The Buried Giant

buried giantFor fans of Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant was two distinct things at once: the author’s first novel in a decade and a sharp departure from the rest of his oeuvre. For me, though, it’s all I know. Despite the massive success of both Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, it was The Buried Giant that served as my introduction.

Over the course of the novel, we follow an elderly couple (Axl and Beatrice) as they search for their son while grappling with a mysterious and pervasive amnesia that they refer to only as “the mist.” The mist blankets the post-Arthurian world that they inhabit, preventing them not only from remembering where their son has gone or why he’s disappeared, but even things that only happened a few weeks ago. All of it hangs in an impenetrable fog.

We watch their relationship shift as they fight to remember their past, while at the same time facing a question with the power to change everything: will they still be the same people—and more importantly, will they still love each other—when they remember their history?  

I can’t say if the sparse, purposefully flat writing I encountered shares any similarities with Ishiguro’s previous work. I can say, however, that my first thoughts were of Gawain and the Green Knight, courtly love, and Arthurian folklore. If his goal was to capture the feeling of those 14th-century tales, then job well done (though let’s set aside the fact that I generally don’t enjoy writing like that for now).

There was something about the world created in this book that I absolutely loved. Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table never felt more real or more unique to me than in this story. The mythical king’s history seemed less like fairy tale and more like fact.

And yet it pains me to admit that overall, The Buried Giant was a bit of a slog.

Despite being a slim 317 pages, it took me a solid month to get through it. Every time I picked it up, I’d find myself intrigued by the world building, but it was always, always a struggle to pick it up in the first place.

By the end, I was desperate for a book club to discuss it with. I couldn’t help but feel that whatever there was to unpack was whizzing by over my head.

As I think about the book now, despite having only read it little more than a month and a half ago, I’m beginning to wonder if the same mist plagues me. I remember so very little about the book. The overall gist, sure, but what I was supposed to get out of it? How it made me feel? What I honestly liked, what I didn’t?

None of that has stuck. I forgot it as soon as I closed the cover.
I’d definitely read more of Ishiguro in the future, but The Buried Giant isn’t something I’d come back to.

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If Beale Street Could Talk

51iwxnuoqil-_sy344_bo1204203200_Is there anything that makes a book heavier than the ideas, emotions, and notions we attach to them before we’ve even cracked the spine? Once again, my overly enthusiastic attitude has led me to a sharper pang of disappointment with James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk.

In it, Tish (inexplicably short for Clementine) and Fonny (really Alonzo) are young, black, and deeply in love in 1970s-era New York. But Tish and Fonny are also in deep, deep trouble. Fonny’s been accused of rape and thrown in jail with his chances of getting out growing slimmer by the hour. Their wedding dreams dashed, Tish is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy at the same time. Now as Fonny faces a lifetime away from the love of his life,  Tish faces raising a baby alone.

Learning about Tish and Fonny’s New York is to learn about a New York that gets too often forgotten. A crueler New York. So forget the Hotel Chelsea and Patti Smith and forget Manhattan and forget Love Story. That’s not the New York you’ll find here.

Tish’s hatred of the city comes from a different place entirely:

“I swear that New York must be the ugliest and the dirtiest city in the world. It must have the ugliest buildings and the nastiest people. It’s got to have the worst cops. If any place is worse, it’s got to be so close to hell that you can smell the people frying. And, come to think of it, that’s exactly the smell of New York in the summertime.”

As we watch the city and its laws pummel the young lovers, it’s hard to see it any other way. It’s not the 1940s, it’s the 70s and things are supposed to be better, but Baldwin wants us to see just how slow the change has come.

It was a refreshing (and sorely needed) perspective to get—a kind of necessary slap in the face.

But the novel isn’t some dour tome full of nothing but the most brutal and unflinching realities. Tish and Fonny’s love is intoxicating. Baldwin captures the feeling of young love completely. There are passages you can’t help but smile at as you read. It’s hard (if not impossible) not to be invested in their futures. You want them to be together; you want them to succeed, to overcome, to triumph.

