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.


Should an author’s personal life and misconduct be considered when deciding whether or not to read their books?

I know this is not a question that is new, by any means. But I have been thinking about it right now because I am in the middle of reading Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World. I got this book as a Kindle daily deal quite a while back, and having read and enjoyed his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian years ago, I decided to pick it up. I had heard vaguely about some of the allegations against him recently but hadn’t paid too much attention to the details until Jenny linked to this article this week. Reading the article really opened my eyes to not just the sexual assault allegations against Alexie, but how he has been unsupportive of other Native American authors for years, has inflated and played into Native American stereotypes through his writing and public interviews, and all kinds of other pretty awful things.

My boyfriend and I have had this conversation before as it relates to other kinds of famous people – actors and musicians most frequently – as he finds it difficult to separate these people’s performances from their personal choices and beliefs, making it more difficult for him to enjoy a movie, TV show, or musical performance if he disagrees with something the person publicly did or said. I have a much easier time separating the two when it comes to actors and musicians, but authors for some reason feel different to me. Perhaps it is because an actor is usually portraying a character, something that someone else created for them, and to me it is not indicative or even related to their actual personality and personal choices and beliefs. But an author creates their product and produces it for the public – I have a hard time separating who they are personally with the work that they produce and what they are trying to say through that work.

I plan to finish reading the short story collection of Alexie’s that I’m reading now but will likely not pick up any more of his books. And I can’t help but feel that my bias towards his terrible choices and treatment of others makes me enjoy the experience of reading his book less than I would otherwise. To be fair, I wasn’t super into the book before I read that above-mentioned article, but still – it has to be affecting me.

What do you think? Can you separate a famous person’s personal choices, beliefs, and in some cases really awful conduct from their professional work? Is there a difference, in your opinion, between a person like an actor or a musician and an author? And what do you do if you can’t get that other “stuff” out of your head but you want to enjoy their work anyway?

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.

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy

Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest ChallengesPresence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy
Published by Little, Brown and Company

Amy Cuddy is best known for her TED talk about “power poses” – the idea that standing like Superman or Superwoman for two minutes before facing a challenge (giving a speech, having a difficult conversation, going to an interview, etc.) increases confidence and improves performance. In Presence, she delves deep into that concept and so many more. She details meticulous research that shows, in many different ways, how we can impact the way we feel about certain things and become stronger, more present versions of ourselves in just about any circumstance.

The sociology and psychology nerd in me completely geeked out over this book. I loved all of the social psychology research studies that Cuddy went over and found so many of them to be insightful, interesting, and applicable to my own life. I am not sure how many of the things she recommended are actions I will actually take in real life situations, but I certainly found them to be things I should consider doing.

Something else I enjoyed was that Cuddy relates her own personal experience to a lot of what she discusses in the book. She experienced a traumatic brain injury as a college student, and that situation dramatically changed the way she thought of herself and fundamentally changed the way her brain worked. Through years of hard work and using many different techniques, Cuddy was able to recover from her injury and find a way of learning that worked for her and allowed her to accomplish all of the things she’d hoped to do prior to the accident. Her personal experience really added an extra touch to the book and I liked having that narrative alongside the research.

I listened to the audio of Presence and really enjoyed the listening experience. Cuddy narrates herself and has a very peaceful, soothing voice. She does a really good job explaining everything in a way that is easy to comprehend. I have to say that I do wish that I had the physical book, though, because this is the kind of book I would want to revisit and it’s not easy to revisit an audio when searching for a specific part of the book to reread. Still, I recommend the audio because it was a good listening experience.

Overall I really enjoyed Presence and can recommend it for those who enjoy these types of psychological, self-helpish books. I hesitate to call it self-help but truthfully, that’s the kind of book it is, and it has truly applicable tips and techniques that can really help a lot of people.

The Sunday Salon: Feeling Blah about Blogging

Does anyone actually do Sunday Salon posts anymore? I don’t recall seeing that tagline in a very long time. Greetings, friends. I have been here on and off the past few months but I haven’t had any chatting time or life updates whatsoever. I do apologize for that – to say things have been busy is an understatement, and to say that I haven’t been very excited about blogging is a major understatement. Combine the two and you get what the blog has looked like lately.

So – life update! My boyfriend and I are moving to Tampa! Things with the two of us are fantastic, amazing, I just want to gush about this relationship every chance I get. We are beyond looking forward to embarking on this next phase in our life together in a new place where neither of us have ever lived before. We are in contract on a house but the closing is in about six weeks, and since we both already started at our new jobs (transfers for both, same positions new location), we are currently living back and forth between the house he has for sale in the existing place and a hotel near our new jobs in Tampa. It’s been interesting, to say the very least, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m so excited about what’s to come and really loving exploring a new place with him.

