Americanah

37075451_10156782475533392_5623867393274019840_nAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Ifemelu and Obinze met as teenagers. When they met they trusted each other suddenly and completely and immediately had an intimacy between them. He made her like herself. It was almost like love at first sight and they were together up until Ifemelu moves to America to attend college.

Ifemelu really struggles when she moves to America. She can’t find a job, she doesn’t fit in, and she misses Obinze. Then something happens to her and she cuts off contact with Obinze. He is completely confused about why she has stopped contacting him. “He missed her, a longing that tore deep into him. He resented her. He wondered endlessly what might have happened. He changed, curled more inwardly into himself. He was, by turns, inflamed by anger, twisted by confusion, withered by sadness.”

Ifemelu soon finds out, “You are in a country that is not your own. You do what you have to do if you want to succeed.” “I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.” “How many other people had become black in America? How many had felt as though their world was wrapped in gauze?” She begins a blog about race that is a huge part of the novel and it becomes successful.

She has two serious relationships in America and then she finds that her heart just isn’t in it anymore. “She did not know what it was but there was something wrong with her. A hunger, a restlessness. An incomplete knowledge of herself. The sense of something farther away, beyond her reach.” “There was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living, that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness.”

Meanwhile Obinze is feeling the same way. “He had begun, in the past few months, to feel bloated from all he had acquired and would, from time to time be overcome by the urge to prick everything with a pin, to deflate it all, to be free. He no longer felt sure, he had in fact never been sure whether he liked his life because he really did or whether he liked it because he was supposed to.” “His mind had not changed at the same pace of his life, and felt a hollow space between himself and the person he used to be.”

So Ifemelu follows her heart and moves back to Nigeria and she and Obinze find each other again. Will their love be enough? Will he be able to leave his wife to be with her again? I desperately wanted a happy ending for these two and I won’t say whether they got one or not because I don’t want to spoil it for you. I found this book to be boring and tedious at times and the race subject was a little overkill. However, I kept reading because I was very invested in the love story between Ifemelu and Obinze. Adichie is a very talented and amazing writer and I will continue to read anything she writes

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Pachinko

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Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is an amazing family saga that takes place through eight decades and four generations. “Pachinko is an epic tale of family, identity, love, death and survival.” I read this book a month ago and still can’t quite put into words what I want to say about it. It is fantastic.

As a young girl, Sunja, finds herself unmarried and pregnant by Koh Hansu, a wealthy man who is already married to another woman. To her rescue, a young preacher (Isak) who feels it is God’s purpose for him, volunteers to marry Sunja and save her from disgrace. Sunja and Isak move to Japan to live with Isak’s brother and wife. They newly married couple soon discover how hard it is to be a Korean living in Japan. Koreans had to raise themselves up by working harder and being better, constantly fighting for survival and being treated unfairly.

Isak and Sunja have two sons: Noa and Mozasu. Mozasu grows up and works at a Pachinko parlor, hence the name of the book. There are parallels between the game of pachinko and the game of life.

Mosasu: “He understood why his customers wanted to play something that looked fixed but which also left room for randomness and hope.” “Life’s going to keep pushing you around, but you have to keep playing.”

The other son, Noa, has always been scholarly and aspires to go to college. Noa struggles with his identity. What he wanted most of all not be seen as Korean, but to be seen as human. “Noa carried the story of his life as a Korean like a dark, heavy rock within him.”

Koh Hansu, Noa’s real father, also resurfaces later in the novel. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who read it.

This book deserves all the literary merit it has received. Highly recommended! A literary gem.

An American Marriage

51DVSda0kWL.jpgAn American Marriage by Tayari Jones is a powerful and complex novel about a married couple (Roy and Celestial), whose world is turned upside down when Roy is put in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. It explores the complexities of marriage and many other issues as well, such as, racial injustice, fatherhood, mass incarceration and love. It is told in alternating narratives from Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend, Andre.