Unfortunately, every now and then I’d stumble upon a note of sexism in a passage that would give me pause. So much so, that I had to do a little digging once I was done to see if I was alone in my concern (I wasn’t).

But each time this happened, I was surprised for some reason. I’d find myself thinking, “Excuse me, but what are you doing here? Who invited you?”

As the story progresses, it soon becomes abundantly clear who the real center of the story is. Stacia L. Brown said it best in her piece for Gawker, “It’s clear that Tish, despite being the sole narrator, is not Baldwin’s main objective. He cares far more for what Tish is willing to sacrifice or endure for Fonny.”

And she does, over and over and over again. All while the novel draws your attention to Fonny—will he be released? Can the charges be dropped? Will he see his baby born?

These questions just seem to matter more to Baldwin than what Tish will do, how she’ll survive, how she feels. They matter more than whether Tish can be anything except a mother and a lover.

She’s characterized as naive, and in desperate need of Fonny’s chauvanistic protection. It couldn’t help but leave a slightly sour taste in my mouth.

“Tish ain’t got no sense at all, man—she trusts everybody. She walk down the street, swinging that little behind of hers, and she’s surprised, man, when some cat tries to jump her. She don’t see what I see.”

To put it ineloquently: gross.

It was hard not to be disappointed. It didn’t stop my enjoyment, though. Baldwin was using this highly specific scenario to explore so much about family, African-American families in particular. To show a loving, caring relationship. The strength of the black community. To applaud it in light of white society’s attempts to snuff them out.

I wonder, though, if I would have enjoyed Beale Street more without the weight of my own expectations? I’m not sure how to get them under control, to be honest. Excitement over a book is so exhilarating and lovely. It’s just difficult when you’re eventually confronted with something that’s not in any way explicitly bad—just disappointing.

That said, I’m still looking forward to reading more of Baldwin, but I’ll know to temper my expectations. Not because Baldwin’s not capable of exceeding them, but because I’ll take a happy surprise over frustration any day.

The Sympathizer

nguyen-sympathizer-jacket-artViet Thanh Nguyen’s first novel The Sympathizer was one of the most surprising books I read last year. It’s told from the perspective of a Vietnamese communist sympathizer—a spy who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese army. The story begins with what should have been an ending: the fall of Saigon. The nameless spy follows his general to Los Angeles, all the while reporting back to the Viet Cong and struggling with his own feelings of guilt, loss, and loneliness.

Everything we see, we see through his eyes and his alone. Everything we know is only what he tells us. And there’s a thought rests at the back of your mind: how can we trust anything from the mouth of a double agent? This is his confession, but who is he confessing to and how can we know if he’s telling them the truth?

Reading The Sympathizer was a true roller coaster ride. From the start, I found the style of writing, and thus the narrator’s voice, somewhat cold. Distancing. I was enraptured with the descriptions of the last days of Saigon, then as the dust settled and I heard more from the narrator, I found myself frustrated with him. I found him unlikeable and irritating.

At times selfish and even sexist, I couldn’t help but pull away from him. His Communist leanings I could understand, his spying I could understand, instead it was his oftentimes shitty behavior that grated on me. But just when I thought I knew what I was in for, I would suddenly find myself sympathizing with him, rooting for him and against some other oppressive force.

For 367 pages, I teetered back and forth on this emotional seesaw. I wish I could say the ride was a joy, but it was so often frustrating for me. It was so difficult to be engrossed, and even harder to want to pick it up again every time I set it down. I was thankful with every page turned because I knew I was one step closer to the end.

I wanted off this ride.

The thing carrying me through as I read this book was the sense that I was getting something out of it. I was learning something, and not just anything, but something I needed to know. The Vietnam War is another area in our history where my knowledge is woefully lacking. (I’m pretty sure watching the first half of Full Metal Jacket doesn’t exactly count as an in-depth study.) It’s fiction to be sure, but there was something that felt sort of . . . important about reeducated myself through the perspective of the Vietnamese.

