A RECENTLY COMPLETED BOOK: REVIEW

Some time ago, I began what I thought was going to be “a typical immigrant story” on my Kindle app. I am referring to Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Published in 2013, it tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, star-crossed lovers. I began reading around last Thanksgiving (2019) and because I often overlook books “parked” on my Kindle, and because I became involved with Cybils reading demands, I forgot about the book. But I didn’t forget about the story. This past week I finished it.

It’s fascinating peek into Nigerian culture and mindset kept me reading as Ifemelu, an exchange student at Princeton prepares to return to her native Nigeria. Obinze, her childhood best friend and “sweetheart” thinks about her imminent return in alternating chapters. Will the couple resume their early college relationship in Nigeria? Or has too much occurred in both their lives for this to happen?

Adichie’s story easily fits the genre of Literary Fiction with its sweeping descriptions, complex character development, and the message presented by Ifemelu’s blog entires on race, set both in America and in Nigeria. As she searches for her roots, Ifemelu finds her self and her destiny. It is a darned good read, but not your usual immigrant story.

TWO RECENT READS

Boston Girl by Anita Diamont (author of the bestselling The Red Tent) was the selected book for November at my “new” book club.  I knew everyone present, several for thirty years, and only one woman was a new acquaintance. The discussion was insightful and the study guide questions in the back of the paperback edition were the source of many interesting comments and answers. Here is my brief review of the 2014 novel:

Addie Braum, the Boston girl of the title, is the third child of a three sister family, the only one of the three born in the U.S. A brother, born on the ship on the way to America, died, and was buried at sea. Through her story, the author explores “love, friendship, and family.” Through her membership in The Library Club and a summer’s stay at Rockport Lodge, run by women who are forward-thinking women and attended by becoming-liberated girls, Adie changes and comes in conflict with her immigrant parents. Her mother, a vengeful, never-satisfied, and just-plain-mean-spirited woman often thwarts Adie’s desires to become educated and attend college. Later in the novel, her husband, a true mensch, encourages Adie in ways she has never been loved or encouraged before. In the novel, more than just a coming-of-age story, we see a picture of WWI, WWII, and postwar America. We see changes in Addie as well as in the culture and make up of the U.S.A. The book club gave the novel a “grade” of B+.  I would give it four out of five points. It is a darned good read.

The other day I finished Jeanette Walls’ “true life novel,” Half Broke Horses, which I gave a full five points out of a possible five. It is the story of Lily Casey Smith, Walls’ grandmother, whom a review described as a “woman of gumption.” And how she needed it!  Throughout the story, Lily experiences  floods, tornadoes, droughts and a fire, all the while surviving the Great Depression. The writing is “plainspoken, yet heartfelt” (Chicago Tribune). I agree wholeheartedly with People magazine which writes it is “impossible to forget.” Half Broke Horses has been described by one reviewer as “Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults.” I was especially interested in her adventures and misadventures as a teacher and her unique teaching methods.  Photos added a great deal to the book and reminded the reader that it is all based on the life of a real woman. It is a perfect example of short, sweet, matter-of-fact writing while it deals with horrific issues, It is one of the best novels I have read this year.

THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko: A Review of an exceptional immigrant story

Lisa Ko’s 2017 novel, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for fiction awarded by Barbara Kingsolver (for a novel that addresses issues of social justice) is an excellent novel. It is the story of Deming Guo, aka Daniel Wilkinson. The title indicates that everyone in his life leaves, or he leaves other people.  It is an intricate story of “love and loyalty.”

As the story begins, we find Deming with his immigrant mother, Polly, who works in a nail salon struggling to survive in The Bronx. One day Polly does not come home from work, and her boyfriend and his sister, Vivian, the mother’s roommates are not sure what  to do with the ten year old.  Deming, of course, wonders why his mother left him, then soon, why Vivian left him with social services who allowed the Wilkinsons, a middle-aged, white couple who are professors in upstate New York to adopt him.

This is not just an immigrant story, but a mystery that has many surprises along the reader’s journey through the novel. The book deals with expectations: parental expectations ; middle-class expectations, from both biological and adoptive parents; and  Deming’s own expectations from life.  Because of the last, he (Daniel) becomes a slacker, somewhat directionless and lacking purpose. The writer’s point of view alternates between Deming’s and Polly’s, spinning out extraordinary  lives of both main characters. There are happy moments and sad ones as well.  The setting spans the globe, presenting “one of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read.” (Laila Lalami, author).  I agree.

A Coming-To-America-To-Make-A-Better-Life-for-Oneself-Story: A GOOD AMERICAN by Alex George

I love immigrants-in-search-of-a-new-life stories! This one by Alex George, published in 2012 begins in 1904 and narrates the story of three generations (generational, family stories being another of my favorites) and tells the sweep-you-away love story of Frederick and Jette. Young lovers, they discover that Jette is pregnant and must flee the wrath and disappointment of her mother and family and make a married life for themselves in America. They intend to live in New York, but only have enough passage money to book for New Orleans, and through mishaps and misunderstandings in communication, end up starting their new life in Beatrice, Missouri, a fictional town in a very real county in Missouri.

The story is narrated by their grandson, James. Near the end of the book, James uncovers a family secret that rocks his world and reveals his true identity. It is a “sweeping” story that explores a love of music ranging from Puccini to Barbershop quartets, so popular in America in the 1900’s. It deals with family expectations and the consequences when one does not live up to them, expressed throughout three generations.

There are many memorable characters, of whom Jette was my favorite, both as a young spunky girl and as an old, strong matriarch of an impressive family. In A Good American, “Each new generation discovers what it means to be an American,” and each generation strives to be what Frederick  adopted as his major life’s goal, to be a good American.

BEFORE WE VISIT THE GODDESS by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: A REVIEW

This 2016 publication particularly appealed to me because I had read Divakaruni’s One Amazing Thing and because I knew she was a professor of Creative Writing at The University of Houston, not only my alma mater, but also one of the five campuses in the system that employs me. She has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The New York Times, so I was aware of her writing prowess going in to this novel. It deals with four generations of women and the ins and outs of mother daughter relationships.

The setting ranges from Bengal, India to Houston, Texas, another selling point for me. Basically it is the story of Sabritri, daughter of the village sweets maker, Durga; Sabritri’s daughter Bella; and her daughter Tara. The novel explores many different forms and kinds of love, love that reaches across generations. All of the women are strong female characters, all finely developed and drawn. The novel opens with a letter which Sabritri is writing at Bela’s request to her granddaughter, Tara. The letter and its significance surfaces at the end of the novel where all is revealed, all suppressed emotions let out, all misconceptions straightened out, all family mysteries solved.  All in all it is a most satisfactory ending. The plot moves us through estrangements and reconciliations as it twists and turns, masterfully allowing us to feel what the characters are feeling.

This author is a supreme storyteller, a fine characterization master, and a very readable author.  This is one I stayed up late to finish.