Will Roy and Celestial’s marriage survive so many years of separation? Can love survive such a horrible twist of fate? Will they be able to pick up their marriage when Roy is released from prison?

We get an inside look at what each character has to endure over the years. Besides marriage, I think Jones did a wonderful job of writing about fatherhood. Each character has a different type of father and the relationships they have with their fathers influence their feelings and actions. Some people don’t like to read books that are labeled “Oprah’s Book Club,” but I am telling you if Oprah recommends it, I am going to read it and I am going to love it!!!

From Amazon: “This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward–with hope and pain–into the future.”

Please Look after Mom

51EbTG+6vMLPlease Look after Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin is the story of a family left bereft after the disappearance of their wife/mother. Each section of the book is told from a different family member’s point of view. Mom’s disappearance triggers forgotten memories and feelings of guilt as they all begin to wonder how well they really knew their mother/wife. None of them had ever really considered their mother’s thoughts, dreams, happiness or feelings before her disappearance. They all took her for granted and regret not knowing her better. They blame themselves for her disappearance, naming the things they should have done differently.
Her husband feels completely isolated and alone in his home without his wife. He is angry with himself because all he did was ask her to do things for him or blame her for everything or ignore her completely.

He surprisingly finds that, “Your wife, who you’d forgotten about for fifty years, was present in your heart. Only after she disappeared did she come to you tangibly, as if you could reach out and touch her.” “Why didn’t you know you had a peaceful and lucky life? How could you have taken what your wife did for granted?” He doesn’t’ know how to do anything because she waited on him his whole life and took care of everything herself. He is lost.
The family had ignored their mother’s declining health condition for years. She had trouble remembering, was plagued with crippling headaches and sometimes couldn’t find her way home. None of them realized just how serious it had become.
“Mom did things that one person couldn’t do by herself. She didn’t have the opportunity to pursue her dreams and, all by herself, faced everything the era dealt her, poverty and sadness, and she couldn’t do anything about her very bad lot in life other than suffer through it and get beyond it and live her life to the best of her ability, giving her body and her heart to it so completely.”
The book is a little confusing at first because the narrator refers to herself as “you,” but once you get passed that, it’s a very moving book. I felt so bad for the characters and desperately wanted them to find their lost mom. The book brings up some great life advice… Don’t take your loved ones for granted. Tell them you love them. Apologize when you can. Spend time with them while they are here. One day they will be gone.

the leavers

31318368_10156592377218392_8885773605795790848_nThe Leavers by Lisa Ko is about a mother and her son and what brings them together and tears them apart.

When Deming Guo was 11, his Chinese immigrant mother, left for work at a nail salon and never returned home. In alternating narratives, this heart-wrenching literary novel tells both sides of their stories.

This novel is also about immigration, belonging in a foreign place, figuring out who you are and who you want to be and what it means to have a family.

After his mother’s disappearance, Deming Guo is adopted by a white family, Peter and Kay Wilkerson, and given the new identity of Daniel Wilkerson. Daniel struggles with the loss of his mother and the other people he considered his family. He had lost so much and he was lost himself and could never bring himself to fully accept the love his adoptive parents tried to give him. He kept everyone at arm’s length because he was scared they would disappear. He felt like a stranger and was always fearful and on edge, never feeling like he belonged anywhere.

Daniel really struggles with himself. He goes to school for a while and quits, goes back, quits again. He joins a band and quits. He drifts around from place to place torn between his two identities (Daniel and Deming), never knowing who he really is or who he should be.

Later in the book we learn what happened to his mother. Will he be able to forgive her for abandoning him? My book club didn’t care for this book. It has won a lot of literary awards, but I also felt like it just wasn’t as good as it could have been. Still, it provides a heart-breaking look into the world of immigrants and the battles they must face.

the Great Alone

29633314_10156514822493392_1585173720_oThe Great Alone by Kristin Hannah is the story of the Allbright family: Cora, Leni and Ernt. Ernt receives a letter that he has inherited a home and piece of land in Alaska, from a fellow soldier he was friends with during the Vietnam War. Cora and Leni reluctantly agree to go, in hopes for a new beginning. Ernt has some serious PTSD issues and is often abusive and angry and unable to keep a job. They are all hopeful Alaska will be a good change.