I might have hated the way it felt to have my emotions yanked back and forth, but there was never a doubt in my mind that it was being done with purpose. Nguyen hammers it home just how hard it is to understand where you loyalty truly lies as he toys with your own.

I think it was only in learning about the war this way that I could have stumbled upon the single, obvious truth that was so perfect, I was shocked at not having encountered it sooner.

Simply, that history is written by the victor . . . except when it comes to Vietnam.

Vietnam’s history was written by the losers.
It was written by us.

It’s in contemplating Hollywood that our narrator realizes,

“I naively believed that I could divert the Hollywood organism from its goal, the simultaneous lobotomization and pickpocketing of the world’s audiences. The ancillary benefit was strip-mining history, leaving the real history in the tunnels along with the dead, doling out tiny sparkling diamonds for audiences to gasp over.”

This was of course, one of those moments where I was on the uptick of my teeter-totter. Disgusted with Hollywood and even with myself for letting Hollywood educate me on this war, I was rooting for our narrator. “Fuck Hollywood,” I heard myself say—turning on one of my own passions without even realizing it.

I of course came crashing down again with his next repulsive move.

Finally—thankfully—I reached the conclusion, the culmination of all my emotional work, and I could hardly believe what I found. It was almost like a different book entirely.

The last few chapters were such a whirlwind of emotion for me. I was compelled and repulsed and overwhelmed all at once.

My god. The ending of this book pushed it from three stars to four. It made the nightmarish roller coaster and all the dragging of my feet to finish this thing worth it. In The Sympathizer, Nguyen proves he’s one of those voices truly worth hearing—just don’t expect him to do the work for you.

2015: Year in Review

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My last post detailed the success of my project, but I wanted to give an overview of the works themselves. It’s hard to admit that I once again failed in my attempt to post reviews of everything. I know I was wavering in my commitment to this blog sometimes. It was never that I wanted to abandon it, but more that I had a difficult time getting myself to sit down and write.

But I was always happy to be reading.

Here’s the full breakdown (comics included) of everything I read in 2015:

  1. The Terror by Dan Simmons
  2. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  3. Ultimates 2: Volume 2 Grand Theft America by Mark Millar
  4. Sula by Toni Morrison
  5. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  6. Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado
  7. Secret Avengers Volume 1: Let’s Have a Problem by Ales Kot
  8. Secret Avengers Volume 2: The Labyrinth by Ales Kot
  9. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
  10. The Wicked + the Divine Volume 1: Faust Act by Kieron Gillan
  11. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
  12. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
  13. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
  14. Secret Avengers Volume 3: God Level by Ales Kot
  15. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
  16. The Round House by Louise Erdich
  17. The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  19. The First Bad Man by Miranda July
  20. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
  21. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
  22. Native Son by Richard Wright
  23. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  24. Sexcastle by Kyle Starks
  25. The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (spillover into 2016)

Most thought-provoking: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Most disappointing: The Intuitionist
Funniest: The First Bad Man
Most surprising favorite: Native Son
Least favorite: The Wandering Falcon
Most over hyped: Station Eleven

All-Time #1 Favorite: Everything I Never Told You

Overall, it was a very good year for me. Though there were a handful of titles I didn’t especially enjoy and only one that I actively disliked, there weren’t any that I found truly, objectively awful—a marked improvement considering I had to contend with both The Good Girl and Hell House last year.

As for next year? I plan to continue making a serious effort to read more POC, though with less stringent rules. (No more hardcore tracking of percentages!)IMG_4111 (2)

The book I’m looking forward to the most is certainly Mark Danielewski’s 
The Familiar
. It’s currently sitting next to me at the moment, just waiting begging me to finish The Sympathizer or cast it aside and start reading it immediately.