The job transfer has been stressful and a bit hard on me. I am a pretty extreme introvert, but I pass as an extrovert, which is a weird balance to have to keep up. Essentially, I fool people into thinking I’m really outgoing by being “on” when I’m with people, but that takes a huge toll on me and I need a lot of recharge time after I spend a lot of time with others. A new job magnifies those feelings by about 100x. I am meeting new people, getting to know a new team (keep in mind I am their manager), letting them get to know me, and all of that fun stuff. Plus I work with the public (banking), so there’s a new customer to meet and chat with every few minutes. All of that equals a LOT of small talk for this shy introvert. I’m happy but at the end of each day I am emotionally wiped out.

That being said, I haven’t been reading a lot and the books that I have been reading have been mostly 3-star reads. I don’t mind a 3-star or even 2-star read every now and again, but only reading 4 or 5 books a month, and thinking most of them are “good but not great” is pretty annoying. The last book I REALLY liked was Behold the Dreamers (which I haven’t even talked about here) and I think that may have been the only book I can say that about so far this year. Disappointing, right?

So I want to blog about more stuff. I want to blog about personal stuff, and what I have been cooking, and what I have been doing, and restaurants I’ve visited, and beaches I’ve visited, and places I’m traveling to, and all kinds of fun stuff, but I can’t make myself sit down and do it. I guess this post is to say that I’m considering being a better blogger but I’m also considering giving it up altogether.

Friends, tell me. What have you done when you’ve struggled with blogging? I know a lot of my blogger friends have quit entirely, or have morphed their blogs into something different than they were years ago, but I can’t figure out how to do either of those things. Help!

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

Not My Father's SonNot My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming
Published by Dey Street Books

This was an audible recommended book to me based on several others I’ve listened to recently (I’m super into celebrity memoirs if you haven’t noticed), so I chose to listen to it even though I had no idea who Alan Cumming was. Turns out, he’s an actor, who was approached to do a reality TV show about his family’s genealogy, and decided to do the show in the hopes of uncovering the mystery surrounding the disappearance of his maternal grandfather many years ago. This experienced dredged up another long-buried secret that his father, from whom he was long estranged after years of abuse, decided to reveal to Alan. This secret would change the course of Alan’s personal narrative about his own life.

Alan Cumming’s story is one that absolutely needed to be told, and it’s fascinating both as a story itself and in the ways in which his father’s abuse and subsequent “confession” shaped his entire life and perception of himself. The abuse he suffered was really awful, and not just the physical aspect of it, but the way that his father indicated throughout Cumming’s life, in no uncertain terms, that he truly detested Cumming’s very existence. The fact that Cumming had to interpret this in some way as a very young child, and essentially had to tell himself that there must have been something he did wrong, something inherently wrong with him, for his father to hate him this much, is just devastating to think about.

I was less interested in learning about Cumming’s grandfather than I was about the situation with his father, which is a shame because I think that’s the part of the story that he was most happy to be sharing. I just felt that it paled in its poignancy in comparison to the issues with his father, so every time he started talking about the research he was doing about his grandfather I grew bored and restless and wanted him to go back to the other stuff.

I listened to the audio of this one and I really enjoyed hearing Cumming’s story told in his own voice. If you’re looking to pick this up I highly recommend the audio. I’m happy that I chose to listen to this book even though I didn’t have a clue who Alan Cumming was before picking it up. This is a perfect example of the fact that a well-written and interesting story is always a great choice, no matter who or what it’s about. Recommended.

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed (DS Manon, #1)Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
Published by The Borough Press

Manon Bradshaw is a detective working on the Cambridgeshire police force, and she’s extremely devoted to her job and well-respected in her field. When beautiful, wealthy graduate student Edith Hind turns up missing for twenty-four hours, Manon and her team get to work, investigating Edith’s boyfriend, her rich and high-society parents, and her best friend, uncovering many threads that seem to be leading somewhere but turn out to be a bunch of loose ends. As the mystery of Edith’s disappearance unfolds, Manon’s personal life takes a journey of its own – she’s thirty-nine and desperately looking for a connection with that one special person, if only she could find him.

Missing, Presumed is the first novel in a planned mystery series starring detective Manon Bradshaw, and it definitely kicked the series off to a promising start. Manon is the type of heroine you can’t help but root for – she’s smart, driven, sarcastic and witty, yet she is helplessly flawed in that she can’t help desperately wanting a life that she simply has not been given. She’s so desperate for a partner, a baby, a family, that she spends nearly every minute of her non-working life obsessing over the hope that she will find “the one”. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her, while at the same time hoping she will figure out a way to be happy despite the fact that she doesn’t have the exact life she wants.