When the family arrives in Alaska they are immediately warned by the locals how hard it can be. Most people that move to Alaska don’t make it through the first winter. Fear is common sense. “If you’re tough enough, it’s heaven on earth. You have to know how to survive.”

Cora is warned by the other Alaskan women, “A woman has to be tough as steel up here. You can’t count on anyone to save you and your children. You have to willing to save yourselves. And you have to learn fast. In Alaska you can make one mistake. One. The second one will kill you.”

“They lived on a piece of land that couldn’t be accessed by water at low tide, a peninsula with only a handful of people and hundreds of wild animals, in a climate harsh enough to kill you. There was no police station, no telephone service, no one to hear you scream.” Winter was a big deal. Survival, could hinge on the smallest thing.” You have to be self-sufficient. You either belong here or you don’t.

Leni soon discovers that despite all the bad things, she belongs more in Alaska than she ever has anywhere else. She felt a great opening in her soul. She felt fully herself. She finally belonged.

Pretty soon, the cruel Alaskan winter arrives and Leni’s father gradually gets angrier and more abusive. Every day is darker and colder. “As winter pared their life away, the Allbrights were left with only each other. Every evening was spent together, hours and hours of night, huddled around the woodstove. They were all on edge. Arguments erupted over nothing. Worse than the weather was the confinement it caused.”

Leni’s father “looked ruined, tired, but present; in his eyes, she saw more love and sadness than should be able to exist in one human being. Something was tearing him up inside. It was the other man, the bad man, who lived inside of him and tried to break out in the darkness.”

For a while, Leni, like her mother, believed that her dad really was just sick and sorry. They thought that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like before the war. It wasn’t long before Leni stopped believing that.

“The darkness and the cold and the isolation got inside my father in a terrible way, turned him into one of the many wild animals.” The war broke Ernt and no one could help him. “With no local police and no one to call for help. All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”

Leni and her mother stick together to get through her father’s episodes. They are very close, strong for each other when they have to be, each other’s reason for living. Leni, “Whatever happened, she wasn’t ever really alone. She had her mama. Her childhood would always smell like sea air and cigarette smoke and her mother’s rose-scented perfume.”

As for Cora, she loved Ernt way too much to leave him. She felt like she couldn’t breathe without him. She longed for the man he was before the war. The book says a lot about the durability and lunacy of love and how it stays against all odds.

“In the vast expanse of this unpredictable wilderness, you will either become your best self and flourish, or you will run away, screaming, from the dark and the cold and the hardship. There is no middle ground, no safe place; not here, in the Great Alone.”

“Wild. That’s how I describe it all. My love. My life. Alaska. Truthfully, it’s all the same to me. Alaska doesn’t attract many; most are too tame to handle life up here. But when she gets her hooks in you, she digs deep and holds on, and you become hers. Wild. A lover of cruel beauty and splendid isolation. And God help you, you can’t live anywhere else.”

I loved this book. Do not expect another “Nightingale.” This book is very different, but just as powerful and lovely.

We Are Called to Rise

29387175_10156496573133392_516812701763108864_oWe Are Called to Rise by Laura McBride

Each chapter of this book is told from a different point of view. Each character lives in Las Vegas and as the book unfolds, we learn how they all become connected.

Avis has spent her whole life in constant fear that something would happen to her beloved son, Nate. She lost daughter, Emily, at a very young age and it has a huge effect on the rest of her life.  When the book opens, Avis is standing naked in front of her husband thinking of ways she can spice up their marriage when he tells her that he is in love with someone else. Avis is faced with the heartbreak of losing her house and her husband.