There are a handful of book clubs I have my eye on (including a tiny one of my own), a host of new titles that I missed in 2015, and—thanks to Christmas—some fantastic comics with my name on them.

I’m feeling reinvigorated. I feel more ready to tackle this blog with the dedication it deserves, and I’m looking forward to it all.

I hope you’ll stick with me.

Happy reading!

-S

The Wandering Falcon

11297377This review for Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon might easily be the most difficult one I’ve ever had to write. It’s months later, and I still cannot for the life of me wrap my mind around this book or how I feel about it.

Let’s start with a few simple facts:

  1. Originally penned as a collection of short stories depicting nomadic life of tribes in the deserts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ahmad later wove them together to create a novel.
  2. The writing is sharp, clear, and direct and infused with a religious undercurrent that gave the whole thing a Biblical feel.
  3. I hated it. And I feel guilty about hating it.

To be brutally honest, I just didn’t enjoy the experience of reading this book. I have never liked the sort of sparse, formal language Ahmad employs. It seemed obvious that these stories were never originally intended to be a novel and I have never really enjoyed reading a short story collection in one fell swoop. On top of that, I felt like I had no frame of reference to understand what Ahmad wanted to share with me through these stories.

While I absolutely felt like I was learning something about a culture I knew nothing about, I also couldn’t figure out some of the grander themes of the book. I didn’t know what Ahmad wanted me to get out of this journey. By the final page, I felt completely baffled. The book was over and it was as if I had no idea what had just happened.

Worst of all, since this book is such a perfect storm of aspects and styles I dislike in any writing, I have no idea how much of my failure to understand this book is the author’s and how much is my own. Though I try my best, I can’t help but be less engaged in a book I’m not enjoying.

I wanted to like The Wandering Falcon, I really did.

It actually started out so strongly, that I was shocked at the way my attitude changed. Vibrant descriptions either faded away or I was so un-engrossed with the story that I stopped noticing them.

I don’t know if this is a cop out—I suspect it might be. But I honestly think that my own ignorance prevents me from giving this book an accurate review. The question haunting me is whether its fair to judge a book so harshly when the real issue might be my own limited perspective?

Unlike The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which didn’t necessarily enthrall me, but whose writing was phenomenal, I had nothing to cling to in The Wandering Falcon.

It’s a short read, so if your interest is piqued there won’t be any real time lost if you give it a try. I just can’t bring myself to make a suggestion either way.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

From 2008 until 2010, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was ubiquitous. It was the book in every bag at the airport, on every lap on the train, and eternally checked out at the library. The Pulitzer it earned that year probably didn’t help if you were hoping for its buzz to die down.

Junot Díaz’s book was taking the world by storm, which should have meant I had a lot of expectations going in, but it didn’t. I can’t remember what made me first decide I wanted to read it—probably the Pulitzer if anything.

The story ended up being more than I could have ever anticipated. The story of a lonely nerd, strained family ties, love and sex, and the violent history of the Dominican Republic all rolled into one neat package.

Poor Oscar, our titular hero, is fat, awkward, and way too into Dungeons and Dragons for his own good. Worse yet, he’s Dominican—meaning he can’t quite fit into the model of the white nerd and he definitely can’t compete with the machismo so prevalent in depictions of Dominican masculinity. He’s adrift, unable to connect fully with either side, and not even the omniscient voice that narrates his story can seem to make sense of him at times.

Which brings me to the first thing I absolutely loved about this introduction to Díaz’s writing: the language. There’s a show I occasionally listen to called Snap Judgment and its tagline is “storytelling with a beat.” Every sentence I read, that phrase ran through my mind.

