Them, while a slightly uneven collection, overall really impressed me. I hesitate to recommend the entire thing because I wasn’t as into the novellas as I was the short stories, but as the short stories were truly incredible I do still recommend the book. I wish the two novellas hit me as hard as the three short stories did, but still this is a collection worth reading. A difficult, extremely emotional book, but an important one, too.

Marriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindhu

Marriage of a Thousand LiesMarriage of a Thousand Lies by S.J. Sindhu
Published by Soho Press
Review copy provided by the publisher

Lucky is a gay woman married to a gay man, Kris. The two of them decided to get married after they both attempted to come out to their conservative Sri Lankan families and were met with the immediate reality of their families wanting to disown them. They’ve been married a few years when Lucky finds out that her childhood best friend, who she happens to be in love with, Nisha, is getting married. Armed with that news as well as news of her grandmother being sick, Lucky spends a few months at her mother’s home in Boston, forced to confront the truth about herself and whether she will get to keep her family, her sexual orientation, and her best friend – or if she will have to choose between the three.

I adored this novel. I don’t think I’ve read any books before about the ways in which being gay plays out differently in different cultures, and definitely not what that looks like when one generation is American and the older generation is more old-school and traditional in their thinking. Lucky and Kris are stuck in this place of wanting to be loved and accepted by their families, wanting relationships with them, but knowing for sure that being themselves and being honest with their families about what that actually means will cause them to be disowned. The pain that this causes in Lucky is excruciating, and the way that Sindhu writes the character of Nisha is even more painful – she’s buckling under her family’s pressure and agreeing to an arranged marriage, to a straight man she barely knows much less likes, when she knows for one hundred percent sure that she is gay and in love with Lucky. The way that Sindhu writes these two characters with such love and care, so much nuance in their personalities and in their relationship with one another, is incredible. I truly felt their deep, heartbreaking, breathtaking pain as they tried to navigate their futures knowing full well they had no future together if they wanted their families to love them.

There’s a lot going on here – it’s not just that Lucky and Kris are gay and their families don’t know, there are other issues at play, too. Lucky’s father divorced her mother several years ago after falling in love with her mother’s best friend. Lucky’s older sister, Shyama, is married to a man she doesn’t really like (after breaking up with the white man she was in love with) because the relationship was arranged by both sets of parents, and she seems miserable in her life as a wife and mother. Lucky’s other sister ran away from the family years ago after her boyfriend, a black man, was not accepted by Lucky’s parents, and Lucky hasn’t seen or heard from her in years. This family has fallen apart in so many ways, yet Lucky is still so desperate for their love and acceptance that she is literally lying to them every time she sees or speaks to them by denying her sexuality. To say that it is heartbreaking is the understatement of the year.

One aspect of the novel that isn’t discussed much is the situation with Kris. He was an immigrant on a student visa when he and Lucky got married, and if they decide to be honest with themselves and divorce, he will have to go back to Sri Lanka – which he absolutely can’t imagine doing. But the complexities of this fact of his life combined with his being gay and possibly having to go back to a place where almost no one will accept him are not discussed much at all. I get that the novel is mainly focused on Lucky, but I liked Kris, or what the reader sees from him at least, and wanted more about him.

In the end Lucky has to make some major compromises and decide what she needs in life in order to accept herself and be at peace with the relationships she has to give up in order to be authentic to herself. The ending of the book is bittersweet – in one way, she resolves some of her own demons, but in another way, her demons are only getting started as the reader can see that she has an uncertain future ahead of her. There are no easy answers here, and Sindhu certainly didn’t shy away from how difficult and emotionally challenging these characters’ lives are. I really enjoyed this novel and felt deeply for the characters within. Highly recommended.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for StoneCutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Published by Knopf

Twins Marion and Shiva Stone are born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the result of an affair between an Indian nun and a British surgeon. After their mother dies giving birth to them, their father flees the country, leaving them to be raised by two doctors at the hospital where they are born, Hema and Ghosh – a pair that are friends but later marry upon discovering their love for one another. Marion and Shiva grow up surrounded by doctors, surgeons and medical procedures of all kinds, so it’s inevitable that both end up in the medical field eventually – but their paths are completely different, and while there is a bond between them that is unyielding, the ways in which they disappoint and hurt one another over the years are many and incredibly painful to them both, but most of all to the more emotional, introspective and ambitious Marion.

This book is pretty huge, and to do its plot justice in a one-paragraph summary is kind of silly, because there is just so much that happens within these pages. To say that Cutting for Stone is a family saga would be true but also not true, because it is about so much more than these two brothers and the family that raised them. It is about their heritage, about the two people who created them, about performing medicine in a hospital with access to very few resources, about poverty, about the history of Ethiopia, it is about the bonds between the families we are born into and the bonds between the family we choose, about decisions that have reverberating consequences and about decisions that seem inherently wrong but end up having unexpectedly great results. I’m telling you, there is just so much happening in this novel that I can’t even begin to explain all of its many elements.

Cutting for Stone is absolutely a gorgeous novel that sweeps the reader in and doesn’t let go until the very last page. The writing is incredible, lush and descriptive, transporting the reader to Ethiopia and the hospital where the twins spent most of their lives. The characters are built slowly, intricately, in such a detailed manner that the reader truly gets to know each and every person within these pages, even the ones who are largely absent throughout the novel. The relationships between the characters are complicated, interesting, surprising, and so very, very true to life. The ways in which they disappoint one another, love each other, are there for each other, make sacrifices for each other, do terrible things to one another – all elements of being human and being in relationships with other humans are woven throughout this novel.

There are so many aspects to this book that I absolutely loved, so I just have to say – do not let its size intimidate you. If you are into family sagas, multicultural fiction, books about medicine, beautiful writing, or any combination of those, please look no further than Cutting for Stone. This novel was absolutely fantastic.

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

KitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Published by Grove Press

This is a sweet little book about Mikage, who was orphaned as a young child and then raised by her grandmother. When her grandmother dies, she finds solace in her friend Yoichi and his mother Eriko. The three of them become a new kind of family, and the book details their relationship as well as how the losses the three of them suffer, independently and as a unit, affect each of them in a myriad of ways.

There were some things I absolutely loved about this book. The writing is really pretty, flowery without being over the top, descriptive but not to the point of being annoying. The way Yoshimoto describes grief and its hold on a person’s soul is absolutely gorgeous. I also loved how the relationships between the three main characters went places I wasn’t expecting while at the same time remaining very true to their personalities. Another thing I loved was Yoshimoto’s handling of a trans character in Eriko. Eriko used to be Yoichi’s father and is now his mother, and the way that Yoshimoto has the characters handle this fact is SO nonchalant, like it’s no big deal whatsoever (as it shouldn’t be) is really amazing. The way that Yoichi explained it to Mikage, and how Mikage just accepted it and loved Eriko exactly the same as she did before she knew this information about her, was really incredible to see in fiction.

While I loved certain aspects of Kitchen, overall it was not my favorite novel. I appreciate that it was slim, but I wanted more from it. I wanted more emotion, I wanted to get to know the characters even better, and I wanted to feel a deeper connection to them. This could possibly have been accomplished by making the novel longer, but I’m not sure that Yoshimoto’s style could have made that happen for me. Either way, I can see what people love about this author and there were definitely things about the book that really worked for me.

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!