Avis had a rough childhood, living with a drunk mother who moved from one abusive relationship to another and moved into one run down hotel to another, sometimes even living in the back of a car. She has spent her whole life trying to not be anything like her mother.

Nate is Avis’s son. He recently came back from serving time in Iraq and has just begun his career as a police officer. His mother notices he isn’t quite right when he returns home from the war and his PTSD gets worse and worse until something tragic happens.

Bashkim is a young Albanian boy in Las Vegas. His father was put in an Albanian prison for protesting an act of the government. He applied for political asylum with the United States and his family was sent to live in Vegas. Bashkim’s mother is lonely in US. She misses her family and their homeland.

Bashkim’s father is often violent and angry. Bashkim worries a lot. He lives in a state of fear that he will get in trouble at school, which will get him into trouble with his father. As a school project, Bashkim begins writing letters to a soldier in Iraq.

Luis is Bashkim’s pen pal. After three years in Iraq (or hell as he called it) he shoots his own self in the head and winds up in the hospital instead of dead. He wanted more than anything to be a good soldier and make his grandmother, who raised him, proud of him. Luis blames himself for everything. He is full of anger and guilt and self-loathing.  He lays in bed and wonders, “Will I ever be a man again? Will I always be this crippled fuck?” At 22 years old, Luis feels he has nothing left to hope for, he doesn’t know what to do with so much pain and failure and he has no idea what to do with his life if he’s not a soldier.

The letters he receives and writes to Bashkim begin to wake him up and bring him back around. They make him want to do something right. Bashkim really gives Luis the will to live again.

Roberta is a court appointed Special Advocate who takes her job very seriously. She puts all her heart in soul into her job and wants to make recommendations for the children she helps that she would make if the child were her own.  She learns everything she can about each child so she can make the best decision possible for the future.

Las Vegas, in my opinion, is also a character in the book. “It’s not a small town anymore. For decades, people have been streaming in from all over the world, from every country on the planet; stateless people, desperate people, eager people, ambitious people. They came for easy work, the ability to pay someone off, for the chance to start over.  They come because they are rich, they come because they are poor, and someday soon, all these hundreds of thousands, millions, of newcomers may even wipe clean the slate drawn by Vegas’s earliest dreamers.”

These three quotes sum up everything the book was about:

“Coincidences can be powerful. The strangest coincidences are opportunities.”

“Things happen to us that are more than we can take. And we break. We break for a moment, for a while. But that break is not who we are. It’s not the sum total of who we are.”

“One small thing changes everything. The tiniest act, the smallest space of time, the most inconsequential of decisions, changes a life. Whole lives are born out of the most fragile of happenstance.”

 

Everything Here is Beautiful

29133480_10156474900708392_825751391581503488_oEverything Here is Beautiful-Mira T. Lee                        Everything about this book is beautiful. It’s heart-wrenching, unforgettable and moving. It’s about the complex relationships between two sisters. It’s about love. It’s about mental illness.

Lucia suffers from schizophrenia. She goes through long periods of time living a pretty normal life and then the disease resurfaces with no warning causing turmoil. Lucia often has trouble figuring out what is real and what isn’t. At age 26 she was diagnosed and told she had a 20% chance of maintaining a full time job, a 25% chance of living independently, a 40% chance of attempting suicide, a 10 % change of succeeding.” She fights against this diagnosis her whole life. She never gives up and always keeps trying.

Her sister, Miranda, who she calls Jia, has been there for Lucia her whole life. The two sisters were brought to America from China by their mother who thought they could only truly be free in the US. When their mother died from cancer, all they had was each other. Lucia always steps in to get her sister help when she has manic episodes and is always there when the phone calls come in that Lucia has been admitted to a hospital somewhere. Miranda struggles with finding her own well-being and happiness and taking care of her sister. How much can one person sacrifice for another?