Oscar Wao is positively lyrical. Some passages seem as at home on the page as they would on the stage of a slam poetry night. Take this description of Oscar’s mother:

“Before there was an American Story, before Paterson spread before Oscar and Lola like a dream, or the trumpets from the Island of our eviction had even sounded, there was their mother, Hypatía Belicia Cabral: a girl so tall your leg bones ached just looking at her so dark it was as if the Creatrix had, in her making, blinked who, like her yet-to-be-born daughter, would come to exhibit a particularly Jersey malaise—the inextinguishable longing for elsewhere.”

The rhythm that runs through it pulses like a heartbeat and it’s absolutely intoxicating. It wasn’t hard to understand the love for this book.

There was something else, too—an even simpler facet: Díaz writes in Spanish regularly throughout the book and not once does he ever bother to translate it for the reader. I could not have been happier with this decision.

In stark contrast to Midnight in Mexico which constantly translated its Spanish passages creating cumbersome and unwieldy paragraphs, Díaz trusts us. He’s banking on his audience either knowing Spanish, or being smart enough to look it up for themselves.

Personally, I never needed to. My grasp of Spanish was juuust strong enough to, when paired with context clues, carry me through. This is what I’d wanted out of Corchado’s book. But I digress.

Love for this book aside, I just didn’t have that experience myself. I loved the writing and found the story interesting and I learned more about the Dominican Republic than I ever expected to know. But I wasn’t excited to pick it up. I didn’t have that emotional connection to the characters that so defines the books I love.

It was difficult to put my finger on why this was the case. The concept of fuku, which receives a lot of attention, never really hooked me, and I found myself considerably less engrossed in the flashback chapters dealing with Oscar’s mother and the origins of the family curse. But I’m not really willing to make the commitment and say that those scenes didn’t work.

Díaz’s writing is just too good.

When I try to understand why I couldn’t get excited about Oscar Wao, I wonder if it’s just more of a man’s story, a story that just speaks to something specific within men that just didn’t capture with me. The thing near the core of Oscar’s story, about what it means to be a man in this world, I don’t know why it didn’t reach me.

Yes, we get glimpses of what life is like for his sister and we learn a great deal about his mother, but I still read those passages as if I were only casually passing by.

What did work for me—the references to nerd culture, the longing, the in-your-face vivacity of the narrator, the in-depth exploration of the Dominican Republic’s history—made this well worth while. It’s not a favorite, but it’s not one I could pass up recommending, either.

Everything I Never Told You

When I opened Everything I Never Told You I wasn’t prepared for how hard or how fast I’d fall in love. It was magic. Fireworks. A lightning bolt to the heart. It was the electric feeling that reminds me why I read.

The buzz around Celeste Ng’s debut novel was palpable when it hit the shelves last summer, and I quickly added it to my list expecting to get around to it “eventually.” I was delighted this year when I realized it would fit within my personal challenge and a rave review from a friend solidified its spot on my reading list.

The first lines tell you just about everything you need to know:

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”

The “they” here—Lydia’s mother, father, sister, and brother—will become the stars of the story as they struggle to understand and accept Lydia’s death. Through shifting perspectives, we inhabit each family member fully until it’s impossible not to feel like you know each and every one of them.

Everything I Never Told You isn’t just about loss, but race, gender, sexuality, and the weight of expectations that come with being one of the “first”—whether it’s the first woman in a chemistry class, the first nonwhite professor on university staff, or the first child to go to college.

Ng’s powerful use of language packs the kind of emotional punch that lands with a sick thud right in the gut.

The chapter when Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, remembers her once-bright future as a medical student affected me the most. In Marilyn, I remembered my own mother asking me when I was 16 if I’d sign up for physics, just for her, because when she was in school “that was just for boys.” She wasn’t allowed to take it.

So when Marilyn thinks of her life without her family—

”Without a husband, without children, perhaps it would have been possible. I could have done that, Marilyn thought, and the words clicked into place like puzzle pieces, shocking her with their rightness. The hypothetical past perfect, the tense of missed chances. Tears dripped down her chin.”

—I shudder and feel the tears rolling down my own cheeks.