Now, the mystery. It was crafted pretty well, in my opinion. There were enough clues sprinkled throughout to keep me guessing, and I didn’t have all the pieces put together at any point throughout the book – a mark of a good mystery, if you ask me. Steiner surprised me with the ending and while I’m not sure I loved it, it was unexpected enough for me to appreciate it. I also liked how the book was written from multiple points of view – that really gave the story an extra dimension and level of complexity that I think it needed.

Overall, I enjoyed Missing, Presumed and I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up more books in this series. It’s definitely one to look out for if you like mysteries and especially those starring kick-ass female detectives.

Sex Object by Jessica Valenti

SSex Objectex Object by Jessica Valenti
Published by Dey Street Books

Jessica Valenti, creator of the widely popular feminist blog Feministing.com, has written several books about feminism over the years, but Sex Object is her first memoir about her own personal experiences. The book is not just about growing up in a world in which girls and women are treated as sex objects before anything else, but it’s about her own personal struggles, triumphs, and experiences throughout her lifetime.

I really like Jessica Valenti for many reasons so I had been pretty excited about this book. For the most part, I’m glad I read it, but I hate that I didn’t love it like I had hoped that I would. The parts of the book that I most enjoyed were Valenti’s personal stories, while unfortunately I didn’t enjoy as much the musings on feminism and what it means to be a woman in the world right now and in the 80’s and 90’s when she was growing up.

Part of my issue with Sex Object is that overall I’m not sure what Valenti added to the existing conversation around how women are treated in public spaces – much of what she discussed was how women are treated on public transportation and other places, and I hate to say it but I’ve heard all this before. While it’s important to keep having this discussion, I would have liked something to be added to the conversation around progress (if that’s even a thing) … I don’t know. The best way to say it is that I personally didn’t get anything new from these parts of the book.

The personal stuff, though, I did like. I would have liked even more of it, to be honest, especially as this is a memoir. I like Valenti, I like her politics, I like her writing style, I like her attitude, and I would have liked learning even more about her than what she shared in the book. Although, to be fair, she did share a lot – from her childhood, to her experiences having two abortions, to her issues within her marriage, to being a woman who is working on her own confidence in the world and in her career, to being successful in both of those things, to being pregnant and raising a daughter – and I definitely enjoyed all of these parts of the book.

While I was disappointed about some aspects of Sex Object, overall I did appreciate the book and I’m glad that Valenti chose to write a memoir. I have to remind myself to continue following the work she’s doing now (I think she has a podcast and also writes for The Guardian) because she is one of the many smart voices in feminism right now, someone who is talking about uncomfortable but important topics. I would recommend this book for fans of Valenti who are looking to get to know her on a more personal level.

Hidden by Catherine McKenzie

HiddenHidden by Catherine McKenzie
Published by Lake Union Publishing

When Jeff Manning is suddenly struck by a car and killed, leaving behind his wife, Claire, and ten-year-old son, Claire is understandably devastated. But someone else is equally devastated – his co-worker, Tish – and unlike Claire, Tish is unable to share her pain and grief with anyone, least of all her own husband and young daughter. But why exactly is Tish taking Jeff’s death so hard? Was there something between the two of them or were they just people who worked together?

Hidden seems like a simple novel about an affair between two people who work together, but the way that McKenzie tells this story leads the reader to feel as though they have no clue what the relationship was between Jeff and Tish. While the story is told from three perspectives – Jeff’s, Claire’s, and Tish’s – it is not revealed until the very end of the book the extent of Jeff and Tish’s relationship. There are clues and hints sprinkled throughout the book, but the information is not shoved in the reader’s face until the last few pages of the book. McKenzie is keeping the true gist of their relationship hidden from not only Claire and the people she confides in about her suspicions, but the reader as well.

I liked this book well enough but didn’t love it. I liked the characters – Tish and Claire especially – and was hooked enough to want to finish the book to get to the heart of things. I cared about Claire and wanted her to get the answers she was looking for, but I strangely also really cared about Tish and felt real sorrow for her. Even though it’s not told what exactly the relationship status was between Jeff and Tish, it was clear that no matter what had happened between the two of them, she cared deeply for him and was truly devastated when he died. That pain was written extremely well by McKenzie and she made these characters’ emotions very believable.

At the end of the day, Hidden was the type of novel that is entertaining but forgettable. I liked it, I enjoyed the time I spent with the characters, but I will ultimately not remember reading this book after a few months. I would still recommend it if you’re looking for an entertaining, character-driven story.

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.