Lucia is very unpredictable. “One minute she’s sweet, the next she’s snide. She’s not stable. It’s like she’s fighting some demon inside.” Lucia marries Yonah, leaves him behind, has a baby with another man (Manny) and then moves to Ecadour with him. Manny feels a duty toward Lucia that he confuses with love and will do anything for his daughter Essy (Esperanza). He is a kind and decent man who promises to stick with Lucia and the baby. Lucia is always wanting to pick up and move somewhere new to get a clean slate, but she never does because her mental illness always interferes with her plans.

The miles put a greater distance between the two sisters. Lucia feels that Miranda tries to control her and only sees her illness. Miranda is trying to live her own life. Manny and Lucia struggle with their relationship for years as well. Lucia feels the need to get away again but can’t leave her daughter behind.

I was really torn up at the end of this book and could not stop thinking about it. It’s a truly beautiful book.

“Oh, golden summer! Each day sharp and transformative, glowing and singular, each moment a glittery embrace.”

“It was impossible to know the truth of another’s interior life.”

“Love is everything.”

Lilac Girls

28951636_10156462871663392_5700336640279445504_oMartha Hall Kelly does an outstanding job with this detailed and heartbreaking account of the tragic events that happened during World War II in, Lilac Girls. The book is told from the point of view of three different women that come from different backgrounds and were affected in different ways by the war.

Caroline volunteers at the French Consulate and is quite the philanthropist for the French, especially the orphans. She goes as far as to sell her own family’s china so that she can send the orphans in France the things they need. She crosses paths with the other women at the end of the book and helps so many people along the way, making a real difference in their lives. Caroline’s romance with a married actor is also a big part of the story.

Kasia is a young Polish woman that becomes involved in an underground operation that ends in her being captured and sent away to a concentration camp with her family. She feels very guilty for getting her family involved, “It was one thing to suffer myself on account of my own stupidity and quite another to bring everyone I loved down with me.” Some pretty awful things happen to her and all the women that have to endure life at Ravensbruck. Survival is something that they have to fight hard for and many of them didn’t survive the camp. “Sadness was often a more potent killer than disease. Some gave up, stopped eating, and died.” Kasia, fueled by her anger, says, “The hate grew in my chest. How could I live without revenge?”

The third narrator is German woman named Herta, who is the only female doctor at the camp. She takes the job to fulfill her dreams of being a surgeon and has no idea of the horrors that await her there.

There are some pretty graphic, horrific and heart-breaking moments in this book. The author actually based this novel on a true story and did a lot of research to make her story as accurate as possible. This book was very well written and will surely touch the heart of everyone who reads it.

They May Not Mean To, But They Do

28312641_10156416298193392_2096433629_oThey May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Shcine

At the beginning of this novel, Joy Bergman is the caregiver to her husband Aaron, whose health is failing quickly. It isn’t long before Joy begins having some issues with aging herself. Much to her dismay, her two children, Molly and Daniel are full of ideas and solutions to deal with Joy’s aging and loneliness. She loses sleep worrying that they may send her to a nursing home.

Joy has begun to feel “out of date, obsolete, and left-behind,” and useless to anyone. She wants to take care of everything herself, but is beginning to realize that she may not be able to do that anymore. “She mourned her husband. She mourned her life. She longed for her children and husband. She didn’t seem to belong anywhere anymore.”

The title of Cathleen Schine’s novel comes from a poem by Philip Larkin which begins “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.” Later in the book, Joy says,” They meant well. They did. But they fuck you up, your son and daugther. They may not mean to but they do.”  She says this about her children interfering in her life, making decisions for her and trying to control what she does.

This book will be very true to life to anyone that has dealt aging or caring for an aging parent. The book is set in New York and I really enjoyed reading about the city as well. At times it was heart-breaking, but at the same time, the author lightened up the book a little bit with scattered dry humor. I laughed out loud many times reading Joy’s observations and thoughts about family and life. This book is an emotional exploration about aging, grief and dysfunctional families. The author really hit the nail on the head.