In the end, this was a book I hated to put down. I always wanted to make time for one more sentence, one more page. I borrowed my copy and already know I’ll be buying it. It’s by far my favorite book I’ve read this year, and I can’t wait to read what Ng writes next.

The Shining Girls

After a string of books that left me feeling exhausted both mentally and emotionally, it was time for a break. I wanted some literary equivalent of pop rocks: bright, snappy, and done in a flash. Enter, The Shining Girls.

Lauren Beukes’s 2013 novel was the poppy, page-turning summer read I was looking for. Set in Chicago, we meet time-traveling serial killer Harper Curtis and spunky victim-cum-survivor, Kirby Mazrachi. Harper’s power to flit in and out of time makes him seemingly impossible to catch, and the book leads us to wonder not just if Harper can be stopped, but how Kirby will ever figure out who attacked her and why she survived.

It was the conceit that completely drew me in. A man out of time who instead of learning about the worlds he finds himself in, learns everything he can about his next victims, his “shining girls.” Their habits. Their tics. Their likes and dislikes. Their daily routines. Everything he can until it’s time to strike, promising as always to come back for them on another day, in another time.

Beukes uses this idea to play with perspective. Alternating chapters between Harper and Kirby are expected and effective, but what I appreciated most was her decision to give each victim a chapter of her own, from her point of view, as well.

When you’re writing a book about murdered women, I think this step is crucial. Without it, the bodies stack up and mean nothing. They’re just gore and shock and horror and the death of a woman is used as set dressing and quite frankly, we live in a world that just doesn’t need any more reinforcement of the idea that the destruction of women’s bodies is “just for fun.”

Beukes humanizes these victims. Her writing is just strong enough to let the deaths pack a punch. When these victims die, it’s not horrific because it’s graphic (though it typically is graphic). It’s horrific because for just a moment, we learned something about their hopes and dreams—their innermost lives—before seeing them snuffed out forever. And because we’re floating through time, we see all manner of women throughout Chicago’s history, from the Great Depression to punk.

This is not to say that Beukes’s writing is without its missteps. In fact, many of the book’s most awkward moments come from the time-travel aspect. In an attempt to highlight what era we’re in, Beukes latches onto key historical moments, which works well with WWII. But when we get to a literal mention of Roe v. Wade, it starts feeling over the top. I don’t need to know the most pressing issues of the day to know what year it is. Thankfully, these moments are spread out.

My only other issue came with some of Beukes’s decisions regarding how several relationships were played out. Things essentially fell apart for me toward the end, leaving me scoffing or rolling my eyes during parts of the climax instead of cheering.

But I’d still put The Shining Girls ahead of Gone Girl, which I think was written about as well, but frustrated me far more. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s scary. In short? It’s everything a summer beach read should be.

The House on Mango Street

Even if you hadn’t already read it in freshman english. Even if you didn’t already know Sandra Cisneros’s poetry. Even if it hadn’t already been the pick for One Book, One Chicago. You’d know with a minute of picking up The House on Mango Street that it was pure poetry.

Another title where I’m not sure how it slipped by my literary education—I knew nothing about it until I picked it up for the first time this year.

It almost seems unfair to review it as a novel, considering how short it is (a mere 110 pages), but then that’s a limiting way to judge a book. Written in 1984 and set in my hometown, The House on Mango Street is a series of vignettes told from the perspective of a young latina named Esperanza Cordero. In each chapter, she provides commentary on her neighborhood, her friends, her family, and the desire for a better life.

As short as each vignette is (some just a handful of sentences), together they create a rich picture of a specific time and place in Chicago’s history. Cisneros’s words breathe life into Esperanza’s world in a way that feels like you could almost reach out and touch it.

Mango Street fell short of a home run for me, though it’s hard to pinpoint why. I think it just didn’t fall within the realm of what I typically love (a meatier text, richer prose), but it was still easy to see how it made it into the canon.

Cisneros’s writing is absolutely beautiful and every now and then, one of the vignettes would drop this beautiful little jewel of truth that really hit home for me, as in the chapter, “A Smart Cookie:”

“Then out of nowhere:
Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Beacuase I didn’t have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.
Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then.”

In the book, so many of Esperanza’s experiences with womanhood were the ones that resonated with me. Cisneros has a knack for distilling the experience of growing up as girl into these truly brilliant moments that transcend race and class (though the way she illuminates those nuances is equally brilliant). In those moments, I felt like we really understood each other.

Even though I can’t say this was a favorite or that I loved it, The House on Mango Street is such a rewarding, quick read that I have to recommend it as something everyone should pick up. When even the slowest reader could finish it in an afternoon, there’s really nothing standing in your way.

Americanah

I often like what I read. I’m a lady of discerning taste, and I tend to gravitate toward what I know I’ll like.

I rarely fall in love with what I read. My love is reserved only for the words that move me most, the stories that wrap themselves around my heart. But I think it might only be just once so far that I can say a book changed me.

Americanah is that book. I read it and it was like I’d been shaken awake. It didn’t just change my perceptions, it changed my understanding of what I thought I knew.

The 2013 novel follows the relationship between two Nigerian teens, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they graduate secondary school, go on to college, and finally, look to leave Nigeria for better prospects. When Ifemelu gets a chance to move to America, Obinze encourages her to go, promising to follow soon after. However, as the weeks turn to months, Ifemelu drifts farther and farther away from Obinze, enveloped in America’s strangeness, promises, and failures until it seems she can never be who she once was.

When the book opens, Ifemelu is no longer a girl, but a grown woman that’s been living in America for 13 years. Most of the novel is framed as her reflections of growing up, punctuated intermittently by the present day as well as Obinze’s own recollections. I liked this structure and the way it alternately reminded me both of how far Ifemelu had yet to go and how far she’d come.

And as much as the book purports to be about both Ifemelu and Obinze, it’s truly Ifemelu’s story. Her chapters far outnumber Obinze’s, and I love it for this, too. It reminded me of how disappointed I was that Revolutionary Road didn’t have more chapters from April’s point of view.

Even more importantly, as much as any brief synopsis might make you think this is a love story, trust me when I say it is not. It’s an immigrant story and an African story and an American story. It’s about race, class, and culture and the way all those things collide in the stew of this country. It’s the deepest exploration of the American dream as a beautiful, tempting lie.

Adichie’s writing was constantly making me re-evaluate my ideas about this country and what it means to be black in it.

In one of Ifemelu’s blogs entries she writes:

“Dear Non-American Black, when you make the choice to come to America, you become black. Stop arguing. Stop saying I’m Jamaican or I’m Ghanaian. America doesn’t care.”

In another section she discusses the hierarchy of color (not race), bluntly stating that in America, dark is bad, light is good, and that’s it. Through Ifemelu’s observations, Adichie pulls no punches:

“The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. 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.”

These were the moments that rocked me. I already agreed with these ideas, but it was almost as if I never really understood them—not completely—until Adichie laid them out. Even an idea as simple as the immigrant coming to America for opportunity. In our collective consciousness, the immigrant is always fleeing from a nightmare, desperate for a better life, on the verge of dying unless they run.

We never hear the stories we do in Americanah where people like Obinze and Ifemelu are simply middle-class kids looking for options:

“Alexa and the other guests, and perhaps even Georgina, all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him who were raised well fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convinced that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for for choice and certainty.”

It’s such a simple idea, but it’s so easy to never consider it. It’s so easy to ignore the reality of the immigrant story when we can lazily fall back on whatever we think we know, not having lived it ourselves.

Americanah told me the story I needed to hear instead of what I expected to hear. I will be forever grateful to it. Who knows how often I’ll find a book that genuinely makes me feel like I’ve become a slightly better, more aware person.

This one is required reading, you guys.
This one is for the canon.